Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Peace followed by turmoil

When researching things to do in Split, we would inevitably happen upon information and pictures about Plitvice Lakes National Park.  Rick Steves (one of our favorite and trusted traveler writers) writes that it is one of Europe’s most exotic hikes. He also described the national park as "a European Niagara Falls, diced and sprinkled over a heavily forested Grand Canyon."  If you google Plitvice, you will see pictures that blow your mind.  How could we be so close to something this incredible and not make the effort to go and see for ourselves?!

Since the park is located in the interior of Croatia, we had to figure out a way to get there.  Our options were to either take a 4 hour bus ride or a 2.5 hour car ride.  To make the trip as comfortable for our family, we decided to go the rent-a-car route.  In order to make the most of the given day light, we decided to leave Split around 6 p.m., spend the night at a bed and breakfast near the park, and then wake up early to begin our adventure within the park.  This ended up being a great plan that worked really well for us.  

Bobby enjoyed driving in a country that he couldn't read the road signs in a car in which he couldn't figure out how to reverse.  Liam was beyond excited to be able to ride in a car.   Amelie and Liam played on my iPhone and napped during the trip.   Finding the house in which we rented a room was very difficult in the mountains in the dark.  Bobby pulled into one driveway and realized it was not correct.  We had to get out of the car and push it back to the road since we didn't know how to reverse...oh, silly Americans!!  Once we got to our destination, the host showed Bobby how to reverse and we were good to go from that point forward...see what I did there?...forward... ;)

We planned ahead and brought with us the needed food for our stay.  I mentioned that we stayed in a bed and breakfast, but they didn't provide breakfast so I guess it was just a Bed.   We brought with us chocolate croissants and bananas.  Amelie and Liam were in heaven having chocolate for breakfast.  

Because Plitvice is north of Split and at a higher elevation, it was cold!  Temperatures were below freezing in the morning hours, but rose as the day progressed.  We wore multiple layers of clothes, as well as all of our winter gear (hats, scarves, gloves).  However, it was worth going the distance and braving the cold to spend the day at this park.  We would have definitely enjoyed visiting in the summer with warmer temperatures, but we are thankful to have been able experience this marvel at all.

The national park is comprised of 16 lakes that spill over into each other creating cascading waterfalls.  The lakes are surrounded by thick forests which are inhabited by bears, wolves, and many other rare animal and plant species.  We were on the look out for wildlife, but never saw anything other than fish and birds.  We enjoyed walking on the trails, many of which go over the lakes and the falls.  Here are just a few of the almost 400 pictures we took during our visit:
When we entered the park we were greeted by a stunning view of this large waterfall.
This park is not designed with small children in mind.  A stroller (even our trusty BOB) would not have made it through the park.  There were very few rails, but there were numerous canyon drop-offs and raging water enter points. We had to hold Liam's hand fiercely almost the entire day.
Because of the composition of the rocks, there are lots of minerals in the water making it super clear and vibrant green-blue in color.  We could see clearly deep into the water.
The paths over the lakes were a lot of fun, but were also challenging.  The boardwalk was not composed of flat planks, but rather of highly contoured and gap-filled sticks.  I might not have noticed so much had there not been icy patches and I was not trying to keep a 2-year old from falling in the water.
Does this look as precarious as it felt at the time?
At one point Bobby leaned over and told Amelie that the way I was walking will be how I walk when I am 90 years old.  Again, it was beautiful and there were only a couple of parts that were really icy.

It was a lot of fun seeing the fish!
Do you see the icicles?
After hiking for a couple of hours, we pulled out nuts, fruit, and crackers for our picnic lunch while we waited for an electric boat to take us across one of the larger lakes.   The sunshine was amazing and helped warm us up too.
The boats are super quiet.
Liam  enjoying his ride on the boat.
We walked along the trails near the upper lakes.  We tried to walk to the upper lakes but on our way, a bus happened by.  The bus passed us, went 30 feet, and then reversed and picked us up.  There was an American couple in their 70's on the bus.  She had a bum hip so the park set up the bus to take her around so she could view the waterfalls.  We found out that the upper lakes trails were closed due to the icy conditions.  So, we actually lucked out in that we could see the lakes without having to walk for an hour to get there.

