Final Reflection Post

Arriving home the United States and having friends and family members ask me “How was Bosnia” has forced me to reflect on my experience and pull the things from my two months abroad that have really stuck with me. Often times when someone gets home from a vacation or an extended period of time abroad, they usually try and and come up with a fairly quick synopsis of their experience. 

It’s hard to take two months of living in a country so different from ours and crunch in down into a couple of sentences that I can share with others about my experience. Here are some quick phrases that I tend to throw out at people, and a couple more sentences that I wish I could share but usually don’t have quick enough time or patience to do so. 

“It’s absolutely beautiful there”
…especially when you get outside the city. Because my internship with an eco-tourism company I was able to spend a lot of time in the mountains all over the country. There is so much untouched nature and wildlife there, giving it huge potential for eco-tourism and outdoor fun. Unfortunately some parts of the country, even close to Sarajevo, are covered in land mines from the war. I think that slowly people are starting to get out into the mountains like they used to and explore, it’s just that it is very expensive to do trips with any sort of guide service, and the infrastructure isn’t quick there yet in some parts of the country. During the war there was a lot of fighting done in the mountains, so to some they still have a very negative connotation and they have no interest in getting out there in fear of being reminded of such a tragic time. 

“Sometimes you could still feel the animosity left over from the war”
In many parts of the country, especially in larger metropolitan areas such as Sarajevo, feelings left over from the war aren’t necessarily so apart and people are moving on pretty quick. In other parts of the country occupied just by small towns or villages, I sensed that there were still some strong feeling lingering (justifiably). The genocide in Srebrenica happened on July 11, 1995. That is less than 20 years ago. People who lost a loved one are still most likely still living their lives with out that person. I believe that time will heal some of the animosity from the war, just as time has helped heal negative feelings about other tragic events around the world. 

“The people are so kind”
Barring the shop owners in Sarajevo who are so sick of tourists speaking English to them that they can’t even muster up the slightest excuse for a smile, 99.999% of the people I interacted with during my time in Sarajevo were brilliantly patient, caring, understanding and kind. The woman who ran the hostel where we stayed was amazing. It was impossible to find her in anything besides a good mood. It was also such a pleasure to interact with the people who I worked with. Even though we were so busy with different expeditions heading out every day and they all required a large amount of planning and organization, nobody was ever sharp or disrespectfully blunt with anybody else. It was a great environment to live and work in and I was learning new things every day.

“It helped me appreciate what I have here in the United States”
I understand that not everybody in the United States lives as lavish of a life as I feel like I do, as our poverty levels and poor distribution of wealth rival that of many third world countries. Speaking simply about my own life, it is sometimes hard to compare life here in the United States to the life that many others live in other countries around the world. I have been fortunate enough (imagine that) to live in a couple different parts of the world for an extended period of time, and one of the most important things that I have taken from those experiences that we (anyone who is reading this on their computer or cell phone or tablet, etc) should constantly be in appreciation for everything that we have. 

Thank you Ann Petrila for the opportunity to participate in a program like this that has opened my eyes to yet another part of the world that both struggles and flourishes at the same time. 

 

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A Shepherd and his Sheep

I was fortunate enough to have my immediate family visit me in Sarajevo during their summer vacation in southern Europe. While they were visiting, I took to role of tour guide and was in charge of fitting Bosnia and Sarajevo into two and half days for them. One of my missions was to take them outside of Sarajevo into the beautiful country side that surrounds the city. I loved all of my hikes that I did in Bosnia, whether it was on Bjelasnica Mountain (only an hour or so away from Sarajevo), or in Sutjeska National Park (3 hours away). On Thursday we headed towards Lukomir with one of my favorite guides with Green Visions, Benjo. On the way out, we spotted this flock of sheep with the shepherd, and it turned out to be quite the shot. The whole scene with the gravel road winding through the photo really captures how Sarajevo and Bosnia can take you back in time to a world that you thought only existed in NatGeo stories and History channel specials. This is one of my favorite pictures that I’ve taken while in Bosnia. DSC01099 

Reminders

The gift shopping has started and a few of us are starting to get sick as we begin our seventh week here in Sarajevo. Trying to find the right gifts to bring home to friends and family has proved to be a common topic of conversation. “What should I get for my dad?” is a common one. “Here I can show you a shop where I got those bracelets for only five marks!” is another. During these six weeks in Sarajevo, I’ve been exposed to a couple things that, I’m hypothesizing now, will always remind me of my time here in the Western Balkans.

