Sunday, November 11, 2007

eating myself stupid

I hadn't considered Bosnia and Hercegovina (hereafter referred to as BiH) as a place to visit before leaving home, but in Turkey it started popping up in conversations. Ilmari convinced me to visit Mostar as a day trip from Dubrovnik, and after Bled I changed my itinerary to include a few days in the country. I didn't have a guidebook, but while scribbling down accommodation info out of Janet's Lonely Planet Eastern Europe in Zagreb, she told me to just rip out the section since she wouldn't be visiting this time round. Mangled guidebooks litter hostels as backpackers try to shed weight, either ripping out pages they don't need anymore, or taking only the ones they need. Trashing books makes me cringe, but why carry around 700 pages when you only really need half. Besides, the lifespan of an average guidebook is only two years.

I left Dubrovnik in the company of two other hostelers to catch the 8:00 am bus to Mostar. Up at the crack of dawn, we were at the bus stop early to catch the city bus to the terminal. Getting a bit worried when our bus continued to not show up, we breathed a collective sigh of relief when Dad from the hostel pulled up in a car to pick us up. Unloaded at the bus terminal, we were pretty pleased to have made perfect time to catch our bus. We had made perfect time, plus one hour. Stupid daylight savings time. Of course I would be traveling early on the one day I could really sleep in.

I couldn't figure out exactly which border checkpoints we went through to go from Croatia to BiH, but I had to pull out my passport four times, which doesn't really make sense if we proceeded through a series of exit and entry points. Half the time my passport wasn't even checked; the agent just came down the bus, glanced over to see that I was holding it, and moved away. When we did have our passports collected for the final checkpoint, they all came back stampless. Rats.

All the shininess of Croatia is nowhere to be found in Mostar. The city took a beating during the Balkans War, and you can see the evidence within moments of leaving the bus station.

First assaulted by the Serbs, it then took another beating by the Croats who originally helped expel the Serb forces. The front line between the two cut down the main boulevard. The town has undergone extensive rebuilding, but bombed out shells and ruins still line the former front line, and are scattered around the town. I've never seen even one building covered with shrapnel scars, and in Mostar they are found around every corner. There's a cemetery in a park where most of the markers bear a 1993 date. I wasn't even sure what I was feeling looking at everything. A sad fascination, maybe.

I have to confess almost total ignorance about the war that happened here. A number of locals have fed me bits of information about the history, but it still doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Other travelers I've spoken to are admitting to the same confusion, and I think it's because the conflict has a basis in definitions of nationality, ethnicity, and religion that are different than we're accustomed to. I'm not going to try and explain anything here because there are better, and definitely more reliable, sources of information. Instead I'll just write about the things I saw and heard firsthand. The family that runs the hostel I stayed at gave a tour around town visiting war-specific sites. Taking us to a hill above town, Majda indicated a large section of town below us, telling us that after the war most of the houses that were still standing didn't have their roofs. The Croat forces had taken up a position high up the mountain over the town, and filling truck tires with explosives, has just rolled them down the hillside to hit whatever happened to be in the way. There were still a few ruined homes without roofs, but for the most part, things have been rebuilt. Majda's brother, Bata, led another day tour to some locations around the countryside, including to the town of Počitelj, where a mosque was partially destroyed. When it was rebuilt, the new parts were purposely left unfinished to remind everyone of the destruction. An architectural detail inside the mosque are angled triangles in the corners, designed to carry sound up to the dome. Three are symmetrical, but one has been distorted by the explosion, and has been left as is.

In the midst of all the shelling in Mostar was Stari Most, the old bridge that was built in the 16th century during the rule of the Ottomans. Most means "bridge", and the name of the town is believed to be taken from the word mostari, guardians of the bridge. During the war, people tried to save Stari Most from destruction by draping tires over it, and covering it with a makeshift wooden roof. The efforts were to no avail, as the bridge sustained a lot of damage, and in 1993, took a hit that collapsed it into the Neretva River. The Museum of Bosnia and Hercegovina has a short film that includes a clip of the moment the bridge fell. It's really sad and surreal. One side of the bridge just peels away from the wall, and then it's gone. In 1998, efforts began to rebuild the bridge, exactly as before, and using traditional techniques. Stone was quarried from the same quarries they originally came from, and carved by hand. Pieces of the old bridge were brought out of the water and used, although they are not visible. The effort took six years, and the New Stari Most reopened in 2004.

