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...)

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