Tag Archives: Europe

One Night in Budapest

I took a nice dark red Austrian Railjet train from Munich Germany to Budapest Hungary. It is really not that far. A scant 8 hours, made especially nice by the fact that there were no border crossings to take up lots of time. I had only one night here and I had two objectives: visit the Citadella and the chain bridge. I took the new green line metro underneath the Danube river and got out, ready to climb the mountain. The Citadella is an old fortress on top of a steep mountain in Budapest. It’s about a 30 minute climb, but first I needed some food. I found a Hungarian pizza place but they were ‘take out’ only and didn’t really know what to make of this guy who stops in trying to buy a pizza. They fetched someone out of the back that could speak a bit of English and I ordered a pizza. I carried it with me up the mountain and had a picnic in the dark.

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Budapest is the pick pocket capital of the world. [So I heard once.] Three years ago I climbed this mountain and somewhere in the deep shadows I was waylaid by a man who tried to take my wallet. I felt it and wasn’t about to give up so easy. Something of a stare down and a small fight ensued, but when I had regained my wallet I galloped down the mountain, with a grungy rough shaven thief in hot pursuit. I escaped. So, for me to venture up this mountain in the dark with no lights was facing my fears. I admit I was very cautious and every time I saw a shadow I wondered if it was someone who wanted to relieve me of money. No incidents occurred.

The view from the top was breath-taking. The entire city sparkled with a million golden lights, and the Danube stretched both ways as far as the eye could see. Boats made their slow laborious way up and down the river.

From there I went down to the chain bridge which is  a properly magnificent bridge. It was the world’s first suspension bridge and was quite a marvel in its time. I spent some time sitting by the river thinking and meditating.

“The chain bridge as seen from the Citadella at night.”
“Entrance to the chain bridge.”

At 6:00 the next morning I was back on the train. This time it  was a Hungarian MAV train and off we went. Daybreak came shortly afterward and I was treated to a gorgeous sunrise in a foggy farm area with rolling cornfields.

“Sunrise in the Hungarian countryside.”

God, Myself, and the Train

  As with so many of my journeys, I think the thing I crave most is finding God in a deeper way. It’s not like I don’t know God. He has become so incredibly special and close to me. But I find him like never before when I travel. I read a blog written by one of my best friends who was writing about finding God. He compared it to winning the heart of his girl, “Just like when I wanted to have a relationship with her, I didn’t ask other people about her. I didn’t read books about her.  I talked with her! Why would I do that with God? Why not just talk to Him?”
 This has put me on a journey. It has put my mind on a journey. I have been practicing this truth in a society that tells me the opposite. Society cannot bear unpredictability. It can not handle wildness. We have tamed everything and made it predictable. We become Christians at 16. We get married at 21. We have kids.  We don’t do anything risky. We don’t smoke. We don’t drink. We don’t dance. But what about our hearts? Are they as clean as our lungs and liver? Is there room for the blessed Father in there? Are they free and happy or sad and dying? Then we get older and we wonder where life went. I would like to propose that we think outside the box. What if God is wild? What if life is meant to be unpredictable? Would we be okay with that?
 I have taken this golden nugget of truth from my friend. I have been seeking God. At this time [for the time being] I have resolved not to read another book about how to get to know God. Not another book on how to build a relationship with God. I have found God. Him and I have a relationship. And we talk. We both talk. Admittedly I do more. [Haha.] But just hanging out with God and talking with Him as brought me ten thousand times closer than any book I may have read titled “10 steps to finding God.”
 And it’s been good. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything. I think back to the first time I met God. Behind the chicken house in southern Kentucky next to a putrid drainage ditch. (My brother and I renamed it Little Chicken River because we wanted adventure.) Then I ignored God. For many years. Besides, I didn’t know what to do with this experience. Then seven years later when my life was spiraling out of control He came again. He met me in a powerful, life-changing way that set me free and gave me courage.
 I left everything. Only to get sucked up in another system. To find healing from this, God led me on a long journey through Europe. I couldn’t say why I was going and I thought I was crazy going for a whole month. My comfort was that I had enough money to by a ticket back anytime I wanted. Instead the day I came back was the worst of them all. I wanted to cry. And I learned to know myself. I found myself. I discovered that God is big and wild. Unprogrammed. And He wants to be discovered. It was a month of hurts and fears draining from me and being replaced by confidence. By knowledge of being the beloved son of God. I vividly remember the profound moment that God met me on a smoky local train lost in central Bosnia in the middle of the night. I was standing beside the open window as we chugged along. It was a brilliantly clear night with stars sparkling so brightly I didn’t know what to do. And God touched my heart. I had found so much healing and this was like a final touch. It brought tears to my eyes. It was like a giant hug from God.
 Over the years I have traveled here and there again. I have taken about 70 plane rides in the last 20 months. But I prefer train when ever possible. Because I find time to relax, unwind, and hear from God. To talk to him. It’s like our special place. I have so many good memories of train rides across places like China and Australia.
 And that is why I chose to take the train from northern Norway to southern Germany. Yeah, its over 2000 miles and it takes 3 days and 2 [miserable] nights. But God comes and talks to me every day. It’s a hallowed spot. Yesterday it was mostly me talking to Him. Asking so many questions. And today it was Him talking to me. He said,”I know you have questions. You want answers. But you need to trust. Life is meant to be mystery. It is meant to be wild. If it weren’t you wouldn’t need Me. Because you have chosen to live from the heart. And we are going to share the adventure and the journey of life you are on.”  And my heart was so full I didn’t know what to do. Except, whisper thank-you as warm, salty tears pushed at my eyelids. And I knew as never before who I am.
 Now isn’t that pretty cool? God wants to share our lives. I have come to believe that he wants to be deeply involved and personally share in our adventures. He wants to be right beside us in whatever we are doing or pursuing.
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Discover what makes you come alive and go give that to the world. The world needs people who are alive.”
    You know how the first thing we all do when we wake up is to reach for our smart phones? You know how broadly we smile when there is an email waiting from that dear friend who is 6 hours ahead of us. Do you know how much God would like it and how broadly He would smile if we woke up and talked to him before leaving the covers? Not to mention before we even touch that smart phone.
 I also believe that many times we neglect to realize that God has created us uniquely. Those desires he placed in us may be something He wants us to explore, to follow through with.
  Honestly, I feel very vulnerable sharing this. But I have to. Because then you expect be to keep living this. It creates accountability. And perhaps there is a soul who is wondering how to connect in a deeper way with God. Please don’t read a book. Just go sit beside a river for a weekend by yourself. God desperately wants to connect with you. And He will. If you are willing. There is no prescribed way. But if we truly seek Him we  will find him!

Of Refugees and Münich

I had a two-hour wait in the Münich Hauptbahnhoff. It’s been a crazy place the last while, I hear. Yesterday 10,000 refugees arrived by train. The numbers are incomprehensible and staggering to me.

"... I sat with these guys for an hour or two..."
“… I sat with these guys for an hour or two…”

I sat down on a nondescript bench by myself and got lost in my own thoughts. And then a group of middle eastern refugees sauntered up and sat down on the benches opposite me. But there wasn’t enough room so they filled up my bench and sat next to me. Not that I minded, but I considered moving instantly. Not because I dislike refugees. But because of the smell. It was not the smell of unwashed bodies, but the distinctly unpleasant aroma of someone who didn’t make it to the bathroom in time. Well, that’s putting it mildly. Let’s assume this happened, but of course there is no other set of clothes so we just make do.
But I couldn’t move. I mean, what would that say to these poor people who have lost everything. You sit down beside someone and they get up and leave. In reality there is probably not that much pride left, but still it has to sting. So I stayed. And even engaged in some conversation. Not that either one of us understood anything.
Sitting on this bench with a group of brown-skinned young men was really interesting. Several trains arrived and passengers disembarked. Hundreds and hundreds of people walked past us and I got to watch their reactions. Some people walked by, gazing straight ahead. Old ladies especially, would walk very slowly and almost stop, offering giant smiles. It warmed my heart. But nearly everyone watched us out of the corner of their eye as they walked past, careful not to make eye contact. The look was not resentment or mistrust. It was simply curiosity. Who are these people? Where are they from? What have they experienced?
You see, I was sitting in this group of people. I felt like it was an honor. I am a bit dark skinned myself, and with my black hair I melted right in. I heard people say flüchlinge  [refugee] when they walked past. As far as they were concerned, I was just another refugee in this crowd. After all, I was not dressed sharply. In fact, I was actually quite grungy looking. I thought it was a really nice morning. Granted, it was a bit chilly. But these young guys were shivering violently, being unaccustomed to such weather.

