Trapped

“Don’t get lost and don’t forget to be back here by 6!” was Yeeta’s parting shot. One of my step-mom’s phobias is being lost, because she has no sense of direction. And she tends to assume the same of others, even her me who’s traveled independently in lots of places without knowing the language. Doubters just gotta doubt . . .

We had just finished the ‘obligatory’ portion of the tour of the coastal town of Split where we walked through the walled city that was built into Diocletian’s palace, and now had free time for almost an hour before the tour group was to meet up in front of the bell tower to go to dinner. Free time meant shopping, sitting in café to rest one’s weary feet, get an ice cream cone or walk around to take more pictures. Yeeta was going to sit with and hang out with some of the other folks, since she was tired from all the walking we’d done.

I started off walking down the same alley as Gig and her mother, but then they stepped into a shoe store. I kept going on my own. A few twists and turns later, I found myself outside city wall and on the waterfront Riva promenade sandwiched between Napoleonic-era buildings and the sea. It was a clear, sunny Sunday afternoon. The water was clear enough that you could easily see schools of brown fish swimming beneath the bronze-spangled surface in the twilight.

Ferries were pulling in and out—Croatia is home to a thousand islands. There was also a cruise ship docked for the day. I smiled at the sight of the familiar orange-bottomed lifeboats. Not so long ago I was on such a ship myself.

I caught sight of a Tisak (a Kwik-E Mart type convenience store), which occupied a narrow storefront in one of these early 19th century arcades facing the sea, and remembered that I wanted to look at Croatian cooking magazines. One of the things I like to do when I’m in a foreign country is to browse the local magazines. Even though I can’t read the text, there’s usually enough of interest which you can pick up from seeing the photos. And if it’s in a roman alphabet, you can sometimes tease out the gist of the text.

I was engrossed in comparing between two cooking magazines, flipping through the pages, trying to decide which one I should buy. I vaguely noticed that the store clerk, a middle-aged bottle blonde in a red uniform vest, and a burly guy were discussing and fiddling around with the sliding glass doors. At one point, they were both outside the glass doors, but came back into the store. I resumed browsing the magazines. Finally I decided on one, and turned to pay for it. It was already 5:40, and I wanted to go walk around town some more before dinner.

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The view of Split from the bell tower of St. Domnius (St. Duje) Cathedral

Then I noticed that the people in the store were rather interacting in an animated fashion. It seemed unusual: people usually walk in, buy what they need (gum, cigarettes) and walk out without saying much.

Along with the shop clerk, and the burly man (apparently a handyman), there was another Asian woman in her late 30’s. They were banging and prodding and trying to pull/push the closed sliding glass doors with some urgency.

Because the doors were stuck.

I could see outside the squeaky-clean glass so clearly: the resort vista of palm trees, a setting sun, the cruise ship horizontally dotted with windows . Vacationers strolling on the promenade licking ice cream cones. The view from our ‘cell’ would give that from San Quentin a run for its moneyIt seemed incongruous we couldn’t go outside. I was sure we’d be out in a few minutes. It would probably be a minor fix.

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The view from our ‘cell’ would give that from San Quentin a run for its money

“There’s no other exit through the back?”

“No.”

I realized I was glad that this wasn’t a hold-up/burglary. Then it dawned on me to be even more thankful that this wasn’t a fire, although in which case, we might have been more willing to take something to smash the presumably bullet-proof glass to break out for our lives. I was appalled there was no emergency exit in this shop. But as it stood now, none of us wanted to incur property damage.

The shop clerk and the burly man got the attention of a few passersby outside, as well as a waiter from the café next door, who tried to force the door open, but only managed to force it open a couple of inches. Wide enough for the shop clerk to hand him a can of beer, but not enough for any of us to get through.

The Asian woman was upset and getting agitated. Not because she was Korean, but because she was the tour leader/guide of a group of Korean tourists, who presumably spoke no Croatian, very little English, and were dependent on her to shepherd them around this exotic and foreign country. To make things worse, her group was supposed to be getting on their tour bus with her for a 3-hour drive to the next town where they would be checking in their hotel for the night.

Having seen how hard Oy worked as our tour guide shepherding us around, I could imagine the immense responsibility resting on this Korean guide’s shoulders. I felt for her. Me, I was just a tourist client, so I could just kick back and wait for someone deal with the situation for me. She was the one her clients depended on to address whatever issues they had on their tour, but now she herself was having a major problem that she was powerless to solve.

It was now 5:55 PM. I had a phone, but no SIM card. I don’t like being late if it is going to hold up/inconvenience others, and none of my fellow tour group knew where I was. I had Oy’s mobile number. I asked to borrow someone’s phone so I could call her. Unfortunately, no one in there could call a Thailand mobile number. Then I remembered I just happened to have Mr. Drago’s (our Croatian coach driver), and Mr. Burly used his cell phone to call him for me.

