Saturday, September 13, 2008
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.
(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.
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.
THE NEXT DAY-FAM EVE
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…"
"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.
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.
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.
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:
THE TALE OF THE VILLIANOUSLY LAUGHING POLISH BORDER GUARD
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.
A VERY SPECIAL NOTE ON INTERNATIONAL DRIVERS LICENCES
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)
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Pow so Van Support was over.
At the end of my van support trip, in Krakow (did I mention that this may be the coolest city in the world?), Renee caught a flight out of there (she was working in Prague next) and Kaitlyn and I drove the vans back to Budapest (which takes about seven hours) and got ready for our trip.
We had four days ‘off’ but we spent them all working. We made copies. We got a broken van fixed. We made maps and plans and drank beer and went on runs.
We did food runs for the trip, we washed the heck out of our vans, we prepped the bikes.
A SPECIAL NOTE ON BIKE PREP
This is the time before the trip that you go through every mechanical aspect of the bikes, to make sure that they’re running smooth as silk. I’ve been over this before, but in Tuscany we do this on the Thrilling Adventures warehouse floor, surrounded by bike stands, bike tools, the whole shebang.
In Budapest, there was just the Big Red Box outside the hotel Silvanus.
We pulled the bikes from the Box and began to work as storm clouds rolled in. There was nowhere inside the Box for us to work, so we worked outside, in the parking lot. After an hour of work (bike prep takes a long time when there are like 24 bikes to prep), it began to rain-and rain hard. Kaitlyn and I looked at the storm clouds, moved our gear underneath a tree with particularly big leaves, and kept working through the storm.
There was no other time to do it.
Every now and then, when we’d finished our work for the day, Kaitlyn would suggest going on a run or bike ride.
I only took her up on this offer once, because I hurt myself-badly-trying to keep up with her through the green valleys of the Danube Bend. It turned out that she was this like crazy exercise guru, and liked to do runs for like THREE HOURS.
I never made that mistake again. I’d do my runs by myself, thanks. (Also, that way I could listen to Andrew W.K. while I ran, and give passing old Hungarian women Andrew W.K. looks, which must be rather frightening).
Our van support driver arrived at 11 at night before the trip rolled. He was a huge, sprightly Irish guy named Liam who had been living in San Francisco for seven years.
He made lots of Irish jokes and, in typical Irish fashion, was a charming motherfucker. (Not to stereotype the Irish. I just, well, have never really met a young Irish guy who isn’t sort of charming. Um…) We had some pints and pizzas (Hungarian Pizza: Actually pretty Damn Good) going over the plans with Liam and headed to bed.
We were up at six o’clock sharp to get the routine cracking. I hopped in the van that had been loaded with snacks, gear, and all the bikes and drove it to the town of Szentendre, a cool little riverside hamlet right on the Danube (and a two-hour boat ride north of Budapest).
The idea was that Kaitlyn and Liam were going to head into Budapest and meet the guests at the Hotel International. Liam would load all the luggage into his van and take off for our night one hotel, Kaitlyn would then board a private boat with all twenty three guests, then spend two hours on the boat pointing out sights on the river and giving talks about the upcoming nine days. They would get off the boat in Szentendre and meet up with me at the dock, then we would walk together to a cool stone courtyard to find all of their bikes gleaming in the sun, snack tables and water bottles and everything set up.
Oh yes, we’re very good.
At least, we’re supposed to be…
I arrived at Szentendre and unloaded all the bikes, set up the snacks, helmets, etc (They all are supposed to go in little bins that have signs that say aggressive things like “ENERGY BARS: EAT BEFORE YOU BONK, DRINK BEFORE YOU GET THIRSTY, REST BEFORE YOU GET TIRED!”)
A VERY SPECIAL MESSAGE ABOUT THE WORD ‘BONK.’
It doesn’t just mean have sex. Really! There’s this really nerdy bike usage of the word that means “to run out of energy ‘cause you need to eat something.”
…which I guess could be sexual.
...I finished with all of that stuff, then jumped in the van (it was raining again) to study a sheet covered with local history before the boat arrived with Kaitlyn and the guests. (In the history I learned, there was a castle being blown up involved. I can’t remember a whole lot else at this point.)
The guests rolled in and we helped them get their bikes all ready to go. All the guests went in to eat lunch and I was supposed to watch all the bikes and stuff and I got distracted helping a guest (Let’s call her Mary) with her bike.
“FUCK! FUCK THIS FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT!” Mary would scream into the otherwise tranquil morning, her new bike computer popping out of the piece that was supposed to hold it. “Maybe….try it like this?” I would suggest, picking the computer off the ground. “Ok,” she’d grumble, taking the small black computer part from my hands. Moments later it would fly off again. “MOTHERFUCKER!” Mary would scream, as I went for the piece on the ground. “FUCKING CUNT!"
Another guest, Jerry, turned to Kaitlyn at this point and said “Thrilling Adventures might be losing my business pretty soon.”
Mary and I finally got the bike computer installed, and then I walked her to lunch.
Another guest then came over in the restaurant and yelled at me for a while about leaving her stuff unattended in the courtyard so I made up a story about this crack team of security guards that were watching our stuff for us, and that satisfied her and she wandered back out. I went out to watch the bikes at this point.
All the guests got on the road, Kaitlyn set to work rapidly cleaning up all of our tables, and I hopped on my bike after all the guests had left...except Mary. I asked Mary if she wanted to ride with me a bit, and she consented.
We had to get off our bikes for a little while to walk through a cobblestoned part of Szentendre, and then we came to a part where we could ride again. I mentioned this to Mary and hopped on my bike.
I had been riding for a few seconds when I realized that she wasn’t with me at the time. I stopped and looked back. She was struggling with her clip-in pedals (you know, when bikers are wearing those funny shoes that have clips on the bottom that actually clip into the bike pedal), so I rode back and drank water and waited. She was getting all angry again. Man, this woman could swear. It wasn’t so much her word choice (I’ve heard the “F” word before. Hell, I use it), it was the sheer, spectacular intensity, frequency, and volume with which this woman would swear when frustrated. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“FUCK!” She yelled, trying to get the clip on her shoe to slide into the pedal. She put her foot down for balance for a few moments, and then tried to shove off …
Let me take a moment, before the following disaster, to clarify something: you have to clip in while you’re moving forward, ‘cause if both feet are clipped in, then you can’t have them on the ground for balance. To get yourself “unclipped,” you have to move your foot sideways on the pedal, which is not always the most instinctive thing to do while you’re about to crash or need to put your foot down quickly.
So Mary Crashed. She was clipped in on one side, and was trying to get her foot in the other side, and it just wouldn’t go in.* I was sitting on my bike behind her, and had the buttinbiketights point of view she she went over, slowly and agonizingly, onto the pavement.