"... a moment of kindness from the policeman...''
“… a moment of kindness from the policeman…”

It was a really deep moment for me to identify with these people. To be treated by society as if I was homeless. I looked into the eyes of these young men. Eyes wide with fascination at this strange world. But also eyes that were deeply haunted by the pain, death and suffering they experienced. When I left the group for my train ride to Budapest, I felt embarrassed. I had everything. I could just leave. They couldn’t.
A train pulled in from Budapest. It was quite a long train. And the entire train was filled with refugees. Dozens and dozens of police formed a human wall. News reporters stood on ladders behind them, trying to get pictures. The corridor teemed with volunteers in neon green and orange vests. Some of them were crying. Others had glazed eyes, and calloused faces. IMG_20150908_122907It just didn’t matter any more. I talked with a policeman and he let me through the line. I walked the length of the train studying these faces. It was so touching. Tears welled up in my eyes. But then I had to leave. Budapest was calling.
Somehow this made a deep impression on me. I realize Muenchen is a far cry from the pain and suffering in Syria. But still…I hear so much about these situations and read so much about them. To see it first hand and mingle with these people was an incredible experience. I hope I never forget this feeling.

But then arriving in Budapest there was so much more. Unlike what the media portrays, I was not faced with a million angry people. But there were hundreds and hundreds of people camped in tents and sleeping bags in the train/metro halls. Really it was too much for words. So I won’t try.

Nomad in a Train

I got up at 5 in the morning, packed my bags, ate some muesli with fresh raspberries and shouldered my bags. The morning air was crisp and the sun was threatening to break through the clouds. Daylight comes quite early here and it felt unusual to be walking the streets of Tromsø while it was entirely deserted.
I walked over to the bus stop that I needed to catch the #100 bus to Narvik. This bus was something between a city bus and a long distance bus. You could simply flag it down anywhere and get on, or wait at a designated stopping point. It had room underneath for my back pack, and a comfortable reclining seat to let me snooze for a bit yet. It was about a 4 hour ride with 158 designated stops before Narvik, the vast majority of which we did not stop at.
I wonder if the day will ever come that I am not in complete awe as I travel around Norway. It was the same story all over. Large, imposing, snow-capped mountains. Towering, bald-faced, rock cliffs that make a person cringe. Waterfalls cascading off these or crashing down through the mountains. Icy fjords reaching their fingers deep inland from the Arctic Ocean. Feverishly, I tried to take it all in.

"...perks of a bus ride in the Arctic Circle..."
                                                              “…perks of a bus ride in the Arctic Circle…”
"...perks of a bus ride in the Arctic Circle..."
                                                                 “…perks of a bus ride in the Arctic Circle…”

The ride down was quite uneventful. I was dropped off right in front of the Narvik train station where I had another two hours to wait. I went outside and sat at a picnic table in the warm morning sun where I made and ate a sandwich. Some of that delicious, freshly sliced Norwegian bread [my German friends snicker that I think Norwegian bread is good] that I buttered down with real butter, some spiced ham and Gulost cheese.
I boarded the train which was quite short and had only one car bound for Stockholm.

"...boarding the Arctic Circle train in Narvik..."
“…boarding the Arctic Circle train in Narvik…”

The rest of the train was going to Luleå which is about halfway down across Sweden. This was an amazing train ride. I thought what I saw this morning on the bus was incredible, but the view from the train was so much more. While the bus snaked around the bottom of the mountains, the train went right on up and boldly cut a path around these, precariously hanging to the side while we looped around mountain after mountain with fjords far below. I stood at the window with camera in one hand and Go-pro in the other.

'''..last glimpses of Narvik as the Arctic Circle train gets lost in the mountains...'''
                        ”..last glimpses of Narvik as the Arctic Circle train gets lost in the mountains…”
" the last arctic fjord sliding by as we went inland..."
                                          ” the last arctic fjord sliding by as we went inland…”

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About an hour into the trip we got to the Norway-Sweden border high up in the mountains. Up here there are no crazy, heart-stopping, hair pin curves. Only tundra covered plateaus with rocky peaks and giant rock strewn about. It looks like a desperately cold and uninviting place in the winter. I cannot imagine how high the snow would pile. Because of the wind [and perhaps other reasons] there are miles of long wooden sheds on the top of the mountains that the train runs through. It is an electric train so there are wires strung along all the way, even through the sheds. I find it quite fascinating that the Swedes have this infrastructure so far north, and yet in the US we think that a train running from NYC to Toronto is so remote that we have to switch to diesel engines.

