All Around and Underground, part I

Before I continue with this entry, I want to talk about what happened in West last night. I found out about the explosion via Facebook shortly after I woke up this morning and couldn’t entirely believe what I was reading. This would have been bad if it had happened anywhere, but all the more so to me because it was so close to home—that, and one of the ladies in my office lives in West. I found out later that she went to her son’s house in Robinson the previous evening, praise God. But all day I’ve been thinking, “wow, West is so small, there’s no way she didn’t know at least some if not all of the people who died in the blast.”

Part of me doesn’t really know what to think about this. Part of me wants to be in Waco even though I know I can’t do anything. And part of me is thinking of an eerie coincidence: almost 20 years ago to the day was the explosion at the Branch Davidian compound. This was an accident, though, of course; that wasn’t. I don’t know how I would go about celebrating Diadeloso after something like that, though—maybe all of you at Baylor can fill me in later on about how they handled that.

One thing I do know, though. Our community response has been absolutely tremendous, and despite the severity of the tragedy it makes me proud to call Central Texas my home. Between the tireless response of the fire brigade through the night and into today, the prayer vigils on campus yesterday and this morning, the call for blood donations (which, I’ve heard, has been met with an incredible response), the supply donations, the countless churches in the area that have opened their doors to anyone needing shelter, and so much more, even from this distance I can see the solidarity in our community we too often forget is there shining through. God bless Texas, and especially the lives of those affected directly or indirectly by this.

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As I’ve alluded to in my previous entry, things have finally been getting interesting in Spain these last few weeks, enough so that in order to properly update you on everything that’s been going on, I’ve decided to divide this entry in two. This first part is about my trip to Croatia; the second will speak more generally about life in Santander these past few weeks.

Why was I in Croatia, you may be wondering? Spain, like the rest of the hispanophone world (as far as I know), celebrates Easter not just over a long weekend like we do at Baylor but over a period of about a week and a half, occasionally more. I’ve had it in my head that I wanted to spend Semana Santa in Croatia since learning I wouldn’t have enough time during my Eurocircuit with Elizabeth to hit the Balkans like I’d wanted to. No worries, I figured, I’ve got a week to do that later on. So, the second week I was in Spain, I booked my flights and my hostels and made all the arrangements I could in advance. Then I just had to wait. In retrospect, if I’d waited until closer to Semana Santa to make my plans, I probably wouldn’t have come on this trip due to the fact it would mean missing some important things in Spain in the meantime and due to the fact the next couple of weeks, I’ve learned as of yesterday, are going to be homework hell before I go to Valencia. But in my other life, I’m used to that. Being away, I quickly learned, was a breath of fresh air I hadn’t even realized I’d needed.

First, though, the juicy travel details. Dubrovnik is unreal. It’s a very small city, small enough that it’s literally impossible to drive a car through it due to the fact the roads aren’t big enough in many cases. I can walk across town, or at least the old city, in five minutes. It’s as stunning when it’s raining as when it’s not; when the sun is out, it glows. If you think I’m exaggerating, look at the streets—they’re made of something like marble. When I pictured Heaven when I was a little girl, it usually looked a lot like Dubrovnik.

I’m getting carried away, but you get the picture. Spring is a terrible time to visit the Balkans due to its proximity to the wet winter on the one hand and the hot summer on the other; reverse the order and you have peak travel time, otherwise known as October. The problem is, Semana Santa is in March/April this year, not October. It’s also cheaper to fly from Spain to Croatia than it is from Texas to Croatia. So because practicality sometimes wins out over perfection (if the whole world waited for the perfect time to do everything, nothing would ever get done), I swallowed my desires for sunshine and swimming in the Adriatic until I’m red as a cherry in favour of an excursions I might not have thought of otherwise, all brought to my attention by Dr. Ivo Novakovic, my World V professor last semester who happens to be from Croatia.

