Why you should care
Because death has many faces.
Bats dipped and swooped over the vineyards as twilight arrived on the north end of Pag.
My husband, Joe, guided our motorcycle off the paved road from Novalja onto a narrow path of crushed rock, following the sign that read “Hotel Boškinac.” Since signing up for this tour of the Adriatic coast six months earlier, I had been anticipating our stay here. The resort’s website promised sumptuous dining, well-appointed rooms and Edenic surroundings — a verdant break in this Croatian isle’s desolate landscape. As the bike’s headlights illuminated the hotel’s stone facade, however, it wasn’t excitement I felt. Instead, I was numb.
That morning, weak sunlight had streamed through the spotty clouds as we boarded the ferry from Hvar to Split. We were on day seven of a nine-day trip, and our group of 14 — six Americans, a couple from Toronto, another couple from Rio, and two pairs of brothers (one pair from Australia; the other, Luis and Oscar, from Brazil) — had become a family, if only temporarily.
Our Slovenian guide, Dušan, had laid out a picnic lunch for our three-hour ride to the mainland. While we enjoyed the cured ham, olives and selection of local cheeses, he described how the war with Serbia had affected the region, both physically and spiritually, we would travel through that afternoon.
If a motorcycle and a truck are both traveling at 50 miles per hour … a math problem we don’t need to solve to know the outcome.
The group disembarked into the bright, hot afternoon and, following Dušan’s lead, maneuvered through the crazed traffic that crisscrossed the Split waterfront. After 20 minutes of stopping and starting, sucking in diesel fumes and repeatedly changing lanes, we finally cleared the city and entered the rocky countryside. I scanned the fields strewn with limestone rubble and dotted with scraggly shrubs, hoping to catch sight of one of the wild boars that inspired the numerous animal crossing signs along the roadside.
Joe looked back over his shoulder. “Check the saddlebags — I heard a bang.”
I reached down to the left and then to the right. The bags were still there.
A few minutes later, Dušan slowed and pulled to the shoulder, motioning for us to follow. I turned, and saw behind me only Jim, a 70-year-old Floridian, not the seven other motorcycles that should have been there. Dušan made a tight U-turn and flipped up his visor as he pulled up alongside us.
“I just got a call. There’s been a crash,” he said, his wide eyes belying the calm his face displayed. “Wait here. If no one comes in an hour, go on to the hotel.” And he was off, back the way we came.
We waited by the side of the road, trying not to speculate. Who? How bad? A few cars passed, their drivers making furtive eye contact. They had passed the accident scene and had knowledge we did not.
After an hour or so, we continued north, passing through villages still scarred from a war that had ended more than two decades earlier. Serbian-populated Islam Grčki showed little sign of reconstruction. Crumbling farmhouses had collapsed into heaps against the backdrop of the limestone cliffs of the Velebit mountain range. In the neighboring town of Islam Latinski, however, newly built homes and farms pushed aside the memories of destruction, thanks to its primarily Croat inhabitants.
By the time we crossed the bridge onto Pag, the sun hung low in the sky, casting a pink glow over the island’s white, lunar landscape. After dumping our bags in our rooms, we headed to the bar for the first of many drinks that evening. One by one, our fellow riders staggered in.
“It was Luis,” one informed me, his face tight with strain. Though we would not know definitively until the following morning, we understood he would not survive. If a motorcycle and a truck are both traveling at 50 miles per hour … a math problem we don’t need to solve to know the outcome.
We dined under the moonlight filtering through a pergola draped with grapevines that reflected the autumn season with their fiery red leaves. Conversation was quiet, lacking the animation of our previous meals. The more experienced riders, those with 40-plus years in the saddle, were resolute that, yes, this was a tragedy, but motorcycling is a dangerous sport, one that can turn on you at any time. Yet, the thrill runs so deep that they can’t stop. For the younger riders, I saw what could have been a turning point — a decision about whether or not to continue this exciting, treacherous activity.
The meal that evening was outstanding. The seafood risotto, studded with calamari and shrimp, filled the senses with its creaminess, punctuated by the dusting of salty, rich Pag cheese grated across the top. The sea bass, its crisp skin glistening with oil from the grill, flaked apart perfectly, leaving a briny reminder of the Adriatic on my lips. The dessert, a bird’s nest of phyllo dough perched atop a small ball of cinnamon ice cream, provided the perfect finish — not too sweet, not too filling.
“This trip … it’s a beautiful picture with a jagged rip in it,” said Jim, finishing the last of his whiskey. Everyone murmured in agreement.
We would return to our corners of the world, but there were two fellows from Rio who would not share our happy memories of Croatia: the ever-smiling Luis, a Brazilian flag flapping from the back of his motorcycle, and the serious, hipster-spectacled Oscar, who spent our last night on the Dalmatian coast in a hospital, waiting for his brother to die.