This is the story of our experience in the village of Vela Luka – on the Croatian island of Korčula – where a stranger’s recommendation for good food and music led us to discover a humanitarian cause supporting a community in need.
Every one of us has – in some way or another – been affected by cancer. Maybe you’ve beaten it yourself. Maybe someone close to you has lost their battle against it. Both Danielle and I have family members and close friends that are currently fighting their own battles.
Cancer is an unfortunate reality of our world; a commonality that transcends all people, all cultures, all countries. It doesn’t care about age, race, gender, ethnicity or belief system. That we all rally against cancer is another commonality; a tie that binds all humans, regardless of who we are or where we live. It’s a bond that we’d all prefer to live without, and yet somehow – despite the disease – it’s a bond that has the power to bring strangers together, to unite and to fight.
Thursday July 20, 2017 began beautifully, as we explored the saltwater lakes of Mljet National Park by bicycle. Late in the afternoon, we said goodbye to our new favorite off-the-beaten-path Adriatic getaway and set sail for Croatia’s 2nd most populous island: Korčula. A half hour later, we arrived in Korčula Town.
While Korčula Town is widely regarded as Korčula’s main destination and cultural center – we were convinced that the fishing village of Vela Luka – on the opposite side of the island – was the place for us. We sprinted across the harbor in just enough time to catch a bus, which pulled out of the station only 7 minutes after our ferry had arrived.
Apart from being Croatia’s 2nd largest island by population, Korčula ranks as the 6th largest by size, and its landscape is as diverse as it is beautiful. For 30 miles (48 km), we climbed winding mountain roads, passing through remote villages with scenic overlooks of the island’s olive groves, fig orchards, pine forests and rolling grape vineyards.
Nearly 2 hours later (normally this bus ride takes 1 hour), we made our way through Korčula’s westernmost valley, the final stretch before arriving in the breathtaking bay of Vela Luka. With 4500 local inhabitants, Vela Luka is the most populated village on the island, yet it felt empty compared to what we had seen during our brief moments in tourist-saturated Korčula Town. The sense of peace, quiet and seclusion that we felt immediately upon arrival, would stay with us throughout our next 3 days here.
Arrival in Vela Luka (and a few thoughts on travel)
Exhausted from a long day of biking and travel, our plan was to check in to our apartment and go to sleep. But oftentimes with travel – as in life – things don’t go according to plan. Let’s keep it brief: we had a bad experience. In fact, probably the worst experience with accommodation we’ve had… ever.
Having experienced both the good and the bad that comes with these travel surprises, we try to keep a few things in mind in these unexpected situations:
- You absolutely cannot control everything – no matter how hard you try or how much you plan
- Facing adversity is a necessary – and healthy – part of becoming a savvy traveler
- Whenever possible, try to make the best of a bad situation
Some people believe that all things – or even some things – happen for a reason. Others don’t. Whether you believe that or not, you will find yourself in unpleasant or uncomfortable situations while traveling. That much, is a fact. And how you choose to handle these situations can not only impact the short-term practical outcome, but also the long-term emotional outcome, when you look back and reflect upon the experience. This idea certainly applies to this story.
So, let’s continue.
When life gives you lemons…drink wine
Despite the bad experience with the apartment we had booked, we were fortunate enough to be rescued by the incredible staff & hospitality of Hotel Korkyra. At this point, our evening took a completely unexpected turn for the better.
In the lobby of Hotel Korkyra, we noticed a girl standing behind a table covered with wine bottles. Curiosity piqued, we approached the table and began speaking with our new friend. The conversation unfolded something like this:
- Wine friend (WF): hello!
- Danielle & Adam (DnA): hello!
- WF: where are you from?!
- DnA: North Carolina & California! You?
- WF: oh, cool! I’m from Vela Luka. This is my family’s wine!
- DnA: even cooler! Which one should we try tonight?
- WF: this one! (gestures to a bottle of white)
- DnA: this one it is! We’ll take it.
- WF: thank you! And what will you do later tonight?
- DnA: we’re exhausted. Probably drink this wine and go to sleep?!
- WF: but it’s Thursday – you must come to Fishermen’s Night!
An hour later, we made our way to the town center, located directly on the harbor. We stepped out of the taxi and paused for a moment to process the scene. Sensory overload quickly overtook us. The contrasting smells of barbecued fish & sweet buttered popcorn filled our nostrils. The noise of the crowd – a diverse blend of locals and tourists speaking half a dozen languages – was faintly overpowered by the sound of instruments as a local band began to perform live music.
We found our new friend, who quickly filled and handed us plastic cups of 2 different red wines. As we sipped, she explained:
- First, go over there and buy tickets (points to a line of people)
- Then, go over there to choose your meal (points to a longer line of people)
- Then, go over there to get your dessert (points…again…to another line of people)
she continued: tickets are 10 Kuna each (roughly $1.55 or 1.35€). With this ticket, you have dinner and dessert. For dinner, your choice of grilled calamari or grilled sardines. You should definitely try the sardines!
