Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Exploring--Far From Home--Beautiful, Haunting Mostar

Bosnia-Herzegovina may not be everyone's vacation dream spot, but it was a highlight of our long-anticipated 4-week journey in Central and Eastern Europe this past September and October. We were privileged to see the river valley city of Mostar with its iconic bridge as an unexpected bonus added to the destinations we had originally intended to see. Sometime soon, I will blog about budget travel and creative travel planning and will perhaps say more about how we happened to journey to Mostar for one memorable overnight stay. 
For now, more about Mostar itself, a city where Turkish-style and Serbian Orthodox East meets a fervently Catholic Croatian West. Mostar suffered greatly in the wars of the 1990s. It had long been a sophisticated, peaceable mix of cultures and religions with as many as 75% of the adults married to someone of another background or culture. All that changed in late 1991 when Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from the rapidly disintegrating Yugoslavia, and the Serbian minority immediately seceded from the fledgling nation with its Bosnian Muslim majority. Soon, the residents of Mostar were bewildered by bloody fighting among former neighbors, incited by violent partisans from all sides. The Serbs fired down from the hills to one side of the city and Croatians from the other. Even members of mixed families were forced to choose a single ethnicity and to defend it against attacks from the others. 
Our local guide, an articulate, professional Muslim woman (in modern European dress, make-up, and hairstyle) described how the snipers on the hills would pick off anyone who ventured out to aid the wounded or to bury the dead. The cemetery pictured above had been a city park until residents began secretly burying their fallen there in the darkness of any moonless night. No markers were erected until after the war--now hundreds of headstones of residents from the very old to infants, mostly death-dated 1992-94, crowd several former city parks. Our guide also recounted personal stories, employing a sardonic humor, about how the tough, enterprising Mostar residents survived in unimaginable circumstances. "Our humor may seem shocking to those who have not experienced these things," she said, "but it was as essential to our survival as our meager food and water." 
Today, Mostar is peaceful and rebuilding itself as quickly as war-ravaged resources will allow. In one photo above, you can see a heavily shell-damaged building which is partially restored to the right of a brand-new structure replacing the rubble of a destroyed older building. The 16th century Ottoman bridge (the identifying image of Mostar) in the other photo has been painstakingly rebuilt with precisely the same tools and methods as the original using limestone hewn by hand from the same quarry the Ottomans used. As a beloved symbol of a proud and diverse city, it had been deliberately targeted and finally destroyed in the war. It is a moving and lovely sight.
We visited a beautifully decorated mosque where our guide answered our questions frankly, allowing us to glimpse the deep personal significance of her own progressive, sincere faith. On our way to an excellent dinner in the Old Town, a delightful stroll along Coppersmith's Street offered art galleries, craft stalls, spices, and more in a cheerful jumble reminiscent of a Turkish bazaar. Musicians played on exotic (to me) instruments, children ran in noisy joy over the worn cobblestones, and locals enjoying a drink or water pipe laughed and gossiped in several languages at sidewalk tables. Nearby, the silvery river and the restored Old Bridge were stunning in the fading evening light. Earlier, our guide had given us a tour of an amazing Turkish-style house with a beautiful courtyard and garden and lovely wood-paneled and tiled rooms. Our group got silly trying on the authentic ethnic costumes she provided from displays there. All these were particularly poignant experiences given the recent tragic events.
For readers curious about accommodations, the Rick Steves tour we had taken into the country put us up in the large, sleek, well-run Hotel Ero, where international journalists stayed during the war and which was one of the few large buildings in the central city to escape serious damage. According to a Rick Steves travel guidebook, there also are several new, friendly, affordable small hotels in the city center.
I think that my next post will leave the "Exploring" theme for awhile. I'm thinking of shifting gears to writing about the delights of learning something new--although, come to think of it, creative exploring has always done that for me, too. I certainly found exploring Central and Eastern Europe to be a rich learning experience with varied lingering impressions. Oh, and in case you are impressed with my memory of events, don't be. Although it requires discipline, I am thankful to have recorded at least some of the details of travel experiences in journals over the years. 
Question of the day: How have creative journeys shaped your perceptions and the person you are today?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Exploring--Right Near Home--Big Talbot Island