" ...a lake up on the plateau..."
                                                                            ” …a lake up on the plateau…”
"...small cottages way up on the mountains..."
                                                   “…small cottages way up on the mountains…”
"...train tunnels..."
                                                                     “…train tunnels…”

A lot of people got on at Kiruna. It is widely known and celebrated as one of the northern most posts of Sweden and I am genuinely surprised that people just believe it. Are they not aware that you could stay on the train another three hours? Interestingly however, practically every one of these dozens of people were wearing huge body back packs, hiking shoes and rain gear instead of the standard travel wear.
I would recommend anyone who comes to Narvik to take the train to at least Kiruna and back. The scenery is unbelievable. And it is so incredibly cheap. My ticket from Narvik Norway to Stockholm Sweden cost a paltry $42.80.
But we went on. Towards evening the tundra started fading away and gave room to evergreen trees. Relentlessly the train carried on sweeping me ever further south. I lost track of time. But at some point we stopped at Boden and the Stockholm car was disconnected and attached to a Stockholm bound train while the rest went on to Luleå. I had a table seat so reading and writing was pretty easy and no one sat beside me throughout the whole journey so in the evening I got out my inflatable pillow [what a life saver] and cramped myself into a short position on the double seat. I managed to sleep for about 6 hours.
In the morning I got a cup of coffee from the restaurant car. It cost 20 SEK which was reasonably cheap and I had my own creamer along. The coffee was strong and dark. So dark that it actually felt like it was a bit syrupy. Oh but the flavor. When it got to my lips I shivered and tingled with delight from head to toe.
I got into Stockholm a bit before lunch, and my train out wasn’t till evening. I was really excited to be in this great city for a day and promptly headed to my favorite cafe, Espresso House for some breakfast. I spent the day going to a few of my favorite places and then watching the sun slide down in the west and watching planes come down into Arlanda.

"...Stockholm at day..."
                                                                         “…Stockholm at day…”
"...Stockholm at night..."
                                                                   “…Stockholm at night…”

Around 11 that evening I walked back to Stockholm Central Station where I got on another train bound for Lund Sweden. I sat beside a pleasant young middle eastern guy and promptly fell asleep. When I woke up, he had moved across the aisle to sleep on a newly emptied double seat, so I laid down as well. I was rudely awakened at 6:30 by an announcement that we were arriving in Lund, so I had to get off. I waited a quick 10 minutes for the Copenhagen bound train to arrive and jumped on it.
I got my morning coffee here, and boarded a train for Hamburg Germany. I sat across from an interesting young man from Australia who was traveling for a year. We had great conversations and visited with the young Libyan who sat across the aisle. When the Libyan saw the conductor come he scuttled into the toilet where he would stay silent and well hidden till the conductor had passed along. He regaled us with tales of how über rich Libya is and how the money flowed. I guess when you have that much you want to hide in the toilet so you don’t have to pay the conductor!
My favorite part of the journey was when we got to the end of Denmark. Literally. I am glad we didn’t just drive off into the sea. Instead the entire train drove into the bottom of a ferry and all passengers got off. I went to the very top and spent the 45 minute ride feeling the salty ocean breeze blow through my hair. The train then drove off on the German side and went on to Hamburg.

"...crossing to Germany on a ferry..."
                                                       “…crossing to Germany on a ferry…”
"...aboard a DB Regional near the end..."
“…aboard a DB Regional near the end…”

I had a 45 minute layover in Hamburg and then I got the sleek red and white ICE1081 to Würzburg. Here I had a one hour layover and I caught a red regional train to Heilbronn. What a relief to be here. To have a shower. To wash my itching hair. Clean clothes. Ahhh. After all that was over 2000 miles of traveling through 4 countries for 3 days and 2 [miserable] nights.

I would be here for just a few days till I would continue. And let the train carry me eastward toward where the sun rises. Eastern Europe, are you ready?

Tromsø, Norway

Tromsø.  A wild place in the far north. Well, that is I used to think it was the far north. Now I know it’s not really. Maybe that would be Svalbard. The flight from Oslo to Tromsø was incredible. Snow capped mountains, towering rock walls, barren peaks, and deep fjords all clearly visible from the plane. It reminded me of J. R. Tolkien’s books.The scenerey was unreal.

"...Norwegian Air slicing through thin air in northern Norway..."
                      “…Norwegian Air slicing through thin air in northern Norway…”
"...of mountains and sea. Of clouds and fjords..."
                                  “…of mountains and sea. Of clouds and fjords…”

I arrived at the airport and took the bus into the city center all the while practically pinching myself to see whether I am actually here and whether this is real. I stayed with several friends here and had a nice time. I was quite independent and went out every day. I really enjoyed Mount Storsteinen and kept going up for the view. I did some hiking in the mountains there by myself and ventured up above the snow line. It was August, but it was frigid. The wind was probably the strongest I have experienced anywhere. Walking into it, I had to lean significantly just to move ahead because the it was strong enough to keep me from falling, even pushing me back a bit at times. Crawling up was a bit treacherous but I kept my footing on the narrow rock ledges. Part way up I found a nice rock to set on and spent some time meditating, praying and hearing from God. It was a very special time.  At the peak, I thought I wouldn’t be able to breathe because of the wind, so I stayed for only a few minutes. Going down was tricky because the wind kept pushing me and making me take bigger steps than I anticipated, which was dangerous because sometimes the ledges where I stepped on were only a few inches wide.