1. Doners. I was first exposed to these tasty little sandwiches here in Sarajevo

2. Street Dogs. They are very popular here in this capital city. You’ll sometimes see packs of them roaming the less populated areas.

3. Mosques. It happened without me noticing it, but I got used to walking past mosques instead of churches.

4. The Adhan (the Muslim call to prayer). Walking through the streets of Sarajevo, we have gotten used to hearing the Adhan come from the minarets around the city five times a day.

5. Cheap Movies. Late night, weekend movies only cost 5 or 6 KM, which is about $3.50.

6. One Scoop Ice Cream. We’ve gotten into the (not very healthy) habit of frequently stopping to grab a scoop of ice cream from one of the (what seems like hundreds of) little ice cream stands that litter the streets of Sarajevo.

7. Genocide. Though I was fairly well educated on the idea of genocide before my time here, I have gained an understanding of how it can affect people personally that I don’t think I could have gained without being here in the flesh. It is here that I have been exposed to and shown the physically and psychological effects of such a horrible event.

8. United Nations. Closely related to my experience with genocide, comes my new understanding of the UN. Until recently I was under the naive impression that the UN constantly protected those who it promised to protect. That opinion has changed drastically after our visit to the UN Dutch Base in Potocari.

9. Rakija. A plum brandy that I had never heard of before my time here. Comes in many different flavors, and is usually so terrible that it really doesn’t even matter the flavor. 

10. A Fear of Cold and Wind. It seems that many native bosnians (mostly older women, I would say) have a fear of sitting on cold surfaces or leaving certain windows open that might create a gust in the room. Many taxi drivers will also only allow one window to be open at a time. The woman who runs our hostel doesn’t like to see any other women or girls sitting on ‘cold’ surfaces (like the stone stairwell) because she believes it will freeze their ovaries.

Life after Mladić

We spent three days this past weekend visiting sites in western Bosnia. These sites included the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP), the Podrinje Identification Project Mortuary (PIP), the UN Dutch base in Potočari, and the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Cemetery. Along with these sites came multiple chances to hear the stories of a couple genocide survivors. Our weekend was based around learning more about the genocide as well as visiting the places where it occurred. 

We heard many different stories about surviving the war, and the events leading up to the genocide in July of 1995. We heard about those who lost family, those who were shot at and barely survived, and those who were chased away from their homes only to come back to a destroyed house after the war. Due to orders given by Cetnik Commander Mladic, many Bosniaks lost a son, father, husband or brother during the war and are strong enough today to continue living and telling their stories of how their lives were changed forever, 20 years ago. 

What surprises me most is how people are able to live through what has happened to them and are still very strong people in today’s society. These terrible things have happened to so many people, yet they still live on and have jobs and have moved back to their homes where they lived before the war. The whole idea of living through war and genocide is such a foreign concept to me, but it is almost part of these people who told us their survivor stories. For instance, someone will be telling us the story of how they lost their twin brother and father during the genocide, and then immediately start joking about something else or answering a phone call and planning the rest of their day. For us, even just as listeners of the stories, the transition time between the discussion about the genocide and the return to serving coffee and joking around is very short, and ended up catching me off guard the first couple of times. I think that this short ‘transition time’ says a couple of things. First of all, it shows that they are accustomed to talking and thinking about such a dark time in their past. Secondly, it has shaped how they live their lives today, and they treat it as a part of them. Just like we might have pins and plates in our arms and legs to support a once broken limb, they have a scar on their heart from 20 years ago that will stay with them forever, as well.

I’m still digesting the weekend, but I hope I was able to explain some of my thinking through this post. Here are some pictures from the PIP Mortuary, the Genocide Memorial and the UN Dutch Base in Potočari.
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“You can tell a man’s heart by his smile”

Through my adventures with my internship, I have been able to take multiple hikes in the mountains surrounding Sarajevo. Each hike or backpacking trip is led by a head guide who knows the mountains and the terrain well. A few of the hikes I’ve on, including a backpacking trip, have been led by one of the most interesting men I have ever met.

Faruk is a 56 year old Sarajevo native that can continuously surprise his touring guests with story after story after story, usually during the hike, just rambling on in the front of the pack. He is about six feet tall, unbelievably tan, with a slight beer belly, even though I’m not even sure that he drinks at all. His long, mullet-esque hairdo is a dark brown/black color and is usually accompanied (at least while hiking) by a folded up, red bandana that he uses for a headband. He has been hiking and doing outdoorsy things since he was a young boy, and has acquired a plethora of outdoor gear over the years. He is usually sporting North Face jackets and other brand name outdoor gear like backpacks, hiking poles, boots, etc. One of his more defining features is his tight hiking pants/yoga pants that he loves to wear at all times, often paired with his yellow and orange cutoff t-shirt. His style and figure clearly reflect his unique interests and love for the outdoors.