Wherever we have lived, I have enjoyed playing tourist near home. It doesn't cost much (sometimes is free, especially if one can walk or bike there) and often reveals delightful new surprises. We are fortunate to have many friends and family members from other parts of the USA or other countries who come to stay with us. Spending time showing them our home town and surroundings takes us places we might neglect to experience otherwise. How many of us hear about nearby interesting places we would like to explore and yet postpone doing that month after busy month?
Here's a thought. Even if you don't have visitors, promise yourself an outing sometime soon. Choose a place and put it on your calendar. Or step out the door right now, stroll around for a few minutes or more with all your senses on high alert. Take a camera and make like a tourist. What if you were paying money for your "lodgings"--wouldn't you explore the area?
Or, imagine yourself hosting a visitor from someplace quite unlike your region. If it is hard to see the farms around you with fresh eyes, pretend you are guiding visitors from Saudi Arabia. Wouldn't they be amazed at the rolling hills or vast plains in lush greens or rich golden tones? Or if your city neighborhood is seeming drab and uninteresting, imagine giving small-town visitors a tour of the ethnic food stalls and lunch counters in some surrounding blocks. Wouldn't they love hearing multiple languages and savoring the varied aromas and flavors? 
We had lived in Jacksonville, FL for several years before a visit from a brother who lives in Cleveland, Ohio prompted me to explore Big Talbot Island State Park. A stark contrast to the endless, wide Jacksonville beaches most visitors flock to, the shore of Big Talbot is a quiet, somewhat ghostly walk along low bluffs. Over time, the battering of storms and storm tides has toppled and sculpted  oaks, pines, and other vegetation into a unique atmosphere (begging for artistic photographers--and for us amateurs, too). The shady, wooded trail from parking to an overlook is short and easy, and another short trail leads to a path down the bluff to the shore. There are other hiking trails in the Big Talbot Park preserve, through heavily wooded areas dripping with Spanish moss or along the fascinating, varied habitat of salt marshes--bird-watching and just breathing deeply made an afternoon here feel like an extended vacation.
Question of the day:  Why did I wait for an out-of-town visitor to explore this nearby natural wonder? What will you explore for the first time or see in a new way soon?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Creative Journey Begins

Dull, humdrum, same-old, same-old no more!  In conversations with a variety of people, I hear a yearning for adventure and stimulation among many of us.  This blog will focus on adding spice to every day and on the occasional grander adventure.  I love to travel and have had some wonderful low- and mid-budget journeys.  I will share photos, tips (and our inevitable travel “slips”) on occasion.  Nothing opens my mind and heart in quite the same way as travel.

But we aren’t all in a position to jump into planes, trains, or automobiles anytime soon.  We will explore a number of simpler topics for daily life as well as living-large adventures.  I have lived long enough (translation, on my way to being the wise woman of the tribe, or what some call crone hood) to be full of ideas, experiences, tips, and don’t-do-what-I-dids.

This won’t be a one-way “advice from the guru” type-site, though.  I sincerely hope that it will be a lively conversation with all of you about living life to the full.  Yes, that expression is over-worked, but is still a meaningful goal for me.  I will post at least twice a week, sometimes more often and would love to have you check in at least once a week to listen in or to join our conversation.  We will explore a number of specific topics, but all will come under one of these headings: Exploring, Learning, Savoring, or Growing.

A few upcoming topics:

   Be a tourist at home

   Cook or bake something amazing

   Clean a drawer or closet and delight in the memories tucked away there

   Learn something new

   Look—Really Look—at the sky, at clouds, stars, the Space Station going by

( The photo above shows a summer day on my street.  I simply looked up while walking the dog.)


Question of the day:  What particular conversation would you like to hear or to join?