travelers-tales

By Lance Mason

Grand Prize Silver Winner in the Eighteenth Annual Solas Awards

Early August, 1970. Gearing down on the last hill, a quartz-white sun rising behind me, aiming the VW microbus onto the Bay of Kotor’s perimeter road.

Last week I’d farewelled Istanbul’s Golden Horn and the Old City’s bazaars, swung west and north though Greece, motoring up through Macedonia and Skopje. In a week I’d load the bus on a ship from Bremerhaven to California, but was detouring now up the Adriatic coast because, weeks before, some German friends in Köln had praised its beauty. So, I’d crossed the Kosovan passes near Pech, encircled by the fists of igneous, snow-strewn crags, and then wheeled down through Montenegro to Kotor.

Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro—republics or provinces then, not fragile, war-torn nations. For this was Yugoslavia, a chip off the Iron Curtain bloc, led by Josip Broz Tito, a political maverick and conjurer, a tango dancer among the apparatchik flatfoots of the USSR. From 1943 until his death in 1980, he ruled a united Yugoslavia by a mixture of governmental and militaristic legerdemain. Tito laced Muslim to Christian, Serb to Slovenian, student to soldier, fisherman to farmer, where centuries of friction, treachery, and war had shaped these groups’ histories. But their vendettas weren’t allowed to disrupt the reign of this chessmaster’s uneasy but successful peace. Then, after Tito died, the demons and dragons crept slowly from their hidey-holes, until, from 1991, a thousand tales of vengeance were loosed on the people. But that would come later, two decades after this, my first visit.

As the VW snaked along Kotor’s rumpled coast, passing teak-trimmed sailing ketches and white-hulled dories rocking in ripples along this stony coast, tavernas and pensiones rimmed the fjords and hillsides in the ivory light. Piney perfumes blended with a salt-sea breeze, and food shops poked out from under their red- or green-striped awnings. I parked the bus beside a postage-stamp church, bought orange juice from one of the shops, and breakfasted on cheese rinds and bread left from the previous afternoon.

In the coming days, I followed the seacoast north, through stony villages and farming plains,  to Ljubljana, leaving Yugoslavia over the Loibl Pass into Austria. The memories I took with me then were of alpine gravel roads around murderous curves, the charm of the Bay of Kotor under sunny, cloud-banked skies, women in black kerchiefs scything wheat by hand, and a thousand placid stares at a curious stranger.

~ ~ ~

In May 1996, I returned to the Balkans on an express, round-the-world holiday. I’d flown New Zealand-LA-Heathrow-Zagreb, then hopped a “commuter” bound for Split, farther south on the Croatian coast. A quarter-century will change any place and anyone, but, if you add a decade of vicious combat, stirred with a bitter vengeance, the present can seem as separate from the past as a tree trunk split by lightning—or by the rot of disease.

By the time of my return, the worst of the widespread Third Balkan War was over, and the worst of the warmongers on the run. Pax Tito was truly finished, with ten centuries of unrepented and unforgiven crimes reborn. While mechanized cavalry had played a cameo role in this war, the basic themes had been set by infantry, with house-to-house shootings, robbery, rape, and the burning of one’s enemies alive. It was a war of medieval cunning and modern Kalashnikovs, the AK-47, called by Wired Magazine the most critical piece of political technology of the era. It certainly changed the fortunes of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, turning many of them into killers and many more into corpses.

~ ~ ~

I was meeting a friend in Split. Tony, like me, was an immigrant to New Zealand, but, unlike me, he had fled Croatia in the post-WWII purge of anyone seen as a threat to Tito’s regime. I never discussed, and never discovered, how Tony may have fit into that picture, but now he was back for a long-delayed family visit. I was there at Tony’s invitation, but also because Yugoslavia had been the most wildly beautiful place I’d ever seen before New Zealand, and I wanted to see it again, despite—or perhaps because of—this war.

My first view of the evidence came as traffic wound around us near the center of Split. Sunlight was bouncing off the sea, a salt breeze sweeping ashore with the odors of fishing boats and nearby islands. Standing off an intersection was a cluster of shattered buildings. They didn’t look battle-damaged, more like an interrupted civic project—walls collapsed, rubble in piles, split foundations, pretzeled steel. A wrecking-ball could have done it all, throwing concrete dust up your nose. War, or just urban redevelopment?

