Podcast episode 6: What’s in a name? How Herzegovina was named.

It’s been eight months. I have finally uploaded a new podcast. This one is epic, long, dark — it’s the story of Herzegovina and how it got its name. I hope you enjoy it. The transcript is below. Have a great day!


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Podcast episode 3: The Refugee Question in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Finally, here is the long-awaited third episode of podcast. The audience has been clamouring for the next instalment, the press has been calling, and time has been tight, but I have managed to finally bless my listeners with the sweet sound of my voice again 😉

As you listen, keep in mind that this episode is meant first to inform you of the situation, since it has become an important current event in the country where I live. Second, it is meant to raise questions that I believe we need to think about, especially those of us who claim to be Christians. I have tried to refrain from voicing any hard and fast opinions here, as I know this can be a controversial issue.

Notes and links for the information discussed in this episode can be found at the bottom of this post.

Enjoy.

=== Podcast transcript ===

Podcast 3: Refugee Question

Hi I’m Jonathan, and this is The Bosnia Project podcast. The Bosnia Project is the chronicle of my life as a world traveler youth worker father and husband. Today is episode three, and we are going to talk about the Refugee crisis in Bosnia and how it affects us as believers.

The Bosnia Project is the story of how I came to live and work overseas in a country called Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s my blog, the Bosnia Project dot com, this podcast, and our Facebook community, and email updates we send out to our supporters and followers.

“The Bosnia Project” is a process and a product, all wrapped up into one thing, and this podcast, the blog, and everything else is a way to catch all that work, write it down, record it and preserve it, so that it can be of use to someone. This is the Bosnia Project, and it will continue for a good while longer.

I often say that we are building a community where people can belong, believe in God, and become the people he has created them to be. It all starts with belonging. My personal path to where I am today began with a community that made me feel that I belong, that I had a place in their fellowship. That eventually gave me the tools that I needed to believe and become the person I am today. That’s why I believe that belonging is an essential part of becoming a believer and seeing meaningful life change.

There are lots of groups and ministries that are based on this principle. Alcoholics Anonymous, depression recovery, and many other kinds of mercy ministries are effective because of the community they create for people in need. These communities create a kind of social framework that helps lift people up out of the places they are in, so they can reform their lives.

When people fall into destructive lifestyles, they often find camaraderie there. There are often lots of other people who help them descend into places they otherwise wouldn’t want to go. And when people are finally able to recover, it is often because of the help they receive a community. Very few ever recover in isolation.

For you and me, in a very similar way, I think community is essential if we are serious about becoming the people we are created to be. Any kind of small group, men’s group, women’s Bible studies — they give us hope and focus us, and help us know that there are other people who care about us and want us to advance.

Introduction

Today in Bosnia refugees have begun to show up on our doorstep. These are people who don’t belong anywhere. They’ve been driven from their homes and literally have no place to call home, and they’ve started to show up in great numbers in the country where I live now. We often think of the refugee crisis as something akin to serving the poor in the places where we live. It’s a very complex thing.

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Driving back from meeting

In Bosnia and Herzegovina you have the capital city of Sarajevo, where I lived for a total of 7 years altogether, and then as you go west, towards the border of Croatia and European Union, the only big city you come through is Mostar, where I live right now. Right now, I’m driving back from Sarajevo to Mostar. There’s two small towns you go through to Mostar, I’m in that last stretch before you get to Mostar. It’s an incredibly beautiful, striking drive, especially when the sun is out.

You have a river that cuts through this mountainous area, and the road is down next to the river, so when you’re driving your way down in the middle of a valley, and the mountains go straight up on either side of you. The way the mountains are made up they look like sheets of rock going down diagonally into the water. It’s as if the sheets are almost on a 45 degree with the water, and they are sliding down into the water. It typifies Herzegovina and its distinct look and how it’s different from the rest of the country.

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Bosnian refugee work

Refugees have started to come to Bosnia because they have nowhere else to go. They start in the Middle East, and their goal is to get to a place where they can lead productive, safe lives, unthreatened by conflict. So naturally, they go West. The nations to the east and the north are not really in a position to help them, and they have their own problems. They go west, they come through Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, and many of them get caught there. They stay in camps there, funded by the Turkish or Greek or Jordan governments, and they are provided for, but they have to live in tents and temporary buildings. Their children don’t go to school, their lives sort of go on pause for the time that they’re there.

Then many hear of the locations of these camps, and they choose different routs, searching for better locations. They want to get to Germany, they want to get to France. Once they get to these countries, they’ll be accepted as refugees, or they’ll be able to apply for some kind of protected status, and they will be able to stay. But they get stopped at the borders of the European Union. Once they’re in, they’re in, but the EU doesn’t have to let them in.

