Making Friends in the Balkans: Letters from Croatia to Bosnia and Back

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These three stories were first shared with friends and family via email, reprinted here as a vignette of touring life in Croatia and Bosnia. For the record, I don’t normally run into the police more than once in a week.

///Split, Croatia

“Don’t drink the water”, he says in English. “The fires,” he pauses, pointing to the nearby mountainsides which have burned in recent months, looking for the words. “The fires make the water bad”. His English is less accented than our own, speaking in a precise manner, pausing only to find the best words to describe his thoughts. It charms me to see young people speaking English so proficiently.

Abe and I are paused at a fountain in a small neighborhood at the edge of Split, Croatia. We’re drawn to a fig tree with ripe fruits which stands next to a gurgling public fountain next to which there is a picnic table and three boys on bikes. The boys are filling their bottles from a large portable plastic water tank, presumably provided to local residents by the city as the groundwater has been contaminated by the fires. I pull into the small public space and lean my bike up against a fence, unloading the edible contents of my framebag onto the table as the boys watch us. I am well aware that three young boys on mountain bikes will be curious about what we are doing, just as I am curious to learn more about them. As I slice dried sausage, cheese, and cucumber the most outgoing of the three boys circles the space attempting wheelies and riding onto the raised base around the fountain, not more than the height of an average step. After each maneuver he looks to his friends, he looks to me, and he looks at his next move. Another boy halfheartedly throws figs at him, not intending any harm. That’s what boys do. I spent much of my youth doing similar things to impress people older than myself. In lieu of anything I would revert to being a bother by throwing fruits or providing some such similar nuisance like punching an older cousin in the stomach with my little fists. That’s what boys do.

Split had been our destination for over a week since departing Zagreb. The city stands proudly on the edge of the Adriatic Sea, harboring a busy touristic port backed by dramatic rocky mountains. Our effort to depart the city is met with the usual reluctance to leave and the excitement of riding into new terrain. In only two days, we’d become accustomed to the conveniences of burek around the corner and the nearby beaches and abundant wifi and beer. What more could a traveling cyclist want? But something pushes and pulls you out of town and you go.

Packed and rolling not a moment sooner than 12 noon, which is the checkout time at our rented apartman, we begin along our planned outbound trajectory. Abe has charted a route using the Komoot mapping program, which we have used to develop a route suitable for mountain bikes. We select a fitness level of “pro” in the program, which means the route might just happen to include a massive hike-a-bike at any time. At present, we don’t have any idea what the route will be like.  That’s how the program works, you select you activity (road bike, mountain bike, hike), and your fitness level. In the past two weeks we’ve ridden Joe Cruz’ Adriatic Crest Route. Pushing off toward Bosnia puts us in new territory with a new route. I love riding established routes. I love riding untested routes. It turns out I love traveling by bike. I don’t ever want to stop.

“Where are you from?”, the boys ask. I make them guess.

“Germany?”

No.

“Netherlands?”

No.

“England?”

No.

I smile, “Alaska!” Their eyes light up, but I see that coming. This happens anytime you tell someone you are from Alaska.

“We watch Alaska on the TV!”, they all race to tell us. I’ve since forgotten which version of Alaska they were most interested in, perhaps is was the ice road truckers or the state police or the crazy homesteaders. One of the boys was most interested in the bears.

“Do you want to ride with us to the river? It is very beautiful.”, offers the most talkative boy. He speaks about the river’s beauty as if it was a woman with whom he was in love. “It is very beautiful.”

I tell the boys we are going to Bosnia. Again, their eyes light up. “And then Crne Gora, Albania, and Greece”. Now, this is the thing that makes me most happy to know these boys. For the first time in their lives someone has told them that they can ride their bikes anywhere, and everywhere. We ask where they normally ride, and they gesture to the nearby streets, naturally. Abe is quick to tell them that they have mountain bikes. Even though I haven’t offered yet, I think I’ve already made the sale. “Do you want to ride to Bosnia with us?”, I ask the group. The decision to ride out of town together is unanimous. We now have a Croatian bike gang.