Tony put me straight. Coastal artillery here and naval guns offshore had fought what became known as “The Battle of the Dalmatian Channels.”

If the first visuals in Split had any ambiguity, my second encounter froze me rigid. Tied up at the town’s marina, front and center at the gas dock, was an unmanned boat. This wasn’t one of Kotor’s sailing yachts or fishing smacks, but a squat, steel-hulled, low-cabined launch—a patrol boat?—nearly thirty feet, painted gray with white trim, a small Croatian ensign fluttering on the transom. Between deck-hatch and waterline, fifty to sixty rust-rimmed holes or thumb-size dents were sprayed across the hull and cabin on the side facing me. The vessel had been thoroughly raked by large caliber automatic-weapons fire. Any broken glass had been replaced and the bullet holes caulked, so she was probably back in service.

The physical aftermath of war creates a stage-set on which many myths can be built, but there were no myths here. People had died aboard this boat, or been damned lucky not to. Other people had tried to kill them, or succeeded. It was the first up-close testimony to death-by-warfare I’d seen, but not the most dramatic I would see.

I seemed the only one awed by this sight. By now the locals had seen death and destruction enough for a lifetime, and so paid it little mind. Yet other Europeans, regrettably,  didn’t yet share their view, for as alluring and inexpensive as the Dalmatian coast had once been, and was now again, tourists were staying away in droves.

~ ~ ~

Tony had come to the far-off Antipodes to escape Tito’s communists and whatever they’d had in mind for him. A big, dark man, six-two or -three, 100 kilos, wide-shouldered, and narrow-hipped even in his mid-sixties, he’d been a baker before bakers had machines. His strength was in his furry hands, arms, and upper body, built by years of throwing and kneading 20-pound hummocks of bread dough. Tony had built up and sold a profitable Australia-New Zealand baking concern, and always smelled of bath soap and men’s cologne. He smiled at the world through well-kept, white-picket teeth and bullet-like, onyx eyes under a black thicket of transplanted hair. You had the sense he could be as ruthless as necessary.

Tony was one of New Zealand’s many Dalmatian immigrants. Mostly from the coast near Markarska, south of Split, and the nearby islands, they came to New Zealand like most Europeans—to resurrect lives, to farm, to be part of the New World. They also came to mine amber, a prolific resource from the native kauri tree. Notably, over more than a century, the “Dallies” had made themselves the backbone of a respected New Zealand wine industry.

One noisy city morning Tony and I drove out of Split, headed into the interior. He wanted to show me some historical features of his country, and we took the road inland, a twisting, narrow, bleached-asphalt highway flanked by hills, fields, and farmhouses. Two hours in, we arrived at a place in open country where another road entered from our left. At the near corner sat a small two-story house, flat-roofed and mustard-colored, with a small balcony looking across the road. Out here, without adornment or homey decoration, it looked much like any low-to-mid-level house on the outskirts of a Western suburb. Except that it wasn’t. And its only neighbor lay opposite.

While the boat in Split showed somewhat sanitized evidence of a battle, these unrepaired houses testified that the whole site had been a free-fire zone, a brutally simple but bloody excursion into the depths of human menace. The small house’s wood-clad walls and balcony, facing the larger house, had been ripped by hundreds of machine-gun bullets and were splattered with their victims’ blood. Window glass was shattered or entirely missing. Logically, the house was abandoned.

This neighboring house across the road had been much grander, also two-story, but with a peaked, tiled roof, heavy beams and window frames, a hand-hewn wooden door, and flower boxes skirting the visible walls. The house itself was also pocked and perforated from automatic-weapons fire, but this escaped immediate notice because of a hole the size of a Fiat Bambino where the bay window should have been. Shattered bricks and wooden studs rimmed the opening, and the view through the yawning gap, as if through a spyglass, was of a small barn in the distance and scraggly fields of untended corn. The back half of the house had been gutted by the exploding tank shell that had entered from the front.

