Do you know these days, when absolutely everything works ? I was up and running on time yesterday (6:00 AM - unbelievable), the temperature is 18 degrees, had a perfect breakfast, and drove along the coast all day.
Thursday May 28: At 7:30 AM ready to depart, had no breakfast yet. The reception was still closed (opened 8:00 AM), so I first had my breakfast. After returning from the supermarket (bought some fruit) I found 2 milkmen admiring my bike. Where I came from, where I was going to (Dubrovnik), how fast it goes (125 mph), how many cylinders it has (bit of a stupid question with those bulges on either side) and how many cc. In return I got a cup of yoghurt, the sort you can stick your spoon in and won't get it back.
Then off to one of those places where they sell coffee. Ordered coffee and breakfast, but they sold no breakfast. In the neighboring supermarket they sold bread. I put the coffee on a table, and bought some bread and salami. Upon return, the coffee was covered with a second saucer to prevent cooling off...
The reception was opened at 8:00 AM as promised, and they returned my identity card. They've put me down as being Belgian, because my ID doesn't show I'm Dutch, unless you can read French.
I went to Rijeka via Rabac, for I've been there several times with my parents. It hasn't changed a bit, the hotels are still called Narcis, Mimosa and such. Even the Apollo hotel towards the end of the village is still there.
Going from Rijeka to the south is a challenge: the road is very slippery. For hours at a stretch riding as if on ice I've found my way between trucks and lost Germans. Beautiful scenery, they only should deploy less polluting industry. One valley was completely filled with the smoke of a factory (and it smelled sulphurous, and the color was yellow too).
The road to Split should take me about 4 hours, plus 2 hours to Rijeka. Well, that lady from the American Express was very wrong. Eleven hours later (minus 1 hour for lunch) I arrived in Dubrovnik (125 miles south of Split). How beautiful ! If it were 5 hours longer (and if there was enough daylight) I surely would have continued riding.
The Croatians are clearly at peace with their new situation. This weekend they celebrate their seventh birthday of their independence, and Croatia is a country with its sights set to the future. Many things are rebuilt, fixed, or constructed from the ground up. For instance, almost all of the GSM poles are fitted with a dish antenna, making possible a network completely without ground cabling.
Croatia, so I'm told, got its revenues during the Tito regime from the tourist industry, Slovenia contained the regular industries, and all was reigned by the Serves. Croatia gives me the feeling of being important for the country's income, for along the coast one can eat, sleep, camp, dive (!), and rent boats virtually everywhere. Some places welcome you, others do the same _if_ you spend money fast and plentyful. The commercializing of the tourist at the expence of the hospitallity.
Friday May 29, 1998: My shower was cold this morning. Oh yes, forgot to turn on the water heater for you, sir. Food ? No, nothing in the neighborhood. Would you please pay for the glass of wine we offered you last night. Finally I traded a shower for the glass of wine (price-wise, that is). Yesterday the lunch was served by the very uninterested owner of the joint, and he was trying to stare me away (I was the sole customer, and I think he wanted to do something else).
But: I'm a quick learner. Today I steered clear of the touristic places, and look: I'm at a table with a table cloth and matching napkins, my lunch on a plate with an extra platter beneath it, the waiter is very friendly (and signalled me inside as I peeked around the door dressed in my biker's outfit to see that the place was filled with business people in three-piece suits). Perfect meal - ready to hit the road again.
My mother asked me by phone not to play any more tricks (chasing Yamaha's I presume). Well, mother, they have heard you ! Today I was stopped at a place where 60 kph was allowed, whereas I did 93.5. Yesterday, during the 440 miles of coast roads I ran into eight speed traps. Eight times I could continue the trip, twice I saw the speed trap before they saw me. But this cop was smart, he posted just around a corner, just before the city limit sign. The grin on his colleague's face was very broad when the score was read to add it to the list. Wrong, I thought. After checking out the US customs stamps in my passport they shifted their attention to my bike.
"GPS", hmmm. "Where are you going ? Australia !?!" Making use of the break of tension I asked them about their radar gun. "Stalker Professional" the type was, and I got a demonstration. Look, we stop this car because it is going 82. The man in the car got visibly scared hearing the recorded speed. "Look, that's the way we do it. But if you take it a bit easier, we wish you a pleasant journey." Boy, did I put the helmet on fast....
I'm en-route to Sarajevo, but first I'll drive on...
I'm now drinking coffee on a terrace, it is Saturday May 30 1998.
