Monday, August 5, 2013

Republika Srpska or can someone please explain Bosnia-Herzogovina to me?

Our last exotic country was Bosnia-Herzogovina. I realize this isn't on most American's hot tourist spot list. "I know! We'll go to Bosnia!" And, in fact, I feel guilty, because we kept referring to it as Bosnia, but in reality we spent very little time in Bosnia and most of our time in the Republika Srpska and Herzogovina, but Bosnia gets all the credit. Add to that, our guide book said, straight out "some people think I favor Bosnia. This is true." I'm feeling all sad for poor little Herzogovina.

Which, in my vast experience of handling international affairs, I think should be it's own country. As should the other part which I'm sure I'm misspelling because it suffers from a serious lack of vowels. In fact, the whole region seemed to suffer from a lack of vowels. Perhaps the Balkans and Hawaii could get together and share some letters. I think it's the logical thing to do. Where's my appointment to the UN?

Anyway, after our adventure taking a "short cut" through BiH (their abbreviation) which resulted in bribing police officers, I was apprehensive about our planned trip. But, Jason will not be stopped. Once he's determined to do something, it's very difficult to stop him. The border was a breeze (yeah!) and we were in, and driving through Republika Srprksa and having a grand time. Except for the part where we all started to get crabby.

So, we stopped in a town, whose name I've forgotten. We drove by a lovely park, so we parked and walked a couple of blocks to a grocery store. Going to grocery stores in weird locations is one of my favorite things to do. I love to see how they vary. We bought bread, cheese, meat, the strangest sodas we could find (except for Jason, who bought Coke. He may be adventurous on his travels, but he is not adventurous when it comes to Soda drinking. Of course, since Coke is having that "Share a Coke with [name] campaign, his bottle told him to share a Coke with Powkrsdjka or something, so that's adventurous). And on a random note, we found this Yogonaise, which is made by a Swiss company, but we can't buy it at home. I'm both intrigued and disgusted.

And then we hit the candy aisle.

I love candy. It's my favorite thing. In fact, when I diet, I just give up the regular food instead of giving up the treats. Yes, I will be dying next year. Anyway, we bought some weird candy. Like this:

It wasn't half bad. It wasn't half good either. We also bought some Turkish Delight, which isn't Srpskian but is exotic. And I bought a secret bag of M&Ms. Why? Because I love candy, and I've had enough experience buying candy in strange locations to know that "lips" may, just may, end up being nasty, and I wanted some emergency back up candy. (All those years of food storage lessons in Relief Society have paid off!) And you know what? They were AWFUL. Tasted terrible. I eat M&Ms like normal skinny people eat Special K, and I know what M&Ms are supposed to taste like and this was not it. We investigated and it turns out that they were made in Poland. I've had Polish chocolate before and it was awful. 

I was so sad about the bad candy. So, so sad. I gave it to the kids, who didn't notice and ate it without complaint. If I wasn't so lazy I'd write to M&M Mars and say, "Do you know how awful the things coming out of your Polish factory are?????!!!!??!?!?!!" but my Swiss friends think the stuff that comes out of the Hersey factory back in good old PA is nasty, so I suppose it's just regional taste, but seriously, bring your own M&Ms when you travel in Bosnia. That's my motto!

Here are the kids at the park.

We then walked into the city center to find a bathroom and buy a magnet. (We buy a magnet in every place we visit. You should come see our collection.) We accomplished both (although the lady selling magnets overcharged my by a whole Euro, but I didn't complain because I don't speak Sprskian or whatever they speak there, and I figured an extra Euro meant more to her than it did to me). Then we headed out again, on our way to Mostar. 

We got stopped by sheep:

The shepherds have their sheep graze right along the roads. I suppose it's because of a. landmines and b. the rocks. This whole region is so incredibly rocky and mountainous and filled with scrub brush that if Brigham Young had been a European he probably would have declared this region the "right place" and built a temple right in the middle of what is now a lovely landmine field. Anyway, all during our drive we had to keep our eyes open for sheep and cows which were always wandering into the road.

