Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Through Montenegro, into Bosnia and Herzegovina


With two free days between commitments, we had decided to drive through Montenegro, and spend the night in Bosnia and Herzegovina before returning to Zagreb to drop off our rental car.  The welcoming committee at the border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina was pretty cute.  Apparently, this is where the action is at in the neighborhood.  We’d done our research, and we had all of the necessary papers (it’s essential to have a green insurance card for your car, indicating that it is covered internationally, or you will be turned away).  The border crossing was pretty low tech—a hand operated drop-arm gate next to a small hut.  We drove East, and crossed into Montenegro a little later in the morning.



Montenegro was beautiful in a rugged, mountainous way.  The wildflowers were abundant, and we had excellent driving weather.  We bought sandwich fixings for a picnic lunch at a tiny grocery we found along our route.  We realized, when paying, that Montenegro is our first EU country for this trip; we paid in Euros.  It was easy to find a scenic spot to eat our lunch.

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David had carefully plotted a route that took us through Durmitor National Park, which is famous for it’s craggy mountains.  He’d cross-checked his route on our GPS app with Google maps the night before.  Despite that, Lana started getting nervous when the road shrank to the width of our car.  We were also ascending into the clouds and a misty rain, so it was impossible to see very far ahead for promising signs of where the road led.


When the snow banks to either side of the road grew taller than the car, and started encroaching on the already narrow road, Lana got even more nervous.  We hadn’t seen a car in either direction since we turned off the main road, either.  To her credit, we’ve driven on at least one narrow mountain pass in Colorado that turned out to be cut off by a massive snow bank, and she was thinking about how long it would take to back track so we could get to Zagreb in time to catch a train to Hungary, where we were meeting a friend in two days.


David was quite optimistic, and tried to reassure Lana without dismissing her concerns.  Fortunately, he didn’t have to navigate that tricky balance—or the narrowing road—for much longer, as we reached the pass, and started dropping below the snow line, and then the clouds.  The views, even limited by clouds, were worth it.


The pass was at roughly 6,500 feet, and we’d started the morning at sea level.  On the far side, the road plummeted back downwards, and at one point, passed through a series of hairpin tunnels.  This was new to both of us—you could see the exit of the tunnel as you approached the entrance, a little to one side, but much, much lower.  They were hewn out of solid rock, with no reinforcement visible, and no lighting—we hadn’t seen a power line since lunchtime.  The road terminated at a T intersection which was in the middle of a tunnel, pictured above (we came from the downhill road coming in from the left).  The river valley we were descending into had incredibly steep sides.  Below you can see a somewhat more normal tunnel, on the right, that we passed through to reach the blue bridge.  The road wove in and out of tunnels all along the right side the valley.


David has captured a number of pictures of Lana taking a picture; Lana thought it was high time to return the favor; below David is capturing the view down the valley pictured above.  The valley had widened, and we started seeing other cars again.  Eventually, we had turned to the north, and passed back into Bosnia and Herzegovina.  We got onto a large highway, and drove into Sarajevo in the late afternoon.


Sarajevo is a beautiful old city, but like any old city navigating its twisty streets and back alleys proved to be challenging. Ultimately we had to consult the Tourist Information Center and have her call the person we were renting a sobe from, then get detailed directions from them to where the house was.  After a couple of false starts, we found the right narrow street.  Our next trick was parking the car, which we accomplished with the help of several men standing out in the middle of the street chatting.  A twentysomething guy met us at the car, and helped carry our bags down the cobblestone street to his grandmother's house.  When he got to the gate, however, he backed up quickly, calling to his grandmother to open the gate from the other side. Lana was bringing up the rear, so she wasn't quite sure what was going on, but when we went through the gate into the backyard, it became apparent that the giant flowering tree in the backyard was roaring (there were so many bees it went beyond buzzing) with bees. Almost involuntarily she started backing up, shaking her head and saying, "We can't stay here. We can't stay here!" Lana has a bee allergy, for which we each carry an epipen, but we've discovered the best way to avoid bee stings is, well, to avoid bees. While the sobe (a stand-alone cottage in the backyard) looked really inviting, there was just no way that Lana would feel comfortable running that guantlet.

Eventually, through hand gestures and our host's limited English (and our non-existant Bosnian) we were able to convey our reasons for not staying, and he was very understanding. One of the gentlemen in the road (who spoke beautiful English) found out what the issue was, and called a hotel down the road, giving us directions after he learned they had a room available.

