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Always in my heart: Bosnia

It was eight o’clock in the morning, yet things were already busy. Thankfully, I slept well enough that I didn’t hear the calls to prayer, and I guess I lucked out for the entire duration of my stay. If I had been interrupted, well, I would have chalked it up to the experience of being in a distinctly unique country that’s relatively off the beaten track. One of the reasons why I travel is so that I can lose myself in lesser known destinations, as I believe this mentality leads me to some of life’s best moments. After all, I believe in unabashedly throwing myself into the wonderful culture the world has to offer, and one country stands out as the most memorable: Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Where to begin with Bosnia? It is such a culturally rich country, with the remnants of several centuries of Ottoman rule giving it a very distinct flair. The juxtaposition of Islam, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and even Judaism made it splendid to see, which explains why it is the country that left the biggest mark on me; my hostel was right around the corner from the main cathedral in the city! Each step I took brought me through several millennia of history, and I freely admit to getting the chills just thinking about it. Strolling down Sarajevo’s historic old district, Baščaršija, was like being transported a century into the past. Maintaining its rustic charm with a controlled amount of modern intrusion, it was a people watcher’s dream. Going down the small alleys led you to the fabled coppersmiths and their striking designs. Meanwhile, back on the main street you saw peddlers with their wares calling to passerby. Pigeons were giddily stuffing themselves via the grace of all the tourists. Restauranteurs were competing for attention, and it was hard to fend off their well-practiced charisma. One could only imagine what it was like centuries ago!

My first impression of Sarajevo was a memorable yet jarring one. While quite a bit of the city has been rebuilt, there were plenty of remnants from the wars. The twenty minute taxi ride from the airport to the center was spent gazing out at the bombed out buildings, the tragic legacy of all the wanton death and destruction. Even at night, I could feel the sadness in the air. My driver told me that some of those buildings were home to the elderly, and that hit me hard. What do you say to that? You can’t. As the traffic sped by and we gradually proceeded into the center of the city, I distinctly remembered the silence the two of us shared. How can I, as an American, have the right to say, “I’m sorry” to a man who most likely did a great deal of suffering over twenty years ago? How could I fully comprehend the things he saw? It was an eye-opening moment, and I knew from that point on, I would return home with a changed perspective.

Some people I have encountered claim that hiking epic trails, catching radiant sunrises, surfing to their heart’s content, or even just getting lost in countless cities constitutes their best moment as a traveler. Mine is a bit different. To date, my most memorable moment came while in Bosnia. By no means am I religious, but hearing the muezzin for the first time in my life was something I will never forget. Regardless of your religion or background, you just can’t help but feel privileged to be included in this ritual. I also got to fulfill one of my longstanding curiosities, which was to go inside a mosque, and what I saw was brilliant. As soon as I told him that I was interested in visiting it, the gate guard’s eyes lit, as evidently it isn’t a place Americans opt to see. No worries, I reassured him, experiencing something like this was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit Sarajevo. There was something so stunningly elegant in the plainness of a 487 year old place of worship. Later on in the day when strolling by the very same Gazi Husrev-beg mosque, I also got a chance to see people praying; it was so packed that the courtyard was full of mosque goers. With so many negative perceptions of Islam in the media, it was the opportunity of a lifetime to see Islam this close up. People often assume that it is equated with terrorism, but from what I saw, couldn’t be any further from the truth. Regular citizens simply were heeding the call to a cornerstone of their peaceful, everyday lives. After this seeing these things, I just feel that if more people took the time to partake in relatively small thing like these, the world will become a much more tolerant place.

