Pallin’ Around Podgorica

smultronstalle n. lit. “a place of wild strawberries”; a special place discovered, treasured, and returned to for solace and relaxation; a personal ideal free from stress and sadness.

Bosnia must not have been eager to get rid of me because it sure sent me enough signs that I wasn’t supposed to leave. After the return of Blue Quasimodo on my rainy walk from the trolley stop to the bus station, I sat there in the cold terminal waiting for my bus to arrive. When the time finally came for my bus to leave, the station officer came over to me and informed me that my bus was here. In a flurry of excitement, I jumped up, taking my pack with me only to be jerked backwards by a strap caught in the metal chair on which I was sitting, upending it and sending it clattering across the pavement. Everyone stopped and looked at that dumb American with a metal chair dangling from her backpack, helplessly trying to collect her things and disentangle herself. The mingled looks of amusement and pity were biting to my pride and for a moment I preferred the predatorial ones I has gotten back in Mostar. When I finally managed to remove the strap of my pack from the chair, I picked up my pack to find a leg of my tripod lying on the ground. Fantastic. I had lugged that tripod across six countries only to have it break on me so near the end of voyage. Not having time to inspect whether it could be repaired, I threw the detached leg in my pack and ran over to the platform. I looked around for the bus and instantly thought someone had played a cruel joke on me as I saw no bus, only a small minibus, mini being the important word. It looked a bit more like a van than anything. In the windshield was a sign that read “Podgorica”. So this was the “bus” that would take me ten hours over the mountains. Again, fantastic.

I had read online that the drive between Sarajevo and Podgorica was meant to be spectacular but I had also read that in order to get the best of these views, one should sit on the right side of the bus. Naturally, after wasting time mediating the fight between my backpack and the chair, all seats on the right side of the bus were full and the only empty seat was in fact a lone window seat on the left side of the bus in the very back row. With sixteen of us crammed into every empty seat of the van, sometimes more if we picked up people temporarily who would stand in the center bus (completely legal I’m sure) we headed into the mountains dividing Bosnia and Montenegro. They say Bosnian bus drivers are the best in the world and I sure to God hoped so as we careened down narrow roads with a wall of cliff to one side and a drop to a distant river on the other. Often, the road led though tunnels directly chiseled out of the rock wall. And yet, despite the Three Stooges act it became every time we met an oncoming car on this road, the drivers miraculously kept us on the pavement/dirt/whatever it happened to be from one mile to the next. I fondly recalled Greg, a crazy bus driver who drove me and my teammates to many sports games and speech meets over my fours years of high school but acted as though he was on the run from the devil himself. Good ol’ Greg, the only man I had met until now capable of shaving entire hours off long Montana drives.

The drive was mostly spent in varying degrees of discomfort, a combination of the small cramped space, the perpetual conflict between my need to pee and my stubbornness to pay to do so, and occasional clouds of choking smoke from the bus drivers. For as much as people smoked in Western Europe, Eastern Europe was so much worse. Literally everyone smoked. It honestly would not have surprised me if I saw a baby in a stroller rolling a cigarette. And even worse they seemed unable to conceptualize the fact that not everyone in the world follows suit and actually regard cigarettes as unhealthy. With no regulations on when and where to smoke, they smoked everywhere, on the streets, in restaurants, and even in buses. As much as I missed my mom, I was glad she wasn’t there for her own sake. I always tell myself I’ll pass long bus rides by writing my blog but between the distracting scenes passing outside, new podcasts, my general wandering mind, a half finished book, and the desire to sleep, that never seems to happen. On this ride, unfortunately, I was unable to get any sleep as every time I drifted off, the bus would hit a pothole and send my head knocking against the window. Fortunately, I can pass time in other ways. I love getting lost staring out the window, entertaining my mind with random thoughts and imagined scenarios, something I’ve been good at doing ever since I was a child. On this particular ride, I resorted to sifting through my iPod and rediscovering a host of shitty pop music I once listened to on long drives through Montana in high school, music that had been long forgotten and probably should have stayed that way. Some good Simon and Garfunkel would later be needed to cleanse my auditory palette.

The Internet had at least been right; the views were stunning and despite being on the wrong side to catch the best of the best, I was occasionally treated with open views on the left of dark blue mountain lakes and raging rivers amid sharp snowy bowls. Then we reached the border. As always, the border patrol officer boarded the minibus and began collecting passports, generally glancing briefly between the person and photo before adding it to his stack. When he came to me, I handed over my passport and he looked at it and then at me… And then back at the passport, and back at me. This repeated several times and with each glance another bead of sweat pooled on my brow. I wanted to shout, “Look that photo was taken almost five years ago. My hair was red then but it’s literally still cut in almost the same style. I promise it’s me!” But eventually he seemed satisfied and added it to his stack. A few minutes later, they were returned to us with stamps indicating we had exited Bosnia and the process repeated one more time in order for us to get the stamps saying we had entered Montenegro. Almost there.