Unfortunately, we couldn't find it, and after our first circle we decided to give up and just go to the only hotel we knew of--the Holiday Inn that was built for the Olympics, and was featured in the movie "Welcome to Sarajevo."  The price wasn't exorbitant, parking was ample, and there was a restaurant just across the street. It wasn't what we'd call an "authentic" experience, but having to rush Lana to a hospital in Sarajevo due to anaphylactic shock was a little too authentic. We did happen to see a pack of feral dogs running around (one of the things David's mother had warned us about in Eastern Europe, although we hear it is worse in Romania), so there was that bit of authenticity.

We were in no rush the next morning, and took our time leaving Sarajevo.  We had a relaxed drive through pretty valleys dotted with small villages.  It was surprising to see the minarets of mosques in an alpine setting, even though we knew the region was predominately Islamic.  It was also surprising to see abandoned houses riddled with bullet and cannon holes from the civil war 15 years ago.


Our drive from Sarajevo to Zagreb was supposed to be fairly straightforward.  In the afternoon, our GPS directed us to turn onto a smaller highway, and our speed dropped as we drove in and out of highway construction, with long sections of dirt road between paved sections.  As a result, we didn’t think about how long we’d been on a dirt road until it became particularly rural.  In hind sight, we probably should have turned around when we passed the old woman in the babushka herding cows, or pulled over to discuss our options when we passed through the check point—one lone man, with a tiny hut, and a dilapidated drop-arm gate that used a bucket full of concrete as a counter-weight.  But he didn’t ask to see any papers, just raised the gate as we approached.  Buoyed by our success with the narrow mountain pass in Montenegro, we forged onwards.  Lana was driving at this point, and when the road turned slightly (depending on your interpretation) boggy, she decided she’d had enough, and pulled the emergency brake. She may have dropped some f-bombs as well.  David drove a little further—until the road became distinctly boggy—before admitting that we really should turn around and figure out what had gone wrong.


In our defense, the road (above) looked like a perfectly good county road (in Colorado, at least) until, fairly suddenly, it didn’t.  While David had carefully compared his GPS route to the one suggested by Google maps for our somewhat complicated route through Montenegro, he had not double-checked the GPS route for the simple drive between country capitols.  Unfortunately, the OpenStreetMap database, which our GPS uses, was missing a section of recently altered major highway near the Croatian border, so it calculated the next best route that it could—which does show up as a viable route on paper maps, even if it resembled a cattle path to our eye.  David was reminded of a saying about serious off-road driving: never winch yourself into a bog—only winch yourself out of one (the idea being, if you drive into mud, the winch can usually pull you back out again; if you winch yourself further into mud, it’s very likely that you will get really, really stuck).  We’d relied on our GPS many times to get us back to our origin or a main road, after getting cheerfully lost, which worked very well. But this time, we’d used it to winch ourselves into the bog, instead.
Not long after turning around, David heard one of the wheels making particularly loud contact with the bumps in the road.  We had a flat front tire.


No problem, we’re both comfortable changing tires.  We shifted our bags around, and opened up the lid to the spare tire in the hatch, only to be greeted by this view:

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No spare!  Just a hazard sign, an electric air pump, and a bottle of fix-a-flat.  Not even a jack.  So we hooked up the pump, with the bottle of sealant attached, plugged the cord into the cigarette lighter, and hoped for the best.  After the tire was re-inflated about 1/4 full, there was a loud bang, when the electric pump exploded, and stopped working completely.


Above is a map of the area we were in (the map was purchased much later in the day).  We’d gotten off the dark red colored highway at Vitez, (above the blue arrow).  We’d driven up the yellow-ish road, through Gluha Bukovica.  The red arrow indicates roughly where we realized we had the flat.  The check point, where the dashed purple line crosses the yellow road, is 17 miles from the main highway.  We hadn’t seen a house for a long time before we crossed the check point.  David most certainly was not reassuring Lana at this point.  We did not panic, but we were grimly aware of our situation.  In addition to our remoteness, it was Friday, which as we knew from our recent travels in the Middle East is a day of Muslim prayer, and we knew many businesses would be closed.  And we knew, from asking about a restroom earlier in the day, that we were very unlikely to find anyone who spoke English.  Despite all of these obstacles, we knew eventually we would figure our way out of our predicament. If we weren't meeting someone, it wouldn't even have been a big deal, we'd just push our plans off a couple of days. Even now, we knew eventually we'd get where we were going, if we had to walk back to Sarajevo to do it.  Earlier in our year of travel, this would have been pretty stressful; fortunately we'd developed a lot of perspective since then.

