looking back on my time in croatia, montenegro, and bosnia & herzegovina, it was a strange time, but a wonderful one. i was traveling with a friend, which i had not had the luxury of for most of my trip, so i was never alone during these weeks. but before that, i had just begun to grow accustomed to being alone, and was starting to enjoy the introspection that came with it, and the peace of mind that had started to evolve and emerge from my thoughts. nevertheless, traveling with my friend dave, who was not a seasoned traveler, forced me to take command of situations with more authority and efficiency than i had ever needed to, and exposed to me just how far my development had come since my early days in london, paris and berlin, of following other travelers i had met like a lost puppy. i was now the veteran, and it took me by surprise.
putting together this video was really fun, not only because i wrote and recorded the sountrack, but also being able to re-live the scenes and memories. the balkan states are fascinating, co-mingling the hope of the future with the tragedy of the past, there are few places i’ve been where both sides of that story were always nearby, and i still regret not being able to make it further into the balkans to explore all the other interesting countries in the region. i will return. someday.
it was dark, and we hadn’t seen a street sign, a building, even a streetlamp in over an hour. we had seen nary a clue that we were even traveling in the right direction, but had seen no other roads headed in this direction on the map, so we pressed on faithfully into the night, expecting any minute to find a sign.
the roads toward the interior of croatia were much smaller and more narrow than the decidedly more oft-traveled corridor of the adriatic coastline, thusly making it more difficult for me to progress toward my destinations at the breakneck (and slightly illegal) pace that i had grown accustomed to in rural europe. despite my frustration, i found a silver lining in the intricacies of the winding country roads, and the fun that came with the need to test my maneuvering skills at a high degree of mastery. dave, on the other hand, didn’t share my navigational enthusiasm.
eventually we found the turnoff we had been looking for and made our way through a tiny town with few amenities or notable attractions. a light snow was now falling and the ground had accumulated a sheer white layer, making it almost difficult to look directly at with the bright headlights of the car beaming directly onto it. i approached each turn with a degree of caution, conscious of the fact that i had turned down the rental company on their offer of all-weather tires only a week ago.
dave guided us to a house, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that he had found on airbnb. as we pulled into the designated parking space, i humorously remarked, “…and this is how it ends. in the pit of some croatian farmer’s barn, never to be seen again.” dave laughed and exited the vehicle, walking into the house of the property owner to handle the check-in duties while i gathered the bags. a few minutes later we were claiming beds in our apartment for the night and unwinding from a long day of driving.
it was a homely little apartment, but it was just what we needed. it was quaint and quiet, and removed from any hustle or bustle of a normal city. very different from the place we had stayed the night before in the oceanside town of zadar. a self-proclaimed “design hostel,” it was clean and minimalist with eccentric aesthetics. we were the only ones staying in a place that had capacity for at least 80, and our shared-bunk dorm felt like a sick mix between a hospital and a room from charlie’s chocolate factory. tall ceilings, narrow spaces, the walls were candy-striped with disturbingly contrasted orange and white and the bunks had stiff shutters that could close off from the outside world, allowing the sleeper to create a cocoon. i wondered if i had missed the part where they assigned me a straightjacket before locking me in the room.
zadar had actually been a pleasant surprise, and i had found myself wishing that i’d been able to stay there longer than the twelve hours i gave it, especially if i could come back some day in the summer. that
evening, as i walked along the harbor admiring the sunset, i stumbled upon the Morske orgulje, or “sea organ,” an architectural object and experimental musical instrument that produces sound through a series of pipes inset the marble ground i walked upon, powered by the waves of the ocean that brushed up against the side of the marble and into the pipes, pushing air out and producing the unpredictable chorus. it was truly one of the most uniquely creative things that i had seen on my travels, and also one of the most unexpected.
after a few minutes of unwinding, a knock at the door sounded. it was the daughter of the property owner with a gift: homemade rakija. dave and i both expressed our deep gratitude and accepted the gift, but when we closed the door, we exchanged more knowing glances.
“oh man. good thing they only gave us these small glasses, this stuff smells stronger than the cherry stuff we had the other night,” dave warned cautiously.
