Backtracking

I pulled up hostel after hostel, bus schedule after bus schedule, as I sat on my bunk bed in Zadar.

I had wanted to go up the coast to the Istria region of Croatia, to hop some islands before I boarded my flight from Zadar to Frankfurt, and from Frankfurt to Washington, DC.

No hostels. No beds. Too expensive.

What the hell am I going to do?

Staying in Zadar for four more nights was not an option. I didn’t need to go back to Zagreb. I had no desire to go back to Split and party away my remaining days in Europe.

Trogir.

I had wanted to go there, but opted to head to Zadar with Katie instead.
It’s a quick bus ride back.

Could I do three nights there?

It didn’t matter. I was going to.

The next morning, I crept out of the dorm room and walked to the bus stop, headed to the bus station, and boarded the first bus to Trogir.

Zadar and I don’t have the best bus relationship. Not even a year earlier, it was the scene of my bus riding debacle. Now, I have the whole riding-the-bus-thing under control, but on that afternoon, it didn’t matter.

As the bus wound around the inland road, it began to putter a little bit.

Great.

Then, we were pulled over at a little bus stop in the middle of nowhere.
The driver got out and walked around back. My eyes followed him as he returned to the bus, grabbed some sort of tool, and turned off the engine.
Oh, no.

For 15 minutes, we sat there. Finally, the heat began to get to me, so I grabbed my messenger bag and got off, sitting at the glass-encased stop, waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

After 20 more minutes, the driver motioned for us to get back on the bus.

Finally.

He started the engine. Then, a moment later, he turned it off.

There was little communication between him and the passengers. Everyone just got off of the bus.

“What’s going on?” I asked someone who spoke Croatian.

“The bus is broken. We have to wait here 20 minutes and a new bus will come and get us.”

Thank goodness I had no place to be. No flight to catch. An hour later, we were back on the road, in a new (and functioning) ride.

We arrived to Trogir shortly after and I found my way to the hostel, crossing a bridge over the water.

The hostel was cute, tucked into a little street behind a church.
There was nearly no one there.

I got a map, found out how to get to the beach (take a water taxi) and then went to get dinner. And a bottle of wine for later.

That night was a quiet one for me. I sat outside on the terrace messaging with Katie who had arrived safely to London (she hated the flight) and writing. And talking to my mom about my grandma.

“I just don’t know, D. I can’t tell you how long it could be,” she said. “It could be hours, days … I just don’t know.”

I’ll be home soon. It’s OK.

I could visualize my arrival on four days …

A group of people from the hostel parked themselves at the table next to me and we all began to chat. They were headed out. I was headed to bed.

The next day, I took myself to the beach. A gorgeous stretch of coast lined with little cafes and restaurants. I spent the entire day there. It was relaxing. It was beautiful. It was perfect.

What a great place to end my adventure. I’m so happy.

And then, when I got back to the hostel, that’s when everything changed.

Blog Croatia

The final reunion

A wave of happiness rushed over me as soon as I saw Katie, sitting under an awning at the yellow bus station in Trogir.

The bus ride from Split to Trogir had taken a little longer than expected, and I had told her I would do my very best to meet her there by 10:30 a.m.

When the bus hit traffic heading out of Split, I began to get a little anxious.

One hour. I have one hour. Oh, Katie, please wait for me.

Fortunately, I was dropped off close to our agreed upon time. And, she was there. Laden with snacks for our 3-hour bus ride up to Zadar.

My smile grew larger and larger as I got closer to where she was sitting, and then she saw me, and smiled too.

“Hi!!!” I squealed, embracing her.

It felt so good to see her. Even if it had only been two nights since we last saw each other.

There is no better feeling when traveling to see a familiar face. Especially feeling the way I felt at that moment.

Together, we walked across the street to stand outside the Konzum to wait for our bus to stop and fetch us.

We had been told the buses come pretty regularly.

It took an hour. Under the beating late-morning sun.

