Sleep didn't come easy in that car overlooking Dubrovnik. Abby took the cramped back and I curled over in a malformed ball up front, upper body riding shotgun and lower body twisted up near the steering wheel with abdomen and groin getting poked and stabbed by the emergency brake and the stick with every turn in the night. The sun rose early and light poured in without mercy, but somehow—likely on exhaustion alone—we slept until a reasonable hour, eight or nine.
We felt pretty disgusting, car snack disgusting—we probably smelled like car snacks as well—but we were thankful for the daylight nonetheless. After cracking bones with feeble stretches and brushing teeth with the remaining two sips of water we had rationed from the night before, we drove the car a little closer toward town and parked like everyone else along the bank of the road, then hiked the twenty minutes or so downhill to the old town.
It was a sight to behold, strong and imposing with rough waves crashing against its jagged edges, and we ate a hearty breakfast outside the walls just feet from the main gate. Feeling a few thousand times better after the coffee and water and fruit and bread, we entered old Dubrovnik with few plans, just a stroll inside the city, maybe, and then a walk up along its old city walls. We were expecting crowds, others with similar plans to ours, but I think we were both caught off-guard by just how big those crowds were: everywhere hundreds, thousands of tourists milling about and snapping photographs, talking loudly and dropping their ice cream cones all over the place. It felt a little like Disneyland, a magical setting made a little less magical because everybody else wants some of the magic too, like being transported back to a medieval time for a brief moment only to be snapped back to reality when someone thrusts a shiny point-and-shoot in front of your face, or an opportunistic street vendor shouts that he'll paint your name in calligraphy for ten euros.
Our rough night hadn't left us with much patience for the rough crowd, so we broke free from the city's main drag and found solace in its quieter side streets, not much there in the way of things to do or see but certainly a more authentic snapshot of old Dubrovnik. The steep stairs to the sides of the city did wonders in keeping the bulk of visitors away—nothing stops a tourist quite like a flight of stairs—and so we traced the ancient walls from within. Eventually we found a narrow door that led through the wall itself to the other side, to a quaint bar jutting up along an exposed cliff, and we grabbed a few drinks and navigated the winding staircase to the cliff's edge, where we sat outside the city's walls and watched the ferries go by.
We scrapped our plans to walk the walls themselves. They looked crowded and the town had recently upped their admission to a hundred kuna, roughly fifteen dollars, and though it wasn't much for such a unique experience, neither us of felt them calling to us; we had tired of Dubrovnik rather quickly.
We didn't regret coming. Yes, it had added another seven hours to our round-trip drive, and yes, it ended up being a particularly capitalistic, overcrowded amusement park, but it was still a wonderful experience, still worth it to have experienced it for better or worse, and a beautiful drive down to boot, so though we stayed very briefly, we were happy to have come.
Before we left, though, we were committed to finding a beach. We badly needed to lay our beleaguered bodies in the sand, a few hours of relaxation to unwind from the stress of the crowds and the noise. We found one nearby, just outside the old city, an empty beach with solid plastic beach chairs just feet from the water, and seaside drink service to top it all off. So we hurried down and claimed two chairs for our own and stretched our scarves out for towels, and Abby rested while I read, and peacefully we both sat for the better part of an hour.
Our peace was interrupted by a herd of Brits who claimed the twenty chairs next to us, who loudly and obnoxiously shouted to each other and whistled for the waiter and then argued with him over the price of this bottle or that bottle. We sympathized with him, putting up with such crowds probably all in a day's work. We'd make things easy for the waiter, we'd decided, our drinks already picked out and committed to memory, two summery cocktails to drown out the unpleasant pack to our right and return us to our earlier tranquility.
He settled his affairs with the Brits and approached us, and we greeted him and ordered our cocktails with a smile. "And the chairs; have you paid for those?" he asked.
"Oh, no, sorry," I apologized, "how much are they?"
"One hundred kuna each," he replied.
I'd expected a fee for the chairs, maybe expected a fourteen-dollar cocktail to negate that fee, but didn't expect a fifteen-dollar chair rental, each, atop our cocktail order ... it seemed a tad excessive.
"Even with the drinks?" I inquired.
"Yes, chairs only come free if you buy a bottle."
Abby and I looked at each other and shrugged. We checked the menu for a cheap bottle of white wine and pointed to it. "That'll do."
"Ah, no, sorry," he frowned, "that one's no good."
"Oh, no, it'll be fine," we responded, growing a little annoyed.