So, they try different entry points, which has brought them finally to Bosnia. There are as many as 100 people showing up in Bosnia every day, from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and other countries across the Middle East. They’ve been stopped all across the borders, and so they have to stay in Bosnia. They’re at several different places. There’s a large hostel in Ilidza, there’s a bombed out building in Bihac, there’s tents set up by volunteers in the center of Sarajevo, there’s a refugee camp in Mostar. The response ranges from incredibly unorganized and chaotic, to organized and sophisticated in other places.

===

Refugee clarifications

Here are some clarifications that may be helpful as we think about the refugee issue in the world.

  1. Refugee is a loaded word. It’s a politically charged word no matter how it is used. A refugee is someone who is justifiably seeking refuge from a government or other group, and is therefore seeking to permanently leave their home country and take up residence in a safer place. So if you accept that someone is a refugee then you are also accepting a couple of things:
    1. That the country they are leaving is unjustly persecuting that person.
    2. That person is not a criminal for trying to run away.
    3. They have the basic right to leave wherever they were living and seek refuge somewhere else.
  2. All of the people involved in this crisis are technically migrants — and many of the migrants are refugees. Some people are not refugees, because they are migrating for reasons that technically don’t qualify them as refugees. Basically, their home country is not in an all-out war.
    1. However, for the kurds from Turkey, for example, that are part of this huge group of migrants, they’ve always been persecuted by their own government. But Turkey is a legitimate, universally-recognized, functioning state, a member of NATO, and we can’t really say that people fleeing their country qualify as “refugees”. Saying that would imply that a member of NATO is mistreating its citizens, maybe that country is deserving of some type of sanctions, and so forth. It would be unsupportive of its government — a government that’s supposedly aligned with the West.
    2. So, the Kurdish factions of Turkey have taken their cause into their own hands, raising up their own leaders and creating their own institutions that fight for equality for their people in Turkey and the surrounding countries. In the United States, this would’ve been something like the NAACP, the Black Panther movement, the Nation of Islam, and other groups that rose up to fight for Black equality. But in Turkey, there is an obvious difference — these people are going for an independent Kurdish state as the end-goal for their fight. They want Kurdish equality, Kurdish autonomy, Kurdish independence — which means that they eventually would like to secede from the state of Turkey. They view this as their goal, as their right. Which raises a lot of questions — if these people are against their government, what’s the difference between them and a terrorist?
    3. But don’t they have reason to protest against their government — a government that has in the past outlawed the use of the Kurdish language? Don’t they have a right to protest against the suppression of their culture by a government where another ethnic group is clearly in the driver’s seat? And what about the history of crimes, deaths, even massacres committed against the Kurdish peoples over the past several centuries? The Kurdish people have a rich history of existence that goes back several centuries. However, In an attempt to deny their existence, the Turkish government categorized Kurds as “Mountain Turks” until 1991.
    4. So, what’s the verdict? Are these people terrorists? or are they legitimately oppressed minorities? By using the word refugee you would be choosing a side in this conflict — something none of us intend to do.
  3. As a Christian — and I think this is the question that most of us listening want to answer — how can we do what we are supposed to do, without wading into this political question?

===

American attitudes

We’ve got some questions to answer as Americans. At least, that’s what the people at the Pew Research Center say. They do surveys, though, so they’re always saying that. Sir, would you mind answering a few questions? I never stop and answer. I guess I’m reluctant to give my opinion.

There’s an article on the Pew website about how people in the US are turning more negative toward refugees. The picture at the top is of a girl from Bhutan, sitting in college class in the US. The caption reads, “Her extended family was resettled in the area, as were hundreds of other refugees from Bhutan and Nepal in recent years.

In the late 1980s Bhutanese elites regarded a growing ethnic Nepali population as a demographic and cultural threat. The government enacted discriminatory citizenship laws directed against ethnic Nepalis, that stripped about one-sixth of the population of their citizenship and paved the way for their expulsion.

After a campaign of harassment that escalated in the early 1990s, Bhutanese security forces began expelling people, first making them sign forms renouncing claims to their homes and homeland. “The army took all the people from their houses,” a young refugee told me. “As we left Bhutan, we were forced to sign the document. They snapped our photos. The man told me to smile, to show my teeth. He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly, happily, that I was not forced to leave.”

Today, about 108,000 of these stateless Bhutanese are living in seven refugee camps in Nepal. The Bhutanese authorities have not allowed a single refugee to return. In 2006, the US government, seeing an impasse, offered to resettle 60,000 of the Bhutanese refugees.