At first I wanted to go via Trebinje, the first reasonably sized city towards Sarajevo. It was the shortest route, the total distance to Sarajevo would be about 155 miles. It started with a total lack of signs pointing from Dubrovnik to Trebinje. Using my compass on the GPS I finally found the way, only to arrive at a checkpoint. It was a small road in the mountains, with a couple of sea containers alongside it, with doors and windows sawn out, complemented with concrete, barbed wire and a gate. The checkpoint was manned by police with machine guns, I have to admit I was a bit intimidated. There was a fierce-looking German shepperd dog on a steel chain going crazy every time someone moved.
Opposite the gate there were about 10 men, all in suit, dressed as business men. I handed over my passport, and it disappeared in one of the containers, from where there was some busy telephone calling to a post below (I already noticed the phone wire coming up the mountain). After a while the man returned with my passport, and I turned around. The dog started barking again, and it was not until then that I noticed that the business men still weren't moving. They weren't allowing me through.
Of course I first wanted to know why not, and then if they could make an exception for me. The passport returned inside the container, and the waiting started again.
Meanwhile I attempted to talk with the business men on the other side of the gate. One of them spoke English very well. They turned out to be a group of diplomats, on their way to Dubrovnik to talk with the Croatians about supplying water, electricity and energy in general. I had already seen an even smaller road over the border, and I asked the diplomat whether there was a chance to cross there. He looked as though he wondered how I knew there were other crossings, and told me that would not be a good idea, because they would check for valid papers everywhere.
Then the policeman returned with 10 passports. The diplomats each passed the gate, but had to leave their van in which they arrived. They probably had that taken into account, because there was another van available carrying the logo of the Croatian energy company.
This left me alone with the cops and the dog. They in the meantime received a "no" on my request. And so we spent some time talking about roads, routes and territoria. I had reached a Servian enclave, not being the Servian Republic. To my question whether they could indicate where the border was on the other side of the enclave, they couldn't tell. And it wasn't their business, and besides it was all enemy territory. Oops ! I hadn't looked at it in that light, and suddenly the machine guns took on another meaning.
But they ensured me I could go to Sarajevo, via Metkovic. This would only be about 60 miles longer, but I had selected that route to be the one for the trip back. Oh well - I wanted to go to Sarajevo, so I started off by driving back 75 miles along the coast line. In that very small piece of Bosnia that forms the passage to the Adriatic coast is a way through.
The terrain is dominated by a big river called the Neretva. Along the shores are the roads, the farm fields and the houses. These houses come in three varieties: under construction, shot to pieces, and reasonably untouched. Just passed the border (they didn't even ask for my passport) I thought: "there has been quite a bit of fighting this close to the border". After 12 miles (and the first speed trap which had caught a car which I let go by) the number of ruines increased.
It is horrible. In this war it seems as though they've tried to inflict as much damage as possible on the citizens. People are wandering aimlessly along the road, or they are offering you anything for sale just to provide them with means to live. Everyone turns around when I drive by. The place is filled with military vehicles, from jeeps to Unimogs and armoured cars. Also I notice that many other vehicles (mainly 4WD) belong to OSCE (the guys that also guided the elections), the United Nations, UNHCR, the European Community, Unicef and the Red Cross. Helicopters are flying off and on. This place still looks like a war zone.
I feel a bit uncomfortable. "What did I get myself into ?" Still, I continue. The landscape gets rougher, higher and steeper. The river flows more rapidly, yet is only a little bit smaller. I don't see any connected streams, just mountain slopes. The area seems desolated, it is not very accessible. I imagine you could seal off the road and the river by placing a canon on one of the slopes. The road however is not damaged. I encounter just one bridge that is blown away, there is a temporary bridge in place over the hole, guarded by SFOR.
After that the scenery opens up a bit. According to the GPS I see that I am roughly 1,500 feet above sea level. I think that is sufficiently high to find yourself deep in the snow during the winter. People in the villages still turn heads when I'm passing by. They signal each other that I'm there. I'm wondering: "do these people know something I should know as well ?"
Still there are destroyed buildings, mainly houses. Everywhere they are busy constructing buildings, but very crude. Buildings not yet finished are occupied as well. I assume the larger part of the construction process is done as fast as possible, and later, when time allows, the finishing touches will be added. And everywhere there are sattelite dishes. Next time it will be difficult for the Milosovic- types to use the TV as a means for propaganda. Now Bosnia can view the opinion of the entire world on their screens.
Some people now are waiving at me in an almost euphoric manner. Some of them applaude me. Do they immediately recognize me as a tourist, on my fiery red bike with all my luggage ? Could it be they are happy to see the first tourists return ? The number of people selling items on the side of the road keeps increasing.
