December 28th was another early morning for us. Up and packed, breakfasted and in the common room again for 8:30 am. Today we were headed for Sarajevo via Mostar.
Getting to Sarajevo from Kotor is not easy. As we discovered when we arrived in Kotor and wanted to buy our bus ticket to Sarajevo. If you look at a map, it doesn’t look that far or difficult. Unfortunately, there was only one bus leaving Kotor for Sarajevo, leaving at 4:30 pm and it took ten hours to get there. Not only that, it stopped in Montenegro’s capital Podgorica on its way. If you take a look at the map in the previous post, you’ll see that Podgorica isn’t exactly on the way to Sarajevo. The hostel recommended that we sign up for their transfer to Mostar and from there it would be easy to get a bus to Sarajevo. And they were soooooo right. The tour and transfers are 35€ ($53 CAD) each if there are only one or two people and 30€ ($45 CAD) each if there are more than two. While considerably more expensive than public transportation, worth every Euro.
We were hoping that Slavko would be our driver again today but it was a different gentleman. When Bob and I had decided to go this route, we were the only ones signed up but when we went to pay the next night, we noticed we were now up to four people.
Jacques (a PhD student from France) and Kim (a young man in his early 20’s-ish from China) were our co-passengers. We all set off and piled into another tiny car that was parked outside the walls of the Old Town. This one felt even smaller though because I was sitting in the centre of the backseat between two men. Thankfully, I’m fond of Bob and therefore don’t feel guilty leaning into him on half of the insane curves of Montenegro roads.
We started out on the street that we had returned on the day before and then headed North instead of turning to Nikšic. The land in Montenegro is very rocky, like in Croatia. It has an arid desert feel to it. Of course, this is winter here and the trees are often brown which adds to its desolate atmosphere. And the roads are insanely winding so I spent a good chunk of my time in the car, while still in Montenegro, swaying from side to side.
It was a quiet trip, unlike the sightseeing tour from the day before. But that was okay because I was really tired. I love travelling but Bob and I pack our days full of activities and after eight days of non-stop sight-seeing and learning and chatting, we were both needing a day to do nothing. Or at least a few hours in the morning. Bob spent much of the trip to the border reading. I spent most of my time dozing.
After four hours, we reached the border. In many places in the world, when you cross a border over land, you are checked out of one country, then you drive 50 metres and you are checked into the next country. Unlike between Canada and America where you only speak to the border guards of the country you are entering.
We were in a fairly remote area of the country and at a border crossing that was probably not used all that often, in comparison to the one that is closest to Dubrovnik. The Montenegrin border was as you would expect. A large building to one side, with little wickets that the guards sit in to look at passports, mechanical barriers that rise to let you pass, posters with hotlines for human trafficking and proper pet papers, you know, a typcial – albeit smaller – border crossing. We had to stop and speak with customs to get out of Montenegro. There wasn’t a problem of course, we all had proper passports and our driver was Montenegrin and the guards were probably quite familiar with the hostel’s transfer to Mostar. An interesting side note, Jacques was very adamant that they stamp his passport on the way out. Usually in the EU, passports don’t get stamped but with the current refugee situation, Jacques felt it very important that he dot his i’s and cross his t’s. As soon as we departed, we passed a sign that said “You are now leaving Montenegro. Goodbye and come again.” (Or something to that effect.)
Fifty metres later we approached a moderately-sized signed that said “Welcome to Bosnia and Herzegovina” and the Bosnian border. Which was a smaller building to one side and two metal posts with a metal barrier that lay across the road between them, with a stop sign on it. Litter lined the sides of the road. And that’s it.
Oh. And the gruff, very serious looking border guards.
Just beyond the border was a massive sign that said in both the Latin alphabet and Cyrillic what translated to Welcome to the Republic of Srpska. This confused me. I thought we were heading into Bosnia. Bob later explained to me that the Republic of Srpska is an area of Bosnia and Herzegovina that has been under Serbian authority and jurisdiction since the Bosnian War. So this border crossing had an added degree of political complexity to it.
There were no wickets for the guards to sit in so he just walked up to the car window and asked for our passports. After our driver passed over our passports, explained who we were and where we were coming from and headed to, we were told to get out of the vehicle. Then they told us to remove all the luggage from the car. (None of this was in English.) They began searching the vehicle. At this point, none of the guards (there were three of them) had been rude or had asked us to do anything too out of the ordinary. But border crossings always stress me out. I always think they’re going to find something wrong with me and not let me in. Even though I think I might be one of the most law-abiding citizens in the world. (Of course, there was that one time in Israel, of all places….) Then they asked us to open our luggage and I started to panic because we had food in the suitcase (I’m gluten-free and always carry my own stash of food) and a bottle of wine (which they completely waved off). They “asked” us to pull all of our belongings out of the suitcases. One border guard had his attention focused on us while the other two were speaking with Jacques and Kim.
Then the strangest – and most terrifying – thing happened. One guard asked Kim a question. And Kim walked away from him. Kim walked to his door of the car, opened it and pulled out his half-full container of milk. The guard was staring at him incredulously. I had no idea what exactly transpired because I was trying to put our belongings back in the suitcase but I could feel a veritable increase in tension within the whole group. So much so that I actually stopped what I was doing to watch. It was clear from the look on his face and his body language that the guard had no idea what Kim was doing either. Which is never a good thing.
Kim walked away from the car (and the guard) with his half-filled container and went over to the side of the road, where all the litter was, opened the container and started dumping the remains of it on the ground.
We were all completely silent. And at this point we were all staring at him, wide-eyed. None of the foreigners made a move. Except Kim. Who nonchalantly tossed the empty carton onto the side of the road.
We were all thinking the same thing. “Did he just do that?” Yep. He did.
And the guard lost it. He yelled at Kim in English to “PICK! IT! UP!” (I had no idea whether Kim spoke English or not but the tone and the rapidly approaching angry border guard made it very clear what Kim what supposed to do.) Then the guard pointed toward a garbage can near the main building and yelled, “PUT. IT. THERE.” Kim did what he was told but his stoicism didn’t betray whether he was as terrified as we were.
I started wondering what the hell people do when they’re stuck in No-Man’s Land (remember, we had already left Montenegro and were not yet in Bosnia). Do you have to get your embassy to come and get you? Will Montenegro let us back in? Do we go ahead (if we’re allowed) and leave Kim to fend for himself? For the first time, it really hit us: we had no idea who we are travelling with. We were going on faith.
The guards turned to us and angrily motioned to us that we could put our bags back in the car, while giving Kim very nasty looks. All five of us piled into the car again quickly and in total silence. We didn’t even fasten our seatbelts. The guard pressed a lever and the metal barrier arm lifted. We drove away. We said not another word until we stopped for a break in a small town called Bileca about 10 km away.