Monday, October 12, 2009

Sunday 9/27: The Travel-Gods Smile Down Upon Us

An awkward way to start a vacation is when you're packing your bags, getting ready to leave for the airport in twenty minutes, and your host sister walks into the room and asks, "Where are you going?" There really isn't much you can say to that except "Uh...Poland," and hope for only a minimal freak-out on her part. I know all this because I am lacking in the "Communication Skills" department, apparently, and it happened to me last week. I swear I tried to tell my host family days earlier about my vacation, but somewhere along the line the signal was lost, resulting in the above scene last Sunday afternoon. My host sister frantically shoved food down my throat and tossed me out the door, still shaking her head at my miserable communication skills.

Let me rewind. ILP teachers get two 9-day vacations during our four months abroad. This was our first vacation, and they organized a week-long bus tour through Ukraine, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, and Dresden. Sounds nice, right? Read between the lines: 60+ hours on a bus with more than 15 girls (and one guy...poor Austin), tour guides telling you where to look, scheduling nightmares, and less time in each city than the time it took to get there by bus. At first I was excited to have the opportunity to cover so many places in one go (my list of "Countries I've Visited" would look quite nice), but then I realized I wouldn't actually be seeing any of those places. Five countries in one week? Ouch. Eight hours in a country does not let you say that you've been there, and I mean really been there. No chance to see beyond the outside of the bus, and definitely not enough time to get a feel for the place--the streets, the language, the food, the people. A few hours would be like a few raindrops brushing your skin; you need days, maybe even years, to get soaked to the bone and say, "Yes, I have been to Dresden. I know the city." So four of us broke away from the bus tour to get soaked to the bone. Or at least try. We settled on Poland, reserving beds in a hostel for the first three nights, and leaving the rest up to the wind/travel-gods.

I would like to make a disclaimer at this point, mostly for my mom and dad: Some of the things I'm going to write about might sound really foolish and/or worrisome. But this is my journal, and not an appropriate place for you to get fuel for your parent-fires. Please just relax and remember that you taught me good things, I'm reasonably smart, I know how to listen to my instincts, and I'm also nearly 5'11" and more than commonly fierce.

So my host sister tossed me on a marshrutka, and I met my three other traveling companions across the city at a bus/train station. The group: Camille, Alena, Jessica, and Jess. We each had one carry on, and all together we checked in two bags between the four of us. Go ahead and be amazed at our packing skills. We climbed right onto a bus and got dumped at the airport with only one hitch--we arrived at the airport 40 minutes before check-in even opened for our flight. We sat on a curb and shoved our faces with peanut butter and knock-off Ritz crackers (PB is worth it's weight in gold over here. Nobody sells it, so a few teachers brought some from America and hid it for worthy occasions. This was a worthy occasion.).

We were pretty worried that our baggage would either be too large or too heavy. There was a 15kilogram limit on checked bags, and a very strict size limit for carry-ons. Checked bags were an extra fee, so we didn't have a full bag for each person. We didn't have any sort of scale to weigh our bags on either, so we stood with palms sweating at the check-in counter as the lady weighed the first bag: 6.5 kilograms. We almost cried from relief and laughter at our excessive anxiety. On the flight, three of us sat together and Jess sat behind us. She was sitting next to a pretty hot father (a "hot father" is basically any good-looking man over the age of 30) and they chatted the whole 1.5hr flight, but we couldn't catch much of what they were saying. When we landed at the Krakow-Katowice airport, Jess introduced us to Michael. It is a very good thing that Jess likes to talk, because their conversation on the flight went something like this:
M: So where are you guys staying?
J: At a hostel in Krakow.
M: Oh, that sounds nice. How are you getting there?
J: We're just going to take a shuttle bus or a taxi or something.
M: Hmm. Do you realize that there are no shuttles this late at night? And that a taxi will cost about $300?
J: What!?
M: Don't worry, I can take you guys there. My car is in the airport parking lot.
At this point, the other three of us got to meet him and form a decision. Getting in a car at night with a strange (hot) man in a foreign country went against everything our mothers ever taught us. We all silently evaluated Michael and the situation, and came to a unanimous decision: Let's do it. (Are you freaking out yet, Mom?) We stood there waiting for our bags, and Michael showed us pictures of his wife and children. We waited on the curb while he brought his car around, then he tossed our bags into the trunk, and helped us pile in. This was not a hippie hitch-hiking ride, this was a brand new, black leather-interior Audi. Possibly the nicest car I've ever been in, and possibly the perfect kidnapping mobile. We started driving, and he plugged our hostel's address into the car's GPS, which gave verbal directions and showed the distance on-screen: 112 kilometers. Wait, one-hundred and twelve kilometers!? Our hostel was in Krakow, and we booked our flight into the Krakow-Katowice airport, assuming that Katowice was just a region in Krakow (Like Berryessa, San Jose or something). Michael looked at the distance, looked at us, laughed, and said, "That's called getting your foot in the door, ladies." We felt terrible, but we did tell him that we were staying in Krakow. We offered to get out and call ourselves a taxi, but Michael insisted on driving us all the way there. It turns out that he is the president of his own company, but his first job was as an ice-cream truck driver in America. Now he has a $2million house, paid for in cash, and just works in an office all day. He made us comfortable, joking around, asking about the strange habits of Mormons, and telling us about his climb from ice-cream truck driver to CEO. He gave us all his business card, and offered to let us crash in his vacant company apartment in Warsaw. For free. Michael drove us all the way to the front door of our hostel, more than an hour away from the airport and completely out of his way, adding an extra two hours to his drive home. We asked him why he would be so nice to four stupid American girls. He shrugged and replied, "You needed help. And it'll make a good story to tell the guys at work on Monday."

An incredibly kind guy, but painfully bored with working in an office. I think he restored some of my faith in humanity.

We walked into the hostel and everything turned into a blur of warm lights, colorful clothes, various accents, and "What the World Needs Now is Love" coming from an old record player. The first person we met was Kate, a loud, plumpy girl from England. She introduced herself with, "Hi I'm Kate and this is my tiger!" and flashed us a red-glitter tiger tattoo on her breast. Nice to meet all of you, Kate. We sat up late talking to the hostel owner and the other guests from all over the world. We ate more peanut butter and a loaf of bread from Ukraine and talked late into the night, swapping stories and comparing accents. Ours were deemed "Decidedly American, and not very pretty--sorry." Oh well. We felt incredibly lucky to have gotten to the hostel so easily and safely, and were still blown away by Michael's kindness. We spent that evening and the next couple days randomly saying to each other, "Hey. Remember the time we got in the car with a strange man in a foreign country?" and laughing at our luck/stupidity.

We went to bed glowing.


  1. Alena, a black Mercedes with bullet-proof glass and tinted windows all the way around would have been an issue, but a beautiful Audi is not. One of the little-known facts of international travel. Just as a note, however, it is best not to climb into any car if you've detected blood stains in the trunk or if there is an Uzi or other weapon sitting on the passenger seat or floor. Just make a note of it. Love, Dad

  2. dear alena's mom,
    do not, i repeat, do not, watch the movie "taken."

    alena, you traveling bad-A you.

  3. Beth: Our group's Number1 joke is "Oh, you live in Ukraine? Have you seen Taken?" (even though it's not even about Ukraine...). People ask us this ALL THE TIME. I'm not exaggerating. So, you made me laugh really hard when I read that. Miss you.


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