Photo reflection

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Going through my photos from this summer was nearly impossible to pick just 1 to write about. There are thousands. Essentially like asking me to choose a favorite color of Peanut M&Ms. There are no favorites here, they are all delicious. And I will eat them all, please and thanks.

This photo was taken on the most recent and final work trip I had working with Green Visions. A group of 8 women and 1 man (our lucky guide) summited Maglić Peak at 2,386 meters . It is the highest mountain in Bosnia, and directly translated it means “The Foggy One”.  Like something straight out of the Misty Mountain, the views would indeed make Gandalf swoon.  Sutjeska National Park is Bosnia’s biggest park, and was so aptly named because of a famous World War II battle that took place here. Our days hike composed of a border crossing, 360 views of meadows and limestone cliffs, summit coffee breaks and lots and lots of singing. We were the human jukeboxes, singing loudly for Nature and basking in amplified joy.

10 hours later, however,  we were all slightly frustrated, exhausted, stinky and within minutes of the finish line when the sun decided it would give us a sendoff fit for queens.  I couldn’t even be mad at the blisters taking over both big toes, the grumbling tummy noises from a rather conspicuous meat sandwich and the ache of scaling down a mountain.  It was like getting hugged by nature, and it felt amazing.

Sunsets are a magical thing, and dusk has always been my absolute favorite time of day. When the calmness hits, the air seems to suspend in absolute clarity. The receding warmth and the impending coolness of night collide in a transformative peace.  And oh the light- they don’t call it the Golden Hour for nothing.

This summer has brought emotional and physical exhaustion.  It has been some of the best and most difficult moments I’ve yet experienced in life, and it has provoked lots of reflecting, journaling and perhaps too many bottles of wine.  I chose this photo because as the end of our time here approaches, and the start of something new awaits, a sunset seemed both simultaneously appropriate, existentially profound, and humbly awesome (as it is a fairly epic photo, if I do say so myself).

 

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Crowded Isolation

I was riding the trolly on the way to work this morning thinking about what to say in this blog. I pass the same buildings on my way to work- riddled with bomb blasts and bullet holes, watching older people struggle to get onto the trolly, stomping out cigarettes moments before stepping on and the waft of tobacco following them aboard. Graffiti is strewn about any and all surface areas.  Shiny or fabric. Dirty seats. Heavy air. Good morning Sarajevo.

If a reflection is how you meticulously scrutinize yourself in a mirror or glance at a passing window, how you perceive yourself, then in a nutshell my new reflection has  darker bags under my eyes and maybe isn’t walking with so much hop in my step. The stories of the last weekend have weighted on me, and despite being back in the city and being distracted by all the sights, people, drinks and eats here, I carry heavy stones of emotions; banging into each other and organs ever so often so as to remind me of what I heard and saw.

I keep wavering back and forth between sadness and anger. Between love and hate. Between “what’s the point?!” and “I have an obligation to do something about this!”. As if I can change what happened, but don’t I have the power to? I am so wildly unprepared and unequipped for this. I am studying economics.  There is no genocide in economics, no mourning. No mother’s empty house and daily reminders of a life long past.  It’s an absolutely stifling head space and I can’t help but feel and question everything.

 

As a lifelong learner, I am in love with information. I always want to know more, and cherish the opportunity to think critically about my thoughts and my encounters. I have studied genocide. I read Anne Frank. I know statistics and names of perpetrators and the iconic pictures of war and violence. They were words on pages and ink in books.

 

I will never again think of genocide that way.

 

We met with survivors of genocide. A doctor who didn’t sleep for 4 years as she poured her soul into a hospital in Srebenica, only to be bombed out, wounded by snipers,  and escaped to the mountains. A healer who was hated.

We met with mothers of the victims. Mothers who lost their entire families.  Their 12 year old sons, their lovers, their uncles, brothers and fathers.  In moments of panic and despair they were torn away from their families in horror, and never got to say goodbye.  They were abandoned by the United Nations. Their governments. Their sense of trust and peace, and for all purposes- humanity. They were coerced and then forgotten. To this day they struggle with finding peace, and in a moment of pure honesty say things like “now I can only wait for death.”

