The thing about traveling is you learn to roll with the punches.
Flight delayed? No problem. I’ll just go to the bar, grab a nice glass of red wine.
Flight canceled? Well, ok. I will get on the phone and re-book on another flight if the airline doesn’t do so for me. I’ve even slept in an airport (pre 9/11) to catch a flight the next morning.
Basically, I have learned you just do what you need to do to make it from Point A to Point B.
However, sometimes, there is only so much you can do. In reality, it is up to others most times to get you to your final destination.
Never has this rang more true than during my stay in Zadar.
After wandering through the old city, I stopped back into the internet cafe to check my e-mail one last time and then planned on catching a cab. I asked the girl at the cafe where I could catch a ride back to my Sobe and she told me I could do so on the other side of the foot bridge from the old city. I walked across the bridge, grabbing some amazing grilled corn from a street vendor on the way (I was starving and had not eaten since the feast Amy and I had earlier at Plitvice). When I got across the bridge, there were no cabs. There was little activity going on at all. So, I stopped in to a restaurant and asked how I could get home.
“You will need to take the bus,” the server explained. “It is just up there. But, you have to hurry. It’s the last one tonight.”
With a new sense of urgency, I tossed the grilled corn that served as my dinner and booked it “just up there” (funny, no one ever really tells you exactly where, it’s always “just down there,” “or go a little and it will be there,” etc.). I got to the bus stop and looked at the map against the tagged plexiglass wall. It was a myriad of roads with large numbers overlayed, separating the city into numeric sections. I pulled out my map for reference, trying to make sense of it.
I figured out I needed to get on Bus 1. But, where to get off the bus to walk back to the Sobe? I had no clue.
Luckily, a girl was at the stop with me and she spoke a little bit of broken English. I showed her on my map where I was going.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I will take you there.”
So, we boarded the bus, and when it was time to get off, she got off with me, asking me to pull out the map again.
She looked at the map. Looked around at where we were. Looked at the map. Looked at me.
“Sorry,” she said. “I don’t know where you are going.”
I was about to get snappy with her. It was past midnight. I was exhausted. I was sad. I was, now, apparently, LOST. But, I stopped myself. She didn’t need to help me in the first place. The fact that she even tried was enough for me.
We stood on the dark street for a few moments while she tried to figure out where I was going. I took stock of my surroundings. When I am traveling I try to be acutely aware of where I am. Being a solo traveler and a female isn’t always the safest thing. I looked around me — a large apartment complex covered in graffiti. Homes with their lights off. A boy riding his bike.
The girl stopped the bike rider, asking him where I was going. He didn’t know either.
“I’m sorry,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and handing me the map. “I can’t help you.”
And she walked away, leaving me alone on the sidewalk, in the middle of an empty Zadar neighborhood. I had no idea where I was going. Nothing looked familiar, even though hours earlier the Sobe owner had pointed towards the bus stop that was nearby. I took another survey of my surroundings and had no choice but to just start walking.
There is such a feeling of panic that rushes over you when you are alone, in the middle of the night, in a strange and foreign place, with no phone, no resources, nothing. I fought back tears for the second time that night, and just began walking in the direction I thought seemed right.
About a block away was a bar. I wiped away the few tears I had shed and headed in, hoping someone there could help me. The bartender, fortunately, spoke English and understood my map. He walked me outside and explained the Sobe was in this area (the girl has been correct), but he wasn’t sure precisely where, so I just needed to do a loop around and I would find it.
To express my appreciation, I bought him a shot of Jack Daniels, we toasted to finding my way, and then I headed to the Sobe. It turns out it was not even a block away. In daylight, I would have been able to see a direct path from the bar to where I was staying.
With much relief, I turned the key to my room, happy to have a room to myself and some quiet time to unwind. I pulled out my Croatia book and decided to map out what the rest of my trip held. I should have known the only thing for certain would be my eventual stop in Dubrovnik, but for the moment, it let me have some peace of mind.
I slept in the next morning. I think I was making up for the hour of sleep the night before, coupled with the hours of hiking through Plitvice. I let the Sobe owner know I wasn’t going to be staying another night, packed my bag and headed for the bus stop. This time, I knew where I was going.
I checked my bag at the bus station and then walked back into the old city, taking a couple of hours to explore the old city. While I liked Zadar, I was still in a funk and wanted desperately to be over it. I decided it was time to head to Split and get into the beaches and islands. I went back to the bus station and purchased my ticket to Split.
I had a few minutes before the bus left, so I walked over to the bus at terminal 15 and waited patiently to board. The area was flooded with teenagers, all sitting and talking and flirting with each other. I had my bag next to me, and they dogged it as they circled the bus doors, waiting like vultures to get onto the bus and get a seat. When the bus driver finally opened the doors, the teens herded onto the bus. I waited patiently. I had an oversized bag and it needed to be checked. Only, the bus driver never came to check it. I thought it odd, but brushed it off.
I was the last person on the bus and sat next to a teen, placing my bag in the aisle. I was the oldest person on the bus. Another odd observation, but brushed it off after I showed the girl next to me my bus tickets and she nodded her head that I was on the right bus.
We headed out of Zadar, the sun pushing through the curtains on the right side of the bus as we made our way down the coast. After about 20 minutes, the sun shifted and was no longer being shuttered by the curtains, but was instead behind us. I looked out the window and saw mountains and farms and roosters and stone huts pass us by.
