CROATIA & BOSNIA (& Herzegovina)
The weather gods decide to cut us a much-needed break. After suffering the pits of hell through the coldest and longest winter in Europe in over a century, our spirits are lifted the moment we hit the Croatian Coast. Not only is it sunny, but it’s almost warm enough to hang around in a T-shirt! Not for long, mind you, but hey, long enough for now…
Our week resting with friends in Slovenia was just great, except for that darn snow fall which almost prevented us from leaving. “Oh it never snows in Nova Gorica” they said “It’ll be fine” they said. Lo and behold we spent our first ‘leaving day’ building a snowman with little Elijah out in the front garden. Oh well, one more day to talk, eat, drink and cuddle the kids!
Catching up with Ana and Vid has been a real highlight for me; we volunteered together in Uganda in 2008 and lived in each other’s pockets for almost three months. Our lives have certainly taken separate turns since then: they’ve happily settled down, had two gorgeous bubs and are busy cementing their careers as doctors in Maribor, whilst I’m living in a tent. A Salewa IV, German-made tent granted, but a tent nonetheless.
Thoughts of my rather unique living conditions have been churning in my head lately, but I’m putting that down to the fact that I’m about to turn 40. I do get the distinct impression that I would be re-evaluating my life no matter what my living conditions were, yet I can’t help but wonder if there is something inherently wrong with me. Shouldn’t I be craving a little stability by now? Want a house perhaps??? Hmmm…the closest I’ve come, in the last 3 months, is fantasizing about lying on a lounge watching a spot of trashy TV. Mind you, even those fantasies fly out the tent zipper the moment the sun shines through. Oh well…maybe later.
As we ride along the other side of the Adriatic, under the glare of the strongest sun we’ve seen in months, all struggles seem to miraculously evaporate. This place is just beautiful! Cleaner, less trafficked and much more scenic than its Italian counterpart, the Istrian Coast is an absolute dream. We spend our days visiting historic seaside towns, dolphin spotting along the coast and island hopping. It finally feels like we’re on holiday!
We manage to find some gorgeous seaside campsites, something Italy is painfully lacking. To be honest, Italy was lacking in a lot of things; namely good roads, campsites of any kind and friendly locals. Whenever we were spotted pitching a tent in Italy, you could literally feel locals getting uncomfortable, even fearful, that we were some kind of gypsy tribe ready to break into their cars and homes. In Croatia, it’s the complete opposite…people stop purposely to greet us, ask us where we’re headed and to offer food or warm beds. It’s just grand.
Heading into the tourist hub of Dubrovnik, in the southern tip of the country, we notice the weather going askew again. We decide to head into a forest and pitch a tent for the night, only to be struck by the first Bura windstorm of the season (two more were to come). Completely unaware of this freak end-of-summer weather pattern on the Croatian Coast, we get stranded in our tent for 36 hours straight, unable to even step out to make a cup of coffee. We did step out to pee, but that little activity resulted in a complete change of clothes, if you catch my drift. Crikey did it drift!
Culminating in winds of up to 240km/hrs, the Bura winds are notoriously berserk and inconsistent. They come in ferociously fast bursts, making the meticulous planning of a pee an almost sweat-inducing affair. They run all along the Croatian Coast (the storms, not the pees) and at least three are expected every year. They’re strong enough to upturn cars, blow off roofs and send tents flying off into outer orbit. We spend our endless day reading, playing Scrabble, snoozing and munching on what few supplies we had with us, but our spirits remain high. Personally, I think we were shell-shocked.
Being now much wiser about the end of winter storms which were likely to hit the coast we decide to switch our itinerary. We had originally decided to spend a few days in Dubrovnik and then enjoy a family farm stay in Bosnia but, considering Bosnia is just 15kms away we headed there first.
Our Bosnian grandma-host greets us with warm tea, a full hot water boiler and fluffy slippers. Chris is not too convinced about the fluffy slippers and steps out of the shower bare footed. Well, didn’t he hear all about it! Babushka’s arms flailed about as she yelled at him, pointed at his bare feet and then at her neck. The CERVICALE strikes again I thought! It’s obviously an imported condition from Italy!!!!
