Between 1991 and 1995, while the Serbian-Croatian war raged, I was a young journalist, cutting my teeth in newsrooms on the Gold Coast, Hong Kong and London. Watching the nightly news of bombings in Dubrovnik and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, it was a conflict in a place far away, somewhere with which I could not connect and would never likely visit. Next year marks 25 years since the war in former Yugoslavia ended. Last week, on a trip to Croatia, I fell in love with this country and its people, many the same age of me, who have endured so much.
I AM flying from Zagreb to Dubrovnik, soaring above the dazzling Croatian coastline, whose aqua waters don’t even wear a wrinkle on this diamond day. It’s high summer when I land in Europe and my driver weaves around the Adriatic Sea, past cosy coves and quaint villas with their red-tiled roofs, rebuilt after Serbia bombed Croatia. I drag my plump suitcase into Dubrovnik’s Old Town, along polished sandstone streets, pushing past the throngs of tourists in their floaty summer frocks that they will wear to a fashionably late European dinner. There’s no rush in summer in Croatia, where the sun rises around 5am and plunges into the ocean about 8pm.
From my third-floor loft apartment in a 600-year-old building smack bang in the Old Town, I slip straight into summer in Europe with its long, lazy evenings. By early evening I sit on a shady terrace overlooking the Adriatic Sea while I feast on a salty seafood risotto and clutch a crisp, local beer. The outside air temperature is 32 degrees, the water temperature is 26 degrees and the ice-cream is melting along with the tourists. Later, as I drift off to sleep, I’ll hear laughter bouncing around the walls of this seventh century city.
I rise, glide down the steep, timber stairs of my attic apartment with its sloping ceilings. It smells of fresh pine and reminds me of my family in Germany and this is the Europe I adore. I climb a set of steep, cobbled stairs for breakfast, dining on a Dalmatia, or omelette with pungent Gardana cheese and parma ham. I wash down a buttery croissant with a strong coffee. Locals mistake me, a woman on her own who has slipped so effortlessly into this magical morning, as a Croatian and speak to me in the local dialect. I simply smile, nod my head and say “da, da”. Sated, I wander the old, stone walkways which sing to my soul.
It’s been more than a decade since I’ve visited Dubrovnik, another woman in another life, and one magical moment remains etched in my memory, a story my spirit has souvenired for years. Way back then I was walking the Old Town when a sudden summer storm struck. At that point, the store owner threw up her hands, snatched a bottle of grappa from the shelf and insisted I sip and sit out the fury. On that day, so many moons, travels and personal lifetimes ago, I bought a hand-painted egg and it has hung on my bathroom door since.
Last week, just when I’m about to surrender on ever finding this shop again, I stumble upon it by chance, as I’m about to depart the sanctuary of the city walls. I recognise the owner, more than a decade older, and remind her of this day. She smiles and say “Would you like a grappa now?” and we laugh, and sip a home-made rose water grappa. It’s 10am. She tells me this grappa is not for tourists, but for friends, and that I should not leave it another 10 years before I visit again.
I skip out of her store smiling like a fool. These are the reasons we travel. To connect with the world. For a brief moment, to remind ourselves what it is to be human. And the Croatians know what that means more than most. I join Cruise Croatia for my eight-day boat journey from Dubrovnik to Split and meet Nikoleta, my Cruise Manager. She tells me she’s 42. I do the mental maths. At just six years younger than me, she was a teenager when the Serbs invaded her homeland of Bosnia in 1992. I’m intrigued. How could a woman so like me, modern, passionate, direct and open, have survived so much?
“The war didn’t start straight away but you could feel something was going on. There was some weird energy,” she says as we sit on the back of the boat one sunny afternoon.
“My father came and collected us from school and said ‘I want you and your mother and sister to go away for 15 days to Vienna’.
“On the bus journey, a soldier got on the bus and asked if there were any Bosnian-Serbs on the bus and if there were, he would slit their throat. My mother was a Bosnian-Serb. I looked at my mother and a woman next to her said ‘no, there are no Bosnian Serbs on this bus’.
“Two hours after we left Bosnia, they started bombing. With a bag packed for 15 days we stayed away 5 years, leaving Vienna and coming to Croatia.
“My dad stayed in Bosnia to protect the property we had. He was a truck driver driving humanitarian aid from Croatia to Bosnia. It was very dangerous.”
Nikoleta says when they arrived in Croatia after Vienna “everything was different.”
“You always expect the worst things and you found them. There were many refugees from Bosnia,” she says.
