Split, Plitvice, Zagreb (Days 22, 23, 24, 25)

6.30.2014

It was dark. We were tired, we were hungry, we were thirsty, and we were lost, utterly clueless as to how best to extricate ourselves from the narrow, unlit dirt backroads of the Bosnian suburbs. We didn't panic; we just slowly and carefully retraced our steps and worked our way back onto solid, paved ground, then chose our best guess of roads to bring us to those flashing border lights in the distance—ah, never had I wanted to see a customs officer so badly—and apparently picked the right one, for fifteen minutes later we were barrelling right toward them, passports and smiles at the ready. The Bosnians bid us goodbye and the Croats welcomed us back in, and we skirted across the border and sighed in relief at once again being on familiar (what a relative term that had become) ground.

Our relief was cut short some kilometers later by a lone man in the road, a stranger waving us over to a stop on that stretch of remote asphalt just outside of the Bosnian border. He had a bright vest, which I suppose symbolized some sort of authority, and it turned out he had a compatriot with a similar vest already on the side of the road, leaning up against their sedan, which in the dark bore no clear markings of officialdom.

He again signalled to stop, and we really had no choice but to stop, so we stopped and rolled down our windows and he requested our documents: passports but car papers as well, the rental agreement and the registration and insurance and also Abby's license. We passed them all to him and he scanned them thoroughly with a beacon of flashlight in hand, then smiled, passed them back, and waved us on our way. We rolled up the windows and Abby pressed on the gas and we rolled away, and then we breathed, a collective sigh filling the vehicle. It had been minutes, perhaps, since either of us breathed last, and so we welcomed fresh oxygen into our stressed lungs, and with that oxygen came a little nervous laughter, and once again, that precious feeling of relief.

Relief of mind, that is: I'd drank nearly two liters of water since we'd left Mostar and was very much in need of some relief of body as well. My bladder had kept quiet during our exodus from Bosnia, or at least the rest of my body ignored it while it worked to get us lost, and then unlost, in and amidst those Bosnian backroads, but now that things felt a touch safer, my bladder bellowed from my belly with fury,  "excuse me, don't you hear me talking to you!?"

I asked Abby to pull over and I hopped out of the vehicle and, not traveling very far for fear of falling forward into a deep, dark ditch, I sighed heavily as two liters of water raced out of my bloated bladder.

Empty as the road had been, it seemed to suddenly fill itself up with cars coming from either direction nearly as soon as I'd stopped to pee. Aiming for some small degree of modesty—stupid Americans come to our country and piss on everything!—I'd pivot my pelvis as a car approached from one way or another, turning east for the eastbound cars and west for the westbound, and there, for some comically long stretch of time, I stood and oscillated a full one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, back and forth and back and forth like a fan does as it arcs around a room.

Feeling pretty good about the semicircle of piss I'd left on the side of the road, I returned to the car and Abbilyn hit the gas and once more, for the final time, we took off for our return to the Croatian shores, no sleep 'til Split. It seemed like an odd choice, returning to Split; we really reviled it the first time around. But hearing others talk about it those past few days, reading more about its lovely old town and its pleasant parks, we were sure we'd been doing something wrong, that we'd somehow found ourselves driving circles around its seemingly impermeable membrane, that once inside we'd find a whole new Split with a lively ecosystem buzzing about a magnificent little nucleus.

Yes, we'd give Split another go, but not until morning: all we had left in us for that night was to arrive at Split's outer rim and find a quiet place in its shadow to park our car and rest our heads until daylight. We hoped to find some food and water before that, but nothing along the way seemed open, nothing in Split itself either except rowdy bars, so with growling stomachs and dry mouths for the second night in a row, our exhaustion won out and led us to a mall on the city's edge, a mall with a multi-story parking garage that was all but deserted at that late hour. We picked the sixth level, assumed our positions from the night before, and there, crammed together in our little Croatian car, we slept.

***

I woke at sunrise, a little before six, and Abby woke shortly thereafter, once the mall's morning crews arrived and cranked up their stereos to usher in the new day. Loud, candied American pop echoed through the garage as the locals got to work readying their stores and shops for business, and meanwhile we got ready for the day in the worst way possible: no water to wash our faces or brush our teeth or even expel from our waking bladders, just a quick stretch outside the car and then a cranky climb back inside, two days of literal car camping a little too much for our poor bodies.

