One of the interesting aspects of traveling, at least for me, is the unique way you often arrive at your next destination. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to take trains and buses whenever possible. You will undoubtedly see a great deal more and the thrill of traveling is more visceral as a welcomed frenzy seems to dance in your bones. You feel as though you’re in the trenches, earning your stripes by hitting the unfamiliar road; at least more than you might soaring through the sky at 600 mph. Even the quality of one’s thoughts pivot towards a deeper introspection and a reverence for the uncertainty that lies ahead.
Still, there are times when the journey within the journey is so trying you lose sight of the purpose. Time seems to stand still, mocking you along the way, as the proximity to strangers with similar plans starts to wear on you. Today was such a day.
"All’s well that begins well" is an adage I’ve heard a number of times. I’m not exactly sure who coined the phrase, but I think the proverb can be misleading.
For instance, this morning I left my apartment in Mostar at 8:45 am and walked to the bus station in just 10 minutes. I was the only customer within a city block and started to imagine myself spreading out in the empty row of a nice cool bus.
I approached the counter and asked for a ticket to Dubrovnik. The agent looked at me as though she’d expected me to say those very words. She told me there was a bus scheduled for 10:15 am, which I already knew from looking online. She then implied that the bus was fully booked though I wasn't completely sure. What was certain was the sudden sense of unease that poured over me as I thought about what to do next.
Just as I considered what do for another night in Mostar, she asked me to wait a moment as she do-so-doed between her computer screen and telephone. I watched as the room slowly filled with other customers as she typed furiously, negotiating away as if she were talking someone down a ledge, or lifting an embargo. Eventually, she handed me a ticket for Dubrovnik as I handed her the money, still half-convinced the whole show was a ruse.
I waited for the bus at gate 6 like she instructed and was surprised by how sparse the station was. I thought for sure people, young and old, would be clamoring for the chance to travel to one of the world’s most beautiful destinations, now within reach just a few short hours away. My theory was proven right as a mob of at least twelve 20-something year-olds from Belgium swarmed the stop. Everybody wants to go to Dubrovnik, I thought.
Soon the bus pulled up as the frenzy I anticipated was never quite realized. Everyone was cordial, patient, and boarded the bus in an orderly way. It was the exact opposite experience I’d had just two years before as I hopped on a caravan in Beijing with my friend Dan headed for the Great Wall. Chaos ensued as people shoved, jostled, screamed, and forced their way onboard. It felt like trying to leave an island just moments before it would all be submerged.
Somehow we all managed to find seats. All seemed well until it wasn’t. The bus was packed to the brim and similar to my bus ride from Nis to Belgrade, it had no ventilation system. Sweat poured down the brows of every passenger in sight as I heard a chorus of sighs and the flapping of Asian fans as I wondered where they got them.
My heart broke for a young mother who tried desperately to keep her baby boy from crying as passive aggressive stares veiled her. When I didn’t feel helpless I felt angry at people who thought the screams of an exhausted child drenched in perspiration was somehow part of this woman’s elaborate scheme. If you’re not going to help her than leave her the hell alone, I kept thinking.
The bus stalled out 4 times in between the infinite number of passport checks. How many borders are there in Croatia? I wondered. As we inched closer, I texted Danko, my AirBnb host whose father graciously agreed to pick me up at the city port:
Hey Danko, I really don’t want to keep your father waiting. I’m happy to take a cab. He’s probably busy. I think we’re close but I feel bad we’re running about half an hour behind.
He responded by saying:
Do not worry, he is in town…he will drive you:)
To prolong the delay, we took a break at a rest stop. Why we weren’t just forging ahead when we were already so close confounded me. As I stood alone gazing towards the road just traveled, a young man who was also on the bus approached me and we struck up a conversation.
His name was Bart and he looked to be in his early twenties. He was part of a tour group arranged by a nonprofit organization in Belgium. I told him how I’d visited Antwerp several years before as we traded notes on travel and careers. “What’s it like being an actor?” he asked. He seemed fascinated by it all. “How much time do you have?” I wanted to say. Instead, I offered some versed response that danced between how rewarding it could be and the challenges of a pursuit draped in solitude and rejection. In the end, I gave him my contact information and we promised to stay in touch.
Soon it was time to get back on the bus. As we weaved through winding roads we began dropping off passengers at various stops along the way. The caravan was slowly thinning out as we flirted with the Adriatic Sea, now within a few meters of the clear blue water after descending from the high mountains. It was excruciating as we zipped past sunbathers and swimmers basking in the sun. They may as well have been flipping us the bird. Never in all my life had I wanted to dive into the ocean so bad.
Eventually we arrived at the port. I was greeted by Danko’s father, a man in his 60s, in good shape, and full of energy. He carried a piece of paper with the words, “Nick Maccarone.” What a funny looking name was my first thought before introducing myself.
We headed to his car and made small talk as we drove along the Adriatic Sea. Danko’s father apologized for his poor English, but I managed to find out he was a former police officer, the proud father of two children, and recently a grandfather. He beamed as he spoke about his family, which I took great solace in. It seemed to be something the whole world over beamed about as well.
He asked me where I planned to go after Dubrovnik and I told him Split or Zagreb, not really knowing if either was true. All I knew was I needed to slowly inch closer to Slovenia, so I could get to Hungary, and eventually Poland. He groaned when I spoke of both cities as someone might if you told them you were dying to go to Cleveland, or Newark. “Dubrovnik is the best, 1000%,” he said. That’s a lot, I thought.
Soon we zipped past Dubrovnik. The apartment where I’d be staying was about 4 miles outside the city. As I looked over this magical 7th century rocky island it dawned on me how small it was. The population is only about 42,000, which would explain why it was such a challenge to find lodging in the main area. To state the obvious, when a place is really beautiful everyone wants to go there.
My plan had somehow evolved into a seeing this remarkable postcard of a city and then leaving as soon as I could. As beautiful as it was, it seemed to me to be similar to trying to see Venice, or waiting overnight for the newest Apple product. The rewards would be immeasurable, but the effort so draining it might only be worth one-go.
I would be staying in a place between Dubrovnik and Cavtat, the next major town over. The surroundings along the way reminded me of Malibu, less a community and more a row of impressive homes just off a major highway. When we finally arrived, Danko’s father pointed to a restaurant across the street that served great Italian food. “My friend’s restaurant,” he said. It also turned out to be the only restaurant. These guys have quite the operation going, I thought to myself.
We made our way to my room as I thanked Danko’s dad for his incredible generosity and patience. I took a brief nap before finding my way to the beach, Haruki Murakami’s most recent novel in hand. I weaved through a steep trail slowly getting closer to the waters of the Adriatic. Within a few short minutes I was there. A whole world opened up to me as I took off my shoes and shirt and slowly made my way into the cold, but perfect waters. As I floated on my back a sense of calm finally came over me. I’d made it. From what exactly I didn’t know.
Just then, I made out the fading sun between two giant clouds and it finally dawned on me that everything would be okay. The angst I’d felt for the last several months, or even much of this trip about my next career move, my future as a writer, entrepreneur, even a better man, gave way to a peace, a knowing that something good, like the sun, was also on the horizon. Maybe it is true after all - "All’s well that begins well."
Bart, the 20-something Belgian traveler shared this bit of advice with me today: “Do good and good things will happen. Don’t worry. Don’t focus on the bad.”