It was surprisingly familiar. Unplastered houses among the fields. Hills covered with juicy, green grass. On the road sometimes a tractor, sometimes a dilapidated Golf II, sometimes a shiny black BMW with tinted glass. Just like at home. Only instead of church towers there were minarets on the horizon and sometimes some women in hijab on the streets. A winsome mixture of exoticism and hominess.
I stopped in Bihać, the first town on my road, to find an ATM and a place to buy a local SIM card. I passed by a cafe and heard some familiar sounds coming from the speakers.
Džuli, Jugoslavian hit from 80s Eurovision, which a few years ago was quite often played in our student (and later not-student) apartment in the Niedźwiednik neighbourhood in Gdańsk. The nervousness I felt just before crossing the border started to disappear. The foreign country was becoming less and less foreign.
I did 127 km and 1700 elevation meters the next day. Distance record during this journey. Not that I planned it. All because my navigation and Google were saying that there were no campsites or any other accommodation close to the main road I planned to take all the way to Sarajevo, and I still felt quite unsecure about wild camping alone. So I decided to head to a more popular tourist place, Kulen Vakuf, 20 kilometers from the main road.
I didn’t expect to do so many extra kilometers, because on the map there was a thin line that connected Kulen Vakuf with the main road about 20 kilometers further and I thought I would go back that way. But, as it often happens with the thin lines on the map, it wasn’t a highway. Next to the trail I saw a sign warning about mines in the surrounding forest. Things got spooky, also because of the gloomy morning fog. After a few hundred meters it became clear that I could try this trail on a mountain bike, but not on the loaded White Arrow. I did a quick calculation and assumed that pushing the bike 15 kilometers makes no sense. It was better to turn back and come back the same way I came to Kulen Vakuf. And because I had a plan to stay at Balkana lake, it resulted in quite an impressive mileage. At least the stats will look good – I assumed.
On the way it turned out that riding to Kulen Vakuf didn’t even make so much sense. There were plenty of places to stay by the main road. After three hours of cycling I started to get hungry. I had only trace amounts of food left in my panniers and there was no shop in sight. So I was cycling with my stomach growling through the wastelands surrounding the M5 road, going faster and faster on a smooth, long downhill. Suddenly in this middle of nowhere a little shop appeared. – Finally! – I shouted internally and started to brake. Due to my excitement I pulled over to the gravel roadside a bit recklessly and, still going quite fast, I took a tumble. Two men standing next to the shop in their working clothes gave me an indifferent look and got into their tractor.
I proceeded to assess the loss: the bike was unaffected, the panniers still on, the knees were ok, the right elbow and forearm covered in sand. It stung ruthlessly. I washed it and found gauze pads. Clumsily I tried to dress the wounds, which wasn’t easy with just one hand available. I dropped the gauze and it went with the wind. Damn, there was only one left! Somehow I managed to dress the wound, scolding myself for the poorly equipped first aid kit. If I had also scraped a leg, I would have nothing to dress it with. I bandaged the arm crookedly and entered the shop. I found no bread and no decent food there, so I bought a pack of cookies, water and a chocolate bar. After a while it turned out that all the pain and all the battle wounds were completely unnecessary – there was a big, perfectly stocked supermarket just five kilometers away.
This day didn’t start well, but one stranger (I don’t even remember her name) saved it. Close to Lanište I stopped on a bus stop to check how many kilometers were left and maybe eat something. A woman bustling around an unfinished house next to the road came to me and asked if I needed help. – Thank you, everything is ok. – Maybe you’d like a coffee?
It was quite late already and I had 40 hilly kilometers ahead, but her eyes, surrounded by wrinkles, looked at me so kindly that I couldn’t say no. We sat down at a worn-out table in the garden. She didn’t speak English nor German, so we communicated in Bosnian-Polish-Sign language. She was my mother’s age, but looked older than my grandmother. She gave birth to a son when she was 16, went through a war, worked hard for every single wrinkle. She asked if I would like to eat some dinner. I was very hungry already, but I didn’t want to be a burden. Especially because she would surely cook some meat and I would have to explain that I’m a vegetarian, and she would be puzzled what to prepare for me. So I just said that unfortunately I had to go, thanks for the coffee, it was nice. I had some sandwiches for dinner, about 500 meters away.
Welcome to Republic of Srpska – said a roadside board somewhere in the middle of the country, making me confused. I had no idea what it meant. Only after a while, step by step, after I had read something and talked to the people, I started to connect the pieces of the Bosnian puzzle, created after last war in Dayton: it consist of two parts – Republic of Srpska and Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Each with its own president (and two vice-presidents, so that every nation: Bosnians, Croats and Serbs are satisfied). The country is ruled by three-man presidency, instead of one president, so that every ethnic group is represented.
