Tag Archives: Explorer

God in Siberia

When I was young I thought Siberia was far away.  I also knew that it was a frozen land where evil people were exiled to. I sort of thought that it was so far away, so cold, and so bad that probably God wouldn’t even hang out there. It fascinated me deeply and I dreamed of going there. Why, I could never explain. My friend Theo, a psychologist from Luxembourg, insisted that it was because I was searching for pain. He told me this when he was driving across the US in his awkward yellow 1964 model car with 4 person wide bench seats and he stayed at my house. Thats when I thought of telling him that his car looked more like a boat than an automobile. But I didn’t.

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“endless rides on the Trans-Siberian railroad…”

So several month ago  I was taking the train across Russia. Obviously that means across Siberia as well. I decided to stop in Irkutsk for a few days and go to Lake Baikal. It’s an insanely beautiful area and known for being the world’s largest and deepest fresh water lake. The train rolled into Irkutsk around midnight and I picked my way to a hostel across the city through the brisk autumn wind and frost over rough roads. The next morning I caught a mashrutka to the small town of Listvyanka. A mashrutka is a mini bus that might be a mini van or an old Sprinter. It often has all the seats torn out and has many small seats stacked inside. I was in one the size of a mini van and it had eleven seats in the back. I sat between an old woman clutching a tiny white dog and a musky smelling over sized man. It was tight. We all swayed in unison. It really brought life to the phrase “packed like sardines.” When you enter and find a seat, [or stand if it is packed] you pass some rubles and your destination to the driver who will make change while he is driving at mad speeds, swearing on his mobile device, and desperately swerving to avoid massive potholes and oncoming traffic. He passes the change through the human chain back to you.  I learned to embrace it and was thrilled to be part of this chain, passing along money, amount of passengers, and destinations in my deepest Russian accent.

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“the shores of Lake Baikal…”

Listvyanka is an incredibly beautiful village nestled on the shore of Lake Baikal. I kept sensing that God wants me to grab my sleeping back and just head out into the mountains. It seemed kind of stupid. I was told it’s a really bad idea. The brown bears, they said, are crazy right now. It’s the last days of fall and they are desperately foraging, eating everything they can find. They were even coming into the village and raiding dumpsters. But God kept whispering that he wants me to go. So I did. I packed some sausages, bread, and water. I grabbed my sleeping bag and camera, and with one thin jacket and a small backpack I headed to the Siberian wilderness.

I spent several days hiking. It was fall. The leaves were yellow. The evergreens were a brilliant green, the water was a deep blue. Nature was in its finest glory. Miles across the lake the mountains were snow-capped. Playful chipmunks kept me company as I trailed off by myself into no mans land. Evening came and I ate sausages on the edge of the lake watching the last rays of the autumn sun fall over the rippling waters as a chill breeze began stirring.

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“mountains outside Listvyanka…”

My best memories are around this one night. I knew I was pushing my luck just a bit, but why not do that sometimes? I admit I was a bit worried about bears. I had a small knife which I kept stuck into the ground beside me while I slept. I put a string around my camp site with branches leaning up to it, telling myself that this will give me plenty of warning if a bear should come. Then I would stab the медведь  in the eye with the knife. He would then run away howling and I would feel like Daniel Boone. It was a chilly night, right around freezing. As I lay down and zipped the sleeping bag all the way to the top from the inside, I was peacefully counting the five million stars in the sky above me. That’s when a small animal ran over me. I sat bolt upright with astonishing speed, but by the time I had my arms free I realized that I would have been dead had it been a bear. I was sleeping several feet from a small cliff next to the lake and I concluded  that if the bear came, I would simply hop over the edge. The stones below may be forgiving. Bruin will not.

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“the untamed wilderness and mountains of Siberia will always have a special place in my heart…”

It had been a really good evening. I sat on a log that had drifted in on the rocky beach and had hours of interaction with God. So many good things happened. As I was drifting off to sleep I fully realized that I could wake up to the razor teeth of a raging bear, but I didn’t care. I had full confidence I would go straight to heaven and after all, what better way to die than being eaten by a grizzly while camping in Siberia? It would be a great story for the grand kids. Except I didn’t have any of those. So I smiled up at God before I drifted off into dreamless sleep.

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“spending the night out in Siberia…”

I awoke at 5:00 in the morning. A strong wind had picked up and it was a cold one. Some rain drops were sprinkling on me. I jumped out of my sleeping bag, shivering violently. Daylight wouldn’t come till 7:00. I could just feel that it was going to rain. I considered my choices. Burrowing into my sleeping bag for two hours while the freezing rain pelted me would result in hypothermia. Walking back in the dark, especially on some of those crazy mountain switchbacks seemed like suicide. This was walking on ten inch wide paths that have a straight drop of a hundred feet into the lake. Not to mention my headlamp had turned on accidentally in my back pack  and died. Neither option was good, but attempting to find my way back to the village was a better option. That’s what I would do. I knew I was about four hours from the village, but I hadn’t come there on the path so I was unsure of the way back. I rolled up my sleeping bag and hit the trail. After ten minutes I came to a fork. I chose the well-marked one but 15 minutes into it I was clearly going the wrong direction so stepping carefully, I backtracked.