“At least I can work on my tan,” I reasoned, dropping my bags at my feet and squinting my eyes up towards the sky.

While we waited, we kept ourselves entertained.

In Solta, David had tried to explain to us it was nearly impossible to not lick your lips while eating doughnuts.

And, Katie, being the awesome friend she is, remembered I liked doughnuts filled with jam.

She produced two from her plastic bag and we tried to prove David wrong.

Have you ever tried to not lick your lips while eating a doughnut? It’s hard.

I succeed a few times, but the little challenge grew tiring, so I succumbed and decided to just enjoy the fresh and delicious pastry.

Finally, a bus came and we got on. I looked back wistfully at the beautiful town of Trogir.

Next time, D.

Two hours later (not sure how we got there so quickly), we were in Zadar.
The bus station in Zadar is a hike from the old town where we had booked a hostel, so we decided to fork over the kuna and grab a cab to the city gate.

Zadar is not known for its hostels. There are really only two — the Old Town hostel where we stayed, and then a youth hostel outside of town. Both book up reasonably quickly, so we had been fortunate to reserve beds.

She and I made our way down the slippery marble main street of Zadar and found our hostel. It was smack in the middle of the little city, near an abundance of outdoor cafes and shops.

It was a perfect location.

We climbed the four flights of stairs and dropped our bags in our room.
We had one night together in Zadar. The next evening, she was boarding a flight to London.

We spent the afternoon lazily, grabbing an amazing lunch down the street from us, toying around on the Internet and relaxing.

Zadar is a small town — there isn’t much to do unless you take a boat tour of the Kornati Islands. Most of the tours go all day and are a bit pricey, so we opted to just chill out.

That night, we walked to the water and had a gourmet dinner with a spectacular sunset over the sea as our background. The oranges and pinks blending into the greens and blues, finally giving way to the black night sky.

It was expensive as far as backpacker dining goes, but it didn’t matter to me. I had less than a week left, and it was my last dinner (for real) with Katie in Europe.

After dinner, I insisted we stop by the Sea Organ and the Salutation to the Sun, both beautiful must-sees in Zadar. Then, we mozied through town, stopping at a little bar near the hostel and grabbing some beers. After a big beer or two each, it was time for sleep.

The  next day, she, Brian (a guy who I met in Sarajevo and ran into again in Zadar) and I toured the city, wandering down its twisting alleys, eating and drinking.

Katie doesn’t like to fly, so we had to accompany her to the cafes while she sipped wine. And well, she couldn’t drink alone now, could she?

In the late afternoon, she headed to the bus stop to catch a ride to the airport.

In just a few shorts days, I would do exactly the same.

I hugged her tight, promising we would see each other once she returned to America, and then she was gone.

Brian and I walked back to the hostel. He was prepping to go out. I was not.
I found myself craving some “me” time, so that night I stayed in, reading my book and writing.

And researching where I would go next.

Blog Croatia

Realization

I never imagined my brain would tell me I wanted to go home. Early. But, it did that night in Split.

I had 10 days left of my trip. Originally, and for months, I had planned on extending my adventure, heading to Spain (for the sixth time), back to Merida to see my friends and celebrate my birthday on October 1.  I had looked at my funds earlier in the day, looked at the cost to get there, looked at the penalties I would face to change my flight, calculated the extra cost of staying in Europe for three more weeks, and realized it was just entirely not going to happen.

Suddenly, my body ached. My mind was exhausted. I craved my family. I craved a good night’s sleep. I craved home. I wanted to be with my mom as she coped with my grandma’s sickness. I wanted to be with my grandma.

I think I’m ready.

Realizing it is time to end the trip of a lifetime was hard for me. I struggled with the idea of ending it — especially early. I had ended my first trip in Europe early (for entirely different reasons) and had promised myself I would return and do the trip right the next time.

This adventure was my do-over.

And now, my do-over was starting to wear me thin.

I called my Dad.

“I want to come home. I want to be with my family. This is so hard to be away from home. I want to see grandma.”

