Tuesday, November 27, 2007

the view from out the window

I used to have this mental hang-up about traveling during the day, feeling like I was wasting valuable sightseeing time. I've gotten over that, having realized that daylight road travel is a quality way to see any country. First class view from a second class seat. Not always of first class sights, though. Bussing from Plovdiv to Veliko Tarnovo went through misty, wooded, snow-covered mountains, passed by a church with a shining golden roof nestled up in the trees, but also through dreary industrial towns, full of ratty apartment blocks so dismally similar that they could only be distinguished from one another by numbers painted on the outside. One of the hostelers in VT asked me if there was anything about Bulgaria that came as a surprise. I danced around the answer, since the Bulgarian owner of the hostel was sitting at the table with us, but the poverty in some of the areas was really unexpected. Of course I was looking at most things from the outside, and drawing some conclusions based on just exactly how much some of dwellings seemed to be caving in on themselves, or otherwise falling apart. And perhaps being there in the winter colored my perception. There was some rain and a lot of mist, which cast a cold look over everything. There's something a little doleful about seeing a neglected line of washing sitting out in the rain and cold. It'll never get dry that way.

Hiker's Hostel in VT is the older sister to the Plovdiv hostel, and was another cozy affair, complete with a kitten. Darko, having grown up around hostelers and their, at times, terrible eating habits, has a Pavlovian response to crinkling cellophane. It doesn't matter at all what's being unwrapped. Determined to get to an empty chocolate bar wrapper in my hand, he made a few gentle forays before simply giving my thumb a good chomp. This only resulted in being kicked off my lap. No chocolate for him. I hope he doesn't have rabies. I can still see where his fang went in. He was still cuddly, though, unlike another resident I encountered. Heading to the shower, the hostel owner advised me to use the downstairs bathroom, since it's closer to the water heater. I walked in, took a long look at the centipede with crazy long legs hanging out on the ceiling, and went right upstairs to the other bathroom.

I didn't do a heck of a lot in VT except meander around and get a feel of the town. There's the sprawling Tsarevets fortress that left me underwhelmed. My ancient ruin fatigue still hasn't gone away entirely. It does, however, have the thrilling-sounding Execution Rock, where the condemned were shoved off to plunge into the river. I was hoping for something suitably gruesome, but it just looks like a, well, a rock. And I guess the river has moved, since anyone shoved off today would bounce down a cliff to a painful, yet dry, landing. Provided there's a paying audience, at night the fortress is lit up for a garish light and sound show, which can been seen, but not heard, from the hostel balcony. Cables for the lights, and the lights themselves, in big banks, are visible all over the fortress, diminishing any old historical site ambience. The terrain around town is kind of interesting, formed by a bunch of natural plateaus with walls so tidy and upright that they look like they were made with a giant cookie cutter.

There's a monastery a few kilometers away, accessible by a hike over the hills. Setting off through the misty morning, I quickly realized that it was going to be a harder hike than I anticipated, and I was wearing too many layers. Rain and wet had turned most of the trails to mud, slippery as slippery can be. After a couple of close calls, I had an inkling that I wasn't going to get out of there unsullied. I made it as far as a detour around some waterfalls, where I bumped into a old goatherd and his flock, complete with big clonking bells around their necks. He had at least three dogs, two of whom barked barked barked at me until he called them off. He was pretty friendly, speaking to me in Bulgarian with a smile on his face. No idea what he was saying. Past the waterfalls the path started going vertical. The only way to progress was climbing up rungs hammered into the rocks, or holding onto cables installed next to the steep stairways. I weathered all that well enough, but returning to the main path, picking my way down a very short slope, my feet slid out from under me. I could feel it happening, yet was powerless to stop the inevitable drop into the mud. I was holding onto a tree at the time, but even that wasn't enough to keep me from going down. I decided the hike was over, and started slogging back to the hostel. If nothing else, I needed to wash my clothes and get them dry before leaving the next day. The hostel washing machine swished my clothes mud-free in what turned out to be the longest wash cycle ever. Getting bored and hungry waiting for it to finish, I strolled down to town, bought kebabs, strolled back to the hostel, ate my kebabs, and it still wasn't through. Not feeling motivated to do much else, I just sat around for the rest of the day, watching soccer games and talking to people. There were two groups of Erasmus (European university exchange program) students at the hostel. I don't particularly care for groups that take over hostels, especially small establishments that have dime-sized common spaces. You either need to work your way into the group, or flit around the outside; there isn't a whole lot of middle ground. The bigger group was mostly French students studying in Thessaloniki, and were all nice enough, we were just on different wavelengths. They had a Bulgarian guide who, for some reason, would never acknowledge me when I was in the room. Kind of odd. I just drifted off into a corner of the table and tuned them out. A smaller group from Plovdiv were quite amiable, though, and included two Polish girls who gave me recommendations for traveling in Poland and listening to music in Moldova. After seeing their shoes and wardrobe, I in turn recommended that they not hike to the monastery the next day, then turned my trousers over on the space heater.

I hadn't had too much good coffee recently. Both the Hiker's Hostels serve coffee all day, but since their java brew is too strong even for me, I had instead been slugging down my alternate hot beverage of choice, black tea with cream and sugar. I noticed coffee vending machines sprinkled all over VT, and waiting in the train station with a pocket full of coins that were about to be useless, I decided to see what they could offer. A pretty good cappuccino is what; appearances can be deceiving. I think I should petition to get a couple of these installed at work. I've stayed at a couple of hostels that have sort of a countertop version of these, and I love them. You just push a button, and a lovely little hot drink is squirted out. It's like an electric caffeine cow.

Leaving VT by train the next day, I got my final views of Bulgaria. Areas next to train tracks seem to fit a few broad categories — industrial complexes, farmland, undeveloped land, and economically depressed neighborhoods. Pristine land blends into into piles of trash and junker cars that will never drive again. We passed by one neighborhood that only really qualified as a slum; a bunch of run-down shacks with rippling shingle roofs and dirt yards arranged along muddy roads. I don't want to make it sound like Bulgaria is the most poverty-stricken area I've visited recently, I think it's just that travel circumstances here allowed me to see more than I did in other countries. Maybe it has something to do with the amount of trash everywhere, especially bottles, specifically 2-liter beer bottles. They're littered absolutely all over the place, and recycling isn't a priority. I didn't think about it until now, but I suppose I'm not used to seeing bottles and cans scattered everywhere, because at home they're mostly collected for recycling. But I've also been chugging along at a fairly brisk pace recently, and haven't seen nearly enough of these countries as I should to come to any sort of general conclusions. I saw what I saw. Hopefully I'll be back someday to see more of what it has to offer. I wish I had a chance to visit Ruse, since the architecture there has earned it the nickname of Little Vienna. I only found out about it after I had my ticket out of the country. That's what I get for showing up without having done any research.

