It is a funny thing the moment you realize that the charm of a particular place derives from its squalor. This is how I felt when Chaya and I entered Montenegro by foot as part of an unrequited hitchhiking journey that was suppose to take us from Dubrovnik in Croatia to a little village called Sutomore on the far coast of Montenegro.
We had previously arranged a couchsurfing partnership with fellow in this little Montenegro town, and figured that hitchhiking was just as prudent a way of traveling there as any other. The total distance of this journey was not more than 200km, and there was a coastal highway that stretched in between the two cities. We had already made more than 40km at the Croatian border, and were expecting to be dropped off in Sutomore at dusk. Two rides in two hours had landed us in Montenegro: not good, not bad. A quarter of the the way was already behind us, and we strode into another country with heads held high.
We had no idea of what was to come: Montenegrins do not pick up hitchhikers. On a road that wove between broken down houses with shutters hanging from the broken windows and paint pealing off of the exteriors, broken down people in broken down cars roared right passed us, offering nothing but broken down glares. The western borderland of Montenegro could be described as nothing other than broken down. I tried hard to keep looking at the mountains beyond so I would not get caught in the net of squalor that engulfed me on all sides.
I am always amazed at how quickly a social landscape can change upon crossing a border. The contrast between the physical manifestations of Croatia and that of Montenegro contrasted sharply. Chaya and I had truly crossed into another land. I can remember the Fireman saying how much more money the people in Croatia make in relation to those in Montenegro, and the homes that stood falling apart all around me were testament enough to the validity of his statements. Another glace at the people who inhabited the Montenegro borderland chalked another validation point up for the Fireman’s spiel about how much better Croatians are doing when compared to Montenegrins. On both sides of the almost empty highway stood people in well used clothing – well greased sweat pants and dirty, cheap windbreakers – who obviously could not find a reason in the world to comb their hair. They glared at Chaya and I as we walked by, trying desperately to flag down someone – anyone – to at least give us a ride to the next town. Then the dark sky began squeezing out its juices, and we found ourselves out in the rain with no cover and little prospect of getting a ride to anywhere.
We walked on and on. We received only cold looks from drivers as they raced passed us, seeming almost offended that we should have the pomposity to request something from them for nothing. There was a small town rising up upon a far off cliff that I made a jest to Chaya that we could just walk to. We were at least 6 miles away at this point, and it seemed preposterous to think that we would be able to walk all the way there without getting a ride. But this is what happened: 10 miles and the far off village passed under our feet before we received a ride from an Englishman who was going to Herceg Novi to visit a friend.
“Where are you going?” the Englishman asked me, as he pulled up to us.
“Anywhere,” I replied “to a bus station maybe.”
“Ok, I think I know where the bus station is in Herceg Novi.”
Chaya and I jumped in gratefully.
We all had a laugh when we explained how long we were trying to get a lift for, and the Englishman, who was around 40 years old, thin, tall, and well groomed, told us about how he was hitching this same route some years before and got dropped off at just about the same point that he picked us up. A few minutes later, we were at the bus station.
Hitchhiking is a good litmus test to gauge the character and potential hospitality of a place. Picking up a hitchhiker does not cost any money and only a few moments of time, so it is, for the most part, a burdenless favor. But many people do not pick up people hitching: some are scared, some are socially uncomfortable, some don’t feel like stopping their cars, and some, seemingly, just do not want to give a stranger a lift. Good hitchhiking countries are often good hospitality countries that have a more or less friendly disposition. China, Japan, Ecuador, the hinterlands of the USA, and some parts of Europe are good for hitchhiking, Montenegro is not. I have never had a more difficult time getting a ride than on this day trying to get to Sutomore.
Rain, dark skies, glares, and squalor.
Upon arrival at the bus station in Herceg Novi, we found that the next bus going in the direction of Sutomore did not leave until twenty after five. Chaya and I had an hour to while away, we purchased tickets and collapsed on a bench. I knew then that hitchhiking with a pregnant girlfriend in the winter was not a good idea. I looked and Chaya, she was exhausted. Walking 10 miles with a full backpack while making a baby is too much. I would need to plan these travels a little more carefully.
We had talked with our couchsurfing host the day before from Dubrovnik and planned to meet him in Sutomore after we telephoned him when we got close. “Just borrow someone’s cell phone,” was our only directives for finding him. I tried to find a telephone in Herceg Novi to make this call before our bus departed but failed. In these days of cellular telephones, the payphone is a dinosaur. So Chaya and I got on the bus and hoped that we could contact our host en route. By tracking the buses position on a road map, I borrowed a cellphone when we were just outside of Sutomore. I called the number that I was instructed to call to find that it was out of service.
There was now no way to contact our couchsurfing host.
We arrived in Sutomore at night to find that it was a little village which scarcely had any lights on and no people on the streets. What do we do? Get off the bus and try to find this couchsurfing host in some mysterious way or keep riding on to the next city. We looked out at Sutomore from the windows of the bus and found it deserted and dark, most of the buildings only half constructed, and no sign of internet cafe, hotel, or even an open shop. We gave up on couchsurfing for this night and rode on to the next city.
Travel tip: when Couchsurfing, make sure you contact your host and set up a meeting point before nightfall. It is much easier to find a person or a place in the middle of the day than in the night.