Friday, December 19, 2014

How I Got Arrested In Serbia

Will and I spent the beginning of this week in Belgrade. I enjoyed the city. We stayed with a great family who work with USAID and have two adorable kids. We saw a fantastic jazz show at a place called Zgrada Bitefa. We ate well and had a great time.

But I'll get back to all that, because that's not the reason you clicked on this link. The salient and much more interesting story is: we got arrested yesterday and spent almost five hours with the Novi Sad police. This is how it happened.

We planned to spend our first day in Novi Sad, the capital of the autonomous northern region of Voivodina, wandering around sightseeing. We were strolling aimlessly through the old part of the town in the early afternoon when Will was stopped by a trio of goons in sneakers, jeans, and puffy jackets, who asked for his ID. They looked nothing like police, and very much like young dudes trying to harrass foreigners, so Will tried to shrug them off and keep walking. Things escalated very quickly; they began yelling and grabbed him, wrestling him to the ground. That was when I turned and threw myself into the fray, thinking he was being mugged.  I grabbed the biggest goon by his puffy jacket, which was when the smallest, a baby-faced goonlet who looked perhaps 16, yelled, "Police!" and flashed a badge. I stepped back at this point, and they let Will up, once again demanding our IDs.

We were both still suspicious-- since when do cops travel by triplet? I don't know what a real Serbian police badge looks like, and have seen mock ones for sale in tourist stalls; for all I knew, Babyface (who did not look old enough to have graduated high school, much less a police academy) bought his in a costume shop. Although I had my passport on me, I wasn't about to hand it over; instead, I gave them a paper copy from my bag. Will, similarly feeling that this was fishy, began groping in his pocket, trying to extract his driver's license without taking out his wallet.

The police apparently thought (or wanted to think; I suspect they were looking for an excuse) that Will was groping for a gun, and started grabbing his arms. He pulled away-- he was trying to do what they had asked, after all-- and, taking this as a sign of resistance, they tackled him all over again, the biggest one halfheartedly punching him in the ribs. One held me back, as I ineffectively mewled for them to let him go. The other two cuffed Will, mashing his face into the dirt. On the bright side, the handcuffs confirmed once and for all that they were actual police; on the other hand, I had the sinking feeling that we weren't going to be able to walk away from this one.

They stood Will up and leaned him against a car, kicking his legs apart and once again smashing his face, this time into the back windshield. One of the cops told me to empty my bag. He went through the contents, honing in on a folding pocketknife and a bottle of Tylenol with three tablets left in it. "I will take these as evidence," he announced, before, and I kid you not, calling for reinforcements.

Two more officers came and took Will, still handcuffed, off to the police station in a sedan. I was told to wait with Babyface and the other two for separate transportation. They began striking up small talk as we stood on the curb.

"American?" one said conversationally. "You know you guys bombed us 15 years ago? You wanted to bring democracy"-- the word was bitter, laden with sarcasm-- "like to Iraq and Afghanistan. You have no business doing this."

I told him I wholeheartedly agreed. It didn't matter how facile or oversimplified his grasp of global politics; whatever he said in that moment, I wholeheartedly agreed. I added that I hoped we would not militarily intervene in Syria or the Crimea, and he grinned, seeming to relax as he told me I was better than President Obama.

By the time the paddywagon (no, really, they sent for a paddywagon) arrived we had, if not made friends, at least reached a detente. I clambered into the back, Babyface accompanying me to the precinct. The driver turned on the siren; Babyface, looking abashed, turned it off after a block or two. No, leave it on, I thought. I want everyone to know what a dangerous criminal I am, with my pocket knife and my acetominaphen.

 When we got to the station, Will had been taked to a room for interrogation. Babyface, seeming increasingly aware of how ridiculous the situation was becoming, contented himself with taking me to the police locker room. I sat for the next half an hour as cops milled in and out, smoking, talking, and laughing. Some sat and cleaned their guns, conscientiously taking them apart; others used them as toys, pointing them at each other or playfully hitting each other with their nightsticks. One officer sat in the open window, leaning out between cigarettes to sing in an operatic baritone. It reminded me of nothing so much as, well, a locker room, if collegiate atheletes were all permitted to carry weapons.

