It has taken me a long while to want to sit down and write this blog, and even as I now walk in Italy (and pretty far into our Italian leg), I can’t escape this untied loose end (and the related ones for our Daily Nests in Croatia and Slovenia).
I tend to look ahead, not behind, and often get lost in the demands of the present moment. But in the spirit of documenting our journey, I recognize that this Daily Nest from Bosnia and Herzegovina deserves its place on our digital page and in our memories as much as (or maybe more than) all the others.
Our stretch through some of the Balkans impacted me in ways I could not have ever expected. Bosnia and Herzegovina was, by far, the most impactful. While I can look back and fondly remember its wide open beauty with mountains cradling us, I still also carry an unsettled discomfort and deep sadness when I think of this country’s people and their ongoing struggle.
I needed to create distance in space and time before I sat back down to write about our days in BiH in August 2018, some parts of which, you may recall, really shook me up.
With a clearer perspective, I can now see that BiH was not so different than many other places we have walked through, and yet so incredibly different in how it touched me, or, more precisely, how I allowed myself to absorb its energy.
Thinking about people we met, the kindnesses offered to us, and the landscapes, we had many wonderful moments: We exchanged meaningful conversations with local over Turkish coffee and second breakfasts; we were invited into people’s homes and lives; we found beautiful green spots to rest in; we binged on sweet plums we plucked from trees, and we formed new friendships that continue through WhatsApp and Facebook messages. These are the moments that I want to hold from BiH.
But, it’s hard to for me to shake off the not-so-good moments. BiH feels so deeply in need of healing in the form of a cascading shower of light and love that I alone cannot summon, but so profoundly wish for this place. Scars from the war in the 1990s have been slow to heal; ethnic, political and religious tensions are palatable, and obvious and subtle signs of destruction and abandonment add to the sense of loss, grief, disillusionment and uncertainty.
As if this wasn’t enough, the added complexity of being in the middle of one of the largest waves of immigration passing through Europe these years opens the Pandora box of so many other human emotions that often seem to be just below the surface in BiH. It’s hard not to feel the helplessness, humility, hurt, healing, hope and hate that’s all mixed up here, and rolled up so tightly with the locals’ perceptions of BiH’s past, present and future.
This mixed emotional undercurrent kept showing itself to us in different and curious ways. It appeared in the bitter, angry tone of voice used by the border patrol police who demanded our passports. It came out in the teary-eyed and sad conversation with a woman who was a soldier during the war and has a small, roughly inked tattoo of a Catholic cross above her wrist defining her moral alignment. It was reflected in the two ladies who offered us a can of sardines and a loaf of bread to give us strength for our journey. It showed up in a frustrated and dismissive murmur from a gas station attendant who doesn’t allow foreigners to rest on a bench near the pumps. It took shape as a resigned feeling of compassion from a shop security guard, who is hoping to migrate to Germany to give his children a better future–the same exact thing many of the migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East sitting at the kebab shop a few meters from us also want.
It’s taken me a while to write this Daily Nest because it is not simply a story of where we slept in BiH. For me, it is coming to terms with my emotional self (and how I hold emotional space for what is mine and what is not mine). It’s also about recognizing, accepting and trying to understand that we live in a world of constant contradictions where kindness and cruelty, hope and fear, and equanimity and judgment live side by side, and can change in a moment as we move in slow motion from village to village.
Apologies in advance for the low-res photos that follow. We lost some of our Bosnia and Herzegovina photos during a backup, and this is what we could retrieve.
Five strange nights
One day, as we were walking uphill in the shoulder of an empty two-lane road, a car heading downhill stops in the middle of the lane.
The driver, a man in late 50s or early 60s, jumps out of the car and begins speaking to Lluís, who was a couple hundred meters ahead of me. He asks if we need anything, or if he could help us in any way.
