"We are a peaceful people."

2:27 pm

Blagaj, Bosnia

This morning I woke up, showered, and headed downstairs to do my laundry. The clock read: 8:01 am. Last night, the woman working behind the front desk let me know laundry could only be done between the hours of 8:00 am and 4:00 pm. There are few more sublime experiences than pulling a clean pair of trousers from a hot dryer, especially when you’ve been on the go for over a month. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it can even be emotional.

After folding my clothes and catching up on some reading, I hailed a cab and set out for Blagaj, a village about 12 km south of Mostar. Blagaj is known for its beautiful spring of the Buna river and Dervish monastery built around 1520. My driver was an outgoing man named Amin. We drove mostly in silence during the 15-minute ride as I watched him skillfully weave between nervous oncoming drivers and stone walls on narrow streets dating back at least four hundred years. He let me off just in front of the historical tekke before recommending a restaurant where I could get a nice piece of fish overlooking the river.

I thanked him for his help and made my way towards an imposing mountain that seemed on the verge of swallowing the entire village whole. It was quite the sight. Eventually, I headed closer to the Buna River. It was a turquoise I hadn’t seen since a family vacation to Lake Louise in Alberta many years before. The colors allured me. I needed to get closer.

Soon it became clear I was not the only visitor with this agenda. I bobbed and weaved my way down a crowded and steep staircase. When it was finally my turn I put my hand in the quiet stream. The water was ice cold.

After I’d had my fill I headed over to the restaurant Amin suggested. “Do you want meat or fish?” a man asked me. “Uh, fish,” I said. It seemed like a unique way of dividing the masses – men or women, Republican or Democrat, pro-life or pro-choice, meat-eaters or fish-eaters. Thankfully, digging into a fresh piece of trout felt less polarizing.

I sat quietly listening to the sounds all around. Another expedition that took a little extra effort to make possible had again paid off. There seemed to be a valuable lesson in all of this. Then the waiter dropped off the bottle of water I’d ordered. Below the company’s name it read, “Relax and enjoy life.” Man, I thought. This bottle is not made in New York.

After my meal I asked the waiter if he could call Amin to pick me up and take me back to town. He looked at me quizzically claiming the restaurant didn’t have a phone. I decided not to press the issue, paid my bill, and considered how I’d make the 12 km journey back, briefly thinking about walking.

As I strolled past the vendors that lined the quiet street, I saw a young man of about 22 playing on his mobile phone. “Excuse me my friend,” I said. “Would you mind making a call for me?” The man rose up and asked, “Is the number in Bosnia?” “Oh, of course,” I assured him. I handed him the number and told him to tell "Amin" that "Nick" was ready to be picked up in the same place he was dropped off. A few second later the young man told me my ride would arrive in 15 minutes.

My new friend’s name was Abdel. We spoke for several minutes before the cab arrived. He was a very friendly, intelligent, and funny young man. He told me how the average family in Blagaj only made about 15 marks a month. “It’s impossible to support a family on that,” he told me. “There’s just no opportunity,” he said. I began to grow disheartened at the narrow prospects for someone so young and full of life. “Well, what would you do if you could do anything?” I asked. “I would stop the killing of my people,” he said. “You mean, Muslims?” I asked. “Yes,” he said.

He expressed his frustration in the hypocrisy of it all. “We are a peaceful people,” he said. “If you see a Catholic priest wearing a long black robe you respect him. But if I am wearing something similar you don’t.” He was convincing in his argument. I thought about some of the issues I was passionate about that I’d bottled up each day, perhaps unknowingly looking for an chance to also proclaim my message to anyone who'd listen.

We touched on lighter subjects, like the fact Abdel was getting married in two days. “Wow, congratulations,” I said, extending my hand. “Are you nervous?” He laughed. “No,” he said. “I can’t wait.” “You’re definitely not American,” I ribbed him.

Just then Amin pulled up. I told Abdel to stay in touch before we hugged and I got into my black chariot. I really did wish him well and hoped some day I’d return to find him feeling a greater sense of hope about it all.

Abdel, a merchant in Blagaj in his early twenties, told me this when I asked for his best advice: “Don’t believe anyone. Appreciate those who you love like your parents, brothers, and sisters because they are the only friends in your life. Be good to your woman.”

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