DAYS 29, 30, 31, & 32 – SARAJEVO (BOSNIA) AND BELGRADE (SERBIA)

I knew this would happen at some point in the trip. My days are starting to run together and the cities are becoming a blur, one hotel feeling like the next, and each café fading in my overfilled mind. I was dreading this moment. The moment when things would not longer be strong, vivid memories, knowing exactly when and where everything happened. But it’s happened, and it’s my own fault for not getting it down on paper sooner. So here goes, to the best of my memory…

We left Zagreb on a Sunday. Before we packed up our bags, we headed out to find breakfast. Thinking of the all restaurants we saw the night before, we didn’t think it would be a problem to find something tasty and close by.  We were wrong.  The entire city shuts down on Sundays. Nothing is open. Not even the tiniest of markets. After walking around for a good 30 minutes, we knew we had no choice but to eat at the only open place. McDonalds. I had a coffee and Tony had an Egg McMuffin. We’re not proud of our decision, but what were we to do?

We had decided about two weeks prior that it made sense to take a short 45-minute flight from Zagreb to Sarajevo (versus an eight or nine hour train). The cost was about the same (the trains in Bosnia are not part of the European trains and our global passes wouldn’t have worked). As soon as we arrived at the airport, the questioning and demanding from the authorities on my mobility became a struggle. First it was them wanting to take the wheelchair from me before I even cleared security. We fought that as I knew I had a few hours that I would want to be able to move around. Then it was them wanting us to leave it behind while I boarded, just sitting in the waiting area. “Someone will come get it,” was all they kept saying. I refused. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t make sense of leaving an untagged, $15,000 wheelchair sitting in the middle of the Zagreb airport, unattended. So at the end of it all, after much arguing, it was brought to the entrance of the plane with me, loaded into the cargo section, and was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs when we landed in Sarajevo. This fight was worth it – my wheelchair may very well be floating around the Zagreb airport if I hadn’t stood my ground.  And besides, I didn’t fight them on wanting to board me onto the plane through an ‘ambulance,’ which involved being tied down in an aisle chair and carried onto the plane by two middle aged men.  I know you can’t win them all, so this was one I just let be.

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As soon as the wheels touched ground in Sarajevo, I noticed a strong burning smell. It smelled like a campfire, or a wood-burning fireplace. I knew it wasn’t the plane, or anything at the airport, so I just assumed there was a wildfire or something of that nature nearby. But as we drove in our taxi closer to our AirBNB, the smell stayed equally as strong. And it clung to us into the unit, throughout the next day, and all afternoon. At one point, I had even conducted a Google search to see if there was something going on in a surrounding suburb. Nothing. All I could find was that Bosnia (and Serbia, which I found out later) has serious pollution problems. The entire time we’ve been in Bosnia and Serbia, there’s been a giant looming cloud of smog just filling the air and the sky. We haven’t seen a ray of sunshine since we boarded the plane in Zagreb. Maybe it’s just the gloomy, wintery weather, or maybe there really is a pollution problem like I’ve never seen before. I guess I’ll have to come back in the summertime to find out…

Sarajevo is very much a mixed religion city, with churches, synagogues, and mosques lining the streets, all next to each other. It was a very cool feeling to see the various beliefs all sitting there, together, respecting each other (not that it has always been that way, or always will be, but for today…). Along with this, there were a few other things that struck me. First, the city was very rundown (although the sidewalks weren’t in horrible condition and it was very flat, so accessibility wasn’t an issue). It was evident that it was recovering and developing from a recent war. It was sad and hopeful at the same time, a reality for the people that lived through it. Second, the Christmas festivals and activities were not nearly as abundant as the previous European cities we had visited. In fact, there were very few street decorations and it was not a common theme in any public place. This may be because of the variety of religious beliefs or the simple lack of financial funding available. Whatever the reason, it, along with the rundown buildings, had the city feeling very different than any I’ve ever been to.

My favorite part of Sarajevo, though, was a young gentleman we happened to run into as we were strolling the streets, right after we had breakfast. He had made a comment in Bosnian and pointed to Tony’s hat with a smile. Tony said, “See that! He likes my hat!”

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The guy turned around quickly as soon as he heard us speaking in English and said, “Hey! Where are you from?”

