Bosnia: Awakening in Eastern Europe

Warning!! Excruciatingly Long and Meandering Post Ahead!!

A few months ago, I was lounging on a small, pebble-filled beach in the Philippines. All of us from the guesthouse had been out partying the night before, and were dealing with the aftermath by milling around in a hung-over stupor,… drinking fruit juices and reading crappy magazines. I found an old, ossified “Women’s Journal” (or some generic title like that), and flipped through until I came across an article entitled, “15 Awesome Things.” Listed were such things as, “Taking your bra off after a really long day of having it on,” and “When your socks all match up at the end of a wash.”

I read them out loud to a couple of, “Yeah, that’s the best”s and “I love it when that happens”s… and after a while, we began to make up our own. An Australian that we’d affectionately dubbed “Sam #3” added, “Like when you are really, really hot, and drink an ice cold glass of water and feel it moving all through your body.” I jumped in and chirped, “When you’re diving and trying and trying to equalize, but you can’t for what feels like forever and then it FINALLY goes.”

I can’t remember most of the others, but the list was a pretty good one, and I found that most of them were those “Aaahhh!!” moments after a prolonged period of discomfort.

That was in November, and I’ve only just come up with one other to add to the list: Crossing the border into Bosnia.

While other countries have been nice to travel… Bosnia evokes that “Aaaahhhh!” feeling that sends all kinds of positive jitters down into your system and out to your extremities. It has been like an exhalation of used up, oxygen-bereft air after being underwater for longer than is comfortable. Serbia was, …OK, but the gruff, efficient nature of social conduct there makes it a breeding ground for 2 types of people: pro basketball players, and soup nazis.

You give me money, I give you sustenance to put in your word hole. NEXT!!

By contrast, from the moment I crossed the border into Bosnia, the sun shone just a bit brighter, plummeting gorges and twisting, turquoise rivers rushed to meet me, and my wait time went from somewhere between 15-30 minutes (in all Balkan countries east of Kosovo) to less than 5. Handsome and cheeky immigration officers courteously accompanied me to a safe and, according to them, “lucky” spot to hitch my next ride, and I was nearly cracked in the face by the flailing arms of a tiny old man refusing to accept even a euro for the 3 hour ride he’d just given me.

I spent two weeks in the country, waiting for that moment that always comes: the moment when reality hits and you have to remember that, in some way, all countries are created equal, and there are positives and negatives to them all.

But that moment never came. I spent day after day joking with my friendly rides, listening to the call to prayer as it streamed over the rich avenues of centuries-old cities at sunset, and watching middle-aged men play giant-sized chess in the park, while a circle of elderly gentlemen surrounded them- shouting advice and gesticulating wildly with their umbrellas while impatiently kicking the pieces they thought should be moved.

I don’t want to go on and on about Bosnia forever. It’s my favorite country in Europe (sorry Albania, Denmark, and Spain!) by far, and attempting to chronicle every jaw-dropping natural wonder, rock-bottom price-tag, or instance of inexplicable kindness from its people would be impossible.

Even better than all that- it has, at least so far, remained pretty well off the beaten track. Yes, Sarajevo and Mostar swarm with tourists, but so much as heading an hour out of the city will leave you all alone. Stay in a hostel that isn’t listed on Hostelworld and you’ll be all alone. Hitchhike, and you’ll be COMPLETELY alone!!

Thumbing has been my primary means of transport in this region, as bus and train costs have been astronomically high (10 Euro for a 2 hour ride? I think not!). The endeavor has, by and large, been pretty successful. Bosnia, though, has been the icing on the cake, with usually less than a 15 minute wait time, and a cup of tea or coffee and some merry conversation being the order of the day. Generally speaking, I’ve mostly been picked up by workers of some sort– electricians, truck drivers, etc… but on the way from Sarajevo to Mostar, I got picked up by a couple of road-tripping backpackers… a first in all my years of hitchhiking.

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So, now, let me leave that where it is and turn the page to another issue before I return.

Anyone that’s spoken to me since I’ve finished the application cycle knows that I’ve been getting pretty down about going back home to grad school. Yes, yes, I know- it’s a great opportunity, and a chance to move on from pushing cocktails for the rest of my life… but it’s going to be a really big change for me, and, yeah, to be perfectly honest, I’m kind of scared. I’ve been living pretty much the same way ever since I ever first slung on a backpack at 21. Travel, go home to work and make money to travel, travel, go home to work and make money and go to school so that I can eventually travel, travel… etc., etc., rinse and repeat.

Grad school means going home, and… yeah. Going home. For years. And not having the freedom or the money to leave. For a long, long time.

I’m freaking out, man.

It’s not that I hate being home or that all I ever want to do is travel. I just, I dunno. I can’t figure out how to stop. It’s become a mentality and a sole purpose, and even when things go wrong, I just travel some more, and it usually seems to make things right again. At least for a short while.