"No, no, you have to order a more expensive bottle of wine." He pointed toward the bottom of the list, toward the bottles that cost three hundred or four hundred kuna. Apparently, our one-hundred-and-fifty-kuna bottle of white wasn't enough, twenty dollars not enough for two chairs on an empty beach; instead, we had to order a fifty dollar bottle of wine.
"Ah, then no wine," I said.
"Ah, well then I have to ask you to leave the chairs," he replied.
I looked around at the beach's hundred-some-odd chairs, all empty spare our two and the Brits' fifteen. "Really?" I asked, astonished at the sheer lack of supply-demand economics at play.
"Yes," he confirmed.
So we left, taking the hundred-plus kuna we would have spent on cocktails with us, left those ridiculous beach chairs and those ridiculous Brits and that nice little beach, walked back to our car and left Dubrovnik altogether, a little bummed at humanity's ability to make the nicest things—pristine beaches, ancient cities—turn to shit at the hands of selfish capitalism.
But our day wasn't soured, far from it. On the way back, we'd decided, we'd detour through Bosnia, a little jughandle off the curve of the coast, not just that little appendage of border crossings we'd passed earlier but further in, due northeast to the city of Mostar.
It was maybe an hour drive from Dubrovnik, perhaps a little more with yet another border crossing factored in. The drive took us through Bosnia's backroads, and as Abby navigated them deftly, I made myself useful—once again!—by reading a little of Bosnia's history aloud. I didn't know much about Bosnia, neither of us did. Most of what I'd learned was through the lens of my human rights and international affairs courses as an undergraduate, so I knew the country had a pained past with fresh scabs and scars, but the sheer scale of it was equal parts astonishing and sobering: an eighth of the population killed during the first world war, tens of thousands massacred in the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and its conflict with the Serbs, a country torn apart by genocide within my own lifetime. We passed bombed-out ruins as I read, the types of ruins I'd normally climb out of the car and explore, but my reading warned me against it: a full two percent of the country was still littered with active and forgotten landmines.
The number hit me like a punch in the stomach. Two percent may not seem like a lot (that means ninety-eight percent is safe to roam!), but to put things in perspective, America's vast national park system, its sixty-plus national parks of tens and thousands of acres each, my home just one summer before, fits neatly within two percent of the American landmass. I couldn't imagine the fear that must come with that measly two percent; a nagging terror looming over every untouched stone and overgrown meadow. I've lived with fear in the wild, felt the helpless fright of being lost in parts unknown, watched my step to keep safe from spiders and snakes and mountain lions and bears, oh my, but to fear every bump in the ground for the explosion it might contain underneath, to have that fear caused not by nature but by fellow humans ... it was difficult to swallow.
So I didn't really swallow it. Ten kilometers outside of Mostar, we passed another set of ruins, the crumbling remnants of a sprawling citadel up on a hill. Right below the citadel was a small town, and we took this as proof—a bold assumption, I suppose—that the ruins were safe to explore, that there simply couldn't be danger lurking underfoot. We pulled to the side of the road, got out, and climbed the steep stone steps to the top of the town.
And, thankfully, we arrived unscathed. The ruins were gorgeous, all shrubs and brush gnawing through hairline cracks in the aged stone, still standing remarkably well against seeming neglect. The citadel's perch atop the town afforded magnificent views of minarets and mosques and mountains in the distance, of the river and the road below and of the ruins themselves, arcing along the hill's narrow ridge like a great rusted horseshoe.
There's something about a good ruin that sets my soul ablaze, something about nature's slow victory over man's misguided progress that makes my spine tingle and my heart race. Toil as we may to tame it, the world will always win in the end: earth, wind and fire disinterestedly destroying our development and demolishing our designs, water washing away our work like powdery chalk on a great global asphalt. We can level our land and enclose ourselves in concrete containers, we can pave paradise and put up a parking lot, and we can hold onto that stale sterility for a little while, but in the end, nature will work its way in and have its way with all of us—the grass will grow and the paint will peel and there's little we can do to stop it.
Sometimes nature launches the first attack—or the first retaliation, for I suppose we're always the ones to attack first—it creates ruins in the wake of storms and sinkholes, floods and fires. Other times, we surrender on our own accord, leaving our forgotten fortresses and abandoned edifices for her to scavenge through as the vulture picks at the carcass. Either way, nature takes our masonry and our metalwork and chews it all up and spits it back out soaked in beautiful bile, raked with rust and positively dripping with the vines and grime of time. And the result, this arrested decay from a world without us, is something worth cherishing.
