Editor’s note: Some of the following blog was written stream of concious, and may not reflect the present opinions of the writer. Travel is not that bad and he is not as cynical as it may seem.
(Prologue) Before leaving Germany:
Sometimes it feels like I lurch from self-created crisis to crisis. This feels like one of those moments. I’m living in Germany, where I’ve been for the last year on a Working Holiday Visa. This ends in two days, and although I’ve been ringing and emailed New Zealand and German embassies, the rules surrounding the end of the visa are not clear. Perhaps I have to leave Schengen area, perhaps I can just move to another EU country which New Zealand has bilateral travel agreements with, for example Denmark or Netherlands. But it is not clear. The New Zealand Embassy in Berlin has even advised me that some New Zealander’s stay in Germany for a bit longer at the end of their visas, and that nothing has happened to them. Such help that is, and it leaves me thinking it will be at the discretion of whichever customs official I run into when I do eventually decide to leave Europe, and actually encounter a passport check. Regardless I believe I will leave the Schengen area just to be safe, and then when I re-enter Europe I can be sure I’m on a tourist visa.
At this stage, my in two days I must legally leave Germany if I am being very careful, yet I have not booked anywhere to go. I have emailed a Workaway in Bosnia that has space for me, yet that will involve braving a 24 hour bus ride from Berlin to Sarajevo. Just to add another layer of difficulties, to this already difficult situation, my phone has decided to break today out of the blue. Not charging or turning on. While this might seem trivial, not having a phone in this day and age when you’re planning long cross country travel across Europe, where you’ll need booking confirmations for buses and trains, google maps for accommodation or just about everything, not too mention some music to distract the 24 hours on a bus away, – makes for a considerable extra challenge.
Now in Bosnia:
So I have arrived at my destination, of Mostar in the southern area of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the main city of the region given the name Herzegovina within this country. The 24 hour bus ride from Berlin to Sarajevo went mostly smoothly, the bus was packed so I had to squash up besides a friendly older man from Bosnia for most of the ride, who spoke not a bit of English. We smiled and gestured at each other in a friendly way never the less. I managed to get a few hours sleep during the bus ride, and with no working charging points for my laptop and still no working phone, I spent most of the ride staring out the window, chatting to some other young travelers during the toilet and cigarette breaks, and occasionally read the only book I brought with me, a guide to learning German grammar. Interesting that now I finally leave Germany, I start to study.
There were several slightly nerve wracking stops at customs check points, entering and exiting Croatia and entering Bosnia, but save for being questioned on my travel plans within Bosnia, and having to produce a copy of my German Working Holiday Visa to explain my extended time spent in Germany, It went without a hitch. I received the stamps I needed to show I’ve exited Schengen at the end of my visa, and am now free to explore the Balkans and return to Germany and the EU when I wish on a tourist visa.
It’s interesting having left Germany after a year, that I don’t feel quite ready to leave. Just as I felt when I left London, it’s as if I’ve just gotten started. There was so much of Germany left to see, so much Deutsch language left to learn, and so many friends I had to say goodbye to. Hopefully I will see them again, but it does feel somewhat like a chapter coming to a close prematurely. Such is the way of the traveler limited by visa lengths.
At the Mostar Hostel where I volunteer:
Still with no phone to guide me I eventually found my way to the Mostar hostel where I would be volunteering, after a bit of a back breaking walk, due to once again too much luggage brought with me, and have to ask the locals for directions. It was good to take my oversized travel bag and guitar off my back, and get settled in to the new Workaway (a workaway is the website where you find these volunteer opportunities). It was not much of a break however, as nearly straight away I was helping the owner set up some crates he had delivered that day for sitting outside, as well as learning how to check in guests and helping fold the laundry. I look forward to a sleep in a bed for the first time in a few nights, and to being able to explore Mostar in the coming days. The owner of the Hostel, Taso, is also helping to fix my phone, which will hopefully get me connected to the outside world again – and be able to travel with a little more ease. I’m slightly lonely, a little worried about whether I’ve come to the right place, but I guess that’s the case with travel. It takes you out of your comfort zone, and forces you to learn from new situations, as well as seeing new places and meeting people. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it for the journey… or at least that’s what they seem to say.
