Part 2 of Neil Diamond’s most excellent international adventure

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Even before ending up in Montenegro, I had been planning to write a travel book. I thought I had what I believed was a very clever title – Around the World in 800 Days: An Unexpurgated Account of the Travels and Travails of a Cree Gentleman.

To accomplish the task, I would have had to circumnavigate the globe in two years and 19 days.

So when I arrived in Montenegro in September 2011, and had I stayed only for the seven days that were budgeted for – instead of seven years – I would have had to get myself to Kathmandu, Nepal, where Reel Injun was to be screening, then fly off to South Korea or China, across the Pacific to North America and finally home to Waskaganish.

I had been close to the top of the world in Igloolik, Nunavut, and near the bottom in Aotearoa – better known as New Zealand. But it wasn’t to be. Unlike Phileas Fogg in his 80-day journey, my hot-air balloon lost its buoyancy over the mountains of Montenegro.

As John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”

So I hit a wall in Montenegro and, in fact, this tiny republic by the Adriatic Sea is literally surrounded by a wall of mountains. It’s a natural fortress. Driving from Macedonia through Kosovo, you can see the line of high peaks for miles.

Perhaps that is why, for over 400 years, Crna Gora (as Montenegrins call their country) remained independent from the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. The people from there are renowned warriors who were able to fend off hordes of janissaries, the elite Ottoman warriors. They were at one point called the “Indians” of the Balkans. But ours is not a story of old battles won and lost.

We entered Nikšić at night. A conference dinner was being held near my hotel. The restaurant, Portun, was packed. I was greeted and introduced by my Croatian professor friend Sanja Runtic, who helped arrange my visit.

Also present was Craig Womack, a Creek-Cherokee novelist and a Native American literature professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Womack had been invited by the University of Montenegro to deliver lectures on Native American writers. The students seemed shy and wouldn’t ask questions after Womack’s talk. I don’t know if they were stunned to find out that Indians had been writing books not that long after contact. Nonetheless, they were spellbound watching a real Cherokee Indian actually lecturing.

Several universities in the Balkans now offer courses on Native American literature. Scholars, artists, writers and poets from Oklahoma, California and elsewhere passed through during my time there. One of them was Timothy Petete from the Seminole Nation and a professor at the University of Central Oklahoma who lectures on New Media. Petete has traveled the region for just over four years now introducing contemporary Native artists, musicians and writers to a new audience.

Another recent visitor was renowned performance artist James Luna from the La Jolla Indian Reservation in California. James gave a performance at the city’s cultural centre, and lectured in the capital, Podgorica. On his last few nights, he performed at the Blues Brothers Bar playing his songs with a local blues guitarist. Sadly, Luna died of a heart attack in New Orleans last March. One of his works is still displayed on the walls of the tiny nightclub he performed at in Nikšić.

Another conference is taking place this summer in Montenegro. Two of my friends, one a Lakota professor from Missoula, Montana, the other a PhD candidate from Los Angeles, are probably packing their bags ready to travel across the ocean to bring wisdom.

Bear with me now, this is a travel story without travel, and we have yet to reach our destination.

When Womack and I first visited, we were given a tour of the old royal capital, Cetinje, high up in the mountains. The local monastery’s museum, filled with icons of silver, gold and wood, was a highlight. It was a small exhibit that took no longer than half an hour to explore but when we wanted to leave we found ourselves locked in. We sat by the door for almost two hours singing “Hotel California” for a captive audience.

Something I wanted to see was a gate to one of the important buildings in the town that had been constructed from captured Ottoman rifles. Unfortunately, the gate had been removed when diplomatic relations with Turkey were established after the First World War.

Several days later I went up Mount Lovćen, just outside the old capital. At its summit is a granite mausoleum, in which lies Montenegro’s greatest poet, philosopher, lover, Prince Bishop and warrior priest – Petar II Petrović-Njegoš. From the summit, it is said that on a clear, cold day, you can see the boot of Italy clear across the Adriatic.

Montenegro is not a wealthy country. After the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Western sanctions that followed, the economy suffered greatly. Still today, the unemployment rate is a whopping 37%. Walking along the main pedestrian street you see cafés filled with men and women nursing their coffees and idly chatting. During the period after the NATO bombings of the last remnants of Yugoslavia in 1999, jobs began to disappear, factories closed and the smuggling of cars, oil, tobacco and drugs skyrocketed. Hey, people will do anything to survive. Enter the Pink Panthers…

The Pink Panthers are a group of international jewel thieves. They earned the name when they used the same trick in smuggling diamonds in a jar of cream as in the Peter Sellers comedy. No one knows for sure but many suspect that they first came together in Cetinje.

The gang consists of Montenegrins, Serbs and Albanians with a mysterious leader. They are known for daring daylight robberies of jewelry stores in Western Europe, Japan and the Middle East. During one of their best-known capers in the Arab world, they dressed themselves in burqas and stole several hundred thousand dollars worth of diamonds.

To this day, they are believed to have stolen half a billion dollars worth of jewelry. Part of their Robin Hood image in the Balkans is due to the fact that they have never killed anyone during a robbery. There was talk several years ago that Leonardo DiCaprio was going to film their story with himself as the leader of the gang.

I was on my way home one day with a friend who shall remain nameless. As we passed this one café he turned to me and quietly said, “This is where some of them hang out.”

After my official week in Montenegro back in 2011, it came to happen that I missed my return flight to Montreal. I contacted the airline for another ticket home, but discovered that my bank account was short by several hundred dollars that I would need to complete my journey.

John Lennon’s phrase echoed in my head as I called my host. “Don’t worry,” I was told. “It’s only money. We’ll fix it.”

I received another message moments later telling me that a conference was to take place in Nuremburg, Germany, and that a photographer would come to good use – all expenses paid.

“I’ll do it,” I gleefully replied.

Seven years later, I’m contemplating the idea of changing my book’s title to Around the World in 8000 Days. You know the rest – 8000 days adds up to just over 21 years. More than enough time to write a book.

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