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.