Splitting to Split
rasasvada n. The taste of bliss in the absence of all thoughts.
On the morning I left Plitvice Lakes to head south, the skies were clear and perfectly blue for the first time in days. It seemed to signify the beginning of a new segment of my journey. Zagreb had been my low, Plitvice my cave of rebirth (now there’s an English student answer for you), and now I was finally on my way to plunge into Eastern Europe head first. Much of the bus ride was the same as it had been on the way there, but somehow nothing looked quite as gloomy now that the skies were blue and the sun was shining. Funny how weather so drastically affects our perceptions of the world around us. Instead of looking sad and tired, the little houses look cheery and the people out tilling their gardens or chopping wood did not look as though they were trapped into their lifestyle but rather as though they quite loved it. Suddenly, the forest, still patchy with snow, broke and we emerged into a barren desert as though we had travelled halfway across be world in a matter of minutes.
Shortly after this change in landscape, we stopped at a roadside diner for a bathroom break and I stepped outside into a wave of heat that melted into my perpetually chilled bones. It was easily the warmest weather I had felt on the trip yet and I had a hard time believing this was even the same country as I had been in just an hour before. As I sat there on the curb, face stretched toward the sun and the scent of smoked meat playing in my nostrils, I found myself liking Eastern Europe more and more by the minute. And yet while I sat there in my t-shirt and rolled up jeans, still sweating in the heat, I could see locals passing by in fur coats and winter hats. If this was cold for them, I would have hated to see their definition of hot. In that way, I had appropriately chosen to travel this area in spring rather than over the summer. Suddenly I heard an odd noise behind me and I turned around to find, much to my surprise, a pen of ostriches pecking at the fence and staring at me. Just your casual Croatian ostrich farm, I guess. But the ostrich farm was not the only oddity of this stop. The restaurant, which appeared to be the only building for miles, aside from occasional houses and chicken coops, was decorated inside with an odd combination of fancy clothe draped seats and antique farm equipment. It was Desperate Housewives meets Green Acres.
The oddities and sense of disconnection between northern and southern Croatia only became more apparent as we headed down the narrow winding road toward the coast. If you took the southwest Montana landscape of rocks and scraggly dry low shrubs and pasted it around the Going to the Sun Road, then put in a few cracks, you would have southern Croatia. The bus rattled and jostled over the bumpy road, and lucky for me, the seat across from me squeaked with every single bump. I honestly haven’t seen a road in such need of maintenance since Butte’s old Dewey Boulevard. The driver did not help as his driving reminded me of my grandpa’s- on again, off again, and far too fast. For anyone not used to terrifying ridiculous roads quite literally blasted out of the side of a cliff with drivers who believe they are above following the speed limit, the drive would have been absolutely terrifying. Luckily, I’m from Montana and all of the above are not exactly unusual for me. The vibrant blue Adriatic Sea came into view as we pulled into the city of Zadar, an impossibly cute and sunny beach town that appeared to fall somewhere in the range of suburbia projects to Barbie dream house development. The orange terra cotta roofed houses existed in extremes, either colored bright pink or unpainted compete slabs with absolutely no in between. I imagined the conversations with contractors going something along the lines of, “Now for the color palette do you prefer Pepto Bismol or concentration camp?” And yet, even the drab houses all contained a perfectly tended garden and pool which made even concrete seem friendly and full of life.
Split was much the same. I pulled into the coastal city of Split, famous for its Old Town area built directly into the walls of an old fortress in the late afternoon. After a bit of typical wandering, I managed to find the Split Guesthouse and Hostel where I was greeted by my host, Josko, who immediately prompted me into initiation in the form of a shot of some clear liquid out of a skull shaped glass bottle. Ignoring everything I had ever been taught, I tipped back a shot with a couple of other new girls who had just arrived. I was liking Split already. Josko turned out to be the most relaxed hostel host I have ever come across, completely unconcerned about our payments and passports with a wave of his wrist and a flipped “whenever”. Most hostels all but require you to all but make a blood sacrifice before they’ll give you the room key. Yet me being me, I wanted to get it all taken care of right away. Immediately after being made a cup of coffee by another guest there, a young man from England, me and the two other new girls were invited out to go watch the sunset with some of the other guests. I immediately agreed, happy to have company again after a few days of solitude.
