Saturday, July 22, 2017

Budapest and Krakow

Budapest, Hungary:


Budapest will always stand out in my memory for the wonderful people I met, more than anything else! My hostel roommate Kaytie and I both arrived in town the same night, and we instantly connected, on a profound level. We also made friends with Sean (American) and Harry (Australian). We spent hours just chatting, and laughing until I could hardly breathe.

Another memorable thing about Budapest is the food! Oh my goodness, Hungarians know how to cook.

Beef goulash, with goulash soup

Chicken paprikash
Hungarians have a distinct and long-lived ethnic identity. They descend from the Magyar people, who have been living in Hungary since the 9th century. Their history is also unique in that they have hardly been independent in centuries - they were ruled by the Ottomans, the Austrians, and the Soviets, with only fleeting moments of independence until the last few decades. Budapest is unique in that it originally was two cities, not one - Buda was on one side of the Danube river, and Pest was on the other. About 150 years ago, the two cities were connected by bridges and unified into one. This facilitated its role as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. 


Buda (left) and Pest (right)
Yes, I did sometimes learn things on free walking tours!

Beautiful church - this style of roof became very popular in this region of Europe after it was put on this church


I call this one "sunbather"





Mid-run selfie, with the statue representing liberty
Budapest has a storied past, but it also feels quite modern. Hipster culture is notable. Every corner you go around, there is a well-decorated restaurant with a quirky theme and a creative menu, or a public art display, or a ruin bar. Ruin bars are perhaps the hardest to describe, coolest concept for a bar that I've ever seen. Basically, someone took an abandoned warehouse, and filled it with the most random and somewhat dilapidated pieces of furniture and decoration. If it's weird, it's going in the bar. They're open all day and much of the night. Kaytie and I went to Szimpla, the original and most famous ruin bar, but there are many others in the city as well. Below is the one photo I got that didn't turn out too grainy - if you want a better idea of the absurd wonderfulness that is Szimpla, look at these Google image results. Whilst at the bar, we sampled pálinka, the traditional Hungarian spirit. It was supposed to be fruit flavored, but it literally tasted like drinking nail polish remover - this stuff is strong.


Some things in Budapest are a lovely mix of old and new, most famously the bathhouses. Budapest is situated among many natural hot springs, and it also has a Turkish heritage, so of course bathhouses are a central aspect  of social life, even today. I chose to visit one of the oldest and most beautiful bathhouses. Upon arriving, I left my things in a locker, changed, and walked out to soak with a few hundred friends.


I can't write about Budapest without writing about the tangible effects of World War II. This beautiful museum was absolutely destroyed, and had to be rebuilt.



Then there's the Shoes on the Danube memorial. In 1944-45, the militia lined Jewish families along the Danube and opened fire, allowing the bodies of the murdered to fall into the river. In 2005, an artist commemorated these Holocaust victims by sculpting 60 pairs of shoes, one for each year that had passed since the massacre. The shoes are clearly from 40's-era fashion, and there are shoes belonging to men, women, and children. It was chilling to stand beside the shoes. Some of them have an untied lace, or a tongue sticking up to one side, forcing you to consider just how alive these victims were, and how their tragic deaths caught them right in the middle of their vibrant and ordinary lives. Seeing this memorial was just the beginning of a couple heavy weeks for me, as I continued seeing the effects of WWII on Eastern and Central Europe.





Krakow, Poland:

I know that I've said this about a few of the places that I went, but truly, Krakow is like a fairy tale come to life. The streets were so charming, and I truly enjoyed walking around.


I like to call this one "Juxtaposition: Which is the Anachronism?"

Pope selfie! Pope John Paul II was from Krakow
One of my favorite things about Krakow was the Wawel castle. Inside they serve Wawel chocolate, which I think is well-known throughout Poland. I was feeling particularly homesick this day, so maybe that was a factor in really needing something comforting, but I think this hot chocolate was among the best I've ever had. It was so thick that you had to eat it with a spoon, and it came with little chunks of hazelnut inside and a generous whipped cream topping. Delightful. Also within the large castle complex is the Wawel cathedral, where most of Poland's kings and other dignitaries have been buried for centuries. I didn't feel that I was classy enough to be inside, but it was kind of cool to see such famous dead people that I had never heard of. Best of all, though, was the dragon cave under the castle! There are several myths, which you can read here if you're curious, but all relate to the idea that a dragon once lived in this cave and had to be conquered.