Adjacent to the mosque was a small museum that chronicled the lesser known aspects of Bosnian culture. I was fortunate to have been the only tourist in the complex at the time, so I took a leisurely pace in examining things. Wow, is all I can say. Prominently featured were old stone carvings of rare Bosnian Arabic dating back to the 16th century, if not older. These ornate carvings were intact after all these years, and one could only stop to admire the masterful craftsmen who so delicately and lovingly chiseled these monuments. It was almost a shame that I had to leave the museum, because otherwise I could have spent hours there, admiring the gorgeous calligraphy. Further along were other remnants of the Ottoman Empire, which were mostly personal diaries and gifts to and from imams and sultans. Prior to this, I had some basic knowledge of the traditional link between the Arab world and Bosnia, but what I laid eyes on completely altered my perspective.

Now, every guidebook and all the hostel receptionists strongly urged me to try to the coffee. Sure, I thought, I don’t like the stuff but I’ll try it just to see what the hubbub was. Eyeing the waitress as she brought out the cups and the ornately elaborate pouring device harkened back to the years under Ottoman control. Suffice to say, the presentation was getting me excited. Then I poured my coffee into the cup. How was it? Even to this day, I still have sweet dreams of Bosnian coffee! Without hyperbole, I can legitimately say that drinking this coffee on top of the Yellow Fortress while soaking in the views of Sarajevo and its surrounding hills was idyllic beyond belief.

But what of the fortress itself? To get there, one had to climb increasingly steeper steps past Baščaršija and away from the old town. It felt appropriate that a sparkling white cemetery greeted you, but that only added to the ambience. Zig zagging across the designated path almost like a crime, so I tried to pay my respects by treading as lightly as the grass allowed to do. Walking through the narrow cobblestoned streets, a common occurrence in the Bosnian capital, was extraordinarily picturesque, so I took my time, lollygagging to the top. Each minute spent was a minute walking through immaculately preserved 18th century houses, and I for one was not going to rush through it. I am told that this neighborhood not only was a fortified city, but it also was made a national monument in 2005; what I saw gave absolute credence to this fact. Imagination ran wild in my head because I pictured decades and centuries worth of children playing in the tight streets, mothers hanging their laundry out to dry, and the men, while smoking extravagant pipes, conversing about the local news. Finally, I was at the top. My reward for this exertion was a stunning vantage point: I was able to get a better look at the different neighborhoods and felt entirely at peace. A few locals and tourists alike were up there with me, all were admiring what we saw. No words were necessary to express the day’s brilliance. The ravishing sundown was something I wish I could have adequately captured, for mere pictures could not and would not do it justice; it felt like a painting with the hills in the foreground and a vivid imagination in the background.

Normally, Bosnia isn’t associated with extreme activities, so it came as a surprise to hear that my hostel was offering excursions to go white water rafting. As some who loves partaking in outdoor events while abroad, this was a no brainer! Early in the morning, myself and two other fellow adventurers woke up eagerly anticipating our day’s schedule. The rafting was an hour’s drive away over the rolling, green, sunlit Bosnian countryside, which only served to make us even more eager to hit the water. Tucked away by the river, this little town felt like it was built around rafting. This proved to be advantageous because we got personalized attention; I felt like a prince of sorts, if I’m being honest. From our base, we spent another thirty minutes packed into a van to ascend to the peak of the mountain. On the way, we got to see gorgeous, crystal-clear water, which we’d soon be on! The hillside of Bosnia is nothing to sneer at, so our amateur skills were put to the test. Paddling alongside a mixture of Frenchwomen, Israelis, Brits, and some Saudis, we all bonded during the five hours we spent actively avoiding falling in the enticing water. Not only did I come away with many new friends, but one debilitating sunburn despite applying copious amounts of sunscreen. Finally, we were treated to some of the day’s catch back at camp, utterly exhausted. I absolutely got my money’s worth!

As with most of my time there, I constantly felt engaged and immersed in culture. However, as I alluded to earlier, I wanted to delve into all aspects of their history. Sarajevo City Hall had a display about the Srebenica massacre, and while I knew it was painful to see, I had to. I had to view what the world collectively bowed its head in shame. Walking into the exhibition, I braced myself for what I was going to see-the shattered lives and the consequences of what was later classified as genocide. It was gut wrenching to see friends and family carrying the bodies of their loved ones, never to see them again. From this, it solidified my resolution to spread awareness of this horrific event.