I had a brain cramp in VT, standing in front of an ATM. All the countries in this area still have their own currency, and deciding how much money to withdraw always involves some complex calculations — accommodation + food + travel + miscellaneous items, throw in how much time is left in the country, and factor in the fact that carrying a huge wad of currency isn't always the smartest move. It wouldn't be so complicated if my home bank didn't stick me with all sorts of foreign transaction fees, but as it is I try to make at a somewhat educated guess on how much cash to get. I withdrew enough to pay the hostel in VT, and then at least one night in Bucharest. Duh. Bucharest is in Romania.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

spontaneous travel

When I was in Istanbul, I had to figure out how to get to Slovenia. The overland route is through the Balkans. Not having done any research on anything between Turkey and Slovenia, and in general being woefully uneducated about this section of the world, I made some lame excuse, mostly to myself, that I would visit the Balkans at a later date. Really, it was fear of the unknown. I didn't know anything about the Balkans, and I was too scared to just go in and figure it out. So I flew directly to Ljubljana. But then I started talking to people, changed my itinerary multiple times to include whatever sounded interesting, and city by city, worked my way into the Balkans, which aren't scary at all. Well, it's not just where you go, it's how you get there; had I come directly to the Balkans from Turkey, I most likely would have had a much different experience, since I wouldn't have the accumulated knowledge from my fellow travelers. Originally planning on going to Prague after Sarajevo, I changed my itinerary to go there after Belgrade, but Gaby and Chris convinced me that heading further east would offer more rewarding travel. Trying to hold my ground over a plate of pasta, I threw down the "Prague is supposed to be the most beautiful city in Europe" argument. Gaby defended her pro-Bulgaria stance over a half-eaten pizza, informing me that the people who were feeding me that line haven't been to half the places I have, which made me feel pretty pleased with myself, I can tell you that. But brushing my ego to a high gloss aside, they were right. Right now I'd rather be going places that don't appear weekly in newspaper travel guides, and which haven't been polished, overpriced, and irrevocably changed by tourism. I want places that challenge me by not having familiar comforts, like English and informative signage. I still want to see Prague, and will try to get there before the end. But I wish I could see it as it was twenty years ago, not the way it is today.

So that's how I ended up in Plovdiv, not Prague, a mere eleven hours train ride from Istanbul on the Balkans Express. Still traveling with Chris the Scotsman (remarkably coherent 96% of the time), we caught a sleeper train from Belgrade to Sofia. I stayed awake a bit to write in my journal, since I'm way behind. Making time for journal writing is hard. You'd think that with no work, and nothing to do but pootle around seeing the world, you'd have some free time to sit and write, but nooo...it's remarkably easy to kill entire days at a fell swoop. You roll out of your bunk bed, wander around strange cities, chat with people, share some meals, and then it's midnight and your journal is still tucked away in your bag. Days turn into weeks and then oops...I'm starting to forget what happened. Not big things, just little details. So I was trying to catch up, and asked Chris if the light was keeping him awake. Nope, he said he was just resting, listening to the train wheels kchunk kchunk kchunk through the dark. Train wheels are the sound of travel. It's the lullaby of the road.

We only stayed in Sofia long enough the find ATMs in order to get enough Bulgarian lev to purchase tickets to Plovdiv. I didn't see too much my first 48 hours in town; the drippy nose that had manifested in Belgrade developed into a full-blown cold in Plovdiv. It was as good a place as any to get sick, since the hostel had a cozy common room with wireless and groovy tunes playing all day. I sat around for one day, and managed to kick it into submission. Maybe the reason I got well so quickly was all the food we ate at a local comfort food establishment, Dayana Restaurant. Dayana was like the Bulgarian Denny's. The menu was glossy and full of pictures, and half of the waitresses looked like Eurovision Song Contest hopefuls. Bulgarian cuisine includes lots of innards and other bits that I'm not accustomed to seeing on menus, but maybe that's because I (a) rarely eat out and (b) don't eat a whole lot of meat (when at home). Eating the safer, yet intriguing, items for the first couple of nights (cheese balls fried in egg and coated in cornflakes. cornflakes!), I threw caution to the wind and ordered chicken pope's noses on the last night. Everyone was sort of curious about them, and for some reason, I kept forgetting to look them up during the hours I spent camped in the common room in front of the computer. By this time, I'd had several meals out with Chris during our travels together, during which he'd worked his way through at least one petting zoo. He seems willing and able to ingest pretty much anything edible, especially meaty, but his palate was finally defeated by a single pope's nose. Do you know what they are? Chicken butts. Just a little piece, but a chicken butt nonetheless. Chris couldn't stomach one. The guy adores haggis and looks forward to blood pudding for breakfast, but a little piece of chicken cheek sticks in his craw. Go figure! In all fairness, I didn't find them all that appealing, either; they were liked a lump of fried fat with a nubbin of gristle or cartilage embedded in the middle. Biting directly into this bit was what put Chris off his feed. Sort of the gastronomical equivalent of arriving in California for a holiday, and having a major earthquake hit moments after arriving. Speaking of, I kind of feel like I missed all the earthshaking fun back home.

With my nose drips drying up, I felt well enough to take in the town, Plovdiv goes way back in time, first settled sometime around 5000 BC. It's come a long way since then, being one of Bulgaria's most affluent cities, but horse-drawn carriages still clatter down the street hauling loads past casinos and concrete highrises. A number of historical homes in the old town area are house museums, none of which I bothered going into. Most of them have pretty decorations painted on the exteriors.

I did go into the Gallery of Fine Arts, since one of the guidebooks made mention of a few pieces that sounded interesting enough. No one was in the foyer when I walked in, but the door jingled a bell which brought a few ladies out of various offices. After taking my admission fee (one lev, which makes it the cheapest museum to date), one of the women preceded me up the stairs, turning on all the lights. I lingered on the stairs, feigning engrossment at the portraits displayed there, in order to give her a head start. The gallery is spread over several rooms on two floors, and includes quite a few eye-worthy works from Bulgarian artists from the last couple of centuries. Somewhere on the second floor, I noticed that the ticket seller was coming though behind me and turning off the lights as soon as I left each room. And since it takes far less time to flick off a light switch than it does to take in one room of art, she then lurked in the dark room until I moved on. I was feeling under pressure to take it all in quickly, and move on, which is a crappy way to view art. I wanted to stay in there longer, but lurking woman was getting on my nerves, so I just breezed through the last room and hallway, and bugged out. Maybe my one lev admission covered the electricity costs for a viewing, and I had stayed long enough to run the meters into the red.

