Adventures in Velebit

Oh fairy, fairy of Velebit
The pride of our nation,
Your glory is precious to us,
Croats delight in you.
from ‘Vila Velebita’, a Croatian folk song
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Recently,  a friend and I embarked on a five day adventure into one of Croatia’s largest and wildest mountain ranges stretching parallel to the Adriatic sea: Velebit, part of the Dinaric Alps.  An old Croatian folk song calls Velebit the “haunt of fairies.” One writer describes it as “a strangely beautiful place, its wind-scoured heights characterized by areas of bizarrely sculpted and weathered rock, studded with thickets of dwarf mountain pine, and pierced by some of the deepest sinkholes in the world” (Rudolph Abraham).

Indeed, some of those eery sinkholes brought a certain tremble to our legs as weIMG_2273 peered into the fathomless depths.

The whole trek is nine days long; but in five days we drank in a healthy dose of Velebit.  It wasn’t just the stunning scenery we enjoyed, but also Croatia’s “hiking culture,” which we encountered in the huts and along the trail.

“You are hiking alone?” the man asked disbelievingly, and then proceeded to ask his hiking troupe if they could adopt us for the next few days, although we assured him we were fine.  This proved to be a common question for two women hiking alone for five days, and the query was often immediately followed by gifts of rakija(Balkan spirits) and many varieties of snacks and foods.IMG_2271

“This rakija is 20 years old and made by my grandfather,” one young Slovenian man told us on top of Velebit’s highest peak.IMG_2288

“Take the bananas, take them!” another man urged although we were finishing our trip and they were just starting out.

“This is the most hospitable culture ever,” my American friend observed after we were fed fire-roasted slabs of pork over fresh bread deep in the mountains.

And of course the food was just the beginning. On our third night, we encountered the same group of men out for three days who, as they told me after I jokingly asked where the women were, “just needed some guy time.” Our feast over the open fire ended with boisterous songs around the campfire.  At their special request, I found myself belting one of the few  Country Western songs I know (complete with a wanna-be Southern twang).  IMG_2274Croatia is one of the few countries that truly appreciate my attempted Southern accent.

One day, we stumbled out of the mountains onto the sweltering hot, never-ending plain of Veliko Rujno only to encounter hundreds of people celebrating the holiday of Velika Gospa (Feast of the Assumption).   Locals pilgrimage to this location where there is a small church for a special Mass and a big picnic afterwards.  Throwing our too-heavy backpacks on the ground, I poured the refreshing water from the well by the church over my head and watched the festivities.

We were warned repeatedly about bears and wolves—but no one who warned us (I questioned everyone) had every personally seen a bear or wolf in the wilderness.  However, we were chased by an intimidating (their horns did not look friendly) group of female cows who followed us, braying repeatedly, over a narrow trail on the side of a hill.IMG_0041

Set amidst the wild peace of Velebit is a sad reminder of Croatia’s recent past: one day our trail led us through areas   still strewn with landmines and old military bunkers from the 1990s war.  Although the map and the occasional warning sign kept us abreast of their general areas, I was giddily conscious of keeping on the right trail.

Our last night we decided to sleep out of the hut and under the stars; and it was this night that we were visited by the Bura, a powerful, gale force wind that blows over the mountains and onto the Adriatic.  Following its persuasive bluster, the next day we hiked out and were swimming in the Adriatic sea by mid-afternoon.

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Resolving unexpected problems—Croatian-style

“It was your choice to forget.”  The policeman looked at me with the confident, self-assured expression of one holding the position of power.

“But ‘to forget’ implies that there was no choice involved,” I argued back, surprised at my own aggressiveness, and not sure precisely why I was taking a philosophical tact in the present situation.

My initial panic (at being told I was being fined almost $400 for having lapsed registration)  had given way to a sodden resignation that matched the gloomy wet day as I watched the policeman strip my license plates and inform me sternly that I was “no longer allowed to drive.”

The thing is, I was actually legal; but my car registration process was more complicated as a foreigner since  my registration and residence permit expired within three months of each other. In other words, although according to the records in the computer I was valid for a year, I was unable to get the year-long stamp on my car paperwork when I renewed my car registration.  I had to wait until after I renewed my residence visa. This was the final step in the seemingly endless yearly process of registering my car and registering myself for my visa.

The policeman didn’t believe me; at least, he didn’t at first, but after he went back to his car and came back magnanimously informing me that he was reducing my fine by half, I had a feeling that the computer revealed that I was telling the truth—now he wanted to both save face and also show me a little bit of grace.

But I have learned quite a lot in my three years of living in Croatia  of how to navigate the system—everything is done through connections and relationships. Usually it is done after the fact, when my Croatian friends ask, “Why did you do it that way?  It would have been so much easier if you had done it this way!” And then I realize that in fact I have done things very much like an American—which in fact does not work as well in this culture.

But this time, when I entered the police station and saw the masses of people and the sign posted on the number dispenser saying, “we have no higher numbers than this,” I didn’t really feel bad  about walking around the milling crowd (some who were lucky enough to be holding a number and others just hoping for an opening) looking for my friend who happens to work in the car registration sector. When I spotted him sitting behind the counter—and went up to him to say wide-eyed and dramatically, “Tony, I’m in trouble!”—he responded right away to begin working through the complications of Croatian bureaucracy with his boss (his 15 years living in Australia necessitating his  non-stop flow of dry observations “If anyone knows how to complicate a situation, Melody, it is you.”)

After two hours, I finally obtained the necessary stamp and Tony wished me good luck in pleading for clemency for the fine when I went upstairs to request my plates back.

“Any suggestions of my approach?”  I asked him.  “It could go either way,” he said.

Because the situation was not black and white—yes, I did forget to get that stamp back in June to prove I was registered—and because I suppose there is not a specific law to speak to this situation, I knew that my fate would depend on the disposition of the individual police officer who would  review my situation when I asked for my plates back.  And in this, I had a lot of hope.

Ironically, I ran into the same policeman who had pulled me over while I was climbing up the stairs. All of a sudden, he became my advocate when I mumbled self-consciously that I hadn’t yet paid the fine.  He marched me up to the window and explained the situation.  With a humorous glint in his eye, he wished me luck as he went back down to his shift.

After 30 minutes of the policeman staring at my paperwork, looking at the computer, disappearing behind the shelves, he had me sign a few papers and gave me my plates.

“I don’t have to pay?” I said hesitantly, fearing to mention it, but fearing more what might happen later if I didn’t bring it up.

He looked at me, grabbed my paper and marched down the hall where he disappeared into one room.  I could hear the hum of voices arguing for awhile before he came out and went further down the hall to another room.  After 10 more minutes, he emerged with another man.

They came up to me and the new man, his face open with kindness and warmth, handed me back my paperwork.  “You don’t have to pay,” he said in slow English. “Everything is fine.”

After four hours, 3 taxi rides, much waiting, the problem was finally solved.  Although this event dramatically altered my plans for the next 10 days ( I had been planning on driving out of the country), what better place for it to happen than in the city where I live and have connections?  Learning and thriving in another culture involves implementing the way that culture would address problems and mishaps, rather than stubbornly trying to do it the way you think it should be done according to your own culture.