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“Lake Baikal…”

I took the other path. It was obviously the right path, but then it petered out. I began quoting the Bible verse: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path…”  and as I did so a small but distinct glow appeared on the path in front of me, illuminating my way in the pre-dawn darkness while small drops of cold Russian rain fell. I followed the light. It stayed right in front of me. When I looked past it, I couldn’t see a thing. It was an incredibly surreal feeling.

Several hours later the belated morning light fought its way through the overcast sky and the miserable rain turned to giant wet flakes of snow. After several more hours I got back to the village where they told me I was crazy. I don’t know why.

But I jumped into the next mashrutka and headed back to Irkutsk. The snow kept swirling around us and the driver was no exception. Fast and furious. We were packed in there. He pulled up to a desolate outpost where two women huddled in the cold and yelled at them that there is no room. The babushka had a sharp retort and tore open the back door. Four of us were sitting in a row, and I thought we were squished in there real tight. She reared back and 60 years of muscle and bottled rage was let loose as she threw all of her several hundred pounds into the girl next to me who hurtled across the seat, collided with me, I to the guy next to me and we hit the opposite wall with a crash. Before we had time for a reaction she seated herself in the small space created, and held the second woman on her lap. The driver looked over his shoulder, shrugged nonchalantly, and she motioned him to drive so he did. But we no longer swayed. There was no room left to sway. Instead we were all nearly seamless and could practically feel each others blood coursing through bodies. It was weird. But that was Listvyanka.

I look back at this and I am so grateful for my time there. I learned as never before that when I want God, I just have to go looking for Him. He wants to be found. But He wants me to look. As never before I learned that God is wild. God loves adventure. All these crazy places were His idea anyway. He constantly kept egging me on and telling me He wants to be a part of this and He is enjoying it with me. And I was super impressed that He showed up as a light when I most needed Him. He is a good Father. And He lives in Siberia.

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Why I Will Quit Traveling

Yes, you read right. This post is all about why I will quit traveling. Ironically, I wrote it while I was sitting on the endless iconic Trans-Siberian railroad. You see something happened a year ago that made me carefully consider my priorities and gave me a glimpse of what can happen to someone who is an avid globetrotter for their entire life. Now it has never been my priority to travel forever. But I admit to having been really intrigued by these people who had done so.
I had taken an all night bus from San Jose Costa Rica and arrived at the Panama/Costa Rica border as the tropical sun threw its first beams of light into the chaotic place. After about two hours of standing in line I walked across no man’s land to enter Panama. The line was ridiculously long and I stood there for another two hours. Directly in front of me was a wizened old man. Long grey hair in a neat ponytail trailing down from behind an eastern European style hat, piercing blue eyes, olive skin with a grey and blue back pack that shouted world-traveler.
I was intrigued and tried to strike up a conversation. That didn’t work. He was not interested in talking to me. Oh well, I got it. He had traveled for about 50 years, and I for only 3 years.
But then he struck up a conversation with the blonde haired blue eyed Irish girl in front of him who was in her low twenties. At least he tried. She made it very obvious that she did not wish to visit but she answered his questions. It was her first trip abroad. A light dawned on me. The sage did not wish to chat with me because I was not a cute girl. A tiny bit of rage seeped into me.
I listened to the (mostly one sided) conversation. The respected elderly gentleman had been traveling abroad for nearly 50 years. The places he saw, the adventures he had had left one in awe. Without a trace of regret he confided to her that during this time he lost track of his mother, his family, his friends. He didn’t even know if they were alive now. He was heading to Panama to attend an international travelers event that focused on uniting countries and finding peace through meditation. He confided to her that he hoped to find peace there. He asked her if she would like to go with him. The answer was a resounding no. But he didn’t give up. He kept trying to convince Miss Irish of why she should go along, the great time they would have. How he knows this is the event at which he will find the peace and happiness he had been searching for some fifty years and so could she. Not that she had admitted to searching the all elusive peace her new found acquaintance so desperately sought.
Something in me was disgusted at the idea of a 70 year old man repeatedly trying to pick up a 23 year old girl. But as I thought about it the disgust drained away and I was filled with sadness for this man.
This is not me. When I am an old man I would very much prefer to be surrounded by friends and family. To be a respected pillar within my community. To have made a difference in the world. I realize that to be a respected old man one must first be a respected young man.
There is something about traveling that is strangely addictive. I have never in all my  travels felt like I have been searching for something such as peace. It is the unquenched curiousity of meeting new people. The relentless drive to see God’s great big green earth. But this incident showed me the end of the path for this lifestyle of travel if one is searching for fulfillment. It can absolutely not be found. Following this incident I carefully re-evaluated my love of traveling. What drives me to do it. I discovered that I value people much more than places. I have found that I forget many details of the cities and countries I have been to, but long after these memories crumble and fade in the dust the vibrancy of friendship shines through.
So no, I will not quit traveling. I truly can not imagine life without an occasional trip abroad. But it’s not the most important thing in my life. My family, friends, neighbors, and community are much more important.