"...Tromsø from Mount Storsteinen on a clear day..."
                                                       “…Tromsø from Mount Storsteinen on a clear day…”
"...mountains to the north of Tromsø..."
                                                           “…mountains to the north of Tromsø…”

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"...Tromsø, when the sun goes down..."
                                                             “…Tromsø, when the sun goes down…”
 I walked up and down the islands along the edge of the fjords that  reached in from the Arctic Ocean. After all this city is 217 miles inside the Arctic circle. It has historically been the launching place for Arctic expeditions and northern whale hunting trips. On Sunday I found a rocky beach overlooking some snow-capped mountains and spent the time reading and meditating while strong waves crashed on the rocks spraying water everywhere.
  Another highlight was seeing the northern lights again. I was not expecting this in August and it was a real treat to see the strange green lights dancing overhead while the bright moon rose from behind a bank of clouds next to the mountains. I was outside for hours admiring this phenomenon. This time of the year darkness comes around 10:00 and daylight at 4:30. It is so different from when I was here last December and it was dark the whole time, or in the summer when I would Skype with my friends and there was broad daylight all night long.
"...when the moon rose over Tromsø with a splash of the northern lights..."
                                   “…when the moon rose over Tromsø with a splash of the northern lights…”

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"...hiking trails..."
                                                                                  “…hiking trails…”
"...free as a bird..."
                                                                                  “…free as a bird…”

Adventure in Bergen

   I have experienced Bergen again and it remains one of my favorite cities. I had a very uneventful flight over which is definitely a good thing. On the bright side, the young lady who sat next to me on the way over was also going to Vladivostok and taking the train across Siberia. It was like the first time I met someone else who wanted to do this.

"fountain in the public park"
                                            “fountain in the public park”
"Bergen and I. Just chilling."
                                      “Bergen and I. Just chilling.”
    Standing in the passport control line for immigration in Bergen I was greatly humored to hear this conversation:
    Girl One: “What do you think they speak here in Norway? English?”
    Girl  Two: “I think so. Or maybe…do you think there is such a thing as Norwegian?”
    Girl One: : I wonder if they use euros here?”
    Guy: “Yeah they do.”
    Girl One: ” This [the airport] looks just like IKEA!” (But I couldn’t see the resemblance.)
    I rolled my eyes. Nothing like fellow Americans to embarrass you when you are trying to act all cool and nonchalant!

    The first day I just walked around town, especially in a nice residential section. I am intrigued afresh with the cute quaint houses each time I come. The stately wooden houses. The pastel colors. The absolute barrage of flowers climbing from every window box. The winding cobblestone streets. The stairs connecting the streets catered especially to the pedestrian population.

“It’s a city of flowers.”
“rose lined streets  

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I stayed with  my friends Numi and Sara who have a stately apartment on Nygårdsgaten. It’s a roomy place with a nice porch on the back to sit on and just down the street from the grocery store Rema1000 which I visited immediately. I love shopping at foreign grocery stores! On an interesting side note, Numi mentioned that a man with an ax broke into a convenience store next door while we were walking home.

    The highlight was a hike that we did across the mountains. We hiked from Ulriken to Fløyen. Standing down in the city and looking at the peaks, it doesn’t look that terrible far. But it’s about 10 miles along the path and some of this is climbing up and down rock walls. Not to mention walking Ulriken and back down Fløyen.

"High above Bergen at mid day."
                       “High above Bergen at mid day.”
"Plateaus and red huts."
                                    “Plateaus and red huts.”
"with a sheep here and a sheep there..."
                       “with a sheep here and a sheep there…”

It was a wonderful hike and miles of it was along semi flat plateaus  with brilliant, soft, green grass and sheep scampering about. First you walk in the complete opposite direction that you really want to head and loop back around several other mountains. Along the way you see lots of deep blue lakes that look so inviting. But they are freezing cold! We packed sandwiches, coffee and water and had the most pleasant of times. I felt so incredibly fortunate to have a warm <<sunny>> day! On average it rains 231 days a year in Bergen.

"yet another lake on the hike..."
                                             “yet another lake on the hike…”
"the water was soooo blue..."
                                          “the water was soooo blue…”
"Bergen's drinking water reservoir"
                           “Bergen’s drinking water reservoir”

     As we approached Fløyen the sun was starting to go down. I found a beautiful spot on a cliff and stayed to watch the sun slide down while the others went on. I watched one of the most breathtaking sunsets of my life before darkness fell.

