I’ve had a hard time writing about Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is a place unlike anywhere we’ve visited and it is a place nearly impossible to describe, much like Japan, but for very different reasons. So what I wrote is really long because I couldn’t figure out how to make it shorter; our time in Bosnia left quite the impression on us. If you don’t want to read everything here are the cliff notes: it was fun, we would go back, and Bosnia is a uniquely weird place.
So I’ll start with the easiest part: We really didn’t know Bosnia had that much cool stuff to see. We were originally planning our trip through Croatia and we needed a way to get back to Zagreb, Croatia, to return our rental car so we thought we’d drive through Bosnia. As we were researching we kept finding more and more stuff to do. During our drive we were floored: Bosnia is beautiful, like gorgeous. We had no idea it was so mountainous and green. From what I’ve gathered, there really isn’t trekking or hiking culture / tourism in Bosnia which is really too bad because there were so many gorgeous places we visited where one could purposely get lost for weeks on end out in nature. It would be really neat to come back some day and spend time in the mountains disconnected from humanity. There is an Islamic influence throughout a large part of the country so Sarajevo feels like a mini-Istanbul (let me emphasize mini!) where there was the call to prayer and we were able to get the foods that we really enjoyed in Istanbul and other Muslim-majority countries we visited. There are really neat castles, settlements, and other important structures like the Mostar Bridge, littered throughout the country so even driving from one major city to another was broken up by short stopovers at cool sights. So much of the country was beautiful and fun to visit.
The price is right for tourism. Food, lodging, and other tourist activities are cheap in Bosnia, almost similar to what we paid in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam but Bosnia is far easier to reach than South East Asia. The yearly wage for the average Bosnian is less than half of the US minimum wage and there is over 40% unemployment. The low wages make tourist money go really far. A very filling meal for two could be bought for $8-$10, drinks included, and admission to tourist places is generally a buck or two. While there is a tourism industry in Bosnia it’s pretty well relegated to the major cities. It was a bit harder to get along in the countryside as we met fewer people who spoke English and quick serve restaurants were far and few inbetween.
We used Airbnb exclusively and we found amazing hosts on accident. This was the next-level type hosting we found in Japan. Our hosts were genuinely concerned for our wellbeing and wanted us to be happy in every way possible. In particular, two hosts stood out – they were around our age and they spent a non-trivial amount of time with us showing their city and sharing their stories of growing up, what the current life is like, and what they think the future holds for the country. These were amazing experiences we were not expecting; this type of experience has happened so infrequently during our travel that it will forever stand out. Our hosts were even concerned for our belongings. In Sarajevo, our host told us “I’m not saying your car stereo is going to get stolen but it might” so we paid for secure parking smile emoticon.
The next easiest thing would be the history. Bosnia has been an area conquered and reconquered since antiquity. Fast forward to the Middle Ages and later where the area was predominantly Christian (Catholic and Orthodox) until the Ottomans rolled through and brought a lot of Muslims making Muslims the largest minority group with no majority group. Skip ahead through the two world wars and now Bosnia is part of Yugoslavia under Tito. The big cultural differences and any tensions are suppressed by the state so people live in peace because, well, they have to.
Now comes the harder parts to explain. After the fall of Yugoslavia in the early 90s there was a multiyear war and a lot of people died. The war was fought largely on religious and ethnic lines between the three major groups (Croat [Catholic], Bosniak [Muslim], Serb [Orthodox]) so multicultural cities, like Sarajevo and Mostar, were absolutely ravaged by the war. Neighbor turned against neighbor just because they prayed to a different god and/or had different lineage. The war seemed to make everyone go insane; on one extreme is the ethnic cleansing which occurred all over the country and another extreme is how one of the leading literary minds in the country before the war ordered the razing of the Sarajevo library destroying many very old and irreplaceable works of art. These were people living in peace under Tito and they all went insane, murderous, rampages once the oppressive and controlling government was gone. While the war is over, the scars of war are everywhere. From bombed out buildings all over Mostar to Sarajevo roses, the marks of war are impossible to miss. We thought we saw a lot of destruction and dilapidation when we were in Vietnam but we were unprepared for how much damage remains in Bosnia after nearly 20 years.
The outcome of the war brought a very weird government setup to appease the three different groups. Bosnia has: three prime ministers, three parliaments, three fairly autonomous regions, and separations like this all the way down to telecom providers and utilities. The US helped broker the peace and the creation of the unique government so the people living in Bosnia can give partial thanks to the US for their Frankenstein of a government. I asked a question to multiple people, “how do separate governments based on ethnic/religions lines promote unity between the three groups?” and no one really seemed to know but everyone was happy there wasn’t war. When discussing the government people would generally say things like, “it’s complicated”, “there is a lot of government”, and “it is not easy to get things done”, simply because they have different governments for different groups living in the same region.
The hardest thing to explain, which leaves it’s imprint everywhere in the country, is just how different the groups are and how that makes Bosnia uniquely different than anywhere else we’ve visited. We have been to many countries with different ethnic groups and the US is very diverse. Bosnia is different. Very different. Yes, technically, it’s one country but it’s still very separate in a lot of ways. The example that maybe easily describes the WTFness of Bosnia is how the country goes about supporting their country’s soccer team. There is a Bosnian soccer team and much like anywhere else a lot of the citizens cheer for their national team, and, much like anywhere else, soccer riots can happen due to the zealousness of the supporters. What’s really unique about Bosnia is how a soccer riot can start during a Brazilian / Croatian soccer match in the little city of Mostar. What do the Brazilians have to do with the soccer riots? Not much, to my knowledge there are few to no Brazilians in Mostar, the game wasn’t held in Mostar so Brazilians weren’t the ones starting the riots. The riot happened between two of three major ethnic/religious groups where one group was cheering zealously for the Brazilians to beat the Croation team and the other group was supporting zealously supporting their ancestral home team so naturally (I guess?) a soccer riot breaks out.
American culture like music, movies, brands and such are pervasive all over the world and Bosnia is no different. It’s always been neat to drive around in another country and hear a similar top 10 to the United States. We can be far away and still have a flavor of home. The odd exception to this is when we were driving around Bosnia, in the midst of war ruins, listening to the Beach Boys sing about good times and Kokomo. It was hard to wrap my head around it and it was a big WTF moment for me.
We drove through two of the three semi-autonomous regions of the country and it was super easy to discern the differences. Remember: I grew up in South Dakota. We thought Minnesotans, North Dakotans, Wyomingians, and Nebraskans were all very different. If the differences I felt in South Dakota were on a color spectrum it’d be comparing light blue to slightly lighter blue and trying to exaggerate the differences. The differences we felt in Bosnia between the regions were like comparing blue to red, very different, no exaggeration needed. It was like we went to different countries far apart but really we drove a half hour. It was pretty cool experience and something we haven’t really experienced anywhere else.
So that’s Bosnia based on our experiences. It was a truly remarkable place. We had such a good time, we’d love to go back and explore more of the country.
Enjoy the photos!