Friday, October 19, 2012

Back-Packing Eastern Europe



Living your life by a timetable could easily become frustrating and tedious; yet, at Camp Cal every day brought a new joke to laugh at or story to share. Someone was always discovering a new insect bite, adding to the gossip mill, finding their hidden candy in Camp Mom’s fridge missing, or revealing their obsession for boy bands and dance routines during Lip Sync. This kept the mood light and made us forget that our days were run by a schedule.

As summer neared its end, a group of us plotted out a route to travel through Eastern Europe. The final week at camp was bittersweet. We were ready to continue on to the next chapter yet saddened to part and desert our paradise that had been so gracious to us.

The morning after an entertaining staff dinner to celebrate a summer of hard work, we groggily hopped on the bus and officially began our back-packing journey. Our tentative route consisted of exploring southern Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Serbia, and Hungary before we would have to part ways and return to our individual realities. 


Croatia –
The bus dropped us off in Split where we boarded a ferry to Korčula Island, not knowing that we were in for a rocky ride. It was a windy day with a choppy sea so that lovely catamaran ferry rode the waves with no concern of its passengers. Some of us enjoyed the ride, eating up the sight of giant swells and waves crashing on the deck, while the rest of us fought back sick stomachs and cold sweats. Myself, I was never so happy to sea land when we arrived. 


Korčula Island will forever hold a special place in my heart. We stayed at a cozy apartment owned by a dynamic local who gave us stellar recommendations of where to eat and visit. This mini-Dubrovnik offered great trails to run, alleys to wander, and countless ways to honor Marco Polo – like eat delicious gelato at one of the many shops named after him. We spent a lazy day at Lumbarda Beach where we basked in the sun, not needing to check our watches to see when the next activity period would begin. Sun-tanned and sandy (yes, a sandy beach on the Adriatic!), we headed back to town, stopping along the way on the trail to pick fresh grapes off the vines. A couple days later we continued on to Dubrovnik, once again lucky to arrange accommodation with generous locals. We explored this old city twice, once while it was lit up at night and then in the early morning where the streets were tourist free. There, we took turns balancing on the Dubrovnik Maskeron and helped each other stay atop long enough for a quick picture. Unfortunately we, and about thirty other tourists, were put to shame by the little ten-year old boy who stood on that Gargoyle head with ease, smirking at the rest of us. 

 









Montenegro –
With our rucksacks packed, we were ready to head to our next destination: prelijepa Crna Gora. After spending eight years of my life with co-workers, friends, and lovers from ex-Yugoslavia, Montenegro and Bosnia were calling my name to visit. I have heard countless stories, learned their language and customs, and attempted to plan trips to these countries over the past years but I had to wait until the timing was right to finally explore them. I actually owe thanks to these beautiful countries and the people that came to America from them; without them I may have never become infatuated with these Balkan nations nor ended up in Croatia this past summer.


Montenegro’s dynamic landscape perfectly reflects the people and atmosphere of the country.  We settled in Kotor, after a sketchy pit-stop by the border and a spectacular view of the fjord, and landed two rooms at an amazing woman’s home right next to the old town. One thing must be mentioned about this accommodation. This kind woman grew the most amazing grapes I have ever tasted in my entire life. Clearly, I love grapes since I cannot stop mentioning them; however, these purple grapes were so juicy that when you bit into them a fusion of wine and deliciously tart grape juice exploded in your mouth. Go to Kotor, stay at the yellow house to the right of the Old Town and eat the grapes.  Nevertheless, the old town of Kotor is so quaint and much more authentic looking than Dubrovnik. During our time there we hiked about 5 km above this ‘stari grad’ to St. John’s Fortress and celebrated the view and each other. On a detour to the other side of the mountain during our hike, dear Ben became king of the goats and herded them into safety – I would not expect anything less of Ben. I also like to think that our traveling crew would agree that one of our highlights of Kotor was during a dinner out when a phantom gypsy girl slyly crept up next to Mick with her haunting eyes, waiting to be acknowledged and given a few Kuna. I wonder where she is now.


 












After Kotor we traveled to Budva where we spent a day recharging on a rocky beach. Budva consists of an eclectic combination of neighborhoods and views; within an hour we picked kiwis off a vine by the bus depot, passed through a metropolis center, and walked along a promenade to a tucked away beach filled with umbrellas and lawn chairs.  As we departed Budva for the overnight bus to Bosnia, I was left with the impression that the true essence of the city comes alive at the night time and I’ll have to return there next summer to properly experience it.


Bosnia and Herzegovina –
We arrived in Mostar at the awake, alert, and enthusiastic hour of 3am. Knowing it was safer to camp out until sunrise in the Old Town, we high-tailed ourselves away from the bus station that was marred with bullet holes and graffiti. There is a blanket of quiet sadness that rests on the outskirts of Mostar; where the wounds of the war are still healing and broken buildings, families, and hearts are slowly being repaired. As true back-packers, we spent the night sleeping under restaurant tables, hidden from the street, and waited for the sun to rise. Unfortunately, the restaurant owner showed up before the sun so we had to subject ourselves to a very awkward walk of shame. After a caffeine break we checked into our hostel and signed up for Miran’s famous tour. During which we explored Blagaj, Počitelj, Vodopad Waterfalls, and the Medugorje. It was an informational day where we learned about Bosnian traditions, ate amazing Burek, and played in very cold waterfalls; all while ash from the sky fell on us due to the blazing forest fires around us. 
 










A speedy and luxury train ride brought us to the capital city of Sarajevo, where we ventured into the Baščaršija and later saw where World War I started -thanks to Mr. Gavrilo Princip. After a home – aka hostel – cooked meal together we called it a night since we had an early morning ahead of us.  Unfortunately the water was shut off at the hostel so after sunrise, a group of grungy, travel-loving friends hit the road.

Serbia –
We arrived in Beograd planning to spend the day wandering before we were to head to Hungary. Beograd is an interesting looking city. There is a subtle disconnect between the old and the new infrastructures; however, the city still offered a welcoming energy. We explored for a while and then indulged in some familiar pastimes: an Irish Pub and movie theater. That is one important thing that I have learned on my travels through different states in the US and countries in Europe – an Irish Pub always provides with you friendly service and a good time. Ironically, the most eventful part about our visit to Serbia was our departure from it. We boarded an overnight train that would take us to Hungary, once again not knowing what we signed up for. After finding a section of seats together, we settled into our sleeping bags in hopes of getting rest for the following day. The train stopped and a large group of men boarded, smelling of sweat and cigarettes. Since we were all sprawled out on two seats each, we pretended to be asleep while this crew of twenty men stood over us, waiting and evaluating. Eventually they asked the girls first to move over and share the seats. Thankfully, the boys in our back-packing group are witty and personable so after a few awkward exchanges, everyone became tentative friends. Our hopes of sleep were put on hold and we were forced to listen to what we could interpret as crude jokes, football chants, and bashing judgments of anyone that was not a member of their crew. Clearly this football (soccer to us Americans) team had some power on this train since they smoked on board and not one of them paid for a ticket. After a few hours their stop finally arrived and they departed, leaving their stench and unnerving energy behind. Thinking we were safe, we repositioned ourselves to steal a couple hours of sleep. Yet of course, moments later a new team boarded and sang unruly football cheers for a few hours. In the future, I’ll cross check the football schedule with the trains. 


In eight days, eight friends traveled four countries. We had no responsibilities and no where to be, just had countries to explore and passports to get stamped. Our next and final stop together was in Hungary where over the following week, one by one our group would disintegrate and the bubble of our summer lives would officially pop. 

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