Tuesday, June 25, 2013

ON THE ROAD TO SARAJEVO

After a quick breakfast (couldn't pass that up), we started out for Sarajevo at 8:00. On our way out of Zagreb, we passed a long, colorful wall covered in street art. Unfortunately, we had 250 miles to go, and since Google maps estimated it would take us 4 hours and 45 minutes to get there and we had no time to stop, I had to get these images from the internet:
It reminded me of the painted sections of the Berlin Wall. When I got home, I discovered that there are a few hundred meters of wall covered with art, and that Zagreb city officials actually encourage local artists to update the art every few years. If I ever get back to Zagreb, I plan to spend some time at this wall on Branimirova Street.


Our first day had gone well, and with our map and our GPS unit, we were feeling confident about our ability to navigate around the Balkans. However, when we punched in our address in Sarajevo, we got nothing. We weren't sure what was going on, but we hoped that when we got across the border into Bosnia-Herzegovina, the problem would resolve itself.
We had a few other slight bumps in the road. For example, we came to a toll station and panicked because we didn't realize we needed to take a ticket, not pay a toll. While we sat behind the bar that blocked our passage and tried to figure out what to do, the guy in the car behind us kept honking. We finally realized we had to take a ticket for the bar to go up and allow us to pass. It sounds dumb, but it really wasn't obvious.  Then when we got to the gas station to buy gas for the first time, we couldn't open the gas cover. A Croatian guy pumping gas next to us couldn't do it  either. After several minutes, Bob figured it out and put the gas nozzle in the tank, but then the station attendant came out yelling that we were using the wrong gas. Or at least that's what we think he was saying. We had been told by the car rental agency to use Euro Diesel, which is what we were using, but apparently there is more than one kind of Euro Diesel, and no one had told us which one to use. The attendant directed us to a pump behind the station. It also said Euro Diesel.  We never did figure out how to tell the difference between types of Euro Diesel and had to ask or be told every time we got gas.  Filling up our little VW Golf, by the way, cost 330 kuna, or about $60, not that much more than we pay in the U.S. It used to be that gas was twice as expensive in Europe as it was at home, but no more.

Meanwhile, our stop at the gas station allowed me to prepare for a long drive:

After a few hours of driving, we finally made it to the Croatian/Bosnia border.  Every border crossing has two stops: one to leave the country and one to enter the new country. Our border experience this time was quite different than the easy crossings into Slovenia and back. As we hit the first stop leaving Croatia, the guard took our passports and our car rental papers (which we had to show at every border crossing), asked us to park our car off to the side, and disappeared.  He  was gone for quite a while and we started to worry, but he finally came back, returned our documents, and waved us through.  We passed through the Bosnia checkpoint without incident and were on our way.

But still, the GPS was not loading maps.  Luckily, Bob had ordered a very large map (4 ft. x 3 ft. when fully unfolded) of the Balkans from Amazon before we left home, so we figured we were good until we reached Sarajevo. We had no city maps, but since Sarajevo was a large city, perhaps the GPS would work there.
Cute little fire hydrant.
Our pre-planned route took us almost directly south from the northern border of Bosnia.  The roads were never bigger than this single-lane, opposing traffic road, and they were often in similar disrepair:
In spite of its cheerful exclamation point, it was a bit unnerving to come upon this sign.
During the Balkan War of 1991-1995, the Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Bosnian Muslims, who had lived in Bosnia in relative harmony during Tito's rule, fought viciously against each other. The Republic of Srpska, which is actually two different, disconnected areas within Bosnia, was created in 1995 at the U.S.-brokered Dayton Peace Accords, and this is where most of the Serbs now live. The majority of the Bosniaks (what the Muslims are generally called) and the Croats reside in the the Federation section. It is sad to see a country that had once been integrated now have not only social boundaries, but physical ones as well. Srpska, which holds 49% of the land mass of the country, is part of Bosnia, but it has its own constitution and legislative, judicial, and executive systems.
Then there is the division between Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia comprises about 80% of the territory of the country. Unlike the Republic of Srpska, there are no official borders for Herzegovina, which itself is divided in two with the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina on the west and the Republika Srpska on the east. Herzegovina includes large populations of all three peoples. Serbs live in the Srpska area. The Bosnia section includes Mostar, a major Bosniak city, and the important Catholic pilgrimage city of Medjugorje.
Confused? Yeah, me too.  Clearly, there is potential for future conflict here. For now, the Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks, and Catholic Croats are all living more or less peaceably. At no time did we feel threatened or in any kind of danger. Had it not been for obvious signs of war still visible, such as buildings with bomb damage and warning signs showing exploding land mines, we would not have known that we driving through a recent war zone.

We crossed the border at Brod, a run-down area that reminded us a lot of Tijuana with its many shops selling cheap, colorful merchandise:
In some towns we saw an Orthodox chapel, always graced by an onion dome tower:

Occasionally we also saw a Catholic church. As we drove further into the country, we began to see many small mosques, easily recognized by their domed roofs and minarets:



One thing that really impressed me during what turned out to be a much longer drive than planned was that flowers were growing in front of even the smallest, most run-down homes, both in pots and planted in the yard. Even in the poorest of areas, there were always lots of flowers for sale at  many of these roadside flower stands:
I think of the poor areas in California that are full of trash and ugliness. We could learn something from these people.

