We were on the road early, eyes streaming with the cold, still climbing the spotted mountains that nudge Adriatica’s shore. We have walked with these mountains since we took the inland shortcut from Sibenik to Split. We photograph them, both of us, yet we cannot capture their presence.
In our pictures the mountains are always the backdrop – yet they are ever-present giant rock faces that leave very little room for the business of humanity. If the country were a palette, the coastline is the painter’s brushstroke, just one soft and wavy line down the landed edge.
We walk steadily upwards, directly into the freezing cold breath of a certain wind god, each bend promising the top and revealing . . . another bend. The bare tops are great grey walls of rock, either pat-a-cake smooth or scratched, as if big cats have sharpened their claws on the sheer faces. They are spotted with dark green vegetation, such as that which grows in high vertical places whipped by wind gods.
Heavy lorries roll by and blow the scent of the roadside pennyroyal into the morning. We look down on the islands below us until, at last, the road turns inwards and we turn our backs on Adriatica’s darker shore. This is where we part company with, if not the known, the now-familiar, and head inland through mountain passes to God, or Mary, knows where.
A quarry greets us at the top, after 17kms of up-mountain road; good news, as it means the steady stream of lorries might ease off. Even way up here the EU concrete funnel has poured new houses and curbs in settlements few and far between . . . I guess the Croatians deserve something for the unreciprocated fishing rights their pending-EU status has delivered the Italians – don’t mind me, it’s just something I heard in a pizza bar . . .
The old ones must wonder why Croatians went to so much bother to free themselves from one master to forfeit their autonomy so quickly to another – heard that in a bar too. And it was here I learned also why Croatians do not call themselves Hrvatska in public . . .it’s another EU thing.
‘Not everyone is happy with it, but if they need us to be Croatia then that’s who we will be,’ said a young man. ‘We do it for the money.’
We rustled our way along the mountain tops, wrapped in Gore-tex to keep the chill from our bones. And there, well into our day, we met Phila, an old one clothed not in black, who beckoned us inside her ramshackle home with drinking motions. We sat at her kitchen table, a parade of Mary perfume bottles watching over us; Phila offered us wine or coffee. I asked for water – and nearly choked on the clear rocket fuel that lunged for my throat. For Ben it was a hallelujah moment. He just sat there grinning from ear to ear when, as soon as Phila’s back was turned, I tipped my offering into his glass.
Everyone needs a Ben at moments like this. He eats and drinks anything and he can hold a conversation with anyone, his pidgin-Russian getting us by in this particular instance. Phila, her balloon body wrapped in a blue and white chequered pinafore held together with a string of white plastic rosary beads, got out the sheep cheese, meat roll and a rough loaf of stale bread, hacking into them with an old rusty knife. Ben hoed into all of it. I was a see-saw of concern about health regulations (manifesting as ingratitude) and the longing to be released from restrictive control trips that prevent me from embracing the kindness of strangers unconditionally. I thought the cheese was great.
Loaded up with rocket fuel to spare and a photocopied Mary message for the Croatians in Sydney, within the hour we were on the road again. Then Ben mentioned the B word. Bosnia. If I had a list of countries I am least interested in visiting, Bosnia would be one of them. I am here in the mountains of Croatia because I am following my son to Istanbul. Medugorje, with its little cross on the d (even on the road signs), is in Bosnia . . . landmines, darkness.
As we walk into the late afternoon, tired and hungry for more than bread, cheese and chocolate, I ponder our proximity to Bosnia, the Balkan backwater basketcase that pushes all my survival buttons . . . forgive me, my ignorance is like the current fashion in petticoats – worn on the outside.
Hands stuffed deep into my pockets as the mountain begins its downwards slide, I am surprised to feel a softening in my heart, an emerging compassion for the people of an ugly word whose landmined children are without limbs. My pilgrimage is bringing me closer to hostilities left over from old wars, simmering or otherwise – without and within.
My emerging compassion sings for those ahead of me; its warmth is for me.
Our Journey GoogleMapsOur Skits on Youtube 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Partypilgrims "The Movie" 1