Sanel was born and raised in a little town of Stolac in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the Rick Steves Best of the Adriatic tours he guides, Sanel has become legendary for the walking tours he leads through his home town. Sanel turns Stolac into a hands-on lesson for understanding the dramatic changes that people in the former Yugoslavia have lived through since the 1980s. The Stolac experience is also at the heart of Sanel's personal mission to open doors and unite people all around the world. Sanel brings this passion to our tour members, and they leave wanting more.
What was it like to be a child in the middle of a disintegrating country?
Growing up in what is now "ex-Yugoslavia" actually started out pretty cool. My family still lives in a small town in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina called Stolac, and all of my dearest memories are tied to that place, my family, and my friends. We had quite an innocent childhood, playing outside until someone's mom would start shouting, "It's time to go in," which was usually followed by, "Please five more minutes!" Streets were full with kids, and everyone knew everyone.
I was nine when the war started, and it was a very dark period for all of us who lived through it. Bombs, sniper fire, ethnic cleansing — it all felt surreal. Watching people die is not something that any child should witness, but such was our world back then in 1992. I remember wondering at the time: "Why? What have I done to anybody to deserve such a fate?"
Much later as a grownup, and becoming the person that I am today, I'm still not sure I can answer this question!
One of the weirdest things after years of devastating war was the silence that followed. After four years of going to sleep with gunfire and shelling, all of a sudden, nothing. It was quiet, peaceful — and that actually felt unsettling for a while! It took us some time to get used to. We had to learn what it was to live in a "normal" world again!
I think I could write an entire book describing how it was to grow up in a war. But, for now, a few lines are more than enough.
What made you want to become a guide and where has this journey taken you?
Honestly, being a guide was not my choice — it actually chose me! Let me tell you how it happened: In the spring of 2009, there were a couple of people from Rick Steves' organization looking for new interesting places. My town of Stolac is quite a spot for that: full of history and monuments, but heavily scarred by war. They met some people, talked to the locals, and my name kept popping-up: "Oh you should talk to Sanel, he's your guy for this." Being a student of English and literature, and deeply involved in the social life of Stolac, they contacted me and asked if I would show them around. I did, and afterward they said, "Well, this could work!" So Rick Steves began routing his Adriatic tour itinerary through my town and I served as each group's local guide for Stolac. And now I'm working as a lead guide, taking people for two weeks at a time, not just a day.
From the first day I had a group in my town up through today, I'm living a dream. Rick Steves' Europe was one of the first companies that started bringing people to Stolac, and this has made such an impact on our little community. Prior to the war we were pretty well-known as a tourist destination, but with war and destruction we've been struggling to get back on our feet. So you can imagine our reaction when we saw strange, new people coming to Stolac! It was huge deal for us, kind of a first step toward having a normal life again.
Getting this job was a changing moment in my life, bringing me not just financial but also psychological stability. And I don't mean that in a scary way. I say "psychological" because I truly found myself as a guide. I love every aspect of this work, and it's opened a brand new world for me, where you can achieve so much with your own work — and most importantly be treated (as all guides are in this company) with lots of respect and mutual understanding. What more can you ask of life?
What things do you think make the Rick Steves tour experience different?
Magic is in the details: the way we run our tours, how we work with people on a day-to-day basis, and most importantly how we educate our tour members. This is not a "let me take you on a trip by holding your hand" tour! Oh no. A huge emphasis is placed on educating people by exposing them to real life, and providing opportunities to taste life beyond their comfort zone, and that's what makes all the difference. I also believe that our tours are well-balanced between group time and free time, so everybody can do what they dream of doing in Europe, and make some personal discoveries at every place they visit.
All the locations and itineraries are well-planned and introduced to our tour members from day one, so they know exactly what they are getting for their money. Our philosophy is to deliver maximum experience on every trip, and not waste any time on trivial things.
Rick's honest approach, well-prepared guides, great office support, and the hard work that happens behind the scenes all add up to a one-of-a-kind travel experience.
Tell us more about Stolac and why it's become such a highlight for tour members.
I am very passionate about Stolac, and you could say my town is my second career alongside guiding for Rick Steves. One of the reasons why people are attracted to Stolac and our work there is the way we handle our challenges. After all, we have gone through so much suffering with war, killing, ethnic cleansing, devastation on huge scale, segregation in schools, mistrust, and lots of other trauma.
From that adversity comes one great opportunity, at least that's how I feel about it. It's time to build bridges and tear down the walls between people, and all our work as volunteers in our local NGO (non-governmental organization) focuses on that. My favorite part is working with kids, giving them alternatives in life. Life is not black and white — there is an entire spectrum of colors there. During our walk through town I take tour members to visit an NGO where I work, and give them an opportunity to meet locals, to see for themselves how much can be achieved when you have strong-willed people engaged. Hope and faith in a better tomorrow is what they find there, and that's one of the things that can really move people on a very personal level.
One Rick Steves tour member in particular, who is very active in Rotary, was so impressed by this that she and I worked together after her tour to create a partnership project for Rotary in Stolac.
What is a "wow" moment for you as a tour guide?
One of my favorite "wow" moments is the look I see on tour members' faces at the moment they realize something they were certain of turns out to be something completely different. Whether we like to admit this or not, all human beings travel with baggage in the form of little prejudices, or a false certainty about this or that. The moments when this curtain lifts are when I think to myself, "I'm doing a good job." A successful tour should provide people with enough information and life experience to spark a real change of heart. That for me is the true purpose of traveling. We get to learn, grow, and expand our knowledge and understanding of this world we share.