Our featured blogger this week gives a sobering account of tourism in the Balkans and wonders whether it is still the region's best hope
She wraps her thick black hair into a knot on the top of her head. Pulling a small mirror from her large synthetic-leather bag, she plucks some wisps of hair from the knot and arranges them carefully to look careless.
Sophia is Serbian. She’s on her way to Montenegro to meet some friends for a holiday. She occupies the window seat next to me on the bus from Dubrovnik to Budva, Montenegro.
“Do you know any cheap place to stay?” she asks me.
“I’ll stay in a hostel. It’s 11 euro a night,” I tell her.
She stares at me, her eyes wide in dismay. “Oh,” she says. “Why don’t you stay in a room? People tell me there are rooms in houses cheap. I hope there are, because I can’t spend so much money.”
I reassure her that usually local people show up at the bus stations offering cheap rooms in their homes.
“How much are these rooms? I am kindergarten teacher,” she tells me. “I have very little money. I left Serbia and went to Zagreb for work. But really, there is no work. I graduated from Tourism and Culture, but I can’t find job, so I take job in school with babies. I hate it. Their parents are very rich and they are very spoiled. I am like baby sitter. And they pay me so little. But what can I do?”
The Internet source Balkan Insight writes that 500 people a day become jobless in Serbia. They state 27% unemployment with an average salary of 380 euro a month.
Outside the bus, green cliffs drop to a turquoise sea. Traffic halts. The coast road along the Adriatic Sea from Croatia to Montenegro is clogged with vacationing tourists.
I had stayed one day and night in Dubrovnik. I was fortunate enough to have a friend living there who offered me the hospitality of a stay in her home. We had met the year she had lived in Istanbul.
Dubrovnik proved a bizarre scene – scantily-clad, rich foreigners parading about with their well-tanned, well-oiled skin on display, wearing extremely expensive but outlandishly skimpy outfits.
Entering the Old Town of Dubrovnik I felt strangely unhinged. I knew I was outside, but felt like I was inside. Walking through the gate into Old Town was like entering an open-air museum. Unlike Sarajevo, where shell-pocked areas are filled-in with a blood-red laminate to mark the spots, and walls of buildings are a bullet-ridden pattern of past carnage, Dubrovnik has erased any and all traces of war. It stands like a Disneyland theme park for adults: every stone of every building, every marble cobblestone on every street and alleyway shimmering in an alabaster-white sheen of prosperity and security. A scrupulously polished playground for the rich.
The women strutting Dubrovnik’s Old City were equally unreal. Three women passed me and I had to repress my urge to stare. Wearing skin-tight, crotch-high, cleavage-revealing dresses, they hip-swayed over the glimmering white marble lanes, one stiletto-ed foot in front of the other.
Ah, they’re top fashion models on a shoot, I thought to myself. But there were no camera men. It wasn’t a shoot. A few minutes later, along came another pair – with legs just as long and shapely, in equally short, tight, outlandish dresses, and equally high-heeled shoes. In twos and threes they strutted their way along the slick streets as tourists sipped fine wine and twirled expensive strands of spaghetti dishes on their forks amidst laughter and holiday good times.
“Yes,” said the Croatian friend I stayed with in Dubrovnik, “Old City Dubrovnik is called 'the Longest Catwalk in the World'.”
“Do you ever go to the Old City?” I asked her.
“No,” she said, “only when I take someone who’s visiting me, and then I try to send them by themselves if possible. I really never go there.”
“And what about work here?" I ask.
“Well, in the summer there is work in tourism. In the winter there is no work. My degree is in design. It’s impossible to get a job here. Maybe if I went to Zagreb I could find something. That’s why I was in Istanbul. I found work there for one year.”
Things are even worse in Sarajevo. Neno leads a free walking tour of Sarajevo, depending on the tips of tourists. He’s passionate about his subject.
“My mother is Muslim. My father is Serb, but of course he stayed with us during the four years of the war.”
“What about school during those years?” I ask him. “How did you go to school?”
