Of all the memories I took with me from backpacking, this is probably the one night I would be perfectly okay with forgetting…
After finalizing that I was going to cross the border from Croatia into Bosnia & Herzegovina, I settled on booking a bus fare to get there. I felt optimistic about my plans because I don’t particularly love flying so I just assumed switching countries by bus would make for a smoother journey.
I’d skip all the long lines at the airport, enjoy a nice scenic route through nature, kick back in my seat, and relax for a 10+ hour bus ride.
Figuring out the logistics of my transportation always did take me a long time to plan. It was not unusual for me to be up at late hours of the night trying to coordinate all of the logistics to make sure I can get wherever I need to go safely, on time, and at an affordable cost.
I booked my trip with GetByBus. Their website made it simple to plan out an efficient route while the pricing remained extremely fair.
Despite some of the horrors you’re soon going to read… as you proceed through this post, I want to preface the story with my personal opinion that none of this was necessarily the bus company’s fault… maybe you could make a case against the bus driver, but I never filed any type of formal complaint to anyone about what happened (for so many different reasons) so it’s not really fair to hold it against them, I guess.
At 2:30 AM, I ended up booking a bus trip with 2 legs to get to Bosnia:
- Zadar to Split (100 HRK)
- Split to Sarajevo (208 HRK)
The total cost was 308 HRK which converts to just shy of around 50 USD.
When I arrived at the bus terminal in Zadar, I was quite a bit early so I was actually the very first person to be able to get onto the bus. I had the luxury of choosing absolutely any seat I wanted!
As I walked down the aisle, anxiety got the best of me and I thought to myself, “How will I know when to get off if the signs are in another language and my phone doesn’t work? I guess the further back I sit, the easier it’ll be for me to know EXACTLY when to get off the bus because, as a last resort, I can judge based off how many other people are exiting the bus.”
I know it wasn’t perfect logic, but it was enough to ease some of my travel anxiety.
I tried to figure out where I was, but that proved difficult with such limited data access.
You couldn’t count on maps loading reliably. As you can see above, mine wouldn’t render.
Pro Tip: Always download your Google Maps before traveling.
The ride from Zadar to Split in Croatia was quick. It only took us maybe 2 hours at the most. From there, I had another 2-hour break before my final ride over into Bosnia.
Split was pretty different from Zadar. It felt quite a bit livelier near the bus terminal. I wanted to explore more but I couldn’t bring myself to go too far because I was so paranoid I’d miss my next bus ride. I ended up sitting down on a bench in the area over by some pigeons, having a snack, and then going back to find where my next bus would soon depart from.
Once again, I was one of the first in line waiting to get on the bus. As they do with everyone’s luggage, they took my backpack and stowed it away under the bus. I always find that so unsettling because I hate being separated from my belongings. I feel like it opens up a window for theft and I’m one of those people who gets paranoid when I travel so I go to great lengths to protect my possessions.
When my next bus began allowing people on, I confirmed with the driver that he was, in fact, heading to Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina. The whole day had already been so full of so much uncertainty and I have always had this fear that I’ll get onto the wrong bus and somehow end up going to the entirely wrong destination, messing everything up.
I think it stems from when that very thing happened to me in Washington D.C. while I was in high school and traveling with a group of Chinese exchange students. I ended up getting split from my tour group and found myself riding on a random bus with the wrong people…. to the wrong place… and now I guess I’m just traumatized from it, haha.
I walked to the second-to-last row of the bus and settled down into my aisle seat. I kept my smaller backpack with me hoping the seat next to me would remain empty so I could be comfortable and not need to stow my backpack by my feet.
The bus quickly started to fill up from the front to the back as people filed in.
A group of four rowdy drunk men filed into the bus with open cans of beer in their hands and settled into four available seats surrounding me. They took the two seats behind me and the two across from me. No one ever did sit in the spot next to me.
I gave my backpack that spot once the bus started moving.
For a moment, due to the vibe I got from the men around me, I considered relocating but there weren’t any other spots on the bus left with two side-by-side seats open like there were with the spot I had. I chose to stay put to maintain the extra space from the open seat and to have the advantage of still being far enough back to observe other people on the bus.
What a mistake that was.
