I was standing on the balcony of Guest House Goa, when I heard a loud boom and nearly jumped out of my skin. After the initial shock, I stood perfectly still, transfixed as the call to prayer filled the air with a soulful and mysterious wail.
We had arrived in Mostar earlier that day from Split, Croatia. Emir, the owner of Guest House Goa also runs a personal taxi service, and after enduring a sweltering train ride the week before from Zagreb to Split, we felt 80 euro for an air conditioned car in 91 F heat (33 C) was worth it.
Mostar is in the country of Bosnia & Herzegovina, but technically in the southern Herzegovina region. Because it is long and difficult to spell and pronounce, it is often unceremoniously dropped to just 'Bosnia', which is unfortunate because this region is the cultural and spiritual heart of the country and deserving of full respect and deference.
Despite making headline news in the early 90's, Bosnia & Herzegovina occupied the tiniest blip in my brain-space prior to arrival, but that was about to change. I was going to have my first travel related 'out of body' experience.
After arriving at lunchtime, we spent a long day touring the city in the blistering heat, but now, the sun had mellowed into a pink and peach shimmer while the air was warm but tolerable.
I pondered our first day's activities from the balcony of the guest house, where I beheld the most spectacular view of the Stari Most, the famed bridge in Old Town Mostar with a history that is significant and tragic. Built by the Ottomans (Turks) in the mid 1500s, it stood for 427 years as one of the most magnificent examples of Islamic architecture before being destroyed in 1993 during the Bosnian War.
Rebuilt in 2004, it has helped revive the fortunes of this war-torn city, with scars still very evident as bullet riddled ruins stand alongside brand new buildings.
During the afternoon, we walked around the outer parts of the city and the unforgiving heat and desert-like conditions had me a bit on edge. I've grown accustomed to feeling foreign, but in Bosnia & Herzegovina, it was like I was on another planet.
As the day progressed, we moved into the Old Town which is very compact and easy to explore. It combines ancient structures, Ottoman architecture and the remnants of war into something that lacks comparison-- I've never been in such a place before.
The streets are a green oasis lined with souvenir shops and family-run restaurants serving platters of the BiH national dish, cevapi. They look like brown and serve sausages, but without the skin and are often served with somun, a freshly baked pita. Delicious!
But it is the bridge that is the star. Tourists and locals alike crowd around and on it, including (trained) young men who dive off it for money.
Back at the guest house, Emir greeted us with a drink. He is a fun-loving polyglot who runs the guest house with his family and loves hosting people from all over the world. The next morning he served us a traditional Bosnian breakfast feast (complete with homemade fried bread and jam) and suggested we escape the heat by going to a special place in the mountains for swimming.
The water was as cold as you would think coming off a mountain. After a brisk dip, we ate freshly caught trout from the river while listening to the sounds of a waterfall and cheerful Bosnian conversation. Emir talked about his country and how they are extremely proud that they grow organic food and have such clean water. I remember thinking this would be really impressive if the majority of the adult population didn't also smoke!
On the drive back to the guest house, I couldn't believe how stunning the landscape of Bosnia & Herzegovina is, especially the turquoise color of the River Neretva.
That night, we sat in the courtyard of the guest house watching the UEFA (European soccer) match between Italy and Germany while Emir barbecued cevapi. Once again, there was the sound of a loud boom, which felt like a cannon had gone off next door.
Emir explained it was Ramadan and the sound indicates it is sundown and time for the Muslim people to break their fast. The city was coming to life and as the smell of freshly baked somun bread wafted through the air, Emir asked if I would pop down to the bakery and pick up some for our meal.
I stood in line amidst the happy energy of the local people and the comforting smell of bread when I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of belonging. After two days of feeling out of my element, my whole body softened and relaxed. As I paid for my bread, the cashier and I smiled at each other as though we had just exchanged secrets.
Outside the bakery, with the starry sky above my head and the dirt road beneath my feet, I felt as though I was connected to the entire universe.
The next day we said our goodbyes and I expressed my gratitude to Emir for his hospitality. We boarded a bus for Sarajevo and wondered how any city could compare to the other-worldly energy of Mostar.