Wawel Cathedral
The dragon cave



A dragon statue outside the mouth of the cave that breathes real fire on the hour
As charming as it was, Krakow was also a really difficult part of the trip. Part of the reason I chose to go to Krakow was to engage with the Holocaust in a meaningful way, since Poland was one of the countries which suffered the most during WWII. While in town, it seemed nothing could go smoothly. For example, I was still trying to get over a cold, and I had been unknowingly using gluten-containing cough drops for about a while at this point, meaning that I had recurrent stomach cramps so sharp I could hardly breathe. I got really lost the first day, and spent way too much time walking and trying to figure out the public transportation system. In a weird way I appreciated the setbacks I experienced, because compared to all of the human suffering I was drinking in, my own issues seemed completely trivial. My own slight taste of physical pain and confusion reminded me of the unfathomable pain of others.

My first day in town, I went to the Schindler's Factory. Yes, the Schindler from Schindler's List - the one who saved Jews by hiring them for his factory. I had a difficult time finding the factory, because it is off in an industrial part of town (which makes sense, obviously). When I got there, the line was enormous - a good thing, because it means lots of people are observing and remembering, but also tough because it was a really cold day to spend a few hours to stand waiting outside. Again, makes you think about how terrible it must have been to endure a death camp during the winter, with far less adequate clothing.

Pots produced by Schindler's factory

Schindler's office
Schindler's office is still preserved and is pretty close to its original state, but the rest of the factory has been transformed into an experiential journey to Poland, circa 1930's and 1940's. There are photos, videos, songs, and letters from the era with firsthand accounts of the hope and optimism people had felt after WWI, the initial disbelief and subsequent horror when Hitler rose to power and took Poland, and the struggle of occupancy and war. The museum led you through the exhibits, so that you felt as if you were there. They actually built a mini-ghetto, so that you could see what it was like behind those tombstone-shaped walls, in cramped quarters. I was struck by how alive, how near, how human these memories felt - there were aspects of these memories that felt so like my own, like building a career and falling in and out of love and cherishing family and friends. And yet, all of these shocking, horrifying, unimaginable things upturned that normalcy completely.

The following day, I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was obviously a very somber experience, but also something that everyone should do. I had learned about concentration camps from a young age, but I don't think I ever fully comprehended the scale of them. Auschwitz-Birkenau is actually a complex of several camps which were built in phases, to accommodate more and more prisoners over time. We actually had to take a bus between the camps because they are so large and spread-out. The sheer quantity of humans who were subjected to the horrors within becomes readily apparent when you walk through the museum and see the enormous heaps of belongings found on the site: eyeglasses, combs, mirrors, toothbrushes, luggage, shoes. We passed through the housing sheds, peering into the wooden slatted bunks where multiple people would sleep, and imagining the pooled human waste and scampering rats which were present when far too many prisoners were forced to share the rudimentary huts. We huddled into the crematorium, where ovens could burn a few hundred bodies in a single day. We walked along the old railroad tracks, where masses teemed out after long journeys in stock cars and were sorted into two lines: those who would be gassed immediately, and those who would be forced to work.

Camp entrance
Eyeglasses
  
Chemical showers
Crematorium



Tracks of arrival

Bunk house
Perhaps the most nauseating piece of the experience was passing through a room with an enormous display case piled with literal metric tons of human hair, which time had turned a uniform color and texture. No photos or spoken words are allowed when passing through the space, out of respect for the deceased. I felt as though a heavy weight were pressing against my chest. You might wonder, why save the hair? You see, the goal of the camps was not only to exterminate, but also to profit. The Nazis wove human hair into cloth fabric, mixed human ashes into fertilizer, and extracted metal from human teeth. The valuables of the Jews, gypsies, Communists, Socialists, homosexuals, disabled, and other undesirables transported to the camp were ransacked and redistributed. The Nazis found even the items prisoners had tucked away in concealed compartments in hopes of keeping just one thing out of the Reich's grasp. Aryan children played with the toys that Jewish children brought to the camps. It was not only the military and war effort which gained financially, but also the broader business sector. Many companies found cheap labor by producing their goods in camps. Other companies found a market for their products by supplying the camps. All throughout Auschwitz there are shallow pools of water because the insurance company which underwrote the camp understood that there was a high fire risk with so many people crammed into a small space, and mandated that such pools be installed. Carrying insurance - what is better proof of a full-blown business enterprise? It's hard to comprehend the calculated, ruthless brutality, the way in which evil built such a well-oiled, efficient machine. As I wrapped up my time in Poland, I was left thinking about the ways in which we are all complicit in systems of evil. We may not live in the Third Reich, but the world is still a messed up place. A very real question, and one that should not be brushed off lightly, is how we engage with this reality, and whether we are doing our part to try to make things better.
Insurance pools
The cans which contained the poison used in the chemical showers

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Romania

Romania:

I had heard from a few people that Bucharest is a depressing city (and I agree), so I flew in late and just stayed the night before heading toward Transylvania to see the famous Dracula Castle! Now, the association of this castle to Dracula is loose at best. Although Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, did indeed set his novel in this region of Transylvania, he didn't have this particular fortress in mind. This castle is loosely associated with Vlad III, a notoriously cruel ruler who may have inspired Count Dracula. Of course, loose associations don't make for great tourism, so the town and the castle really play up the Dracula shtick without a hint of irony, although the locals are quick to tell you it's all made up. It's fun, nonetheless. Since the building was constructed originally as a fortress, it's relatively simple and sparse inside.


Ooo spooky!



Halloween decorations in the castle
I toured the castle right before it closed, got a few goofy selfies, and then headed toward my lodging for the night - House of Dracula, a themed hotel. It was a little creepy inside, and the carpet was blood red, but overall it wasn't as cheesy as I had been expecting. It was still fun to stay there, and I did start reading Stoker's classic novel. The hotel is in Poiana Brasov, a small but lovely ski resort, which meant it was perfectly situated for hiking. I went downstairs in the morning and asked where a good location might be for doing a day hike. The man working the desk took out a map of the town, and sketched in a circular loop that would take me up, around, and back into town. He told me to look for the "triangle" trail, and then the "circle." He said it would take me a few hours, depending on how quickly I walked. Sounded good to me!





I could not have picked a more perfect time to visit the Carpathian mountains. The hills were inflamed with all shades of changing colors. I've never been to the northeastern US in the fall, but I imagine it would look similar to this. So I went, hiking along, mouth occasionally involuntarily agape because the leaves were so stunning. I listened to music, but tried to only listen through one ear because Romania is famous for it's robust bear population, and I knew from growing up in the mountains that bears are more active in the fall as they eat more to prepare for hibernation. The trails were very well marked, but I realized with some dismay that there were more than one "triangle" and "circle" trails - there were different colored triangles and circles. I'd figure it out, wouldn't I? I didn't pay as close attention as I should have. Some of the trails pointed to "Brasov," and I was staying in Poiana Brasov. Of course, Brasov was the neighboring mid-sized city on the other side of the mountain range, but if I hiked in that direction surely the trail would double back.

It didn't.

When I got into a large town (which I later found out was indeed Brasov), I stopped to look at a trail map. I must have looked confused, because a couple stopped to ask me if I needed directions. They didn't speak much English, but the communication happened anyway.
Me: "Poiana Brasov?"
Them: *expression of horror on their faces*
Me: "Really far?"
Them: nod
Me: "... Taxi?"
Them: *look of relief* point me down the hill

I could have hiked all the way back, but it a) would have taken me several more hours, and it was already mid-afternoon, and b) there was no guarantee I wouldn't have gotten lost on the way back. So I wandered down, found a grocery store, and bought a few hard ciders and some sour Skittles, as true adults do. As I was checking out, I asked the cashier where I could catch a taxi. She panicked, and immediately started speaking to another cashier in Romanian. Romanian is a romance language, so I managed to pick up that she was asking if that cashier spoke English. She shook her head, and began asking other employees. Probably every employee in the grocery store was summoned to ask if they spoke English, and one proud high school boy stepped forward as the best English speaker in the store. He not only called me a taxi, but he told me that he would wait with me for the taxi to arrive so that he could negotiate a fair rate with the driver. He asked where I was from, and was pleasantly surprised that I was American. He positively beamed as he bid me goodbye at the taxi - I think I probably made his week, because he got to use his English to help out a cute American girl.

Quick side note on Romania - never in my life have I been in a rural area where taxis were such a feasible way to get around. Even when they have to be called in from a neighboring town and you have to pay for their return trip across the pass, they are reasonably priced. There was one occasion where getting a taxi to come over from another town would have been expensive, but one of the staff at the hotel offered to drive me across the pass himself so long as I would cover the cost of gas. Which brings me to another point about Romania - Romanians are incredibly kind and willing to help a complete stranger.

Back to the story. Dusk was falling as I walked down the country road, searching for the bed and breakfast which would be home for the night. I was greeted with stares and various brays and clucks from the neighbors: horses, a cow, a donkey or two, plenty of dogs, chickens, and a human who couldn't understand why this crazy woman wearing two backpacks was walking down his road. I found the B&B after some effort, and the host was very friendly but didn't speak more than a few words in English. Her daughter translated our initial conversation, including the all-important Wi-Fi password and asking what time I was leaving in the morning. After this, we were on our own to communicate. I showed on my phone the Google translate word for "toilet paper," for there wasn't any in my room, and my host apologized by motioning that she was slowly losing her mind and grabbed me a roll. When I showed her the word for "breakfast," she opened the fridge and pulled out individual items while I placed my order by nodding or shaking my head. Still, we bonded, because when I left in the morning she kissed me on the cheek and grasped my hand firmly with both her hands. What a lovely human being!

I was off to hike in a national park! I left my backpack at the tourism office in the nearest town, got a trail map (I had learned something from the prior day's mishaps), and started hiking. It was glorious.







