Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Krakow doppleganger theory

I've been thinking a lot recently about second chances. Does fortune favor the brave or does it favor the rational?

Rather than spending endless weeks pondering philosophical dilemmas, I decided it was a much better idea to take off for Scotland for a long Halloween weekend. It was a chance to reconnect with my past in the form of UNC roommate Miss Katie Burns and besides, I couldn't deal with the depressing thought of Halloween with no trick or treaters. Krakow may have a dragon for a mascot, yet ghouls and ghosts roam its streets in other manifestations...

In Poland, All Saint's Day is celebrated in a way much closer to the actual roots of the holiday: lit candles are placed on ancestors' tombstones as a token of remembrance. It makes for an eerie yet beautiful sight and is taken quite seriously.

As I scarfed down haggis and staged Loch Ness photos involving sea-monster-shaped logs, being serious was the last thing on my mind. Nonetheless, Scotland helped me remember and appreciate forgotten small pleasures such as eavesdropping, speaking in slang, inside jokes, and friendly conversations with shopkeepers. Even getting lost, which should have been an inconvenience, became a pleasure in finding more and more perfect Scottish vistas and hiking trails.

By the time I returned to Krakow, bravery had won: I was moving into a new place in the city centre. Rationality helped: I would be saving 300 PLN per month. Coincidence was there too: as I returned from visiting my old roommate with my same name, I moved in with another one with my same first and middle names (in Polish, Katarzyna Anna). My favorite benefit, though, was one I hadn't expected:

I get to experience Krakow's most beautiful moment: the main market square misty and deserted at 7:00 a.m. as my heels click on the cobblestones, making my way to the train station every morning. I have even started waking up five minutes earlier every day just so I don't have to rush through it. And I'm a girl who eats breakfast at work to save even ten minutes of precious sleep time.

The almost comically consonant-filled name of my new street?

Wszystkich Swietych.

All Saints.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Do widzenia to summer

There have been some frightening rumors going around recently, and I'm not just talking about those related to the future of unstable financial markets.

Somehow, I'm not considered a newbie in Krakow anymore. I'm even showing other people around, and some Polish people have admitted that I actually understand some of their language. Once a gringa, always a gringa? I'm doing my best to avoid it, but you know what, sometimes I like to cook my pierogis with extra hot tabasco sauce. Maybe I can live with being the eternal American if it means not needing a reason to smile and enjoying heavily spiced cuisine.

In any case, I have bigger fish to fry. Such as buying my first pair of snow boots as well as an outer layer that looks more like a sleeping bag than an actual item of clothing. That's right, there will be no more jaunts through the wooded mountains of the Tatras to pick fresh raspberries straight off the bush, because Zakopane has already had their first snowfall. The good news is, Krakow has plenty of activities to do indoors, and here are some of my favorites of the past few weeks:

- A sea shanty concert at a bar called Stary Port, with corresponding nautical theme (stuffed parrot included). It sounded exactly like Irish folk music, including a Polish version of "Whiskey in the Jar." But my favorite act was the opener, where two small Polish boys dressed in matching nautical striped shirts sung a raucous song where the chorus went (in Polish) "I am a little Pirate!"
- Drinking hot chocolate at Nowy Prowincia that is actually a melted Hershey bar. You eat it with a spoon.
- A random jazz concert at Alchemia, a very bohemian bar complete with a Johnny Depp lookalike as bartender. I felt like I was in Paris circa 1900. Needless to say I'll be going back.
- A conversation with a taxi driver in which my pronounciation was good enough to fool him for the first 30 seconds of the conversation. Then he told me my Polish wasn't that bad, and I actually don't think he was saying it out of pity. He told me to keep learning, and that he wished he had learned more English.

In order to make it through a week straight of 46 degrees rain (8 Celsius if you are Euro), it's all about the small victories.

But mostly the melted chocolate.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

I cannot be dictated by a watch

Time in Krakow rushes by like it's on amphetamines... it's hard to believe that I've already been here for a month. But the big picture eludes me.

Does it feel like home? Will it ever?

Having a network is not the same as belonging, as I'm finding out. It doesn't help that the nine hour work days and my attempts to go to as many activities possible - or an inability to say no to said activities - have meant that I've fallen asleep in front of BBC World News more times than I would like.

There have been some ups - Polish style barbecues, impromptu concerts, fireworks festivals....and some downs - a full train to Gdansk (meaning I can't go on my long weekend coming up), a language even some Poles tell me not to bother with, and that fact that I've somehow managed not to travel at all during my time here. Luckily I can work around most of those. Case in point: this week I had my first Polish language lesson - with a woman who doesn't speak English, a blessing in disguise for me because my native tongue is like a crutch around here. I feel like one of my former Thai students, only with a slightly less sponge-like brain.

Time in Krakow always seems to move too fast or too slow. I can only hope the saying is true that an ounce of patience is worth more than a pound of brains...

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Engineering the human soul

I have a new favorite place in Krakow. Nowa Huta was ordered by Stalin to be built as a model communist town, unsurprisingly built around a steel mill. It was to serve as an example to bourgeois Krakow, former home of Polish royalty. Today, it's home to milk bars, skinheads, and bangin' thrift shops. The grey communist block buildings are now occupied by Stylish Restaurants, and the lake where steel mill chemicals used to be dumped now has a fishing club...but no word about how edible the catch really is. The one major church in Nowa Huta is shaped like Noah's ark, which symbolizes carrying the masses out of the oppression of communism. Hometown hero John Paul II gave a moonrock brought back from Neil Armstrong to the church as a special blessing.

Space, chemicals, subcultures, propaganda, takes time really to know a place and a people. But I've learned that having your eyes wide open is not enough. I've been asking more and more questions that previously I was afraid to ask, thinking it would make me look like an ignorant American. Here are some things I have learned:

- The deal with packs of young guys walking around town in capes singing the Polish version of "Guantanamera" is that they have just left the compulsory military service. They are now free to party whenever they want. That's what the lyrics of the song are about - freedom.
- The goofy Polish rapper on TV is their version of Stephen Colbert, not their version of 50 cent.
- "W" and "Z" are actual words in Poland, not letters or abbreviations (they mean "in" and "from").
- Nobody understands me when I use idioms like "sticking around" or "what the dilly yo?"

Just like the Nowa Huta builders, I have to take it one brick at a time.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Curiouser and curiouser

Blinking in the sunlight at 6:30 a.m. this morning, I had a revelation. Other than being an all-too-obvious sign of my indoctrination as a former English major, it really did seem as if I had crossed a threshold.

All too literally, I had emerged from the innermost cave.

The Bochnia salt mines are compacted by the shifting of continents by one centimeter a month. They have been doing this since their creation in the 13th century. Some people could have sworn it was difficult to breathe down there...and yet a cold wind constantly blew down the corridors. Where does the wind come from at 200 meters under the earth?

My sinus cavities throbbed because of the pressure change, but I could have sworn the whole time that if I opened some sort of locked mine shaft door, I would have found out we had been on ground level the whole time. Or I would have found myself having to choose between two vials, sitting at a tea party with the March Hare.

I'm not sure how, but I have begun to accept my life here. In other words, I'm not going to try so hard to find soy milk, nor am I going to expect bureaucracy to be easy in a former communist country. I am trying to break my bad habit of constant comparisons between here and home - a tall order because unlike during my previous travels, this time feels like it's for real.

That feeling has nothing to do with Poland, or even the fact that I will be here for a year. It's because whether I like it or not, my running off to Europe doesn't change the fact that I'm technically an adult now, whatever that means.

So then, if I'm not the same, the next question is "Who in the world am I?"