"fjords...the ultimate hiking experience..."
                           “fjords…the ultimate hiking experience…”
"these Norwegian sunsets..."
                                             “these Norwegian sunsets…”
"sunset over the fjords and the Atlantic"
                         “sunset over the fjords and the Atlantic”

I packed up my gear and headed down the mountain, as I realized that it was getting dark, and I did not know the way back, nor did I know how far it was. That was also the moment I realized I forgot my head lamp and then I heard a wild animal scream. More adventure! All is well that ends well. Other than a 90 minute walk in the darkness and being stalked at length by a stranger, nothing happened. After about a mile of being followed in the darkness I stepped off to the side and pretended to be busy looking at the forest [in the darkness] while he stood 50 feet behind me. After a while he came forward and confessed he didn’t know the way to the city and had planned to follow me.

"midnight fishing adventure"
       “midnight fishing adventure”

    Another highlight was the evening I went fishing with Numi. He is a tall lanky guy who thrives in the outdoors. He has trekked all over Iceland and is a real outdoorsman. But there were no salmon infested-grizzly stalked rivers in Bergen so we went to the large pond in the city park and fished for trout. It was different. The tram ran past about 20 yards away. City busses churned up and down the streets. Curious passers-by discreetly stared. The fishing was great. The catching wasn’t quite as good.

   And then there was National Waffle Day. To celebrate I went to Bergens über cool hipster Bar Barista Kafe and had their amazing waffles that were stuffed with brown cheese. Brown cheese is a delicacy in itself, and when stuffed into waffles it turns into a fiercely scrumptious food.

"brown cheese waffles"
                                         “brown cheese waffles”

All good things come to an end though. I boarded the train for Oslo and headed on. The train ride between these is amazing. Miles and miles of tunnels. Glaciers. Raging mountain streams. Cascading waterfalls. And hundreds of  stereotypical little red wooden houses. Ah, but it does one good to drink all this in.

IMG_20150825_090432 IMG_20150825_221643

                       “view from the Norwegian train window…”
                               “the sinking sun slides into the Atlantic”

Bosnia…How I came to Love it [Part 2]

Please note that this is written as I experienced it, and as it was related to me.

It was dark. Like really dark, as I padded silently down Maršala Tita Boulevard late in the evening. I had just gotten off the train. Vaguely, I wished that there would be more street lights functioning. From the lights that were burning I surveyed the

Another shelled out house where there once lived a happy family.
Another shelled out house where there once lived a happy family.
A person became used to seeing  ruins.
A person became used to seeing only ruins.

shelled out houses. Some of them were missing the roof and had boards nailed over the windows and doors. Others had only  a wall standing and everything inside in a heap. Still others were reduced to nothing but rubble. Everywhere I looked, everything in sight was riddled with bullet holes. Oh well, it is what it is. I wished there would be some road signs so I can discover my way. But there was no such luck. Quietly I walked down the desolate street, carefully skirting some people sleeping on the sidewalk and vigorously shaking my head no to a few old people who were trying to sell me things. But as luck would have it, when I actually needed to make a left turn the road sign was there, on the corner of a house that was not in ruins. But of course it had a gaping bullet hole squarely through the center of the sign.

Ruined houses and buildings were everywhere.
Ruined houses and buildings were everywhere.

Welcome to Mostar. Bosnia. A beautiful place. But, especially at that time, deeply damaged by the recent war. I had just arrived and was excited to see this place. I stayed in a quaint green and white house perched on the side of a steep hill where an elderly lady managed something of a hostel of sorts. I didn’t see any other guests, but that was okay. She fussed over me as if I were the long-lost grandson. She brought me tea and bread. Oh, and her neighbor Jakob will show me around.

The next morning Jakob showed up bright and early to give me a tour of the city. He about 30 years old and very pleased with the prospect of having something to do. Jakob took me to the top of the hill behind the house where he showed me an old church that was

I wondered who used to live here. What were they like?
I wondered who used to live here. What were they like?

demolished. He explained to me that this church was being rebuilt rock by rock to match the old one exactly. While we walked,  we talked. His slight limp, he explained, came from when he was shot in the leg by a sniper from that hill over there, as he pointed to the top of a hill on the Croatian side. I was in the hospital for a while. But I was shot twice… his voice trailed off. His eyes glazed over with pain. We walked in silence.

He took me to a large cemetery and with tremulous voice explained that this is where the victims of war were buried. Only after the war

The cemetery. Beautiful but morbid.
The cemetery. Beautiful but morbid.

could the monuments be erected. It was now immaculately kept with beautiful white headstones and bright flowers. It was definitely a place of highest honor. Practically worship.

