Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wed 9/30: To Slovakia

The first night we arrived in Poland, we met Sean at the Balloon hostel. I don't even know how to begin to describe him. Physical first, I suppose. Sean is 28 years old. By birth, he is Israeli. By heart, he is Irish. He has one crazy eye that never looks the same direction as the other, so when we first met him it was very difficult to decide which eye to make contact with. He has a very thick Irish accent, but has only ever spent ten days in Ireland. The accent comes from travelling with Irish guys for five months, which also resulted in his official adoption as Irish. His adoption is quite serious; he really does consider himself Irish, and everybody else does too. Sean has been travelling for four years. I asked him how he does it, how he supports himself, how long he stays in one place, and so on. Sean is one of the truest people I have ever met. He sat down, looked me in the eye (not plural), and told me, "Go where you want to go. Even if you have no money and don't speak the language, you will find a way. Wherever you go, you will be able to find work. Anywhere. There is always a way. The most important thing is that you get up and go. After that, things will work out. Things will always work out." I can't explain how hard his words struck me. It wasn't just what he said, it was who said it, how he said it, and where we were in life as he said those words. Here I was, on the other side of the world. I got myself all the way to Ukraine. Then I got myself all the way to Poland, even though we flew into the wrong airport 112km away. And here I was, sitting in a hostel with a person telling me exactly what I needed to hear. It amazes me how many people are on this planet, yet we always manage to find the ones we need. Some answers to my questions: Sean mostly works in hostels. He shows up with a reservation, makes friends with the owner, and then works for room and board (or room and beer). Sometimes he just stays a couple weeks, sometimes he stays a few months. One summer he worked at carnivals giving glitter tattoos that last for 3-7 days (I asked. And that explains Kate's glitter tiger on her breast that she exposed to us the first night.). He's worked some other odd jobs, but mostly in hostels. If you aren't familiar with the character of hostelling, many hostels are staffed (except for the owner) entirely by travellers working for room and board.  These aren't travellers off for a week vacation, like us, these people have usually been travelling for months or even years. Every person we met the entire week had been abroad for at least three months (except for one American). We were grateful to be able to say that we are living in Ukraine for four months. Four months was the bare respectable minimum, without looking like travel-pansies.

At the Balloon, Sean told us about a "really great" hostel in Slovakia, just two or three hours away, called the Ginger Monkey. He was returning there on Tuesday, but said he would be willing to come back to Poland on Wednesday and drive us there if we wanted, just for the price of petrol. We hadn't ever considered visiting Slovakia (has anybody?), so he gave us his email and a flyer for the hostel and told us to think about it. We thought about it and couldn't decide. We had to email ILP headquarters with travel plan changes, and were worried that it wouldn't get approved. Tuesday night, we finally got our heads together and decided to just spend one night in Slovakia and then come back to Poland. We even reserved rooms at the Balloon for later in the week. So we wrote ILP a very persuasive and very vague email about a "sister hostel" in Slovakia with "provided transportation" where we would stay "for a day." Once again, the travel gods smiled down on us and ILP approved our plans, telling us to "be safe and have fun." We emailed Sean at the Ginger Monkey, and finally got ahold of him on Wednesday morning, the day we were supposed to leave. Even with such short notice, he said he could pick us up at 2pm at the Balloon. O travel gods! What good deed did we perform in a past life that makes you smile down on us so benevolently now? I don't know why, but everything just fell into place.

We woke up early again on Wednesday morning, got our stuff ready for a 2pm pickup, and then went in search of a morning adventure. We walked a new direction through the neighborhood, just exploring Kazimierz. We found old men selling pocketwatches and antique cameras. My heart spilled onto the floor when I saw old twin-lens reflex cameras. 50USD was way too much for a camera that probably didn't work, but I was so tempted. The streets were lined with cafes, antique shops, and quiet art galleries. One had a pad of paper outside for people walking by to draw on. We obliged.

I spotted a playground between two apartment buildings, with a huge graffiti mural as a backdrop against one wall. The bright colors of the playground equipment contrasted strangely with the somewhat deary dirt and weeds on the ground. We swung on the swings and took turns on the spinner-thing, like any mature adult would do.

We crossed a bridge over a section of the river that we had never seen before, into a different part of town. More old buildings and impressive churches filled the neighborhood. We followed a set of stairs into a quiet, green park that looked something like the Shire. We sat on a bench in the middle of a lawn, surrounded by trees so thick we couldn't hear any sound from the city. Utter silence.

We made it back to the hostel where Sean was waiting for us. We grabbed our bags and got in his car. I had a moment of confusion and then delight as I climbed into the front passenger's seat--on the left side! Hooray for British cars! We drove away from Krakow and into the Polish countryside, completely enchanted by the winding highway, the little villages, and, of course, the sheep in the front yards. We sat in a comfortable silence, just staring out the window at the unfamiliar world. Unlike Kiev and Krakow, the horizon was completely unobstructed and I felt like I could see over the rolling green hills into The Great Beyond. We stopped at a small supermarket right before the border for food while Sean picked up hostel provisions (aka beer). Poland and Slovakia are both part of the European Union, so the border was basically non-existent. No buildings, no traffic, no stopping. We drove right through without slowing down.

The Ginger Monkey is located in a tiny town called Zdiar. It is nestled in the cupped hand of rolling hills, at the foot of the High Tatras mountains. The hostel is basically a big cabin, tucked right behind the only church in town. From our bedroom bay-window on the second floor, you can look out over the church and its cemetery, across the main road to the mountains. The Tatras are some seriously big mountains, making the small town seem even smaller in comparison. Zdiar has a startling blend of past and present; it was common to see horse-drawn farm equipment or carriages clopping down the road with a car honking behind it. The town is full of ski-lodges for the winter, but we came in the off-season so all the lodges were vacant and quiet. With no tourists around (besides the strange handful of travellers at the Ginger Monkey), the town went about its business without showing off for tourists or trying to please their wallets. It was nice to see people just being people.

The Ginger Monkey welcomed us like old friends, introducing us to the hostel dog, Wally, and all the guests. In order to end up in a tiny Slovakian ski town in the off-season, you must have either a fierce sense of spontaneity or a lot of time to travel. This made the Ginger Monkey full of some of the most interesting people I have met. The owner, Jimbo, is an Australian guy who seems to know everybody in town and treats his guests like friends. That first night, we cooked dinner for ourselves and Sean in the warm kitchen. Kate, another Australian we'd met at the Balloon, served everybody homemade blueberry pie. Even though is was down to freezing outside, we went to bed warm, full, and happy.

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