Preparation for Impending ‘Reverse Culture Shock’ [A different approach]

The human mind is programed to see differences. Tall, short, black, white. Without meaning to we’ve already analyzed situations and environments based on visual differences and past experiences. This ‘judgement’ served us well when discerning the differences from someone in your village and someone from a village that might attack yours, but in this day and age these differences pose only the threat that we create. ‘Culture shock’, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation”. It is interesting to me that as humans we created this term and still use it, even though those of us fortunate to have access to the internet should really not be so surprised that differences exist and that when traveling you might be exposed to them. This being said, I experienced anxiety when ordering food for the first time, or speaking with someone whom I had little language in common with. We cannot fully prepare, and as such we have this term: Culture Shock. I pose the question however, that rather than experiencing reverse culture shock upon returning home, why not incorporate the things you’ll miss and the things that you currently enjoy into your everyday life? Some things are impossible to not have get used to again, like driving on the opposite side of the road, but smaller things like not rushing, being blunt or honest, and finding ways to laugh even when all you want to do is cry are possible to bring home with you. I may be the only one in my circle or family doing so, but just because one returns to their primary culture does not mean they must abide by every socially constructed rule (laws-yes, you still must abide by those). As such, I want to share a couple things I want to bring home with me.

Before even arriving to Bosnia, our director Ann told me as she placed me at Wings of Hope that our supervisor there was one of a kind and some could not handle her blunt honesty. She wasn’t kidding, but this was the kind of person I always wanted to be. I notice that many persons living in Bosnia reflect this blunt demeanor and even though some speak with a sarcastic undertone, the truth is obvious. At home I have a wonderful boyfriend who is always honest, even brutally so sometimes, but I never wonder if he is bending the truth or lying. Ironically his heritage is Balkan. It’s hard for me to lie to make someone feel better, even though they might ask for it, because I don’t think the world needs more dishonesty. We already can’t trust the media, or persons in power. Perhaps the dishonesty and betrayal of the Yugoslav army, who swore to protect and broke that promise, along with many other factors, contributed to this cultural honesty. No matter the reason for the existence of it, the knowledge that other people choose to live this way gives me hope and comfort in my way of life as something I plan to continue to carry out.

Another such custom I wish to bring home with me is the ability for people to slow down and enjoy. This is a skill I didn’t come to Bosnia with and still struggle to accept. I am used to a fully packed schedule and don’t do well when I don’t know what to expect. Nevertheless, I was raised to believe that patience is an important skill. If anyone knows the famous psychology experiment using marshmallows, you’ll know that delayed gratification is correlated with success in all things. One aspect of Bosnian culture I do not understand is that people seem to be in such a rush while driving, but take their time if they see a friend on the road or stop for coffee along the road for hours. In the States, there is no patience and it shows in all aspects of our culture. I find I am most at peace when I practice patience while waiting for a doctor’s appointment or for traffic to move. Letting go of that urge to go, go, go is liberating and I thoroughly suggest practicing it, even if it’s hard. There is so much to learn from other cultures and although it might be hard to apply in other cultures, sometimes it’s worth the struggle and hard work.

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Week 7: Writer’s Choice “I’m on a boat”

 

This week I chose to write about my rafting adventure in Konjic, on the Neretva River. Konjic is roughly an hour away from Mostar, and the location of Tito’s top secret bunker back in the day. It feels like yesterday we were touring the bunker, and here we are nearing the end of our program. We started the day off with a breakfast of fluffy donuts and the best cheese. After I consumed my fair share we scrambled off to find the rest of our tour group. We changed into our wetsuits (that was a struggle bus) and carried the boat down to the water (at this point the boat carried me… oh well) and we set off on our rafting adventure.

The water was beautiful. I know that sounds trite, but it was. I could see all the way to the bottom of the lake. The guide tried his best to explain the “rules of the water”, mostly in Bosnian. We figured if it was really important he would say something in English. We quickly discovered that when something was coming up when the guide said “big”, and nothing else. The best way I can describe our rafting adventure is a cross between a peaceful lazy river and bracing for the possibility of running into a rock, or flying out of the boat. The Neretva is very popular this time of year, and I enjoyed people watching. It was cool seeing people and children of all ages outside exploring nature. I was amazed at how the guides would just chill at the front of the boat side saddle, with nothing but a rope around their waist for support. We eventually took a break and feasted on chocolates, bananas, and assorted snacks. I think the funniest part of the day was approaching a rapid with a man just straight chillin in the water, and us trying to dodge him, the seagulls, and not fly out of the boat.

