Crossing Croatia

30 01 2014


I flew to Croatia four days early so that I could adjust to the time zone, not be rushed if we were delayed, and have a bit of time to explore the country beyond the conference site in Split. The conference, OnSustainability, is an international gathering of academic scholars poised to share research and insights into sustainability with their peers. I’m not sure how I got accepted to present at this 10th annual, but I was very excited about the mix up. My absolute favorite travel companion, my wife, Bethany, joined me for the journey. After all, she is the one who convinced me to submit in the first place.

I arrived at the tiny airport in Split alone. I had been separated from Bethany in Dulles, when a late flight forced me to run, 30 pound pack on my back, a mile through the extensive airport to catch separate connections to Germany. We never had a chance to get them to switch us onto the same flight, as I heard, “Paging passenger Kelly Weger,” being urgently called over the airport speakers. I was out of breath and sweating when I saw her standing at the ticket counter trying desperately to change her ticket to join me. I kissed her goodbye and boarded the plane for Munich.

split tower

When Bethany’s plane from Frankfurt finally arrived in Croatia, two hours after my prop plane, we were picked up by Jani, our host. He and his wife, Ojdana, rent out a two bedroom apartment on the ninth floor of a communist-looking, concrete housing complex. The group of residential towers sit back on a hill overlooking the Adriatic coast and the Old City of Split. Within 30 minutes, we could walk to the Old Town, and it’s Diocletian stone wonders. When the rain held back, this was a wonderful walk past bus stops, “caffe bars,” and the ordinary, daily wonders of ‘real’ life in Split.

We desperately needed a night to recover from 24 hours of unrestful travel. My flight to Munich involved Russian school boys emphatically playing video games on the touch screen directly behind my headrest; Bethany’s flight was punctuated by a screaming baby across the entire Atlantic ocean. The apartment was chilly, but a good size considering where we were. The cold concrete floors were meagerly furnished with heavily worn and mismatched objects, minimalist yet functional. We forced ourselves to stay up, fruitlessly search for restaurants with vegetarian fare, and then we bought groceries to survive the week on a budget. By 8pm, we fell hard asleep and slept like freshly rescued soldiers.

Our Croatian hosts met us the next morning to give us advice on what to do with our limited time in their country. I had researched it a lot, but Bethany only found out that she was coming three weeks prior, on Christmas day. Lucky for us, Ojdana is actually a travel guide during the high season. This time of year, however, travelers are rare. Croatia is plagued with rain 5 days out of the week, with highs in the 40s to low 50s Fahrenheit. After our morning meeting, we gathered our things, walked down to the Old City to rent a car, and off we went!

villageBethany got another international drivers license before we left, so my role was as navigator and photographer. We drove the slower, national road down along the coast to head South toward Dubrovnik. We left our plans wide open, and had hopes of making it to Montenegro to do an amazing hike up to the old castle overlooking the bay. Besides, when else would we ever make it to Montenegro? We never made it that far, but we made plenty of memories elsewhere.

water coastThe coastline itself is simply gorgeous, reminiscent of the familiar Route 1 along the coast of California. It was filled with winding, twisty two lanes, with the road tumbling down to our right into the ocean. To our left, the mountains climbed upward, lined with steeply graded paths and cascading fruit orchards. Unlike California, the coastline is dense with small villages, one after another. They do not shy away from building on such steep terrain, with houses often disappearing from view below the guard rail. We stopped several times to admire the vista, and take in the charm of the small towns. We were very lucky to have sunshine most of the way, but then the rain started about 3 hours into our journey.

dubrovnik stoneWe arrived in Dubrovnik after dark. The rainy streets glistened, highlighting the individual stones that made up the paths. We followed signs to the Center, and found a highly coveted parking spot, backing our rental car right up against the towering stone wall to the Old City. The wall, made up of two tiers, must be at least 50 feet tall.

dubrovnik city wallOnce we parked and loaded our packs onto our backs, we made our way back up to the North Gate. We walked into this protected UNESCO World Heritage site, raindrops falling softly, and it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. Although it was a Saturday night, the gentle rain kept most people cowering inside stone arches. The

dubrovnik steps

Old City is a living, breathing town, filled with homes, little shops, churches, and courtyards. It is also not shy about stairs! Upon entering, we looked down a narrow passage filled with stone steps that led down another 40 feet to the next main passage. We had no idea where we would sleep this night, so we started walking down the steps.

