Travel writer Dustin James Giel: The whole of Bosnia is an open-air museum

You can literally feel and experience history while walking down the street, especially in Sarajevo, says Dustin Giel.

Thousands of citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina and other countries of the region stand in lines every day in front of the embassies of Western countries, wishing to leave their home countries and seek happiness and a better life somewhere else, far from their native home.

Dustin James Giel, a 33-year-old Dutchman with Welsh roots, chose the opposite path. He decided to move from the Netherlands to the countries of Southeast Europe to satisfy his passion for writing, research and travel.

The whole time Dustin spent in Bosnia was a great experience (Released to Al Jazeera)

After completing his master’s degree in Russian and Eurasian studies at Leiden University in 2010, Dustin decided to go far away from home in order to get to know better the cultural, historical and other conditions of the countries and regions where he lived in recent years (Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic).

“I consider myself a restless traveler. I always feel the need to travel around, go from one place to another and have the desire to keep exploring. That feeling guides me,” says Giel.

In an interview with Al Jazeera Balkans, Dustin James Giel talks about the reasons why he decided to live in Bosnia and Herzegovina for a while, about its culture, people, natural beauty…

Fascinating culture and architecture

He says that he became interested in Bosnia and Herzegovina from a young age, and that his interest in this country began at a young age, while Bosnia dominated the news headlines in the Netherlands during the war, especially because of the role of Dutchbat.

“I saw the pictures on TV and it became a fascinating place for me. I started watching documentaries and reading books about Bosnia. Later I met one of my best friends, Maid Skopljak in Holland, because we played for the same football club and he actually helped me move to Sarajevo. The main reason why I came to Sarajevo is that I wanted to enroll in a second master’s program at IUS, but I didn’t manage to get the paperwork done in time. However, I completed two Bosnian language courses at IUS and wrote articles for  the Sarajevo Times ,” says Giel.

After that, due to personal circumstances, life takes him to the Czech Republic.

“A year later, I met my current wife, Jana, in the Czech Republic, and her sister is married to a Bosnian. Sometimes it seems to me that with everything I do, Bosnia is never far away. I can’t wait to return next year in the summer with my family and to show my children the place where I lived in Grbavica”.

For him, as he says, the entire time he spent in Bosnia was a great experience. But from the time he lived in Sarajevo, he says that he really enjoyed the Sarajevo derby between Željeznicar and Sarajevo.

“This was really a great experience. I also enjoyed playing soccer with my Bosnian friends twice a week. It was a great way to connect with the locals and create a social life. I remember eating a lot of kebabs, and visiting the pyramids in Visoko was also a great day trip (whether you support the theory about them or not), attending Dina Merlin’s concert at the Koševo stadium, and lots of great nights out.

I also made several trips to Mostar, Banja Luka, Tuzla, Srebrenica, Doboj, Neum, Konjic, Blagaj, Kravice and Tešanj waterfalls. Each place offers something unique. Thinking about it, I really have a lot of good memories,” says Giel.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is unique or different from other countries, says Giel (Released to Al Jazeera)

He adds that he is particularly fascinated by the cultural and historical heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the mixture of great architecture.

“That mixture of architecture is fascinating, especially in cities like Sarajevo and Mostar. But I also like the culture of Bosnia, where elders are really respected and are important members of the family. I think many countries could take such an example. For example, elderly people live together in one house with the rest of the family, even if it might not always be voluntary, you wouldn’t see this kind of care for the elderly in the Netherlands. And lastly, but not least, Bosnian cuisine – whenever I wander around Bosnia, I am always delighted by the smell of characteristic flavors”.

An open-air museum

Bosnia and Herzegovina is unique or different from other countries he visited and lived in. He considers it an open-air museum.

“You can literally feel and experience history while walking down the street, especially in Sarajevo. This city is really different from any other city in Europe and in my opinion there are great things to do in Sarajevo. It’s a mix of beautiful scenery with the surrounding mountains, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman influences, compact size for a capital city, a relaxed yet bustling atmosphere and the friendliness of the locals. Bosnia can sometimes be a bit melancholic, which is something I also like”, this Dutchman states the virtues of Bosnia.