Once we approached shore I was pretty happy. We said goodbye to our new Bosnian friends and waited for the guide to take us to the bus station. We were on a time crunch, and i was getting nervous that we would miss our bus. One of the themes I keep finding here during my time in Bosnia-Herzegovina is that things end up working out one way or another-that I should focus more on what is happening now and less about 623 months from now. Surprise- we ended up making the bus and headed back to Sarajevo.

Although I was apprehensive about rafting (hello, flying out of the boat), i’m glad I went. Here’s to trying new things and going on more adventures. Sorry there are no photos, I couldn’t risk my phone flying out of the boat too.

White Water Rafting

Before I came to Bosnia, I didn’t really have much of a bucket list of things that I wanted to do this summer but there was one thing on it: white water rafting. When I realized that we’d be driving through Konjic on our way back from Mostar on Friday, I figured it would be the perfect time to go rafting on the Neretva River. I managed to convince a friend to join, booked a last-minute room in a guesthouse and off we went. We lucked out with the guesthouse location as it ended up being really close to the meeting point for our rafting adventure.

We met up with our rafting companions at a restaurant on Saturday morning. Breakfast was included in the trip so we had steaming hot donuts with kajmak and the day was off to a great start. We then piled into a van for the 45-minute drive to the entry point on the river. The mountains between Konjic and Mostar are unreal. I could stare at them for hours and never get tired of them. Once we got to the entry point, we unloaded the gear and put on our wetsuits. We “helped” carry the raft down to the river but I really wasn’t of much help. I held onto the rope as a sign of solidarity but I don’t think I carried much of the weight. To be fair though, the group was moving down the hill so fast that I was just holding on and trying not to wipe out. The river was so cold but it was absolutely beautiful. The water was so clear that you could see the bottom of the river the entire way.

I’ve rafted a couple of times before but this was my first international rafting experience. I figured that the guide would have some type of safety spiel but he just showed us how to hold the paddle and where to sit and that was about it. We just hopped on the raft and away we went. The guide would sometimes tell us the commands in English, such as “left paddle, right paddle, all together,” but he usually said the commands in Bosnian so we didn’t always know what was going on. We would just be going down the rapids and the commands would get louder and louder but we didn’t know if we were supposed to be paddling forward, backwards, on the left, on the right, or ducking into the middle. Needless to say, we had a blast. I figured that if five out of the seven people on the raft knew what was going on, that was probably good enough. At one point, we apparently didn’t follow directions very well and the raft got stuck on some rocks in the middle of a rapid. The guide got out and tried to push us around but when I looked back at one point, he had disappeared. Apparently there was a drop-off that he fell into but he got our raft off the rocks in no time.

The scenery from the raft was amazing. We rode through several canyons, some of which were massive. We also saw some underground springs that led to the river, which was really cool. We stopped a couple of times along the way to swim and have a snack. After the trip, we got dropped back off at the restaurant. Lunch was also included in the trip but we didn’t have time to sit around because we had to catch a bus back to Sarajevo. We got our food to-go and then got dropped off at the bus stop. We didn’t have any utensils to eat with so we just ate with our hands and the food was delicious. The bus pulled up right as we finished and the timing couldn’t have been better. Overall, it was a really good day and I’m entertaining the idea of rafting the Tara before I leave Bosnia.

Back home

The following weeks after Bosnia were filled with many amazing moments as I was able to continue my travels. Despite the breathtaking sites I was seeing, I kept thinking about what I had just experienced in Bosnia. Being in Bosnia and the whole experience is something I will continue to reflect upon and learn from.