…was about how the fall sounded.
She jumped up and scorched the very surface of the earth with a remarkable spray of bad words. I didn’t ask if she was ok (that’s one of those falls that hurts your pride more than anything else), I just waited a bit, and then told her a story about when I went over slowly and agonizingly a few trips before. This made her cheer up a bit (at least she stopped swearing at insanely high volumes) and we rode on.
I got a bit ahead of her at some point. I was riding along, enjoying the brisk-just rained feel to the air, when I came to a part of our typed out directions that said, “walk your bike around the car barrier and continue on the bike path.”
When we wrote the directions, there was a barrier. Now, the barrier was gone, i.e. the guests would be looking for a turn that wasn’t there.
I rode around the bike path area, rounding up vaguely confused bike riders, passed Liam who was waiting at our first shuttle spot, then Kaitlyn , who was at the second shuttle spot, and then rode into the hotel with the rest of the riders, riding up the last hill with a cool European couple (we almost never get Europeans on our trips, who don’t understand why Americans would need so much help to be on vacation. Well, we just do, ok? Geez.)
That night we had a big welcome dinner, during which I was supposed to give a talk about the logistics of the trip. I had taken meticulous notes that I was going to use to give my talk, and promptly forgot to bring them with me...so I winged it. I actually did pretty well, and sat next to Mary at dinner, who was now cheerfully eating ice cream and telling profanity laced lesbian stories to a few of our more conservative guests.
After dinner, Kaitlyn and I hit the kitchens to prep our picnic lunch for the next morning (it can take HOURS to prep a Thrilling Adventures picnic, which is pretty fancy) and hit the sack around midnight.
So far, so good. Day Two is when I started making mistakes.
*That’s what she said. Oh!
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Kaitlyn and I were up at 530 am, groggy and disheveled and stumbled downstairs to put the finishing touches on our pack lunch spread for the next day. We promptly lost control of the spread (Kaitlyn was all about overly ambitious spreads, and soon I found myself building a waterfall of meats and cheeses, using an elevated series of boxes and aluminum foil). The guests came out of breakfast way, way before we had told them we would be ready, and began making themselves sandwiches without respect to the damage that they were doing to my delicate cascades of ham.
Suddenly all twenty-five of them were in our pack lunch area with a mammoth series of requests. We were frantically trying to stay on top of all of the requests as they arose while continually restocking parts of the pack lunch extravaganza when Liam cheerfully arose from behind a lake shaped veggie platter and told me that hey – he had loaded all of the luggage into the van and trailer – was he cleared to leave to deliver everything to the next hotel?
I assumed a look of deft competence (I do this all the time – ahahahahaha) and told him that yes, Liam, you’re cleared to go. He nodded and cut behind a volcano of M&Ms to leave the building.
Kaitlyn went into another room with all the guests to deliver a route rap about the days’ bike ride. I was supposed to clean up our mammoth production, then run outside and drive the van (loaded with all the guests’ bikes) to the town of Estergom.
A NOTE ON THE CORRECT WAY TO SAY ‘ESTERGOM’ OUT LOUD
Angrily, with emphasis on the TER and GOM part.
Actually, this is just how I say it.
…. Anyways, in Estergom, I was supposed to take all 25 bikes off the roof racks and display them so it looks nice, then Kaitlyn and the guests would arrive in a bus and see our bikes all nicely displayed in front of a spectacular river and it would be great. Meanwhile, Liam would be well on his way to drop all the guests’ luggage in the next hotel, then backtrack on the route in time to provide extra support for the afternoons’ difficult series of hills.
I started working on disassembling the massive jungle of lunch supplies and M&Ms when Kaitlyn poked her head in the door.
“Hey Robin – you’ve got to get out of here. The bus is coming in five minutes, and you have to have all those bikes displayed before we get there.”
“But….the snack table…”
“I’ll do it.”
I took a slice of ham and ran into the parking lot, jumped in my van and drove off.
After about ten minutes on the road, I got a call from Kaitlyn.
“Robin – where the heck is Liam?”
“Oh – I told him he could leave to deliver the luggage.”
(sounds of muted swearing)
“He’s supposed to wait to take all the snack stuff with him.”
“sigh. Hold on”
I drove on a little bit, wondering how we were going to transport several collapsible tables, tons of silverware, bowels, plates, leftover ham waterfall remnants, etc etc, to our next hotel – the Hotel Salamander in central Slovakia, 120 Km away. I couldn’t do it, or there would be no bikes when the guests arrived in Estergom. Liam couldn’t do it, or he’d never have time to drop the luggage off and make it back in time to offer support on the afternoon hills. Kaitlyn could hardly bring piles of ham on the bus with the guests.
I was in the process of pondering all this when Liam passed me at probably three hundred miles an hour, going back to the hotel. I gaped at him. He shrugged. He was gone.
I called him.
“Oh yeah man, I guess I have to go back to get all the snack stuff.” He whistled a bit, and then a note of gentle reproach entered his voice. “Kaitlyn called.”
“Ah.” I said, wondering how this was all going to work out.
“Don’t worry, man,” he said. “I’ll make it work.” (Somewhere in the background was the sound of the sound barrier being broken.)
“Uh…Ok,” I said.
“Cheers!” He said.
“Uh…cheers,” I said.
He hung up.
I arrived at the staging area shortly thereafter, and I pulled the ladder along with me as I jumped from the van…
A SPECIAL NOTE ON HEROIC JUMPING FROM VANS
We spend a lot of time jumping from the vans – a good friend of mine had to sit out the second half of the last season because he heroically jumped onto a glass coke bottle and broke his ankle. Heroic jumping is not something to be trifled with – don’t worry, we’re trained professionals. Here at Thrilling Adventures, we begin with heroically jumping from the couch to get a soda, and work our way up. Be careful out there, kids.
…And grabbed twenty bikes off the racks faster than I ever had before, and ever have since. I was finished by about ten seconds when the bus rounded the corner. I waved cheerfully as it pulled up in front of me. Everyone piled out chattering away, got their bikes, took some pictures, and rode off.
Kaitlyn was riding bike support this day, and left with the bulk of the group. I tidied everything up and drove to support the route. We crossed the border from Hungary into Slovakia and hit the plains of southern Slovakia.
After several hours we were approaching the start of the afternoon hills, where Liam and I execute a very complicated series of logistical maneuvers with two vans to prevent all the guests from hating us. You see, they’ve already ridden like 90Km, and THEN they start a 15Km series of mammoth hill climbs.
The idea is that the luggage transfer guy (Liam) was to drop the luggage in our next town, a preserved, tiny mining town called BANSKA STIAVNICA, then drop the trailer in a separate parking lot and come back to meet me at a small café right before the hill climbs start. There, as the riders arrive, we would be brutally honest about the difficulty of the next section. Liam would load up a van full of those not willing to do the ride and take them straight to the hotel, and I would support those willing to ride the hills.
