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Terry's Big Adventures
Croatia (Zagreb), 1999

NOTE (2011): In 1999 Croatia was still recovering from the effects of its war of independence from Serbia that lasted from 1991-1995. Although Zagreb and much of the coast (Dalmatia) had been spared destruction the economy was very depressed and much of the citizenry was still shell-shocked. The tourist trade had not returned so in most cases prices were deflated. Much has changed since 1999. A new superhighway linking the entire country has spurred modernization and growth, the country has joined the European Union and adopted the euro as its currency, the tourist trade is booming, land prices have skyrocketed, and prices have gone up considerably for goods and especially for services.

I had wanted to travel to Europe for as long as I could remember. The opportunity arose when my nephew Joe moved to Croatia. He was constantly trying to get me to come visit him. Round trip fare to London became incredibly cheap ($419) and I had some extra money and a few weeks without pressing obligations. There was no excuse not to do it.

Day 1, Monday, March 27

Early Monday morning, March 27, my journey began. I was picked up by an airport service at six am. We drove to East Tacoma to pick up one of his regular clients who, to my surprise, turned out to be Mike Peters, a former music colleague of mine. He was on his way to Denver to install a sound system in a large auditorium. We had a good time talking on the way to the airport.

The four-hour flight to Toronto on Air Canada was uneventful. I had a window seat next to a Japanese couple who didn't speak English so I read a National Enquirer my mom had given me and listened to bluegrass music on my headphones. When the clouds cleared we were over central Canada. Not much to look at there. We finally landed in Toronto--bleak, brown, and gray this time of year.

The six-hour Air Canada flight from Toronto to London was on a Boeing 747, a magnificent machine built for speed and comfort. Again I had a window seat but there was nothing to look at as night was approaching. The middle seat next to me turned out to be the only vacant seat on the plane so it was nice to have the extra elbow room. A man with fierce eyes, a beard, and a turban sat down in the aisle seat. (Oh, great--I'm sitting with the terrorist that's going to hijack this plane and guess who he's going to use as his hostage!) My prejudice evaporated when he introduced himself as "ANU". He lived and worked in Toronto and was going to visit a sick relative in India. He was of the Sikh religion and although he spoke English well I had to concentrate to understand him. His personal mission was to educate people about the Sikhs, who are a Hindu offshoot that have their own prophet that lived in the 1300's. They are a persecuted minority in India where they do not believe in the caste system. They are hard workers, god-fearing, fierce warriors, and a liberty-loving people. (No wonder they are demonized in the press.) They want the United States to pressure India into decentralizing their government so the Sikhs can have an autonomous state. When he spoke he used my name often, was animated with his hands, and touched me with his fingers whenever he made an important point. Our fascinating conversation lasted most of the night and we made promises of looking each other up when we were in Toronto or Seattle.

Day 2, Tuesday, March 28

I can't say enough good things about Air Canada. The stewardesses were tireless in their care of the passengers. The flight started with drinks, dinner, drinks, appetizers, more drinks. I was so full I refused the continental breakfast. The sun was rising as we approach Europe. After circling the airport above a sea of clouds the pilot landed the 747 so smoothly that the passengers spontaneously erupted into applause, much of which rightly directed toward the flight crew.

Anu and I said good-bye at London's Heathrow airport, a helter-skelter maze of disconnected buildings spread out over several square miles. I was suppose to have twelve hours to kill before my flight to Croatia at 7 pm. After locating my luggage It took me almost an hour to find Air Croatia which was a very plain-looking painted plywood ticket counter with a solitary figure behind it. The humorless man whom I will call "Boris" informed me in broken English that my 7 pm flight didn't exist. However they had a flight that morning at 11:55 a.m. The cost of this flight is normally over $800 but I presented him my reservation number and EuropeByAir ticket (cost $100 in U. S.). After confirming this with a phone call he painstakingly wrote out a ticket order. (There was no computer!) I had to to to another counter to get the boarding pass. Meanwhile Boris charged me an additional $90 in "airport taxes" payable only in English pounds. (I learned later that this was a gross overcharge and is may be a way that Boris compensates his wages.) While I was waiting at the boarding gate I observed Boris putting on a uniform jacket. "Great," I thought. "Not only does he sell the tickets--he's also the pilot!" He joined two other men who were busily talking on cell phones, constantly pacing the floor, and looking out the window at the jet being serviced. Obviously, this was not Air Canada.

Although the flight was a little late getting started it was pretty normal except the food. Lunch consisted of some cold meat (ham or spam?), cheese, a hard piece of bread, and some pickled vegetables. Desert was grapes and yogurt. Again I had a window seat but overcast skies made visibility zero. After three hours we approached Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Looking down I could see the countryside, a patchwork of small forests and tilled valleys. Farms were still laid out in communal style, with a large central building surrounded by smaller buildings. Most houses were cream-colored and square with red tile roofs.

We landed without crashing. Passenger unloading was done with a staircase then onto a bus which drove us the 100 yards to the terminal. No problem finding your luggage here as we were the only arriving passengers at the small terminal. It was simple, modern, clean, and customs was a breeze. The lady at the money exchange desk (I'll call her "Natasha") spoke English, was helpful, and did not charge to exchange traveler's checks into kuna (about 8 per dollar.)


