Smooth Highways

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For as long as intrepid travelers have ventured abroad, both far and wide, spanning centuries upon centuries now, particularly expressive voyagers, those who enjoy putting pencil or pen to paper, or plant dyes to cave walls, for that matter (and, now, increasingly, fingertips to tablet or laptop), have written vivid, dream-inspiring journal entries and savory, salivation-inducing reflections on their peripatetic endeavors.  The fact that not all written records of said travels have endured is clear, just as the reality that not all such travel memoirs that have are worth reading.  Those latter recorded experiences vary in value, undoubtedly; however, generally speaking, the ones that stem from the wonderful imaginations and poetic revelations of more famous professional authors are often the ones quoted in coffee table travel books or compilations of travel quips on dedicated-to-travel websites.

Without hesitation or debate, one can accurately list the likes of Paul Theroux, RL Stevenson, Jack Kerouac, and Mark Twain—among many others, as originators of more-recent-than-ancient, worthy travel quotations.  For me, I have my own growing list of favorites, but above all else stands Charles Kuralt’s, oft-copied and perhaps even slightly-plagiarized (according to one website’s explanation I’ve read): “If the traveler expects the highway to be safe and well-graded, he/she may as well stay at home.”   Without a doubt, this sentiment rings true for me—as it has for years, and it helps me return to the road even though I have, myself, had a handful of notable mishaps and experienced a number of daunting bumps along the way.  Especially knowing what I know based on these experiences and twenty years of traveling in over fifty countries, I shouldn’t ever expect smooth highways, and, more importantly, I never do nor will.

Periodically, relatively trivial obstacles arise while traveling, such as how a Jeepney my wife and I were once passengers on in Cebu Island, the Philippines, broke down on a stretch of lonesome road on the way to our next destination somewhere on the northern coast, leaving us languorously standing on the roadside for a few hours.  We, to entertain ourselves, reviewed kung fu forms I’d recently learned back in Taiwan and languidly played Twenty Questions until the point where uncontrollable yawns enveloped us.  Years later, proving once again how one never knows what’ll happen on the road, the haggard beast of a bus I was riding in along a desolate, dusty dirt road in Myanmar suffered a similar fate, also requiring hours of let’s-try-pressing-this-doohicky-to-see-what-it-does maintenance by the driver and his assistant.

The list of such similarly smallish setbacks is long, but there are a handful of more profound misadventures that rear their ugly heads when I stop to contemplate hurdles on the road I’ve had.  So daunting were these (mis-)adventures that I started to reconsider the value of traveling abroad (only for a miniscule moment, admittedly), but the reality is that nothing will keep me from the open road, well, nothing except my wife’s demanding, er… requesting… I stay at home more often than I used to (while I continue to secretly harbor hopes of taking my current three-year-old daughter and infant son backpacking into a remote Laos village or around a foggy bog in Scotland).

One such mishap on the road, one that may have sent newbie travelers, with tails tucked between their hind legs, scampering back home to stay, forever, if it had happened to them, took place in Split, Croatia in the spring of 2004, while I was, otherwise, enjoying my Spring Break from my Masters program back in oft-too-cold Minnesota, USA.  It was a well-deserved and much-needed break from the frenetic confines of the MEd hardships in which I found myself muddled in at the time.  What happened in this particular seaside tourist stopover will forever stay fresh in my memory although recollections of Split as a travelers’ destination in general are, sadly, undeniably because I am not getting any younger, cast into the shadows of my deepest cerebral abysses.

With regards to sights to see and historical highlights, not much comes to mind immediately, other than the lovely pathway along the marina that I strolled and Diocletian’s Palace, a feature I remember more so because I’d read about it in Lonely Planet while there in Split at a café.  However, as is often the case with my travels, a social engagement during my short stay stands out clearly to this day, a few hours of libations and camaraderie that took place before my intimate, too-close-for-comfort encounter with a daunting muzzle and its neighboring front sight.

Earlier that day, on the ride to Split from Zagreb, the nation’s capital, along serpentine roads with stunning views of the Dalmatian Coast, through quaint seaside villages overlooking the Adriatic, I had quietly eavesdropped on the English-language conversations that were taking place between surely-not-local passengers at the back of the bus—from my seat somewhere near the middle of the coach.

