Thursday, May 10, 2012

Turns out Sarajevo is really nice and the politics are a hopeless soup

Sarajevo! Do you think of wars and stuff? Don't: that was all 17 years in the past and now it's a really neat place.

Skippable political interlude: Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country, has two parts. They are not "Bosnia" and "Herzegovina." The major ethnic groups in B&H are Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. When Yugoslavia split up, Serbia got most of the Serbs and Croatia got most of the Croats (of course), but some of the Serbs and Croats were living in Bosnia and didn't really want to move, so now they are "Bosnian Serbs" or "Bosnian Croats." There were a lot of Bosnian Serbs, so they set up the "Republika Srpska" within Bosnia and Herzegovina; it's like there are two states within Bosnia and Herzegovina, and RS has 49% of the political power while the "Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina" has 51%. (FoB&H has mostly Bosniaks but also some Croats.) As far as religion, Serbs are mostly Orthodox Christians, Croats are mostly Catholic, and Bosniaks are mostly Muslim.

Whatever! The relevant part for a traveler is that Bosniaks are really friendly. (Serbs and Croats probably are too, but I can't comment as much.) Sarajevo, capital of B&H, and within FoB&H, is a city where you go in to get a minor bike fix, and they not only drop everything to help you, but the owner takes you around sightseeing on his bike and buys you lunch in the meantime.

It is culturally neat, because it's mostly Muslim, but with lots of Orthodox/Catholic things too. Islam came from the Ottomans. Bosniaks are pretty easygoing, and the Ottomans were not terrible rulers, so they mostly adopted Islam, and it worked pretty well. As my couchsurfing friend said, "You go to Paris, you see a lot of things built by kings for kings. Here the kings built things for the people." Examples include the water fountains (like the first picture above) and various Waqfs/vakufs: buildings donated to the common good. Lots of mosques here are waqfs.

The white things in the foreground are a Muslim cemetery. It's a very European Islam: very similar to things that are familiar to us, just a little different.

But time is marching on, so I moved on to Banja Luka, another biggish city in B&H, but this time in the Republika Srpska.

It's cool too. Supposedly the greenest city in former Yugoslavia. Also supposedly there are 7 girls per guy. I think the latter number is inflated, but it is very green.

Twice I saw big groups of old guys playing giant chess in the park. What a great idea! Why are there not giant chessboards (and groups of old guys) everywhere all the time?

Finally, the food here is pretty heavy but surprisingly I love it. A couple of main genres I've been able to enjoy:
- burek. Take fillo dough, roll it around meat ("burek") or cheese ("sirnica") or spinach and cheese ("zeljanica"), then roll that food-stick into a spiral. Served with yogurt to drink.
- cevapi. Spiced meatballs in a pita-ish bread. I guess this is nothing new. I heard that there are no factory farms here. Maybe that's why the meat tastes so good.

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