I've been fortunate to explore some remarkable ruins in my time, to walk the remote arms of the Great Wall of China and to climb its crumbling face, to stroll through the corridors of long-abandoned hospitals and homes and sanitoriums and psychiatric wards with nothing but a light to illuminate those niches of neglect. I'm fortunate to live just fifty steps from a ruin in the making, twenty-five striking stone silos wasting away for four decades in the heart of Washington, to have explored the cavernous catacombs underneath their excavated earth.
Those ruins outside of Mostar ranked right up there with the best of them. I felt privileged to be standing where I was, taking in the boundless beauty of Bosnia, to have the opportunity to hoist myself up the citadel's landings and to climb its skinny tower and to have it all come as a simple spontaneous surprise, and what's more, to share the experience with Abbilyn too (it was, indeed, her idea to stop there in the first place).
We spent some time up there, quiet and contemplative, and then wandered off the wall and worked our way back down the many steps to the village's base. I led and Abby followed, and we walked quickly in our descent, scanning the scenery and the steps before us, a little overgrown with tree limbs and winding vines and—
I froze. Three feet in front of me, a thick brown branch braced up against the path's left side sprang to life. It bent right and it slithered into the middle of the walkway, all seven feet of it emerging from the brush and blocking our path, daring anyone to get in its way.
I knew Abby was directly behind me, and so I spun around on my heel and did my best to block her view, but she nonetheless caught a glimpse of movement where movement shouldn't have been and gasped, wheeling around as well and putting some quick distance between herself and the formidable snake.
She handled the shock well—we both did. After snapping a few photographs from afar to identify it later, we turned toward a spur trail and walked cautiously yet calmly down the remainder of the stairs, not speaking much until we sighted the car and sealed ourselves within its locked doors. "That thing was fucking huge," she said, or I said, or we both said, and it was; we learned later that elaphe quatuorlineata, though nonvenomous, was the largest species of snake on the continent. It killed its prey through constriction, which meant we were probably safe even if we had trampled right over it, but we were glad that was a fact learned through research and not rugged reality. We were glad for a lot of things: that we had spotted it from at least a few feet away, that we had spotted it with another route to the base and not while cornered on a precipice of the overgrown citadel, that we were back in the car and didn't have to worry about snakes of any size or variety or toxicity for the foreseeable future.
We drove on, nerves settling and that post-traumatic brand of giggles surging, and we arrived in Mostar shortly thereafter in good spirits, or as good as spirits can be in such a somber place, bombed-out buildings announcing your entrance to the city limits where more fortunate locales might welcome you with a tourist-packed rest stop.
We pulled into a parking lot and the attendant greeted me in an unfamiliar tongue. I smiled sheepishly and asked "English?" with an apologetic shrug, and he responded in superb English with an apology of his own: "Sorry, I thought you were Croatian."
I took pride in his statement, happy to be blending into my surroundings, only moments later realizing with horror that it might not be such a good thing: only two decades earlier, Croat forces stormed into Mostar and bombed its iconic Old Stone Bridge, only two decades earlier, Croatians had slaughtered Bosnians en masse, and vice versa, only two decades earlier, in this man's lifetime, his mistaking me for a Croat might mean a bullet to my head.
But he was friendly and welcoming, and I was thankful for that. He explained with pride that he had learned all of his English from online games, from chatting with comrades in the World of Warcraft and picking it up along the way, and we were wonderfully impressed.
He pointed us to the small center of town and we walked its narrow streets, and it was such a modest, charming place. They were so warm, the people of Mostar, big smiles and kind eyes, and it broke my heart to imagine the trauma those people had faced in their lifetimes, that their mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers had also faced—how, after all that, could they still smile?
I visited Ciudad Juarez a year earlier, just a year or two after it lost its status as the world's deadliest city, after the drug cartels moved their drug war away from the border and deeper into Mexico. I remember being struck by the thick coating of fear that filled the air, by the way people hurried through the streets with eyes lowered and mouths shut, as though Medusa herself rested within every stranger and a locking of eyes would foretell certain death. I remember wondering how long that fear would last, how long until laughter would ring out once more, until people felt comfortable smiling and playing and living.
Maybe twenty years was the answer; I don't know. I don't know how the Bosnians dealt with it each day, each year, how they shared a border with Croats to the west and Serbs to the east and found peace—not just the external kind, but internally too. I don't know how they did it, but I was having trouble even imagining it. I felt like crying, perhaps crying for those still alive, perhaps those tens of thousands massacred those twenty years ago all across the fledgling country, perhaps that fifteen percent of its people annihilated during the first world war, perhaps for the millions and millions killed over the great terrible span of history for no real reason whatsoever, just politics and power, for the interests of the few and the fear of the many. For all of them, I wept inside, and feeling as though I'd had about much as I could handle of being there, we left soon after dinner.