To say they were boisterous and rambunctious would be a gross understatement, and it didn’t take much effort to make out what they were saying although their Scottish dialects were hard to understand at times.  Nevertheless, they seemed like a friendly, pleasant group, though I felt at a few of the rest stops along the way that they weren’t open to a solo bloke like me joining their group.  For those five or six hours on the journey, they maintained their energetic dialogues, drowning out much, if not all, of the in-Croatian conversations nearer to me.

Upon our arrival in Split, in a parking lot on the outskirts of the downtown area, at least from what I could tell being a greenhorn to the town, they grabbed their backpacks and made a beeline for a group of eager, elderly folks who’d gathered nearby like a pack of wolves in kill mode that had surrounded a helpless, wounded moose calf; with “Zimmer frei” signs in their hands and dollar signs in their eyes, each hoped to attract foreign travelers to their homes for the night, a site seen at countless train stations and bus stops around many parts of Europe.

This gaggle of retirees had tugged at invisible leashes as soon as the first weary travelers stepped from the bus, latching on to a few naïve neophytes immediately.  Because their behavior prompted images of a cheetah locking jaws on a newborn gazelle’s throat to come to mind, I backed away cautiously to survey the scene a bit, hiding my face behind the safeguard of my Lonely Planet guide, faking that I was really interested in the list of accommodations therein.

After struggling to hoist my overstuffed pack on my back, a few moments following, I was approached by a similarly aged woman, stooped over by years of hard toil—or bad chiropractic care, I assumed, and without any English skills to negotiate verbally, she timidly presented a narrow strip of battered, smudged-with-chocolate (or some other unsightly stain) paper, on which was listed, in English, the address, the “rules”, and the price for a room in her home, the latter of which I found enticing enough to follow her signals that seemed to say, “Let’s get going.”

With cane in hand, she creakily ambled along in front of me, occasionally turning to make sure I was keeping up (without knowing that I could have kept up even if I had been burdened with ten bags of cement mix upon my shoulders, a sack of potatoes under each armpit, and a hard-boiled egg on a spoon in my hand like the one’s used for team-building relay races at leadership conferences, to boot—perhaps even with shackles latched to my ankles).  You get the picture.

Having covered perhaps 500 meters in just under a languid hour, it felt, we eventually made it to a concrete tangle of high-rise apartment blocks, the kind reminiscent of Soviet-era housing complexes, their facades a drab grey, their surroundings even more dreary.  They were less than welcoming, indeed, but the woman seemed kind and trustworthy enough to continue following her into the maze of alleyways that were to be, as I later discovered, much less navigable at night and with far fewer “challenges,” if you will.

A quaint, quintessentially grandmotherly flat with dark wood walls, her home was resplendent with frilly lace table coverings, antiquated rocking chairs, patterned quilts, and a ubiquitous-in-all-grandparents’-homes cuckoo clock.  Upon arriving there, she brought me to my room for the night, a cellblock-sized space with a bed and complimentary bedpan, acceptable enough for a guy who simply doesn’t like to spend much time in his room while traveling, wherever he stays.  Soon after, having made failed and feeble attempts at hiding my valuables and extra cash in the room, for there were really no hiding places at all besides the standard under-the-mattress option, I, armed with my typed-in-English slip of paper with bus numbers and bus times on it, took off with my day pack and camera for downtown Split, a fifteen-minute public bus ride away.

My ears open, my eyes pealed, and my heart eager to see new places, I explored the city waterfront area for a few hours and then opted to sit at a café in an open courtyard area of some historic building in the older section of town, where I took a load off, still somewhat drained from the six-or-so-hour bus ride earlier that day.  There at the al fresco café, I marveled at the wedding that was taking place, the tourists who were photographing the procession of wedding goers, and the partly restored structure surrounding us.  On one hand, the place was abuzz with activity because of the marriage ceremony, but on the other, the location was a perfect place to unwind, for the atmosphere of the courtyard was, otherwise, tranquil.

Yet that tranquility, if one ignored the revelry, was broken not long after my arrival by the aforementioned pack of gregarious Scots.  They entered the courtyard as if they were a bunch of college freshmen returning home to a quiet dorm after a night of partying for their first time at a college pub.  Whether or not they were actually drunk at this point isn’t clear, but their behavior rivaled the excitement of more enthusiastic bar goers after a heavy binge session.

