Inking up the blogosphere. And no, I don't glow in the dark. But thanks for asking.

September 16, 2009

Swedish Pop And A Slow Bus

By far my favorite experiences from my time in the Navy were the places I got to see overseas. In the end, I think I visited 11 different countries; most of which I never would have chosen as a destination had I been planning the trip on my own, but ended up having a great time. I truly enjoy travelling—I dig right in and typically try to find the stuff off the beaten path. I seem to be a magnet for the oddball occurrence however. Every place I went overseas I ended up having some kind of screwy or strange experience, most of which translate now into some pretty entertaining stories for my family and friends.

One of the places we made a port visit to was Koper, Slovenia. I remember not being real chuffed at the announcement before we pulled in, because I had never thought of Slovenia as a popular destination. However, I always try to keep an open mind and so I set about planning the itinerary. My two good buddies and I decided that Ljubljana would be the best place to go, being’s as it’s the capital and seemed like it had a lot of really wonderful things to see. So off we set, day packs full of snacks and minds full of tomfoolery.

We managed to get ourselves on a bus despite the obstacle of not a lot of English signage nor us speaking any Slovenian. We were about 75% sure we were on the right bus, mostly based on the utilization of the tried-and-true foreign travel technique of repeating our destination to the driver (“Ljubljana? Is this the bus to Ljubljana? Ljubljana??”) and receiving a head nod in response. Alrighty then, good to go.

We had deduced that Ljubljana was about 75 miles from Koper, and figured we’d be there in 2 hours tops. We only had about 12 hours of liberty time before we had to be back, we all had duty the next day. I calculated 4 hours for travel, 6 hours for fun, and 2 for a margin of error. Well. It became quickly apparent that we had made a critical tactical error in not learning the Slovenian words for ‘Slowest Bus In The Country’, because clearly that was what we had boarded. After more than 3 hours, not only had we not arrived in Ljubljana, but we were starting to worry that perhaps we had unwittingly crossed over into Austria or Yugoslavia or something. I started mentally reviewing the Geneva Convention articles and wondered about extradition treaties.

All three of us were paranoid enough at that point to agree that we needed to get off the bus soon, and so at the next stop we bailed out. It turned out we ended up in the town of Postojna—a truly lovely place. We managed to grab some food, and with the aid of some clever sign language we found the post office, which had a bank of public telephones. I’ll tell you, that was a fun conversation back home: “Hi Mom! Hi honey, where are you? Postonja. It’s in Slovenia. What? Where is that? I have no idea, but it’s beautiful here! Hang on, let me get the atlas.” So after that, we were in a quandary about what to do next.

We found the Postonja Tourism Bureau and went in to see what this burg had to offer. There was a wonderful woman who spoke perfect English, who recommended we go see the local Predjama Castle. Sweet! Anything involving castles, I’m in. It turned out that there wasn’t a real taxi service in town, but she promised that she would arrange for transportation to get us up to the castle and back. We waited outside, and before long an unmarked black Mercedes pulled up and a surly looking man dressed in all black got out. The lady from the Bureau came out and told us that for $20 US, he would drive us. I don’t know what the guys were thinking, but it looked pretty shaky to me—a little too reminiscent of East Germany or something. But we three liked to live on the edge, so we piled in and our driver took off like the Stasi was hot on our tail.

We wound up this narrow mountain road out of town at an insane speed, my buddies and I throwing glances at one another, nobody saying a word. We’d tried to talk to the driver, but just got an impassive look in response. Super. So to take my mind off how nervous I was, I started looking out the window. In just about 2 seconds, I forgot about the creepy ride from hell I was on: the mountains rose up like saw teeth, perfectly purple and snowcapped. We started seeing these little cottages with actual thatched roofs, and it looked like we had been dropped out of the sky into a Hans-Christian Anderson story. Phenomenal!

You know in the movies when a beautiful reverie is interrupted by the sound of the record scratch? Well, halfway up that mountain, our driver popped in a cassette tape, and at high volume out came… ABBA. Actually, it was an ABBA medley mix. For the final 15 minutes of our drive, our scene was set to ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Fernando’, ‘Waterloo’, and ‘Take A Chance On Me’. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. To this day, I can’t hear an ABBA song without thinking of that trip!

At any rate, we arrived at the Predjama Castle, which is an architectural marvel, built right up against a 400 ft. sheer cliff face so that it looks like it is carved right out of the rock. It has a built in tunnel connecting the castle with a massive natural cave in the mountain, where it was used historically for a smuggling cache, storage of goods, and defensive hideout for when the residents were being besieged. They have done a good job at restoring the castle, and it now operates as a museum of sorts, displaying artifacts of medieval life.

The Slovenia trip is one that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Despite the fact we never got to Ljubljana, we were blessed with seeing some remarkable things and still managed to make it back to the ship safely and in one piece—always a plus. Zdravo Slovenija, mi had a velik cas!