I have talked of my adventures in foreign lands and told of my impressions of their people. I have documented the days and weeks and reflected here on the things that I have seen and experienced. I have even described the mixed blessing of traveling alone after being with friends. Now it falls to me to relate the end of that story, even with a few tales left to tell that will surely make themselves known in posts to come. The details of this ending are as hazy as was the journey itself, experienced as it was on the edge of sleep. The nearly 40 hours I spent returning to Ljubljana was a kind of twilight drama (no, not that twilight drama) that likely played out in my head somewhat differently than it actually occurred. Nevertheless, there are things worth mentioning and visions of beauty worth sharing, and the time has come to do just that.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, but very beknownst to me now, it is impossible to enter Serbia from Kosovo if you did not initially enter Kosovo from Serbia. A Kosovo stamp in your passport will get you turned back at the Serbian border, and if you’re traveling by bus I’m betting that means you get left with the border patrol for a while waiting for a bus going the other way. Perhaps an interesting story to tell after the fact (it definitely is, and even now I kind of wish this had happened to me, fool that I am), but kind of a nightmare if you’re in a hurry. These were the facts as explained to me at my hostel in Prizren. I could not take the bus to Belgrade that evening, as planned, and catch the morning train back to Ljubljana. It simply would not work. A call to the bus station confirmed that the driver checked passports and might not have even let me on the bus.
I had friends to see in Ljubljana two days later, so I did not have much time to waste. What to do? I went to the bus station and found out, much to my satisfaction, that I could catch a bus to Sarajevo that evening, and from there I would have no trouble finding a way back to Ljubljana. I joyfully returned to my hostel and informed my host of what I had discovered, and he shared in my enthusiasm only long enough to ask me if the bus to Sarajevo took me through Serbia. Damn. Of course it did. Back to the drawing board. There was a daily bus to Podgorica, Montenegro, but that left in the morning. There was a night bus there, but it left from Prishtinë, so I would have to take a bus there first and hopefully catch the overnight from there on to Podgorica. Super. This is what I did, and so began my homeward journey. It was Wednesday afternoon at around 2 o’clock.
I boarded my bus, which quickly filled up, and soon we were off to Podgorica. The man sitting next to me (whether Slav or Albanian, I do not know) had a charming look about him and a smile that could soothe a disgruntled fellow traveler, if not a savage beast. He appeared to take this smile very seriously, for no sooner had he sat down than he withdrew a rose from his inner jacket pocket and began to clean his teeth with the stem. I could not help but stare at the scene that was playing out next to me. Here sat this individual with his short stemmed rose, removing bits of food from between his teeth and likely polishing his pearly whites in the process. Had it been a toothpick, I would likely have hardly noticed it, but the rose certainly drew my attention. Nevertheless, it was precisely this rose that made the act somehow classy, or at least less base. When he was finished, he simply returned the flower to his pocket, gently so as not to harm its delicate petals, and within a few minutes he had exited the bus. Whether or not he later presented a would-be lover with that helpful rose, I will never be able to look at a man carrying flowers the same way again.
There was little else worth noting along the way to Podgorica. The arrival of night turned the beauty of my drive toward the mountains into the eerie formlessness of speculation. Were the mountains I had seen in the distance still there, or had they retreated along with the sun? Were we catching up to them, or would we find with morning that they had merely shifted around and behind us again, giving us only the illusion of having passed through them. The steady rising of the bus was the only evidence of their existence, and it was not until we reached the border with Montenegro that the powerful floodlights of national security illuminated their wooded peaks and proved to me once and for all that we were among them.
What I remember most about that border crossing is how long it took to pass from the Kosovan authorities to the Montenegrin. It seemed like twenty minutes or even longer before we saw the next set of lights and found ourselves being greeted by a uniformed representative of the Slavic tongue. This felt like an inordinate amount of time to spend in the no-man’s-land between borders, and I wondered just how high the security was over this stretch of mountainous terrain. My second and last memory involved taking a much needed pit stop while we waited for our passports to be checked. I don’t imagine that I will ever forget standing in a broken line of drowsy Balkan men, a few meters of man-space between each of us, and relieving myself somewhere between Kosovo and Montenegro.