Giving the sudden, and not normal, appearance of rain showers most days or evenings in the summer of 2018 throughout most of the places we passed through, Lluís asks him if he knew if there was a covered place we could camp for the night, something like a porch, a garage or an abandoned stable.
Nikola, who now lives in Croatia, was born in the village ahead of us and he and his family still have a house a few kilometers up the road. By the time I reached Lluís, Nikola is calling his wife and letting her know that he would be staying in the village another night. He invites us to sleep in his house, an offer we happily accept. He has kind eyes and a gentle, educated way about him, measures of how we have come to instinctively trust people and their intentions.
Over plates of cured meats and cheese typical from the region, we talk about the heart-breaking politics and propaganda that led up to the 1990s break up of the former Yugoslavia, the lack of understanding around the hate that bubbled up so violently, the displacement of many thousands of people, and the challenges the now independent countries will continue to face for decades to come.
We also talk about the many good people in the world, and down-on-their-luck people that Nikola and wife and their circle of friends help directly with money, food and other donations through a non-profit organization. He expresses a feeling of not being able to change the past, but finding strength, courage and dignity to recover, rebuild and recommit to making a better life for yourself, your family and your community.
We shower and shake the travel dust off our backpacks. We sleep under clean sheets, humbled by the good fortune that has followed us on such much of this walk. As we drift off, and as we do every night, we send spoken and unspoken wishes of good health and happiness to Nikola and his family, and to everyone everywhere who has helped us get this far.
A night inside, away from the threat of a storm, thanks to a kind man driving by who stopped his car on the side of the road, asked if we needed help, and changed his plans for the evening to share his life with us.
The next morning, after waving our last goodbye to Nikola as he drives away, we notice the gray and black clouds following us. For most of our walk that day, they threaten to soak us.
Around dusk, we just barely miss the downpour as we scoot into the ground-level room of what appears to be a still-working school at the edge of another small village.
Although the upper floors of the building look to be in decent condition and somewhat taken care of, the room that would become our campsite for the night is creepy. In all our nights of free camping, this one completely freaks me out in ways others have not. But nightfall and pouring rain stifle our motivation to find another place further down the road. So with the old newspapers crumbled up on the floor, we sweep the area around where we will pitch our tent, and dust off the ledge so we could sit and eat something before calling it a day.
While spooning up canned tuna fish (one of our frequent dinner options), I look around the room. The glass from the windows and door has long been broken and gone. Only partially rusted bars remain in the frame. Cigarette butts, chip bags and empty soda cans and water bottles are scattered into a mess. Were they left behind remnants of other people looking to hide from the night or teenagers who had nowhere else to go on a Saturday night? I’ll never know the answer. I read the names of students who scribbled their names on the wall and recorded their childhood loves from the 1980s. Branko. Marija. Where are they are now, I silently ask myself.
My eyes fall on the black letters NDH, written in a firm hand on one wall, but I don’t let my eyes dwell there; the letters feel ugly and I don’t want to see them. Days later, I thought about those letters, trying to remember them from something I read many years ago. I need the Internet to confirm that those initials stand for Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, the Independent State of Croatia, the far-right party known to be associated with German and Italian fascists during World War II and in today’s world associated with neo-Nazis. I got chills walking and thinking of the people who align themselves to the extremes, the extreme right or the extreme left, and wonder what good any of these ideological philosophies have done for any of us individually or the world collectively. I decide they are just other ways, more formal ways, for us humans to parade our hate.
Back in that room, goosebumps crawl over my skin and I tremble when I see the holes in the wall behind where we are pitching our tent in a far-out-of-direct-sight corner of the room. They are bullet holes. I see the bullets lodged in the cement. I stick my arm out of the window to collect rainwater in my cooking pot, and can’t help but think about the snipers who also may have stuck their arms out of the same window to kill a neighbor or someone they probably knew or maybe even went to school with in this same building. I look away, but have nowhere safe to look.