The Bone Man. Where to even start with this person. A warm sense of place enveloped us as we unloaded off the bus.

I have never been one for many words. Or rather, I prefer to ponder them in conversation instead of saying what first comes to mind. This silence can sometimes be construed impatience. I have often been asked if I am angry, bored or indifferent. It couldn’t be farther from the reality- I just am not much of a talker.  I listen. I think. I process that way.  This weekend amplified that, but on a whole different level.

I needed to be left alone, but couldn’t stand the isolation. I was so incredibly anxious. I so didn’t want to be there. I wanted a hug SO badly, and the first human touch I was susceptible to resulted in an outpour of tears. I saw things I can’t unsee, and heard things I can’t now un-imagine.  I was surrounded by people who were also aching for solace, yet had nothing left to give them. It was a helpless feeling, and it was so hard.

I decided to take some photos of this experience. After the Peace March, I was pretty determined to not use photography as a tool for these stories, because it felt invasive.  I felt as though the photos were exhibitionist.  I didn’t like the idea of abusing someone’s grief for the sake of a picture. However as I look back on these images I took over the weekend, I realize that they are critical. Storytelling is so much more than words, and so much more than a picture. But it is part of the narrative that needs to be heard. They are ugly reminders. They are heartbreaking. They are real, and they shall not be forgotten.

 

Photos from the weekend.

Names of the victims at Potočari, outside Srebencia.

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Recovered remains in the ICMP in Tuzla.

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The bone man is perhaps one of the most remarkable, untold stories of war. He is a brother and son to victims of the genocide. After the war he moved back to his families’ home in an attempt to search for any remains of his family. He searches everyday on the hills surrounding his home and along the way has managed to discover remains for over 300 bodies. His work is tireless, his aim simple, and his story as remote as is the home in which he lives.

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Inside the memorial museum at Potočari. The warehouse where they keep the coffins prior to burial, as well as the place where the Dutch UN base during the falling of Srebenica in July 1995.   This old battery factory housed 6,000 women and children following the fall of the city. memorial-1-22

Storytelling in Potočari.

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A home cooked meal of Saliha, an international icon of the Mothers of Srebencia and her incredible garden.

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The last morning I walked up a small trail in the town of Srebenica. Here’s a glimpse of what it looks like now.  It is neither welcoming nor forgiving. sa-1-14sa-1-12

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Green Visions. And giving back

Since the moment I walked in the door at Green Visions- tucked away in an odd shade of pink apartment complex that was built before the 1984 Olympics (most specifically, as housing for the Olympic competitors and trainers) it has been a remarkable experience.

 

I have been surrounded by enthusiasm, immense knowledge, invitations, failed and not so failed attempts at cross-lingual jokes, hour long coffee dates, bumpy van rides, stunning panoramas, and many many stories. The guides and staff at this organization have combined life experiences that would give Spielberg a real run for his money.

 

Everyday outside my office – when I’m here-  sits a fruit and vegetable stand, perched in the backseat of an old VW, with a lady selling the most appetizing of goodies. I resist the urge to buy it all, and she smiles at me as I pass by. Across the way is a coffee shop, a grocery store, and screaming children playing soccer in uneven rickety streets. The office itself is a small, bright space filled with enough information to travel the Balkans a thousand times over. The shelves and cases are stuffed with an eclectic combination of trail mix, bike helmets, camping gear galore, empty espresso cups, random collectables from travels, someone’s half assed collections of bottle caps, a not so hidden bottle of Rakia, and 3 chunky computers resting atop 3 clunky desks.  The door is almost always open, despite the Propou and the newly installed air conditioning unit. Depending on who is in the office first, a mix of Jazz or Enrique Iglesias can be heard.