The bus took off and we began our very scenic route over to Bosnia. We left Split a little late, maybe by 45 minutes or so. It was almost 5:00 PM and the sunset soon followed. Most of the bus ride took place in the evening and into the night.
My second bus ride was projected to take about 6.5 hours and had an originally scheduled estimated arrival time of 10:30 PM.
The men behind me were being really loud and disruptive. They were talking so loudly that they were effectively shouting over one another and I was finding it so difficult to tune them out. I put on my headphones and tried to blast out their antics to mind my own business.
As the night became darker and the bus dimmed its light, the guys seemed to take a greater interest in “talking” to me and the young girl sitting in front of me.
Something made them latch onto the two of us. I guess we were both younger as well as being the two closest people in proximity to their seats. By the time I opened my mouth to answer the one guy behind me, they immediately knew I wasn’t from there and that seemed to make me even more of a prime target for their bullying, harassment, or whatever else you want to call it. Threats.
In broken English, they started asking me where I am from, if I am a Bosnian/Croat/Serb or from Turkey, etc. The conversation was centered around my race, religion, and ethnicity and it was very clear to me that this was not coming from a place of genuine curiosity.
I was uninformed and ignorant to the country’s history so I found myself in a dangerous situation. It seemed they enjoyed mocking me and it was clear their questions were coming from a place of racism and discrimination.
With their alcohol and who knows what else in hand, they began to use derogatory English language mixed with whatever language they were speaking natively to talk about me. Their attention got redirected to the girl in front of me who appeared to be a few years younger than I was. She was Croatian, also traveling alone, and so they also started to bully her.
She was my sister’s age. I couldn’t watch them torment her.
I wasn’t sure if she spoke English or not so I leaned forward and asked, “Hey, are you alright? I can sit next to you in the aisle seat if these guys are bothering you. Maybe they’ll back off and leave you alone.”
She gave me her Instagram handle so we could message more discreetly without the men seeing us talk.
When the bus stopped at the border, I swiftly picked up my bags and moved up a row to sit next to her. Even while next to one another, we still used Instagram on the down low to try to communicate in hopes of drawing less attention from the men around us.
The men kept threatening us saying terrible things like, “I’m gonna beat the f*** out of you” along with other really awful things.
When we arrived at the border crossing for Bosnia, the bus driver walked to the back of the bus. He collected everyone’s passport. We were instructed to stay on the bus. I felt uncomfortable separating from my passport in the midst of everything else that was happening, but there was no other option. The bus parked, shut off, and we waited at the border for 15+ minutes awaiting approval to cross.
The bus driver walked to the back of the bus and said something to the four men in Bosnian so I couldn’t exactly make out what was being said, but it sounded like a warning. I think he told them to settle down. A warning… if you could even call it that.
When our passports were all returned, the adventure resumed… along with the torment.
My new friend and I took a photo together smiling through our suffering while fearing for our lives…..
Her intention was really to capture a photo of the guys who were harassing us in case we needed it later. We didn’t really manage to get the whole group.
In Mostar, she got off the bus and met her boyfriend who was waiting for her at the bus stop. One of the guys got off the bus to stretch and her boyfriend picked a fight with him. To my great dismay, the bus driver split them up only for the man to return BACK onto the bus….
I wanted to be able to message my family. I wanted to know I could message my friend from the bus. I wanted to have ACCESS to SOMEONE while around these guys. My data was completely cut off after crossing the border into Bosnia.
The bus then took this random and unexpected break at a diner…. I still don’t understand how or why that happened.
We all exited the bus, acted like best friends around the bus driver, and grabbed a table in this diner together. (I guess that’s how European bus rides sometimes work…?) Who ordered midnight breakfast, coffee, or tea. A restroom break, I guess?
I felt sick being around these strangers who had been making me feel so unsafe while captive to my seat on the bus. I ordered a tea, drank it quickly, and eagerly awaited for this dragged out nightmare to be over.
As our breakfast break resulted in us being even MORE behind schedule now, I had absolutely NO WAY of telling my prearranged driver I had scheduled to meet me in Sarajevo that I would be arriving late by over 2 hours! And past midnight, no less.
I’m going to be arriving in this city completely stranded and alone with a group of men who want to kill me.
Wonderful. Just wonderful.
