Saskatchewan Stopover

Approaching Regina’s airport, I got my first glimpse of my beloved coulees.

I’m home at Haven, “living off the land with Charles and Caroline” (that’s what they told me to tell you).

The first part of April has been about racking up as many billable hours as possible. I haven’t had much leisure time and haven’t been in the mood to blog. I’ll pick it up again as I head south and I do have a bunch of drafts in the pipeline, but there just haven’t been enough brain cells left at the end of the day to string together two sentences.

So my parents came back from their holiday on Friday (the 14th) and on Tuesday (the 18th) I headed to Haven. I had an absolutely uneventful and pleasant flights with Westjet, with a short layover in Winnipeg. It was a week where Air Canada and United Airlines were in the news a lot for being despicable to their customers so I want to publicly thank Westjet for reliably being the airline that gets me around without any drama and with smiling personnel who seem to love their job.

Charles and Caroline were waiting for me in Regina when I landed on time at 5:23PM. We were at our hamlet just past 8PM. I’m staying with them since Haven has no water, power, or internet, plus it’ll be easier to pack if I’m not trying to live and cook in my space.

Wednesday morning, Charles and I went to Haven to see if we could start my truck. He reconnected the battery and it took only two tries for my Moya to roar to life, no boost needed! Haven itself was in fine shape, just more mouse poop and spider webs than I expected. The only thing of note is that I now have a proper street address rather than just a land description!

It wound up being a pretty lazy day. I spent a few hours at home figuring out a plan of attack for packing, including reaching the conclusion that I’m better off using cardboard boxes rather than Rubbermaid totes. I plan to unpack quite a bit even while housesitting because I’ll be staying in the guest casita for six month and so it’s not like all my things will spend the summer in cardboard boxes getting mouldy. This way, I don’t have to buy new storage containers for Haven and I won’t have a bunch of useless Rubbermaid totes to store in Mexico.

I also made a call to schedule some service for Moya since she needed two new tires, an oil change, and a minor repair. They couldn’t fit me in till Monday, which didn’t work for me since I wanted to go to Moose Jaw to stretch Moya’s legs. Plus, I had to drive a certain distance and then have the wheels retorqued (the fact that Moose Jaw has a great all you can eat sushi restaurant is purely coincidental). The garage managed to fit me in today, Thursday, for the new tires and we put the rest to Monday.

It was an early morning since I had a largish job to do before heading out in the afternoon to run errands with Caroline in Assiniboia and get the tires put on Moya. I got it done in the nick of time, but, of course, Google is not compatible with the crap internet here. I remembered at the last minute that Bing works well here and was able to do the research I needed to do to get the job sent off. I then headed out with Caroline, dropping her off for her appointment before going to the SGI office (DMV).

There, I picked up the registration I’d paid for by phone on Wednesday. Moya will be duly registered and insured for the next 28 days. After that, she will have a valid plate, but not be street legal in the US and Canada since the Mexico insurance will take over. I also had a new driver’s license done since my current one expires next spring and I don’t want to have to fly back here to renew it! I want to keep it active so that I don’t have a gap in my Canadian driving history even if I end up getting a Mexican license as well. Slight hiccup, the new license won’t come for two weeks and I’m hoping to leave on Tuesday. So added to the list is trying to figure out how to DHL my license to Mérida. There’s always something!

I tested my new real address and their system took it, so it’s legit! It’ll be great to have a proper address on my driver’s license now. It also means that people who wouldn’t ship to me for lack of a street address would now. Actual unexpected progress. Getting an address was going to be my next fight…

The SGI stuff was quick so I went to the bank to drain my USD account to cover my meals on the way down. It’s not much, but whatever I don’t have to convert from CAD will be appreciated.

I then picked Caroline up and we went for a nice lunch at the Greek restaurant where my immediate neighbour works as a server. It was lovely to catch up with her. After, I left Caroline at the library to do the updates on her new Mac. I headed to the gas station to fill up and went next door to the home store to get house numbers for my property. 🙂

It was then time to drop off the truck and I kicked myself for forgetting the laptop so I could do a post, but they wound up being too fast for me to do that anyway! I was able to start the post on my phone and upload a photo, though, so that’s why you get a picture. 🙂

The tires weren’t cheap, but now Moya has shoes I can trust to get me to Mérida. She’s had enough service there for the mechanic to say that my road warrior might not be pretty, but he’d bet that she’ll get me there without incident, which was good news! I found she handled a lot better after the tire service.