 

So far I have been on several of Green Visions trips- ranging from day trips to multiple country multiple night ones.  Hiking, biking, eating, laughing, walking and sight seeing- professionals on all accounts. As local experts in the Balkan regions, Green Visions are frequently hired through a few bigger outside organizations to run trips.  As a traveler who has never really been ‘into’ organized group trips, I will say that Green Visions runs the itinerary pretty damn flawlessly. There is crunch time and down time, just enough nuanced information to provide an insight into place and time, and never a drowning of information.  Some meals have been arranged and reserved, taking the pressure off of ‘where to eat tonight’ and some remain open. Someone, somewhere, has clearly thought this out, and I think I know just the man.

 

One of the unexpected things I have so enjoyed about these leaders is the abundance of Naturalist knowledge among them. Most grew up more or less in the mountains, and can point out the subtlest of differences between two seemingly equal-looking white mushrooms, hunt for the freshest of raspberries, and know where to find fresh chamomile and herbs for the most flavorful cooking. This is their homeland. They are involved in Rakia making, chicken farming, sketching, underground punk music scenes, adventuring and once upon a time random jobs as sheep herders in Iceland. They have passion about this region, and it is clear from the moment their shoes hit the dirt that this, is heaven.

 

My role here at Green Visions has been primarily as a photographer. I have been on the road to take photos and promote not only the organization, but the newly emerging Via Dinarica trail. This epic trail spans 7 countries, across mountains and along coast lines, and is really the next big thing in outdoor extremism and perhaps a first of it’s kind in Europe. For the region, it is necessary and not to mention, totally badass. Tourism can bring immense amounts of money, and this kind of adventuring is really the image that is changing the conversation. Far too often people associate the Balkans, and Bosnia Herzegovina specifically, with a sort of gloomy war cloud- one that devastates populations and stagnates progress. Even my mom said when I first announced my trip here thought “Well is it safe?!”

 

To some extent the war here does linger, but it is not the story this crowd is dwelling on. There is so much more to tell- in the beauty of the mountains, in the depths of the canyons that rival that of the Grand Canyon, to the mystical aqua blues of glacier fed streams that puncture valleys and provide life to small farming towns, and to the people that have created new lives.  Green Visions motto is “Giving Back”; a phrase the emphasizes unity, humility, intention and community. I think despite maybe not fitting a traditional ‘economics’ label, this organization and the experiences I have had here contribute far greater to a hands on study of economics than anything I could’ve asked for.

 

I suppose at the end of the day, I have Ann Petrila to thank for this. A sure sense of panic erupted in my gut when she first read the job description for Green Visions back some idle day in April when I was meeting about internship plans- so I conclude with the sincerest of thanks, and do believe a bottle of good red wine is in order.

 

 

 

 

Some photos of my coworkers and I on our adventures.

 

Me and my giant boys on our last night in Montenegro.

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Setting up the best picnic lunch of all time on a winding road in Montenegro.

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Coffee breaks and smiles.

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When in doubt, follow the Sabinas.

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Holy Feelings

The last week has been a bit of a blur. Culture trip with work; incredible people, food, wine, cheese, life-rush home. Hardest moments of my life. Wisk home- stop for Euro Cup Final. Beautiful stars from the car window. Home at 12:30. Cold Shower. Up and at it again.

Pack. Instant coffee.

Wake up way too quickly at 5 AM. Bus station double espresso totally hits the spot. Bus to Srebencia. Is this really the place? How can life just continue here when such tragedy stained the streets? Children were murdered here. These streets crammed with panicked families as they attempted to flee from invaders. Meanwhile you can buy Kinder Bars and there’s a place to have your laundry done just around the corner-business as usual. Chicken on a plate with some french fries for lunch. Gulp down with Sensation.

T-boned by feelings at the memorial site, Potocari, in Srebencia. There’s a hole in my stomach, and it’s slowly filling with liquid tar immobilizing all contents inside from doing what’s normal. I feel a need to vomit. Or cry. Or run away.

 

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Taxi back to hostel in isolated, abandoned and suddenly evil town.  The only signs of life are a stray dog and some pretty flowers outside a bar. For the first time in quite some time my first thoughts have been ‘I don’t want to be alone.’ Please someone sit with me.

Beer. Serbian beer- again something doesn’t feel good at all about this. The only thing keeping me above water is the company.

Now the reality is that I am not so much concerned about distance on this peace march, but on the depths of the emotions I have to encounter. All my so called preparedness is wildly the opposite.

I guess I’m out of words to describe my feelings. I spent a majority of the 58 mile march thinking to myself about a variety of things. From absolute tragedy, to wondering about money, to school, to love life, to conversations with strangers, newfound friendships, the value of family, and the absolute delight of indoor plumbing. What I found is that a majority of these thoughts were a convenient distraction to what happened when we finally reached the memorial. In essence, a breakdown. My heart ached with hurt

I am beyond thankful for my friend Laura, who shared every step with me. We talked about many things on this trip, and if it weren’t for her I probably would’ve lost it. She is a remarkable listener, and I think as two people who are generally on the listening end of conversations,  we found solace in each others intentional conversation.  Here’s to misery loves company, and all the singing.

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Maybe that’s an agenda of the March- to stimulate a realization of what’s been around you this whole time. To make the most of it, and to remember that life is pretty fucking special. To not dwell on pettiness, and to embrace the goodness in the world despite the potential for evil.

When the March ended, I was numb pretty much everywhere. Body and mind. I wanted nothing more than to shower and hug my family.  58 miles. 3 days. heat exhaustion and emotionally void.

Although I haven’t had the time to post process much, the Peace March is forever on my mind. I think it might be one of those experiences that resonates with me whenever I encounter something difficult, uncomfortable, or anytime I see a porter potty.

 

 

 

 

 

Oh Surprise, you wreckless mule

Blog theme “What surprises you the most?”

Surprise- it can be a loaded word. Sometimes surprises are wonderful, life altering moments that you’ll always remember. Like, “Surprise you won a million dollars!” or “surprise your sister is engaged!”. Those surprises, Im totally good with.  Other surprises, like, “Hey there’s a tarantula crawling up your leg” or “ Surprise you got a parking ticket and the cop is literally walking away now!” those…are not so great. I could do without, and my heart thanks you for listening.

Moving to Sarajevo, I anticipated a smorgasbord of surprises in both contexts. Whenever you visit a new country, it seems that both of the surprise-types are almost inevitable, and in some cases welcome. You kind of want both; to fulfil a sense of adventure and adrenaline, and also to reassess the reality that you’re out of control.

 

I’ve never lived in a Muslim city before, and as a group we’ve arrived right in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan. I had heard all about the call to prayer that I was to witness, and how the call was fairly majestic. To to be honest, I have only heard that now a handful of times and it’s now been over a week.  So I am not really surprised by it, but rather in a way comforted when I do hear it because it reminds me where I am.

However, what I have learned, and what has truly surprised me these last 10 days, is the remarkable canon shot that goes off at roughly 8:30 PM that marks the end of the day of fasting. I could be sitting in the hostel, attempting to soak up what little internet connectivity I can get my hands on, out at a restaurant, exploring new parts of the city or in the mountains and suddenly this giant BOOM erupts; and I kind of always lose my shit.  I suppose it’s largely that I have not been avoiding food or drink all day (rather quite the opposite) and so therefore I am not counting the seconds until I can indulge in the Iftar- the meal to end fasting- and so the canon shot is entirely unpredictable and I’m not checking my watch.  It’s without a doubt routinely and unequivocally surprising.

I am also surprised, and wonderfully charmed, to see a side of Muslim culture that isn’t being smeared on headlines in some overwhelmingly negative fashion.  My reality of living and working within these communities is nothing but positive. In light of all the recent tragedy in the world that largely frames anyone wearing a head dress as evil, it enlivens my heart to see interactions that are just people living. It’s a beautiful thing, and a gentle reminder that you shouldn’t assume that everything you read is fact.