The view below is a typical wealthier area, probably in the Bosnia region rather than the poorer Srpska region. Note the house on the left with no windows. This is a house being built, not a bombing casualty. As far as we can tell, the brick structure and roof are put up first, followed by the inside walls, with the glass windows going in last.
As we were driving along, Bob suddenly hit the brakes. This wasn't unusual, since there were a lot of large trucks and farm equipment on the road, making for a lot of stop-and-go driving. However, this time he pulled over and backed up to this little shack fine dining establishment at the side of the road where there were a dog lamb and some chickens being roasted on metal spits. Never one to pass up an unusual dining opportunity (except for last year when he was more strictly vegan), Bob arranged through gestures and pointing to purchase part of the meat.
I think Bob got a much bigger chunk than he had planned on, but it was cheap and greasy, two things Bob likes, so he didn't complain:
Besides, the guy had just massacred his lamb for us:
It made for a unique and interesting (and dare I say tasty?) lunch. Traveling with Bob is always an adventure, let me tell you.

We were struck by the number of large gardens that we saw along the way, almost all being worked by hand by two or three people:
We didn't see any farm machinery, but we saw plenty of horse-drawn wagons, and even shared the road with a few:
This is not a sight we see in California very often:
When I first saw the structures below, I wondered if they were nuclear energy generators, but a little research leads me to believe they are steam turbines generating thermoelectric power. Regardless, they are a dramatic contrast of technology to the horse-and-wagon farming.
The signs in Bosnia are written in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, for which we were grateful. However, later on our trip we would later experience only Cyrillic signage in Serbia.
Another of the many private gardens:

We also saw many bombed out buildings along the way. It has been over 20 years since the war, but resources to rebuild have been very scarce. I read one estimate that about 50% of the homes were damaged in some way by the bombings. The Balkan War was the biggest conflict on European soil since World War II.

Bosnia is a very mountainous country, and our driving was laboriously slow.  What we had thought would take five hours took eight. It took four hours just to go the last 150 miles. When we finally arrived in Sarajevo, a city of more than 370,000 people, we had no idea where to go to find either our hotel or the starting point of the city tour we had booked for 4:00.  It was 3:50, and we figured we had to give up on the tour and just pray that we would find our hotel.

And that's when the unbelievable occurred.

In desperation we pulled into a gas station and asked if anyone spoke English.  Nope. We examined a hand-drawn map in our Rick Steve's Guidebook and tried to drive towards what we thought was Old Town.  We saw a parking lot, and in a last ditch effort we pulled in to ask if anyone spoke English.  The attendant did not, but he took Bob to the corner where the taxis were lined up. (We eventually learned on this trip to ask cab drivers for directions. They often speak a little English and they know where everything is.) None had heard of our little boutique hotel. Bob then asked a cab driver if by any chance he knew where the place was that we were supposed to meet our tour and showed him the name.  The driver pointed to a group standing fifteen feet away.  It was our group, less than one block from where we had parked our car. 
SIDE NOTE: The square in front of the national theater is named after American writer, film-maker, and political activist Susan Sontag, She is much beloved in Sarajevo because during the siege of the city in 1993, she staged and directed a production of Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot in the candlelit theater. The performance drew international attention to the horrible conditions in the city, and Bosnians give her some of the credit for the eventual involvement of the United States. (One critic wryly notes that the play should have been called Waiting for Clinton.) The current director of Sarajevo's East End Theater Company, Haris Pasovic explained, "It was outrageous that, at the end of the 20th century, on live TV, the world could see daily bombardments of the city, and do nothing. Every single day we thought that our Godot would come and every night we understood that he wouldn't."  Pasovic further noted, "The square is in the centre of the city, so Susan Sontag's name will be written in the heart of Sarajevo forever, where it belongs."  (For the news stories about the naming of the square, go here and here.)
We joyfully left the car in the parking lot and joined the group.  At the end of our three-hour tour (more on that later), we showed our guide the hotel address and asked if he knew where it was. He didn't, but he called his sister on the phone and she looked it up on the Internet.  Incredibly, it was less than two blocks from the spot where we had ended the tour, which was at least a mile from where we had left our car.  We walked directly to the hotel to make sure we could find it. The girl at the front desk was just getting off work and offered to drive us back to our car. Her good directions made it easy to find our way back to our hotel.

It was nothing short of a series of miracles, and what a wonderful introduction to a city that was perhaps my favorite of the entire trip.

3 comments:

  1. Nice recap of a long day, but one of my favorites, actually. I really enjoyed the drive in, or at least parts of it (the parts in Bosnia and Srpska). It was like going back 100 years in some respects. Very different, which made it fascinating.

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  2. That is indeed an incredible story! If it were a movie, it would be ridiculously unbelievable.

    It's really quite shocking to see how primitive this country is.

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  3. That meat! I thought, from your story, that Bob had run over the lamb, not screeched to a halt to find it. (great story)

    Interesting to see this country through your eyes and camera. It definitely has that feeling of a country that has been at war, and has scarce resources.

    Love the ending story of finding your hotel--travel serendipity!

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