Last day in Croatia. Breakfast consisted of fruit and the last of the Dalmatian version of Cocoa Puffs. As we drove northeast, higher into the mountains, we watched the car thermometer: 12*C... -1*C... until, finally, as we pulled into the parking lot of Plitvitze National Park, it read -4*C. A thin layer of ice covered the pavement... and stairs. We giggled quietly as we joined the spectacle of a large tour group gripping the stair railing, stepping left foot, followed by right foot, left foot, followed by right foot... a single file line, their huge cameras dangling precariously around necks, sailor-style and straw garden hats on heads, moving at snail's pace.
After patronizing the Visitor's Shop for still-warm baguettes and an extra sweatshirt we set off... not quite knowing what to expect...
Plitvitze is a series of 16 lakes interconnected by waterfalls and surrounded by woodland with deer, bears, boars, and wolves, plus rare birds. "Croatia's landscape is similar to New Zealand," our host told us... which planted a little seed in my brain that perhaps we should visit New Zealand when we get a chance...
...crossing the largest of the lakes on an electric boat...
It took us almost three hours to walk from the lowest lake to the highest lake... Three hours of wonder as we took in the paradise-like landscape. (And no one fell in!! ...Such wonder, indeed!)
On the first day that we had arrived in Zadar, our hosts told us to help ourselves to the outdoor barbeque... then must have had second thoughts when we asked them precisely how to operate the "grill" because they quickly offered instead, "Never mind. We'll cook it for you sometime during your visit."
Ryker explained -- his thick Australian accent as fun to listen to as his stories -- that every Croatian household still uses this ancient method of cooking. He pointed to the ovens in the nearby backyards. "The process is simple," he told us. "It just takes time and attention." We watched as he carefully stacked red hot coals on the lid covering the roasting pan.
So, as the sun took it's time setting, Ryker and his wife, Nives, gave us a tour, all the while fascinating us with stories of their lives, their hopes, and dreams. Their passion, contagious.
The children played, content, by the water, skipping rocks, looking for treasures... and crabs...
"Not all of them," Nives said in her soft voice with the strong Australian accent like her husband's.
"No, not all..." he pointed to a few remaining shells of houses nearby. "The villagers didn't have the ammunition we needed to fend them off, but we kept fighting anyway and finally they turned back." We looked at him, wanting him to tell us more. He obliged. "Most of the people in this area fled to Australia for safety."
He told us about another war in his childhood and the memories of his parents fleeing to Australia with him and his brothers. Different wars. Different times. Ryker has memories from both of them.
I know this is bad, but I honestly can't remember what kind of meat Ryker cooked for us! All I know is that it was some of the juiciest, tastiest meat I've had in a long, long time! I guess I was so caught up in the stories that I forgot to take note of some of those finer details. What I remember is that everything was delicious! The whole evening! These people who I so quickly came to love, respect, and admire.
Over dinner we talked about politics, culture, and family. We talked about Jesus and the significance of Easter. We talked about marriage and parenting and the values of our day and the cultural war. We talked late into the night exchanging stories and memories, laughing together... becoming friends.
Our entire time in Croatia was filled with wonderful memories. But this last night was definitely the highlight of our holiday. It always comes down to relationships, doesn't it?