Shrouded with an eerie feeling that we may have visitors during the night, I kick cans and water bottles around the room, creating a noisy maze to our tent. If someone comes in and moves toward us, they would likely hit one of these obstacles. We would hear the scraping sound on the floor, and would wake up before they reached our tent. This is how my worst-case scenario planning and girl-scout-survival thinking join forces some nights.
Inside our sleeping bags, we activate our invisibility shield, a half-silly and half-serious nightly ritual we adopted years ago, back in Burma. Lluís and I wave our hands in a few directions, and I start the mantra, “Invisibility shield activated. Please let no person, animal or thing find us or take any interest in us. We come here in light and love, but we need a place to sleep so we continue our journey. Please keep us safe tonight. We need only a few hours of rest. “
Lluís kisses me goodnight and rolls over on his side. I continue with my silent pleas for protection and safekeeping. I call myself agnostic and without any particular strong religious leanings, but I do find comfort, especially at night when we are most vulnerable, in thinking about angels, goddesses and gods from all spiritual ideologies. I hope some higher energy will wrap an aura around us and reinforce our invisibility shield. I invoke Greek goddesses Athena and Artemis and Christian Archangel Michael to guard our tent, imagining their swords and arrows ready to ward off evil. I call on mother bear, father tiger and big and small dog animal spirits for extra measure, and place their fantasy images around the perimeter of the tent and room. “This is silly, but it can’t hurt,” I tell myself most nights as I relax my body and breathe good wishes into the space around us.
Then I begin what I call my nightly shower of rainbow light. I fill our sleeping bags, our tent and the space we are in with pink and copper/gold rays of love, green rays of healing, blue rays of courage, and purple rays of wisdom and transformation. I send these rays beyond us to the villages we’re in and up and down the road we walked, thanking all the people who have helped us and all the people who will help us. Tonight, I do this twice, but I fall asleep feeling sick thinking of the things that may have happened in this room.
A few hours later, we hear a scraping sound not far away from the tent. Something or someone hit a plastic bottle. Then we hear the crackling of a chip bag. Lluís grabs his flashlight and pops his head out of the tent. Little eyes, ground level, stare back at him. It’s a cat looking for a meal.
We laugh it off, but inside our backpacks, we shiver with uncertainty about the dark hours ahead.
In the morning, unharmed and happy to see first light, we break down camp and leave the room as we found it, resisting the urge to collect and recycle the trash laying around. We thank the universe for our safe night and step over the bars in the windowless door, not looking back. We head back to the road a few meters away before most villagers awake and enjoy their first coffee.
Nikola, the man from a couple nights back, told us we would still be walking in the Croatian Catholic section of BiH for a few days more. Here, he told us, people have reconstructed their homes and are moving on with their lives. Things would change further on, and we would see different things in the Serbian Orthodox and Bosnian Muslim zones as we curved around the southwestern corner of BiH.
It strike us weird that Nikola and others we met (and would met further on) would consistently describe themselves and communities both by their nationality and religion. We came to learn this how BiH continues to divide itself decades after war. But having moved through so many countries already and experienced so much kindness from every group of people we have met, we shrug off these commentaries as fear-based perceptions perpetuated by mainstream media. In a few hours, however, this fear would confront us directly, and turn into one of our most disturbing nights on the road.
Doing our best to forget the eerie room with bullet holes, we appreciate the sunlight and less-cloud-covered sky. The storm passed, and we have a new day before us. We focus on that.
Later in the afternoon, we stop at a bar in a small village to use the toilet and have a cold soda. We admire some of the houses in the village, big multi-story buildings with well-manicured gardens and decent, middle class cars parked in the driveways. The end of the day is coming, and soon we would begin the search for a sleeping spot. Looking at our map, we see a small church ahead, and decide to check it out. Maybe there would be a small area with a roof where we tuck in for the night.
