Sarajevo


Sarajevo is one of those cities you can fall in love with at first sight. It’s lively and charming and has a beautiful history tainted with the sorrows of warfare. The old town is filled with cafe’s and restaurants; tiny joints that serve cheap cevapi (small grilled sausages served with bread and raw onion) and a thick yogurt to drink it down with. The city oozes with Turkish influences while still maintaining the scattered Austro-Hungarian landmarks that give the city a European edge. I could easily spend a week relaxing in the Bascarsija, sipping on Bosnian coffee with a good book. Nothing more. But Sarajevo has a tragic history that is hard to imagine as you walk the colourful streets of the Stari Grad markets. Apart from being known as the city that sparked WWII after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Sarajevo also is noted for having the longest city siege in the history of modern warfare. 

The siege on Sarajevo during the Bosnian war began April 5th, 1992 and lasted 1425 days: just shy of four years. That’s three times longer than the infamous Battle of Stalingrad. The city was surrounded by Yugoslav forces from Serbia. At the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Bosnian-Serbs hoped to create an independent republic of their own, with the capital as Sarajevo. They surrounded the city and strategically placed themselves in the hills around the capital. For the next four years, they never even had to enter the city; instead, they used sniper fire and bombs to wreak havoc. It was Hell.

Our tour guide in Sarajevo was a young man named Neno. He was only a boy when the war struck in Sarajevo, but he remembers it well. He and all his neighbours were forced to move into the basement of their building. They lived together as a small community, eating whatever food they received from UN air drops, listening to the bombs above: for four straight years. The city was torn to pieces; major landmarks, including the city hall and local brewery were prime targets. The brewery in Sarajevo was built over a fresh spring. It was the city’s only source of water during the war times. Hundreds of civilians died while waiting in line for water. Snipers attacked soldiers and civilians as if they were equal. By the end of the 4 years, nearly as many civilians had been murdered as soldiers. 

But Sarajevo remembers. At each place where a shell exploded and killed citizens, a red “rose” is now painted into the concrete. It’s a sobering realization when you stumble upon one of the many splotches of red paint that scatter the city streets. 

This was the first point in the trip where I realized I understood very little about the decline of Yugoslavia. And this epiphany only grew stronger as we travelled deeper into the Balkans. 

But despite spending a significant amount of time enveloped in the horrors of war, we actually had a wonderfully relaxing time in Sarajevo. Cafe hopping in the day, a museum here and there, and late afternoon hikes into the hills. The view from the Bijela Tabija at the edge of Sarajevo is well worth the climb. Low hanging mist in the valley made the city seem as if it were emerging from a dream. Young teens and couples hang out on the walls of the abandoned white fort while the sun sets. Wild sheep and stray cats graze the last green patches of grass within the old walls. The structure is nothing more than stone ruins, towering over the sprawling city below. It is beautiful. 

I was surprised at how quickly Sarajevo captured my interest. It’s middle eastern influences were unlike any other city we had come upon in Europe yet. The place was both exotic and familiar at the same time, and everyone was more than welcoming. Sarajevo is a gem in the mountains of Bosnia, and as we head South through the region, I hope to find more places like this. 