Incongruously, in a Fellini-like tableau, a small, sky-and-aqua-blue holiday caravan was perched on the front lawn of this larger house, directly in the line of fire. Criss-crossed by the close-order work of machine guns, it had holes poked inward through the aluminum siding facing the road, and puffs of fabric and insulation blossomed out on the side facing the house. We left the scene in silence, not knowing if any bullets had been stopped by humans inside.

~ ~ ~

Our road bent right from the tiny war zone, up a steep, stony defile between basalt, tree-scattered bluffs. The asphalt was ridged where tank tracks had chewed into it, armies climbing to higher ground. On the brow of the left cliff stood a round, medieval tower, a stone-walled cylinder, forty feet high and thirty across. Beside it was a modern white-on-green road sign reading “Drnc,” which Tony pronounced Der-nich. Beyond the tower lay the town and, cresting the grade, we got our first look at its ruins. Once a village, then a town, then a city, it was barely a settlement now.

Rolling slowly along the main street, the car seemed to park itself, so distracted were Tony and I by the sights of destruction. As we walked, our eyes were drawn to a building across the dismal street. The six-story office or apartment block now stood as a burnt-out box, its windows just open, carbon-lined squares fenestrating the scorched and cracked masonry rising upward from the footpath like a monument to hatred. It beckoned us forward.

I laid my hand against the blackened concrete wall, rough and cold, then bent my head through one of the former windows and looked up. Through a skein of rust-coated, twisted girders was the sky, nothing more. What had been lives, businesses, beds, desks, TVs, computers, jeans, dresses, dishes, and dreams of things we all have dreamed, or hoped to dream, were now just air and empty sky and rust and soot. Gasoline and diesel, armor and artillery, and men led by other men with brutal intent had been here and destroyed a pleasant, productive cube of human habitation for reasons no more rigorous, no more tangible than a difference of religious worship, and left behind the sight, taste, and legacy of death.

The few people we saw on the street were bent and scurrying, faces ahead or downcast, intent on completing their errands with dispatch, intent on disengaging from the misery that had descended on them. There was nothing in the air to persuade them that any pleasure awaited in the dingy cafés or bone-bare shops on the broken streets of their broken town. Children remained invisible.

Fifty meters along, we followed a footpath that turned left and opened into a square, a fountain at the center, dribbling and mossy, the shape of a meter-high mushroom, gray-green plaster in a shallow, plaster pool. It appeared untouched by the war, but, looking beyond the fountain, I saw more scars.

Off the square, an ocher, lime-washed building stood three stories high and parallel-sided, its facing masonry wall blank, except for a single, high window below a tiled roof and an Orthodox cross. From much lower on the wall, two zigzag lines of bullet holes, right and left, climbed upward, crossed through the shattered window, and stopped below the roofline. Broken blades of glass remained in the darkened hole.

Tony and I had discussed eating lunch in Drnc, but left instead, walking back to the car and driving slowly out onto a rural farming plateau. The area had once been a country haven, prosperous, and perhaps attractive to likewise prosperous city types who had built well-appointed holiday homes here on the outskirts. Several dozen of these lined both sides of the road, and all of them, like the large house with the trailer in the yard, had been gutted by tank artillery. How this happened Tony discovered quickly enough from questioning a young man to whom we gave a lift. Tony translated the story.

“These houses—part of the whole community, Croats and Serbs living together many years, even marrying. Then comes the war.”

Human history never seems to escape that phrase.

“Serb army comes first, looks for young men to join them. Croats run away, and young Serbs mark their houses. There.” He pointed with disgust to a graffiti-like “tag” on the front wall of one of the houses. “So Serb tanks explode them.” Next to the scrawl was a barrel-size hole, blasted through. Indeed, the backs of these houses were also blown out into the rear gardens and yards, with brick and timber and glass and clothes and toys and bits of furniture scattered about.

“Croats who run away join Croat army, come back. They know Serb houses, and”—he thrust at the air with an iron finger—“explode them!” It looked as though no house had escaped. A few were simply piles of rubble, but most showed just the one entry hole and the massive exit, as though each side wanted to punctuate the human damage they’d wreaked, the pain they’d caused.

Feelings of vengeance and division run so old and so deep, and the wounds so livid, that this Balkan War had led to street battles in Australia between Serb and Croat clans even though decades had passed since their grandparents had arrived. In New Zealand, a widow of one Balkan bloodline had barred relatives of another from her husband’s funeral. But here, in the old lands, a generation of children had known no life but war.