Along the way there were countless doorways to private apartments, some with signs that said “Sobe” or “Zimmer” which means rooms to rent. I tried knocking on a couple of them, but nobody answered. It was dark, well after 8 pm, in the off-season. We began to get nervous about finding a room.

Bethany suggested we go ask at an open restaurant, so we continued on towards a more brightly lit street. Inside the walls, only carts and pedestrians are allowed, and the widest streets are still tiny roads in the outside world. We walked into the first place we saw, and nobody was there. No guests, no staff, nobody. Bethany walked further into their tiny establishment and called out. A woman came out and, between our minimal Croatian and her mediocre English, we managed to explain what we needed, and establish that she could not help us. However, she pointed at another restaurant, called Ragusa.

Ragusa is actually a larger restaurant, but you cannot tell this at first. It encompasses five or six little storefronts, discrete and disconnected. We peeked inside the first doorway we came to, and saw another empty dining room with just a few tables. We wandered to the next door, and eventually found a person inside. She spoke good English, and said that they had a room available.

dubrovnik steps 2

After a few minutes, the woman explained that they have three apartments, with three prices. She said that the man next to her would show us the places, and if we liked it we should give him the money, but he spoke no English. We asked to only see the cheapest room, since 50 Euros was already more than we wanted to spend for one night. We followed the man, a short but smiling gentleman in his 60s or 70s, up the narrow steps in another nearly hidden passageway.

The room was actually very nice. Not in a clean, modern, fancy hotel sort of way, but in a rich, cultural, historic way. It was furnished with old wooden furniture that has probably been in their family for generations. There was just enough room to get around the double bed to reach the open tread stairs leading up to the other spaces. It felt a bit like being on a boat as I walked up and looked down upon the thick, ornately red comforter. Up the steps was a small kitchenette, a bathroom, and a living space with a loveseat and a desk against the window. The walls indicated a longstanding leak in the roof, which had created a mold spot the size of my head. Still, it smelled clean enough for one night, and we were exhausted.dubrovnik room

Bethany and I accepted the room, and the man continued to show us how to turn everything on. He kept finding things that were not quite up to standard, and then he would run out to get something to repair it, and come back a minute later to fix whatever was needed. First, a light bulb was out; then the space heater wasn’t working so he grabbed another one; then something else that was not important to us. We smiled at his eagerness to make everything perfect for us.

When he left, Bethany pointed at a painting on the wall and said, “That looks like my friend’s paintings. It could be his, since they have family somewhere near here.” I laughed, and thought to myself, “Sure. Might be.” If someone said they knew an American artist and then stayed at a hotel in NYC, I would say the chances are pretty slim that the art on the walls would be that of their friend, the American artist.

As we settled into our new room, Bethany and I plugged in and checked on our messages from back home. While I cleared out any important work emails, and then got to facebooking, Bethany gasped and chuckled. “You’ll never believe this,” she says, “My friend Tanja finally emailed me back about our trip to Croatia. She says her uncle owns a restaurant in Dubrovnik called Ragusa, and we should stop by and say hi if we can find it!” I laughed in utter disbelief. Perhaps she was right about the painting after all. In fact, the nice man who showed us to our room, could very well have been Tanja’s uncle. It’s a small world, after all.

Side note: Moments after arriving to the room, I went up to use the bathroom, where the floor was still soaking wet from recent cleaning. As I made my way back down those sailor stairs, I slipped, fell completely on my ass, and whacked my knee on the windowsill. Not a bad start to a city with a million steps! This was part of the reason we never made it to Montenegro. Bethany got ice from the restaurant, and we took it easy. I made a full recovery the next day.road sign bosnia
dubrovnik wall 2 dubrovnik road dubrovnik road 2 dubrovnik courtyard


Snowmageddon, Indy style

10 01 2014

When I moved 5 hours southwest from Ypsilanti, Michigan to Indianapolis, Indiana, people told me I would be enjoying milder winters. What a bunch of hooey! You may have been able to fool people twenty years ago with the power of persuasion, but this is the age of information. It’s the same darn weather. Period.

