Saturday, September 13, 2008

Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Oh My: Prolouge

Oh this is the Beginning of The Great and Nimble Tale of Robin epically voyaging across three countries faced with such perils such as the villainously laughing Polish border control guard or lightning storms over the Grand Tatras or having to once again return to a country where a pint of beer costs more than one Dollar –

Which is the case in Eastern Europe! A Pint of Beer costs one dollar in Slovakian bars, a dollar-fifty in Hungarian bars, and a little more than that (almost two dollars) in Poland.

There are Parts of Slovakia where the pints are more like fifty cents. Fifty cents!

I would be a terrible drunk in Slovakia.

But I digress!

Let's see where this darn story goes. Right now I'm sitting in a corner of the perpetually busy and laughingly inefficient Milan Airport, having not slept in let's see the last time I woke up was 26 hours ago and my connection to Florence is seeming not to happen due to a cluster of men in green Air Italia jackets viciously gesturing at each other behind the counter, most of them on cell phones. I don't mind though, I missed this place a bit.

I was up there for almost exactly one month. I flew into Budapest from Florence in the middle of the night, spent a lot of Thrilling Adventures' money shuttling around in Taxis looking for a SINGLE HOTEL ROOM JESUS ISN'T THIS SUPPOSED TO BE A PRETTY BIG TOWN? But lo and behold I finally found it and all was well, I handed my passport to the surly fellow standing behind the desk of the elegant (read: a dive) hotel Atlas, went upstairs and crashed.

The next day I followed the simple (read: Insanely complicated) directions that a Thrilling Adventures guide had posted on our website on how to get to our leader hotel in the town of Visegrad, a suburb of Budapest. I took a taxi to a train station. I got on the wrong train. I got on the right train. I rode on this train for an hour. The conductor told me that I had the wrong ticket. I purchased the right ticket. I got off the train and jumped into another taxi. I talked with Janus the Taxi driver about his son's eating habits for forty five minutes, I finally reached the hotel…and was the only Thrilling Adventures guide there.

Upon further investigation on the Internet, I discovered that I was indeed the only Thrilling Adventures guide around at the time. There were two guides and a van support driver leading the biking trip which was currently in Poland (8 hour drive away), and two guides leading the walking trip, which had just finished and was on its way back from Poland.

I was supposed to embark on a 6 day familiarization (FAM) trip in three days, and I had no van. Huh. I wrote an email to one of the girls leading the biking trip and went and had an amazing, crisp beer. Then I had another one.

Then I had a really, really long nap.

At this point I think I was totally in love with Hungary, especially as I was no longer…hungry.

In Hungary.


(those who know me should have seen this pun coming a mile away. It was Big, it was Ugly, but at least it was Well-Fed.

You know.

Not Hungry!

…moving on)

After my nap, I woke up and shuffled downstairs to the front desk.

"Oh yes," she says, remembering something, "Your passport number please?"

"Of course," I mumble blurrily, and start digging around my extremely masculine man-purse for my passport…gosh I could have sworn it was around here some…where…oh shit.

I had never gotten it back from the surly man at the hotel atlas. I promptly called the hotel. Hello, I said. Had I left my passport there?

"Of course," he said.

I think he was just choosing the almost-correct word in English (his wasn't so good) there, but at the moment, a huge trip away from Budapest, with no car, and the urgent need to cross the Hungary-Slovakia border in two days, I was angry.

I wanted to run to Budapest, shout "OF COURSE?!? I've GOT A COURSE FOR YOU-IN PAIN!" And then I'd pull off my clothes in like one smooth ripping motion, and I'd be wearing some WWF wrestling costume, and we would do fierce, choreographed battle right there.

However, this was not to be, and I just listened as he offered to send it to me. How long does that take, I asked? Oh, he said, one day.

Ok, I said.

It was right as I was going to sleep that night that I had a moment of doubt. Here I was putting a whole lot of trust in that guy, and a whole lot of trust in the Hungarian postal system. It was Sunday, and I had to leave on Tuesday afternoon for Slovakia on my FAM. And five days later I would be back, and leaving again to drive van support on the 9-day BHPQ (Biking Hungary-Poland Casual) Thrilling Adventures trip. If that passport happened to get lost, I would be really, really out of work for a while, and Thrilling Adventures would probably have to bring in someone else to drive the van support, and they'd probably have to fly them in from somewhere else in Europe, and they were going to be really, really, really not happy with me.

I needed to call the hotel Atlas first thing in the morning, tell them to absolutely NOT send my passport in the mail, and that I was coming to get it personally.

I just had to figure out how to do that without a car and over a hundred kilometers between us.


I woke up at seven forty five am to go grab some breakfast in time to call the hotel right at eight am, before they mailed my passport into the potentially endless labyrinth of the Hungarian mail system.

I got on the Internet to find the number of the hotel (as the lady who had dialed it for me the day before was gone, and the morning clerk seemed to only know "Excuse me?" in English (keep in mind I don't speak Hungarian at all).

Here's the thing with Hungarian hotels. You can't directly find their webpage by searching on Google. All you can find is a reservation service for the whole city.

I tried that. It just rang. And rang. I looked again on the webpage. Despite the fact that the hotel Atlas has a 24 hour desk clerk, the reservation service only opens at nine.


Well, I guessed that I could wait on that. I checked my email, and found an email waiting for me from the Trip Specialist of the region.

Robin, (it said) don't rent a car for your fam. You need to wait for us to come back with the van-you can use that. Also, you need to get back a day early from the fam, which means you only have 5 days to do the 6 day fam. See you tomorrow!

