Welcome to Utopia
By Kaleigh Studer
A drop of water slithers down my spine and into the crevice of my lower back. The brain freeze has worn off from my icy dip. The sun is striking my porcelain skin. I’m riverside in Croatia with Selly, my best friend. I often get jealous of the way the sun’s rays turn her skin a dark olive. The terrain surrounding us vibrates with a technicolour of green vegetation. A thought crosses my mind; could the magic mushrooms be hitting me already?
The day before.
It’s pitch-black and we’re lost. The road is twisty, narrow, and dark. We were supposed to arrive four hours ago to the MoDem Festival in central Croatia. The sun is long gone, and with it, its warmth. Road-tripping with four girls can have its challenges.
Lena leans into me and whispers, “I’m over being lost, kinda gives me the creeps out here.”
I nod in agreement.
Maria pipes up from the passenger seat. “We don’t even know if this is the right direction anymore.”
In the driver’s seat, Selly shoots Maria a look of disapproval. She is in an irritable mood. An awkward silence fills the vehicle. We still need to set up our tents for the week-long psychedelic trance festival we have ahead of us, and we’re completely lost.
About 30 more minutes pass and Selly says, sombrely, “I think we might be sleeping in the car tonight ladies.” Fuck.
Selly, Lena, and Maria were born in West Berlin near Steglitz and have been friends since they were little. They went to the same high school together and, when they were 16, left Germany to attend school in North America for one year. Lena and Selly travelled to British Columbia and Maria to Louisiana. Six years ago, I met Selly at my hometown high school on Vancouver Island, and now we are roommates in Berlin.
Selly studies visual design with a focus on photography. Her English is impeccable, probably better than mine, and I’m from Canada. She’s always pushing the limits with her art and attitudes on social issues. She can convince me to do anything, which can get us into some terribly exciting situations, like the time she convinced me to take a boat to Africa. I love her for that. Her full name is Selina Petropoulos, very Greek. In mythology, “Selene” is the goddess of the moon, riding through the night sky on a horse-drawn chariot. This is fitting as Selly lives and breathes for the darkest hours, whether to edit her photography or enjoy the nightlife of Berlin.
My eyes blink open, and I scramble for my phone to see it’s seven a.m. I’m awake and crammed in the back seat of the car and Selly and Maria are passed out in the front. I see that Lena is already up and outside the vehicle, so I open the car door.
“That was the worst sleep,” I mumble.
“Exactly why we need this.” Lena points to a rolled joint between her fingers. She still looks fresh after a night in the car. Her natural long blonde hair and makeup-free skin make insecure women jealous. “Today is going to be a good day,” she says. “Just look around. The air is so lush and fresh.”
I take a deep breath while looking up through the trees. “It’s not so scary in daylight,” I say, trying to remain positive. I stretch my arms to the sky.
Lena lights the joint and we lean against the car admiring the forest together for some minutes. Eventually she says, “Let’s wake the girls and get off this narrow road.” She walks over and opens Selly’s door.
“Guten morgen sonnenschein, I’ve rolled us a joint. Let’s get the fuck out of here,” she says.
“I need coffee,” Selly groans.
We turn the vehicle around in search of the nearby town of Slunj, so we can find wifi and connect to Google Maps. I turn up the volume and the trance bass line shakes the windows of our little SUV, making me eager to find our destination. Maria’s still sleeping but that’s not surprising; she can sleep anywhere.
We come to a fork in the road where a sign reads “10km Slunj,” with an arrow to the right. We take the turn and, after a few minutes, I notice colourful signage along the roadside.
“Wait!” I pipe up. “What did that sign say?” Selly reverses and we read it: MoDem Festival Next Right.
“Hallelujah. Let’s get there this time,” Selly beams.
We arrive safely at the festival and finish setting up our campsite. It’s getting hot out. I begin to explore the nearby area and see two tipi tents surrounded by a large group of beautifully tanned people selling organic iced coffee, protein balls, and handmade jewellery. I’m in awe of their appearances; profoundly opposite to my fair skin. They are speaking Spanish but I’m too shy to try to strike up a conversation; English and a small amount of German are all my vocabulary offers. I walk back to my friends.
“I need to cool off. We should check out the river,” I say. The girls agree.
“We could go for a swim and see if anyone knows where the hot springs might be,” Maria says, wafting herself with her fan. She is a true free spirit. When we first met, she had recently come back to Germany from living in Louisiana. She spoke with a southern twang back then. Her hair has transformed many times in the short time I have known her. She has two colourful thigh tattoos and her septum jewelry changes with each of her outfits. She may look wild, but I know I can always count on her.
We venture through the grounds in search of a place to cool off. Our surroundings are amazingly lush, considering how hot it is. Green grasses and shrubs are everywhere and, sheltering the mainstage dance floor, tall thin trees shade the psytrance dancers from the sun’s powerful rays. We wander through a sea of dreadlocks, tattoos, and piercings. I’m intrigued. In every direction I see open faces filled with joy. I look at my friends walking beside me, and feel safe in this new world.
The bass erupts from the dance floor about six metres away from us and the crowd howls. I look at the girls with excitement; the festival has begun.
A river runs directly through the campgrounds. We find a large pathway and decide to cool off in the water and explore the lush moss-covered limestone karst that hugs the edges of the emerald blue waters. Selly stops us just before we head upriver and pulls out a container from her fanny pack.
“What’s in there?” I ask.
“Magic mushrooms. I brought them from Berlin — should we have some before we go on?” she says with a look of mischief.
There is a dramatic moment of silence between us while I consider her offer.
“I’m in,” I giggle.
“It is the perfect setting in nature, so I’m in too,” Maria agrees.
“Just a little for me,” Lena holds out her hand and chuckles nervously.
