Monday, February 13, 2012

The winter cold and Krakow with Serdar


Monday morning, alone in the house. Having a day to myself before taking off tonight on the second stage of my three weeks of traveling. It is such a treat to have the house to myself—doesn’t happen all that often.

So—Krakow, Prague, traveling with Serdar, the weather, Kyiv, visa hassles. So much seems to have happened in a short period of time. All of the events of the past two weeks are permeated by one significant factor—the impact of the severe cold. It has made traveling difficult in many ways and is the topic everywhere as Europe, and especially Eastern Europe, suffers under a continual deep freeze. Down here in Crimea the infrastructure is just not equipped to deal with winter weather like this. The deep snows in eastern Crimea remained unplowed from the lack of snow removal equipment, many villages—such as Lenura’s parents—do not have electricity, heating systems are inadequate, and water pipes are unprotected so many people are without water, including us in the evenings. Luckily, our house is toasty warm with the exception of my room which is the coldest in the house because of where it is located. I have to bundle up in blankets to hang out in there. But that isn’t much of a hardship—I spend much of my time downstairs, which is where I am now.

The trip with Serdar was hard on many levels and great on many levels. It started with our overnight train trip up to Kyiv, arriving early in the morning and then off to the hostel where we were staying the night. The hostel was filled with Peace Corps Volunteers returning from a language refresher course, and Serdar immediately took up with them and went off to a cafĂ© for bagels. One of my few PC friends happened to be at the hostel too, so we did a little sightseeing together. Serdar meanwhile went off on his own, wandering around the city, and eventually all of us met up for dinner. He spent the evening sharing a beer with the owner of the hostel—a good beginning to what I hoped would be a world-opening experience for him.

We took a taxi early the next morning (4am!) out to the airport for our hour flight to Katowice, Poland, which is about a 90 minute bus ride from Krakow. We were flying a discount Hungarian airline called Wizzair, and that is the closest city they flew into. Despite Serdar having a passport and his Shengen visa (which allows entrance to all the EU countries except the British Isles), we were both nervous about the fact that his last name on his passport is spelled different than on his plane ticket. I bought the ticket before he got his passport, and as apparently happens often, his name ended up being spelled differently on the passport because of the Russian/Ukrainian translation into English. “y” becomes “I”, a double “I” appeared. A fellow train passenger thought it was going to be a big problem, the owner of the hostel thought not. And then there was also just the stress of the border guards at Poland checking his passport, etc. This is his first time of travelling internationally and neither of us knew what to expect. I kept reassuring him that all would be okay, but my reassurances didn’t do a lot to reduce our anxiety. But all went well, and we both breathed a huge sigh of relief as we finally walked out of the airport in Poland into a new world for Serdar.

We were both exhausted, cold, hungry, and thus cranky, by the time we got to Krakow. We were immediately greeted by a huge indoor mall, very much like you would find in America. Quite strange. But we eventually found our way to the other side and exited out into old Krakow and made out way to the hostel. A word about hostels—they are great for young people, as it is a chance to meet fellow, mostly student, travelers, but for old folks like me, well… I find them a bit trying. I was very glad for Serdar and knew it was the right choice as I saw him immediately engage with the South American, European, and Australian young people staying at the hostel, but for me, I became somewhat lonely for people closer to my age that I could talk with. There is also the party aspect to hostels—in many hostels every night there are organized pub crawls, or beer/vodka tastings, or whatever the local flavor is. Having just turned legal drinking age, these were great opportunities for Serdar (as he saw it) to party with other young people. Eventually I saw it as an opportunity for me to have some time to myself, so I guess ultimately it worked out. Though I told Serdar that maybe next time we travel together, I will drop him off at a hostel and go stay at a B-and-B.

Krakow was a wonderful city to visit. I wish we had had more time there and that it wasn’t so cold to walk around. We spent three full days there, leaving the third night on an overnight train to Prague. The first day we wandered around on our own, the second day we went on a guided three-hour walking tour of the city, the third day we went on a guided bus excursion to Auschwitz and Birkenau, about an hour from Krakow. I had had many reservations about going to Auschwitz, especially once I arrived in Krakow and saw what a tourist industry it had become—everywhere there were signs advertising tours to Auschwitz. I also had read the comments of the founder of the local Jewish museum who feels that the government needed to shut down the tours to Auschwitz and just let people go there on their own with no cameras and no cell phones. But if it was something Serdar would want to do, then I definitely would go—Ukrainian students seem to learn so little about the Holocaust and of course, Auschwitz is the most famous site. So we ended up going, and I am glad we did. Though the tour was rushed for me--I would definitely have liked to linger longer at some places-- I think the experience was, ultimately, a profound one. Especially being in the vastness of the Birkenau camp--standing on the railroad tracks that brought the train cars of people to their deaths, feeling the frigid wind that people had to endure with little clothing, seeing the dilapidated barracks and wooden plank bunks where people slept six to a bunk, and the long rows of concrete latrines, and trying to imagine being there amongst 100,000 people who had lost their homes, families, loved ones, everything….I felt both a deep sadness that human beings could bring this kind of suffering onto their fellow humans and also amazement that anyone survived these conditions. And perhaps a little deeper understanding of the human spirit.

On to our visit to Prague in my next post.

1 comment:

  1. Looks like an enjoyable, educational trip, even if super COLD!