Hmmm. I know (by this point) that this means my fam will probably be 12-14 hour days for five days. Siiiiiigh.

Well, I needed to get a bike, because I needed to get to Budapest to get that passport. I read further, and discovered that the Thrilling Adventures equipment for the region was being kept in a huge storage box behind the Hotel Silvanus, a 10 minute drive from where I was.

I asked the front desk lady where that was. Oh, she said, it's very close-just up the road on top of Black Mountain.

…did she just say "Black Mountain?"

indeed she did.

It turns out that I needed to hike up to Black Mountain.


An hour later I emerged at the top of the trail and found the storage box, opened it up and grabbed a bike, then rode back down the hill. I went back into reception and called the reservation service (it was now 930).

…Still no answer. Fuck. I had no choice but to ride the bike into Budapest-before they mailed my passport.

I asked the front desk person how to get to Budapest by bike. She gave me a crazy look (it was really, really hot outside) and told me that it would take me all day to ride there and back (this is a different lady from the 'excuse me' lady now). I told her dammit, I don't care, just tell me how. She did, I ran to my room and got all my stuff ready, and came back (it's now ten am). I wanted to call that reservation service one more time. I called…it rang…someone picked up!

"Do you speak English?" I asked.

"Of course," she said.

I fought down my initial urges to yell at her and went on to ask for the number of the hotel Atlas. She sounded irritated.

"I'm sorry sir, this is a RESERVATION service."

"I know, but I just need the number for the hotel atl…"

"I'm sorry sir, I don't have that information."

"But you guys must have…"

"I'm sorry."

"Oh…well, thanks, then."

She hung up.

I sat there a second, looking at the phone in my hand. The reception clerk looked up brightly and asked what was wrong. I told her, and she said, "Oh, the hotel Atlas? I have the number right here!"

…I went through a number of interesting emotions at this point. Pushing them down, I called the hotel.

"Hello," I said, "My name is Robin McEwan, and I left my passport
there yesterday. Is it still there?"

"Yes, it is here," the surly clerk said.

"OH MY GOD YES" I yelled.
"Sir?" The hotel clerk asked.

"Ummm, anyways, I am coming to get it today. Don't send it, please."

"Of course," said the clerk.

I was in too good a mood to care.

I hung up the phone and walked on and started riding. 20 minutes later, I was passing through the town of szentendre and saw a Thrilling Adventures van….it was the walking trip crew! I pulled over and talked with them a while, and more specifically asked them if I could take their van into Budapest to get my passport. One of them wanted to come and we zipped into Budapest, ate dinner and ran around, and then, well fed (not hungry!) and content, we stopped at the hotel Atlas to get my passport.

My passport query was met with a blank stare. He had no idea what I was talking about. My good mood rapidly fell. He made some phone calls, first talking to the person whom I had spoken with on the phone earlier that day.

It turns out that when I called, the clerk had immediately remembered that he had seen my passport around after I had left. He didn't, though, make any attempt to find it after I called. In the meantime, someone else at the hotel was taking it to the post office and mailing it.

It was gone.


I wandered back out, and in a bit of a dejected silence we drove back to the hotel.

The next day I woke up early and did all the bike routes for day one of our trip on my bike (pretty amazing, hilly, forested rides, actually), and checked in with my hotel to see if the passport had arrived.

It hadn't.

I rode up to the storage unit and waited for the girls to arrive. I rehearsed what I was going to tell them: Oh, I didn't really need to do the FAM anyways, I'm GREAT with driving routes that I've never driven before! (haha!)…or something like that.

They drove up, and before I could say anything, they were like, oh, and we just stopped at the hotel-they were saying something about your passport arriving?


So I grabbed one of their vans and took off on my fam.

It's a little maddening driving 12 hours a day and spending like a week without really talking to anyone. After a while, you sort of start talking to yourself in the car, then you talk about "Oh great, now I'm talking to myself," which is even worse.

However, the fam was pretty rad. I drove through northern Hungary and crossed the river into Slovakia, drove the tiny, countryside routes through southern Slovakia (not an atm to be found for 100s of kilometers of towns), hung out drinking cheap beer and wandering around tiny mining towns in the foothills of the Tatras, got amazingly lost a handful of times, (one of those times an hour up a logging road in the mountains where I only realized that I was lost as I came across a logging team that was totally amazed that I had found my way there) had dinner with a bunch of polish girls, and got paid to spend two days hiking the spectacular mountain hikes that we take our guests on.

Krakow is the most amazing city ever. More on this later.

I drove 8 hours back to the trip start (from Krakow to Budapest), ate some pizza and had a quick dinner meeting with the two leaders of the trip (on this particular trip I was not a leader-I was van support, which means I mainly just did was they told me to do, and drove luggage from one hotel to another and spent my nights learning about the culture and history of the three countries so that when I led the trip the next week it would look like I knew what I was doing.)

The trip ran pretty smoothly, so I don't have a lot to report. The guests were happy, the rides were amazing, nothing really went wrong.

…Which is probably because all the wrong things were waiting for me. The next trip was the most chaotic event of my entire life.


orange pony said...

yo. i am ... er, conor's roommate, back in california. and i wanted to let you know that he laughs uproariously and i get curious and now i read your blog and i'm telling you this because otherwise i'd feel kind of creepy and weird. so, hi.

gherlashdawn said...

Among the 3 countries i love to go to Slovakia, you might be interested in the back-country Ruthenian churches. Visa allows non-citizen to travel to, enter, transit or remain in a particular country. They are clearly marked on the Michelin map of Slovakia and usually found on the outskirts of small villages, often in a small grove of woods on a hillside.