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Making Friends in Montenegro

20 Jul

7.14.2011

 

On the Road. The bay of Kotor

 

The sun was setting, affording a gold-tinged view of the the many coastal towns we passed on the bus ride from Dubrovnik to Kotor. The bus was only half-full, most passengers seemed to be backpackers and other youngish commuters. I was excited to have an open seat next to me, since I’d now have ample room to type and edit my photos. However, at the very last moment, a deeply tanned messy-haired boy asked if he could sit down. I didn’t know how to say no and still be polite, so I said “Sure thing.” He and his friend spoke Spanish while they took long swigs from a plastic beer bottle filled with some clear liquid. After spending the day in Mostar more-or-less alone, I was still in intrinsic mode and not ready to engage in random conversation. Eventually, as we reached the border and pulled out our passports, my seatmate and I got to talking. Surprisingly, Victorio from Buenos Aires and I, had a lot of common interests—he was an engineer and an actor who took singing lessons and was an active couchsurfing.org member. He and his motor-mouthed friend Nico, were starting their trip around Croatia and ending wherever the wind would take them. They had a ‘camp where you can’ motto. “Last night we slept in the grass in front of a radio station.” Vittorio told me. We ended up chatting for the remainder of the trip and I made plans to grab a drink with them after they found a ‘campsite’ that evening.

On the way to the Old Town in the Bay of Kotor

That night, as we arrived at the bus station, a challenge awaited me: I was going to try to rent a room from a local. This was quite a common thing to do in places where hostels are scarce. In fact, friends and other travelers had told me it was more or less the way to go, since you have your own room and typically pay less than overpriced hostels. As we got off of the bus, several people were trying to do the same thing, and a friendly young girl volunteered to translate for a French guy and myself. As she haggled with an older woman, the conversation seemed to be turning into more of an argument. The woman didn’t want me to stay in her old town apartment because I would only be there one night. Who cared, it was already 11pm! She was trying to convince me to go with her to another house outside of the center for 15 euro, which I did not want to do. The French guy and I were stuck in the middle of the argument, trying to interject. Soon he signaled to his friend and told me, “My friend is talking to a lady there, she has 3 rooms for 10 euro. You are welcome to come with us.” Done. This process had been more stressful than I had anticipated. Soon we were following this middle-aged woman to her house in an apartment complex nearby.

We had no way to communicate with our host, save a variety of hand gestures and loudly repeated English words, spoken mainly with thick French accents. She showed us to our room: three beds squashed in a spare bedroom. The guys seemed a bit embarrassed.

I thought she said separate bedroom’ one told me. “Should we make a…em…a division here?” he indicated, using his hands to fictionally separate the space between my bed and theirs. Until this point, I had been staying in 8 and 10 bed hostel dorms, so sharing a room with only 2 other people was a luxury. I did feel a bit bad for unexpectedly intruding on their 10-day best buddy holiday, but whatever. C’est la vie. As we got to know each other, I learned that they are both sports journalists, working in their respective French towns. Remi spoke an accent-free English, and Gregory struggled a bit, but was definitely better than he thought. We went out to dinner in the old town at local restaurant called Kantun in the Bokeljske Mornarice square.

The town was a walled-beauty and surprisingly empty for a Wednesday evening. The bar across the square was blasting techno music to an empty house, which I found annoying. Who did they think they were fooling? The food I ordered was amazing: traditional home-made sausages with onions, french fries and vegetables. I tasted Remi’s Montenegran smoked ham dish, which was similar to a thicker and smokier prosciutto, and also delicious. My meal had cost only 6 euro and was so massive that I couldn’t manage to finish.

I couldn’t resist documenting this.

Our host offered us coffee the next morning, Turkish style again. It was very kind of her. She sat with us and showed us a book that seemed to be about religious relics. As we passed it around, Remy speculated that she was trying to tell us about the place where she was born. Not being able to communicate with verbal language was a bit challenging, and when the boys indicated they wanted to stay another night, it was pretty hilarious. As Gregory repeated in English ‘We stay here tonight….leave tomorrow’, she just kept saying “moje, moje” with a blank look and that “I have no idea what you’re saying” smile. I think moji (not sure of the spelling) means something like ‘ok’ or ‘alright’ in Serbo-Croatian it still wasn’t clear that she totally understood. Gregory was cracking up, and finally he told me it sounded like she was repeating the word moche (ugly) in French.

 

The next day, we headed into the town, which was picturesquely situated between high mountains on the bay of Kotor.

Inside the city walls

The guys invited me to join them on a guided tour ala their French guidebook. Gregory decided to practice his English by translating the tour for me, which was a real treat. He stopped to point out buildings, telling me slightly lost-in-translation things like “this is the old town hall. She was before filled with sugar and cookies.” Our tour took us to St. Tryphon, a cathedral with two bell-towers, one of which remains unfinished and is significantly shorter than its counterpart.

