“No,” I think as I consider the job offer in Ireland. “I have no idea … what I am doing, where I am going,” but know the trail of breadcrumbs doesn’t finish here but leads to Bosnia. I know I have to say no and go.
It has been less than five years since a ceasefire lifted the Siege of Sarajevo, and I don’t recall when I first heard about Medjugorje, but I have to go. Little do I know, waiting for me there will be my ‘why’.
Flying first from Dublin to London, I continue my way across the Channel and overland to first revisit Berlin, at the time, the largest construction site in Europe.
While sightseeing, being the adventurous soul I am, rather than walk away from the closed off street to reconnect with the tourist bus as directed by the driver, I stride along the deserted street to a photo journalist taking advantage of a raised vantage point on a wall.
“What’s happening?” my trouble seeking self enquires, after climbing up to stand next to him.
“Well …” he slowly begins in broken English. “There,” I can hear faint chanting coming from where he points, “… the far left. And … the far right.” I can also hear chanting from where he points in the opposite direction. He and I stand in the middle of the two.
“And they … try, how you say, keep left from right.” He smiles at me, readying his camera. A fellow adventurous soul.
From a side street, fully suited riot police march in unison to intersect the two groups directly in front of us. Helmet face guards lowered, shields ready and batons out, they are a formidable sight. The photographer takes photos. I snap one too. And then all hell breaks loose. The far left, the far right and the riot police run, and the three distinct groups can no longer be identified. I too run before coming to my senses. If I run, I reason, they’ll mistake me for a rioter too. So I try to walk as calmly and as inconspicuously as possible and slip away down the street the driver had at first instructed me to go, smiling at the story I will have to share when I next call home.
I am late back to the hostel after sightseeing. Being night blind, I never like to be out alone in the dark, but to get to the S-Bahn means passing through the rioters who, I now see while trying to find a safe passage to the station, have truly descended into hell, throwing flares and burning anything they can find. It is a long detour around them as I walk slowly in the dark.
My adventurous soul daringly continues to follow the trail, the trip the next day is considered (at that time) to be the most dangerous train journey in Europe, the Berlin-Warsaw express. Sensibly I will break up the trip, I am only traveling as far as the Polish border, but still need to take the earliest train to avoid arriving in the dark. But that means leaving in the dark.
Getting to the nearest S-Bahn, taking the right train in the right direction, and disembarking at the right interchange station is a breeze. But I emerge, still in the dark, unable to see where to go for the next station. There is scaffolding, detours, misleading signs. I am too slow finding my way and miss the earliest Berlin-Warsaw express. I will now be arriving in Poznań in the dark.
My hostel is fifteen minutes from the train station so I spend most of my journey memorising the map and the route I will walk. (Kate’s Travel Rule #1: Never pull out a map until you absolutely must.) I am relieved to be getting off the Berlin-Warsaw express, still with my bag, money and passport, just before the most dangerous section at the most dangerous time of the day, but I also worry about finding my way around Poznań in the dark.
Walking confidently, (Kate’s Travel Rule #2: Look like you know where you are going even if you don’t), I am going the right way until I am going the wrong way. The opposite side of the road is pitch black, and I know pitch black means a park. I know a park on the opposite side of the road means I am going the wrong way. There should be no park if I am going the right way, so into a shop to ask directions I go.
It is a little busy, so I stand back to wait, deciding to work out where I am myself, and breaking my own number one rule, I take out my map and within seconds, it is snatched out of my hand.
Before me stands, I immediately recognise to be, a neo-nazi skinhead. Oh hell. Just great. Waving my map around he yells to my face. Is it Polish? Is it German? I have no idea. But clearly he isn’t welcoming me to his country. He is telling me to get the hell out.
While nervously watching, nobody in the shop dares to step in and help me. I am on my own so, (Kate’s travel rule #3: Never, ever show you are afraid even if you are), I stand and stare directly back at him, attempting to appear unaffected by his words, which, not actually understanding them helps. When he pauses, expecting me to respond to whatever it is he is yelling at me, I simply snatch my map, tell him, “I’ll take that back now, thanks,” turn around and walk to the counter to wait my turn. He yells some more then storms out into the darkness.
I now stand shaking and holding back tears. The park haunts me. I am trapped in a shop with a pitch black dark park across the road. He could be out there. Waiting. Waiting with friends. And so, I stay, waiting. Waiting for the shaking to stop. Waiting for the tears to stop. Waiting until I think he might be bored of waiting for me. Then I run out of the shop, run down the road. I run without looking back. I run until I make it to the town square and I run up the stairs at my hostel, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. And there I take off my distinctive pink coat (maybe he took offence to my coat, I joke) and I will not wear it again until I am back on the train in two days and on my way the hell out of Poznań.
After spending a few more weeks traveling Eastern Europe, I finally set off early one morning, my epic journey to Bosnia beginning with a pre-dawn shuttle to Budapest airport. So long is the day ahead, I have no recollection of flying, but my next memory is leaving Milan, amazed at how I connect immediately with the airport shuttle, the Metro and then again with the train. And again in Verona, then again in Venice. I am making connections with just a minute to spare.
In Trieste, it is now dark and I cannot see where to go to get from the train station to the bus station. Out of the blue, a man appears offering to help, and in English. No one has at first spoken in English to me for months. He will lead. I will follow. And I do, but I completely miss a flight of three or four steps. One moment I am up. The next down. I stop and look back. Shocked I didn’t stumble, that I didn’t fall. I mean, there are three or four steps I seem to have just drifted over. I look to the man, but he didn’t notice, and so run ahead to catch him.
“Here,” he points, and vanishes into the dark before I can thank him.
Here, is the bus station and before me stands a bus driver by the door of my bus. “I will wait,” he gestures. “Go and buy your ticket.”
Another connection, with a minute to spare. That makes six. And in a couple of hours, will be number seven. I get off my bus from Italy, now in Croatia at Rijeka and before me stands a bus driver by the door of my next bus. The bus to Bosnia. “I will wait,” he too gestures. “Go and buy your ticket.”
The following morning, at first light, I stand alone in Medjugorie, twenty-seven hours after beginning this epic journey, and marvel at the trail of breadcrumbs that has led me through five countries in one day. The bus drives away, continuing to Mostar and Sarajevo, and all is eerily quiet. The sky is blue but the air bitterly cold. Not a soul can be seen … until … what is that?
I hear it before I see it.
Out of the blue it comes.
One thing I am most afraid of in the world is an army tank. As a girl, I had reoccurring dreams of me being chased by a tank through the bush. And here I am. Tired, cold, hungry and alone in Bosnia, face to face with my worst nightmare.