To cut to the chase, they stopped and chatted with me at my table in the plaza, and after some simple conversation, they asked me to join them for dinner at theirs.  I returned with them, a group of six or seven lassies (they taught me, an American, that term) and two blokes, to their nearby rented full-service apartment sometime in the early evening, where we proceeded to partake in many libations before, throughout, and after a fantastic feast, prepared by seemingly everyone in the group.

Drinking games and revelry occupied much of the later evening, and it was not until around 11pm that I realized, after struggling to blurrily decipher the bus times on my held-dear-to-me slip of paper from my guestroom grandmother, that I’d just missed the bus back.  To make one’s way through a completely foreign city during daylight can sometimes be challenging, but because it was already late and my judgment was somewhat affected, I decided I better leave ASAP, and after exchanging emails with some in the group (What did we do without Facebook back then?), I was off on a wild goose chase to find my accommodations.

Thankfully, I recalled that there was a main drag heading out of town, which was the route the bus I had taken earlier in the day took when I had come into the city center, so I had at least a basic concept of the city’s layout and the way home.  However, much of the walk back was based on hazy recollection due to my altered state of mental acuity, i.e., I was pretty darn inebriated.  Moreover, it was dark.  Side streets were even darker.  Stores were closed.  Neighborhoods were dreamily dozing deeply already.  Although I consider myself well prepared to face certain elements, having been in the US Army before, being relatively fit and athletic, and having practiced martial arts from time to time, I started to question my decision to have drunk so much—and to question my intelligence in having missed the bus.  That travelers the world over shouldn’t put themselves in unnecessarily dodgy situations is, of course, common knowledge, and I have oft guffawed when I hear of someone who put themselves in a situation they shouldn’t have while on the road (of course not at those who’ve regrettably suffered major trauma or hardship).  A fool was I.

At some point, perhaps forty-five minutes after warily and wearily starting off on foot away from my party patrons, the directions started making more sense, until I finally came to an area that sparked a “Hey, I think this looks-familiar” relief.  From the main road diverted a diagonal pedestrian lane that led into the concrete maze of those Soviet-styled apartment blocks I’d been brought to by my guesthouse granny earlier in the day, and because there was no car access, a barrier had been erected, except for where there was a raised, grass-covered platform, to block entry to all vehicles.

I proceeded up and over the elevated terraced area, jumping down into the pedestrian mall a few feet below on the other side, and I then made my way into the maze of buildings that had surely been more appealing (though only slightly so given their unattractiveness in the first place) and undeniably more welcoming during the daylight hours.  Within perhaps a minute of wandering innocently along this confining, somewhat sinister pedestrian zone, still enjoying my certain state of alcohol-induced affairs, I was accosted.  From out of nowhere came a barking, intimidating snarl of a voice—with its shadowy body to follow, causing me to turn immediately towards the source.  Within inches of my mug a handgun was pointed.  Behind it, a face perhaps even more daunting.

In Croatian, or it could have been Swahili for that matter (I couldn’t use Chinese here, for I speak it some), he appeared to demand many an answer.  Naturally, I had no clue what it was he wanted, so I immediately raised my hands in the typical fashion of victims of a holdup (well, at least based on what I’ve seen the likes of Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise do in Hollywood action flicks) and stammered, “I don’t understand; I don’t understand. Sono Americano.”  Why Italian came out, I have no clue, but whatever it was, I was simply trying to survive.

Although, years before, I’d shot such potent weapons like the .50-cal and Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) while in the Army, the latter of which I carried around in Kosovo, and though I feel relatively comfortable with guns, I’d never been in such a position—on the receiving end of their intimidation factor.  Moreover, even though it is so cliché, my life flashed before me, at the haunting sight of the barrel aimed between my eyes.  Numerous questions bombarded my senses:  What the f*$% do I do?  What the hell?  Doesn’t he know all my money is in the coffers of the U of Minnesota?  Can I just call my mom?  Doesn’t he know I will one day have children?  How can I tell him to go to hell without insulting him too much?  Can I disarm him with one swift kick (who am I kidding; I had no such Mitty-like moment)?

If that weren’t enough fright for the night, a second scowling man appeared out of the shadows, gun drawn, its barrel as equidistant to my nose as the first’s.  Resultantly, I started to feel as if I should have worn my brown shorts that day.  I continued to keep my hands above my head, and I acquiesced when they demanded, by first encroaching on my very personal space and then by grabbing my shoulder in a Spock-like fashion, to move into the shadows of the covered shopping arcade.  There, I was promptly thrust face-first against the aging, damp wall.

