We were on a cruise ship travelling down the Adriatic Coast and one of our stops was Kotor in Montenegro. Knowing little about Montenegro, I was not aware of the challenges that lay ahead for me that would test my growing fear of heights.
As a history teacher I knew a little about the terrible history of the Balkans. I had taught the unit in Senior History many times called “The Causes of World War One.” This unit touches on the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Balkan Wars pre World War 1 and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. I was aware of the invasion of the Balkans by the Axis powers (Germany and Italy) in the 1940s and the post-war communist history under Tito. Many refugees left Yugoslavia after World War 2 and settled and worked in the suburbs of Sydney and were part of the background of my childhood. More recent history was very visible in the alleys of Dubrovnik…huge posters on the sides of renovated houses telling the terrible story of the bombing of Dubrovnik from the sea during the 1991–1995 Bosnian/Croatian War by Serbian and Montenegrin forces; the walls of Dubrovnik are great tourist attractions but no longer protect its citizens from modern artillery. Modern Montenegro received its independence from Serbia in 2006 and uses the Euro as its currency, unlike Croatian Dubrovnik, and is an applicant to join the European Union. I was to learn much more about Montenegro from our bus tour guide that day.
Kotor, the port city where our cruise liner pulled in, is at the end of a long and picturesque fiord that leads into a beautiful harbor. The activity that we had chosen for our day’s stay was to catch a bus into the hinterland and stop at a ham production facility where we would feast on the local cuisine consisting, so we were told , of local wine and cheese as well as the ham. That I had found myself in another stressful and challenging situation became evident very early in the bus trip. As I have said, Kotor is sited at the end of a fiord and the only way out into the surrounding countryside is up over the mountains that hem it in. So within five minutes, the bus started to negotiate the first of the switchbacks which were to be my continuous companion for the next 30 minutes…27 hairpin bends on a single lane mountain road. Each turn in the road was marked by a small wall which the bus missed by millimeters giving the passengers a remarkable view down the mountain. My caring wife gave me the aisle seat but this made no difference to the beautifully terrifying view that was mine for the rest of the trip up the mountain. The photo below gives a great view of the slowly receding harbour.
Another feature I have come to associate with phobias is a good imagination. No matter what triggers your irrational fears, the impact of your phobia is dependent on your innate ability to imagine the worst that can happen. In the case of sufferers of Agrizoophobia, the fear of wild animals, it is easy to see how any situation of proximity to wild animals would be an easy trigger for one’s heightened fears. Sufferers of Anthophobia, fear of flowers, however strike me as individuals needing an extreme imagination to trigger belief in the imminent dangers from attacks by rogues daisies in the back garden; I presume reading John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids is a well known trigger for this phobia. In my case, all I needed to trigger my rational but worst fears was the reality around me as the bus drove up Kotor mountain …a bus tyre blowing on a tight bend, the bus keeling over from its forward momentum and toppling into space, leaving my wife and I a good 30 seconds, upside down, to pledge our last underlying love until we bounced off the first of many protruding boulders on the long, slow-motion, journey to the bottom of the hill. Thank God for seat-belts!
The only thing that stopped me from curling up on the floor of the bus in a foetal position was the bus guide. I had never met a Montenegrin before and certainly no rumours of the national wry humour had ever come my way but this guy worked his audience all the way up the mountain. He announced early in the trip that his job was perfect for him as Montenegrins are lazy. He illustrated this by telling us his first joke of the day… Cigarette packets in Europe have health warnings written on the front of the packet…It reads “Smoking kills”. The Montenegrin says, “Work kills!”… and sits down and has another smoke. He explained further… “Why would I work hard…look around you at these barren mountains…what can you do here except smoke ham and make cheese (neither of which is over exciting!)”
Half way up the mountain our guide pointed out the almost vertical goat track on the side of the mountain opposite the one we were climbing. “See that goat track over there…that’s the original path into Kotor. Can you imagine taking the donkey up there to get to the nearest shop up country, getting the groceries, coming home down that goat-track and then realising you forgot the salt and had to go back again.”
He told us early in the ride that we were lucky to have the most skilled and experienced bus-driver in Montenegro and that we should not worry about the 27 hairpin bends ahead. Again to illustrate the importance of the bus driver, he told his second joke of the day. A bus driver and priest die and go to heaven. The priest is welcomed and given a small room that he has to share with another priest. The bus driver gets the presidential suite. When the Priest finds this out, he goes to St Peter and puts in a complaint. “How come I get to share a small room and the bus driver gets the presidential suite. I have been a good man all my life, said mass every Sunday, prayed for all my parishioners… and he’s just a bus driver, whoring, drinking…a mountain of sin!” St Peter said, “Well…let’s look at this realistically. Every Sunday you say mass and half the people go to sleep. On the other hand, every day people get on his bus and throughout the journey, everyone prays!!”
We eventually found our way up the mountain and into the hinterland where our ham production facility awaited. As a result of this bus trip, I became very concerned at the ability of Montenego and Montenegrins to maintain any economic activity to feed themselves; apart from tourism of course. The Ham factory was a cantina that also promised us the delights of Montenegrin goat cheese and local wine. One curious fact that I noticed looking around this dilapidated little town set in the most beautiful of valleys was the lack of live stock that might be the source of the cheese and ham…no goats or pigs to be seen. After we inspected the smoke house and the hanging hams, we sat down for our meal break. I asked the bus guide where did the pork legs come from to create the local delicacy. He replied with a shrug, “There are no pigs in Montenegro, all pig meat is imported.” “You have been talking about riding goats a lot…where are they kept?” Again he looked slightly embarrassed and said there weren’t many goats left anymore. “Montenegrins like driving cars these days, not riding donkeys! We may be lazy but we are not stupid.” At this point I was tasting the cheese, a dry fetta variety that left me thirsty for some wine. One sip of that brew indicated that it was neither going to quench my thirst or soothe my palate. “Where does the milk for the local cheese come from? “Well we have a few cows and goats around here but, again, mostly imported milk.” Noticing my failure to finish the wine, he commented… “These people around here also make Grappa. The bus driver always buys some on this trip…half a bottle to get him through the mountain drive and he then rushes home at the end of the tour to consume the other half!”He laughed at his own jokes and then moved off to collect his charges to escort them back down the mountain.
Caricaturing his own countrymen was not the only comment he made about Balkan nationalities. In answer to a question from a passenger about other Balkan confreres, the tour guide started to answer the question by saying, “Please don’t quote me on this”. Out of respect for the source, I claim that any resemblance between any living person and the following descriptions is purely co-incidental. “As I have said already, Montenegrans are known throughout the region as a lazy people. However we all agree that Bosnians lack intellectual capabilities, Croatians think too much of themselves, Serbians are always fired up about their national rights and Macedonians are our opposite, they wish to work all day!”
If all Montenegrins are as lazy as our bus tour guide, the world would be a better place. He was able to happily get over forty nervous foreigners up a murderous mountain road, kept us fully entertained the whole time while at the same time giving us a close insight in to the past and future of his small country. We were a satisfied bunch later that afternoon as we sailed back down the fiord into the Adriatic sunset.