S. Rabbani: literary fiction, instructional articles, essays & translations
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From Croatia (Zagreb, Split, Dubrovnik), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Reum, Kravice, Mostar, Blagaj, Pocitelj), Montenegro (Budva, Ulcinj); Introduction to Albania

By Sahand Rabbani


from Croatia (Zagreb, Split, Dubrovnik), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Reum, Kravice, Mostar, Blagaj, Pocitelj), Montenegro (Budva, Ulcinj); introduction to Albania


Dear Friends,

I arrived to the Croatian capital of Zagreb by train with my new American companions at 23:30 on the evening of the eighteenth day (May 8). The tram lines were running to deliver us to the main square, but the buses had closed for the night, so we attempted to walk to the hostel with a rough sketch of a map that we had picked up in Budapest. But the suburban streets were hilly and hard to navigate, so we were soon lost.

On Mary's suggestion, I grabbed the attention of a young Croatian man out walking his dogs on an evening stroll.

"English?" I asked him.

"Ehh, not," he responded in disappointment, eager to help.

I wondered if he spoke the language from across the Adriatic. "Italiano?"

"Si, si!" he said excitedly. Then he explained to me that he had been a model and had lived in Milan for six years. We spoke a little bit as we tried to decipher the map, but it was to no avail. He then urged us to come home with him, just down the street, where we could ask his "zia" (aunt), who could surely help.

So we followed this young ex-model to his aunt's house. It was a small, clean apartment in a duplex. The aunt was eating dinner. Mario, as we learned the helpful man's name, explained our situation to his aunt in Croatian. Zia insisted that we have a coke or a juice and directed Mario to produce these beverages from the refrigerator. Zia, whose actual name was Emma, called information to find our destination.

I learned that Zia, too, spoke Italian, perhaps because she had lived with Mario in Italy, but I did not ask. Zia said that the hostel was too far away, that they would drive us there. So we filed into her small European hatchback car with our massive backpacks and, sure enough, with a little bit of help from our written directions, she found the hostel and dropped us off.

The Carpe Diem hostel was a quiet and small place atop a hill in the suburbs of Zagreb. The three of us had a six-person room to ourselves that night because business was slow. But as a result of this, we enjoyed personal attention from Joseph, the hostel staff member on duty that evening. We had bought a few bottles of wine and sandwich materials from the supermarket to be enjoyed that evening on the hostel terrace. Joseph joined us, showering us with Croatian spirits and wines and telling his perspective on the wars that accompanied the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia while he was in grade school some thirteen years ago.

The night ran late. I barely saw the morning of the twentieth day (May 10). We had decided to take a train to the resort town of Split along Croatia's Adriatic coast. The train was to depart at 15:22 from Zagreb's central train station, and we had quite a journey from the hostel. We left with what we thought was ample time to arrive at the station and buy the tickets, but bad directions from the tram ticket vendor had us two stops too far at 15:10. We were outside of town. Nobody that I approached spoke English and few were in any mood to help. I cycled through a list of languages with one older man.

"English?"

"No."

"Italiano?"

"No."

"Español?"

"No." He waited. "Deutsch."

"Bahnhopf?" I was thrilled to remember the word for "train station" in German after having spent a week with the Germans in Romania. He explained with his fingers that it was two stops away on the tram.

We waited as the minutes peeled away. By 15:15, we were on the right tram, and by 15:21 we were at the train station, but with no tickets.

I bolted onto the first platform and asked the first uniformed man, "Split?" He pointed to the train on platform one. I asked where to buy tickets, and he responded that there was no time. The conductor down the platform waved his wand to signal the train to move.

We were lucky. We did not have to cross any tracks or go underground. I ran to the conductor and asked him if we could buy tickets on the train. He said we could. I pointed to Erin and Mary, running down the platform. He understood. He held the train another few seconds until we boarded. As it turned out, the price to buy on board was the same as that in the station.

The train to Split was one of the cleanest and most modern trains that I have seen. The six hours passed pleasantly along the Croatian countryside as we swept through rustic villages and mountains. Croatia, or Hrvatska in the native language, is a beautiful and well maintained country.

We arrived in Split around 21:00 and walked the short distance to the hostel. Split is a tourist-ridden town with beaches, Roman ruins, and a great view on the sea. But there is not much to do there except to spend one's money. We saw the sights at night, and then we saw them again in sunlight the next morning on the twenty-first day (May 11). At 16:15, we boarded a bus to Dubrovnik.

Michael is a native-born Croatian who owns a gelato store and a hair parlor on University Avenue in Palo Alto. When I asked him, "If I am two nights in Croatia, where should I go?" he answered, "Dubrovnik," without hesitation.

Dubrovnik is a scenic and historic town and the primary tourist attraction in Croatia. But it had to wait a day. We arrived in Dubrovnik and found our way to the hostel. One of the owners gave us a warm introduction with dessert wine, maps, sites to see, and a tangential explanation of how the Iranians helped defend the Croats against the Serbs.

Several guests at the hostel had planned a trip to the neighboring former Yugoslavian state of Bosnia and Herzegovina on May 12, the twenty-second day. There was one spot left on the trip and I could not resist but to tag along. Mary and Erin preferred the beach in Dubrovnik to the day trip to Bosnia.

After a weak attempt to see at least a little bit of Dubrovnik at night, I returned to go to sleep. The next morning, we departed for Bosnia in two cars.