I picked up Caroline, we ran a few more errands for her, and then we headed home. She made us a lovely dinner (coquilles St. Jacques!) while I was on standby to run to the basement to pick up pantry items as needed. 🙂

So tomorrow will be a Moose Jaw run for a 300KM run to work out any of Moya’s kinks in case I need the garage to look for anything else on Monday. I’m also going to Bulk Barn to pick up spices.

Saturday, I’ll do a thrift store run to drop some stuff off and start packing. Sunday will be another packing day. Monday will be an Assiniboia day and then I should be able to leave on Tuesday. We shall see if that comes to pass since I still have a bunch of paperwork to sort out, including my bilingual inventory. But I prefer to aim for Tuesday as that’s going to light a fire under my butt.

But let me tell you, I wish I could stay home for a spell.

Back Behind the Wheel

One of the perks of housesitting for my parents is that I have access to their car. That’s great in theory, but I have driven all of a week in the last ten months and the greater Montreal area is one of the most harrowing places I’ve ever driven. I went out for a very short run on Saturday to run errands within Chambly, but tonight was the big test: driving my parents to the airport in Dorval and then getting back home!

Despite traffic, the drive to the airport was quite easy since I had navigators. Like when I drove on Saturday, I found that the biggest stress was driving their new car with all its gadgets. I could have used one of those gadgets on Miranda, though, rearview mirrors that flash if there is someone in your blind spot and beep at you if you put your flashers on when someone is in your blind spot. That’s a feature I’d love on my next car!

When we got to the airport, they explained to me where the “cellparc” is. That’s a great feature at PE Trudeau Airport where you can park for up to an hour for free to wait for an arrival. There has to be someone in the car who has a cellphone. So when I go pick up my parents in three weeks, I will just go there and they will call me once they’ve cleared customs and have their luggage, then I will swing around and pick them up. That will save a hefty parking fee.

Then, I had to go home. They’d showed me the route when I arrived last week, but I wasn’t in a mindset then to remember much, although some landmarks stuck in my head. I was pretty sure I was headed in generally the right direction and that I’d hit a bridge to the South Shore, even if it wasn’t the one I meant to take, but I could get home easily from any of them even if I went out of my way. So I was very happy when I saw the first sign telling me I was indeed on the way to the Honoré-Mercier Bridge that I wanted to take. There was no traffic at that point, so the drive was very easy. I was exhausted when I came in, though!

I’ve got a big day of work tomorrow, but Friday should be focused on getting together my documents for my residente temporal visa application so I can go to the consulate on Saturday morning. If my request fails in Montreal (I hear that service here is abysmal), I’ll make a second attempt at the embassy in Ottawa. But I’m optimistic that I will be fine here as long as I have all my paperwork and proceed in Spanish. I’m having fun reading all the Spanish legalese to make sure I have everything and have no idea how people who don’t speak Spanish get through this process.

My host in Mexico keeps sending me teaser photos of where I’m headed and it looks so much like Isla that I’m really getting homesick! Who knows, I may change my mind about moving to downtown Mérida. 🙂

An Amazing Last Evening in Spain and Off to Amsterdam!

My host in Málaga asked for permission to have a friend over last night! In her own home! She really wanted me to meet him, she said, and she also wanted to put together a special dinner for my final night in Spain. Um, WOW. Her friend, D, is Chilean, but has lived all over the world, including in Bulgaria! They insisted on making food while I drank beer and then we sat and noshed “family style.” There was guacamole made from avocados from my host’s family’s farm (with lemon juice and balsamic vinegar!), cheeses, sesame crackers, store-bought fries with a yummy yoghurt sauce, and homemade falafel (so good!). And did I mention beer?

We gabbed and laughed in a way that made me realise how much I need to make friends who only speak Spanish to force me to converse more. I had a blast trying to explain the finer points of taxation as a sole proprietor in Canada with my limited vocabulary. It’s not like I had to learn that in school! D and I also had a “Bulgarian vocabulary-off,” trying to see who remembered the most of that language. Interestingly enough, he’s the first person I’ve met who raved about Varna, a city I was well convinced not to visit (I went to Veliko Tarnovo instead).

Our meal didn’t end that late, but by the time I’d wound down enough to sleep it was almost midnight, quite a bit later than I wanted to go to bed since I wanted to be gone by about eight. I woke up at 7:45 and packed as my host got ready for work, then headed out around 8:15. She’d advised me to take a train rather than the bus to the airport, which was almost half the cost! I stopped at the Deutsche Bank on the way since there are no Global ATM Alliance banks in the Netherlands.

I got to the train station around 8:30 and a train came at 8:50. It was then a very quick (about 15-minute) ride to the airport. My flight was at 11:25. The plan was to get through security and then have breakfast. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

Security was backed up and slow. I listened to all the instructions (given in both English and Spanish) and followed them to the letter, including removing my boots. An agent approved my trays to be sent through the scanner and told me to go through the metal detector. I didn’t beep. So all clear, right?

No. That I don’t know what to call her agent who had approved my trays sneered at me and said I had to go back and put my electronic devices into separate trays and go through the process again. I went to grab my purse and she snapped that those things had been cleared and to leave them. I went back around the scanner and had to get back in line to send my electronics through. I was there a solid ten minutes with poor visibility on my belongings on the other side, which included my purse that had my passport, cash, and cards. Well, it happened — someone got interested in my bag. I yelled to the person to leave it alone and the same *** agent told me to stop making a scene!

I finally was able to push my trays through the scanner and was sent back through the metal detector. Just as I came out the other side, I saw my trays move back out in the wrong direction. And, sure enough, someone was eyeing them. I was just about to call out when the trays were pushed through the scanner at last… and then I couldn’t get to them for another minute because the line was so backed up. Talk about stressful! This was my worst airport security experience so far, but the nightmare my neighbour went through at the airport in Regina last week definitely put things into perspective. I was just glad to get through without losing anything!

I found a café after and got a very good Americano and a pain aux raisins, something I haven’t had since London. It was really good and reasonably priced by airport standards. At another café, I picked up a very expensive bottle of water and a decently priced ham and cheese sandwich for the plane (which ended up being a good call since EasyJet’s offerings were uninspiring). I then had about 45 minutes left to wait to board and I was able to get jump the queue for that since I’d paid for priority boarding in order to get both my bags on board as carry-on.  I was pleased that there was no one in the middle seat for my row, but less pleased that an American business man decided that meant he had two seats and started crowding me with his stuff. I let him know that wasn’t okay, then promptly went to sleep!

So the flight passed very quickly. There was nothing to see since we were flying over dense clouds. We landed at Schiphol Airport 10 minutes early, but the captain made a sarcastic comment about how far the landing strips are from the terminal and that having to drive all that distance would eat up our advance. We finally made it and deplaned. I got my first taste of the cooler Amsterdam weather and it wasn’t as bracing as I expected.

I didn’t have to go through customs  and had nothing to declare, so I was able to go straight to the train station. I like traveling within the the EU! 🙂

My host had given me very clear instructions on how to get to her home and I’d done my homework as far as paying for public transportation. I doubted I’d be able to recoup the non-refundable 7.50 euro cost for the OV-chipkaart (similar to the Oyster in London), so I bought a single to Amsterdam Centraal, which had a surcharge of 1 euro, and I was amused that the only way to pay was with a card and there was an additional surcharge to pay with a card.

Like with Oyster, I had to tap in before going to the platform and then would have to tap out, even with a paper ticket. I did that and then found the platform I needed. I barely had any wait before an Amsterdam Centraal bound direct train pulled up. It was then a very quick ride to the station. The scenery was nothing special, just rather bleak. Things got more interesting as we pulled into Amsterdam and I saw an iconic canal with houses lining it.

At the train station, I had to go to street level and catch a tram. I wasn’t sure where to get a ticket, so I went to an information desk. The agent there was odd, but spoke English and answered my questions. He sent me in the right direction knowing that I could pay the driver 2.90 euros cash.

The tram I needed was waiting out front! I still took the time to snap a few pictures of my first real glimpse of Amsterdam.

The tram driver was very pleasant about my not having change and got me sorted. I found a seat and was relieved to see that not only are all the stops announced, you can see the next several ones coming up. So I knew when it was time to make my way to a door and to request my stop. Slight hiccup at the stop, the doors didn’t open. A nice guy called to the driver to wait and showed me that I was supposed to press a button. Live and learn! 🙂

My host’s directions from the tram stop were fantastic. and I got to the house without any trouble (it was just a couple of blocks). She’d warned me she probably wouldn’t be home and would leave me a key, which was exactly where it was supposed to be. It was a bit odd to let myself in and make myself at home, but I did since I’d been sent the wifi password ahead of time. 🙂 I also introduced myself to my new charges. One is very friendly, the other will need some time to get used to me.

It was perhaps an hour before my host showed up. She is an American from New Orleans and “totally chill,” as she puts it. I felt very comfortable with her. She explained a few things to me and then introduced me to her fiancé when he came home. He’s Dutch, but speaks good English.

They suggested we go out for dinner to a nearby Greek café and that sounded good to me! It was a short, but cold and drizzly, walk there.

The place was tiny and felt more like being in someone’s dining room. The owner is Greek (of course), speaks perfect English, and is very friendly. She made me feel right at home. My hosts are vegans and the café has vegan options, but there’s also meat. The meatball special sounded good to me and I made sure that wouldn’t cause offence before ordering it. It wound up being a wonderful choice, coming with a tzatziki sauce, a salad with a balsamic vinaigrette, and roasted seasoned potatoes, just the way I like them, plus a very dense whole grain bread. It was just like eating home cooking. For dessert, we tried these crumbly honey-soaked cookies coated in crushed walnuts. I also ordered a saffron/lemon grass/mint tea that came with a sliver of walnut cake that I actually preferred to the cookie as it was moister. Prices felt very reasonable (my main was 8.50 euros), but I found out as I was about to pay that I was being treated!

We took a slight detour on the way back so I could get breakfast stuff for tomorrow, just bananas, raisin bread, and a hunk of cheese. All I can say about the price of cheese here is that I’m now convinced that Canadians are the only cheese-eating people of the Earth who get ripped off… The price of my purchases wouldn’t have even covered the cheese in Canada. So I’m encouraged that I won’t go broke eating here as long as I cook for myself as much as possible.

So I’m in Amsterdam! The next two weeks are going to absolutely fly by. There are only two things on my list, but I’m sure there’s more to do. I’m investigating a museum pass since I think that work will be light and I might have enough free time to visit enough museums for the pass to pay for itself. The house I’m in is very comfortable and my location is just off of downtown and walking distance to just about anything I’d want to see, hence why I decided to skip the public transportation pass. Can’t wait to start exploring!

Sarajevo Siege Tour

Today was very much a lesson in the hard hitting truth that there are three sides to a story, yours, mine, and the truth that sits somewhere in between.

I went on a four-hour “Total Siege Tour” with Funky Sarajevo Tours. This felt like the best way to hit some sites that are just about not accessible by public transportation and at 40KM (plus 10KM for entrance to the war tunnel), it was better value than hiring a taxi. They were not my first choice for a tour, but could fit me in this morning, so that’s why I picked them.

I have such mixed feelings about my guide and the tour she gave us. Now that I’ve processed it all, I can say that the tour was a good experience and worth what I paid for it, but I think she needs a little guidance on what is appropriate to say or not. I am willing to give her a lot of slack for times that she said indelicate things that were perhaps lost in translation.

She was 23 when the siege started. The thing she said to us today that I will never forget is, “I was eating pizza when the first shell fell.” That says everything about how memorable the moment was, that she can remember it in such detail.

I think an issue I had with her tour is that I feel that such things should be neutral and represent both sides of an issue. But this war is very recent and the wounds are still raw. For her, there might not be war right now, but there is not peace and the Serbs were and still are very much the enemy. She invited us to get a Serbian perspective, repeating many times that there are two sides to a story, but it was very clear that she felt that she was a victim in the siege and the Serbs were aggressors.

Another thing that stuck out is that she told us many times how unfair the siege was, that they were a European country, not some uncivilised back water. I held my tongue at reminding her that the Bosnian War was just one of several terrible conflicts in Europe and among so-called civilised nations. But I said nothing because she was obviously so wounded and so marked by events that I cannot even begin to conjure. She was able to flee to France partway through the siege, but the damage was done.

She also seems to resent the foreign community, feeling that they didn’t care about the suffering of the Sarajevans and that they came in much too late. She also said something that I had to really process because I felt so insulted, but I’m going to chalk it up to a translation issue because of a conversation we had much later. I got the impression that she was saying that people are now coming to Bosnia, but where were we when Bosnia needed us, and that we’re basically rubber necking. But that is a lot of projection and interpretation on my part. Considering how many times she would later thank me for coming to Bosnia and Sarajevo and being a positive ambassador to her country, I think I totally misinterpreted her initial comment that threw me off.

So this was a very different account of the siege than that of a man who was but a young boy at the time. This is a woman who, if I understood her correctly, had many family members massacred, who had friends who were among the 20,000 women raped, who experienced the shelling and the privations. I am completely sympathetic to her and am grateful that she shared her story and reminded us many times that this interpretation is just one of many.

The day started off a bit rockily because I had a hard time finding Sarajevo Funky Tours office since it is a the end of an alley and there is no signage other than in a recessed window that you can’t see until you’re right up to it. It was frustrating to nearly be late when the location was so close and convenient for me, at the end of my street and about half a block over, that I didn’t give myself much extra time to get there for nine. But I could have been late since we had to wait for another couple anyway.

I can’t even begin to recall everything that she told us on our half-day tour. A huge chunk of it was as we were going down “Sniper Alley,” the main thoroughfare through Sarajevo, at too fast a clip to take pictures. I am definitely going to walk that way tomorrow afternoon and get pictures and more information on what I saw. It was just too rainy and I had too much work to do to go ahead with that plan today. So consider this post one of two. I cannot get out of my mind right now the sky-high apartment blocks that still have impact craters. How are they structurally sound?!

We saw and heard so much on that 20 or so minute drive. I was enrapt even if I found the guide’s rapid-fire delivery a bit much. But I appreciated how much she was trying to cram in. Being on site and having a guide who was right there brought history to life. It reminded me of a conversation I had with an Auschwitz survivor some years ago.

Our first stop of the day was the Tunnel of Life, by the airport. This was Sarajevo’s lifeline to the outside world and passed under the runway.

We saw this map quite a bit later in our tour of the War Tunnel, but I’m presenting it now so that you can get some visuals. I really didn’t understand the terrain until we got to this sign and then everything came together. So what you see is Sarajevo surrounded in red by the Serbian forces, with the airport (blue) at a narrow point to the south (top of the map is south, bottom is north). The tunnel was used to move everything from guns to food to medicine. People who had money were able to get out that way as well. The tunnel on both sides was in the basement of a private home. The tunnel museum is on the south side at the Kolar family residence and we can visit 25 of the 800 metres of the tunnel.

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Sarajevo Airport.

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The Kolar home, now the Tunnel Museum. Tunel Spasa means “tunnel of life.” We saw a 12-minute video of raw footage from ’92 that shows this house sitting in the middle of a mud field.

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The video was incredible as I could see buildings being bombarded that have since been reconstructed. I was 13 years old when this war started and 17 when it ended. I remember the news reports, but we didn’t have the internet back then so we were limited in how much we knew and what we did know was biased.

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I think I kind of sort of get what this sign is trying to say if you consider WWI as the start of the 20th century, with that conflict also being triggered in Sarajevo.

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The tunnel entrance is under that metal piece at the back. We will return.

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A Sarajevo rose.

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Mockup of a land mine. Our guide confirmed my research that says that mines are still a problem in the wilder parts of the country and to make sure an area has been cleaned up before heading out in the wilderness. She also spoke about how Princess Diana came to Bosnia just before her death to protest landmines.

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The tunnel runs under this field. There are plans to reopen the whole of it.

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Sobering facts. Our guide did remember the ’84 Olympics very fondly. She was 16 at the time.

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Here’s another moment where she just casually tossed out something that surprised me. This is what they cooked on and heated with during the siege. I forget what her exact quote was, but something along the lines of, “Can you imagine going from IKEA to this?” What a reminder that ’92 was not that far away. I spent a good chunk of the tour remembering what I was doing ’92 to ’95 (my high school years).

