As a nature photographer, the journey to wild places is as much a part of the fun as the destination itself and today was no exception. It’s been the sort of week where I “happened to be in the neighborhood” for a few wildly interesting places. Today, I was in Bosnia-Herzegovina rather unexpectedly and even more so, at Medjugorje, the major pilgrimage site for Catholics. On June 24th, 1981, six children in rural Herzegovina claim to have witnessed an apparition of Mary, mother of Jesus, and she is said to appear everyday since then. I’ve heard a variety of skeptical things about this place and admit, I arrived expecting flowers, rosaries and statues – but the experience I had was all together different and even jolting.
At first glance, Medjugorje appears like a tourist trap. Thousands of rosaries, crosses and other religious items line both sides of a small street, attracting throngs of visitors, tour buses and an equal number of vendors eager to hock their goods. As I pushed further into town, the street narrowed even more, and like a funnel, it led me through residential neighborhoods and soon, a cobble stone street too small for a car but once again lined with religious markets. Continuing higher into the hills with no other path but forward, the cobble stone ended abruptly and I found myself at the bottom of a hill covered in jagged rocks and red soil. I stopped, lifted my eyes up and before me was a spot that looked fit for a movie reenactment of the crucifixion. At this very moment, the blue skies began to lose territory to storm clouds and a long, droning thunder echoed off the surrounding hills, their baratone clap resembling mortar fire that is all too real for the people of this region. I marched up the hill, sweating in the humidity and in total silence. The only sounds were the murmur of people reciting the rosary or singing songs of religious praise, the sound of which was made more eerie by the incredibly diverse languages represented here. I stumbled through the rocks, working my way higher and higher, exhausted and drenched in sweat. Soon though, I rounded a bend and there before me was a beautiful statue of Mary at the location where the children were said to have first seen her. People were on their knees and crying could be heard from somewhere in the crowd. Thunder still shook the earth around me and the clouds were now completely over us, but no rain fell, only a cold wind blew. Catholic pilgrims from around the world took their turns looking up, wondering, and praying. Regardless of what you may believe, the combination of weather, the thousands of people of all ages climbing this mountain and the sounds of their prayers, made this experience incredibly remarkable.