How do you say Ouch! in Montenegrin?
One day in September, shortly before we were scheduled to move into Porto Montenegro, I decided that it had been too long since I'd done pushups. The last time I'd done pushups (admittedly a couple of years ago), I could do 25 at a pop. So I did 25. No problem. Until the next morning, when my left shoulder didn't work, and my upper arm hurt - a lot - when I moved it. Neither ibuprofen nor acetaminophen (known as paracetamol, by everyone outside of the US) made any dent in the pain. I expected that if I treated my arm and shoulder gently for a few days, whatever I'd done to them would soon heal.
Nope. A month later, I decided that it was time to see a doctor. How would I do that in Montenegro? I looked online and was surprised to find a place called Monte Medical that was located in Tivat, and had employees who spoke several languages. I owe this to the fact that Porto Montenegro Resort caters to lots of international clients. I called Monte Medical and explained what had happened to my arm and shoulder. The woman told me that she'd get back to me soon.
Less than fifteen minutes later, she called to tell me that she'd arranged for an orthopedic doctor to stop by and examine me. She needed to know where I was in the marina, so he could meet me at the boat. The cost would be 40 euro.
"Is 40 euro the cost of the visit, on top of the cost of the exam?" I asked.
"No," she said. "The total cost is 40 euro." I was floored. Half an hour later, the doctor arrived at Awildian. He came on board, examined my shoulder, and prescribed some NSAIDs. If it didn't improve in a couple of weeks, I was to call him back.
At this point, I should mention that, everywhere we've been in the world - outside of the US - Eric and I have found medical and dental care to be reasonably-priced enough that we could pay for it ourselves. Still, Montenegro's medical care was stunningly inexpensive.
How inexpensive was it?
The doctor's first visit was 40 euro. His return visit two weeks later, when he recommended that I have an MRI, was only 30 euro. The MRI of my shoulder was 185 euro; for 270 euro I could have both shoulders imaged, so I went for the two-fer. This price included the MRI procedure, a CD with all the images, and a review by a radiologist.
Following my MRI, my doctor recommended that I visit him at the hospital in Risan, a forty-five minute drive halfway around the Boka, where he would introduce me to a physical therapist. It was bucketing rain for the third day in a row, when Eric and I rented a car and made the trip. The hospital was on a narrow road, halfway up the side of a hill. The parking lots were dirt (now mud) and crushed stone, pocked with large and small potholes that were filled to the brim with rainwater. The buildings were old, built in the "Soviet bloc" style (unimaginative cubes); their exteriors, which may have once been white, were now a dingy gray, covered in mold and mildew stains, their stucco cracked and crumbling. Not a particularly confidence-inspiring appearance, for a hospital.
We parked in the muddy car park, and stood in the rain with our umbrella, trying to figure out where we should begin. You might say, "follow the signs," but all the signs were in Montenegrin, some of them in Cyrillic text.
Seeing a line of people outside of a door, we figured that was a good place to start. So we stood at the end of the line. A few minutes later, a young woman in scrubs came by and asked us (in English) what we needed at the hospital. When we told her we were looking for the orthopedic section, she pointed up a staircase to another building. "That's where you need to go." We thanked her and went on our way.
In the second building, we stood in a long hallway with doors all along its length, gaping at more unreadable signage, again trying to figure out where we should go. The hallway was crowded with people, coming and going, or sitting in the chairs that lined each side. Outside one open door, people were waiting to go in to see the woman who was sitting at the desk there. Many of these people were holding x-rays. Maybe this was the place? We got in line behind them.
After a little while, the man in line in front of us asked (in English) whether we'd signed in at the reception desk yet. When we told him we hadn't, he pointed to another room, farther along the long hallway. We thanked him walked into this room. For awhile, everybody just kept carrying on with what they were doing, walking around us, ignoring us. Eventually, a woman at one of the desks motioned us over and asked us (in almost-English) what we were there for. When I told her that we were there to see Dr. Gazim Cobaj, she made a phone call, chatted with someone, and, pointing at the chairs lining the hallway, said "Sit there. He is busy but will come when he is done."
We sat in the chairs for a few minutes, watching the people in the hallway, until Dr. Cobaj came by. He took my Montenegrin residency card, disappeared into the reception room, and reappeared a few minutes later. "Come with me," he said.
We followed him down the long crowded hallway and turned the corner into a short, narrow hallway, with benches along one wall and a couple of closed doors along the other. "You will see this physical therapist," he said, pointing to one of the doors. Then he was gone.
During the time that we were waiting, three or four other people came down our hallway. Every one of them went to one of the closed doors, knocked on it, and opened it, and were told by the occupant that they would need to wait on the bench. At this point they would shut the door, turn around and stare, as if noticing us - and the bench - for the first time. Then they'd decide where to sit. Most sat at the end of the bench. One person tried to sit ahead of us on the bench, but a Montenegrin man who was sitting near us told them off and they slunk to the end of the bench.
When it was finally our turn, we entered the small, cluttered office of Dr. Renate Bergam-Grandis, physical therapist, a solidly-built, middle-aged woman, with a no-nonsense style, and a strong voice to back it up. She spoke passable English, though we had to work through a few sticky translations; she had a long, in-depth chat with me about my shoulder, looked over my MRI report, examined both of my shoulders, and announced that she would schedule me for physical therapy. She told me that she has a physical therapy studio in Tivat, where I should come for my sessions.
I'd been expecting her to prescribe some exercises that I could do on Awildian, so I was surprised by having to attend her studio, and said so. She stared at me for a moment, an odd expression on her face, and then said, brusquely, "Where are you from?"
