It’s cherry season in Bosnia! Cycling through the mountains in some areas, kids, adults, sometimes even 3 generations will be sitting by the side of the road with big bags of sweet ripe cherries and jars of freshly collected honey for sale. Quite a treat when it’s about a hundred degrees out and you’re not even halfway up the 20 km of 14% grade in the midday sun. Actually, it’s just the last couple of days that have been so hot, before that we were blessed with perfect blue skies and mildly warm temperatures. The ride has been absolutely gorgeous. Lush green hills, a bit of snow left on the mountain tops, butterflies dancing on purple, yellow and white wildflowers in the meadows.
But wait… Some of you are probably thinking, "Bosnia? Huh? I thought you were all settled in San Francisco?!"
Well, yes, I was, for three lovely months, and it was great. But now it’s time for Ecotopia Bike Tour again! Remember when I cycled from Warsaw to Ukraine 2 years ago? Same event. Check out eyfa.org for more info. This year it’s from Banja Luka, Bosnia, through Serbia and Romania to Moldova. It’s been quite a bit different this time, as I am told it is every year. Biketour is a non-hierarchical self-organizing thing, so it is whatever folks make it in any given year. It’s 6 weeks this time instead of 4, so a lot of folks haven’t joined up with us yet. We started with only ten of us (all guys but me!) but now we’re up to 14 (and another woman just joined. I’m looking forward to more gender balance!). It’s a diverse and interesting group, folks from Bosnia, Portugal, UK, Ireland, Croatia, Germany, Austria, and me, the only North American.
We arrived in Sarajevo yesterday. What a beautiful and interesting city! It sits in a valley, surrounded by green mountains speckled with the 3-story, white stucco homes with red-tiled roofs that are typical of much of the country. We passed out flyers today in the cobblestone pedestrian walkways of the old town, amid the cafes, shops, and fashionably made-up (pink seems the be the color this season) evening strollers. Ecotopia bike tour is all about supporting local environmental campaigns all along the route, and today it was spreading the word about the dangers of introducing phosphates into the environment. Sometimes people recognize us, because the organizers did a good job of getting us on local television, radio, and newspapers. I’ve been doing more interviews than I’d like, because reporters seem to be drawn to the sole woman, who came from so far away.
Despite the tranquility and beauty, it’s impossible to forget that this was a place at war just ten years ago. Bullet holes in the buildings are ubiquitous. On our first day here we got a very serious lesson on how to avoid stepping on a land mine, and every day we check the land mine map to see in which areas it’s safe to go pee in the bushes. By the campfire on our first night, one of the organizers told stories of growing up during the war. The fighting wasn’t in his town, a rarity around here, but he tells of 50 meter lines for food, of which there was never enough, and setting off bombs for New Years’ instead of fireworks, because it was what they had.
The man next to me on the bus to Banja Luka, like so many others, had to flee his home, and although his life is in Germany now, he tells with a look of longing and sadness in his eyes that he is a refugee, torn from his home, and nothing will ever be quite the same for him. Most people here seem to feel that nobody won the war, and everyone lost. There are some nationalists who are glad for the breakup of Yugoslavia, but the standards of living across the board are lower than they were before the IMF imposed the austerity measures that caused the economic crash and fanned the flames of cultural differences, leading the richer regions to talk of secession. I guess we can’t say no one won the war. The familiar logos on billboards and megastores announce who won, as once-national industries privatize, new markets open for the international corporations, and financers collect their interest payments on the loans to rebuild what the bombs tore down. So it’s been an educational experience, seeing first hand a country recovering from such devastation.
But the bulk of my thoughts are not of war or phosphates or politics. Mostly I think of the flowers, the mountains, and the lakes we dive into at lunchtime. I think of the smiles on people’s faces as they practice their English on us. I probe my fellow cyclists for the details of their lives, and buy the local specialties at the roadside cafes. I listen to the chanting from the loudspeakers on the mosques, and check out what’s growing in the gardens in front of people’s houses.
And I cycle. There’s a certain peace I feel when I’m cycling, my body feeling healthy and suntanned, my mind quieted by the rhythm of the road under my tires, which is hard to equal. Perhaps it is equaled by that peace I feel when I am walking through the bustling heart of a new land and a new culture, eyes bright and wide open, taking in all the details of another of the infinite possibilities of ways we can live. Tomorrow we cycle on. I’ll write again from somewhere down the road…
Much love to you all, give each other a big hug for me,
- Apr. 3, 2005: San Francisco
- July 2005: The Tunnels