“People had no money. You are getting humanitarian aid from all over the world and some are getting rich and some are getting poor. It was a very tense time.
“My mother, she was amazing, she would get canned food but she didn’t want her children to eat bad food. She would go to the local markets and trade the canned food for local products such as milk and cheese.
“Everyone was trying to survive. Everything was destroyed. We never entirely recovered.”
Nikoleta made a return visit to Bosnia but said she cried every day.
She applied to study economics in Austria and stayed for 12 years. Now, for the past 17 years, she has been a tour guide in Croatia, living on the beautiful island of Korcula.
“I lived my life to the fullest. I lived in Switzerland, married a Nigerian man but I got tired of moving around,” she says.
“I thought I should go back home but I went to the Croatian island of Korcula as Bosnia still didn’t recover.
“My husband came with me but his priority was money so we separated.”
Despite the huge changes in her life, she remains optimistic.
“Either you are satisfied with your soul or you are not. I decided to stay in Croatia because the quality of life is really good here,” she says.
“I often hear young people talking about the war and they have extreme ideas and I ask them ‘how old are you? Have you seen that?
“My life taught me there is never reason enough to fight a war.”
I am trying to wrap my mind around our different lives, despite our close ages. I tell Nikoleta that when I was a teenager, I was listening to Whitney Houston and trying on lipstick. That what happened to her was not fair.
“I was doing that too. But I was also worried about being hungry. And whether my father was alive in Bosnia,” she says.
“These days I take life as it comes. If I sit down and think I would have many reasons to cry. It definitely affected my life and destroyed it in some way.
“But I am never looking back and thinking.”
It’s time to wrap up the interview and we both look at each other, knowing that something has shifted in both of us. Two similar women from two separate worlds. More than a week later, as I sit back in Australia writing this, her words, her directness, still swirl around in my head as I try to make sense of it all. When Croatians speak, it’s a shouty jumble of consonants, like they are screaming at each other in rapid gun fire. And in many ways they are. But underneath this facade, they hide huge hearts. In their history, they’ve only ever known 45 years of peace and that was between World War Two and the Serbian-Croatian war. Next year marks 25 years since their last conflict. May these gentle, generous souls finally know peace.
The Global Goddess travelled with Cruise Croatia, Australia’s leading dedicated Croatia small ship cruising operator – http://www.cruise-croatia.com.au
Before the cruise, stay in Dubrovnik’s Old Town at Apartments More Dubrovnik. These charming apartments, smack bang in the ancient city, are 600 years old and are central to all of the key tourist spots.
After the cruise, fly directly from Zagreb, via Dubai, to Australia. Stay in the Croatian capital’s gorgeous Esplanade Zagreb Hotel, which dates back to 1925. https://www.esplanade.hr
The cruise ends in Split. Take a day tour with Portal Split to Croatia’s stunning lake’s district to Plitvice Lakes, ending in Zagreb https://split-excursions.com
HERE is my confession. I have never been to an ANZAC Day dawn service. I have been to numerous war sites around the world, I’ve played two-up with Diggers in my local RSL on ANZAC Day, and watched them march on the streets of Brisbane, but I have never risen before the sun to listen to the hauntingly beautiful Last Post, which honours our soldiers who have died in global conflicts.
As a young backpacker, I followed in the footsteps of my peers and made the trek to Gallipoli to see where so many Aussie lives were lost on that impossible stretch of beach. I have stood in the trenches where they bled out and died. I remember the undeserved awe in which the Turkish regarded my pilgrimage, so astounded were they that so many young Australians would cross the oceans to honour their dead. I’ve visited the Egyptian pyramids from where the Aussies did some of their training in preparation for Turkey.
I have knelt in the gas chambers of Dachau in Germany and Auschwitz in Poland and wept at the futility of war itself. I have scanned the piles of suitcases, teeth, hair combs, reading glasses and shoes, and tried to imagine how those captured by the Nazis endured their fate. Tried to fathom the stroke of dumb luck that makes one person survive a war and another perish. I have sauntered through Switzerland and marvelled at how a country so tiny, and in the midst of all the combating countries, could remain neutral.
In London, I have stayed in the Savoy which miraculously only sustained minor damage during the bombings of World War Two, retained its stiff upper lip and kept trading, and from where Winston Churchill regularly took his Cabinet to lunch. It is believed Churchill made some of his most important decisions regarding the war from the Savoy, whose air-raid shelters were considered some of London’s toughest. And like so many Aussies, I have stood in the London Underground and tried to imagine its role as an air-raid shelter.