Jason's eagle eyes also caught sight of a sign for a cave that we'd read about in our travel guide. So, we took a 9 kilometer side trip to a fantastic cave--Vjetrenica, or the Windy Caves. This was a fabulous trip. Our guide was lovely and spoke perfect English. She said very few people actually visit the caves, which is too bad, because they were amazing. They have all sorts of creatures that live in the deepest depths--we couldn't go past 500 meters, sadly, even though she said it's paved for 2 kilometers, but since the war, they don't take guests past 500 meters. We couldn't take pictures inside, but we saw a real, live one of these: 

It was very cute, as much as a cute, eyeless, albino lizard fish type thing can be. Much cuter was this: 

Then we headed back towards Mostar, but first we stopped to take pictures of this!

Yes, real, honest-to-goodness landmine fields. The kids were highly fascinated by this and found it funny, but we tried to explain that this was a serious problem. I mean, how awful to live in a land where you had to be concerned about being blown up if you stepped into the wrong area. And, that "pozor mine" tape was the only thing stopping people from romping into the mine field. Scary and horrible.

Also, we saw this:

That's a really big snake. Really big. We were in our car. It lives in the landmine field, which, if you're a snake is probably a good place to live. No people.

Then off to Mostar. Mostar was the site of a pretty horrific battle during the war. They have a famous bridge that was built in the 1500s and it was destroyed by repeated shelling by the Croatians. They rebuilt it a few years ago and it's well worth visiting. 

We had rented an apartment and finding it fell squarely into the sketchy part of our trip. We couldn't reach the guy and it was in a residential area and I started to feel like, "Let's just go find a Motel 6" or something, which we couldn't because we were in Bosnia, for goodness sake's. Finally, we tested to see if the front door was open, which it was. And went up the stairs and heard people in the second floor apartment so Jason bravely knocked while I cowered in the corner, afraid that it would be actually answered and I'd have to speak to someone. They guy there not only spoke English, but said he'd call the landlord for us. Score! Jason's bravery really does help.

The guy showed up and let us in to our vacation rental and wow. Brand new, two bedrooms, hardwood floors, living room, kitchen, dining room, super nice bathroom and a back yard, with a sprinkler, which the kids determined was the best thing ever. Oh, and this is the view from the backyard: 

Yep, the famous bridge. We honestly could not have found a better place. Except for the spotless part and the landlord made it very clear that he expected us to keep it spotless and showed up in his boxing clothes, to kind of send the message home. Nevertheless, I'd even stay there again. Amazing.

Also amazing, dinner:

Prices in Mostar were exceptionally cheap. Their official currency is the Convertible Mark, which converts perfectly to the Euro--2 to 1. The cost of this meal, including four bottles of water, was 12 Euros. It was listed on the menu as a meal for 2, and we ordered the meal for 4, but the waitress said, "Oh, no, you have kids. That's too much. I'll bring you the meal for 2 and if you need something else, I'll just tell my mother." Seriously. That's what she said. It was delicious and we didn't need more.

Which is why, after dinner, we went and bought ice cream cones. There's always room for ice cream cones. And in Mostar? 0.50 Euro cents per cone. Seriously. Wow.

We, sadly, only stayed one night in Mostar. We got breakfast at a little bakery and at it in our back yard:

Then we toured around Mostar a little bit more and visited a museum about the war. Sarah and Daniel were amazed that his war happened while Mom and Dad were in college. Scary how close it all is. We tend to think of wars as something that happened very long ago and very far away, not on the street you were standing just a few years ago.

We visited the mosque and climbed up to the top up this spiral stair case.

