The Place on the Way to Someplace Else

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Zagreb, Croatia – June 2011

It is not yet afternoon, but a thick, stifling haze has already settled over the city. Even the voices in the market seem muted. I spot no others with cameras or city maps. I am alone with the locals.

Most tourists who pass through Zagreb spend only a few hours or, at most, stay overnight before moving on to the coast. It is a place of transit. The place on the way to someplace else.

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Thunderstorms are predicted for the afternoon, so I catch the bus to Mirogoj cemetery. The alleys and passages are deserted. The only sound is that of my steps. The tombs are impressive in an ostentatious sort of way, but the smaller details in the arcade are what hold my attention.

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The haze solidifies and rises. For a short time, blue sky appears. The center of Zagreb is broken up into several small squares and parks. I have the impression of moving through different tiny villages. Though these are virtually vacant as well. Even the locals have fled.

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A larger park appears. I venture inside, grateful for some leafy shelter. A couple of tasteful souvenir carts are parked by the side of the cobblestone path. A lone couple makes out on a bench. By the time I get to the lookout point, the clouds have reconverged. Once again, the familiar thought: it seems like a nice place to live. And with that thought, the itch resurfaces.

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I follow the steps back down to the city. The elderly lady in front of me pauses by a sleeping cat. She strokes it and speaks to it in a soft, singing voice. As I approach, she smiles up at me and says something. I return the smile and nod, because she thinks that I understand. If I were to speak, she would realize that I am a stranger. I place my hand lightly on the creature. It doesn’t stir. Only the soft rise and fall of its chest shows that it’s alive. The lady nods in approval and goes along her way.

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A Balkan Roadside Attraction

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Turanj, Croatia – June 2011

The long shadows of late afternoon creep across the landscape. Voices from the nearby village drift up on the warm breeze. Every couple of minutes a car whizzes by. This was once the front line in the war, which, like so many wars, has a patriotic name.

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Greenery has begun to wrestle with the architecture. Gentle and silent, it will defeat the disfigurement in the end.

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Various machines of destruction and defense are assembled here, some of them home made. Necessity breeds invention. A MiG carcass is prominently displayed at the front of the group. Consequences bared for all to see.

Every pockmark is the result of a finger pulling a trigger, a target in a scope. A deadly intent. Through a window framed by a bullet-scoured wall, rubble is displayed.

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Just beyond, yet forever out of reach: blue sky.

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My Own Private Plitvice

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Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia – June 2011

So this is how it is to travel in high season. One continuous stream of tourists shuffling from one lookout point to the next. No time (or room) to pause.

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The boardwalks at Plitvice Lakes are very narrow. There’s barely room for two single lines going in opposite directions. I look around at the other faces. None of them mirror the distress that I’m beginning to feel. This is not fun. This sucks! Occasionally, I hear sighs of annoyance. Someone is in someone’s way. However, the overall mood is one of calm resignation. Everything is as it should be.

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The sun blazes, illuminating the lakes to their very depths. I am so mesmerized by the sight that I stumble, almost bumping into the elderly man in front of me. I steady myself and move along, face forward. It seems that I won’t be able to fully absorb the splendor of this place. I stifle my disappointment. At least I am lucky enough to visit. Things can’t always be perfect.Plitvice04

The tufa formations, mineral-incrusted branches, and aquatic life are superimposed against the water, the color of which defies description. A pristine universe encased in glass.

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On a far boardwalk, I catch a glimpse of the Spanish people who were on the minibus from Zagreb. I turn away.

After four of us from my hostel were picked up, the minibus stopped at a couple of hotels. The Spanish people got on at the last hotel. Three fiftyish couples. I smiled at them as they got on. Even though I don’t expect, or particularly want, people to welcome me into their fold, we are fellow travelers. The women wrinkled their noses at me and exchanged looks with each other.

I looked down at my colorful tank top, gray knee-length cargo pants, and hiking boots. What was so offensive about my presence? I don’t wear a full face of makeup or gold jewelry or designer clothes to go into nature. I’m also in my forties. When I was a young woman, I had grown used to older women’s hostility. I’d thought that this kind of adolescent garbage would subside when I aged.

The atmosphere grew progressively more hostile during the two hour bus ride. Glares and tossed hair. The husbands seemed oblivious or maybe they were just used to it. I tried to ignore it, but ancient playground feelings resurfaced. Once again, I became that ostracized, ridiculed child on the perimeter. Wishing that I could shrink to nothing and disappear.

I wanted to hug the tour guide when he told me, and the others from my hostel, that we had only paid for the ride down and not the tour. I would be free from that toxic energy until the ride back. The others from my hostel were kind, but young enough to be my children. We smiled and went our separate ways.

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I reach the dock for the boat ride across a lake. The crowd has now swelled to at least a thousand. During the hour or so wait for the boat, I chat with some British retirees. On the boat ride, I scan the park map. There’s a trail that runs along the lake in the same direction as the recommended scenic trail. When the boat docks, I break away from the crowd and scurry down the shady trail. It only takes a couple of minutes for the crowd’s chatter to recede. I slow my pace and take deep breaths. There’s not another soul to be seen. I sit on a rock and peer through the trees. It may not be scenic or well-trodden, but it’s my own private corner of this wonderland.

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**Dear readers – I’m curious to know what you all think about traveling in high season. Do you like to travel in large groups and be around crowds? **