I looked at some pictures of Stari Most before getting to Mostar, and frankly wasn't terribly wowed by its appearance. Looked kinda plain. Seeing it in person that plainness morphed into this elegant simplicity that isn't captured in pictures. It's one of the prettiest things I've seen on this trip. Maybe it has something to do with the history, or maybe it's the way it's tucked in between the streets of old town. It's actually quite small, and somehow looks a little larger than life in photos.

There's a long tradition of people, mostly guys, jumping from Stari Most into the river, and every summer there is a high-flying acrobatics diving competition. Depending on the water level, the drop is about 21 meters. I got it into my head that jumping might be a neat thing to do, but washed out after two jumps from a practice platform a bit further down the river. The practice platform is less than half the height of the bridge, but getting there involves swimming across the Neretva River. I don't think it was scientifically freezing, but it was cold cold cold, and by the time I reached the far bank I could barely feel my toes, which made scrambling up the rocks to the platform slightly hairy. Standing on top of the platform and looking into the swirling green water I wondered what the hell I was doing. Even though I wasn't as high as the apex of the bridge, perspective had changed. I almost chickened out, but I had already made it that far, so several deep breaths later, off I went. Coached by Bata, to perform a high jump into water (feet first), you hold out your arms to maintain a vertical position, and at the last moment close your arms and hands to your body. I went in slightly on my butt the first time in, but achieved good form the second. I don't really know how long the drop was, maybe seven to eight meters, but I felt like I was in the air longer than it really should have taken to fall that distance. The splashdown was both shocking because of the speed, but also comforting, because I knew then that the fall was over. All I had to do after that was swim to the surface and get out of the water. Scrambling around the rocks was getting more difficult each time as I got colder. After the second jump I tried to swim back across the river, and by then the cold had set it too deep. Everything was moving with difficulty, and I wasn't going anywhere. Not only was the opposite shore not getting any closer, the current was starting to carry me downstream. Bata told me to turn around and go back, and he came over the bridge the long way to get me with a towel and my jacket. I only knew my toes were still attached because I could see them, and was relieved when another guy from the hostel appeared around the corner with my socks and shoes. I decided I was too cold to do the bridge jump; my body was too sluggish. Limbs were responding way too long after my brain told them what to do, and I wasn't feeling too confident after not being able to swim across the river. Another girl from the hostel jumped, though, and I just huddled in my jacket to watch her. I felt sort of disappointed in myself that I couldn't do it. Maybe I'll go back in the summer, when the Neretva isn't as fierce.

To make up for my failure to jump off the bridge, I undertook the more reasonable challenge to eat as much as I possibly could. Majda handed out a map to each new hosteler that included a number of eateries, and BiH being cheaper than say, Italy, there was really no excuse to not indulge. On my first night I ate a plate of the saltiest cheese ever.

Since I grew up in San Diego, I've spent a lot of quality time at the zoo, and have always had a curious fascination with the salt licks that are provided for some of the animals. Big blocks of salt with little round tongue indentations all over. Now I know what it's like to lick one of those. The cheese was the most cheek-puckering saltiness I've ever eaten. It made my eyes water. Only with the assistance of a basket of bread and a bitter lemon soda was I able to get it all down. And that little curly green thing over to the left? Not a runty pickle, as I thought it might have been, but I fiery hot pepper. My tongue couldn't decide whether to shrivel or burn.

Everyone at the hostel spent our Mostar days shamelessly stuffing our faces with anything within sight that we could point to and purchase. Other than cappuccinos, cake, baklava, and ice cream, favorites included burek, which is a heavy, oily pastry with savory fillings - potatoes, cheese, spinach, meats. Eat it by itself, or pour plain yogurt over the top. Getting two chicken bureks for take-out one day while strolling around, I still felt hungry after munching them down, but was too embarrassed to go back to the shop and get more. I just had to hold on until dinner. Since the company at the hostel was so good, we ate out together every night. Bosnian cuisine is heavy on the meat, and while I avoided the endless platters of mixed grills that clogged everyone else's arteries, I did order a plate of stuffed squid, not really knowing what to expect. What landed in front of me were six little squids, sans tentacles, full of melted cheese and sour cream. There may have been some tuna in there as well. They were sort of pinned at the opening with a toothpick. It came with french fries, so I stuffed in a few for an extra oily mouthful.