 

When I returned home, a friend and I went on a bike ride in the middle of the afternoon, which wasn’t the best idea we had since it was blazing hot and the sun was beating down on us. As we were biking along the path, it suddenly began to pour rain. We quickly turned around and were racing against mother nature to get back to our apartment and out of the rain. On the way back we began laughing uncontrollably. There was something about biking in the rain that instantly made me feel like a kid again. I didn’t care about the rain, or getting wet because it was honestly the most fun I had in a long time. As quickly as the rain and laughter came, the unsettling thoughts of Bosnia’s past flashed in my mind. I felt guilty for being able to experience this when so many were racing bullets instead of the rain. So many children couldn’t ride bikes or play outside during the war for fear of being gunned down. When these thoughts enter my mind, I try to remember the incredible resiliency that was shown throughout the war and genocide. This resiliency is still continued on today, and what I try to explain to anyone that askes about my time in Bosnia. I have had many conversations about Bosnia and the survivors of the war and genocide with people I have just met, and those that have been in my life for years. It takes more than a few minutes to try to explain all of the complicated history, war and genocide, let alone my experience while also trying to tell the stories of those we met with while in Bosnia. I am still processing and trying to decipher what happened so explaining it all to someone else has been a struggle for me. But it is something I must do. We all owe it to the survivors and to ourselves to share the facts of what happened in Bosnia.

 

Although I am no longer in Bosnia, I still feel such a strong connection to the people and the country. I don’t think this will ever change. Even though we were only there for a few weeks, it feels like a lifetime was spent there.

 

I am so thankful for the many people that welcomed us with open arms. The vulnerability of those that shared their stories and their homes with us is something I will cherish and continue to talk about. Sladjana, our program assistant, made this experience more meaningful and powerful by sharing her own personal experience. I cannot put into words the gratitude I have for Ann, our professor, who brought this experience to us and continues to build relationships with the people in Bosnia. One day I hope to return, but for now I will keep talking, sharing, discussing and reflecting.

Final thoughts on a life-changing experience

As the summer has flown by and is starting to come to an end, I sit here to gather my final reflections about my time in Bosnia and realize that not many days have gone by that I haven’t thought about what I experienced in that special country. The people we spent time with, the friendly faces that met us with open arms, the willingness they had to openly share their stories of tragedy, trauma and suffering –and most importantly: resilience. It was truly an experience unlike an other I have ever had.

As is standard when returning from a trip abroad, many friends and family members asked me about my time in Eastern Europe. What was it like? What did you do? Who did you meet? What did you see? And although each time I found myself somewhat giving a varied response, the overwhelming reality of facing these questions time and time again was that I found it very difficult to put words to what we experienced. In that way, I stopped talking about it for a while. I think it was easy for people who are closest to me to pick up on my hesitation to discuss it, too. It’s not an easy conversation, nor one that can be had in a corner of a room at a loud party or easily done around a dinner table with multiple conversations simultaneously taking place. That said, just in the last few weeks, I found myself more willing to put in the time, effort and somewhat draining energy (honestly) that it can take to really give another a good idea of what the experience was like. How it changed the way I look at things. And why.

Although I often find the experiential learning experience hard to revisit, it is one that I wouldn’t change or give up for just about anything — and know will have an impact on my career as a social worker, and more importantly, a human being trying to navigate the somewhat terrifying (politically and otherwise) world we live in. I also recognize the importance of sitting with just why it is so difficult to revisit, and continue to put things in perspective: the two weeks we spent there were fast, often emotionally draining and physically exhausting but my experience was only that way because of the traumatic, life-changing (or ending) events that these Bosnian folks experienced first-hand. There is no comparison and I count myself extremely lucky that I was able to get a better look into the lives of these amazing people because of Ann’s partner/friendships with them over the years, and their willingness to share with us. It’s got to be difficult, I mean think about it. I say I find it difficult to revisit hearing about their stories –imagine how it must feel for them to revisit the horrors, as they recount the experiences and losses for us. It truly takes a selfless and special type of person to be willing to do this. I recognize this and don’t take it for granted. Because reading about the war, the genocide, and all of the atrocities that took place is one thing, right? But being given the opportunity to hear about these topics from those who experienced it is entirely different. And I know that, and find it especially challenging to try to do those voices justice by recounting their stories to others, per their requests. But as promised, I am going to try. It’s truly the least I — and we all–can do. Not just throughout the rest of the summer, but hopefully for the rest of my years, as this experience and those stories are some that I know I will not soon forget.

