Saturday, September 13, 2008

Hey! I'm Gonna finish the Slovakia Blog: Part One

So here it is, finally, the final installment of last years’ Slovakia piece.

Over and over I sat down to write this, and it wasn’t coming out like I wanted (that’s what she said…oh!) so I’d put it off, and this would happen or that would happen, and well you know now it’s been almost a year, and I’ve got this new blog page, and I think before I do any more new stuff (I’ve got some crazy trips coming up in Italy and then Croatia and then …Montana…and I’m sure I’ll have some funny tales to tell) I should really hammer this out (that’s what she said? Does that work?).

So here we are. Just kick back, pour yourself a nice glass of wine, lounge in your comfy chair, and prepare to be mesmerized by the tale of Robin and the villainously laughing Polish border guard, gasp out loud at the thrilling moment of Robin and the disappearing Slovakian water bottles, BARELY CLING TO YOUR CHAIR at the most fantastic almost loosing of van keys that has ever happened on the outskirts of a Gypsy Village!

(Jesus, is this guy just going to tell the story or what?)

So I'll see how far I can get tonight, and then (just like with Bali) I'll add stuff every few days until it's done.

And so,

So let’s see…I guess in the last blog about Slovakia, I wrote about when I first reached Budapest, and went just to the start of the trip that I was leading through Slovakia, Poland and Hungary with another leader named Kaitlyn.

Right at the end, I mentioned that I drove van support before I actually got to lead the trip with Kaitlyn. Kaitlyn was leading with another girl named Renee, and I was their bitch…I mean van support driver. I don’t have that many stories from that trip (it passed pretty smoothly-probably because I wasn’t leading it), except this one:


So one night, in the southern Polish town of Zakopane…

(cool, cool city. It’s a backpacking paradise, nestled right against a huge series of mountains and trees and ski lifts and razor-sharp air, and lots and lots of cows. Outdoor gear shops everywhere and a gigantic, pedestrian-only street running down the center, stuffed with outdoor bar patios and restaurants and street performers and people hawking fried cheeses-some in shapes like goats-and other local wares. It was always a trip to dodge thousands of Polish people walking arm in arm while the aromas of all of these things threatened to merrily dance you into the cobblestones. I dug it)

…I had been given the night off as the van support driver while the two leaders took the guests to a restaurant. I was sitting in our hotel room, going through my extremely masculine man-purse, when I found an envelope that one of the leaders had handed me early that morning, as we were leaving our last Slovakian hotel, headed for Poland.

“Hey Robin, make sure to tip the hotel porters, ok?”

“No problem!” I said, assuming an air of deft competence and assurance. I took the envelope, put it on my clipboard, took care of finishing the luggage-load for the morning, and…didn’t tip the porters.

So here I am, sitting in my hotel room in Zakopane as rain begins to pour outside, holding a slightly moist envelope in my hand, thinking about what a surprise the porters at that last hotel in Slovakia had, and realized what had to be done.

I had to spend my night off in Zakopane hand-delivering the tip to the porters of the hotel Kolowrat. This tip translates into roughly 10 dollars.

I ran out to my van in the pouring rain and starting driving, getting lost a few times as I kept forgetting which exit to the city would take me back to the Slovakian border. Finally I found it, driving down a desolate road through a towering, pitch black forest, wondering if I indeed had found the right road, or if I was headed out towards certain and violent death, probably at the hands of a gentle-looking farm worker who would offer me a bed-“It’s nothing special but you’re welcome to it, stranger.” And I’d wake up and my car would be gone and I’d find all the skeletons in some closet, and I’d have to flee, panicked, into the Polish countryside.

And I really wanted to avoid all that.

So finally I made it to the border, crossed it, and finished the short drive from the border to the hotel Kolowrat, where we had stayed the night before. This hotel is beautiful, in a weird, communist-architecture sort of way, with a lobby that has some views that are, well, stunning (Oh! Check out the picture at the bottom of this page. That’s me giving a morning route rap in the Kolowrat lobby).

The hotel is built on a grassy knoll that slopes down to the base of a cluster of craggy mountains that explode from the ground up into the clouds. The hotel decided to enhance this by putting the worlds’ ugliest statue in front of this scene, so it’s hit and miss. But still a pretty cool place.

I didn’t take any of this in at this point; I was on a mission. I entered the gigantic lobby from the rain, clopping across the tile as the only person around. I had to wait a while for the receptionist to wander out and help me, and when she finally did, all I did was give her the tip in an envelope and walk back out, leaving her sort of baffled but (in my mind) touched that I had done all this work to make sure the porters got their ten dollar tip.

Now it was really pouring as I drove back to the Polish border. I pulled up to the little gate and handed the little bald Polish man my passport.

He took it and closed the door. Five minutes passed. (This is normal, as we are a bunch of Americans driving French vans in Poland. Seems a little weird to anybody). He then slid the door open and demanded the registration. I gave him this; he took it and closed the door. Five minutes passed. (Not so normal anymore). He then slid the door open again and demanded my….international driver’s license.


You go to AAA anywhere in the states. You give them 10 dollars and show them your drivers license and whatever passport-sized picture of yourself you’ve got, and they give you the fakest, least real-lookingist ID card that I’ve ever seen. I’ve shown them to Police in Italy who have no idea what they are, so at this point I no longer carried mine with me.

Ummmm, I said….I have a…California drivers’ license.

He looked at me for a few seconds, then threw his head back…

And laughed. It was a short burst of laughter that I was hearing for the first time in the real world, a type of laughter that is only reserved for villains in movies after they’ve been told by (usually) James Bond that they’ll never get away with this.

He laughed for exactly three seconds, and then his head snapped back to its overly serious normal level.

He closed the window.

Five minutes passed.

Men in army getup came and went from the little office. There was talking and pointing at me.

There was lots of shaking of heads. I began to regret getting the porters their ten dollars.

Finally the little window opened again and the little man poked his head back out.

“We decide…” he says, in a slowly lifting drawl, “you can go.”

Yes, I thought. Yes.

He handed the passport and registration back. I tried to grab it, but he held a grip on it the whole time, so we paused, having a sort of passport handshake in the midst of the pouring Polish/Slovakian rain.

“But if police pull you over, and you no have international drivers’ license,” he said menacingly, and let go of the passport to demonstrate a person getting handcuffed. He then nodded severely.

Ok, I said, and drove on, and damn it I was finally back in Poland.

I would have had a pretty quick drive back, too, if it wasn’t for the 10 mph tractor that I had to follow back through the forest to Zakopane.

I hope those porters spent the best ten dollars of their life.

(Click on "older posts" below this to finish the story)

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