He adds that he developed special personal ties and developed friendships in Bosnia and Herzegovina that greatly influenced his perspective and experience of the country and society.

“I am very lucky to have met some great Bosnian people during my stay in Bosnia. One of my best friends is Jasmin Begić who lives in Sarajevo. I still have a lot of contact with him and, just like many Bosnians, he is always willing to help. My wife and I also attended his wedding in Jablanica, which was a great experience for us. Meeting all these Bosnians showed me what the definitions of friendliness, hospitality and resilience mean”.

Like many foreigners who come to this country, Dustin can’t forget kebabs. He says he is always happy to recommend them to his friends from the Netherlands.

Dustin says that he always greatly appreciated that Bosnian “bujrum”, which, he says, is deeply rooted in every Bosnian, regardless of whether he lives in the country or abroad.

”What I love is that people just invite you into their house and you’ll find a table full of food and drinks. I mean, this is a really special level of hospitality. I always feel that Bosnians are really proud of their tradition, cuisine and love to show or share that experience with you as a foreigner. My friend Maid still has family living in Tešanj. He took me there once and I felt so welcome in their home. You can visit expensive hotels and fancy restaurants, but you will definitely have the best and warmest experience if you mingle with the locals. I feel that Bosnians, or people in the Balkans in general, are more family-oriented and more society-oriented and live at a slower pace compared to Western European countries,” Dustin Giel believes.

Dustin says he’s always had a great appreciation for the distinctive Bosnian ‘bujrum’7 (Released to Al Jazeera)

Dustin points out that this country can have a bright future with certain political changes.

“I think this is more of a political, geographical and social issue. I think that the country would definitely benefit more from one president than a system of changing presidents, as well as joining the European Union. When that happens, I’m sure the investment climate will improve and corruption will also decrease. Then the country becomes a ‘flying wheel’ as infrastructure across the country can also be improved. This process was really useful for Slovenia and Croatia, but I understand that the internal situation in Bosnia is completely different, which makes it complex. I also have some Bosnian connections on LinkedIn and many of them fled during the war in Bosnia but are slowly coming back and using their network, skills and education to start new businesses or foundations in Bosnia”.

New experiences

Life in Bosnia and Herzegovina influenced him or shaped his worldview, in some way.

“I’ll be honest, it’s different than growing up in a country like Holland. But since I’m not 100 percent Dutch, I’ve always been interested in other places around the world because I grew up in a family that lives all over the world. I heard a lot of stories from Bosnian people about the Bosnian war and it always gives me chills, but at the same time I admire the spirit of the Bosnian people and the will to move on and to say goodbye, but maybe not forget. The experience showed me that I live in the moment, that I appreciate even the smallest things in life and that I am extremely grateful that I grew up in peace,” he says.

He says that he is still not involved in any projects or initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but that through his travel blog he tries to spread good stories and experiences about this country.

“I recently started my own project in the form of a travel blog called  Restless Voyager  covering Central and Eastern Europe, plus the Balkans. I like to share my experiences of traveling and living in some of these countries. My mission is to inspire people to visit this region because it has so much to offer. My dream is to establish partnerships in this region, especially in Bosnia because of my affection for this country, maybe organize excursions or tourist tours in Bosnia, and work together with local travel agencies. I am also currently working on an e-book about traveling through Bosnia in a playful way so that people can have a great travel experience”.

Thousands of Bosnians have left the country in the last few years looking for a better life and happiness in Western European countries. A few years ago, however, Dustin made the opposite move by leaving one of the richest European countries for Bosnia. What did he see here that the natives did not?

“I understand that if you are from Bosnia and you are looking for better opportunities, you start looking elsewhere. I mean, in the end it all comes down to your future and being able to provide for your family. Beautiful scenery, delicious cuisine, long-standing traditions, a strong sense of community may then be overlooked or given less priority than financial stability or opportunities for personal development and advancement. Anyway, I think it’s always a great experience to leave your home base and explore other places, meet new people, indulge in different cultures and try new situations. As I like to say: ‘you go away for a long time and come back a different person, but you never come back completely’.