(6) Croatia to Turkey via Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Greece: Yes, it was a long commute

Yes, this was 50 hours of crazy transit.

While I wanted to spend a bit of time in this area, especially Dubrovnik, Kotor and Pristine, I decided just to push on.

After reviewing my email re: my Iranian visa application number, it sounds as though Thursday and Friday comprise the weekend in Turkey, and my number is only good until approximately the 10th and I want to give myself some “oh shit” days just in case. So while I was tempted to stop over in Dubrovnik and Pristine, the best I did was spend 30 minutes enjoying the fortress views in Kotor Stari Grad, 5 hours in Podgorica enjoying dinner and an impromptu tour of the city with three young local girls, and 5 hours brushing up on my Greek in Thessaloniki thanks to my days taking physics.

I got up for a 5:30am bus across the island from Vela Luka (why did I even try hitching?) all the way through to Dubrovnik. Had a little freakout as the bus schedule said buses further into Montenegro only went on odd numbered days, of which this was not one. But I asked, and one was leaving in 30 minutes. The bus ride through to Kotor was fantastic along the ocean – winding roads with steep drop-offs (complete with rusted smashed cars down below) and beautiful views of the coastline and Adriatic architecture (= terra cotta roof and cream walls). The bus to Podgorica surprised me – outstanding views of mountains and a huge lake I completely did not expect. I associate walls of mountains with ranges like the Himalayas, Rockies, Alps, Southern Alps, or Andes. These weren’t quite as high, but they were nonetheless snowcapped. Also met a man working for the American Embassy in Podgorica who is responsible for distributing military and state aid related to defense for Montenegro. Learning some political and cultural contexts of the area was nice.

The brief stopover in Podgorica was uneventful, but interesting. At one point I offered to take a picture for a group of girls on a bridge, who then offered to show me around. The cousins all had matching shirts, which were in support of one of their brothers, who was running/working for a party that was campaigning on a platform of “clean government” (ie no corruption). As we toured it became obvious that they were disappointed they couldn’t show me very interested things. I explained that just walking around and speaking with people that live in Montenegro was very interesting for me. We’ll catch up further on Facebook.

Interesting fact: Montenegro is home to the ‘.me’ domain, popular with URL shorteners like fb.me and wp.me.

Then onto the overnight bus to Pristina. Had a bit more success sleeping than the last time, but arrived in Pristina at 4:45am. My original intent was to explore the city and take an afternoon overnight bus through to Istanbul, but a Skopje bus was there when I arrived, and I didn’t feel like starting my day walking around at 5am. Kind of wish this part of the trip had been during the day – I could tell we were winding up and around through mountains on narrow roads with snow still on the banks. In Skopje found a soon leaving train to Thessaloniki, which is where I sit now. The views through the rest of Macedonia were stunning – more mountains and staggering canyons. I’ll be landing in Greece soon, hoping to find my next departure to Istanbul. I’m afraid I’m going to be arriving at night, but I’ll just have to make do.

So altogether otherwise it’s been 4 hour bus, 2.5 hour bus, 3 hour bus, 8 hour bus, 2 hour bus, 5 hour train, and a yet unknown hour train to Istanbul, all with minor breaks in between (or sometimes not at all).

While I brushed my teeth out the window at the Macedonia/Greece border, I’m sure what I really need is a shower.

(Update: The train was a night train, so I’ll be arriving in the morning, yay! And it is an 11.5 hour train, with lovely bunk sleeping berths. I have room to myself.)

(Update #2: I hadn’t even considered the current economic situation in Greece – apparently general strikes are about to occur. I guess I lucked out.)

(Update #3: Lovely night train was not so lovely. Creepy man kept trying to get into my room – turning the handle, or knocking and then stepping away to the side (though I could still see him through the fisheye peep hole). After this happening 3 times over 1.5 hours, I yelled at him to stay away from my door. Never heard from him or saw him again, but nonetheless spent 45 minutes standing at my door with my eye to the peep hole, followed by 2 hours half-sleeping sitting up, followed by 4 hours sleeping with the light on. Had to use the toilet, but opted to pee in the small corner sink in my room. I hope they clean those things in between trips.)

(5) Split to Vela Luka, Croatia: Hitchhiking gone bad

Oh dear, what a day. I had hoped to get Dubrovnik today, which would have been easy if I had just taken the bus, but I really wanted to get out on a ferry and see the islands and coast from the water.

