A small explosion woke me up and everyone was ordered off the bus. Ah, fuck. All I wanted was sleep, but I’d been woken already at three different border crossings and now this… The weather was nice, which was fortunate and we were instructed to enjoy our unscheduled half-hour break in the middle of nowhere while the tyre was changed.
Unfortunately (for a change) all the tyres appeared fine, so half the male passengers quickly crowded around the side of the bus, kicking tyres, scratching heads and offering various expert opinions in a dozen languages and dialects on what the actual problem was. Eventually someone figured out that it was something to do with the suspension, triggering a chorus of, “uh-ha, yep, that sounds right, I knew it, that’s what I thought…” in a dozen languages and dialects. I was tired, becoming hung over again, and had cigarettes but no water. Our roadside break was revised to around three hours.
Based loosely on age and where we had been seated on the bus, passengers formed small groups and began to chat. Mine was a group of five. A brash, expensively dressed young law student from Toronto couldn’t wait to regale us, rather more loudly than necessary, of his amazing travel adventures, which amounted to little more than a chronological list of fifty or so countries he had visited. I had a slight urge to punch him in the face. The two tall, scruffy, bearded Norwegians looked like they’d seen fifty countries since the previous Tuesday. They seemed nice. Finally, the pretty young Bosnian woman standing with us appeared quite cautious, as might any attractive young woman stranded in the middle of nowhere with several strange men whom she expects to start hitting on her at any moment. After a while she relaxed and was quite friendly. She had a lot of interesting stories about her people and her country. The law student started hitting on her. I wandered off by myself for a bit to smoke a cigarette and stare up into the forest.
I couldn’t believe this was Bosnia and Herzegovina! Was it Bosnia or Herzegovina? What exactly is Herzegovina? I had no idea. It didn’t matter. The forested hills surrounding me were so beautiful and peaceful, and they could have been anywhere. Everything looked so… normal. The people from these countries I had once known of only as besieged, far-off war zones on the TV news were just the same as me. Horrific, inconceivable things had happened here. I wandered back to the bus, feeling strangely empty and a little ashamed of the minor inconveniences and farmyard chores I had complained of during my sheltered Australian upbringing. Groups of men were smoking cigarettes, telling jokes and bragging that they would have been able to fix the bus hours ago, if they had their tools handy. Some women were gathering the children together and giving them pieces of fruit from their handbags.
The bus finally fixed, we set off once more. I don’t remember anything else until being shaken awake, physically dragged to my feet and almost literally thrown from the bus (now running far behind schedule). Standing alone and disoriented in the dark somewhere in central Sarajevo (I hoped), there was no option but to head toward the light.
By a wonderful stroke of luck, the beautiful white light was not welcoming me to my own death, but rather an all-night diner next to the Sarajevo central bus/train terminal. I was exhausted, but didn’t fail to notice that the big surly Bosnian man behind the counter was staring at me like I’d just fallen from the sky. Looking around I realised the other staff member and all of the customers were also staring at me, but I was too groggy to care (I had briefly wondered why I was the only person to get off the bus – perhaps there was a more desirable location somewhere else in the city). I dragged my suitcase into the outdoor seating area and bought myself a very average hotdog and a cold beer, then a coffee, another hotdog and three more beers.
At midnight I figured it was time to find a room. I tried asking the big angry hotdog guy about nearby accommodation, but the point-and-smile method didn’t seem to work as well as it did for hotdogs and beer, so I bought more hotdogs and beer instead. The weather was nice anyway.
By another wonderful piece of luck I soon heard the warming sound of my native tongue drifting from the next table. I dragged my luggage over to it and introduced myself to two English girls and a tall young Bosnian man, who, luckily, seemed oblivious to my involuntary double take when he introduced himself as Elvis. The young women were backpacking home from a Serbian rock festival and I gathered Elvis was there because of the young women.
They were all very friendly and asked me to sit down. Elvis told me where I could stay.
“See there, just up the street?” he pointed toward a neon sign that read ‘Holiday Inn’. “I have never stayed there but I have heard it’s quite nice. The cost is around two hundred Euros,” he said casually.
I almost choked on my beer. Two hundred Euros was around a month’s salary for many locals, but I am a westerner (a gazillioinaire).
“Is that too expensive?” asked Elvis, quite sincerely
I quickly looked myself over, wondering what could possibly give anyone the idea that I had two hundred Euros handy for a couple of hours of sleep. Yep, I looked as shabby and beaten-up as usual. I opened and closed my mouth a couple of times trying to think of something to say that wouldn’t sound too sarcastic.
“Um, I usually stay in youth hostels… sometimes train stations.”
We all had a laugh. Elvis told us stories about Bosnian life. I told some stories about Korea. After a while Elvis excused himself to make a phone call, then almost immediately another tall good looking Bosnian guy appeared, to even up the numbers, and after a couple of seconds of less than subtle silent conversation between the two pairs of friends, they all figured out who was going to fuck whom and happily set off toward a nearby nightclub.
Not for the first time that week I was spending the night at a seedy diner. The challenge was to stay awake and alert until daybreak. Elvis had warned me that I would most definitely be relieved of my possessions if I were to fall asleep in this part of town. It was 3.30am. I was drunk so I decided to tempt fate and ordered another beer. At six o’clock I dragged my bags wearily through the car park and onto the first bus heading east. The next thing I knew someone was tapping me on the shoulder again and asking to see my passport.
I’ve since made a few Bosnian friends. They are usually pleasantly surprised to discover I have visited their country and can speak a little of their language. I generally don’t rush to inform them that my wife is Serbian and my entire Bosnian experience consisted of three hours beside a broken down bus, seven hours drinking at a Sarajevo bus terminal and a pleasant conversation with a guy called Elvis.
It’s funny how things work out sometimes. If only I’d caught the earlier bus instead of that extended liquid lunch in Dubrovnik everything would have been different. Pity. It seems a really nice place.