One of our blog topics allows us to write about someone interesting we have met here in Bosnia. Here is a mash-up/attempt at an organization of all of the little stories that I have heard from Faruk after spending a couple days with him in the mountains. I will do my best to get the dates and ages correct.

Faruk grew up in the outskirts of Sarajevo with his family and since he was seven, started spending every day out in the fields and woods, exploring and learning his way around the mountains. As he grew older, he started to get into more extreme sports such as backcountry skiing (woo hoo!), mountain biking, hiking, rafting, paragliding, etc. You name it, Faruk was interested in it and trying to do it at the highest and most dangerous level he could. He wasn’t only interested in mountain sports, but also had an affinity for flatland sports such as road biking, cross country skiing, and running.

When he was 40 years old, his love for extreme sports was still full swing as he went on a paragliding trip with some of his buddies. Everyday they climbed up to their “take off spots” and then decided that the weather was too dangerous. On their seventh and last day, they climbed up to their spot and, one again, decided that the weather wasn’t going to allow them to fly once again. Faruk decided otherwise and followed through with his plan to paraglide that day. I’m not sure how the majority of the ride went, or if he even got going the way he was supposed to, but he was 10-15 meters above ground before losing full control of the kite(?? I don’t know my paragliding terms). He fell with his kite to the ground and ended up fully breaking his radius and ulna, as well as some bones in his wrist, and seriously bruising his tailbone. He now has scars running from close to his elbow all the way down his forearm because of the pins and plates that were inserted.

During his time as a young adult in Sarajevo, he had learned to play the flute. In fact, he had learned to play very well. By the time he was twenty-five(?), he was playing as a professional flutist with many different bands and orchestras throughout former Yugoslavia.

When the war began, he and his orchestra were taken out of the Sarajevo (quite the privilege) and led on a tour around greater Europe to many major cities such as Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, etc. to put on concerts and play their music. They ended up in Holland and were granted refugee status. Faruk ended up staying in Holland for a total of thirteen years before moving back to Bosnia.
Before the war, when Faruk was playing mainly in Sarajevo. He and a couple other people were hired to play for Tito, yes, Josep Broz Tito, the former leader of Yugoslavia who was widely loved and is said to have saved former Yugoslavia from the Nazis. Faruk and fellow musicians would be asked to play for Tito when he was visiting his hunting house in the mountains that are now encompassed by Sutjeska National Park. We visited the remains of this house during one of our hikes. It was tore down during the war in the 1990’s. Playing for Tito must have been quite the honor. Like many other older Bosnians, Faruk has a serious love and appreciation for Tito despite his reputation as a very authoritative ruler.

Immediately after arriving in Holland in 1996(?), Faruk purchased a bicycle to serve as his mode of transportation. During his first year there, he biked over 27,000 kilometers. That breaks down into an average of about 74 kilometers (or 46 miles) a day, every day. That’s a lot of biking to do seven days a week, rain or shine. He says that he “visited every corner of Holland and rode on every road.” I almost believe him. He became somewhat well known in Holland and was asked if someone could do a documentary on him. The documentary followed Faruk as he biked from his home in Holland to the house of Ludwig van Beethoven in Bonn, Germany. It was exactly 200km, one direction. He biked there and back in one day. Faruk had a good understanding of Beethoven’s music as well, as it was often played by the orchestras he participated in.

The other day, I saw him at the office as he was heading out on his bike around noon. He was heading into the mountains to get some wild herbs for his favorite tea (that he makes himself and only drinks with water from springs in the mountains). I talked to him the next day and he told me that he biked a total of 180km to get to his herbs and home. That’s quite the ride for some herbs.

Faruk mentioned to me once that he believes that the bicycle was the best thing ever created by man. His english struggles sometimes, but he said, essentially, that “there is nothing better than just being with your bike on the road creating a rhythm that you can keep for hours and hours and never get sick of it.” It sounds even more profound when you hear him say it in his broken english.  He has said a lot of things that I will never forget. One of the greatest things I think he said to me was on our van ride home from Sutjeska National Park to Sarajevo, when everybody else was asleep. He said, “I can always tell a man’s heart by his smile.” He believes that if someone smiles wide and laughs loud, you can be pretty sure that their heart and love is just and wide and loud for those around them.

