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Jonas and I made it to the bus station 20 minutes early to catch our bus from Belgrade to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro and surprisingly the bus was already there waiting. We boarded early, paying an additional euro to store our bags underneath. Jonas and I had finally figured out a good amount of time for when to arrive for public transit instead of waiting for hours as we had in Budapest.

Our 10 hour bus ride became 11 just like all the other modes of transportation that we had taken recently, but now we were used to schedules never being on time. Besides our bodies being sore from sitting for so long, we didn’t want this particular ride to end and even though that sounds crazy to write, it was true! The entire trip was extremely picturesque. Shortly after leaving the city, the streets and alleyways of Belgrade became massive mountains surrounding us on every side.

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As we continued our journey, a girl around my age sitting next to me offered me a piece of gum and we started up a conversation. She was from France and her friend, sitting next to Jonas and now talking to him, was from Serbia. They had traveled to Serbia together to stay with family, then they were off to Montenegro to go camping. Both girls talked with Jonas and I for some time, sharing plans for Montenegro.

They were staying in a smaller town called Herceg Novi to take a boat trip to Mamula (an abandoned island in the Adriatic Sea that was established as an Austro-Hungarian fort in 1853 until later becoming an Italian concentration camp in World War II) as well as Plava Spilja (a hidden away cave with a brilliant blue light cast on the ceiling as well as within the water itself). Both of these destinations sounded like something Jonas and I would enjoy so we wrote down the names and planned on taking a day-trip there from Kotor during one of our next few days. The girl beside me went back to listening to music, and the other girl beside Jonas went back to reading. Jonas and I were re-captured by the stunning environment around us.

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At one point I remember waking up just as the track Hamburg Is For Lovers by David August (a song that our hosts in Berlin showed us when we first started the trip) began playing and as I peered out the window, I watched as we passed beautiful peaks overlaying each other in the distance.

I don’t believe my photos can do them justice nor my words but it was perfect timing. The sun was setting over Montenegro as rays of light passed through the valleys and in between each peak. We drove on that stretch of road until we had descended all the way down the mountain and the massive cliffs that we had been eye to eye with only minutes before were now towering above us.

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When we arrived in Podgorica our couchsurfing host, Alex, had advised us to take a taxi to his home on the outskirts of the city. We were really excited to see how this couchsurfing experience would go since we would be staying with not only Alex but also his family. As far as our couchsurfing experiences had gone, this was the first time staying with a family, especially one who had moved from their home country (Ukraine) to another (Montenegro). Reading his references made staying with his family seem even more appealing since several users remarked that it seemed as if they were coming to stay with close family friends.

When we arrived in the taxi, Alex was sitting outside his home under his driveway which was covered by dangling grape vines. He welcomed us, introduced us to his family (mother, father, sisters, and his friend Misha) and then showed us to our room. We each got a single bed to ourselves. Alex and his family lived in a large home shared between a few different Ukrainian families all from the same city in Ukraine, Odessa.

After setting our bags down, Alex led us outside where his sister and his friend, Marsha joined us to go grab dinner. As we walked to the city center, Alex and his friends pointed out all the fruits and vegetables that grew in nearly every Montenegrin’s yard – apples, pears, blackberries, figs, tomatoes, peppers, grapes, and even kiwis. Marsha couldn’t stop laughing at Jonas and my reaction to kiwis growing because they’ve always been one our favorite fruits and from where we live in the U.S. they’re not only expensive but exotic. In Montenegro, they grow in every other yard and are ripe in the fall.

The view from Alexs home.

The view from Alex’s home.

In only a few minutes, Jonas and I had learned so much about a country we hardly knew much about before. Fruits were plentiful, the people were extremely laid-back, and most continued to buy the fruit that grew in their yards in grocery stores for a reason Alex and his friends couldn’t seem to understand.

One interesting thing that Alex pointed out was that it was not uncommon for Montenegrins to have a whole conversation with friends while passing by in their car. It’s acceptable to stop driving and make all the people behind you wait until you’ve finished your conversation, no beeping or screaming involved. Living in Montenegro seemed to be going to a different pace than anywhere else that we had ever experienced.