 

The world needs more of these types of surprises. To recognize that different does not mean bad, and that maybe being out of your own element, accepting and learning from surprise is actually ok.  So please, world, bring on the surprise.

 

Just leave out the bugs, those I can do without.

 

Day 1: First Impressions

Even though I just bought my plane ticket to Bosnia in January, I feel like I’ve really been planning this trip for over a year. I’m sure I’ve annoyed Ann many times by asking her when we’d be getting started with the logistics and recruiting students starting in the fall quarter. I rarely do things that are going to cost me much in terms of time and money, and this trip is the opposite of who I was for the first year and a half I spent in grad school: responsible (at least fiscally), independent, and very safe. I feel like after I bought my ticket to Bosnia, I became a whole different person.

When we landed in Sarajevo, I had been sleeping pretty hard for the short plane ride over, and I really didn’t feel with it or prepared. The woman next to me began talking to me and asking about our trip, and I feel like I didn’t do it any kind of justice. Plus she was from Bosnia and had been a journalism correspondent during the war, and I barely asked her any questions! She did pass along her phone number in case something didn’t work out (she probably thought I was just going to wander the city for two weeks because I was so out of it).

Luckily I haven’t just been wandering around (although some of the time!) but I do expect to later in the trip. One of the students from last year talked about exploring the city on his own sometimes, and I’ll definitely want to do that at some point to reflect. Right now I’m just having a lot of fun hanging out with people and getting to know the group. It’s sometimes tough to think about one of the biggest reasons we’re even here.

Sarajevo is everything and nothing like what I expected. Everything is so beautiful, and it’s hard to think of words to describe the history here without using the word heavy. It almost just hangs in the air, not in a sad way, just in a way that has weight. (On a side note, you’d think a former English major would have better words to describe this, but I don’t yet. Maybe soon). I never expected to be here, and it still just feels a little unreal. I am so envious and curious about everyone who speaks this language and just belongs to this city where so much has happened and so much is still happening.

Miss Sarajevo

When we arrived to Sarajevo in mid-June, there was a general sense of quiet and tranquility that blanketed the city. Most of its citizens were maintaining their Ramadan fasts, and until the sunset Iftar, the city didn’t fully spring to life. Once the cannon from the Yellow Fortress fired, Sarajevans flooded the cobbled walkways of Baščaršija.

My first experience of the city was a far cry from my final experience in the city. The opening of the Sarajevo Film Festival coincided with our last night in Sarajevo. The Film Festival was a communal outpouring, and summoned everyone in the city to participate in some capacity. New cafes and restaurants sprung up overnight, and an infectious energy permeated the city.

The Sarajevo Film Festival began during the siege, and showed how the Bosnian’s refused to let the siege dictate all aspects of their day-to-day lives. Bill Carter’s Film, Ms. Sarajevo is one film that is emblematic of this, and even went on to inspire U2’s Song, Miss Sarajevo. Despite constant shelling and warfare, Sarajevans fought to maintain their identity whether it was in the way they chose to dress, or their unique sense of humor. The image from Ms. Sarajevo that will continue to resonate with me is of the young women in bathing suits unfolding a banner reading, “Please don’t let them kill us.” The woman who went on to win “Miss Besieged Sarajevo” went on to say ”there were numerous appeals to end this war, we asked for help in all possible ways but nothing worked…so this was another outcry to draw attention and have someone do something. We just wanted this war to end.” Other clever jabs at media came when Sarajevo surpassed Leningrad for the longest siege of all time and the local radio station played the song “we are the champions.” Another story from the war that evidences the Bosnian’s attempt to lighten the somber mood was when a Serb painted “This is Serbia” over a post office in Sarajevo. The following day, someone wrote over it, “no, this is a post office, you idiot.”A28oPvhCMAEo58o

It was a bittersweet departure leaving the city in the midst of the film festival. The festival represented an impressive array of work from around the world and from emerging filmmakers. It also brought life to unique venues around the city, including open-air cinemas and screenings in historic buildings. Even if a film lacked a star-studded cast, or is marginal in its outward appeal, it managed to draw an impressive assortment of attendees. The film festival represents Sarajevo’s annual dedication to the arts and unity in diversity.