Faruk has also invited me to come back to Bosnia during the winter months and he’ll bring me backcountry skiing in the mountains in this area. He claims that there isn’t anyone in the world who knows them as well as he does. That would be quite the experience and I hope I can make it back. He has a lot to say and is a very interesting man. I hope that I have a few more chances to converse with him in my next couple of weeks with Green Visions.

Below is a picture of the two of us on the top of Uglješin peak in Sutjeska National Park. Unfortunately, he isn’t sporting his favorite hiking pantalones or cutoff t-shirt.

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Green Visions

After almost two and half weeks here in Bosnia, I am finally starting to fall into my place with my internship. I am working with an eco-tourism agency that goes by the name of Green Visions. They work to promote the outdoors surrounding Sarajevo and the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina while also working sustainably and helping the struggling rural villages that are scattered throughout the mountains.

The Green Visions office is quite small and is located in part of the old olympic village where many of the athletes were housed during the 1984 Winter Olympics that were held here in Sarajevo. They have recently moved to that office as they realized that they had too much space at the old place. There are usually only three or four of us in the office, barring the days before big trips are departing where all the guides come in to pick up gear for the next day. It’s an artsy, modern workplace environment that does well in reflecting the attitude of Green Visions. I encourage you to stop by and have a coffee with the staff if you’re ever in the area.

Thierry Joubert started the company fourteen years ago after he moved to Bosnia from Holland in order to assist refugees from the war in 1992. Before he started Green Visions, he worked with children refugees and then in computer programming, finally realizing that working in the outdoors was his true calling. Since 2000, Green Visions has continued to grow and gain more of a reputation in the tourism industry around the area, though it is hard to compete with the huge companies that give tours in the heart of Sarajevo. Thierry is still running the business and is acting as my supervisor and mentor.

Focusing mostly on hiking, the agency also offers biking, snow shoeing and rafting trips. So far, I have only participated in two of the hiking trips but I am expand my horizons and take part in the other types of trips that the agency offers.

At the agency, my work consists mainly of working on a new website that they are creating in search of a new simpler design that works better on mobile devices, as that is often a well used method by traveling adventure seekers. They also want me to go on the hikes that they have scheduled with tourists so I can gain an understanding of how the agency functions in the field, as well as act as a pseudo photographer for the agency, taking pictures to post on social media and the new website. As I learn the inner workings of the agency, I have slowly began helping on the guided trips as well as replying to some of the simpler questions that come in via email.

All in all, the two weeks I have spent with Green Visions has been a good learning experience, and I am excited to pick up  more responsibility as my knowledge of the program increases. The people I work with are wonderful exciting people who have similar interests to me, as we all enjoy escaping into the woods every once in a while.

Below are some pictures from the hike I tagged along on last week. We were accompanied by a shepherd’s dog that has become accustomed to accompanying the hiking tours that begin in the small mountain village of Umoljani.  Tomorrow I head out on a backpacking trip where, if weather permits, we will summit the highest peak in Bosnia.

Cheers

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Contrasts: Bosnia and Home

After a full week living here in Sarajevo, I am only beginning to understand the culture that is, at points, a leap and a bound away from the American lifestyle that we often times grow so used to.

Through my previous experiences abroad, and through conversations our group has had, I have learned that it is important to be cautious when comparing and contrasting different cultures because it can quickly lead to hurt feelings or judgement on someone else’s way of life, even if that wasn’t the intention. Saying that, I still believe that it is important to be honest about how some things differ from how we expect them to be, or how we can confused as to why someone did or do not do something and how that could be a reflection of their culture. Reflection on the relationships between cultures is important, but I believe that there are times when we should tread lightly.

One large example of where I see a contrast to American culture is in the workplace. I can only speak about my own experience but I have heard similar experiences from others. As I arrived to my first day of my internship last week, everybody immediately stopped the work they were doing, and we all sat down and had coffee together and just started talking about the possibilities for the internship as well as other, less formal things. These (what I deem very relaxing and wonderful) coffee breaks can be instigated at any point in the day, and often more than once a day. Instead of putting your head down and plowing through as much work as possible during the eight hours that you’ve got, as sometimes I believe is the attitude in the United States, there seems to be a serious emphasis on the relationship atmosphere in the workplace. Taking half an hour (or one or two or three hours) to sit down, take a break, and learn more about the people you work with can be tremendously beneficial, and I believe that advantage is well recognized here.