We chatted for about five or ten minutes and learned that we has living in Vegas, originally from Bosnia. He had left around the age of 15, during the war, and was residing in The States now. He was back in Bosnia for the holidays, for only two weeks. He gave us some recommendations on food to try (which we did and loved!), but what struck me the most was his passion for his country. Even though he hadn’t lived there in 15 years, and left during a time of war and hate, he was still proud of his roots. I’ve seen this with dozens of people who have left their home countries and now call the USA home. It’s a refreshing feeling that a strong passion can live inside someone for that long. That their roots will always be evident. It also brings an excitement to the city, when you run across a local who has seen both sides – their country and ours – and can love both of them.

The next day, we had a very early morning minibus transfer to Belgrade. As I mentioned before, the trains in Bosnia are not great, so we had the option of taking an eight hour bus, or a five hour minibus (essentially a very large van). We opted for the minibus, which was filled with nine people, three in each row, and luggage packed in the back. I’m not even going to sugarcoat this experience. It was downright horrible. It was stuffy, crowded, and long. The entire ride was filled with silence as we didn’t speak the language of the other passengers, and we had to cross a small mountain range, so the roads were curvy and hilly.

The cloud of smoke and fog looming over Bosnia and Serbia seemed to get bigger and lower as we drove into Belgrade. By the time we arrived at our AirBNB, I felt like we were being swallowed in it. We couldn’t see two blocks in front of us. It took us some time to find our apartment, but after we did, we settled our bags and headed out for some dinner. The first stop was a pizza place. We each ordered a different slice and some water, the total bill being less than $2. Tony didn’t particularly like his, so he went back to get another. At 80 cents a piece, and we’re talking large pieces, it’s hardly worth thinking about. The next stop was the bakery next door. And needless to say, we overindulged. I had a huge piece of cake and Tony had a caramel tres leches. Again, a whopping $1.61. So, needless to say, we ate well, which was a solid start to our trip in Belgrade.

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The next morning, well, the next morning things became interesting. The bathroom in our AirBNB was not wide enough for me and my wheelchair to fit through the doorway. I was becoming very frustrated at this point, with crawling in, getting dirty, and so on. I needed a shower and had to come up with a plan, so Tony and I took the two barstools (the only chairs in the apartment) and placed one in the shower, and another on the other side of the doorway. I hopped on the first barstool, with Tony’s help, and he pulled and pushed me from the doorway to the shower, where I then again transferred to the barstool in the shower. There was no shampoo, so after we decided against the dish soap, we filled a cup with bathroom hand soap. Everything was going well from here. Until…the hot water ran out. The building was old and the water heater small. I was sitting in the shower, on a barstool, with hand soap foaming from my head, and water as cold as ice pumping out of the hand held shower nozzle. So, I did the most logical thing and turned it off, thinking I would just wait a few minutes for water to reheat. Well a few minutes turned into many minutes and soon I heard Tony clanking in the kitchen.

“I’m going to pull an old trick from Costa Rica and get you some warm water,” he said. I thought he somehow knew how to get the water heater working faster. “I have some water on the stove for you and I’ll bring it to you as soon as it gets warm.”

So…I showered on the barstool, with a cup of hand soap, and Tony holding a cereal bowl of hot water. As I dripped off as much as I could, we began the ‘getting off the barstool’ process and back into the wheelchair, which was now ten times harder since I was wet. I’m sure if someone could have been watching us, this would have been a hilarious comedy. I think I’ll be ‘skipping’ my shower tomorrow…

We went exploring in the morning, where we found it to be cold and hilly. The sidewalks were questionable, and the hills were comparable to San Francisco. We had a nice lunch and then took a break from the cold and hills. I was getting frustrated with moving around the city, and thus, getting a bad taste in my mouth for Belgrade.

As the sun was setting, we ventured out again for dinner. And lo and behold, just the other direction of where we had gone that morning, we found a very nice and modern part of the city, an area I fell in love with. It was full of Christmas spirit, something I had missed in Sarajevo, and there were people everywhere, flocking in and out of the trendy restaurants.  The irony…if we had only gone left instead of right earlier that day, I might have had an entirely different perception of Belgrade. I’m quite confident we’ll be visiting the same area again tomorrow for breakfast. 🙂

Please feel free to read Tony’s perspective of our trip at http://www.whereistony.com.

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