September 12, 2008

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Four days in Montenegro, taking buses regularly, had taught me that the ticket attendants at the station feel no moral imperative toward helping the non-native-language-speaking tourists find their way; one might even go as far as to say that they looked a bit amused, perhaps slightly satisfied, when they would guide you to the wrong platform, then watch as you frustratingly approach their booth again after missing the bus. This fortunately did not happen to me, but from observing people in my surroundings I knew it was a real possibility, so while waiting for the bus to Dubrovnik I decided to make like a mosquito and ask the haven’t-cracked-a-smile-since-childhood attendant after each and every bus pulled in, “Dubrovnik? Dubrovnik? Dubrovnik?” Even when I clearly knew it was not my bus I still asked anyway, “Dubrovnik? Dubrovnik? Dubrovnik?” – just to pass the time and keep the frown secured tight on his face.
I was lucky to land in a cozy hostel outside of the tourist district ran by a relaxed couple that had two single bedrooms attached to a kitchen. Not letting the rare opportunity of a refrigerator and hot stove pass me by, I headed straight for the market and cooked myself dinner as the sun slowly crept below the edge of the front yard making the tomato plants in the vegetable garden glow a fluorescent green and red on the way down. Even though I was picked up at the bus station, I could tell already, with the houses stepped on the hillside like pods on a rice terrace field interlocked by criminally steep stairways, that this place was going to keep my whole body standing in full salute for the next three days; I was already having visions that the layers of Feta I had so carefully applied to my thighs in Greece, happily with each delicious bite, would start to magically disappear with each vertically-demanding step uphill.
I awoke at sunrise the next morning to walk the streets of this beautiful city with my camera in hand, trying to catch a glimpse of local life before the herd of tourists started grazing the streets and attractions for the day; this gave me the opportunity to slowly wake up with the Old City, wandering it’s deliciously empty and steep, old and narrow cobblestone streets, stumbling upon locals buying and selling fruits and vegetables in the morning market, women sweeping their front stoop and watering their fragrant, flowering window boxes while listening to the clanking of morning coffee pots and breakfast plates waft out the lace-curtained windows. The walls and gates of the houses which make the alleyways outside of Old City reminded me of New Orleans, where you know that just beyond the bland façade, undetectable to the passing eye, lies lush courtyards with palm trees and flowering gardens and verandahs with spectacular views of the sea.
After successfully scouting out my swimming spot for later in the afternoon, it was time to catch a heart-wrenching exhibit about the recent Bosnian/Balkan War by the incredibly courageous and talented photojournalist Ron Haviv with my new friend from the States I had been so fortunate to meet on the bus ride from Montenegro. It took a few hours to somberly pass through and process the information and images presented, all carefully displayed in a unbiased, journalistic manner, in which the details and characters I would read about in the papers were suddenly right there before me, looking back at me, and it sent my emotions through responses of anger, disbelief and sadness all at once.
Walking the top of the fort wall at sunset, looking at the café’s, churches and tiled rooftops reflect the soft waning light, it’s hard to imagine that 15 years ago the same light was being created by bombs crashing down. And while this city, as many others in the Balkans, have seen conflict since the very beginning of their history, to have one be so close to the present was sobering. I was therefore very happy to stop by one of the churches along the way to pray that the only battle this city sees again is the one for the lone traveler trying to explore the popular destination spots before the tourists get there.

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