There used to be a ferry that travelled from Split to Dubrovnik, but the ferry company was having some financial difficulties earlier this year, so no go.

This should have been easy to do, if the first ferry left in the morning. I could then catch a bus on my destination island to the other side, and then a passenger ferry and another bus to Dubrovnik, but it was not to be. The ferry didn’t leave until 2:30pm (which ended up being a catamaran in which you wouldn’t be outside during sail, which was the whole point of me taking it!!), and when I arrived on the island, it turned out today was a holiday (Labour Day) and there were no buses to the other side of the island (40km away).

I was in the same boat (literally and figuratively, pun totally intended) as two travellers from Boston. Chelsea and Bryan (?) were on a year long trip, and were camping as much as they could. We three thought it would be smart to hitchhike to the other side. I mean, who wouldn’t want to pick up 3 backpackers with huge packs? Well, as it turns out, no one does. We had walked about 5km before we sensed this impending doom. The only car that had even slowed down for us turned out to be a car full of nuns. They gave us a little honk.

After 5km we had reached the turnoff to the next town, of which we didn’t know the accommodation situation, or the bus stop situation, plus Chelsea and Bryan wanted to camp by the beach, and this town was not on one. So we parted ways. I successfully hitched back alone to Vela Luka, where the ferry had originally dropped us off. I found a sobe (like casa particulares in Cuba; homestays) and had a fabulous mussel risotto dinner by the ocean before hitting my hot shower and comfortable bed. I suspect Chelsea and Bryan, who had continued on when I turned back, had a different end to their day. I hope they got to where they were going.

(4) Split, Croatia: The empress and her new clothes

I’ve been on the go for over 5 days now, and today will be the last one with this set of clothes. I only have two sets of clothes (plus pajamas) with me – 2 shirts, 2 pants, and 2 different thicknesses of fleece.

Sure, it may sound rank wearing the same clothing every day, but thus is the life of someone that lives out of a 30L bag.

My day this morning started in a bit of a panic – I caught my 6am bus only by a few minutes because the reception at my hostel slept in accidentally. The ride was a lovely one, especially as we moved through the less populated Hercegovina. The area reminded me of Kelowna, or northwestern Vietnam. I actually wrote in my journal that some of the towns reminded me of quaint European towns, after which I reminded myself that these were quaint European towns.

After arriving in Split and finding a hostel (Silver Gate Hostel – I highly recommend), I explored the historic area. Much of the Croatian coast was developed with fortified Roman cities in the fırst millenium, and the Roman complex (built at the turn of the 4th century) in Split is the focus here. The old city was lovely, but what was craziest was though although this is a protected area, you didn’t just find tourist stalls around in and outside it, but the place was absolutely full with homes, stores and cafes. It was just like an extension of the modern city outside the fortress walls. Totally bizarre.

There was also a great walk around and up a forested hill overlooking Split, complete with fragrant flowers. Met a few other travellers, and shivered my way through some great conversation with two Swiss (it gets chilly at night!). More – you guessed it – walkiıng the next day and planned out the next step in my journey – Dubrovnik.

(2) Zagreb, Croatia: Scamming the bus system

I don’t have much time in the Balkans (or Central Europe as Marina calls it), so I have to enjoy each place to it’s fullest in the least amount of time. I didn’t original intend to even visit this area, but once my flight (that I got with points) was set for Munich, and an Iranian visa application number for Istanbul was received, I knew I could spend up to 10 days in the area.

This day I spent wandering Zagreb. Scammed one more free tram ride to the city centre before I could change money, but overall spent a lovely day walking through city gardens and flowers, exploring the old part of the city and it’s amazingly steep hills and dramatic stone buildings, and enjoying a latte and wifi at one of the many cafes around the city. Marina described this min café area as the “living room” of Zagreb, and she wasn’t wrong. Sometimes I couldn’t even tell where the actually cafes were, but the pedestrian streets were filled with tables and umbrellas, packed with people drinking and smoking. There was also a definite culture of biking here – lots of bike lanes, bikes, and people on them.

When I travel I often consider whether or not I could imagining living in the places I visit. On my 1-year trip through NZ-Australia up through SE Asia, I decided I could probably really enjoy living almost anywhere in NZ, in Vientiane, Laos, and Hanoi, Vietnam. Zagreb is another one of those places. A really great vibe.