“D,” he said quietly, “There is no guarantee that when you get home she will still be here.”

“I know,” I said, fighting back tears, “But I at least want to try.”

I messaged friends.

“Are you sure you want to come home early?” They all asked the same question.

“Yes.”

It’s time.

I called United and engaged in a three-hour long battle over changing my ticket.

Then, around 9 p.m., it was set.

I was coming home. Four days early. Which wasn’t much, but I hoped it would get me back in time to see my grandma. I told Dad not to let Mom know about my arrival. Together, we plotted a surprise arrival and I could hardly sleep that night knowing how happy my mom would be when I walked through the front door four days early.

During my epic fight with United, Katie messaged me from Trogir.

“Come up here!” she urged. “Meet me tomorrow and we can go to Zadar together!”

I was going to say no, then I looked around me.

I don’t want to be in Split anymore. I want to be with Katie. I want my friend back. I NEED a friend.

So, I agreed.

The next morning, after nearly oversleeping and power-walking to the bus stop in Split, I was reunited with Katie for the third time in as many weeks.

Blog Croatia

Getting over Split

I walked slowly, silently and solo back to CroParadise and crawled into my bed. I looked across the bed to where Katie had been.

Empty.

Then, as if on cue, Carl walked back into our room.

“Heya,” I said, looking up from my laptop to see him standing next to his bed.

“Hi,” he replied. “What did you to today?”

We quickly caught up on our activities of the day and then decided we would go get dinner.

“You want to go out tonight?” he asked over terrible burritos (note – don’t try to eat Mexican in Split. It doesn’t work).

“Ummm … I don’t know, I’m a little tired from last night still. I think I need a night off.”

“Oh, right,” he said. “I think I am going to go out with the Aussies.”

And out he most certainly went.

I was curled up in my bed, fast asleep until 5 a.m. when I heard the group of them come stumbling back into the hostel.

“Dude, I’m soaked,” exclaimed Carl loud enough so I could hear him through the door where he sat on the terrace.

Shut up.

Laughter. Drunken loudness.

Please, please, please, shut up.

For an hour, I tossed and turned as Carl came in and out of the room we shared, opening his locker, going back to the terrace.

I’ve had it.

At that moment, it hit me: I don’t like dorms anymore. They were never my favorite thing, but after spending 6 1/2 months living in them, I was finally and absolutely sick and tired of them. I wanted a good night’s sleep. I wanted privacy. I wanted to sleep naked, dammit. And, each night instead, I resigned myself to sleep in a room with between two and 20 strangers, never quite sleeping peacefully because I never knew when someone might come in to the room, make noise, rustle their belongings, talk in non-whispers at 3 a.m.

I’m not saying I dislike dorms — they are inexpensive and a great way to meet people. But, after 180+ nights of dorm life, I was craving a big bed and a little privacy. And silence.

I woke up the next morning and was shocked to find Carl awake.

“Good night last night?”

“Oh yeah, we had a great time. We went on a pub crawl, then went to a club, then went skinny dipping.”

Sounds like last year when I was in Split. I suppose it is a Split Rite of Passage to get absolutely pissed and then take your clothes off and jump in the sea.

“Nice!”

“I’m hungry, want to go get breakfast?”

Carl and I trudged down to the market, snapping up some eggs and fresh bread, then returned to the hostel.

I set the table while he made us breakfast.

“What are you going to do today?”

“I think I am just going to stay in, watch movies, do some writing,” I said, slightly tired from being woken up in the middle of the night.

“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea, me too.”

So, he and I spent the day locked in our room, selecting random movies from the more than 1,000 the hostel had saved on its computer.

When night began to creep up, Carl turned to me and asked if I was going out tonight.

Not a chance. I want to go home.

I paused, shocked at the thought I had just had.

Home?

Blog Croatia Travel

“See you soon,” the Split version

“Katie,” I mumbled, waking up from my semi-drunken slumber the next morning, “what the hell happened to David?”

