Thursday, August 03, 2006

View From A Bus Window

Log and I made our way from the New York Hotel in Zagreb, Yugoslavia to the station that morning expecting to get on a train that would take us to Dubrovnik. Because we had already managed to lose our Croatian – English dictionary we were reduced to communicating by using wild hand gestures and speaking English very s-l-o-w-l-y in hopes that would somehow trigger an understanding. Instead it triggered thoughts in every Croat’s mind we met that morning that we were idiots.

The news at the train station was grim. Now keep in mind, because of our limited capacity to communicate, it is actually quite possible that we were told to “sit tight and the next train will arrive in 5 minutes”, but after a few laborious conversations with different ticket agents we concluded that what we were being told was that there were no trains running that day because it was a holiday. (In hindsight, I just KNOW that this holiday had something to do with Tito, but that comes later in the story).

We had hit an impasse.

Log and I had a limited number of days to travel, we’d already survived the initial train ride of horror to get to Zagreb and we just wanted to get to Dubrovnik and the blue, blue waters of the Adriatic, so hanging around in the city for another day was not an appealing option. We got the bright idea to find the bus station and see if we could catch a bus down South. As it turns out, there was one bus running that day – a private charter bus - but as our luck would have it, there was only one seat left. They said one of us could STAND in the aisle for the 8-hour ride. Since we had ridden from Geneva to Vienna in this same manner we figured we could handle it for a little while longer.

Safety never seemed to be a big concern to Yugoslavians. Seat belts were highly overrated.

Bless his heart; Log let me sit for the first stint while he hung on for dear life in the aisle. This wasn’t a subway car with hand straps hanging from the ceiling or poles to cling to – Jeff had nothing but his own legs and the back of my seat to steady himself as we proceeded to roar away. The bus was hot and stinky and those around us seemed pretty annoyed. Like the train, the bus took a rural route and we stopped at every little hamlet along the way. I remember the terrain was pretty enough – kind of like what I imaged Greece to look like – white rocky land, scrappy olive trees, hilly, bright blue sky, desolate. Log never looked as relieved as he did when I gave up the seat for my stint at standing.

We stopped at some little wide spot in the road and after a passenger shuffle there suddenly were two seats left open – side by side. Log was sleeping, so rather than wake him up to come sit by me, I just went and sat down. In something warm and wet. Very, very wet. Yellow wet. Smelly wet. I WAS SITTING IN URINE! The people who had been sitting in the seats before me had just peed in the seat! And not just a little bit, either. The seat was squishy wet meaning my pants were already soaked through to my underwear and the wetness was moving down the back of my pant leg and all the way up to my waist. I jumped up and proceeded to quietly, yet vigorously, freak out. The bus started moving and I spent the next two hours of the trip standing, so grossed out that I couldn’t move. Literally, I was a frozen statue. I couldn’t look at anyone. If I could have moved, I would have thrown my Let’s Go Europe book at Jeff to wake him up and blame everything on him. WE COULD BE IN PARIS! WE COULD BE IN ROME! But, noooooooo. I’m in a hot, stinky bus careening down a bumpy, narrow road in middle-of-no-where communist Yugoslavia standing in pee soaked jeans for another four hours!

Our plan was to stay at the youth hostel in Dubrovnik. There was a slight concern that they would be booked because they didn’t take advance reservations, but like everything else in this excursion we just played stupid and assumed it would all work out. And it turns out that it did. In the form of Sandy and Grandpapa.

As we were making our way off of the bus I was STILL chewing on Log about my pee-soaked-jeans situation and he was making it worse by keeping his distance from me and giving me that turned-up-nose look that you get when you smell sulpher or rotting eggs. When we had retrieved our back packs and went outside I was into a full blown frenzy about how I was going to wash my pants when we realized we were surrounded by people who were all shouting at us.

We had read about this in the Book. It said that it is common in Yugoslavia for people with rooms to let in their homes to stand around the train and bus stations and hawk their prices and amenities. All the yelling was disarming and we sort of pushed our way through the crowd heading towards the hostel when this older woman ran up behind us and started talking in that strange Russian-Italian sounding language. We looked at her blankly then she handed us a little piece of paper that said “Room - $8 US a night”. She looked like a Russian peasant woman – short, hunched over, ruddy complexion, wearing a plain dress and a head scarf. She kept looking at me, right in the eyes, smiling and rapidly nodding her head up and down with such a look of hope in her eyes that I found myself saying “okay”. She looked so relieved that we had agreed to stay at her place that she grabbed our backpacks and motioned for us to follow her. Here was this little, old 4’11” woman with missing teeth lugging backpacks for 6’ giant me and great big Log. It was quite a scene. Every time we’d try to catch up with her to take our pack off of her shoulders she’d say, “No, no, no, no, no” and would walk even faster. I guess she felt like as long as she had our stuff, we couldn’t get away.

We walked for what we later found out was about 3 miles from the center of town, up this hilly, winding road to a tiny little crumbling rock house, crammed in between dozens of other tiny little crumbling rock houses, and we finally stopped. An ancient old man was waiting outside who had no teeth, but he grinned broadly at us as he started talking and gesturing. Log and I just smiled and nodded our heads up and down, completely confused. Finally, the little old woman looked at us and put her hand on her chest and said a word then pointed at the old man and said a word. More smiling and nodding from Jeff and me as we told them our names.

When finally alone later that night we started laughing so hard we were crying about the situation we found ourselves in. We decided that the little lady’s name had sounded something like “Sandy” and his name sounded like “Grandpapa”.

48 hours after leaving pristine Geneva, with aching legs, no ability to communicate, and pee soaked jeans, we had finally made it to Dubrovnik, Jugoslvi and were staying with Sandy and Grandpapa. We were ready for anything.


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