St. Tryphon’s Cathedral

Sarah, over here” called my guide, squinting at his guidebook and pointing at the church. “I would like to show you this important building. It is best if you stand back and take a recul so you can see it is not even”

A recul?

A view from far away!” chimed in Remy, chuckling.

Watch out Pisa! There’s a leaning clock tower in Kotor

Gregory was really getting into his role as tour guide, saying things like “Right theese way I would like to point out the special window,” or “Sarah, pay attention! She is very important.”

Whilst we were mid-guidebook, I spotted my Argentinian friends slumped next to the side of the church. They were as scraggly as ever with tired, red eyes and breakfast of grocery store snacks splayed about. It looked like they had had a rough night. Victorio offered me an orange-chocolate cookie as I greeted them.

We slept on a road not too far from the station.” he explained.

Can we join you?” asked Nico. I looked at Gregory, not wanting to invite these ragamuffins without his consent. He shrugged with a French je ne sais quoi.

I’m kind of on a tour right now…but sure, come along.” 

This building was deemed ‘tres jolie’ by the french

The five of us hung out for the rest of the day. It was a funny group: the self-proclaimed hyperactive Nico, his best buddy Victorio and the significantly more reserved and put-together duo of Remy and Gregory. Lots of Spanish and French speaking going on.

Thank God for public drinking fountains on HOT days

Nico liked to call attention to the scantily-clad (and very beautiful) Montenegrin girls. He wasn’t shy:

I have to see this clothing store, wait one second!” he announced. I looked at his cut-off t-shirt, which was probably going on day five without a wash and didn’t believe for a second that he was about to go on a shopping spree. Not surprisingly, as I peeked in the store, I noticed a beautiful high-heeled girl in a low-cut top folding shirts.

Si, bueno, perfect. Yes, those are very nice clothes in there….very nice” said Nico.

It looks better than it smells.

The gang was dripping sweat, so we made our way to the bay for a swim. This was not my idea, as I had read in several places that the water is polluted pretty badly. However, locals insisted it was fine, and we saw many families and children enjoying the water. “It’s disgusting!” said Nico smiling as he paddled around. Everyone who jumped in after wards agreed. “I will not go. It stinks” said Remy, agreeing with me.

Si, the water is like a lotion!” said Victorio once he got out. I cringed as he rubbed his skin, massaging the toxins into his thighs. I’m pretty sure I noticed a third eye growing from his back later that day.

One of the entrances to the fortress

Eventually we ended the day with a grueling hike up to the fortress, see: Climbing the Stairway to Heaven (It’s in Kotor!)

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Mostar, Herzegovina

18 Jul

7.12.2011

The Old Bridge by night

Mostar was stunning, like a smaller and more serene version of Sarajevo. I arrived in the evening and was picked up by the owner of the guest house I stayed at, Hostel Nina. Similar to my hostel in Sarajevo, the house belonged to a family who had built dorm rooms and allowed guests to use their facilities. It might sound uncomfortable, but it certainly was not. My host was probably around 55 years-old and very smiley. To my surprise, she started telling me very openly about her family’s experience in the war as we drove towards the hostel.

“It’s important for Mostar to have tourists. There are no jobs now-only tourism,” a sad, and familiar refrain.

Well considering its beauty and proximity to tourist hot-spot, Dubrovnik, it didn’t seem that Mostar was going to have a problem expanding the post-war tourism industry. The town had been completely destroyed in the mid-90’s; similar to the amount of damage done to Dresden during WW2, 1993 left nearly 75% of Mostar in ruins. Nina pointed out some buildings on the front line as we drove by; one had been rebuilt, but the rest showed their 15 years of neglect with crumbling rock and vines that twisted around bullet-riddled facades. Nina had fled with her children to Norway during the war, her husband was Muslim and therefore, the whole family was in danger.

“It was not safe for me, even though I’m catholic” she told me.

Bombed-out building

The family returned to Mostar in 1997, only to find that “the city was destroyed and very dangerous after the war. People were doing whatever they want to survive,” Nina continued. 

In 2007, Mostar’s famous landmark, the Old Bridge, was rebuilt, and from that time on, tourists started to return. As it began to get dark I took a walk around the town, which was breathtakingly set to the backdrop of arid mountains. The rocky river was such a vibrant shade of turquoise blue that I had to do everything in my power to resist from taking a dip fully clothed.

 

Koskin-Mehmed Pashka’s mosque

From deadly weapon to decorative household item

OMG it’s Weltbekannt! I have to check out the Turkish House!

Visiting the ‘Turkish House’. I got a postcard!