The day I arrived was one of only two days of good weather on my entire trip, so I did the walk of the city that day both in order to get acquainted with my home base and to take advantage of the good photography weather before it vanished during the night. Some of the results of that will follow. That night, I was reading and drinking tea when Michael, the owner of my hostel, darted out the door saying “I’m going to go get my holy on”—curious, I finished my tea and followed him a few minutes later only to find myself swept into the procession right along with all the natives. I shot a video of the procession but the free version of WordPress doesn’t support video, so I can’t upload it.

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Pile Gate, the main entrance to the old city. Also, naturally, where Dr. Ivo´s tour started.

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The Onofrio Fountain is fed by an underground spring and the water is safe to drink. This means that even when Dubrovnik has been under seige over the various centuries, the people living inside the city walls always had clean water.

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The Stradun, facing Sponza Palace. It’s not very long – maybe 250m – but it runs the entire length of the old city. You inferred correctly, the old part of Dubrovnik really is that small.

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The Cathedral. I love this shot.

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Look at that sky.

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Obviously not the same day, but this is the Stradun as well. This was the day before I left. Dubrovnik is just as beautiful in the rain.

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This is for Elizabeth. Those guys in the red – there were originally about twice as many, but they went around the corner when I took the picture – are all members of a Turkish soccer team. I think they were playing a practical joke or shooting a video or something, because at exactly the same moment every single one took out their phones and started tapping things with exactly the same rhythm.

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The Church of St. Blaise, where the procession I was in gathered for the Cardinal’s speech. This is the previous day.

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Streets of Dubrovnik by night.

The next day was slow. Even though I was up by 7:30, I took my time getting ready for the day, having breakfast and responding to e-mails before I did anything. Then, since it was not yet raining, I decided to go walk the city walls. A regret of mine from the previous day had been that I’d forgone some of the perfect  weather and half of Dr. Novakovic’s recommendations in search of a route up to the walls to watch the sun set, only to learn the next morning that the wall access point closes at 5:30. I also learned the next morning that I in fact completed the list of Dr. Novakovic’s recommendations on things to see—and in fact did so in the order he suggested—as I was searching for a route up the wall, though I didn’t know it until I looked at a map the next day. God is faithful. Also, the view of the city from the medieval guards’ vantage points is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and too incredible for words. I spent over two hours up there in the wind and rain and wouldn’t have had it any other way. Once again, though, I will let my pictures speak for me before I say anything else:

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One of many photos I took of the city from the walls. This was my favourite of the inside of the city.

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The outside of the old city and part of the wall.

I had a hard time getting started on homework that evening. The Lord eventually put me at ease about not doing homework on my vacation with the promise that I would finish everything I needed to, and well at that, which came to fruition this last Friday in typical God-always-does-what-he-says fashion. So I spent the remainder of the evening socializing with other travelers in my hostel, doing what I was supposed to and enjoying my vacation. The next day I spent touring the places Dr. Novakovic recommended I dedicate more time to, all in the absence of guilt about not doing homework. Apart from what I learned about Croatian history at the museums, I learned two other important things: 1. Dubrovnik is as stunning in the rain as it is in the sunshine, and 2. freedom, when justified, is a great feeling.

The next morning, I woke up a little earlier than usual to go to Montenegro. The town I went to was called Herceg Novi; when I arrived, it was raining, but within a couple of hours the day turned into the only full afternoon of sunshine I’ve had on this trip. The town is very small, and, like Dubrovnik, is a medieval walled city. There are a few key differences between the two, however, the most important being that either its last days as a tourist destination were sometime during the last century or it just isn’t open for business yet, as most of the attractions were not only closed but chained shut and surprisingly overgrown with greenery. The way I found into the city walls was also so buried I laughed a little when I finally found it.

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I basically came in from underground. Yes, literally through a hole in the wall.