~ ~ ~

After two days in Split, our psyches recuperating from the shell-torn landscape, we went exploring again, north along the coast. The sea lay to our left like a sheet of pewter foil. Our borrowed car, a rust-and-white, fourth-hand Yugo hatchback, invited an abuse of metaphor: the motoring panache of a donkey in a steeplechase; the grace of an apple crate sofa in your parlor; the creative genius of an expired telephone book. The Yugo brand had been mired for years in the factory’s fruitless attempts to crawl out from under Iron Curtain hegemony into the daylight of modern car manufacture. Our example was an early martyr to those efforts.

Steering and gear-changing with as much caution as a junkie shooting dice, Tony drove us up to a coastal river mouth perhaps a kilometer across. Rather than take the ferry and continue north, we turned east, upriver, along the tree-lined southern bank. The flat, silent water slid past our gaze, curling with the bends in the river as we motored up and over the evenly spaced rises in the hilly country. Small, weedy parks wedged themselves onto triangular bluff-tops, and gravel-strewn turnouts allowed grandfathers and children to relieve themselves along bushy ravines.

A small and odd, but no doubt ancient, roadside trade appeared now and then—wooden carts or picnic tables stacked with cheese, fruit, and slivovitz, a clear, vitriolic, plum-brandy moonshine corked into recycled bottles of all shapes, sizes, and colors, all for sale. These seemed to be family enterprises, as they probably had always been. I bought a large round of cheese to take home to New Zealand.

Twenty or so kilometers passed before we saw a broad, shallow terrace stretched across the river, a rocky shelf half-submerged in the flow. This marked the top of the estuary and the end to an over-ripe, brackish odor. It would be all fresh water from here upstream. A twenty-meter-wide channel of swift but flat water ran between the near bank and the terrace, and the river’s bottom there was too deep to see.

“What do you think about some lunch, Tony?” I asked.

“Not far from here,” he replied. “Where I want to show you.”

We drove on, passing two more terraced falls, each with side-channels as before, and one large park—like a clearing—on the right-hand side of the road, with three or four houses along its bushy edge. Then, upriver on a slight rise, a large cube-shaped building rose above a background of scrub. Like most of the older constructions we’d seen, it was ocher lime-washed masonry with a few small windows. On its angled roof was another cross, Roman this time. From its block-like gravity, the place seemed more a cathedral then a parish church. The doors were iron-bound-and-bolted Yugoslav oak, three meters high, but still only a third the height of the whole structure.

Between the church’s bulk and a few public buildings and shops was fitted a small plaza with folding metal tables and chairs under Martini umbrellas. Tony and I found a cart on the square selling cold drinks, cheese, sausage, and bread, though none of the quality that an Italian or Spaniard would settle for. Still, it was what it was. We were in the shadow of a war whose causes were by no means forgotten or resolved, so even bread had not returned to normal—and mightn’t ever. We sat in the plaza under one of the umbrellas and ate our food.

Curiously, the village had a marina. From the design—concrete pillars, fingers, and pontoon slips behind a rock-and-mortar jetty shielding all from the river’s flow—it was perhaps thirty years old, and wasn’t short on boat numbers. I did a quick count of about sixty boats, ranging in size from five to fifteen meters, sail and power, wood-, fiberglass-, or steel-hulled. I only saw about ten empty slips.

Like the country houses around Drnc, this collection of pleasure craft suggested some wealth. The cathedral, if it was one, added to this feeling. The village, though remote and not showing much industry, appeared well-heeled, as well. It must have drawn seasonal holidaymakers and boat-owners, the open, riverside channels allowing boat access to the estuary and the coast. It seemed the lead-and-shrapnel bloodletting of the war hadn’t pushed into this district of Croatia. It seemed.

Yet something felt off. I’d begun sailing in graduate school in a weekend-and-holidays job tending, and later selling, small sailboats. I’d worked around marinas for a few years, and I’d shared ownership of a twenty-eight-foot day-sailer in Santa Barbara for a time. But something here, in this collection of boats in this far-off, fresh-water harbor, seemed to conflict with an otherwise quiet harmony.