It wasn't yet seven, a little chill filling the outside air, so we killed time by resuming our driving lessons, Abby reclining in the passenger seat and me shaking our bones with more stops and starts and stalls. The multi-story lot was a great place to practice, long enough to get from neutral to first to second and third and back down again, room to reverse and inclines to practice starting on, left foot and right foot battling it out to ascend the ramps without the car rolling back or the wheels leaving thick lines of rubber underfoot.

Within the hour, I felt the first inklings of muscle memory coming to life. I thought less and my arms and legs took over, and though they were a little clumsy at the get-go, they did a fair job of keeping the transmission alive and us just the same. Abby smiled, possibly because I was getting the hang of it but also just maybe because I had finally, after numerous requests, stopped "putting the fucking blinker on at every turn; it's an empty goddamn parking lot," and with the sun arcing higher in the Split sky, she asked if I wanted to drive us into town.

I was nervous, and I said no, but with a little coaxing I cautiously agreed. All went smoothly as we left the parking lot—descending those familiar six stories felt like a practiced routine—and also okay for the first few miles into town, but then we stopped at a red light and a big truck came to idle right behind me and when the light turned green I got a little too panicky with the gas and let the car stall out with a quiet click, and then just kept panicking as the truck waited impatiently behind me, inching up dangerously on my back bumper.

The vehicle finally got going after another stall or two, and I vowed not to let it come to a full stop again, not until we got into town and I pulled over and handed the keys to Abby, who swiftly navigated the city streets to find us parking in a vacant lot.

We changed into our swimsuits in the car and threw a few extra layers atop them, then we paid the attendant and picked up all the fixings for a little picnic at a nearby grocery, and having somehow found the beach without really trying at all this time—maybe that's the magic of Split; its wonders only come to those at ease—we stripped back down and laid out and rewarded our bodies for their noble service, that night and the one before it, with fruit and water and snacks and sun.

The early morning sun felt great, the late morning sun a little hotter. Sticky with sweat after a short slumber in the sand, we washed off with a quick dip in the sea, which trailed out gradually so one could walk several hundred feet in and only be about waist-deep in water. The water was ice cold, however (thus the quick dip) and we returned to our sandy scarves for a bit more rest and relaxation.

By early afternoon, the once-empty beach had filled up with the unpleasant density of a New Jersey shoreline, so we escaped the crowd and strolled to our hostel—finally, a hostel!—just a quick walk from the city center. Once at the hostel, we showered—finally, a shower!—and stretched out on the soft bed—finally, a bed!—then got to work planning our day.

We both had the same plan, we were happy to find out, which was to have as little a plan as possible. Earlier on our road trip we'd talk of heading over to the island of Hvar, an hour ferry ride from Split, or maybe Korcula, two hours with car, but these ideas needed work and planning, which meant energy and stress, and after busy back-to-back days of rough living, enjoyable as they may have been, we felt we'd earned ourselves a day of doing nothing but meandering about that little beach town.

It seemed like a little town, but it was actually Croatia's second largest city, which with a city population of under two hundred thousand demonstrates just how beautifully spaced and scaled Croatia really is. It was also one of Croatia's oldest cities, home to a wonderful walled center much like Dubrovnik's. We learned this with a chuckle, that the reason we couldn't find a damn thing in Split our first time there was because the best of it was right over that pedestrian-only wall, and on foot, as one should be whenever possible, we strolled right inside the old city walls with ease.

It felt a little different inside than Dubrovnik: fewer crowds, more space; in many ways, the walled city of Split is more pleasant than the walled city of Dubrovnik. The latter's redeeming quality, what makes it worth the extra seven-hour round trip from the former, is how strong those walls look, how positively medieval Dubrovnik appears with its gate and moat and cliffside location, how dramatic it all seems compared to the ornamental edifice surrounding Split.

We purchased some baklava in a bakery within old Split, and ate it outside the walls at a small park, and we later walked along Split's spotless shoreline to a monumental park with monumental views of the Adriatic Sea. Somewhere along the rim of the park was a tiny archipelago, maybe a dozen dry rocks poking up from the calm waters no more than a few feet high and maybe ten feet around, and a few were connected by simple planks to the mainland, so we followed one of those planks to one of those tiny, tiny islands and laid there, watching scores of sailboats circle each other out in the distance.