As the streets on the rather humourous city map I bought were not marked, I spent my time there attempting to navigate by my own sense of direction. This, for the most part, served me quite well; toward the end of the day, when the sunny day turned to full-on blue skies for a bit, this allowed me to navigate the charming old city with less than an hour until my bus left and still feel like I was able to see everything. Before that, however, I did make one wrong turn that ended in an hour-long jaunt up a long, winding residential road that, at its end, had deposited me somewhere in the mountains above Herceg Novi around where the houses end and the foot trails through the mountains begin. When the road split, I turned around and walked back down. I’m still not entirely sure what kept me walking in the first place, but I do remember that the view over the Bay of Kotor would have been worth the visit in itself even if I hadn’t found the old town upon my descent.

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The plaza in front of the church where I had lunch. I can’t recall which church this is, but what I found interesting is the fact it was still flying a Serbian flag.

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Old town gate. Yes, it has been restored.

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Walls of the Stari Grad fortress I couldn’t get into.

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Another view of the underground gate from where I came in.

Following a pleasant conversation with a British couple on the tail end of a Balkan road trip, I arrived back in Dubrovnik rather tired but excited. The next thing I was planning on doing was going to Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a place I’ve wanted to go since I first saw the picture of the Old Bridge on the travel website I subscribe to years ago. When I attempted to purchase my ticket when we arrived back at the station, though, I was told a day trip wouldn’t be possible, as the bus would arrive in Mostar around 11:30 in the morning and the last bus back to Dubrovnik left an hour later. I pulled out the timetable I’d printed back in Spain and asked about it; it’s not valid until summer, I was told. In Spain, summer means after Easter. In the Balkans, though summer means actual summer, meaning apart from June. That must have been last summer. No worries. I’d ask again tomorrow, just to get a second confirmation, but if it came to it I would spend the night. There’s no way I was missing this; not even if the sky was falling, not when I’m already here.

Maybe I jinxed myself or something, because when I woke up the next morning the sky was falling. It was raining from the time I woke up; by the time I’d made it to the bus station it had turned into a monsoon. After getting off the bus a couple of stops too soon and having to walk, I arrived at the station with just enough time to get my confirmation that yes, I would have to stay in Mostar that night if I wanted to make this happen, to purchase my ticket, and to run onto the bus as it was leaving. Thankfully I’d travelled light: a change of clothes and some very basic toiletries in the little travel bag I’d bought in Prague and my raincoat. I bought an inexpensive umbrella on the road, which ended up being a highly necessary investment that lasted me exactly the length of my jaunt in Bosnia, then broke.

I was a little out of it when I got to Bosnia, having slept most of the way there. When I got off, I heard a couple of guys speaking English and mentioning the word “Internet,” so after failing to locate a travel agency where I could find a map, I asked them if I could tag along to find wifi. No problem, they said—we found wifi at a café within five minutes, only then to realize none of us had any Bosnian marks on us, which created another problem. I’d planned myself into this situation, though, which made the situation even better. Before I left for Croatia, I’d changed my travel flags on my debit card to be valid only in Croatia and Spain, meaning I couldn’t withdraw in Bosnia without triggering an alert and getting my card shut. Thus, I would have to convert the currency I’d already withdrawn. Alright, where could I do that? I asked the people at the money counter in the station. It took a while to find someone who spoke English, then I was directed across the bridge and down a ways to the bank across the river. It would take long enough to get there that it meant I should probably split with the two guys and take care of things myself, so they wouldn’t have to wait on me slash walk all that way through the swimming pool in the atmosphere. Thus, I wished them best of luck and went on my way.

Converting was easy, as was finding wifi; the café next to the bank had a great signal, and since there were still no travel agencies in sight I decided to use my Internet powers to find a hostel, figuring that would be my best bet for getting a city map. I found one easy enough; less than five minutes from the bus station, at that, and stellar reviews. Sold. Finding it was easy. When I walked in, I found the Australian guys I’d initially teamed up with on the wifi hunt being briefed by the hostel owner on places to eat. Hello, again.