I stop in Mostar, to get myself some money. I exchange 100 US Dollar into ... Deutsch Marks! In western Mostar they use the Kuna (a Croatian currency), but in the eastern part and beyond, so in Sarajevo as well, the Bosnian Dinar is the currency they use. But that one is linked to the DMark, and that currency is as good as any. Next month there will be a new currency (again), the KM (Convertable Mark). That's the old Dinar divided by 100 in a new form. One KM equals one Dinar, which in turn equals one DMark.
I have a little chat with a French SFOR soldier. "It is all over", he says. "It now is only a matter of keeping the peace and safety. You can visit Sarajevo without problems." I probably would have gone on anyhow, for I wanted to see Sarajevo. I did buy enough fuel to be able to turn tail the moment I'd feel uncomfortable.
I was a little taken aback by all the images of destruction, but the entry in this town makes me gasp for breath. This is beyond imagination - buildings all shot up, highrises totally burnt out. It is bad, much worse than I thought it would be. I expected to see some scattered damaged buildings, like in Dubrovnik. Here, there is no wall free of traces of gun fire or grenade impacts. People live in buildings with the holes in the outer walls crudely filled with cement. Lower levels of buildings of the ones that are burned down are habited. The Olympic Village is destroyed.
On every major intersection there's an SFOR armoured vehicle, the soldiers with their hands loosely on their machine guns. Camping is out of the question - there aren't enough tourists to keep a camp ground open. So a search for some shelter. I see a sign "Holiday Inn", 600 metres. There I see a high-tech, way too colourfull, monstrous building, standing out between all the mess. Way too beautiful, the finishing is way too perfect. So I continue.
After passing the large mosque I see another hotel: they have free rooms. The lady at the reception is named Maja. I check in, they accept only DMarks, and only cash. So again I go looking for a bank... (because I want to stay for more than one day).
That evening (that would be yesterday evening) I go out walking. First with my camera, then without. What a pleasant surprise! Sarajevo is bursting with activity. The main shopping street is filled with people. Especially the youngsters are present - all of then equally well dressed up. Even the Muslim women wearing a head scarf are parading about the place. For a Muslim city things sure look Western. Everywhere there is music, they drink coffee (and alcohol as well), the main passtime is looking at each other.
People here are truly fashionably dressed (as far as I can tell). The ladies are mainly in the sixties retro style, with tight shirts that are too short, hotpants and everything. Klaas has elaborately filled me in when it comes to Spice Girls approved plateau shoes, and I haven't seen any shoes breaking that definition. The shops are filled with Calvin Klein underwear (lots of other lingerie as well) and all famous perfumes. They are sold and used too, so my nose tells me.
The scenery is littered with soldiers. The Egyptians are guarding the centre of the town, in the outskirts of the town there are mostly Italians. On the road I also see some Algerians. The only thing I see the Germans do, is their favourite passtime: drinking beer. Honestly!
Later on I had a chat with Maja. She is Servian, although she is not very willing to admit to that. We talk about religion, nationalism and the reasons people fight this way. For many issues there seems to be no explanation (for her ?). She mentions "the ugly feeling of powerlessness". I can certainly envision that being without control over such an amount of violence can be very frustrating.
In the city it is business as usual. City transportation is in full swing, there are no commercials on the sides, but they carry the name of the country that donated the bus. Japan paid for the nicest ones (brand MAN). The European Community has donated some less pretty Iveco types. The EC does however pay for the rebuilding of the Olympic Stadium - how nice of us. But maybe it would have been better if we intervened, that would cut down on the rebuilding efforts.
A foreigner joins me, accompanied by a Bosnian lady. His name is Garreth, he teaches conflict control for a Non-Gouvernemental Organization (NGO). He is hired by the EC to teach the local population th handle conflicting interests. Jezus! Talking about prevention from Europeans. When all is done, when the graveyards are filled, we come and talk about _conflict_control_.... Oh well, like a real teacher in this profession he happily ignores my remark. He carefully keeps his own views to himself as well. Tania, his companion, works in this same project as he does. She too thinks Sarajevo is better off, now, after the war.
Alas, I'm here sitting on a terrace amidst many, many people. This doesn't look like a war zone at all. The people all seem to be positive. I ask several of them if things are better this way, and most of the reply with: "Yes. But..." and then there follows something which can be improved upon. But all in all a feeling remains that the resiliency of the people hides the holes in the buildings and the pavements before they really are closed....
Greetings from Sarajevo,