As I approached the café when Liam was supposed to meet me, I was pretty nervous. I mean, after all, the "snack return snafu" must have cost him 45 minutes to an hour. There was no way he was going to be there when the riders got there, which meant there would be nobody to take the shuttlers straight to the hotel. This meant I’d have to stall the group (“Hey look! They have GREAT beer here! Ha-ha – HAVE ANOTHER! I’M NOT FUCKING KIDDING HAVE ANOTHER BEER! HAHA!”) until Liam showed up – maybe even an hour later.
I called him. He picked the phone up cheerfully.
“Hey Robin! Sup man!” He was yelling over the sound of a van being driven faster than vans should ever go.
“Hey Liam – where are you?”
“Super close to the café, man!” He yelled.
“Really? How is that possible?”
“Ha-ha well I’ve had to some less than safe driving!” He screamed.
“Yeah! You know the trailer? A couple of times I’d hit a bump in the road, and THAT FUCKER WOULD BE AIRBORNE! AHAHAHA!”
“Yeah, well, I’ll be there in a second!”
I hung up, and in he pulled, glee all over his face, about a minute before the guests arrived. I shook his hand in admiration.
We racked all the bikes of those not into tackling the big hills as the sun emerged from the clouds, setting the scene for this part of the ride to be about a billion fucking degrees. Liam took off with a van for the hotel. He was then to wait there, greeting guests and putting bikes in storage, while I drove around the remaining part of the bike route, giving people water and encouragement.
I drove past Jerry (remember Jerry? “I think Thrilling Adventures is going to be losing my business soon” Jerry?) on a huge hill, and he gave me the signal that he needed support. I pulled over to the side of the road and got out, opening the back doors of the van to set up a water station. Jerry pulled up and got some water, then rode on.
I got in the van as he rode off, and drove the van back onto the road. After a few minutes, I looked in my rearview mirror and noticed that the back door was wide open.
Shit. I pulled over and ran around, took a quick glance inside (didn’t seem to be missing anything) and closed the doors. As I was walking back to the drivers’ seat, I got a call from Kaitlyn. She riding with an older guest who was determined to finish the big hill, but let’s be honest here was probably hyperventilating from the way his breathing sounded. She mentioned that they needed a little water, (Guide speak for: We’re completely out of water. Get here ASAP) so I turned around and drove back down the hill.
When I finally reached Kaitlyn and the guest, I pulled over to the side of the road and got out. I walked over to where they were waiting – he breathing air in gigantic gulps, her wearing that regal look that ultra athletes wear when doing distances that “normal” people consider hard. I grabbed his water bottles for him, offering to fill them up. He nodded, panting, as Kaitlyn offered vague words of encouragement.
Man was it hot outside.
I walked around to the back of the van, opened it up, and saw a big gaping hole where the water jug should have been.
My mind whirred, standing behind the van. Of course. The back of the van had been open, facing the side of the road, when I gave water to Jerry. As I drove uphill to get back on the road the water jug must have just dropped right out. I just didn’t notice that it was gone when I did my quick check.
I stole a glance around the side of the van: Kaitlyn chatting away with the guest, him sweating buckets and looking really…well, thirsty.
I looked back into the back of the van at my lack of water. I wondered if my water jug was just sitting, intact, on the side of the road. I calculated how long it would take me to get there and come back down here, and how much credibility that I’d lose with the guest at this point.
I looked back at the guest.
Shit, that guy could be a poster for thirst.
I looked back into the back of the van, and noticed my camelbak (a water-holding backpack) was still there from the day before. Crossing my fingers, I grabbed it – still felt like there was some water in there!
I opened it and poured it out into his water bottle. Just…full! Yes!
I walked back around the van and handed it to him.
“Thanks,” he gasped, and took a big old sip.
"No problem!" I said, hoping that no one else wanted any water. I got in the van and drove back to where I thought the water had probably fallen out.
When I got there, I noticed something grim: The gentle downhill where I had parked eventually turned into a sheer, impossibly high cliff.
That jug was gone forever.
I called Liam, and as his van now had the only water jug we had, sent him out on the route. I headed back to the hotel.
And that was that for the Jug Incident. All of our guests, for better or worse, arrived at the Hotel Salamander, had a sit down session with a local historian, then ate dinner at a local restaurant that is so small that we have to fax our dinner orders in a day early.
I took a walk by myself after dinner to stop by a hotel that I’d stayed at during my FAM, then went to bed after brainstorming with Kaitlyn about where we could possibly find another water jug in central Slovakia.
A PAUSE IN THE STORY TO TELL A SMALL SIDE STORY ABOUT BANSKA STIAVNICA THAT I HAD FORGOTTEN UNTIL NOW
This is a cool town. It’s all spires and sharp roofs and narrow buildings squished into each other with impossible amounts of old wooden stairways from story to story within each building and buildings painted in shades of pinks to greens to blues and statues all over the place. It was a small silver mining town for hundreds of years, but as the mining industry dried up, most of the population moved away, and now the city sleeps forever and small amounts of tourists trickle through on their way to bigger draws but I loved it there.
During my FAM, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, I spent almost a whole week slowly losing my mind due to day after day without talking to anyone. When I arrived in Banska Stiavnica, it was around ten at night, I was exhausted, and needed to find a place to stay.
I wandered around, poking my head into hotel after hotel (full, too expensive, just plain weird, etc) when I stuck my head into a tiny, pink one, and was face to face with the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. She didn’t speak any English, and I don’t speak Slovakian. I tried her Italian and she tried my German (no luck) and then I sat down with her in the flickering light of the lobby and drew her pictures until she understood that I wanted a room. They had one, and I stayed the night.
Every time I came downstairs we both blushed a lot and had funny gesture-conversations, and I went out to grab a pizza and a few mugs of crisp Slovakian beer and study Slovakian history and look at my notes - but I couldn't get this girl out of my head.
I came back and plopped down in the lobby – I think that I was the only guest in the hotel that night. She laughed and we drew more pictures, and then eventually the night grew late and I headed to my room and went to sleep.
The next morning she made me breakfast. Still smiling and blushing she bustled around and I ate breakfast, and then while I was paying the bill I suddenly had a violent urge to just stay right there, learn Slovakian, marry this girl that I had never exchanged a single word with, and run a hotel in the town of Banska Stiavnica.
I came out of this reverie as she was handing me my credit card receipt to sign. I made eye contact for a long second over the pen she was holding out, then signed it, told her that I’d be back the next week with a group of “people on bikes,” and left.
