The Taxi Driver of Podgorica
Touch down in Podgorica Airport. The chill of Eastern European air encourages the hairs on my arm to stand in formation. Small pools of sweat slowly form underneath my black polar-fleece turtleneck after lugging my suitcase across the European continent. We’ve flown from Zurich to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and the sleek Swiss charm has started to fade as we slowly began to feel the disorientation. Air travel is funny like that: you exist in one place, then all of a sudden, you exist in another. We walk through and out of the tiny airport and the automatic doors welcome us into the new city.
Our mission is to find wifi and then to a taxi: the modern-day traveller’s scavenger hunt. Our lovely Airbnb host, Nela, suggested a company that operates through Viber, because airport cab drivers love to embellish prices, apparently. I, the unspoken and default leader of the group, swiftly log into the airport internet and download the purple app. I contact the company and they send a man called Viktor on his way.
“Hello, ladies!” Viktor is confident and sincere. He butts out his cigarette as he picks up our somewhat oversized suitcases and, in a calculated game of Tetris, carefully stacks them into the back of his small yet efficient car. It smells like mint chewing gum with a hint of smoke; the volume button on the radio is worn from years of use.
We begin to drive to our AirBnb in Perast, 15 minutes from the famed Kotor.
“You will love Perast!” Viktor turns to me, attempting assurance. “It’s very, very beautiful… Good fishing, too!”
I do not tell him that he is speaking to three vegetarians.
I haven’t really looked at the map, so I was unaware of the fact that Podgorica and Perast are on almost opposite sides of the country, 97 kilometres apart.
We slowly drift out of the airport, past the outskirts of the city. Tamara in the front, Grace in the back and me next to her. The sun starts to set as we make our way across this country that we know almost nothing about.
About an hour into the journey, I start to wonder how far we have to go. I was originally under the impression that the trip should be done by now. The sun has truly set by now, and the flickering lights of passing towns light up signs written in a language beyond my comprehension. Viktor’s chatter and attempts at small talk fade into the background, unable to conquer our accumulative exhaustion.
With Grace and Tamara fast asleep next to me, I feel my own vulnerability itching away at my skin. I am in a completely foreign country, unsure exactly where I am or where I am headed. I am being driven somewhere I don’t know by someone I don’t know.
I decide to turn on maps for a few brief seconds in order to ease the worst of my anxieties. What if Viktor is halfway through his well thought out plan to kidnap us three young girls in the middle of a country that is foreign to us?
My maps finally load, slowly, and for a brief second I can see that we appear to heading in the right direction. This moment of orientation drains my data, costs me 20 pounds and renders my phone useless. Another safety net disintegrated. But, the direction looks half-right to me and I convince myself that this is sufficient evidence of my own safety and decide to relax, listen to some music and enjoy the ride.
As our one hour drive slowly turns into two, the headlights of the car softly land on the old buildings of the beautiful coastal town of Perast.
We pile out of the car in a drowsy, traveller’s daze and wait for Nela to come and meet us. The night feels late, and I am out of phone data, with no way to contact anyone. Viktor unloads our suitcases.
“Is this the right destination?” asks Viktor.
“I believe so. Our AirBnb lady should be here any minute…” I say with feigned confidence, internally praying that we won’t be left homeless for a night.
“I will wait with you, to make sure you’re safe.” says Viktor.
It’s around 9pm and the two restaurants and one small store that make up the town have been closed for hours. There are no lampposts lighting the streets, and all we can see is the glisten of the moon light against the water. Nela comes around the corner and I feel like I can finally breathe.
The following morning, we open our curtains, unwrapping our unhindered view of the bay. A gentle morning mist floats atop the waters. The town is quiet, the water like glass. Tall and rocky mountains tower over the bay of Kotor, acting as impenetrable shields against a breath of wind.
We pass two perfect nights in Perast. Nights complemented by endless card games, bottomless bowls of pasta and forever filled glasses of wine. The crisp November air washed out the majority of tourists, and we felt alone in our little town, our apartment right next to the bay.
The time comes for us to leave, and we contact the taxi company to arrange a ride back to the airport.
We are packed and ready to go. Viktor rocks up on our doorstep like our own personal chauffeur, ready to deliver us back to the airport. He must have come all the way from Podgorica. I think of him eating cereal, or toast, or nothing at 3:30 am before leaving, coffee in hand, welcoming the transition from night to morning.
The two-hour, 97 kilometre drive only costs us 40 euros.
My flight isn’t until the next day, so Viktor drops Grace and Tamara off at the airport. I get out and decide to order a new taxi to my hostel. There Viktor is, again, ready to take me to my next destination.
“Hello, my friend! Where to this time?” he asks.
This one is close, a local hostel in central Podgorica.
During the car ride, I talk to Viktor about his life in Podgorica, his family and his work. He loves his city. It’s unlike any place I have ever been, with tall, washed out apartments piled up on one another, a reminder of the communist past within the former Yugoslavia.
“We try not to talk about those times, it’s not good for anyone,” Viktor tells me, avoiding eye contact. He also tells me about the tiny population and the thriving community, about how the city was completely wiped out in WWII and how it has changed names five times. Podgorica is not a tourist city. Tourists normally do exactly what I did: fly in to the airport and then head straight to the coast or the mountains.
“But, there is life here,” says Viktor, a small smile spreading across his face.
The next day, I order my taxi back to the airport.
There, at the front doorstep, is Viktor, ready to take me.
Photos by the author