Istanbul (Days 25 - 29)

6.30.2014

It was a short flight to Istanbul. We arrived just a few hours later blanketed in warm Turkish sun, and we shuttled from the plane to the terminal and trekked from the terminal to customs and waited patiently—or impatiently, if I'm being honest—until our passports were stamped with the familiar welcoming strike of metal on wood.

A bus from the airport took us into the city and deposited us into all the hustle and bustle of Taksim Square. Coming from the quiet countryside of Croatia to the very heart of modern Turkey in such short time was jarring, to say the least: so many noises, so many cars, so many people! Everything moved quickly and everything was crowded; we'd find the sidewalks too jammed to pass and so we'd walk alongside the curb in the street, but then cars would whiz dangerously by and we'd hop back onto the curb, and all the while we'd be stared at by every last Turk around, and the men would leer at Abby, and by the time we reached our apartment some thirty minutes later it felt as though our senses had been beaten and bludgeoned and bruised like some long-ago opponents of the Ottomans.

The apartment had been arranged online, and our directions were to message when we were out front and the key would be brought to us, so we did as we were told and waited outside in the thick of Istanbul for someone to come by and say "hey, here's your key."

We waited and no one came. Finally a pair of women neared the entrance and we stepped aside, realizing we were rudely blocking the door, and they held the door open for us after they went inside in case we wanted to wait out of the sun, or maybe in case they thought we were staying there and maybe forgot our key. We waved and entered and crammed inside; it felt good to be in the shade for a moment. We stood for a few moments and then realized the women were still there, at the other end of the hall at the foot of the stairs, and they waved us over and up. Ah!, we realized, they have our key!

The language barrier didn't matter much. They unlocked the door to our small studio for the week and showed us around, they pointed at the bed and the kitchen and peeked inside the bathroom and that was about it, a quick demonstration of how the keys worked for good measure, but an apartment was an apartment and this would do just fine, so we thanked them with a simple bow of the head and they left.

After relaxing for a few minutes, we left the apartment ourselves, braving the heat to explore a little of our neighborhood. On that first night, we discovered Istaclal, a wide boulevard just steps from the loft that stretched for kilometers in either direction and offered hundreds of shops and bars and restaurants, with thousands more along its offshoot alleys, and every moment of the day—that first jaunt mid-afternoon, later that night and all throughout the week at morning and noon and midnight—it teemed with life, with people and daring scooters and the occasional disruptive car, and then like clockwork the ancient red-and-white tram (the second oldest in the whole world, I'm told).

Before arriving, I'd feared that Istanbul wouldn't be much different than the rest of Europe, that globalization would beat us to Turkey and we'd find heaps of H+Ms and Kentucky Fried Chickens littered about, and people with their phones and pocketbooks and Prada sunglasses. And in a way, that was all true.

Sure, Istanbul wore its Western influence on its sleeve; in many ways, it was one of the most capitalist and commercial places I'd ever been ("how can one city sell this much stuff?" Abby had asked). But there was so much more to the city than just modern mercantile mayhem. It wasn't a place that was built on Western notions, but one that adapted to them, that crammed modernity in between its mosques and its old markets like a patchwork of space and time, a quilt of old and new, a great slurry of tradition and modernity.

And so the young Turks clutched their prayer beads as they shopped for designer jeans and Armani sweaters all along Istaclal, and as they did so the megaphones of the mosques' minarets sounded a call to prayer that rang out beautifully throughout the whole city, round the peninsulas and up the Golden Horn, literally from sea to shining sea, monophoned voices calling out ancient hymns just as they had for a millennium, five times a day and three hundred and sixty-five days a year and one hundred years a century and so on, and it all just made perfect sense. Yes, Istanbul was big and bold and busy, but it was beautiful in spite of those things—perhaps it was beautiful because of those things.

Our first night in Turkey took us to a local bar featuring live Turkish folk music every day of the week, its tunes ringing out through the neighboring streets each evening in between the fourth and fifth call to prayer. We sat ourselves in the small, cozy space and ordered a few drinks just as the band was warming up, a pair of Turkish men, one younger, one older, with beautiful voices and skilled fingers strumming simple sitars. They played a little, just the two of them, and it was lovely, and then they were joined by a third, a woman who greeted a few friends in the audience and then bounded up the small stage to join them with her calming voice.