She wasn’t there when we came back – just an old man who couldn’t understand me either – and that was that.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
During breakfast another one of our guests, a lovely woman named Harriet, mentioned (quite calmly, it should be noted) that her room had been in the attic of the hotel. This wasn’t a problem, she assured us. The room was lovely – it was just really hot and stuffy up there. The hotel had provided her with a portable air conditioner that was supposed to work quite well, she told us. It had, however, broken, and instead of air-conditioning the room, had gotten stuck in its’ “heat” mode.
It had gotten so hot in her room that she had to drag her mattress out into the hallway and sleep there.
I choked on my coffee. Kailyn again looked torn between bursting out laughing and sheer, stark horror. The woman laughed, however, and told us that "it was fine, just part of the adventure. There was no way we could have known this would happen!"
I was riding my bike that day, and the morning was pretty fun and laid back. We climbed out of Banska Stiavnica into some lovely forested hills. I rode and talked with some of the guests, I made a few small repairs on bikes that I passed, and right before lunch I found myself riding with a cool single woman named Angela (not my type, or age, you guys. Geez).
We hit the monster morning climb and she started really feeling it, so I unleashed my usual string of motivational banter (I’ve gotten creepily good at that stuff) and we…almost…made…it…to…the…top…when…she fell. Hard, tearing her leg up. I did first aid on her leg, gauzing it and wrapping it, and she said she was fine. We drank some water and rode in to lunch, in the ancient hamlet (I’m sorry that I just wrote “ancient hamlet”) of Kremnica, another little village of churches and wrinkled locals and small shops and a few new hip ones, in a little valley with mountains on three sides and lots of trees.
The guests took off to eat lunch and Kaitlyn, Liam and I put 25 bikes on top of the vans. Kaitlyn and Liam then drove the vans to the next hotel and I got on a bus with the guests.
We arrived in BANSKA BYSTRICA (not to be confused with Banska Stiavnica, the town we had stayed in the night before) at the Hotel Arcade. Banska Bystrica is a lot bigger than B. Stiavica-it’s the largest town in central Slovakia-but it’s also a former silver mining town and has a spectacular main square. Our hotel was right on the square, with long, haunting stairways and a sometimes friendly, sometimes not, staff.
The guests all headed upstairs and the three of us spent some time organizing the vans and trailer then headed upstairs, and Kaitlyn jumped in the shower and our phone rang. It was the front desk – one of our guests was “injured” in the lobby.
I grabbed my first aid kit and headed out, still dressed in my bike clothes.
It was Angela – the guest who had fallen earlier that day. She was sitting in a couch in the lobby of the hotel, quite frankly bleeding everwhere.
I sat down and started doing first aid again. It wasn’t as serious as all the blood would lead one to think at first glance – her wound from earlier that day had simply reopened in the shower, and all I had to do was re-dress and re-wrap the wound.
I headed back to the room and greeted Kaitlyn, who was wondering what happened.
“Same old,” I said.
Dinner was awesome: we ate in an amazing place right across the square while a privately hired string quartet played. The guests headed to bed and Kaitlyn and I shared a quiet beer on the square and watched couples headed to secret destinations and tired men smoke cigarettes and a small group of young folk laugh softly undearneath a fountain that was a monument to communist liberation but is now just a fountain.
Then we went to bed too.
Monday, September 8, 2008
Kaitlyn and I woke up around six, grabbed breakfast (not so much eating as ‘grabbing.’) I took off with the van and trailer, all loaded with bikes (I seem to have been ‘bike drop off guy” a lot on this trip)
Slam kabam whammo and I was off, climbing through the spectacular lower reach of the Grand Tatras, winding up through green forested mountains for two hours and then back down again to our staging area. I checked in with the restaurant and they started making our picnic lunch spread while I pulled all the bikes off the van and trailer.
I set up a snack spread, helped the restaurant staff display the picnic stuff, and awaited the chaos to begin.
The bus arrived and there was the usual swirl of questions answered and tasks performed and the guests were on their way. Liam showed up in his van and took off again to support the bike route on its’ first leg, which goes through a bike path that we can’t follow in the vans, so Liam was to support the route until the bike path began. Meanwhile, I would be taking a 45-minute detour to the place where the bike path ends and meet the group there, then support the next section while Liam caught up. The guests had prepared pack lunches at the restaurant, and would be eating en route, probably in the plains between two of the largest Roma (Gypsy) villages in central Slovakia.
All morning long things went more or less to plan. Jerry (yes, Jerry again) had a flat tire and a Blackberry, and with these two things combined summoned me to come fix it.
We caused a stir through the Gypsy villages – twenty-five bikers and two huge vans covered with still more bikes and gigantic “Thrilling Adventures” Decals were not things that the people of these villages are used to. Huge groups of kids emerged from dusty, garishly decorated buildings and swarmed around us, cheering and yelling and dodging in and out of our whole entourage. When we reached the plains, I came across pretty much the whole group of bikers eating in a field, and pulled over to see how they were doing.
Jerry had a few issues with his bike (it wasn’t shifting properly) and I took out my stand to work on it, and promptly could not fix the sonnofabitch. I’d get it almost right, then over correct something, and then actually made the shifting problem worse. To further complicate matters, Jerry and a small crowd of sandwich – munching guests gathered behind me to “watch a pro work.”
Damn it I just couldn’t do it with all these people watching…hmmmmm…
“Okay, I think I’ve got it,” I said, lying. “I’m just going to take it for a ride and…test it out.” I jumped on it and rode it a ways away. It was still fucked up, I was just waiting until I was out of sight of my guests, then I was going to hop off and fix it. However, we were on a plain, and I had to ride for a good minute before they were out of sight.
I got off and worked on the bike for a while, sitting on the ground, and around five minutes later had it humming along. Sweet. I jumped back on the bike and rode to where the guests were eating.
I gave the bike back to Jerry, and hung out with the guests for a bit. I got a call from Liam, who was a good hour ahead, dropping the luggage off at the next hotel, Hotel U Leva, in Levoca. The guests starting leaving on their bikes, and one of them, Adeline, came up to me and told me she was toast – she wanted to ride in the van with me for the rest of the day.
I racked her bike on top of my van. She got in the passenger seat and I jumped in the drivers’ seat and ok whee let’s go ummm…huh where are my keys?
AND NOW A FLASHBACK AS IT THEN FLASHED ON ME AT THAT MOMENT, SITTING IN THE MIDDLE OF A FIELD IN BETWEEN TWO GYSPEY VILLAGES PROBABLY ONE HUNDRED MILES FROM THE NEAREST CITY THAT WOULD HAVE A TOWTRUCK AND NOW THAT I THINK ABOUT IT I HAVE NO IDEA WHO TO CALL FOR A TOWTRUCK AND I DON’T SPEAK SLOVAKIAN FOR THAT MATTER BUT I DIGRESS – ON TO THE FLASHBACK:
…Before the trip, as the van was being handed off to Kaitlyn and I by the team that had it before, they gave us only one key (there is usually a backup key).