After some time they escorted Will in. We sat there for the next two hours. Every now and then there was a form to sign: one acknowledging the seizure of my pocketknife, one consenting to chemical drug tests on my Tylenol, one confirming that we knew our rights. I asked about a lawyer before I passed that one back over. "Well, yes, in theory we provide you one," Babyface admitted. "But actually all of our lawyers have been on strike for three months." A little later, another officer came in with my bottle of aspirin, which he shoved across the table with a gruff, "This is yours." He walked away before I could sweetly ask how the drug test went. Having realized my only hope lay in making them see me as a normal person, and then making them like me, I struck up conversation with the cops wandering in and out; they were eager to advise us concerning Serbian beers, and bashful about their English. Even our arresting officers started chatting and joking with us-- once they had let the adrenaline-fueled power trip out of their systems, they seemed perfectly nice. Every now and then they would remember that we were under arrest, and abruptly stop laughing and tell us we were in big trouble, but by now the threats seemed deflated.

Around 6:00 pm the night shift of cops had a meeting. They filed into the locker room, taking seats around and behind us. I turned to ask if we should leave, or at least move to one side, but the policeman behind me only shushed me with a smile and a wink. So we sat there as though we were part of the team rather than a pair of perps, as the commanding officer read from a stack of reports and other officers chimed in or took instructions.

As 6:30 came and went, we decided we should ask for our one phone call. Fortunately, I still had the phone number for Maja, a lawyer working for USAID with whom we had stayed in Belgrade. I called her on one of the arresting officer's cells (a Bosnian, we had learned in the intervening time, who had come to Serbia as a refugee in '92). I briefed Maja on the situation, and she asked to talk to Bosnia. After a long conversation in Serbian, he handed the phone back. Will would be released without a charge, Maja assured us, although I would be charged for the pocketknife, which was being considered a weapon.

We were all congenial by the time the commanding officer came in to review our case. He told me I had a choice: two days in prison, or a 50 euro fine. My wallet was open before he finished his sentence. "Not here!" he laughed. "You'll go before a judge." He seemed to take a shine to us, and told us we should meet up with them in the pub when they were done with their shift. "We go to a place called Ducat," Babyface added helpfully. "Yeah, and we'll buy you a drink with the cash from your fine!" Bosnia cracked, slapping his knee.

The officer who drove me to the court was similarly sympathetic. He clapped a hand on my shoulder as we walked in. "Let's pay for your potato peeler and get you out of here," he advised. It was nearing 8:00; as it was after hours, we went to the judge's chambers. A pretty woman in a pink blazer and high heels, she handled the matter without a fuss. The paperwork took some time, but once I had signed everything in triplicate, I was released with a cheerful goodbye. "Oh, and watch your bag!" the judge called, as I was leaving the room. "A man was stabbed and robbed by a Gypsy just last week, right in front of the courthouse."

I refrained from dryly commenting that it sounded like they should get some more cops out on the streets.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Nis: or, You're Gonna Have To Roll Me Out Of Serbia

Our first stop in Serbia was Nis, the largest city in southern Serbia.  We were Couchsurfing there with a pair of brothers, Filip and Novak. The pair complement each other well. Filip is a straight-shooter, earnest and driven, with a good sense of humor and decided opinions. A medical intern, he is knowledgeable about all things health-related, and is studying German to improve his employment opportunities.  Novak, a physics student, is wry and cynical.  He is both acutely intelligent and acutely critical.  He has a full beard and a bony frame, with long, thin fingers that twist as he talks: about CERN and the Higgs Bosun, about Game of Thrones, about his dream of one day meeting a sassy black American.  Unexpectedly, he does the best imitation of a black girl I've ever seen-- and this from a man who's never met one in person. Globablization of culture, ladies and gentlemen. Both brothers were engaging and extraordinarily well-informed, and played off each other in conversation. I felt immediately comfortable and included, as though I were with my own brother and cousin, or among friends.  The first night at their house we stayed in, but ended up awake until 5:00 in the morning-- not partying, just drinking homemade rakija and talking until the break of day.

