BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA, 25th-26th May 2017
Approaching Bosnia and Herzegovina across a plain surrounded by dark mountains it felt like we had reached somewhere different, somewhere very far from home, somewhere that inspired a mixture of excitement and caution. Any nerves, however, were soon eased by the Bosnian border official, who laughed cheerfully as he welcomed us into his country. It wasn’t until after we’d posed for our country sign photo and cycled on a kilometre down the road that I remembered what I’d read on the British Government Travel Advice website – it was very important we get our passports stamped.
“He didn’t stamp our passports, did he Dea?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“We’d better go back.”
“Are you sure? I don’t think it can be that important.”
Dea didn’t really want to cycle back for nothing, but I knew what I’d read on the British Government Travel Advice website, and I didn’t want all that reading to have been for nothing, so back we went to the border to get our stamps.
Thankfully the cheerful man was happy to oblige, and we were soon on our way into Bosnia again, this time with stamped passports. And we were immediately transported into a different world. There were mosques and headscarves, stray dogs and boys riding motorcycles without helmets. It felt almost as if we’d stepped through a magic door from Europe to Asia. Dea, who loves the chaos of Asia, was in her element. I’m a bit more ambivalent about the chaos of Asia myself, but even I felt a surge of excitement about being in Bosnia, and thankfully there was a footpath we could cycle on alongside the busy main road to Bihac. It was as we were cycling along on this that we encountered a girl in her twenties cycling the other way. She removed her headphones as she stopped to talk with us and she was incredibly warm and friendly, welcoming us into her country with a big smile. We told her that we wanted to cycle to Sarajevo and her smile dropped. “This might be difficult,” she said. “ I don’t know how you can do this, because there are no motorways, only these roads.” She indicated the narrow road, choked with traffic. “So all the traffic is on the same small road. We have trouble moving on in Bosnia. People think that because there was war twenty years ago, we can’t do anything.” She shook her head. “Of course there is corruption and… no money for building roads, sorry.”
Thankfully the footpath continued on into Bihac, a town with a name that is amusingly pronounced ‘Be-yatch’, at least when I pronounce it. The girl had told us that it was trying hard to be a tourist town, tempting travellers to cross the border from Plitvice, but that it wasn’t doing too well. We thought it was quite nice. A turquoise river, the Una, ran through the town, and Dea and I crossed a wooden bridge to an island park where we sat and watched the water. We both felt really happy to be in Bosnia, even if we were surrounded by litter. There was somehow a nice atmosphere in Bihac, and we probably would have stayed longer were it not for the fact that we had accommodation booked outside of town, and it was time for us to get there. It was an unusual move for us to pay for accommodation, but I’d read on the British Government Travel Advice website that it was necessary for visitors to register within 72 hours of arriving in Bosnia – something that needed to be done through accommodation – so we’d pre-booked the cheapest place in Bihac, which of course wasn’t actually in Bihac.
Avoiding the main road we tried following a cycle path along the river out of town, but this soon became a field. We carried on regardless, pretending we couldn’t translate the sign saying ‘Privata’ and as luck would have it we found our way back to a road eventually. It was bumpy and pot-holed and a real mess. As we cycled along it in what we hoped was the right direction a young man on a motorcycle skidded to a halt next to me and asked, “Excuse me, but are you from Great Britain?”
I was staggered. What an incredibly good guess. How did he possibly know that?
“Yes I am! How did-”
“You are staying with us. You booked our apartment.”
Ah, yes, of course! I’d entered my nationality when making the booking. I’d also entered our estimated time of arrival, which I think had turned out to be a bad estimate, some might say spectacularly bad. I did hope this boy had not been riding up and down this road looking for us for the past three hours.
“Follow me, please.”
Well, the least we could do was cycle behind him as fast as we could to keep up. He turned up a hill. A very steep hill. A very long, very steep hill. Noticing our struggle, he puttered along as slow as he could, stopping often to wait for us as we sweated along behind. Then came a reprieve as the road started going downhill. The boy continued at the same pace. “We can go faster now!” I shouted. He sped off, and almost immediately the road swung back uphill again. “Wait…!”
