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The 3 things you need to do when you arrive in an unfamiliar country: Bosnia


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I got to Bosnia a few days ago and it was something in between pleasant and delightful. I spent the duration of my stay in Sarajevo. Sarajevo is one of those places where you turn up, have a poke around, and then realise you’re not sure why you’re there. It’s enjoyable and all that, but there just isn’t too much going on.

They (the Bosnian tourist board) call Bosnia the ‘heart shaped land’ because it very slightly looks like a heart. Not a cartoon heart unfortunately, a real, medically accurate one. Or neither. I can’t really tell.

The name ‘Bosnia’ comes from the Indo-European word ‘Bosna’ which means water. This is because there are lots of lakes and rivers and all that. This would be like if we decided to call England ‘Low hills and plains’.

When I’m somewhere I haven’t been before and haven’t, in the slightest, prepared what I’m going to do when I get there, I like to do three important things.

1. Watch the local news to see if it’s unintentionally comedic.

It was funny but not hilarious. Once you’ve watched the local news in Japan, you get high hopes for international local news but are often left disappointed. Bosnia’s was still amusing and worth a go, though. There was the usual wooden, somewhat aggressive male news anchor and the usual also stern female news anchor who has seemingly dressed for her Nuts cover shoot. But you have to watch it just in case.

2. Ask for an unusual proverb or saying. Worked in Hungary, so why not here?

You know how in the UK, if you misbehave as a child your parents will say something like ‘No dessert if you don’t pack it in!’ or ‘You’re not watching one more episode of Lizzie McGuire until you start behaving!’. There’s a Bosnian threat to children which is; ‘If you don’t behave, you’ll have to listen to folk music’. What?! This would be a bloody prize compared to the usual ‘so bad it didn’t even make the cut for Eurovision’ noise they usually have to deal with. Their music, like the entirety of Europe besides the UK, wouldn’t really be appreciated anywhere else besides the place it was created. I swear I heard a pop-cover of the Dracula opera from Forgetting Sarah Marshall about eight times.

So I didn’t find a good proverb. No matter. Number three always provides some sturdy results.

3. Go have a look around

A lot of people say you should do this first but, no. Third. Let yourself settle in first. For godsake this is a holiday not a riot.

The look around was fairly successful as far as those sort of things go. Although there is a real lack of pedestrian space in Sarajevo. So if you want to go anywhere, you generally have to walk in the road. Then all the cars start honking and you’re like; ‘Where do you want me to go? Shall I just stand here until I somehow acquire a car?’

The aforementioned honking was definitely a sign of things to come. That noise turned out to be the soundtrack to the city. Happy horns, angry horns, horns just for the heck of it. They had them all. It’s like they only just got them last week and are all still so excited that they feel they have to use them all day long. They’re about as much a part of Sarajevan sonancy as sirens are in South-East London.

Sarajevo, as you may have guessed, is very war-based. The Bosnian War only ended 20 years ago so it happened in living memory for over 75% of the population. It’s impossible to spend a touristy day there without at least half of it having something to do with the war. Incredibly illuminating but of course, a bit distressing for a vacation.

As with a lot of Europe, a great deal of the windows and doors tend to be covered with aggressive iron shutters. Very depressing in an already depressing city.

The problem is with the three rules that, if you start early enough in the day, you can potentially finish them all in that same day. Some would say that’s a good thing but if you’re staying for two days it bloody isn’t. So I needed to find something else to do. I woke up the next day and decided a day-trip to Mostar was the way to go. Mainly because it looked like this:

I’d driven through there on the way to Sarajevo and it looked a bit more like dystopian London in Children of Men than I was hoping for but I was sure the waterfalls and all must just be behind all that.

The hostel wifi was playing up so I thought I’d have a wander down to the tourist office and see about arranging a day trip. I arrived and it was completely desolate besides for the three people sitting behind three desks doing a good load of Bosnian nothing. I approached the closest one and stood there smiling in her direction for a bit. As I didn’t bother to learn any Bosnian - because it’s Bosnian, I just went with ‘hello’ but the kind of ‘hello’ you use when you answer the phone. A questioning ‘hello’. No response. I moved onto the next person. Tried the same thing again. Same result, so I moved on again. This time I accompanied it with an audible sigh so they knew I was feeling somewhat inconvenienced. There was no partition or anything like that blocking us by the way, just about a foot of former Yugoslavian air. So there’s no way they couldn’t hear or see me. Unless I’d accidentally just walked into the tourist information for the deaf and blind AGAIN. The third and final person was a big hulkin’ Balkan who at least had a bit of an amicable air about him. He was looking at me, for a start. I decided that I should just stop prevaricating around and launch straight into my question.

‘Hi, how much is it to go to Mosta-’

‘You have to get a number from the machine’

‘The ma? - OK... but there’s no one else here?’

He just smiled politely and inclined his head toward the ticket dispensing machine.

‘OK’ So I went and printed out a ticket. It was Number 2. Five seconds passed. I stood there looking at the man. He was looking at me. Another five seconds passed.

‘Number 2’

I paused. I was beginning to think this was some kind of joke. Was this just something funny they did because I’m foreign and it helps them pass the time? I’ll admit I had it coming. Earlier this year I was working on a project with a Chinese friend and every time she did something like hold up a tripod or any kind of general equipment and ask what it was called, I’d tell her it was called a ‘boner’. So a little while later she’d ask Aaron, our cameraman, ‘If he needed help carrying his boner?’, or ‘What are you going to do with that boner?’ (Sorry, Yuting). It was all a good laugh but it turns out karma wasn’t a fan.

I slowly re-approached the man who asked me to get a ticket.

‘Hello again. How much for a day-trip to Mostar, today?’

‘We have no more spaces today. Check online’

My incredulousness resulted in a dignified response of a mix of three words:

‘WharighFI’ (What? Right. FINE)

I left.

I even did a small turn around on the way out just to check they werent all silently laughing at me. They weren’t.

I decided to stand outside the neighbouring McDonalds and use their Wifi. 10 seconds later I had learnt that a day trip to Mostar would cost the equivalent of at least £50. Over treble my budget for my entire stay in Bosnia. I went back to the hostel and had a very enjoyable evening watching Bosnian news. It turns out that, even in Bosnia, when you take £15 for a two-day stay, you get £15 worth of a two-day stay. 

With thanks to Famous Hostels


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