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Pushkar

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Kelsi woke up the morning we were leaving Udaipur sick as a dog. It was painful. She skipped breakfast and slumped into the back of the car. I don’t think I heard more than four words from her the entire drive to Pushkar. I felt terrible that there was no way I could help.
When we arrived in Pushkar she immediately climbed into bed in the foetal position and fell asleep. I sat for a little while then decided I would go into town.
It was Kelsi’s birthday the next day, and I had promised, months earlier, that I would get her a cake! I had looked up the only German bakery in all of Pushkar and found it on our city map. It was at the Sunset Cafe restaurant and actually came recommended in the lonely planet guide!
Pushkar is a tiny town, but we managed to stay at the hotel on the furthest outskirts of the city center as possible. It was still only a 15 minute walk to the edge of town though, and after being cramped up in a car all day the exercise was welcome.
I found the cafe surprisingly fast. It was right along the lake with an incredible view of the sunset (thus the name of the restaurant I guess).
I walked up to the bakery section and checked out their selection. Some lemon cake, two pieces of old and crumbly looking chocolate cake and part of an apple crumble. Hmmm…
All of a sudden one of the waiters came over to me.
“Oh no! You don’t want those cakes. They are old.”
“Old!” I said, “do you have any fresh ones?”
“Yes, we have ice cream cake”
Nope, that wasn’t going to last over night.
“That’s okay, thanks anyways”
I was about to leave when the owner of the restaurant came up to me.
“Can I help you?” He asked politely.
I explained that I was looking for cake, but couldn’t quite find what I was looking for.
“Well I can help you! We can make you a cake if you’d like, what are you looking for? Chocolate? Lemon? Vanilla? We can make it for you.”
I wasn’t expecting that response. I stood there thinking for a moment.
“Can you do carrot cake?” It was Kelsi’s favourite, and yet I hadn’t seen it at all in India.
“Yes, with chocolate?”
“No no, just carrots”
He walked behind his desk. “Let me call the baker”
Before I knew it, Papu (the owner) had me sitting down in a meeting with the baker. He was a lovely, round man named Krishna who had come all the way down from the bakery to speak with me in person. His laugh ad his flamboyant nature made it hard not to like him immediately.
“A carrot cake?! Well of course! Krishna can do anything! Would you like it with chocolate?”
What is it with people and chocolate carrot cake? I’ve never even heard of that!
“No just carrot, thanks”
“What about chocolate icing?” he smiled a big grin.
“No thanks, maybe lemon? Or vanilla? Can you do that?”
“Oh, Krishna can do anything!” He said again.
And it was done. He would make me the cake and have it back at the restaurant the next day. Papu gave me his phone number, “if you can’t make it back to the restaurant, call me and I will have someone run it to your hotel for you!”
Seriously, these people could not have been any more lovely! I thanked them so much and then made the trek back to take care of poor Kelsi.
The next morning she wasn’t any better.
“Happy Birthday baby!” I told her as she woke up.
She groaned. “You know you’re getting old when you forget it’s your birthday” then she curled back up in pain.
I have to hand it to her though. She sucked it up and we made it into town for the morning. The markets in Pushkar are incredible. It is just one long road that wraps around the little lake that sells a million different things from the markets. We took about an hour to walk three blocks. We kept stopping in at different shops, looking at the jewelry and the brightly colored scarves. We had to take some time to rest along the way as well. Having not eaten in almost two days, Kelsi was exhausted. We sat in the shade on the steps by the lake and watched the world go by.
The Pushkar lake has a bunch of bathing ghats all around the edge. People, young and old, took the time to swim and bath in the waters before carrying on their way. Even a cow was seen cruising up and down the walkways with a headband on, just checking out the watering holes. People watching at its best.
For our lunch stop, we found a little restaurant that had a small garden out back. The air conditioned restaurant was busy with locals, but we decided to sit on our own in the garden. When we had finished eating Kelsi looked at the garden behind me.
“Look Hairy! A turtle!”
I turned around, and sure enough there there was a big old turtle slowly cruising along the garden. Our waiter heard us and laughed.
“There are 5 of them” he said. Then he walked around the garden in search of them. Within minutes he had come up with four of them. He stacked them all in a row for us. We spent way too long taking photos of these silly turtles. It was the highlight of the day! Our waiter just shook his head… Crazy tourists!
After lunch we had to go home for a nap. Hours out in the sun was too much for poor Kelsi, so we rested until dinner.
“Do you have a place in mind for dinner?” Kelsi asked me as we were about to head out in the evening.
“Ya I think so. I found a place yesterday that looked great for watching the sunset. We can check out the menu and see if we like it” I suggested.
“Sounds good”
We had Raju drive us to the edge of town, then walked the rest of the way to the restaurant. Kelsi was in a daze, already searching for a table and going through the menu when the young waiter from the day before spotted me.
“You! Oh! We have your cake! It is here!” He pointed to the fridge where the cake was sitting.
“Oh thank you! Is Papu around? I still have to pay him.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll get him”
I sat down with Kelsi who was still so sick that she hadn’t even heard the conversation go on.
“The menu looks good, lets eat here” she said. Perfect.
Papu showed up and I ran to go talk to him, leaving Kelsi to mull over the menu, still oblivious to her surroundings.
“I think we are going to have dinner here as well” I said
“Okay, okay! Ill bring the cake over whenever you like!” He offered.
I looked back at Kelsi. She was never going to make it through a meal and a cake.
“Better bring it over right away” I suggested, then left to go sit back at the table.
A couple minutes later our waited came over with the cake in hand. “Would you like a candle?” He asked me. Haha, well too late now! Kelsi looked confused, then it clicked that it was a birthday cake.
“Surprise!! Happy birthday!” I said as the waiter out the cake down. She started laughing.
“Oh my god! What?!”
The waiter rushed off and came back with a huge candle in hand. It was so big it wouldn’t fit in the cake, so he stood it up in front if the cake and lit it.
The whole thing was pretty ridiculous, and Kelsi was genuinely surprised. She made her wish, blew out the candle and we tried it out. It wasn’t the most spectacular tasting cake, but it wasn’t half bad for being vegan (yup, Pushkar is a completely vegetarian city, and the only bakery is purely vegan). Krishna had done an excellent job of decorating it, and the surprise was worth it!
In the end, Kelsi was too sick to eat the cake, but we gave it to the helpful staff at our hotel who seemed very appreciative. We watched the sunset as we ate dinner, and then off to bed early.
Pushkar was small, but it’s energy and laid back vibe made it my favourite town in India so far. The people are friendly, the merchants are not pushy, the views are spectacular, and if they’d sold meat and beer the place would have been perfect!
Jaipur has a lot to live up to!