I fed this sheep herding dog some salami, and she and I became fast friends

I did still get a bit confused, and thought I was further along on the map than I really was. It worked out well though, because the upper part of the loop I wanted to do had some pretty extreme terrain that I wasn't comfortable hiking by myself - picture relatively difficult scrambling, on a misty day with low visibility, when recent rains had made everything muddy and slippery. No thank you. So I stopped at a mountain hut to have lunch, and a cute German student who was studying in Romania for his Master's in forestry struck up a conversation. He pointed me toward the trail back into town, but of course I missed a turn off and got a bit turned about. I then realized I was going to be pressed for time to make it back to the tourism office before it closed to pick up my pack!  So I was speed hiking, practically jogging, through what ended up being the most beautiful part of the hike, and didn't get to appreciate the scenery as much as I might have liked. As I was closing in on town, the cute German pulled up behind me on the road and offered me a ride. Grateful, I jumped in. It struck me that I could have ridden much further toward my evening's lodging with him, because he was headed in that direction (and he was cute), but I also realized that he could be an ax murderer. So I had him drop me at the tourism office and figured out my own transport.

I had been planning on doing more hiking that week, but the weather took a turn - it rained for a few days straight - and I got sick. So, I stayed at my bed and breakfast and took a few days to relax, which ended up being quite the treat and a much-needed break from constant motion.

My last day in Romania I went to visit another castle in Sinaia, and bonded with two fellow Americans and an Australian over how strange our tour guide was (in a lilting voice: "I still believe in fairy tales, so I work in a castle!") and how aggressively strict the other staff were about enforcing the no-photos-unless-you-purchased-our-overpriced-photo-taking-ticket rule. I was very glad to meet them though, because I ended up meeting up with Ian and Grace in Prague because they are living there.

Awkward selfie when I didn't want to get caught taking pics, but that ceiling though...

When our tour guide graciously allowed us to snap photos of a bedroom, when the strict staff weren't looking


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Austria, Croatia, and Bosnia

Vienna, Austria:


One of the highlights of my trip was meeting up with my dear friend Kieryn, who is living in Vienna for a few years. This was the first time I’ve seen her since she moved in January, and it was so, so good to see her again. She is interning with a church which has a very diverse congregation and which works closely with the refugee community. It was such a joy to see first-hand the amazing work she is a part of in Vienna. I got into town on Saturday night, just in time to see the action on Sunday!


First up was the Spanish speaking service. I obviously was really excited for this service. I even knew a few of the songs, from my days attending church when I studied in Chile. Next up was Farsi church for members who are refugees from Iran and Afghanistan. Each week a few volunteers from the Farsi congregation prepare a traditional Persian meal for everyone to share, and it was delicious! For the service itself, the pastor preached in English and a man from the congregation translated, so I could understand what was being said. The worship music was beautiful, and even though I didn’t understand most of the lyrics, it was wonderful to witness how passionate these refugees are about their faith, and to be a part of their musical expression of that devotion. At the end of the service, those who were up for asylum decisions with the government raised their hands and we prayed for them to receive favorable decisions. We also prayed for those who are still waiting and hoping that they will receive asylum. I got to meet and speak briefly with a few of the refugees, and they were so friendly. The last service of the day was the German speaking service, which had some English peppered in. Kieryn got to practice her translation skills for me as our friend Mira preached (“Bad Lip Reading by Kieryn”). The congregation had shared a meal before, and we stayed and chatted for a few hours afterward.


It was a long day to be sure, but it was so great to see the work that Kieryn has been doing in Austria over the past year! It was also really impactful for me to meet the refugees I met, because we hear so many (often negative) messages about refugees. I have also been guilty of thinking of refugees in the abstract, and having a chance to interact with them in person made me remember that they are living, breathing humans whose lives really matter, not just political instruments.


By the end of the first month of my journey, I was exhausted and ready for a few days of R&R. I hardly left the apartment for a while other than to run around the castle and palace grounds nearby (casual). Kieryn and I also spent lots of time catching up on months of best friendship, which meant hours and hours of conversation. It was an emotionally intense week, because neither of us is one to just shoot the breeze - we talked at depth about so many weighty issues, and cycled through all of the emotions in a compact time frame. There were lighter moments as well - wine nights with Kieryn’s dear friend Mira; visiting the tourist sites; running through palaces (yes, really, the gardens are open to the public and serve practically as parks now); and taking a break from Kieryn’s applications and my trip planning to sing along to Tina Turner and dance wildly about the flat.