The Privilege of Travel

In addition to seeing Bosnia during this brief internship, I’ve been fortunate to go to Turkey, Serbia, & Croatia and plan to go to Slovenia, Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany. Some of these are repeat locations for me and some of them are new. And as I fill in spaces on a map of the places I’ve been I can’t help but think how lucky I am to have these experiences. I come from a town of 6,000 people in rural Indiana. There’s people from my hometown who have never left the state or even the county. And all of this raises the question of how did I get here? Why should I have this many soul-changing travel experiences when so many people I grew up around didn’t get these chances? Why me? I’d like to believe that I am somehow special–that on some level I have earned the experiences I have had and continue to have, but that’s not true.

So much of what I have done and continue to do comes down to some sort of fate. Yes, I’ve jumped at a lot of opportunities and there’s work and determination in that, but without some sort of destiny I would not be able to travel, let alone to the extent I have. Whether it has been my ability to finance trips, have places to stay, earn entry into programs, build relationships or just possessing a US passport, so many things have been out of my control. It’s sudbina, Bosnian fate.

When I worked in refugee resettlement, one of our clients was in hospice care and wanted to say goodbye to her family. She had about 5 years from diagnosis to passing and even with an “expedited” visa process, we needed about 7 years to get her family through the visa process to say goodbye due to where they lived. In the end we ran out of time and my heart breaks every time I think about that case. It just seems so unfair that something so simple could take so long and be so sad in addition to all the other heartbreak that predated and filled their refugee status. I have this same feeling here in Bosnia. Especially as refugees are starting to get stuck in the Bosnian city of Bihać on the border with Croatia that is currently locking people out of the EU.

Without taking away from all the things I love about Bosnia such as the sense of community, the welcome of the people, the moments when we get to really see other people and know them, the work I’ve done for my internship, the relationships Ann has with locals, meeting Hasan and other people, the beautiful land and a thousand other things, Bosnia has real problems like a stumbling economy that disproportionately impacts young people, growing and ongoing nationalism in the RS and existing as a country irrevocably changed and scarred by war. In addition to blocking Bosnia from progress in a variety of senses, it makes it more difficult for Bosnians to travel. They need visas to get to the states and it’s an expensive, demanding, long process. This means that while I can come to Bosnia for an entire summer with little effort, Bosnians could not do the same in the states. And more than that, I think about how much I would love to take a class taught by Hasan and how far that prospect seems at this time. When we live in a globalized war and power is often concentrated to the governments of a few specific arbitrarily drawn lines on a map, it severely limits the opportunities available to people for no good reason.

And so again I’d like to thank all the people who allow me to be here, and recognize what a tremendous privilege it is to be here. I am falling in love with this place and I am so thankful for being here.

Experiential learning

For this week’s blog post I decided to cover the opportunities that this trip has afforded to me. While I have always been hesitant to enroll in study abroad programs – they’re expensive, and often seem to be simply an opportunity for students to party their way around Europe for a few months at a high cost – I thought that this experience in Bosnia would not mimic this. As I predicted, it did not. Of course, all study abroad programs are not like this, but I wanted to be sure that this program was worth the high cost of travelling abroad and the program expenses that accompany it. For a number of reasons, it was very much worth it.

There are several experiences here that I am especially happy with. First of all, the program did not contain the educational component that study abroad programs have and prioritized both the internship and cultural experiences. Not only has this program checked the internship box on my degree requirement but has provided me with a valuable set of skills and a series of papers that I am proud of. Too many times I have heard of people either not appreciating their internship as it was not a good fit for them or having had a typical intern experience where it revolves around filing papers, responding to e-mails, and even sometimes the somewhat mythical task of getting coffee for superiors. In my time here as an intern, my experience could not be more unlike those noted above. I felt like part of the team, and each task I was given seemed like it carried actual weight, and my research findings were read and appreciated by the higher-ups at the thinktank. In addition, I learned from everything that I did. Each project was new to me and while I certainly am not an expert on any of the topics (read: Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other international players), I am much better versed on topics that I would not have so much as considered researching outside of the context provided by my internship. It was a perfect fit for me and continues to provide learning opportunities each day – most importantly, I am proud that I was able to assist my team in various realms of research.

