October 29th- November 6th 2021
Cigarette smoke poured out of the booth at the Croatia/Montenegro border crossing, and the guards didn’t give a shit about our Covid vaccine passports. We were officially outside of the EU.
Someone told us “If you ironed Montenegro out, it would be the size of Russia!”…I don't know about that, but without ironing, it’s about the size of New Jersey. It is indeed a mountainous land, and we once again found ourselves driving our big boat up tiny, winding roads to The Permaculture Research Institute of Montenegro– perched 450m above the Bay of Kotor.
Not all chapters of journeys are pleasant ones, and it seems only fair to include the good and the bad here. We were very excited to spend two weeks off-the-beaten-path, learning more about permaculture with Eastern Europeans in the mountains. However, as it turned out, the “Permaculture Research Institute” wasn’t an institute, wasn’t doing any apparent research, and did not actually engage in any functional permaculture systems. Who knew! These truths were not immediately evident. I really wanted to like it here.
Once we recovered from the shaky, heart-palpitations induced by the journey up the suicidal mountain road, the first impression was great. Srdjan and his girlfriend Olga were friendly. They had chickens, a compost toilet and, olive trees ripe for collecting. Vines crawled all over the stone buildings and the bridge that connected one side of the property to the other, arched over a creek that fell down the mountain to the bay.
The landscape was astonishingly beautiful – locked into a kind of untouched, old growth majesty I’ve never really encountered before. Was this Middle Earth? Dramatic rock formations shot out of the ground with sweeping views all around; terraces from who-knows-how-long-ago waited to be used again, and wild sage grew in abundance, filling the air with its cleansing spiciness.
Srdjan inherited the stone house and the land around it from his family, who he claimed had been there since the 14th century. You could see the town and the bay from there, yet it was completely and totally isolated from society below. There were about 10 people that lived in Srdjan’s village and they all seemed to exist in another world and another century, perhaps even another REALITY than everyone off the mountain.
The first two days we helped collect olives from the trees. This is something we really hoped to find on this trip, and we were happy to participate. I must admit, I haven’t climbed enough trees in my life, as it is a delightful experience to spend a few hours up there like a kid again. The sun in our faces and the bay in the background filled our hearts right up.
Srdjan and Olga slept upstairs in a part of the house we never saw. He showed us our room, next to the small kitchen, which had a basic bed, one window, whitewashed walls, a pile of clothes on an unused hospital bed in one corner, and a pile of olives on the floor in other. He told us the olives were just being stored there until they could be taken to the mill, but this room didn’t smell very good, so we decided to collect them in a crate and mop the floor. To our dismay, the olives were filled with maggots and the cats had been using the pile as a litter box!!!! Srdjan shrugged this off and said it wasn’t a problem, as they always get washed before being pressed for oil ... A special secret ingredient which made me hesitant to trust any of the oil in the house ever again.
When the sun was out, this place was still rather enchanting. We collected so many pomegranates that we were able to make jam out of them, and we took dreamy sunset walks and photo hikes. We shared meals with Olga and Srdjan, who agreed to be vegetarian while we were there, and Olga was a fantastic cook. These sunny times are featured in the video below.
That being said, the sun went down at 4 in the afternoon, at which point there was nothing to do but drink rakija, the local moonshine, and hang out in the small, crowded kitchen filled with 6 animals I was allergic to. Our host chose to start his rakija drinking before lunch, but that’s none of my business. He and his girlfriend regularly fought about this, which was unfortunately my business because the house was very small and their shared language was english.
After the first 2 days, the rains began and never stopped. The creek dividing the property rose to a proper waterfall, and the sun was mostly gone. There was no heating and the wood stove in the house was not functional, as it was being used as a shelf. Dampness. The animals were muddy, so the floors were muddy, and my clumsiness was no match for the slippery stone steps, which got the best of me more than once. I got attacked by their rooster on 3 different occasions.
In almost every way, this place evoked the feeling and imagery of dark fairy tales. When we lived each day in the clouds and each night in total darkness, we lost all sense of time and place. It was haunting and spooky and beautiful and uncomfortable and very, very surreal.
There was the old lady in the house just above Srdjan’s, who, with all due respect, looked like a prototypical storybook witch. She would walk by sometimes with a cigarette in her mouth, fully dressed in black, muttering things I couldn’t understand. During the night, she would bang on pots and pans until 4 or 5 in the morning, and nobody knew why.
Srdjan told us a charming story of how she got into a fistfight with a disabled person down in the town, and people from the state showed up wanting to take her to a mental institution. Srdjan worried about who his future neighbors would be if they took her away, with a “better the devil you know” attitude, so he decided to go into her house and “fix it” so it wouldn’t look like a crazy person lived there. He he worked for 2 days straight to repaint and clean up all the filth. The state never showed up, and in the end they let her go back home. When she realized the intrusion that had occurred, she threw stones through Srdjan’s windows in retaliation.
One of the other 10 neighbors was going to court while we were there after being caught with an illegal gun… Another one was nearly blind and had 30 cats. Storybook characters.
When it wasn't the pots-and-pans orchestra, it was the packs of Jackals cackling outside each night. This, in turn, caused the dogs inside the house to erupt in a frenzy as well. During the day, the dogs barked and growled because one was in heat and the other two were competing for her, and the cacophony continued. The jackals were particularly troublesome though, as there was no running water inside the house whatsoever, so you had to brave the darkness, the rain, and the jackal’s song to cross the bridge to reach the bathroom. Over the river and through the woods...
On the subject of the "bathroom"... It was a simple bucket in an outhouse that wasn’t changed the entire week we were there. Unfortunately this shed also housed the shower, so you had to squat down next to the poo bucket to get enough water pressure from the hose to bathe yourself. There was at least hot water, but not much of it. The gray water was not collected in any way, and just ran off directly into the chicken coop, which was more-or-less, inside the outdoor-kitchen. All of this is to say that you had to walk through wet chicken poop to clean both yourself and the dishes, or to collect the water to cook with. Oof. Truly unpleasant stuff.
I tried to comfort myself by remarking that most of the human population lives in conditions far harsher than these, and that we should be able to survive it for a few weeks. Ben corrected me that actually, this is how people used to get dysentery, and he refused to witness the kind of dangerous practices and animal abuse that was unfortunately pretty much happening here.
Srdjan told us that, if we stayed, we’d get to meet a world famous Montenegrin jazz musician by the name of Rambo Amadeus, who wanted to invest in his project. This was extremely tempting, but not tempting enough. We stuck it out for a full week, then decided that no matter how suicidal the steep road down would be when wet (Ben described it as a ”hell climb” in our journal), we had to get the fuck out of there.
I wish them all the best, and hope very much their project takes off in the future, but this was not somewhere we could ever see ourselves living and it felt like all we learned was what not to do. Which, actually, is still a good lesson to learn. Perhaps it was just the wrong season or the wrong moment to join them.
I cried once we made it down the scary mountain, and the drive around the bay was remarkable. We found a giant unexpected waterfall literally EXPLODING out of the side of a mountain, and we were filled with glee to have made it out alive. We ran away to the small but lovely UNESCO city of Kotor and stayed in a hotel for the first time in years. We took the best hot showers of our lives (I took two) and did our laundry. Leaving a week early opened up much more time for us to explore Albania than previously planned, which was a delightful surprise.
Albania, as it turned out, was even wilder than Montenegro….