we had been driving for hours in the southwest of bosnia without running into anything noteworthy. it was winter, and anything resembling a plant was dead. the rolling hills were a flat brown throughout, and the further into the country we got, the more desolate everything looked. occasionally we would drive by a tiny village or a bombed-out house on the side of the road, clearly a remaining casualty of the genocide committed here 20 years ago. a somber silence would sporadically settle in upon our car as we passed the remnants of past atrocities. even the border patrol was scary and depressing. large men with official military uniforms and big automatic weapons with menacing dogs patrolled the area around our car, and the guards took forever to run our papers, as though they were just waiting us out, convinced we would get nervous and make a run for it. when the man returned with our passports and then searched our car and our backpacks, he finally asked us one final question: “why do you come to bosnia?” as if in disbelief that a couple of americans would ever want to visit this place. i replied with an optimistic “we want to experience your culture and see your beautiful country!” but he only rolled his eyes and shook his head as he waved us by. this random detour from our croatian holiday was suddenly much heavier than the adventure-filled traverse through the balkans i had envisioned.
just getting dave to agree to going to bosnia & herzegovina with me was a small victory, but my bigger plan had been to wow him with the beautiful countryside and then mostar, and once he had been impressed by that, it would be easy to talk him into pressing on further to sarajevo. we pushed deeper into the bosnian countryside, waiting eagerly as we approached each new turn for some breathtaking view of a valley below, or a quaint, undiscovered mountain town no one had ever heard of. but the longer we drove, the more bleak our prospects looked. it was impossible to get lost, as there was only one road and no other navigable territory in sight. as hope for the wondrous or whimsical began to fade, so did our conversation. there would be long periods of silence in the car, interrupted by short attempts at communication, only to be followed by more silence. i knew my chances of convincing dave of sarajevo were shrinking drastically every minute.
“there’s nothing out here man. where are we?” dave asked. i could sense his trepidation. i had talked him into this, he had not been interested in bosnia at all. i didn’t say anything for a few seconds.
“i don’t know man. there’s gotta be something worth seeing out here… right?” i replied, not sure if i even believed myself.
“……….” dave looked at me with a blank expression on his face, offering no answer. after about 5 seconds, we broke into laughter. i joined in. it was a nervous laughter though, not one of carefree dismissal. dave was worried that we were wasting time in one place when we could be enjoying it in croatia. i was worried that i had made a mistake and led my friend astray.
suddenly we happened upon a small town, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. a river was running through the center of the city, and old houses were rolling and dipping with the landscape of the hilly region the road was taking us through. the sun had dropped below the thin line of the horizon, leaving an orange haze on the edges of the sky. rays of orange and golden-brown shined down, bathing the town in color and muted light. thick-trunked trees stretched upward and sheltered the town in an uneven canopy, as the light fought its way through, poking and puncturing beams through, straining to reach the ground. i continued driving, but dave and i gawked with a slackjawed awe at the damaged beauty of this seemingly secret town. there were still the bombed out remnants of the past, but they were neighbored by charming stone houses that looked centuries old and untouched. strange, how the difference between tragedy and survival seemed to be only a matter of meters, i thought to myself.
“should we stop?! i want to stop, this place looks unlike anything i’ve ever seen! i bet this place has some stories!” i exclaimed enthusiastically. i couldn’t contain my energy. i was suddenly struck again with that notorious wanderlust that finds everyone at some point in their lives. for some, it’s merely a scent, drifting with the breeze, and the sudden curiosity of the would-be traveler lures the subject out of his comfort zone, if only to see what is on the other side of the mountain. and once he sees what is there, perhaps he is distracted by some new fascinating pursuit, be it a new activity, a career opportunity, or perhaps most engaging: a woman. but for others, that wanderlust is an incurable insatiation, and the scent is on every movement in the air within reach of the seeker’s nose. no destination too fantastical, no experience too uncomfortable, and though he may not always be in immediate search of the next great adventure, it’s never far off, and it is only a matter of time before the seeker makes his escape.
“i don’t know, man. sun’s going down and it seems like we’re still kinda far from mostar…” dave trailed off, unsure. i thought for a few seconds, and reluctantly agreed. it probably wouldn’t be wise to get lost in the dark out here. i dejectedly nodded in agreement and pressed the car forward, vowing to myself that i would someday return and find this unknown gem of a city.
an hour later we had made it to mostar, and we were confused. the outskirts of the city were littered with large industrial complexes and manufacturing plants spewing smoke and steam into the air. the sun had disappeared below the mountains behind the city, but the sky was still illuminated like a backlit purple canopy, revealing a layer of looming smog. the road we had been traveling on seemed to stay along a high ground that ran east of what we deduced was the city center, due to a heavy concentration of orange street lights. no signs were in english and the map we were using was also indecipherable, due to the fact that we had picked it up from a gas station along the way. we were lost.
