Slavonski Brod. Monday, August 18, 9am. Wheel the bike out of the arched tunnel entrance leading into the courtyard fronting Sobe Levicki.
Greeted by the chink of coffee cups and the chatter of university students on vacation.
Stride past the cafe bars either side of the cobbled street and walk away fast.
Away from the Sava and the bridge to Bosanski Brod and Modrica but most of all as far away as I can from those two nights alone in the hospital emergency ward.
How could I hope of cycling all the way to Dubrovnik – one thousand kilometres away – in this condition?
The food poisoning I had contracted in Bosnia shattered my rhythm and almost broke my spirit.
But things often feel worse than they actually are when I’m alone in a room shut away from the life on the street outside.
Get out fast and forget all about having been sick – that’s over now.
Somehow I still had to believe my dream of cycling on to Medugorje was possible even though I couldn’t face cycling through Bosnia just yet. Best to trek across the Croatian interior and break for the coast and tack along the Adriatic until I finally approached Metkovic – that’s where I would cross over the border back into Bosnia before cycling on south in the direction of Ston, Broce and Dubrovnik.
Stiff right leg up and clear of the top tube.
Grip down tight onto the drop handlebar hoods.
Back arched forward.
Brooks B-17 leather seat pushing me up and urging me on.
Feeling better now.
Roll past the train station – I shan’t be needing that I’m sure! How I hate to think about the surly and uncommunicative babushka who sent me packing yesterday with her indisputable “nema Angleski, nema bicikla”!
Five, ten, fifteen kilometres. Hey, this is really happening!
Nova Gradiska . Stop for bread rolls from the pekara and peppermint tea served with honey and brown sugar from the cafe across the road.
Warm smile of the incredulous waitress so very pleasantly surprised I should carry my coffee cup and saucer back to the counter. No one ever does that!
I dare telling her I’m cycling on alone to Dubrovnik – I’m usually very cautious when speaking about how far I mean to go with people I meet for the first time. Not because I doubt their good intentions but because I need to feel that here’s a person worth talking to, a person who can understand why I’m cycling out here alone.
Many times I say it’s ten perhaps twenty kilometres further on down the road – these folk are the ones I sense could never fathom why anyone would attempt searching for life’s meaning and derive spiritual growth in the process by means of persisting at cycling on alone for thousands of kilometres at a stretch.
This waitress wasn’t like that.
I had never met her before and had only spoken to her for a few minutes and I was sure I’d never see her again after I cycled away.
And yet I was certain I could trust her with my dreams.
Astonished “good luck!” accompanied by a mourning, wistful sadness in her eyes.
No, I’m not imagining all that for I catch her glance and read her soul just as she turns her back to get on with the mundane task of washing up my cup and saucer.
I get back into the saddle and sense that I was right to trust her.
She turns and stares straight back at me as I walk past the other men sitting at the tables – all of them locals.
I know that stare and I know what she’s feeling because I’ve felt that same way myself before.
It’s a feeling I get each time I encounter some brave soul strong and determined enough to live out a dream.
But how could I cycle all the way to Kutina in just one day?
I force myself to believe I can keep on doing this and manage to struggle through all of the 127 kilometres from Slavonksi Brod on my first day out.
Seven and a half hours in the saddle and my God what a day it’s been!
Finding a place to stay the night isn’t easy though – the only house renting out rooms is closed for redecoration.
And so I cycle back past the church and down the hill to the town centre.
Tired and hot and flushed and waiting for red to turn to green at the street lights opposite the bank and the disco bar and the pekara and people strolling down the pavement.
People strolling down the pavement past the bank and the bar and the bakery and going on with their daily routines, oblivious of this cyclist just out of hospital and cycling solo across Croatia…
“Use your tent!“, yelled out of the ramshackle Skoda edging in so close the front bumper just misses nudging my rear left pannier.
How could this guy know what’s best? He’s driving back home for God’s sake and I’m here on the street pushing the bike and wondering how on earth I’ll be cycling on for another month, another two thousand kilometres!
The overpriced three star Hotel Kutina is a drab affair and breakfast at seven hardly palatable.
Lukewarm coffee and stale bread rolls are the only safe choice with my stomach in such a poor state.
Only make sure you steer wide clear of the omelettes, salami, ham and sausages.
So slice up the bread and plaster on the jam and honey thick and pasty and hope for better luck on the road today!
Glina. Distance from Kutina – 85 kilometres. 5pm.
I had cycled through this war scarred town two years before on my way back to Malta from the Ukraine and remembered the park and the welcome cool shade of bowering branches thick with leaves.
Time to call it a day and try my luck with finding a room at the Restaurant Cassini fifty metres away on the corner of the main pedestrian street.
The waitress doesn’t speak any English and greets me with such a scowl I almost give up without even trying. But I’m exhausted and swallow my pride and try to explain that all I want is to stay the night. I’m ready to pay her price as long as I can take the bike up with me into the room.
She doesn’t understand a word. Worse – she looks like she couldn’t care to help even if she understood what I am trying so hard to tell her…
An old Croatian-German lady sitting close by with her family at one of the tables on the terrace outside notices my plight and walks straight up to me – she offers to translate.
But the waitress won’t budge from scowling and I know there shan’t be a room for me tonight.
But the old lady doesn’t give up. She means to help me as much as she can:
“There’s a really nice hotel at Topusko – you must go there.”
“But how far is it? It’s getting late!”
“Fourteen kilometres – go on you can make it – I know you can.”
Her kind words, her human warmth give me strength and push me back onto the road for yet one more hour.
But it sure proves worth it – twelve kilometres down the road and a signpost “Topusko” pointing me in the direction of a narrow, winding country road climbing steeply upwards into the hills and forest at dusk.
And I finally find my room at a guesthouse two kilometres away from the spa hotel and village centre.
Wash up fast and hurry back out and walk briskly down the road to the village before it gets too dark.
I carry a bike light along with me. It shall be a pitch black walk all of the way back – no street lamps lighting the way to this enchanting village down by the lake.
Happy to be out here walking alone at dusk.
Silence except for the long drawn out howling and barking hovering across the lake.
What a lake! How I envy the guy fishing from the stone bridge! I try a smile and he smiles back at me and casts away.
How I’d love to be back at dawn and take a picture of that house propped up on flimsy wooden stilts.
How I’d love to take a picture of the golden first light raking across the water so still and silken and striking the house setting it on fire with the colours of dawn.
Dinner at the hotel – mushroom soup, grilled vegetables, sparkling mineral water and black coffee.
No hotel taxi back to my guesthouse – walk into the night, across the fields and onto the road up the hill.
I know I can’t wait around and I shan’t return to the lake at dawn.
That’s why I took the picture when the fisherman smiled and cast his line and went on fishing.
All Text and Photographs Copyright (c) David Bugeja 2014