I looked up at the stars as I did so, marveling at the universe that was so close to my eyes but so far from my grasp. Satellites wandered across the sky like worn-out shooting stars that were content to take their time. They had no place else to go but around and around, so what was the use in all of the hurry? And how much like the satellites we are! We crawl about on the surface of the Earth, put miles and miles under our feet and even leap into the air for hours at a time, traveling distances that seemed impossible less than two hundred years ago. And yet, we only go around and around. The Earth is our sun, and we are its satellites. As fast as we go, we hold the same course, and although we believe ourselves to have traveled far and wide, in the end we have done nothing but explored a particularly beautiful rock. The wonderful thing about that is that there is more than enough for us to see, and as long as we live we will never see it all. As rocks go, it is a pretty fabulous one.
I will one day tell the story of my misadventures during my four hours at the Podgorica bus station, but I believe that I will save that for a post dedicated to cab drivers and how it takes only a few of them to give a good profession a bad name. I am still a little bitter. So I will skip over that and take us straight to the next border crossing, on my way to Sarajevo. My bus left Podgorica at a bit before 8 on Thursday morning and got into Sarajevo around 2 in the afternoon. Montenegro is a very small country, but traveling across it is no short feat. Its very name, Black Mountain, testifies to the fact that it is, well, mountainous. Some of the most gorgeous views I have ever been fortunate enough to enjoy have been waiting for me in Montenegro, and one day I will have to return for longer than a mere day trip. ‘Breathtaking’ simply does not cover it, and soon I hope to spend some good time there and consider just what feeling comes with looking out over that sea of peaks.
Coming into Bosnia was much different than coming into Montenegro had been. For one thing, it was daylight, and I was able to better appreciate the ride through the mountains that took me across the border. There was no enormous distance between the official boundaries of the two countries, and there were no stars and satellites to see, but it was a memorable border crossing nonetheless. The wide curves in the road presented us with new surprises of rivers and bridges, things that had likely been in abundance the night before but were hidden by the darkness. It was not long before I saw the river Drina snaking beneath us. Its deep, sea-green waters flowed strong and reminded me of the incredible, aquamarine Soča that winds its way through Slovenia. Seeing the Drina was a special moment for me, having read Ivo Andrić’s Bridge on the Drina in college. That book, delving into the history of the Bosnian town of Višegrad, had stuck with me for years, and the river alone was enough to bring all of the beauty and sadness of that story back to me. Long after we had left the river behind us, Višegrad and its famous bridge were still on my mind.
I had very little time in Sarajevo and was happy that it was not my first time there. Had it been, I would have been tempted to rush out and try to see something of the city with the hour that I had to spend. As it stood I was able to relax in the Coffee Time café at the Sarajevo bus station, where I had a quick drink before boarding my next and final bus. The man who owned the place looked like he had stepped right out of Rolling Stone magazine, and the music that blasted in his café matched his Hank Moody image quite well. Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against The Machine and Green Day all took me back to my junior high days, which for this guy would have been late high school or early university. It was clear that he identified strongly with this music, and when I told him that I lived in California we had an instant connection. We talked about LA, which I don’t know well, and about Berkeley, finally trading stories about New York, the only American city we had both visited. Eventually he asked what I thought about Bosnia, and I told him quite frankly that I thought it was beautiful.
‘You think that Bosnia is great because you get to leave,’ my new friend smiled, and what could I do but nod and return the gesture. We discussed the economic hardships that exist in his country, and how it’s difficult to get anywhere because of the internal divisions that exist between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks.
‘We are really three nations, you know?’ he asked me. I nodded and said that I did. ‘It’s ridiculous,’ he continued. ‘I don’t understand it. I am a kind of mix and was born in Yugoslavia. These ethnic differences were never something I understood.’
He pointed out the window at the various travelers waiting for their buses. ‘Look at those people,’ he said. ‘You can’t tell who they are on the outside, but who they are on the inside is very important to many of them.’ He was not talking about their own personal identities and their individual hopes and dreams, of course. He was talking about the ethnic divisions that still exist and continue to fuel animosity, if not outright hostility, in Bosnia.
‘I just don’t understand it,’ he continued, shaking his head. ‘We were all Yugoslavs, and now we are all Bosnians, but it’s not the same. It’s all different now.’
This was something that the purveyor of Coffee Time had done a lot of thinking about. I wondered briefly whether nostalgia had something to do with it, but at 37 the guy was not old enough to be under the same nostalgic illusions as some of the older generations all over Eastern Europe. It seemed that his disenchantment came more from a feeling that people were missing the point of it all. Differences are what make us special and interesting, but letting them divide us so sharply, especially when it comes between people who have shared the same land for thousands of years, is just a shame. He said as much toward the end, and I wished him and his country a brighter future. He smiled and shook my hand and told me to come back and see him if I was ever in Sarajevo again. I think I might just do that.