Just over the border with Croatia lies a tiny little sleepy town called Ivanica, which is to be our home for the next two weeks. We’ve got a cute little apartment all to ourselves and we love it, even though it is filled with an obscene amount of religious paraphernalia…saints everywhere, in the bedroom, living room and even the bathroom.
Our ‘family’ consists of grandma and grandpa, two dogs, five cats, a cow, two goats and lots of bees (never managed to pin them down for a headcount). They grow veggies, make their own honey and enjoy a nice simple farm life. The hospitality here is beautiful and grandma insists on having a daily coffee and chat session even though, to be honest, we don’t understand a word of what each other says. I had a flash of genius on the 2nd day, and from then on, there were three of us having a conversation: grandma, me and Mr Google Translate.
By the third day grandma decides we are to stay in Ivanica forever and have lots of babies. Bebu! bebu! she keeps yelling every time she looks at us and then proceeds to bring in even more saint statues to help with the ‘immaculate conception’. Considering everything is pregnant here (the animals that is)…Chris is looking rather nervous and removes all the holy images from our bedroom lest these saints actually bloody work.
We head into town every day for fresh food and notice that every second building is just a sorry shell of its former self. In Croatia, remnants of the 90s war were only visible when we really went off-road, the tourist trail having been long cleared of any tell-tale signs. It really isn’t that surprising. What is now the Croatian Coast was always the most developed part of former Yugoslavia and, even though the unthinkable happened and its most prized possession heavily bombed (Dubrovnik), the sheer amount of intense reconstruction meant that its touristy coast did not stay out of action for very long.
In Bosnia it’s a whole different story. The moment you cross the border all guard rails disappear, as does most of the tarred road and every single village we ride through consists of one new home per three bombed-out shells. On the up-side, the people in Bosnia are extremely friendly, our expenses have been halved since we left Croatia and besides, the landscape scenery is so incredibly striking we managed to ride just a few dozen kilometres before we’re forced to stop for photo-shoots. Verdant terraced hills combined with rocky and arid mountains make for outstanding backdrops to our rides.
While most tourists’ concerns centre around the mind-boggling land mine problem Bosnia still suffers from (there are still over 200,000 unexploded devices here) it helps to learn that all of them have been identified, tagged and signposted and most concentrate on hard to reach forested areas. What doesn’t help is that whenever someone is killed it makes the international headlines, yet most news reports fail to mention that all those who die (9 people in 2012) were poor struggling farmers who went into mine-filled forests willingly to collect firewood.
We chat about the mine problem with a campsite owner in Mostar, a man who served as an interpreter to UN officials during the war. He says he doesn’t understand how anyone would risk their lives for just a few dollars, yet I think that it’s hard to understand true desperation if you have never suffered it. I’ve seen some shocking, shocking things during my travels. Acts of desperation by the world’s poor which really defy understanding.
In parts of South America and Asia (India in particular) people throw their new-born babies in front of foreign-owned vehicles in order to claim compensation. It defies belief for us but when you learn that a mere USD2,000 can feed a family of five for at least two years a certain kind of horrible awareness pops into your mind. The child was probably conceived for that very purpose. The selling of children, the giving of children away to repay debts and such deplorable things are more widespread than most people realize.
So when I hear about a grown man willingly taking a risk himself in a mine field to feed his family I can’t help but think that at least he’s taking his own life into his hands, not anyone else’s. Our new Bosnian friend tells us one of the 2012 mine victim was a 5 year old boy who was helping his dad in the forest, and shows us the newspaper clipping. The article boasts a family photo. Mum and dad and their remaining 4 children are huddled outside a shanty hut and a clothes line is in the foreground with the dead child’s torn T-shirt drying out in the sun. This particular family is so desperate, they must wash and dry the clothes the child died in, so they can be handed down to their youngest kids.
I’m shocked to learn that our usual plan for avoiding land mines is quite useless here. Channelling our Somaliland experience, we resolve to only bush camp by following recent car tracks off the main roads. In Bosnia, this may not help you very much if there happens to be a burnt out wood-carrying lorry at the end of the track. We could possibly be following in the footsteps of a desperate family man. Instead, our friend reassures us that the modus operandi of landmine clearing is that a complete and utter razing of trees and shrubs is carried out after a field is cleared. If you see a field devoid of major vegetation then go right ahead, if it looks like the grass has not been cut for two decades best you stay away.