Bulgarian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, and while street signs are posted in both Cyrillic and Roman, as well as the names of some shops, not a whole lot else is. At least, not to any level of consistency. Restaurants will most likely have an English menu, but the bakery pastries all have mystery fillings (I managed to divine a fruity filling rather than a meaty one). Needing to send off some postcards, I headed to the hulking telephone and post office building by the pedestrian mall, and stepped straight into a Kafka novel. Offices offering various services were scattered about, and at least half of them had a line of people waiting out front. Some of them even had some type of uniformed officer regulating admission beyond the doors. Mysterious pictogram signs directed those who were lost to their destination; that is, if they could make out what the signs meant:

After a couple of bewildering turns around the interior, I finally found the post office. Thankfully there wasn't a line out in front; given my profound lack of Bulgarian, I wouldn't even know if I was standing in the correct line until I got to the front. It was full of people gathered around a couple of tables, addressing envelopes and referring to very worn postal code books. Observing several people with stamps, I figured I was in the right place, and found the window that helpfully had a small sign in English reading "Correspondence." Getting into the queue, I got my first taste of the eastern European tradition of ignoring the queue. Or, more like they don't have the concept of the queue. Describing what happened to Chris, who's traveled throughout most of eastern Europe, he nodded. "If you're not first, you're last." People descend on the window from every direction, perhaps casting a glance at the person they just shoved in front of, but usually not. Eye contact makes you weaker. Taking a lesson from the blonde who nonchalantly cut in front of me, I muscled my way to the window, at which point all was peachy. Since most of my cards required two stamps, the woman who sold them to me carefully tore each denomination from the sheet, and arranged one on each card. Things were looking good until I tried to find the mail drop. I would have thought that the inside of the post office would have an obvious mail drop, but nope, nothing there. Deciding that I would find one outside, I just left with my successfully stamped cards. I had to ask Peter at the hostel where to find a mailbox, and it turns out I had walked past mail slots in the wall on my way out. Not that I would have known which one to use, since they were all labeled in Cyrillic. Peter wrote out the characters for the international slot, and once I found them I had to spend a couple of minutes standing there with my scrap of paper, going through each of the labels letter by letter until I found the right one. Turns out someone had helpfully scribbled the word "Abroad" next to it, just in tiny letters. Despite the happy ending, I decided I wouldn't be sending any more postcards from Bulgaria.

Friday, November 16, 2007

how to spend 100 dinars in БЕОГРАД

To get to Serbia from Sarajevo by bus, you need to go to the bus terminal in the Serbian section of town. You know you're somewhere different right away, because suddenly all the signs are in Cyrillic. New alphabet! There are a few similarities between Greek and Cyrillic, so I was about a half-shuffle further along than if I didn't know anything at all, but it's different enough to cause significant slack-jawed staring. There was a a chill at the station that didn't have anything to do with the temperature. A slight edge to the people standing around around waiting for the night bus. The atmosphere has a slight zing. Chris and I sat off to the side quietly munching snack sandwiches and speaking in low tones. There were two Australian guys from the hostel with us, and one of them, not wanting to take any Bosnian convertible mark out of the country, annoyed the chain smoking ticket vendor by paying for half of his ticket in KM, and half in euro. He didn't even ask, just dumped down various notes and coins and expected it all to be sorted out and accepted with good cheer. Afterwards he realized his friend had enough KM to have purchased both their tickets without having to spend their precious euro, and was wondering if he could go back and exchange their last twenty KM note for the ten euro note he had handed over. Chris and I both wanted him to, just so we could watch him get yelled at in Serbian. Thankfully, reason prevailed, and he held onto his Bosnian money. I didn't want to be guilty by association.

The bus left at 22:00, and given the circumstances I actually managed a few good naps, my face snuggled up against the cool window and my feet resting on the roasting heater. Even though they turned down the lights, the drivers were playing music all night, pop vocals over insane asylum funhouse music. Maybe they were trying to stay awake. Every couple of hours there was a pit stop (announced over the loudspeaker), which sent half the bus scurrying outside into the cold air to suck down cigarettes. We got to the border around 2:30. Our passports were collected by a border agent, and were returned by one of the drivers. He walked down the aisle asking everyone a question. I don't know what he was asking, but based on replies, I gather he was asking for nationality, so he could more quickly extract the right passport from the stack. Chris and I were each sitting at a window on opposite sides of the aisle, and during the handout both of us were skipped. As soon as it happened the women sitting next to each of us got visibly concerned. The one next to me called something down the aisle to the driver, but didn't get a response. Since I hadn't been tossed off the bus, I wasn't ready to start worrying. Returning down the aisle, our passports were handed back last, and our seat partners both calmed down. Still can't figure out why he skipped us.

It was still dark when we got to Belgrade. I had directions to the hostel, but first needed to figure out what direction the fortress was in. There was a map by the bus arrivals terminal, but since it didn't have any sort of "You are here" indicator, wasn't any help at all. Chris' feet were slightly messed up from a new pair of shoes that didn't want to break in gently, so leaving him to guard our bags, I picked a direction, and walked for a few minutes until I found more helpful signage. Returning to the terminal, we gathered our things and started walking. Our Australian friends were still in tow, but kept stopping every couple of blocks to consult their Lonely Planet map. I couldn't quite figure those two out. I knew they had at least some travel experience under their rucksack waist straps, but lacked some basic smarts and street confidence. Their Lonely Planet guide was so old it still had Yugoslavia on the map. At some point they silently disappeared down another street to find their hostel.

Star Hostel does the right thing and will check you in anytime during the day or night. Chris and I crept through the slumbering dorm to find our beds, for at least a few hours of quality sleep. Turns out another group arrived not long after us, but I never heard them come in.

Based on the atmosphere at Sarajevo's Serbian bus station, I expected Belgrade to be a bit edgy, but it wasn't at all. It's big, busy, full of bookstores, shoestores, large trucks spewing exhaust, all sorts of overhead wires and cabling, and grandiose buildings that look like something bureaucratic may be happening inside. If I unfocused my eyes enough to not read the street and shop signs, I could have been standing on any street in downtown San Francisco. Except Belgrade has way more bakeries, and there's guys selling shoelaces on every street. Why shoelaces? The streets offer endless walking possibilities, each intersection presenting teasing tantilization in multiple directions. On my first day I headed down the main drag from Trg (Square) Republike to Sveti Sava, the world's biggest Orthodox church. Construction began in 1935, and interrupted by war and politics, is being finished today. The interior is a cavern of concrete, with tradesman working on sections here and there, and at least one guy carving marble over to one side. There weren't a whole lot of people inside, less than twenty, and as far as I could tell, I was the only non-observer. Despite the obvious construction, there were a number of icons placed around the interior, and all the other visitors were walking between and kissing each. And when they left, they crossed themselves and kissed the door. A little kiosk inside was selling candles, icons, rosaries, and postcards. I didn't feel right taking any pictures, nor at the Sveti Marko church the following day. A couple of people, both travelers and a local, advised me to attend a service, just to see the ceremony and hear the singing. I generally stay away from religious ceremonies; since I'm not a believer, they make me feel awkward and out of place. However, I was assured more than once that it wouldn't be the case. Unfortunately, I never managed to make it to one in Belgrade, but I'll try to make it to another elsewhere.

Later in the day I found the Nikola Tesla Museum. Loads of his inventions are on display, thankfully explained and demonstrated by a museum guide. At the end of the tour, we were all handed a fluorescent light bulb, what I think was a large Tesla coil was turned on, lots of sparks crackled, and the bulbs lit up.

Day two was more sightseeing - on the way to the Museum of Automobiles I bumped into Gaby, an American staying at the hostel. We bought our tickets in the tiny foyer from two guys watching American car shows and smoking, for what had clearly been several hours. Feeling our way through the haze to the showroom paid off with a display of classy classics and dazzling chrome grills.

