Things didn’t exactly go according to plan. My friend Kara was joining me from New York for a week in Croatia and Montenegro. Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, was the cheapest place for her to fly in and out of, so I flew to Podgorica from Nice two days before she arrived. Unfortunately my connection in Istanbul was of the 14 hour overnight variety, so I made myself a bed at Gate 202 based on recommendations from sleepinginairports.net (yes, it’s real). A few days earlier I was walking the red carpet in Cannes; a sobering reminder that everything is fleeting.
When checking Kara’s flight information online I saw that her flight from JFK was delayed, and she only had an hour-long connection in Istanbul. Not knowing whether or not she made it, I checked out of my Airbnb apartment and headed to the airport. The plan was that I would collect her and our rental car, then drive to Dubrovnik where we had another Airbnb apartment waiting for us. I arrived at the airport and got our rental car, but there was no Kara. She missed her connection and was stuck in Istanbul. On top of that there is only one daily flight from Istanbul to Podgorica. Plan A aborted.
Kara managed to get on wifi and told me they put her on the flight the next day. That wasn’t good enough as it meant missing an entire day of her one-week vacation. I found a flight on partner Croatia Airlines that got her into Dubrovnik late that night, so I told her to ask that they put her on that one. Airline workers are not incentivized to help people. They want to figure out the easiest solution and move on, so you have to push. Sometimes a lot. The Turkish Airlines person told her they didn’t fly to Dubrovnik so after a lot of back and forth with Kara insisting they did, I sent her a screenshot showing the flight ON the Turkish Airlines website. The airline worker made a call, and Kara was re-booked through to Dubrovnik. Victory! Now I just had to pick her up. Read my tips for how to deal with missed connections and severe flight delays.
It was about 2pm when all was sorted. Her flight was set to arrive at 10pm so I decided I would check into our apartment before heading to the airport. Without Kara to navigate, I’d have to get there myself. I picked a route that would take me through Bosnia because it was a little quicker and, well, why not drive through Bosnia?
The drive took four hours. I had directions written on paper and my trusty Maps With Me app opened on my phone. With the app, you download country maps and it uses GPS to track you. No cell service or wifi required. It’s magic, and my most favorite travel app.
So off I went in my little compact red stick shift, which thankfully had a USB connection so not only would I have power for my map, but also music. Unfortunately the highway numbers on the map were not signed anywhere on the road, so I had to rely on the map completely to tell me where I was. Then the car started beeping. I didn’t know what it was so I pulled over, turned off the car and restarted. The beeping stopped until about 30 seconds into driving when it started again. I pulled over and got the car manual out of the glove compartment. It was in Montenegrin (or Serbian or some language that was decidedly NOT English). I didn’t know what the beeping was for- was the car about to explode? I tried again and the beeping followed me. Then I looked down towards the gear shift and saw the seatbelt light was on. Thank God; nothing serious.
I undid and redid my seat belt about 50 times. The light never went off. Damn broken sensor! I was really hoping it would stop at some point because four hours of beeping would make me want to drive off a cliff. Thankfully after a few minutes it did. Sanity saved.
Driving through the mountains was gorgeous. Green hills sloped down into valleys dotted with homes or cut by rivers. It was postcard pretty, and although I did stop for a few pics, I missed the really scenic turnouts. A sign would’ve been appreciated: Don’t you dare continue driving until you stop here for a photo! Or something to that effect.
As I continued on, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” played. It was a divine message from Steve Perry himself, so I acknowledged it by cranking up the volume and singing to my out-of-tune heart’s content. I did the same thing about an hour later when Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” came on. The scene from Jerry Maguire where Tom Cruise belts out the song while driving immediately sprang to mind. I’m glad it was that image and not actually free falling down the side of the mountain I was clinging to.
A few days earlier I had downloaded maps for Montenegro and Croatia onto my phone. Not sure why it didn’t occur to me to download Bosnia at the airport once I had decided my three-country driving route, but it would’ve been a good thing to do. Once I got to the border crossing between Montenegro and Bosnia, the map disappeared and I was simply a blue arrow on a blank background. Way to go, Shelley. Brilliant! My written directions told me to continue on M18, then to D233, so I figured it was the same, single road I had been on, with number changes in the different countries. Of course I couldn’t be sure because there are no frggin’ highway signs. Once in Bosnia I continued driving the same winding road through another beautiful valley until I was presented with a fork in the road. I literally had to decide whether to go left or right. While the road twisted and turned quite a bit, I knew left was MORE towards Croatia than right, so I took that left and hoped for the best. Soon after I found myself in an actual town with stoplights and no clear indication which road was the “main” one. Crap.
Something I’ve honed through my myriad of travel mishaps is the ability to laugh at a situation, even while it’s happening. I can glimpse the entertaining stories that will emerge and smile at the ridiculousness I get myself into. This is a useful quality indeed, because the alternative is panic. I always know things will turn out ok—I just don’t know how yet.
I’m directionally challenged, so I knew I wasn’t going to get to Croatia without some help. I parked the car, found a bar, ordered a water and asked for the wifi code. The woman graciously took my Euros, although it’s not their currency, and handed me two unidentifiable coins as change. Whatever, I would’ve dumped my entire wallet contents for access to wifi. I downloaded the Bosnia map, messaged the Airbnb host to tell her I was running slightly late and got back in the car. Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep.
All mapped up with driving directions to boot, I crossed the Croatian border and entered Dubrovnik. There’s a reason they tell you not to bother with a car here. It’s kind of like driving in San Francisco, if SF were perched precariously on the side of a cliff. To get into the city center you have to make a sharp, steep turn downward. I missed the first one and had to turn around to find another. I had my phone in my left hand as I steered the car, which was plugged into the USB port, cord stretched across steering wheel as I maneuvered between 2nd and 3rd gear with my right hand. When I got close, the road really narrowed. Cars were parked along walls as I barely squeezed by. Good thing I got the smallest car available. When I arrived at what the geo-coordinates told me was the location, the address didn’t match. I asked this sweet man who spoke perfect English and he didn’t know either. Then a woman came down and it was a family member of the owner. “How did you find this side?” she asked. “Most people come to the front of the building since that’s where the address is.” “Spot-on geo-coordinates,” I responded, proud of my accuracy.
It was 8pm when I got the keys and brought my stuff inside our tiny apartment with the fabulously large terrace. Kara’s flight would arrive at 10pm and as accomplished as I felt about making it to my destination, I dreaded finding my way back out and to the airport. Driving on the outside lane of a cliff in the dark is not my idea of a good time. There was a guardrail but no shoulder so I white knuckled it for a few miles. Thankfully the airport was just off the main road, so once I got down to sea level, it was fine. I waited curbside, hoping to God Kara would walk out. When she finally emerged, with her bags, I waved my arms and screamed her name. She ran over in movie-style slow motion for one of the best hugs in a long time. Now I just had to get us back to our apartment.
In the car I learned Kara’s flight to Zagreb was delayed an hour, so she nearly missed her connection to Dubrovnik. I’m not sure I would’ve been able to handle Plan C at that point, so I was even more grateful she made it. This time Kara held my phone and helped navigate back to the apartment. With only one missed turn, we arrived. The host had left us a bottle of aperitif, which we both drank on our terrace along with Montenegrin “Doritos-like” chips. Exhausted yet exhilarated, we toasted to our successful completion of Plan B—always a sweeter victory.