“We had classes in basements in different neighbourhoods. We ran through sheltered streets to these underground schools. My mother is a nurse. And she refused to stay home. Everyday she walked to the hospital where so many people were injured and dying. And my father fought for the resistance.”
He points to one of the “roses” on the street – a shelled area filled in with red. I stand and look, try to imagine what it must have been like to spend four years being shot at by men on the hills surrounding Sarajevo. To be a moving target in a life and death game of chance.
Now the hills are green and verdant. An early morning mist hangs like wisps of gauze over them. But the people of Sarajevo are still struggling.
“There is 65% unemployment in the winter among the youth of Sarajevo, only 45% in the summer,” Neno tells us. One online source states that 1.35 million Bosnians live abroad out of a total population of 3.752 million. One survey of Bosnia’s young people states that 81% of those polled stated they would leave tomorrow if they could, in order to find employment opportunities.
On the Balkan Express mini-bus from Budva, Montenegro, back to Bosnia, the road winds up into the mountains from the Adriatic Sea. Suddenly I look down and see a river that’s a shade of milky turquoise. We continue to serpentine along the Tara River Canyon gorge. No people. No houses. Only craggy gray cliffs, deep-green-leaved trees, and a wide party ribbon of turquoise at the bottom.
When we go uphill, the driver cuts the air-conditioning. The steward opens the air vent in the roof. The mini-bus huffs and puffs its way up the steep canyon like the little train that could. The passengers pant and sweat in the heat. We make it to the top of the ridge and begin our descent, finally travelling alongside this incredibly startling light-blue river. It pools into lakes, then swiggles into a river again.
Eventually we come to a town and stop at a tiny bus stop/cafe. Passengers slide out of the bus covered in slick sweat. The driver shouts something in some Balkan language. A tall, long-haired, natural blond steps out before me.
“How much time do we have? Is there enough time to use a toilet?” I ask.
She smiles a charming, white-toothed smile.
“Yes. Yes. Come quick with me. I take you,” she says.
When we get to the toilet, both myself and a young English girl travelling on the same bus fumble for correct change to pay the toilet attendant. The long-haired blond pays for us and instructs us to go ahead.
When I exit the toilet I try to pay her back.
“No. No, please,” she smiles. “Is nothing. You are guest in my country. Come sit a minute with me.”
Her name is Jelena. She comes from Foca. I force a euro into her hand.
“How did you learn to speak English so well?” I ask her.
Her face brightens into a big smile.
“Really? You think I speak English well?”
“Absolutely,” I say, “and I’m an English teacher.”
“I never took a course,” she says, speaking quickly. "I didn’t go to university. I just watch TV shows in English and listen to music and learn. Also this way I learn German.”
“You are so smart,” I tell her.
“Really? But I just work as au pair in Frankfurt,” she tells me. “But people are not good people. They tell me they pay 300 euros a month, but they only give 200. They say I get two days off every week, but I work seven days a week. But what can I do? If I leave, then what will my family do? I’m only one with job now. If I leave, we don’t eat anything.”
She roots through her yellow plastic hand bag and pulls out a pack of cigarettes.
“Would you like one?’
“I never smoked before, but I get so nervous in Germany I start.” She scratches at her arms and legs, draws on her cigarette, compulsively scratches some more.
“I am not lucky,” she tells me. “I was born here.”
The bus driver honks the horn, summoning the passengers back into the bus. When she gets off at Foca, she smiles and waves to me. I continue on, returning to Sarajevo.
In the morning I walk up the hill to the war cemetery. White stone markers pop from the ground like a field of death flowers. I gaze down at the red tile roofs, the domes and minarets of the mosques, and tall crosses and church steeples.
Sarajevo is such a lovely, tranquil place now. On the 16th, the Sarajevo International Film Festival will begin. It will be packed with tourists.
The war with bullets and mortar shells has ended. But the war with poverty rages on.
"Almost nine years ago I boarded a plane to Greece and I haven't been back to the States since. I enjoy dancing with gypsies, reading blasts of spontaneously generated delirium, and writing. Diane in Istanbul is my blog."