Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What are you sinking about?

I’ve seen the MV Explorer in 22 different ports since 2005, and the view from the ship in some of these places have been stunningly beautiful (Hong Kong and Cape Town are two of my favorites). But none of them have been as quaint and picturesque as our little home in Dubrovnik, Croatia, with it’s light-colored houses topped by red-tiled roofs surrounding the little bay we were in.

Dubrovinik has been the surprise revelation of the trip so far. In sharp contrast with everything in Italy, we found an extremely clean, friendly, calm city, as if tourists hadn’t discovered it yet. It probably helped that we arrived in the middle of the week, during a European economic crisis, but that first day in Dubrovnik was one of the most lovely, peaceful, carefree days I can ever remember. The city quickly shot up into one of my favorite places in the entire world).

And what a place it is. It is a really modern city, with one of the most amazingly well-preserved medieval centers, the Old Town, with its massive white walls surrounded by the Ocean. We met Tom and Karen after they ferried over from Italy the day before we arrived, and spent the rest of the day walking around the old town and the walls, enjoying the magnificent view of the emerald and green Adriatic, and eating seafood and delicious pizza while Tom tried to converse in Croatian with our waiters. It was what I imagine some parts of Italy and Europe looked when tourists and pollution take over.

(And, weirdly enough, they had set up a tennis country in the middle of old town for an exhibition match between John McEnroe and Goran Ivanisec, which while was supposed to be out of view of the unpaying public, things are small and quaint enough in there that it was pretty easy to catch a glimpse of the action from the side. But I digress).

So we packed a lot in there in a few days. On the second day, we went with several friends to a hotel on the west side of town to do some scuba and snorkeling off shore while the kids swam in the hotel swimming pool. It was quite nice, with Elise taking her first ocean swim, but it was highlighted because the Croatia Summit was this week, with many leaders of European countries in town, and in the hotel we were in. Security was incredible, and the Scuba instructor told us Berlusconi was with us. Dave swears the old man in the hot tub with him was the Italian Prime Minister, since security was really present in the pool at that time.

That afternoon Monika and I left Elise with the grandparents, and rented a kayak for the rest of the afternoon. That was hilarious and a lot of fun, especially when we didn’t sink, which we almost did, since we rented a cracked kayak unbeknownst to anyone. The story of those four will be its own entry, and I’ll let Monika describe it from her perspective (which was the dry, comfortable, front half of the boat).

The next day we rented a little boat with a 15-year-old skipper to check out some of the island and beaches around the area, with Dave and Tanya. We jumped in the ocean, stopped by caves along the shore, and Elise enjoyed the water at a sandy beach for the first time in her life. Given how much she enjoyed playing in the sand, then running off to the water to wash it off, then back to playing in the sand, I think we’ll be scheduling more time to take her to the beach from here on out. She really had a great time.

But what stuck with me the most was the car ride back from the boat to the ship. The driver was our skipper’s mom, and she told her a bit about life in Dubrovnik. Life over there is really, really good right now. Really good. She said that “people celebrate more than they work”. The money is coming in from tourism, and the city has been able to keep order.

But she told us how miserable the 1990’s were for her and everyone in the country. Its hard to believe that the quaint little town was part of one of the most brutal conflicts and ethnic cleansing in recent history, and what kills me is how recent it all happened. The area has had an amazing history of conflict under different rulers, but it was quite peaceful and relatively prosperous under the Tito. After his death, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Slobidan Milosovic, a Serb, organized takeover of the Yugoslav republics to all be under super-Serbian control (after a system of apartheid had begun in the area). With that in mind, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, and the international community refused to recognize Croatia for a long time.

Croatia had no army, and without international support, faced retaliation from the Serbian military, who bombed Dubrovnik (a city of little strategic value) to ruble. Our driver delivered her son the day after the bombing of the city, in the hospital with no electricity or water, and delivered her other son (our skipper) later in the war.

And the brutal genocide began, with Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, etc… all cleansing their lands of the “other” people, with a brutality that was described by one of the professors this way:

“Rape has always been used in war, but they turned rape into a violent artform. They would rape women in front of their husbands, kill their husbands, then leave the women to bear the child of different ethnicity in the process of ethnic cleansing”

This was just over a decade ago, and of the people we asked about were affected by it. I can’t get my head over it. That everyone was affected by something so brutal not so long ago, and somehow manage to move on, at least superficially, into one of the most friendly and peaceful places in the world.

(They are really friendly. These old women who were sewing along the city walls gave Elise a pair of shoes she knit. We tried to pay her, but she refused – I don’t think I’d ever quite seen that happen before).

I honestly find it very scary, to say the least. Not because they move on, but because it seems like that violence and conflict can actually erupt anywhere, and I’m sure these people would never have imagined the turn their lives were about to make in the early 90s. I’m one of the most optimistic people I know, sometimes unreasonably so, but this is something I think of a lot, especially since having Elise. What kind of world are we leaving her? And the more I think about it, the happier I am that we are raising her in a culture of global awareness and cultural education, because I think this will be one of the most important skills or requirements of her generation. This will be a topic for a later post.

(And about the Balkan War… we visited the war photo museum in Old Town on the last day, and all I could think about is that we have a moral obligation to stop violence around the world. Sounds simplistic, and it may be, and some may consider this being the world police, but doggone it, that genocide was preventable if the international community had stepped in sooner. It’s really sad).

To finish on a good note – the driver told us they had bought some land by the water after the bombing for almost nothing, and that now that the city is doing so well, that they are really well off. I hope that’s the case for everyone who managed to stay in the city through the worst of times.

So now we find ourselves away from one of the most amzing places in the world, and off to Greece (which we can already see out of our window). We look forward to sending more updates then!

(Croatia pictures are at http://picasaweb.google.com/randrade)

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