Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Can I finally qualify for the title of globetrotter?

I'm the first to admit that I'm a travel-a-holic, if that's even a word.  But there are times when even I outdo myself.  Four days. 96 hours. 5,760 minutes.  That's all the time I allowed myself from the moment I returned home from Bosnia to the moment I left again.  I didn't purposefully plan it that way, but it did leave me wishing that my life could always be like that: work four days, travel a few, then repeat.  But until that happens, I'll continue to relish in this moment of insanity.  Because actually, that's all it really was.

Once I finally felt my feet were firmly planted on the ground, I found myself at the airport again- this time standing behind a podium facing a five minute interrogation. The interrogator held onto my passport as she walked over to another airline employee and proceeded to have a conversation about me. She would frequently glance in my direction and nod her head as her colleague would comment. When she returned, she gave me instructions on the next steps I must take and placed stickers on my itinerary printout. I was informed I had less than ten minutes from that moment to reach a designated location in a far wing of the airport for an appointment.

So I hurried as I made my way to the check-in counter to receive my ticket and drop off my luggage. I continued to cruise past armed guards on my way to passport control.  More armed guards line the pathway to the location I advanced towards.  When I finally reached the scheduled room, two minutes late, I was again interrogated while my possessions were searched behind a partition.

Fifteen minutes later I was given the clear and escorted to the security check where I passed through the x-ray scanner and frisked down.

When it was all over, I plopped myself down on a chair, exhausted, trying to wrap my head around what just happened.  But I wasn't even given sufficient time to do that before I entered a plane with a sign that read, "For your information: This flight has been koshered for Passover."

Friday, May 27, 2011

Might as well jump

Mostar's beloved bridge is the pride and joy of the locals. In fact, the name Mostar itself means "the bridge keepers". 

First built between 1558-1566 , the bridge was an architectural masterpiece. Life and entertainment revolved around the bridge until it was bombed on November 9, 1993.  From what we were told, the energy of the locals died with the bridge, and despite its reconstruction the vibe has never been the same. 

Had Jeannine and I visited pre-war, we may have noticed something this time around, but to us it still felt like there was excitement in the air.  Products from shops spilled out onto the streets leading to the bridge. Vendors stood outside their doors to greet those who passed by. Tourists were huddled around the city's various view points.  And I was right in the middle of them, soaking up the views and taking more pictures than the memory card in my camera felt was necessary.

Then one man made the impossible, possible by making the bridge even cooler.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see

We met some of the kindest people in Bosnia.  Like the women who played charades with us for over five minutes in Srebrenica so we could figure out the best way to reach the memorial, and then offered us candy once we finally understood. Or the man we shared a train car with on our way to Mostar, who not only lifted and lowered our suitcases off the overhead rack, but carried them across the platform, down the stairs, and set them down for us just outside the station.
Inside the Muslibegovic House

The kindness continued as we reached our hotel in Mostar, an Ottoman house that has been in the family for generations, untouched by the war.  The Muslibegovic House is now a national monument and museum along with being a hotel.  We felt we were transported back in time the moment we entered the courtyard.  Before we had a chance to catch our breath, the owners whisked us into the dining area since it was mid-morning and we hadn't eaten anything substantial yet.  They filled us with breads, fruits, yoghurts, meats and homemade cookies. The following morning, due to our early departure, they specially prepared and provided us bagged breakfast for the road.

Then there was the time we visited one of the mosques in Mostar where the ticket holder allowed us both to enter for less than the price of one ticket and as an added bonus, let us climb the minaret for free.

Suffice it to say, their kindness went above and beyond the call of duty.  And we couldn't get enough.

Monday, May 16, 2011

In remembrance

Srebrenica isn't generally a place a tourist would visit... unless the visit is revolved around the village's genocide memorial.  It is three hours outside of Sarajevo by bus and no where one would typically spend more than a few hours in.

Jeannine recently finished interning at the ICTY in the Hague.  She had spent the last few months editing legal proofs for the prosecution of one of the genocide leaders and wanted to visit the area where it occurred.  She had planned on going the day before I arrived, but that day brought about an onslaught of snow and she feared that if she went, in the cold with the snow, she may just die of depression. Instead she asked me how opposed I would be of going with her.  Thankfully the request was asked prior to my arrival so I had time to really think about it.

Over a five day period in July 1995, more than 8,000 Muslim boys and men were brutally massacred in and around Srebrenica, only two years after the UN declared it a safe haven.  To date it is the largest extermination in Europe since World War II.

It took me a while to make up my mind, to see a place where such inhumane brutality occurred.  But I consented, mainly for the same reason people today visit Jewish Concentration Camps... to pay respects and garner a greater hope that a genocide such as this one will never occur again.