After deciding what my next classic car purchase will be:

I took in some antique furniture at the Applied Arts Museum. Then I balanced out all the pretty things I'd seen by visiting the site of two buildings bombed during the 1999 NATO strike. Mangled ruins sitting right up against the sidewalk, they look dangerously on the verge of collapse, like a strong gust of wind could send chunks flying off and into traffic.

In search of traditional Serbian cuisine for dinner, George from the hostel pointed a small gang of us to the basement restaurant of a nearby hotel, telling us that the atmosphere and service would be crap, but the food would be authentic. The service wasn't all that bad, and our assorted plates included several representatives from the animal kingdom. I had smuđ orli, breaded perch. It was sort of fish and chips-ish, but more chewy than crispy. The atmosphere wasn't any crappier than your average business hotel, and only improved when the band hit the stage, or rather, the far end of the room. So engaged in our dishes, we didn't realize it was live music for a couple of numbers, merely assuming that, for some unknown reason, the management had suddenly decided to assault us with new age lounge music. Accordion plus synthesizer! And then a vocalist after the break. We were one of about three parties in the entire place, and were the only ones applauding. I'm not even sure why the band bothered, but I'm glad they did.

I had planned on doing an overnight trip to Niš as my non-capital city visit. There's a tower there that the Turks built and decorated with the skulls of massacred Serbs, back in 1809. I keep missing Europe's more interesting crypts, ossuaries, and skeletal displays, so I was looking forward to finally taking in some quality historic gore. Turns out I missed this one as well. Returning to the hostel in the afternoon, George chased me into the dorm to inform me that the hospitals in Niš were full after an outbreak of hepatitis A. Umm. I did get inoculated before I left home, but decided that willfully traveling to a place that had an infectious disease breakout wasn't the most responsible move. Instead, Gaby and I bussed ourselves out to Novi Sad, first stopping for a couple of hours in Sremski Karlovci. Sremski Karlovci is about ten kilometers before Novi Sad, a small town that features a higher than normal ratio of beautiful historical buildings. We didn't do much other than wander about, so...nothing special to report from either locale. The tourist office in Novi Sad was really happy that Americans were visiting. We got two thumbs up.

If you've got 100 dinars in your pocket, there's a number of things you can pick up in Belgrade. A pair of knee socks or a tin of shoe wax from a street vendor. A museum ticket. Two postcards. A toasted vegetarian sandwich. Or an opera ticket. My interest perked by a theater schedule that Gaby picked up, I thought that catching Verdi's Nabucco would be a peachy way to spent a Friday night in Belgrade. Chris was interested as well, having never been to an opera. When I went to buy our tickets, the guy at the box office was reluctant to sell them to me. Shaking his head, he said, "Very bad seats." I asked him to show me where they were on a seating chart, and he shook his head again. Gesturing with his hands, he showed me. "First tier. Second tier. Third tier. Student seats." Reassuring him that bad seats were acceptable, and that I was only in town for a couple more days, he relented. Turns out our bad seats were approximately as close to the stage as one of the boxes at SF Opera. Yeah, we were in the third tier, but rather than sloping up and away from the orchestra, the tiers rise straight up. The side section of each (except the third) are boxes, and only the seats at the back are comprised of standard rows. All is deep red velvet and gold highlights. We were in a kind of well along the side of the top tier, and could rest our arms and foreheads on the padded rails. So we couldn't see part of the stage. Our seats were so close we could hear the orchestra turning the pages of their scores.

To balance out the opera, Chris and I took in a Partizan Belgrade soccer game the next day. I was hoping for a hooligan scuffle and a bloody nose, but our seats ended up being in a fairly sleepy section off to the side, away from the hooligans. In fact, other than a few rolls of toilet tissue streaming onto the pitch, it was all rather civilized, although had I been paying attention, I probably could have picked up a few Serbian swear words. The brigade of riot police that we saw in the parking lot before the game had no one to tear gas that day. The force included a few riot horses, kitted out with nifty equine goggles. I like how the Serbian riot police clearly don't mind clunking the heads of soccer hooligans, but make sure the horses won't have their eyes injured. I wanted to take a picture, but didn't fancy having the last picture taken by my camera being the business end of a baton.

One the whole, there weren't a whole lot of people attending the game, maybe because it was freezing cold, but the hooligan section was well packed, decorated with hand-painted club flags, and singing the entire way through. They even hummed the triumphal march from Aida, so we got a Verdi booster shot. It wasn't a terribly exciting game until the final ten minutes, but I still had a grand time just being there. I go to sporting events so infrequently that I can't even remember the last time I went to one, but I liked how the Belgrade stadium was completely devoid of the glitz, commercialism, and big money that infects American sport. Our tickets for decent seats cost only 200 dinars each, and the inside of the stadium didn't look a whole lot different from what I imagine the inside a prison looks like. Bare concrete with barred gates. Uncomfortable plastic seats. The toilet was perhaps the dreariest toilet I've encountered so far, including in Turkey, and the only refreshments in sight was tea sold in plastic cups by a woman walking around the stands. The only thing that mattered here was the game.

Other guests at the hostel included Harry, a British graduate student who was in town conducting interviews with political party members (or was it diplomats?) for his dissertation, and Laure and Alexandra, two French girls who had both visited Belgrade previously. They advised Harry to go talk to guy who runs a little gift shop in the Kalemegdan, Belgrade's old fortress. He sounded sort of interesting, so I wandered over to pick up a couple of postcards and see if I could spark any conversation. Warned that he was a little hard to get away from once he got talking, I was prepared to extricate myself with the excuse of meeting friends. I picked out a couple of cards, which seemed vintage but may have been prematurely aged by the amount of smoke in the tiny shop. He took a look at one of them and in perfect, raspy English, proceeded to give me a history lesson on the person depicted — Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, a linguist who helped reform and standardize the Serbian language. He offered advice on what to see in town, along with some city history, and gave me his card, asking me to send him a postcard when I got home. I noticed he's a licensed tour guide. So if you go to Belgrade, don't bother with a guidebook and instead seek out the smoky souvenir shop in the fortress.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

sarajevo rose

Sarajevo roses are spots in the pavement where shells hit, and have been filled in with red concrete. I only managed to find a couple of them.

BiH is giving me writer's block. Since I was so busy socializing, I'm writing about cities days after I've left them. All the fatty food I've been snarfing is making me forget things, and I'm having trouble organizing my thought. The biological effort needed to digest all the squid and burek has left my brain functioning at goldfish levels. And I have a cold right now, making things more murky. At least I get to use the tube of Airborne I've been carrying all this time, thus lightening my pack by 1.7 ounces. Silver lining to my stuffy nose. Anyway, the BiH blogs may be a bit scattered.

Continuing my education about the Balkans War, the place I really wanted to see in Sarajevo was the Tunnel Museum. Extending for 800 meters underneath the airport, and barely high and wide enough for an average adult to pass through bearing a load, the tunnel allowed people to escape the besieged city, and supplies to come in. The Serbs knew some sort of tunnel was somewhere, but were never able to figure out where it was. It's now mostly collapsed or closed off, but about 25 meters of it are still open underneath the house that hid the entrance.

Standing in the yard and looking down at a hole in the ground, it reminded me of images from all the World War II books and movies I've seen, yet this was just over ten years ago. Seems that when it comes down to basic survival tactics and desperate measures, not a lot has changed over the centuries. But neither has fighting dirty; at the infamous section of road called Sniper Alley, snipers lurking in houses on the hillside picked off people who came down to the area for supplies. No matter how enlightened or technologically advanced we think we are, something barbaric always lurks in the psyche of mankind. Sobering thoughts.

My first day in Sarajevo I walked around town with Toni, a girl I initially met in Mostar. She had just finished a Peace Corps stint in Bulgaria. Halfway through the day we bumped into R (identity masked to protect the innocent from my barbs), also staying at the hostel. R was smitten with Sarajevo. "Oh my god, I love this city! Don't you love it here? It's so beautiful!" Together we went in search of the Latin Bridge, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife Sophie were both shot, kicking off World War I. R excused herself to find a toilet and Toni turned to me. "I like how she's on crack." R was indeed high on the crack of life, and also seemed to have a case of ADD. She managed to stump both of us by asking what happened after WWI. Toni and I pondered the best way to answer this in less time than it takes to complete a semester of world history. The best I could muster was "Flappers." I ended up having dinner with R, and despite her somewhat confounding naïveté, she also had an incredibly positive outlook on everything new that came before her eyes. Nothing was going to get that girl down, which I had to respect, at least just a little.

One display that caught our eye at the museum next to the bridge was a gun labeled "Assassination weapon." Could this actually be the one object that kicked off WWI? We asked the guy selling tickets, but it turns out it's a replica. The original is kept in Vienna. Looking at the photos of the conspirators, we noticed that all of their moustaches were sort of wispy and scraggly. Franz Ferdinand, on the other hand, sported a rather grand 'stache. Toni and I wondered aloud if moustache envy could have been behind the assassination, and then worried that the one other woman in the exhibition with us would think we were irreverent, and clammed up. R and her ADD has left by this point. Did I mention that the museum was only one room of displays? That's what I mean by ADD.

R was certainly right about one thing, Sarajevo is a beautiful city. Gritty, but gorgeous. A lot of buildings were destroyed and damaged during the war, so something you have to perceive the beauty through boarded up windows and crumbling walls.

Sarajevo's old town is called Baščaršija, winding streets full of shops selling handicrafts and carpets. There's also a lot of copper and silver smithing here, some of it using the leftovers from artillery. Lots of pens for sale made from bullet casings. Baščaršija is full of things for the tourists, to be sure, but it was also full of Sarajevans as well, going about their normal days. Come to think of it, I think Sarajevo was the first place I've been where I didn't see one tour group. There did appear to be some sports team in town, which I noticed when I was sitting in the Holiday Inn using their wireless. Okay, it's going to sound a little weird, but I first noticed them because it was big bunch of black guys, which isn't terribly common in these parts. I later spotted a couple of them in Baščaršija, where their matching track suits made them stand out a bit. I suppose matching track suits are well and good in the gym, but sightseeing...way to stand out even more as a tourist.

A few of us from the hostel went to Baščaršija every morning for a Bosnian coffee. The café we frequented served its coffee with a lump of pink Turkish delight. The Turkish influence seems stronger in Sarajevo than in Mostar, but maybe that's just because the old town there is more extensive than Mostar's. At least the carpet salesmen aren't as annoying as the ones in Turkey. There are also a lot of Romany in BiH. I started getting hit up for money by women wearing colorful clothing and toting infants in Mostar. Children as well. I always wanted to ask them why they weren't in school. Sitting outside at the Sarajevo cafe, one little Romany kid kept coming up to us with his hand out, poking me in the shoulder. Another girl seemed to go out of her way to bump into my back after I shook my head at her. I was wondering if they were getting physical to weird me out enough to hand out some cash. I don't think it was a pickpocketing attempt, since I was sitting down at the time. I had some conversations about responsible tourism with some hostelers; ie, don't hand out money even if you feel bad for someone and they looked really wretched. I never feel bad not handing out money. Years of living in Berkeley and SF has hardened me to any pleas for cash.

Mostar and Sarajevo are the two main cities to visit in BiH, and I was thinking that I wanted to go somewhere that wasn't on the popular circuit. To really get a decent flavor of a country, you need to go to at least one place that isn't the capital, or main city. I had decided to spend a night in Jajce, but as the days in Sarajevo passed I started thinking that maybe I should just head to Serbia. I had spent way longer than I planned in Mostar, which was all great, but made me conscious of how much time I have left (not much), and how quickly it's passing. I was also thinking back to my Croatia experience, where going off to the tiny towns really hadn't resulted in any significant cultural experience. I couldn't quite make up my mind, and kept rolling different options around while wandering around. The weather was wavering between fairly mild dry and cold wet rain. Sarajevo is up in the mountains (1984 Winter Olympics), and a little dusting of snow was visible higher up on the hillsides. Thinking that I'm only going to be going to colder places as the winter progresses, I started scouting around for a waterproof jacket and boots. Food in BiH may be cheap, but fashion isn't. Deciding that a pair of boots was out of the budget, I instead snooped for something to waterproof the shoes I have, but since it was Sunday most of the shops were closed.

My last day in Sarajevo was a bit of a fizzle. I had the sad misfortune of staying at the same hostel as two American teenagers and a gaggle of Australians with the mental capacity of teenagers, and every night was treated to juvenile drinking inanity. It was like the northern and southern hemispheres were having a competition to see who could be the most immature. Kept awake by yet another idiotic conversation that I dearly wish I could erase from my brain, I made the decision around 2:00 in the morning to not go to Jajce. I didn't want to waste the daylight hours sitting on the bus to Belgrade, but didn't feel motivated to do much in town. I had lost my wall socket adapter, so I wandered down the main street searching for a replacement (found), and something to waterproof my shoes (not found). I did find a shoe repair place, but the guy didn't speak any English. I tried to explain what I needed, and think it came across as shoe dye instead of waterproofing wax. Through the one tooth in his head he did his best to explain to me where to go get a bottle of it, so I just listened, repeated the info, and wandered out. Deciding that strolling the wet streets wasn't offering me any cultural edification, I just parked myself in the Holiday Inn lobby until late afternoon. On the way back to the hostel I nosed around a few second hand stores and scored a Pacific Trail waterproof shell that only set me back 10 KM (convertible mark). I had changed back most of my remaining KM to dollars earlier in the day, but kept a spare 20 in case something unexpected came up. Another traveler at the hostel, Chris (not one of the children) was taking the same bus. We got cheap but delicious pizzas for dinner, rode the city bus 40 minutes to the bus station, and bought tickets to Belgrade.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

eating myself stupid

I hadn't considered Bosnia and Hercegovina (hereafter referred to as BiH) as a place to visit before leaving home, but in Turkey it started popping up in conversations. Ilmari convinced me to visit Mostar as a day trip from Dubrovnik, and after Bled I changed my itinerary to include a few days in the country. I didn't have a guidebook, but while scribbling down accommodation info out of Janet's Lonely Planet Eastern Europe in Zagreb, she told me to just rip out the section since she wouldn't be visiting this time round. Mangled guidebooks litter hostels as backpackers try to shed weight, either ripping out pages they don't need anymore, or taking only the ones they need. Trashing books makes me cringe, but why carry around 700 pages when you only really need half. Besides, the lifespan of an average guidebook is only two years.

