Thursday, September 24, 2009

Best of Bosnia pics now up!

I've collected my favorite photos from Bosnia & Hercegovina (including Sarajevo and Mostar.) You can see them in my gallery here. (And click "My Gallery" to access all of the other pictures that I have published online.)

Bosnia is a mess. There's no other way about it.

There are constant reminders of the war - damaged buildings, and damaged people. There's a lot of money being spent by the EU to return life to normal, but modern weapons can create a lot of damage with not much effort, and with something like 5,000 mortar rounds hitting Sarajevo alone, you begin to understand why the place is still a mess 14 years later. (You see "Paid for by the EU" signs on every new building, but as I mentioned before, I think this is guilt money trying to make up for the fact that the EU and its' members just sat around while Yugoslavia imploded and genocide followed.)

(Btw: one other takeaway from Sarajevo is that the city is probably the single worst place on the planet to be caught in during a siege due to the city's topography. The city is long and thin, and paralleled by mountain ranges that meet at one end enclosing the city. (Imagine a canoe. Sarajevo runs along the canoe floor, with the "bad guys" positioned above the canoe walls.) There wasn't a single point in the city that wasn't reachable by snipers, and for much of the war, there was only one source of fresh water, making daily life like living in a shooting gallery.)

But, the country has some positives that made me glad to have visited:

- the people were very friendly, both to me, and to each other. I can't tell you how many times I saw a car stop so that the driver could pop out to loudly say hello to someone walking on the sidewalk. It was amazing how these dour, gray, scruffy folks would light up when they saw a friend or acquaintance.

-the cafe culture in Bosnia is unbelievable, especially in Sarajevo. In Sarajevo, there's a street in the center of the town (Branilaca Sarajeva) that is just one cafe after another, up and down every alley, in every variety possible, full at almost every hour of the day. There were Turkish coffee cafes, Viennese cafes, small cafes, large cafes, even a cafe named after Bill Gates (see the pic in the gallery).

-there's a very relaxed attitude in Bosnia. The vibe was something combining a deep tradition of cafe culture combined with a healthy appreciation for being alive after the civil war, twisted with a lazy work ethic from the communist era.

I think that vibe was responsible for a crazy scene that I saw around a chess board.

It was about 1pm on a Wednesday in the center of Sarajevo, and aside from the wait-staff at the cafes, I don't think a single person was actually at work. I wandered into a farmer's market in a city square, whereupon I heard lots of shouting. Expecting some demonstration, or even one ethnic group screaming at another, I headed towards the crowd, and found.....a chess match.

There was a roughly 20x20 chess board painted on the concrete, with chess pieces about knee high. Two guys in their late 40's were playing by walking from piece to piece around the board.

The chess board was surrounded on all sides by between 60-75 spectators, all men and tending towards retirees, but still with 15-20 guys who you would think would ordinarily be at work. None of the participants or spectators looked anything like a Chess Master.

What was most amzing about the scene though, was the intensity of the crowd. Roughly half were intensely quiet, with a hand under their chin thinking about the last or next move.

The other half of the audience was just as engaged by the match, but much, much more vocal. I don't know exactly what they were saying, but it appeared to be a mix of criticism and suggestions for chess moves.

Either way, I'll always remember this scene from Sarajevo.

One other favorite Bosnia scene occurred back home in Charlottesville. We are fortunate to have in Charlottesville a bakery/cafe run by a Bosnian family (the "Balkan Bakery.") On Saturdays, the family sells Bosnian food at the farmer's market. (The market has similar booths for Hungarian, French, Mexican, and Salvadoran foods. I'm a HUGE fan of the taco stand, with the tortillas made right in front of you.)

In general, Yugoslavian food is pretty basic, and not something you hunger for, but after Saturday morning's 30 mile bike ride, I would have even eaten cevapcici again.

So, I walked past the Bosnian bakery stand Saturday AM and my eyes lock in on the burek (imagine the combination of a flaky pastry like philo with a pot pie and you get the idea.) Just for fun, I ordered in Bosnian "Zelim jeden burek, molim."

The woman behind the table lit up like I saw other people do all over Sarajevo, and for a few minutes, I was back in Bosnia.

Link to best of Bosnia pictures.

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With my new friends on the Great Wall of China

With my new friends on the Great Wall of China
Click to go to my online photography

World sun clock

Uncommon Man's Creed

"I do not choose to be a common man. It is my right to be uncommon -- if I can. I seek opportunity -- not security. I do not wish to be a kept citizen, humbled and dulled by having the state look after me. I wish to take the calculated risk; to dream and to build, to fail and to succeed. I refuse to barter incentive for a dole, I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence; the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia. I will not trade freedom for beneficence, nor my dignity for a handout. I will never cower before any master, nor bend to any threat. It is my heritage to stand erect, proud, and unafraid, to think and act for myself, to enjoy the benefit of my creations, and to face the world boldly and say, "this I have done." All this is what it means to be an American." -- Anonymous