We pedal up steep paved neighborhood streets. Two of the boys gesture to their homes as we pass. We continue, onto a larger road and then an immediate right up a dirt road covered in a layer of loose crushed limestone. The boys pause to confer. They have never traveled this way. Perhaps, they have never seen the reason or the need to ride uphill to nowhere on a road which does not provide good traction. The conference dissolves and they proceed, although the boy on the white Kilimanjaro fails to gain adequate traction with his rear tire. Abe stops to coach him. A little less air, a little more weight on the seat, a lower gear. The leader, the boy in the the red shirt who acts as the voice of the group is forced off his bike due to the steep grade yet makes no hesitation to push his bike up the hill to keep up with the group. The tallest boy, with blond hair, maintains a low gear and a constant cadence, remaining on the bike for the duration of our uphill ride. Abe continues ahead. I wait to photograph the three boys riding and walking up the hill. Once again they congregate in front of me. Mutiny is imminent. “We must go home’,  they confess. Their greater concern is how they will descend this road. Their tires, they have learned, will likely slide over the loose surface. I gesture downward and exclaim that this is the reward in cycling. “Going down is the fun part!” They laugh, nervously.

I organize the group for a photograph which they willingly and politely oblige. And then, as I have come to expect, the blond boy removes his backpack and digs deeply, unearthing a Huawei smartphone. “Do you have Instagram?”, he asks, passing me the phone. I type my name into the search bar and they all crowd around to see. We shake hands, sharing our real names, which I repeat until I’m provided the affirmation that I am pronouncing their names correctly.

———-

///Rasno, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Last night, we rolled through rural Bosnia after crossing the border a few hours before. The sun was dropping and we sought a campsite.

The area is thickly wooded with scrub oak and limestone, dotted with stone houses, so no open space appears and the few fields we passed didn’t appeal as they are planted or gated. We finally rolled into a small town with a church and a football field and a basketball court, and quickly planted ourselves beside the basketball court to eat dinner at sunset. We saw a few people in town and nobody seemed to think much of us. I waved at everyone (of course!) One of these people is an old man who drove up in his white Mercedes. He parked the vehicle and disappeared into the thicket to return with two cows. He drove behind them up the road, honking at them to move along. That is the state of herding animals in Bosnia! The white Mercedes returned a few hours later in the dark, now with another man. The driver remained in the car, the other man got out, I greeted him and worked hard to impress upon him that we were jolly tourists on bicycles. He was telling me something about a “problem”, not sure if we were a problem or if someone else would give us a problem and we should beware. They left, we set up camp in a small field behind the courts to be a little more discreet. It is not uncommon for people to attempt to dissuade me from sleeping outside, sighting all kind of “dangers”. We lay down looking at the stars.

A few hours later a police car rolls by slowly, flashing blue lights. It passes, and returns a few minutes later to drive onto the ball court. This time, the officer gets out of the vehicle and looks around with a flashlight. He approaches us. A young man is with him, tall and slender and handsome. He speaks near perfect English. The officer requests my passport. In no time the young man, not much more than a boy, admits to me in English that there isn’t really a problem. But, we must walk over to the ball court and present our passports to the police officer, who has his trunk open so he can fill out paperwork. Typical European bureaucratic style requires the officer know what city I live in and my profession and my parents names and where they were born. We oblige, the boy is most helpful. The police officer is obviously a small town guy, because the procedure excites him and he takes is very seriously. The officer is impressed that I speak some Hrvatske (Croatian), although I admit that I really don’t. I tell him that I know some Ukrainian and that my mother is “Ykrainka”. At which point— this has happened twice in a week— they refer to a recent football game between Ukraine and Croatia, which I know nothing about. I pretend to follow the conversation.

