Trip Start May 14, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Croatia  ,
Saturday, August 4, 2012

Učka's been on my to-do list for a while now. I see it every morning as I head to Villa Astra, drive on it every time we head up to Oraj. Vojak (pronounced "Voyak") is its highest peak - but I've already hiked to a few, smaller destinations on previous weekends. In a few hours I'll be at the top.
I pass the internet café, crowds of agitated pigeons and a giant Konzum on my way to the trail.
When I told Darko last night about my plans to climb the summit he became more excitable than he usually was.
"Ah, Učka!" he held his hands, "beautiful mountain, really, really beautiful. I've climbed it myself many times - just last year, in fact. Not all the way to Vojak but, you know, to some of the beautiful lookouts. There's Poklon, Veprinac, Grnjac, the view over Lovranske Draga. All quite remarkable."
He paused to wipe his glasses, "You will want to know about the trail markers?"
"They're small, red rings sprayed into rocks and trees around the trail, you can't miss them. Unless you do, of course - if you walk for a while without seeing one, you will probably want to retrace your steps to the last one and start again."
"Cool," I say, "I've been up to Liganj before but I've never seen any markers. I'll keep an eye out tomorrow."
"Ah, Liganj!" Darko cried, "beautiful village, really, really beautiful. Such a wonderful view of Kvarner. If you care to know," he continued, "Liganj's spelling in Glagolythic is modified by..."
I find the first red ring near the edges of Lovran, not quite at the place where I usually turn to get to Liganj. It directs me to climb a large set of stairs going up the mountain (I normally take the road) but I think what the heck and head up.
The ring markers are pretty obvious for a while, showing me where to turn onto the different paths. It's not an obvious trail to my Canadian eyes, mostly because it dips into different backyards as it goes. I'm hesitant to cross through these lots at first, but whenever there's a person relaxing/working on their lawn they don't even glance as I pass.
The path careens through a small set of tight alleys between a few brilliant, orange stone houses and I can't help but laugh at the intricate turns I'm asked to make. It's glorious - I think of the hike-a-holics I'd want to take with me next time I'm here. If there is a next time.
I cut across a road long enough to see two heavyset, German cyclists puff slowly up the incline. I pause for a moment to let them pass and they give a brief look to acknowledge me. 

As they disappear I push again through the foliage (short cuts are better without a set of wheels) and further up. The trees aren't densely packed and it's easy to make my way through the trail. On the other side of the bush, just before hitting the road again (it goes back and forth as it ascends the mountain), there's a small chapel with a little well alongside it.
I peer through the grate-windows (no glass - it must be a nice winter) and look at the wooden statues painted in bright colours. They're pretty and, the pity, wouldn't be accepted in most churches I visted back in Canada
Futher up the road I find a trail that splits but I can't see the next ring marker. I walk a few feet up one trail and am greeted by a less-than-amourous look from a large, half-naked lady sitting on a stump in her garden. Wrong way. I try the next path and jaunt past a house and into a backyard where some folk are enjoying a barbecue of sorts. They stare at me.
"Dobar dan?" They say quizzically, in German accents.
"Uh, francais ou anglais?" I reply, given that French is often as spoken as English.
They look among themselves to see if there are any francophones, shrug and indicate to me that no one is able to speak French - and that I'm standing in the middle of their private backyard.
"Oh, sorry! I'm just trying to find the trail!"