The trio played for hours without interruption, and the more they played the better it became. There was a certain conviviality about the whole night that's hard to put into words: a certain way they just seemed to be having so much fun doing what they were doing, just a few friends hitting the bar again, and when one of them tired they'd descend for a drink and another in their troupe would take their place. There was something about the audience, too: how immersed they were, all clapping along and getting up to dance, strangers grabbing hands and dancing in a broken circle, and those on the ends waving white napkins to the pace of it all, a lovely little tradition that made the whole bar feel like a family's living room or, maybe, the banquet hall of a small wedding. And though we were outsiders, though those out in the Istanbul streets made that clear with their curious stares, innocent or otherwise, we weren't treated as such in that intimate bar. I felt privileged to be a fly on the wall, thankful to see us viewed as like-minded vagabonds and not trespassing voyeurs.

We left late, those beautiful songs fading as we walked in the midnight rain, and we returned to the apartment and slept and woke again, to more rain, but we waited out the worst of it and then headed out for our second day in that big city, down through modern Taksim and over the bridge to historic Fatih.

Though the Taskim side of Istanbul had some historic charm of its own around its cobbled corners, it was nothing compared to its sister south of the river. Fatih may look a like like Faith, and with good reason, for the whole place is teeming with it: old mosques and towering minarets and the unmistakable architecture of a thousand years of Muslim influence, and if you look a little deeper, a thin layer of Christianity, of old Constantinople, buried beneath that.

We wandered through Fatih for days, spending a good portion of our five days there south of the river. And we saw much, centuries per hour; we ate the fifth century for breakfast and the thirteenth for lunch, we passed dinner between the domes of some of the mightiest mosques of the ages. We toured the Aya Sofia, a sprawling cathedral-turned-mosque that, having been burnt down thrice when the winds of religion changed, still bore the awesome markings of antiquity, crusty plaster covering breathtaking tilework, a literal layering of one history atop another. We saw the Blue Mosque, a newer creation that was no less impressive, and we navigated the elaborate domed tombs of Istanbul's revered sultans. We walked through gardens and great public plazas and we scurried through grand bazaars that seemed to never end.

On our second day in Istanbul—or maybe our third; they all blended together like the apple and the herb and the water and the sugar in a syrupy Turkish tea, so one can't be sure—we found ourselves on the outskirts of the city center, a newer stretch of city with a few interesting statues and pleasant parks. Abby pointed to something off in the distance and I turned, and she asked "is that a Roman aqueduct?"

Indeed, it had the unmistakable silhouette of a Roman aqueduct, and hell, the Romans had once stretched as far as Istanbul, so why not? We neared the aqueduct for a closer look and marveled at its condition, artfully aged yet still standing, and how it just sat there in the middle of everything, an eight-lane highway literally running underneath it, what may just be the most magical overpass ever. And then as we turned to leave, something caught my eye way above, and I froze.

"Is that ... a person on the aqueduct?"

Abby looked up and she saw him, too, a man walking the strip of stone some hundred feet overhead. And then two more! Yes, there were people crossing the ruin, and by the look of their posture and pace, they didn't look like some special staff; they just looked like normal people on a heighty hike.

We needed to get up there, we agreed. We scanned the wall for stairs, and we followed the aqueduct and those stairs until they just crumbled away into brush and bush well overhead, and then we walked back the other way and traced the ruin to its one end about a kilometer down the road. This was its lowest point, its edge maybe a twenty foot stretch from the ground, and we desperately worked to find a way up there.

There was a van, and were we to climb up the van we could probably scurry up the wall, but I wasn't sure climbing up some stranger's van was the best idea. There were a few trees, and were we to climb the trees it'd be but a short jump to the wall, but Abby wasn't sure those trees were mature enough to support our weight. There was freeclimbing, of course; we could use our decently-developed climbing skills to just scale the stone, but neither of us were sure this was the best place to test our climbing, or the absolute integrity of the aqueduct's brickwork.

As we stood alongside the ruin mapping a plan of attack, some local children ran close atop it, four boys of maybe twelve who had evidently found a way up the wall and were now looking for an easy way to hop back down. They too spied the van, and by the look of things, it seemed as though they too were thinking of using it to their advantage.

Just then, an older man—perhaps the owner of the van—yelled from the sidewalk and hurried over, shouting what could only be Turkish obscenities and insults all the way along, you hooligans, get off that wall!, and in case hurtling all that wasn't enough, he picked up a stick and threw that at them too for good measure, a terribly violent attack that, as the kids dodged the projectile and it arched over the wall's narrow end cap to the other side, probably did some damage to the person or property of an undeserving victim down below—or unsuspecting, I should say, for no one really deserves to have a branch launched at their face.

The man, thankfully, left, muttering as curmudgeons do as he went, and the boys ran the other way to find another way down the wall. In their place arrived a lone traveler, walking slowly, who greeted us from above and asked "hey, do you know how to get down from here?"

It wasn't a stupid question, but it did strike me as silly: "well, no," I responded, "how did you get up there?"