The next day Filip took us around the sights of Nis: the fortress, built by the Turks; Crveni Krst, or the Red Cross, a preserved Nazi concentration camp; the Nis synagogue, now a museum, where we saw an exhibit on the typhus epidemic; and the Cele Kula, the Skull Tower.  This last was a particularly grisly warning from the Ottomans following the first failed Serbian uprising in 1809.  The Turks built a tower, using as bricks the decapitated heads of the Serbian rebels killed in battle. It once contained 952 skulls; these days the tower is significantly truncated, most of the skulls having been removed.  Still, one gets a sense of what a horrific and disturbing sight it must have been.

When we got back from our tour, Filip's mother had prepared the most amazing meal I've yet eaten in the Balkans.  But before I get into gratuitous food porn, I should pause here and explain something about southern Serbian hospitality.

To be honest, I was a little apprehensive about travelling in Serbia as an American.  Remember Kosovo, where everyone blindly loved Americans and all things USA? Well, the Serbs were on the other side of that conflict. The bombings represented the first time NATO acted without the approval of the UN, and against a nation not actively posing a threat to a member state.  For better or for worse, the NATO bombings in 1999 gave Kosovo its independence-- but the price was hundreds of Serbian civilian casualites and widespread urban destruction.  You'll understand the temptation to introduce myself as being from somewhere innocuous, like maybe New Zealand. ("Great sheep you got here!")

It's true that there is no love lost between the average Serbian and the U.S. government. I've ended up in some awkward conversations: "You're an American? Ah, yes. The enemy." Or Bill Clinton trashing, which I didn't realize was a thing, now that everyone's moved on from Monica. People's war stories have been hard to hear and know how to respond to-- like the man in a cafe who told me his 9-year-old daughter died during the NATO airstrikes. I was also nine years old in 1999. It's a strange guilt to wrestle with.

And yet, when people are facing us as individuals-- even those who lived through the hell, even those who lost family members-- they have been consistently welcoming, open, astonishingly generous.  I experienced a culture of hospitality in Muslim northern Cameroon, but even that did not prepare me for the way we've been taken in here.

The man who called me the enemy followed that matter-of-fact label by offering me beer and a cigarette.  Filip and Novak remember being hustled to a bomb shelter in their father's arms while their city exploded around them-- but they were happy to pour us another rakija and talk about it, then ask us questions in turn.  Their mother (who deserves sainthood, or at least recognition as a master chef) demonstrated best of all the kind of hopitality I'm talking about.  Her English was limited, but she communicated in acts, primarily those of feeding us-- which brings me back to the food.  From the first time we arrived in the house, she spread a laden table before us: homemade sauerkraut, winter pickles, homemade ajvar (the red pepper and eggplant spread I've been eating by the jarful), cheese, bread, meats, and kajmak, a sort of cross between clotted cream and thick yogurt.

Getting back to that dinner, though: this amazing woman had devoted herself to the labor-intensive process of preparing sarma, Serbian stuffed cabbage rolls, and stuffed paprika peppers.  There was a tray of glistening, golden-brown sarma stuffed with meat, peppers, onions, rice, potatoes, spices-- and a second tray, equally full, without meat, because Filip had mentioned that I am a vegetarian.  I was sorry to have doubled her work, but not sorry about the results: I single-handedly demolished half the tray, longing to keep eating, but aware that my stomach was uncomfortably full of delicious, creamy cabbage and sweet pepper.  "Does your mother ever just tell you to order a pizza?" I asked, rocking back and forth in the vain hope that it would speed my digestion and allow me to continue gorging myself.  "No," the brothers responded, immediately and in unison.