Before reaching the church, we see an elderly woman, we peg her in her 80s, collecting potatoes with her teenaged grandson and granddaughter. Because we are now in areas where refugees and immigrants walk and encounter all sorts of problems, we decide to break our tradition of discreetly, secretly, sliding into our nighttime hiding place and opt to introduce ourselves to the neighbors. We believe it may be safer to let them know we plan to camp near the church, and give them no reason to fear us.
With a mix of Croatian and English, the grandson, about 15 or 16 years old, suggests that we stay across the way from their house and garden in an old school that is sometimes used by a visiting doctor. He says the attic is open and we could sleep there. We check it out, and Lluís goes to see the church to see which option is better. The old school’s attic is mostly clean, and importantly, covered. It’s a better shelter. We haul our packs up the flight of stairs, and as we settle in, we notice the empty beer bottles lined in plastic crates, the ragged couch at the end of the room and the graffiti on the wall. Obviously, some young men from the village come here often. We hope they don’t come by tonight.
As we were getting our tent out, another neighbor climbs up to the attic and gruffly asks why we are here. We tell him our story and how we got here, and he rushes off mumbling something about how we are foreigners and who knows what else.
He must have called the police on us because within a short time we are again explaining our story as the policeman, one of the nicer ones we met, takes pictures of our passports. He hands us a bag of just-picked plums from his garden, and makes an off-hand comment along the lines of “I’ll tell the neighbors you are Christians and won’t be a problem,” an assumption he makes because our passports are from countries where Christianity is the main religion.
We fall asleep soon after sundown, like hens who follow the sun, about 8 – 8:30 p.m. believing we had established our presence in the attic with the neighbors and appropriate authorities. We apparently did not get everyone’s approval to be there.
Around 10:30 p.m., we hear the car door slam in the parking lot below. I nudge Lluís as they climb the stairs, my heart racing. Startled, we stay in the tent for a few seconds thinking about what to do. Four men, with alcohol on their breaths, form a semicircle around our tent, blocking our only exit. They demand that we get out of the tent slowly as they shine flashlights in our faces.
“What are you doing here? How did you get this address?” one of them asks in English.
We don’t have time to be afraid, but we instinctively know these men could be close to attacking us physically if they don’t trust us. Everything about their being, body language and tone of voice is aggressive.
Lluís diplomatically explains who we are, where we live, where we are walking from, where we are going and why we are sleeping there. Lluís masterly calms down the tension, speaking in a way that could soothe wolves and wild dogs, and we learn that one of the men is the father of the teenager across the way who told us about the attic. I don’t have a second to say I am half Croatia, something I hope will give us better footing in this community that is clearly Croatian Catholic; I am completely ignored and cast aside as a woman who shouldn’t speak.
Even as Lluís, who is short in stature but big in creating a tranquil presence, steers the conversation into friendly, non-threatening waters, there is an edge that can’t be smoothed over easily.
“We have to control who comes to our town. We don’t want terrorists here,” says one of the men. He has the air of being a bully, a king without a throne, but lacks the wisdom to realize how unimportant his little spot of a village is.
As Lluís unravels the yarn of our day and talks about how the police already know we are here, there are moments we don’t know which direction this confrontation will go.
“The police have no authority to say you can sleep here. If he was so concerned, he should have taken you to his home for the night,” another man retorts.
Finally convinced that we “the good ones” who will not bring harm to them or their village, the men give us their permission to sleep in the attic and leave. We believe if we were a different color skin, we may have been kicked down the stairs.
We don’t sleep well, and it feels like forever for the alarm to go off at 5 a.m. We quickly get moving, but, because there is a bench at the front door (a rarity in these parts), we opt to have breakfast before leaving. There are so few places to sit on the rural road we are walking and the next town is about an 1.5 hours away by foot, too far for first breakfast.