Now, only about half of Americans (51%) say the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees into the country, while 43% say it does not. That qualifies as a controversial issue.

But what would be the best way to assist in this crisis? Would it be to resettle these people into a neighboring country where they would probably become an impoverished group again, never at home, and never provided for? Which nation would be in a position to support a group of people who have no means of support? Which nation would be able to place these people into a situation where they can work, support their families, and lead meaningful productive lives?

To date, 92,000 of the 108,000 total refugees from the situation in Bhutan have been resettled to the United States. Many of them own businesses, work in jobs, and send their children to school in communities across the United States. In the United states, refugees from places like Bhutan are often resettled by large faith-based charities like World Relief, which was Founded in 1944 as the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals as a response to the humanitarian crisis in Europe after World War II.

These are their values: The Example of Jesus as we serve those who are suffering from poverty and injustice, regardless of color, belief, or gender, as part of God’s plan to redeem, reconcile, and restore the world. We seek to follow Jesus by living holy, humble, and honest lives individually and corporately. The Local Church as a primary agent of bringing peace, justice, and love to a broken world.

There are Bhutanese people still in refugee camps, but most of them have been resettled to Western countries. Many were resettled by World Relief. And I think that’s where we’d like for them to be — in the hands of a group of people seeking to live out the “example of Jesus”, working to alleviate suffering because of a deep desire to see this world redeemed.

===

Middle East Refugees

In the Middle East, though, the numbers are different. Maybe because it’s such a high-profile struggle, maybe because of the stigma attached to accepting Muslim refugees, or maybe because of other factors, the number of people resettled to the United States has been unimpressive.

There are 6.1 million refugees from Syria.

Many in the US have remarked that these refugees should be taken in by neighboring countries. Well, they have.

Kuwait has taken 150,000

Iraq has taken 230,000 — even as it faces the remnants of ISIS.

The UAE have taken 242,000

One of the world’s poor nations, Sudan, has taken 100,000.

Jordan has taken 1.3 million

Lebanon has taken in 2.2 million

3.5 million have been taken in by the nation of Turkey.

This situation, unlike the situation in Bhutan, is one where the US hasn’t been one of the top nations extending help to those displaced. And as I said before, offering help has a lot of complex side effects. By accepting refugees into your country, you’re saying that it’s ok to call them refugees and give them refugee status. By doing that, you’re saying something about the place they came from. You’re saying it’s not treating its citizens properly.

But in the process, in the US, you’re also giving people like World Relief the chance to have an impact and an influence on people who have been driven from their homes. You’ve giving people who’ve been impoverished, persecuted, threatened, the chance to live a normal, productive life in a nation that can support them quite easily.

So far, seven years into the Syrian conflict, 16,000 of the 6.1 million refugees from Syrian have been resettled to the US.

===

The Question

So, back to that question I raised before — how can we do what we are supposed to do, without wading into this political question?

Think about the question — it’s got two parts. The second part, wading into political arena, is what always stops people from doing things. We don’t want to be political, but we often don’t realize that by doing nothing we become political. We’re political because we are more concerned with the outer appearance of what we’re doing than we are with the act itself.

We need not be reminded — or maybe we do — of other situations in our world’s history. Inaction is action. Not to act is to act.

The question, then, ought to be, how can we do what we are supposed to do? There’s no second part of the question. I’m a Christian anyway, and this is not our home, anyway. Or at least, here we do not have a lasting home — we are looking for the home that is to come. We’re supposed to have an eternal perspective. What we’re supposed to do is the eternal question. Political conflicts are by nature, fleeting, temporary, short. The question that will stand the test of time is, did I do what I was meant to do? Regardless of the political questions involved.

So, whether you’re in Atlanta — where I was over 20 years ago — or in Bosnia — where I am now — there’s the question. Am I going to do what I’m meant to do? Am I going to try to serve this community? Am I going to support that person that needs my assistance? Am I going to go looking for people who need my help? Am I even aware of the help I can offer?

I hope this has given all of us plenty to think about.

===

Notes about the Kurdish people

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurds#Antiquity

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_of_Kurdish_people_in_Turkey#Issues

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkey#Demographics

Notes about attitudes toward refugees and immigrants in the US

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/03/the-number-of-refugees-admitted-to-the-u-s-has-fallen-especially-among-muslims/

http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/immigration-attitudes/

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/24/republicans-turn-more-negative-toward-refugees-as-number-admitted-to-u-s-plummets/

Notes about refugees in Bhutan

https://www.hrw.org/news/2008/02/01/bhutans-ethnic-cleansing

Notes about World Relief

https://www.worldrelief.org/values

A book for life: Celebration of Discipline

At the family reunion yesterday I joked with someone about how I stopped reading books after about five or six really good books, and now my personal reading consists solely of reading those books over and over. And while I was mostly joking there was at least some truth to the statement. So here is one of the books I’ve recently finished re-reading, and I offer it as a recommendation for everyone who it’s interested in deepening their personal spiritual journey.

Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster

In our day, discipline is truly something to celebrate, and something that we often aspire to. In the Christian world, there are several habits, or disciplines, that have been practiced by Christians through the ages. These are the things that are prescribed in Christian Scripture, and are the activities through which God has said he will speak. In other words, when we do these things, God has promised he will show up.

Here is the list: 

  1. Meditation
  2. Prayer
  3. Fasting
  4. Study
  5. Simplicity
  6. Solitude
  7. Submission
  8. Service
  9. Confession
  10. Worship
  11. Guidance
  12. Celebration

The presence of God is a constant and does not change during our day-to-day struggles on this earth; the concept of God “showing up” is actually misguided. However, our perception of his presence does change, and journeying through this list will heighten the believer’s awareness of him in all circumstances.

Dr. Foster explains each of the habits in depth and gives helpful ways to apply each one in day-to-day life. One can read Celebration cover to cover in a week, or study it slowly over a month and give proper attention to all the Scripture references and footnotes. Both methods are profitable for the reader and offer their own level of benefit. Celebration is a treasure to have on any bookshelf or nightstand.

Interview with Richard Foster

Preview Celebration of Discipline here:

Give to those in need and become the one in need

I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’…

I can still remember the day when my good friend sat down with me in a Starbucks in Atlanta and said, “I want you to come back to Bosnia with me.” He was going there to work with the organization that I currently work for, and he was overtly recruiting me to with him. I had lived in Bosnia for a short time right after college, a period during which many surely thought I was sowing my wild oats. I’d get the travel bug out of my system soon and come back and settle down.

But as soon as I heard “come back to Bosnia”, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I felt a burning desire to go back and help build something meaningful. We mulled the decision over for about a year, but my wife and I eventually decided to go.

Learning a new world

The U.S. can be very different from the rest of the world. Living in Eastern Europe has been an adventure in adjusting to new cultural norms. But somewhere in the process of acquiring a new language and learning new customs, people tend to change. We’ll always be foreigners, but we’re no longer the same people that left the U.S. in 2010.

Yes, there are new habits and tastes that have developed, but most important is the new awareness that has resulted from our time overseas — awareness of ourselves that we would not have had, had we stayed home.

I’ve learned how to survive — quite well — without all the creature comforts available back home. My children speak a different language fluently. speak a different language. I’ve learned organizational skills I never would have learned had I stayed in my old job. And the young people I have worked with have given me more than I’ve ever given them.

The last shall be first.

In this upside-down world in which we live, I think the principle arises that might not have been as visible before. When one ventures out to help others, often the giver benefits more than the receiver — but in ways that were unanticipated before. The one who helps might gather up clothes to donate to the needy, but in that process they gain an understanding of the things that people truly need. Or, they gain lifelong friends in the process of teaching an English class. Building a staircase might serve a temporal need, but the knowledge and skills gained in the process are valuable for a lifetime.

In the end, the givers become the receivers, the first become last, and those who give help discover just how needy they are.

Holidays in the land of Narnia

Another November is upon us, the weather is getting colder, windier, and altogether unpleasant. Amid the busy-ness of life in general, we are about to enter the American holiday season — an undeniably important time of year, regardless of our location outside of our American homeland.

“Always winter, never Christmas”

Christmas and Thanksgiving are two of those elements of American culture that we Americans take for granted — everyone celebrates them, everyone thinks they’re important. We take them for granted, until we suddenly find ourselves in an environment where no one celebrates them.

The majority of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina come from a Muslim background, and therefore obviously don’t observe Christian holidays. On top of that, a significant minority are Orthodox Christian, and celebrate Christmas on January 7. That leaves you, if you’re an American, left with the Catholics — who, while they do still observe December 25 as the birthday of our Lord, have holiday traditions that would seem completely foreign to the average American.

This can leave an unsuspecting expatriate in an unexpected place as the weather begins to turn cold. There was a point when our family realized that, if we were to survive the holiday season with the familiar trappings of togetherness and warmth that we all craved, we were going to have to do some very intentional things.

Be resourceful, but content

I can remember one year baking a turkey with an incredibly elaborate recipe, one that required making a spreading homemade spiced butter underneath the turkey’s skin, and visiting every shop in the city in search of sage. Other years, I can remember driving an hour or more from my house to find a place where my family could cut down a live Christmas tree to bring back to our house. In more recent years, I’ve looked back on those experiences and thought, “Why?”

 

Boil things down

The problem with those experiences was that they required very high investment of time and effort, with seemingly little to offer in return. After reflecting on why I felt that way, I was able to pinpoint just what it was that I wanted out of the holidays: a warm house, time with my family, and good memories.

All the decorations and trappings of “Christmas” didn’t really help us capture the things that I was after, and in the end they obscured what, to me, has been the thing that has made Thanksgiving and Christmas good, when it has been good. The warm house is a place of refuge and rest; time with my family is certainly fleeting during the rest of the year; good memories give us the fuel we need to jump in to the New Year.

Recognize your limits

The turkey I mentioned above also highlighted another thing — while I love good food, there is a limit to how good food can be. It might be a truly great turkey recipe, but if I need to give up my family time in order to make it, then it’s not worth the investment. I can make a perfectly good turkey with a much smaller investment of time.

There are many other things — decorating the house, buying gifts, hosting parties — that this lesson applies to as well. There are so many “good” things I can do in an effort to make the holidays special, but many times they can prevent the holidays from being special on their own.

 

These are just some things I’ve learned over years of spending Christmases and Thanksgivings outside America. Things are not always as we thought they would be, but we can experience success if we are patient and hopeful. I hope that your holiday season is a time of refreshment and rejuvenation for you, as we draw closer to the close of another year.

Ways to keep up with the culture when you are far from it

Culture affects everyone. There are lots of people who try to claim they aren’t affected. “I don’t listen to commercials.” “I don’t watch TV.” “I don’t follow sports.” “I don’t really like music.”

The truth is, you live in a world where other people are around you all the time. And because they are affected, because they change, because they evolve — you change, too. You are unaware of all the ways that marketing, music, books, politics, and culture affects you. And yet, you and I and everyone, everywhere, are cultural animals — constantly moving, pushing, and chasing others, while constantly being moved, changed, and chased ourselves.

And yet, it is possible to move to another culture and miss out on the things that we once took so much for granted. After a while outside our home culture, we can come to a place where we miss our roots, and it can become appealing to look for a way to plug in — even if from afar — and reconnect with the places and cultures that shaped us into the people we are today.

So here are some things that I have started to rely on to stay aware of what’s going on in the US.

News: PBS News Hour

This one is just me — I grew up with my parents watching the News Hour every night. So, I subscribe to the podcast, which you can find here. It’s not practical to watch American news on TV, but at least I can listen to the podcast in the morning, and hear the news from the night before. The News Hour tends to be middle-of-the-road, and then every once in a while you might get to hear David Brooks.

Sports: Sports Talk Podcasts

I never realized how much we men (and some women) take sports on TV for granted until I had been gone from the US for a couple of years. So, as a substitute, I listen to sports podcasts quite a bit. It isn’t the same, but it does give a little bit of the commentary and news that I used to get just from existing in the states every day. I listen to Colin Cowherd just about every morning (even though he hates Atlanta); Atlanta sportswriter Jeff Schultz has a decent podcast (when he decides to record episodes); and Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe have a great show called Undisputed.

Books: Amazon / Kindle

Maybe it’s a good thing, you can’t go into a bookstore and end up buying books that look good on the shelves. But then again, maybe you Americans don’t do that anymore either. And then again, again, it is a whole lot easier to go on Amazon and fill up your Kindle by clicking on books that have nicely designed little cover pictures next to their titles. So, when I read books, it’s because they’ve been recommended to my wife on Amazon.

Side note: if you want to keep up with culture, be married.

My wife and son are avoiding this nice selfie.

Movies and TV: Netflix

Movies are a hard one, because when you’re out of your cultural “zone”, you don’t watch the TV shows and channels that everyone else in town watches (because you’re a foreigner), and you lose out on that thing where you see the same commercials and marketing that everyone else in your neighborhood sees. So, if a new, big movie is coming to theatres here, you miss out usually, because you haven’t been exposed to the movie trailer every time commercials come on during Lud,zbunjen i normalan.

CATCH THE IRONY THERE? I miss out on elements of my culture (movies in the cinema) because I don’t participate in elements of the culture where I live…

For this, I really have to depend on the marketing inside of Netflix and Hulu. When we watch TV, that’s what we watch, and we tend to watch things that are recommended within the apps, or things we read about online. So, that’s an area that we really tend to miss out on. Oh well…

What to buy: Amazon

This is an area that you really would not expect or really understand until you experience it yourself. Eventually, if you stay outside your home culture long enough, you lose all concept of what people are buying or interested in. Hmmm, how can I explain this better?

Remember that whole Yetti thing? The $40 thermoses that everyone carries around (or complains about)? I missed it completely. Began to hear about it a couple of years after it became a thing, and by that time it had already gone.

And Bulletproof Coffee. I remember learning about that a couple of years ago, and trying to make it in the blender, after it’s time in the spotlight was just about done.

WOW… I just found a list of the “hottest” products of 2017 — the ones that all of you are supposedly buying… And it’s… disappointing. Just let me list most of them here with my reaction:

  1. Amazon Echo. $149.
    Never heard of it.
  2. Amazon Echo Dot. $49.
    What’s that? And why would you buy the other one instead of this one?
  3. Instant Pot 7-in-1 Multi-Functional Pressure Cooker…
    Are we really buying these things again?
  4. Something to mount your phone to your car dash.
    Yipee!
  5. Fire HD Tablets.
    Are people still buying those?
  6. Sony Wireless Headphones. $150.
    They better be… more than headphones. Are people crazy?
  7. Roomba. $375.
    Weren’t those a thing last decade? Is that how much those cost?
  8. Some other headphones.
    Is sweat a problem with headphones? Do you sweat out of your ears?
  9. Kindle Paperwhite.
    Isn’t that old? And I thought Kindles were supposed to be cheap.
  10. Oral-B Pro 7000 SmartSeries Electric Toothbrush with Bluetooth Connectivity. $109.
    What??? Bluetooth? In your mouth? Is that supposed to be a joke?
  11. TaoTronics Dimmable LED Desk Lamp with USB Charging Port and 5 Color Temperatures and Brightness Levels.
    I should take a picture of my reaction, but I’m not going to. Is it a thing that desk lights are dimmable?
  12. 23andMe DNA Test. $199.
    I have no words. Are people buying this? What is this exactly?

So, you can see, especially when Christmas rolls around and I try to send my family gifts, or when I try occasionally to buy real, physical things from Amazon (not books), I am completely clueless as to what is in style, or cool, or whatever. So I rely on Amazon to tell me what people want, and I buy that, and hope for the best. And if it doesn’t fit or work, I hope the merchant will accept returns.

So there you have it, 5 ways that I try (mostly unsuccessfully) to keep up with culture in America. Really, I’m just creating my own thing here. It’s pretty good.

Adventures in Herzegovinan spelunking (Vjetrenica Cave and Stanica Hotel in Ravno, Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Lately, it seems our family has done nothing but drive around Bosnia and Herzegovina, visiting tourist sites and eating at restaurants. Well, the trip we just came back from was for work, so we didn’t get a choice in the matter. Upon returning home, we found ourselves in an 85-degree (29 C) home with three screaming children, desperately wishing for school to hurry up and start. So naturally we looked for an opportunity to get everyone out again. Because if things are bad in the home… surely getting out will make them better.

As I had begun to grow quite impulsive from the constant presence of The Heat and The Screams, I decided that the 1-hour-and-45-minute drive to The Cave would be tollerable, and so we set out from our home in Mostar on Friday afternoon. The Cave was impressive, and it did provide a respite from The Heat, but we are still in search of a remedy for The Screams.

Tyler and me before the Great Cave Adventure.

Vjetrenica Cave

The castle at Stolac brought a brief bit of relief from The Screams, but they returned as we headed around the bend. In general, the scenery was quite beautiful, and the wonderful road, with it’s many curves and bumps and holes, requires one to drive so slow that even the driver can appreciate the view.

Even before entering, The Cave makes its presence felt via strong gusts of wind blowing out from its entrance — hence the name Vjetrenica (“Wind cave” or “Blowhole” in English). The air coming out is 11 degrees C (52 F), which means that everyone must wear pants and shoes, regardless of the temperature outside.

I will say that the air inside The Cave was a welcome relief from the air outside, which was well over 90 F (32 C). The temperature inside The Cave is constant, and the wind is created because of the great difference in temperature.

Inside Vjetrenica Cave.

 

A rock formation that we decided is “The Dinosaur” of Vjetrenica

At the end, I wished that I had been able to get more good photographs, but the darkness did not allow for it. It did allow, however, for The Screams to return and increase, as the enclosed space and hard rock created a terrific echo effect.

An Olm, or, as Bosnians call it, “Human Fish”.

The Cave was not disappointing. It is surprisingly well developed inside, and our guide was very good and informative. If you are looking for a one-time adventure, and don’t mind the drive (since Zavala is not really near any place where people seem to live), Vjetrenica Cave is worth the price. The short guy selling tickets at the cave’s entrance was less than helpful, but the tour guide was excellent.

A few details for those who might actually go:

  • Tours at Vjetrenica Cave are conducted at the top of each hour. 
  • The last tour is scheduled at 6:00pm every day. 
  • Tickets cost 15KM (7.50 EUR) for Adults and 8KM (4 EUR) for children over 4.

After the cave. Tyler quickly assumed his best Slavic pose.

The obligatory family picture.

Stanica Restaurant and Hotel in Ravno, Herzegovina

After The Cave, we stopped at Stanica restaurant and hotel, in Ravno. The actual village of Ravno is ironically located up on the hill behind the restaurant (“Ravno” means “flat” in Croatian/Bosnian/Serbian). This place opened last summer, and I would highly recommend it. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t snap any photos of the place, so I included a couple of theirs from Booking.com.

Stanica restaurant/hotel in Ravno

“Stanica” means “station” in English, and this building was at one time a railway station, on the original rail line from Dubrovnik to Vienna. There is even a piece of the original railway under glass, in the sidewalk in front of the building.

Besides eating and sleeping, the big thing to do here is rent bikes, as the hotel is located on the new-ish Ćiro bike trail. The trail is mostly an old railway bed (hence the convenience to a place like Stanica). The food was absolutely, really, very good, and the outdoor seating area is very nice.

The outdoor dining area behind the Stanica restaurant/hotel.

After stanica, we hopped back in our car and decided to drive on the Ćiro trail most of the way back to Mostar, going by Hutovo Blato, Čapljina, and then home. It took a little longer, but we decided the longer we had the children stapped to seats in the car, the better.

So there you have it — another adventure. It was real, and it was fun, and provided us with a diversion as we draw ever closer to the beginning of another school year. The year that is makes us long for the year to come.

Racism is the killer of the will. Be willing.

America has had a tough week. Never mind that MLK was an American. Never mind that we went from segregated schools and “colored” bathrooms in the 1950s to electing an African-American President roughly 2 generations later. Charlottesville is where we are now. And where we are now doesn’t look very good.

The enemies of the will are walking about.

The will: it’s a posture, an attitude, a way of living. A willing person takes life as it comes and doesn’t keep count of what they deserve, or whether they’ve gotten a fair shake. A willing person looks at the hand they’ve been dealt and fights tooth and nail to turn it into a winning hand because they know the alternative is not acceptable. People are counting on them. Life is precious. And every minute they spend being un-willing is a minute not truly living.

So what does it mean to be un-willing?

Bitterness.

Bitterness is that ultimate killer of the will. Bitterness says, “I’ve got a bargaining chip in the game of one-upmanship, and the only way it’ll be taken from me is if it’s pried from my cold, lifeless hands.” The thing is, every moment we hold onto that chip, our hands get a little bit colder and less lively.

When have we seen bitterness this week? If the photo of the crowd of men carrying tiki torches is not an example of mass bitterness, then I don’t know what is. That image is an incarnation of bitterness, a terrible visual representation of the attitude that grasps for bargaining chips in every imaginable nook and cranny of this life, and spreads its sickness wherever it goes. That attitude does not help create a healthy society.

Dishonesty.

Honesty is the ultimate ally of the willing; it’s opposite is present wherever bitterness thrives. Dishonesty enables us to create fictions that venerate us and our kind, and to spread lies against an enemy that in reality does not have the power to harm us.

What has been dishonest? We, the members of the majority culture, have been caught up in a seemingly benign dishonesty for decades, that has allowed us to think we can save face, and avoid the consequences of our history of sins against the minorities living among us.

Willing people don’t back down from the truth because they know they can’t. The truth is just another part of life that they take by the horns, just like everything else. But they take it because they know that if they can face their history, they will not be doomed to repeat it.

Fear.

Fear is the enemy that dooms us to inaction. It takes our dishonesty and bitterness and uses them to encase us and cement us down — ensuring that no matter how bad our situation becomes, then one thing we will never, ever do is change. 

Where is fear? Fear is the barrier that keeps us from seeing past the next step. Fear prevents us from seeing that living people are more important than stone and metal, and that another type of will — good will — at times is more valuable than the gold domes in our capitols. It paralyzes and prevents the chance of a step in the right direction.

Be willing.

Honesty, courage, and action — those are the allies of the willing. Those are the things that we need now, more than a statue, more than a carving. Regardless of how we got here, this is where we are. Individually, we’ve got to find the will to let go of the things that hold us back, and take hold of a future that will bring people together.

The naked island: the dark side of the old country

Yesterday’s post focused on how some people might look back on the Communist era through rose-colored glasses, especially when faced with the dysfunction of the modern system. There is, of course, more to the story.

For  most working people, the old Yugoslavia may have been somewhat comfortable, but for many it wasn’t. In fact, there was one place in particular that took discomfort to an extreme — the political prison camp known as “Goli otok”, which in English means “Naked Island”.

Goli Otok got its name because of its desolate terrain. Its brutal climate and remote location made it the perfect place for such a prison. The first group of prisoners, 1,200 people, arrived in 1949, and were literally thrown out of the boat because a proper dock had not yet been constructed.

“We don’t talk about that”

There are a few published accounts of time served on the island. One inmate said of his time in the camp, “What is there to fear about this camp? In camps in Germany, in Siberia, in Croatia — in those camps they killed the body. But in this one, they kill the man inside the man. That was the basic logic. I often hear how people say they had someone who had been on Goli Otok, but they don’t talk about it.”

I often hear how people say they had someone who had been on Goli Otok, but they don’t talk about it.

In general, prisoners sent to Goli Otok were suspected of colluding with Soviet forces or other entities deemed dangerous by the Yugoslav regime. Marshal Tito, the Yugoslav dictator, split with the Soviet Union in 1948, and did not participate in the Warsaw Pact treaty after that time. That meant that Yugoslavia, though it was still communist, was technically not behind the so-called Iron Curtain.

Tito was able to keep the country together for 35 years, but he did so with tools like Goli Otok in his back pocket. There was one political party, and dissenters were not treated kindly. The kind of multi-party system we experience today did not exist.

It is easy to idealize history, but an objective perspective will reveal good things and bad. If we can look at both, then it is possible to forge a better future for those that will come after us.

Communism from the southern slav perspective

If you’re American, you’ve been conditioned to think of communism as basically evil, no matter the context. Countless public speeches from Presidents and other public figures have cast communism as a terrible, repressive system that will inevitably succumb to the advancing tide of capitalism.

That’s how it looks to us, but how do things look to people who actually lived under communism? Do they in fact feel liberated, now that their old system is defunct and they have the ability to take part in the open world market?

Enter the former Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia was a complex place. It was a “United States” of sorts, a country created of at least 7 other countries and territories, each with its own ethnic group, identity, and heritage. The country, in its early forms, came to exist as a result of a “Pan-slav” movement that took shape in the 18th and 19th centuries. After four centuries of Turkish occupation, then over a century of Austrian occupation, intellectuals and political elites believed that the best bet for independence was to form a collective entity that comprised all of the slavic peoples in southern Europe. By the end of the 1800s, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was born.

Along comes Communism.

The Communists in Yugoslavia were the ones who beat Hitler out in World War 2. After the war, they took over and set up their communist utopia. And the funny thing is, compared to today, it kind of looks like a utopia. 

Every worker has the right to: a dignified  job, an apartment near his work, a car, and a place in the countryside for rest. That was the Yugoslav dream. For decades, this dream appeared to be turning into reality. Healthcare was decent, and free. Everyone had a job. The workforce was decently well-educated.

Remember the Yugo?

An American ad for the Yugo in the 1980s.

Nationally, there was a sense of real pride. The country produced cars that were sold around the world. Entire cities were built. Vast urban planning projects were undertaken to support the population of 30+ million. Citizens were generally free; they could travel to visit other communist countries freely, but also to most Western countries.

Many places in Yugoslavia went from primitive agrarian societies to modern, bustling cities during the time of Communism. Then things changed. 

“Capitalism”.

Today, things are much different. Communist projects lie in ruins. Unemployment in many places hovers around 30% or higher. And in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the majority of young people say their highest aspiration in life is to simply leave their country, and live somewhere else.

After the wars that split up Yugoslavia, the new systems of trade and capitalism have not brought prosperity. People live in small apartments and have very little money. National systems are very weak. Politicians are corrupt. Infrastructure projects go incredibly slowly, or not at all. Foreign politicians come and promise assistance, but deliver very little.

To the modern Yugoslav looking back, the modern “system” is hardly a system at all. It’s very hard to see the benefits of a free-market system that leaves most of the country unemployed — especially when compared to a time when everyone worked.

This complexity is something that we live with every day in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Just like most things, the actual situation here is complex. There is not a clear black-and-white answer, especially when it seems that the period of communism was a time of relative progress and prosperity, and the modern period is one of stagnation. As we labor to bring hope and opportunity to young people, we are slow to give too much quick advice, and we do our best to truly understand where people are coming from.