"The United States," I said.
"Do you know what physical therapy is?" she asked.
"Well, I've never had physical therapy before," I admitted, "but I thought it mainly involved doing exercises."
"No, no," she sniffed, getting up from her desk. "Come with me." To Eric, she said. "You stay here."
She opened the door of her office and led me along the hallway, past the people waiting on the bench, around the corner, and into a room where about a dozen people sat or lay on cots. "THIS is physical therapy," she said, sweeping the room with her arm.
"This is electric therapy," she said, indicating a woman who was having her leg wrapped with a stretchy band from which protruded electrical leads that were connected to a small machine on a nearby table.
"This is magnetic therapy," she said, indicating a woman who was lying on a blue mat that had been draped onto a cot.
There was not a stationary bike or exercise machine in sight. Just lots of gray boxes with knobs and blinking LEDs, and electrical leads snaking out of them. It looked like voodoo, to me.
Back in her office, Dr. Bergam-Grandin prescribed a muscle relaxant, Mydocalm, which, she said, "works here" (tapping her shoulder), "but does nothing here" (tapping her temple), as well as fifteen one-hour sessions of physical therapy in her studio. At 20 euro each. Yeah, I could afford that.
After saying goodbye, we returned to the reception room, where we again waited for several minutes while people ignored us. Finally, the woman waved us over and wrote out an invoice for our hospital visit. Twenty-five euros.
I attended all fifteen PT sessions, where I received two kinds of electrical therapy ("voodoo PT"), and was prescribed some exercises. The Mydocalm is great, by the way; it really does relax your muscles without affecting your thinking. We now keep a supply on board.
Over the next few months, I gradually regained most of the movement in my left arm, so that, by the time we left Montenegro, five months later, it was almost as good as before, and continues to improve. I can once again scramble all over Awildian's decks, climb up his mast, and pull on lines; I can scratch my back and carry grocery bags with my left arm, and give two-armed hugs again.
I have no plans to do pushups anytime soon.
In October, I contacted a woman at Lake Skadar, a huge lake that's known for providing habitat for large numbers of birds, and one rare one in particular. Located near the capital city of Podgorica, a two hour drive over the mountains from Tivat, it was almost in my backyard. (If you paid attention to my lesson from Zoran, you'll know that's pronounced Pod-gor-eetsa.) Most of the places we've been in Europe have been underwhelming in terms of bird life. But Lake Skadar is a world-renowned birding site. I wanted to visit there, and I was curious when the best time to visit would be.
The woman, whose name was Milica, was very friendly and informative. She told me that the best time to see birds at the lake is the springtime. But if I wanted to see some birds in the meantime, she added, I could visit the deserted salt ponds (solana) near the town of Ulcinj (pronounced "ul seen ye" - although according to Zoran, I never did get it right). Ulcinj was a two-hour drive south from Tivat, along the coast. The main attraction at the Ulcinj Solana was a large group of wild flamingoes. Flamingoes!!
A few days later, we texted our buddy Mirko, rented a car and drove to the salt ponds. The site of a now-defunct, communist-era salt production facility, the entrance was blocked by a gate and a guardhouse. We parked our car under a carport and walked to the guardhouse. A man came out to greet us and we told him that we were there to see the flamingoes. He nodded and led us into the guard house, where he took a look at our passports and had us write our names in a guest book. Our credentials accepted, we went through the gate and began walking along the dirt road that ran along the river, and deeper into the salt ponds.
Some of the old salt industry buildings
It was a kilometer or two, out to the broad ponds that the flamingoes frequented. Along the way, I looked non-flamingo birds.
We encountered sheep and goats foraging in the dry and dusty former salt pans. It seemed an odd place for them to be trying to find a meal.
Eventually, we reached the ponds and there, looking like a magenta band in the distance, was a large flock of flamingoes!
As we scanned the pond, we saw other flocks, some close enough that we could make out individuals. I never expected to see flamingoes in Europe, especially not in Montenegro. But here they were.
I checked off "greater flamingo" (Phoenicopterus roseus
) in my European bird guide and added it to my life list. We drove home happy and satisfied.
In the springtime, I contacted Milica again and arranged to take a tour on Lake Skadar, in one of the boats run by her small tour company, Boat Milica. This time, we were in search of the Dalmatian pelican (Pelicanus crispus
). The largest and rarest species of pelican, the Dalmatian pelican breeds on Lake Skadar, where conservation efforts have been underway for years. Last year was a particularly difficult year for the pelicans: "human disturbances" caused the few pairs who were breeding, to abandon their nests, and bird flu - which is running rampant in bird populations worldwide - claimed several thousand Dalmatian pelicans.
Here's a short video - with some beautiful visuals - about the pelicans at Lake Skadar, and the efforts that are being taken to help them.
According to scientists, 2023 is looking pretty good: 165 adults, and at least 32 young birds, were counted in this year's census. While this number of babies is only half of what it was in 2021, it's a lot better that it was in 2022.
Around Lake Skadar
Look what you can do with a lily pad!
Milica's guides had a good idea of where they might find some pelicans, and in fact brought us within binocular range of one of these big, scruffy-looking birds.
A Dalmatian pelican!
A happy twitcher
Niagara Falls, Balkan style
On our way back, we stopped in to see Montenegro's Niagara Falls (yes, that's really its name), a place recommended by our friend, Zoran, as something that "you must see." So we did.
Located a few miles outside of Podgorica, Montenegro's Niagara Falls wasn't quite as big as North America's, but it was pretty, and well worth the trip.
The surrounding geology was interesting, too: the rocks along the river looked something like a moonscape.