As the sun peeks over the horizon, the father of the teenager surprises us. “Did you sleep well?” he has the balls to ask. Ignoring his semi-conciliatory tone, Lluís shows his fangs. In daylight, awake, and alone without the other KKK friends around, Lluís can tell this guy what a son of a bitch he his. The man offers his hand, expecting Lluís to shake it and accept a mends. In a sharp no, Lluís makes it clear there is no forgiveness available, and if he could he would spit on this man’s feet.
With his ego hurt, the man looks down to the ground and sees a few empty plastic bottles and cigarette packs. “Is this yours? Did you do this?” the asshole asks. “No! These are YOUR PEOPLE who do this. We carry our trash out,” Lluís says, hoping that his tone of voice slaps the asshole’s face.
The bitterness of the night isn’t easy to brush off. For a while, we talk about this undercurrent of hate percolating in BiH and elsewhere, and wonder how and when it will boil over.
Soon, we fall back into step. There is little else we can do but to walk onwards. We drop into our quiet walking mode, words lost in space and our thoughts spinning wheels in our head.
Hours later, we come to the spot where Nikola said we would start seeing different things. Destroyed houses, collapsing rooves and the empty feeling of abandonment started to mark our route. By Nikola’s map, we have crossed into the Serbian Orthodox area, a zone where many houses remain as they were during and after the war.
Faded signs every now and again pop up on the side of the road between here and Bihac, far up into the Bosnian Muslim zone, announcing European Union economic and redevelopment programs to return war refugees to their homes and communities. Judging from the ruins we keep seeing and the few people occupying the small villages we pass, we conclude the programs haven’t worked well.
We round a bend and walk about five kilometers across a grassy valley. It’s a straight line, with small mountains in view on the far horizons. Every few minutes, big cargo trucks clack by, the smell of fresh cut lumber hitting us in their breeze. I turn after each truck passes and blow a kiss. I hope these beautiful trees will be useful in a new way, and maybe will keep families warm in the frigid winter that will eventually come.
Each side of the road is a meadow wasteland, with overgrown and forgotten brush strangling itself. We stop for a few minutes in the shade of a tree that slightly shadows a tiny bit of road, but we dare not step off the asphalt. We think there could be poisonous snakes or unexploded mines in those fields.
We finally reach another curve at the end of the valley, and come to a hamlet with a few houses. An old man on a bicycle darts out of some side path we didn’t notice. He hops off, and begins asking us in local languages all the typical things people want to know about us – where we’re from, are we married, do we have kids, where are we going. He invites us to his house for a beer, a welcome treat on a hot afternoon.
We follow him up a dirt path. He tells his neighbors, an old lady and a middle-aged man, that he has guests. The lady laughs.
We reach his house. Modest, run-down, with beer bottles piled in a corner. He goes inside, and I watch Lluís scan the perimeter. He’s already looking for a place where we may be able to pitch the tent. The old man comes back out with a beer and glasses. He starts repeating himself, again asking where we are from, if we have kids, and other things we just explained. We’re patient, and soon want to ask if we can camp near his garage. We smile even as we sense that this man is senile and it’s probably going to be a long evening ahead.
I ask to use the bathroom. The old man accompanies me to the end of the hall, and follows me inside the bathroom, beginning to close the door behind him. All my inner red alarms sound “What the fuck is this guy doing?” and then I see his hand reach for my boobs. WTF!!! You senile, dirty old man!!!
I grab his hand mid-air, instinctively wanting to break it, but stop short of twisting it. I shout something profane to him, shift into self-defense mode, and then shout for Lluís, who comes running down the hall, and gives the door a mighty shove.
“He tried to feel me up. We’re out of here.” I tell Lluís moving towards the door. Lluís grabs the guy by the collar and tells him to back off. The old guy doesn’t seem to understand anything, like it’s totally acceptable for him to touch a woman’s breasts in his bathroom. Clearly, wanting to pee must have been a message to him that I wanted something else. Ugh! Fucking men! Even the old ones can be jerks.