The view from the top was worth it:

We said goodbye to Mostar and headed out to our next stop: Medjugoria. In June of 1981 Mary appeared to 6 children on the top of a hill and has been appearing regularly ever since. Or supposedly because even though it's a huge Catholic spot, the Catholic church has not officially declared it either a valid miracle nor an official holy spot. That, however, hasn't stopped a million people a year from visiting and buying glow in the dark Mary statutes. We did not buy one, since we already have one from our trip to Fatima a few years earlier.

We did, however, hike up Apparition Hill to the spot where the Blessed Virgin appeared. This hike is not for the faint of heart. Here's the trail:

I wonder how many people break their ankles on this trail. Also, it was hot. Very hot. But, there were lots of people and everyone was being quite respectful, and it is a place that clearly means a lot to a lot of people.

And that was the end of our Herzogovinian adventure. We climbed back in the car and drove back to the Le Meridien, Split, where we spent our last day lounging around in the sun and eating things. All in all, a fabulous vacation.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Montenegro: windy roads, raspberries and rafting

Podgorica, Montenegro, hasn't made anyone's top 10 places to visit for a good reason. It's the capital of a very small country and isn't designed to attract tourists. But, we dutifully visited it and walked around it. In fact, our fitbit counted over 30,000 steps that particular day so you can be assured that we walked around all of it.

Plus, our hotel room smelled funny, and we didn't even cause the funny smell, which is saying something.

Fortunately, we only stayed one night in Podgorica before heading off for bigger adventures. I wasn't feeling well when we got in the car Monday morning, but that didn't stop us from climbing things. That's the Lucas family motto:  When in doubt, go up. We went to the highest tomb in Europe, or maybe the world. All I know is that it was at the top of a very windy mountain. Everything in Montenegro is at either the top or bottom of a very long windy road.
We only had to walk a kilometer or so and then climb up 350 steps and when old, fat ladies in flip-flops were passing me, I should have taken that as a hint that I was, actually sick. Fortunately, the tomb was marble and underground and very cold.

But the grounds gave a fantastic view

After that, we went to a monastery. Well, the monastery required walking up, which I was in no mood to do, so I sent the camera with the family and sent them up, while I sat in the shade and worked on the primary program. This is one of the most sacred spots to the Serbian Orthodox. Here are the pictures from the monastery:
In retrospect, I probably should have given the camera to Jason rather than Daniel.

We then headed down yet another long and windy road where we all thought vomiting might be a good idea until we arrived at the rafting camp. We'd arranged a white water rafting trip that included 3 meals and overnight lodging. We had no idea what to expect. I mean, what would you expect from a rural Montenegran rafting camp? Well, because you're reading this, you can know what to expect:

 This was our cabin. It sleeps up to 6 and it was brand new. It came with a fireplace, which we used, because it gets cold in the mountains.

This is fresh raspberry juice. It was so incredibly delicious you wouldn't believe it. The waitress assured us that it was just raspberries and a bit of sugar. You've never tasted anything like these raspberries before. Honestly and truly. They were amazing. In fact, all the food at this place was amazing. And fresh. We watched the cook go get additional cucumbers--by picking them from the garden. 

I don't know why they had an astroturf covered car.

But the bunnies were adorable.

And the kinder even got along with each other.

And did I mention the food? It was, amazing. Except for the fact that the bacon was raw. I just couldn't bring myself to try it. Jason kept saying, "It's been cured like ham!" Yeah, well, I couldn't do it. He did, though. So did Daniel. They are brave.

We left the Ethno Selo and followed the directions to the actual rafting camp. Turns out we were in the overflow, which was AWESOME. 

To get to the actual camp took us about an hour. On very, very, windy roads and through lots of tunnels. They don't believe in actually putting in lights in most of the tunnels and it turns out that tunnels are quite dark without lights. Also, they just left it after they blasted it--no finishing of the tunnels at all. I would have taken a picture, but it was, well, dark. Dark and friendly. For instance, if you ran into a friend, you could just stop and chat for a while:

Also, if you needed to pee, just pull over and go! Yeah! No need to walk away from the road or find a bush or anything, just go ahead and go. Of course, after we joked about this for a while, we realized that part of this probably comes from living in the part of the world where landmines exist and wandering off well traveled roads isn't a good idea, even if you need to go.

