Herzegovina November 2013

We made our last stop at a grocery store in Mostar, aiming to get enough supplies for at least two days, though we didn’t know how long we’d be. We then returned to our hostel, made our last hesitations, and grabbed our daypacks. The sun was getting low in the sky. In just a few minutes it would duck below the beautiful mountain skyline and leave us in the shadows, yet, we had a voyage ahead of us and I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. We proceeded our march to the edge of town. The road was getting narrow as we gained elevation. We had a spectacular view of the town with the last orange and red beams of daylight striking the mountains behind it, but we had to stop frequently to let cars pass as the lanes were too narrow for two backpackers and a speeding car.

“Well, this seems like as good a spot as any…” I said, feeling a tad out of place. Emma agreed. A line of cars came speeding around the bend below us. We extended our thumbs and arms as if to give the cars a thumbs up. We smiled and made eye contact with each passing driver. Most of them ignored us, some smiled, and a couple even gave us confused shrugs. “Where were we going?” “Where were our signs?,” they must have wanted to know. We waited awkwardly as another line of cars sped past. Then another, until we lost count of how many cars had gone by. No luck. The mountains had lost their sunset glow and it was quickly getting colder and darker. I began to think we should begin our shameful march back to town to find a place to stay when another caravan of cars came around the bend. One last try: again we extended our thumbs. A new Mercedes-Benz began to slow down. It pulled over. I opened the door. It was an older gentleman. There was a rosary hanging from his rear view mirror. He said nothing. I handed him the receipt with the sketchy map that I had drawn, pointing to Široki. He glanced at it and then nodded. “OK”, he said. And to be safe, I asked “Kostenlos?” “Nicht,” he agreed, shaking his head. With nervous excitement, we threw our packs in the car and jumped in, feeling a slight guilt for holding up the cars behind.

Holy shit, it worked! I couldn’t believe it had actually worked. We were on our way. But also, holy shit, was this a good idea? Would we actually get to where we were going? Would we ever see our families again, or would we mysteriously disappear never to be seen again like they do in the movies?

The sky was brilliantly lit up with pink, red, and blue with the texture of the ripples on a pond on a windy day. The man was eerily quiet. I pointed to the sky and commented on how beautiful the sunset was to break the silence. He said something in Croatian and nodded his head. He had understood. It’s amazing how in the absence of a common language, even the simplest gesture and tone of voice and go so far to bring two people together.

As we approached our town, he asked us something in Croatian while pointing around as if to ask as where we should be dropped off. “The center - the bridge with the white cross,” I told him. We came around a bend and suddenly a huge white cross next to a bridge came into view. He had understood. A rush of euphoria swept over me as I realized that not only had our first attempts at hitchhiking succeeded, but also that the coming days would be spent relaxing in the rural hills of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As we were unloading our packs from the car, we heard someone yell “Chris?” “Emma?” A lively girl with curly hair was cheerfully waiting for us. It was Ivona. She proceeded to lead us to her apartment just a few blocks away. After arriving at her apartment, she began to pack for her trip to Slovenia. Emma and I sat around comically comparing our American and Australian accents.

Fast forward three days: we had survived the stay in Rasno… almost. We just had to get back. It was already 11am. We finished cleaning the house, I grabbed the tattered envelope off of the kitchen table, and we locked the door behind us. We began walking away. “Perhaps we should ask someone what time the bus comes?” Emma suggested. Not a bad idea. Conveniently, the next door neighbors were in their yard. “Bok!” I said. “Bok!” replied the smiley man and his wife. They looked to be in their late forties. Judging from their attire, we could have easily been in rural Tennessee.

I pulled the envelope out of the back pocket of my jeans and showed it to him, pointing to the question that Ivona had written on it. He looked slightly confused, but nonetheless, he smiled and started to write down something in Croatian. He must have thought that we had written the question because he was under the impression that we could read Croatian. We couldn’t. “Široki”, Emma said, gesturing as if she was driving a bus. There was laughter among all of us as we realized how silly the entire situation was. He smiled and wrote down “deset minuta” - one of the only phrases that I was actually able to understand. He was going to give us a ride. We said hvala and much less than ten minutes later, he let us into his blue 1990’s VW wagon.

But he turned left onto the main road in the village; Široki was to the right. Confused, we wondered how to explain. He could tell that we were confused. He gestured for the envelope. I handed it to him. He pointed at another sentence, also in Croatian. I had forgotten: Ivona had also written “Take us to the cave.” on the envelope. We realized he was bringing us to a cave in the village, not to Široki. Shit! We didn’t know how to explain that we just wanted to go to Široki, so we decided to accept our fate. A ways down the road he pulled off and parked the car in the grass. He got out. We followed him. At first it just looked like a big rock sticking up out of the ground next to the lake, but as we got closer, the ground led downward until it became obvious that we were standing in front of a a massive entrance to a cave. He led us around the area making all sorts of excited motions with his arms, indicating that there had been built a dam to hold back the water and let it trickle into the cave through an underground stream which then irrigated the village.

As he began driving us back towards the house, Emma and I pondered how we would make it back to Široki. Perhaps we would just have to try hitchhiking again. But this time we did not turn back into the driveway and instead went right past it. He drove us all the way to Široki. Things worked out after all. The gentleman was so kind: he even drove us all the way to the bus station from which we were able to get a ride back to Mostar. Not only had we survived, but we had gotten quite the authentic and hospitable experience of Herzegovina.