Second, regarding the cultural aspect of this program, I am grateful that I was given a number of opportunities of immersion into the Bosnian culture. More importantly than the bobsled track, the gondola ride, the exploration of old town and other neighborhoods in Sarajevo and elsewhere, we were given the opportunity to meet so many people and hear their experiences. While these experiences have been elaborated on in earlier posts, more broadly it was amazing to meet these people that a typical tourist would not have any idea about. We were truly graced with their presence, and it was these experiences that each of us will remember. It is by far one of the most valuable components that this program has provided.

Thirdly, I appreciate that this program has given me the opportunity to discover Bosnia, and neighboring (and less neighboring) countries on my own. It has allowed each of us to choose our own adventure and I believe that this component of the program is not the case in every international program offered through higher education. Combined with the fact that my internship allowed me to work during the hours of my choosing, I was able to explore new parts of the country almost every day. Bringing a bike here gave me a degree of mobility that many others to not have. I’ve seen beautiful roads, stunning overlooks, and more livestock on the road than I was prepared for. I’ve gained more elevation in my time here than I ever have in the same amount of time elsewhere in the country. And with that, I feel as though I know the land here. I appreciate the people, the animals, the views, the roads, and each café where I was able to re-energize four hours into a ride (I’ve never been offered a plum from a tree out back of a restaurant until yesterday, that was pretty cool). I’ve experienced the food both in Sarajevo and as far as Bihac and Olovo, and just about everywhere in between – not the mention the seafood of the Croatian coast or the coffee of gas stations everywhere, ranging from delicious to really quite bad. As an aside, I love gas station convenience stores – and I’ve enjoyed sampling the wares of the best that Bosnia has to offer. Cycling as gifted me the opportunity to befriend a number of people in the country, many of whom I intend to stay in touch with. The same can be said for those at my internship – our relationship has grown beyond security research and we have bonded over lunch and coffee. It’s truly been amazing to see a region and meet its people; especially considering that the Balkans are a region that I never had any intention of visiting. I am so glad that I was able to have this experience, with my University of Denver cohort, with friends made since arrival, and on my own.

 

Living in the Moment

Since arriving in Bosnia I have experienced a plethora of emotions. I have been happy, excited, sad, and angry. I feel like I have learned an incredible amount while getting to meet some amazing people! Through all of these emotions, I was beginning to feel bogged down and going through the motions of day to day life. This frustrated me because my time left is quickly dwindling down. I was not sure what to do with my time, but I knew I needed to stay present with what I had left. Thankfully, I had the chance to go to Croatia this past weekend which has helped me reset.

This was the first time I had ever been to Croatia and I cannot describe the beauty that I was surrounded by all weekend. Though it was a frustrating start getting the rental car and missing out on some beautiful waterfalls, the weekend was worth it! Once we got the car Friday, some friends and I began the 4-hour road trip to Orebić, Croatia. As we drove, I was struck with the beauty that is Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mountains sprouted up around us and before we knew it we were on the top of a mountain, look down on a beautiful lake and landscape. The photos are magnificent and did not even capture all of the beauty. As we continued to drive more water, greenery, rocks, and mountains surrounded us. It was impossible to ignore what was happening around us because it was so incredibly amazing! Finally, we arrived in Orebić and drove onto the car ferry which would take us to our final destination of Korčula. I had never been on a ferry or an island so I was extremely excited! Though it was dark, and I could not see much, being on a boat in the Adriatic Sea was beyond something I imagined I would ever do.

The next day we woke up and got breakfast. Our Air Bnb was overlooking old town so the city was a short walk away. I felt like such a tourist but that did not stop me from taking hundreds of photos. After breakfast we headed to the beach. It was incredibly hot and humid so I immediately went into the water. It was the most amazing water I have ever been in! I could see the bottom the entire time, no matter how deep I went! It was beautifully blue and calm. There were a few rocks as we entered but they were not hard to move around. I tanned, swam, floated, and had the most incredible time. I usually cannot stay at the beach for more than two to three hours, but we ended up staying for six! At one point a friend and I floated and chatted for an hour in the water! I was ecstatic. Looking out to the Adriatic Sea I could not think about anything other than the privilege I had to be able to look at such beauty. My surroundings were something I had seen on the internet not something I thought I would ever be able to view personally!

