Sunday, 28 February 2010

Tomorrow here

This is tomorrow here is Bosnia and Herzegovina.

What's it all about? Google it! I say that because I don't want to appear either ill-informed or insensitive and I know enough to know there are different opinions about the day.

Are such disagreements so surprising?

Let me avoid any deep issues and give my less-than-totally-serious answer. Things surprise me less and less but I think, in a way, this is surprising. In the UK people don't seem to care what a Bank Holiday is for, just that it's a day off work. For example, I'm sure it's that inherent laziness, rather than deep-seated English pride, that fuels the annual call for St George's Day to get added to the list national days off. Here, it seems, people are perhaps more principled.

Anyway I post this picture for the friend who was really excited when we saw this sign during a Sunday afternoon stroll through her town centre.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Don't Jump

I wasn't going to post on this story, but then I changed my mind.

Back in the summer we went to the 443rd annual bridge jumping competition from the Stari Most in Mostar. It was an insane – and awe inspiring – spectacle. Divers from all over had come to demonstrate that art of shallow diving. There seemed to be two basic techniques: feet first or head first. One seemed to score points for a big splash, the other didn't. Later that evening, I was leaning on the railings at the launch point, staring down into the swirling waters, discussing with a friend whether I'd have the bottle to jump if my life depended on it.

This morning I heard that someone died jumping off the Stari Most on Monday. The local word was he jumped from the wrong side, landed on his back and and never reappeared from the swollen waters. One local friend seemed bothered that people he knew were treating it quite lightly; “perhaps we saw too much death in the war” he offered. The sad fact is this is, as much as anything, a lesson in 'respect local culture'. No one just jumps off the Stari Most. There is a diving club that trains people from smaller platforms up and down the Neretva. No club member has died diving from the bridge. The Telegraph reports that some of these people tried to dissuade the jumper. Sadly, it seems he did not listen.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Wheel be stuck in snow then!

I've said a few times since moving to Bosnia and Herzegovina that I should be keeping a list of 'things I wish I'd paid more attention to in school'. Unsurprisingly, language lessons would be near the top of the list but, perhaps less obviously, vehicle mechanics would be right up there too. I don't remember if the local comprehensive I went to even offered such a GCSE but it would have been really handy if they did. I ability to make an informed guess about the possible outcomes of what was probably inadvisable activity might have soothed the nerves a bit on my latest auto-related adventure.

It was Sunday afternoon and we were up on Jahorina, one of Sarajevo's Olympic mountains, with Rowan's parents and an old family friend. I was the driver and one of Novi Most's Volkswagen Transporters was our transport. When we came to move the vehicle from one part of the resort to another it quickly became apparent the driver's side rear wheel had locked up. This had happened to this kombi during one of Mostar's rare snow falls earlier this year; the mechanic had subsequently checked the wheel and declared there was nothing wrong with it. Clearly it still had a problem with snow.

I called the co-worker who'd had the problem before. 'I just drove backwards and forwards a few metres and it freed up' they said. We were in the entrance to a car park so I thought we'd give it a go. On the few patches of clear tarmac the wheel would turn but on any snow or ice it just slid. Then it happened. I moved further onto the snow in the car park to let cars behind me pass. Stuck. With a binding back wheel it was like trying to pull away with the handbrake on. (The handbrake was not on. Believe me, I checked!) We pulled out the snow chains. There's always a first time and this was it for me and snow chains. We got them on just as local patience was wearing thin. We were moving again.

The road up (and down) to the ski resort was covered in snow for several winding kilometres. I decided that with no clear and traffic-free road to work the wheel free on the best option was to head down the mountain, hoping that the snow was slidy enough we wouldn't wear through the tyre. And so it was we started a very slow procession back towards Sarajevo. More than fifty vehicles overtook us on those long kilometres; some of them displaying a frighteningly dangerous combination of impatience and recklessness. But others – probably more than half – helpfully pointed at the frozen rear wheel. I nodded back in acknowledgement, but couldn't help thinking that the driver of a kombi doing 15kph with his hazard lights on is probably aware that something is up with his vehicle.

Back on tarmac it was off with the chains and a welcome return to four fully functioning wheels. I don't know what the cause of the problem was. The kombi will go back to the mechanic for what we hope will be a better diagnosis. In the meantime, maybe I should be looking on Amazon for a Haynes manual.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

The Climb

This is not a picture of me executing some fine overhang-conquering free climb. I’m in the picture below, staring up into a dark dead-end. But I was climbing and, as my fingers, hands and arms testify as I type, this evening was an upper-body workout unlike any I’ve had in a while.

A week or so back – which could mean anything up to a month ago! – a co-worker mentioned they had discovered a neighbour was involved in a new indoor climbing venture in Mostar. One thing led to another and a few of us went ago to check the venue out and ask about bring a group of young people along from Klub Novi Most. This seemed like the first request of its kind as the owners had to go away a work out what price they’d charge for a one-off group visit.

