Back in the USSR (Day 17)

Saturday, July 12, 2008.

After an enormous breakfast and profuse thanking of our Srebrenica hostess, the trip back to Sarajevo begins. Just outside of Potacari, we stop in Srebrenica proper to pick up someone vaguely referred to as our “guide”.

We were told that before returning to Sarajevo, we’d be stopping to meet with a few refugees who had returned to their village. We were not told that it would be an hour-long drive up and through precariously high mountain paths – yes, dirt paths – in a bus that could barely shift enough to get us up the hill. When we did finally, and somehow safely, make it to the village, we stood on a hill and looked out over the River Drina, the natural border with Serbia.

Hot and tired, we were not informed that our next activity would be a nature hike on a crude path up the mountain. Most of the girls were in dresses or skirts (myself included) and sandals. None of us were prepared for strenuous physical activity, we were all tired, and we were in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Needless to say, five minutes into the hike, most of us were either complaining or mumbling loudly things like “Where are we going?” or “What’s the point of this again?”

The point, allegedly, was to see an Illyrian coffin from the 13th century that mostly just looked like a rock and to get a better view of the Serbian mountains. We could see boarder patrol boats on the green Drina and our “guide” said that while the international community has officially absolved Serbia of guilt during the war, that he watched neighboring villages be shelled to the ground by guns hidden on the other side of the border.

The walk back to the village was equally full of complaining, and one of my sandals (my favorite pair) broke during the descent. Our legs were cut by stickers and bit by who knows what kind of bugs. When we finally made it to one of the houses, there was no definitive response to the question of whether or not there was a bathroom, so almost all of us were forced to pop a squat at some point during the afternoon.

We sat on rugs in the yard and were plied with snacks and drinks in true Bosnian form. Thinking the snacks would suffice as a midday meal, most of us filled up. And immediately regretted it when trays of pite and stuffed peppers and cevapcici and bread started pouring out of the house. How these people who live miles from any kind of city or town, in the roughest of conditions were able to feed 20 cranky Americans a three-course meal, let alone feed themselves, is still beyond me. They even force fed us trays of cakes and sweets for dessert.

Our second huge feast of the day settling in our bellies, we were ready to leave rural Bosnian hospitality behind in favor of the more urban comforts of the rude waiters and busy streets of Sarajevo. We thanked our hosts immensely and climbed back to our bus and the descent-of-death that stood between us and the relatively safe road to Sarajevo.

The Bosnian highway system is incredibly underdeveloped by western standards. There is no such thing as an expressway or an interstate. For the most part, the highway system is a two-lane road that often does not follow the most direct route from one to city to another. Eastern Bosnia is very mountainous, and as we drove west through the RS, we climbed dozens of hills and drove through deep valleys.

If the Federation is considered poor or rural by any standards, the Republika Srpska is far worse off. Buildings are still crumbling, roads are a mess, and there are remnants of communism popping up everywhere. Even if their politics are a little screwed up, the fact that we had to slam on our brakes about half a dozen times while an unfenced cow crossed the road was pretty hilarious.

Coming back into Sarajevo rejuvenated our sense of urban snobbery, and after much-deserved showers, most of us walked to the Sarajevsko brewery for half-liters of their sweet, dark draft. A few strong glasses of the stuff later and we were climbing the long hill to Hotel Hecco and bed, our earlier complaints about hiking completely forgotten.


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