– How is it possible that it works? – I asked a law student, who tried to explain this complicated system to me.
– It doesn’t – she said. – They are unable to make any decision, unemployment is huge, there are no perspectives for the future.
And the thing with the language: Bosnian, Serbian, Croat – supposedly three languages, but they sound almost identical. Well, Balkans – nothing can be easy here.
Actually I was kind of happy because of my historical ignorance. Thanks to that, when I came to B&H I wasn’t concerned if someone was Bosniak, Serb or Croat (and most of the people I met weren’t concerned about it either and I never heard anyone say anything bad about the others). Everyone were just human beings. I wasn’t associating everything with the war, although it was impossible to forget about it when passing ruined, abandoned houses, cemeteries and signs warning about mines. Maybe because of my ignorance I could avoid prejudices, first see and get to know Bosnia and then explore its historical baggage. Although it might be naive to think so. Maybe I am just trying to excuse myself of going unprepared to places I know nothing about.
I cycled through Jajce and Travnik, the road started to be more and more busy. Drivers in trucks loaded with wood were overtaking me on the switchback mountain roads with just centimeters to spare. I had enough of the dust, heavy air, crazy drivers and that I couldn’t even jump into the forest to pee, because everywhere I saw those red signs with a skull and the text „PAZI MINY”.
Early that day, when I was supposed to arrive at my Workaway, I discovered that one spoke in the back wheel was broken. There was slightly over 90 km left till the SPD Jure Franko mountain hut, lying on the slopes of Trebević mountain, where I was supposed to work, the last 13 km with about 1000 elevation meters. I didn’t want to make the situation in the back wheel worse, so I decided to ask Primož, the owner of the mountain hut, if he could pick me up from Sarajevo, as he suggested before. I couldn’t count on any bike service on the way, especially since it was Saturday. I took as much weight as I could from the back and headed towards the capital.
Nothing disastrous happened with the wheel during those 77 kilometers. I arrived in the city and rested on a bench in the agreed place, waiting for the boss. After about an hour a white jeep arrived and Primož got out. Quite a big guy, bald, with a gray beard and a smile of a youngster. He said hi and swiftly put the bike in the trunk, which was full of big plastic cannisters.
– We have to get some water on the way – he explained.
Well, yeah. In the place where I was about to stay for the next week there was no running water and we had to get it in the little village nearby. There was no electricity either. A complete escape from civilization, just a few kilometers from the capital city.
Primož – a mountain man from Slovenia – built the SPD Jure Franko mountain hut this year.
–This way I can retire by the age of 48 – he laughed.
As for the newly opened place, there were quite many visitors, especially during the weekend. You can reach the mountain hut by foot in about 3 hours from the city center, so Trebević is a popular place for hiking and cycling, they even have some downhill trails there. But me and Uliana – the other volunteer – didn’t overwork. There was as little stress as possible. Usually, when you were done with making coffee for the guests or serving food, you had time to talk with them. And there were very different people coming to the hut, so the conversation topics were various too.
Once a Slovenian EUFOR-soldier came on his mountain bike.
– They asked me if I wanted to come here for a mission. Is it a mission? For me it’s rather a vacation. If someone tells me to go on a military mission, I imagine it completely different. In Afghanistan, that was a mission – he told me. – Probably the worst decision in my life, to go to Afghanistan. On the other hand, I would do the same if I could turn back time. It changed me and now I know what really matters, and I learned to fight for things that are really important for me.
It wasn’t always that serious. There was a lot of chatting about the mountains, travels, sports and music. It was beginning of September already, the evenings came earlier and it was nice to spend them by the light of the candles and the fireplace. The building was not insulated yet, so in the morning it was quite refreshing in the attic where I slept. I had to force myself to crawl out of my warm sleeping bag and go to the privy. There were crickets living between the wooden planks and they gave a goodnight concert every evening and through the window you could see the lights of the city lying down in the valley.
I planned to visit Sarajevo and explore its narrow alleys. I don’t really like cities, but I really wanted to see this particular one. Unfortunately, it turned out that I didn’t have a chance to go there for a longer time during my stay at Jure Franko. I only went down once, just for a quick shopping and a shower. Maybe I could have stayed there two days longer, but I already had an appointment with Mikołaj in Croatia. We were supposed to cycle to Greece together and I already told my other friend that I would visit him in Greece. Well, I should have held on to not having a plan at all. You want to stay somewhere – you stay. No deadlines. And so I had to leave this place feeling somewhat dissatisfied.
– Well, I will have a good reason to come back – I told myself, getting on the White Arrow and preparing to the ride down the hill.
I had no idea it would happen so soon.