Ah, that's the great puzzle!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Like a welcome summer rain, humor may suddenly cleanse and cool the earth, the air and you

This past week has been a good example of how reality rarely meets expectations.

Of course it's not always a bad thing - to my pleasant surprise, my work days at a corporate job (who would have thunk?) seem to fly by. People here have great senses of humor and are some of the friendliest I've met anywhere. The amount of random acts of kindness I've received since being here are astounding. Polish people will say they have more in common with Spanish or Italians culturally than their German neighbors, and I can see their point. In terms of living, my flat is nothing like what Americans think of European apartments - it's spacious, new and has a balcony.

On the flip side, you really can't find everything here you would at food, for example. Or perhaps this is just an example of how I haven't figured things out here yet (until then, I'll eat kielbasa). Although if I hang out with the (many!) other trainees, I'll speak English, language has been much harder than I expected. Because of the way I look, I constantly find myself in need of a Polish decoder ring. Polish people are so friendly and jovial, too, so it's hard to avoid awkward non-Polish speaking interactions. So far I've learned the Polish words for "sandwich lady" (the exciting daily office announcement) and how to order a beer. So worst case scenario, at least I know I won't starve.

Krakow is hardly as cheap here as I had heard - something, I've learned after speaking to one of my flatmates, that has changed drastically in the past five years. It's not just the weakness of the dollar but the vast amount of growth the economy is experiencing here - i.e., a lot of Polish immigrants to places like the UK and Ireland are starting to come back.

If I could make a comparison between Krakow and anywhere a little more familiar, it would be Harlem: you have the jazz clubs, the "renaissance" and the new gentrification, and with festivals going on nearly every day of the summer, Krakow is certainly not short on culture. It even looks the same as its New York cousin - crumbling apartment buildings with parks in between them with children playing, weathered grandmothers looking on.

If I ever get a chance to catch up on my sleep, I'll remember to hold fast to dreams...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

When the mountain takes your shoes, take the mountain

Vietnam is one of the most fascinating places I've been, and not easy to figure out. Even on the flight over from Luang Prabang, the confusion began (Lao Air motto, I am not kidding: "You Are Safe With Us"). The captain made announcements like, "There is some turbulence, you should fasten your seatbelt, I don't know, for your safety."

Hanoi is a perfect example of how bipolar Vietnam is. It's a city chock-full of art stores and boutiques where people will (and do) eat anything and everything in order to survive. The baguettes are fresh....but so is the dog meat.

The people you meet fall into one of two extremes: the nicest people you have ever met or some of the angriest. Within hours of arriving, we met two Vietnamese restaurant owners in the street who took us to a beer hoi joint (fresh microbrewed beer that is found everywhere in Vietnam. It's watery but the tastiest beer in Southeast Asia). One adorable waitress passed me notes saying "peanut?" or "coca?" because she was shy but wanted to practice her English.

On the other hand, when one of the three Israeli career army men (good choice for someone to mess with, right?) broke an obviously previously defective kayak paddle on Halong Bay, a Vietnamese man and wife both tried to push him and Nate around because they wouldn't pay the US$30 demanded as a replacement fee. It wasn't just resentment of the West, either...we witnessed more than a few shouting matches between two Vietnamese. Unlike in Thailand, saving face wasn't a priority here.

I never felt uncomfortable being American in Vietnam, and probably got more flak from Canadians than anyone else about politics. This is despite the anti-American propaganda I saw at the Vietnamese Army Museum and the pictures of John McCain being "rescued" that were posted in the Hanoi Hilton.

Sadly, my time in Vietnam was cut short and I had to make the arduous journey back to Orlando, which as it turned out was 60 hours door to door. But I wasn't about to leave Asia without one more night (or a few hours) in Bangkok.

