Monday, August 17, 2009

Beetle Bedlam

Dear Readers:
I am busily working on my first non-fiction book, Yoga Drunk. As such the frequency of posts here will likely suffer. Currently I am in the US teaching and leading workshops. In October I travel to Austria and then to India where I will remain for six months as I complete the book.
I thank you for your continued support and interest and promise to update this site as I am able and as my adventures warrant. If you need a fix, you can always follow me on Twitter (RachelRoberts). Until... be well, be wise and be joyful! - Rachel

Rachel Roberts featured in Travel & Leisure article
Read the Beetle Bedlam article on The Accidental Extremist

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Croatia was never on my list of places to go. I simply knew nothing about it, so I did not know to hope to come. I can therefore say that I am here only because yoga brought me here and for that, among a million other things, I give immense gratitude for this practice.

To say this place is pretty does not begin to scratch the surface. Hvar is surrounded by the kind of blue waters that you think only Photoshop or Koolaid mix can create. The stone beaches are like bleacher seating for the beautifully tanned and Speedo-clad bodies that lie on them all day, every day. And everything smells like lavender. Hvar is famous for it’s lavender products and they are sold everywhere resulting in the lingering scent that is strong enough to even win out over the sea of cigarette smoking tanners.

This town is apparently THE place to be for the month of August and with no planning on my part I find myself in the heart of Europe’s biggest summer beach party. Every night here is a cacophony of motor yachts humming, techno music blaring, wine glasses clinking, and street performers singing love-lorne ballads in Italian, French, Croatian or English.

Part of the real beauty here is that there are islands everywhere. The vistas are dotted with tiny rocky outcrops, just big enough for a channel marker, up to large, mountainous landmasses shaped like a young child would draw a plump-petalled flower, the spaces in between the petals each, in fact, a secluded bay with safe anchorages and heavenly bath water swimming holes.

The island of Hvar is the biggest one around and I wanted to do some exploring, so a few days ago I rented a car. Because it is prime season here, I was limited to only one option for a car. A first generation VW Beetle, painted in sparkly purple and adorned with gold flames and a lions head. Seriously, this was my rental. Now of course I acknowledge that this car was three decades past its prime. Anti-lock brakes, power steering, a radio, these were of course luxuries I could not expect to have but there was more missing from the standard line-up of generally expected auto accessories.

Upon being given the keys I was warned by the rental guy that I should probably go straight to the gas station as “the fuel gauge doesn’t work so who could know how much petrol is in the tank.” While approaching the gas station I figured out that braking was not a given either. Thankfully, it was a manual and I know how to downshift, so no huge problem, however it should be noted that to engage the clutch it was helpful if you could regularly leg press 100kilos.

Also, no seat belt (not a huge problem since the human Velcro effect of sweaty skin on pleather made me feel secure in my oneness with this vehicle), no roof, no way to adjust the position of the seat, which was way too close to the rally-car after-market pedals and steering wheel, and most problematically it would turn out… no lights.

At the petrol station I had a momentary hesitation where I realized that this car, (and I use that term loosely) was perhaps not going to make for a fun day and that if I were wise, I would return it and reserve a real, (manufactured in this century) car for another day. Of course I put this absurd thought out of my head and headed off for points unknown.

First stop Stari Grad or translated – Old Town, a well-earned name as the place was founded way back in 385 BC. Here I strolled around snapping photos of various architectural features and stopping for a perfect breakfast. I am a big fan of breakfast, in fact it is my favorite meal of the day. Back when I had a ‘normal’ life, going out with friends for a leisurely weekend breakfast was something I truly looked forward to every week.

As I travel, breakfast is often my longest and largest meal of the day. So I fancy myself a bit of an expert on this building block of nutrition. In Stari Grad I had a plate of perfectly fried eggs, topped with homemade cheese and local sea salt, served with a fresh from the oven baguette and the ripest tomatoes I may have ever eaten. This breakfast masterpiece was accompanied by a perfectly crafted cappuccino and it was by far the best meal I have had here. I figured I was off to a great start and that my day would thus be assured fabulousness.

There are a couple other towns near Stari Grad that I had already visited so I decided to pass them by to get into new territory on the island. The lack of braking capacity on the VW started to concern me as the road left the oceanside and started inclining rapidly. As I wound round and round and up and up I started getting a tad nervous about my return trip as this was the only road available for both the outgoing and incoming journey.