“Where’s the other key?” I asked.
“Oh, it disappeared like months ago,” The other leader said. “Don’t lose this one! Ha-ha!”
…Haha, I thought, sitting in that gypsy field, is not right. I checked my pockets – nope. I looked around the front of the van – nope. Not hanging around my neck, not under the seats…hmmmm…
“Ummm Robin?” It was my guest, talking at my butt as I groped under the seats.
“Mmmm?” I asked, trying to put on an air of nonchalance and total control of the situation, which was tricky when you’re groping wildly under a van seat.
“Is there something you’re looking for?”
I paused, then came up with “Oh, I just seem to haha have misplaced my spare set of keys somewhere around here…haha?”
She looked concerned. “But there’s another set of keys, right?”
I laughed. “Of course! But I love to have a backup with me at all times, so is it ok if I poke around for my ‘backup set’ for a minute?”
She nodded knowingly. “Of course. It’s always good to have a backup. Why, what would you do in a place like this if you lost your keys?”
“Haha! And it’s not like there’s AAA or anything to bail you out!”
She got out of the van and starting looking around in the tall grass, I dug the entire van out for about ten minutes. Nothing. I was standing on the side of the road, hands on my hips, wondering what I was going to do (I could call Liam, about an hour drive from me, and have him pick me and the guest up, but what the hell was I supposed to do with this van here? Also, I was willing to bet that after an hour and a half that my guest would be less than happy with me.
Suddenly, I had a burst of inspiration. No…I wouldn’t have…there’s no….huh.
I took off running down the road.
“Robin, where are you going?” My guest called after me.
“Oh, just…checking something!” I yelled back.
It took me a few minutes to get down the road to where I thought that I had been working on Jerry’s’ bike – but it was so hard to tell – I mean, on a plain like this EVERYTHING looks the same.
I just picked a spot and started frantically pawing through bushes on the side of the road. No – it was further down the road. I ran further down the road, pawed through more bushes. No- further? I started looking back, and went to a place where I…just couldn’t see the van. Here? I attacked the nearest bush… and came up with my keys.
They’re on a lanyard that hangs around your neck. They must have been bouncing around and hitting the bike while I worked on it, and I must have taken them off and just set them down “for a minute” and just fucking left them there. There was something else down there, too – my sunglasses!
I ran back up the road, dripping with sweat, and shook my keys at the guest. She gave me a dubious look, but then we were in the van and on our way to the shuttle point.
I arrived at the shuttle spot (another café) quite a bit after the bulk of the guests, but it was ok-those who were going on already left, and those who were shuttling with me were sitting around drinking coffees. I pulled out my ladder and started racking bikes when Jerry came riding up behind me.
“Hey Robin – are you trying to kill me?”
This naturally startled me a little bit. I paused, holding a bike over my head. I had no idea how to respond. “Uh…what do you mean, Jerry?” I racked the bike and climbed down the ladder to face him.
“My water bottle holder came off while I was on a downhill and shot straight into the spokes of my rear wheel.”
I guess that I had a look of sheer horror on my face, because he laughed and patted me on the arm. “Don’t worry, just be more careful about checking the water bottle holders in the future.”
I nodded, numb with the potential disaster, and smiled weakly.
He rode off.
I grabbed another bike, and climbed up to rack that one, too, when Liam pulled up, coming from the opposite direction. He had driven the bike route backward. He climbed out of his van and looked around, counting the guests, then came over to me.
“Hey Robin!” He clapped me on the back. “Is there anyone behind you?”
I told him that no, I had come in after everyone.
“Huh,” he said.
“Well, that means we’re missing four guests, ‘Cause I just left from the hotel, and drove straight here, backwards on the bike route.”
I racked another bike.
We decided that Liam would push on and support the route, and maybe he had just missed them or something. I would take a different route to the hotel with all of the guests that were done for the day, and then hang there and greet guests as they arrived. Liam was to call me if he still didn’t see the four missing guests, and I would head back out on the route to help him search.
I got to the hotel with a van full of guests, and started trying to unrack bikes and keep an eye of them, as this town has it’s fair share of thievery.
Right away William (the guest whose water bottle I had filled with my camelbak a few days before) came back out of the hotel. It should be noted that William is Mary’s (potty-mouthed Mary) father, but the two of them requested separate rooms. The Hotel U Leva had noted that they had the same last name, and given them a two bedroom, single bathroom suite.
This was not going to fly, William told me.
I asked him to guard the bikes, and went in to talk to the front desk lady, who, it turns out, speaks virtually no English. Through a series of pictures, I conveyed the problem to her. She showed me the suite, assuring me that it was very nice (it wasn’t bad, but I kept showing her our rooming list, which very specifically requested two different rooms for each of them). She made some calls. There was lots of gesturing at me that I didn’t understand.
Finally she conceded that they had just one room left, and we could move all of Mary’s’ stuff up two floors to this room. Of course, their porters had left for the day, she communicated to me. I got the keys, ran to Williams room, took all of Mary’s’ bags out (Mary was still out riding) and hauled them up two flights of stairs. I opened her door.
Holy crap. This room was TINY. Nice, but tiny. I put her bags down and ran down to the front desk.
“Ummm… do you guys have anything…bigger?” (Remember that she barely speaks English and I don’t speak any Slovakian).
“No…that is our only room. And what is problem? She is single, that is single room.”
Uh-oh. I pulled out my clipboard and checked my leaders’ notes for this trip. Under the hotel U Leva it says “make sure they don’t give us rooms 112, 114, 115, etc, etc. They are too small – the guests should have double rooms instead, even single travelers..”
I checked our contract with the hotel. It says the same thing. I checked the rooming list.
All of our single guests were in those rooms.
I tried to show he the contract but she couldn’t read it, so I asked to see some of the rooms.
The first one I checked was the room of the guest who had the attic room with the misfiring air conditioning unit a few night before.
She again had the attic room, and stuffy as all get out.
I ran downstairs and told William he could move into his room. The clock was ticking – I could better this situation, but I only had a few minutes to do so – the bike riders could be arriving any minute now.
Still no porters, so I ran to the attic room and moved all of her stuff out. I moved a different single guest into the attic room (someone else could take a turn with the attic) and ran downstairs to ask if they had a fan or something we could put in the room. After they understood me (this took quite some time) they had a conference and decided that yes, there was exactly one fan in the entire hotel.
It was in a double room – one of ours, to be exact.
Were those guests here yet? I asked.
No, they’ve not checked in yet, I was told.
I NEED THOSE KEYS! I said.
I ran upstairs again, got into the double room with the fan, took it out, and ran it to the attic room. I then locked up all the rooms and ran back downstairs.
