Didn’t it Rain: Abandoned hotels, capsized boats, saving dogs and fearing needing saving.
Club Med Tito 09.06.16
I’m on a bus. It’s about 20 years old, there are 7 seats including a garden chair, all are occupied, by 5 Bosnians, 1 Serbian and 1 Briton – me. It’s struggling up a mountain in central Bosnia & Herzegovina. We’re inhaling a compelling mixture of cigarette and engine smoke, if it wasn’t completely dark the air would be blue with it. The other passengers are singing. I am not. Not because I’m tired, out of my depth and have a rapidly declining sense of humour, mainly because I don’t know any Bosnian songs. They know no British ones, in fact, only one of them, Molmir, speaks English.
An hour later the bus stops outside an abandoned looking hotel on an even more abandoned looking lake.
I step out and walk to the back of the bus to pick up my 30kg of living, filming and paddling gear.
Assuming he doesn’t mean get back on the bus this is all a big joke, I head for the Tito-esque building ahead of me. Clad in concrete with holes and or windows in the side, a BBQ pit outside and most importantly, nothing else for miles around. This place doesn’t seem like the most welcoming.
Inside there’s a huge kitchen and a dining room with chairs set up in rows resembling a church seating plan. I follow Molmir through and up a set of curving stairs along what clearly used to be a wall of glass but is now iron and shards. Along a dark corridor, he stops, opens one door a foot, looks in and closes it again.
The next door down he opens, looks in, sighs with relief and lets me in.
“See you in the morning, we leave at 07:30, sorry again”
Inside the small white room with two single beds I set my stuff down and burst out laughing.
Okay, so I neglected a few facts here. I was in fact not being kidnapped, I’d just been double booked in the hostel I’d planned to stay at on the Neretva river. Double booked with about 75 Bosnian school children. I spent the evening sitting around for a few hours watching hoards of preteens scroll through Instagram as fast as middle-of-nowhere wifi that 75 schoolchildren are bleeding dry could allow, seemingly unphased by the Balkans-pop-rock live concert/karaoke that was testing the strength of my eardrums. After this experience I’m happy to see the one time, I finally boarded the bus with the 6 super-friendly employees and headed to the Lakeside hotel that they owned but didn’t know what to do with.
It has to be said though, I didn’t know quite what I was letting myself in for, hence the multiple friends who got sent my location over Facebook, just in case…
The Upper Neretva 11.06.16
Yesterday was wholly uneventful. I survived the Tito hotel, got back to the hostel to watch the hoard eat and leave, still stuck to their phones. Then I sat and relaxed in the rain, watching the Neretva flow past. The weather forecast wasn’t ideal at all. Thunderstorms for the whole week, basically the entire time I had on the river, so seeing as I have time, I’ve decided that I’m going to head back to Sarajevo and wait for the storms to pass. Added bonus, Isabella has the week off of rehearsals so she’s coming out for four days! This decision may have had something to do with the lonely feelings the other day, but it’s okay, it’ll just be even harder the second time round.
Determined to do something, I’ve booked in to go white water rafting on the upper Neretva, the section that’s basically waaay to hairy for a stand-up paddle board. Well, I’ve heard some people take rapids, but I thought that I really should at least try paddle boarding first. And I’m really glad I did. The hostel also took people rafting and they were totally professional (unlike their handle on booking.com). The rain poured for the entire day but I felt relatively at home. The water was rough and fast, a grade III river, and proved this by capsizing one of the rafts. As it tried to drag bobbing Hungarians in helmets that rush past at speed I felt pretty comfortable in my decision to start the paddle boarding further down the river.
