Return to Mostar

Wednesday 04 December

The wind whips into a frenzy as our little band huddles against the elements during a war tour of Mostar.  It is certainly a far cry from the summer time madness back in August when, if you may recall, my friend Mike jumped off the famous bridge here.  The water is a lot higher and significantly colder now, and where once crowds of people stood to watch foolhardy youths plunge to the depths below, now not a sinner stands, the railings empty and streets lined with shut doors.  Bustling street cafes are boarded up, and the only passer-by you’re likely to meet is a stray dog.  And I find it beautiful.

I’ve always had a passion for the forgotten.  The derelict fairground ghost train.  The abandoned warehouse.  The seaside in winter.  There is something so mysteriously captivating about places where people once were, now left to rack and ruin and overrun by nature.  Mostar, while not quite left to rack and ruin,  is slowly struggling to return to its former glory.  But without the tourist dollars and the blazing sun, it’s crumbling remnants of war-torn Bosnia seem all the more palatable.  Perhaps heartrendingly so, it is nonetheless a photographers dream.  A living museum and testament to mans inhumanity to man.

Mostar had a bad time of it.  A war on two fronts.  Double dealings and back-handers saw Bosnian Serbs and Croats lay claim to cutting the country in two here, and the city was caught in the subsequent cross-fire.  It was carnage.  Across a certain section of the city, there isn’t a building that hasn’t been affected.  The problem now is the government is doing little about it.  Many families are residing in bombed out shells, with new builds standing empty – broken promises and dodgy politics.  Mostar has around 50% unemployment, which is staggeringly high, and goes someway to explaining why this region still stands on a knife-edge.  Tensions between ethnic groups are rising, exasperated by no means in part by the destruction of a Bosnian Army war memorial.  This vandalism hit the headlines in March this year, highlighting once again the frail peace in the Balkans.

For me the city had lost none of its charm when I visited in the summer, and it is a must-see if you come to Bosnia.  With common sense prevailing, hopefully we’ll be seeing even more crazy folk throwing themselves off the Stari Most for many years to come.

 

 

 

 

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Waiting for test results

Wednesday 27 November

After putting the full stop to your final exam in school and handing the paper over, there is little you can do to effect the outcome.  Maybe you can ask friends what they put for some sort of reassurance.  Perhaps you can go back to a text-book and confirm a particular answer.  There is little point in worrying about it now, even though we all do, as biting your fingers to the bone isn’t going to change anything.  However in taking a sexual health test, I’ve got no chance of asking a mate – “what did you get for question seven?”  I can get no solace.  I’m in this alone.  For 24 hours after I’m subjected to needles and swabs I’m totally fine.  Then the fear of god sets in.

For three days and nights I’m googling the shit out of the chances of getting HIV.  I’m analysing every statistic, every ounce of information and common sense I can get my grubby little claws on.  I’m sweating, sleeping badly, not eating and falling into that deadly paranoia trap that blights 21st century medicine.  Self diagnosis.  Within a matter of minutes of entering potential symptoms on various “trusted sites” I’ve either got gangrene, piles or cat AIDS.  The suspense is killing me.

By the time I’ve reached the third night, my brain has so convinced itself that something drastically horrible is wrong, that I’m already planning how to break it to people.  Running through my mind are those times I played fast and loose, cursing my stupidity and silently promising to non-existent gods that I will never do it again.  I can’t think straight as the anxiety sets in.  I’m reading forum page after forum page of kids convinced they’ve got something after sitting on a toilet seat.  Nothing is offering me any comfort.  Unable to take it anymore, I write an email to the clinic to inquire if my results are ready early.  An email with an attachment arrives quicker than expected.

I accidentally click “download” instead of “view online”.  Here’s where my own fucking computer lets me down and goes into hibernation while it ponders what to do.  The little swirly “think” icon deliberately teases me, laughing in my face as it spins merrily around while my heart beats through my chest.  It’s agonising.  I’m bordering on a panic attack as the clinic headed email final pops up and I scroll down…

 

 

NEGATIVE

NEGATIVE

NEGATIVE

NEGATIVE

NEGATIVE

 

I’M FREE!  I’M CLEAN!  I’M BORN AGAIN!  HELLO WORLD!  HELLO FLOWERS!  HELLO BIRDS!  HELLO SKY!  HELLO SLOW INTERNET, LOUD SNORERS AND COLD SHOWERS IN HOSTELS -I LOVE YOU ALL!!  IMPROMPTU DANCE PARTY IN THE DORM ROOM!

My entire being breathes a sigh of relief, but all joking aside, this is something that shouldn’t be laughed at.  I found in researching my own fears, so many people out there are terrified of getting checked up, scared they’ve already got something, distraught with what their friends and family would think of them.  To a large extent, it’s still a taboo subject, and it’s important that anyone with an active sex life gets a regular poke and prod from the doc.  Especially to those that travel, and especially to those that travel in “high risk” countries.  Educate the people.  Oh and always wear a condom or make sure that guy you’re with gloves-up.  You just never know.  I’ve learnt my lessons the hard way and I don’t intend on going through this ever again.  I literally feel like I’ve got my life back – time for some celebratory shaggin -DRINKING.  Drinking.  I mean celebratory drinking.  Obviously.   Sheesh!