Another place that I see serious differences from my lifestyle back in the states is simply concerning daily interaction with people in the city. I have been exposed to it once before as I began my eleven months in Brasil last year, but I have now remembered how much I dislike being completely incompetent when it comes to speaking the native language of the country/area in which I am staying. Daily tasks such as buying “one bus ticket please” all of a sudden become increasingly more difficult, not to mention trying to communicate that I would prefer my scoop of ice cream in a cup instead of a bowl. To my (and every other american that unfortunately can’t speak a lick of Bosnian) luck, many people who work within the center of the city have a good grasp on English. Slowly but surely, I am working on my Bosnian, but every day is accompanied by the occasional language barrier that causes frustration on both sides of the conversation. I forgot what this feels like and sometimes makes me feel like the stereotypical, somewhat arrogant american who can’t take the time to learn someone else’s language, as the entire world has done for us.

On a brighter note, the architecture that surrounds me every day continues to delight me as I walk to the bus stop or down the street to get ice cream. Our hostel is pleasantly placed in the center of Sarajevo where there are many older buildings and cobblestone sidewalks and streets. The tall (ranging from three to ten or more stories) buildings that occupy the area where we live have an old, rich with history feel to them that I think is hard to get anywhere in the United States, especially on the DU campus or in small town Northfield, MN. Some architecture in the city dates all the way back to the medieval period and the invasion of the ottoman empire.

Lastly, I have never lived in a place where Christianity is not the main religion. Though I am not necessarily religious myself, religion seems to play quite a role in many lives here in Sarajevo. Sarajevo, as a predominately Muslim city, is just beginning Ramadan (the ninth month in the Islam calendar that is traditionally observed by Muslims as a month of fasting) so every night right around sundown there are cannons that will go off to signal the call to prayer. The hostel is also located near a Mosque, so depending on the time of the day, sometimes I will be walking by the Mosque and see people removing their shoes and praying in the entrance, a somewhat foreign ritual to me, despite my frequent joking claims of being cultured and worldly. All in all, I haven’t really been exposed to many other religions besides Christianity and my exposure to Islam here is serving to be quite enlightening and educational.

The photos are from a hike up at the village of Lukomir, which is located at about 1500m above sea level and is the highest and most remote village in the entire country. As we returned to the village from our hike, we were warmly greeted with homemade bosanska kafa (bosnian coffee), homemade yogurt, and two varieties of pita (bosnian stuffed pastries/pie), krompirusa (stuffed with potato), and sirnica (stuffed with cheese).

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Zdravo, Sarajevo!

The group has arrived in Sarajevo in all shapes and sizes, some tired from delayed flights and long layovers, others well accustomed to the time change as they have been traveling around the area for a while before the start of the program. Our group of nine students arrived in full force yesterday as the last one to arrive was caught up with flight troubles on her way over. It is great to have everyone here together and getting along splendidly as our internships are getting into gear this week.

My affection for Bosnia began as I was taking the bus trip up to Sarajevo from the Croatian city of Dubrovnik. The five hour trip started off with a stretch up the east coast of the Adriatic sea as we entered into the small stretch of coast that is considered Bosnia (only about 25 kilometers of coastline) and then exited back into Croatia quickly before heading inland towards Mostar and eventually Sarajevo. As we got further inland the rolling coastal hills slowly got larger and larger until I looked up and all of sudden there were mountains towering over us as we followed the winding Neretva river, the kind where you have to press your face all the way to the bus window just to be able to look up and see the top. It seems like a beautiful country and I am ready to explore.

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After a few more hours on the road, we reached Sarajevo and were picked up at the bus station and brought to the hostel so we could settle in and check out our rooms. Once that was done, we headed into the city and explored. Over the past couple of days, that has become sort of the routine. Aside from trying to be near a cafe or bar with a TV so I can follow along with the FIFA World Cup, my days have been filled with explorative walks and interesting meals as we have tried to test the waters when it comes to what to expect when eating out. The most Bosnian dish I think I have had is Burek, which is a bread pastry filled with minced meat that is fairly popular in the Balkans and especially here in Bosnia.

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The hostel is located in the center of the city and is surrounded by bars and popular hang-outs. I see both pros and cons to this. The convenience of being just a couple flights of stairs and a couple paces from a great place to watch the futball games is great, but that means that we have to deal with the noise of the louder music at night while we are trying to sleep. Aside from being close to fun places to spend free time, we are also very close to various markets and bakeries, not to mention the plethora of ice cream stands that seem to appear every block or so. All in all, it’s a very lively and interesting place to be located and I am excited to learn my way around and also improve my Bosnian language skills. It’s seems like a great place to be located for the summer, and I am ready for a cultural challenge and hopefully a little bit of adventure.

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