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While in Turkey, I met an Australian-posing-as-a-Chinese backpacker who told me about something called The Traveler’s Curse, which describes the quandary I’ve found myself in with a fair amount of accuracy. I’m going to omit the first part– it doesn’t apply to me, and God, this post is already pretty flippin’ long as it is.

An old vagabond in his 60s told me about it over a beer in Central America, goes something like this…

The more you travel, the more numerous and profoundly varied the relationships you will have. But the more people you meet, the more diffused your time is with any of them. Since all these people can’t travel with you, it becomes more and more difficult to cultivate long term relationships the more you travel. Yet you keep traveling, and keep meeting amazing people, so it feels fulfilling, but eventually, you miss them all, and many have all but forgotten who you are. And then you make up for it by staying put somewhere long enough to develop roots and cultivate stronger relationships, but these people will never know what you know or see what you’ve seen, and you will always feel a tinge of loneliness, and you will want to tell your stories just a little bit more than they will want to hear them. The reason this is part of the Curse is that it gets worse the more you travel, yet travel seems to be a cure for a while.

None of this is to suggest that one should ever reduce travel. It’s just a warning to young Travelers, to expect, as part of the price, a rich life tinged with a bit of sadness and loneliness, and angst that’s like the same nostalgia everyone feels for special parts of their past, except multiplied by a thousand.

It seems really self-aggrandizing, and maybe it is,… but to be fair, it’s also pretty accurate. Among those I consider my “close friends,” a good 60 percent live outside the United States. The last person I thought I might be in love with is located in the Southern Hemisphere. Some people have a passing interest in my stories from abroad, but even the travelers get bored, and I can almost sense the eye-roll the comes whenever I correct someone that Bolivia is in South America, not Africa, or that the official language of Mozambique is Portuguese, not Swahili, or that Costa Rica is not an island, or that North and South Korea are completely different countries (and that it’s important to know which is which!). So I shut my mouth, and find myself actively dodging questions about backpacking, just because I know that most people don’t really want to hear it. And I keep on traveling, losing myself in each moment and each person as best as I know how, but slowly becoming more aware that I am either getting less out of each place, or having to try harder to achieve that same “travel high.”

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So it’s time to go home and get started on that “other” part of my life. I suppose that I’ve always known somewhere in the back of my mind that that change was inevitable. I don’t want to spend eternity living out of my pistachio-colored Gregory 40-liter, after all. I want my snowboards, and I still dream of eventually putting all those paperbacks I’ve amassed over the years into a nice, tall bookshelf- one with one of those rolley ladders from Beauty and the Beast. I want my tombstone to read something other than, “Can drink tap water anywhere in the world,” or “Once cried her way out of paying a visa fee.” Heck, I’d even maybe like to have a nice fella to go home to and watch Arrested Development with at the end of the day. These are things I haven’t had in nearly a decade, and I often try to temper my fear of being stationary by reminding myself that having real furniture, instead of arranging cardboard boxes to create whatever piece I need at the moment, will be nice.

My friend Erin writes a fantastic blog, entitled Words on the Run, that I read every now again. She’s quite funny and her writing has a very unique style that makes it sensationally readable. While cruising through one day,  I happened upon this one, which put into words that feeling that I’d been saddled with for so many long months:

“It should have been magic, but the experience left me listless and bored. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t sleep… it felt like nothing beautiful could touch me anymore. Like this old, black hound dog was always trailing at my heels. Like I was only moving because I was afraid, suddenly, to sit still. My stuff had been in storage for almost a decade. I was lonely, but I couldn’t seem to drop my bags long enough to be anywhere, entirely. Ever. Really be there, I mean. Home, at that point, seemed like the most exotic and terrifying destination my drugged-out brain could possibly conjure up…”

Bingo. The countries weren’t boring, and the people weren’t boring, but I’d lost the ability to think of these experiences as special- simply because, I dunno- I suppose I’d simply had them so much. Whenever I got these feelings, I would close myself off for a couple of days, get out to somewhere where I didn’t know anyone, and try to figure out what I wanted to do with myself. I’d spend a few days like that, writing a bit, and reading a lot, and spending a lot of time doing nothing really in particular, but letting my mind go blank. And, at the end of it, all I could think to do was to travel some more. But instead of being moved or shaken, I found myself just pleasantly riding along… more an observer than a partaker- for the first time in my life. It was as if the citizens of Plato’s cave had finally acclimatized, found themselves some beach towels, stretched out, mixed up some margaritas, and thought to themselves, “So- what now?”

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Now back to my original story.

