Through a series of poor decisions that culminated with a ripped off oil pan in the middle of mine-filled Croatian forest at 2am, I realized at some point, I had strayed from my travel plan.
To be fair, I didn’t really have any plans, but being stranded in the middle of nowhere by myself, 2 days before my departure back to the United States, wouldn’t have been on that list had I written them down.
It all started when I was sitting above Sarajevo in an old bombed out hotel, enjoying a beautiful sunset. The air was crisp, the scenery was magical, and I was in a strange yet exciting city. I felt like I was on top of the world. Nothing could bring me down, except maybe, I don’t know, a group of Bosnian assholes standing next to my car, breaking my window and stealing my things.
I got up and started walking back, but the damage had already been done. They raced off with the contents of my laptop bag and disappeared into the sunset. I ran to my car and drove down the road, but it was all in vain.
Leaving town the next day, I couldn’t help wonder where my computer was, or if it had a nice home. Were the thieves currently accessing all my files? My thoughts drifted off as night fell. I had crossed the border into Croatia earlier in the evening and was currently looking for a place to sleep. For the past week, I had just slept on a pad near my car wherever I could, usually on a dirt road outside of town, and tonight was no different.
I drove down a dirt road for a while, but couldn’t ever find a good spot. There were no pull offs. After a while, a two track emerged on the left, leading up into the forest. “This will be a good spot”, I thought to myself. Driving up the rutted road, I doubted my tiny cars ability to handle the deep grooves, but continued anyway, searching in vain for a nice spot. About 15 minutes into the two track, I scraped the bottom of my car quite hard. Thinking nothing of it, I continued driving, working my way back down the mountain. Shortly after the scrape, I rolled up to a creek. I got out, checked the depth, and swiftly drove across it with great success. Up ahead, the two track merged back onto a gravel road. I pulled up onto the road and my car suddenly died.
I exited my vehicle and walked around the front. Crouching down to look under my rental car, I could see oil dripping out from a mangled oil pan. Electrical wires dangled down, looking very out of place. Dirt and mud fell down from the undercarriage onto the gravel road below. The smell of burning oil hung around in the muggy, stagnant air. I stood up and sighed.
It was dark out, and I was far from any place that resembled a town. I hadn’t seen a vehicle for hours. I stood there motionless for another minute. If it were a movie, the scene would have started pulling up into the skies to reveal me standing in the middle of a dark void, pulling up further would reveal the earth, sitting among the stars. It was at this moment that I realized the succession of bad decisions that let to this point. Exhausted, I pulled my sleeping bag out and laid down in the dirt near my car.
A couple hours later, a vehicle approached, waking me from my slumber. It was an old red jeep. The driver slowed and poked his head out the window. I got out of my sleeping bag and approached him. “English”? I asked. He shook his head and continued staring at the situation in front of him. I tried miming what a broken car would look like, but the hood propped up did a better job than I could. The man got out of his jeep. He was huge, dressed all in cammo. After another 20 minute miming session, It appeared that he told me I could sleep at his house. I reluctantly got into his jeep and we sped off. On the drive, he introduced himself as Marko, I introduced myself as matt, and the conversation took a nosedive from there.
30 minutes later, we pulled up at a small brick house. I followed him inside and was immediately greeted by a huge wasp, buzzing around. There were quite of few of them. Marko ran into the other room and grabbed a fly swatter. We spent the next 10 minutes on a seek-and-destroy mission. I was the spotter, and he was the killer. I would run into a room, shout after seeing a wasp, and he would run in after and kill the wasp. It was a bizarrely awesome experience that I hope to never have to participate in again.
When the wasps were all killed, we sat around a small round table in the kitchen. Marko went to the pantry and pulled out some coca cola. He proceeded to mime out that he was out hunting when he ran into me and that he was going to head out in a minute to try and find something to shoot that night. I expressed how tired I was and headed to the guest room.
As tired as I was, it was hard to fall asleep. My mind raced, thinking about what I was going to do with my broken down vehicle. That coupled with the sound of pacing outside my room left me wide-eyed and alert.
The pacing continued for quite sometime, from the kitchen out on to the porch, back to the kitchen. At one point, I heard a couple rounds of gunfire empty into the night. It was a stressful sleep at first, but my mind became heavy and I eventually wandered into dreamland.
The following morning, I awoke to the sound of pacing, once again. I exited my room and walked over to the small kitchen table. Marko came in and went to the fridge. His back was to me, but when he turned around, he was carrying more Coca-Cola as well as a large assortment of meats. We sat at the table, sharing pictures of our family, miming our life histories, all the while eating meat for breakfast. It was delicious.
Marko walked outside briefly, and came back with a handful of my worst nightmare: Tomatoes. Just to be clear, I hate tomatoes. I would rather poke myself in the eye than eat a tomato, but here I was in a situation where I was definitely going to have to eat tomatoes. My stomach sank. The inevitable was upon me. I watched Marko’s thick hands slice the vile vegetables into small pieces. He slid them toward me. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I vigorously salted the slices and reluctantly shoved them into my mouth.
They weren’t bad.
After polishing off the rest of the Coke, Marko pulled out a big map and laid it on the table. It was a map of the local area accompanied with large zones marked with red cross hatches. Marko pointed to where we were, and where I was last night, which was smack dab in the middle of one of those red zones. It wasn’t until his miming became clear that I realized what he was saying. Apparently I had been driving through an area that had a lot of landmines. Fortunately for me, I didn’t wander off the road and find any of those. I laughed nervously, grateful that my fate was so far favorable.
A few moments later, Marko pulled out his cell phone. I handed him the number to the rental company in Zagreb, and he made a couple phone calls. An hour later, a flat bed tow truck arrived; ready to take me back to the capitol city. It was a moment of extreme thanks and relief. A man that I had met in the middle of nowhere had turned my catastrophe into a lesson in human kindness. I hugged Marko, and climbed into the passenger seat of the tow truck. As the truck slowly drove off, we waved goodbye.
4 hours later, I was at the airport chatting with the rental folks at the counter. They came out to do the mandatory post trip inspection. I thought it was rather funny handing back the keys to a vehicle that looked like it had taken part in a demolition derby.
I checked into the airport hotel and promptly climbed into bed. I stayed there for the rest of the day, snacking on a loaf of bread and jam that had accompanied me throughout the ordeal. For some reason, I didn’t feel the need to leave the hotel. I was content just laying there, thinking about the adventure that I had just survived, wondering where my next one might take me, and what sort exciting things would happen in the future.