A man lurks in the shadows, who I recognize as the man I spoke with earlier, who I now consider an active informant in the affair. Another man remains at the far end of the court, deeper in the shadows, who I assume to be the Mercedes cowboy, seemingly too cowardly to confront us on any level.

The police officer is satisfied with our papers, which is good because I think we illegally crossed the border through a farm field earlier in the afternoon. The man who is the active informant comes closer as the proceedings come to a close. He is the one who makes reference to the Croatia-Ukraine soccer game. I laugh as if I know what the hell he is talking about but I don’t follow sports and know nothing of the match. He likes that.

I ask Ante, our 18 year old translator about his life, where he grew up; “Oh, you go to university in Mostar? How is it?”. He informs us that Mostar is a nice city and there is a Red Bull cliff diving event in progress right now. The active informant, who has moved out of the shadows and into our inner circle pulls out a pack of Marlboro cigarettes and offers one to me, Abe looks over and is offered a cigarette as well. The police officer pulls out his own pack of cigarettes and we stand around in the bright lights of the basketball court of a small Bosnian town for a few minutes as friends, smoking cigarettes and laughing. Ante clarifies that the reason we were questioned was because they don’t normally have people in their village like this, and someone called the police to check on us. Furthermore, they are concerned for our safety, because there might be wolves and it will be cold at night. Had we had wanted we could have slept near the church and would have been provided with water and possibly food.

Before we part ways I joke that these are our first friends in Bosnia. Everyone seems satisfied to hear that. Ante recommends a nearby cave which we might like to visit in the morning, because Abe is a geologist. We all shake hands and say goodbye, “Dobre večer”. Welcome to Bosnia.

———-

///Bosnia-Croatia border

I’m listening to Deer Tick on my headphones, over and over and over. The song is “Twenty Miles”. When I find a good thing, I just want to hit the repeat button, over and over. I fall asleep to the song, I wake up to the song. I listen to it for an hour at a time during the day while riding. I’m in a melancholic euphoria— it is a sunny day and Abe and I are riding back to Split from Mostar, Bosnia, but ’ve just learned a few days ago that there is a family emergency back in New York and I feel responsible to be there as soon as possible. From Mostar, I’ve found a $400 plane ticket from Split back to New York City, so we’re pedaling back to Split along the same route we used to get to Mostar.

Abe is riding ahead and we’ve just navigated a segment of grassy doubletrack farm roads in a broad agricultural valley. As our tires pass onto a well-used gravel surface Abe pulls a Laško beer out of his Feed Bag and opens it, riding one handed. This is the exact moment when I sense a vehicle behind me. I look back to find a small white sedan with flashing lights, clearly marked Policija. I shout at Abe. No response, he also has headphones in his ears. I shout again, louder. He cranes this neck backward, apparently stunned by the scene but as certain as ever he slides his beer back into the bag on his handlebar. We pause about 20 yards from each other as the vehicle pulls up next to me.

The passenger window drops. I greet the two men in Croatian, but that’s about as far as I can go. The driver transitions to English with ease and informs me that we have just crossed the border into Croatia, illegally. I am ignorant, mostly, and I play the part. I inquire about the nearby paved roads and checkpoints, and act surprised to learn that there are border checkpoints there. Interesting.

Here’s the truth: we passed these exact same roads in the opposite direction less than a week ago without issue. At the time we wondered whether this border was manned by border agents. If traveling on a main road, would there be an actual border crossing? Most EU countries have open borders and we’ve become accustomed to passing borders without showing passports or without seeing border police. But we both know with 99% certainty that Bosnia and Herzegovina is not currently in the EU. Perhaps they are slated to join the EU and are in the Schengen Area? On our route into Bosnia last week I scoured my GPS maps for signs of an actual border station along the main roadways, but nothing appears. Most often the OSM maps on my Garmin will show these checkpoints. None appear. So on our route into Bosnia we pass a series of little used farm roads along unplanted fields into the country, illegally.

