|Picture this: Overnight bus to a place you have never been. You hardly sleep at all, and then in the bright light of early morning you are greeted at the station by a Croatian windsurfer named Darko. This is not the beginning of a weird movie. This is my life.
I stopped briefly in Rijeka from Krk before making the eight hour journey to Split, which would mark the beginning of my adventures in Dalmatia. Dalmatia is the region on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, spreading between the island of Pag in the northwest and the Bay of Kotor in the southeast.
Before I left for my trip, I sent an email to several people asking for advice on places to go and people to meet. My friend Mike came forward and told me he had stayed in Split last year and while searching for a place to stay, met Darko.
It is very common to get off a bus or train in Croatia and get bombarded by old women holding signs saying "Sobe" on them. This is the Croatian word for room, and renting one is often very cheap (around $20-$30/night) and gives one a true view of Croatian life. Mike said he had been approached by a woman with a sign and she did not speak English so it was hard to communicate, but she had a grandson who did. And that grandson was Darko, who ended up renting a room to him and gave him countless tips on where to go and what to do around Split for the duration of his stay. A year later, they still keep in touch and Mike felt comfortable enough with him to have him be my contact person there.
So there I was, finally meeting Darko in the parking lot of the bus station. He looked like a windsurfer, with his blonde hair pulled back in a pony tail and his skin brown from the sun.
He greeted me warmly, grabbed my bag, and asked me about where I had been in the world while we walked down the narrow street to his building. We talked about my stay in Kenya, and he told me he went to Nigeria once and while he was there an old man tried to force his daughter to have sex with foreignors in exchange for money. She was very young and crying. Darko said he can't stand to see a girl cry, so he bought her but only to save her, and never touched her once. He would have her cook and clean occasionally but she slept on the bed and he slept on the floor. All the while he tried to think of ways to bring her back to Croatia to free her from the brutal conditions she was forced to live in...
I was trying to take it all in. As bizarre as it may have been for some people, I basked in the moment with a strange sense of accomplishment. These are the people who make life interesting, I thought. If I were not traveling alone, would I have really opened myself up to such characters? No, I thought. Traveling alone is a beautiful thing. Once you get through the first bout of loneliness and accept it, life is brilliant. Life was brilliant at that moment, walking down the narrow street with my new friend Darko.
We finally got to his apartment, which was in a fairly run down building. Upon entering it, I wondered what the room would really look like. It seemed a little dark and a little dreary. But then he unlocked the door to my room and it was beautifully decorated in deep reds and warm pink and orange colors, with a built-in bookcase, new wood floors and a big window. I had to share a bathroom with him, but I didn't mind. His room was across from mine, and was where he kept his life. It was average in comparison to mine, a clear sign that he poured anything extra into making sure his guests always feel comfortable. He had a fold out bed/couch thing, a kitchen area, his computer, a ton of windsurfing gear and an area for his clothes all in a space about half the size of my studio. If any of you know what my studio is like in Chicago you would understand what I am trying to describe (my place is probably 400 square feet).
At any rate, he had kept my room free for me the night before so that I could sleep after my long journey, yet didn't want to be paid for it. The rate was cheap per night, so I handed him money for the two nights I planned on staying, plus extra for the night before. I couldn't just ignore the fact that he had lost rent for a night because of me. From what I understood, renting out the room is what enables him to do what he loves: travel and windsurf. I wanted him to be able to do what he loves.
I slept for a couple of hours just to gain a little energy and then headed into the main part of town, which wasn't far from Darko's place. Split is the second largest city in Croatia and is really more of a cultural center than a beach resort. The main attraction is Stari Grad (Old Town), which is wedged between a high mountain range and a palm-lined waterfront. This area is framed by a palace where Roman emperor Diocletian spent his summers. In the 7th century, the local Illyrian population fled to the palace to escape the attacks of marauding Slavs and built a town, incorporating the walls and arches of the palace into their houses and public squares. Today, these walls still stand and hundreds of shops, cafes, and residences are nestled within the palace ruins.
The weather was a bit dreary, but when I entered the city walls for the first time I stumbled upon an open-air fruit and vegetable market with enough bright colors and amazing scents to compensate for the gray sky. I spent the day walking around within the city walls, going in and out of shops and even underground for a tour of the palace basement. It rained off and on throughout the day, so I checked my email at one point and learned that my British friends from Ljubljana had stopped in Split the night before only to grab the next ferry to Hvar Town on Hvar Island. They were there and would wait for me. Once I started thinking about the islands again I knew my time in Split would have to be cut short. I would leave the next morning on the 10:00 ferry to Hvar.
Breaking the news to Darko was hard. He came home around 8 PM or so, beers in hand, ready to show me the town at night if I wanted. I was tired though, so I settled for beer and conversation in the confines of the apartment. We talked for hours, and although he was disappointed I would be leaving early, he understood the traveling way...one must always follow their gut for clues about the next adventure. I would let him keep the money for the following night, though that was hardly a concern for him. He just enjoyed the company. He does not have family of his own. He has the apartment, the friends he meets because of it, and windsurfing. He said when he feels sad or alone, life on the water makes it all go away...
The next morning I said goodbye to Darko and promised to keep in touch and send anyone else I meet who is traveling to Split his way. "For that," he said, "I will be forever grateful."