It was as I sat in a dark, dimly-lit hospital in Bosnia, and a doctor walked past me inside the corridor puffing on a cigarette, that I asked myself whether I was still in Europe. I mean, of course I am still in Europe, but it has a very different feel to that which I am accustomed.
Arriving in Bosnia, I was surprised to find myself feeling overwhelmed; the sign posts weren’t only in the English alphabet, but also in Cyrillic. Posts marked out where live minefields remained, definitely places to be avoided. Drivers had become slightly more erratic, and with a more liberal use of the horn. I’d even forgotten to check what local currency was and I certainly didn’t have any!
These differences are of course part of why we travel, and once I got over the initial culture shock, and had a few Bosnian convertible mark in my wallet, I began to love it. It has in fact become my favourite country of the trip so far. Here’s why!
The friendliness and generosity of some of those I have encountered here has been unbelievable, sometimes even bordering on ‘too good to be true’ causing the cynic in me to keep an even closer eye on my belongings, and wonder when they will try and take something. There has been no need - I have only really experienced kindness!
A few days ago I was cycling along in a world of my own, headphones in, when I saw a man waving out
of the corner of my eye. That’s nothing unusual in Bosnia - everyone smiles and waves, or toots their horn – but this time the man called me over and sat me next to him. He asked if I like coffee, to which I lied and said ‘yes’ (people seem disappointed in an Englishmen who doesn’t drink tea or coffee). Soon, a coffee and a coke arrived, and quickly after that a huge meal! I stayed with my new friend Moke as he told me all about Bosnia, the war, and why he (and so many others) want to make others feel so welcome. In the end I only had to leave as it started getting dark! I ended up spending the night in a cemetery!
Another time, I asked for water, and was seated while a woman went to fill my bottles. Instead of water, food was brought out for me. Her children enjoyed practicing the English they had learnt, which seemed primarily to come from TV shows such as The Simpsons! When she saw my bandaged thumb, she offered to rebandage it. Apparently she was a nurse, so I took her up on her offer. My delight disappeared quickly when she reappeared wielding a huge injection – that’s not what I had asked for. After the communication issue was cleared up, she did a good job of bandaging it up. When I finally had to leave, her children disappeared and came back with their bikes, having decided they were going to cycle with me for a while.
My only negative experience with someone in Bosnia, and in fact of the entire trip, came when I tried to get my thumb bandaged in a hospital. Once it was done, they told me the cost, which was a grossly inflated price, considerably higher than it should have been – it should have been free. When I didn’t pay, they refused to return my passport. I managed to get it back so that I could go and get the money from the bank. I didn’t go back. Returning to my bike, feeling frustrated at the hospital’s scam, I was stopped as I passed the hospital kitchen. A lovely woman came and offered me a cup of Chai Tea, and then another, and then another, before giving me a packed lunch. I laughed at the situation as the same hospital that tried to con me, then provided me with my lunch, and left very high-spirited, reminded that the world is largely a good place!
I’m conscious that all my examples are about being given food for free, which is of course really nice - I’ve had as many meals provided for me, as I’ve bought myself this week – but it is just as nice to have people stopping to talk to you, or waving as you go past. If you get out a map in a public place, someone will have given directions in less than a minute. Everyone seems keen to make sure I’m having a good time, and for that I can’t fault Bosnia!