I knew it was damp, for that is what my cheek molded to as they proceeded, forthwith, to pat me down.  Reciting all sorts of biblical verses, which is impressive for an agnostic who has never read the bible other than the Book of Genesis out of boredom in a hotel room in Iowa in mid-January, I allowed them (like I had a choice!) to frisk my back pockets and pat me down, yet they didn’t take my passport or camera bag, which I’d been holding over my shoulder the whole time, and run.

These Croatian ruffians, their Vulcan death grips tight on my shoulders, further kept me in place by forcing my right arm up between my shoulder blades, and then in the same manner, turned me to the right and propelled me down the pedestrian zone towards destinations unknown.  Of course, my head was awhirl with questions—even though I couldn’t raise my head more than waste high because of the angle at which I was forced to walk, with my arm still practically tethered between my trapezius muscles.  The complete doubt as to what they were doing was even worse than if they had assaulted me openly.

By this point, I was overwhelmed with bafflement. Mentally stymied, I was scared, and I internally prayed that whatever it was they were planning on doing was going to come sooner than later.  To wonder what two men with guns are going to do with you on a dark street is to expect death’s door to be imminent.

About three blocks down from their original point of interception was a mini-grocery store of some sort with a shattered front window, and this was where they stopped me.  These assumed-until-that-moment-to-be-thugs chaps forced me to look at the shattered glass and fragments on the ground, like a master shoves the snout of a puppy into its own pee so it learns not to urinate in the hallway, and then pointed to the mess and back to me repeatedly as they continued to bark menacingly.  What the hell?  Were they serious?  Did they think I did it?

Internally, I rehearsed in my mind how I could mime my innocence, and I, moreover, wondered if they were actually accusing me of the reason for this mess, a robbery it seemed.  Without even one word of Croatian in my ever-growing, yet rarely-used arsenal of foreign phrases, I doubted I could persuade them to take their hands off of me.  Thankfully, though—at least to give some sense that this was about to end, a third man approached, spoke with them, and then told me in broken English that they were accusing me of robbery, some sort of smash-and-dash crime.  While he explained that, a cacophony of voices showered down from above, so I, struggling still in that awkward, crooked posture I was forced to maintain, as if I was a marionette whose strings had gone limp, looked up to see that countless souls were leaning out from apartment windows, watching all this unfold from the safety of their homes.

To my surprise, the bystander apathy that is often prevalent in parts of America was not to be there in Split, at least at this instance.  Instead, from what I learned via the third man on the scene’s spotty English, they claimed it wasn’t me who’d broken the window and taken off with some products a few minutes prior.  Upon hearing these town crier-esque announcements from the heavens above, my heart mellowed, and my first two goons-who-turned-out-to-be-plain-clothes-cops companions eased up on their body locks, too, their cheeks perhaps tainted a shade of pink, dusting off my chest and shoulders as they did.

As my new on-the-spot best friend hastily explained that they were just going to take down my passport information and name, I jokingly thumped on my chest repeatedly, attempting to show that my heart had been going a thousand miles an hour, which prompted a hearty laugh from them.  However, though I forced a chuckle or two to accompany their reaction, my mind was merely focused on the unreasonableness and imbecility of it all.

How in the hell could they have mistaken me for a burglar, one who was strolling casually along, mostly enjoying his drink-induced numbness?  Why on Earth did they not realize that I was sauntering down the pedestrian zone towards the scene of the crime, not bolting away in the opposite direction, as any criminal would have been?  Whatever it was that had crossed their minds, I wasn’t about to let it ruin my evening (yea, right!), nor my stay in Split, but truth be told that when I returned to my guesthouse granny’s guestroom, my heart was still pummeling my chest cavity, attempting to break an all-time Morse code speed record.

When I fell asleep an hour or so later, I promised myself that I would move back home to Mom’s house, forever, and never leave the safe confines of home again.  Thankfully, the next morning, over burnt toast and sour jam, while sitting silently, smiling at Granny, I cleared the cobwebs of the night before and changed my mind.  The open road simply brings too much value to my life, even if, from time to time, I might get treated like a ragdoll by some wannabe tough guy undercover cops for an ephemeral part of my journey.

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