A few moments later, a man with tan skin, a hipster-chic man-bun, and a neck tattoo passes by and Maria asks him if he knows how to find the hot springs.
“About 30 minutes upstream,” he points, and bats his beautiful eyelashes seductively. Maria blushes.
“Should we go on a little adventure, ladies?” she asks, her words a challenge.
“Let the adventure begin,” Selly says.
We hop from rock to rock alongside the riverbank, Maria energetically leading the way. The river is hugged by the limestone with no end in sight. We’re eager and filled with curiosity.
The Mrenznica River is 63 kilometres long. An astounding 93 waterfalls line its banks. I’m amazed at how vegetation flourishes in every corner of the karst. The air temperature has reached a sizzling 35 degrees, but I am surprised that, when I dip my hand in the water, it is ice cold. The reflection of the sun dances with the emerald green and turquoise shades of the river.
The farther upstream we walk, the more narrow and slippery the rocks become. Selly slips and tumbles into the river. “Scheiße, it’s cold!” she yells, her face wrenching from the shock. “I’m used to this heat, but we don’t have rivers this cold in Greece.” Shivering, she springs herself back onto the rock and sprawls out in the sun.
I stay with Selly, and Lena and Maria head farther upriver. My senses sharpen, and the sound of nature surrounding us intensifies. I stand still and take stock of our surroundings. I take a deep breath. The plant life appears to sparkle and breathe; the rustling of the leaves and crackling of branches gets louder. I notice birds flying overhead, and tiny insects at work below my feet. Nature is now the soundtrack to our adventure. For the first time since arriving in Croatia, I feel truly present. I inhale again; the hot air warms me from the inside out. Sweat drips down my temple and into my right ear. I dip my big toe into the river. It is asking me to jump in. So, I do. My skin welcomes the cold water. For a moment, under its surface, everything is silent, like I’m floating through space. I emerge gasping for air with a huge smile, and begin to belly laugh.
“I’m alive!” I yell, nearly inhaling water.
Climbing out of the icy river water, the sun tickles my skin and shivers run down my spine. Between one of the rocks I see a tiny mushroom with a tall stem, red cap, and tiny white dots. Its vibrant colour clashes with the moss-covered rock bed, looking out of place. Crouching down for a better look, I see the dots pulsating, like the fungi is breathing. I stand up and blink a few times to try to clear my vision.
Where is Selly? In the distance, I see her long, charcoal curls draped down her back, still wet from her tumble into the water. She flips them from side-to side. I catch sight of the familiar crescent moon tattoo between her shoulder blades.
“What are you doing over there?” I yell.
She and I are opposites, in appearance and personality, but I think that’s what makes us best friends. Her Oma calls us “Schneeweisschen und Rosenrot,” referring to the fairytale “Snow White and Rose Red.” Two partners in crime, but I like to call us the perfect combination of good and evil. Selly tells me I’m the most easygoing person she’s ever met.
“The leaves, look Kaleigh! Do you also notice the tiny holes everywhere? Little bugs must have chewed them. How did I not notice before?”
“And look!” I say. “The moss on the rocks is lighter green than the shade of the leaves over there — I never noticed before.” She’s right. My vision is in high definition now.
We’re astounded by all these fine details. Selly and I begin to laugh — she joins in and we hug each other for what feels like a long time. I kiss her cheek and remind her how much I love her.
“Let’s keep going. Where are the other girls?” she laughs.
We continue rock climbing along the riverside, and with each step a vivid moving picture appears. Ten minutes pass, and we catch up with Lena and Maria upstream.
“Waterfalls!” Lena waves us over with enthusiasm. We huddle together on a small rock surrounded by water.
“Wow, what a view,” I say. A couplet of cascading waterfalls in the near distance plunges into a basin of jade-green waters.
“I feel so lucky to be here with you girls,” Maria says, smiling.
We all hug on the tiny rock, giggling away.
“But, how are we supposed to get to them?” I say.
“Swim, duh! Let’s leave our stuff on the rocks over here,” Lena says.
I decide to take off all my clothing except for my bikini bottoms, and the girls do too.
“I feel so free here, like we are getting back to our animalistic roots,” I say, unable to stop smiling. “Naked in nature, together.”
We can’t stop laughing. My stomach hurts in the best possible way. Maria starts up a natural rock staircase leading to a new viewpoint.
“I’ve found the most beautiful web,” she yells. Selly and Lena stay on the beach, laughing together, but I follow Maria’s voice up the stairs. I’m drawn to the spider web, its shiny iridescent shades changing with each angle of the sun.
“It’s shaped in a cocoon,” I say, as I analyze the web.
“I see a labyrinth inside,” Maria says, laughing. “I must be feeling the mushrooms!”
“Me too — let’s swim to the falls, aren’t the hot springs near?”
“Yes, just above the falls. We’re so close.”
We find our way back down and all four of us cuddle on our little rock to view the falls and plan our next swim.
That’s when I notice a kayaker about to plummet down the falls. Our eyes widen in surprise, paralyzed by the idea of people from the real world daring to enter our oasis. We watch as 15 kayakers take turns riding down the huge waterfalls, to congregate in the basin.
“This must be a tour company. I wonder if they know the festival is on right now,” I say.
“They have no idea what they are in for,” Selly says, with a devilish eye. “Come on, let’s welcome them. We are Sirens today.”
I look at Lena and Maria to gauge their reactions.
“Let’s welcome them,” Maria agrees.
Bare-breasted and confident, we stand at the water’s edge, waving at the kayakers.
“Welcome to Utopia!” Selly yells.
We all roar with laughter.
This is how I will always remember us, standing together on the rocks.
Top Photo: Goran Safarek
All other photos: Kaleigh Studer