The couple that was taking the double room formerly with a fan was at the front desk, checking in. I greeted them, and went back outside.
Minutes later, more of the riders trickled in. I got a call from Liam – he had finished sweeping the route and still no sign of the missing guests –what to do? I told him to backtrack again and start checking easy turns to miss and that I would be along as soon as I could get freed up.
I racked another bike. Jerry rode up, greeted me, and went inside. He was back about ten minutes later.
“Robin. I’m sharing a bathroom with someone. This isn’t going to fly – I specifically asked for my own room, and that includes my own bathroom.”
I climbed back down the ladder and asked if he would mind watching the bikes for a second and went back inside. I checked the rooming list again – yep, he was supposed to have his own room.
Back to the front desk. She gave me a weary look, and proceeded to not understand what the problem with sharing a bathroom is. Sigh.
I asked for another room for Jerry.
“You already took our last room.”
I called the other four star hotel in town – they were booked solid.
“Ok – he can have our room.” (Kaitlyn, Liam and I had a huge triple room that we had all been looking forward to). I called the two star hotel next door and booked a room for us, then – no porter – moved all of our bags out of our fourth story room down into the lobby.
Just then Kaitlyn rode in (she had been riding bike support with the last guests to come in) and saw our luggage in a pile in the lobby. She raised an eyebrow at me, but then Jerry came in and and I mouthed “later.” At her. I gave Jerry the keys to our room and he went upstairs. I went to his old room, got his bags, and took them up to our old room.
I then ran downstairs and went out to the van. I got another “No sign of em” call from Liam as the wife of one of them came out, asking where her husband was.
Just then the four missing guests rode up, really, really drunk. They had found the greatest little bar! They stumbled into the hotel.
I stood in front of the hotel with a dazed look on my face for a second, then called Liam with the good news.
We lugged all of our bags to the next hotel, then frantically worked on locking the bikes down for the night, grabbed showers, and ran back to U Leva for dinner, which went really, really well – we got a troupe of local dancers to come perform and the food was great.
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Ta Daaahhhh Let’s see how much work I can finish here.
So at the end of the night before, after the dancers danced and food was eaten and wine drank and the guests all filed off to bed for the night, Kaitlyn and I headed out to the back courtyard to prep a little for the next morning. I got all the snack baskets out and put them in a neat pile to the side of the courtyard so it would be easy to grab them and set them up the next morning. I went through all the vans and collected all the guests’ water bottles and threw them all in a garbage bag, then put that on top of the snack bins. I figured that I could set all the bottles out next to the water so it would be easy for the guests to fill them up.
We then went to bed.
So the morning of day five started and we were out of the room by seven AM. Kaityln worked on the picnic spread and I got all the snack bins out and made a big old snack table. The guests would come out, make a picnic and a snack bag, then get on a bus that we had contracted to take them to the hike. Liam would take the luggage to the next hotel and then take the afternoon off. I would take the other van to the start of the hike, do the hike with the guests, then drive the van to the next hotel.
I finished the snack table, and set up a water table, then went to grab the bag filled with water bottles…which wasn’t where I had left it the night before.
I looked around for a while. I looked in the vans. I looked in the trailer. I checked around the courtyard. Kaityln noticed that I had been looking for a while and asked me for what.
“oh-nothing!” I said cheerfully. It was dawning on me that that bag had every single water bottle that we had. 25 guests were going on an all day hike in the middle of the summer, and we had no water bottles. I began to search sort of frantically. I went in to talk to my friend, the front desk lady of the Hotel U Leva.
I explained to her that we had a “bag” filled with “all of our water bottles” that we “really, really needed” and did she know anything about their disappearance?
She had no idea what I was talking about.
I gave up and went to talk to the Janitor, wondering if he had thought the bag was trash and thrown it out.
He had no idea what I was talking about.
Soon I was in the kitchen, vigorously gesturing to a small crowd of U Leva employees about what had happened, doing a drinking gesture to show that I was talking about water bottles. One of the Janitors suddenly brightened up.
“Ahha!” He said. He left the room.
Oh god yes!
He came back into the room and gave me a glass of water.
I ran back outside. The guests were packing lunches and snack bags. Some of them asked me where their water bottles were – they wanted to fill them before they got on the bus? After a hurried conference with Kaitlyn, we told them that we would fill the water bottles at the start of the hike. Kaityln left on the bus with the guests and I took one of the vans on a wild quest for water. I ended up at a gas station and ran in.
“I NEED WATER!” I said, way too loudly, and got a small team of gas station employees to help me carry 50 bottles of Aquafina into my van. I then drove like a wildebeest to the hike start.
The guests were waiting there and were getting sort of grumpy. I jumped out of the van, ran to where they were gathered, climbed up on top of a picnic table, and told them that the water bottles had been stolen.
They stared at me, dumbfounded.
I told them that I had Aquafina for everyone, and we would find replacement bike water bottles for the next day for everyone.
This satisfied everybody, and they took water and left on the hike.
We wound up into the mountains, almost losing four guests on the way (I only found them on accident as I was headed to the bathroom) but the hike was smashing and elegant and we rose into the peaks of the Tetras and overlooked waterfalls and the air was crisp in our lungs and returned to the bus.
I rode in the bus with the guests and Kaityln drove to six different bike shops over the course of two hours and purchased some fifty bike water bottles, a few of which looked suspiciously like a penis.
That evening Kaityln and I worked on bikes until the sun went down. The guests were having an “at your leisure night” at the Hotel Kolowrat (the one that I had forgotten to tip the porters at the week before) and Kaitlyn and I were just going to grab dinner in the bar.
On our way up to the room, we passed Liam cheerfully munching on an apple.
“Oh hey, you guys.” He said. Munch munch. “Oh – I just saw all of your guests in the hotel restaurant. They wanted to tell you that they haven’t been served yet.”
This pulled us up short.
We had called in everyone’s dinner orders at noon that day.
The guests had all showed up at the restaurant at seven thirty.
It was nine-thirty.
We ran to the restaurant to find all of our guests looking…well, pissed. We asked the head waiter what the hell was going on. He told us that everyone else in the restaurant that were eating happily had called their orders in the day before, not just at noon, which is why they had all been served already. He left, and then a nearby Slovakian, who happened to speak English, turned around, mouth full of salmon.
“That’s not true,” he said. “I just ordered an hour ago.”
Kaityln went back into the kitchen and started ordering the kitchen staff around. I helped the waiters bring out plates, who realized the jig was up, and started working so frantically to get dishes out to our guests that nobody got what they had ordered.
So we sent out rounds of wine and after a while nobody seemed to mind that much.
The two of us ended up eating dinner at ten thirty.