I left Dubrovnik in the company of two other hostelers to catch the 8:00 am bus to Mostar. Up at the crack of dawn, we were at the bus stop early to catch the city bus to the terminal. Getting a bit worried when our bus continued to not show up, we breathed a collective sigh of relief when Dad from the hostel pulled up in a car to pick us up. Unloaded at the bus terminal, we were pretty pleased to have made perfect time to catch our bus. We had made perfect time, plus one hour. Stupid daylight savings time. Of course I would be traveling early on the one day I could really sleep in.

I couldn't figure out exactly which border checkpoints we went through to go from Croatia to BiH, but I had to pull out my passport four times, which doesn't really make sense if we proceeded through a series of exit and entry points. Half the time my passport wasn't even checked; the agent just came down the bus, glanced over to see that I was holding it, and moved away. When we did have our passports collected for the final checkpoint, they all came back stampless. Rats.

All the shininess of Croatia is nowhere to be found in Mostar. The city took a beating during the Balkans War, and you can see the evidence within moments of leaving the bus station.

First assaulted by the Serbs, it then took another beating by the Croats who originally helped expel the Serb forces. The front line between the two cut down the main boulevard. The town has undergone extensive rebuilding, but bombed out shells and ruins still line the former front line, and are scattered around the town. I've never seen even one building covered with shrapnel scars, and in Mostar they are found around every corner. There's a cemetery in a park where most of the markers bear a 1993 date. I wasn't even sure what I was feeling looking at everything. A sad fascination, maybe.

I have to confess almost total ignorance about the war that happened here. A number of locals have fed me bits of information about the history, but it still doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Other travelers I've spoken to are admitting to the same confusion, and I think it's because the conflict has a basis in definitions of nationality, ethnicity, and religion that are different than we're accustomed to. I'm not going to try and explain anything here because there are better, and definitely more reliable, sources of information. Instead I'll just write about the things I saw and heard firsthand. The family that runs the hostel I stayed at gave a tour around town visiting war-specific sites. Taking us to a hill above town, Majda indicated a large section of town below us, telling us that after the war most of the houses that were still standing didn't have their roofs. The Croat forces had taken up a position high up the mountain over the town, and filling truck tires with explosives, has just rolled them down the hillside to hit whatever happened to be in the way. There were still a few ruined homes without roofs, but for the most part, things have been rebuilt. Majda's brother, Bata, led another day tour to some locations around the countryside, including to the town of Počitelj, where a mosque was partially destroyed. When it was rebuilt, the new parts were purposely left unfinished to remind everyone of the destruction. An architectural detail inside the mosque are angled triangles in the corners, designed to carry sound up to the dome. Three are symmetrical, but one has been distorted by the explosion, and has been left as is.

In the midst of all the shelling in Mostar was Stari Most, the old bridge that was built in the 16th century during the rule of the Ottomans. Most means "bridge", and the name of the town is believed to be taken from the word mostari, guardians of the bridge. During the war, people tried to save Stari Most from destruction by draping tires over it, and covering it with a makeshift wooden roof. The efforts were to no avail, as the bridge sustained a lot of damage, and in 1993, took a hit that collapsed it into the Neretva River. The Museum of Bosnia and Hercegovina has a short film that includes a clip of the moment the bridge fell. It's really sad and surreal. One side of the bridge just peels away from the wall, and then it's gone. In 1998, efforts began to rebuild the bridge, exactly as before, and using traditional techniques. Stone was quarried from the same quarries they originally came from, and carved by hand. Pieces of the old bridge were brought out of the water and used, although they are not visible. The effort took six years, and the New Stari Most reopened in 2004.

I looked at some pictures of Stari Most before getting to Mostar, and frankly wasn't terribly wowed by its appearance. Looked kinda plain. Seeing it in person that plainness morphed into this elegant simplicity that isn't captured in pictures. It's one of the prettiest things I've seen on this trip. Maybe it has something to do with the history, or maybe it's the way it's tucked in between the streets of old town. It's actually quite small, and somehow looks a little larger than life in photos.

There's a long tradition of people, mostly guys, jumping from Stari Most into the river, and every summer there is a high-flying acrobatics diving competition. Depending on the water level, the drop is about 21 meters. I got it into my head that jumping might be a neat thing to do, but washed out after two jumps from a practice platform a bit further down the river. The practice platform is less than half the height of the bridge, but getting there involves swimming across the Neretva River. I don't think it was scientifically freezing, but it was cold cold cold, and by the time I reached the far bank I could barely feel my toes, which made scrambling up the rocks to the platform slightly hairy. Standing on top of the platform and looking into the swirling green water I wondered what the hell I was doing. Even though I wasn't as high as the apex of the bridge, perspective had changed. I almost chickened out, but I had already made it that far, so several deep breaths later, off I went. Coached by Bata, to perform a high jump into water (feet first), you hold out your arms to maintain a vertical position, and at the last moment close your arms and hands to your body. I went in slightly on my butt the first time in, but achieved good form the second. I don't really know how long the drop was, maybe seven to eight meters, but I felt like I was in the air longer than it really should have taken to fall that distance. The splashdown was both shocking because of the speed, but also comforting, because I knew then that the fall was over. All I had to do after that was swim to the surface and get out of the water. Scrambling around the rocks was getting more difficult each time as I got colder. After the second jump I tried to swim back across the river, and by then the cold had set it too deep. Everything was moving with difficulty, and I wasn't going anywhere. Not only was the opposite shore not getting any closer, the current was starting to carry me downstream. Bata told me to turn around and go back, and he came over the bridge the long way to get me with a towel and my jacket. I only knew my toes were still attached because I could see them, and was relieved when another guy from the hostel appeared around the corner with my socks and shoes. I decided I was too cold to do the bridge jump; my body was too sluggish. Limbs were responding way too long after my brain told them what to do, and I wasn't feeling too confident after not being able to swim across the river. Another girl from the hostel jumped, though, and I just huddled in my jacket to watch her. I felt sort of disappointed in myself that I couldn't do it. Maybe I'll go back in the summer, when the Neretva isn't as fierce.

To make up for my failure to jump off the bridge, I undertook the more reasonable challenge to eat as much as I possibly could. Majda handed out a map to each new hosteler that included a number of eateries, and BiH being cheaper than say, Italy, there was really no excuse to not indulge. On my first night I ate a plate of the saltiest cheese ever.

Since I grew up in San Diego, I've spent a lot of quality time at the zoo, and have always had a curious fascination with the salt licks that are provided for some of the animals. Big blocks of salt with little round tongue indentations all over. Now I know what it's like to lick one of those. The cheese was the most cheek-puckering saltiness I've ever eaten. It made my eyes water. Only with the assistance of a basket of bread and a bitter lemon soda was I able to get it all down. And that little curly green thing over to the left? Not a runty pickle, as I thought it might have been, but I fiery hot pepper. My tongue couldn't decide whether to shrivel or burn.

Everyone at the hostel spent our Mostar days shamelessly stuffing our faces with anything within sight that we could point to and purchase. Other than cappuccinos, cake, baklava, and ice cream, favorites included burek, which is a heavy, oily pastry with savory fillings - potatoes, cheese, spinach, meats. Eat it by itself, or pour plain yogurt over the top. Getting two chicken bureks for take-out one day while strolling around, I still felt hungry after munching them down, but was too embarrassed to go back to the shop and get more. I just had to hold on until dinner. Since the company at the hostel was so good, we ate out together every night. Bosnian cuisine is heavy on the meat, and while I avoided the endless platters of mixed grills that clogged everyone else's arteries, I did order a plate of stuffed squid, not really knowing what to expect. What landed in front of me were six little squids, sans tentacles, full of melted cheese and sour cream. There may have been some tuna in there as well. They were sort of pinned at the opening with a toothpick. It came with french fries, so I stuffed in a few for an extra oily mouthful.

A couple of mornings later, everyone at the hostel seemed to be in a digestive stupor; by 9:20 only two of us had at heaved ourselves out of bed. Curiously, after chowing down all day and late into the evening, I woke up famished. The only thing that kept me from gnawing off a finger was the knowledge that Majda's mother would give me a plate of cookies with my coffee. Always up and about long before anyone else was stirring, Mama would squint at anyone slumping into the common room and ask, "What's your drink? Tea, coffee?", and a cup of tea or coffee would materialize, with a spoon, sugar cubes, and some butter biscuits, all served on a silver platter. I wanted to bring back a bag of Bosnian sugar cubes as a souvenir, but knew it would make my rucksack too heavy. They look like little square marshmallows, but are almost rock hard. When you get a Bosnian coffee, you're supposed to dip in one of your sugar cubes, which makes it soft enough to bite off a bit. Then you hold the bit in your mouth while drinking your coffee. Bosnian coffee is like Greek coffee is like Turkish coffee, except it's served in a copper coffee maker and you take care of pouring it out yourself. Bata instructed us in the fine art of drinking Bosnian coffee. He told us to first stir in a little bit of water, and then scoop the crema out into the cup. The trick is to then pour the coffee in such a manner to preserve the crema. I need a little more practice in this regard. At least I'm no longer drinking the grounds.

Given it's geographical location, BiH is a tasty cultural cocktail with splashes of east and west. When I was talking to the guys at 3glav Adventures in Bled, they told me that visiting parts of BiH would seem like coming back to Turkey. The most obvious evidence is the mix of religions; look around town and you'll see both church towers and minarets, and you'll hear both church bells and muezzin calls to prayer. Many of the mosques are in the old town, which spreads out on either side of Stari Most, and has long been home to the art of coppersmithing. You can hear them tapping away at their craft as you walk around the streets. I walked into this guy's shop to check out the smithing action. He didn't speak English, and spoke to me in really fast French, so I didn't really get what he was saying. He was okay with me taking a picture, though.

When I got to Mostar, I planned on spending one night. I left five nights later. There's an allure to the town that I hadn't expected at all, and took a lot longer than one afternoon to soak up. But it mostly had to do with the hostel and the people who just happened to be there at the same time. Each day I would ask Majda, "Can I stay here another night?", and she'd smile and say, "Yes, fine." Located in a crappy looking apartment building, Majda's Rooms is a cozy haven with quality people wedged onto couches, snacking on goodies cooked up fresh by Mama. My favorite was a fried bread that was served with some sort of fresh clotted cream. I would have licked the plate if no one else had been in the room. Mama was a little old lady who had been a refugee in Norway during the war, and was constantly puttering around with her hair tied back and wearing an oversized sweatshirt. On my last night in the hostel my two dormies were out late, and I was flopped in bed reading. My eye caught a small movement in the doorway and I realized Mama was peeking in at me; I had left the door open and she was wondering why the light was still on. The door was really creaky, and gave a particularly good squeal when she closed it. Reappearing a minute later with a paper towel and a bottle of cooking oil, she proceeded to rub oil into the hinges. I felt like I should do something to help but she was so efficient all I could do was watch. The door didn't creak the next morning.

Anyone who stays at Majda's rooms for four nights can stay a fifth night for free, and Mama cooks you a breakfast to order. Not being in any particular hurry to move on, I figured why the heck not.

Majda taught me a Bosnian word, merak. I don't really know what part of speech it is, but my understanding is that it basically means enjoying something for no other reason than it pleases you. Merak can be sitting cross-legged on a couch sipping a coffee. Or being in an enchanting town, hanging out with engaging travelers, in a little warm apartment, eating myself silly.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

cold sun


By the time I got to Split it had started to rain, putting the damper on my plans to wander around the old town at night. Instead I just sat around my dorm room talking to an Argentinean research scientist who works in Germany on biomaterials. Again I was in private accommodation, taken in a by a woman who always (a) called everyone "love" and (b) had a cigarette clutched in her fingers. I don't think I ever saw her without one. Croatia has the highest concentration of smokers yet, beating Greece and Italy. I'm not sure why I'm noticing smoking here so much; probably because I'm spending more time sitting inside cafés than before (colder weather + better coffee). I don't particularly care if people smoke, believing that any adultish person with a sentient brain should decide for themselves how they want to live their life. Maybe it's because every generation over ten years old is doing it, not just geezers in bars. Someone needs to start a lung cancer campaign here.

The translation of Old Town into Croation is Stari Grad, so there are stari grads everywhere. Like Springfields in America. The stari grad in Split is Diocletian's Palace, a walled city built by Emperor Diocletian from 295 to 305 as a place to retire after persecuting Christians and making martyrs (remember Saint Euphemia?) I know I just wrote that old towns were starting to bore me, but Split managed to hold my interest. As Croatia's second biggest city, it's more lively that its little sister stari grads, and a modern city has sprung up around it. Walking around on a rainy day in the off season gave it the feel of a city humming with regular daily routines, rather than a sucking tourist vortex. Just, you know, with Roman and medieval buildings. The mazy streets are good fun to get lost in, discovering little bookshops and cafés squirreled away in corners and courtyards. Admiring the architecture isn't easy, since the streets are so narrow; I kept having to remind myself to look up, doing my best turkey caught in the rain impression. Since the rain that was falling was quite cold, by evening I had purchased a cheap pair of gloves, a cheapish toque, and a shawlish scarf, all for 130 kuna. The scarf was sort of a splurge purchase, because I thought it was more pretty than functional. I've already trashed it a bit, but its proven its snuggliness in cold weather more than once so far. If it keeps me warm until California it'll have served its purpose. Also a waterproof covering for my rucksack, which is almost more important, since the rucksack itself isn't waterproof. If I get caught in one rainstorm without a covering, everything near the outside surfaces will get wet, and having a pile of soggy things to sort out in a hostel is a royal pain.

I never figured out why, but a few statues in Split were all wearing red ties.

The treasury of the cathedral is full of saints' bones. Probably why dogs aren't allowed inside. I'm always curious how different places and countries choose which dog silhouette should represent the Canidae family.

Islands are strung out all up and down Croatia's coast. Lots of them are known for one particular things or another. Brač, near Split, is famous for white building stone. White stone, White House. That's right, one of the most recognizable symbols of America is not built with domestic material, but Croatian stone. I didn't go there, but did a day trip to Hvar Island instead. I'm not really sure why I went there. Probably because everyone recommends going to Hvar, Croatians, travelers, and guidebooks alike. And I thought while in Croatia I should see at least one island. They're worth going to, but the time and cost to get out to them really warrants staying for at least one overnight. Unless you're there in the summer and want a day in Adriatic waters, visiting one little town on an island isn't terribly different than visiting a little town that's only a fifteen minute bus ride away from wherever you are on the mainland. There wasn't anything specially distinctive about Hvar Town compared to Split, other than the cappuccinos cost twice as much. Deciding to not let the day be a waste, I went to a restaurant that had Pag cheese on the menu. Pag Island is close to Zadar, and is famous for producing a distinctive sheep's cheese. The sheep graze on grass which has been permeated by salt from sea winds, which flavors their milk, imbuing the resulting cheese a tang. I got a plate of it in Zadar, and it was yummy, but I couldn't really distinguish it from a high class parmesan. The plate I got in Hvar was far superior.

It's usually served with bread, tomatoes, and olives, and the serving in Hvar also came with a scoop of fish paté, or mousse, which was also good, but super fishy. I only managed half the scoop, and unsuccessfully tried to think of a way to get the remainder out for stray cats. It was sort of a snackalicious day all around. Other than the overpriced cappuccino, fine cheese and puréed fish, I also ate crackers, an apple strudel, a chocolate turnover, a processed juice drink, some sort of Croatian version of funyuns, Schweppes tangerine soda, and a slurpy hot chocolate. Blargh. I figured I should get some fruit the next day. You know, that doesn't come wrapped up in a flaky pastry.


A pigeon pooped on me in Dubrovnik. I thought it was sort of a shabby move, since just that morning I had been defending the honor of this lowly bird against a fellow hosteler who called them flying rats. Guess the memo that I was a supporter hadn't circulated yet.

I should have taken an earlier bus from Split to Dubrovnik, because the road is like California 1, curling right along the coast. Rocky hills rise on one side, the cliff drops into the sea on the other. I saw about half of it before the sun set, but at least by taking a late bus I didn't feel like I left Split before I was ready to. I gave up trying to find postcards that weren't tourist schlock, and instead shopped for new glasses frames. For some reason every third store in Split seems to be a frame store, so I had some hope of finding a new pair. I love my Lafonts, but they need a break to recharge their snazz. Split didn't do it for me though. Everything in every shop was locked down, and a staff member had to unlock racks in order to try anything on, hovering nearly with a set of keys. I can't make important fashion accessory decisions under that kind of scrutiny. And the joy of shopping for new glasses frames is being able to wander around the store and freely try on goofy pairs that you have absolutely no intention of buying.

There's a funny little tab of Bosnia and Hercegovina that sticks through Croatia all the way to the coast, so when you travel the distance on land, you need to have your passport handy for border checks. If you take a ferry, this isn't necessary. Going into BiH we all had our passports checked, but on the crossing back to Croatia the agent just boarded the bus for less than thirty seconds for a cursory look down the aisle before waving us through. I used to avoid arriving in strange cities at night, but after two months on the road have relaxed my attitude towards this approach. The hostel had pretty clear directions on how to get there, which worked out dandy, and soon I walked into the bustling common room at Dubrovnik Backpackers. All new arrivals get a welcome drink, a home-made honey liqueur, plus watermelon slices and some pastry cake. The hostel is run by a family, and the mother, Milka, has an astonishing ability to remember everyone's names. She is the one who handles all the passports, but her husband later mentioned that she's always been good with names and telephone numbers. He in turn always referred to us as "girl" or "boy." "Good morning, girl. Did you sleep well?" It was endearing. The entire family had been in Dubrovnik during the siege, and had lived as refugees without water and electricity while the city was bombed. Dubrovnik Dad used to work in a hotel that just isn't there anymore, and during the siege had been involved in the city's defense.

Croatia has some schizophrenic weather. Three days after freezing my butt in Split, I was rambling through Dubrovnik in shirtsleeves and rolled-up trousers under sunny skies, even under moonlit skies. Unfortunately the two following days were overcast, slightly windy, and with a tiny bit of rain, which means they cancelled the ferry service that runs to Lokrum Island. I think the operators really just wanted a couple of days off, because the crossing is only supposed to take fifteen minutes, and the seas were barely choppy. Maybe too rough for a paddleboat, but any seasoned ferry captain worth his salt should have been able to manage it. I'll have to catch Lokrum the next time, because I didn't want to stay another day just to chance having the services cancelled a third time. Other than that, I just wandered around, forcing myself through clogs of cruise ship passengers who had been bussed in from the harbor. I didn't go to any museums or walk the city walls since I felt like my pocketbook had taken a beating from all the bus trips down the coast. The city walls are substantial beasts, fully enclosing the city, all pale stone looming overhead. I got the sense that if a giant came along and tripped over Dubrovnik, he'd break a toe before damaging the walls. But for all the damage the city took under siege, the appearance today is almost too slick. It's a good contrasting study to Split. Dubrovnik is solid, clean, smooth. Split is gritty, jagged, stained.

I cheesed out my last evening in Dubrovnik. I had some extra kuna left so went out to dinner. I ordered pag cheese, but they gave me fried cheese instead, which was heart-clogging meltiness, and then chicken fillets in a puddle of gorgonzola. My plans for dessert were nixed due to lack of room in my stomach. I waddled to Old Town to see it lit up at night, and by the time I was walking back to the hostel was able to stop at a café for a hot chocolate. Since it was around 9:30 on a Saturday night, I felt kind of stupid ordering it. Like I should have been wearing my pajamas and holding a teddy bear at the same time. The funny look I got from the waitress didn't make me feel any less stupid. And then I still had over 200 kuna.

Sitting in Dubrovnik I was ready to leave Croatia. Gloopy hot beverages, wide selection of pastries, and gourmet cheese aside, I was feeling like I wasn't seeing many new things during the second week. I was tired of paying to see museums and sites, and wasn't interested in seeing any more churches, so had been looking at a lot of Croatia from the outside. One city was running into another because my eyes were too glazed over by the shiny marble streets to distinguish the details that set them apart from one another. I've been trying to write this blog for a week and a half, and everything I write seems boring, and I realized it's because I was bored. Maybe my expectations were too high, since mostly everyone I spoke to before arriving waxed lyrical with misty eyes about how sensational it is. Had I taken a two week vacation to Croatia alone I would have had a much different experience, but as is, I was seeing it after two months of Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Slovenia. Stiff competition if nothing else. I also felt caught in a popular tourist route, which was mostly just a result of Croatian geography; almost everyone I met was visiting the same succession of cities, either going up the coast or coming down. Even going to Bosnia and Hercegovina wasn't going to shake me out the well-trodden backpacker path, but at least it would get me out of the narrow strip of land that comprises the Croatian coast. If I get the opportunity on the trip back north, I'd stop in Zagreb again for a day or two, but otherwise it's time to move on. Mostar, ho!