“it is!” i spat out as i coughed down my first sip. “way stronger! i think this is peach flavor too.” we did our best to finish the drink (which i estimate to have been about 2.5 shots worth of alcohol), but neither of us could make it all the way through. apparently this was the old man’s special recipe, and he distilled it right there on property. impressive, but not for the faint of heart.
the next morning we arose early and set out to find plitvice lakes national park. after a 20 minute drive, the windy snow-covered road led us to a parking lot that seemed out of place with the rest of landscape that we had grown accustomed to seeing. we deduced that this must be the place.
following an oddly unnecessary footbridge over to what appeared to be an empty visitor center, a tourist bus pulled into the lot and parked while we attempted to figure out where to go and how to pay for whatever it was we were supposed to be seeing. i laughed as 5 people got off the bus that could hold probably 50. eventually we found a walking path and assumed that if there was a pay booth somewhere, clearly no one cared if we paid or it would have been more obviously located. we started down the path perplexedly defiant.
three minutes later we were staring down a cliff surveying a wintery panorama of emerald blue rivers and lakes fed by icy white waterfalls. i had never seen anything like it. like a croatian iguazu, we had found a legitimate natural gem in the harsh balkan cold, and there was no one around to spoil our enjoyment of it. dave and i excitedly bound down the switchbacks until we were at the water’s edge, walking on man-made wooden planked walkways across the water and staring up at the looming waterfalls.
the ice and frigidity of winter had obviously restricted the water flow, somewhat muting the normally powerful display of water in nature in this protected croatian landmark. but we knew we were getting to see a very different side of an oft-photographed sight, and the narnia-like effect that the white winter had on the place gave the atmosphere an eery yet striking touch that made me forget about the bitter cold and enjoy the moment.
dave and i separated for a while, wandering toward different parts of the park and periodically meeting back up in different areas to make sure we weren’t lost. during that time, i tried to focus on being present, enjoying the moment and not worrying about the future or the past, or letting my mind wander too far along pointless reveries. i was getting better at this. i remembered back to the beginning of my journey, being a total mental mess, worried about where i was going in my future, sad and victimized by my past, and always paranoid and conscious of the strangers around me and what they thought of me. rarely did i have these concerns any longer. occasionally i might be aware that i was out of place in a situation, or i might want to impress someone appropriately, but seldom did i have any social anxiety about my foreign status or my ragged appearance. i just didn’t care anymore, and i felt liberated. and nowhere more did that carefree comfort truly reveal itself than when i was
away from congested society and out into the raw of nature. the worries of life and society seemed to fall by the wayside whenever i wandered a dirt trail among the trees and the rushing water and an unending sky. a light snow and fair breeze coerced the water gently from its course atop the cliff to the basin below, transforming a calm stream into a drifting cascade. it was peaceful here, and i never wanted to leave.
dave and i reconvened aboard a ferry that carried us across the main lake and to a new section of the park for us to explore for a few more hours. eventually the cold won out, however, and dave and i decided it best to seek warmer temperatures.
The next day we were on the road again, and before long we were slipping and sliding our way through the streets of zagreb, the capital city of croatia. a heavy, wet snow had been falling for hours before we arrived, and still fell, as we searched for parking near our hostel. we checked into yet another modern “design hostel,” impressively marked with comfortable yet minimalist furniture, modern decorative art, and clean lines throughout the architecture. croatia knew how to put together a solid hostel.
we spent another pair of days exploring the old and new in a city that dates back at least a thousand years. exploring old churches and cemeteries, and a few bars in between, zagreb seemed to be a large city without much of the draw that tourists journeyed to the adriatic coast for. but there was charm in that. it was a different side of croatia, more business-like, more straight to the point, and the unassuming nature of it put one at ease. it was easy to go about your day and take the city in without feeling the pressure to make sure you had checked off all the necessary boxes to prove to yourself it had been worthwhile.
our time came to an end however, and dave and i said our goodbyes to croatia. we rose early before the sun and city, and sped hurriedly to the airport. in our early morning haze, we pulled up to the front gate of the departures section and began preparing to offload our luggage. we both sat uncomfortably for a moment, not sure what was wrong. suddenly, it hit me.
“damn! this is a rental car! where’s the rental office?!” i exclaimed, suddenly wide awake. dave looked back at me blankly. panic set in, we were already likely late for an international flight, and we had forgotten to return our rental car.
dave turned on his iphone, hoping he could locate the rental office nearby, while i pressed the gas pedal, determined to find it the old-fashioned way.
“i don’t get it. google maps says we’re on top of it,” dave said, perplexed. we both looked around. nothing. i drove to the end of the airport road. nothing but office buildings, no rental lots. i turned around and went back to the entrance of the airport loop. dave kept poking at his phone screen with futility, much like he had the entirety of our time in the balkans. google maps didn’t have as high an adoption rate here as it did the rest of europe and the US thus far, hence the wild inaccuracies we had experienced almost everywhere we had gone.
after a few minutes of driving around in a panic and yelling obscenities at dave’s iphone, i hooked my head left and searched east, across an empty field and down what appeared to just be a service road. i whipped the car illegally across traffic and sped down the road without saying a word. dave, recognizing that i was in one of my zones, said nothing and held on for dear life, trusting that i knew what i was doing. i barreled into a parking lot and up to the front door of the europcar rental office. dave stared at me incredulously.