Take off your shoes in the Turkish house.

80’s restroom!


Sarajevo for Beginners

17 Jul

SARAJEVO, Bosnia & Herzegovina

7.11.2011

Sarajevo is stunning. It was the first place on my three week trip through the Balkan countries that I felt that I was truly in a land far, far, away. In Bosnian, Sarajevo translates to “castle valley,” as there was once a lone castle in the once undeveloped hollow. Now, an impressive mosque stands in its place.

The Miljaka river

I had the opportunity to take a tour with a local tour guide, Verena, who was born and raised in Sarajevo. She told so many interesting anecdotes that I could barely jot them all down. Hopefully I got the most important bits!

The center of the Bascarsija

Sarajevo was under siege from 1992-1995. Serbian forces (Republik Srpska and the Yugoslav People’s Army)  lined the mountains and attacked the city in an effort to claim Sarajevo as part of a new Serbian state. Over 11,000 citizens lost their lives and an estimated 50,000 were injured. Most of the city has since been rebuilt, but bullet and shell marks are visible on many of the town’s facades.

Although she was still young at the time, Verena remembered unpleasant years of traveling from basement to basement, attending make-shift schools that had been set-up “temporarily.” “That was a long time to be underground,” she told me. Plaques are visible on walls where shells killed pedestrians, and pedestrians will notice many “roses,”—shell indents filled in with red paint which serve as grim reminders that someone had met their end in that very spot. Although there are numerous similar reminders around the city, as a tourist it’s hard to imagine this somewhat sleepy, and undeniably peaceful town being so recently traumatized.

One of many mosques

The arrival of the Ottoman empire in the 15th century transformed the mountain-dwelling existence of the Bosnians to more a trade-based civilization, spurring the development of Sarajevo. Silk importation was the city’s first claim to fame, and thanks to Ottoman governor Gazi Husrev-beg, many beautiful buildings, bazaars, and mosques, were built during this period in the 15th century. The Turks still believed in the importance of separating home life from trade, so the houses were built in the nearby hills. There was also a Right of View law, no house was allowed to block the view of another. Even now, many graveyards are visible in the hillside neighborhoods, and Verena explained that the Ottomans had mixed the cemeteries with residential areas to remind the living to be on their best behavior each time they passed by. 

The preserved Turkish part of the city center is called the Bascarsija which means ‘trade district’. I enjoyed this area the most- especially the street filled with coppersmiths. They can be observed chiseling away at coffee sets and vases throughout the day.

My guide and a Bosnian coffee set

Labyrinthine passages led to tiny squares where people sat on plush cushions while smoking hookah, and drinking tea. I felt as if I was walking into some sort of mini-Istanbul. Continuing West along the main road past mosques (there are 204 in the Ottoman quarter!) and low buildings, there’s a sudden change in the architectural landscape as Austro-Hungarian design takes over.

The Eternal Flame- Remembering WW2 victims

Taking a stroll through central Sarajevo is like walking between two worlds. Trendy cafes blast European pop music as you continue down the Austro-Hungarian stretch.

Selling wares in the Bascarsija

Fun Facts:

  • Sarajevo has historically been home to four main religious groups: Serbian Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, and Catholics. Sarajevo’s Jewish community was devastated after WW2

The Serbian Orthodox Church- Church of the Holy Child

Fountain in front of the Gazi Husrev-beg mosque

  • Austrian-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo- a single shot simultaneously killed both Franz and his wife and started WW1.
  • You can still buy postcards advertising the 1984 winter olympics
  • The Sebilj is a famous water fountain in the Bascarsija’s main square. The legend: if you take a drink from the fountain, you will return to Sarajevo. Verena made sure we stopped and had a sip.

The Sebilj!

  •  She showed me something called a Mangala (sp?) It’s a coal-heated device and its purpose is to keep coffee warm. Hosts would set coffee cups on the metal lip in order to keep them warm for guests.

Keeping your Kahva warm

  • We visited the Gazi-Husrev-beg Vakauf, a beautiful building built in the 1530’s named after the Ottoman governor. Now a carpet store and an attractive tea house, this used to be an inn which offered three nights of free stay to weary travelers. In Islamic culture, helping travelers is important, and wealthy families would donate money to the vakauf (foundation) in order to fund this tradition.

  • The Legend of the Church of the Holy Child: A mother once murdered her baby in the church yard. Centuries later, the coffin was found and opened, and the shocked clergy discovered the immaculately preserved body of a recently deceased child. The kid’s corpse was then displayed in the church and it was said that women who have trouble getting pregnant should visit the church and pray to this murdered child for fertility. Morbid, I know.