Walking the jetty, I smelt the normal odors of fuel residues and damp rigging. Then I noticed that a large minority of the boats were poorly kept. Corroded fittings, paint heavily oxidized, and months of bird-droppings and wind-blown dirt gave them an appearance of complete neglect. I could see rust streaks on a few transoms where outboard motors seemed to be perishing from disuse. These signs were random, not related to position in the marina, as if an unseen hand had judged some boats to rot and some not.

Then I noticed the bottoms. The hulls of those boats that were in poor repair topside were overgrown below the waterline, thick with moss and algae, sickly blackish or dull olive-green. You always see a few boats poorly kept in any marina, owned by a small group who ignore upkeep. Yet there were more than a few here—not half, but close. I called over to Tony, who had strolled along from the plaza. I knew him to be fastidious about his own belongings.

“What gives here? Why are so many of these boats looking like shit?”

He gazed around the small harbor, nodding at what I’d seen, then moved his eye away, to the cathedral, the town square, and into the surrounding hills. “Serb boats,” he said. “Serbs—they don’t come back. Maybe dead, maybe not. Nobody here help them. Nobody want them, let them rot.” His last comment had more than one meaning. Let them rot—meaning the boats or the Serbs. Or both.

So no one here in this Croatian valley wanted anything to do with Serbs or Serbian possessions—boats, cars, even damaged houses. Land, that was a different matter. The land had always been here, and ownership or control had always been a source of ultimate importance, of power, survival, of unending disputes, ethnic claims, and warfare. By contrast, movable possessions came and went with the economic and political tides. Better not to attach oneself to the enemy’s possessions, lest you become attached to the enemy.

Maybe things were beginning to fall into place. By Tony’s account, the chaos of Balkan history is illustrated by the dozens of languages still used in the region and by the contrasts of its conquerors’ alphabets—Greek, Roman, Arabic, Cyrillic. “We” could not fathom the convolutions of the modern Balkans War because “we” have no grasp of its history. Most wars are the collision of contrasts—white men in silver jets vs. yellow men in black pajamas, Polish horses vs. Aryan machines, worshipers of Mohammed vs. worshipers of Christ. The Balkans, though, had hosted a smorgasbord of civil wars, with the various camps, alliances, and enmities so entangled and confusing to “us” that Srebrenica could be one of the outcomes.

~ ~ ~

On a cream-yellow morning, I said goodbye to Tony and left the former Yugoslavia a second time. The Kosovo War had not yet erupted, but the stone bridge at Mostar, having survived churning battles for five hundred years, had been destroyed (and would later be rebuilt). Farm fields I’d seen harvested in the past by hand were now posted with skull-and-crossbones signs reading “LAND MINES!” Exhaustion from guns, bombs, and shellfire had brought a relative quiet, but one that few old Yugoslavs would have called peace.

Even within Tony I’d seen a murky conflict that had a paradoxical clarity. He’d been long enough away from the internecine hatred to see its insanity, yet he’d lived his younger life in its grasp. His younger brother, I’d learned, was on the run, and the rest of his family was still trapped in the spawn of ethnic and regional turmoils that never seemed to die. As wonderful a home as he’d found in New Zealand, his seeing the face of war again in the place of his birth worked like an acid on the fastenings to his new life. He’d leave Croatia with many new wounds among the old scars.

I flew out to Frankfurt, bound for New Zealand by way of Singapore. In my bags was the kilogram wheel of cheese I’d bought from a riverside cart, intended as a gift for some New Zealand friends. About a month later, I asked Lenore about it.

“How was that Yugoslav cheese I brought you?”

She looked a bit sheepish. “Well,” she said, “it looked a little moldy around the edges, so I tossed it out. Was it important?”

Apparently not.

~ ~ ~

Raised in rural California, Lance Mason earned his BSc from Loyola University and his doctorate from UCLA, and taught at UCLA, Otago University, and Federal University, Natal, Brazil. His writing has appeared in 30+ literary journals and collections, and his collection of travel memoirs, A Proficiency in Billiards, was published in 2016. Mason has spent 20+ years exploring, living, and working overseas, traveling by foot, bicycle, motorcycle, tramp steamer, plane, train, and dugout canoe.