Yet on our way back into Croatia we follow the exact same path with a different result.

The younger police officer— the driver— exits the vehicle and asks for our passports. We provide them and they disappear into the vehicle. There is no sense of urgency or the feeling of actual transgression. The entire exchange is procedural. The officer returns to us and informs us that we will most likely need to visit the station in Imotski, and to be honest, he’d rather not see his boss either. I plead with him, “can’t we just go around to the road and pass through the border the right way?” He laughs, and declines to cooperate with my plan. There are cameras, he tells me. And since we’ve triggered the system we’re responsible to continue down this path. The system will decide what to do with us. The officer pulls out a silver case with loose tobacco and rolling papers. Abe does the same, and on both sides of me men focus on a small piece of paper in their hands as cigarettes are in progress. This is how you pass time and commune as friends in the Balkans. I inquire about the area, as I relight my poorly rolled cigarette. Where did you grow up?

The officer points up to the hillside. “You see that house, with the red roof? The one to the left is mine.”

I ask how old he is, figuring it more polite to do the math myself to see how old we was during the Bosnian War than to ask outright.

“I’m one year younger than you”, he replies with a smile. I blush, remembering that even though we are speaking as friends and sharing a cigarette, he is my captor and holds my passport hostage. We both laugh.

The phone rings. We are informed that we must go to Imotski to the station. A van will soon arrive to transport us. There may be a fine, there may not.

A van arrives, a Mercedes Sprinter or a similarly shaped vehicle with armor over the windshield and lights with the word Policija written all over. The two rear doors are opened and we are told to get in with our bikes. The back of the van only has one small window into the cab, and the space is finished with stainless steel from floor to ceiling, wall to wall. We are officially getting a ride in a Croatian paddy wagon. The van bumps over country roads, turning onto pavement and lurching up a steep hill to the police station. We leave the bikes inside the van and enter the station to meet the captain.

A man in plain clothes, well dressed and attractive, is apparently the person we didn’t want to see but at first meeting he seems polite and professional. Our captor relays the details of our situation, and I can understand just enough of what he is saying in Croatian to know that he is advocating for us. He isn’t making a hard sell, but he includes all the details which I intentionally inserted into our conversation to hopefully illicit some leniency. I hear him, “they had a map with some roads on it… going home to New York because someone is his family is sick…”

The small office party grows. Four men are now five and six as curiosity builds. We really aren’t criminals, I know that and everyone here knows that, but I also feel greatly out of place now that I am in a small room with fluorescent lighting. Abe and I are both tanned with sunburnt faces; bearded, dirty, and momentarily morose. It is times like this when I wish I had shaved and worn a nicer shirt, but I keep a smile as much as possible and answer all of the captain’s questions with care. I provide the same details which he has just heard from our captor. He is satisfied, then the room sets about to decide our fine. There is much chatter, there are occasional outbursts of laughter, and I keep hearing 300-something in the Croatian language. In Croatian currency, kuna, 300 would only be about $50 USD.

The captain returns to us and informs us that if we wish to accept the charge and pay the fine we will be free to go. We must only pay 2000 kuna, but if we pay now we are only responsible to pay 2/3 of the fine, or about 1300 kuna plus a few small processing fees. That’s $200 USD! I must have misheard their conversation, they were saying one-thousand and three hundred. Technically, I can afford it but I pretend to be outraged, politely. “That’s a lot of money”, I say out loud. I’m stalling, hoping that perhaps someone will sympathize and just crumple the papers into the trash. Abe is quick to tell them that we have the money and we would be happy to pay. I’m a serial negotiator thanks to my mom and I’d prefer to dig my heels in a minute before giving into the fine. I enjoy my moment of indignant bargaining and then I too am bored and want to get out of this place. We agree to pay the fine and sign on the dotted line.