I woke some time later, Abbilyn still watching those boats. It was getting a bit cold out, so we hurried back to the hostel to grab warmer wear and then returned to the walled city for a nice dinner. We'd found just the place earlier that day, but when we tried to make dinner reservations we were told that we were out of luck, that they were already full all night, and whether that were true or we'd simply been told that because they feared our haggard appearances—all unshowered and unkempt earlier that morning—would drive away other patrons, they let us know we could "try to swing by" later, and so swing by we did. Freshly showered and neatly clothed, we were a different couple than the pair of vagabonds they'd shooed away before; we were elegant and groomed, all cardigans and button-ups, and they sat us with haste and a smile, right outside the eatery's entrance: beautiful bait to lure in wandering passerby, we joked.

The place specialized in olive oil; basically, the menu consisted of forty different ways to deliver forty different types of olive oil to your mouth. We chose a five-oil tasting—a hefty basket of bread and five oils to try—and supplemented it with some bruschetta and vegetable stirfry, and it was all astonishingly and indescribably delicious, not just for the nose and the mouth but for the eyes, for what could be more beautiful than dining in the old stone walls of an ancient city, backlit with the rays of a setting sun, flanked by one's very best friend, with a table heaping of artisan eats before them? It felt wonderful to be there, to be settled for a day and well-fed and well-sunned and well-rested, washed and dried and all cleaned up, and having a few glasses of great Croatian wine working its way into my bloodstream didn't hurt, the remainder of the evening passing by in a delightful moonlit buzz.

***

The next morning, we split Split for the second and last time, and with that my split jokes came to a sad but ready end ("okay, Abby, so the road from Dubrovnik is going to break in two; it looks like some cars will take the Split split but most-are going to Mostar—follow them!"). We trailed back up the Croatian coast, back the way we'd come—but ah, with me at the wheel, finally making myself useful!—radio blaring and windows down whenever the random reprieves from rain would allow it. We followed the coast for hours, and it was no less beautiful the second time around, but we broke free from it and wandered inland sooner than we had on the way down, for we had one more stop to make before leaving Croatia.

Plitvice Lakes National Park is quite a treasure: one of the best patches of nature in all of Europe, I'd heard from others before embarking. It wasn't very accessible by public transportation—national parks never really are—so it'd quickly fallen to the bottom of my list when marking my stops across the continent. Yet by a stroke of good fortune Abby had it recommended to her as well, and by an even better stroke of luck we were in a car, so a visit was hardly even out of the way. The weather over Plitvice looked terrible when we'd checked the forecast earlier that morning, but whatever: Plitvice or bust.

We arrived amidst sprinkles and showers. It was cold out, so we layered ourselves in whatever we could afford to get wet and then bounded outside, dodging the ticket booth selling its "mandatory" admission tickets to the park, which included insurance and unlimited rides in their "heated!", "dry!", "multi-stop!", diesel-spewing coaches that ensured tourists could "see!" and "experience!" nature without ever really setting foot into it, all for an absurd twenty dollars per person.

Morally, one should never and can never be charged for access to a public commons, so after passing up what I felt was really just an offer to sight-see in lazy fashion, we instead walked—dare I say hiked—toward the lakes. We didn't really know where we were going, and it didn't really matter; we just followed the roads downhill and eventually stumbled on one beautiful lake, and then another, and the deeper we worked into the network of lakes, the more rewarding they became, each continually filled by the thundering spouts of dozens and dozens of surrounding waterfalls.

It's best to picture a typical Plitvice lake as a hemispherical basin. On one side, the side you're on, there's the lake. It's small, usually not even a true lake but a great beautiful puddle that overflows in spectacular fashion to another beautiful puddle below it, and so on, and you're somewhere above and in between them, on a narrow wooden walkway without railings, a walkway so close to the action that rushing water bubbles up between the seams. These puddles—maybe too modest a term for these gorgeous things—are being filled from the other half of the basin, a semi-circular cliff maybe thirty feet overhead, with all the perfect cracks and crevices of an imperfect nature, which leaves the water, undoubtedly draining from a similar network of puddles even further overhead, dripping and dropping down the rim of this cliff in all sorts of ways, at different angles and with different velocities and even different ways of flowing. And all around this aquatic wonder are its marshy accompaniments, lush moss and swampy grasses and beautiful birds perched in hardy trees. On any day, it would all be a sight to see. But on this day, a rainy Sunday in late May, it was beyond breathtaking. The rain didn't sour our hike; it strengthened it, it immersed us in the waterfalls by making the park one giant waterfall. We didn't merely see the sprinkles but we felt the sprinkles, and it somehow seemed to rain a little more forcefully when we neared a mightier fall, and it somehow seemed to clear up altogether when we returned to the road, and though we were soaked within minutes and our fingers frozen within the first hour, it felt too magical a place to leave.

