Croatians. I’m not sure how much I should say, since I don’t want to judge the people of a country who have lost loved ones in a recent war, who have seen bombs dropped on their homes and hidden for refuge in terror as they fought for independence from Yugoslavia. They have my sympathy, especially as I drive by their houses stopped in mid-construction, made of nothing but orange blocks of brick-like material and cement. It’s like Section 8 housing for refugees. A particular image that stands out in my mind is that of a woman rocking her baby on a gray cement porch. There wasn’t a ceiling on half of her house, not even glass in the windows. Just square holes showing more orange brick on the inside. Her stare was vacant, her baby silent, as she rocked in a rocking chair while we drove past. As I said to Rob, it was a National Geographic photo waiting to happen.
So now that I’ve disclaimed my genuine sympathy for the Croatian people, I’m going to give an American girl’s perspective on them without delicate sensibility. The Croatians can’t make up their mind, first of all… Everything is maybe. Take for example checking into our campsite yesterday. The old man, though kind, was very confusing. “Maybe you park here, oder here. Then move there at four. Or maybe you stay at this site, and move there at six… Maybe eight… Maybe I won’t be here, so you pay tomorrow. Or maybe you pay me now? Maybe tomorrow? Maybe, if you like, you should stay here. Mein Brudern hat sehr gut vino, you want to buy?” He spoke to us in German, Italian, and Croatian. Then back to English.
We actually did end up buying a liter of his brother’s wine, which for some reason came in a giant Coke bottle. We also bought from him a liter of homemade olive oil, which was divine! When we handed him our driver’s licenses, he asked if we were from Espania, and seemed quite pleased when he realized we were Californians. This isn’t the first time Rob and I have been mistaken for non-Americans. I always think we’re so obvious, so touristy and with the accent everybody hears in American movies. Still we’ve been mistaken for Spanish, German, and Brazilian. The Brazilian was the one that really threw me, and it was an Austrian waiter who guessed that, saying it was because we were so happy. I’ll take it as a compliment.
Back to the Croatians. Another thing they’re really good at besides being indecisive, is making you feel stupid. Every questions seems to be a stupid question to them. For example, Rob asked the man behind the pizzeria’s counter if he had any plastic silverware. “We have no forks,” he told us with that quizzical duh-stare, “it’s fast food.” He laughed and shrugged, and you might think we were taking this too personally, but believe me when I tell you there was distain in his eyes and mockery in his voice. Whether you ask where the bathroom is or where the starting point is for the tour of a museum, every question is met with an are-you-kidding stare, a shrug, and that side wobble Indians are fond of doing with their heads. Non-committal, the side wobble could mean yes or no, and when accompanied by, “How should I knows,” and derisive chuckles, it makes one want to keep their mouth shut and avoid interaction will all Croatians.
From the time we crossed the border, both Rob and I have periodically had the sensation we’re being watched. There was not one, but three border patrols we passed through, one tollway after another. At each we were interrogated by very gruff men and women, demanded to share what our business was being in Croatia. The German friendliness we’ve been experiencing vanished in the woods we drove through from Austria during the night. Come morning, waking up at a rest stop, I was struck by just how third world this country seems to be. Second world would be more accurate. It’s not as horrifying as the slums of Bangladesh, or even Mexico’s poverty stricken shack towns. There’s no human excrement mingling with drinking water (as far as I can tell). But it’s certainly not a first world country. Some of the buildings here are ancient. Yesterday Rob and I walked through a palace in Split that has stood there since 300 A.D. That’s Biblical. It’s not the antiquity of its palaces that give Croatia a run down, third world feel. It’s the half finished orange brick houses, the barefoot, dirty children clinging to their dads on motorcycles, the packaging of the cookies. That might sound odd, but you know how in America, you open your box of shortbread cookies and find that they’re all divided into sections that are additionally wrapped in clear plastic? Well, here you open the box and all the cookies spill out and break, covering your RV floor with innumerable crumbs. No plastic wrap. It’s the small things that make the difference between first and third world. It’s also the smells. A grocery store we went to while we were in the north smelled like India, like stale tea biscuits, dust, and unplaceable spices. It was very tiny, utilizing every bit of space it had. Tea strainers were crammed next to bubble gum, dish soap mixed among deodorant. The prices are dirt cheap, too, the silver lining of shopping in poor countries.