Our captor escorts us outside to another vehicle, an unmarked car, and we drive further up the hill to the bank. There we are allowed to exchange and withdraw money to pay the fine. Official paperwork documents the details of our fine and we pay through the cashier at the bank, who notarizes the documents. The process take much too long. There are multiple forms and fees and I want to double-check ever piece of paper even though it looks official and the entire process is professional.

We are in a bank in the middle of the afternoon with two police officers. We are two dirty, bearded men standing at the counter paying their way out of something. The room can’t help but stare. Bank agents come out of their glass cubicles and hover at the edge of the room to spectate, whispering to one another. A young mother walks into the bank with her son, who is elated to see police officers and calls out to them. The younger officer replies with a smile and a wave. We collect our papers and drive back down the hill to the station. There, our bikes are released from the back of the van. I shake hands with our benevolent captor and ask to take a photo with him. Without hesitation, he agrees and we shake hands again. I thank him and he says, “next time you come to Croatia you come find me, so I don’t have to find you.”

———-

Split draws tourists from all over Europe and the world who explore the touristic old city and the nearby islands. The mountains in the background are calling.

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We spend a few days in a well-priced apartment in a neighborhood of Split, several kilometers from the bustle of the tourist center.

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Nationalistic imagery is still alive in urban Croatia.

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The city is growing with new development. The touristic economy is very important to Croatia.

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Abe mapped a route with Komoot from Split to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even before leaving town we find a few dirt roads.

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Olive and fig trees line our route out of the city.

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At a fountain near the edge of town, we assemble a short-lived Croatian bike gang these three young boys.

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Ah, a boy’s first hike-a-bike.

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These three boys really were inspiring. They were kind and open to meeting new people, and their curiosity brought them far up a hill out of town, where they’d never gone before. Mountain biking and cycling in general is a universal concept— a universal conveyance and a universal joy.

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Finally, we reach the steep rocky mountainsides visible from town.

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Where fires burned earlier in the summer.

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Everything is built from limestone around here.

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Cetina River, popular for rafting with its green waters and limestone canyons.

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Here, limestone has formed a large crater-like valley.

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With several karst lakes in the area. They are hundreds of feet deep.

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The emblem of the Hajduk Split football club joined by violent nationalistic imagery and an odd Confederate flag.

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Imotski, as seen from out first pass through this valley, immediately prior to our first illegal border crossing.

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The internet says there are roads here, and there were no signs to warn us of an illegal border crossing. Without incident we ride right into Bosnia.

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On our first evening, we exchange money and learn the lay of the land in a new country.

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Our route winds through a rocky landscape covered in scrub oaks and scattered farm plots.

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The village of Rasno is the site of our meeting with the local Bosnian police. At sundown we sit on this basketball court and enjoy dinner. By dark, we are camped behind the basketball court. A couple hours later, blue lights arrive.

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Leaving Rasno.

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En route to Mostar, we race from rainclouds.

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One final valley to cross, one final climb, and then a big descent to Mostar.

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The city unveils a different landscape— bigger mountains, bigger valleys. Bosnia is actually a very mountainous country.

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And we look forward to a 5000ft climb out of town.

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We burn up our brake pads on the steep descent into town on narrow lanes, stopping only to fill up on figs.

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Kiwis in the wild!

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Mostar was the site of prolonged conflict during the Bosnian War. Much of the city is rebuilt and is now a popular touristic destination. However. abandoned and damaged buildings still remain.

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This is the first time where we see a large number of mosques, and we begin to unravel the details of the country. About 50% of the population are Bosniaks, who are Muslim. while the remaining people are Croats and Serbs who share cultural elements and a similar language but strongly identify as different ethnic groups.

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Mostar is named for a famous Ottoman bridge build across the Neretva River, the mostari were the bridge keepers who managed the resource. Most is the local Serbo-Croatian word for bridge.

The bridge was destroyed in 1993 by Croat artillery fire.

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Bustling touristic markets surround the old town and the Stari Most.

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While graffiti colors newer parts of town.