Casual run through palace gardens
 One of the highlights of the week, for me at least, was taco night. Yes, you read that correctly - TACOS! Anyone who has been to Europe knows that they have a surprising dearth of even mediocre Mexican food, and Kieryn and I were born and raised eating lots of Mexican and Tex-Mex food. I had been without it a month, poor Kieryn almost a year, and we had some mighty strong cravings. We came up with the brilliant idea of throwing a party to fulfill the noble vision of bringing tacos to the good people of Vienna. Google helped us find the Mexican import store, so we could go full-out. I’m talking carne cooked in spicy sauce, with corn tortillas and chips, salsa, guacamole, fajita vegetables, beans, and all the other toppings. We even made what we dubbed the “Vienna margarita”: Cuervo tequila, lemon juice, orange juice, Elderflower syrup, and a sprinkle of salt. They tasted pretty damn close to the original. I threw together a playlist of reggaeton, salsa, and other music to get us in the mood, and we were ready! We cooked enough for 30, and maybe had fewer than that show up, but there was a crowd. Many of Kieryn’s friends from the church came, and since their congregation is so international, we had people from all over the world at the party. A few of them had never even had a taco before - in fact, the Iranian women had to Google what a taco was, and they especially enjoyed the meal. Everyone loved the food, and it was a really fun night!


Behold, the beauty of hot sauce, piñatas, and tacky sombreros
Ironically, after executing such a delicious (and challenging, given the lack of readily available ingredients) meal, the following night we had the ultimate cooking disaster and a reminder that I was still in a foreign country. We intended to make gluten free pasta with red sauce and zucchini. Simple, easy, delicious. Except, all the “alternative” food products were next to each other in the grocery store, and my German being practically non-existent, I picked up what I thought was gluten-free pasta, but which in actuality was vegan “beef” crumbles (the box had a picture of pasta with red “meat” sauce, ok?). I also got a cucumber instead of a zucchini. So we got all the way back to the apartment, hangry, and realized that we had neither of the crucial ingredients for this meal. We laugh-cried - how typical that after being such accomplished cooks, that we would have such a massive failure.


Finally, my week in Vienna was over, and I had to say goodbye to Kieryn. It was a rough re-entry to the traveler’s life for me, for in my early morning haze, I missed my train to the airport while literally sitting at the train station. I realized too late that the train which had just pulled up was my train, and by the time I asked, it was pulling away. So, I had to call Kieryn (who was already halfway back to sleep) and inquire about how to catch a cab. And with that, I was off to Croatia!


Croatia:

Croatia is really beautiful. I was there right at the end of the tourism season, so unfortunately it was a bit too windy and cool to actually swim in the ocean. If I ever return at some point later in life, I’ll have to go during the summer so that I can do the cliff jumping, sea kayaking, and all the other oceanic activities the country is known for!


Even turbulent, the Adriatic Sea is gorgeous

However, I still got to appreciate the nature that Croatia has to offer. I visited Krka National Park for a day to see its beautiful and huge waterfalls. Even though I knew the water would be freezing so late in the season, I just had to take a dip! However, when I went to go ask a woman at one of the snack shops on site to watch my bag while I swam, she panicked. She asked, “You’re going swimming? Swimming?!?” I nodded. “It’s very dangerous! Very dangerous! Something just happened, you really shouldn’t!” She went on to explain that at this point in the year the current was strong if I went far out. I was skeptical, because for some reason as a solo female traveler everyone feels the need to protect me as if I were a small child, and it gets annoying. I walked over to the swimming area, scoped it out, and decided I would just wade in a short distance. She took my backpack and looked at me with as much fear in her eyes as if I had said I’d like to visit a serial killer’s haunted mansion. So I slowly made my way in until I was waist deep, took a few selfies (#basic) and carefully tread back, because the rocks were actually very slippery and slimy. When I went to recollect my things, the woman at the shop exclaimed, “You’re alive!” I thought yep, I’m alive, why are you so surprised? However, I found out on the bus ride back into town that something tragic actually had happened. A young guy had slipped on the rocks, fallen and hit his head, and then drowned because he took in too much water. He was there on vacation with his group of friends. One of my friends from the hostel who had been there earlier in the day actually swam with them before it happened. It was an eerie moment for sure, to realize that even when I like to think I’m a bold and independent adventurer, that in one tragic moment everything can go wrong.




Fun fact: A lot of Game of Thrones was filmed in Croatia! The combination of scenery and ancient towns makes for a breathtaking backdrop. Confession: I'm way behind on the show, but Google let me know where things were filmed.
Dubrovnik, aka King's Landing



The subterranean portion is all that remains of this palace dating back to the Roman Emperor Palatine. It's also where Daenerys keeps her dragons.



View from tower in Split
One neat memory from Croatia is the bus rides along the Adriatic coast, from Split to Dubrovnik. I was eating dinner on the bus when an older man who was returning to his small village after visiting the market, and who spoke hardly any English, reached across the aisle to offer me two of his oranges. He smiled, and his eyes were so kind that I couldn’t say no. A few moments later, in return, I offered him a few of my roasted caramelized almonds. It was such a sweet little exchange! Another interesting thing about the bus ride between Split and Dubrovnik was passing through a small stretch of Bosnian coast and experiencing the strongest border controls of my entire trip. At each check point, both entering and leaving Bosnia, an immigration officer came onto the bus and examined every person’s passport. This was really strange after being in the rest of the European Union, where you can cross borders practically uninspected.