Somehow we all eventually made it up the hill to the entrance of the accommodation, but we were not done yet, for there was another steep hill of a driveway. The boy parked his motorcycle and helped Dea push her bike up the steep gravel and before I even had time to shout “Hey, what about me?!” a man came down the driveway to help push mine. This was Mustafa, the owner of the house we’d be staying in. He was a slim man, with tidy dark hair and kind eyes. After helping us up to the house he immediately invited us to join in with some family celebrations that were taking place on the terrace. It was Mustafa’s son’s fourth birthday, and to celebrate in traditional Bosnian style there was a whole lamb roasting on the barbecue.
“Ah, but I’m vegetarian,” I said.
“I thought so,” said the elder son, the one who had guided us here on his motorcycle. I could only guess this assumption had something to do with my performance on the hill.
“Don’t worry. There is cabbage.”
Very delicious cabbage it was too, and a real pleasure to sit and converse with Mustafa and his family. It was all very different from the Europe we had abruptly left behind. Mustafa was keen to tell us that the food was all local and organic. The goat had come from a neighbour. The cabbage was home-grown. In our apartment we would find our fridge freshly stocked with duck eggs, laid by the very same ducks that Mustafa’s four-year old was chasing around the yard, and jar after jar of home-made jam. A donkey strolled around, munching on the grass, more economical and efficient than any lawn mower. It was a simple, wonderful place.
It got even more wonderful when we were shown into our apartment. It took up a whole floor of the house and it was a spacious, three-bedroom affair with a big kitchen and a rooftop terrace with a swing-chair and a view out over the valley and the hills beyond. It was amazing.
“Oh, I think we could stay two nights here, don’t you Dea?”
“Actually, I think it would be very good for my knee to have a little rest.”
And so that is exactly what we did. The next day we took a day off from cycling, and I spent the morning trying to catch up on a long to-do list of things that needed doing online (I didn’t catch up, but I made the twitter feed for our homepage, so that was pretty cool) until in the early afternoon we had a visitor. It was Jacob, another cycle tourist who I knew of loosely through his blog (www.cgoab.com/doc/niktia) and who I had been in touch with about meeting up and cycling with for a little while. I knew he was close by so I’d emailed him the previous night to say he should come and meet us here, and he’d done just that.
It was a bit of a surprise when Jacob arrived, because I knew he’d been on the road for well over a year, and yet he appeared to have a bike that was equipped for a day ride. He was incredibly lightly packed compared to us, with most of his possessions fitting into a frame bag he’d made himself and a small backpack, with a couple of extra things strapped on the front and back of the bike. He was also a very tall man, who some people (not me) have said looks a bit like Dave Grohl. We greeted each other and mention must have been made of him being very tall, because he said to Dea, “Actually, I was expecting you to be taller.” He said this as he’d read in my book that Dea was tall, which meant he’d read my book, which meant I liked him very, very much.
We sat down and ate lunch together, the three of us. Jacob had followed my and Dea’s travels for so long that there wasn’t much we could tell him, but our blog was a bit behind at the time (if you can believe it), and he asked us what had happened since Bologna.
“Erm, well, Venice was nice…” we stumbled around, looking for a good story. “Oh, Dea hurt her hand, didn’t you Dea?”
And Dea told him the story about how she had accidentally stabbed her hand with her little scissors, and how there had been a bit of blood, and she’d had to sit down because she got a bit dizzy. She told the story very well too, I thought.