We walked past a nondescript building and he explained that it used to be a mall. Here were the first casualties of war. Two Serb soldiers chased two Bosniaks who escaped to the roof top. When the

The innocent men were thrown off this building to their death.
The innocent men were thrown off this building to their death.

soldiers caught up with them, they threw them to their death instead of arresting them. War began in Mostar.

We walked from the east part of town to the west part. We approached a large structure. Without a second glance I assumed it was a parking garage. Except wait, why would a small town like this have a 6 story parking garage? So I asked,” Is this a parking garage?” Even as the words left my lips, I knew the answer would be no.

What used to be a big bank. Now a shell.
What used to be a big bank. Now a shell.

Jakob looked at me with a hint of a smile. “Why would you think that? It used to be a bank before the war. It was beautiful with blue glass walls. But all the glass was blown out. Now it does look like a parking garage. It’s not legal, but come, let’s go up there. I want to show you something.” It was now the local hang out place for high school kids doing drugs, and for homeless people who needed a roof. Several grizzled old men looked at us strangely as we walked up the stairs. One flight after the next we took to the very top. there was a strong wind as we got toward the top, funneled in through the mountains on either side. The open stairs had no railing and I thought I would surely blow off.

It was a windy day to be walking these stairs.
It was a windy day to be walking these stairs.
Overlooking the city.
Overlooking the city.

It was such a beautiful day with a clear blue sky up there. Birds sang in the late fall sunshine. An occasionally puffy white cloud could be seen. Peace reigned. It felt good to be alive. But only several years before it was so different. As Jakob pointed out to me. He beckoned me over to a corner. “Do you see this hole?” He pointed to a small hole in the concrete wall at the very top of the building. “Now step on these blocks and look out.” I did as I was directed. I stepped on the concrete blocks and gazed out the hole overlooking the town of Mostar. He swallowed hard. His jaws worked. With a slight tremor in his voice he said, “This was one of the sniper points.The hole that you looked out of…many people were

The sniper hole.
The sniper hole.

shot through that hole. See the bullet shells?” Our eyes mutually dropped to the ground. Cold shivers ran down my spine, despite the warm sunshine. Hundreds of rusting bullet shells were scattered around, each one having killed a person.  A person. A real person. A person with a family. A person with a life. A person with a dream. This shell killed a little girl. This one a 12-year-old boy who was desperately trying to get a liter of water back to his widowed mother. This one killed the kind old grandfather that every one loved. As the sniper laughed in glee at watching  flesh and blood explode.

Rusting bullets from the sniper. Objects of death.
Rusting bullets from the sniper. Objects of death.

I felt sick on my stomach. Death. It was so close. I could almost feel it. Gingerly I touched several of the shells. My stomach felt like a cannon ball was inside. My legs felt like lead. In silence we gazed at the offending shells, as a way of respecting those who passed into the next world. Life is so short. It can be snuffed out so fast. Did they even know what happened? What were their last thoughts? Where did they go? Time stood still as Jakob and I stared at the shells. Without a word Jakob and I turned and left. I was relieved that we were on solid ground. Without even meaning to I kept looking to the hills and to the top of the buildings. Am I going to be shot?

The town hall that is not used.
The town hall that is not used.

It was as if we agreed to not look back. Not speak of that building. Instead he showed me a memorial for the Spanish soldiers that were killed in the war when they came to help. Proudly he told me how the King of Spain flew in for the unveiling. He showed me the big beautiful new town hall. The European Union had just built it. They held a beautiful ceremony and had a ribbon cutting. The keys were given to the mayor who locked it and never looked back.

Jakob’s eyes filled with pain again and he got this far away look. “Do you see the city center? I mean, we are right in the middle of the city. Every other city center is bustling with people everywhere.

Evidence of hard times.
Evidence of hard times.

Drinking coffee. Reading newspapers. Playing chess. Talking. Here there is nothing. His voice rose. “Nothing!” It was true. I looked around. We were practically the only people in sight. There was an eerie sense of artificial calm. He kept talking,”It’s because only several years ago we were divided into three sections. Bosniaks,Serbs, and Croats. We were all fighting each other. My father and all my brothers were killed. I was shot twice. How can I go to other parts of the cities and see the people who did this? I can’t! So we just stay in our part of the city. But the city reflects three groups and we won’t mix like that.”

The front line was in this building at one time.
The front line was in this building at one time.