We drove on the partly full tire for a while before it deflated again (so much for the fix-a-flat!), and drove a little further on the flat to the check point, where we gestured with the pleasant man there.  He actually said quite a bit, but not a word in English.  He gestured that we should change the tire; we showed him the empty space where a spare tire ought to be, and he made the Bosnian sound for “Uh oh!”  After some more gestures, he managed to convey that  we were 10 km (“kilometers” was the only word he said that we understood) from the nearest village, but only 1km from a farm house, and perhaps the farmer would have a tire pump (this guy would be awesome at charades).  We started to walk towards the farm house, but before we got very far, David decided that communicating the idea that we had a flat tire, and no spare, and the car was half a mile up the road was rife for misunderstanding.  So he walked back, started up the car, and slowly caught Lana, and then we agonizingly clanged our way down the rocky, dirt road.  We were initially driving on the flat, but soon the tire unseated itself completely, and we were driving on the rim, with the plastic hubcap (impossible to remove since we had no lug wrench, and it was bolted on) taking the brunt of the rocks, as it was a little larger in diameter than the rim.  Did we mention that we’d declined the no-deductible insurance for the rental car? 

Eventually, we reached the farm house in question, and a pleasant gentleman looked up and saw our flat tire, and immediately walked over to our car.  We repeated our gesture routine, showing him the non-existent spare (another Bosnian “Uh oh!”).  At this point his wife came out of the house with a platter of 4 glasses on one hand, and shaking a box of juice in the other; she crossed the footbridge over the creek, and poured each of us with a glass of juice.  Then she disappeared back in the house, and re-appeared a moment later, not quite dragging her teenage son by the arm.  He spoke English quite well, and while he translated between his father and David, his mother towed Lana off across the little bridge, brought out a dining room chair, and then insisted she sit under the shade of an umbrella on their patio, sipping juice and watching the “show.”  We soon had a plan of action, and David hovered, trying to help the father jack up our car and take the lug nuts off.  It's pretty much a one person job, and David wasn’t able to really help until the last lug nut came off, and he swooped in to grab the muddy wheel before the father could, and put it in the trunk of the family’s car. After handing out wet wipes from our gear,the menfolk (there was definitely that feeling) bid farewell to their respective families, and drove towards town.


Meanwhile, Lana was ushered inside (leaving her shoes at the door), where she had to wait, and imagine what exactly was taking so long. As soon as she came in she saw that we had interrupted their lunch, the remains of which were strewn all over the coffee table in the living room.  The inside of the house was an interesting mix of modern and antiquated. The house had a big flat-screen tv, satellite cable and wifi. But there was a single tap for (cold) water and the stove was woodfired. She spoke no English and Lana no Bosnian, so they communicated in grins and nods. Hospitality seems to consist of plying guests with various beverages--she served Lana syrupy Turkish coffee, drunk through a sugar cube, and individually wrapped chocolate covered banana-shaped candy. After that course, she got up and began making something that was indeterminate in its parts, but eventually took shape as a meat filled pastry which she made from scratch, rolling out the dough on a cloth on the kitchen floor until it was translucent. She filled it with ground meat and green onions and rolled into a long thin log and coiled onto a circle.  We would later learn it was a local specialty called burek.  It was served with a bowl of mayonnaise and some pickles (not Lana's favorite foods) but she did try the burek, which was quite delicious. She also had the opportunity to meet her host's sister and her daughter, who, as far as she could tell, had come over to stare at her. At the point when they started serving the burek, Lana had been a guest for about three hours, been antsy for two, and downright anxious for a full hour, wondering what the heck was happening with that flat tire.

The first two mechanics were closed for Friday, and they ended up driving south of Vitez, about 16 miles, back through all of the slow construction detours, to a large dealership, where after waiting for a gap between other jobs, they determined that they had no matching tires, they decided to simply install an inner tube, and only charged $32 BAM, or $22.  David was a little worried about the condition of the tire, having driven on it flat offroad, but the mechanics seemed extremely competent, and nobody appeared concerned.  David was thrilled with how inexpensive it had been—he had feared at least the cost of a tire, and possibly repair or replacement of the rim, after driving over rocky roads directly on it.  David loaded the tire into the back of the car, and they drove back through the construction again.  It would have taken us all day just to walk to Vitez with the spare tire.  David tried to give the family 40 BAM (the remainder of our Bosnian cash) but they put their hands behind their backs, and shook their heads.  Finally, he was able to give them 20, specifically for the cost of gas to drive out and back.