My first experience in Bosnia and the Balkans itself has been, for lack of a better generalization, a learning experience. I had to learn or get better at laundry and making beds for example, as this has been a large part of my daily work at the hostel, and not something I realized I was so bad at. There’s a knack to speed changing multi-beds and washing piles of linen and in order to have fresh beds for new guests in the morning, and after a rocky first few days I think my laundry efficiency levels had risen considerably to keep up with the demand. I next had to master checking guests in, as it would be my job to stay and keep the hostel running while the owner is out taking tour groups to the famous local waterfalls. This job came with relative ease compared to the laundry, other than the relative boredom of staying in the hostel all day. Once I got some afternoons off, I went to do the usual exploring of a new city, doing the recommended walking tour, learning the history, soaking up the atmosphere and meeting some new traveler friends, most through the hostel.
For Mostar, the most interesting revelations came because of the not so long ago war and genocide that tore through this city and split it apart. The Bosniaks and Croatians largely still live on separate sides of the river, separations which occurred due to the Croatians turning arms on the Bosniaks, although they were previously allies in expelling initial attacks from the Serbian armed forces. After years of bloodshed, with concentration camps set up at the hands of the Croats, regular civilians taking up arms to protect their families and not one citizen of Mostar spared from loosing a family member or friend, the fighting eventually ended. These people who fought against each other just over 20 years ago now live again side by side from each other, and some have had to show an incredible amount of forgiveness in order to continue with daily life. This terrible history has now become embeded in the tourism of Mostar and Bosnia more generally, and those coming to this land for the sun, activities and cheap beer with also inevitably find themselves engaging with the past and present politics of the area.
While gazing at the somewhat touristy Minaret’s of the Bosniak Mosques on one side of the river, and the dominance of the Christian bell tower recently built on the other side, it is impossible not to be confronted by the separations, but also this separation has become part of the touristic charm of the city. Therefore, even as things are getting deep on the free walking tour, where the brilliant guide Sheva tells of the traumatic past (he himself had to carry a gun when the war broke out, even though he was a student in the city at the time) – tourists begin to discuss the horror of the events, and grapple with the remaining corruption in the city, while enjoying all this as some kind of pleasurable spectacle to go hand in hard with the Gelato and sun-tanning sessions. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that the scars from the war in Bosnia have not had enough time to heal, yet the city relies on tourism for the majority of it’s income, so the citizens end up commodifying their tragic recent past. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, one side of me thinks the reliance on tourism will keep any violence from occuring again, but at the same time the interests of the tourists run at a shallow level mostly. They would not be learning about this history if they weren’t here for the beer, and the closeness to the more hyped up Croatia. Many tourists seem to become history or political experts, or so they act, but it is not the reason why many of the them travel. Mostar is a fascinating and beautiful place, but in some ways still a very troubled one. Hopefully the economy will get better and there will be more fair job opportunities for regular Mostar-ians beyond just capatilizing off the interests of passive tourists. Then perhaps they will resent the tourists less (there is some rudeness in hostels and restaurants, perhaps as a result of the share amount of tourists), and be able to rebuild in a way less focused on the issues of the past.
One week after staying at the Mostar hostel I start to get wary of all the young explorers, traveling for weeks or months at a time, sticking together with fellow international tourist friends met hours or minutes before, ticking off all the same landmarks, monuments, activities and tours. Perhaps the truth is that we’re a mob blindly chasing some original travel journey story, or to tick off our bucket-list to a more impressive degree than our neighbour. We could be buying into the travel dream because that’s whats being marketed to us, because a generation of youth chucking in their jobs and traveling the world equals profit for banks, travel companies and economies. Regardless, volunteering remains a valuable experience, and a continued learning one as that – as I learn that my cynicism and jadedness knows no bounds, and that even in a beautiful place like Mostar, I must over-think everything until the point that I don’t enjoy it much anymore, and feel like perhaps traveling is not for me. I guess that’s why they say ignorance is bliss (i.e. an ignorant traveler is a successful one).