“Come, I want to show you another place. We walked to a shelled out building. We entered and looked up and down the aisle. It was completely beat up. The ceiling was falling down. Sandbags were

Shelled out doorway.
Shelled out doorway.

everywhere.But strangest was the awful stench and the blood smeared inner walls. Jakob explained.”This was the very center of fighting. On the right side of the hall the Bosniaks were holed up. On the left side the Serbs were holed up. They fought. Front lines. Hand

This hallway was the dividing line. Here people died.
This hallway was the dividing line. Here people died.

and tooth. There was a heavy stench that hung in the air. I imagined it to be decomposed bodies. Again, we left silently.

Jakob turned me loose to be on my own. Starving with hunger I made my way to an a restaurant in Stari Grad [Old Town], and sat down in the stone courtyard.

The courtyard. A place of tranquility after my violent morning journey.
The courtyard. A place of tranquility after my violent morning journey.

It was a beautiful setting with the late fall sunbeams dancing through the grape plants. The waiter immediately focused his attention entirely on me-his sole patron. Remembering the words of advice from a young man I had met on the train yesterday I ordered ćevapčići, a stunningly delicious dish of pita bread stuffed with tasty little beef sausages and a pile of fresh

ćevapčići...amazing goodness!
ćevapčići…amazing goodness!

chopped onions. For good measure they threw a heaping pile of disgusting, thin cut, soggy fries on the side. No more had the friendly waiter set the dish down and walked away, than my table was bombarded with cats. There were big cats. There were small cats. There were middle size cats. There were cats of all colors. Between delectable bites of simmering goodness I kept swatting at the cats. It was a losing battle. The waiter stood in the door way grinning. Thoroughly enjoying the scene. An idea crossed my mind. I dropped several

Plague of the cats.
Plague of the cats. Note the fry dropping.

fries on the floor. Boom! All the cats jumped on the floor and fought for the fries. Ahh, this was me, mastering the animal yet again. I dropped fries on the floor every 30 seconds and a dozen cats sat at my feet, shining eyes looking straight up, anticipating the next fry. Even so, I finished the ćevapčići before the fries ran out, so I let a skinny little cat climb onto my plate

She won my heart.
She won my heart.

and eat the remaining fries while we sat in companionable silence. Alarmed, the waiter came running to chase the cat away, but I halted him. I assured him that it is quite okay. He shrugged his shoulder  and walked away, occasionally glancing back, with an air of perplexity

The day went on. I visited the iconic bridge of Mostar. It’s like the most important thing in the city. The old bridge stood for 427 years until it was shelled down by Croat forces in November 1993.

The old bridge.
The old bridge.

At the time it was built it was the highest and widest arch of any bridge in the world and was a renowned wonder of all who saw it. The original architect,Mimar Hayruddin was instructed under the threat of death to design this bridge. He did his best, but he expected it to fall when the scaffolding was removed. He even prepared for his funeral that day. Instead it stood 427 years and it took over 60 shells to bring it down. It took a few years, but a pain staking, awe-inspiring replica was built.

Then I decided to walk up into the hills and look over the city. I walked up the small streets on the east side of town, through the graveyard on the outskirts, climbed through a barbed wire fence and

Heading for the hills.
Heading for the hills.

threaded my way up through the bare mountain side. I climbed way up and sat down next to a cliff, watching the sun slowly set to the west with the last golden sunbeams dancing over Mostar. I could feel that I was going to leave a piece of my heart here. My heart

Peaceful moments.
Peaceful moments.

was full. I had experienced so much today. I had walked through the valleys of pain with my new-found friend and had felt a sliver of his agony. A sliver of his uncertain future. I looked at what he had. I thought of what I had. It wasn’t fair. Not at all. I looked down at the cemetery where  thousands and thousands of victims were buried. Where every day a brokenhearted widow came and kissed a tombstone. Where a father with a bent back came and wept silently over his teenage son whose life was snuffed out in instant. Where a teenage girl came and respectfully planted freshly picked flowers on the graves of her parents, sobbing wondering why life was like this.

Motsar at dusk.
Motsar at dusk.

It wasn’t fair. A hot tear slid down my cheek.

I decided to go spend the evening with Jakob and his friends as they watched a foot ball game while they drank cheap beer and tried to make sense out of life. To show them that I cared. To show them that I embraced their pain. I would walk this road with them. I will be their friend. I got up and started down the mountain side till suddenly my entire body went cold. I had been expressly warned not to go into the hills. Live landmines lay everywhere. Unbelievable. In my anticipation of the over view it had slipped my mind. I stood stock still considering my options. I noticed several dogs running on a thin path. That is what I would do. Follow the dog path. Holding my breath, I resumed my journey.

To be continued…