We storm off and head back down the path. We meet the neighbors we saw earlier, and we ask them if can fill up our water bottles. The woman, who has a smile that lights up a room, opens a faucet, tells us to sit down, and offers us some Turkish style coffee.
We settle down our nerves and begin to recount details of the bathroom incident, using some Croatian words and mostly gestures to explain what happened. Sava, the woman with the big smile and her back curved with many decades of farm work, Rajko, her nephew, and Trisa, her son, laugh; they already knew the crazy old pervert who lived up the path and this was another reason to believe he was even more gone than they thought. I don’t like that they laugh. I am still feeling the violation and the damage of broken trust. But, also, another feeling surfaces–these three make us feel safe.
Coffee leads to conversation, which leads to a shot of rakija, which leads to an invitation to sleep on the couch, which leads to soup and dinner and more conversation. Sitting outside on plastic chairs with chickens pecking nearby, we understand that Sava is recently widowed, and Trisa is there to help her sort through his father’s documents. Rajko is staying over the hill with his father.
The story of loss goes deeper. Sava’s daughter died several years ago. She was ill. She was young. Sava shows us her photo. Sava cries a little bit. I hold her hand.
We look up at the facade. It’s a whitish gray concrete wall with chipped painted. It’s the hole we notice most. Rajko tells us, that back in the days of the war, Croatian Catholics from a few villages away came and threw grenades at the house and others in this predominantly Serbian Orthodox community. The spot we are looking at is where some of the wall crumbled after impact. There hasn’t been enough money to repair it, he tells us.
After soup, we find ourselves in the living room. Unlike Nikola’s house a few nights ago, which was meticulously clean and renovated, Sava’s house is in a state of disarray. Piles of clothes are everywhere, crumbs are on the table in the middle of the living room, the bathroom is a basic unpainted cement room with tubes and pipes crisscrossing and a used, a rusty razor on the edge of the sink. Yes, things are different in this zone, but the people are the same we have been meeting…mostly kind and sincere and wanting to be helpful.
Before leaving, Rajko gives us a two-inch piece of wood. He carves these into little icons of Orthodox saints and sells them to the church and its parishioners. Sava has the tree Rajko likes to use for this craft work, and earlier he cut a few branches. He striped the bark and smoothed out the wood. He apologizes that he doesn’t have one already carved, but hopes this simple token brings us luck on our onward journey.
I smell the cut wood and tenderly place it in a pocket in my backpack. I accept its usefulness as a gift of friendship and protection.
We roll out our sleeping bags on the couches, and I hug Sava goodnight. It’s the hug of women who understand each other, long, warm, sisterly.
In the morning, before dawn, she fries eggs laid by her hens and pours us cups of Turkish coffee. Walking toward the road, we turn back and wave one last time to Sava. We hope her way forward is easier than what her past has brought her. Her smile warms us in the morning fog.
The fog never really lifts the next morning, and it grows denser as we climb uphill, along a curvy road with thick forests on either side. We listen to the birds and tie up our hoods to stay warm. The luxury of walking on a road without traffic gives us the time to admire the tall pine trees and breathe in their moist Earthy fragrance.
It’s not long before our minds shift back to thinking about our own vulnerability. Walking in the world, with the way the world is today, exposes us to so many possible situations. What if a car hits us. What if we are attacked and robbed or raped or kidnapped. What if a hunter’s bullet strays and lands in us. What if we’re bit by a snake or encounter a bear. What if we wander off the road into the forest, could we find our way out…or…
This last thought about wandering off into the forest hangs in my space, but instantly removes itself as a possibility. We cannot leave the road… not at all. We see our first red and white warning signs about unfound and undetonated landmines. Our hearts jump to our throat. We had seen similar signs on an empty stretch of road dividing Tajikistan and Afghanistan, leftovers from Soviet times. Back there in the Pamir region, we had a long conversation over tea with a Bosnian man and Pamiri man who were working with international organizations to remove mines. They were training the first team of women in minefield marking and mine removal. We watched the women meticulously cordon off grassy sections on a slope with red and white “warning, stay away” plastic tape as the two bosses looked on and explained the hardships of war they experienced and still deal with today.