The next most shocking part for me is remembering that we are merely 700kms from Munich.
How can this be so recent and so close to home?
After the war ended and peace finally reigned in this region, Bosnia & Herzegovina took to rather unusual measures to deal with its new multi-ethnic identity. Of all the former Yugoslav regions, this is the one that is most equally divided between Croats (Catholic), Serbs (Orthodox) and Bosniaks (Muslim). In an attempt to ensure on-going peace the new country was divided in two regions: the Republika Srprska, home to the Serb and Croat population in the country’s extremities (north & south)and the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina in the centre, home to the Bosniak population. Each region takes up almost exactly 50% of the country. You keeping up?
As part of the Dayton Agreement, B&H also took to changing the seat of the Presidency every 8 months in a rotational role-playing which is enviable in theory yet proves to be drastically financially-draining in reality. When a President of one of the ethnic groups takes up his role all the entourage must also ‘swap’ making this the most budget-busting costs of the country’s government. No wonder there are still people living in shanty huts collecting firewood from land mined forests to survive, nearly two decades after the war ended. The public spending in B&H is almost negligible.
Unlike in Croatia, where the government will help citizens pay for the renovation or reconstruction of their homes, local councils in B&H do no such thing. Moreover, in towns like Banja Luka, the administrative capital of the Rebublika Srprska and a town now totally void of Croats or Bosniaks, the former non-Serb population who may have wanted to return and rebuild, is most definitely not welcome. For a ‘united’ country one can’t help but wonder just how much more divided it could be.
Yet people seem happy with their lot, or at least resigned to their conditions, and whenever we stop for a coffee and a chat with locals, we never, ever hear them complaining, unlike most other European countries. After passing a plethora of war memorials and impromptu war-time cemeteries containing the graves of hundreds of young men (in some villages, the entire youth population was wiped out) one can’t help but think that people here just count their lucky stars they can at least enjoy some peace.
Life, no matter how hard it may seem….is better than no life at all.
With all this said, Bosnia may not seem like an ideal holiday destination, but trust us when we tell you that the reality, for tourists, is completely different! The natural wonders of this part of the world are superb, the crowds almost non-existent and finding the perfect bush camp site is easy day after day. We visit the source of the Europe’s most voluminous river in Blagaj and take our first dip of the year under the stunning Kravice Falls. We spend two days rummaging the cobblestone streets of Mostar, an Ottoman-era town so pretty it seems almost fake and try to learn a few new words of the local lingo every day.
We strive to learn a new word every day, interacting with locals in coffee shops, bakeries, service stations, supermarkets and everywhere else we can pin one down. Normally, we ask them if they could teach us a new word in Croatian, yet here is Bosnia this has raised a certain peculiar issue.
We first learnt how to say good-day back in Pula, Croatia. ‘Dober dan’ is now our morning mantra and as we keep practicing our Croatian daily, and asking locals for new words whenever we have the chance, our vocab is fast expanding. The only problem here, is that we’ve now taken to calling it Bosnian instead, after being reprimanded by locals. We did purposely try and research its origins to see what the technical term for the language is and it is here that we run into some confusion. Whatever language it is, it changes name depending on who you’re talking to not just where you’re talking!
So…Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian, whilst being technically the same language, change nomination on a regular and utterly confusing way. While it may be ‘Croatian’ in Croatia, it switches to being Serbian if it’s a Serb in Croatia you’re chatting to. Same in reverse…whether you meet a Serb in Croatia or Serbia matters not, because according to him you’ll be speaking Serbian. But how the hell do you know???? Am I supposed to suss out a person’s ethnic background before I even attempt a ‘Dober dan?’ They sort of all accept it if you call it Bosnian in Bosnia but we do get the impression we’re not scoring extra points with the Serbs or the Croats. Argh…
I decide to take a semi-permanent vow of silence as we head out of Bosnia lest I offend anyone involuntarily. I sincerely hope we don’t run into anyone for a few days as we enter the 9th country on our trip…I really couldn’t handle having to switch to Montenegrin.