The Quest For the Missing Camera
The bus for Podgorica left Sarajevo in a deep gorge carved by a white water river that cut out tunnels in the cliffs and left standing rocky spires with green wigs of shrubbery. One of the window panes was filled with glass that vibrated with the bus like an oscilloscope hooked up to a death metal song. Mountainous ridges, green and brown with pine and cedar and oak, fell away into meadows and pastures shattered by the abandoned ruins of houses and by piles of tires and rubble, the ground patched with cumulus shadows.
On the border between Bosnia and Montenegro, scrawny green tees climb up from the turquoise water of a reservoir into the folds of slate cliffs, which open to rolling green highlands, then sheep-speckled pasture rimmed with scree and firs and snow-capped hills.
That is where I lost my camera. The Bosnian border guards took our passports and spent an anxious 10 minutes checking them. It always takes a while to get mine back, since the same people who have no problem pronouncing Salihamidic cannot say McDonald. Anyway, we moved ahead to the Montenegro border, where more guards checked our passports and went through our bags. While this was happening, I realized I did not have my camera.
I looked around, then turned to the four college-aged guys who were sitting near me in the back. Up until that point they had been noisily blasting a Yugoslavian radio station and joking around. When I asked them if they had seen a camera anywhere around, it became their personal quest to uncover the missing artifact.
One of them began interrogating me about the camera and where I had last seen it with a forensic scrutiny he must have gleaned from CSI while the other three searched the floor, upturned the ragged seat cushions, and felt around the overhead shelf. This proved fruitless.
"I'm sure it will turn up," I said hopefully.
"No," said one of them. "If you don't find it now, it is gone." He started explaining the physics of bus locomotion to me, and how when the bus slowed the camera would slide toward the driver, where someone might have stolen it, but much of this very technical exposition was lost in translation.
I was not taking this seriously enough, so they all started yelling at the bus driver, and one ran up to the front of the bus and had the driver stop on the side of the road so we could make a more thorough search without being interrupted inertia and bad highway maintenance.
"Jon," they said, "look in your briefcase again. If it is not in there, someone may have stolen it." I looked, and there it was, a glittering prize under my notebook and tattered Balkans guidebook. "We found the camera!" they yelled.
For the next few hours we were best friends. They were from Montenegro, and their names were Damir, Wally, Dennis, and Denis. I explained my trip and why the hell I was in Bosnia and where else I was going.
"You must be careful in Russia," said Denis. "Many terrorists."
"Jon, tell the truth: Did you think we steal the camera?" asked Damir from the back seat.
"No. You seem like honest guys."
This did pacify him, and we talked about books and movies ("Michael Bay! He is great director!") and bemoaned Montenegro's misfortunes. "We are so behind. So behind America," he said, waving at the shallow gorge out the window, which was as wide as the Grand Canyon and carpeted with firs. A few brick homesteads peeked out like breakers, but it was largely untouched.
"We have natural beauty," Damir continued, "but no industry; no economy; no culture. Since Greater Yugoslavia dissolved, we have nothing."
Damir went to talk to the only girl on the bus and the other three, by shouting, howling, serenading, and throwing things onto his head, did their best to embarrass him and thwart his courtship.
When we docked in the Podgorica bus station, they shouted, "Hurry up Jonnie!" and invited me to visit Ulcinj, a one-time pirate haven near the Albanian border, and stay with them someday. "I have girlfriends coming from Sarajevo. Two girlfriends. One for you."
From Podgorica, which is a dump, I went straight to Kotor on the coast, which someone in Herceg Novi told me was cool. A minibus left 20 minutes later. We drove up switchbacks on one side of a huge coastal cliff and down more on the other, and I looked onto familiar Dalmatian ridges and the glittering blue sward of the Adriatic.
Kotor is an old triangular-shaped fortress town that sticks out into Europe's most southern fjord with small, unnamed streets that you learn by heart after an hour of aimless wandering. Courtyards of canopied cafés surround old stone churches, of which there are a number disproportionate to the town's small size. There is a big castle complex on the ridge above the town, and I spent most of Friday climbing around on it and on the rocky hills behind it with the carefree zeal of a fifth grader.
It's a big vacation town for the rest of former Yugoslavia, which is how I met Lemon from Macedonia and a lot of young people from the other Balkan states, who pretty universally speak English.
I stayed in Kotor with a severe woman named Branko Kralj who owned a little boutique across the street from her apartment. She was very entrepreneurial and had ten beds, not including those occupied by her two children, who were older than me and did not seem at all happy that I was there. Her son rolled his eyes every time he saw me on his way to the television.