We went out that night to a beergarden with a handful of Filip's friends. They were a fun and raucous group, and once again we stayed out late.  When we got home, Filip and Novak's mother had left out an entire homemade spinach and cheese pie, just in case we had late-night munchies. Between the four of us, we demolished the burek in about 37 seconds (conservative estimate).

Filip, Will and I at a kafana, a sort of traditional pub with live music
We enjoyed Nis, and particularly enjoyed getting to know Filip and Novak and their family.  Being welcomed into a home gave us an entirely different perspective on the city and the culture of southern Serbia, and we are enormously grateful.

Coming up next: Belgrade and Novi Sad!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tito's Little Balls

After an auspicious introduction to Bosnia in Bihac and Banja Luka, we made our way to Jajce, a beautiful town perched on the edge of a thunderous waterfall. The old town is dominated by a hulking fortress crowned with black crows that broods over the steeply pointed gables of the houses clustered below it.  The whole ensemble, set against a craggy backdrop of gray rock and deep green pine, is striking.

We got in Monday afternoon, and met up in the evening with Elis, yet another acquaintance from Couchsurfing.  We had a few beers at a bar called Amadeus, then headed back to his grandmother’s house.  The house was poised on the steepest slope I’d ever had to climb outside the realm of mountaineering, although that was before discovering the hills of Sarajevo—but I chronologically digress.  Regretting every item in my backpack, I finally crawled to the top.  We spent the next few hours talking, playing guitar—Elis is a musician, among other more marketable skills—and drinking.

Elis could only host us for one night, and we packed out the next morning when he left for work at 7:00.  Yawning from our late night and shivering from the biting cold, we tracked down the Jajce Youth Hostel, which turned out to be unheated during the winter months.  We crashed into sleep under mounds of blankets, our breath showing in little puffy clouds above our faces.

When we awoke the second time, we went to explore the fortress and old city walls.  We fortified ourselves with warm, flaky spinach burek before clambering up the preserved keep and watchtowers.  Jajce also has a set of catacombs, built for the last duke’s family but never used; these we descended, snooping around for hidden passages or secretly buried skeletons like we were Bosnian National Treasure.

The next day we went to a museum about the founding of Yugoslavia, established in the building where the Antifacist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia hammered out the federation in November of 1943.  The hall where the resolutions were drawn up is still filled with chairs, the walls divided into six sections for the six constituent states.  Perhaps reflecting something about former Yugoslavia today, the English translations of these exhibits were erratic, clearly done independently for each of the six presentations.  Slovenia’s English was excellent.  Bosnia’s was worded oddly, but mostly readable.  Serbia’s was painful, with inconsistent grammar and words misspelled multiple ways in the same sentence.  Montenegro couldn’t even be bothered to provide a translation. After we puzzled our way through the texts, the docent led us back to his office, where he presented us with a table laden with tchotkies-- lighters, shot glasses, calendars, pencils, prints—all of them Tito themed, the face of Josip Broz gazing up at us from every direction. There is, it would seem, a certain amount of nostalgia for the halcyon days of employment in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Thursday we finally made it to Sarajevo. 

The city has been cloaked in fog since we arrived, a constant low cloud hanging over the skyline and obscuring the view of distant skyscrapers and the urban sprawl that spills up the hills.  Sarajevo is in a natural bowl of mountains, which is what made the 3-year siege during the Bosnian War so deadly; of milder consequence, this topography encourages smog and cloud to settle during the colder months.  Apparently Sarajevo is known for the fog, which I find easy to believe.  It’s been pervasive.  In theory, a city in fog sounds romantic; in practice, it’s kind of like someone draped a wet blanket over everything.

We are staying in Haris Hostel, a lovely hostel unfortunately located at the top of the actual steepest (or at least longest) hill I’ve ever had to climb. On the bright side, there’s a great view of the fog, and our thighs are slowly transforming to steel.