OK, I thought. Clearly, I am on the bus to Split that meanders through small towns and eventually gets me to the city. I knew there were two buses that took people to Split, one that took three hours and one that took longer because of its stops through towns. I assumed I was on the longer bus ride.
When only a few people remained on the bus, I started to grow concerned. I got up and walked to the bus driver, asking him if he spoke English. He did not, so instead, I simply asked “Split?”
He looked at me, confused, and said “No.”
“Zadar?” I asked, my heart starting to race.
There were only a few people left on the bus. Where were we going?
He called in Croatian, asking if anyone spoke English. A boy stood up and walked to the front of the bus. I showed him my ticket.
“This is not the right bus,” he said, speaking quickly with the driver.
“What?” I asked, panic rising in my voice.
The bus came to a stop.
“You get off here and he will come back in an hour and get you.”
I looked outside. Mountains. Farms. A stone bench with roosters running around.
“No,” I said. “No, no, no. It’s ok. I will stay on the bus and wait.”
And with that, the remainder of the passengers disembarked, leaving me and the driver on the bus as it continued. To where, I had no clue.
I walked back to my seat and collapsed into the dirty upholstery, leaning my head against the seat in front of me and just letting the tears flow. For the first time in a long time I had absolutely no control.
I didn’t know where I was, where I was going. I had thought about hitching back to Zadar, only I hadn’t even seen any cars during the drive out to the country. I had been so excited to continue my journey, and now it seemed I was stuck in this purgatory. On a bus. Heading …somewhere.
I sat in the seat, feeling sorry for myself until the I heard the bus driver, “Hello. Hello,” he said, looking into his giant mirror, gesturing me to come up to the front of the bus. I took my sleeve to my face, wiping the tears, adjusting my sunglasses, grabbed my belongings, and walked to the front of the bus, sitting across from him.
The bus driver was an older man, his short gray hair and gentle wrinkles made him look kind. His toothy grin was reassuring, nearly banishing my fear of being left in the middle of nowhere. He was on the phone with someone, looking at me from time to time.
We came to a stop at a fork in the road in front of an old stone building. One way was the main road, the other led up a hill, towards a few scattered homes. “OK,” he said, waving his arm towards the door. He walked down the stairs and onto the road, expecting me to follow after.
In America, I would have never done what I did next. But, in Croatia, it just seemed different. I got off the bus, him shutting the doors and locking my belongings in the bus as we exited, and followed him up the hill and to a house. We climbed the stairs, me following unsure after him, and went inside.
I was greeted with smells of dinner wafting through the air, and the sound of a television playing in the background. He began speaking to someone, and led me into the kitchen and then the living room. To meet his son.
I introduced myself to his son, whose name escapes me, and timidly sat down at the dinner table after he set me a plate. The bus driver and his son chatted for a few minutes, and when the driver and I sat down, he ladled me some soup while his son poured my cherry juice.
We sat in near silence, except for the driver’s occasional chuckle at my mishap. I looked at the dinner displayed before us. Meat. Red meat. In real life, I don’t eat red meat, but in this instance, I had no choice but to be a gracious guest and eat and pretend to love it. As I ate dinner, I couldn’t help but smile at my situation. I had no idea where I was, crossing paths with someone I never expected, and was being taken care of by someone who owed me nothing. It wasn’t my ideal situation to be in — I would have much rather been arriving in Split — but here I was, overwhelmed by the kindness of this stranger.
After dinner, he and his son moved me to the living room, where he poured us coffee and put out cookies for us to snack on.
“My father will work everything out for you,” his son said. “He will call the bus station and tell them what happened and then take you back to Zadar and make sure you get on the right bus.”
“Hvala,” I said, bursting with appreciation. “Hvala. Hvala. Hvala.” If there was one word I knew in Croatian, it was “thank you.” And in this instance, I made sure to say it as much as possible.
Sure enough, the driver called the bus station and told them what I had done — I looked at the seat assignment instead of the terminal number. After an hour, which I could only assume was the kind driver’s dinner break, and calling my hostel to tell them I would be late for check-in, we got back on the bus and headed back to Zadar.
As we sped through the winding roads, he would look at me from time to time, smiling and shaking his head at my blunder. And, when we made it back to the bus station, he grabbed my bag, hauling it to the information counter and exchanging my ticket for me.
“Here is your ticket,” the lady at the desk said. “You get on at terminal one, not your seat number. You understand?”
I hung my head and said yes. I could feel the color rising in my cheeks.
I walked up to the driver, who was chuckling with the people working the ticket counter and tried to slip him 20 KN, which he declined.
“Hvala,” I said with so much love behind my words.
I walked towards the right bus, stopping at a bistro to grab a beer. I sat there for a few minutes, keeping a hawk-eye on the bus that was to take me to Split.
The driver came up to me as I sat at the bistro, offering me his hand to shake and then pointing towards the correct bus.
All I wanted to do was hug him. I had never, in my life, experienced such kindness. Here was a man, a complete stranger, who cleaned up my freshman travel mistake. And while I do not have a photo of my time with him, or recall his name, he is a person I will forever remember for showing me that people like him do exist. He is my living proof that there is such thing as relying on the kindness of strangers.
Three hours after boarding bus 15, I was on bus 1, headed to my original destination of Split. As we departed Zadar for the second time, said a silent “thank you” to the driver, my heart warm and my mind exhausted.