Snapped en route


Bosnia:


I went in with no expectations in one way or the other for Bosnia, and it was actually probably my favorite country of the trip (if there is such a thing as favorites). I had decided to go to Sarajevo because I remembered that in elementary school I read about kids my age who had survived the ethnic cleansing and war there at the beginning of the 90’s. It really impacted me back then, and I wanted to see in person what the country is like today, particularly the capital of Sarajevo. On the advice of Kieryn’s Bosnian friend, I decided to visit the small town of Mostar on the way. We don’t hear much about the Balkan states, but let me tell you, they are stunning!



Another bus window photo
Getting into Mostar was one of the most difficult moments of my trip. To begin with, the bus out of Dubrovnik was a few hours delayed (of course). A few travelers from Mexico and I small talked while we waited, giving me a chance to dust off my Spanish. Not only did the bus leave late, but also it lagged at each and every stop in intermediate towns. During one of these pauses, I was completely absorbed in my phone, playing my favorite game of "Let's see if this bus stop or a neighboring business has free Wi-Fi, and if my phone will connect to it!" when one of my Mexican friends smacked my leg. I whipped up my head . "You're going to Mostar, right?" I nodded. "You have to get off here. Now! Quickly!" We weren't there yet. I looked baffled, and they reiterated that something had happened with the bus, they didn't know what, but we needed to switch buses. There had been an announcement as we pulled into the station, but it was only given in Bosnian and in Croatian. Guess it was an important announcement. I thanked them profusely, and also sent a little thank-you prayer that we had chatted earlier and that they had remembered where I was going and taken the time to tell me, or else I would have ended up in the middle of nowhere.

When we pulled into Mostar, it was pitch black, pouring rain, and sometime after 10 p.m. It turned out there were multiple stops in town before arriving at the main bus terminal, and my lucky bet to stay on the bus until the end of the route paid off. I pulled up my HostelWorld confirmation email, especially excited for that night's lodging. I had booked myself an entire apartment for the evening, and it was still cheaper than a hostel in most major Western European cities. (Yeah, the US Dollar goes far in Eastern Europe). The host had sent me a map and walking directions, but I had forgotten to download the map. Oh well, I'd figure it out. Then it dawned on me - I had also forgotten to exchange currencies before I left Croatia. I didn't feel supremely comfortable using an ATM this late at night, especially with my large pack advertising that I was a tourist. Without cash, there was no way I could pay a taxi. So I started walking.

Mostar is a small town, but not as small as I'd hoped. The walking directions my host had emailed me were along the lines of, "Walk across the bridge, go a few blocks, turn right." After I had been walking 20 minutes in the pouring rain, I realized that I didn't have a clue where I was. I found a deli, one of the few businesses open this late, and asked them where I would go to catch a taxi. They said that I couldn't flag a taxi in this part of town, meaning that they would have to call one for me. I inquired if I could pay for the taxi in Euros. They shook their heads. Trying to conceal my rising panic, I said, "Ok, I'll figure it out," and left. I went to stand under the street light and flipped through confirmation emails on my phone, deciding what I could do. A moment later, one of the women who was in the deli came up and tapped my shoulder. "Do you need help?" I nodded, trying not to immediately begin sobbing. First she tried to call the phone number of my hostel, but it was out of service. Then she called a taxi and gave me a few coins to cover the cost. I tried to offer here Euro coins for the amount of the taxi ride, which she refused. I shot up another prayer, thankful for the kindness and mercy of total strangers. Then I waited near the side of the road, getting splashed with puddle water and skewered with bewildered glances from each passing car.

Finally my taxi arrived. My taxi driver, who was about my age, asked where I was going. I showed him the address. He looked back at my quizzically, and asked where I had booked my hostel. I replied that I had booked it online. He asked more pressing questions. I insisted that it was a legit place, with good reviews. He said, "I know that road, but I do not know of that number on that road. The numbers end much lower than that." He called two or three different people to ask if they had heard of that address, and none of them had. At this point I was ready to throw my hands up and just have him take me to another hostel, or a hotel. He read the email again, and then exclaimed, "Wait! Teo! I know that guy! I played soccer with him," referring to the apartment owner. Relieved, I ask, "Oh great! Do you know where he lives?" "Nope." We agreed to just drive to that road, and drive around until we found the house number. He parked on a corner, and pointed to a building, saying that it must be one of those doors. I got out, and rang the bell of the first door I found. It wasn't that one, but the neighbor pointed to the next door down. I rang again, and this time the apartment owner's mother answered. She was worried to death - she had been waiting for me all night. I was too tired to even begin to explain the whole ordeal. I tried to look apologetic and thankful at the same time. I then went upstairs, took a long, hot shower, and collapsed into bed.