He pointed off in the distance and we traded details and I thanked him, and I felt as though we'd benefited from that conversation far more than he, us now with an idea of how to get up there and him left going back the way he came, which he could have figured out how to do without our help.

The north side of the wall way down there, he had said, and so we followed his advice and followed the aqueduct and ended back up near where we had started, which was really nothing but crumbling wall and rock, that same old brush and bush.

But on closer inspection, we spied an intermediary landing, an old garage or something butted up against the wall, and with the help of a few car bumpers we hoisted ourselves up and over a first barrier. A family was residing on the other side, sheltered up with tarps and tents in the shadow of the aqueduct, and while I felt awful that we had just intruded in their humble home, they didn't seem to mind at all—they greeted us with a warm "hallo!" and, already knowing what we were after, pointed us to an arch in the ruin with a thin length of twine working its way up the wall nearby.

It was a short scramble, maybe ten or fifteen feet of hoisting ourselves up a steep incline, but the rope was there for support and we emerged a moment later unscathed and victorious up above ... up on the seemingly abandoned ruins of a two-thousand-year-old Roman aqueduct.

Like my climb through abandoned Jiankou ruins of China's Great Wall some years earlier, that first moment of being on the damn thing was one of life's truly breathtaking moments, those rare seconds when something really takes your breath away—not just figuratively makes you really, really impressed—when the sheer size and significance of the thing being experienced makes you feel so impossibly small and insignificant that your brain powers down completely and finds it necessary to reboot with a new set of scale.

Unlike my Jiankou climb, however, this didn't take place in a remote forest in rural China where you could stumble, break a leg, and die there, no one around for miles to hear you scream. This setting, whether for better or for worse but probably just for different, was smack in the middle of a massive metropolitan city, cars zipping by a hundred feet below and the warm glow of ten thousand lights illuminating everything around with a dusky urban aura.

The aqueduct climbed higher and we climbed with it, up steps so steep you couldn't see their top, just a seeming stairway to heaven that spit us out not in heaven but something close to it: a twelve-foot-wide landing that stretched on for a kilometer and offered the most marvelous panoramas of Istanbul one could imagine on one of the  unlikeliest platforms, a stage built by Roman forces some two thousand years before.

It was windy up there, and of course there were no railings—the beauty of the ruin is that one must take safety into their own hands—and wide as the aqueduct was, I bent my knees and crouched, hypersensitive to any rouge wind that might catch me off-guard and blow my body clean off the wall, crashing calamitously onto the street below. Abby sat, and that seemed a good call, so I sat with her and we stayed like that for a little while, glancing up to greet other explorers when they occasionally passed by, descending sometime before dark and brushing ourselves off and turning a corner and, just like that, finding ourselves back in modern Istanbul.

***

I loved the Turkish people. Sure, they stared a little bit, but we were an odd-looking pair. And regardless of how they treated travelers, I liked the way they treated each other: the way the men would show affection for one another, double kisses on the cheeks and hugs all around and all the normal symbols of trust and endearment without all the unfortunate Western homophobia. I liked the way the owner of that Turkish folk bar would come and shake hands with all of his local patrons, each and every one deserving of a firm handshake and a good helping of sincere eye contact, men and women alike. I liked the way the restaurant owners would read you the menu as you walked by, really getting into the nuts and bolts of it and doing their damndest to find you what you're looking for.

I liked the microeconomies at work all around, the way how, in the morning, you'd see the one guy with a giant bag of pretzels who'd walk from one street vendor to the next offloading his pretzels wholesale, and those street vendors would then have pretzels to sell the passerby the whole day through, or the other guy who wheeled that giant cart of water bottles to all the kids and their waiting ice chests, same model, different product.

I liked the microeconomy wherein the man on his scooter went from one restaurant to the next and rigged a spinning wheel to his scooter engine so that while it was parked it spun this wheel with great force, all glinting steel, and how the chefs would step outside their doors carrying their finest knives—ah, the knife sharpener is here again—and he'd gently press those blades against his wheel with a shower of sparks and return them to top cutting power as he chatted with the cook, as he packed up his spinning wheel and scooted to the next restaurant in need of his services.

I liked the microeconomy in which the men carry tiny vases of Turkish tea on silvery platters to the merchants in the bazaar at noon, or the one where the fisherman post up along the bridge and catch bait for the baitsmen. I liked how transparent it all was, how purposeful and local and direct, how the sellers of services knew the buyers of their services and, what's more, seemed to genuinely care for them, and they seemed to trust each other know that they all had to work together to make it work at all.

