Thursday, June 8, 2006

Banja Luka, Bosnia

Friends: There is an extra element of excitement to the wild camping here in Bosnia, as there are occasional stretches with skull and cross bone signs warning of land mines, as I last encountered in Cambodia. There were no such signs in Croatia, just lots of skeletal remains of still standing bombed out farm houses. I thought I might end up camping in one of them, but they were generally right beside a recently built new home.

Even more ubiquitous than the bombed out buildings along the roads of Croatia were discarded cans of Red Bull, the energy drink. There were also lots of homes with signs advertising "zimmer\rooms." I actually took advantage of one of them, the first time in my past three summers here in Europe that I have paid for indoor accommodations. Two days of near non-stop cold rain was to blame. One day the rain kept me in my tent until noon, a not so unwelcome semi-rest day. The corner of my tent was in a low spot and a pool of water gathered before I realized it, soaking the end of my sleeping bag. Plus I hadn't adequately secured one of the waterproof panniers I had left outside on my bike, so it had leaked a quart or more of water
into it.

I only had 82 kunas, about 13 dollars, left when I stopped at a house ten miles from the Plitvice National Park, my final destination in Croatia before crossing into Bosnia. I was hoping that would be enough to cover my entry into the park. After giving me my choice of two upstairs bed rooms in his house, the owner quoted me a price of 100 kunas for the night. He was willing to take one of my stash of ten euro notes. I was soaked and shivering. His wife gave me a cup of hot tea and brought out a heater to dry my clothes. They also supplied me with a pair of slippers, so as not to smudge their spotless floors.

They were one of many kindly souls I met in my time in Croatia. A shop owner let me use his Internet without fee and offered a beer to go with it. When I left, he gave me his card and said if I had any problems to give him a call. His only time out of the country was a pilgrimage to Lourdes a couple of years ago. He, like several others, asked me if I came by boat or plane, a question I have never been asked before.

It was still raining when I left my Croatian hosts, and it hadn't let up when I reached the National Park. I had to dig out my wool cap for the first time and add every layer I could to regain some warmth before I began my hike around the karst, limestone pools and caves and waterfalls of Plitvice. The entry fee was 85 kunas. I had 40 centimes of Euro currency left that the exchange office gave me 3 kunas for. With all the rain, the waterfalls were raging and the streams connecting the 16 lakes of the park were overflowing or surging up through the slats of the wooden pathways linking and crossing and surrounding them. There were still bus loads of tourists under umbrellas and wearing cheap plastic ponchos the gift shops were selling. There were packs of Japanese and I heard a few Aussie accents as well. There were four hiking options, ranging from two to eight hours, except with all the water, the lengthier hikes required some wading, something I wasn't prepared to do. The lush blue green waters in the tiered lakes were similar to those of the Havasupai Reservation in the Grand Canyon and the Agua Azul waters of southern Mexican. And the karst formations were similar to those of Vietnam and Laos. The raging waters had a suggestion of the dramatic falls that border Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

It took pushing hard on the pedals to fully warm up after my two hour stroll. It was about 15 miles to Bosnia and a descent of nearly 1500 feet, where the temperatures were a little warmer and the rain reduced to a bare mist. From the city of Bihac I had the option of sticking to the primary road to Sarajevo or taking the northerly, less traveled route across the country. I was glad to have opted for the northerly route, as it followed the swollen Una River rushing downstream for 40 miles, much of it through a lush tight canyon with railroad tracks that I was continually criss-crossing. It was cycling at its best.

After I reached Bosanski Novi I had another river valley to follow, this one gently upstream. I shared the road with an occasional horse drawn carriage. There were farmers with scythes cutting back the tall grass. Bosnia is much less developed and affluent than Croatia. Small mom and pop stores with piles of soft drinks out front, characteristic of third world countries, are a common site. Many of the road signs are in an alphabet that is Greek to me, making it a bit complicated at times. Restaurant food is nearly as cheap as buying it at the supermarket. The Bosnian currency of marks is two to one to the euro, so euros are easily accepted by everyone. If I had known, I would not have needed to use an ATM. The ATM I used spat out a single 100 mark note. The store I used it at for ten marks of groceries gave me change mostly in euros. At least I won't have to worry about using up all my marks when I cross into Serbia in a couple of days.

Later, George

No comments: