Bosnians Know How to Welcome You With an Open Heart

Travel. Backpacking. Southern Europe.

The story of a random encounter in rainy Sarajevo.

Photo by author. View over Sarajevo.

It was a rainy summer afternoon in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I had finished my lunch at a restaurant in the city center but held on for a little longer while waiting for the rain to stop.

The door of the restaurant opened, as it had many times while I had my meal. But, this time, it wasn’t a customer. It was a big guy in a soaked raincoat, who seemed to know the staff and asked if he could wait inside for the bad weather to pass.

He noticed me and told me something — I don’t remember what, at this point. But that was just the first line of an hour-long conversation where he told me he was a tour guide in the Bosnian capital.

After a while, the rain stopped.

“Do you want to meet me here for dinner?” — he asked.

Yet, he made it clear: he had no second intentions, as he had a girlfriend. I will never know if it was just a story he made up, but it made me feel safer.

Heck, why not? So after an afternoon of wandering around, I showed up at the same restaurant, exactly at 8 pm. My feeling from lunchtime was right: indeed, he knew the staff. He recommended the restaurant to the people on his tours and, in return, the restaurant let him eat there for free every day. And that’s how we ended up in a reserved area, with a delicious meal and a bottle of wine, for free.

I told him about my travels. At that point, I had been on the road alone for a month, exploring Eastern Europe. He asked me about my home country of Portugal, and he explained how he lived his life: a few months of intense tour guiding in Sarajevo during the summer, and another few months of holiday wherever he felt like it. We understood each other, we vibrated with the same things, we had topics to talk about for hours on end.

Towards the end of the night, he asked: “What are you doing tomorrow?”. I had no fixed plans. “Do you want to come on my war tour?”, he offered. Yes! I did! I am a geek when it comes to the Balkans and its history, so I certainly wanted to know more about the war in Sarajevo.

And then, the weirdest thing happened…

He gave me 40€ and said: “People on the tour shouldn’t know you’re my friend, so you will need to pay me at the end, like everyone else. But here’s the money, just give it back to me tomorrow, when everyone else pays for their participation”.

There he was, a complete stranger, handing me a considerable amount of money, at least for Bosnian standards, and trusting that I would show up the next day and give it back to him.

I refused, but he thoroughly insisted until I eventually accepted.

Our dinner was over, but before I went off to my hostel, there was one last thing he wanted to do… get me breakfast for the next morning. We exited the restaurant together and walked to a burek shop. He knew the staff there as well and asked for a burek to take away. He handed it to me while wishing me good night.

“See you tomorrow”.

The next day, I showed up at the meeting point, in the place commonly known as “Pigeon Square”. He pretended he didn’t know me, as he had warned me he would. I never understood exactly why he didn’t want people to realize we knew each other, but I played along.

During the whole morning, we drove to spots around Sarajevo while he explained the brutal story of the 4 year-long war the city had to endure, between 1992 and 1995. I learned so much, and I soaked in as much wisdom as I could. As I said, I’m a geek when it comes to the history of Yugoslavia.

As we drove from the last visitation spot back to the city center, he announced it was time to pay for the tour. I got the 40€ out of my wallet and handed them to him:

“Keep the change”, I said, still amazed by the whole situation.

The other guests paid him as well and, them too, said: “keep the change”.

We arrived at the final stop. I told him goodbye and got off the van. The next day, I took a bus to Mostar, further south in the country, and never returned to Sarajevo since then.

He messaged me some weeks later, asking for advice for a friend who was about to visit Portugal. I replied with a list of tips, it was the very minimum I could do after such an experience.

This Guy Was Not The Only One

When I first told my family and friends that I was going to backpack alone in Bosnia and Herzegovina, they were concerned. It is a country that people still associate with war, even though the conflict was over more than 25 years ago.

It is not a dangerous country. Instead, it was the country where I found the most open, helpful, and generous people. This guy was the one who provided the craziest story, but he was not the only kind soul on my way.

There was the hostel staff who shared fruits with me while showing me videos of Bosnian music on Youtube, the guy who showed me where the hairdresser was and translated what I needed to the lady working there, or the madman who owned the hostel I stayed at in Mostar and kept saying “Lookie lookie, here’s a coffee for you” or “Looking lookie, Bosnians welcome you with an open heart”. Indeed they do.

Watch my video on Bosnia and Herzegovina here:


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