As we continued our walk, Alex and his friends told us stories from Odessa, explaining that they had moved for peace and opportunity. When we arrived in the city center, the only places that were open were fast food restaurants. We grabbed “American” styled pizza from their favorite pizzeria and then bubbling water and Montenegrin chocolates from a grocery store. We ate while watching little kids drive in toy cars around the town center’s fountain.

Stuffed from all the pizza, we walked back to Alex’s place, taking a slight detour for Marsha to show us the oldest part of the town, a cemetery. Since Italy had dropped bombs on Podgorica during World War II, much of the city was very new. Unfortunately there wasn’t too much else of historical significance to see, the reason Jonas and I later found out why most travelers skip this destination on their trips. But we were happy we had decided otherwise.

When we arrived back home, Alex offered us tea and coffee, another typical Montenegrin tradition. We opted for tea and a few minutes later he returned with hot mugs of the most tasty raspberry tea we had ever tried. The secret? Ukrainian honey.

As we sipped on the tea, Alex’s parents came out to talk. His mother knew a decent amount of English phrases but we still used Alex or Misha to translate back and forth. His mother couldn’t remember either of our names so instead she called us each “JimJar.” After tea and talking with his family for some time we dozed off to sleep.

Jonas and I spent the next morning finding and booking hostels for the rest of the week in Montenegro. After a little over an hour, we had finished and joined Alex and his family for breakfast which consisted of yogurt, homegrown apples, and more. We didn’t wait long after eating because Alex wanted to show us a local swimming spot on the Moracha River. We changed to bathing suits and minutes later were in his van and on our way to swim with his sister.

He parked at the top of a cliff overlooking the river and led us down a path to the bottom. A rocky shore bordered the glistening, blue water. To the side of us, several kids stood, nervous to jump several meters from a small cliff to the water below. We felt the water against our feet, and immediately recoiled; it was absolutely freezing. On the count of 3, Alex, Jonas, and I all dove in head first and it was by far the coldest water Jonas or I had ever swam in.

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We swam about 100 meters to a rock island in the middle of the river before I looked down and realized that I had just taken my smartphone for a swim too… I was absolutely shocked and froze for a few seconds not believing that I had actually not noticed it was in my pocket before swimming. I pressed the power button expecting something to happen but of course nothing did. It was soaked and had been fully submerged for about a minute.

Alex grabbed my phone and swam back to shore, carefully holding it above his head. I followed and then we left Jonas and Alex’s sister at the river while we drove back to Alex’s home to cover it in rice. Since a majority of this trip I had funded by working at a computer repair store, I knew that covering a wet device in rice was one of the best ways to try and absorb all the moisture to get it working again.

As soon as we arrived at his house, Alex opened a cabinet and pulled out a large jar of rice, just enough to cover the entire phone. We had originally planned to go to a grocery store to pick up more rice since he didn’t think he had enough, but neither of us had brought our wallets with us to swim. This was my first strike of luck. He explained what had happened to his parents and his mother waved a finger at me, disappointingly saying “JimJar…”

Seconds after I had covered my phone in a tray of rice, Misha stormed into the room, told me he had worked professionally as a phone repairman, pulled out a mobile toolkit, and immediately began prying open my phone. The next twenty minutes I stared in horror as he
disassembled the entire phone as more and more water continued to pour out. He grabbed a bottle of rubbing alcohol and began brushing the contact points of different electronic boards to clean and dry them. I was still in shock and couldn’t stop thinking about how dumb it was that I hadn’t taken the time to backup any of my phone photos from the trip so far. Even worse, Jonas’ ChatSim card had been shut off days earlier so now my phone was supposed to be the primary form of communication with friends and family when traveling without wifi.

Misha had never worked on my model of phone before since it was the newest Samsung Galaxy but he had plenty of experience with iPhones and other devices and it was clear by how quickly he was able to dissemble everything. About forty minutes after my phone had joined me for the swim, it was entirely dissembled, covered in rice, and left to sit under a warm lamp.

Without anything further to be done, Misha joined Alex and I driving back to the river. Someone had parked in the spot we had before, so Alex drove down the mountain on another side and we trudged through the water to get back to Jonas and Alex’s sister. When we arrived, Jonas informed us that he and Alex’s sister had been struggling to communicate the whole time we were gone. She didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak Russian, Ukrainian, or Serbian.

After ensuring that all of our pockets were empty, we laughed and went back into the freezing depths. Alex had brought goggles so we all took turns observing the hundreds of different colored rocks sitting beneath us in the crystal clear water. Jonas and Alex swam out to the cliff jumping spot and each took turns jumping off the cliff. They egged me on to join but I had already had a traumatizing enough day and the water was unbearably cold. After they had reached their maximum time for staying in the freezing waters too, we all rested under some shade and ate apples that Misha had taken from their yard. Only seconds after biting into an apple it began to turn brown since the Montenegrin air was so hot and humid.

About an hour later, we made our way back across the river to Alex’s new parking spot. Holding two backpacks above their heads, Alex and Misha made sure to keep them steady since we didn’t want to deal with any more wet technology. This proved difficult though since the rocks below us were slippery and hurt your feet to walk across. Finally we all made it back to the car and drove to Alex’s.

At this point, I had swam with my phone in my pocket about four hours prior. When we arrived back, Misha determined it was dry enough and began to put back some parts. I was on the edge about testing it out so quickly after being submerged but since he had told me he was a professional, I had no other option but to believe him. He had me test it out by plugging it up to charger. Within a second the screen lit up and displayed a battery charging icon.

My jaw literally dropped. I could not believe it. He re-assembled the full phone and together we tested all the components: the microphone, the front camera, the back camera, the speakers; it all worked. I could not believe it. I thanked him a million times and offered to pay him or even buy him something but he refused any offer. In one day I had destroyed my phone and only hours later was using it to type a part of this blog post.

Jonas took a small nap while I explored the thriving garden outside, eating some of the ripe fruit while trying to maintain my cool from the excitement of my phone working. Alex encouraged us to eat whatever we liked since all the fruit was so plentiful.

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He proved this by later bringing out a massive bowl of blackberries along with a container of Ukrainian honey to dip them in. Jonas and I were in heaven. Blackberries were also expensive back home and having so many right in front of us, especially ones which we knew were homegrown without the addition of any chemicals whatsoever was amazing. We ate what our hearts desired and then began preparing for dinner.

Since it was our last night, Alex wanted to send us off with an exceptional meal. While Jonas played dominos with Alex’s dad and Misha, Alex and I walked to the nearest grocery store. We picked up a few packages of a special type of sausage, garlic, and bread. When we arrived back home, the communal cooking began. Jonas sliced bread, I cut garlic, and Alex began cooking the meat in the fire-pit outside.

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20 minutes later, dinner was done and we all sat down. Together we had prepared tuna, parsley, tomato, and garlic sandwiches along with smoked sausage and all-you-could-eat charcoaled peppers, again all the fruits and vegetables, excluding the garlic had come straight from the garden. Everything tasted amazing and as we ate, we reflected about how unique of a couchsurfing experience this had been. Just like the references had said, we really felt like part of the family. We had helped prepare meals and without expecting anything at all, had been treated again and again to food, almost all straight from their very own garden.

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As Misha, Marsha, and everyone else brought a TV outside to watch a family favorite Ukrainian film, Alex went off to sleep and Jonas and I caught up on social media. We went to bed late and woke up early for our bus in the morning to Kotor. Alex was waiting outside with our favorite raspberry tea and some wafers. Misha joined us eating then Jonas and I packed our bags and met Alex and Misha in the car. Alex drove us to the bus station and with a few minutes left before our bus was to depart, we said our last goodbyes and I thanked Misha for the millionth time for saving my phone.

  • Jeremy Raider

    The worst part is that I’m travelling with a waterproof case that I easily could have used… Anyway, I’m glad it was fixed too! Great hearing from you!

  • Lynn Nathan Samick

    I was intrigued by the post in which your father texted you to say there was a “hole” for you to go through. Talk about living variously……we are all doing it.