I think I almost had a mental breakdown under all the stress I was feeling right at that moment. I had been traveling for hours and was utterly exhausted.
One guy behind me took my glasses right off of my face and like in a high school bullying scene, tried keeping them away from me just out of reach.
When I finally got my glasses back, another guy flashed his pocket knife at me and smirked.
“You know what this is?”
I sat back in my seat and just swallowed.
In my peripheral vision, another guy seemed to be suggesting I should show him my pockets and I just kept fake-laughing at him and acted like I didn’t know what on Earth he was trying to suggest while busying myself with other things to escape… mentally.
By the time we arrived in Sarajevo, I made a beeline for my backpack. From there, I desperately looked around hoping SOMEONE would be there. As if things couldn’t possibly make matters any worse, I realized I had not saved the contact information for my accommodations.
Always save the phone number and address. Always.
Feeling entirely defeated, some Bosnian stranger approached me and I was so relieved to not be standing alone around the four men from the bus. It was my driver! HE WAITED FOR ME!
I was shocked, overwhelmed, and beyond relieved I almost started crying. I think he was annoyed with how late I was, frustrated that I never contacted him, and simultaneously confused why that was my reaction to seeing him.
From there, in the safety of this next stranger’s car, I began my venture to my next new home.
Note to Readers
If you’re wondering why I never said anything more to the bus driver, honestly, this whole thing left me so shaken up. The bus driver didn’t seem to care that they were being distruptive and loud. I felt like he wasn’t on my side at all.
The bus seats were mostly full with no real option to easily relocate.
I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I didn’t even want to go outside after the incident. I basically struggled to leave my home the next few days.
The language barrier makes it especially challenging when you’re in another country. It’s puts you at a huge disadvantage. I left physically unharmed so that was enough for me to feel like I could just burry this behind me and move on.
To tell the bus company or the police seemed pointless. I already endured hours of harassment and torment. What would they do? Apologize and give me my $50 back? I didn’t want that. I just wanted to forget the whole thing and put it behind me.
Just remember: if you see something, say something. You never know who you may be able to help.
Wow! That’s truly a frightening experience; you were definitely in danger there. Besides those “macho” men being absolutely drunk, they were also unnecessarily aggressive. I don’t know how old those men were, but given that they were asking if you were Bosnian/Serb/Croat, they might have been discriminatory towards one of them, given the horrific history of the Balkans during the 1990’s. It’s a common misconception that male travelers don’t feel unsafe when traveling (compared to female travelers), but given that you told this story, it’s important to know that anyone, regardless of sex, gender, age, or nationality, can be targeted. I agree with you that it’s not the fault of the bus company to have let such unsavory characters on the bus, but the bus driver should be held accountable for not chastising the men more (or, a better thing, to kick them off the bus). Thankfully, you weren’t harmed, and I hope the rest of your trip was smooth-sailing afterwards.
Thank you, Rebecca. Absolutely. You’re most certainly right – it is a huge misconception. Anyone can be a target. Discrimination can take place anywhere. I’ve been fortunate enough to feel very safe during most of my travels, but this was most definitely a notable instance of a time when I did not. Thanks for your valuable input. I always enjoy hearing your perspective. Be safe. 🙂
Wow this sounds terrifying, it must have been such a scary experience. And to echo Rebecca’s comment above – whatever gender or race, no-one should ever have to feel this way when travelling. Unfortunately eastern Europe, the Balkans especially, are known for their racism. We travel a lot there for football matches and the home supporters are always throwing racial abuse and monkey noises as soon as a black player touches the ball. It’s absolutely disgusting, and whilst by no means reflective of the entire population, is a far too common occurrence. I’m so glad you were safe and hope you enjoyed Bosnia once you arrived.
It really was very scary. Took me a while to bounce back. Similar to what you’re pointing out, I will say that while traveling in Bosnia, I also began to learn more about their history and some of that did help me make sense of what happened. I’m sorry to hear about your experiences at the football matches. That type of behavior is so shocking and should not be accepted by anyone. It’s so unnecessarily cruel. I hope mankind can get better. Thanks for reading and leaving your thoughts, Hannah! 🙂 Safe travels.
That sounds truly terrifying! I am so glad your driver was still there! I would have probably been on the first flight home after that.