Arriving back in Sarajevo last night, I feel relaxed and excited for my last two weeks. I have experienced such incredible things this summer. Things I do not even understand how I am going to tell my family and friends back home. Thankfully, I have plenty of time to figure that out. All I do know is that I plan to live fully in the moment and enjoy as much of Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina as much as I can!

 

Final Bosnia Reflections

Following the two weeks in Bosnia, I spent an additional three weeks traveling. With the stories of survivors in mind and transitioning to recreational travel, I was considering the different purposes of travel. While off in new countries with freedom to choose my activities and next destinations, the purpose of those explorations was for my own enjoyment, or wonder, or sense of adventure. Travel for me. Bosnia feels different. While I am affected and changed by my experiences in Bosnia, there is more responsibilities to others. These others include the people we met, and to those I may share what I have learned and witnessed with. The act of sharing survivors’ stories is the one request each made. Further, in a time where my own country is storming with acts of dehumanization, othering, and violence, understanding the horror that was the war and genocide, and the still open wounds from those, gives us the unique perspective of seeing what we will lose if the United States continues this path.

Perhaps this sounds like sensationalism, but when it a country starts to feel currents of violence, when is the moment to say that this is really happening? No one can know how events will unfold, but we should be listening to the histories and stories of those who have lived through when the currents did not subside.

In my last days in Bosnia I went to the Children’s War Museum and a gallery of photographs depicting moments following the Srebrenica genocide. Both these exhibits strove to give their visitors insights into the experiences of Bosnians during the war but went about them in very different ways, one with items shared or created by people who lived through it and the other images created by someone who did not. When art is created around war, what are the ethics and how do these choices inform what the viewer takes away? Seeing the photographs of bodies uncovered from mass graves and grieving women hoping to identify their loved ones are jarring subject matter. In the context of just being with people who had survived, the images did not stand alone for me, but stood as visual representations of small parts of the stories I had heard. Unable to know how the strangers at this exhibit had come to be here, I wonder how these images impacted them. Was the artist’s goal achieved? Did seeing these images make them witnesses? As for the artist, is he the one to tell this story? If he is, did he tell it in a way that does not harm the owners of these experiences?

Visiting the Children’s War Museum was a different experience, as everything was contributed by those who had lived through the war. For me, this exhibit built the feeling of connection, as many of the objects were from people who are similar in age to me. One sticks out in my mind because of how it reminded me a childhood experience of my own, a barbie with cut of hair. It’s striking to think about meeting this person and discussing the similarities and differences of our childhoods, or to think of my young self, safe in my neighborhood while across the world other children were under siege in their own.

It is difficult to summarize the major takeaways of my trip to Bosnia. In this moment, I feel focused on how I can use this experience to better my own community, the stories of survivors of the Srebrenica genocide, and happy memories of good tea, conversations, and the country.

Mountains

Bosnia-07.jpgI’m constantly amazed by how beautiful Bosnia is. I chose this picture to write about because I’m kind of obsessed with the mountains. I never get bored during long car rides here since the scenery is so amazing to look at. We hiked to Lukomir last weekend, which is Bosnia’s highest and most isolated mountain village. The mountains were unreal. Even though it poured down rain for a while and lightning struck eerily close to our group, I still really enjoyed the experience. I haven’t been taking many photos on this trip so I stole this picture from the internet. I’m not sure where it was taken but I think the mountains look similar to those near Lukomir. Photos don’t do the experience justice though.

Sometimes it’s difficult to comprehend the atrocities that took place in this country since every place that I’ve visited is stunningly beautiful. While on the Peace March, it seemed like every time I came across an amazing view of the mountains, there was a mass grave nearby. And those were only the mass graves that have been found. I probably passed other mass graves that have yet to be discovered. I felt guilty for enjoying the Peace March at times because it really wasn’t supposed to be a happy occasion. I really want to explore all that Bosnia has to offer so I’m really hoping to get in a few more hiking trips this summer.