“how did you see this?!” he exclaimed as we walked briskly to the door. i didn’t answer, frustrated as i realized that no one was at the office yet. someone was late to work. annoyed, i repeatedly rang the bell and pounded on the door, unconcerned that no one could hear it.
a few minutes later another car entered the lot and 2 men in ties rushed in to open the office. embarrassed, he was aware that i knew he was late. i said nothing and noticed that he was working at a pace faster than what he normally might. he processed our paperwork and drove us back to the departure gate. dave and i grabbed our bags and sprinted through check-in and security, barely making our flight.
as the plane climbed into the morning sky, i exhaled deeply, relieved. dave began laughing, unprovoked, and it was only a matter of seconds before i was laughing with him.
“i don’t ever want to fly with you again” i said jokingly, and our laughter grew even louder.
i would miss croatia. and bosnia and montenegro as well, and the mysteries of what lay beyond the boundaries that dave and i had pushed haunted me. i would be back someday, to explore sarajevo, and bucharest, and albania, and macedonia. to sail from the northern tip of croatia all the way down to the southern isles of greece, when the summer sun beats down upon the blue sea and is cooled by the mist on the skin and the tradewinds blowing through the hair. i would most definitely be back someday.
but now i returned to amsterdam, to celebrate the new year with the dutch, at the party of a lifetime.
today’s song has been out for a few months now, but the more i listen to it, the more it becomes a part of me. it’s called “dark bird is home,” and it’s by the tallest man on earth. it’s a song about separation, and learning to grow and cope with change and loss. this song makes me feel so many emotions when i hear it, and it has earned a place on my eternal rotation. tallest man will be performing in denver, co this summer and i plan on attending. feel free to join me.
we arrived in split in the middle of the night. after a couple hours of getting lost in the dark of the midnight bosnian countryside, we had found a main highway that led us across the border into croatia. dave had dozed off and i laid down on the accelerator, taking full advantage of the expansive and luxurious toll road highway cutting through the middle of croatia. periodically dave would stir awake, and i would bring the car back to a normal speed so he didn’t get nervous, but the second his eyes were closed, i had the machine back above 120 miles per hour.
despite the success of cultural exchange that had taken place in the restaurant between dave and the restaurant owner, i had been disappointed that i’d not been able to convince dave to stay longer in bosnia. bosnia & herzegovina was some sort of wild frontier for me; a place i could attempt to get off the grid again and find some truly unique experiences, and maybe even push deeper. i had begun to realize there were so many cultures in the balkans that i knew next to nothing about, and now my interest was piqued. but alas, now i was in split. and instead of being able to enjoy it, i was thinking of neighboring lands that seemed never further away than they suddenly did now, despite never having thought of them before that day. to say that i didn’t partially hold a little silent resentment toward dave at the time would have been a lie, and for a couple days there was definitely a tension between us that i had created.Continue reading a croatian christmas party, in split→
the following night, dave and i touched down in croatia and were wandering around an empty, unlit terminal searching for a rental car company in the dark. when we finally found the right bungalow, it was apparent that the guy running the office had been waiting for us for awhile, his final customers of the day. his demeanor was very gruff, cold almost, but not rude. there was a measured indifference in his voice, and i could tell that he was ready to go home for the day. i surmised that there was a good chance that i would experience this ‘measured indifference’ again during my time in croatia.
the dubrovnik airport is located about 20 minutes south of the city, so i had a little time to get comfortable with our volkswagen golf on the darkened highway, pressing the accelerator to the ground a couple times and hugging a few turns, making dave nervous in the process. getting a reaction to my driving from him was becoming one of my favorite things about traveling with dave.
we pulled into the outskirts of dubrovnik and began searching for the apartment we had rented from airbnb, making a few wrong turns and getting slightly lost. the apartment seemed to be located somewhere between the two roads that had forked off of the main highway we had been traveling, one going high up along the mountainside, and the other down below, closer to the walled city and coastline, and we couldn’t locate any actual roads that could get us anywhere between the two. in this area of seemingly un-navigable land lay rows of old houses and high-reaching walls that all gradually made their way further up the mountain. we needed to get in there somehow. i found a narrow alley, barely wide enough to fit a car, and pulled the tiny vw into the tight squeeze. i drove slowly for a minute while dave checked the map on his phone, and the alley widened ever so slightly. there was an SUV parked tightly up against the wall on the right and i inched the car alongside and past the SUV, leaving a mere inch on either side of the car.