Katie looked at me from her bunk. “What?”

“He never came back to the bar last night. I hope he’s ok,” I said, images of him laying in one of the narrow UNESCO alleys of Split being forcefully pushed out of my mind.

“I’m sure he’s fine.”

I knew she was right.

Then, I cut to catching her up to the gossip from the previous night, mainly spilling the details about my little rendezvous with the Canadian in the bunk above her.

“So … you going to hang out with him again tonight?”

“Maybe,” I said, but knew the answer was leaning more towards no than yes. Carl was a nice guy, but I was only willing to take it as far as intoxicated snogging, I had no interest in anything else with him. “Well, probably not.”

A few minutes later, Carl poked his head in the room. We exchanged smiles, hellos, and then he left and I opened my laptop, and thankfully a note from David.

He was on his way to meet us. My heart instantly filled with joy. I knew he was taking the ferry to Hvar in a few hours and thought we would not have a chance to say “see you soon” before he left.

An hour later, David appeared at CroParadise and he, Katie and I were once again together, heading to get coffee and spend the last few hours as our awesome party of three.

Then, the afternoon was upon us. And it was time for both Katie (she was heading to up the coast 45 minutes to Trogir) and David to continue on with their journeys.

“D, just come up to Trogir with me,” Katie tried to reason.

I wasn’t ready yet. My trip had two weeks left, and I wanted to make sure I timed everything right so I could get to Zagreb to catch my flight. Leaving Split and heading north would mean I would need to spend more time in Zagreb, or Zadar than I wanted to.

“I don’t think I can make it there tonight, but I will walk you both to the bus and ferry,” I offered, switching into my bathing suit and grabbing a towel to head to the beach after I would leave them.

The three of us walked together for the last time, down towards the water.

Don’t go.

David stopped once we hit the little line of cafes near the port.

“Right, I am going to go now and get the boat,” he said.

Tears immediately filled my eyes.

Katie and I both hugged him and watched as he crossed the street.

“Love you two,” he yelled as merged into the crowd of people heading to catch their boats.

And then, there were two.

Katie and I continued walking to the bus station. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to her, so I accompanied her to the ticketing office.

We stood outside the station at platform one.

I don’t want to do this.

“OK, well …” I began. “See you soon.”

We hugged. I thanked her for everything. And then, I walked on towards Split’s sandy beach.

Just like that, two of the most important people I had met on my trip had faded back into the world of backpackers … on to new adventures … on to meet new people. And there I was, sitting alone on a soft beach, book by my side … thinking about my two friends and the time I had shared with them.

As a backpacker, there are so many people you meet while traveling. Some, you get to know. Most you don’t. Some you stay in touch with. Most you don’t. Meeting Katie, meeting David — those two people were nothing short of a blessing. Other than Anthony, I spent the most amount of time with them, grew close to them so quickly, and easily found room for them in my heart.

After an hour, I grew tired and the clouds began to roll in, so I gathered my belongings and headed back to CroParadise.

And back to Carl.

Blog Croatia

Backpacker shenanigans

Katie, David and I walked together back through the old city of Split after hugging Danica goodbye. Rain clouds had begun to make their way from the mountains to the coast, rolling in slowly and ominously.

We hadn’t made any reservations for hostels, so we just started dropping in to places.

Our first stop was Silver Gate, the hostel David had stayed in before we left for Solta. They had one bed, which Katie and I decided belonged to David.

Then, she and I began our wander to Fiesta Siesta to see if there were any beds there.

Nope.

“We can call Booze and Snooze,” offered Fiesta Siesta’s receptionist. She hung up the phone, frowning.

Nope.

So, Katie and I, ready to dodge the rain that was about to pelt us, decided to make our way back to CroParaside, fingers crossed there was something there.

Thank goodness there was.

We quickly grabbed bottom bunks and immediately turned on our computers.

Oh, hello, my dear sweet old friend Internet. I missed you so.