After thanking the family repeatedly and profusely, we walked back across their little foot bridge, got in our car, and drove back to Vitez—through the road construction again.  We stopped at a gas station, bought a map (the one pictured earlier), and asked for directions.  The woman behind the counter was hesitant, but a pleasant customer showed us, circling each of the waypoints in pen, which was extremely helpful on the road later, as the signs at highway intersections always listed the next major town in each direction.  That was the only map we bought in the entire year (aside from those included in guide books), but it was worth its weight in gold to us at that moment.  We drove on, consulting both the paper map, and our other, non-GPS mapping app (Maps.Me), since the paper map did not show the main highway connecting to Croatian highways past the border (which was the issue our GPS also had), but Maps.Me did show the brand new stretch of completed highway.  Our GPS app was officially in the doghouse for the moment.

While we felt incredible relief to have the flat fixed, we were still a little apprehensive about several things.  We needed to buy our train tickets yet that night, as our train departed early the next morning. It was quite late in the afternoon, and we had several hours of driving before we reached Zagreb.  We were also worried about the tire holding up at highway speeds for a couple hundred miles after its recent abuse.  And we were worried about how much the damage to the tire, hubcap, and rim were going to cost us when we returned the car—which we also had to do that night before their office closed.  Despite all of that, we felt incredibly fortunate and our happiness overwhelmed our anxiety.  We were still passing through beautiful scenery, and we stopped at least once for pictures (as well as trading drivers).

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We navigated across the border, thanks largely to Maps.Me, as the highway signs were inadequate, or simply not installed yet, and reached Zagreb around 8 PM.  We called our rental car office on the way, and they told us to simply return it first thing in the morning, which was convenient, but postponed the hour of reckoning.  We were able to buy our train tickets before the ticket office closed, and were greeted by a beautiful sunset as we walked out of the train station.  With three out of four worries resolved, we explored Zagreb on foot.  We found a nice restaurant with a nice patio on the sidewalk out front.  A group of Croatian musicians sat down at a couple of tables near us to eat on their way either to or from a gig, giving us our own private concert while they dined.


After we had something to eat, which normalized some of our freakout factor, we went back to look at the car and see how bad the damage really was. It didn't look great, but the car was so dirty at this point that it would be hard to tell what was just dirt, and what was massive amounts of scratches from essentially driving on that hubcap for a mile. As you can see in the above photo, it is actually hard to tell which is which. We had heard horror stories from other travelers (including our friends we met in Split) about how the rental car companies will charge you for every dent and scratch. We had broken the fix-a-flat kit, flattened a tire, drove on the rim and scratched the heck out of the hubcap. 

We were worried, but here's the thing we discovered. Whatever he said, whatever was going to happen, in the end it didn't matter, we'd get through it. We had been stuck at the end of a cow road with a flat tire in a country where we didn't speak a word of the language, and we had made it out of that, with grace and gratitude. Anything that came after would have to be weighed against what would forever be called the Bosnian Flat Tire. We had a new high watermark. So no matter what, we knew we were ok. We had our train tickets, we had a bed to sleep in and dinner in our bellies.  We were a train ride and a day away from meeting up with a dear friend who was meeting us to travel through Central Europe for the next three weeks.  
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The next morning we returned the car.  Lana felt sure that if she opened her mouth, she'd burst out and tell them everything, so she resolved to just let David do the talking.  David just stuck to the main facts: we had a flat, the pump had broken while trying to inflate it, and we had to put an inner tube in the tire as a result. After the manager walked around the car and made sure everything else was ok, we settled up for the rental--no extra charges for the flat.  If you ever scratch up a car (in Croatia...or possibly elsewhere), it's not a bad idea to run it through a couple of mud puddles first. And while that was one of the takeaways of our Bosnian adventure, it wasn't the only one. We came to the assured realization that no matter what happens, we've been through worse. Is it a Bosnian Flat Tire? Well then we can handle it. It's a lesson we've kept learning in the last year.