Thinking back to my first visit to Mostar in 2009, I recall very little. I have fragments of memory from walking the wrong way to the bridge. The bus station driveway was empty, hot , dirty. The heat was impossible after a rainy cool week in Sarajevo. The mountains behind the station were rugged, rocky. The pavement and the parking area were open, expansive, and empty. It felt like i was in Turkey. It was so different from Sarajevo, with its busy streets, and complex architecture. Above the city, green hills shrouded the city. Her, there was a different pace. It was slow, hot, and empty. There was a general emptiness.
I walked the wrong way to the former front line, crossing the bridge over the Nerevata. My camera lens fell off and rolled across the street. There was no traffic. So, i managed to retrieve it without incident. It was sleepy and quiet. I walked and walked, and only saw bombed out building, all empty with shelled exteriors and broken windows. I turned around and walked south to the Old Bridge.
The small town was, in my memory, just a series of narrow streets. Then there was the bridge. It was covered with tourists, climbing up the apex, and taking photographs. Hum Hill hovered over the bridge. There were so many people; it was hard to cross the bridge. Then, it was time to wander away back to the bus station. There seemed little to do here, with small shops, and a small grocery store, where I bought an ice cream cone.
I remember walking back to the bus station, past old worn buildings, and then waiting for the bus. I decided to use the toilet, and familiar with the practices in the former Soviet Union, I was ready to pay for toilet paper as the entry fee. What I was prepared for was that the toilet was a hole in the ground, with a bottle of water for cleaning. (Later, I learned this was common practice in many public toilets through out the region.) I was looking forward to the drive back. That was so magnificent. The mountains hug the road, and then the mountains hit the river without a break. The vistas of the river and the lakes as we passed thought the countryside belied the mines sprinkled throughout the forests, which were marked with signs.
I imagine that many tourists have this memory of Mostar: a bridge, heat, tourists, slow pace. It is the flaw of just an hour visit to a place. To really appreciate a place, one needs a couple of days to observe the life. A day spent walking around, exploring and studying the people and the landscape is critical in any travel. Taking public transportation is another great key to learning about a place. Once you conquer local transportation, you have learned a lot about the culture. On an intercity bus, you learn a lot about how people understand space. The partnership between the driver and the ticket collector/porter always intrigued me. In Estonia, there is only the driver who collects tickets. And in Estonia, you must sit in the assigned seat. Not so here. Nearly everyone carried a plastic bag with snacks and water, no matter how long or short was the journey. Amazingly, phone conversations were minimal, and occurred near the journey’s end. And finally, there are many unofficial bus stops.
My original trip to Mostar was like arriving in a foreign land within another foreign land. My first few days in Mostar were likewise alienating. But as time passed, the small streets of the east side, and the broad avenues of the west became familiar and home to me. So, when I would see tourists rush to the bridge from ours buses, and then rush back, I would wonder what it was they actually experienced. My six months of exploring the city uncovered a place that was so extraordinary in its landscape; people and culture that a mere few hours would only be a glimpse of an eye. A one second video.