Almost. Abbilyn had done all the driving up to this point, some six hundred kilometers up and down Croatia and Bosnia, and not only was I eager to help, but I was eager to learn, and Abby was eager to teach, so before we departed Mostar we made the most of our nearly-vacant parking lot, Abby climbing into the passenger seat and me sidling up behind the wheel, trying to make sense of the three pedals at my feet.
She coached me through a few basics: when to use the clutch and what it does and how to know when the transmission's struggling, and I nodded along with a dismissive "yeah, yeah," feigning arrogance, interrupting her in jest when she began to walk me through what to do when I stall out, turning to her with narrowed eyes and declaring, "Abbilyn, trust me ... I'm not going to stall out."
And sure enough, I was a natural! I threw the engine into first gear and eased off the clutch and leaned onto the accelerator with grace, and the car roared to life and began chugging along smoothly, and I smiled as Abby applauded, I grinned as I rounded the lot and kicked into second gear with elegance, downshifting as we neared the corner of the little square and then throwing the whole thing into reverse, snaking my way back the way we'd come with a nonchalant look over my shoulder and my agile feet tap-dancing along the floorboard, playing those three large keys of clutch-brake-gas like the chords of a beautiful symphony. And all the while, Abbilyn sat beside me awestruck, simply amazed at the speed with which I'd picked it up, simply not believing that I hadn't done this before, that I hadn't driven stick every day for the past decade, for it simply couldn't be true that someone could drive so beautifully right off the bat.
Just kidding. No, it wasn't true ... not a word of it. What actually happened was a whole lot of violent jerks and abrupt stalls, the transmission screaming and me screaming over it, pained "fuck!"s and "shit!"s bellowing from the confines of our vehicle. I crawled my way around the tiny parking lot at a snail's pace, finding myself in fourth gear when I wanted first, in reverse when I wanted to stop. Our car shuck and shuddered and carried us like a wild mustang carries a careless cowboy, bucking us about with brutal force.
My mind and my hands and my feet were on different wavelengths, and it all felt very manual to me: "okay," I'd narrate aloud, "I want to go faster ... that means I have to get into second gear, which means I have to first ease off the gas with my right foot, then floor the clutch with my left, then switch gears with my right hand, and then let off the clutch with my left foot, and then ease onto the gas with my right, so we're dealing with a right foot, left foot, right hand, left foot, right foot sequence ... okay ... ready team? Go!" And rather than follow the damned sequence, they'd all just trip over each other like the three stooges, all going to work at the moment my mind shouted "go!", all at the same time, and the result was something of a slapstick comedy.
It wouldn't be a slapstick comedy without an audience, though, and we certainly had one of those. Though the parking lot was nearly deserted, a few RVs remained on the far side, and a few families remained inside those RVs, and we watched them roar with laughter each time we would bounce pass, watched them make a whole night of them watching me do disrupted donuts around that little Bosnian parking lot.
My goal for that first lesson was to start the car, put it into first and pick up speed and put it into second as I rounded the lot, then stop as I hit the edge and put it into reverse, and back it up to where it began. It seemed easy enough, and by the fiftieth try I had managed it without stalling out, so we called it a day and I hopped out of the driver's seat and snuggled up into shotgun with a sigh of relief, happy to be done with driving for the moment.
It was beginning to get dark, so we left Mostar, much more smoothly with Abbilyn at the wheel, and headed northwest. I did the best I could with my pixelated map to steer us in the right direction, but those mountainside roads were all winding switchbacks with no clear direction, and though the views were spectacular, the signs were not. It was a great relief when we finally arrived in the next town, and doubly so for the one after that, but as the sky blackened and the roads narrowed, the towns grew farther apart. We knew we were near the Croatian border, knew that it was somewhere to our west, just a few miles, but the signs were of little help, sparse and unlit and foreign as they were, and so we continued running parallel to it until we'd had enough, until our exhaustion demanded we take action and do our best to break left.
We pulled into the next town and wiggled our way through its jumbled network of small streets. Our only interest was west, and so we'd turn left and bless our bearings and then the road would veer north and we'd curse its course, and we'd find a new left to make and we'd do it again, but this one would wrap around south and then east, and hell, probably north and west again, too, the whole town a seeming spiral, and the harder we tried the more lost we got, the deeper into the labyrinth we wandered, until the streets were no longer paved, nor lit, and we looked at each other with the sudden realization that we were lost in the outskirts of a tiny Bosnian village with no command of the language and no map, and to make matters worse, no food or water either...