Bobby, Amelie, and Liam would find sticks (pirate boats) to throw in at the top of the falls and then watch it make its way down to the bottom.

The lake was so still that the reflection is a perfect mirror.
We had an amazingly peaceful day enjoying being outside exploring through the park together.  When the sun started to set around 4 p.m. we were arriving to our car.  Perfect timing!  The kids rested in the warmth while we drove back to Split.

Once we got back to Split, Bobby dropped us off near our apartment while he went to return the rental car.  He was expected to be gone for between 10-15 minutes and then we were going to grab dinner on the Riva.  This is the point that the story starts to go downhill.  After around an hour with two hungry children and no sign of Bobby, we decided to gear up to go looking for him.  Keep in mind we are tired, had been hiking all day, and were hungry.  I headed to the rental car office where Bobby was supposed to drop the key.  I could see the key drop as it was enclosed in glass.  There were no keys present.  We then walked to the abandoned hotel where Bobby was supposed to park the car.  Again, there was no sign of him.  At this point, I am beginning to panic.  Where could he be?!  We walked back to the apartment to see if he was there, but he was not.  I knew that a rental car agent was picking up the keys between 8 and 8:30 p.m.  I had about 20 kunas ($4) so I bought a sausage on the Riva for the kids to share.  We waited outside the rental car office.  Remember things are not located right next door to each other.  I am having to walk around town pushing 2 kids in a stroller.  My thoughts were that if something had happened, then the agent would be able to help me alert police or figure out what went wrong.  After waiting for a half hour, I realized that no one was coming.  I walked back to the apartment to find there was still no sign of Bobby.  I walked back to the rental car office.  I asked a man in his 70's+ if he spoke English and then if he had a cell phone that I could borrow.  I noticed there was an emergency number for the rental agency listed on the front door.  After a little dialogue with the gentlemen he allowed me to use his phone.  Speaking with the rental agency personnel proved not helpful at all.  His only suggestion was to come back in the morning. Um, I want an answer now! At this point 3 hours had passed since Bobby had dropped us off.  I hung up the phone and started crying.  The older man lectured me on not having phones to keep in touch with each other.  He then asked me if I needed to get a drink to calm my nerves down.  He told me I needed to be stronger if I was going to live in Croatia.  He asked me what I was expecting to find.  I told him I didn't know, but I had to look in case my husband had been mugged and was lying on the side of the road.  I should receive a parenting award for saying this in front of my children.  I thanked him for his help and started walking again.  I walked up a steep hill to the street behind the abandoned hotel.  I couldn't hardly remember what the car looked like.  I said this to Amelie and she told me to look for the car seats in the back seat...genius!  I'm glad someone was thinking logically!  We did not find the car.  I walked back to the apartment hoping to find Bobby, but came home to an empty place.  I couldn't help but sob.  I called my mom on Skype to try to frantically fill her in and get some guidance.  Six minutes into our conversation, Bobby walked through the door.  I have never been so happy to see someone in my entire existence.  I'm sure my mom was extremely relieved too.  Amelie and Liam were also glad to have their dad back.  It was very traumatic for us all.  Now, I am sure that my lack of sleep, hiking all day, and lack of food all played apart of my emotions. 

We learned that when returning the car, Bobby realized he needed to fill up the gas.  When turning into the gas station someone rear-ended him.  He had to wait over an hour for the traffic police to arrive on the scene and assess the situation.  He was able to use someone's phone and sent me an email telling me that he was okay.  However, checking email was the last thing on my mind.  It was quite the experience for him as well.  The lady who hit him did not speak English, her husband and friends who showed up did not speak English, and the police who worked the accident spoke almost no English.  However, the lady admitted all fault and they even fed Bobby some homemade sausage and bread while waiting for the notoriously slow traffic cops.  The rental car was not badly damaged nor was Bobby hurt.  If only I had checked my email before going on my crazy 2.5 hour hunt, all would have stayed sane.

We cannot help but be shaped by our experiences.  Our experiences are part of the lens with through which we view life.  I will forever remember the feeling of desperation, anxiety, sense of loss, and fear that accompanied me while I tried to search for Bobby.   Truly every breath, every moment is precious and should be treasured.  

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