"Anybody remotely interesting is mad in some way or another." - The Doctor
Sometimes I think there's something seriously wrong with me. It's looks like I got from Lisa the travel agent, and from the print shop owner yesterday when I handed him a signed release waiver for a six-day pack trip to Machu Picchu with instructions to fax it. "To Canada?" He guessed, glancing at my passport citizenship on the waiver.
"No," I said. "To Peru. Here's the number."
"Peru?" He confirmed, certain he'd heard wrong. Never mind that I was a Canadian in Croatia trying to fax a travel document to Peru. I couldn't even print it myself and fax it from home before I went, because, as I explained to the shop owner, I would be in Greece.
"What time is your flight tomorrow?" Mladen had wanted to know before I left the apartment that morning.
"Not 'till nine PM," I told him. "I'll probably pack up and leave here sometime after noon."
Mladen furrowed his brow. "Why?" He demanded. "You're not one of those people who like to sit around the airport for like ten hours, are you?"
I blinked. What was wrong with that?
Mladen rearranged his features. "I have something to tell you," he admitted, changing the subject. "I don't think it will be a problem, but you let me know." He said he wouldn't be here when I left. He had tickets to a concert in Barcelona, but his ex-girlfriend would come by once a day to take care of the cats and I could just leave the keys in the mailbox when I was finished. "It's a bit far to go for a show," he shrugged, "but sometimes I make, like, I dunno...just really crazy decisions. You ever do that?"
Look at where we are, Dude. "Sounds vaguely familiar."
I still hated doing 'homework'. That's what I called taking care of business like booking flights and accommodations or arguing with credit card representatives over the phone; no matter how out-of-character with my usual spending habits, I insisted that it really was me making the transactions from foreign countries. My card had not been compromised. I'd just lost my mind over the past couple of months! How hard was that to understand?
It was a necessary component of this trip, as vital as studying was to passing an exam, but I despised it with a fiery passion, especially when it meant spending cloudless mornings like this in front of the computer with my passport and credit cards. My plans for the day hadn't included combing the city for an Internet cafe with a printer and fax machine before I'd even had my coffee. I wanted to go to the beach today, but I'd dutifully altered my plans when I received the e-mail confirmation from the tour company in Peru last night.
A half hour after the fax confirmation was printed, I was in the middle of nowhere. Mladen had suggested I spend at least one day at the beach, but as far as I could tell there was nothing here except rocks and trees. Was this his idea of a joke? After taking the bus fifteen minutes outside the city centre, I was now wandering aimlessly in a dense forest bordered by sheer cliffs plunging into the open ocean. Was I missing something? Was there a thriving public beach somewhere nearby with parasailing and muscular bronzed lifeguards and kids peeing in the water? I didn't hear anything.
It was quiet here, though. And beautiful. Pula was like a smaller version of Rome - loud and chaotic at all hours of the day. The city never seemed to take a break, or give you one. Finding myself alone in the woods, without another soul in sight, I suddenly felt like I could breathe again.
I kept walking until the world opened up at my feet, the trees giving way abruptly to a hundred-meter drop into a vast expanse of royal blue. I followed a path down to the rocky shore and walked along the water. After a few minutes I came upon what I thought was a big rock, smooth and grey like the others. Then, as I got closer, I realized it was breathing. The horse inside of me snorted and took a couple of hasty steps back. I hesitated a beat, then made a broad circle around the thing, approaching it as a wild animal inspects an introduction to their environment they've never seen before.
Finally close enough to make sense of what I was looking at, I swore under my breath. I didn't even know they had wild seals in Croatia. At least I thought it was a seal. Maybe it was a sea lion. I didn't know the difference. I wondered if it was dangerous. It was probably three times my weight. I had no idea whether seals were more like bears or like deer. Should I be afraid? Should I run? He didn't seem too concerned with me. Indeed he let me get disturbingly close, interrupting his languid dozing only to lift his head for a moment, eyeing the dazed and confused creature standing not three feet away before apparently deciding I wasn't a threat and going back to his snooze.
Not knowing what else to do, I glanced around. Was this...normal? Should I get help? Could seals get beached? I didn't think so. That was what those monstrous flippers were for, wasn't it - to get in and out of the water? He didn't look weak or distressed....
I Googled Croatian seals later that day, in case I had to go back and help the poor beast, and got my answer. My 'he' turned out to be a 'she'. Adriana. She was a rare Mediterranean monk seal with a habit of sunbathing on Pula's beaches. The local aquarium was keeping tabs on her since monk seals are a critically endangered species, with an estimated 600 individuals alive today. So far she'd been spotted three times (four, now) and she wasn't afraid of people. Anyone who saw her was advised not to get too close or take any pictures, since monk seals are easily disturbed. Oops. I hadn't known at the time.