"Yeah. Canadian."
"Canada!" This sends them into a flurry of guttural, violent German (they look quite pleasant) before asking, "Where are you trying to go?"
"Is this the trail to Vojak?"
They steal an obvious glance at my pack. "Do you have water? It's a long way to Vojak."
I point to my stainless-steel water bottle and feel the twin 2L bottles in my backpack.
"Are you alone?"
I nod.
"Not good - Vojak is too high to hike alone. You should have a friend come with you. It's dangerous otherwise. This isn't the trail, you need to go back to the road and further up, then you will find the markers."
I thank them, leave and get back to the road in time to find the German cyclists have caught up to me.
"How do you want me to phrase this?" I asked Vjeko the other day when we were working on a proposal for one of his investors. In it he included everything from his life's story to the way the monoliths on Oraj channeled Učka's energies back to Astra and Deneš to create a "web of positive energy and relaxation." It was going to be a challenge.
"Would you prefer this colloquial tone," I continued, "or would you prefer something more - professional?"
"What does 'professional' mean to you?" Vjeko asked me, squinting his eyes.
"Well, I guess, something a bit more detached - if you want, that is. This might be a bit intense for the first business email you send him."
He folded his arms across his chest, "This, here, is an example of an old paradigm that needs...breaking. We, the West in general, believe that we need to distance ourselves from ourselves and each other, all in the name of 'professionalism' or propriety. This is not true. This is the old self speaking, the old self waiting to be broken."
"Vjeko," I begin, "I'm just asking if this is what you want..."
"Is this what you want? What have we been talking about all this time? There is an energy around us that we can't see. We can only feel it. The more we distance ourselves from our true feelings, the more we distance ourselves from the source of all life." He glances at a book, "we need to get in touch with our own frequencies," he fingers another, "or get our chakras back in balance." Vjeko replaces both books before turning to face me.
"Josh, we need to talk about what you believe."

I stop, not quite out of breath, on the ridge looking over Lovranske Draga. It's a small village a few kilometres up the road from Oraj - me and Đurdica once drove there to pay for one of Vjeko's catering orders. The chefs live in a house/restaurant at the top of one of the village's many hills. They gave us carbonated water (I still don't quite enjoy the stuff) for rehydration, and pushed some random postcards on as we went out the door. I sent one back to my old roommates. 
I take a brief panoramic video on my camera before ducking back under the trees to the trail.


 "I grew up in a Catholic tradition too," Vjeko continued, "I remember what it was like to be told that God was someone far away who gave us so many rules. I was told there was always an answer to every question, a definition for everything. Everything was logical."
He paused.
"I've come to learn - and it's taken me a long time - that logic isn't everything. We have a powerful force inside us and we call it intuition. So many teachers have begun using it to break free from our old ways of seeing the world and waking their inner selves, remembering their past lives and helping us live to our full, spiritual potential."
"This is something for everyone, Josh, but to enter into it we need to leave behind our old paradigms. They hold us back from the true depths of our being."
Continuing up the mountain I stumble onto a clearing - someone's stone cottage seems to grow from the trees. There's no discernible road and, somewhere past an old brick chimney, two men chop wood. They don't notice as I hike past their home.
As I catch up with the trail, it intersects with a larger, unpaved road and I hear the clop of hooves to my right. I look and find three horses mounted by young, silent riders. They pass in front of me and head in the same direction. Not sure what else to do I fall into line behind the last horse and we keep to the same path for a while. They don't look back to see if I'm still there.
Up ahead there's a goldish meadow that helps us steal a glimpse of the summit (there's some weather equipment and a huge sphere on what seems to be a pillar). They veer off to the left and I keep to the trail. As the horses vanish into the bushes I stop for a moment. There's a rich kind of green I haven't seen for a while.
It doesn't take long, once I plunge back into the undergrowth, to realize I'm still not alone. I hear leaves rustle under what seems like hundreds of fragile feet. Off-white blurs shift themselves in the corners of my eye. I feel an occasional, warm body brush against my leg. Something prods my hand with a hesitant muzzle.
I am surrounded by sheep. 
There's no one standing guard so I squat on my toes and take them in. It smells like a barn - an open, breezed, sheep-sheepy barn. One of them has some small horns growing from near its marked ear - it looks pissed. I turn to face it as it tosses tufts of moss with its front paw/cloven hoof. 
It stares at me from its round, watery, glass glass eye.
"We lose so much," Vjeko continued, "when we are forced to accept a single way of seeing the world. We create blind spots and close ourselves to so much of life." He places his hand on my arm and looks me in the eye:
"Dogma is a dangerous thing."
"Dogma?" I ask. "You think dogma's the problem?" I hoist myself in my seat. "Okay, Vjeko, what's dogma anyway - doesn't it just mean a tenant of belief? And even if we don't like to say it, some beliefs don't coexist very well. The liberal humanist dogma of gender equality says women and men both have dignity and deserve equal treatment - it excludes beliefs that say women are the property of men. But we don't complain about those dogmas."
"We don't even have to use that kind of example;" I continue, feeling the unfortunate rumbles of a rant bubbling beneath the surface, "you can take two people appreciating the beauty of a tree. One person think's it's beautiful because she believes we reincarnate again and again and, over time, develop a special relationship with nature - she wonders if she saw this tree (or its ancestor) in a former life and this potential gives the moment a profound beauty. The other person stands in awe because she believes there's only one life and, because of it, everything's stark and one-shot and unique and painfully beautiful."
"Two different people - with separate dogmas - end up appreciating the same thing in completely different ways. But the more each person leans to one perspective, the more they might miss out on the other." I pause, "there's always something lost, Vjeko."

