Day 488 – 1 July, 2016
Reverse culture shock is a phenomenon I had only heard about up to this point; I had yet to experience it myself, let alone on such a grand scale. The term comes from the psychology involved when someone has been exposed to a culture outside of their own, but then when reintroduced back into their own culture, a period of adjustment is sometimes necessary to reaclimate. I flew from Sri Lanka to Croatia after 7 months in the developing world. Not to say that Croatian culture is anything like my own, but the stark difference between unapologetic poverty and European sophistication was paramount and it took a few days for me to settle in.
My international flight took me to Zagreb in the northern quadrant of the country. Aside from the Museum of Broken Relationships (which was an international tribute to sometimes sad and sometimes amusing tales of heartbreak), there wasn’t much that interested in me in the city. I mostly frequented the cafes on Tkalciceva Street and tried to drink in this new phase of my journey. It felt so strange to be able to walk down the street without being recognized for being different, without being stared at, or without someone trying to get into my wallet. I had been anticipating this change, but now that it was upon me, the silence was deafening. No question that I was grateful and ready to be in Europe for the summer, but it took a beat to adjust to my new surroundings.
After such a short stopover in Zagreb, and in an attempt to ease into Croatian backpacking slowly, I headed south to Plitvice Lakes National Park near the Bosnian border. I stayed in the small town outside of the park, Korenica, at a friendly comfortable hostel that was helpful in arranging transport to the park as well as offering a few suggestions for free activities in the rural wilderness. The day I chose to visit the Lakes the weather was atrocious. I had been lucky to not experience a tremendous amount of rain on my travels, but that day the gray skies were thick with precipitation and treated us to a steady drizzle on the entire walk. That morning, I met Veronique, a French Canadian girl who had been traveling for almost two years, and together we were keen to tackle the “trek” to the waterfalls. First, let me say that the waterfalls were stunning, as beautiful, if not more, than I had imagined. The clouded skies diminished the dramatic coloring in my photographs, but in person, the visual effect of the clear blue green waters was unmatched. My disappointment with the park came in the heavy tourist infrastructure and lack of actual hiking. Veronique and I had both expected something much different so our rather casual jaunt on the boardwalk that circled the Lakes fell short of adventuresome. With that said, many of the boardwalks passed over watery canals and large swaths of liquid terrain so the wooden walkway was probably necessary to some extent. I’m sure it also protects the fragile ecosystem from thousands of trampling feet so it wasn’t all bad. We walked close to 21km that day so it was still a significant, albeit non-strenuous, stretch of the legs.
The next day, because I can’t stifle my yearning to trek for long, I found myself deposited at the base of Pljesevica Mountain with two Kiwi travelers, Iliya and Dusty, for a climb to the abandoned Zeljava Airbase, an underground airfield used by the Communist Yugoslavs. Our instructions included to stay alert and make sure we didn’t lose the little red and white markers and to not cross over the border into Bosnia for fear of land mines. Within fifteen minutes, we lost the markers. Some backtracking and a realization that we needed to pay more careful attention, we found our way once more. The trek was meant to take between 6-8 hours so we were stocked with picnic lunches and as I soon learned, not enough water. A grueling uphill climb without stopping for photos or a sip of water (Iliya was on a determined mission!), we reached the radio tower after only about 2 1/2 hours, well ahead of estimates. A short break at this stage made us aware of the sharp change in temperature and I thankfully pulled out my fleece jacket of which neither Iliya or Dusty had thought to bring. They looked so cold, but bravely soldiered on. A gradual incline lay ahead of us on a narrow gravel road, to the left a Croatian mountaineering region, to the right a Bosnian minefield. Dark dusty tunnels lined the way to the top that hadn’t been used since the days of activity at the airbase. We had already reached our highest point, but our destination was a large free-standing rocky structure on the side of the hill. All of us were keen to play around with some fun photo angles after a relatively easy climb to the top. A picnic lunch overlooking the valley below and talk of our most-desired meal after a high calorie-burning day reminded me that in fact it was the 4th of July. I had completely forgotten (or lost track of the date most likely).
Our return journey was steep and slippery, but we were back down to the same place we started exactly 6 hours after we began, even taking into account a lengthy break at the top. We still had to walk another hour back to the hostel and while not much of a meat-eater myself, I felt like this day deserved a burger. With only three restaurants within a distance I cared to walk that evening, my options were limited and no appropriate Independence Day fare was on offer. Even after 7 months in Asia, I spent the night of July 4th eating vegetarian fried noodles at a Chinese restaurant and toasting a beer with the Australians at the adjacent table. The culture shock had been equalized.