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 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


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!


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

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!

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