“well what about this road? maybe this will take us down there…?” i proposed as i took a left, trying to find something that would lead us toward the stari most bridge, our main objective. a few minutes later we were at least a little closer to the center, but we had seen no clues as to where we were or where we were going.
“well that’s the third try and we are even more lost than we were when we got here. i don’t like this man. this city is not what we were told, it’s dark, it looks dangerous… i say we get out of here. let’s go back to croatia.” dave was checking out. he was stressed and nervous, and he had every right to be. mostar, thus far, was a total mirage.
“okay, you’re right, we’re striking out here. let’s make a deal. give me 2 more minutes. let me try one more thing, and if i can’t find this damned bridge, i’ll turn around and get us out of here.” i wasn’t ready to give up. every single place i had been on my entire journey had contained something in it that made it amazing somehow. i knew bosnia was amazing somehow, and if i wasn’t going to be able to give it the time it deserved, then i was determined to find something beautiful to take back with me.
“okay fine. but then we go.” dave had zero confidence that i would find what we were looking for. i urged the car forward a couple blocks and then took another left. the small road wound along a short distance until suddenly there were no more streetlights, everything was dark around us. i could sense dave’s nervous eyes boring into me, encouraging me to turn around.
“look! there! did you see that?!?” i exclaimed victoriously. we had just passed a small sign that said “stari most bridge” with an arrow pointing ahead. i could tell dave wasn’t really relieved at all. we pulled up into a gravel lot where a large man pointed to a small parking spot. the gravel lot was surrounded by weeds and tall wild plants. this was definitely not an official tourist parking lot, and i couldn’t see the bridge anywhere. we got out of the car and the old man told us in broken english that the cost was five euros and he would make sure no one touches the car. i looked at dave, and then paid the toll. the man then directed us to a small dirt path through the weeds into the middle of the old town city center.
“that was weird.” dave remarked.
“yeah, i just lost five euros for nothing, but oh well.” i didn’t care, i just wanted to see this bridge.
a moment later, we stepped out into the light and back in time 300 years. old little shops with wooden carts full of vegetables and fruits out front were manned by little old ladies with scarves and bonnets around their heads. small restaurants with maître d’s stood outside on the stoop, waiting for anyone who might want to eat. light from the street lamps splayed down onto the rough yet polished cobblestones before being reflected back upwards into air where it was swallowed by the purple night sky. i looked at dave, incredulous. he looked back at me, surprised, but still unconvinced.
we poked around curiously for a couple minutes before rounding a turn and suddenly we were standing on the bridge. i looked around, trying to appreciate what i was perched on, but i had no point of reference. we walked to the center of the arched stone bridge and then looked over the side. floodlights from all around covered the iconic bridge. dave sidled up beside me as we both looked down. a low, slow laugh rumbled in my belly, making its way up and out of my mouth, echoing down below and bouncing off the river bed and onto the walls underneath the bridge structure to the sides. dave start laughing too, and suddenly the guffaws of two weary travelers sounded like 8 when the echoes caught up, and we were having our own little party.
we crossed to the other side of the bridge and walked down another market street and up a little hill, where we were able to get a better viewing angle of the bridge. it was indeed remarkable, built in the 16th century by the ottomans, at the time it was the widest man-made arch in the world. and it was made of stone, no less. it stood for over 400 years before being destroyed by over 60 shells by the croatians during the war in bosnia and herzegovina between 1992-1995, where serbian and croatian forces fought a seemingly pointless conflict during the break-up of yugoslavia behind the fall of the soviet union. it is estimated that over 100,000 bosnians were killed during the 3 year genocide, by mainly serbian forces (though there are some recorded croatian crimes as well), and it is still unknown exactly how many of that number took place in mostar. shortly after the war, a coalition of european nations and various organizations was formed to oversee the reconstruction of the bridge. i stood in awe, trying to comprehend everything that had happened in this place just 20 years earlier.
nearby, shop owners began packing up their store displays and closing up. it was getting late, and a brisk cold had begun to settle in on the town. i looked at dave, gave him the nod, and we made our way back up and over the bridge, back over to the other side. on my final step on the bridge, i noticed a large, flat stone just to the right of the walkway. carved into the stone were the words “don’t forget, ‘93” i paused sadly, weighing the words before continuing on.
“hey man, what do you think? should we…”
“i’m ready to go back to croatia.” dave cut me off politely. he knew i was going to try and talk him into going to sarajevo, and he still wasn’t interested.