Here is where my FOMS kicked in. FOMS (Fear Of Missing Something) is a term coined by my friend Bob Daniels of Durango, Colorado and it aptly describes my normal state of propulsion. So as the same little voice in my head that had though perhaps I should return this grape colored lemon of a car was saying to me – Um Rach… Do you really want to descend this mountain in second gear, relying on what little remains of this things transmission to slow your plummet to the sea? I kept crawling higher and higher, afraid I could be missing something amazing up ahead.

Finally, at a vista point I saw my future, more up and therefore more steep downs to come. I gave in to better judgment and turned around. I did stay in second gear the whole time and by about the 20th switchback I figured out that the bailing wire and duct-taped lever dangling below the steering wheel was in fact the horn, which added an air of safety to my entering the blind corners.

Back at sea level I decided to head west instead of south. West was less mountainous looking so it seemed a safer bet. A few kilometers in and the western road started climbing as well but soon enough I got to a tunnel, which thankfully went through, rather than over the mountains. As it turns out this tunnel was carved by a crack-pot force of, I am guessing, sugar-high Oompah Loompas. I say this because the tunnel was very short and narrow, it wound up and down as well as side to side and it was pitch black. Like, can’t see your hand in front of your face, ink black.

The tunnel is a one-way affair so cars queue up and wait for the entrance light to turn green gaining them entry into this very long and winding roadway. About 100 feet into the tunnel and I realized I should turn on my lights, as I fumbled with dials and levers the cars in front of me sped away leaving me with no way to see what was ahead of me, or for that matter next to me above or below me. No matter the combination of switches, levers or buttons I pressed no lights came on, not so much as a blinker.

I navigated that tunnel solely on sonar and the very infrequent flickering of headlights from the SUV barreling down on me. If I could have found my purse and used my iPhone flashlight app I would have – this would have been a miracle.

The 60 seconds or so that it took me to navigate that ink black birth canal of engineering mediocrity were among the most terrifying of my life. When I emerged on the other side I parked the car and got out to verify that I was still alive and that this hadn’t been some rabbit hole into oblivion for me. The worst part of course, was that I would have to go back through the tunnel because again, there was only one road.

This is when the novelty of the aubergine-colored bedazzled bug fully wore off. I was spent, fried, frazzled and seriously considering abandoning this thing right there at the mouth of the tunnel. I managed to pull it together enough to drive down into the next town, where again I got out to test the steadiness of my legs and to try every McGuiver trick in the book to get a light on this car to work. Finally, I figured out that if I pulled out all the buttons and simultaneously pulled the windshield wiper lever forwards and down the driving lights would work, this was confirmed by a kindly gentleman in a brand new Audi who upon confirming that I had about a 30 watt bulb to get me through the tunnel, wisely sped off to avoid the likely coming fiery crash. This is how I made my return passage, one shaky hand on the wheel and the other white-knuckled onto the lever and my dying flashlights of headlights blazing about a two foot path in front of me.

When I got back on the safe side of that pit of despair I said aloud to myself ‘I need a drink’. Now this is a phrase I try to avoid using. My alcohol consumption has a long-history of binge and purge periods, a fact that at times makes me think I should reevaluate my relationship with fermented spirits. So if the word need enters into an alcohol-related conversation, especially a one-participant conversation such as this one, I see this as cause for reflection. However, in this instance, I approve 100% of the usage of this phrase and I affirm that I really did NEED a drink. Sadly, or maybe not, there was no place around to get one so I just kept driving.

I abandoned my silly idea of exploring new parts of the island and went promptly to Vrboska. I had visited this amazingly charming town a few days before via the tourist bus, a safe, reliable transportation option that it irks me to say, cost me $88 less in cash, and one less of my nine lives, than the beguiling Beetle. When I had visited before it was a short trip of just about two hours and it had been limited to the city center. I took the opportunity to drive a flat road for a bit and ventured off to the beach.

Now’s a good time to point out that here on Hvar clothing seems to be very optional. Stores here that sell bathing suits have an over-abundance of tops and a serious shortage of bottoms, since everyone knows tops are an unnecessary accessory. Often it seems bottoms are over-kill as well. I mention this because when I found the beach it was located alongside a campground named, Kamp Nudist. You know I had to check this out. I mean if pretty much every other person is already naked, what on earth could camp nudist have to offer? The answer of course… naked activities. Naked windsurfing, speedboat rentals, vollyball, snorkeling, and bicycling. I will refrain from further comment on this delightful little quick-dry oasis, but I will make one generalization. This was the most cumulatively attractive and well-groomed group of people I have ever seen.