At 3:30 on Thursday afternoon I boarded my fourth bus of the trip, bound straight for Ljubljana…although the word ‘straight’ is a bit of a malapropism. We appeared to be taking a slow tour of eastern Bosnia, visiting every small town and stopping for a little while to let folks climb off and hop on. The last time I had gone from Sarajevo to Slovenia it had taken roughly 6 hours, but it was over seven hours before we even reached the Croatian border. Never mind, it was a beautiful drive, and I was used to waiting by that point. Eventually the sun went down on another day, and as I sipped on my blueberry juice (purchased in Kosovo and now very warm and far sweeter than I really wanted) I slowly decided that I might be coaxed into some actual sleep. The night before had consisted only of the head-nodding variety, and yet somehow I had remained functional throughout the day. The last few hours before the Croatian border were graced with no better rest than the night before, however.
There is little to distinguish these last borders one from the other, and I assign this chiefly to the fact that I was in desperate need of real sleep. Crossing into Croatia we were required to exit the bus for immigration. This was the first time that we had had to do this on this trip, and it was happening in the middle of the night. Wonderful. Bosnia told us goodbye and Croatia welcomed us, but the passage would cost us a bit more rest. And somewhere in Croatia we even had to change buses. It is still unclear to me precisely what happened, and I had finally fallen into something that very closely resembled legitimate sleep when it began. We stopped and people around me began to shift. Ah, the Slovenian border, I figured. Then came the announcement to take all of our things with us. I still assumed it was the border crossing and that we were going to be inspected individually at customs. Annoying, but not altogether surprising. But no, I exited to find my busmates boarding another bus that had just emptied. The assistants were hastily throwing the contents of one luggage compartment into the other and vice versa, and I briefly worried that my bag would be lost in the shuffle. Sleep took me too quickly to worry for long.
Somewhere around 2 a.m. on Friday morning, we finally entered Slovenia. Again we were required to exit for both borders, and the Croatian officials had us moving swiftly on our way. This was not to be the case in Slovenia. The last official stop before I would reach my home and my bed, and the border guard was making an excruciatingly thorough examination of each and every passport. These situations always make me nervous, but my passport received only a casual look. Of course, I realized, this was a bus from Bosnia. It was somewhat troubling to me that I was ushered along so quickly, while these others were scrutinized and questioned. I understood the concern about illegal immigration, of course, but the joke was on them, after all. Without looking at my passport for very long, they could not have known how long I had been in Europe. I could have just as easily overstayed my welcome by many months, whereas these folks were being put through the wringer.
I went off to the side to wait for the line that stretched back into Croatia to catch up to me in Slovenia. I spied a set of chairs that looked like a row of tulips, and I peeled one of the petals down and sat upon it tiredly. I had nearly fallen asleep by the time the last of the passports had been cleared, and I rose onto unsteady legs that barely had enough strength and desire to propel me forward. Turning back to the chairs for one last look, the tulips had transformed themselves into oysters that stared up trustingly at an invisible walrus and waited for his instructions. Goodnight chairs. Goodnight moon.
It was 4:30 in the morning when we finally rolled into Ljubljana. I had reached the level of sleep where, when awakened, you really don’t care what is going on around you or what is required of you. If staying where you are means you will wake up in France, then so be it-you will wake up in France. Fortunately for me, this bus was staying in Ljubljana and everyone was getting off. Somehow I was able to will myself to my feet and remember to claim my bag from the luggage compartment. That 10 minute walk home felt like an hour, and I swayed as if I’d been drinking all night instead of just trying to sleep. I had promised myself somewhere on the road toward Podgorica, in a moment of half-clarity, that I would reach my bed before the following night was out. As I keyed into my apartment and collapsed on the bed, it was 5 a.m., and I decided to count that as one more goal achieved.
That afternoon I would see some friends who were visiting from Germany and head to two going-away parties, putting me back at home nearly 24 hours later. I had made it before everyone left, I was going to get to see my friends after all, but at that moment the only thing that mattered was the bed that had already wrapped me tightly in its arms and pulled me deep down into slumber. There would be time for celebrating later, happy as I was to have gotten back in time. For now there would be nothing more than sleep. Somewhere from the depths of oblivion, I believe I managed a smile.