Before returning home, I absolutely knew I had to visit the second city of Bosnia. From fellow travelers in my hostel to the experts, you always heard poetry waxed about the beauty of Mostar. Getting there involved taking a bus, which eventually filled to the brink. I was surprised that on the two and a half hour route, people were being dropped off at seemingly arbitrary stops on the road. This included the top of lonely hills with nary another person around or even isolated houses in the late evening. It still is strange, but if anything my trip taught me, it was never to question the stoic Bosnians.

As soon as I stepped off the bus in Mostar, I felt at home. My welcoming committee was a genial taxi driver in his late forties, but he was kind enough to engage me in a surprisingly in-depth conversation. Interactions like these during my Bosnian stay were what endeared me to the country-the locals were so happy that people came to visit them that they went out of their way to accommodate you. My taxi driver eyes lit up when I told him from America, and he ended up instigating a surprisingly in-depth conversation about my sunglasses. Apparently, people didn’t think his Raybans were the “real deal”, so he constantly was assuring me of that fact; he then proceeded to grill me about my $5 shades, which I’d bought two years prior during my trip around the Czech Republic. Per standard rules of all the taxi drivers I encountered, we also chatted about where I was from and what was I doing in everybody’s favorite Balkan country. Maybe I’m just jaded from some unspectacular taxi drivers in the past, but it was great being able to capture the wonderfully quirky local flavor wherever I went. So, things were off to a great start.

During the destructive Bosnian War, culture and heritage fell victim to the vicious fighting. Nothing was spared, not even the famous, historical Mostar Bridge. I had heard about the history of the bridge, and the reconstructed version was a fascinating thing to behold. Originally built in 1566 for Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, it was destroyed during heavy shelling in what was widely condemned by the international community. Thankfully, once peace returned, the bridge was reconstructed in what could be described as a labor of love. Prior to this vacation, I’d heard about the efforts, but when I visited the museum by the bridge, I was blown away. For starters, the process took three years, but the architects were able to use the original designs. Yes, a Sixteenth Century builder was still working in the present day. The Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi so perfectly described the bridge when he said, “the bridge is like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other.” There simply is no other way to describe it, especially when you see the gorgeous waters below. Walking in the old town of Mostar, I was struck by how radiant the colors of the city were. The hit TV show Game of Thrones is filmed in nearby Croatia, but Mostar felt like it could have been seamlessly integrated into the world of Westeros. The sandy colors of the buildings were perfectly suited with the turquoise waters below, and the resulting experience was incredibly aesthetically pleasing. Old blended with the new, transforming every minute spent there into a grandiose thing. Every single moment ranging from the locals to the scenery are indelibly etched in my mind, and I will never forget how outstandingly homely things were.

Although I spent a mere week in Bosnia, I will always hold a special place for the country in my heart. Delving into an underrated gem of the Balkans opened me up to new perspectives and has forever changed the way I view people. The food and drink was unexpectedly fantastic, the adventure, both mentally and physically, was top notch, and the people were warm beyond my wildest imagination! More importantly though, given what the country has been through, I have never felt a stronger connection with the people. Rebounding from years of subjugation and horrors beyond comprehension, the melting pot of the Bosniak, Croat, and Serb populations have shown a resilient spirit, one that will pave the way for an incredibly bright future. And that is why Bosnia-Herzegovina is the place that left the biggest legacy, a place I will never, ever forget.

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Profile photo of Conan Smeet

I'm a 25 year old with a serious case of wanderlust who has been working as English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in Moscow, Russia since September 2014. My parents got me into traveling when I was 8, taking our family to England. Little did they know they set off a chain events that would see me travel to 26 countries and counting! I hope to be able to take you all on my journeys through my posts, so enjoy the ride!

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