Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Live from Montenegro: People Are Good

I thought my goose was finally gonna be cooked in Montenegro yesterday morning.  It wasn’t the scariest travel situation I’ve ever been in, but it was among them.  Here’s what happened:

Monday night I set off from Kosovo on a bus bound for Montenegro, a small, mountainous country situated on the Adriatic coast between Bosnia–Herzegovina and Croatia to the north, and Albania to the south.  My best option was an evening bus that left Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, in the evening, and would arrive in Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital, sometime around 4:00 a.m.  My plan was to wait at the bus station in Podgorica until dawn, and then catch the first bus out in the morning to Kotor, a coastal town on the Bay of Kotor with an old stone city and a strong Venetian influence.

The ride to Montenegro was—in a word—horrible.  It was mostly mountainous, particularly in the western part of Kosovo and into eastern Montenegro.  At one point we rode a long series of severe switchback roads that had me both nauseated and afraid for my life.  It was dark, so I couldn’t see much out the window.  But I could see enough to know that we were way high up in places that had no guardrail to keep us from rolling straight off the mountain’s edge.

There was one saving grace.  Seated behind me on the bus were two Americans—a young man and woman traveling for ten days in the Balkans—who, hands down, were the warmest and friendliest travelers I’ve encountered in these parts.  They’re both from New Jersey and are now studying medicine in Israel.  We got to chatting, and it wasn’t long before I realized just how sorely I miss talking to other Americans—people who get certain things immediately; context and whatnot.  For the first hour (but probably more like two) I talked and talked, in my usual, blatherskite fashion, at times spilling personal thoughts that surprised even me.   Sometimes I’d interrupt myself and apologize for not shutting up.  I’d say things like, “Okay, I’ll turn around and stop talking now.”  But they genuinely didn’t seem to mind the chatter.  At least that’s what they told me, convincingly. 

Kosovo exit stamp.
Though the seat was totally uncomfortable for such a thing, somehow I managed to drift off into a deep sleep.  But this was short-lived, as sleep was constantly interrupted by border stops and dirty-bathroom breaks.  I must have been awakened every hour or so.  I remembered reading once that prisoners are sometimes tortured by intermittent sleep interruption, and I was beginning to see how such a tactic could work.  By the time the Montenegrin border guard came on board to inspect my passport, I was practically delirious from weaving in and out of consciousness.

Four a.m. rolled around and the bus driver announced that we had reached Podgorica.  I gathered my things, whispered goodbye to my new friends from America, and exited the bus, expecting to be at a bus station.  But there was no station—just a completely desolate city street.  

The bus driver was standing outside the bus, and I hurried toward him, panicking.  “Where’s the bus station?” I asked, breathless.  He pointed to somewhere in the distance, and then sliced the air with his hand a few times in the same direction, indicating that I would have to walk some ways to get there.  At the same time, a tall, middle-aged man driving an unmarked car approached and offered a taxi. 

I had told the bus driver earlier that I had planned to take another bus to Kotor, and now the bus driver seemed to be telling this to the taxi driver.  Finally the bus driver turned to me and said, “Kotor bus 6:00 a.m.  He can take you to station.”   The bus driver then got back on the bus and took off, leaving me standing all alone on this dark street with the taxi driver and two other strangers—a couple of young men who had also gotten off the bus with me.

My eyes quickly took in the surrounding streets—there was no activity anywhere; no one in sight.  And I knew that all three of these guys knew I was:  a) alone; b) in transit; and c) probably carrying all my money and valuables on me.  I stood there for a moment, feeling completely fucked.

The taxi driver said, “I take you to bus, free.”  Now I had an immediate decision to make.  I don't like to get in taxis alone at night, especially in towns with which I'm not yet familiar.

It was hard to think fast through the fear and sleep deprivation.  And worse:  suddenly voices in my head began to crowd my already-fogged mind.  The cynical voice screamed:  Nothing is free!  He’ll probably try to take you somewhere else!  The pessimist said: Maybe something even worse is around the corner; like a gang with knives.  The master-of-the-obvious pointed out:  You don’t know where the bus station is; you don’t have a map of Podgorica; and there’s no one around to ask.

I didn’t like what any of these voices had to say.

I decided to go with the Devil I knew, so I told the taxi driver, “Yes, thank you, I’ll go to the bus station.”  He gestured for me to put my backpack in the back seat.  I sat down in front and closely examined the door handle that would be my escape in the wake of any false move.  I was starting to feel okay about the situation.

But then, the driver began to talk with the two guys who had also gotten off the bus.  They had been standing on the sidewalk next to us with their duffel bags on the ground.  A flurry of foreign words were exchanged, after which the two men approached the car, intending to get in too.

Shit! all the voices in my head screamed, in unison.  Now I would be in a car with not one, but three, strangers; all men.  I grabbed my backpack from the back seat and put it on my lap in front while the two guys settled into the back.  For a moment I considered aborting the plan and getting out, but then what?  I knew I had no good options.  It was time to trust.  And pray. 

The car started to roll, and the weirdest sensation came over me.  It was like a calmness; a readiness for the worst.  I’ve always told myself that I wouldn’t let fear of harm keep me from traveling, and now I was in a situation that would test those words.  I thought about the places I’d seen, the people I met, the things I had done, and just braced myself for what lay ahead.

The Podgorica bus station.
Turns out, what lay ahead was the bus station.  The taxi drove for about four minutes, down some long, empty streets, and then I saw it--the Autobuska Stanica--in the same vicinity in which the bus driver had pointed.  The lights were on, buses were ready to roll out front, and a couple dozen people were milling throughout. 

The taxi driver pulled up to the station and began to say goodbye.  He intended to let me out without charging me, just like he said.  

I wanted to throw my arms around him and kiss him.  I wanted to tell him how grateful I was.  I wanted to cry from relief, right there, in the front seat of his taxi.

I knew I had only large Euro bills in my zippered wallet, and now I was clumsily fishing down in the bottom of my daybag for stray Euro coins.  I pulled a 1 € coin out—the equivalent of $1.45—and offered it to him.  I knew his humanity was worth much more than that, but at least it would cover some of his petrol cost.

I bought the ticket to Kotor, 8 €, leaving at 5:55 a.m.  This time it was a packed mini-bus.  For two hours we rolled through more switchback-mountainous roads while the young driver alternated between talking with friends seated behind him and sending text messages on his phone.  At first it bothered me, but I decided to relax and let it go.  Daylight had come, I was in beautiful Montenegro, and I had lived another day to tell about it.  Life is good, I thought, just like the pink, fuzzy socks in my backpack have been telling me these last months on the road. 

And, as I learned once again, People are good, too.