Catch-Up: World at Play in Croatia

I’m taking advantage of our last night in Mostar (where we have three wireless networks within two minutes of our apartment) to catch up and write about Croatia. I’m sitting outside sipping a drink with Dani, Hannah, and Libby, and techno-jazz plays gently behind us from our cafe/bar.

We arrived in Croatia on July 2 after an uneventful drive from Innsbruck. I got progressively more excited as the highway through Slovenia brought us closer to the border; I took several pictures of signs counting down the kilometers to Zagreb.

We hadn’t had to show passports (or even stop at a border) since leaving the UK, so crossing the border into Croatia was our first real border experience. Sion, who was part of the 2004 expedition, had some anxiety about it – on their trip, they were stopped at the Croatian border for six hours and ultimately had all their equipment confiscated! Fortunately, things went very smoothly for us. I think the border patrol men were fairly amused and intrigued by our van with people from four nationalities. I didn’t get a stamp, but that doesn’t matter much since I have two from our trip in 2006.

Our hosts met us on the other side of the border. Ivana and Silva were very welcoming and provided us with an early glimpse of our work for the week – we stopped at one of the adult “rehabilitation” centers on our way to our dorm.

The rehab center (an ill-fitting name for a home for mentally disabled adults) in Zorkovac was at the end of a long, winding road through the middle of nowhere. We met many of our future participants outside the charming yellow house, and to be perfectly honest, I think most of us were more than a little overwhelmed. I worked with a few kids in Special Ed while I was teaching, but I had zero experience with adults and was unprepared for the ones at Zorkovac. They were very friendly… but I couldn’t understand them (not simply because of the language barrier) and wasn’t sure how to react to them touching me (in an admiring, “I like your sunglasses!” kind of way). It was so hard to imagine getting them to play sports. I had learned a lot in Wales and Austria, but we’d worked only with general ed, semi privileged kids.

Our fears turned out to be wholly unfounded. During the four hours per day we spent with the adults at Zorkovac and Jaskovo, we accomplished a great deal and brought out hundreds of smiles on their faces and ours. We had favorites at each center. I worked a lot in Zorkovac with a woman named Slađana, who on day 1 was identified as someone with whom it would be more challenging to work. She rarely spoke and never produced more than a word or two when she did. She didn’t smile or otherwise respond much the first two days, either. Despite this, she participated in our activities and clearly recognized me on the second day – she came over to me on her own! By the end of the week, she was smiling at me and grabbing my hand or patting my shoulder.

We also loved a man named Saša who brought great enthusiasm to every game. He shuffled around on thin legs and had a default face that wasn’t particularly friendly looking, but his smile lit up the room. (Dani even called dibs on him for her team during our mini Olympics on the last day.) I also enjoyed Mario, who never said any words that were intelligible to me and often walked around seemingly in his own world. We learned that Mario loved music, and he and I had several dance parties together. (By “dance party” I mean that we held hands facing each other and swung our arms and hips from side to side for a minimum of five minutes.)

The home at Jaskovo was much larger, and its residents were significantly higher functioning. My favorite was Anka, a woman in her 70’s who reminded me a lot of my Grandma in terms of spirit and sense of humor. She was unfailingly happy and enthusiastic, always ready to dish out high-fives and try anything. I also befriended a woman named Tina who is probably in her 50’s. She was a little quieter than Anka but had an equally warm smile and game attitude. She started calling me “moja Jana”, which means “my Jana”. I found that “Kendra” was a tough name to understand, so I switched to a familiar one. (Not only does my mom happen to have a cousin Jana, but it’s a brand of spring water here. Now when I say it, people go “oh, like the water!”)

I’d love to describe each person at these centers, but I’m typing this on my iPhone, and it would take forever. Look for pics on Facebook when I get back. Suffice it to say: they were AMAZING, and I will really miss them. We made a very, very clear impact, and they made a huge impact on us as well.

Our third partner organization in the greater Karlovac area was an orphanage in the city center. We started our days there. It wasn’t quite what we expected. First, there were only about 15 kids. The rest somehow get to spend the summers with their families. Second, I for one was expecting a pretty dismal place. Instead, the home was lovely – bright, cozy bedrooms and genuinely caring staff. We worked with a range of ages. The youngest kids were about 5; the oldest were 17. I loved getting to bond with the teenage girls, who spoke a good amount of English and were eager to practice. I’m also proud that I got the three teenage boys to open up to me. They tended to sit on the sidelines and refuse to get involved (and no one forced them since technically they were on work breaks), so finally I broke away from the group, grabbed my Croatian phrasebook, and literally sat with them for 45 minutes asking things like “what football team do you follow?” and “what kind of music do you like?” We ultimately covered topics including Croatia joining the EU, the football rivalry between Zagreb and Split, the continued presence of Serbs and Bosniaks in Croatia, favorite movies and movie stars, and preferred Saturday night activities. (I can’t take all the credit for that – one of the boys spoke some English, so he supplemented where Lonely Planet didn’t suffice.)

My favorite day with the orphans was Friday (our last day), when we came in the afternoon and took them to swim in the river. I spent a full two hours in the water, and much of that time involved supporting the impossibly cute six-year-old Andrija as he spluttered his way around. After climbing to the top of the giant inflatable iceberg, he’d look for me in the water, cry “Kendra Kendra!”, count down, and leap into the water near me.

All in all, our work in Croatia was hugely rewarding. Our days were long and exhausting (six hours of sessions), but it was so obvious that we were making the days of all the kids and adults. They even showed their appreciation with gifts! The orphanage gave us art made by the children (presed flowers!), Zorkovac gave us beautiful beaded necklaces made by the residents, and Jaskovo gave us homemade jam and elephant necklaces (for happiness). We have been wearing those necklaces a lot!

Anyway, that’s a brief description of a great week in my family homeland. Look for lots of pics when I get home!

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