We did finally arrive at the river. They suited us up in wet suits, helmets and life jackets. Let's just say that it wasn't our best look. 
 Well, the kids looked awfully cute.

The Tara river is the cleanest river in the world, according to our guide. He insisted you could drink straight out of it, which he did. The other people (a nice couple from Finland) did as well. The river was spectacular. I wish we had pictures from the white water parts, but it would have ruined the camera. 

 During the slow parts, the guide let Daniel be the captain.

The water is straight from the mountains and is super cold. (Hence, the wet suits.) It didn't feel terribly cold through the wet suit so when Jason jumped in he was pretty surprised at how cold it was when it got to his unprotected arms and head. Brr!

Sarah was just as brave as her father and hopped in.

The rest of us waited until we were at the shore and then just waded in, but Jason and Sarah did the full deal. All in all, it was an amazing day.

After the rafting, we went back and had lunch and then, on to Kotor, Montenegro.  Because the road had been so windy we thought, hey, let's take the less windy way through Bosnia. It's only 20 kilometers longer and not nearly as windy! Well, it should be one of those givens that when someone says, "Let's take a shortcut through Bosnia," the answer should be no. Unfortunately, Jason and I are dumb as rocks sometimes.

So, we're driving along and Jason gets stopped by the police, who stand on the side of the road and hold out a little sign. Sigh. I would have taken pictures, but I didn't know if we were about to be hauled off to some jail or something. And we weren't even in real Bosnia-Herzogovina. We were in the Republika Srpksa. Heard of it? No. We asked our Bosnian river guide to explain it to us, and he couldn't even do it. We've read the wikipedia entry and it didn't help.

Anyway, the police didn't speak English and well, our Bosnian isn't great. The guy they had pulled over right before did speak a bit of English and he explained that Jason was being ticketed for driving without his lights on and for driving in barefeet. Jason is never barefooted. Never. Except for the one time he gets pulled over in the Republika Srpska. The other victim explained that we would have to go into the next town, go to the post office and pay a fine immediately. But, through a lot of hand gestures, the police indicated that what they really wanted was cash--Euros were fine--now. So, Jason paid them 10 euros, they laughed and slapped him on the back and we drove off on our way.

And we just kept driving, because it ended up taking 4 or so hours to get back to the town. We used google maps on the iphone, which is an awesome tool. (We have unlmited global data.) Except for the fact that the iphone sent us down the hill of death. It was narrow and had potholes and if was utterly terrifying. Fortunately, we didn't encounter anyone coming the other way, mainly because the locals are smart enough to stay off it. They should put a sign at the top of the hill saying, "We realize your iPhone is sending you this direction, but they are wrong."

We did finally arrive in Kotor, Montenegro, which is a lovely little seaside town with castle ruins (where else?) up the side of a mountain. 1325 steps of the side of the mountain, which, of course, we had to climb up.\

So, the next morning, we climbed up, and up, and up. Sarah was a trooper and lead the way. Daniel whined a bit, but we all made it to the top. 


Then it was time to climb back down. You'd think we would have learned from our drive the day before that we should stay on the main roads, but  no, we (read Jason) decided to go down the alternate path. "It's on the brochure!" he said. Yeah, well, ouch. Most people don't go down (or up!) this way because it was overgrown with pokey bushes, had broken steps and was very, very scary.

 Jason was wearing long pants, but the rest of us had shorts or capris on. Sarah had no socks on. We got terribly scratched up legs. Terribly. About 2/3 of the way down we ran into a couple climbing up. She was wearing sandals and short shorts. We should have grabbed them and forced them to turn around, but we didn't. We hoped they survived.

So, at the end of that, we weren't that sad to leave Montenegro and all it's scratchy bushes. On to Bosnia-Herzogovina and the Republika Sprksa.

