The sight of the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia & Herzegovina is one that stirs the heart of visitors and locals alike. In 2015 it was selected for one of the Red Bull Cliff Diving Competitions and, as I found myself backpacking without a strict itinerary, I made arrangements to journey there from Dubrovnik. For me, the thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie within still comes out on occasion, typically when towering heights are romanced by deep waters. With my visit spanning a couple of days, I was ecstatic in thinking that, as soon as the crowds cleared out, I would walk along the extraordinary landmark and jump off the bridge myself. After spending one afternoon downstream on some riverbank cliffs, I had a profound shift in my thinking that has affected how I perceive my travels, and the people I meet as a result of those travels. My awakening in Mostar spurred the dilemma I face with understanding my own rite of passage.
Red Bull hosts cliff jumping competitions throughout the world, including every so often in Mostar, where they build an additional platform on top of the smooth Stari Most (or “Old Bridge”). In August 2015, sections of town were marked off, granting permission only to those who had their event wristband, but as a “shoestring backpacker,” I was much more apt to strolling Mostar’s cobblestone streets, admiring the turrets and domes of their grandiose mosques. Children raced after one another through markets as people tilted and shifted their bodies to politely squeeze between shops and stands that sold fabrics and souvenirs, baked goods, and post cards.
One sweet memory I have is looking for thread so I could sew flag patches of the countries I’d been visiting onto my beloved backpack. I wandered into a shop and had a brief conversation with a woman and her son. She insisted I simply take the spool with the small length I needed; in her eyes there was no need to pay for such a modest amount. What stuck with me most, as an American, was that this Muslim woman may not have received such kindness in my country, because of the institutionalized fear that is perpetuated by media and ignorance.
Approaching the end of the vibrant bazaar, I took a turn that led me down some alleys and wound through a sort of neighborhood. Then I came to a place where I could hear the river. Through the trees, I could see across the rippling waters that visitors were beginning to arrive for the cliff diving event. Ropes separated levels of access, the VIP’s were given their plastic beer cups, and others would soon take their places by the speakers and high definition screens. Yet, as I neared the edge of the sparse woods, I could hear locals below me… I flattened my palm and fingertips around the trunk of a small tree and slowly leaned over the cliff.
Not quite a mirror image, but more a watercolor reflection, to see the constructed stone amphitheater across the river from the side where I now stood. Carved out of the cliff there were natural ledges, six or seven feet in width. Here you didn’t need a wristband or a proper hat, all you needed was a bathing suit… this was where the locals gathered to watch. Leading up to the monumental first jump of the competition, children and adults leapt off the stone ledges or the wooden platforms built and into the flowing river. I bent down to ask someone to hold my knapsack and shirt, jumped off the cliff and into the river. When I scurried up the craggy riverbank, I was welcomed with smiles and the eye wrinkles that often make them feel genuine. The excitement was tangible, and I felt like I was becoming a part of it with each passing moment.
The spectator’s hush; so unique a sound, it should have its own definition. It’s as though you can hear mere occasional breaths of those who quiet themselves to watch an event of this nature, their hearts beating to find the metronome of the one at the center of the stage. In this case, the stage was an esteemed bridge, the Stari Most, and a platform over it that elevated the diver to roughly 85–92 feet (26–28 meters). The first contestant stepped up to his place and, with a wave and a bow, the Bosnians went wild with roaring cheers. He walked so close to the edge of the platform, you feared by accident he would fall. Stretching his arms to the side like a T, he leaned into the atmosphere and knelt upon air as if the clouds were a stool.
His body maintained this pose as he raced toward the waters. Every eye was upon him, and heads slowly shifted from craned necks to leveled chins. A split second before entering the water, the diver straightened his bent knees and his arms met his sides. Like a pin he slipped below the surface, and the audience applauded and whistled. Around me the Bosnians outstretched their arms to one another, hugging or placing proud hands on the shoulders and backs of young boys. As I would come to find out, this was the traditional dive of Mostar, and a Bosnian jumper had done an honorable act in opening the competition in this way. Joy and pride and overall thrill surrounded the crowds as the day moved forward, but this new piece of information revolved in my mind until it urged me to intentionally interact with those among whom I had chosen to stand.
“How do you do it?” was the only question I needed to ask. Enthusiastic youth were anxious to show me. An older man spent the next few hours as our own personal coach. In between the jumps of the competition, he would watch each of the kids and myself position ourselves, toes over the brink of the wooden beams, and lean into the “L” shape posture with knees at a right angle and arms spread like we were flying. The anticipation of a child came upon me once more when, after jumping I would come above the surface and twist my head towards him for a glimpse of approval as I swam to shore. Climbing up to the platform again, he would critique each of us on our technique. A few times he reminded me not to cross my arms over my chest and instead to snap them down to my sides with my hands by my hips, and remember to wait until the last possible moment before extending my feet, for I was pointing my toes too soon.
This man (whose name is written in a journal packed away), had grown up in Mostar, but now he lived, by bus, a few days away. He had returned home for this cliff diving competition, and beamed with nobility when he spoke of the tradition. As a boy, he had practiced and worked to perfect his technique, until the day an elder told him he was ready to jump. Somewhere around a man’s eighteenth birthday, if their form was just right, they would be encouraged to jump from the Stari Most, the Mostar Old Bridge. It was a privilege granted to one coming of age, a rite of passage. That day it didn’t seem like all too much had changed, except perhaps that many men today get a tattoo of the bridge once they’ve jumped from it. The boys who jumped from the platform were just as eager as I to hear what they could be doing better, how they could master this art.
We were just seconds downstream, jumping from a constructed stand, gazing to our right to watch the professionals. They twisted and flipped as they soared through midair before effortlessly diving, coming up themselves with eagerness to see their scores from the judges, affirming their art and dedication. It was then that I realized the importance of respecting that bridge. Had I missed the opportunity to meet my “coach” that day, I wouldn’t have heard the history of this unique rite of passage.
Simultaneously, it gave me an awakening towards what some consider a western rite of passage: being a shoestring backpacker for a summer, spending as little money as possible in order to see as much of the world as you can. Meanwhile the man who I owed this aforementioned lesson to had traveled a few days by bus to return home for this cultural extravaganza so near to his heart. My mindset just hours before was one of conquest; conquering challenges and saying “yes” to everything. But with this tunnel-vision, I could have unknowingly diminished the rite of passage that some Bosnian men spend their childhood and teenage years working to accomplish, all because I was focused on my own aspirations.
You can see in the video: I didn’t perfect my form that day. No coach or elder encouraged me to dive from the epic Stari Most, and so I didn’t jump.
My time in Mostar came to an end and I decided it was a symbolic rite of passage for me. I had come into my person in a new way: “Angst of a Gypsy, or how it pertains to me, is that I want my travels and study of cultures to give back. Receiving from the world is incredibly humbling. It excites me to know that a universe of individuals are seeking, not only to see the world, but also to share what they learn about people, places, and perspectives with others. Each of us observes and engages so differently with our surroundings and the colorful cultures that stretch across the globe. I am honored to be part of a movement that encourages learning and appreciating our differences, promotes lifestyle adventure journalism, and achieves the knitting of hearts through a language called laughter.” Not many people are granted passage throughout the world as Americans or “Westerners” from European countries… it is not our right, it is a privilege that is sadly not granted to everyone. I decided these opportunities should not be taken lightly, and I am grateful for each soul who has taught me something throughout my journeys.
Read more about Thirty by Thirty here…