Difficulties in arriving aside, I truly enjoyed the following day in Mostar. That afternoon, I took a bus to Sarajevo, and I'm pretty sure my mouth was hanging open the entire way as I drank in the fall colors of the Balkans. I was so sad to be missing the leaves' changing back in Colorado - little did I know that I would get to experience it so vibrantly in Europe!



Mostar

Stari Most, a famous bridge in Mostar. The original was destroyed during the war, so this is the second edition. Look carefully - you'll see the guy in white shorts, who would have jumped off had enough tourists paid him to do so. It's a tradition.
My mouth hung open for different reasons as we pulled into the bus stop in Sarajevo. My brain screamed, "Holy shit, are those bullet holes?" An abandoned building was so riddled with them that they appeared to be a part of the architecture, as if the designers had selected aerated siding. I had come to see what aftermath remained of the war, and clearly there was still quite a bit. There were a handful of bombed-out buildings in Mostar, but for some reason the bullet holes seemed so much more... personal.

Oh, Sarajevo. I feel in love with the city instantly. People get excited about Denver's mountain views, but Sarajevo is completely surrounded by mountains on all sides, and they are much closer to the city itself. Sarajevo also felt a little bit like Santiago, Chile, but with a distinctly Eastern European twist. It's hard to put into words what all I love about the city, because it's more the general feel you get being in a place, but I will try.


1. Cultural co-existence - Known as "Jerusalem of Europe" because Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews have shared the city for hundreds of years. For the most part the coexistence has been peaceful, with the glaring exception of the Bosnian genocide in the 1990's. A brief history lesson, which I'll freely admit I had to research: As the Soviet Union dissolved, countries began declaring independence: Slovenia, Croatia, and then Bosnia-Herzegovina. Orthodox Bosnian Serbs envisioned forming a "Greater Serbia" by joining together Serbian territory throughout the region. The Serb minority began attacking Bosnia, and proceeded over several years to ethnically cleanse Bosniaks, or members of the Bosnian Muslim majority, as well as Bosnian and Croatian Catholics. Sarajevo was under siege for four years, and the fighting was widespread throughout the region.


When I took a walking tour of the city, my tour guide espoused the importance of tolerance today in Bosnia. He said that given such a bitter, recent conflict, respect for the Other is very important today in Bosnia. However, most reports I've read say that there is still a long way to go in terms of dissolving the resentment, fear, and lack of understanding between ethnic and religious groups in the region. I'd say both things are probably true to some extent. Being in the city is a unique experience. I never was outside at the right moment, but they say that at noon you can hear the muezzin and the cathedrals' bells at the same moment. You can stand on the dividing line between the Christian and Muslim districts, and as you look left and right see two extremely different styles of architecture, restaurants, and shops.


Walking pedestrians made the pano a bit funky, but it gives you the idea!
On a personal level, Bosnia profoundly impacted me spiritually. I felt on a soul level the importance of deeply appreciating other cultures and religions. For example, I was so touched by the story of a Muslim librarian who had hidden a very old and sacred Jewish manuscript from Hitler during WWII. Thanks to him, the text survives to this day. It inspired me to stand up for those who are different than me. Alternately, I witnessed the devastation that hatred can cause. 

I also got the chance to experience Islam in a way I hadn't before by visiting a mosque and interacting with Bosnian Muslims. I was struck by the beautiful simplicity of the space. Whereas many cathedrals are lavish and littered with ornate side chapels with large plaques broadcasting the person who funded each space, mosques are beautifully simple. Wealthy Muslims prefer to fund community spaces, such as public baths and schools, because they believe that so long as the spaces are in use, the legacy of the donor lives on. This emphasis on community touched me, and gave me new insight to my Muslim brothers and sisters who also trace their faith heritage back to Abraham.


Inside a mosque
2. Tangible History -


The exact spot where Franz Ferdinand was shot, kicking off WWI

The effects of the Bosnian war were palpable. I asked my walking tour guide what he remembered of the war, since he was in elementary school at the time. He responded that his mother wouldn't let him wear red. Thinking that maybe red was associated with one faction or another, I asked why red was forbidden. He responded that it made it easier for the snipers to see him, and shoot at him. He said that once a sniper's shot passed within half a meter of him, and then quipped that the sniper must not have been any good since he missed. What do you even say in response to that?

Throughout the city there are Sarajevo Roses, or marks on the sidewalk that look vaguely like flower petals. They were formed by shell shrapnel, and the city paints them red as a reminder.