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Otavalo and Cotacachi: Ecuadorean Market Towns

Ecuador is obviously different from Colombia in many ways. The landscape immediately changed after the border from mountainous terrain to rolling hills. The climate is a lot drier, and thus browner, and there’s less sprawling coffee plantations and more farmland. Sheep, cattle, llamas, pigs, all sorts of wildlife with more flat land and sparser forests. Women stand in lines tilling the fields by hand or carrying bundles of sticks along the side of the road.
  Even though the currency of Ecuador is the US dollar, the dress is much less influenced by North American apparel. Many locals wear the traditional clothing of brightly coloured ponchos or capes, dark pants (long thick skirts for the women) and fedora hats. The women carry their children in swaddled blankets on their backs, and are almost always adorned with thick necklaces of gold and silver chains.

At nearly every stop the bus made, people selling cheap food or trinkets climbed on to sell their goods. Homemade potato chips, apples, chicken, nuts, water, icecream, you name it. The venders walk up and down the isle calling out the names of their goods in rapid succession. “helado helado helado helado!!” “papas papas papas!!!” “un dollar por seis; veinte cinco centavos!” The men or women stay on for a stop or two, then tell the driver to stop so they can jump onto another bus. You will never find yourself hungry on an Ecuadorean bus, that’s for sure!

On our first day in Quito we did very little. We grabbed lunch at a bar in the main square, checked out a park and ventured back to our hostel to wait for Diane to join us! Now that Hilary had gone home to Toronto, Diane agreed to join us for our trip around Ecuador and we were very excited! The three of us went for delicious Mexican food for dinner, then called it a night early to get ready for a long day trip to Otavalo in the morning.

Otavalo is a market town about 2 hours North of Quito. It is a wonderful little town with a plethora of street venders selling food and a beautiful craft market full of traditional Ecuadorean wares. The three of us got up early to start our day. We watched a very entertaining Jackie Chan movie in Spanish on the bus ride out and arrived in Otavalo by the early afternoon. Buses in Ecuador are incredibly cheap: about $1 for every hour of the trip. Such a far cry from Brazil, which are between 8 and 10 times the price!! So we were all happy to reach the town for the cost of a toonie!

The market was quiet on the Monday that we went, but had some great deals! There were tonnes of intricate, hand-carved silver pendants and earrings, wood carvings of native animals, hand held pipes, thick alpaca sweaters, brightly coloured paintings, and traditional blankets and scarves. We had a great time walking from stall to stall bargaining for the best price and checking out the handicrafts. In the end, Diane and I both bought sweaters and Adam got an alpaca blanket that was gorgeous! When we’d properly explored the market, we ventured back to the bus station to catch a bus to Cotacachi. I never would have known that this place existed had it not been for Cathy, who told me about the leather bags she had bought from there. Only 40 minutes and 20 cents from Otavalo, Cotacachi is even more quaint and beautiful! From what we saw, it was only several blocks squared: the bus station went only 2 places, there was one plaza with a church… and a million leather shops! The place smelled amazing, with real leather scents coming out of the stores. Jackets, purses, wallets, shoes! Each place had handmade leather wares for super cheap and many of the shop owners made their products right there in the store. We spent a good hour at least walking up and down two city blocks checking out all the leather in each store along the way. We got some great deals in the end and then made our three hour trek back to Otavalo and finally Quito. We had cheap eats at a local Ecuadorean restaurant of rice, chicken and lentils for $2.75 then back to our hostel for a few beers and games of pool.  Not a bad first day in Ecuador!