After I left Adriana I went in search of the aquarium. I'd seen signs by the bus stop that it was somewhere around here and thought maybe I could find someone to ask about beached seals. I walked for ten minutes, then twenty-five, then forty. I found nothing, and no one. The sun was hot. My side bag was heavy with the sunblock, bathing suit and beach towel I'd packed - naively, apparently. Sweat beaded my hairline and I started to get impatient. I needed to get back to the bus. I needed to find something to eat. I needed a bathroom. I needed....
My thoughts trailed off as the trees opened up again and I caught sight of the Adriatic glinting like sapphire in the late morning sunlight. The shallows coated the polished stones like glass. It looked cold. All of a sudden, I knew what I needed more than anything else in the world.
I made my way down to the water, dropped by bag on the rocks, slipped off my shoes and rolled my pants up past my ankles. When the waves swallowed my feet, I inhaled deeply against the impulse to catch my breath. My whole body buckled, and I lowered myself backwards onto the stones. I knew it was more than a physical exhaustion that was being soothed. I looked at my feet. They were more raw than I'd realized. I noticed blisters I hadn't known I had. I thought of the Machu Picchu trek that had just been confirmed, thousands of miles from here, and closed my eyes, lifting my face to the sun and breathing deeply.
I must have sat there for half an hour, grateful for no sound save the peaceful lapping of the waves. I let the cooling sensation in my feet travel up through the veins in my legs, spreading to my abdomen, my heart, my head, until a shiver cascaded the length of my spine. I felt a tickle on the bridge of my foot. Glancing down, I saw a tiny crab - about the size of a quarter - perched just behind my toe line. Ladies and gentlemen, I thought, we've got crabs. Time to move. I'd come a long, long way, and I had a ways to go yet. Now, though, I felt as if I could walk forever.
It was market day my last morning in Pula. Of course the local market is open everyday, but on Saturdays it swells to three times its normal size, overflowing into the parks and side streets. There's free samples of delicious Pag cheese and homemade sausage, antique venders selling authentic WWII helmets and cooks peeling potatoes to make something incredible-smelling in a giant communal pot. Refreshed from my visit to the beach, I was thriving in the bustling, festive atmosphere. I almost wished I could stay.
I spent an hour at a cafe milking a cappuccino (and the free Wi-Fi that came with it) to the last drop while I wrestled with a booking website that seemed dead-set against accepting any of my credit cards. Finally, I was lured out into the streets by a complaining stomach.
I had my last meal in Croatia at Osteria Kod Pjera, a casual eatery with red-and-white checkered tablecloths tucked away in a back corner of the central market. Strangely, it's not listed on TripAdvisor or any Lonely Planet publications. It should be. It was easily the best meal I had in Pula. There's a chalkboard listing the 'open' (by-the-glass) wines and beers available that day. They serve quality grilled meats, pastas and fresh seafood for half the price of the cheapest restaurants and trattorias in the city. And it's quick. Within minutes of ordering, my cevapi u lepinji hit the table, still steaming and dripping juice from the grill. The waiter had steered me toward it so many times I decided it had to be good. And it was. Hot, garlicky rolls of minced lamb served with onions and flatbread greased by the meat juices. Messy in the best possible way, it was quintessential hangover food. Glancing around for a reference, I noted that just about every local in the joint had ordered the same thing, and you were supposed to eat it with your hands. In that oh-so Croatian mentality of "if you can, you should", no knife and fork was provided unless you asked. With it, I drank Bambus, because it was my last day in Croatia and, really, it seemed only appropriate at this joint.
"Do you know what is Bambus?" The waiter checked when I ordered. I was nodding before the words were even past his lips. Several of the locals around me already had glasses of wine in front of them. I could see it wasn't a problem. Nothing like a 9:30AM buzz after trying to book a plane ticket or two.
Croatia may not have the kind of purist gelato you find in Italy, but it makes up for it with these wonderfully weird sundaes pictured on the menu cards of virtually every bar and coffee shop. I'd glanced over them countless times - spirals of ice cream piped to look like a bowl of spaghetti, scoops stacked to form snowmen with M&M eyes, and the classic Pinocchio Cup - a big ball of vanilla with a Pirouette-cookie nose and an upside-down waffle cone hat. They cost twice as much as my entire meal at Kod Pjera, but today I finally let myself have one.
I sat in the outdoor patio at Charley's near the central market. It seemed to be the local ice cream institution. There was a line at the window almost constantly, and the cone I'd had there the other day had been unrivalled. I ordered something called a Maja Cup. A kind of banana-split come bumblebee, it was three scoops of chocolate ice cream with a peeled banana bridged across its back, gummy stick antennae, Skittle eyes and halved-waffle-cone wings. Childish and frivolous? Perhaps. But it made me smile along with the live music I enjoyed it with in the square. They like country music in Croatia, too. I'm gonna miss this place.