The minute we reached the first major city of Niksik, Montenegro opened from grey ominous mountains into a lush green valley and the temperature seemed to rise several dozen degrees in a matter of miles. The passing country was bright green and practically glowing with the first blooms of spring. The land itself was a patchwork quilt with red houses for buttons and lines of trees and shrubs for stitches. It was exactly what I was looking for.

By mid afternoon, we had arrived in Podgorica and I had almost forgotten how much easier and less daunting it is to find hostels when one doesn’t arrive at night. In the warm air, I wandered the kilometer distance away from the city to the banks of the Moraca River where I found a pastel house converted into the lovely Montenegro Hostel tucked quietly away. I entered what would become my home for the next four nights. Four nights was the longest I had chosen to stay anywhere over the course of my travels and it wasn’t necessarily because Podgorica seemed bursting with things to do but rather because I was in desperate need of a break. You see, travel is exhausting and the constant act of unpacking and repacking, generally trying to do so in a way that will not require total unpacking at the next stop but nevertheless failing because sure enough, there is something you want at the very bottom. I like keeping a fast pace when I travel, both to maximize the places I can visit and to ensure I never get too tired of somewhere, but over time that constant flow of movement, the cycle of arriving somewhere only to plan how you will be leaving it, wears on even the most avid traveler. I had been ambitious in my initial planning only one or two nights and revising some stuff, I extended my stay in Podgorica just to give myself a break.

The hostel was relatively quiet upon my arrival, save for the young man I would come to know as Marco at the reception desk and an Australian woman named Danielle. They welcomed me to the hostel, showed me my room, then invited me out onto the driveway to share in some beer and wine. After being virtually by myself for two days in Sarajevo, the prospect of company was appealing and I gladly joined where we sat talking for hours as the Podgorica sun disappeared from the warm evening. I learned that Danielle had been traveling for 300 days with her daughter, much like my own mom and I had done, but now her daughter had left to go to London and she was continuing on her own. Podgorica ended up being an unexpected extended break for her as well as the staff had asked if she would like to stay for a while for free in exchange for cleaning services. She agreed to stay for the month of April before moving on and thus there she was.

Over my stay in Podgorica, Danielle and I spent a great deal of time together. I’ve found that Australians and Americans in general tend to get along very well, partially from our shared love of making fun of the British and partially from the fact that of the English speaking countries, we seem to share the most similarities in slang and sense of humor. It was easy for us to sit and talk for hours while sharing a bottle of wine and watching terrible movies on the single English channel on the hostel’s television. But mostly I loved just listening to Danielle. Over the years, she had done everything from working as veterinary nurse, a personal trainer, a landscaper (finally someone since my mother who could share my appreciate for the wonderfully scented wisteria blooms down the street!), and just about anything else you can imagine. She had seen and done so much, from living with families in Bulgaria to wrestling pelicans to untangle fishing line from their wings, that you couldn’t help but be entirely captivate by her stories. I hoped that one day, I could look back on my life and say I had lived it with even a fraction of the excitement and passion she had.

During the days while she was cleaning the rooms and hanging out bedsheets, I explored the area on my own. I had not heard good things about Podgorica. When I told someone back in Split that I was planning on taking a bit of break and would stay four nights in Podgorica, he looked at me and said, “Why on earth would you do that?” Yet as I began walking along the banks of the Moraca River, the expectations fed to me by other people were once again happily proven wrong. The river’s waters were an impossibly bright turquoise blue, clearer and cleaner than any city river I had ever seen. I have no idea what Podgorica’s secret was but I wish they would share it with the rest of the world. As if the water was not color enough, the banks were lined with solid waves of delicate white, yellow, and purple flowers, just making their reappearance in the first few days of spring. For hours, I wandered up and down the banks of the river, beneath the bridges of the city above, occasionally resurfacing to take in the streets. My wanderings led me to one of several large hills, reservoirs of nature, breaking up the city. I hiked through this park, viewing the city from above and allowing my thoughts to soak up the scents of pine and sights of spring. I loved how connected Podgorica seemed to nature. Even in the city itself, every few blocks offered a park of some degree: fountains trickling cool drinkable water, old men reading the newspaper on benches next to pink blossoming trees, grandmothers pushing their grandchildren on swings in the playgrounds. And everyone I passed would smile and wave as if I had passed by them every single day for years. And even though I did not speak the language, smiling in return was something I could do. Smiles are the international language of the world