  • According to Verena, nearly 50% of Bosnians are unemployed. My tour guide is a lawyer and has been searching for a job for over a year and a half. She said she is ready to practice whatever kind of law she can find a job in, since specialization isn’t even an option when living in present-day Bosnia. High hopes are placed in tourism, and judging by the amount of souvenir tit-tat that’s already present, more and more tourists are finding out about this hidden gem every year.

Hills and cemetery

A Drive Through the Bosnian Mountains

15 Jul

7.10.2011

Sure I might have been squished between 7 Finnish guys in the hottest car ride of my life, but the scenery between Belgrade and Sarajevo made up for it.

Blue waters and rolling hills

What! A cow on my left…

A cow on my right? What’s going on?

Ah, now I understand

Belgrade Part Two: Understanding Yugoslavia Through Performance Art

15 Jul

 Yugo Yoga:

 The next day I had “work” to do. I had been in contact with the London-dwelling, Croatian-born performance artist and sculptress, Lara Ritosa-Roberts, who I had emailed after realizing I would be in Belgrade during her 10-day residency at the Yugoslav Museum of History. Her project, entitled ‘Yugo Yoga: a path towards socialist self-realization,‘ sounded interesting, and I had asked her if I could observe in order to write a piece about it. She agreed enthusiastically.

The Museum of Yugoslav History, aka the Tito Museum

So there I was in Belgrade, observing a rehearsal of choreographed dance routines with red flags-and assisting in the collaborative production of this performance by helping them download Windows Media Player. I mean really, yoga and communism seemed like strange bedfellows, so I was quite interested to get a better understanding of what this was all about. As I worked on the download, Lara taught two unenthusiastic teenage boys a routine with cardboard signs. Her collaborator, Mary, told me that the boys had been giving Lara a hard time ever since they found out that the performance might be televised. “They are asking if they have to hold the signs in front of their faces. They want to be seen on t.v. now,” said Mary, rolling her eyes.

Rehearsing!

Earlier that day I had walked around the museum- there was a special exhibition “Fashions of Yugoslavia’s first couple” which detailed through film, print, and actual clothing just how snazzily dictator Tito and his wife dressed- think dapper derby hats and alligator shoes. His mausoleum was also located in another museum building. Next to it was an exhibition honoring the famous baton relay tradition. Each year on Tito’s birthday, thousands of children would participate in a baton relay, which would begin locally and eventually feed into the main relay, ending at Tito’s footsteps in the Belgrade stadium. Ivica remembered this event from his youth- there were batons of all shapes and sizes hanging on the wall- representing various youth organizations. Apparently by 1950, the baton relay involved 1 million baton-holders from around Yugoslavia, and Tito’s birthday was declared ‘National Youth Day’.

Lots o’ batons

Lara’s project is audience-interactive, partly ironic, and partly serious. Her performance group is called ‘Fiskultura’ which means ‘physical culture’. She has incorporated the daily exercises that were promoted during the socialist regime and brought them to life in a series of choreographed exercises.  Lara explained that it’s supposed to remind people to have fun while not being ashamed of their heritage. A deeper meaning can be found through the thought-provoking parallel between the spirituality that many people find in yoga and far-eastern religions, and the faith that people put into a beloved dictator, such as Tito.  She’s performed at the Tate modern in London and toured with the project in Croatia last summer. Anyways, as a foreigner, this was entirely a learning experience for me. Until this trip, I shallowly thought of communism as a completely stifling and subordinating institution- However, after speaking to people about communism in Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, I’ve realized how complex this issue actually is.


So yes- I spent most of the evening observing the rehearsal, and even participating in the yoga portion! We did poses that Lara took from neo-classical and communist sculptures with names like ‘Comrade general is thinking’.  Lara was great, she really made me feel welcome and suggested that I interview the performers- a volunteer group which ranged in age from 16 to 70. Some of the older women actually remembered performing the exercises in their youth. I’m in the process of writing the piece (when I find the time between these travels!) and it will go up soon on http://www.balkantraveller.com. In the meantime- check out Lara’s info:

http://lararitosaroberts.wordpress.com/

http://www.grafeo.com/fiskultura/PKFiskulturnik/project_fiskultura.html

The rest of the night was great. I met up with Maja, another Couchsurfer that I’d been in touch with. She took me to a bar called the Black Turtle which served dangerously delicious flavored beer. We then went to her favorite bar, which was on a street commonly referred to as Silicon Valley thanks to the plastic-bosomed girls who accompany their beefy mates in this area. She had a lot of interesting stories about her job as an English translator, as well as her solo travels. She’d just returned from a trip through Jordan and Syria. How amazing is that?! Such inspiration.

I enjoyed my visit to Belgrade and will definitely have to return- preferably when the temperature is below 90 degrees. Maybe then I’ll have time to check out Belgrade’s beach!