Today we crossed the border into Poland. I got to ride my bike that day, and after giving the route rap in the echo-y lobby of Kolowrat, we rode into the morning mist across the border (I didn’t have any problems crossing this time) and up into the pine forests surrounding Zakopane. Today we rode past ski towns and tiny ski lifts and old people dressed the way you figure old Polish people dress and everything was green green green. A horse and buggy temporarily blocked our vans. I rode with two guests named Doug and Patty (my parents’ names).
Just after lunch, Kaitlyn picked up a full vanload of guests to drive into Zakopane. I dropped back on my bike to sweep the back of the group into town, when I ran into Liam, coming back from dropping the luggage off at the hotel in Zakopane.
He informed me that there was an eight-mile long car gridlock into Zakopane, that Kaityln was trapped in the middle of it probably for hours, and that all the guests still riding their bikes were about to ride right into it.
I went into a mad sprint on my bike, and managed to catch all the bikers and gather them around me before they hit the traffic, then carefully led them through the city to our hotel.
There I met a tired Kaitlyn (she had made three hours of small talk with the guests in the van) and we went out in Zakopane-it was sweet, blessed on your own night. We ate Polish pizzas and wandered the nighttime swirl of people meandering the main streets of Zakopane before heading back to our hotel – a restored 15th century manor house – and going to sleep for the night.
Day seven was pretty mellow, too. The guests had a choice between hiking and biking that day. Sabrina went with the hikers, I drove the van supporting the bike riders, and Liam had the day off.
In the morning, before the riders left, Liam and I moved some of the bikes around. He finished working and went in to take a nap. I noticed that he had left his stepladder outside his van and taken off with the keys. Too lazy to go get his keys to put his stepladder back in his van, I just put it in my van.
A SPECIAL NOTE ON OUR STEP LADDERS:
When we transport our bikes, we put them on the roof of the vans on our special bike racking system.
A) Each van can hold twelve bikes on top, but as the vans are pretty tall, the only way that we can put bikes up there is by using stepladders.
B) Without the ladders, you can’t put any bikes on top of the van, IE nobody can shuttle.
The bike ride wound through more tiny little polish villages, in and out of green hills and ski lifts and cows and horses on freeways. I scooped up all the riders at the middle option (the afternoon was really tough) at a Pizza place. I hadn’t been expecting any shuttlers at that point, and had all sorts of gear covering all the seats in the van. After shuffling equipment around for a while (which involved pulling everything out of the van, then putting it all back in. This will be important later) the guests got in and we drove back to Zakopane.
That night we met back up with the hikers and went out to a wonderful restaurant with long wooden benches and berry desserts and waiters and waitresses in white costumes and then we were off to bed. One more day of biking.
In the morning of our last day of biking (almost…there) Kaityln was giving a route rap to the guests when Liam came over, looking for something. I asked him what.
“Oh, I just can’t seem to find my step ladder, and I’ll need it to rack bikes later today.”
Oh yeah, I said, and went over to my van, where I had put both ladders…on the middle seat of my van…and had taken both ladders out the day before to make room for shuttlers…and had…ummmm….where were the ladders?
I had left both ladders at the shuttle spot the day before.
We now couldn’t put a single bike on either van – and as this was the last day of biking, we were going to rack all 25 bikes at the end of the day.
Liam gave me the look that he had been giving me all week (barely restrained laughter/I can’t believe you guys/ahahahahahahaha/Boy am I glad I’m not leading this trip) and wandered off, probably to burst out laughing behind a trailer.
Hmmmm…well, time to bite the bullet. I ran to my van and pulled out a map of the Zakopane area. Hmmm….the shuttle spot is here….but driving that way would take me two hours….but it looks like this road would….hmmm….
I looked at my watch. The guests would be leaving on their bikes in exactly 45 minutes.
I bet that I can make it to the shuttle spot, look for the ladders, and make it back in time; if I take this shortcut that I’ve never taken before.
Kaitlyn was free for a second. I walked over and told her what had happened. The look on her face was less like Liam’s (barely contained brevity) and more like sheer terror. I cut it off with an “I’m going to get them. I’ll be back in time. Don’t worry.”
And I left her, gaping in the middle of the Hotel Parking lot, jumped in the van, gunned the engine, and was off into the streets of Zakopane.
I drove really, really fast, holding the map against my steering wheel with one hand and glancing at the series of side streets as I maneuvered around cows and curious farmers. Finally I popped out at the shuttle spot – the pizza restaurant. I checked the clock. I had used twenty minutes to get there, meaning I could make it if I found the ladders right away and drove right back.
I ran to the tree where I thought I had left the ladders.
They were gone.
I stood there in the middle of the parking lot and pondered. Who steals a ladder? Probably no one – I bet someone from the restaurant had found them. When would someone from the restaurant have found them? Probably on their way out to their car at the end of their shift – which means they would have already locked the pizza place for the night. Which means that they probably didn’t want to unlock it to put the ladders back in. Which means –
Do they have some sort of outside storage area? I looked – and saw a wooden gate at the side of the place. I ran over – reached over it, and opened the gate.
Both ladders were leaning against a wall back there.
I threw them back in the van and drove back at much the same speed that I drove there.
And arrived exactly on time.
This time Liam did burst out laughing as I triumphantly handed him his ladder. He took off with the van and trailer to head to the end of the bike route to drop the trailer off. I put my ladder in my van and was getting ready to support the bike route when Kaityln ran up to me in her bike clothes.
“Where’s Liam?” She asked. Oh, he’s gone, I said. Shit, she said. He has my bike helmet. I can’t ride bike support without my helmet.
We looked at each other, and then started laughing again.
We called Liam. He was a good deal ahead of us, and would need to drop the trailer off before he could bring a helmet back for Kaityln.
So we concocted a plan. She would get in the van with me and her bike, then I would drive her until we were right behind the last group of guests. I would then sneakily let her out, and she would walk her bike until Liam could catch her and give her a helmet, then she would ride super fast to catch the guests.
We drove along the route until we saw the guests. Kaitlyn squealed and ducked low so they couldn’t see her and I pulled over on to a side street and let her out.
I drove along the route for a while, giving out water and what not, and then heard the familiar sound of the speed barrier being broken. Liam blew by me, somewhat airborne, in the opposite direction, wearing a look of grim determination. He nodded at me and was gone.
Kaitlyn was going to get her helmet. Oh yes.
The riders rode up over hills and pastures and a spectacular view of a lake blue blue blue and then the ride ended at a restaurant overlooking the lake.
The three of us rapidly stripped the bikes of pedals and computers and racked them on the vans and trailers. A bus showed up just as the guests were finishing lunch and they got on with Kaityln as Liam and I finished strapping everything down and paying the restaurant and then we were all off. Liam was done for the week and started the 7-hour drive back to Budapest with a lot of the gear. I followed the bus in my van into the coolest city ever – Krakow.