I thought Michael was the best hostelier I’d ever met until I met Miran. Maybe they’re two entirely different species, I don’t know, but what I do know is that after surprising everyone with my unexpected appearance, Miran took the three of us (Simon and Rob, the two Australians I’d met before at the station, and myself) to a nice, authentic Bosnian place for lunch en route to pick his son up from preschool. He took us the long way so we would be able to see some of the city and told us about the war that was responsible for the many gutted, charred, bombed-out or pockmarked buildings we passed in the midst of historical landmarks and modern reconstructions both. Granted, he couldn’t stay, but he still drove us there, thus saving us one trip through the water. We walked back through it, though, in order to see what Miran was talking about with the Neretva running more than 5 meters higher than usual. I’ve never seen a flood before and was struck by what I saw. Another contrast to add on top of the others I’d seen.

We arrived back thoroughly soaked. The guys were tired enough that they slept for a bit; I wrote Luke to let him know I was alive and settled in for what I figured would be a slow afternoon. Lo and behold, though, less than an hour and a half later, the rain stopped. I couldn’t waste that, so I put my wet shoes on and headed out. Imagine my surprise when it doesn’t just stop raining, but in fact the sun comes out, lighting the city and giving some needed relief and warmth. My pictures are deceptive, though – mind you, within half an hour of when I stopped taking these, it was raining again, though I want to let the city of contrasts speak for itself before I continue.

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The view down the Neretva when the sun first came out. Notice how high the river is.

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The main mosque on the Islamic side of the river.

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The old streets of Mostar.

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Another view of the same street, this time with the famous bridge that first drew me to Mostar.

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A little closer to town, same street.

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Old bridge and the rushing water. And decades’ worth of signatories leaving their names on its walls.

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Guys, I’m not kidding about the flood. 

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The war and its memory are particularly salient in Mostar. Second to Dresden, Germany, Mostar is the European city that has been most destroyed by war.

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One of the main churches in the city – or what used to be, before the war, of course. This one was never re-built, and this tree struck me as a reminder of the aftermath of war.

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Notice the bullet shells. I think every other building in the city has them, maybe more.

Miran had mentioned earlier that he was planning on showing a war video at 9:00 that night, meaning when I arrived back a little after 7, there was a perfect amount of time to change and get dinner with my Australian friends before we settled in for the evening. It stopped raining when we left and started again when we arrived back. Somewhere during that time, Miran decided we were going to watch the PSG-Barça match before we watched the videos. The videos were from his family and every one of them had a story, the stories even more powerful because Miran and his wife, being about 35, were teenagers during the war and remember everything. It ended up being the most real thing I’ve experienced my entire time in Europe, and I wouldn’t have traded any part of it, not even the rain.

It was hard to leave the next day. Miran had taken a shining to me from shortly after I’d walked in the door and has invited Luke and I to stay for free when we come to that part of the world. All I can say in retrospect is I didn’t think the heart for eastern Europe I discovered during my time in Latvia in 2010 could get any bigger, but of course God has surprised me again with how much a heart after Him is capable of. I don’t know yet what this particular fire in my heart means, if anything, but don’t be too surprised if, a few years down the road, we end up there for more than a little while.

I’m glad my trip to Mostar came at the end of my time in the Balkans, because after that nothing could really compare. Getting back over the border was interesting: some serious diplomatic tensions between Turkey and Croatia (and, as I’ve since learned, many other states) resulted in our bus being held at the border because there were Turks on board. I pray they were able to get where they needed to go, or at least that they were able to get somewhere they could go, because they weren’t allowed into Croatia when we crossed. I arrived back with a heavy heart, though not a depressed one.  The last time I had that feeling was when I left Mendoza in July of 2011.

Now, of course, I’m back in Spain. Being back has been difficult: as I mentioned at the beginning, not doing my homework during my vacation meant I had a week of homework hell comparable to end-of-term at Baylor this past week, but I made it through. Friday, following the entregamiento of a 6,000-word survey of European Law written in Spanish, I had an incredible day of fellowship I will tell you about in part two of this entry; there’s more to both the good and the bad than just homework, of course, but if I wrote it all here, this entry would be as long as my survey. Part two to come soon—until then, peace be with you.

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