The officer walks out from the building and towards our car, his hand on the gun attached to his belt. His eyes are grim and his posture serious as he tells us that we will either have to pay a large fine or spend a night in jail.
This was not how I expected my first hour in Bosnia to play out.
What became a huge misstep started as a great idea: take the car we rented while in Croatia and drive over to Bosnia for dinner. What could possibly go wrong? Talia, Katie, and I had been traveling in the region for almost three weeks. We’re childhood friends who love to travel, often together. We had spent the first 10 days in Slovenia and were now heading down the Croatian coast. We decided that Plitvice Lakes, located in the middle of absolutely nowhere in Croatia, could not be missed, so we rented a car and headed to a less beachy side of the country.
We spent the first day walking around the terraced lakes and trying not to get thrown into the water by fellow tourists abruptly stopping to take pictures. The experience was fantastic, but at the end of it, we were ready for something a little more off the beaten path. So we turned to our friend Rick Steves, who suggested that we drive into Bosnia for dinner. We had the car and so off we went, conveniently forgetting that it is actually not legal to drive it into Bosnia because of the insurance stipulations.
We had our passports stamped at the Croatian border and drove towards the Bosnian city of Biha. We hadn’t printed out directions since we had a GPS, which of course failed to work because we had no service in Bosnia. We managed to arrive in the city using road signs, and pulled over at a bus stop to get our bearings. Katie suggested we just find a parking spot and walk around, so we pull back into traffic.
That’s when the sirens go off.
We were on the road for only a few seconds when the cop car flagged us down. I found myself asking ‘is he pulling us over? What could we have possibly done?!’ We pulled into a bus stop. The cop approached us. He seemed nice enough, though we couldn’t understand each other. We recognized the word “documentation”, and as I went to hand him the documents for the car, Katie gave him my passport. He walked away with them, and indicated that we should follow him in our car.
Now we are in Bosnia with no GPS, an uninsured car, a cop who doesn’t speak English and my passport in his vehicle.
We figured he would take us to the local station, have someone explain to us the traffic violation we committed, pay a small fine and then go grab some Borek, a Bosnian puff-pastry we couldn’t get enough of.
We were confused but not alarmed. That is, until we realized that having now driven for 10 minutes, we had passed the city limits and were entering the countryside. Where was this guy taking us? Was he even a cop? Were we about to get fake arrested and kidnapped in Bosnia?! Talia, the sensible one, called her mom, who reacts strongly to situations even when everything is fine, to let her know that we may or may not be coming back alive.
My hands on the wheel started to shake. I was doing best to keep up with this supposed police officer. I really didn’t want to follow him anymore, but he had my key to leaving this place. Starting to panic, I only looked forward, almost hitting a puppy who conveniently decided that this would be a good time to leave his fellow dogs on the grass and walk into the middle of the road. At the last moment, I slammed on the brakes, saving the puppy’s life and my sanity, because the only thing worse than getting fake-arrested in Bosnia is taking a puppy down with you.
We ran through every possible scenario to try and figure out what the hell was going on. In my head I was devising escape plans and eyeing objects in the car that could be used for self-defense. We were 15 minutes out of the city at this point, and riding in silence, because as we drove towards an uncertain future, no words could calm us any longer.
All of a sudden, we started to see the same buildings that we saw on the drive to Biha. I was partially relieved and partially pissed. I felt relieved because I realized he was leading us back to the border, and pissed because I knew that he was going to kick us out of the country.
“I’m a law-abiding person! They can’t just kick me out of the country because I broke a traffic rule!”
At this point we were at a loss. We stopped guessing what might be going on, because nothing made sense. We approached the border and the cop–who we are pretty sure is the real deal at this point–goes into the building next to border control. He walked back out with a large border control officer by his side, the one who placed his hand on the gun attached to his belt and told us that we are either going to have to spend the night in jail or pay a very large fine. I panic.
And then, the biggest, friendliest grin spread over his face. The tension left my body immediately as I looked at him and burst into laughter. I still had no clue what was going on, but I knew that I wasn’t getting arrested and I didn’t kill a puppy.
As it happens, we stamped our passports leaving Croatia, but didn’t stamp them entering Bosnia. Ooops. I blame them for their lack of “Now leaving Croatia” and “Now entering Bosnia-Herzegovina” signs. The officer told us to just go back through passport control and continue to our Bosnian dinner from there. We declined, saying we thought it’d best to just go back to Croatia. He seemed a bit offended, and couldn’t figure out why we wouldn’t want to go to Bosnia for dinner anymore.
As we safely settle into a restaurant in Croatia, Talia’s mom texts us, still panicked. Apparently my dad has spent the last half hour on the phone with the Bosnian Embassy, demanding our freedom. As we call our family to calm them down, I realize that Croatian cuisine has never looked so good.