My tenuous grasp of the history and politics of the region (pre-travel research in rural Africa was a difficult proposition) is getting a little better.  I have been learning quite a bit in the last week here, and have realized in so doing that I have been asking a lot of dumb questions (Igor and Maja, as the primary recipients, I apologize).  I’m hoping what I’m gathering through conversations and readings will help me at least better know what questions to ask.

We started our self-education by delving into First World War history.  We went to Latinska cuprija, the Latin Bridge, where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and the war declenched; obviously, at such an important site, we had no choice but to reenact the events.

I got to be Gavrilo Princip.
We followed this with a visit to the Muzej Sarajevo 1878-1918, a small museum with a surprisingly thorough set of presentations.  It mostly dealt with Bosnia in the Ottoman Empire, the brief transition to Austro-Hungarian hegemony, and, of course, the assassination.

We spent a few nights out with people we met at the hostel.  We quickly made friends with Hrvoje, a Croatian journalist and writer with the most Croatian name I’ve ever heard.  He’s impressively well-travelled, and has a thoughtful and nuanced grasp of history and politics.  Will and I found it a relief to talk about Cameroon with someone who’s spent significant time in Africa (albeit East Africa) and understood the culture and mindset we had been confronting.  It’s been difficult at times to know how deep to delve, particularly when most hostel conversations follow an unchanging script (“Are you going to Belgrade next? We were just there, stay at this place and definitely make sure you go out here”, etc).  It was nice to have meandering conversations about everything from international politics to poetry with such an interesting interlocutor.

Last night we met up with another Croatian we’ve gotten to know at Kino Bosna, an old cinema converted into a traditional music venue.  The screen has been removed, as well as about half the seats; the remaining theatre rows supplement tables and seating on the stage and floor.  A group of four musicians and singers circulated the space, setting up somewhere new every few songs and playing music the Bosnians in the crowd seemed to know.  The drunker they got, the more they evinced a proclivity to stand, throw arms around each other, and sing along.

This morning Will and I went on an abbreviated city tour with Haris, the hostel’s namesake and owner.  He’s young—26—but seems older, in the way of some people I’ve met here.  It may be overly facile, but I’m attributing it to being forced to grow up quickly in a time of war.  We drove to the escape and supply tunnel that burrowed from besieged Sarajevo under the UN-controlled airport into free, unoccupied Bosnia.  Haris rattled off his presentation (used for 3000 clandestine passages a day; 3 meters underground; 1 meter wide; 11,000 dead from the siege) in the manner of one who has long ago committed to memory, if not soul, the information he presents several times a week in the course of his job.  He got more personal when he spoke of his own experience crossing through the tunnel at the age of seven with his parents.  They trekked for three days to reach Croatia, where they bought supplies and walked back, laden with packs doubled front and back.  Once in the city, the deadly race to avoid grenades and snipers posted in the surrounding mountains began.

In the section of the tunnel that's been preserved.
Having lived one of Bosnia’s darkest and most harrowing moments, Haris understandably had bitter things to say both about the Serbian attack and about the UN—why did they wait so long to send airstrikes against the Serbs?  Why did they not let Bosnians cross the airfields to get to safety and supplies?  It seemed in his estimation that the UN in its inaction was all but complicit in the siege, sitting on its hands at the cost of thousands of lives.

We drove from the tunnel up one of the Olympic mountains—Sarajevo’s golden moment, before the siege, was hosting the Olympics in 1984—to the now disused bobsled run, repurposed during the war as a Serbian bunker and sniping vantage point.  It’s abandoned now, other than as a venue for graffiti; it cannot be put to use until the surrounding forest is cleared of surviving landmines. It began to snow lightly as we drove further up the mountain; Will and I, having been deprived of snow for nearly three years, were like Texan children on a snow day, giddily climbing into the bobsled track and exclaiming over the bare dusting of snow while Haris, accustomed to Bosnian winters, tried not to laugh at us.

