After flying from Cincinnati to Atlanta to Zurich and then to Sarajevo, we deboarded a twin-prop commuter plane, grabbed our bags and were whisked straight to a waiting driver. It was my first time in a Peugeot. Nice car. But I was more interested in what was going on outside.
Among the first things I noticed was that if you want to blend with the locals, drive a VW Golf. Within just a few minutes of arriving it was obvious that these cars were everywhere. New ones. Old ones. Seemed like every other car was a Golf -- or a competing two-door hatchback from Opel, Skoda or Ford. There were virtually zero Japanese cars here, very few SUVs (only a few small crossovers) and no pick-up trucks, not even little ones. It would take me three days to make a confirmed sighting of a Yugo, the legendarily bad bucket of bolts that once tried to make a splash in the U.S. I considered this a good thing.
The abundance of small cars reflects the modest incomes of most people here as well as the narrow city streets and the twisty two-lane roads that dominate this country. The terrain is very hilly. Cities and towns are built in the bowls of river valleys with sharp, tree-topped peaks shooting up all around them. It was easy to see how places like Sarajevo could be besieged from a distance. Escape routes were limited. And combatants could simply set up in the woods and lob artillery shells over the peaks. There was "high ground" all over the place.
As we passed through the outskirts of Sarajevo for a two-and-a-half hour drive to Tuzla, I immediately noticed a major difference between this place and London. Unlike London, where it seemed like everything we saw was 400 years old or more, this entire country seemed like it was built mostly between 1945 and 1970. So many modern-looking, yet run-down buildings. Even in the rural areas, homes were relatively new and almost always built of concrete and cinder block -- no "stick" construction. Even in the countryside, shops were often covered in modern glass facades. Windows were big and framed in aluminum. Houses had red-tiled roofs and balconies that often featured modern metal railings rather than old wooden ones. In the cities, people lived in dense clusters of apartment buildings. In the countryside, I saw a fair amount of free-standing homes, but even small towns had their apartment buildings, sometimes more than six stories tall.
And yes, there was war damage still visible 15 years after the fighting. We hadn't spent more than five minutes in the car before noticing a building that had been riddled with unrepaired pock marks from bullets and shrapnel. Out in the hills, there were still places with collapsed roofs, or missing windows, or giant holes blasted through the cinderblock. Likewise, there was clear evidence of new construction. Even though I was told that the current unemployment rate was about 40 percent (!) the countryside was not uniformly poor. In fact, lots of homes were well-kept and freshly painted with fairly new cars in the driveways.
Bosnia had immediately presented itself as a country of contrasts and it was clear to me that I had much to discover.