I have to admit, Bosnia was not at the top of my ‘must travel’ list when I started planning my Euro summer, likely not even in the middle of it. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to go there, but more so that the very little I knew about the country slightly terrified me. I knew that during my relatively short lifetime, the area had been war-torn and the media had made me believe that there was still some unrest. I told myself to be without expectation as we crossed the Croatian-Bosnian border by bus; I had entered the ‘wild west’ as Kristina calls it. Everything that happened next pleasantly surprised me in a way I never saw coming.
Most tourists who visit Bosnia explore Sarajevo, the capital city. I did not. Immediately from the somewhat eerie Sarajevo bus terminal we flagged a taxi to take us outside of town, where Kristina’s extended family still lives. I clasped my bags tightly to my body as Kristina negotiated cab fares with some slightly dodgy drivers; I’m not sure it was warranted, but I felt slight unease as everyone smoked cigarettes and stared at me (a real heaviness was palpable in the air). The cab ride was on the longer side; winding through mountainous switchback roads (the drivers are absolutely mad with their blind passing around corners and crazy speeding). I couldn’t help but notice the homes we passed still had bullet holes in them and many were vacant shells that had never been restored or re-inhabited after the war. About 20 minutes into the ride our taxi got pulled over by the cops in what was a somewhat intimidating stop. Our driver hadn’t been wearing his seatbelt and ended up paying the fine in cash on the side of the road. Another half hour later we were dropped off in front of Aunt Clara’s home in the tiny village of Kiseljak with a measly 20€ cab fare (I tried to imagine how much that fare would have cost in Canada). The house was a lovely two-storey situated on a large piece of property filled with hearty vegetable gardens, a flowing stream and a beautiful brick outdoor fireplace for barbecuing.
Immediately upon arrival at the house we were whisked away to a gathering up on a hill to celebrate everyone coming together from Canada, Croatia, and Vienna for a family member’s wedding. I couldn’t believe what I saw when I arrived. Probably close to 60 or more people were already there by the time we pulled up. The party was held atop a beautiful mountain property in an open air house with an outdoor BBQ (it had once been inhabited, but was vacated post-war). The view was stunning; as the sun set the sky turned a red-orange and lush green trees lined mountains as far as the eye could see. A lamb was roasted on a spit and traditional Bosnian food was served (pita, goulash, fresh bread, cookies). One youngster played the accordion and the crowd drank, smoked and sang together all night. I was amazed to see generations of people all singing, young and old, knowing every word to every song for hours and hours. It was such a special feeling of community.
Over the next three days I would experience a culture and meet people that I am so in awe of I couldn’t even begin to explain. It’s no secret that the families I met have had a tougher life than my own. They have seen and experienced things that I, as a naive Canadian girl, could never imagine. Yet, they are so happy. They don’t have extravagant cars, flat screen televisions or matching dish sets. Yet, they would give you the shirt off their back if you needed it. There was always delicious food on the table, a gathering of people and never a shortage of beer! Nothing ever goes to waste, and nothing is taken for granted here (even the compost is saved for the neighbours pigs, meat bones to stray dogs).
Seasonal ripe produce is picked from the garden every morning for breakfast (which we all sat around with forks in hand to eat off one communal plate), corn on the cob is harvested and grilled on the outdoor BBQ, and every night people came together (neighbours, family & friends) around the fire to eat, drink and be merry. There is always an excuse to get together to eat and the more time I spent in Bosnia, the more I realized that everything seems to revolve around food and drinks. Homemade cheeses and cold cuts, stuffed peppers, cevapi, fresh bread, cabbage rolls, soups, and pita (my new favourite food – thin, flaky dough rolled with spinach, cheese, meat). Ripe plums and pears are turned into moonshine, Turkish coffee is enjoyed at all times of the day and fresh mineral water is collected from a natural spring in the hills.
In college I lived in a two bathroom house with three girls and there were endless disagreements about who was showering when and one person felt the other was spending too much time in the mirror ‘prissing’. Somehow in Bosnia there were 11 of us (more than half female) sleeping in house with one bathroom and absolutely no issues. Some of the girls showered in the evening, people woke up early to accommodate and ‘prissing’ was simply non-existent. It’s actually a really good feeling; no makeup, no hairspray, no problem.
The main event that had brought so many people together was Ivana’s wedding (whom I had never met, but was so sweet to include me). I remember last summer in Canada I had attended eight weddings within a matter of months; I can assure you this was not like a single one of them. Festivities began around 2pm at the bride’s home. The groom travels with all of his ‘men’ in a large convoy through town (honking and hollering, Croatian flags waving from the windows). I heard the convoy before I ever came close to seeing it.
Upon arrival, he is to complete funny little obstacles, do shots of moonshine, and buy his bride from her family with hard earned cash.
There was probably close to a hundred or more guests in attendance for this portion of the day, all present to witness the couples first glance at each other and to celebrate with live music, food and drink. This party goes on for hours (keep in mind the ceremony hasn’t even started!).
A ceremony followed in a beautiful Catholic Church in town, and next was a 300 person reception that lasted until 7am!! The food was endless; platers and platers of family-style meals were served until wee hours of the morning. A live band played and everyone held hands and Croatian danced in a big circle. It was loud. It was crazy. It was unforgettable.
My last day in Bosnia was spent hiking in the mountains; nothing but fresh air, a cold lemon Karlovacko (Croatian beer), and one of the most undisturbed views I have ever seen. It was a hot, sticky walk up (even at dusk) because of the humidity in the air. We walked past demolished homes and trenches where men (not that long ago) used to protect their land. I couldn’t help but notice warning signs on trees in the distance indicating the potential for land mines on some of the paths; such an uneasy feeling that was.
We eventually reached a crooked tree at the top that has significance to many of the people I was hiking with that day; here we rested and enjoyed mineral water that had been collected moments before off the mountain (ice cold and so refreshing).
Some of the girls picked juicy blackberries, plums, and rose hip to make tea as we walked and saw what was left of the home Kristina’s dad had been born in. I could feel the sadness in his voice as he revisited memories from his childhood on that very property. I noticed this a lot amongst the Bosnian families I met; they are so proud of their roots and love sharing a piece of their storey with you (even if you are an English- speaking stranger).
One of the guys had brought his dirt bike up to the mountain and we took turns going for rides through the trees. I’ll never forget the moment we came to the clearing and he cut the engine. There we were, me holding tight on the back of the bike, without a single other soul in sight. Everything was silent. And rolling (completely untouched) forested hills were all that could be seen against the sunset. Magic. Peace. Serenity.
Expectations are a funny thing. You may not end up where you thought you were going, but you always end up where you are supposed to be. After a month of travel, I welcomed the quiet and family time in Bosnia. I enjoyed the opportunity to get to know people and hear their stories. This trip really put things into perspective for me; everyone I met was happy with less than what I have (which to be honest is not a lot right now). I can see that very little is needed to make a happy life; it’s all within, in one’s way of thinking. These Bosnians’ lives have been so much more difficult, they have seen things nobody should see, and yet the love of family and the admiration of friends is enough to keep them going.
My message to everyone reading back in Canada is this, “Expect nothing. Appreciate EVERYTHING. Someone else is praying for the things you take for granted. In the end, it’s not the happy person that is thankful, it’s the thankful person that is happy”.