Krakow explodes into the sky with gargoyles and old buildings and lights in shades of yellow and blue and green and a central square that is two football fields long and two football fields wide filled with street performers and oh yeah I talked about Krakow but geez it’s amazing. The Nazis liked Krakow and so spared it so they could use it for a headquarters during World War Two, as opposed to cities like Warsaw, which they completely razed to the ground. Every last building.
But Krakow was spared.
We were staying in the oldest hotel in Krakow and eating in the oldest restaurant (1254) in Krakow that night.
I spent the afternoon finishing a slideshow of our pictures of the week while Kaityln arranged to have a massive television with surround sound set up in our dinner hall so we could show the slide show in style after dinner.
We went to dinner and ate in a huge private hall covered with suits of armor and swords and faintly glimmering torches and then I went to set up the slideshow and realized that I had made a horrible mistake.
I had burned the DVD of the slideshow as a region one DVD.
This means it won’t play in European DVD players, like the one I had in front of me.
I turned to 25 expectant sets of eyes.
“What could be better,” I asked loudly, “Than watching a slideshow of our week on this massive TV?”
One of the guests squealed in excitement. They all started scooting closer.
“Why, watching it on my little computer!” I said, taking my computer out.
Their faces fell, and then a few of them burst out laughing. I played the slideshow, and everything was well. We wandered through the cold streets of Krakow back to out hotel, and that was that.
The trip ended really, really well. We did a walking tour of Krakow, the guests had a great time, and everyone parted at lunch.
Kaityln had to grab a flight the next day (around noon) so we didn’t dally in Krakow – too much – well, ok, we dallied a lot, and left right as rush hour started, and didn’t actually leave Krakow for two more hours.
Just south of Krakow, it started pouring, and then right as we crossed the border into Slovakia and started climbing into the Grand Tatras, the rain intensified. And then the wind intensified.
And then we dropped into a stretch of 100 miles without a sign of civilization as the lightning storm started.
I had never really been in a lightning storm before. I mean, sure, I’ve been around thunder and lightning a bunch of times, but never striking so close and so frequently – I think there were blasts going off every twenty seconds.
We slowed to a crawl. Every now and then, the wind would intensify to the point that we had to stop the van and wait until we could see out the front window again. Explosions of thunder continued, and then we started crossing a valley where the road was lined with trees, many of which had crashed down onto the road.
We started having a series of morbid conversations. Should we turn back? No, because we would have to climb back through the top of the Tatras to get back to the nearest town, which would surely be more dangerous. We then talked about what would happen if the van were to be hit with a direct blast of lightning. Our roof bike rack was made out of steel, after all. We had to be a giant lightning conductor. But then again, weren’t we safe, ‘cause the tires of the van were rubber?
We pushed on and after an eternity reached Banska Bysterica, home of the Hotel Arcade, and buzzed up – would they give us a room for the night? The storm was too bad for us to continue. They would, and we wound our way up through the colossal and dark and empty hotel arcade to our room on the top floor.
We wrote some emails and wearily went to sleep as thunder continued to explode outside.
I know that the Trip only has nine days, but it wasn’t quite over for us.
The morning dawned with some pretty great weather, and so we got up early so we could get Kaitlyn to her Budapest flight. The drive was uneventful, with the exception of the four hours of traffic that we got stuck in (two in and two out) on the way to the Budapest airport.
After Kaitlyn left, I had to head up to the Big Red Box at the Hotel Sylvanias and unload/rearrange/clean up the unit. The next team was coming in two days, and I had to figure out how to transfer all the stuff to them. I cleaned and organized until four in the morning, then drove the van down to a hotel in Szentendre and hid the keys for the next team to find, then emailed then with the hidden location and packed until six am, then jumped in a taxi for the Budapest Airport.
To say that I was really, really tired doesn’t even begin to come close to how I felt. Thrilling Adventures was flying me from Budapest to Milan, then Milan to Florence.
I would then have two days off until I kicked off an eight-day tour in Tuscany.
I blearily checked in for my flight and tried not to fall asleep waiting at the gate for my flight. I was a little nervous about sleeping because I had all my tip money in my man-purse, which was slung around my shoulders in an extremely manly fashion. I think by that point I had two thousand dollars in there.
I didn’t fall asleep, and made it to Milan in one piece. I had a few hours to wait in the Milan airport, so took out my laptop and started writing.
If you look at the start of this whole, many part Slovakia blog, I wrote those words at exactly this point – more than a year ago.
Right after I wrote:
“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 had to go to the bathroom. I got up and went to the bathroom and went into a stall. I took a while hanging my various jackets and bags around the inside of the stall and then did my business, then gathered everything up and went back out to wait for my flight. I was writing the next part of this blog when an announcement came on the intercom in Italian.
Yes, I’m pretty good with Italian – but I have to be listening pretty attentively to understand it. So all I caught out of the message was my name, Robert Johnston.
Huh. I guess they were calling me at the gate – I must be late for my flight! I grabbed all my stuff and headed to the gate. I came up to the lady, reaching for my passport as I got to the gate.
She gave me a confused look. She told me that they weren’t ready for boarding just yet. Huh. So what were they paging me for? She didn’t know – it wasn’t them.
It was at this moment that I realized that my passport wasn’t in my pockets. Well, sometimes I put it in my murse…which also had my tip money…which was no longer around my chest.
It was gone.
I had left it in the bathroom.
I ran to the bathroom. No murse.
That’s what they must have been paging me for! Someone found my murse! I ran out of the bathroom and looked around at the colossal terminal.
Another page came on the air. They were now boarding my flight for Florence.
I just started running from gate to gate – had they found my bag? No, No, No signore, non l’abbiamo trovato. They kept suggesting a different set of bored looking airport employees at different desks who all didn’t know a thing about paging a Robert Johnston.
Another page came over the loudspeaker. They were making the final boarding call for my flight to Florence.
I started running back to my gate – what was I going to do?
I then noticed a sort of office called “Family assistance” that had a question mark on it.
I ran into that office and was greeted with a cheer from the three office ladies.
One of them had my murse. Someone had turned it in. “Sei fortunato,” she told me, and handed me the murse.
My fingers trembled as I unzipped it and flipped it open – and was looking straight at two thousand dollars, cash.
She looked at it, and shook her head. “Sei molto fortunato,” she said.
Someone had found it in the bathroom and turned it in without touching a single dollar.
And my passport was still there.
I ran to my flight and was the last one on. They closed the gate behind me.
Off to Italy.
When I arrived in Florence, I waited tiredly at the baggage claim as everybody got his or her bags and left. No sign of my bags.
I went to the baggage assistance window. She shrugged, and had me fill out a form.
I went back to the Tuscany Leader House with just my carry-on bag.
They found my bags four months later.