How I Learned to Travel with Purpose in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Have you ever considered that you have special skills and talents that can be used to help others? Have you thought about supporting your favorite non-profit organization by volunteering your photography, videography or other unique know-how? I had the privilege of traveling several years ago as a volunteer photographer and learned as much about myself as I did about those I was serving.

My first few exposures to volunteer travel were situations where I offered my photography skills to document events for non-profit organizations that served people in other countries. In one case it was not a typical volunteer trip. A small group planned to go to Bosnia and Herzegovina to re-connect, support, and encourage those they’d served there before and to create new connections through music. My husband is a musician. He was invited to go and play music with his friend, Bob Ryan to encourage the people in Mostar, Sarajevo, and the small town of Breza. Although I’m not a professional photographer, I volunteered to document the trip in pictures so we could share our activities with supporters when we got home. My husband was apprehensive about going to a place so different from home, but I was very excited (just a small indication of our different personalities). I’ve wanted to go on a short-term volunteer trip for years, but this was the first time that our circumstances would allow for it.

After we determined that our schedules were open and we both could go, we had to figure out how we would pay for it. As with most non-profit opportunities, we needed to either pay for it ourselves (which was a bit out of our budget) or raise the funds. Generally smaller non-profits don’t have the extra money to cover things like a traveling photographer. Through the generous help of friends, family, and many others, we were soon blessed to raise enough money to cover the trip expenses for both of us.

As we prepared, it was important to have an open mind about the differences in culture that we would experience. Several months before leaving we took the time to learn about the Eastern European culture and history in Bosnia & Herzegovina by reading books, watching movies, documentaries, and talking to those who knew about the war-torn history of the area.

The team also went to lunch at a local Bosnian restaurant, to get a preview of the types of food that we’d likely find. The food would be more limited in options and traditionally heavy on meat and bread. Since we knew there would be a language hurdle on most menus and that we might be invited for meals at the homes of one or more of the locals, this wasn’t a trip for picky eaters. Our hosts might be hurt or offended if we turned our nose up at what was served. The good news was that neither my husband or I are all that finicky about food.

When it came to travel planning we were thankful our Team Leader had been to Bosnia many times before. She handled a multitude of logistics while we were on our trip. This is a huge help when you’re visiting a destination that’s unfamiliar and relieves much of the stress that goes along with travel to new places. She also had contacts in the area from previous trips, which made accommodations and getting around much easier to arrange.

In many cases, if you’re traveling with or for a non-profit organization they will have the resources to help you with travel plans or will do the planning for you. Depending on the size of the organization, you may need to pay for your own travel or raise the funds for it yourself. Consider this another donation to your favorite charity.

Even with our pre-trip prep and learning, it was still such a remarkable, eye-opening adventure. There is so much that could be told, but for now, I’ll just share a few of the interesting things we learned during our visit there. Remember to observe the culture, but don’t compare or judge whether it’s better or worse than at home, just because it's different. Be compassionate and show understanding. Learn about how and why things are the way they are.

Even though traditional Bosnian food focuses on bread and meat, the produce was fresh and delicious. It was interesting that even though I ordered the same salad at the same restaurant a few days in a row, the ingredients changed. My guess is that the chef served whatever vegetables were available and freshest that day, which was fine with me.

Not really surprising, but interesting that there was no fast food when we were there, except a “counterfeit” McDonalds that displayed “golden arches” but served more local food. Here in America, we’re so used to having fast food at every corner. It’s actually quite refreshing to be forced to slow down and enjoy a meal around a table instead of scarfing down a burger on your way to an appointment.

It was nearly impossible to find coffee-to-go in Bosnia. Just like many European countries, coffee is an experience, a social engagement, an intimate meeting with friends; not merely a beverage. They drink it all day long and it’s very strong. We saw dozens of outdoor patios filled with tables where folks would sit for hours, drinking Bosnian coffee from real cups while they caught up on life and examined the world as it passed by. This was another refreshing difference in their culture and just another sign of the slower pace there.