I have sat on the shores of Pearl Harbour and imagined the Japanese fighter planes overhead. On the other side of Oahu, I have seen the beaches from where local Hawaiian kids fled when they saw the jets overhead, before racing inside and crowding with frightened family members around a simple transistor radio to try to understand what was happening to their peaceful paradise.
In south-east Asia, I have witnessed the effects of war and the cruel regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia in the torture chambers of Phnom Penh and on the streets littered with the limbless in Siem Reap. I have visited the many war museums of Saigon in Vietnam and crawled through part of the Cu Chi Tunnels before becoming overcome with claustrophobia. In Thailand, I have visited the River Kwai many times, and walked along the railway sleepers, the construction of which claimed the lives of so many Australian soldiers. I have paused on the site of Singapore’s Changi Prison and attempted to feel what it must have been like to survive the heartless humidity and the chaos of capture.
As recently as last month, I was up in Papua New Guinea where I learned that it was actually in Rabaul that the first Australian soldier lost their life in any global conflict back in 1914. There’s war history galore there and I walked into in one of the tunnels which the Japanese forced the Aussies, along with other Allied soldiers, to build so that the enemy could store their food, weapons and themselves during air raids. I visited the Bitapaka War Cemetery, funded by AusAID, which pays homage to thousands of soldiers, many of them Australians. There’s even a remaining tree there from which the Germans are said to have climbed to shoot at the Aussies during World War One.
Thanks to the ANZACS, I’ve been granted the freedom to travel the world and to experience their stories. Because of them, I live in a free and beautiful country. On this ANZAC Day, and not just because it’s the 100th anniversary since the ANZACS tried to steal Gallipoli but because it’s high time, I intend to set my clock, rise before the kookaburras, and tip my hat in their honour and of all of those who have perished in war. Lest We Forget.
THE River Kwai is a jade jewel as late afternoon concedes languidly to dusk. The longtail boat in which I am travelling roars and sputters like an indigent politician up the infamous waterway towards the floating jungle rafts I have come to know and love so much. Travel writers don’t particularly like returning to the same place – there’s too much world to explore – but there are some destinations which become firmly etched into your psyche. And so entrenched in your soul you are unwittingly lured back. And for me, this is one of them, in part for its brutal war history involving the bravado of Australian soldiers and in part for its sheer natural beauty.
I penned these words a year ago on my fourth trip to the rustic and incredibly beautiful River Kwai region, pondering what it was that kept drawing me back to this part of the world. I still have no answers, but the pull to return there has emerged again, and this year, I’d love to take some of you with me. And so, I am delighted to announce I have launched a new tour River Kwai Travel Writing Delights with The Global Goddess. In early August, we will be meeting in Bangkok where we will spend two nights in a luxury five-star hotel, before we embark on our journey to the River Kwai. And along the way, we’ll be observing, day dreaming and writing about our travels.
If we’re lucky, we’ll bump into my good friend Sam Season, about whom I have written before. I first met Sam Season several years ago, and over the years I have been speaking with him about the most salacious of all subjects: love. Regular readers of The Global Goddess will remember this 22-year-old tour guide, a Mon man from one of the earliest tribes to live in South East Asia. Considered neither Burmese, nor Thai, the Mon exist in a small slither of land along the River Kwai, not far from the Burmese border. The Mon number some 8.14 million people but I remain captivated by this one man. This man called Sam.
At night, he paints his face in traditional Mon markings but speaks with an English accent plucked out of a south London pub, with a smattering of Aussie twang – picked up solely from the tourists with which he works every day. He moved to this particular village when he was 9, and has been studying to finish High School since, in between working 6 days a week at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts. And Sam is in love with a girl called Jaytarmon with beautiful long black hair who lives in a neighbouring village down the river. But access to this girl, like internet, electricity and hot water, are elusive in these parts. And to complicate things more, Sam is being pursued by a girl in his own village, who cooks for him and washes his clothes.
Last time we parted ways, on the banks of that beautiful river, Sam had plans to spend the year perfecting his English, so he can gain a mechanics scholarship in Australia and work towards his dream of becoming a car mechanic along the Thai/Burmese border. His plans included professing his love for Jaytarmon and asking her to wait for him and his love. Those of you who know me personally, or have met me through my words alone, know that this will be a journey of humility, heart and humour – the three cornerstones I believe make a great writer, and good human being. Please come and join me in one of the most beautiful trips I have ever done. It will change your life.
For more details on my tour River Kwai Travel Writing Delights with The Global Goddess, please click on this link: https://theglobalgoddess.com/joinmythailandtour/