A couple of mornings later, everyone at the hostel seemed to be in a digestive stupor; by 9:20 only two of us had at heaved ourselves out of bed. Curiously, after chowing down all day and late into the evening, I woke up famished. The only thing that kept me from gnawing off a finger was the knowledge that Majda's mother would give me a plate of cookies with my coffee. Always up and about long before anyone else was stirring, Mama would squint at anyone slumping into the common room and ask, "What's your drink? Tea, coffee?", and a cup of tea or coffee would materialize, with a spoon, sugar cubes, and some butter biscuits, all served on a silver platter. I wanted to bring back a bag of Bosnian sugar cubes as a souvenir, but knew it would make my rucksack too heavy. They look like little square marshmallows, but are almost rock hard. When you get a Bosnian coffee, you're supposed to dip in one of your sugar cubes, which makes it soft enough to bite off a bit. Then you hold the bit in your mouth while drinking your coffee. Bosnian coffee is like Greek coffee is like Turkish coffee, except it's served in a copper coffee maker and you take care of pouring it out yourself. Bata instructed us in the fine art of drinking Bosnian coffee. He told us to first stir in a little bit of water, and then scoop the crema out into the cup. The trick is to then pour the coffee in such a manner to preserve the crema. I need a little more practice in this regard. At least I'm no longer drinking the grounds.

Given it's geographical location, BiH is a tasty cultural cocktail with splashes of east and west. When I was talking to the guys at 3glav Adventures in Bled, they told me that visiting parts of BiH would seem like coming back to Turkey. The most obvious evidence is the mix of religions; look around town and you'll see both church towers and minarets, and you'll hear both church bells and muezzin calls to prayer. Many of the mosques are in the old town, which spreads out on either side of Stari Most, and has long been home to the art of coppersmithing. You can hear them tapping away at their craft as you walk around the streets. I walked into this guy's shop to check out the smithing action. He didn't speak English, and spoke to me in really fast French, so I didn't really get what he was saying. He was okay with me taking a picture, though.

When I got to Mostar, I planned on spending one night. I left five nights later. There's an allure to the town that I hadn't expected at all, and took a lot longer than one afternoon to soak up. But it mostly had to do with the hostel and the people who just happened to be there at the same time. Each day I would ask Majda, "Can I stay here another night?", and she'd smile and say, "Yes, fine." Located in a crappy looking apartment building, Majda's Rooms is a cozy haven with quality people wedged onto couches, snacking on goodies cooked up fresh by Mama. My favorite was a fried bread that was served with some sort of fresh clotted cream. I would have licked the plate if no one else had been in the room. Mama was a little old lady who had been a refugee in Norway during the war, and was constantly puttering around with her hair tied back and wearing an oversized sweatshirt. On my last night in the hostel my two dormies were out late, and I was flopped in bed reading. My eye caught a small movement in the doorway and I realized Mama was peeking in at me; I had left the door open and she was wondering why the light was still on. The door was really creaky, and gave a particularly good squeal when she closed it. Reappearing a minute later with a paper towel and a bottle of cooking oil, she proceeded to rub oil into the hinges. I felt like I should do something to help but she was so efficient all I could do was watch. The door didn't creak the next morning.

Anyone who stays at Majda's rooms for four nights can stay a fifth night for free, and Mama cooks you a breakfast to order. Not being in any particular hurry to move on, I figured why the heck not.

Majda taught me a Bosnian word, merak. I don't really know what part of speech it is, but my understanding is that it basically means enjoying something for no other reason than it pleases you. Merak can be sitting cross-legged on a couch sipping a coffee. Or being in an enchanting town, hanging out with engaging travelers, in a little warm apartment, eating myself silly.

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