Tuesday, 23 October 2007

STEPH Vrgorac to Medugorje 21/10/07

At last, I have arrived in a town with grace! And how fitting that should be Medugorje, that I do it for Mary. Until now, at the end of the day I am limping and tragic, hunched over and near-blind with delirium, especially after 30+ kms.

Take yesterday. Not for the first time, as the sign for Vrgorac came into view, the countless ones lost in blizzards came to mind, those who walk all night to find shelter in a town only to be found dead the following morning, hunched up and covered in snow beneath the sign that marks the edge of town.

I know why this is!

It’s because their destination was the sign, not the warmth within.

And day after day on this pilgrimage, the sign has come into view and what little energy I have left is drained from my being, right there and then on the roadside, content as I am to sit beneath the sign and take not another step.

Yet I do. And in Vrgorac that leads us to the first bar we find, Restoran Tin, which like most other establishments in Vrgorac is dedicated to an elderly man with a very interesting face and a burning cigarette between his fingers. We never did discover who Tin was, an intellectual perhaps? A man of ideas? I get this notion from the black and white photograph above the interesting face, the one of a single bed in a simple room with a desk piled high with books.

We collapse in the bar in Vrgorac. I take off my shoes, rub my feet and moan, order a brandy to warm my bones and know I am not taking another step. Boreus has begun to blow in great gusty puffs, now and then rattling the windows. The thought of heading out into the night, the cold and blustery dark, to find a camp is too much. I am not taking another step. I tell Ben. He laughs. Boreus blows. Ben laughs again. He doesn’t want to head out there either.

We ask the barman where we might find a room, Ben’s pidgin Russian coming in handy for the second time today. He suggests the hotel. Ben has already checked it out – they want an outrageous price. ‘Did you tell them where we are?’ I asked. We laugh. It’s not funny.

The barman makes a dozen calls and comes up trumps. We find a room.

This morning we wake and I am distressed, though not obviously so. My humble gratitude of the night before has gone with the wind.

The bed was too cold. The pillow too high. There was no hot water and no toilet paper . . . and to think I’ve been known to complain about the 16th floor of the Bangkok Marriott!

What’s more, we wake to a cacophony of Christian bells colliding with each other, like a tray of kitchen plates and cutlery dropped all at once on a tile floor.

I am distressed at the thought of walking 30+ kms today. I do not have it in me.

And yet I do!

By the time we’re on our way out of town my step is spirited and I swear the pack is getting lighter. We stop for a paper – Ivan, our couch surfing buddy from Omis, works for Slobodna Dalmacija, a daily newspaper, and he’s written a story about Ben. We can’t read Croatian, yet we’re delighted! with the photograph and the full page coverage. Within moments, Ben’s phone rings and it rings or beeps with text messages of goodwill all day.

And the offer of a room in a hotel for the night in Medugorje.

It’s a wonderful response. It brings tears to my eyes, that others can see the miracle in us:

Eugenia Street Prayer

I respect myself,
I honour my creativity;
I keep my puppy on a lead,
I see the miracle in others.

My creed for the road.

We rig up in full thermal regalia – this morning we’re prepared for Boreus . . . who seems to have taken a breather. The road is Sunday still. The morning warm, relatively speaking. We wander through the mountains, boar country, deer country, taking the high road around the rim of the wide open valley below. A small river runs the length of the valley, carving up fields of green, yellow and brown. The houses are all white with red roofs. Skinny poplar trees streak the landscape, willows gentle it up. Smoke pours from chimneys. Gun shots ring from a distant mountain.

If we turn our eyes to the horizon. we look into the hills of Bosnia, shades of rolling blue. I try to imagine what it might be like to be a country at war; I wonder what it is to have war come, as if it is a thing, a noun of independent substance, and then have it go away again.

We come to the border crossing. It is deserted, a couple of white portable boxes with shredded flags dripping from the top. Ben films me crossing. I make the mark of the cross on my chest. I walk up to the boom gate and pretend to twirl on my belly around it, my pack making the gesture an impossibility. I walk around the boom and Ben calls out, asking how I feel. I throw my arms to the sky and cry ‘I’m freeeeee.’.

Which is when the guards decide to emerge from their boxes. One from each. A man and a woman. One is Croatian and the other Bosnian. Our foolishness drifts into the morning as we hand over our passports. We are among the uneducated and ill-educated, the ignorant and the arrogant.

‘Aah,’ says the man looking at my passport, ‘Australian.’

It’s my guess they’ve seen the likes of us before.

And so we wander on through Bosnia. Surprisingly, it is different. The new houses have a little more flair. The old has not been demolished, but co-exists with the new. The faces in the caffe bars are a little more wary, the distance between our reality and theirs greater than the coastal Croatians. The crones wear black and herd sheep. The roads are not EU new. I’m a little more careful about where I put my feet.

The country is a Mercedes Benz museum, the whole lineage from the old to the brand spanking new showcased on the roads. Perhaps driving a Merc here is compulsory . . . or perhaps it’s the company’s emblematic peace sign.

I feel a great deal of love and surrender as we walk through the country to Medugorje . . . where we discover we are not in Bosnia at all, but Herzegovina (which yesterday would have been more dastardly a thought than Bosnia).

And here, in Herzegovina, we meet Mira and Nikola, our hosts at the Rosabel Hotel, and from them we experience grace in the company, and kindness, of strangers.

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