We also headed to the ‘Tito Bunker’, exactly what it says it is on the state funded tin: a $4.5 billion nuclear bunker built to keep Tito and 349 select others to survive 6 months in the case of a nuclear holocaust. In reality, the number is probably smaller that this, on account of 6 months being a pointless amount of time to survive nuclear fallout. It’s now open to the public and is also an art exhibition by mostly Balkans projecting the hypocrisy of a socialist ruler using $4.5billion of the states money to keep the elite alive. It’s definitely worth a trip, I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
So I call this my side trip. Don’t get me wrong, I could have probably gone and paddled. But the entire journey would’ve been spotted with thunderstorms, which isn’t my idea of fun. Beyond the challenge and raising money for charity, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the adventures, it’s ‘try and and have fun’. So I hitched a lift back to Sarajevo and on the evening of the 12th went to meet my girlfriend at the airport. I’d taken a grey gloomy 80s tram there through the rain, reading and being in my own little world, but the way back was a totally different journey. One was now two. I was no longer a lonely adventurer, but part of a pair. The tram and weather were still gloomy, but I was a tourist now, and determined to find the uniqueness in every situation. Also, I’ve done my reading on Bosnia and Herzegovina, I didn’t want to come to a country so recently at war and be unaware, so I could now also act as tour guide.
On the first of four days of tourism we explored the old town, dancing with street performers (by street performer, a guy with headphones and colourful antenna taped to his face while he danced as if he was being electrocuted… the definition of ‘you do you’), feeding pigeons and exploring hippy tea rooms. We got grounded by the Srebrinica Exhibition, documenting the genocide against Muslims of Srebrinica, and the people of Sarajevo. Beautifully captured film and photographs of one of Europe’s darkest times in modern history. It’s not what I’d call fun, but it’s definitely worth it if you really want to understand Bosnia and the efforts which people go to love and repair what’s happened. Not to get caught up in it too much though, there is so much more to Bosnia-Herzegovina than that. There’s coffee, food, beer, mountains, bars, music, theatre, mosques, churches, amazing architecture and beautiful, friendly people.
The next day we got a taxi up to the top of the looming Dinaric Alpes and went for a relaxed hike to Skakavac waterfall, apparently not the prettiest, but it’s pretty damn high at nearly 100m, and a brilliant walk through the forest that left us hungry for the apparently amazing food at the lodge atop the mountain ‘Dragan’s’. However, as it transpired, it was his day off cooking and we were left with a huge plate of cheese instead, and I do mean huuuuge. He seemed pretty upset when we didn’t finish it.
Next we rented a car and dove out to Mostar, along the route I’ll be paddling. We were in absolute awe at the scenery. Huge slabs of rock which had been blasted away by time and the rather unstoppable force of water running though the Neretva. These are obstacles I’m going to have to navigate with care. Bosnia doesn’t have all that many safety measures in place to stop people getting swept down the dams which is pretty…well…damming. Mostar itself boasts beautiful architecture, the old town and the old bridge are stunning. The bridge itself has been rebuilt since the war, but before that it stood made out of the same rock for 400 years. Today, rather than flocked with traders and locals passing through, it holds the strain of tourists trotting bellies, babies and cameras, as well as the diving club who teach people to jump the 22m off of it. Apparently only 5-10 people have died in the last decade. Any number of deaths doesn’t exact doesn’t bode well with me. Instead of launching off into the icy river I’d soon be living out of, we stopped to watch the water go by for a few minutes. Attention however turned from the steady flow of water to a group of children beating a dog down on the shore. I began aimlessly yelling at them in English, which they clearly didn’t understand, while releasing the pregnant stray from the thin leather strand they’d used as a choke. We chilled with Cassie the dog, who didn’t want to leave her spot by the water, and without much other option eventually left her with a girl who turned out to rescue dogs, but didn’t have space for another. We headed back to the car whilst she was calling friends, looking for a home for Cassie.
Alone again 17.06.16
So this morning I left the rental car and Isabella at the airport. Our holiday seems too short-lived. After packing and saying my goodbyes at The Doctor’s House again I got back on my way to Konjic, to ‘The Mini Hostel’ which in actual fact doesn’t seem to exist. The location on Google is a house and the phone number is a dud. So after wandering around Konjic and nearly getting my camera stolen, I finally happened upon ‘Stecak’, a brand new hostel that’s empty at the moment, even the owners left, so I’ve been sat here feeling lonely and stressed about the coming adventure. The same woes I had last week are amplified going from travelling as a couple to solo in a country that’s culturally so far from my own, and where few speak the language. But it’s a lovely place, and runs some seriously cool multi day adventure packages around the mountains.
I’m stressing about dams and waterways. I’m not really experienced in this at all and feel truly out of my depth. All I can do is try, and see where it takes me. I probably won’t die.
Until next time,