A little later, after more home-made jam had been consumed, Jacob told us a story about his own trip. He’d covered a lot of ground from his home in Idaho down through the Americas, but in South America he’d left his bike to climb solo up a high mountain in the Andes. For several days he had hiked up, staying alone in cabins each night, seeing no one else. On summit day the temperature grew very cold and at one point he ripped his glove, exposing one of his fingers. He made it to the peak, but suffered altitude sickness and severe frostbite. It sounded like he was lucky enough to survive. Somehow he made it all the way down and back to his bike. He cycled to the nearest hospital, but his finger was in a really bad way by then. They did what they could, but there was soon no option left. “So, in the end, they had to amputate my finger.” He held up his hand for us to see the missing digit.
“Wow…” I said, trying to take it all in. “Wow…” Dea was shaking her head in disbelief. It really was an incredible story. I looked over at her. “Hey Dea, I bet you wished you hadn’t told that thing about the scissors now.”
After lunch it was back to the wifi and the to-do list for me. On the bikes all day every day it is so easy to fall behind with keeping in touch. For example the first thing on my to-do list had been to contact my Dad to wish him a happy birthday. Second thing was to apologise to my Dad for being two weeks late. But there was so much else to do besides that. The blog to write, people to email, references to write, it was all too much. I noticed Dea slip into the bedroom and walk out with her ukulele. She was going outside to play with Mustafa’s eldest son. I thought I better go out and join them, but I just had a little more to do online first. A little more wifi. A little more screen time. After a while I finally put down the computer and wandered outside. Dea was playing the ukulele and singing. She finished up her song, then Mustafa’s son told her she sang very well, but it was now time for him to leave for a date.
“You missed it,” Dea said to me, “he was just playing the guitar and singing. He sang a Bosnian song. It was great.”
I got sad about this. I’d missed it. I’d missed this boy singing, this wonderful moment, because I was staring at a stupid screen, lost in the world of wifi. It was very frustrating. I hated the way the internet could so often steal my attention, distract me from the real world where really amazing things were happening. The blog, the book, the damn twitter feed. What was it all for, really? It was something Dea and I had discussed many times, and would discuss again.
Now determined to spend the evening in the real world, Dea, Jacob and I headed out for a walk together up to the castle on the top of the hill. This evening was the beginning of Ramadan, and we had been told that there would be something of a party up at the castle to celebrate. We walked up through the village, past the mosque, then had to make quite a little hike up a grassy track. At the top we found the castle, where there was a rather underwhelming party taking place. It essentially consisted of a bunch of men standing together under a big Bosnian flag looking a bit glum.
“I should think the party at the end of Ramadan is a bit better,” I said.
So we bypassed the men and instead climbed up the old stone tower beyond them. A narrow spiral staircase led up three flights, all the way to the top. There were some magnificent views. There was also a man with a mixing deck and three giant speakers placed precariously on the tower’s turrets facing out at the village. He started pumping some extremely loud Arabic-techno music to get the party started. I really enjoyed the unusual mix, but looking down at the men it didn’t appear to have been enough to get them in the mood for forty days without food. They still stood around looking a bit sullen, and so Jacob, Dea and I walked back to our apartment.
Back at the apartment Mustafa asked us if we could do anything to fix his bike. It had a couple of flat tyres and I was more than happy to help. Except for keeping the donkey from nibbling the inner tubes as I checked them for holes there was no trouble at all getting them patched up. It also gave me the chance to spend more time with Mustafa, a man who I really liked very much. He seemed to have such a great outlook upon life. As we spoke a loud cannon went off up at the castle to mark sunset, and the official start of Ramadan. Mustafa told me more about it and how he liked the experience of fasting.
“The first days you feel really hungry. But it reminds me to appreciate what I have. It makes me think of poor people, those who don’t have what I have. It is good to think like that.”
This man spoke such sense. The previous night he had been telling us about how he thought TV, the internet, all these screens, were the poison of the modern world, stealing people’s attentions from what really mattered. All these things he said really struck a chord with me. I felt a connection with him. Now, standing in his garden next to him and his donkey, his four-year old chasing ducks, with the call to prayer wailing out from the mosque, blending with the Arabic music coming from the castle, I felt so happy to be in Bosnia, to be travelling, to be in the real world.