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Sexual health checks in foreign countries

Friday 22 November

Well it’s been a long time coming I guess.  I think the last time I had someone poking and prodding around my junk was back when I lived in Glasgow.  So that’s about four years ago then.  Since that time I’ve…erm…visited a lot of places.  I figure you shouldn’t mess around with stuff like this, so I think of a way to inconspicuously ask a hostel staff member how one goes about getting a “check up” in these parts.  He’s pointed me in the direction of a private clinic, which just so happens to be in the Twist tower, a famous new build in Sarajevo, and at 173 metres, it’s the tallest structure in Eastern Europe.  It’s also number eleven on Trip Advisor attractions for the city.  It’s a win-win situation.  Healthy tourism.

I’ve booked an appointment the week previous, as it seems there is only one day when the special dude comes in to examine your bits.  I’m sitting in this very plush, polished waiting area with shiny floors and clinical decor.  Frosted glass doors surround with glimpses of medical equipment beyond.  I can only assume this is the Bosnian equivalent of BUPA.  The NHS it ain’t, and I’ve a feeling this might seriously dent the wallet.  Still, you don’t scrimp when it comes to your health do you?  I certainly don’t when I’m spending hundreds on fags and booze.

“Please don’t be hot, please don’t be hot, please don’t be hot”.  I’ve been whispering the words ever since I entered the rocket-propelled elevator.  The last thing you want when your legs are up on stirrups is a stunningly good-looking nurse poking at your embarrassingly flaccid penis.  “I’m a grower honestly!”  Needless to say I’m the only guy in the place.  Sat in a near foetal position I’m surrounded by gorgeous women, presumably all waiting to get violated too.  Indeed one by one they enter and exit this particular door of doom, whereupon the gynecologist that emerges kisses them all on their cheeks.  Jesus.  So that’s how they do things here?  I hope he doesn’t kiss me on my cheeks after fondling in my urethra.

“Mr Stuart”  A loud voice exclaims for all to hear.  I weakly respond a quiet ‘yes’, in the hope that they will follow suit.  “What are you here for?” She continues in the same vein and I can feel my face burning as curious smoking women turn their attention to me.

“Ahem…a…(cough)…sexual health check?”  I question my own conviction with a raised, whispered answer.  I’m tempted to run out.

“What?”  She leans in, apparently unable to hear.  You’ve got to be joking me.

“A sexual health check” I mumble a little louder.  The cat is well and truly out of the bag.  I feel dirty.  Sexy eyes burn into the side of my head.

“Yes ok!”  She cheerfully bustles for all and sundry to hear.  “Well I’ll take you through for your HIV and Hepatitis blood work, but I won’t be able to do the swab.”  She makes a little jabbing movement with her hand while indicating my nether regions.  I flinch.  “You’ll need to wait for the doctor for that.”  She bustles off, taking with her any dignity I had left.  I’m left to sit in silence with the hot women.  I pick up a clinic leaflet and pretend to read, which is utterly pointless because I can’t understand a word.  I’ve gone brighter than a beetroot.

Another goddess in scrubs takes me away to stick a needle in my arm.  I’ve never been one for this.  I sit in the chair already wincing at the prospect, trying to regain an ounce of masculinity.  “I don’t like these things”  I nervously smile, somehow hoping she will fall for my sensitivity in freely offering my weakness and vulnerability.  She jabs me up regardless.  It’s not that bad.  I’ve had experiences back home that have left my arm looking like that of a smack addict.  I’m returned to wait for the real kicker in a matter of minutes.

Now I’ve had a couple of these in my time, but nothing, let me tell you, nothing can prepare you for it.  Much like bestiality, sweetcorn on pizza and One Direction, it’s against the very laws of nature.  Yet another fine female example asks me to remove my underwear.  It’s not the in the circumstances I would prefer.  Up on the chair I go, legs akimbo, holding on for dear life like a white knuckle fair ground ride.  The doc limbers up, then in he goes, jabbing a large cotton wool bud down the end of the old chap.  He appears to take a great delight in his chosen sadistic career.  It certainly isn’t the in-out I’d come to expect.  He really gets in there.

“I’m professional!”  He beams.  “Much experience!”  He continues to swizzle around like a Dib-Dab.  Eventually it’s all over.  I feel like I’ve given birth from my Eye of Sauron.

I’m a shadow of my former self as I make my way downstairs to flee the crime scene.  At least that’s it over with.  I shouldn’t be so tardy in future.  A few moments of discomfort is worth its weight in peace-of-mind gold.  Now I’ve just got to wait five days to see if I’m riddled.