***

I loved Istanbul plenty; I didn't particularly care for its tourists. I suppose I'm always a bit harsh toward tourists, and I suppose they weren't really much worse than those I'd seen on the mainland, a bunch of sweaty faces peering through their little camera viewfinders at something Frommer's told them was worth seeing because ... "culturally significant," but perhaps they just rankled me more in Turkey, their Western ways just a little more misplaced here than Frommer's usual travel picks.

There were the men who'd enter the mosques and attempt to work their way across the barrier to the praying side, where they'd sit cross-legged and whisper back to their girlfriends, "hey, babe, take a picture of me praying in the mosque!" There were the women who would take a photograph of anyone deemed "different," which is to say anyone with a long beard or any type of cloth covering their head or greater body, including but not limited to hijabs, niqabs, and turbans, all the better for getting back to the States and sharing with less-traveled friends how "exotic" the people of the "Middle East" are.

And then there was the special and peculiar sort of person who would enter the Aya Sofia and navigate from behind a viewfinder all around its massive acreage and up its winding stairs and suddenly stop at a photograph, on the second floor of the Aya Sofia, of the Aya Sofia, and deem this photograph worthy of ... photographing.

It was truly meta: why would anyone photograph a photograph of a building they were in while in that building? I found it quite possibly the most puzzling thing in the world—like, you know you're in that building right?—and so I did the only thing I could think to do, to take the great meta of the situation and raise it to the next power: I photographed the people in the Aya Sofia photographing a photograph of the Aya Sofia.

People are so silly sometimes.

***

Sure, we had our moments too. Much as we tried to blend in, there were some things we just couldn't figure out; for instance: where do the people pee?

Pay-to-pee restrooms were pretty common in the more touristy sections of town, and we begrudgingly paid for them when necessary, but there were other times when we just couldn't find a toilet, massive bazaars where no one seemed to need a loo—or at least, no one seemed to want to advertise one to us. We found ourselves in one of these situations on the third day, maybe the fourth, way down south in Fatih with bladders full of piss and pockets full of change. We needed to pee and we were ready to pay for it, but we couldn't find those "WC" signs anywhere, hundreds and hundreds of bazaar booths all around us and not a single store or shop looking large enough to provide a privy.

We tried to leave the market but it wouldn't end; it just stretched infinitely in all directions and then seemed to wrap back in on itself. Our bladders cried, and after some time we abandoned our hopes of finding a toilet, pay or otherwise; a quiet alley would do just fine.

But this was Istanbul, one of the world's densest cities, and even by our slackened Roman standards a "quiet" alley couldn't be found. Every city block had no fewer than a thousand individuals bustling through it, working their way along every nook and crevice in an effort to get around the booths, the cars, each other. Nowhere was safe.

Minutes ticked by, first five, then ten, then twenty. The crowds got denser, not thinner, the streets busier, not quieter. I don't know which one of us was in more pain, but I imagine we were pretty close, for when one of us said "what about behind that van?" the other agreed in a heartbeat, and "that van" was anything but quiet. Sidled up right alongside a building, it was tall enough and long enough to provide an inkling of cover from someone standing on its other side, but with nearly two feet separating it from the wall, all one had to do to catch us in the act was walk up on the sidewalk. And with ten thousand people in a one-mile radius, those seemed good odds.

Abby went first, pulling her pants down and squatting and letting liters of overdue urine splash onto the sidewalk, and I followed quickly behind, adding more to the little stream, which cleared the van and gave us up before we were even done, which had worked its way halfway down the block before we'd zipped up and which followed us like a trail of shame as we rounded the corner and fled, again, those stupid Americans pissing everywhere!

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

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.

Dubrovnik, Mostar (Day 22)

6.29.2014

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...


Bled, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Split, Dubrovnik (Days 18, 19, 20, 21)

6.28.2014

The sleeper train to Gorizia was about as effective as it was unpleasant, which is to say much of both. Though it whisked us away from Rome in the dark of night and brought us well across Italy's slender frame by early morning, we weren't really able to do much sleeping. For one, it was hot, a crowded little car with us and two more bodies sealed within it, and those two other bodies snored considerably, so it was noisy too. Then there were the frequent interruptions, the train conductors coming and going with gifts and demands, tissues and pillowcases and blankets and little packets of water, one at a time, which we found amusing and our older bunkmate even more so, hearty Croatian laughter booming from deep within his throat as he eyed the little water packet and asked, if I were to translate by tone alone, "what the fuck am I supposed to do with this?"

And then the demands: first our passports, and then our interrail passes, which the conductor informed us, to our mutual alarm, that he'd keep until the morning.