Eventually, though, after circling the majority of the lakes and filling our hearts with ample shares of wonder and appreciation, we trekked back to the car and took off whatever we had on and laid it all out around us and behind us, and we cranked the heat and steamed the car and left, after gladly paying a rightful seven dollars for parking—and, oh, getting dressed in dry clothes, too.

We returned to the Zagreb airport at nightfall. We cleaned the mess we'd made of the car and returned it, a little sad to be leaving such a trusty steed after those past four days, then shouldered our bags and took a bus back to town. We checked into an underwhelming but perfectly pleasant hostel and ate an underwhelming but perfectly pleasant dinner at an underwhelming but perfectly pleasant restaurant nearby, and then, too tired from a long day to see any more of Zagreb that night, we went to bed.

***

Though we'd spent two nights in Croatia's capital on two separate occasions, we never got to see much of the town. We walked briskly through its polished center the next morning, just a quick half-hour detour on our way to the bus station, and we liked what we saw, but sadly time wouldn't allow more exploration, for we had places to be. We were going to Turkey!

Though our travel plans had underwent a happy shakeup, replacing southern Italy and Greece with Slovenia and Croatia and Bosnia, Turkey was still—was always—an immovable object in our itinerary. Neither of us had been there, but we'd both been dying to go, and after those two weeks in a very-Western-and-sometimes-not-so-Western-but-still-somewhat-Western region of Europe, we were eager to chase the continent to its very edge and see what it had to offer at the brink of the Bosporus.

Our flight to Istanbul left from Zagreb Airport around eleven, so we arrived there by nine and spent our remaining kuna on breakfast and plane snacks. We entered the security checkpoint and Abby passed through without concern, as did I, but just as I reached to hoist my pack back onto my shoulder, a gruff Croat asked me to open the bag, and so I unzipped it dutifully and began taking out anything that might show up questionably on an x-ray: camera, camera charger, buzzer—

"What's this?" he asked, pointing to a little spot of silver tucked away in a mesh compartment.

"Ah, just a spork," I said, pulling out the thin, titanium utensil and offering it into his waiting hand. It was a very simple affair: just a spoon on one side and a fork with great rounded tines on the other, all crafted from titanium so it was superbly light and durable. It'd accompanied me on my last trip, and over the campfires and gas stations of North America, it had fed me for sixty days. Simple as it was, I'd grown quite attached to it in our time together.

"No can take."

The words stabbed at me like a spork: they hurt a little tiny bit, but not enough to leave any lasting damage. At least, that was my understanding of the type of threat a spork poses: not very much. My Croatian friend, however, seemed more concerned. Sure, that spork had flown with me from America to Spain; sure, it sat in my messenger bag every day while back home, in and out of federal buildings all the time, but alas, as far as Croatia was concerned, it was a threat to national security. "No can take," he repeated, "you want to check bag, or leave fork?"

I seethed. It's not just a "fork"! I said to myself. It's a spork! And is it really that much of a problem? Is my buzzer, with its electric motor, or my two-pound camera, which I could swing around my head by the strap like a mace, not capable of doing a little more damage?

I thought these things, but I didn't say them; the guy was just doing his job and following orders, silly as those orders were. Instead, I smiled and said "no, no, you can keep it," by which I meant "no, no, I understand I can't take it on the plane so I am leaving it in good hands here with you, and I trust you will use it and care for it and eat good meals with it as I once did," but which he heard as "no, no, toss it in the garbage," and just like that he unceremoniously threw it into a nearby wastebin with the discarded detritus of passengers passed, spent lighters and tubes of shampoo and other crap, and my beloved spork landed amongst that junk with a sickening thud.

A little heartbroken, I followed Abby through the airport with my pack on my back, just a few unhappy grams lighter than it had been moments before. We boarded the plane and strapped in and took off, and from my window seat I watched Zagreb shrink like a taillight in the distance, watched all of green, mountainous, majestic Croatia fall out of focus ... and my dearly departed spork with it.

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