a passport, an appetite, a can of pepper spray
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Bridges and Tunnels

Bridges and Tunnels

The infrastructure situation in the Balkans, in stark contrast to the rest of Europe, is pretty dismal. You can count the number of trains on one finger. There are flights between larger cities but they are expensive and not worth the hassle. Rental cars? They exist but so does extortion. The only way to really get around is by bus as the network is extensive and fairly frequent. Trying to find out when the bus actually leaves is another story entirely.

My final afternoon in Sarajevo was bittersweet. Every travel stint has one of those places you find it difficult to leave, and the Bosnian capital was mine. Sarajevo’s energy was contagious and I’m not entirely sure I can articulate what that even means. But I do remember having a bounce in my step, so to speak, and an incessant urge to turn a new corner wherever I walked. More so, I loved being among a unique mix of peoples and cultures within a region where many wars have been fought, and probably will again, over bits of land not being homogenous enough.

The bus ride to the small town of Mostar in the southeast of the country leaned much more bitter than sweet. Upwards of ninety degrees outside and the inside was only about five degrees cooler. The air conditioning’s condition was ailing and, of course, the vehicle was packed. I sat next to an older gentleman who was equal my girth yet bested me when it came to creating an increasingly impenetrable cloud of body odor all around him. This made the three-hour bus ride seem like nine.

Still, I was treated to a stunner of a view from the slightly filmy windows, see-sawing between intimidating grey mountains and plunging green valleys. The roads we drove were improbably lashed along the sides of these great rocks. We passed through ten or eleven dark tunnels that must have required some engineering razzle-dazzle to pull off. We drove over small rivers and creeks alongside which whole families in bathing suits cooled themselves. I want to use the words ‘lush’ and ‘verdant’ to further illustrate what I saw but even if I did — and I guess I just did — they wouldn’t suffice.

We pulled into Mostar’s bus terminal at around five or six in the afternoon. I slowly peeled myself from the sweaty seat and hailed a cab that got me within footsteps of the car-free old city. Mostar was a flashpoint during the Balkan wars and to be frank, got the shit kicked out of it both physically and culturally. Dozens of mosques, Serbian Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals and monasteries and many other civil and secular institutions were victims of some of the heaviest shelling from all sides during the conflict.

But as I labored under the burden of my bag down ancient steps into the souk-like central district, I was quietly surprised. All along the narrow cobblestone lanes lining the Neretva river, souvenir vendors in new, yet cramped spaces had the same one-of-a-kind Oriental vase for sale as the vendor next to them. Small and newly styled cafes and bars had plenty of carefully arranged outdoor seating ready to take advantage of what was sure to be quite the scenic sunset. No beggars. No lingering wreckage. It was all too perfect.

I had sweat myself dry on that bus so I chose the first establishment I saw and proceeded to drink a beer and a bottle of water in record time. As I sat there, I had an idyllic view of the legendary Stari Most (or Old Bridge), the narrow bridge dating from the 17th century gracing any and all literature promoting Mostar. Built by the former Ottoman landlords in the 16th century, this bridge is the unquestioned pride and joy of the city. It stayed that way until 1993 when it, and practically all the other historic bridges in town, were blown up during the Yugoslavian disassembly. Afterwards, the bridge was painstakingly rebuilt using many of the traditional methods from the original construction. No question it is what the tourists, and myself, mostly come to Mostar for.

But after walking over it and back and snapping enough photos of it from the perfectly situated river banks, I was left a little wanting. For some reason, there is a certain shade of human curiosity that comes from seeing the ruins of destruction or decay. The urge is stronger while traveling. Nobody wants to see a house falling apart in their neighborhood but in an ancient land far away from their comfort zone where the wounds of recent wars haven’t fully closed, you just can’t get enough.

So after settling in at a very affordable guesthouse, I walked the streets of Mostar hoping to see rot and ruin before the sun came down. The old town was starting to erupt in bland European dance music so I headed towards the newer areas. There were hotels and shopping malls, restaurants and cafes, mixed in between older buildings with newer facades. I crossed a newer bridge which  shared the same fate as the Old Bridge during the fighting and made my way to an outdoor cafe.

My guidebook told me of a few buildings left in horrendous shape near the town prison and it turns out, they were only two blocks away. After a fortifying espresso, I made a beeline toward them. Across the street from tall concrete walls, topped with barbed wire and covered in grafitti stood two or three apartment buildings that, when framed through my camera lens, like the war was still raging all around them. They seemed like hobbled old men, struggling to stay standing amidst a crowd of younger people. I found a certain beauty to the wood and concrete slanting and sagging downwards. The slivers of daylight left in the sky imbued a haunting quality on these four-story structures which of course led to some pretty snazzy snaps from my camera.

But I had the same uneasiness as I did near the Old Bridge. Just having those decrepit buildings standing there, cordoned off from everything else in a sense made them just as precious as the newly rebuilt “old” town. Their presence, I’m sure, is a reminder to the locals of what can happen when ethnic clusters of people wave their flags just a little too viciously. I also understand that these buildings are now in the service of tourism, an activity I was willfully taking part in. That is not a bad thing. In fact, for the newly built Mostar and for Bosnia’s newly struggling economy, more tourism certainly couldn’t be bad at all.

The next morning at my guesthouse, I was treated to perhaps one of my favorite breakfasts on the trip. Simple and flavorful, it was the perfect survey of the Balkan countryside. A yolk-rich omelette, some fantastic regional smoked beef and a dollop of incredibly creamy kaymak butter spread couldn’t have been more comforting. Wars can destroy buildings, infrastructure and lives but it takes quite a bit more to destroy a culture; especially what and how that culture eats and drinks. Nothing needed to be rebuilt or reconstructed on the Bosnian plate, only replenished. When my afterglow finally subsided, I paid, grabbed my bag and took the first carefully restored bridge out of town.

WHAT: Stari Most (Old Bridge) right before sunset, flanked by Bosnian mountains on the right and the Coca Cola umbrellas at a nearby cafe on the left
WHEN: June 8, 2012
Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina

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