“okay. well if i’m going to drive that far right now, i need something to eat.” conceding defeat and pouting, i turned and walked into one of the restaurants nearby. the place was empty. a few seconds later a young man, in his early-30s, greeted me and gestured me to sit anywhere. dave entered and joined me also.
we looked at the menu (which had brief english subtitles, but nothing descriptive) for a few minutes and when i looked up to order, the proprietor of the restaurant was nowhere to be found. i looked at dave to appreciate any humor that he might be finding in the scenario, but found none. he was tired, stressed, and ready to get back to somewhere less unknown. i could tell that i had stretched him about as far as he was willing.
the man returned and took our order in english, anticipating our american-ness. i acted impressed by his skill, wanting to create some sort of connection for friendly conversation, and he seemed pleased.
“i used to live in new york.” he explained. that, i had not been expecting. i shot dave a quick look of surprise, wanting to try and get him involved, before expressing my incredulity to the man. dave was still only interested in the menu, and how he still didn’t understand what was on it despite the broken english translations.
“no way! are you from here originally? or…” i trailed off, waiting for him to fill in the gap. he began explaining to me how he had grown up in this region, but when things had gotten bad, his family had sent him away to relatives who lived in the US. he had stayed there into his mid-20s, but then had ultimately decided that this was his home. so he returned and opened up this restaurant, which had now been running successfully for a few years. i expressed my enthusiasm openly, excited and fascinated by this man’s story and his resolve. i began asking him questions about his past, about his time in new york, and about his decision to return. i couldn’t get enough. but something more important was happening than my interaction with the owner of this little restaurant in the middle of old town mostar. the more questions i asked, and the more answers the restauranteur provided, the more dave began to listen. and as the man told his story, dave began to lower his menu slowly, losing interest in it, and he began to turn in his seat to face the man, studying his face, observing his emotions, and absorbing the story of his life.
“wait. you were how old when you left bosnia?” dave suddenly interjected. he unintentionally looked at me briefly. i think he was just as shocked as i was at his newfound curiosity. the man answered the question, and from that point on, for the rest of dinner, i was an afterthought in the scene. i listened passively as dave peppered the restaurant owner with question after question, and the man never blinked an eye or showed any sign of annoyance. there wasn’t another soul even close to the restaurant, so it’s not as though he had any other tables to wait on anyway. he was flattered by our interest in him, and his fascinating story.
an hour and a half later, i suggested to dave that it was past time for us to be leaving. dave agreed with me, but there was a hint of disappointment in his eye. the food had been fairly mediocre, nothing particularly delicious, and there wasn’t anything greatly notable about the establishment either. but the interaction with the owner was worth way more. we paid the bill and dave reached out to thank the man and shake his hand. i did the same, and as we turned to leave, the man addressed us both:
“thank you for coming to my restaurant! before you go, just one question: why do you come to bosnia? why do you come to mostar?”
it was the same question the intimidating border patrol agent had asked us earlier that day, but it didn’t mean the same thing. this man was just as curious what would cause a couple of traveling americans with almost limitless destination options to come to his home. but he was also proud of his home, not embarrassed by it. i thought for a second about his question, because the truth was, in that moment, i didn’t have a great answer. i wasn’t sure. but before i could arrive at a conclusion, dave jumped in.
“for this. this was exactly why we came to mostar, to bosnia.” a huge smile immediately covered my face. the old man looked at us quizzically for a moment, and then he seemed to understand, nodding his head and then waving as we exited. i didn’t say anything to dave as we made our way in the dark back to our car, which was, to no one’s surprise, not being guarded by our paid parking lot attendant. i was so proud and so happy at the same time. to hear dave say that in that moment, after everything he had been through, after everything i had put him through that day… it didn’t even matter that i wasn’t going to see sarajevo. this was much more important. dave got it. that thing that you can’t really explain to someone who hasn’t ventured out into the unknown, who hasn’t braved culture and language barriers, who hasn’t been truly uncomfortable in a land they know nothing about. that thing that can’t be outlined in a book or captured in a movie, dave now got that. dave understood the authentic soul of travel.
this week’s song selection comes from my new favorite band, oh wonder. over the last year, the london duo has released a new single every month, and last week they released a full album. back to front, it is the most complete album i’ve listened to this year, and is the best debut album i’ve heard in years. featuring minimalistic songs that highlight delicate vocal harmonies and honest writing, the instrumentation allows song structure and lyrical subtlety to shine through. “livewire” is the lead single from the album, and easily is my favorite, but this song should only serve as a launch point for listening to the rest of the album, as every song stands free on its own. enjoy…
and for those following along on spotify…