Some places enable you to mix history and reckless recreation. Mostar, Bosnia, is one of them.
I was in Bosnia in October for a couple reasons. One was the excess of history that the local population has endured — if you ignore the first 19 centuries CE, in 1914 an assassination in Sarajevo touched off World War I. And in the early 1990s, the Bosnian population came under siege at different times from the Yugoslav army, Serbian nationalists and Croatian nationalists. Sarajevo suffered two years of shelling and sniper killings until in 1995 NATO finally stepped in.
After visiting Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination site and the Tunnel Museum in Sarajevo, the latter of which commemorates the tunnel that kept the besieged city supplied for two years, I took the bus to Mostar, where a bridge begged to be jumped from.
Mostar has a historic 24-meter-high bridge above the Neretva River.
Or it would be more accurate to say it HAD a historic bridge. That graceful arching structure was completed in Ottoman times, back in 1566 or 1567, and for centuries was a spot for local boys to impress girls by jumping into the river.
Croatian nationalists in 1993 targeted the bridge deliberately because it symbolized accord between peoples. They shelled it to smithereens during the Bosnian war, causing worldwide outrage. International aid financed its reconstruction in 2004. In October I had my chance to emulate those centuries of Mostar youth.
I woke up that morning feeling distinctly shy. I was going off the bridge one way or another but wanted as little attention as possible, given the possibility of humiliation or maiming. Things can go wrong.
To minimize the eyeballs, I went to the bridge just as the local bridge jumpers’ and divers’ club was opening up — 10 am. But when the instructor showed up, he asked for 15 minutes to have coffee. I had even more time to think about my plans.
We went downstream for practice jumps from 5 meters and 10 meters into the 10-degree-Celsius water. The whole affair was going to cost 35 euros, 10 for training and 25 for the jump, the instructor told me.
After the two jumps, he said I was ready. Approval isn’t automatic, despite the poverty in Bosnia. A previous jumper at my youth hostel said that trainers will turn down candidates who flub their trial jumps.
As we approached the towering bridge, the instructor said his piece over and over, so that I would hear it at least once. He clearly knows about skittish listeners.
“IGNORE EVERYBODY ELSE. LISTEN TO ME. THINK FIVE SECONDS [on the bridge]. STRETCH YOUR ARMS. STICK YOUR CHEST OUT. THINK FIVE SECONDS. CHIN DOWN. WHEN I YELL “NOW,” PUT YOUR HANDS DOWN [on your testicles]. CHIN UP LIKE A MAN.”
The last-instant testicle-cupping move was something I had not thought of beforehand — when you hit the water at highway speed, protruding soft tissue is vulnerable to impact. Similarly, the instructors tell women to grab their bosom just before they hit. If you simply cover up the whole way down, you lose the ability to correct any tilt forward or backward.
The river was high and fast-flowing my day. I thought back to my 13-meter day in San Francisco Bay in 1994, when I climbed up an abandoned trestle, jumped into the briny ocean water, and had to swim wildly against the tide to reach my own bridge piling.
The drawback of doing the jump with proper instruction is that you have more time to think than you want. You show up on the bridge with a Bosnian, and all the tourists know that you’re going over the side. I would have preferred an empty bridge, maybe even at midnight.
But we all make our choices, and I was there at about 11 a.m., not midnight. I climbed up on the bridge wall, which had no suitable platform and only a thigh-high railing to grab.
Looking 24 meters down — though maybe 22 or even only 21 meters that day; the instructor said the water was “two or three meters higher” than usual — did not concern me, maybe because I had already experienced 13 meters in 1994 and 10 meters in 1985. But standing precariously on the wall for five seconds to concentrate induced more tension than I wanted.
Finally, after a bit of exchange with the trainer, I stepped into the void, my first long plunge in 22 years.
The fall takes about 2.2 seconds, as you can tell from timing the many online videos. I had little capacity to feel fear or delight on the way down, because all my brainspace was devoted to (1) positioning my arms the way the trainer instructed and (2) waiting for him to yell “Now!”
He was good as his word. “NOW” came ringing down from the bridge, and an instant before the explosion, my hands went down to cup my testicles. I hit the water.
It didn’t hurt.
However, one lesson of falling 21, 22, or 24 meters is that you had better have your hands clasped tightly if you want them to stay where they are. The impact knocked my arms up into the air as I sank into the frigid water.
With my form spoiled, I did not plunge very deep at all. It wasn’t like 1994, when surfacing in the bay seemed to take an eternity. I popped up and flashed a thumbs-up to the applauding tourists and instructor on the bridge. Then I turned and, guided by the diving club’s on-shore spotter, began swimming to the most favorable spot on shore.
His best foreign language, it turned out was German. He pointed to the best spot, but his advice was “Bitte hier!”
I made it to shore, glad to leave the freezing water, and completed formalities like signing the ledger of foreign jumpers. I was No. 2,359 since 2004, and far as I could see, easily the oldest to sign the ledger. The trainer handed me the completed certificate that entitles me to come back and jump for free anytime. Maybe when I draw my first SS check.
Abdul Rahimov has a Ph.D. in Russian history from Stanford. He studied earlier at Harvard and grew up in Illinois in a railroad-dominated town.Rahimov prefers to use a pen name to avoid attracting unnecessary attention from railroads. He lives on the East Coast.