Tonight, somewhere on the campus of Univerziteta Džemal Bijedić in Mostar, a dozen young people and youth leaders got to play at being monkeys! It was all good, relaxed fun, with no accidents or injuries. But it was the sort of fun that it sadly outlawed these days in the UK. I remember a couple of school climbing trips I went on as an early teen; they were to real rocks, but they presented a similar challenge to tonight’s trip. Back then free climbing was an option so long as you could prove to the teacher you were sensible. These days you’d need ropes and safety ropes to tackle anything similar. And let’s not even get started on the prohibitive insurance requirements. I could rant on...

Instead, let’s celebrate a new facility in Mostar, one that I’m sure we’ll make use of again. And with that in mind perhaps I should drag the exercise regime I dreamed up from the realm of good intentions into the reality of my daily schedule!

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Me on The Economist on Facebook

If you happen to be my friend on Facebook you might have noticed I updated my status the other night to say I was off to read what The Economist had to say about social networking. Someone asked me what they said. I replied: nothing that I didn't know already. This post is intended to clarify what might be seen as both a sweeping and an arrogant statement!

I'm typing from our computer room in Klub. Around me are teens and twenties online. They all live in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and represent a mix of the different ethnic and social backgrounds of the city's residents. There are all on Facebook. I don't just mean that they all have Facebook profiles, they are all on Facebook now. While the whole world of the internet is at their fingertips they have all chosen the same destination. Well done Mark Zuckerberg.

The Economist says social networking dominance in Facebook's to lose. Experiences like mine help prove the point. It is an indicator of that all important ubiquity, and of its globalising potential, that I get notifications that these Bosnian social networkers have joined some of the same groups as Facebook friends of mine from the UK and the US. The Economist survey mentions the millions being made by Zynga through apps like Fishville. We see people here showing near-addicted levels of dedication to their vitual aquariums. They may not be contributing to the revenue stream but they're certainly part of the phenonenom.

Security and privacy are big concerns with the growth in social networking. For these users the biggest concern, other than understanding English-language prompts and navigation buttons, is remembering their passwords. This has lead to us offering our own secure storage device: the female mind. Without my wife many of them would be permanently locked out of their email, forever seperated from their precious pixilated fish. Clearly their desire to be connected is greater than their concerns about privacy.

Thanks to Facebook's strategy the site's main features are available in local language, as is the embedded advertising – although that only ever seems to be for online games or dating services. But that gets me thinking. In the days before Facebook apps we'd see people surfing around various disreptuable-looking online game sites, the sort with virus-laden pop-ups and adverts for Green Cards. Facebook by comparison seems like a safe place to be, not just for our computers but also, perhaps, for their users.

Genuine Green Card's may remain as illusive as ever but an real slice of online Americana has definitely arrived. It may be taking over but Facebook could be an example of American colonialisation actually making the world a better place. And for that we should be grateful.

Monday, 8 February 2010

The Snowy Mountain Section

I've never owned a games console but I've played a few. I remember a friend getting Sega Rally and the hours of driving that ensued. It was all high-speed fun and sliding round corners; clouds of dust or spraying snow flying in every direction depending on the terrain. The best bit was that when it all went horribly wrong the car magically reappeared, blinking, in the middle of the road, counting down three, two, one until you were off again.

The part of the UK we lived in was not the sort of countryside that got to model for games like Sega Rally, at least not the roads I spent most of my time driving, although I did once get airborne, all be it microscopically so, accelerating hard down a bumpy bit of single track on the South Downs in our new Mini. To date my only other real-life Sega Rally moment had come driving a dirt track through the Joshua Tree forest on the our way to and from the West Rim of the Grand Canyon. Yes, I did get the hire car sideways at one point. No, it was not intentional!

Last night I added a third to this collection. The snowy mountain section. In the game this I one of the really fun ones, with loads of potential for big drifts and awesome handbrake turns. All of which you do knowing that you'll return, blinking, to the centre of the screen should anything untoward happen. In real-life this is not an option. There could be big drops involved and I have no desire to be prematurely blinking at the bright light at the end of the tunnel.

But panic not: mothers, and those of a nervous disposition! Clearly, as I'm writing this post I cleared the section, although it would have been easier had the snowploughs we saw parked up actually been out clearing snow. Was it icy under the snow? I couldn't say. Well, was the road slippery? I didn't test it. All I know is we kept going in the direction I intended, at the speed I decided without the need, or desire, for any opposite lock. Exciting it may not have been but I'm taking it as a win against the elements!

Monday, 1 February 2010

Scrap Metal and Malls

I was out for a walk earlier and took the opportunity to film this...