I didn’t intend to go to Bosnia. Two Kiwi guys I met in Croatia’s shittest hostel in Zadar – the one with the bees nest in the dorm – told me about a town called Mostar, which they recommended. Mostar was between Split and Dubrovnic, so my initial plan was to pop over into Bosnia and pop back to continue my journey south. Within a couple of hours of arriving in Mostar, I’d decided to alter my trip. Bosnia is a fascinating place.
The bus from Split was terrifying. I’ve taken buses and trains all the way from Faro in Portugal, and am determined to take them wherever possible in place of planes. However, buses through the Balkans take forever to get anywhere – there are too many mountains and too few motorways. Leaving Split, we wound up into the mountains along meandering roads, higher and higher, until we reached dizzying heights: out of the left window was a sheer rock face, while out of the bus’s right window was a vertical drop of what must have been almost a kilometre. We were as high as an aeroplane with villages below like tiny model towns, and I fastened my seatbelt as I watched the driver navigate dozens of sharp turns hugging the mountainside. There was a low metal barrier on the edge, but it wouldn’t have done anything at all to stop a careening bus. I’ve been in the same situation far too many times on my trips over the years. All you can do is have faith and try to think of something else.
I arrived in Mostar at 11pm, and was frustrated to find that, having left the EU, my mobile phone no longer worked. The bus dropped me not at a bus station, but on a dark empty street, and drove away. I wasn’t sure what to do, so wandered along until I found an ATM and took out what I guessed might equal a hundred pounds – no way of knowing without data. At the ATM I met two other backpackers (one Aussie guy and a girl from Sheffield, weirdly), and we shared a cab to our respective hostels. Mine was the last stop, and I had to pay the driver in Croatian Kuna because the ATM in Mostar had given me huge bills he couldn’t break.
My hostel was called Hostel Adi, and the Kiwi guys in Zadar had recommended it. It was down a succession of ginnels, and I’ll admit I felt a little nervous when the taxi man pointed me where to go:
“Down the street, and go left, is close.”
I wandered through dark alleys until I heard the sounds of laughter, and followed them to a large brown gate guarded a courtyard. I rang the doorbell and heard the voices stop, and a moment later a large man with brown hair and green eyes opened the door.
“Dan?” he asked.
He led me inside the courtyard, where six backpackers were sitting around. An Irish guy with his back to me called out over his shoulder.
“Where you from brother?”
“England,” I said.
“Ah, fuck sake another one,” he laughed.
Adi – the man with the green eyes – checked me in, and offered me a beer. I said no at first, then changed my mind after about seven seconds after feeling the weight of everybody’s stares at the newcomer.
After he’d checked me in and handed me a bottle of local beer (cost a euro), I sat with the group and they asked me all the usual questions. I ended up staying with them for hours, and at 2am they decided to head out to find some cave-nightclub called Ali Baba’s. There was an English guy called Jack, a Turkish guy called Turker (which he told me literally means ‘Turkish man’), and a duo comprised of a stout Aussie and the Irish guy – their names escape me. They made a funny travelling pair, constantly bickering and rinsing one another like an old couple.
It was on the way to Ali Baba’s that I saw the first bullet holes; the Irish guy pointed them out. They were right at the end of the little ginnel I’d entered after the taxi: in the side of someone’s house – still inhabited, lights on in the windows – were dozens of fist-sized perforations. I knew nothing of the Bosnian war at this point, so could only look on in bafflement.
Mostar’s old town is very beautiful by night. The streets are hemmed in tightly by dark wooden stalls, and the floor is high, slippery cobbles which make walking uncomfortable. We found Ali Baba’s but left after only one drink – the novelty factor of a nightclub in a shallow cave wore thin after about two minutes, owing largely to the atrocious pounding pop music they were playing. We left the club and crossed Mostar’s most famous bridge – it’s 30 metres high and shaped like an upside-down V, and it’s slippery as hell. The boys told me that men jump from the bridge during the daytime, and I made a mental note to return the next day to watch.
We found a rock bar called Black Dog and sat outside in a small courtyard and talked for a while, until the Australian and Irish guy got too drunk and their banter erupted into a fully fledged row. I somehow got dragged into it on the walk home:
“Dan’s way more fun to talk to than you, you fucking Aussie dickhead,” said the Irish guy.
“Shut the fuck up bringing Dan into this, you Irish prick, leave the guy alone,” said the Australian guy.
I found it pretty complimentary, actually – albeit in a fairly odd way.