Not every place in Croatia feels third world. The bed and breakfast we splurged on near Plitvice Lakes was wonderful, impressing me in every way! The WiFi actually worked in the hotel room, the tiles in the lobby looked very new, and the restaurant attached was a charming place with the most delicious housemade sausage I’ve ever had. But even in the modern establishment the restaurant appeared to be, over the radio the music suddenly stopped and changed to what sounded like a Catholic mass being broadcasted in Croatian. The Croatian language sounds like any other Slavic one (Czech, Russian, Polish, take your pick), but with the cadence of Italian. I could make out the words “Jesu Christo”, then the female priest’s voice would stop and a group of voices would start chanting in reply. It almost sounded occult-like. This went on for at least half an hour, creeping me and Rob out as we ate our sausages with rice. It added to the feeling of being watched that I recall from sitting in pews the few times I went with a friend to a Catholic mass, aware that the lady behind me would notice if I didn’t stand and sit when I was supposed to.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is the most beautiful national park I’ve ever been to, and while I haven’t been to even half the world has to offer, I’ve been to a decent number. Ever since I added this to my European must-do itinerary, I’ve been drooling over the Google images of Plitvice, which I refer to as Pandora from James Cameron’s “Avatar”. The turquoise blues and peacock greens of the water are so vivid that they look dyed. “Windex water,” my sister Mads would call it, as she refers to the water in Kalalau Beach in Kauai. The park is made up of hiking trails, all leading upwards and downwards from one clear lake and stunning waterfall to the next.
At times it reminded me of walking through Yellowstone, with its wooden boardwalks hovering above bright blue and deeply clear waters. Only in Plitvice, there are no handrails and the water isn’t a boiling geyser with the burnt legs of a poor elk still caught in its mud. Plitvice Lakes was just as gorgeous in real life as it appears in pictures on the internet. Its only drawback is that swimming is strictly forbidden, which was torture on a hot day! The water looked so refreshing, so clear and inviting. Rob wondered if being pushed off the boardwalk into one of the lakes would count as swimming. I told him that I wouldn’t take the risk of pushing him off or being pushed off in case we ended up getting thrown out of the park.
Every so now and then, depending on what route you take through the park (and of course Rob and I chose the longest route, Route C), there are cafes and bathrooms at train stations. I don’t know why they’re called train stations, as it’s not trains that take you from one lookout point to the next; it’s buses. Parts of the routes one must walk, and parts one must ride. Mostly it’s walking on a boardwalk, but when an irresistible trail would appear on the side, Rob and I eagerly climbed it to get away from the crowds for a minute. Usually these split off trails were only shortcuts between the boardwalk’s switchbacks, but they were still a nice break from slow-moving crowds. Plitvice sure is popular, especially among the elderly bus tour folk and young children on field trips. And Asians, lots of Asians, with their wide sun visors, white gloves, and picture taking of every little creature. You gotta love how reliably predictable Asians are, whether you’re in Yosemite or Plitvice.
On the one “train” ride we took, we happened to be smushed into the cabin with a bunch of ten year olds. At first Rob and I were displeased, knowing what a loud, long ride it was going to be. However, as the ride went on and we relaxed into the carefree vibe of youth, we ended up having a very special time. There’s nothing like technology to bridge the gap between foreign adult and local child, I’ve seen it time and again volunteering at different world orphanages. The missionary or volunteer whips out their digital camera, and suddenly thirty kids are your best friend. On this bus driving through Plitvice Lakes, the children sitting near us became utterly enraptured with Rob’s iPhone.
iPhones are not at all common out here. Croatia doesn’t even have an Apple store. At first we bonded with the kids over our favorite music (they like ACDC and Justin Beiber), but when Rob played a Chris Brown music video from his phone, they really flipped out! A few of the kids spoke English pretty well, some teaching the others to ask us questions or pay us compliments (“Are you on your honeymoon?” and “You have pretty eyes!”). We left the bus feeling rejuvinated, tickled, and inspired by the innocent and unpretentious way children have about them. They told us that we were very cool.