Bosnia | Welcome to Heck

It was a curious jaunt to Sarajevo. After a long day sweating in the hostel garden in Mostar, I set out with my new travel buddy, Jack, and a French guy who I think was called Adrian. We lugged our rucksacks across town in the 42C heat, found our train was delayed by five hours, lugged our rucksacks back to the hostel, melted a bit more, and then in the evening boarded our train. The view from Mostar to Sarajevo looked to have been fantastic – big swooping mountains all the way – but the train had tinted windows for some reason, and in the twilight we couldn’t see shit.

It was the first time I’d travelled inter-city with anybody else on my trip, and it was pleasant to have company. I always get a bit funny when arriving in a new city by myself, especially at night, which it usually is. Wandering around foreign alleyways in the dark with a phone that doesn’t work and all your valuables on your back can feel a bit disconcerting, to say the least. In our trio, though, I felt confident getting off the train in Sarajevo and stepping out of the station into the humid amber dark of a new city.

That said, I’d forgotten one key thing about travelling with other people: they’re idiots. While I smoked a cig and Jack tried and failed to hail a taxi, in the background, Adrian was chatting to a man in a black car who’d pulled up.

“Hey guys,” he shouted to us after a minute, “wanna hitchhike?”

I didn’t have any time to think; Adrian was already swinging his rucksack into the boot of the car and climbing in the passenger seat. The driver – a large, hairy-forearmed man in his 30s – didn’t seem to speak more than a couple of words of English. With a middling sense of ‘this is a shit idea’, then, I climbed in the back with Jack, and our driver moved off, away from the train station and into the night.

“Thank you for picking us up,” I said from the back. “What’s your name?”

The driver remained silent in the front, and Jack and I exchanged a frown. A moment later, our suspicions were confirmed:

“Twenty euros,” said the man.

Adrian, you bell end. Wanna hitchhike? He’d bundled us unknowingly into an unlicensed cab. Thankfully, Jack is far less concerned by confrontation than I am.

“No mate, we’re not paying you that, it’s way too much.”

“You pay twenty euros,” said the man.

“We’re not giving you twenty euros, bro.”

“Twenty euros, I drop you off.”

“No, we’ll walk then,” said Jack.

But the car didn’t stop, continuing instead to cruise out of the station complex to join a busy road, heading towards the neon lights of the city.

“Why are you still driving?” asked Jack.

I wasn’t particularly panicked, to be honest. There were three of us and one of him, and it was fairly clear he wasn’t some mafioso – just a guy trying to swindle backpackers. In the end we haggled him down to fifteen euros for two stops – still overpriced, but whatever.

We first dropped Adrian at his hostel in a built up, central area that looked more familiar and European architecturally, then our unlicensed cabby drove Jack and I into a more eastern-looking part of the city, past mosques and Islamic graveyards where instead of the usual tooth-shaped headstones, they have rows after rows of tall thin pillars. We wound away out of the city, and I noticed bullet holes in the buildings that hemmed in the increasingly narrow road. Our driver pointed out pretty women as we drove, and mumbled obscenities in Bosnian. Finally, he dropped us down a narrow street of lopsided wooden buildings, and rolled away into the night with his fifteen hard-fought euros.

Jack and I stood in the quiet street, both thinking the same thing, neither of us wanting to say it.

“Bit sketchy.”

We walked down the empty street, the sounds of the city distant, scanning the entrance of each ramshackle house for the right number. We found the one Jack had booked, but there was no doorbell and no lights on inside; it was little more than a dilapidated shack. As we debated whether this was the right place, someone on a balcony down the road shone a torch on us and yelled something, and an unseen dog started barking. We did our best to ignore the crazy torch man and Jack pulled up the address on his phone again to double check. Then a voice down the street caught our attention.

“The booking has wrong address, I’m sorry!”

A small woman with a pregnant tummy was hurrying up the street to us, waving.

“You are Jack?”

We nodded, and she beckoned for us to follow her – down the dark street, through a dark gate, across a dark courtyard, and into a bright hallway. The crazy yelling torch man had been her husband.

Our accommodation was simple and odd: our bedroom had clearly been a bathroom or kitchen in a past life, with tiled walls and a cold tiled floor. We had three single beds between the two of us, all in a line, and a metre down the hall was a bathroom twice the size of our bedroom, complete with a gigantic bathtub and a bidet. The door – which directly faced the toilet – was only frosted glass, for some reason.

We chatted to the woman who was to be our host for the next two nights; she told us about the neighbourhood and her children and when her next baby was due and which names she was considering. She was very friendly, in stark contrast to our rough arrival in the city. We asked her the quickest way into the city, and she told us about the route she took every day: she mentioned a viewpoint, and a hill, and some stairs. Then she bade us goodnight and went upstairs to her home, and Jack and I left our little room to go and explore. The only question was: which direction?

Jack remembered distinctly that our host had said to go right. I was very sure that she’d said left. I like to be agreeable, however, so I said sure, we’ll try right – it probably all goes the same way regardless.

We set off, wandering through the mountainside hodgepodge of bullet-smashed half-wood houses, illuminated only in streetlamp amber. Distant sirens echoed from the city, and far-off dogs barked. We reached a small bridge hemmed in by a chain-link fence, from which we could see the glittering lights of Sarajevo down below us. We couldn’t enjoy it for long, however, because our voices woke a dog in someone’s garden that began snarling and snapping at us through the mesh fence. We had no choice but to edge past it, expecting that it might break free at any moment and tear after us down the road into the night.

When the road ran out, we found a shadowy old staircase, overgrown with weeds. Each dusty step crumbled slightly underfoot, and it was difficult to stay balanced. I lit the torch on my phone to light our way.

“This absolutely cannot be the way she meant,” I said. “How the bollocks would a pregnant woman do this?”

We reached the bottom of the rickety staircase and found ourselves on an empty stretch of road beside a hotel with all the lights on but not a soul inside – not even at the reception desk. A few feet away, on an old wall overgrown with vines and peppered with bullet holes, somebody had spray painted the words ‘welcome to hell’. Jack and I looked at each other with a little grimace.

“Not ideal.”

We marched up a winding hill and down a winding hill, passing by the graveyard again. At length we reached the bottom of the hill, and after crossing a busy road we arrived, thirsty and knackered, at the town centre. In a broad and busy square around a large, eastern-looking clocktower, we found all manner of squat wooden market buildings. Each of these had tables and chairs outside, with hundreds of groups sitting and smoking and eating dinner and drinking coffee. I saw laughing young women wearing hijabs taking selfies photos of their dinner, and young men all barrel-chested reclined on sofas passing a hookah shisha back and forth. From shopfronts there glittered golden teacups and platters and long silver knives, and as we walked we passed through pockets of air that smelled alternately sweet and salty, from plumes of shisha smoke and kebabs cooking in restaurant kitchens. There was not a single alcoholic drink in sight, I noticed. I turned to Jack.

“This is my favourite place on this trip so far,” I told him. “Holy fuck, man.”

I’ve been to a lot of places around the world, but I’d never been anywhere where Arabic culture was so prevalent. It was very alien, and very beautiful.

I explored the market with Jack, and we sat on a small wooden bench outside a shisha place and I drank an orange juice. We talked for an hour or two – about our taxi driver, about Bosnia, about all sorts – and in the early evening we climbed back into the mountains to hit the hay.

It wasn’t a straightforward day, it wasn’t a comfortable day, but it was a day spent completely in the moment, which means it was a good day for the soul.

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