In the morning, everybody from the previous evening had checked out before I woke up, except the English guy, Jack. I took a day for myself to explore the town. I took breakfast in a shitty café outside the old town – I spent ages trying to find a more ‘local’ looking establishment, and the one I chose was so local that they had no customers beyond two old men smoking inside. The waiter, upon seeing my arrival, greeted me warmly and unplugged a fan blowing on the old men and set it up beside me instead, which I felt pretty guilty about.
I didn’t understand a word of the menu, but it had pictures. I ordered a Bosnian coffee and some meat and bread dish. The Bosnian coffee was cool – you get a tray with two little golden cups with long handles, one contains potent coffee, one contains boiling water. Then you take a third vessel, which looks a little like an egg cup, and you drop a sugar cube in it and then scrape off the foam from the coffee with a spoon and pour it over the sugar. Then when there’s no foam left you pour the coffee, and when you want to top it up you add the boiling water.
My food arrived and I realised I’d fucked up: it was a humongous platter. I’d only wanted a sarnie. There were six different kinds of meat, a pile of depressing looking salad, a portion of fries, and an entire breadbasket. I did my best, and after forty-five minutes I’d eaten three quarters. I apologised to the waiter, when he came back, for not finishing my meal.
“Is okay,” he said. “Is for two people.”
All the coffee and food made me need to use the bathroom, however I was disgruntled to find that the restaurant only had a squat toilet. I’m fine with squat toilets in theory – used a bunch of them in India and Nepal – but you sort of have to prep mentally for it. Like, maybe you notice one in your hostel but you don’t need the loo just yet, so over the next few hours you have time to switch on your ‘open minded traveller!’ mentality and brace yourself. Stumbling into one by accident just after breakfast is just… a little too much.
Instead then, bloated and uncomfortable, I headed out into the old town, slipping and sliding on the gleaming smooth cobbles. By day the streets are hectic, with vendors hawking lanterns and glittering golden tea sets from every stall. The street is so narrow that the opened shutters of each stall almost touch in the middle, transforming the street into a boisterous, shady tunnel filled with a combination of westerners in flip flops and eastern people in hijabs. Mostar is divided in two by the river: a Catholic side and a Muslim side. I didn’t know why at this point, and I’d only seen the Muslim side, with that being where my hostel was located.
I crossed the old Mostar bridge, by daylight this time, and wound down a hillside to a little beachy area on the riverside below. From here, sitting in beaming hot sunshine, I watched a group of tanned men in Speedos stand atop the bridge, balanced on the other side of the railing above thirty metres of nothing, chatting amiably. The previous evening, the Irish guy told me that a few local people make money this way: they wait on the bridge, asking tourists for donations, and when they get enough money, they jump from the bridge. Tourists can attempt the jump too, but only if they get trained by locals first – thirty metres if fucking high, and falling at that speed, water becomes much harder. If you balls it up you can seriously injure yourself, or even die.
I watched a few guys jumping off a little training platform downstream – with diving boards a mere 17 metres high. There’s a specific way they teach you to jump; you have to jump knees-first and flap your arms out to the sides to steady yourself and slow your speed, and at the last second you extend your legs. Pencil-diving from the top is apparently a surefire way to fuck yourself up.
I watched a few of the locals leap from the bridge. They fall for a terrifying amount of time; it’s a good 2.5 seconds before they hit the water. The deep plunging boom they make when they land reverberates around the canyon, and if the jump was good, crowds on the bridge and the beach will cheer. I saw a couple of not-so-great jumps from tourists, and the crowd lets out a grimacing ‘oooff’ instead.
It’s a right of passage in Mostar to do the jump: every man in the city, when he reaches sixteen years of age, is expected to do the jump. Every man you meet there has done it – including Adi, and each waiter I talked to. It’s a matter of pride – you jump, and you become a man. One waiter I talked to broke his toe doing it. Adi himself has jumped eight times, and soon it will be time for his young nephew, who helps out at the hostel, to make the jump. I can’t imagine it. I’d never graduate to manhood; I’d be 67 years old, Bosnia’s oldest teenager.
I was learning a lot with every hour spent in Mostar – and I was happy for it. Western Europe was cool, but it was very familiar and very easy – it almost felt like I was on rails, being ferried effortlessly from place to place like ‘here you are, look at this, isn’t it nice’. Finally I’d found somewhere I knew nothing about, a little harder to access, where things were a little scarier and stranger. And I liked it a lot.