In this modern era, I am armed with information at my fingertips. I hold in my pocket the wonders of NetAtmo, which feeds me real time weather readings both inside and outside of my home, which I contrast with iPhone weather apps for any city I choose to virtually explore, and, finally, the coup de gras, I got myself the Nest. No, this is not for the birds. It’s a high-tech thermostat that reads your daily patterns and adjusts the temperature automatically in anticipation of your next move. It programs itself, so even dummies with big pocketbooks can reap the energy savings. You might say I’m in a constant game of chess with my house.

photo 2 photo

When the forecast first showed glints of a one foot snowfall on the way, I was prepared. I noticed that this recently purchased house was nowhere near as well insulated as our beloved home in Ypsi. The furnace is electric- it still makes me cringe to say this out loud- and can barely keep up once the temps dip into the single digits.

photo 5Bethany and I battened down the hatches- almost literally. We geared up, headlamps at the ready, climbed below the wooden floor joists, and disappeared into the nether regions of our crawl space. Bethany tediously wrapped the main trunks of our ductwork, which was exposed to the un-insulated crawl space air. While great for the feral cat community, heating our crawl space was not in our budget. I maneuvered 4×8 sheets of rigid insulation at $20 a pop, cutting and trimming with a tetris’d efficiency so as to make the most of each sheet. I lined the furnace room with the pink sheets, and used foil tape and spray foam to seal up the rim joists and furnace air leaks. As we both grew weary, I passed the last sheets of insulation into the crawl space, where Bethany placed them carefully against the cold exterior knee walls. It wasn’t much, but better than nothing.

Above ground, we still had work to do. In an attempt to prevent too much of our precious heat from escaping, I cut the remaining rigid insulation to fit the windows. Slowly, one by one, the house grew dark as the ample daylight disappeared behind the pink sheets. It felt like we were really hunkering down for the storm of the century. It was too cold to apply further measures, like adding more weatherstripping around doors, so we stuffed towels into cracks along the floor. I had already finished caulking around all the doors and windows to ensure no air came in around the wood trim. We dug out the candles, got the faucets on a slow drip to prevent the pipes from freezing, and then we sat down and 4

It wasn’t the 12 inches of snow that was the big deal. We actually went out and had a long, stunning, albeit wet, walk in the storm on Sunday. It was a heavy, wet snow, that required three rounds of shoveling to keep up. That night, however, the snow tapered off and the winds picked up. The polar vortex had arrived.

Temperatures plummeted to negative digits faster than I would have imagined possible. It was a high of -6F on Monday, and a low of -16F, with wind chills nearing forty degrees below zero. The news spoke of nothing else, but the treacherous risk of venturing out in temps that could lead to frostbite in just ten minutes.

I watched from my phone as the Nest reported the house temperature creeping lower and lower with each hour. We had oil filled space heaters in our bedrooms, but everything else was at the mercy of the measly electric furnace. The city banned all non-emergency travel, and businesses were closed everywhere. My work sent out an email clarifying that, we too, were not allowed to come to the office, and must work from home to be safe.

photo 2photo 3I am an energy efficiency specialist, which means I have access to fantastic gadgets via work! Monday morning, energy toys at my ready, I wasted no time seeing what the real situation was. I pointed my temperature gun at the tiled kitchen floor. There is one corner where I swear they placed the cabinets directly over a gaping hole to the crawl space, such is the rush of cold air when you open the corner cupboard. The digital readout stimulated my scientific mind with real data, and I couldn’t help but keep checking to see the cold creeping into the kitchen. It was like watching a train wreck. What started out as 54 degrees Fahrenheit the night before was down to 39 by the morning. It kept declining, until I could almost see my breath in there. The overall house temperature declined less rapidly, but never left its nadir of 48 degrees until Wednesday morning.

photo 3For three days we were trapped in this frigid frame of a house. I can only imagine what would have happened if we had lost power. We baked everything we could think of, in an effort to fill the kitchen with warm, sweet, electric oven air. We drank tea nonstop, and then recoiled into our bedrooms to recover from standing on the cold kitchen floor.  Only one window remained exposed, in an otherwise dark and dreary place without time. Occasionally, I moved the sheet of foam from our bedroom window to peak out into the world and make sure it was still there. The white snow blinded me, and I retreated back into the darkness like a creature from a late night novel.

When the forecast finally gave birth to a small respite from the arctic blast, the entire Midwest cheered at the beautiful sight of a large black oval on our temperature gauges. Zero degrees has never looked so good.

photo 1As Wednesday arrived, and zero degrees came and went, we were more than ready to be rid of our cabin fever. The pipes, two of which had frozen, took another day to thaw out and flow once more. We could finally wash dishes in the kitchen sink again! The toilet flushed without pans of water! The little things that we take for granted were appreciated immensely on that day. The roads were still treacherous, but people ventured back into work.