A little side trip to Albania

Do you know your Balkan geography? No. Me neither. Well, I do now, but I didn't. But Jason likes maps and I trusted him when he said, "We're going to go from Dubrovnik, Croatia, through Montenegro, to Albania. It should take about 3 hours." Sure, that's driving through 3 different countries, but these are small countries, right?

The rental car company said we couldn't take the rental car into Albania. That should have been our first hint. But Jason called the hotel we were going to stay at and asked them for a recommendation for a taxi company that wouldn't cheat us. They said they would send a driver to meet us in Podgorica, Montenegro. Podgorica happens to be the capital of Montenegro. You'll thank me the next time you play Trivial Pursuit. They also told us he would be driving a silver Mercedes and gave us the license plate number. This was very helpful, considering the fact that we speak no Albanian and the driver spoke no English, German or French.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. We left Dubrovnik at 12:00 in order to give ourselves 5 hours to meet our taxi at 5:00. Remember, the drive is supposed to take 3 hours. Right? Well, right. Except, if you were paying attention to my last post you'll know our only problem was at immigration. Until 3 weeks prior, the Croatians and the Montenegrens didn't care about people crossing back and forth. They were as friendly as friendly could be for a couple of nations that have been involved in ethnic cleansing. Now, Croatia has to live up to EU standards, which meant it took us almost 2 hours to get across the border.

2 hours. 120 minutes. Oy. Which meant our 3 hour drive was now going to be 5 hours, which meant we would likely be late to meet our taxi driver, who we can't communicate with. Jason emailed the hotel to tell them we'd be late. (Yeah, iPhones!) and they responded that he'd already left and they had no way of reaching him. Jason said, "What kind of taxi driver doesn't have a cell phone?" "An Albanian one," I said.

Despite the lateness of the hour, I reached a point where I was going to have a breakdown if I didn't get fed, so we stopped at a grocery store in the middle of nowhere Montenegro and I ran inside to buy some food. This should have been easy. I'm an expert grocery shopper. I grocery shop every freaking day at home. I wanted some bread, some fruit and a treat. Except you needed to weigh your own fruit, which meant you had to type in a code. Easy-peasy. Except, they didn't have the signs for the fruit in front of the individual fruits. And remember my language skills? Yeah. so, there was all this fruit and I didn't know what the numbers were for any of them. I settled on nectarines because there was a sign for "Nektarinen," and boy that sounded close enough. Then I couldn't figure out how to use the scale (pride goeth before the fall, of course) and an employee came over and did it for me.

After buying lunch I came out to the car and distributed it. "Mom, there's cheese inside this bread!" said Sarah. "Ummm, I did that on purpose!" I said. Then Daniel declared he couldn't eat bread with cheese inside it. This is the boy that judges cheese based on how stinky it is, with the stinkier the better. I think he was just crabby!

But, we made it to the meeting point only 15 minutes late and the driver spotted us and said, "Albanian?" and we said, "Yes! Albania!" and we climbed into his car and, of course, there were only 2 seatbelts in the back seat. So, I buckled the kids in and sat in the middle, and told Jason to buckle in so that, in case of an accident, the kids would have at least one living parent.

The border between Albania and Montenegro was a peace of cake. Our taxi driver chatted with the border guards like they were old friends. Either that or he was saying, "Can you believe how much I'm getting paid to take these yahoos across the border? And who comes on vacation to Albania anyway?" Actually, in case you were wondering, the cost of the taxi ride was 40 Euros (about $53). Considering it was a full hour and he'd had to drive an hour to pick us up, that was an extreme bargain. At one point, the police tried to pull us over, but the driver stuck his head out the window and waved and then they waved us on. Friends in high places!

We arrived at our hotel and realized that even though people don't generally vacation in Albania, they should. This is where we stayed:

We checked in ("No money now! You pay tomorrow!") and went for a walk. And, well, Albania isn't Switzerland. 