Two girls crawl their way up the hill.
The hike went, very quickly, from an averageish incline to a steep scrabble. I see the girls up ahead cling to stray, dead branches trying to steady themselves. I have to stop every once in a while to catch my breath. As I lean on a rocky outcrop I'm reminded of the Grouse Grind I did five years ago in Vancouver.
I move on and pass the girls a few metres up - wondering how much longer the incline would last. My sandals aren't suited to stepping on sharpish stones and I can see one of the straps starting to tear.
"The top is not so far!"

I look up to find a guy in his late twenties at the top of the ridge, his bright red tshirt clashing against the foliage like a bird tends to clash against a coral reef

He smiles, "Only twenty minutes or so!"
I took a breath. "We're only human and, unless we're some exceptional soul, we only have so much energy to spare. When we spend a lot of time thinking about something, we can either think about all the ideas we're not exploring or realize that, hey, there's something really cool about this subject and I'm only really starting to get it because of how much time I've spent here. So there's something to be gained too."
"I've beat myself up for a long time, wishing I could do more than I feel I can do in one life, but I've come to peace about some things. There's so many beautiful things about Catholic spirituality I've encountered because I've spent so much time with it - time that I could've spent doing something else. Yeah, there are a lot about other paradigms I haven't even touched yet, but, if I was busy exploring those things I wouldn't have found what I've found."
"Some people look at Catholicism as a set of rules or regulations but I don't - in my mind it's closer to a dance than a constitution.  It doesn't mean I'm right to believe it, of course - but it does mean there's a richness that's different than, say, the richness in Buddhism or Indigenous spiritualities, no matter how similar certain mystical aspects are.
I rubbed my eyes, "You're right, though: there are so many mindsets that I need to chuck out the window. Professionalism, class, cultural superiority, whatever. I'm still a product of my culture and there's a lot of unhealthy things I've accepted, and I'm really glad you're pointing those things out. And, if I think about it, there's probably a lot of things I'm missing out on because of conditioning or personal beliefs."
"But just don't blame it on dogma or logic. There's no institution, just us."
He lied.

He didn't lie to me, of course - the guy in the red shirt was really talking to the girls behind me the entire time. We all reached the top of the steep hill at the same time but he charmed both the girls into the bushes. Must be the Croatian accent.

It takes about twenty minutes to walk through a number of glades, the branches lacing over my head like a natural cathedral. They press close to my body and I rub my fingers against the leaves and imagine what it would be like to make candles from them. The branches unravel and suddenly I find myself above the treeline.

There's another, final hill and a bit of a ridge before I get to the tower.

It's a round, stone tower housing a small tourist shop (more water!). I climb to the top and look out over the ramparts: Rijeka, Lovran, Opatija, Krk, Cres, and on the other side there are mountains only ending with the subtle curve of Istria itself. I hear that if it's a clear day I'd see all the way to the south of the peninsula. 
There's so much here - I can do anything, go anywhere, act on what I believe. Challenge things, too. I glance down at Lovran and can just barely make out Villas Astra and Deneš. I'll be leaving soon - next weekend I think - I can't keep postponing my trip to Ukraine.

I walk down the stairs to the bottom of the tower and towards a small deck where people launch hang-gliders in summer. I sit and dangle my feet over the edge - behind me I can see a young guy setting up his glide equipment. 

Dogma. Cultural paradigms. Social conditioning. 

But here, not even gravity will stop him from flying.
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