Now, in BiH, those memories collide. Warning signs nailed to trees appear every few meters. We start seeing single red and white wooden stakes planted in the ground every few meter, and pieces of tape tied to different branches, waving in the soft breeze, uncomfortable symbols hinting at the possibility that there could be landmines nearby or that this was once a spot where landmines were found. We pause, quite literally shell-shocked, when we see a bigger section of taped-off land and wooden spokes mapping safe passageways through the area. Landmine crews must have worked for days and weeks (months or years, even) combing and clearing every inch of this patch, creating a labyrinth so workers can move safely and deeper into the forest.
What’s worse than seeing the minefields is thinking about the harm they are intended to do. We walk silently, creeped out by the amount of hate humans are capable of and the tools they created to deliberately harm each other.
As we walk downhill towards the town of Dvar, the sun slips out and lightens our mood. We are due for our weekly rest day, and we know there is a hotel ahead and head there, looking forward to a hot shower to wash away our blues.
What we are not expecting is that, in the middle of this nothing-worth-seeing town, there would be only one 4-star hotel costing about the same as if we were somewhere else in Europe. Two nights at 65 euros a night was way out of our budget, and with a heart filled of disappointment, we began our search for a cheaper alternative.
The owners of the two rooms we manage to find by asking a local florist and searching Google maps have very basic rooms in very bad condition with shared bathrooms. The prices are still out of our range, and out of the range of what our many years of backpacking experience suggest the price should be for this town with little to offer. The rooms are not at all worth the 30 and 40 euros a night the owners demand; yes, we know they need money, but this feels criminal. We expected to find something basic and decent like we did in super touristic Mostar for about 20-25 euros. Had either of these owners been nice or willing to negotiate, we would have considered paying their price, but their mean-spiritedness and utter lack of service-oriented respect compel even less of an impulse to stay with them, so we move on.
Making one last effort before we choose to skip our rest day and walk onwards, we walk into a bar, and ask the woman working there if she knows anyone who is renting a room. She makes a call, and about 15 minutes later a man shows up ready to take us to his house. We ask where his house is, what kind of room it is, if it has wifi. He seems pissed off that we are asking what we think are normal questions, and insists we will like the room. He won’t budge from his 30 euros a night, and when we suggest 20 euros, he huffs off, cursing us as he leaves the bar.
Resigned that we won’t find what we need in Dvar, we order a coffee, sit down and mull over our options. Two men seating nearby have been watching us, and one of them strikes up a conversation. He heard that we are looking for a place to stay, and in local language, asks us if like nature, if we would be willing to stay in a place outside town, up in the mountain and forest nearby.
Speaking to him in the make-do Croatian I know, we make out that Stevica is a hunter, and he has a cabin we could use for a couple days. It was his grandfather’s, and now it’s his man-cave, so to say. He probably would let us stay there for free, sensing our honesty about wanting to be in nature, but we offer him 10 euros a night for three nights. It’s a token of gratitude. He accepts.
A couple hours later, after Stevica finishes work, we fill up empty bottles with water. There is a tank of water in the woods we can shower with but it is not potable, he tells us. We put the water and the groceries (survival things like cheese, bread, veggies and pasta) we bought in his 4×4, and head out of Dvar.
About 10 kilometers away, Stevica swerves off the asphalt and into a meadow, heading towards the forest area up the hill. As we bump around over rocks, making our own path flattened yellowed grass, it occurs to both of us, silently pondering our current moment, how dumb we possibly could be. We are in a car with a man we don’t know, heading into the middle of a forest where we know people are legally and illegally cutting down trees (something we suspect is happening in many places around Europe judging from the number of chainsaws we hear and the amount of timber we see in transit.) We walked by minefields this morning, and, now in the late afternoon, we are going into the woods a short distance away, not exactly sure if we will be able to find our way out.