“how did you do that?!” dave exclaimed. i laughed, proud of my navigational skills. i pulled the car ahead of the parked obstacle and began creeping forward again as the alley began to narrow again, searching desperately for an address or a street sign in the dark that might give us a hint of where we were going or where we were.
suddenly two bright headlights came rushing down the alley from around the corner and stopped in front of us, the two cars staring face to face, nowhere to go. dave and i froze, staring blankly ahead, unsure of what to do and hoping that the other car would back up into some magic parking lot behind them around the corner that obviously did not exist. the men in the other car began waving their hands directing me to get the hell out of their way. okay, i thought, i’m the person who doesn’t live here, i need to go back.
“shit. okay here we go man.” i said to dave and shifted into reverse.
“okay, but, wait! watch out for…!” dave panicked as i quickly backed the car back into the extremely tight space between the wall and the parked SUV. i was going backward faster than i had gone through forward before. i frantically swiveled my head back and forth, checking my mirrors repeatedly as i eased the car backwards past the SUV and back out into the alley, down the narrow, winding alley, and back out into the main street entrance, the exiting vehicle impatiently following me the whole way, then making a quick pass once they had a chance, escaping out into the night. i shifted into park and slumped back into my seat, letting out a big sigh of relief. i looked over at dave. he was staring at me with eyebrows raised and his mouth agape.
“i’ve seen you do some crazy things, but i think that was the most impressive. how did you not wreck the car into that wall?!?! you were going WAY too fast!” he started laughing nervously.
“what just happened? i blacked out.” i joked. honestly i had no clue how i had escaped the situation unscathed either.
we eventually were able to locate the apartment, and after being welcomed by the owner, andres, we ran quickly down into the walls of the old city, about a 15 minute walk. the city streets were empty but very well lit, and the white polished stones in the walkway projected the lights overhead back upward, giving an ethereal mirroring effect that made you feel like you were walking on an ancient mirrorball. after wandering around for a few minutes, we located a small restaurant that we had read about in online, known for great local croatian cuisine and wine. tucked away in a little nook of the city and built into the great outer wall of the city, the place looked empty and closed. undeterred, i poked my head inside anyway and found three people sitting on barstools at a small counter in the front, and a waiter on the other side who looked up to see us with a surprised and welcoming smile.
“hi, are you still open?” i inquired.
“yes, please come in my friend! welcome to my restaurant, the bota sare!” he ushered us to the corner, bringing us waters and menus. the place had a very elegant but simple feel to it, white stone from floor to ceiling. the menu was full of local ingredients and seafood, made into sushi arrangements. also oysters. lots of oysters.
“i’ll have a dozen oysters and a bottle of a local white wine. whatever you recommend that is reasonably priced,” i instructed politely. dave placed a large order of sushi and we elected to share. the rest of the establishment was empty, so it was only a short time before our food arrived. as we feasted, we couldn’t help but listen in and appreciate the 3 locals at the bar who were extremely drunk. i couldn’t help myself as i listened to their clumsy conversation, bouncing back and forth between croatian and english, slobbering and stumbling every step of the way. there were two men and one woman, all three of them were tall. they kept ripping through bottle after bottle of wine, and the restaurant owner tried to dissuade them from ordering more, but they persisted. at one point, one of the men fell off of his stool and flat onto the stone floor, where he lay unconscious. it wasn’t a violent fall, more of a slow slump, so when his friends began laughing at him raucously, i couldn’t help myself and began laughing as well. the owner looked at them disapprovingly, embarrassed that they were causing such a scene, but when he looked over to see david and me laughing appreciatively, he smiled in relief. the woman stumbled over to us while the man woke his friend up and encouraged him to drink more.
“where y’ from?” she managed to blurt out.
“the US,” i replied with a smile. she turned around and motioned to the owner.
“shots! rakija! for our american friends!” she demanded, not out of rudeness, but more out of the brain’s necessity to focus solely on essential words after speaking becomes a labor and politeness and prepositions become an afterthought. the owner brought around some shotglasses and poured 4 shots of a clear liquid.
“what is this?” i asked curiously.
“rakija. a croatian brandy made from fruit” the owner informed me. okay, here we go, i thought to myself, trying to prepare for what might turn into an all-out binge.
