At 11 on a Friday morning in late August I find myself standing on the bank of the river Sava studying the signs of life on the other side. I need to leave Slavonski Brod behind and travel 120km to the south of here if I am to reach Tuzla by night fall but I can sense I’m hesitating.
Flowing east toward Belgrade where it will discharge into the Danube, the Sava is just like every other river that I have crossed in Europe this summer. Swollen and murky brown. Due to the high recent rainfall across the Balkans, there is a serious threat of flooding in region but from where I stand it isn’t the vast amount of water that makes this river crossing so intimidating. I’m about to leave Croatia behind and with it any sense of familiarity that I have been holding on to. The people I can see on the other side of the river are in Bosnia & Herzegovina. I’m about to enter my unknown.
I pass through customs and cycle across the bridge. There is considerably more traffic heading toward me into the EU than there is leaving it. The crossing is only a few hundred metres long but in my head it marks a significant step in the journey. I have many Bosnian friends and I am looking forward to visiting some of them in the next few days but I still have no idea what to expect from a country ravaged by war just 20 years ago.
I reach the border post on the other side and stop. Unsure of what to do next I turn around looking for some kind of guidance from the old lady on the bicycle behind me. The check point window is empty and there appears to be no one interested in seeing my passport. With a shrug of her shoulders and a half smile that seems to say ‘This is Bosnia, everyone is welcome’ I wheel the bicycle forward into country number eight.
For the last six weeks my route has been a combination of cycle paths and quiet roads with wide hard shoulders to ride on but in Bosnia & Herzegovina this all changes suddenly. Motorways are virtually non existent in Balkan countries so while I continue on the same narrow country roads as always, now so too does all the other heavy traffic heading toward Sarajevo and the Adriatic coast.
Much of the landscape passes me by on my way into the interior as my concentration is solely focussed on self preservation. I spend the first 20km pulling off the road onto the grass every time I hear a lorry rumbling up behind me. The hard shoulder has deteriorated from a luxurious metre wide comfort zone down to just the thin white line itself and the rest of the day is a challenge.
Finally, as the sun disappears over my shoulder I reach my destination and wheel the bike to a park bench in the centre of Tuzla. As I do so an elderly gentleman with a grey moustache who is taking and evening stroll with his wife and gives me an approving nod. I sit down exhausted, glad to have survived a tough day on the road and check my map for the bar where I am to meet my friend Emir. Before I can pin point my exact location the gentleman returns and asks with friendly inquisition ‘Stranger?’, to which I reply with a half dazed and slightly uncertain ‘Traveller?’
Neither of us have a common language but thanks to his broken english and by the way his eyes light up at the sight of my overloaded bike I realise that I have reminded him of the long journeys by bicycle he once took in his youth. With a mutual respect I explain my travels plans, London, Istanbul, Australia are the words that garner the most understanding.
Having exhausted his english vocabulary and neither of us knowing what else to say he thrusts an ice cream toward me. Unsure of what else to do I gratefully accept this offer and thank him with a wide smile. He returns to his wife and disappears into the evening
I look down at the half eaten ice cream now in my hand. I don’t know what flavour it is but it tastes sweet.
‘Welcome to Bosnia’ I happily think to myself.