What most people fail to understand about solo travel is that there is a huge different between being lonely and being alone. While I am technically traveling alone, it does not mean I am fated to be alone all the time and Split was perfect proof of that. The beauty of solo travel is that you are never tied to one person and you are thus free to make friends far and wide as you come across them. The drive for human (and English) interaction forces the solo traveller to meet new people which has been a very healthy thing for me, who sometimes has trouble meeting new people. I loved traveling with my mother but traveling alone is an entirely different experience. Neither way is better than the other as there are pros and cons to both.
With some beer in tow, we trekked up a considerably large hill on the far side of Split, reaching the top just in time to see the city glow red and gold with sunlight before being engulfed in shadow. On the other side, you could sit along a stone wall and watch the sun shoot bright spears of orange to melt into the royal purples of night. More and more people from the hostel joined us, presumably sent by Josko and we sat up there laughing and exchanging stories of travel until the chill of the night air drove us away to find food. The night passed in a blur of more human interaction than I had had in quite a while, complete with new guests arriving in the middle of the night and dancing to trashy euro pop songs like “I Am and Albatross” (which is extra funny for considering I have a certain connection to albatrosses- after writing a fourteen page paper on the symbol of the Albatross in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” they seem to follow me). Overall, it was a grand night of often pointless humor that I was starting to miss about being around other twenty somethings as goofy as myself.
The next day, I ordered Grandma’s Breakfast at the hostel and found it so good that I ordered a second one. I am on vacation, after all (though my clothes may not be saying that when I try to fit into them). Throughout the course of breakfast, I started talking to Holli, a girl from Austrailia who had arrived late the previous night. Since I had only one afternoon to explore the city before departing that evening, we decided to explore Split together that day. For the next several hours, we wandered around Old Town, through ancient fortress walls, outdoor markets, and churches. Throughout my travels, I’ve seen a lot of churches (and I mean a lot) and I can easily say that the church in Split is the strangest thing I have ever seen in my life. The Jesus painted on the alter wall look more like an alien than a holy savior. I found myself muttering a prayer to the Father, the son, and the extra terrestrial then made a quick exit before a bolt of lightning came down on my head. For lunch, we met with another new friend from the hostel, Vatsal, for sushi at a place recommended by Josko. After telling our server Josko had sent us, we were given complimentary drinks of again some unknown clear alcohol. Note to self: find out what it was. We ate there in the warm spring air, basking in the sunlight of the little Split courtyard talking about everything from politics to pop culture as if the three of us had known each other for years. We ended our time together by getting extraordinarily cheap ice cream and eating it right on the pier. In that moment, I was completely and utterly at peace with the world.
Too soon the afternoon came to a close and the time came for me to split from Split (heh). Just as the sun began to crest downward toward the horizon, I said my goodbyes and boarded yet another bus for what would be one of the most beautiful rides I have ever been on in my life. Croatia is a country shaped like a scythe and this drive took us directly down the blade of it, through warmly glowing towns with beautiful names that sound like they belong on the lips of young lovers. It ran from such towns like Brela to the slightly more harsh Dubrovnik, another beautiful coastal town lying directly on the tip of the blade at the crux of Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. The road goes along coastal cliffs as deadly and sharp as a scythe itself, wedged between the towering Dinaric Alps and the Adriatic Sea with the color and clarity of green glass. I pressed myself close to the windows as if I could suddenly pass through the glass and into the sea. Even the trees all leaned toward the sea, feeling its enticing call. I spent the ride constantly hopping between sides of the almost entirely empty bus, hoping to capture even a fracture of the beauty with my camera. But each time I switched, something beautiful would pass from the side I just moved. In life the beautiful things often present themselves right after we have steered away from their path.
Once away from the sun scathed coast, we entered the mountains, dull and laden with rock. And yet every so often we would roll by small clusters of grey stone houses crouched low, nearly blending into the rock landscape. There, they somehow make a living, growing crops in tilled fields cut in odd shapes around the rocks. I thought, “How on earth someone could possibly make a living in a place so desolate?” but somehow they do. The people there, like the land, are tough and relentless. And every night they get to sit to watch the brilliant sun sink in a soft haze below the coastal mountains just as I was in that moment. And for just a moment, these people with lives so entirely different from my own, were viewing the same thing as me. We were one.