The Balkans

I’ve been trying to write a post about my time in The Balkans for weeks now and keep running into the same problem. Which side do I talk about? I am so conflicted about my feelings here because it is such a conflicting place. Some people say the word Balkan is derived from the Turkish words Bal and Kan. Meaning Honey and Blood. I’m not sure if this is true but it seems fitting. On one hand you have the Bal. The sweet sweet honey that is the beautiful mountains, rivers, lakes, clean water that is a plenty, kind generous people, happy music, rakija, etc.. Then you have the Kan. The terrifying amount of blood that has been spilled here over the centuries and more specifically just 20 years ago.

Honey flowin at Plitvice Falls in Croatia
Honey flowin at Plitvice Falls in Croatia
Falling lakes. Plitvice Falls
Falling lakes. Plitvice Falls

Before I came to this region I couldn’t have pointed Kosovo out on a map and the only thing I knew of Bosnia is that there was a war here. In fact I am such an idiot I had to Google to see if it was still going on. So in case anyone is reading this and has no clue (I can’t be the only uninformed one right?) here is a quick history lesson as I understand it. *That last sentence is a disclaimer. Everything I write here is what I’ve learned from various people I’ve spoken to around The Balkans. It is nearly impossible to give a truly accurate depiction as there are so many sides of the story.

For 40 years Yugoslavia was one united Socialist/Communist country ran by the Beloved Josip Broz Tito. Under Tito the honey was flowing and life was sweet.  If you lived in Tito’s time you had an apartment, food, work, one month paid holiday and a golden (actually red) passport which meant you could travel pretty much anywhere thanks to the stellar relations with east and west at the time. Yeah life was good. Unless, of course, you wanted more or didn’t agree with Tito. For those who opposed him  you might be visited by some of his friends that maybe weren’t so friendly. Word on the street is he would send his “Murder Squad” to take care of any opposition. The way I picture Yugoslavia at the time is black and white with everybody being the same, having the same and doing the same. You have enough to keep you “happy” and comfortable. But what if you are different? What if you are vibrant and colorful and want more? Then maybe Yugoslavia wasn’t the place for you. Now on the other end of that is a quote I heard that makes me question my thoughts on Tito killing his own people and communism as a whole. “FUCK FREEDOM OF SPEECH IF YOU DON’T HAVE BREAD TO EAT!” It’s easy for me to say capitalism is the way to be since that is all I have known growing up. I like knowing that if I work hard I will be rewarded with a promotion or commission and can go out and buy all these things I don’t need to let the world know I have money. $800 shoes? No problem for someone winning at the capitalist game. But if you are not the one succeeding would you give up the freedom to oppose your leader in exchange for lifes necessities? Americans really enjoy being able to call Obama or Bush shitty presidents but if they were the ones keeping you fed would you complain when they make a decision you don’t like? As I said in the beginning, being here and learning about the politics makes me question my thoughts on the topic. I can’t say that former Yugoslav had it 100% right but it did indeed seem to be working, for a long time.

And them Tito died and everything fell to shit. Tito’s biggest downfall was no back up plan. No successor to keep things together. With the help of some capitalist countries (ahem America) the Economy crashed and Nationalism rose up. The wars between the nations started in ’91, lasted roughly 5 years and were full of ethnic conflicts. You can see the aftermath all over these countries but the area where I noticed it most is Bosnia. Walking around the streets of Sarajevo you will see the “Sarajevo Roses”, concrete scars marking where mortars were dropped on civilians waiting in line for food. You will see bullet holes in the sides of buildings. You can walk down sniper alley and hear about how children weren’t allowed to wear red shirts because it made them easier targets. In Mostar you can sneak into an old bank with the nickname “Sniper Tower”. I went here and I can’t decide if I am glad I did or not. This building was one of the tallest in Mostar and used by snipers for ethnic cleansing. Its been 20 years since the war here and the floors of this building are still covered in shell casings and glass. For each bullet on the ground I couldn’t help but think of the unsuspecting life it took. This area has affected me more than I ever thought it could.

Life emerging inside Sniper Tower
Life emerging inside Sniper Tower
The View
The View
Rusty Bullets everywhere
Rusty Bullets everywhere

What I find to be most incredible about The Balkans, and what I hope to remember more than the horrors that have happened here, is the amazing resilience of the people. Life was hard. Really hard. For a long time and for people on every side. No matter the politics or who was right or wrong the people are people. I heard from more than one person that when the war was going on in Bosnia in order to get water they would send children out. They would run through sniper alley with a clothes line and sheets to block snipers view. They would send the children on this errand because they were smaller, quicker targets. Risking your life as a child for water. Just water. I have friends my age who remember the NATO Bombings in Belgrade happening while they were in high school. That is something that gets carved into your memory. It just goes to show that no matter what happens in life we adapt and find a way to keep going. I feel really fortunate to have met people who were willing to share their experiences and memories of those times. It has really resonated with me and makes coming here something I will never forget.

Shell of a building left from the '99 NATO Bombing in Belgrade. Serbias way of remembering Clinton.
Shell of a building left from the ’99 NATO Bombing in Belgrade. Serbias way of remembering Clinton.
Which glasses do you choose?
Which glasses do you choose?

So it looks as though this post went in the direction of only talking about the Kan. It wouldn’t be fair of me to leave it like that because I promise this area is not just sadness.