But take a look at that greenery! It has such potential. One interesting thing was that houses all had huge walls around them. We thought it was somehow related to the long time Albania spent trying to be more communist than the Soviets, but how, we don't know.

Our stated purpose in coming to Albania was to attend church. There aren't a great many congregations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the region and this one was actually made the most sense. (There are several branches in northern Croatia, but we were in the south.) 

After locating the church, we headed back to the hotel for dinner. And boy, was that a good idea. If you are ever in Shkoder, Abania, or anywhere near there, you should go. I'm serious. This was the best meal I've had, maybe ever. I didn't get pictures of all of it. The waiter said, "Would you like to see a menu, or should I just bring you something traditional?" We went with the traditional and it was so good. Did I mention it was good? Hotel Tradita Geg & Tosk.

I'm cursing myself for not getting a picture of the meat course. The quality of the produce? Out of this world. You know those heirloom tomatoes that you pay a fortune for at the farmers' markets? These were better than those. I've never tasted food so good. Everything was cooked over an open fire. Amazing. At the end, the big boss (owner? owner's husband? Not sure) came over and asked how it was. We said how fantastic the food was and how much we enjoyed the dinner. He warned us to not over do it because breakfast would be fantastic as well. He was right:

We were able to figure out what just about everything was. They finished it off with a bowl of wild strawberries. Oh boy. We may have to return to Albania just to stay here again.

After breakfast we headed to church. We got there about 5 minutes early and discovered two missionaries (one from Utah and one from Idaho) and one member. One missionary was serving as the branch president with his companion as his counselor. One Elder was attempting to plunk out a hymn using the easy hymn book. I asked if he would like me to play to piano instead and he gratefully accepted, so now I can say I've performed in Albania. (Wouldn't Nellie DeVroom be proud?) 

By the time sacrament  meeting started, there were 2 missionaries, 4 members and us. Never before has our family doubled the population of a sacrament meeting. After sacrament meeting, Jason went to Sunday school and I took the kids into the one other room and taught them a primary lesson. Then church was over. Because it's so small, they don't do priesthood and Relief Society, so it was only an hour and 40 minutes. We may move to Albania. 

After dinner we walked around Shkoder and saw the local mosque and some statues and observed a wedding tradition. The bride and groom ride around in a big, expensive car. The bigger and more expensive the better. Convertibles are the best. In front of them is a car with a guy hanging out the window, videotaping everything. And when I say video taping, I mean that. The cameras looked like they were straight out of 1995. And everyone follows the cars and they all honk. 

We asked a young hotel employee about it and she confirmed and talked about the car she wants when she gets married.

And speaking of cars, Mercedes is the vehicle of choice in Skhoder Albania. They were EVERYWHERE. Mostly old ones. Also, there were lots of car washes. They love their cars. Anyway, we walked around and we bought ice cream cones. That's what we do on vacation--we eat ice cream cones.

Then we needed to get back to Podgorica and we needed another taxi ride. The hotel arranged a taxi for us, which would include a trip to the local castle. It was so hot and since we had a taxi driver waiting for us, we didn't spend a long time at the castle, but if we'd been there on our own we would  have, because it was a very cool castle.

And it turns out that another Skhoder wedding tradition is to come and take pictures at this castle. Which just goes to show that painful, long photo shoots cross cultural lines. We saw numerous happy couples, but this one happens to be the same one in the video above. Talk about a coincidence:

Jason said, to the groom, "I like your car!" and he responded, "Thanks, Buddy," which tells me that they must teach English in the schools.

Also, there were these snails:

Or maybe they are not snails, but they were kind of creepy.

On our trip back to Podgorica we found a language we could communicate to the taxi driver in. (A different driver). Italian! But wait, we don't speak Italian! No problem. It's close enough to Frenh and Spanish that we were able to have a semi conversation with him. And by we, again, I mean Jason, who has no fear whatsoever. I was busy being in a panic because he kept driving in the left hand lane, which would have been fine had there not been oncoming traffic.