“Mr Drago! It’s Celia. Can you please tell Oy I’m stuck in a Tisak. It’s facing the sea!” I asked Mr. Burly to explain (in Croatian)what was going on to Mr. Drago . . .

“OK, don’t worry,” Mr. Drago said.

The minutes ticked by. We tried switching the power and fuse box on and off. Mr. Burly examined every corner and around the glass door for any possible give, fiddling with the wires, trying to figure out if there was some sort of motion sensor thing. There was also a tiny lock on the door frame, outside and inside. We tried the keys inside. We handed the keys to someone outside for them to try the outside lock. Nothing happened. The way the doors were hung, they were inside the lip of a ceiling wall. There must have been some sort of electronic mechanism that controlled the doors, which seemed to have been designed to refute brute/mechanical force.

The Korean guide was pacing around, fuming and complaining. She was frantically calling on her phone to the other tourist clients in her group to let them know what was going on and figure out how to get out. Passersby came and went, peering inside at the four of us in the retail aquarium, offering suggestions, making half-hearted attempts to open the door. For them, we were a mild diversion, fodder for discussion at dinner.

The clerk was pretty passive, considering this was her store. She wasn’t doing much, mostly looking on. I wondered why she wasn’t calling her boss/manager or even the corporate office for help. Was it because it was Sunday? I wondered how often something like this happens. Maybe it had been Mr. Burly’ fault for trying to fix the door, but causing it to get stuck instead. He had called a locksmith, but since it was Sunday evening, and/or may it was Croatia, the locksmith would get here in an hour or two. Maybe.

A couple of the Korean men from the guide’s group showed up outside the glass door. They tried prodding and fiddling with the door from the outside, but they had no better luck. The guide stuck inside shouted some instructions through the door to them, probably telling them to take everyone else to the bus and she would call the hotel and figure out how they could get checked in.

By now, it was 6:30 PM. The cruise ship was pulling away from the dock, headed to its next destination. I was really glad that I wasn’t a passenger on that cruise boat, because there was nothing I could have done about being abandoned ashore.

If this had happened while I was on the cruise in Norway with Wendy, Auntie Shujun and Uncle Harry, it would have been much worse. There would have been so much more fuss. (In fact there had been a passenger on our cruise who had been late in returning to ship, past its designated departure hour. But at least he came on board.) There was no way I would have been able to call Wendy, and none of them got wifi to check email on board. They would have freaked out. Good thing this was the package tour portion of my trip. I crossed my fingers, hoping that Mr. Drago would have told Oy and Oy would have the situation under control. Especially with Yeeta. It was 100% given that Yeeta was having a fit. I sighed. She was probably more upset than I was about the situation.

Then I did freak out. I saw a few of my fellow Thai tourists walking along the promenade, presumably headed to dinner. I jumped up and down and banged on the glass like a madwoman to get their attention. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” I needed them to know where I was, and that I was OK. I also wanted to make sure Oy knew where I was and what was going on, since I didn’t know if Mr. Drago had told her.

Auntie Mee and her niece Bomb were the first to spot me and walked over. “Hey, Celia what are you doing here? What’s going on?”

“Are you OK? I told you not to get lost and hurry and come back. You’re always . . . “ Yeeta had appeared at the door, and launched into a nagging litany was somewhat (thankfully) obsfucated by the glass. But she could see I wasn’t in any physical danger, so it was more to vent her annoyance at the worry I’d caused her. Then Oy came up to the door and told me that she’d walk the group to nearby restaurant where we were slated to dine, and then come back for me. Phew, I didn’t want her to think I was flakey in showing up late for dinner.

I settled down for the long wait, if it really was going to take that long for the locksmith to come. This wasn’t such a bad thing, being trapped in a Croatian convenience store. There were snacks (Kinder chocolates, pretzel sticks, peanuts, potato chips). There were beer and soft drinks. There were magazines to browse, even English ones on the top shelf. There were postcards, souvenir magnets and keychains, and guidebooks to Dalmatia, so I could read about the sites I was being kept from seeing, in any of a dozen major tourist languages. They only thing missing was somewhere to sit. I didn’t really want to sit on the hard sandstone floor.

It could have been worse. I could have been trapped in a shoe store. (“But then you could have spent the time trying on shoes,” said Gig later.) I bought a can of Ožujsko beer. I’d been in Croatia for an entire week, and still hadn’t tried the local beer. I offered to buy one for everyone else in the store, but no one took me up on the offer.

“Wait!” I paused before I handed over my money. “Is there a toilet in here?” I needed to make sure there was somewhere to empty my bladder, even if there was no emergency exit.