Elana and Max, my ride into Mostar, had met while studying at UC Santa Barbara, and were pretty-hard core travelers that had done the whole seeing-the-world thing early on. They still traveled a fair bit, but had hung up their backpacks for the time being to chase some other dreams. Elana was from New Zealand but was currently studying in Budapest, and was a vehement advocate for the environment. Max was from Germany and had worked as a peacekeeper in the years following the war in Bosnia. He then chose to return many years later, even though the experience had been quite raw and the Bosnians had been less than appreciative of his efforts. I suppose you could say that they were fabulous in the way all backpackers are fabulous. They were free spirits and fun to be with, and they were the kind that had gotten their shit together enough to make their dreams happen. They had both traveled a lot, and had come home from their trips with fortified ideals.

What made them special was that they had tasted absolute freedom, but CHOSEN to return to their first-world countries to make good on those promises to make the world better that each backpacker makes to themselves while abroad. These two were some of the very few who were idealists that hadn’t given up or compromised— that really believed that the world was changeable, and that with just the right amount of inspiration and hard work, everything was possible. Meeting them, like finding out about the Traveler’s Curse, or reading that post in Erin’s journal, came at the right time. In my moment of self-pitying ennui, it reminded me why I was pursuing nursing, and why getting that degree is so important. I don’t want to continue to flit around exotic lands, really feeling and seeing nothing, and become jaded to poverty and suffering because I never acquired the skills to do something about it. Long-term backpackers DO go home, and not all of them feel completely out of place. If you know why you’re going and have a definite purpose, it doesn’t have to be scary, and you’re certainly not alone.

So going home isn’t about having more than one set of cutlery, or knowing what people are talking about when they use the word “tweet.” It isn’t even about snuggling with someone familiar, or being able to participate when friends chat about stuff that’s happened around town. It’s about taking those experiences that have fortified you- about using that “self” that you’ve supposedly left home to go find, and making something of him or her. It’s about taking that knowledge that you’ve gotten while abroad- about the world, about yourself- and using it to make life that much richer. Travel hands all of this to you on a silver platter. It’s your choice to make something of it or not.

I’m not saying that I’m ecstatic about taking out hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of loans, or slowly losing all of my foreign friends as time passes and they forget all about me… but at some point, you’ve got to pay to play. If you’re just playing all the time, well… it starts to feel like work. You can’t appreciate anything fun if you’ve got nothing to compare it to. After all, I want to make my mark on the world, and, well… that shit doesn’t come easy.

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“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

3 thoughts on “Bosnia: Awakening in Eastern Europe

  1. I love this not least of all because it makes me feel slightly less insane. I think backpackers put intense pressure on themselves to suck every experience dry, and feel like they’ve failed when one stop or another comes up short for them, or when Home starts to appeal simply for its simpleness. Some great insights, Chu! Since moving home, I’ve been working as a freelancer writer/photographer and doing six-week trips abroad every winter, plus short trips around the U.S. throughout the year, and it feels great! We will always have Travelers’ Hearts. The trick is to recorrelate that longing into new, better-fitting forms as we grow and change. This is a departure from the attitude most travelers have during those first few heady years when traveling consumes and subsumes everything else and you believe it’s all that will ever matter. It’s huge and wonderful and endlessly fascinating, but it’s not the only huge and wonderful and endlessly fascinating thing in life, eh? Not by the longest of shots.

  2. Hi Sam,

    We’ve never met, doubtful ever will, but I wanted you to know how much your words meant to me. I found this posting, in a fantastic example of the eloquent beauty of the world, because Elana and I are FB friends after meeting briefly once long ago in South Africa. She’s a kiwi, I love New Zealand as the homeland i wasn’t born to, and we hit it off. So, she linked to your piece, I saw it, read, and here we are.

    I’m 29, just finished a stint in the Peace Corps, and, having traveled quite a bit before that, struggle every day with that traveler’s curse. And though I long ago understood the solution is to pour your best into making the world a better place, that frequently remains a poor substitute for those moments of exquisite beauty only the traveler and poets can know – those moments that Eugene O’Neill describes in Long Day’s Journey Into Night:

    “Then the moment of ecstatic freedom came. the peace, the end of the quest, the last harbor, the joy of belonging to a fulfillment beyond men’s lousy, pitiful, greedy fears and hopes and dreams! And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out, or lying alone on a beach, I have had the same experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like a veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see — and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!”

    Dark – perhaps. But there is truth in it. Or, at least, I always found truth. At any rate, I digress, and the real purpose of this was simply to say, “thanks.” Thanks for sharing, for articulating so artfully that feeling, its cruel duality, and the almost addictive need for more. It’s comforting and maybe even hopeful to know that we share that sentiment, that others do, too, and that there is the promise of hope in our ability to transmute it into progress.

    I hope you find what you are looking for in yourself, in the world, and bring it back with you to grad school. If you do, you will forever better anything, professional or personal, to which you commit yourself. Be well, and fleet of foot. Peace.

  3. Pingback: On the Art of Living | Oh, the Places Chu'll Go!

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