I spent about 10 weeks in The Balkans and it is one of the most beautiful regions of the world I have ever seen. Some highlights for me are Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia.

Serbia

Lets start with giving a special shout out to Serbia for the most epic festival ever, Guca! Serbians really know how to throw a party like no other. This is a week long festival that attracts about 1 million visitors to this incredibly tiny town. My amazing travel partner Julian and I decided to get a camp spot in someones front yard and attend the end of the week festivities. I don’t think I could handle any more than 2 nights of this madness. This town is full of constant background and foreground trumpet music non stop. You have bands playing on the main stage and random bands walking around playing all day. Its like a never ending soundtrack of fun. At our campsite Rakija was flowing and the jam sessions usually started at about 4pm. We had musicians from all over the world playing Flutes, Guitars, Ukeleles, Harmonicas and of course Trumpets. Around 9pm a marching band would come through and then we would follow them down to the main stage and dance dance dance to our hearts content. The thing about trumpet music is you literally cannot be unhappy listening to it. Its non stop GO GO GO and FUN FUN FUN! The party usually ended around 4 or 5 am in the town center with everyone climbing on the trumpet player statue and having a ball. I have never and probably will never again experience such an amazing event.

Guca! Guca! Guca!
Guca! Guca! Guca!
4 am After Party at the Trumpet Statue
4 am After Party at the Trumpet Statue

Aside from Guca, Serbia is an amazing place. Of all the cities in the world I’ve been to Belgrade is one of my favorites. Cafes a plenty, Parks, Raft Bars on the river and more make this city a great one for those looking for a good time. Also lets talk about how attractive the Serbians are. The Men and Women of Belgrade collectively must be the best looking group of people I’ve ever seen. Tall, fit and gorgeous features.  And to add to it most people I met were so kind hearted and welcoming. If you stop by a Serbians house expect to have coffee, treats and maybe even Rakija offered to you before you even sit down. Such a hospitable culture I wish we had back home. I went to a Serbian wedding with my host the 3rd time in Belgrade and even though I was a stranger I was completely welcomed. Truly amazing people.

Serbian Weddings are much more fun than American Weddings
Serbian Weddings are much more fun than American Weddings

Kosovo

First off I knew nothing about it this country which always sets you up to be pleasantly surprised. As an American, Kosovo is awesome because they friggin love us! A big part of that is because we pretty much fought their war and bankrolled their much disputed independence from Serbia. Sorry I digress… Many people kind of tolerate Americans and our loud “I want everything” attitudes but if you go to Kosovo you will be greeted with nothing but smiles. In the center of Pristina you will find a statue of Bill Clinton on Bill Clinton Blvd, Hotel Freedom with the Statue of Liberty on top and American flags all over the place. I even had a guy thank me for being American when I was there. Craziness. American Nationalism aside Pristina is awesome. Most of the population is under 30 and you can feel it when you go out at night. Everyone is in the streets enjoying nice meals, beers or rakija. The city is alive and buzzing any night of the week. Hop over to Prizren and you will find a little castle, old forts and charming streets that make you want to lounge and shop all day. Prizren has also been dubbed one of the best party cities in Europe. Once you’ve had your fill of cities head over to Peja and make your way up to the Rugolva Mountains. My friend and I pitched a tent in the yard of a really nice family who fed us cookies, coffee and chocolates. The view we had was unmatched and the family even taught us how to farm honey from their beehives. On the top of this mountain there is a glacier lake only a 90 minute hike away. The water is crystal clear and surrounded by bright green mountains. Only downside is there are leeches in the water. We still jumped in but only for 3 seconds before freaking out. Oh and if you are a coffee fan, the Macchiatos in Kosovo are incredible. Roughly 50 cents and so so damn good. The people in Kosovo take their coffee seriously and make it better than Italians.

Glassy waters of Rugolva Lake in Kosovo
Glassy waters of Rugolva Lake in Kosovo
Me and Bill just saying hi in Pristina
Me and Bill just saying hi in Pristina
Enjoying our coffee at the best camping spot ever
Enjoying our coffee at the best camping spot ever

Bosnia

One of the major reasons I love Bosnia is because of everything I learned and how it made me feel. There is so much more to it than the markings of the war. Sarajevo is an incredible city nestled between mountains and a big river. The old town is very cozy and welcoming. Just 20 minutes out of Sarajevo their is an abandoned Bob Sled track from the ’84 Winter Olympics. Easily the most interesting tourist attraction I’ve ever seen. You can walk the entire track but be careful you might encounter someone on a Dirt Bike riding down. We did and had to jump out to avoid getting run over. In Mostar the Stari Grad bridge is a site for sore eyes. It was 500 years old when it was bombed and then rebuilt since the war to its former glory. When they rebuilt it they used the same methods and technologies as the original construction. The care taken really shows. When I was there they had the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Championships. Watching athletes jump and do multiple flips from 30 meters was pretty cool. Outside of Mostar you have the Kravice Falls that look like heaven. I kind of felt like I was in Ferngully or some other rainforest type movie while there, until the millions of tourists showed up anyway.

Great view at the RedBull Cliff Diving World Series in Mostar
Great view at the RedBull Cliff Diving World Series in Mostar
Bobsleddin in Bosnia
Bobsleddin in Bosnia
Kravice Falls in Bosnia. Heaven.
Kravice Falls in Bosnia. Heaven.

In closing, add The Balkans to your travel list. Beautiful, Cheap and full of enough history to make your head spin.