“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” Henry Miller
We left Croatia a few days ago and headed for Italy on the overnight ferry. As we pulled away from the dock, I sat on the upper deck in the chilly sea air, watching the twinkly lights of Split’s Stari Grad (the old city) fade into the distance. And I wept.
I’ve traveled to 15 countries in under a year. In each of these countries, I’ve visited beautiful gardens. I’ve wandered around ancient ruins. I’ve meditated in magical places. I’ve struggled in the saddle of my Trek bike up some nasty, but-oh-so-beautiful mountains.
Croatia was more of the same. Except….
In Croatia, I got answers to some of the questions I brought along on my travels this year.
Even better, I realized how stupid my questions were.
So, instead of writing about the legendary city walls of Dubrovnik, or how much I loved (surprisingly) Croatian wines, or the beautiful coastal roads that make Australia’s Great Ocean Road look only so-so from a cycling perspective, I’m dedicating this post to a few of the Croatian angels who shared their lives and wisdom with me:
Dario, the unlikely cycling guide on our trip through the Dalmatian islands: Dario is highly educated, multilingual and could easily be a GQ model. He could earn his daily bread in any number of ways, no doubt, but he chooses to be a cycling guide. Each week he lives on a different boat, carrying only a very small duffel bag (come to think of it, I’ll bet he has some great packing tips). He works 7 days a week with no breaks between trips throughout the long tourist season and puts up with whiners like me who didn’t expect it to be this hot or the mountains to be this steep or whatever. Why? Because “I spend the day outdoors on a bike instead of being stuck behind a desk. I get to know people from other cultures. The wine is good. I like this life…it is all I need.”
Ivanka, the scientist turned artist: An analytical, data-driven professional in the hard sciences, Ivanka watched beakers being made in her lab one day and was so drawn to “the beauty of the glass as it was transformed” that she left her life-long career in science behind. At age 50, she began creating and selling glass jewelry. She also started a nonprofit dedicated to bringing back the lost art of glass-blowing in Croatia. I asked Ivanka what she likes most about blowing glass, expecting that she would tell me that she likes working with her hands or exploring the creative side that she didn’t use much in science. But, no. Ivanka likes “working with fire…it has a meditative quality that draws you inward”.
The peddlar on the docks in Opatija, whose name I do not know: After a short chat about the tourism business in Croatia, he remarked sadly “I used to be somebody, before the war.” I asked if there are people in his life — family perhaps — who love him. He looked surprised and answered “yes, of course”. “I’ll bet they think you’re somebody.”, I pointed out. And the mirror I looked into in that moment was sparkling in its clarity.
Igor, the philosopher/cab driver who took us out to wine country for a day: Igor was a young boy in Dubrovnik during the war. He still remembers living without electricity and clean water, and being shot at by snipers as he went to wash in the sea. “There are good times and bad times in life” Igor told me, “and there is beauty in both. Like during the war, I got to see the sky above Dubrovnik or the first time. I had never seen it before because of the city lights, but without electricity I could see the stars and it was so beautiful. Everyone spent more time with family and friends during the war — it was the only thing we had. The war was bad, but I have good memories. We always look at the past with longing and the present in terms of that one missing thing that would make things better, but maybe ‘something better’ is really always right now.”
I asked Igor if the war had changed him: “The most important thing I learned from the war is that it doesn’t matter if you are Muslim, Christian, Jew, Orthodox, Capitalist, Communist. There are good people and bad people in the world and they come in all flavors…but we’re all connected.”
I started my travels 10 months ago thinking mostly about work (what’s next?) and maybe just a little bit about bigger questions. But in Croatia, I found myself thinking about what, I suspect, is the real work of life: Learning to step back from the melodrama of everyday practicalities to see the world from a distance (where indeed, it does look blue and green and peaceful); making sure that I am “doing no harm” (even inadvertently) and focusing on ways to serve; practicing being right here, right now and nowhere else, and letting that be enough; looking inward every day; remembering to treasure and honor the people who matter most to me, focusing not on my uniqueness as a person (and my petty little concerns), but on what connects us as human beings…
I could go on, but I won’t.
Suffice it to say that I think I’ve put my finger on the reason why travel can be life-changing: It opens the door to a much bigger adventure — exploring the territory within.
Thanks to all of my Croatian angels, many of whom are not mentioned here.SHARE THIS ARTICLE