But, I couldn’t stay for too long. Found a night train to Sarajevo, which seemed to be a great idea at the time. Save on accommodation, don’t waste precious daylight in transit. Right? Win-win. Right? As much as people might believe I can sleep anywhere (exhibit 1), apparently night trains are an exception to the rule. I slept for about an hour. I’m going to be tired.

PS. I didn’t get a stamp in my passport when I entered Bosnia and Hercegovina. :(

(1) Kelowna, Canada to Zagreb, Croatia via Munich: My first real couchsurf

I left Kelowna bright and early Sunday morning with my parents seeing me off at the airport. I had really been hoping to be able to take my pack as a carry-on, but it ended up being a bit too long. The upside of this was that I was able to pack my Swiss army knife. The downside was that I was now nervous about being able to catch my transfer in Munich. I only had 2.5 hrs between my flight’s arrival and catching a train from downtown Munich to Zagreb, Croatia.

I was also in the air for Game 6 of the Vancouver-LA series, and as would be expected on a Canadian flight, the attendant was able to ask the captain for me what the score was, which he then announced to the rest of the plane.

After stops in Calgary and Toronto, a few naps, 3 movies, and some tail wind later, I arrived 30 minutes early and caught the train with plenty of time to spare. Happy to not spend too much time in a country where my only familiarity with the language comes from 80s and 90s music (Achtung Baby, Bei Mir Bist Du Schon, 99 Luftballons). I was headed on a day train to Zagreb, Croatia, through the eastern end of the Alps as I passed through Austria and Slovenia.

The plan was for me to enjoy the lovely views of mountains from my assigned window seat, but the local family looking to spread themselves out in our compartment had other ideas. An older teenage son and young daughter sat across from each other in the window seats, playing card games. A grandmother sat in the middle, across from me. I was sandwiched between the daughter and her mother, who had a tendency to wheeze, cough, and eat loudly. For a while I played the passive-aggressive game of leaning over the daughter to snap pictures of the views and generally looking longingly at the mountains, but this tactic got me nowhere on this nine hour journey. I ended up sleeping on and off for much of the journey, waking intermittently to note the similarity of the landscape to that of Chilliwack and Hope.  The daughter ended up being a bit of a cutey. She liked offering me pretzel sticks and scratching my sleeves and giggling.

I arrived at night in Zagreb, with instruction from my first Couch Surfing host on how to get to her apartment my tram. I had made the decision to try couch surfing just a few days previous, and Marina thankfully responded to my request. (For those not familiar, Couch Surfing (www.couchsurfing.com) is an online network of people willing to share their spare beds or couches to fellow travellers. There are Couch Surfing hosts all over the world, even in Turkmenistan.)

I wasn’t able to change any money at the train station so late, and the kiosk at the tram stop wouldn’t take Euros, so I got on the tram without a ticket. And of course, my luck would have a ticket checker get on the tram halfway through my journey. I looked helpless, waived my 5 Euros to the Croatian-only ticketer, and after a few phrases that I shrugged at apologetically, he waved my Euros away dismissively with an air of “you-idiot-tourist-get-with-the-program”.

I arrived at Marina’s (+ roommates) apartment and knocked. No answer. Knocked again. No answer. Rang the bell. No answer. I paused to consider my options, but I didn’t know what my options were. After a phonecall from the bar around the corner, turned out Marina just didn’t hear me at the door. Marina is a journalist and also volunteers with a Croatian environmental organization; Marin is a documentary director and has an amazing collection of National Geographics; and Sandra is an engineer with the government’s power company. I learn much about the government’s tactics to develop the coastline by rezoning agricultural land as golf courses, of which 25% of each can be developed into residential and commercial space. Marina explained that 2 years ago, there we no golf courses in Croatia, but golf has since been named a national pastime/treasure, and something like 40 are under development.

Marina was a gracious host and offered some homemade vegan rice cookies and distilled pear alcohol, but we were in for a quiet night. She said one of the main reasons she accepted my Couch Surfing request was because I was 29. She wasn’t in the mood for 20 year olds that just want to party.  Not me.

I hope to Couch Surf a lot more on this trip, both to save money, and to meet local people. It was especially nice on the first night of my trip. I was looking back in a journal I kept for two past trips to Cuba and Peru, and my first nights were always bad – tended to involve crying of sorts. Not that I waned to go home, but more like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and I’m tired and cranky. Once I get some sleep and figure out how the transportation system works in a country, I’m pretty good. This first night: no tears, and I slept until 11am.