For all I had heard about Podgorica being dull and boring, I was completely in love with it, but perhaps that speaks in general to what I find attractive. I don’t travel to party and have the typical young tourist experience. I fail to see what’s fun about spending your days abroad so hungover you can hardly leave bed, as one of the girls in the hostel did. Rather I travel to immerse myself entirely in the natural vibe of the place I am in and I had never felt so wholly enveloped and belonging as I did there. Podgorica may not have many sights to see or things to do, but it is a beautiful city sheerly in how it is content to just be, to just breathe with the movement of the seasons. It goes to show how much of a uniquely personal and individual experience travel is. There is no right and wrong way to do it and there is no definitive best and worst list of destinations. Just as long distance hikers follow the philosophy “hike your own hike”, world travel is much the same.

By the time I returned to the hostel, it was early afternoon and my blindingly white skin was basically begging for some sun. Donning my swimsuit for the first time since last summer, I laid out my towel on the lawn, settled down with a book I found in the the hostel, and laid there for the next several hours. Not surprisingly, with the combined sun of my wanderings and my tanning, by the time the sun set, I felt the chill of sunburn on my legs and shoulders.

The next day, it only seemed appropriate to go out and burn it again. After sufficiently filling myself on the complimentary breakfast of various pastries and yogurt, I decided to take a day trip out to the nearby village of Virpazar, situation right on the crux between the Crmnica River and Skadar Lake, the largest lake in the Balkans. After a short and cheap (only 1€!) train ride, I got off at a station in nearly the middle of nowhere, only a few small village houses and train tracks to be seen for miles. The town of Virpazar was roughly a half a kilometer away down the tracks from the station but even it was not much bigger than a single looping street lined with a couple restaurants and hotels. The number of stray animals there seemed to actually outnumber the people but that was fine with me. I had been getting into the habit of befriending these stray cats and dogs while secretly thinking about how one might go about smuggling an animal into an Oxford dorm. But after a couple loops around the town, as pretty as it was, I found I had already just about exhausted it for things to do unless I decided to pay an extortionate amount for a boat ride by the guy on street rather abrasively pushing them on people as they walked past.

But the day was beautiful, warmer than any I had experienced thus far, and I was thus perfectly content to just wander, and that’s exactly what I did. Opposite the train tracks was a tiny little dirt road leading away from the town. I had no idea where it went, only that it would eventually go to the larger town of Bar. I set off down this road, with no intended destination or set goal of distance. For the next several hours, I just walked, singing to myself and soaking in the simple beauty and quiet calm of the nature around me. I relished in the opportunity to see unfamiliar plants and animals, such as snakes (some incredibly large) sunning themselves on the road who would slither into the grass as I walked by and turtles getting high-centered on twigs. Sometimes these stretches of nature were interspersed among occasional houses and small vineyards. As I passed by, I saw everyone from children to old men and women working hard in the hot sun, tilling at the ground, mending fences, and clipping clothes onto the laundry line. Most of them stared as I went past, probably wondering what on earth someone was doing walking down the road, but the occasional few would wave and mutter a greeting. I was captivated by all of it. It’s a lifestyle one no longer sees very often in the western world but a lifestyle I can one day picture myself living nonetheless. The hot sun blistered against my left shoulder, the one that had received the most damage the day before, but I didn’t care.

After hours of slow, aimless walking, I came to a fork in the road and the first sign I had seen the whole way. Pointing toward the direction from which I had come, it said “Virpazar- 6km” and pointing in the opposite direction, “Bar- 18km.” Well that was that. After an untended 6km walk, I decided it best not to try to make it another 18km and turned around to walk the 6km I had just done. Naturally, the sun had crested past noon and was now moving down the opposite side, still blistering that same left shoulder. I could only hope the burn would be better by the time I had to put on my pack in two days time. I got back to Virpazar in the early afternoon, and took a break on the town’s old bridge. My favorite thing about Virpazar: the sounds. Being right at the merging point of a lake and a river, the water surrounding the village is for all intents and purposes a swamp but because of that it is also filled with frogs. These frogs are constantly croaking so much that the air is a constant chorus of these voices and you can hear quite literally hear nothing else. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always loved frogs. I had pet frogs and out camping you could almost always find me down at the creek with my net and plastic bucket catching them. While the swamp land made it too difficult to actually catch them, not for lacking trying mind you, I was perfectly content to listen to amphibious orchestra (dibs on the band name). Even from the fortress overlooking the town, the high vantage point from which I watched the sun set before catching the train back to Podgorica, you could hear this strangely unique and beautiful music of Montenegro.