 

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Sarajevo: War and Peace. A photo journal.

Wednesday 20 November

Sarajevo.  Heartbreakingly beautiful.  I’ve learned more in two days about this city’s turbulent past than I did during the entire time it’s struggles were happening.  I was 13 years old when the war broke out here in 1992.  When the siege began.  When thousands fled or were forced to leave their homes.  When strange, unknown people called “Bosnians” arrived on our doorstep seeking refuge.  We paid little attention in school, but I remember it was the first time I wanted to watch the news with dad rather than complain at the cartoons being turned off.  And I specifically remember the dejection I felt resulting from the catalogue of catastrophic failures by the UN.  For some reason I felt responsible for that.  A peacekeeping force that couldn’t keep the peace.  That my country was failing to act.  Another nail in the coffin of a senseless, needless conflict and wasteful loss of life.  It’s not until you learn about each flash point, each critical moment, each gutless high-ranking official, each vacuous sentiment or cloak-and-dagger deal, that you realise once more that people continue to suffer at the hands of their governments; corrupt with greed and hungry for money, land and power.  We are but pawns in their games.  Put your fucking guns down.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a very long time.  There is simply too much to say, and so much that has already been said.  I thought about passing on what I’ve learned since spending over a week in this great city, and I thought on a lengthy tirade against those responsible for the terror, and what we need to do about it.  I thought about not writing anything at all.  In the end I just decided to take some pictures, with a little explanation for each, that you can see below.  For those interested, I would recommend the stunning BBC documentary The Death of Yugoslavia, and I would encourage your next holiday destination to be this part of the world.  In spite of its bloody past, and much like Berlin or Medellin, Sarajevo has a bright future, and it’s important to arm ourselves with the knowledge to make it so.

 

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1984 Olympics

Tuesday 19 November

Torvil and Dean’s Bolero.  Inspiring.  Magical.  Emotional.  The finest ice dance the world will ever see.  I could never stop the hairs standing up on the back of my neck while watching this.  Proud that they were British.  The best in the world.  It just so happens that it was to become my mum’s all time favourite.  It just so happens that it took place at the Sarajevo 1984 Winter Olympics.  And how things have changed.

I remember watching the performance on TV.  Barely.  I would have been 6 years old, but I have a hazy memory of mum and dad’s excitement, which peaked when the famous duo took maximum points from all judges, a world first, which has never been repeated.  I can’t watch that performance again without getting a little choked up at the thought of my mum saying something like; “oh ya little beauty”, or dad repeating “magic” with a teary grin on his face.  It seems a lifetime away.

So too do the crowds of cheering onlookers during one of Sarajevo’s most notable achievements.  The class of  ’84 saw a peak of the world’s greats, and the city put on a show to match.  Now all that remains are hauntingly derelict buildings, faded logos and crumbling memories.  None less so than the surreal and eerie abandoned bobsled track, which dominates the Trebevic mountain overlooking the city.  It was here that the powerhouses of bobsled and luge did battle for medals in 1984.  It was here that Bosnian Serbs did battle for Sarajevo from 1992-1995.  All around the track are clues to different kinds of action.  Graffiti and undergrowth have taken over.  Crumbling sections are claimed by nature.  Echos of the past reverberate round ghostly curves and straights, with mortar and bullet damage usurping a spectacle of sport.  War and peace in one forgotten place.  When you close your eyes, the sounds you hear are very different indeed.

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Jajce

Saturday 16 November

That’s yight-se to you and me.  Honestly it takes us around three days to figure out the pronunciation.  This proves especially difficult when people ask us where we’re going.  “Jaja”.  “Jajajce”  “Yajesay”.  Nonetheless we manage to make it to this small, picturesque town in the heart of Bosnia.  The taxi driver rips us off 10 BAM (Bosnian Convertible Mark) for a short ride in darkness to an empty hostel.  Saw us coming a mile away.

Let me take this opportunity to mention my hitchhike mantra.  Since I have already been to Sarajevo by hitchhiking, I have decided that it’s perfectly within the laws of the challenge that I could take the bus back.  It’s when I’m going forward and to somewhere new that I must only hitch.  Therefore it is with some relief that I’m enjoying the relative comfort of public transport.  It’s still pretty horrible, but I’m not shivering by the side of a road for three hours.  Instead I’m enjoying the seemingly endless smell of other people’s farts.

My boss and friend from the Wild Fig is along for the ride, and we’ve decided to break up the journey in a recommended stop.  It proves to be an inspired suggestion, as Jajce is a beautiful little place, set in stunning mountain gorges, complete with mill-pond lakes and rushing waterfalls.  It’s history is somewhat checkered with the Bosnian conflicts taking its toll, but for now it remains a peaceful oasis set in a picture postcard.  It’s got a lot of potential for outdoor enthusiasts, and I would definitely recommend a visit during the summer.  A little bleak for this time of year, we decide one night is enough and push on for Sarajevo the following day.

 

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