One of the more popular markets in the city is now roofed, because one of the largest massacres happened when a shell was shot into the market on a weekday.





The trees in the city are small and young, because they had to be replanted after the war - the citizens had to use whatever they could as fuel sources when the city was under siege.


Emily and I went to the Tunnel of Hope museum. The Bosnians actually dug a tunnel under the airport runway, since there was no other way to get food, supplies, or injured people in or out of the city for four years. A small section of the tunnel remains open, and you can walk through it. There is also a museum showing what life was like during the war. It was one of the most emotionally impactful places I've ever been.




On a less serious note, you can also visit the sites from the 1984 Winter Olympics. My friend Emily and I took a taxi up to the bobsled track, walked all the way through it, and hiked back into town. The bobsled track is haunting and enchanting at the same time. It, too, was touched by the war - the attacking Serb forces shot into Sarajevo from up in the hills by the track, so the track itself does have what appear to be bullet holes in it. Nowadays, the track functions as a graffiti gallery and place to party, as evidenced by the empty bottles we found in and near it. On the hike back down, we also explored some abandoned/destroyed houses that had fantastic views of the city and fall colors.





Bullet holes in the exterior foam insulation? Probably.





3. Food - Perhaps the best food of the trip. This is where the Turkish influence really shines! My favorite was ćevapčići, or sausage-shaped minced meat that came with a delicious tomato-based dipping sauce. There was also roasted meat and potatoes cooked under a huge iron plate, surrounded by hot coals. I ate all flavors of Turkish Delight, which is a gummy confection. The drinks were mostly delicious as well! One was a perfectly tart yogurt milk drink. The most unique, and unbelievably delicious, was Sarajevan Salep. It's a combination of steamed milk, powdered wild orchid bulb, cinnamon, and honey. It's impossible to describe the taste accurately, but it was sweet, comforting, and perhaps mildly floral. If I could make it at home, I'd drink it all the time! The one thing I didn't like was Bosnian coffee. They use coffee beans which are so finely ground that they have the consistency of dust, and they boil the grounds directly into the water with no filtration process. You alternate drinking little sips of Bosnian coffee with little sips of syrupy-sweet orange water. In my opinion, the former tasted like licking dirt, and the latter practically gave you a headache it was so sweet.


That meat cooking device
Salep


Bosnian coffee, orange water, and rose flavored Turkish Delight
4. Beauty - Photos speak for themselves


Overlooking Sarajevo

PC: Emily
5. People - I so enjoyed everyone I met in Bosnia. Of course there was my friend Emily from the hostel, who was a fellow American. She and I clicked pretty much right away, and I so enjoyed getting to know her. She just so happened to celebrate her birthday while in Sarajevo, and one of my favorite memories from the trip was our little celebration for her in the hostel. She went inside to chat with her family, and the Bosnians in our group insisted that "We must hide and surprise her, just like they do in the movies! She must be surprised!" So they taught us foreigners how to sing Happy Birthday in Bosnian, and we did, in fact, hide under the table and jump out and start singing to her when she came back out.

I really love Bosnians, and Eastern European people in general. They have a sharp sense of humor, and zero tolerance for nonsense and bullshit. At the same time, they are incredibly kind and open-hearted. You get the sense that they have lived through a lot, because they are fierce, and they are fierce in how they love as well. They are also ingenuous, because they've had to be to survive. One funny moment was when Emily and I tried to catch a taxi from the Tunnel of Hope museum, me to the airport, her to the closest transit station. In Bosnia, and Eastern Europe in general, people speak very little English. So we indicated to a shop owner that we needed a taxi, and he nodded. He made a phone call, but instead of a taxi company, he called a neighbor! The neighbor pulled up, and we used the calculator on our phone to communicate and negotiate a price for him to take us both to our destinations. When I got out at the airport, my mind froze in panic for half a second as I realized Emily would have to continue alone to her destination alone in the car with this stranger. We said goodbye and made eye contact, seriously agreeing to message each other to let the other know we had arrived safely to our next destinations.

I also loved the absence of one type of person in Bosnia - the Tourist. Now, Bosnia is trying hard to establish its tourism industry, so I do encourage anyone and everyone to go there! But, it was so nice to be in a place unmarred by the trashy style of tourism that favors tasteless souvenir shops over cultural interaction and experience. In fact, in one shop, a woman asked Emily and I where we were from. We responded that we were Americans, and she blurted, "Why are you here?" She was not unkind, but rather genuinely curious as to why we were so very far from home. The Bosnians we met in the hostel asked us all kinds of questions about America. Was it like the movies? What was high school like - Mean Girls? American Pie? Emily is from Texas, and actually got them to believe that we were all cowboys, and that we rode horses to school. Eventually they found out she was lying, but it really was interesting to be a cultural ambassador to a group of people who were deeply curious about our country. 

That's all for this post. Up next: Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland!