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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Questions people always ask: Why Bosnia?

There are questions that we constantly seem to hear. One of them is “why did you choose to go to Bosnia?” It’s a fair question. Why, of all the places in the world, would you choose to make your home in a country as obscure as Bosnia and Herzegovina? I usually say, “well that’s a long story”, or something to that affect.

Sit back, get comfortable — here’s the story of how our family came to live in this remote, beautiful place, halfway around the world from where we began.

New awakening

Like most stories of this nature, there is plenty of background. I am among the oldest of the millennials, having been born in the early 80s, with a faint recollection of events like the fall of the Berlin wall and the advent of email. As I was becoming an adult I can vividly remember the Florida re-count of 2000 and planes flying into the Twin Towers.

My parents became Christians some time before I was born and wanted their children to know and love Jesus Christ. But it wasn’t until I was in college, watching those planes explode that that decision finally became real for me. I couldn’t call myself a Christian just because I had spent plenty of time inside a church building, no more than one could call oneself a car after spending time in a garage.

Student ministry

I was drawn into student ministry first as a student, through the invitation of a friend who had a Bible study meeting in his dorm room. Through getting involved in that group, and then in the wider community of Christians on my campus, I saw my need for God. I decided not only to give my life to him, but to give a whole year of my life (how noble of me) to helping people overseas have a similar experience. I went to Sarajevo, Bosnia, with an organization called “Cru”, a world-wide, interdenominational ministry that operates in nearly 200 countries.

The first experience

My first year was so good I decided to come back for seconds. It was a ground-breaking experience for someone like me. My experience of Christian community and ministry had been fairly limited at that point, and this was something totally new. We walked up to random people on the street and asked them if they cared to talk about God. We distributed winter coats to people. We organized movie nights, seminars, and social events — anything to gather people.

Then I went back home. I thought I’d never come back to Bosnia. I found another job. I got married. This was a chapter of my life that was closed. But eventually that would change.

The comeback

In the winter of 2008, a friend of mine sat down with me and told me he was going to Sarajevo and he wanted me to come. He was going to sort of finish what we had begun several years before. At once I had a yearning I could not explain to go back and once again be in Europe, working on something truly compelling — helping bring a message of peace and hope to people in another culture.

It was hard to come back. It was an uphill climb. There were times when it seemed like we wouldn’t make it back. But in the fall of 2010, we finally made it.

We were back, as a family. It was different. We had different obligations, different expectations, but now finally we were back to finish what we had started several years earlier.

The mission

We’ve been back in Bosnia and Herzegovina permanently since 2010, with a mission of bringing young people together and building a community where all students can belong, believe in God, and become the people they are created to be. In a place where there is so much division, it is refreshing to be able to share a message of hope and redemption.

Thanks for reading. Make use of this site to find out more about our mission, our story, and what we are doing with young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

Podcast Episode 4: What is Culture and Should We Make It?

It has been quite a while since I’ve recorded a new podcast, and I hope that you haven’t fallen into despair while waiting for this episode. This time we are focusing on culture, something that we think about often, and something that I think is very important. I hope this episode is useful and helpful as you think about your own culture and how you can be a positive influence on those in your community.

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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 ńÜiro 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 ńÜiro trail most of the way back to Mostar, going by Hutovo Blato, ńĆapljina, 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.

A review of Blace, Croatia: The GREATEST vacation destination in the world. ever. It has KITEBOARDING.

For the third summer in a row, our family took our summer vacation to the coastal paradise of Blace, Croatia. We¬†love this location, and we’ve come to love vacation too. If you’re looking for a place¬†off the beaten path,¬†Blace is a great choice.

First, a bit about Croatia in general.

Croatia has enjoyed incredible success as a tourist destination since the breakup of Yugoslavia made it an independent country. It’s got almost the entire western coast of the Adriatic Sea within its borders, and lots of old stuff that people love to come and look at. You can see your feet through the water (which is always a draw for Americans like me and my wife, who only saw beaches on the Atlantic Ocean before moving here), and the water is so salty that it’s really easy to float.

So, over the years, I’ve seen every part of Croatia, and I’m completely¬†over it. I’m done with the never-ending search for that beautiful, pristine beach destination. I’ve been to Makarska and every town on the Makarska Riviera too many times to count; I’ve spent weeks in Split; I’ve driven out to Orebic and seen Peljesac. I’ve stayed in Rovinj; I’ve done day trips to Opatija. I did youth camps 3 times in Zadar. One summer I went to Dubrovnik. 3 times! So, I’ve seen every part of Croatia, and I eventually decided I was done playing that game — I just want a place where I can swim in the beach and I don’t have to do anything. Blace¬†is what we found, and we are deeply satisfied with it.

Blace, Croatia. We’ve taken 3 vacations in this spot. Note the kiteboarders.

There’s nothing in Blace.

There’s nothing in Blace, and that’s why we go there. There’s no ATM (if you run out of cash you have to drive back to Opuzen and use the ATM at the Konzum), no tennis courts, no beach volleyball courts, no hotels, no fancy restaurants, no clubs blaring techno music at night. It’s just a tiny village with a couple of beaches.

All that said, there is plenty in Blace to be excited about. There’s a huge, sandy beach outside the town that draws kiteboarders and has a huge campground across the street. There are no permanent buildings out there, so you can’t stay there, unless you want to camp. But you can go there during the day, since it’s about 0.5km from the town of Blace.

There’s also the main beach in town, which has two sections — a small one on the town’s little peninsula (see aerial photo), and another larger section. Separating the two sections is a guest house with a small concrete dock that people love to jump from.

But Blace has Kiteboarders. That’s something you probably don’t see at your beach.

Kiteboarders give Blace that little bit of novelty that makes it interesting. Apparently, people come there to learn, since theres a Kiteboarding school that operates there. When the wind picks up (which is fairly often), kites suddenly appear in the air. It’s amazing to watch.

More kiteboarders. This is at the big SANDY beach next to the village.

This is a dead-end road across the bay from the sandy beach. Kiteboarders like to congregate here and wait for wind.

Blace has plenty for people who just want to go to the beach.

If you go to the beach so that you can walk the strip, go to the movies, and rent mopeds, then Blace isn’t great. If you go to the beach to, er, go to the beach, then it’s perfect. Because that’s all you can do there. And that’s why we go every year.

There are two bars that serve pizza and hamburgers. We go to one of them about every other night for food. There’s a tiny market where you can buy fruit and snacks for sustenance. There are paddleboats you can rent for ~$5/hour. It’s fun.

Tyler at the docks, waiting for our pizza to be done.

Blace has nature.

Blace is only an hour away from our house in Mostar, and the drive out is beautiful. The area is at the mouth of a river, which means there is a very large marsh area around the village. It reminds us a little of Saint Simons Island, GA, where my wife’s family lives.

Because of the marsh, this is one of the few places in BiH and Croatia where you can consistently see wildlife around. There are egrets and cranes, pelicans and sea gulls, and last year a Dolphin swam all the way in to the beach and swam around with some of the vacationers.

The ride out to Blace is really beautiful. There are farms and houses in the marsh that depend on the abundance of water from the river delta.

This aerial photo is from some travel website. Just so you get the idea. You can see the “Mala Neretva” (Little Neretva) river emptying out to the sea at the top of the picture.

A place for families

One of the reasons we like Blace so much is that it is a perfect destination, in our opinion, for young families like ours. The village’s small size means it is free of the distractions that bigger places have. There is no ice cream on the beach, no fast food, no clubs — there are simply less things to grab your attention, which means that you can more easily focus on spending quality time together and swimming in the nice clear water.

A new perspective on change: The grass isn’t always greener

Where’s Sarajevo?

That was going through my head one day in 2003 when someone told me I should go there. Our organization was sending young recent graduates there to work with young people. Go, work, live, play, he said, and it will be the best experience of your life. So I went. And I fell in love.

Sarajevo was everything I could have wanted. It was a city big enough to have everything one could need, but small enough to be conquered by a group of young people. There were so many neighborhoods, so many people, so much culture and complexity. I came to love that city and the people in it.

The only certainty in life is change.

So then came the day when we decided to move to another city. Our organization had decided to open a new location in Mostar, and we made the decision to be part of the new endeavor. It meant leaving the city we had come to love and making a new home in a new place.

After our move, we noticed some interesting things about our new location…

Mostar isn’t actually that hot.¬†We used to think, “it’s so hot there”. We’d often see newspaper articles (in the¬†local¬†newspaper, of course) claiming it’s the hottest city in Europe. When we actually got down here, though, we realized it’s actually cooler on average than Atlanta, or Memphis, or anywhere in Florida — basically, anywhere else we’ve ever lived or visited (except Sarajevo).

Mostar is a lot like a small town.¬†We used to think of it as a city, with different boroughs and different subcultures existing side-by-side. But we quickly learned that it operates more like a small town, with a much stronger local community that includes everyone. You can’t come and go without people noticing here.

Mostar isn’t really a tourist town.¬†We always thought of Mostar as being synonymous with the Old Bridge. Soon after moving here, we realized that there is a very large part of town that Western tourists never see — and it functions just fine.

Change never ends up the way you thought it would be.

We were faced with two very interesting things.¬†First, we missed our old home.¬†We lived there for several years, and it had become a part of us in many ways. But we weren’t there anymore, and there wasn’t anything we could do to change that.

Second, our new town wasn’t the town we thought it was.¬†It wasn’t worse or better — it just wasn’t what we thought it would be.

Change brings complexity.

For a while after our relocation, we thought of Sarajevo often. We miss the things we used to see every day, the people we used to talk to, the places we used to eat. But after a while, we realized that if we didn’t learn to love our new location, we would be robbing ourselves.¬†

So, now that we are looking back at things from a new perspective, here are some things I’ve learned…

You can’t love something if you want it to be something else.

A thing, a person, a place… you have to love it for what it is. If you keep trying to say, “well, it’s not New York, but it’s got some theaters and a big park, so we can manage while we’re here,” then you’re probably never going to be able to really like that place. You’ll just be stuck in a state of continually comparing it to something else.

You can’t love a place if you aren’t there.

If you go away every chance you get, then there’s no doubt — your heart is probably somewhere else. You’ve got to spend some time there, and learn the good things and the great things that make¬†other people love to live there.

You must accept the truth — that there is no “better”.

Conventional wisdom wants us to assign values to things and label things “good” or “bad”. And that’s a temptation we have, especially when we have to leave a place that we like. But the truth will always be more complex than that — our new location won’t be¬†better¬†or¬†worse.¬†It¬†will¬†be different. And if we don’t understand that difference, we won’t be able to fulfill our full potential there.

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The importance of a good reputation, revisited

From time to time, I’ve written here about the importance of having and building a good reputation in the community where one works. Whether one is in a small town or in the capital city, having a good reputation will¬†bring opportunities that would be otherwise impossible. In our work, two things happened this week that, hopefully, are signs that the work we’ve done to build a reputation is paying off.

Becoming known as capable

The first thing that happened was completely unexpected, and is not something we normally go out looking for. A student from the local law school’s student organization contacted us, asking if we would be interested in teaching an English class for law students, organized completely by them. They have a need for someone who can come and help them learn some legal terms, but they don’t have the means to pay a professor or certified instructor, and so they turned to us, on the basis of the classes we have already been offering.

What an opportunity — one that we would never have gotten, had we not first done the work of putting on English classes for students in the first place. In our effort to provide a service to students, and because we sought to do a decent job, we have become known as a¬†group capable of providing that service.

Becoming known as compassionate

The second thing that happened takes us in a different direction, and is no less special. After we announced our efforts to collect clothes ahead of Christmas, I was contacted by a student from a nearby town, asking about it. She said she had read about it in the newspaper. 

Now, this still has me a little bit confused, but apparently, someone who¬†was involved in one of our events works for the local newspaper. I was able to find the paragraph they wrote — it was pulled directly from our group’s Facebook page, nearly word for word.

What do we want to be known for?

I think there is so much to learn here. Here are just a couple of things

  • Compassion and competence¬†are two things that are contagious — when people see them, they just want more! I would not say we have been big promoters of ourselves, but somehow news has managed to get out, without our knowledge. Fortunately, we have been serving people well in our community, and people¬†have begun to ask us to do more.
  • You are always building something with your time.¬†At times it has been impossible to see the pieces coming together, but over the past year and a half we have managed to be noticed for doing some positive things. The reputation, up to now, was built whether we noticed or not — and now has provided some¬†things we can be happy about.

What now? We thank God, and we trust him to provide us with the time and skills to do these things he has entrusted to us.

I belong here, and you don’t.

I was waiting for an X-ray at the hospital in Bijeli Brijeg when the technician finally poked his head out the door.

“Um, Jonathan? Do you… um, speak…?”

“Yes, I speak your language,” I said.

“Alright! Wow! That’s great. I’ve never met a foreigner who speaks our language! Come on in.” Said the technician.¬† Continue reading