The people in Bosnia are very welcoming and relational. Our new friend, Djana served us a traditional Bosnian meal in her home. The whole family treated us with such loving hospitality and served an amazing meal. (You may notice from the photo that it’s tradition to remove your shoes when you enter someone’s home.)

The roads in Mostar are VERY narrow. Many times a two-way street was not much wider than one lane (by American standards). Of course, this is mostly because the city was founded in the 1400’s, long before cars. There’s just not enough room to widen many of the roads. We were fortunate that our hosts were accustomed to navigating the streets and traffic there.

The devastation of the Bosnian war in the 1990s was still evident all around the country. The photo above is from one of the main roads. At this location on the front lines in Mostar, enemies literally exchanged gunshots across the street from each other. You can see a building restored (on the left) and another barely standing and pocked with munitions damage. It’s a stark reminder of the war that ravaged decades ago.

We asked someone in town why so many buildings were still standing empty and unrepaired. She said that there were many people that left the country during the war and never returned. The government isn’t able to tear the buildings down because they don’t own them. I assume that at some point there will be a deadline for claiming the property, and if unclaimed then they’ll be demolished or sold and restored.

The Bosnian and Roma people loved the American folk music that the guys shared. When Terry and Bob played a concert in Breza [just outside of Sarajevo] the women and children were literally dancing in the aisles. It was awesome and so encouraging to both us and them.

Terry’s harmonicas ignited the crowd. The children imitated him by playing “air harmonica”. After the concert, he gave a few harmonicas away for kids to take home. We’re not sure how happy the moms were about that, but the kids were thrilled. Maybe we’ll get a concert from them the next time we visit.

We had a chance to meet so many new people and learn more about the culture, the complex political situation, and the reconciliation that they strive for long after the war. Decades later there’s still evidence of poverty, pain, devastation, and heartache, yet they’re optimistic about a better future.

Terry shared his musical talents on the trip, but I shared my contributions after we got home. I was so honored to experience the culture and people of Bosnia. In response, I was honored to provide my gifts to others when we returned:

Pictures of the concerts, people, and trip activities to share with those that supported this cause.

Pictures of several children that are sponsored by the church (with money for clothes and school supplies and books so they can attend school). These were passed along to the Americans that sponsor each child so they’d have updated photos of the kids.

Pictures of a missionary family that had recently moved there and didn’t have much time to document their new surroundings. I was able to send them digital pictures that they could share with their family, friends, and supporters. I also created a coffee-table photo book that they could keep for themselves. It later turned out that they had to come back to the states after less than a year due to a serious health issue, so I think the keepsake book was a special treat for them to have later.

Even though I was “working” on the trip, it was more of a gift to me than it was for them. When I came home, I had become more keenly aware of the challenges that people face around the world. I realized just how privileged I was to have the freedoms that I have. I discovered that many problems are not black and white, but muddled into many shades of gray. I learned to be flexible and have an open mind about a variety of customs, situations, and foods that were new to me. But most of all, I fell in love with the world and the chance to meet new people and discover new places by traveling with purpose.

I loved every minute of this life-changing journey and would offer my services again if the opportunity arose. My husband felt the same way and was so honored to be able to share his musical talents on the other side of the world. I later traveled with a women’s leadership training team to document their teaching sessions in the Middle East too.

What are some skills that you could provide for a service-oriented non-profit? Be creative. Think outside the box. Photography, video, graphic design, social media management, language translation, marketing, writing, music, organizational skills?

Do you have any questions about our trip? Contact me at Traveling with Purpose. I’d love to answer them.

Originally published at https://travelingwithpurpose.com on May 9, 2020.

I’m a travel and lifestyle blogger at https://Travelingwithpurpose.com. I love learning, photography, creativity, studying people and sharing my discoveries.

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