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“Lovely Pacific Sunset in Costa Rica”

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.

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                       “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…

Bosnia…How I came to Love It [part 1]

I had stayed the night in a smelly, dingy hostel in Split, Croatia. There

Walking to the Zagreb train station.
Walking to the Zagreb train station.

was something about the smell in there that reminded a person of fresh compost, and it was also unusually warm for November, making it a miserable night. But morning came, as it has every day since the beginning of the world. I washed my face and walked the 30 minutes to the train station, looking for a train bound for Bosnia.IMG_2832

It was one of those normal old style trains that had numerous compartments in each car, each one having 6 seats, with an unbelievably small table on the end and a tiny trash can the size of a brass matchbox. There were about a dozen cars mostly of an Eskimo blue color with old diesel engines. I chose a seat and leaned back. I was profoundly excited to be going to Bosnia. I was also scared. I let my mind wander.

I thought back to 12 years earlier when I was a small Amish kid with long black hair and a tattered straw hat. I didn’t think I was so small then. It was a sunny fall day. I had just come back from the one room schoolhouse where I had already put up with six years of schooling. More than enough to know exactly everything I needed to know to make it through life. And then some. If I had my way, I wouldn’t spend another day in that room. I was busy picking red tomatoes when I heard the whining of an automobile coming down the road. The old red Isuzu pickup slowed down as it made a right hand turn into our gravel driveway, kicking up a cloud of dust before it skidded to a halt in front of the old water pump. I gazed in from the tomato field, curious who it might be. Then I doubled over laughing. The driver crawled across the seat, rolled down the passenger window, and stuck out his upper body. He stretched his hands toward the ground and slithered out like a snake. The show was over. I went back to work.

At the dinner table that evening, as we were all enjoying some of my mother’s fine southern-dutch cooking  while the conversation centered on the man who crawled out of his little truck head first. ” I guess he was an Arab?” I asked rhetorically. My dad paused, and a thoughtful expression illuminated his face. “No,” he replied, “the Arab  said he was a Bosnian.” We all furrowed our faces. Everyone tried to remember if they knew what that was. Finally someone voiced the unspoken question. “Whats the difference?” We all looked at Dad. He is wise. If any one knows, he would. But he shook his head. “I don’t know.” With our limited knowledge of the outside world, we called every foreigner an Arab.

The Bosnian came back. I met him. He started coming nearly every day. He would frequently bring his eight year old son along who romped about the large green yard with us and took horse-drawn wagon rides.  Usually he would bring his wife Mirsada along. She was warm and friendly. They bought large quantities of fresh vegetables that he took along back to Lexington to sell to his fellow immigrants. We got to know them and slowly their stories surfaced. Adnan showed his arms that he carefully kept sleeved. With deep fascination I noted the dozens of scars running on each arm from his wrist to his elbow where his arm had been opened with a knife. Again and again. And again. The he lifted his shirt. His stomach and chest were nothing but a mass of scars where he had been sliced open scores of times. It was horrible. And compelling. He had been a soldier and was captured. He was tortured beyond the realm of reality, but added proudly, that he didn’t give any information. Then they brought his wife and began torturing her in front of him. They slit her arms open. They did other things. Adnan screamed. He chewed his tongue. He kicked. He threw himself violently against his chains. But when the burly torturer gouged a piece of Mirsada’s cheek out with tongs, he was ready to speak. So now he had switched sides. As soon as the war ended he fled with his family, wandering about Europe for several years before settling in Lexington Kentucky.

Year after year they came. They brought all kinds of tasty foods. I spent so much time with them I even learned the basics of the Bosnian language. It  became a heritage which I almost adopted. Consequently, when I was in Europe years later with a spare week on my hand, the choice was easy. I would go to Bosnia.

