Banja Luka, Bosnia. You know that saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover?” Well that is most certainly true for this place.
I’m not going to lie my first thoughts about traveling to Bosnia were, “Whoa. Where are we going? Why there?” I was a little shocked because from what I know of it’s a second world country that’s still in disarray from the negative impacts of the Bosnian War. So much so that some of locals told me that there are still some left over land mines scattered throughout the country that could still go off! We were told to stay on the paved roads, and don’t get too adventurous. Despite its young and rocky history, Banja Luka is a big city gem with stunning mountainous framework that just overflows with hospitality.
We were staying in Banja Luka for four days with the team for John’s final wheelchair basketball tournament of his German rookie season. Lucky for us in our free time, we took a stroll into the city with our ‘guide’ given to us by the tournament directors. During our stroll we saw an old fortress that’s decked out in ivy that bordered the Vrbas river, and beautifully embellished churches, among other things. There is beauty everywhere here, you just have to look.
On the second night of our stay we all went out for a night in Banja Luka. (It really helped that one of the players on the team was Bosnian, so he had some pretty good connections with people around the city). No matter where we went though, it never posed a problem for anyone. The managers and bar tenders at each club we went to had such incredible hospitality you wouldn’t believe it! We had an entire wheelchair basketball team sitting comfortably in a bar. Like what? That rarely happens without some future planning. Drinking and chatting with the locals just knowing they had our backs, and wanted us to be enjoying ourselves made for some great memories. In fact some of the friends of the Bosnian teammate have their own cab companies so we all got rides to wherever we went, and it was all safe and reliable.
That same night, John and I were still up at 5 am! We had been partying all night, and decided to walk to a 24-hour kiosk about a quarter-mile from our hotel to grab a cola and some snacks. There was certainly an eeriness about the place, but it still exuded an undeniable loveliness that couldn’t really be described. Just walking around and taking in all of the sites, all of the decimation, it makes you truly appreciate things. The concrete sidewalks were crooked, and overgrown with weeds and tree roots. The buildings along the streets that house families and businesses are cracked and split with broken windows and doors. The air was thick, humid and dewy because of the constant drizzle that draped the dark night. Although it appeared to be a weird setting it wasn’t at all. Our adventure began when we came across the sweetest, shaggy, black and white dog that literally followed us the entire time. We figured the dog just wanted some company so we gave him some love. Continuing on our walk with our new friend, this is when it gets a little sketchy. A man wearing a dark hoodie about 50 feet away was walking toward us. We didn’t know what to expect or what was going to happen other than we were a little creeped out. So we’re just being natural and calm, and as our paths crossed the man peeled his hood back and said to John in broken English, “hello would you like me to help you up the curb please?” We were both abruptly struck by his kindness because it was so incredibly thoughtful and random of a stranger at this time of day to do that! We stopped, smiled and said, ” no thank you.” Although we delightfully declined his help we will never forget that humbling experience. After that, it’s all we could talk about while finishing our walk. We were thinking like wow that’s the nicest thing we’ve seen in a while. So as we arrive to our destination, the 24-hour kiosk, which is a walk-up grocery store with one window and one guy in the back retrieving your things as you ask for them. After asking for our snacks (which was no problem at all) we wanted to get dog treats, but didn’t know how to say ‘dog treats’ in Bosnian and we’re having a little trouble. John and I were trying anything to explain it to the man, and even pointing the dog wasn’t working. So a woman in line behind us told the man at the kiosk what we wanted, and we couldn’t be more thankful for both of their patience. The generosity all of these people showed was overwhelming. The man didn’t get frustrated with us and neither did anyone in line. The people could see we weren’t from there, and they were okay with it. We were so overjoyed with everything! Starting our walk back to the hotel we were too happy ass tourists. We got our treats and so did the dog! That whole night proves that people really are kind no matter what.
For a country that has been through so much wartime it was amazing to see how happy the people were; like they’re just glad their war is over.
Despite the country’s economic and political issues, Bosnia is a beautiful place filled with the most hospitable and kindest people ever. They all have such a sincerity about them that it’s contagious! I’m so happy that I got to experience Banja Luka because visiting really made me appreciate everything that I have. Not many people in this world have a job, home or family nonetheless adequate resources to live a sustainable life. Traveling here put life and everything in it, in perspective. I love you Banja Luka!