After connecting with the people we needed to connect with, we went into the city and wandered, shopped (well, looked) and grabbed food, planning on meeting David later for dinner at my go-to restaurant in Split, Fife.

Within a few minutes at CroParadise, I met a 20-something Canadian traveler, Carl, and invited him out with us.

The night was a party, at least for Carl and I.

(It should be noted — I love Split. Some of my best travel memories have been in this gorgeous seaside town. There is some sort of backpacker electricity in the air that just seeps into my pores.)

The four of us went to dinner at Fife, dining on fish soup, calamari and more. Katie and I decided to go hard and ordered a liter of Croatian red wine while the guys sipped beer.

Then, it was on to Charlie’s, the smokey backpacker bar under Fiesta Siesta where Simon used to work. David disappeared, leaving Katie, Carl and I sitting outside, avoiding the throngs of people packed into the tiny interior, drinking liters of beer.

Then, Katie left.

Carl and I went inside and ordered another round (of course). Then, we met a group of Aussies, a nice enough group who just wanted to drink their trip away. They had been sitting at the picnic table across from us at Fife, so we immediately started chatting them up.

Then, the beer and wine hit me.

“I’ve got to go home,” I mumbled, making my way towards the door.

“Alright poppet, see you back at the hostel,” one of the Aussie girls said.

I dolled out quick hugs and then raced outside, needing the fresh air to smack me in the face.

I walked fast back to the dorm, not because I was walking alone at night, but because I needed to lay down. Only, when I put my key in the door, nothing happened.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

I tried the other key.

Nononononono.

I rang the doorbell.

Someone, answer. I am spinning.

Silence.

Not wanting to be that girl who passes out at the entrance to the hostel, I walked back to the bar, pushing the thoughts of getting sick out of my head.

“I’m back,” I announced to the group which I had left only 10 minutes earlier.

“What happened?” Carl asked, eyes wide at my sudden re-appearance. “You came back!”

“My key,” I said, frowning, producing the offender in my hand. “It won’t work. I need you to open the door for me.”

“Sure,” he said, wrapping his arm around me. “No problem. But, let’s get another drink first.”

“Ohhhhh … I don’t know about that,” I began to protest. Then, poof, there was another liter of beer in my hand.

Well then.

“Thank you,” I said, resigning myself to accept I was not getting out of it. And, at that moment, I decided I wanted to live it up a little bit. (SEE — crazy backpacker electricity of Split at work!)

And then came the honey rum shot. And then, I was done.

“I’ve got to go home,” I pleaded with Carl.

“OK,” he said. “Let’s go.”

We walked back to the hostel and sat outside together on the balcony. I know we talked … just not sure about what.

Then, the Aussies returned and joined us outside.

The terrace is made for three people. There are three seats. There were six of us.

I scooted closer to Carl, throwing my legs over his, when one of the girls sat on the chair with me.

I didn’t intend my leg-draping as anything other than simply making more room.

Carl, however, took it as anything but that. At that point, I didn’t care.

For an hour, we sat outside, all of us talking. Then, Carl and I were holding hands. Then, it was just Carl and I on the terrace. Then, well, there might have been a little bit of smooching. Then, I put a stop to it.

“We’re not doing anything,” I informed him. “I need to go to bed.”

“Really?”

“Yup. Sorry. I need to sleep.”

Oh, what a backpacking tease am I.

He and I crawled into bed, and I fell asleep nearly straightaway, tucking my head into his neck, laced in his arm.

I woke up the next morning a wee bit groggy, alone in my bed, with only one thought in my mind: What the hell happened to David?

Blog Croatia

The woman who stole my heart

Danica Listes.

I NEVER use people’s full names when writing in order to protect their privacy. However, this woman is the rare exception. I want people to know about her. Who she is. Where she is. And then, I want people to go to Solta, Croatia and stay at her apartment in Stomroska, her little enclave of peaceful seaside. She’s THAT amazing. And beautiful. And wonderful. And soulful. Yeah, I pretty much love her.