I do want to end with a disclaimer: I wanted to educate myself about the war and the siege, so I made a point of spending my time at museums and sites related to the subject.  However, Sarajevo is more than the war.  It’s past that.  Yes, there are still buildings pockmarked with bullet holes, and occasionally a building that was destroyed, partially torn down, and left for lack of financing—but most of the city has been beautifully rebuilt.  There are nice cafes, great bars, a beautiful river, abundant cheap street food, active nightlife, and a bustling old town.   Lest I leave anyone with an outdated impression of Sarajevo as a wartorn and violent place, it’s not.  There is high unemployment, but surprisingly low crime.  People have been extremely friendly to us, here as elsewhere in the Balkans.  I’ve enjoyed spending a week here, and will be a little regretful to move on to Serbia tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Srpska; or, Can I Buy A Vowel?

After a day on the road getting out of Croatia, we finally reached the Bosnian border. We handed our passports to the border guard, who disappeared with them for an unusually long time.  When he finally came back, he looked apprehensive, and began a circuitous line of questioning about the trajectory that had led us to Bosnia.

"Your visas show that you have both traveled in some places in Africa," he finally admitted, his finger hovering over my Ethiopian stamps. "And you know, in some of these places, people are very sick, with illness..." We had finally arrived at the crux of the matter: Ebola.  We tried to assure him that Cameroon (and Ethiopia; for some reason he was fixated on that) was not part of the outbreak; that Will's visit to Senegal had been months before the crisis; that anyway we had been travelling outside of Africa for 26 days, a week longer than the 21-day incubation period, and we were still not bleeding out of our eyes, ipso ergo sum....

The guard seemed unconvinced, but finally, reluctantly, handed us back our passports.  I stifled a sigh of relief, having had terrible visions of being stuck at the border by night in the cold.  We got off at the next town, where we were to change buses to get to Bihac, our destination.  We were on the moving bus before we realized neither of us had Bosnian marks-- we had been in the country for barely 20 minutes, not long enough to go to a bank or change currency.  Again, I had frosty visions of being kicked off the bus and stranded on the side of the road somewhere; again, thankfully, this did not come to pass. Will held his wallet open and looked pathetic, and the driver, after considering the panoply of Balkan currencies available to him, plucked out Croatian kuna and waved us to our seats.

A church destroyed during the Second World War and left as a memorial.

Bihac, by the river
We spent two nights in Bihac with Maya Kosovic, a Couchsurfing host, and her brother. Our second night there was Thanksgiving.  Will and I attempted to make stuffing and pumpkin pie, not entirely successfully.  Maya, who doesn't often cook ("You want to make it out of here alive," she explained gravely), had unwisely sent us on our own to the grocery store.  After puzzling over the Serbian packaging we bought some kind of concentrated chicken salts instead of bouillon.  We seasoned with it liberally, and stuffing ended up quite salty.  The pie was not only lumpy-- my hand-mashing of the squash we found as a pumpkin substitute was, it would seem, inadequate-- but rather heavy.  There was no sweetened condensed milk, so I used mascarpone instead, which is most definitely not the same thing.

Maya and her boyfriend were very good-natured about trying what we presented, and pretending to like it more than I suspect they actually did (with good reason; it was not my finest work in the kitchen). Will and I ate even more to compensate, so we ended up stuffed after all-- so in that, it was like real Thanksgiving.  We settled in front of the TV to nurse our bloated bellies and watched the American sitcom channel, which again made it feel a little more like home-- or, at least, the America of Modern Family and Big Bang Theory.

Friday we decamped to Banja Luka, the biggest city in the Republic of Srpska, one of the two political entities within Bosnia.  We stayed in a hostel run by a fantastic young couple, Slobodan and Jovana.  They were both bright, funny, and interesting; Slobo is a banker, and Jovana teaches dance.