Lluís tells me later what he thought to himself on the ride up, “Anything that goes wrong out here, could go really wrong.”
Vulnerability. It’s always there, lurking around us, wherever we walk. But saying yes to life and being open to invitations means replacing vulnerability with instinct and intuition. I/we trust Stevica. He has good eyes. His voice sounds honest. His body language tells us that he also is open to sharing his life with us. We go with that. That’s all we got to go on.
The 4×4 heaves and hauls us up and over a grassy hill and down a narrow forest path, muddy from recent rainfall. Stevica stops along the way, making us notice certain landmarks and pinpointing the path we must follow out to the road. He won’t come back up here after he drops us off. We’ll be on our own – no running water, no electricity, no phone or Internet service. Through this path in the forest, pass this set of trees, up and over the hill, pass a couple other cabins, the road is a few kilometers ahead, his fingers pointing here and there, our eyes following every directional shift.
We roll up to his cabin. It’s old wooden frame is inviting. There is large container filled with water. “For washing, not for drinking, “ Stevica says.
“My grandfather had animals… There,” he points to the ruined wall and foundation, a stable now overgrown with weeds and forest plants.
“Toilette… anywhere you want, “ Stevica sweeps his arms towards the woods. Ah, roughing it, I think.
Inside, the room is cozy. There is a wood-bringing stove and plenty of wood for us to use. There’s a window and we can see the gray clouds colliding together. There are 4 single beds and a table with a couple of chairs. We bring in our bags, our groceries and water.
“Good?” ask Stevica.
“Good. Very good,” we say.
Stevica waves us goodbye, “Use the stove, but don’t burn down the house.” We all laugh as his 4×4 rolls back up the forest path.
Before the sun sets, before the storm comes and before we forget, Lluís and I head straight back the way we came, to the grassy hill where Stevica pointed our way. We tie ribbons on trees, set up rock pyramids, and place large branches across paths we shouldn’t take. We do 360 turns now and again, making sure we know what things look like coming and going. In a couple of days, we will be happy to have done our version of way marking. There were enough curves and side paths that our minds may have forgotten about had we not marked the path while it was fresh in our mind.
We come back just as the thunderstorm starts. We start a fire before it gets too dark and chilly. I cook some pasta and cut some veggies. Lluís rearranges the furniture so we have two beds together and can see the treetops and sky through the window from our propped up pillows.
The next few days are well-deserved easy rest days. We wake up late, eat, stare at the forest, write a bit and keep the fire going. It’s August, but it’s damp and rainy, and the fire makes everything feel homey.
We lock up the house the way Stevica told us, and head out into the woods, thankful that nothing serious happened, and that we didn’t burn the house down.
Our pants get wet as walk through forest plants and trudge up the grassy hill towards the main road. We listen to birds whistling. It starts raining. It smells like pine trees and mud and rain and grass. We feel vulnerable and small, and mighty and strong.
We pass another cabin and find the path that will take us back to the asphalt country road that will lead us to the next village.
We come to a small cabin and a gate, and stop on the bench to wait out the rain. A guy opens the door, surprised to see us. He is the watchman, the security guard, the guy who records how many cut trees pass through the gate.
He offers us Turkish style coffee, a tradition that has followed us through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro. We accept, and again say yes to the invitation life put in our path.
We made it out of the woods unharmed.
Bosnia and Herzegovina still has much to show us, so much of it I do not want to see. It is not a simple country to walk. It makes me think and feel too much, more than my heart can carry.
I watch the raindrops splatter. I sip the strong black coffee. I breathe in the forest. I exhale and send out my sadness, my joy, my confusion, and my good intentions.
We say goodbye to the guard, and walk towards the fog. We continue to walk into the unknown and hope kindness guides us onward.