We hitched into Sarajevo in separate groups after splitting up in Tirana. Nathan and I had enjoyed the oddest succession of rides and a night in a sixteenth century monastery in the mountains of Montenegro while Aby and Jamie had slept on a bloodstained floor in a dodgy apartment in Durres, the Albanian seaside resort.
Our road to Sarajevo had been both comfortable and interesting, from the ten minute ride in a limousine to the mafia pimp’s New Jersey-plated luxury SUV, not to mention the Albanian police car and the Montenegrin fire truck.
We got dropped off in the outer suburbs of Sarajevo in the afternoon and started walking towards town. We found a bus that would take us straight to the center of the city but the driver was multiplying the local currency by three to give us a price in Euros instead of dividing it by half. We kept on walking and asking people for directions, refusing to believe those who said it was 10 kilometers away. We kept thinking it would be right around the corner from where we were. Finally after walking for half an hour past buildings bearing the marks of anything from bullets to missiles we experimented with urban hitching.
We were picked up rather quickly by a young couple in a pimped out bucket. The owner had obviously found enough money to change everything but the body. The car looked like a wreck yet it took us to downtown Sarajevo to the sound of a fancy engine revving and a powerful sound system blasting techno music.
We had nothing arranged with Jamie and Aby as far as meeting up went. We just assumed they would wait for us at the oldest and most central monument in the city. So we found a wooden fountain that fit the description and waited there after checking our email to make sure that they were indeed in or near Sarajevo.
As we sat and waited we decided to play the finding game. For that we would each walk around the city for ten minutes asking people if they’d seen our friends while the other sat by the pile of bags. We were coming from small towns in Bulgaria, Kosovo, and Albania, so we still felt like we would stick out in any environment and be easy to find. We didn’t know that Sarajevo was what some travel-hipsters might call the “new Prague” with busloads of American tourists, drunk Brits and every kind of traveler or backpacker in the streets.
We each looked in different streets and shops and asked in many different ways. We went on instinct and irrational assumptions. Nathan for example asked the owner of a Narguileh bar if a man had walked in, asked about the price, and then stomped out shouting that it was way too expensive despite being told the honest price. I asked in the Elvis Bar thinking that they must have stuck their heads in there if they’d been in town for more than five minutes. In there I found half a dozen fifty-year-old bald drunk men staring at me. I explained to the only English speaking patron that I was looking for two Brits, many bags, and a guitar.
It turns out they’d met up with a couchsurfing host and were taking their time enjoying the facilities because they hadn’t spent the previous night in a warm bed or with hot water in the shower and had had firewater for breakfast. The couchsurfing host was amazing, his house was already way overbooked yet he’d found room for Aby and Jamie and he agreed to let us sleep on his doorstep which seemed horrible to everybody but Nathan and I. Here we had a safe place for our stuff and a shelter from the rain and wind. We hadn’t been expecting anything that luxurious when we arrived. We’d been scouting out parks and dark alleys leading up to this point.
In some ways Sarajevo was like being back in Istanbul. First of all the Turkish influence was very visible, more so than in the rest of the Balkans. On top of that we’d left the tourist trail back in Istanbul and reconnected with it in Sarajevo. Sofia was very quiet and Pristina and Tirana would hardly be described as tourist destinations.
Sarajevo is a lot smaller and more enjoyable than Istanbul, less sea but a lot more mountains. Less aggressive touts even in the main market area. We didn’t spend much time there and certainly didn’t do all we should’ve done in the time we had so I would gladly return. The truth is the main reason we were there was because we wanted to be settled in one place for the entire day of the 19th of May to celebrate Aby’s 25th birthday. The city was a good setting for that with parks to drink in, a relaxed and open crowd that didn’t mind a few stupid travelers being idiots in their city, decent pubs, and a clothing store that gave us a complimentary soccer ball.
If I was to go back there I would certainly read up about the conflict and the siege, check out the apparently lively art scene, walk up into the mountains that surround the city and do many of the other things the city has to offer.
Leaving Sarajevo we had to stand our ground against transport authorities trying to rip us off. This reminded us that a lot of eastern Europe is still home to corruption and other traditional practices despite the tourist friendly coat of paint they threw on in a hurry. We didn’t really mind it, it was a good try but he picked the wrong crowd. We knew never to give our passports and didn’t have any money for them to take.
Hitching out of the city was slow, but the road was easy to find and easy to access. We later found out that Bosnia Herzegovina was a slow country for hitching, not quite as slow as Montenegro, but definitely not as fast as Albania or Kosovo.