Morning came slowly, painfully slowly, and when it did come, I waited anxiously for the return of those crucial documents. What if they got misplaced? What if the conductor went on break before he approached our stop? Did we even know enough Slovenian, or Croatian, or Italian to ask for the documents if it were to come to that? Yet as I lay dying with dread, there came a knock at the door and then there were the passes, right on time, with the same friendly conductor informing us that our stop was next.

We left the train and stretched our legs and retreated from the unexpected rain into a nearby cafe, and then we half-walked, half-bussed across town to Slovenia, to Slovenia's New Gorizia and Slovenia's new Gorizian train station, both the result of a old Gorizia lost to the Italians (they called it Gorica) some years back. It was a smaller train station, just an old building and some tracks, really, but I liked what I saw of Slovenia already: fog-filled mountains in the midground, artfully painted traincars in the foreground. Our brief time in Slovenia revealed that all Slovenian traincars were painted in this fashion, a tasteful and eclectic mix of mural and graffiti, each and every car different. I don't remember which car we got on, but it took us to Lake Bled, our first true stop in Slovenia.

Bled was a lake town, a small resort complex built around an even smaller lake, the lake sporting a meager circumference of some six kilometers. But what Lake Bled lacked in size it more than made up for in sheer beauty: the lake was among the prettiest lakes—hell, things—I'd ever seen.

Pretty isn't really the right word; Lake Bled was downright gorgeous. First there's the color of the water, a turquoise so rich and vibrant you'd think it was scooped out of the Caribbean itself, or otherwise poached from the depths of Canada's legendary Lake Louise. Then there's the shoreline: a little messy in some spots with the detritus of uninspired luxury lodging, but otherwise wholly beautiful, a varied mix of old stone villas and little grassy parks and, all around, a wonderful lakeside walking trail.

There's a third wonder to Bled as well, beyond its color and its perimeter, and a fourth too. Third is the castle, which sits modesty atop a monolithic butte jutting up from the lake's northern rim, overlooking the lake and its little town from perhaps a hundred feet up, perhaps higher. And finally there's the island: a tiny island in the tiny lake, rising up gently from the water's western end and adorning itself with a majestic little church that rings its bell each hour on the hour.

These are the wonders of Bled, and together, along with the dozen or so rowboats making pilgrimages to and from the church like a maritime conveyerbelt, and the majestic snowcapped Alps providing a magnificent backdrop for the entire scene, the whole place feels like something out of a fairy tale. It's picturesque and it's romantic and it's just so very ... pretty.

We were tired after our seemingly endlessly night and morning of travel, so we worked hastily to find a home for the night, rounding the lake from the southern rim and coming upon a campsite just past the tiny island with its tiny church. We didn't really have the gear to camp, me with a tent just suited for one, and probably not the fortitude either, but the campsite offered a few "glamping" options, "glamor camping" for those seeking a more comfortable communion with nature.

The "glampsites" offered were humble A-frame huts, roughly the size of a queen bed and some footspace, with a detached private bathroom just across the meadow. Pricy as it was for such simple accommodations, it really was a beautiful little space, well-situated and well-built, with a big beautiful window at its rear, and stepping into it, it felt almost like being back at home, back in the loft of the tiny house I'd built a world away, and I loved it instantly.

We showered and grabbed an early dinner and sat by the lake awhile, and then we slept early and well and long, waking the next day feeling wonderfully refreshed. While Abby started her day with a tall cup of coffee by the lake's terrace, I set out for a run, my first in some time, circumnavigating the whole of the lake and finding it to be one of the loveliest jogs of my lifetime. It was a hot one, though, so I rinsed myself off in Lake Bled's cool, crisp waters at the run's end, then rejoined Abbilyn near the terrace.

We checked out and retraced our route from the day before, hoping to find a boat rental for a few hours on the lake. Alas, our search was cut short by the sudden arrival of some ominous clouds overhead, a sudden wind that worked the lake's gentle waters into a frenzy of wild waves. It seemed a terrible time for an aquatic adventure.

Instead, we followed the lake north to Castle Bled—Grad Bled as the Slovenians call it—and hiked our way up its steep flank, realizing, as we arrived at the castle sweaty and panting, just how well-situated it was to guard against would-be attackers. But it was just as well-situated for earnest and peaceful travelers seeking an unforgettable view of Bled from above, and this castle indisputably offered the best in town. From it's balcony we could see all of it: the lake, the resorts, our glampsite and that little island, all that and the plains and the trains and the rains too, thick dark clouds dragging themselves across the mountain ridge, scraping up against its peaks and dumping their punctured entrails on whatever stood in their way, which fortunately for us, was the surrounding mountains on not the elevated castle atop which we stood.

We did catch the drizzle, however, the storm's last hurrah after its decimation against the Alps, and so we sought shelter inside the repurposed castle, which now served as a museum of Bled's fascinating history, and we drank in whatever information we could find as the lush greens outside drank in the last of the rain's misty droplets.

When the sky began to return to its beautiful bright blue, we descended the castle and hopped a bus to the train station, where we boarded another painted traincar en route to Slovenia's capital of Ljubljana.

Abbilyn and I were giddy with excitement. Ljubljana sounded perfect: "one of Europe's greenest and most liveable capitals," Lonely Planet had promised, with "minimalist design" and "beautiful alabaster bridges" and, oh, a center entirely off-limits to cars, "leaving the leafy banks of the emerald-green Ljubljanica River free for pedestrians and cyclists." Plus, we had never even heard of it, assuring us that it was a city more off the beaten path than others we'd seen. And then, of course, there was the simply joy of saying—or trying—to pronounce its name, which Abby and I had turned into something of a running joke the night before.

Ljubljana is pronounced lyo-blyah-nah, which seems easy enough when read, but to speak it is to twist your tongue into a configuration it's not quite used to, those mischievous js-turned-ys throwing everything out of whack, so what ends up coming out is something more like lyo-blyahhhhh-nah or lyo-blyah-nyah or lyo-blahblahblahblah, which later becomes lub-jub and then lubba-lubba and then chumbawamba and later, simply, the Blaj. We eventually learned that it was acceptable to simply drop the js and say it loo-bon-a, certainly more acceptable than calling it jib-jab, and so we did that ... at least while in earshot of others.

However you say it, we were excited, and Ljubljana did not disappoint. The train station was but a ten-minute walk from the city center, and eight minutes in the cars suddenly disappeared, and in their place were people, happy people, walking people and cycling people and people just standing around, people drinking beers at riverside bars and people sipping tea at neighboring cafes. They all seemed so happy, and why not? The place was beautiful: its cobblestone streets and its lush trees, the tranquil river and the generous sprinkling of pedestrian bridges across it, lovely architecture and hilly vistas and, just like Bled, a fortress overlooking the whole city from right above.

We checked into a hostel along the river, dropped our things, and then did as the locals did, strolling about the pleasant center, stopping for a glass of wine, and later filling our stomachs with a hearty Indian meal at the far end of the river. We slept, and woke the next day ready to explore: first a walk through Ljubljana's artsy shops, then an outdoor market, followed by a trek up to the fortress's splendid views, and then back down to Ljubljana's history museum, its library, and a fascinating exhibit on the modernist architecture of Prague.

Though we both fell in love with Ljubljana, it was a small city and we had a big itinerary for Abbilyn's remaining time in Europe, so we retreated from the quiet city center later that afternoon back toward the train station, with its noise and its cars, detouring along the way to the post office for a long overdue errand.

Before I left for Europe, I'd packed carefully and deliberately and meticulously and sparingly, taking only what I thought were the absolute essentials. And for the most part, I'd felt good about my packlist. I'd replaced the Toms with sneakers and I'd supplemented the zip-off pants with a pair of lightweight jeans, but otherwise had no firm regrets. I did, however, have ambivalent regrets, two of them: my tent and my sleeping bag.

Friends had told me not to bring the pair, that it was silly, that it was Europe and Europe was an absolute hostel haven, that I wouldn't do much camping and that those items would do nothing but weigh me down. And I'd retort that they were so light, under four pounds together—less than my water bottle when full!—and that I was fine camping in city parks for a quiet or late night. And indeed, I had made use of them in Cannes, and again in Bologna.

But four pounds feels like forty after fifteen miles of walking, and though the gear was light and compact, it still dominated the space in my small pack. And there it had sat for weeks without much use, and the uses it had received were plagued with strange noises of the night, so although I knew there was a chance it'd earn its keep after Abbilyn's departure, the idea of traveling without them, traveling even lighter, won me over.

So to the post office we went, where after an extremely frightening encounter with an emotionally turbulent woman behind the desk, and a hefty sixty-euro fee to ship the tent, the bag, and some additional incidentals Abby and I threw in, our package was sealed and sent on its way—my comfortable sense of guaranteed shelter each night sent with it.

It was a decision I'd come to regret at times, and be thankful for most other times, but at the moment, I was ecstatic at the weight of my pack—"Abby, look how thin it looks! Feel it ... isn't it so light?"—and I felt like skipping to the train station, as happy as a Quasimodo who'd just lost his hunch.

It was nearly a three-hour ride to Zagreb, punctuated by an intimidating troop of scruffy men boarding the train at the Croatian border and barking for passports, and we arrived to town late and and tired and cloaked in darkness. Our first order of business was to trade in our remaining euros for Croatian dollars, the kuna, each kuna worth about six euros or roughly eight dollars, and so we left the exchange office with nearly two thousand kuna between us, which felt a lot to be carrying around, in any currency I suppose, in that dark, unknown city. Thankfully the tram was just steps away, and our hostel a ten-minute walk from tram's end, and we instantly felt better, the stress of travel washing away as soon as our bags and our bodies hit the twin beds.

We were tired, but the hostel had a good vibe and one the friendliest hosts I'd ever met, a man who seemed more interested in ensuring his travelers were safe and entertained than that he made much of a profit off them. So when he said there was wine downstairs and to help ourselves, we did just that, passing the remainder of the evening with a half-dozen others like us, hailing from the States and Denmark and Finland and everywhere in between.

***

The next morning, we set off to explore Croatia. Our plan, if you recall, had been to do so by rail, getting the most we could out of the crescent-shaped country's fledgling rail service. But it was slow and limited, and I had a few days earlier discovered that car rentals were dirt cheap—like, $12 per day—so we instead booked one of those, preferring the greater freedom it would offer.

The car was at the airport, so we took a cab there and picked up the roomy sedan. It turned out to be a manual, which I had never learned to operate, but fortunately Abbilyn was skilled enough in driving stick for the both us, so with her behind the wheel we hurtled toward the Croatian coast with me sitting uselessly in the passenger seat.

We got some car snacks along the way, a disgusting assortment of paprika potato chips and sesame sticks and orange-filled chocolate and, for Abby, an even more disgusting bag of "sour spaghetti straws," which I didn't dare try, and we ate the car snacks at a disgusting pace, feeling roundly disgusted with ourselves before we even reached the water. The water came to us, though, in the form of momentary downpours and sudden showers, blackened clouds sometimes foretelling rain, and other times it just coming from nowhere, from the perfectly blue sky above. It never lasted for more than a few minutes, thankfully windshield wipers clicking perpetually on and off and on again. We reached the coast about an hour after leaving Zagreb, maybe more, but with the unpredictable precipitation we just continued heading south, arriving in Split by late afternoon.

Split, we'd heard, was a great little beach town, a go-to destination for Croats on holiday, really any European on holiday, a launch point for many of Croatia's beautiful little islands dotting the coastline. It was directly on our route, and sounded worth a visit, and the sky looked a little clearer by this point, so we entered the town and steered toward the beach and found ourselves stumped when we simply ... couldn't find it.

We lacked a map, and my phone lacked service in Croatia, but we knew the shore was to the west, and we knew how to point ourselves west toward the setting sun, yet hard as we tried, that little town of Split kept pointing us back the way we'd come, its winding streets pushing us away, keeping us out. We couldn't seem to find a single sign for the beach, no pictogram of toddlers toiling in the sand or rounded stick figures breast-stroking through curvy lines, not a solitary symbol in that damn beach town pointing us in the way of the beach. Beyond that, the Split we'd seen during those forty-five minutes circling the city was ugly, its streets dirty and plain and its drivers rowdy and rude; why were we wasting daylight on this place anyway?

Vexed, we called it quits and split from Split, continuing along the congested coast toward more promising places. We were pleased to find a neighboring beach town a dozen kilometers south, one that actually opened up right onto the sand, so we pulled over and parked the car, moments later parking ourselves onto two cushiony beachside chairs just steps from the calm blue Adriatic. We shared a beer or two in silence staring out at the sea, letting the gentle cresting and crashing waves do all the talking, and then we headed back to the car, dismayed to find a parking ticket on the windshield (oops), but otherwise feeling much more relaxed since our escape from the labyrinthine Split.

It was maybe five, maybe six, and though we'd intended to work slowly down the coast and back up again over four broad days, it seemed just as well to bottom out on the first day and have a better sense of our pace for the remaining three, so with a few remaining hours of daylight left, Abby and I—Abby, really; I was still useless in the passenger seat—made for our southernmost point of our little road trip, the walled city of Dubrovnik.

The drive there was just as beautiful as it had been throughout most of Croatia, Split nonwithstanding: truly gorgeous vistas of Oregonian mountains and Californian coastline and Montanan meadows, the green grasses and the rolling hills of Idaho, the little houses on the hillsides of West Virginia. It felt like home—maybe not home-home, not DC-home, but America-home—a welcome and familiar sight and feel to my weary traveler's eyes and soul.

The setting sun made it all the better, of course, bright blue giving way to a beautiful blend of purples and oranges that cast azure rays on everything around us. While thankful for the beauty, sunset meant impending darkness right around the corner, and our hopes of reaching Dubrovnik by dusk were consequently crushed. But dropping out of our race against the sun meant we could stop and grab a bite to eat without penalty, our stomachs both begging for something more substantial than the car snacks we'd torn through back around noon, so we pulled into the next tiny town we found—all of them tiny towns so far south—and stepped out of the humming car in front of Ploce's sole restaurant.

It was a modest place, a bit of a Greek feel to it, an enclosed patio and a bar further within. As we entered, a table of locals halted their conversation and leered at us, and by the time we arrived at the bar, the whole restaurant and its dozen patrons were sitting or standing in some sort of stunned silence, something akin to that cliched cinematic moment when the needle drags along the record like the pull of a zipper and the music stops short, and then you hear that spoon always clang against a plate somewhere out of frame.

We looked at each other as the men looked at us, or maybe just at Abby, and just as we began backing away to leave, apparently very out of place, a stout older woman sidled up next to Abby, greeted us in French, and ushered us hastily toward a table with an arm around Abby's waist. Out on the patio, where the crowd was a little thinner, we sat and fumbled awkwardly through the menu, averting eyes from the sustained stares of the table of men whom we'd passed as we entered.

We ordered a cabbage salad to share and I asked for a plate of spaghetti, and Abby decided on the Steak Monaco though I'm not sure why, and the food all came and wasn't very good at all, but we were famished so we ate what we could as fast as we could, and then we paid the bill and rushed out of that little restaurant and that little town, leaving Ploce behind us and Dubrovnik in our sights.

Croatia hugs the eastern bank of the Adriatic Sea for hundreds of kilometers, all the way from Slovenia to Montenegro, but in the brutal breakup of Yugoslavia it lost a thin sliver of that coastline to neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, just a tiny five-kilometer stretch that interrupts Croatia and actually makes it quite impossible to traverse the entire length of the nation without passing through a bit of Bosnia. It's one of the few areas of greater Europe still with a controlled border, so as we neared the flashing lights of the customs station, I pawed through our packs—finally, some purpose!—for our passports, and we crawled toward the first of four walled windows with needless nervousness.

We passed the passports to a Croat official, who passed them back and waved us along three feet to an entirely new window, where we passed them to a Bosnian official, who waved us along three miles through that little Bosnian appendage to yet another window, where we passed them to yet another Bosnian official, who waved us along yet another three feet to yet another window with yet another Croat official, who then waved us along to—finally!—explore the remaining section of Croatia without silly interruption.

Maybe an hour later, maybe more or less—it was late and we were tired so it's hard to remember—we approached Dubrovnik, a walled city at the very tail end of the long Croatian crescent. We'd heard Dubrovnik described as something of a wonder, a must-do while in Europe and certainly while in the Balkans, a perfectly-preserved kingdom, really, eighty-foot-tall walls boxing in an ancient town with just two points of entry. And ancient as it is, Dubrovnik's old city is closed to cars, making it one of the few remaining relics of a time when places were built to the scale of people and not machines.

Because Dubrovnik was closed to cars, the roads outside Dubrovnik were littered with them, all parked haphazardly along the grassy curbs in the way you might find spillover vehicles stashed away along a road outside a music festival or county fair. The cars went on for miles, and we weren't really sure where the road to Dubrovnik began, our only waypoint being the beautifully lit kingdom itself somewhere out on a peninsula in the distance.

We drove back and forth twice, not really knowing where it was okay to park and not really having any place to sleep once we did, and we were well past the point of exhaustion, so rather than nestle in amongst the thousands of vehicles angling off the main road, we turned into some sort of seaside apartment complex and pulled into one of its many open parking spaces and clicked off the engine, feeling decently safe in the quiet lot. And there, with the twinkling city down below us and the blackened Adriatic all around it, amongst the stars and the cars and the bars, we slept.

Oh, hey

6.14.2014

En route to Paris.

It has been nearly a month—has it only been that long?—since my last update, so I'm writing to say, very briefly, that I'm alive and well, that it has been a great month indeed, that in that month I've seen much: Italy and Slovenia and Croatia and Bosnia and Turkey and Holland and Belgium—and now France once more!

Please forgive the lengthy intermission; I've spent the better part of these past weeks traveling with the very best companion one could ask for, and I'm only just now, after her sad departure, returning to the pad and the pen. Updates will be coming soon, and they'll be rough and hasty—they're always rough and hasty, but for now especially so—and they'll come in great granules of time and space, for the memories are already fading, under siege by those newer and stronger, and so I must work quickly.

In the meantime, I hope your spring has brought some of its own wonder and charm, that your precious days are finding themselves full of adventure or splendor or love or peace, or all of the above.

More soon.

With love,
Jay

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