I was jolted back to reality when the door to the compartment opened and two older ladies entered. We exchanged several pleasantries till I had to admit I spoke English. They nodded and smiled. But we spent several hours together, them knitting, and me

Between Zagreb and Sarajevo
Between Zagreb and Sarajevo

watching the Croatian countryside slide by.  The train came to a halt as when we reached the Bosnian border. Agents came through checking every one’s ID. The old ladies gave their ID cards  which were returned while I gave my passport. The agent frowned and said ‘Wait here.” I felt quite lost without my passport, not having seen where the agent disappeared to. Ten minutes later the train hadn’t moved yet. People began grumbling. People asked why. Slowly at first then with momentum news went up and down the train. “There’s an American on board and we think there is something wrong.”  People all across the train left their seats and headed for my car. They crowded into the aisle and tried to get a glimpse.  A dark-haired talkative man elbowed his way to the door of my compartment and addressed me. “You American?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Why you here?

“I am a tourist.”

People kept crowding , trying to get a peek. Someone kept feeding them misinformation. More people shoved in. The questioning continued.

“You running from  INTERPOL?”

“No.”

I don’t believe you.”

Rapid conversation in Bosnian ensued among the crowd. I started to think they might throw me out the window just to get the train moving. Briefly I imagined what it would feel like if my body went crashing through the glass. I also imagined how it would feel if the train just left while my passport is outside.  I stared out that window, ignoring the man offering me insults, and the curious  bystanders. Then the uniformed agent entered the car, elbowing his way through the crowd,  returned my passport, smiled, and hurried off. Well, he tried to.  My interrogator caught his sleeve and asked if I was a fugitive. The agent gave him a withering look and said no.

Thedark-haired man  passed the withering look on to me then

Northern Bosnia on a dreary November day
Northern Bosnia on a dreary November day

deflated, and chagrined sauntered off. Unfortunately [for his pride] he was wrong and his crowd of supporters lost interest.  They were after all only looking for a diversion and all moved back to their seats as the train started moving, belching black smoke into the gray November sky. I leaned back and sighed with relief.  watched the remote country side slide by.  Small house dotted the landscape. Many of the homesteads had a horse or two cows near a small barn. Several pigs or sheep running around while a  chickens pecked in the dirt. Farmers pushed wheelbarrows. Ladies were hanging out laundry. Life was slow. No one hurried. Except me. I hurried on, relentlessly carried away by the train.

The elderly ladies got off innorthern Bosnia. And at the same time a smiling young man got on. We exchanged greetings in Bosnian but when he learned I was from America his eyes shone. His English was good and he asked all about my travels and where I would go in Bosnia. Then he told me all about the foods I  have to try. When evening had come and the train pulled into Sarajevo he got off after bidding me a hearty ‘doviđenja’.

Gazing out the train window.
Gazing out the train window.

The train pulled away from Sarajevo after what seemed like a long time. Almost as if it needed a lot of time to rest because it was an antique. But we headed off in the direction of Mostar. I had the compartment to myself and opened the window. I stuck my head out. The brisk fall breeze ruffled my hair. I looked up as we snaked through the mountains. The stars were so close I could almost touch them. They twinkled and winked at me. The full moon reflected off the sheer stone mountain and the blue river winding through the valley below. In that moment God from heaven reached down and touched my heart. Very clearly he said, ” I am with you, even here.” Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought   back to the time I was 12 years old, picking tomatoes and saw the first Bosnian. I didn’t know what a Bosnian was. Now I did. Now I was alone in the war ravaged country of Bosnia and did not know a single person here. I briefly wondered why I was here. But it didn’t matter. A peace deeper than I had even known filled every corner of my beating heart.

The trained screeched to a stop and several people got on. One of them chose my compartment. He was an older man, sturdily built with shoulder length graying hair. He was a man  of few words, and promptly pulled the curtains on either side of the door, while he stood in the door, effectively blocking out any new passengers. We rode the next few hours in companionable silence.

I knew we were getting close to  Mostar. But I was worried. The train paused for barely a moment at stations, and there were no announcements made prior to stopping. I knew that I would not be able to read the sign and get off in time. As if knowing my dilemma, the man gestured that he will tell me when we get to Mostar. I smiled. But my thoughts raced on. Would he tell me to get off in hick town to rob me? I vowed to be alert and careful.

Finally my fellow passenger said, “Next stop, Mostar.” We both got up and went to the door. Mostar it was. I  took a deep breath as my feet hit Bosnian soil for the first time. Something about it felt right. I found my way out of the train station and oriented my self. I had a small map, but there were no road signs. I began walking in what seemed like the right direction. But I stopped – shocked- as I saw house after house that was shelled out. Occasionally there was a street light and I could clearly see bullet holes everywhere in the clay houses. A person would have been hard pressed to find an area the size of a brick without a bullet hole. That’s when I really began to wonder why I was wandering down this street at 22:00, so far away from where I belonged. Or maybe I belonged here. It was hard to