When Katie, David and I met Danica, we immediately liked her. She stood by her car at the ferry and waved to us from a distance. I guess it’s not too hard to recognize three scruffy backpackers emerging from the bowels of a boat and looking around, bewildered and excited at the same moment.

Actually, let me back that up. We liked her before we even met her. When Katie had called her two days earlier from Brela, she and I were both taken with her. Not only did she give us the ferry times, but she also offered to pick us up from the ferry — which is pretty much the best thing to offer backpackers who have been traveling. Those bags, hauling them, going from place to place … it gets old.

Once we arrived to Solta and her home, she immediately made us feel welcome, giving us a tour of the apartment, letting us pick up her adorable little pup, Shima and upgrading our digs at no extra cost. She told us where to go, narrating our drive from the ferry to her town.

Then, she took us on her boat just because.

By the third full day of our stay in Solta, the three of us were pretty much enamored with her. Every moment we spent with her, she became more fascinating.

On the boat, we began to learn more about her. She was widowed, as most women who run sobes in Croatia tend to be. She had children in Split. She had lived on the island since before the war. Her husband used to play rugby. She could fish without a rod. She could clean fish. Hell, she could take that little motor boat out all by herself.

Danica was an inspiration. A strong woman who could hold her own.

Then, the next morning, when she and David went to get the net, I heard more stories about how wonderful she was.

A few hours after David returned, we were greeted with delicious smells wafting through our open door.

I went outside and looked down from our terrace, and there Danica stood. Standing over a grill set in beautiful sand-colored stone, cooking the bounty of fish we had caught. And grilling vegetables. And later, making bread inside.

She brought a feast to our terrace that afternoon. Fresh, grilled fish. Beautiful salad. Grilled squash speckled with feta. Potatoes. But, better than all of the food she brought, she also brought stories of her life.

Over our lunch, Danica spoke of her husband and his days of playing rugby, their love and their children.

The three of us were smitten.

“We would really like it if you could come up tomorrow night so we can make dinner for you,” we told her. She agreed.

We spent a lot of that night, the three of us, talking about how in awe we were of this woman.

The next day, we went down to the grocery and purchased tomatoes, cucumbers, chicken, wine and pasta and the three of us went to work preparing Danica’s dinner.

It was our last night on the island, which was bittersweet. The experience there had been so peaceful, so relaxing. It allowed me to get away from the world for a few days and have an actual vacation from backpacking. It also allowed me to quietly think about my grandma and what was happening back home. David had not received any calls from my parents, so I knew everything was as OK as it was going to be.

At dinner that night, we savored every bite and clung to Danica’s every word as the wine flowed and stories were told.

The apartments, the entire property, was Danica and her late husband’s additional child. They had gone to the beach and picked up each stone that covered the exterior walls of the homes. They had labored over placing every stone on the wall. Her husband had made the benches we were sitting on … and made one longer so people could lay outside and enjoy the beautiful Solta weather. He had also made the couches inside. And the paintings adorning the walls? They were his.

She brought up a photo album that was dedicated to her husband’s post-rugby career as an artist. Page after page featured his beautiful work, depicting Croatia landscapes and more. And, page after page reminded me of the love the two had.

Then, Danica brought up a rugby yearbook. She had marked with tiny sheets of paper each page her husband appeared, along with a letter she wrote to the club about being the wife of a rugby player.

As she went through the pages, my mind flitted back to Pennsylvania, where my grandmother was in a nursing home … and my grandfather was living in their apartment a few miles away. I thought of the love they had. The beauty of their relationship. Often times during Danica’s stories I found my eyes brimming with tears, with love for her and sadness for her loss … and the sadness and loss I knew was imminent in my life.

Every word she spoke was laced with her love for life and the beauty, the promise life holds.

The next morning, we loaded our packs into Danica’s car and the four of us, along with Shima, boarded the ferry back to Split.

Saying goodbye to Danica was one of the most difficult “see you soons” of my entire trip.

Blog Croatia