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Tunnel entrance.

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But first, we went into that little room.

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One of the rebuilding aids that was sent to Sarajevo was PVC windows. That explains why every house in Sarjevo seems to have really nice new windows.

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We went into the tunnel. I’m 5’6″ and I had to stoop. I had had enough of the experience about halfway through this 25-metre section. I can’t imagine going through all 800 metres with a 50-pound pack of supplies on my back…

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Here, we were shown an example of how people lived in their basements. She again make the comment about how they went from IKEA to this.

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This was a pump to get rid of the water in the tunnels. The video showed that the water was quite deep at times.

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Here’s a model of the tunnel and area.

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There were rails in the tunnel so that things and immobile people could be moved on wheels.

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She talked to us a bit about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s work in Bosnia, including Jolie’s movie Land of Blood and Honey. I haven’t seen it, but have heard pretty terrible things about it. Our host seemed to think it represented reality and told us that the Serbs are working on a movie of their own in retaliation for how they were portrayed in Land of Blood and Honey.

From the war tunnel, we headed up into the mountains to get a better perspective on where the shells were coming from and to see the luge track from the ’84 Olympics. Speaking of which:

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I was really disappointed that we didn’t even stop to look at it more closely…

And then, we pulled over to see Sarajevo spread out below us. There was light artillery here and on all the surrounding mountaintops. It’s “only” two kilometres as the crow flies to the city centre. Imagine yourself as one of the people in the city below in the sights of the big guns.

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You can see the parrot building clearly in this shot.

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City Hall stands out here. The movie we’d seen at the tunnel showed it, and many other buildings, on fire. The rebuilding effort has been amazing, but, like Neno said yesterday, our guide reminded us that there is a lot of corruption and in-fighting so the money isn’t going where it needs to go and rebuilding is very slow.

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So many cemeteries…

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Our next stop was the luge track! As it turns out, it’s now a walking path! What a lovely way to nearly end the tour, in all that fresh  mountain air. Because of Sarjevo’s position in the valley and the fact that there is a lot of pollution, the air quality is terrible. I could not believe the difference up there.

So you can see the start of a track and some stands where people sat. Our guide said that she stood some distance down the track to get a better view.

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The track was filled with insulation and then water to make slick ice.

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What an incredible space to walk or mountain bike!

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Our final official stop was this restaurant that was a headquarters of sorts during the war. It was destroyed by the retreating forces.

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I don’t know why, but coming upon this text freaked me out!

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She pointed out the Franciscan church and remarked on how unusual Sarajevo is because you can hear both church bells and the adhan. It seems like the many religions here have found a way to coexist and that this is very much a modern, European, Muslim population that cannot see itself in the more oppressive Islamic countries.

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There was an impressive storm rolling in!

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We were past our return time, so we then sped down the mountain into town. The Americans in our group wanted one last shot of the city and I took the time to take this shot of an old railway station.

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And another minaret.

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We were dropped off at the office, which, again, was convenient for me since it would be easy to get home. The threatening rain was holding off, so I decided to get lunch and buy a few groceries for a supper at home. I wound up wandering around in circles for too long looking for that Middle Eastern Tea For Two restaurant I ate at on Saturday and was just about to give up when I finally spotted it! Lunch was very good chicken kebabs. The Moroccan spice tea was was very welcome after that chilly walk!

(pausing to listen to the adhan)

It was spitting when I came out of the restaurant. I went to a little grocery store I’d spotted the other day that is conveniently located and got salami, cheese, and tomatoes for a cold supper. Then I remembered how damp the flat was yesterday in the heavy rain and added a package of soup so I would have something warm! That reminds me that I went out in the pouring rain last night to get dinner and was so soaked by the time that I got to the market that I went straight back to Minder Fast Food, who were, thankfully, open! I had another lovely meal there. It’s a new restaurant, not even on TripAdvisor, and my own little secret piece of Sarajevo!

I got in and went to work, pausing in the late afternoon to do laundry that I really hope will dry by Thursday morning!

It’s been another big day in Sarajevo, with so much to ponder. I’ve got two days left and will try to visit a few buildings and museums, as well as do that walk downtown, depending on my workload.