Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Trip to Bihac

This past weekend, we got out of Sarajevo for the first time since we arrived. Landy was invited to give a presentation in Bihac, and I went along.

Bihac (pronounced bee-hash) is a very old city in the northwestern corner of Bosnia. According to my guidebook, the city was first mentioned in a document from 1260 in a document by King Bela IV. But it is well known that the area was populated from at least Roman times. The city square is dominated by a medieval watch tower. Located at the gateway of the various invasions by the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, it was at the center of many shifts in power.

The biggest draw in Bihac today is the Una River. The name comes from the Latin word for “the  only one” and legend has it that it was named by a Roman legionnaire who was awestricken at first sight of the beautiful river. It is very popular for whitewater rafting and it is a unique, jade green color.

We stayed at a beautiful hotel a short way out of town on the Una River, overlooking a series of waterfalls. As special guests, we had a room overlooking the falls and could listen to the rushing water all night. (view from our room)

Landy was invited to speak to the association of disability arbitrators of BiH. In the BiH disability system, applicants are first examined by a physician. After the exam, applicants are referred to the Disability Institute where government employees then make determinations on disability awards. In a country where some reports estimate an unemployment rate of 40%, there is a lot of pressure on the disability system to provide government payments.

Before we arrived, the woman who has acted as our translator (at times) and our host at the Department of Psychiatry at the medical school and clinic, had never visited the Disability Institute even though it is barely 1.5 miles from her office. Both groups are mistrustful of each other: the doctors suspect the Institute employees of “selling” disability awards and the Institute employees suspect the doctors of “selling” valuable diagnoses. Whatever the truth is, both groups acknowledge they need help with providing a fair system and that they are currently overwhelmed and without much guidance.

The trip to Bihac was long and arduous. We had a driver assigned to us by the Disability Institute. We ‘caravanned’ with another car and the trip took over 7 ½   hours! The first stop was so Landy could get some Dramamine from our translator – the entire trip was through mountains, with very twisty-turny roads. Once he got some Dramamine and changed his seat to the front, he felt much better. Then we stopped for lunch (and cigarettes), then another stop later for coffee (and cigarettes).

The lunch stop was at a “country” restaurant. Although it appeared to have been recently built, it was in the Bosnian country style with open rafters and booths with seats covered in kilim rugs. The local specialty was what they call ‘sour milk’ with cornbread. The ‘sour milk’ is much like tart yoghurt, but with more liquid. It was served in a soup sized wooden bowl and we were advised to eat it with the cornbread crumbled into the sour milk. Delicious – and especially good for Landy’s still slightly upset stomach.

After a 7 ½ hour car trip, the last thing I wanted to do was socialize with a roomful of strangers whose language I didn’t know. But when we walked into the hotel our translator told us all her colleagues were already at dinner – and when could they expect us to join them? We begged for 20 minutes, washed up and changed, and joined the group. There were about 24 people or so; some spoke no English and most spoke very limited English. People over 35 here generally know very little English; people under 25 often have good English. If we’re lost, we always look for a young person to help us. Although we are trying to learn some Bosnian, I have to admit that our Bosnian is still pretty much limited to reading menus and navigating in a grocery store. Not surprisingly, being able to say fish, chicken or veal doesn’t get one very far in conversation. But we were good sports and smiled a lot and we got through it.

By dinner the second night a few of the Bosnians had unwound to the point of trying out their English phrases. This was a good thing because our translator had disappeared! I think the others felt sorry for us for being abandoned and they made an effort to make us feel a part of the group. Luckily there was live music in the dining room that night so that helped break the ice too. A few of the women grabbed my hands and even got me up to dance. It was a sort of Greek-style line dance. If I could have asked I would have been curious to know if they were imitating the Greek dance or if there is also a traditional Bosnian folk dance that is similar. Dancing in Bihac can be a lot of fun.