Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bridging Cultures

Mostar is a city located in the south of Bosnia and Herzegovina close to the Croatian border. The city was characterized by an old Ottoman styled bridge spanning a deep, green river. Lanky, local men in Speedo swimsuits took turns seeking money from the gawking crowds while others leaped from the bridge into the moving waters below. On either side of the bridge, local shops sold copper tea sets, mosaic Turkish lamps, and various touristic souvenirs.

We dived into the thick of the city for lunch. We were seated outside on the patio of a popular restaurant, Time-Irma. The food was excellent and we appreciated the misting fans cooling the patio in the heat of the day. As we asked for the check, rain began to fall and quickly became more intense. The owner ushered us all inside and various people grabbed glasses, plates, and collapsed the umbrellas in a bid to help. Suddenly rain turned to hail, pelting the guests as we scrambled to get everyone all the way inside the tiny space. The electricity went out and the restaurant was filled to capacity. With a laugh, the owner, a sweet middle aged woman, declared, “Drinks on him,” pointing to a random patron with a laugh, though it was she that paid for the generosity. She handed out free Bosnian beer to anyone who wanted one while everyone laughed and made light of the wet situation. It was generous, kind, and the best example of Balkan hospitality that we had experienced yet.

Swiftly dodging the rain, Hannah and I stopped at a grocery store. We grabbed a few beers and snacks for our days at the pool. The cashier did not allow me to check out with a bottle of beer, explaining I needed to hand in an empty glass bottle in order to check out with a new one. I explained I was a tourist and did not have one, however there was no explanation or leniency. In previous countries, a plastic or glass “tax” is added to the bill, which then is reversed when you return the bottle and get a rebate on your next checkout. I switched to canned beer instead and left. Hannah and I spent the walk home speculating on how the recycling system worked without a glass bottle to begin the cycle. If you do not have a bottle to begin with, how can you provide a used one to buy a new one?

Mostar could arguably be “done” in a day or two. Hannah and I elected to stay for 4 nights and kick back a bit. The city had a charm about it and proved to be an excellent place to slow down. Our host was an older, large man with peppered grey hair. One morning, he joined me beside the pool as I sipped my coffee and read from my book. We discussed his business and hope to purchase a home in the city center. He asked if my wife was sleeping in (a frequent happenstance) and went on a diatribe about healthy sleeping mandated by his doctor 15 years prior, the secret is ridding the negative energy from the day and not eating before bed. True to form, looking refreshed and chipper, Hannah rounded the corner and joined us.

The pool at our Bnb was a frequent priority for our time in Mostar. As I wrote this excerpt sitting beside it, the Muslim Adhan echoed into the valley from the nearby mosque minaret. The rhythmic, visceral chanting was only punctuated by the lapping of the crystal blue water in the pool. It was tranquil. It was not the last time we would hear the Adhan in the Muslim majority Bosnia. The sound was quite peaceful. During this segment of the journey, I was reading a book titled “Ghost Wars” by Steve Coll. It detailed the history of US and Soviet financial support, weapons arrangements, and Islamic radicalization in Afghanistan. The book differentiated and disregarded many Western misconceptions regarding Islam. It was a great read and one that I highly recommend any lover of history or current events pick up. As I watched the circling waters and listened to the Adhan, I reflected on the general prejudice and unfairness regarding Islam that pervades US sentiments.

One evening toward the end of our stay made a lasting memory. I went on a 4 mile jog. It was a sweltering 95 degrees and sunny without a cloud in the sky. After 35 minutes, a sight pulled me to a stop. A young girl, with head resting on her knees, sat at a street corner with a small cup beside her and her hand outstretched limply for spare change. I gently tried to put a coin in her hand, which was unresponsive, so I then placed it in the cup. The clatter did not stir her. I then ran across the street to buy a small bottle of water and went back and tried to hand it to her, still with no response. I placed it beside her and waited for the light to change. After a few minutes, she eventually stirred. It was a relief. With the temperatures and sun, I honestly thought the worst. The girl appeared to be Roma (formerly know as gypsy). I do not pretend to understand the complexities of the Roma culture, shunning of societal norms or structured government offer of assistance, and way of life. But I do understand a look of misery. It was by far not the first time on the trip I saw it, and it would not be the last. With a heavy heart and lighter pocket, I ran home to our Airbnb.

We made our first foray into the Balkans at the onset of our trip in March 2019. By this point, in late August 2019, we felt quite comfortable with what to expect. Hannah and I often discussed the summary of our experiences while walking home from a town or between destinations. We both admitted to developing an odd affection for Eastern Europe, particularly the Balkans. The experiences were often unique and less touched by tourism. Much of Mostar was ravaged by war similar to Sarajevo. Scores of buildings stood picked apart by mortar damage and reclaimed by nature.

Locals proved friendly, generous, and always willing to share knowledge about their city or country. For example, our final evening in Mostar was spent at the same restaurant, Irma-Tima for our fourth and final meal there. The owner had a queue of 4 tourists inquiring about a table, saw us, and requested they wait a moment while she winked and ushered us ahead of the line to seats.

The meal was fabulous, again. At the end of the meal, I asked if she could exchange currency (her restaurant accepted Bosnian Mark, Euro, and Croatian Kuna). She gladly said she would try. She was able to exchange the majority of our unused cash, and at a far better rate than any exchange office and right on par with the Google rate. We took a picture with her to remember our great experiences and parted ways.

Locals there always wholeheartedly wanted to impress or make things easier. We had several hosts that were insistent on helping us carry our luggage, for example, though it is efficiently already strapped together on both our backs and fronts. Help created more of a hassle, but it was the gesture that counted. Another example would be that when we purchased an item, food, or groceries, the vendor was adamant that we take it in a bag, even when we already were carrying a mostly empty larger bag. At some point, a smile and appreciation for the generosity was the best way to live.


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