So, Indiana, you thought you could scare a Michigan girl. This may have been the coldest, snowiest storm since before I was born, but you can’t keep a Michigander down. I’ve taken road trips to northern Michigan in February. In a Honda Insight Hybrid. You’ll never win this one, Indiana, so just can the tough talk and show me what you’ve got in store for spring.

This Thing They Call “Traffic” in Chiang Mai

10 01 2014

We had only been in Thailand for 14 hours, and had a whirlwind morning in Bangkok before we got on the puddle hopper, just across the street from the hotel we had landed in. We arrived in Chiang Mai early in the afternoon. The airport was small, and we were outside within 10 minutes, trying to decipher the transportation options. We waited behind a large group of tourists, all awaiting taxis. Nobody was having any luck. It seemed like we could be there for an hour if we wanted a ride in a car or van. Around the corner was the departure drop off, and we wandered over there to try to catch an entry taxi. “Taxi” is a generous term. What we discovered, after trial and error, was that we could pay much less by hiring a “Tuk-tuk.”

tuktuk bethany

Although we had heard stories about how terrifying and dangerous these vehicles are, we were weary travelers, and willing to take a chance just this once. We negotiated what we thought was a fair price, and loaded our packs at our feet, before climbing onto the bench of the tuk-tuk. It was basically a small motorcycle with a hitch on the back, carrying an open-air, two-wheeled rickshaw. I was shocked to see just how nimble this vehicle is. Although the roads have lines on them,  demarcating what one might think are lanes of travel, the tuk-tuk is seemingly immune to such restrictions. Alongside mopeds and bicycles, tuk-tuks can scoot between lanes of cars, or alongside curbs, to get up to the front of traffic. They fly through rush hour traffic, only to get passed again once the light has changed.

  tuktuk trafficWhile this sounds like a recipe for disaster, I was surprisingly comfortable on our harrowing journey across Chiang Mai on the back of an unstable trike. In the U.S., cars would be honking, and swerving over to block other vehicles from attempting to pass, endangering all involved. But here, this is perfectly normal and acceptable. Car drivers are always aware, and expecting to be cut off or passed in a 3 foot shoulder by a dozen smaller vehicles. Instead of honking, they move over. This behavior would be considered reckless where we come from, but here it seemed perfectly safe. As a sister of someone who is permanently disabled because of reckless driving, I would be the last one to endorse risky behavior on the streets, and yet, here I was, feeling remarkably okay with the situation. Who knew?tuktuk kelly

185739_408084849274145_854844882_nAfter checking into our room at the ‘Eco-Resort,’ we explored the shared bathrooms, built in a beautifully open-air grass hut, with cast concrete counters and bamboo columns. We were excited to walk, to get to know our surroundings, and we sat down at the dining hall to inquire about directions back to town. The woman there looked appalled, “Walk to town?! No, I never walk. It take 20 minutes. You hire tuk-tuk.” We looked at her expression, looked again at our map, and decided to ignore her advice. Maybe in the hot, rainy season this would make sense, but we were hearty stock, ready for a little hike. Besides, it was a mere 78 degrees, without a cloud in the sky. We would much rather walk!

motorbike loadedOur path was clearly not common, as we strode past a young man fishing into what looked like a sewer ditch. Then our sidewalk abruptly disappeared and we walked in the road. We wandered past auto shops, convenience stores, and banks, all while being passed by a flurry of mopeds and tuk-tuks, and small trucks. We didn’t mind, since traffic was so slow and respectful here. Nobody buzzed past us within 12 inches at 35 mph, as might happen in the US if you walked in the gutter. That would not be okay. Instead, we walked in peace, feeling safe, although still wishing there was some sort of differentiation between us and traffic. When we turned and crossed the large river into town, we saw traffic slow down even more, caught in the congestion of the Old Town. As traffic yielded, smog thickened, and we were wishing for a pedestrian only zone.

Dogs and roosters ran free, causing more havoc than tourists. The animals, you see, have no fear of crossing the road in front of this traffic. It’s only Europeans and Australians who paused timidly at the curb, waiting endlessly for traffic that will never yield. We quickly learned that in order to cross, you must simply find enough space- and courage- to step off the curb. The rest of your path will emerge as the steady stream of sputtering vehicles bends gracefully around the paths of the individuals.

Crossing the street in Thailand is an act of faith. While the thought of leaving the safe haven of the concrete curb seems scary, I never once felt endangered as I found my way across the tides of traffic. You just have to believe in the cultural norm, and hope there are no tourists on the roads. I lived to tell about it, didn’t I?

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