Lukomir: Home Away from Home

The Dinaric Alps traverse the Balkan Peninsula, and are home to countless rivers and lakes, steep gorges and canyons, and interestingly, the world’s tallest people. This past weekend, Global Practice Bosnia ventured to Lukomir, a village nestled in the Alps, and discovered it to be a home away from home. Lukomir is Bosnia’s highest, and most remote village, and coincidentally is located at the same elevation as Denver, 5,280 feet. The thin, fresh air was enervating and called to mind hiking trips in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. It wasn’t difficult to discover why the locals have such a hard time separating themselves from this special place during winter months. The younger generations in Lukomir recently made the decision to move the older generations from Lukomir to Sarajevo due to sub-optimal living conditions in the winter months. In the spring when the snow melts, the village elders make their perennial trip up to Lukomir. Samra, a 20-something resident of Lukomir, relayed the story of how each spring she loves witnessing the elders return to the mountain, amazed by how they defy age and gravity, bounding up the mountain with smiles stretched across their faces.IMG_8962

The trip was called the “Three Generations Trip” and was put on by Green Visions. Once we made the trek up to Lukomir, we had the privilege of spending time with three generations of women that have heartily resided in the mountainous village for nearly a century. These three women, and many others, are symbolic of a larger ethos that I’ve come to love about Bosnians. They are tenacious, imaginative, and equipped with a fabulous, wry sense of humor.IMG_8908            In post-conflict countries, there is a constant process of re-defining and re-categorizing the notion of happiness. I was reminded of Viktor Frankl’s book entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning,” in which the author uses his experience at an Auschwitz concentration camp to find meaning in all forms of existence. Frankl mentions the Greek word, eudaimonea, which refers to a state of having a good indwelling spirit or being in a contented state of being healthy, happy and prosperous. In the face of adversity, it’s remarkable how Bosnians did not let the war define them, and how their resiliency is what allowed their country- and it’s spirit to remain intact.IMG_8969

Bosnia, A Year After the Floods

Last summer, states of emergency were declared throughout Bosnia and Serbia when both countries experienced the heaviest rain and worst flooding in their history. International coverage was minimal, and didn’t adequately capture the extensive impact. In Bosnia, more than two dozen died, others were injured and countless livelihoods were destroyed. The flooding left many displaced, triggered anxieties, and increased the already high rate of joblessness in the country. Project Hope (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere) partnered with UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) to address the shortcomings of the health care system in Bosnia, which were further exacerbated by the flooding.

Current limitations in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s health care system include lack of communication between health care centers, lack of skills, and lack of standards that are uniform throughout the country. There are still thousands of people living as refugees and a large portion of the population remain under the United Nations High Commission of Refugees category of a refugee or displaced person. The war, and flooding resulted in increased numbers of psychological traumas and disorders. There’s currently no division between psychiatric and neurologic care centers. This often causes issues to arise between patients as well as a lack of specialization when it comes to treatment. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a rising disorder in the country, yet there is very little treatment or focus on the disease. Most of the treatment is done through Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), who will eventually leave Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Within Bosnia, it’s extremely taboo to discuss mental health. If you seek mental help, this information is made readily available to the rest of the community. Those who have the financial means for treatment prefer to travel somewhere like Zagreb, Croatia in hopes that confidential information will not be released to their community. However, this is an expensive trip that most are unable to afford.

In order to ameliorate some of the mental hardship facing the victims of the flood, Project Hope and UNICEF are conducting trainings throughout the country. The trainings are led by mental health professionals and provide teachers with a toolkit to use in their classroom. The toolkit teaches students about the varying degrees of flooding impact, and ways to process this information. The hope is that it will promote more acceptance when discussing mental and economic hardship in a country that is on the mend.

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