“Živjeli!” said the locals, and we knocked the shot back. for about .5 seconds, everything was fine. suddenly a wave of disorienting aromatic sweet and sour tingling came rushing up my esophagus and down the inside of my nose. the sides of my tongue began throbbing with a strong cherry tart flavor. the croatians all began laughing as dave and i attempted to recover and salvage some dignity. i actually liked the rakija, but i prayed to god they weren’t going to offer me anymore. i didn’t want to binge drink tonight, i wanted to a restful sleep. luckily the drunk woman slapped dave on the back and laughed heartily, then returned to her drunk friends and eventually left.
the owner explained to us that they had all been friends since primary school, and that typically in the tourist off-season (december, january) the city is completely empty, so the locals will often times to go the places they don’t normally go when they are crowded with tourists. we informed him we weren’t bothered at all by drunkenness, if anything it made the otherwise quiet night more enjoyable. i then began asking the owner about his life in dubrovnik. there were no other customers in the restaurant, so the owner pulled up a chair and poured himself a glass of wine. he began to tell us about how beautiful the summers were and how wonderful croatian people were. we began to drift backward in time, i started asking questions about the war in the 90s, unsure if he would be willing to talk about it with us. after a little hesitance, he started sharing openly, telling us that he had been in this very building as a child when the first bombs had hit the walls of the city, fired by serbia. dave and i listened with wide eyes as he recounted the horrors of the war, and we smiled with him when he
spoke proudly of how the thick and sturdy walls withstood every shell and missile fired, never collapsing or failing. he admitted that shells had obviously hit inside the city,
and he informed us that if we walked enough within the right areas of the city, we would still see the craters and demolished buildings. we asked him how things had changed over the years, and we asked him about current relations with serbians. he admitted that he had a difficult time accepting serbians because of the atrocities that he had witnessed and the friends and family that he had lost at their hands in the war. as he shared with us, i found myself minorly shocked about how different his childhood was from mine. we were roughly the same age, i had been through my own tragedies and warzones (i grew up in gangland southern california during the early 90s race riots. those were fun), but nothing like what this man had seen. his city had been bombed by another neighboring country, and had undergone a horribly pointless war for 3 years, simply because his countrymen had wanted independence from the mess of socialist yugoslavia. i felt fortunate that i had never had to experience something so conflicting and awful. but i also was appreciative of this man’s willingness to share with us openly about his experiences. at the end of the night we thanked him and went on our way.
the next morning we arose early and elected to pay a few euros to walk up onto the city walls and walk the perimeter of the whole city. it was a beautiful, blue sky day, without a cloud in the sky, and the sun shone brightly over the sea on the other side of the castle walls.
old dubrovnik was quite a sight indeed. the walls alone were incredibly impressive, standing 80 feet at its tallest and 20 feet at its thickest, i tried my best to imagine just how difficult it would be to build fortified walls like that. how many layers of stone blocks is that?!? the modern walls that you see now were initially built starting in the 12th century, and is considered to be the greatest defensive fortification of the middle ages, as the walls have never
been breached in open combat. i gawked at every new angle i could find from atop the walls, looking down the outside from the top edge, appreciating the way the walls sloped down and out, wider at the base to protect from any lean or tipping. the city had also done a great job of staying updated with the times, as the defensive purposes had not been necessary in almost 20 years, so the cosmetic work that had gone into preserving and beautifying the city and it’s famous walls had been extensive, and the work had been effective. dubrovnik was perhaps one of the most uniquely beautiful places i’d ever been in my entire life.
as we completed our lap around the city, i found a tower in the northern corner of the walled city, what looked to be the most strategic defensive position of the city with the best view of the entire city. i climbed to the top and looked out the tiny window, surveying the man-made wonder around me, paired with the natural beauty of the mediterranean sea just beyond the city walls. directly below of the tower i was in was an elevated basketball court with high fences and a great view that a group of young boys were playing in. after watching them for a few minutes i decided that they were playing basketball on the best court in the entire world. no nba court in the US could compare with the beautiful simplicity and unique backdrop that these young croatians had.
“hey man, we should get a move on if we want to make it to make it into montenegro before dark.” dave had caught up to me. i descended the tower and we exited the great walls of the city. i would definitely be back some day.
this week’s musical selection is actually not a new song, but it’s new to me and i can’t stop nodding my head to it, so i’m sharing it with you. hailing from tacoma, washington, motopony’s song “seer” sports a dirty little acoustic guitar riff as the spine, and a solid rock n’ roll backing that builds an anthem with muddy pianos and guitars, a soaring organ, and quirky vocals that give just enough bite to keep you wanting more. enjoy…