Friday night we left the hostel to get dinner.  Slobo had given us directions to a cevapi place-- cevapi, grilled meat logs in spongy grilled bread, is more or less the Bosnian national food.  The place didn't have anything not made with copious amounts of meat, so while Will waited for his order, I poked my head into the restaurant next door to explore my options.

Serendipity has been a generous mistress on this trip, and once again she did not fail us.  I was turning to leave the restaurant when I heard someone calling my name.  Confused-- the only two people we knew in the town were both quite definitely at the hostel-- I turned to see a tall young man with dark brows smiling eagerly.

"Igor," he said, extending a hand. "You requested to stay with me on Couchsurfing, but I told you I have friends visiting, so I have no room. I recognized your hair," he added.

And thus our evening went from a quiet night to a Silent Night, the name of the bar where Igor and three of his friends started drinking.  We spent a few hours putting back bottles of Nektar, the Banja Luka beer.  Igor and co were funny, engaging, and quite sassy; Will commented that it felt like we were hanging out with friends from home. We taught them an American drinking game, which they picked up immediately.  They have known each other since grade school, and bantered in the way of old friends.

Last call was rung around midnight, and we moved on to a bar hidden away in a basement, where we played darts and pool.  There was a decent amount of trash talking-- I told Igor I had a dart board in my basement at home, and he raised his eyebrows in mock surprise.  "Really? Then why are you so bad?" He laughed at the face I made, and proceeded to shoot the bullseye.

Around 3:00 we wound up in a club, where Igor and his friends met up with some other friends and we all danced until 5:00, when someone suggested a bakery run.  Will and I shoved our faces with bready things and staggered back to the hostel, where we passed out, groaning for probably the seventh time on this trip that we're too old for this.

Igor, our new friend! He took us a few days later to an Irish pub, which really are everywhere in the world, and all have that same font.
Saturday we slept until early afternoon then went for a hike.  Banja Luka is bisected by the Vrbas river; most of the town is scrunched along the water, with houses scattered up the slopes of low mountains.  Within 15 minutes we had crossed a metal bridge, walked past a large cemetery-- the headstones mostly marked with dates that indicated casualties of the recent war-- and were headed up into the hills.  We found a trail that wound up to a natural spring, and tramped through dense mist on a layer of undisturbed leaf mould.

Evening was falling as we walked back down, and we had a view of Banja Luka spread out below us, lights beginning to glimmer around the dark ribbon of the river. We came back to the hostel in time for Will to stream the South Carolina-Clemson game, which he watched in increasing agitation. Slobo and Jovana,by contrast, watched him watch the game with considerable amusement, as he yelled at his computer and clutched his hat. By the fourth quarter Slobodan went on a beer run-- "I think this is an essential part of American football," he laughed. "Especially if your team is losing,"

After the game we went out for consolation beers, then met up with Marko, another Couchsurfing acquaintance, at a club called Boom Boom Room.  This was a step up in discotheque seriousness from the place we had danced the night before; girls in perilous heels, perfectly landscaped makeup, and laboriously straightened hair were shivering outside.  Will and I, in jeans and boots, were most certainly underdressed, but entered with confidence.  The bouncer tried to stop us, and I responded in English,  "Where are you from?" he asked.  "New York City," I white-lied, and he stepped aside and let us pass.  "Right answer," muttered Will.

Marko and his friends were great, but Boom Boom Room was not really Will's or my style.  We gave up trying to converse with Marko, as the extraordinary volume of sound made even roaring into each others' ears insufficient.  Feeling like grumpy old men, we bowed out a little after 3:00 and went home.

Banja Luka is a beautiful, very green city-- the streets are wide and trees and parks generously distributed.  We've budgeted quite a bit of time for Bosnia, and it's nice to slow down our pace.  After a month of country-hopping and constant motion, it feels good to take more time in a place.

Next: we leave Banja Luke, in the Serbian Republic of Srpska, for Jajce, in the Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. (And if you want a succinct explanation of that mouthful, might I direct you to Wikipedia? Because I'm not sure I can explain it...)