It cost 20kn for the eight-mile bus ride to the city. I saw no visible signs of the recent war as the bus drove through farmland and then to more densely populated suburbs. However, there was much construction of new houses and additions to current houses. Most houses were utilitarian, made of large masonry blocks and square in shape with a pitched roof, and were clustered in small neighborhoods containing ten to twenty homes each. Landscaping was nonexistent. As we approached the city the houses gave way to the“projects”, the utopian housing of the communist era. Each of these huge run-down abominations houses at least a thousand families, each hanging their laundry out the window. On the surrounding land, between junk and old cars, people tended garden plots. (The ownership of these apartments are in dispute so no one does any upkeep.)

It was rush hour (4:30 pm) when I reached the Bus Station in Zagreb, a bustling city of over one million people. The locals were filling the streets and catching the electric trams to go home. A friendly young couple who had been on the bus gave me directions to my hotel. They liked the chance to practice their English. "Get on tram 6, get off after two stops--you will be there." Following their directions I found myself wandering with my luggage in an area of town I didn’t want to be in. I walked through an underpass where I ignored a young man who was urinating. I caught a tram back to the bus station where I caught a taxi. "Astoria Hotel, please," I said. He drove me right to it.


The downtown Astoria was dingy. The humorless man behind the counter, whom I will call "Boris", did not have my internet reservation on his computer. However they had vacancy and I paid the 300 kuna (about $37) for the room which was on the second floor, up a tiny dilapidated elevator, and down a dimly lit hallway. The door opened into an unimaginative white room, narrow with a high ceiling. Furnishings were two wooden cots with an olive green army blanket and a plain wooden desk and chair. The bathroom was about a yard square with a shower that looked like a torture apparatus left over from the days of communism. When I used it the next morning I kept bumping my elbows on the sides. Coarse brown toilet paper (with wood pulp) completed the torture--OK, OK, comrade, I will tell you what you want to know!

Any bed is a comfort when you've been up for almost twenty-four hours so I caught about five hours sleep before I woke up at 10 pm. I figure I'd go for a walk and check out the city but first I asked Boris if the streets were safe. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "Ees ceety.” Interpretation: "You take your chances."

I walked two blocks to a park-like boulevard and proceeded north. The buildings were colorless in the night but had lots of Victorian character. Streets were clean, the parks were tidy, and there were statues among the large oak trees. Couples and singles were strolling and there was no evidence of threats. I walked about a mile to the main square where many people were milling about peacefully.

I continued my walk for another hour until I realized I was very hungry. (I hadn’t eaten since the flight.) So what's going to be open in Zagreb at 11 pm?--a McDonald's of course! Mexican music was playing over the speakers and it was decorated with Mexican artifacts. They were promoting a Mexican chicken sandwich and nachos. The teenager behind the counter spoke some English and sold me on the Mexican sandwich.

I figured it was time to get back to the hotel so I continued walking...and walking...and walking...and finally realized I was lost. I asked directions from some police but they didn't know where the Astoria hotel was located. After more walking I hailed a cab. He drove me directly there and was apologetic for charging 30% more for night fares. The fare was 30kn so I gave him 50kn and told him to keep the change. He was in disbelief that someone would give him such a large tip.


Day 3, Wednesday, March 29

I got up in time to partake in the breakfast that was included with my night's stay. It was in the Chinese restaurant just off the lobby. The waiter brought me some cold meat, cheese, a hard-boiled egg, hard bread, and a small pot of thick coffee. Ah--some more of that Croatian cuisine. The hungover remnants of a group of young German men I had briefly met the night before were also having breakfast. They had a good laugh when I told them I was Angus Young of AC-DC.

I had a few hours before I was to catch my plane to Split, the coastal city near where my nephew lives. So I set out on a morning walk of central Zagreb. The sky was overcast but the city was charming. Most buildings were not over five stories high and painted in pastels--cream, yellow, and pink. Sidewalks were crowded but polite and the electric trams were everywhere. I exchanged currency at a bank and set off to buy a small tape recorder that I could use to verbally record my journey. I made a few inquiries but no one could understand me. A shopkeeper finally directed me to a Kodak store where I bought a little mini-cassette recorder. It was a lot of kuna (about $60) and the lady seemed ecstatic to make such a large sale.


I continued my explorations down old streets lined with shops. A young girl sitting on the sidewalk was playing with a stick and singing to herself. She was begging so I dropped a couple coins into her box as I passed. She immediately got up and grabbed my arm while speaking very emphatically in Slavic. I reached into my pocket and gave her a few more coins. That was a mistake! She grabbed hold of my leg and started speaking faster and louder. I pried her hands off and backed away with her in pursuit. I finally had to run to get away from her as she was chasing me and calling out. (After telling the story to my nephew’s Croatian friends they insisted she was a gypsy who was probably in the begging business for her parents. I probably fed her family for a week.)

Exhausted, I made my way back to the main square. A street musician was playing his violin and singing with a boom box. I decided to ride a tram for a few miles, past the public market where people were buying their daily produce, past the university, and along the border of the downtown area. I got off at the train station which was only two blocks from my hotel. I had just enough time to pack and get to the airport by one o’clock.


Zagreb, Zagreb, Zagreb--the name really grebs you. I would like to have spent a full day seeing the main park, the zoo, St. Mark's cathedral, and some museums. Instead I was heading back to the airport on a bus, past the shabby communist housing projects and clusters of block houses.

This time airport security detected a nine-volt battery in my mandolin case. They were satisfied my guitar tuner was not a bomb and let me proceed. The flight from Zagreb to Split, the second largest city in Croatia, took less than an hour. The luck of the draw had me in a window seat again and I was able to see the Adriatic coastline with its many islands as we made our descent.