“Are you Jewish?” the man asked me in the cramped but hospitable mountain hut. This question, following his query about whether I was a Mormon, sent myself and four ladies into hysterics of laughter.
When a friend invited me to join her ladies hiking troop in the mountains surrounding Sarajevo, I jumped at the chance. Sadly, it took years after the war before anybody felt safe enough to hike—the fear of mines a real danger. Now however, we encountered many groups as we huffed our way up the steep incline. Since most of the same groups hiked every week, I felt as if I had entered an extended community. Greetings and conversations were shared as we passed by and stopped at various huts for refreshment. Our group— five women hiking together without men— seemed to be a bit of an unusual event.
Crisp and clear high in the hills, a winter haze lightly rested on the city below. Although fields and trees bore the yellowish breath of winter, bushes laden with bright red berries added surprising splashes of color to the landscape. I breathed in great gulps of clean air, feeling invigorated at being back in the mountains’ quietness.
M. grew up hiking in these mountains. Although she was over 60, her tiny frame pranced up the mountain, an indomitable and unstoppable force, while the rest of us sweated our way up. “What do you think?” she would ask me, frequently stopping to remind us of the view, proudly pointing and naming each surrounding mountain, as if she was introducing us to dear friends. In the true spirit of a mountain guide, she continually checked in with us as well as providing constant amusement with her quick wit and hilarious observations.
Because this culture prioritizes social interaction and community, usually while drinking coffee, stopping at huts for refreshment is a vital part of the hiking experience—a practice to which I could easily grow accustomed. At the second hut, M., who insisted on paying for everything, went inside to negotiate either a picnic table in the sun or a seat inside. I plopped on the grass, taking in the view of the surrounding mountains.
“Melody, no, please, no.” M. saw me sitting on the grass and came running over with a cushion, insisting that I sit on it. In this culture, there is a strong belief that women can freeze their ovaries by sitting on cold surfaces. I had no objection to complying with her request—why sit on the hard ground when someone is offering you a cushion?
Finally, we chose to sit inside, and steaming bowls of rich, veal vegetable soup were placed in front of us. I savored every bite, dipping crusty bread and drinking my homemade cup of yogurt. After asking his random questions, our new friend at the next table pointed at my Capri exercise pants, very concerned that I might be cold. I had a hard time understanding his Bosnian, but after he looked over at a basket displaying handmade woolen slippers, he switched abruptly to English: “Trust me, I know what I am doing, ” he said and held up a pair. “Only 100 Euros!” he shifted back to Bosnian, his half-toothless grin irrepressible. The ladies around the table giggled. “Where are you from?” he asked me.
“Is Oregon like Bosnia?” This sent the women off into another peal of laughter. “Well, kind of.” I said. “We have hills and mountains….”
After two hours in the hut, we realized we would be fighting the coming darkness, so we hurriedly put on our packs. “See you in Oregon,” the man said, grinning, as we exited the hut. With an overly full belly, I felt like rolling down the hill, but I enjoyed even this slightly uncomfortable descent. A glorious day of cultural experiences and new friends. Who could ask for more?