Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Of Rubik's Cubes and Racism

I'm going to be serious this week, so if you'd like something more frivolous you're welcome to dig through the archives and re-experience the joy of jury duty or the oddness of European appliances.

I had really, really wanted to fall in love with Herzegovina. Herzegovina, the southern half of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a beautiful place. It's full of white hillsides, blue-green rivers, Turkish villages, Roman ruins, and vineyards.

Matt and I had gone for a three-day group excursion hoping to sample wines and see some scenery. Things started off well, with a visit to the town of Medjugorje. In the early 1980s, six local teenagers claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary. While the event has never been officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, Medjugorje is now the second-biggest Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. Every hour of every day of the year, tour buses roll in and the pilgrims pour out.

Let me tell you, if you aren't Catholic, Medjugorje is a hoot. As Matt says, it's like the Virgin Mary's Graceland. Tacky souvenir shops line the streets, selling everything from rosary beads to Virgin Mary Rubik's cubes. We also liked the enormous posters of the original six teenagers, complete with pimples and big greasy 1980s hair. It was like the Virgin Mary had chosen to appear at a Whitesnake concert.

However, our mood took a turn for the worse at breakfast. Our waiter, a Croat, asked us where we were from. We told him we were Americans living in Sarajevo. His response (and I am not making this up) is that we shouldn't live in Sarajevo, because that is where the terrorist Muslims like Osama bin Laden live. While it's always charming to hear racial hatred just a mile from a major religious site, we decided to shrug it off and go enjoy the rest of our day.

We visited a gorgeous monastery, ate at a local restaurant, then toured Roman ruins. A good time was had by all until our guide told some of us that America should stop giving visas to Mexicans and start giving them to Bosnian Muslims instead, because "Mexicans steal and Bosniaks are very honest." Mind you, this guide had charged us $15/person (about $120 total) to basically sit on his butt all day long. He hadn't had a scrap of useful information all day, and his translation skills were atrocious. Besides, we were paying him to show us around, not to lecture us about politics. I think our guide was an incredible hypocrite - he had complained about thieves, but at the same time taken our money and given us nothing in return.

Price gouging was another unfortunate side to Herzegovina. At every restaurant we visited, waiters would refuse to show any of our group a menu or tell us their prices, then bring us the most expensive platter they had and expect us to simply fork over the money. Lunch was $25/person (a typical lunch in Sarajevo is $5-10/person). Our "wine tasting" dinner only offered a skimpy four bottles of wine (shared among 12 people) and a light meal. For this privilege, we had to pay $40 a head. Overall, the weekend cost Matt and me $500. That is simply ridiculous considering we were less than 100 miles from home and were staying in a glorified youth hostel.

To cap off a crappy weekend, on the way home a Roma squegee man spat on our car after we refused his services. I suppose we could always use the DNA to make a squegee man of our very own, but somehow the idea doesn't appeal to me.

It's such a shame. Right now the economy of Bosnia and Herzegovina hovers near collapse. Unemployment is about 30-40%, there are no major industries besides logging, and the infrastructure is falling apart. The country is counting on tourism to stay alive, but can't even muster the common sense not to spout racist nonsense at visitors or stop gouging them. Charging Paris prices to visit the Balkans will never take off.

I think my trip to Herzegovina brought out a number of issues for me. I had really wanted to fall in love with this country, but sometimes living here depresses the hell out of me. I know there was a terrible war, and the country is still suffering from the fallout. I know I've had a relatively easy life, for which I'm grateful. I simply have no idea what these people experienced or how those experiences affected them. I'm aware that I'm an ignorant, pampered American.

But I just don't see how this country is going to stay afloat, and I don't really know what's been accomplished in the last ten years. Even though the war is over, I don't see that much in the way of hope.

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