One of the strangest feelings is to be in a foreign country staring at a landscape that looks exactly like the one where you grew up. I experienced this sensation while traveling on the Drava Intercity through Bosnia. The train passed through valleys bounded by low mountains. I grew up surrounded by an almost exact replica of this landscape in western North Carolina. Bucolic and beautiful, looking at the land made me feel close to home and at the same time a bit uneasy. How could two places that looked so similar, be so different? The western North Carolina I had grown up in was never threatened by war. Jobs were plentiful, peace, quiet and order reigned. Half a world away the mountains and valleys of Bosnia exploded with warfare and ethnic strife. I never realized how good life was in the United States until I saw the same identical landscape in Bosnia. This was a case where appearances were both deceiving and revealing.
Travel Without Speed or Comfort – On Bosnian Time
My mood of reflection was likely attributable to sitting in a half-empty train car. There were no distractions other than the countryside. The few passengers in my car sat in stoic silence. This was to my liking. There was plenty of opportunity for contemplation. The slowness of the train added to the meditative atmosphere. I have scarcely experienced such a snail’s pace on a train. It crawled past small villages with minarets soaring into a deep blue sky. There were several occasions where I could have run faster than the train moved. Long before I took this trip a Slovenian friend had tried to warn me off train travel in the region. Telling me “I hate to take the train, it is so slow.” I had no idea what she meant at the time.
I had imagined that European train travel would be an elegant throwback to an earlier era, with dining cars, smooth rides and arrival in a timely fashion. The Drava Intercity was the opposite of such imaginings. It could best be described as travel without comfort. The seats were covered with cheap leather, the attendant was largely absent and the train’s movement was equivalent to super slow motion. At times, it would stop randomly. There was little rhyme or reason for this. No wonder so few people took the train. The scenery may have been inviting, but the train’s glacial pace was a nightmare of wasted time. To slow things down further, there were border crossings to make. On the other hand, this was a region that had suffered through years of warfare. The fact that the rail line had been repaired at all was quite an achievement. Bosnia was in a very slow process of healing, a process that could be measured by the speed of the Drava Intercity.
Turning The Clock Backwards – End of the Line
Only in retrospect did I realize my luck in getting a direct train from Sarajevo to Pecs. A couple of years later the train was canceled. What had been an 8 hour trip aboard a single train has now become a withering logistical nightmare for anyone foolish enough to attempt the same trip today. If a traveler wants to go by train between the two cities today, the trip entails first, a 9 hour, 14 stop trip from Sarajevo to Zagreb. Since the train does not arrive in Zagreb until 8:09 p.m., it means that the traveler cannot catch another train towards Pecs until the next morning. Another train change takes place the following day in Gyekenkes, Hungary. The weary traveler will finally arrive in Pecs 28 and a half hours after they started. By way of comparison, the Drava Intercity was a veritable bullet train, slicing through the hills and valleys of Bosnia at lightning speed.
Speaking of speed and time traveled on trains, that dread moment of the border crossing between Bosnia and Croatia finally arrived. I say dread because this usually involves waiting for nothing in particular to happen, other than some strange scrutiny by passport control that almost always go unexplained. I was a bit nervous since an American I had met on this same trip told me how he had been detained overnight while trying to cross the Bosnian border with a prescription bottle of Xanax in his luggage. The border guards inferred through behavior rather than words that he would need to pay a bribe for his freedom. He was adamant that he had done nothing wrong. Seeing that extortion was useless and the embassy might get involved, they finally let him go. Just to be on the safe side I tossed the Tylenol. I expected a bit of hassle when the words “passport control” resounded through the train car. The border guard flipped through my passport quickly, found an empty page, stamped it nonchalantly and handed it back. The same action was repeated with the Croatian border guards. I had never experienced such an efficient crossing of the border.
Normality & The Nightmare of Memory
Crossing from Bosnia into Croatia was surreal mainly because the border crossing process was so banal. In just half an hour it was over and done with. During the 1990’s the area I was passing through had been home to some of the world’s most dangerous checkpoints. Now the process was matter of fact. The border guards were somnolent, barely raising an eyebrow. There was no threat or menace, only an official duty to be performed. Any problems that still existed – and from what I had read there were many – simmered beneath the surface. During the Bosnian War, borders were fluid. Getting across could take weeks and cost many people their lives. To be stuck on the wrong side of the border meant shelling for months on end, homelessness, ethnic cleansing and all the other horrors of war. Then suddenly, one day the war stopped and life went back to an unsettling normality. Normality redefined as an uneasy peace, of day to day struggle against corruption and the nightmare of memory. Looking out the train window I could sense, but see none of this. It was just another past, that was not my own.