After a few hours of de-stressing oceanside I opted to drive back to Hvar for the night giving myself plenty of daylight for the journey. I returned the car and told the rental shop proprietor of my concerns for the safety of others should he continue to rent this sparkly plum deathtrap. He took the keys, smiled from behind his twenty-something year-old eyes and simply said “lady, it’s like 35 years old… what can you expect.” I chose to let this last comment slide right by me, after all I am 36.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hvar-dly know ya.

Update: Check out the new This End Up Yoga site at

My teachers Sandra and Marco sent me an email a few months ago asking if I wanted to Shantisit (watch their cocker spaniel Shanti) for the month of August. I said yes before I really knew any of the details. Free rent and the lure of the Croatian coastline seemed all the incentive I needed. This has turned out to be another one of those times, where through no planning on my part I have ended up at the perfect place at the perfect time.
Shanti spends his summers on the stunningly beautiful island of Hvar on the Dalmatian coast and so it is here that we are spending our days tanning, swimming, writing and napping. Hvar is a medieval city, a fort looms above and fortress wall still surround the main part of town. All of the old world charm is still here, cobblestone streets, narrow alleyways, gated entrances, but mixed with the ancient is the new, or more specifically the Nuevo Riche.

Hvar is a playground for super yachts and the Louis Vuitton beach bag-toting crowd. Everyone here is beautiful and beautifully clothed, assuming they are wearing clothes. I am surrounded by six foot-tall supermodel types and naked overly groomed men.
There is definite agenda each day you are on Hvar. It begins around noon when everyone hits the beach. They all seem to be entered into some kind of competitive tan-off and try as I might, my Arian roots are betraying me. I cannot hang with the naturally olive-skinned crowd when it comes to tanning. Clothing is very optional and tan lines are almost non-existent.
Late afternoon the crowds gravitate towards one of the beach-side discos for the first party of the day. From four until sunset the symphony of 80’s and 90’s techno pop is deafening. The Hvar vacationers are prepared for the transition from beach to dance club and they don bedazzled crepe cover ups and produce the latest shoe fashions, 4” heels or gladiator sandals, from their beach bags for the occasion. The transformation is mesmerizing and could give any Broadway quick-change artist a run for their money.

From sunset until 11pm I must assume that people nap and primp, because no one goes out to dinner before 10:30. Cocktail hour begins around midnight and the dance club built in the ruins of an old fortification opens around 2am.
Again, I cannot hang. I feel old when I try to meet up with some of the other yoga instructors for dinner and drinks. They take pity on the grandma of the group and opt for the Hvar equivalent of the early-bird special, eating at ten. We begin cocktail hour at 11 and by 12:30 I have turned into a pumpkin sneaking away to the flat and a warm bed complete with my handsome cocker spaniel date.

Even though I can’t keep the late night hours I have started sleeping in later and later. For most of my trip, regardless of time zone I woke up with the sun. Here, I often sleep until nine. I wake up, take Shanti for a walk, usually down to the water for a morning swim. Then I take advantage of having a kitchen at my disposal and make myself breakfast.
My afternoons are filled with tanning, exploring and writing. I have dedicated this month to writing a book proposal and so far I have been diligent, motivated and borderline obsessive in this endeavor.
My teachers have a yoga space here and most nights I go to it, sometimes to lead a class but most often to take one led by their new crop of yoga teaching trainees. Getting to live and practice in their space, their energy is inspiring for me and I am loving the time on my mat.

When I left France I made a statement that I would get to Croatia and get back to clean living, no cheese, no wine, no more bottomless espressos, back to my ‘normal’ asana and meditation routine, etc. No such luck.

Because I never bothered to research where I was spending August, I didn’t realize that I am on an island famous for its wine production and in a country whose national foods seem to mirror those of Italy and France: pasta, pizza, baguettes, formagio, gellato. And my beloved Italian-born teacher Marco of course has an Espresso machine in the flat, which I am powerless to walk past without firing up.
Never one to go against local customs I have been eating pizza most days and making nightly stops at the local wine bars. I am an international ambassador for good, if not necessarily the yogi ideal.
Hvar is a cultural haven as well as a hedonistic one. There are frequent outdoor concerts held in the sacristy of an ancient convent, I attended my first Sunday night, a jazz quintet. The Piazza is filled with musicians each night and local artisans set up kiosks featuring their paintings, hand made lace and lavender creations.
All in all it really is pretty much heaven. The town is dripping with European charm and entertaining locals, the water marvels the most beautiful blues I have ever seen and there are no bugs. I repeat… no bugs. In the ten days I have been here I have suffered not a single mosquito bite. I may never leave.