While on the topic of Bosnia, I must announce a geographic idiosyncrasy. If you look at a map of the former Yugoslavian states, you will notice that Croatia runs thin along the west coast of the Balkan Peninsula. Dubrovnik is at the southernmost point of the county, close to Montenegro to the south and Bosnia to the east. However, a closer look will reveal that Croatia's coast is actually severed by a Bosnian outlet to the sea. That is, Croatia is divided in two parts such that one must pass through Bosnia in order to bridge the two. The sea outlet was given to Bosnia in the Dayton Accord to allow Bosnia access to maritime trade. Thus, our bus from Split to Dubrovnik actually passed through Bosnia along the coastal town of Reum, from which I took a photograph of the sun setting on the Adriatic.

Our day trip to Bosnia took us through, among many places, the popular town of Mostar in the Muslim part of the country. This picturesque village is a popular destination for Croatians and backpackers passing through the Balkans. It has a small old town that is redolent of Turkey with its mosques and other indicators of Muslim culture.

That night ran late. We returned to Dubrovnik at around midnight and then passed more time at a bar. The next day (twenty-third day, May 13), we attempted to see the beautiful fortified old city of Dubrovnik. We were difficult to motivate though, so it was past noon by the time we hit the streets. Meanwhile, fantasies of visiting the mysterious country of Albania were festering in my mind. Recommendations from a Dutch traveler started me on the path. Little is known about the country aside from the fact that ethnic Albanians were the targeted group in Kosovo. Also, you may recall a Simpsons episode where Bart studies abroad in France and the Simpsons in turn host an exchange student who turns out to be an Albanian spy.

I could not successfully recruit anybody for my adventure. Thoughts of being alone in this largely uncharted country began to discourage me. I decided I'd go half way to Albania by spending a night in Montenegro and trying to meet some Albania-bound backpackers at the only hostel in the country. Meanwhile, a couple of young, blond, giggly South African girls had raved about a rugged pair of Argentinian men whom they had met earlier in Split, Croatia. If anybody would brave Albania, they said, it would be them. I failed to meet the Argentinians in Dubrovnik, but I remembered the South Africans' description of these men: they had mullets and were balding. Unmistakable.

I boarded a bus for Budva, Montenegro at 10:30 on the twenty-fourth day (May 14). On the bus, I met two New Zealanders (Kiwis) named Philip and Erin. Time constraints required them to be in Bulgaria in six days, but their intention was to spend three of them in Albania. I had found my companions.

The bus stopped at the Croatia-Montenegro border. Two men were pulled off the bus and thoroughly searched. Only when they boarded again did I noticed their balding heads and mullets, partially concealed by their beanies. Indeed, they were the Argentinians. They were planning three nights in Montenegro and then they were off to Albania.

Albania is hard to reach. From the capital city of Podgorica or the coastal town of Ulcinj in Montenegro, one is advised to take a taxi to the Albanian border. The cost is 10€. From there, one crosses the border by foot and hires a cab to the Albanian city of Shkodër for another 10€. Or, one can take a series of minibuses that do the trip, we were told, for about 5-7€.

The Kiwis and I were dedicated to getting as far as possible before dark and then completing the journey to the Albanian capital of Tiranë the next day. We took another bus to the town of Ulcinj, close to the Montenegro-Albania border. There, we walked around and allowed various men to accost us with offers for private accommodations. We listened to a few offers. As we walked further along toward the center of town, the offers dropped. We eventually landed a three-bed room for 10€ each for one night. The owner called to arrange a minibus for us to Skodër at 6:30 the next morning. After he hung up the phone with the shuttle driver and after we had paid him his 30€, he then demanded a 1€ fee for the phone call. We refused.

The next morning, we awoke at 5:40 to get ready, and sure enough a minibus showed up to take us to Albania for 4€. We ripped through poorly maintained rural roads with occasional herds of sheep and donkeys. The roads are about one and a half lanes wide, but the Albanian and Montenegrin drivers manage to fit three cars abreast when necessary. The border crossing looked like a pair of out-houses. People were crossing by minibus, car, motorcycle, bicycle, and even by foot. When the Albanian stamp alighted on our passports, we were hurled back in time half a century.

Montenegro has only been an independent state for two years, having gained its independence from the former country of Serbia and Montenegro by referendum in May of 2006. The people here speak Serbian with some Albanian, some Italian, and very little English. They are darker than the Croats and darker, yet, than many Bosnians.

Albania is another beast entirely. I ran into a group of Italian tourists in Dubrovnik's old city. My curiosity and desire to practice Italian (in preparation for Albania) urged me to inquire about this county that is only kilometers from Italy across the strait that separates the Adriatic from the Ionian. One of the Italians vehemently discouraged me from going. Another said it would be fine.

On your free time, look up the Albanian flag: a black two-headed serpent eagle against a blood-red background. Perhaps it will intrigue and engage you as did me when I first saw it as a curious student of the world. In contest for the lowest per-capita income in all of Europe and with a language that has only been barely classified as Indo-European, Albania is unlike any other country. And I'm catching it before rich Western investors discover the Adriatic and Ionian coastline that continues from Montenegro with its breath-taking fjords. I'm catching Albania before it falls to the hypertouristic Adriatic bug that has infected Croatia and claims Montenegro next. Spend all of your Albanian lekës before you leave, says Lonely Planet, because no change bureau will convert them for you. Details about my adventure in this mysterious country will follow in my next letter.

Sahand









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