Come to think of it, it was pretty stupid of me to pay for the beer; I could have probably just taken it and drank it. The convenience store owed me at least that much for the inconvenience they’d caused me.

Two police officers came, a man and a woman. Finally! They tried the same ineffective poking and proddings we had tried, to no avail. Then they shrugged their shoulders, said they couldn’t do anything about it, and said it wasn’t their problem/responsibility and walked away.  With the arrival of the police, the crowd of lookers-on grew larger. Oy had came back, along with Mr. Drago. I raised my can of beer at them, and asked if they wanted anything from the store. No.

Darkness had fallen. I started to feel bad that Oy and Mr. Drago were still waiting patiently outside. Mr. Drago at least had his cigarettes. I asked the clerk for some paper and a pen, and wrote Oy a note in English, telling her that she and Mr. Drago should just go back to the restaurant to have dinner with the rest of the group, and I would take a taxi to the hotel on my own, since I knew its name, and I had Croatian kuna (local currency) on me.

“Of course not,” Oy said. “I’m not going to abandon you like that.” I got the sense though it was more out of obligation to Yeeta, because Oy knew I was perfectly capable of getting back to the hotel on my own.

Next, the firemen showed up. They were more capable of dealing with the situation than the police – they had brought along useful equipment like a manual/hydraulic jaws of life. It was rather like jack/lever. The first one was too small to force the doors open. Someone went off to fetch another one, one size bigger. With forceful, scissoring movements, the glass doors budged open, bit by bit. As soon as it was wide enough, the Korean guide leapt out the door. I ran out next, and gave Oy and Mr. Drago a hug. I didn’t even mind Mr. Drago’s eau de cigarette smoke. “Woohoo, freedom!”

There was large crowd gathered outside, and they probably applauded and cheered, but I didn’t really notice. It must have been a like a Chilean miner moment.

“I’m so sorry to have caused you so much trouble,” I apologized.

“It’s OK, it could have happened to anyone.” She grinned. “Although, it’s a good thing it was you and not your mom. You were pretty laid back about it. Really, drinking a beer!”

We got to the restaurant in time for desert, although they had saved me some fries and the main course of grilled Croatian sausage rolled up like a snail. It tasted like ไส้อั่ว sai-ua (an Isan/northeastern Thai style sausage).

The experience hadn’t been too bad. One of my favourite books recently is Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which is based on a real life incident where some Peruvian revolutionaries invaded a diplomatic party and held the dinner guests hostage for four months. In Bel Canto, there is an opera singer among the party. Consequently, Chicago’s Lyric Opera commissioned a real opera out of it, which premiered this month. If I were to be trapped somewhere for four months, I can’t imagine what a nutcase I would become.

The next day, as our coach drove past the outer walls of Dubrovnik, we spotted a fire station. “Hey,” Auntie Mee poked me in the ribs. “You should take note of where the fire station is at, in case you get trapped again.”

“No, she had better not go into any more Sevens from now on,” said Yeeta (the Thai slang for convenience store is taken from 7-Eleven)

“That’s right, I’ll only go to Family Mart!” I joked. (Family Mart is a rival convenience store chain in Thailand.)

Two days later, Mr. Drago told me I was in the newspaper.

“No! You’re kidding me!” It must have been a really slow news day in Croatia that something as trivial as malfunctioning Kwik E-Mart doors would rate a mention in a national tabloid. Then again, Croatia is a nation of merely 4.3 million people. I bought a copy from a Tisak (a free standing kiosk this time.) The front page of the 24 Sata (24 Hours) featured migrants/refugees struggling to transit through Croatia to northern Europe, and the 20,000 Croatian kuna (US$2,800) handbag carried by a pretty young politician who’d been charged with ‘irregularities’. The Tisak snippet was buried on page 18.

I got a friend of the friend to translate the article for me when I got back:

On Sunday, around 6:00 in the evening, two Japanese tourists went into a kiosk on the Riva in Split.  In the kiosk was a saleswoman and a worker who was fixing the sliding door.  The sliding door got stuck, so the worker called for help.  The women were panicking.  People were trying to help open the door.  After a half-hour, the police came.  After the police, the firemen came. After 1 hour and 15 minutes the “hostage crisis” was over and the Japanese disappeared into the night.  The onlookers cheered for the firemen.

“Japanese”?! We were one Korean and one Chinese masquerading as a Thai.

“Panicking”?! Bullsh-t! One was very pissed off, and the other was vey relaxed.

It was more than 1 hour and 15 minutes, but I’ll let that one slide.

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Considering I didn’t like escorted package tours to begin with, this incident made me disdain them even more. Even though this could have happened when I was traveling independently with Dad in Scotland or on the cruise in Norway with Wendy, I can’t help associating this with the package tour trip. So it’s could be my excuse for not going on any more such tours!