Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bosnia

In April I spent six days in Bosnia courtesy of the U.S. Embassy. Bosnia and Herzegovina, to be correct, has long been on my list of places to visit, a region that has always piqued my geo-interest. I think my initial awareness was through my pretty cool stamp collection, which was lost in the family fire of the early 70s, but a quick Google says they stopped producing them when Yugoslavia annexed the region in 1913. If that was the case, my stamps were worth more than I thought, or the names confused me. Maybe it was Manchukuo. Hey, I was a little kid.


Maybe the initial spark of interest in Bosnia and the surrounding areas was with the National Geographic—as with India and Guatemala—places I did eventually visit. As an adult I followed the Olympics in Sarajevo, and then, of course, the war. But as Bob Dylan said about WWI, ‘the reason for fighting, I never did get.” But this region has long been on my radar, so I was excited at this opportunity.

The embassy’s schedule was on first appearance a bit screwy, certainly as a geographer and logistician would consider the issue, but eventually there was some method to the madness. Take a look at the attached map if you have interest in this geographic part of the tale. I flew into Sarajevo from Zagreb, and after a few days was driven north through to Banja Luka—that is, almost to the Croatian border and thus Zagreb—where I gave a talk and then proceeded the next morning to head back in the other direction to Sarajevo. To start, I gave my traveling cinema talk—I guess you’d call it the academic presentation—at the University of Sarajevo on April 13. The next morning we headed out for a session with Access English Students at the Medresa “Osman-ef. Redzovic” in Veliko Cajno, less than two hours away on the road toward Zenica and thus Duboj and Banja Luka. These beautiful, wonderful, kind, and smart kids may have been the highlight of my trip.



Afterward, we hit the road and drove all the way to Banja Luka, where I arrived in time to give my academic talk at the University of Banja Luka. By then I was less than three hours from Zagreb, but the next morning I headed back South and ended up in Doboj for a discussion of ‘minority issues’ in the US and backtracking farther only hours later I was in Zenica to talk about Latino Culture and politics in the American Southwest. By that eve I was back in Sarajevo, whereupon I had several days of free time, staying at a wonderful little hotel that is literally adjacent to the bridge where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, which served as the catalyst that started WWI. I should note that my drivers, hosts, the Embassy people, and my audiences—students and otherwise—were always warm and welcoming. It was an unforgettable visit.

And the country? The physical setting of Bosnia and Herzegovina is stunning, with alternating valleys, gorges, mountains, rivers and a cultural landscape that tells a long tale. The people are rich, vibrant, and incredibly diverse. But, of course, the history has too often been harsh and unforgiving. I will not even attempt to comment on this part, although I am trying to learn the basic pieces to the puzzle that don’t seem to fit. It would be a cliché to say the scars are deep; it wouldn’t do justice to the paths that have led to the horrific moments fewer than two decades ago. The recent arrest is only a reminder, as if one is needed by adults here.

But I gather that the rebuilding of Sarajevo and the countryside over the last fifteen years has been nothing short of remarkable. It is a fascinating place to visit. The people are friendly and the sights intriguing and beautiful. And, and of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the food, which was nothing short of spectacular. Bosnia is such a crossroads of cultures, which is reflected in the cuisine. Among other things, Bosnian Ćevapčići (spiced meats) is the best in the larger region (or so most folks say), and the stews I tried were seasoned with a combination of spices like I had never tried. So, this is a great place to visit; consider it if you are ever in the neighborhood.

Finally, I just read “The Bridge Over the Drina”, which was written by Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić. It is a somewhat unusual but stunningly wonderful book that tells some of the region’s tales up to WWI. If your current ‘to-do’ list isn’t too long and if you have some interest in the region, try it.

Odlićan!