The second and final installment of the Croatia debacle, including the revenge of the inanimate sea life (which wasn’t the worst of the trip, but did make for the best title).
The first available ferry brought me to Korcula, one of the few Adriatic islands to boast a real backpackers’ hostel. I’d heard that it filled up fast, and that it was often a foot race from the ferry docks to the hostel to secure one of the few free beds. I pushed my way to the front of the crowd and launched myself from the ferry the moment we reached the pier, looking about frantically for the hostel. There was no need; the rest of the people coming from Mljet had far more elegant accommodation expectations.
I reached the hostel earlier than the ferryloads arriving from more popular destinations, gaining a much-coveted place in one of the 4-bed dorms. Word in the dorm was that the owner of this place had been a reality TV contestant in his home country, and that he ran the hostel in much the same way. No locks on any of the doors, minimal notions of privacy or security, and riotous parties in the downstairs bar every night.
Korcula was a huge relief. Cheap accommodation and the companionship that this usually brings. The town itself was stunningly picturesque; a tiny white town dwarfed by the colossal ferries disgorging a daily torrent of tourists onto its waterfront. We wandered the town during the day, hit the beaches in the afternoon, and drank in the plazas at night, surrounded by a summer carnival atmosphere. Those that went skinny-dipping at night inevitably emerged with a bristling lattice of sea urchin spines stuck in their feet. The official word was that because the water was so clean it attracted all sorts of sea life, both friendly and hostile.
After a few days in Korcula I tried to extend my stay, but was told I could not do so. The owner wanted to keep the vibe of the place fresh, which I’m pretty sure meant that he wanted to fill my bed with some blonde backpackeress who would drink his cocktails in his bar while fawning over his tales of minor celebrity.
There were four of us evictees, and we departed at dawn the next morning for the bigger island of Hvar. Dozing on the ferry, we eventually stumbled off and into Stari Grad, a beautiful town steeped in history and besieged by yachts and swaggering yachtspeople. Clubs pounded techno into the port at 9am, and drunks staggered along the promenade, picking fights and cat-calling to the carefully arranged princesses kept onboard the yachts.
Our coterie – an Aussie guy and an American girl in an ambiguous relationship, and a Kiwi guy as unaccustomed to local indifference as I was – slouched from cheap accommodation recommendation to recommendation, but every door that we knocked upon remained stubbornly shut, or was answered by someone sleepily informing us that the place was completely full.
Disconsolate, we bought tickets for the evening ferry back to the mainland, resolving to at least spend one long and glorious day on the beach. Skirting the water we chose a rocky beach overhung with dark green trees, and dumped our packs onto an outcrop looking out over the shimmering water. Those already established on the beach looked on us with eternal contempt.
We swam, we slept, we shared whatever snacks we scrounged from our packs or could afford from nearby stores. Boats passed at a distance and heads bobbed in the crystalline water. A small island lounged in the water just past the safety net and the channel by which boats passed to and from the shore. We decided to swim to it. Taller than the others and desperate for attention, I launched myself into the water and struck off, determined to reach the island quickly and in style. The swell beyond the safety net was a little bigger than it looked. While I paddled ahead the others realised that there was nothing to be gained by reaching the island and turned back. I surged on, determined to reach the tiny pier on the island and regain some of my tarnished glory. As a reached for the disintegrating wooden ladder, though, I remembered the sea urchins, and kicked back, but not before feeling something graze my toe.
I kicked back to the beach, receiving a half-hearted reception. On closer inspection a long, thin shard of sea urchin spite was lodged in my big toe. I spent the rest of the afternoon on the shore, hunched over my foot, digging away at my toe and my dignity with a pair of old tweezers.
That night we split for Split. Arriving late at night, we decided to toughen up and argue our way into some cheap accommodation (apparently the lesson of Dubrovnik was lost on me). The first guy to approach us offered a price. I suggested something a little lower. He immediately raised his price. The prices weren’t negotiable, he sneered. If I tried to lower the price, he would raise it. The new price was non-negotiable.
I hesitate to throw around a word like ‘mafia’, but accommodation in Split was run by the Summer Rental Mafia. When they had gathered together enough people to cover the exorbitant cost of an apartment, they called up a local, telling them that they would need their apartment that night. When we eventually agreed on the inflated price of an apartment and made our way to the address, we were met by a girl desperately sweeping up her many cats so she could take them to spend the night at her family’s house. She would apparently get a small cut of the rental price after we left.
We crashed in the borrowed apartment, utterly defeated, and each resigned to leaving Croatia as soon as possible. That night the American girl and I went to an Internet place, where I received the inevitable, impending news that my grandfather had died. I read the email, logged out, and got on with finding a ferry ticket to Italy. For the rest of the night the girl poured her wounded heart out to me about her frustrations with her travelling companion.
We spent the following day trying not to spend any money. The Roman ruins were regal, grubby, and swarming with tourists. In the evening I bid farewell to my companions and joined the endless line to board one of the monster international ferries. Hours later when I reached the front of the line I was told my ferry was leaving from a different dock in a few minutes. I ran, I asked for directions, I ran again, I was the last to board the ferry. There was no space to sleep anywhere except curled up beside a plastic plant in the cafeteria.
When I woke up in the morning I found that my bed for the night was right under the servery for the ferry’s cafeteria. I long line of tired tourists snaked past me. The ferry ploughed on through the day, eventually arriving in Italy. I disembarked in a daze, into a country that didn’t like me but didn’t hate me. I could cope with indifference though; it provided space to breathe, to heal and grieve, to get on with travelling without having to fight for everything I usually took for granted.