We navigated through the crowds to purchase tickets from line #1. Then, we made our way toward line #2, took our place in the back, sipped our wine, and absorbed the beautiful chaos around us.
We heard English being spoken, and turned to find a young girl of maybe 8 years old with her mother and grandmother. For the better part of an hour, we shared popcorn, a single sardine, and some eye-opening conversation with our new friends.
California Connection in Croatia
Let’s meet the family: the grandmother is full-born Croatian and lives in an apartment less than 3 minutes away from where we’re standing. The mother and daughter are US-born and live in northern California, less than 2 hours from where D and I are currently living. They come to Korčula every summer to spend a month with their family in Vela Luka.
As D and the young girl alternate taking handfuls of popcorn from a shared container, the mother shed new light on Vela Luka and revealed the true purpose of Fishermen’s Night.
- This event takes place every Thursday night over the summer
- The sardines and calamari have all been caught fresh that morning, by local fishermen
- The women selling tickets and serving the food are local activists for a non-profit organization
- 100% of the revenue from ticket sales is donated to this organization, which benefits cancer patients
reflections from DnA: this isn’t just a local summertime celebration; it’s a fundraiser for cancer patients.
After 30 minutes, we made it to the front of the dinner line. By then, our 2 groups had merged into 1. A single plate of sardines was given to the grandmother. And then, one of the women behind the counter gave us the bad news: I’m sorry, but we’re out of food!
It’s 10:30pm. After the day’s emotional ups and downs and the long wait in line, we couldn’t help but laugh. The grandmother offered us the plate. We insisted: no, please! They insisted: yes! You’re not leaving here without at least trying one! Our group ended up sharing the plate: 8 grilled sardines, between the 5 of us.
We moved on to the dessert line as the crowd began to thin out. Another 10 minutes of waiting, and we were rewarded with hot, fresh and delicious pršurate, a traditional Croatian specialty. Our night ended shortly thereafter. We said goodbye to our friends and headed home to reflect on this unexpected & incredibly impactful experience.
The local fight against a global disease
The organization that we discovered during Fishermen’s Night in Vela Luka is called Liga Protiv Raka Korčula-Pelješac-Lastovo-Mljet (KPLM), which translates to “KPLM League Against Cancer.” They’re a non-profit, humanitarian organization that represents Korčula, the peninsula of Pelješac and the nearby islands of Lastovo & Mljet. Today, the league has over 5200 members.
The league was founded on October 18, 2002, nearly 15 years before we visited Vela Luka. This date – October 18 – holds another, more personal significance to me: it’s the birthday of my Mother, a breast cancer survivor.
The global reality: cancer stats & trends
The earlier a medical professional can identify & treat cancer (or pre-cancerous indications) in a patient, the higher the likelihood that patient will live a longer life. These statistics are more compelling in places where awareness is spread and access to care is more prevalent.
For example, in the USA, the mortality rate from cancer has declined steadily over the past 2 decades. This positive trend can be attributed to a few factors:
- People making lifestyle changes (for example: quitting smoking)
- Technological advances in the early detection of cancer
- Advances in medical treatment
In many corners of the world however, recent cancer trends are not so positive. A 2012 study revealed that Croatia had the world’s 26th highest rate of cancer, per capita (for men and women combined). More recent data shows that Croatia’s cancer mortality rate has increased steadily from 2002-2016.
The local fight: KPLM
The technology to affect meaningful change does exist, but not everyone has access to this technology or the funding needed to support the types of programs that make a difference. The KPLM League Against Cancer is an example of this type of program, and they remain focused on the following activities (full list here) in order to maximize their impact:
- Educating people about the need for a healthy lifestyle and environmental protection
- Assisting healthcare providers with the procurement of medical equipment
- Organizing preventive examinations for early cancer detection
- Providing assistance and treatment to cancer patients
And they are fighting this battle with minimal resources.
What can we do to help?
Each of the league’s 5200 members pays an annual affiliation fee of 20 Kuna (roughly $3.10 or 2.70€). Additional funding comes from grants, private donations and local fundraising efforts, such as Fishermen’s Night in Vela Luka.
Looking back upon our experience, we estimate 500 people purchased tickets on the night we were there. At 10 Kuna per ticket, that means the equivalent of $800 or 700€ was raised on July 20, 2017.
If you’d like to make a donation, follow this link.
For new membership information, click here.
It will take thousands of Fishermen’s Nights to make a meaningful financial impact on the battle that the KPLM League Against Cancer is trying to fight. But these gatherings are far more than fundraisers. What makes Fishermen’s Night both special and critically important to the cause, is the impact that can be felt on a personal, emotional and human level. The spirit & sense of community is both humbling and inspiring.
Fishermen’s Night events will be taking place this summer, every Thursday night during July and August. If you’re headed to Korčula, make it a point to visit Vela Luka and experience this incredible event for yourself.