It appeared to us that the city must not have changed much in the last 16 years.  It is claimed that some of those who participated in the murders still live in the area and go on about their daily lives as if nothing happened.  The people we met during our time in the village were as kind as everyone else we had met in Bosnia.  But there was something in the air.  It felt different.  And that somber feeling stayed with us the entire time we were there.

a treasure trove

Some of the most enchanting countries I've visited are ones in which I arrive with no expectations.  Bosnia has definitely made its way onto that list.  As we went from one location to the next, I was constantly in awe with the beauty of landscape.

Sarajevo's Old Town charm:

The hills that surround it:

Srebrenica and its picturesque countryside, breathtaking despite the horrors that occurred within its boundaries:

Mostar and its prized bridge:

Even the countryside was magnificent.

Throughout my entire trip I couldn't let go of the thought that if it weren't for Jeannine's request for me to join her, I may have forever missed out on visiting one of Europe's greatest gems. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

gone but not forgotten

Sarajevo Cemetery Memorial

The Bosnian war is still fresh in the minds of locals in Sarajevo. They recall the memories as if it occurred yesterday, with vivid detail and heart-wrenching images.   It was sobering to walk down the beautiful city streets, surrounded on all sides by lightly snow covered peaks, envisioning what happened 16 years prior.

"A dead body would be lying on the ground nearly every day.  The ambulance tried picking them up as quickly as possible, but it still took a while.  After time you got used to seeing the bodies and would walk around them continuing on your way."  I sat engrossed by what the owner of the hostel where we were staying was telling us. In a way it appeared as though he disengaged himself from what had happened.  Rightfully so, as I'm sure I would too - it's the only real way to cope. But I still couldn't begin to imagine...

The day before I arrived, Jeannine visited a local museum.  It spoke of a woman who was leading someone through the post-war city of Sarajevo. When they reached the notorious Sniper Alley (a main road in the city which, during the war, was lined with sniper posts where men, women and children alike were shot at) she started sprinting until she reached the end of the road. Once she stopped she immediately turned to her companion, started laughing and said "sorry... it's a habit."

Only small reminders of what occurred now remain:  condemned buildings, Sarajevo roses (red resin filled holes left from shrapnel landing on the concrete roads where people had been killed), a memorial cemetery, and the eternal flame. Beyond that, life has moved on, but the memories of what happened are clearly never forgotten.

Sarajevo Rose

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Skewed perceptions

Bosnia was never on my list of places I had planned on visiting.  Really... never.
Croatia?  Yes.
Slovenia?  Sure!
Montenegro?  Love to.
But Bosnia?  No way.

Since the end of the Yugoslav wars, Bosnia has been out of the spotlight.  Of course time heals all wounds and life goes on, but for an outsider who's last image of the country is one of little children playing in landmines, knowing exactly where not to step... it turns into the first image that comes to mind when the country is mentioned. All you're left with is heartache for the people, along with a hesitance to even visit... because for all you know, maybe no progress was made at all in the past 15 years. But that last thought is irrational. Logically life doesn't stand still, even for war ravaged countries.

Even with its history, I jumped at the opportunity for a long weekend Bosnian getaway when my friend Jeannine asked if I wanted to join her at some point during her own Balkan vacation.

I was called crazy.  I was given odd looks.  I was asked why I was even going.

I had no answer.  I didn't know myself, besides the fact that I had the opportunity.

Looking back on it, I've realized I went for the same reason I went to Mali (plus my most recent trip to Israel and Jordan)... to create a new image, a correct image- devoid of stigmas, of what the country holds. I didn't want the image of little children playing in landmines to be the only one that comes to mind when thinking of Bosnia.  Because, truly, it is so much more than the horrible 3 and a half year war.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Three years and counting

March marked another year living in Amsterdam, but I was too busy talking about Mali to properly commemorate the occasion until now.  But even though I'm nearly two months late in celebrating publicly, I just want to make it clear, that a 3 year anniversary is no small feat in my life.  As someone with gypsy blood, living in one place for 2 full years is a big deal, but 3... 3 is momentous.  I haven't done something like that since 1998 - 13 years ago.

Sticking around for another year was great, even with its downfalls like the failed attempt to Morocco.  Instead that led to an entirely different adventure.

The year even included my first trip back to the United States, which I had vowed I wouldn't do for a few more years down the line.  Thankfully I only needed to take one day off of work, which allowed me to enjoy food, friends and family even more.

A few months into the year I celebrated team Orange in the World Cup like I had lived here all my life... and mourned their loss in the same fashion.

There were days of picnicking in the park while watching concerts near Cambridge.

Crazy impulses led to walking knee deep in mud for 10 miles to reach a nearby island.

When August rolled around, I celebrated my milestone birthday in style - heading to Africa for the first time for a luxury safari.

There was also the continued discovery of hot to-do items in Holland, such as the tree lighting ceremony in Gouda.

I played the good daughter over Christmas, and placated my mother in her desires to go skiing even though I'm opposed to the sport.

But to end the year with a bang I had to do something stupendous... something that not very many people do, and that something was to go to Timbuktu and back.

And with having accomplished all those things, I say breaking my 13 year streak was more than worth it.