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This large building is still abandoned and shows signs of war.

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Elsewhere, the city exhibits typical concrete-block apartment buildings. After decades of habitation, these austere buildings take on a colorful and organic character.

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Resupply.

While in Mostar I decide that I need to be back in New York with my family, and we both purchase plane tickets back to the US.

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Thus, we retrace our tracks backs to Split. If feels strange reversing our forward-looking trajectory, but Abe and I agree that it is fun to revisit the same places. Where know all the swimming holes, and the best cafes, and the best campsites. We’ll be back.

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Fields of these leafy plants topped with pink flowers are everywhere. I speculate, but am not quite sure.

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Until I meet this man and his son. His son was crouched in the grass wrenching on a bicycle which was much too tall for him. He leads me to his father.

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They are harvesting tobacco, locally called duhan.

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The yellow leaves are harvested and will be dried and cut before being sold. I shake the man’s hand, which is coated in a sticky residue from the tobacco leaves.

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It is a beautiful plant. The only other place I’ve seen tobacco growing was in Albania and there it was a much shorter plant. These plants are nearly as tall as me.

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Back through Rasno, back toward the Croatian border.

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We enjoy camping next to a tobacco field, and preparing Turkish coffee the right way with out newest souvenir. I purchased a cezve in Mostar to bring back to some friends in Alaska, but I feel I need to impart the terroir of the place onto the equipment before giving it as a gift. More reasons to sit around in the morning sun and drink lots of coffee.

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Ominous clouds roll in for our second illegal border crossing. At this point, we aren’t thinking anything about anything, just riding out bikes and listening to music and having a good time.

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Twenty minute later we are in the back of a police van. I’m not sure Abe is as amused as I am. I love meeting the local people!

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it was an expensive taxi ride and tour around Imotski, but I greatly enjoyed spending time with my captor, whom I now consider a friend. Next time, I’ll find him so he doesn’t have to find me.

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As we roll away from the police station the stories come rolling out about what I thought and what Abe thought and what they might do and all the possible scenarios. I’d rather not entangle myself with the law, but in this case it was a positive experience. The Croatian border police were ultimately professional and courteous.

We camp in the same crater-like valley.

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Ride the same postcard quality dirt roads.

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Visit the Cetina River again.

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Visit the same cafes, although this time we arrive just in time for the town to celebrate a wedding. The bartender is serving alcohol in the middle of the road as a car drives through with a flare. These people know how to party!

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We both want to keep up this lifestyle. We both love the sun and the coffee and the vigorous rides. But for now, I must return to New York. It has been two months.

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Abe has been such a great traveling partner. It is powerful to be able to travel with others who share the same sense of adventure, a similar carefree attitude, and a love for nature. he is also an excellent rider— i am not accustomed to chasing people on climbs! I’ve shared time with lots of people on bike tours, and it can be a gamble. Our partnership was a powerful and productive thing. I look forward to sharing the trails with you again soon Abe!

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Back in Split, we arrange bike boxes and stuff our faces with burek before we return to the land of uninspiring supermarkets and winter.

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Swimming, and some local microbrews. The beer is named Barba, which means beard.

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One last look at Croatia. I return to New York, Abe returns to Alaska. We’re both planning our next adventure already. Most recently, Abe has mentioned plans to ride in Arizona and Baja this winter. It will be hard not to join him as those are some of my favorite places to ride.

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The finer points of bikepacking, packing the bike and transporting a bike box!

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We carry the boxes across town to the bus terminal, pack our bikes across the street, and board the bus to the airport.

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Goodbye Croatia! I hope to be back soon. I’m already scheming to be back here next fall with a projected route and a group of friends. Linking existing routing in Croatia (the Adriatic Crest Route) and Greece (Greek Bike Odyssey) provides bookends to a possible Balkan Bikepacking Traverse, aka The Burek Tour. We’ll see what next year brings, but I would love to return. And at long last, I would love to get back to Albania!

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