Rather than sleeping in the airport, I went to a Bangkok bar to watch the Russia v. Netherlands Euro Cup game with a few people I had met on the plane who had never been to Thailand before. I felt like a wizened old ex-pat, even knowing that I had to leave at 5am to catch my flight back to the states. There were some drunk and happy Polish men in the bar who were cheering for Russia - I gleefully told them that I was moving to their country in two weeks. All night, they had been substituting their own lyrics to "Guantanamera" and in my honor began singing, "Orlando, Flor-EEE-da!!"

It was one of those moments where I felt the ground shifting under my feet. It was time for a new continent...

Friday, June 13, 2008

Into the burning ring of fire...

You really can't appreciate Asia without having the long bus ride experience. Asian buses are microcosms of human experience, if that isn't me waxing overly philosophical.

I'll give an example. Reactions and saving face are important in Asia, especially when a Lao man decides to sit next to you when there are plenty of open seats and you are trying to sprawl out and try to sleep on the ten hour ride. Being passive aggressive does little to help the situation - loud conversations, surreptitiously jostling the seat and sighing will do little to make the little man move. But without that minor annoyance, I might have missed some of the most beautiful scenery I've ever seen out of a moving vehicle in my entire life. Think: the blue ridge parkway, but with higher mountains, precarious turns with no railing, and entire villages built on steep hillsides. And pineapple farms everywhere. I love pineapples.

Northern Laos is an outdoorsy kind of place, even Vangvieng, which is essentially a backpacker party city. In it, you can go tubing down the river and stop at bars along the way, jumping off rope swings and generally making a fool of yourself because of the free Lao Lao. Unsurprisingly, there is a good reason why it is free. While you are floating, small children (who presumably are skipping school) pull you in from the rapids to your watering hole of choice and ask for money. It's the kind of place where you feel guilty even supporting the economy by having a beer because the average Lao makes less than the cost of a Beer Lao in a single day. But despite Laos being relatively undeveloped, it's got a friendlier spirit than most of the tourist spots in Thailand, where tuk tuk drivers will tell you to walk if you won't pay ten times the normal fare.

Since trekking is so expensive here, our next stop is Vietnam, which...wait for it...involves something like 30 hours of bus riding. Until next time!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Truly Asia?

Krabi may have been expensive, but it certainly was relaxing. After the exhilarating experience rock climbing in which I self-induced a limp due to banging my knee on rocks, we decided that a big city was in order. Also, I needed to be in a country capital in order to work on a long term visa, because, it would appear, I am moving to Poland in early July.

Malaysia is truly a learning experience...such that on the bus ride down, I thought I was in Ft. Lauderdale. There were swan boats, and golf courses, and toll roads, and even a monorail.

Where in the world am I?

I have found out that in Kuala Lumpur, the surreal Muslim tomorrowland of Asia, some things are easy and some are difficult.

Easy Things:

Watching an IMAX movie for US$3
Getting food poisoning
Eating dinner at California Pizza Kitchen
Purchasing counterfeit Tiffany's jewelry
Going for a roller coaster ride in a shopping mall
Finding cheap gas (what do you think paid for the Petronas towers?)

Difficult Things:

Finding a travel agency
Finding the Poland Embassy
Getting past the toothless border guard at the Poland Embassy
Reuniting with the boys, or hearing from them at all
Changing a Delta flight from Malaysia to come home a week earlier so I can see my family

Hmm, perhaps it's for the best that we are headed out for Laos via Bangkok tomorrow...

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Live your life every day, never waver from your path, and cause no cruelty

That inscription was the tattoo on the back of our spiritual guide to Krabi, an as-yet-unnamed man from Gibraltar who straddled the front of our Thai longboat like Neptune commanding the sea with his trident. He punched his fists in the air with each pounding wave, chanting "Raylay Beach" like a mantra. Today I finally sat on a peaceful, mostly deserted beach watching a sunset over one of the most beautiful bays I've ever seen, with cliffs hundreds of feet tall surrounding me on all sides. But it's been a long time getting here.

I'm not a fan of sleeping in airports, because as a rule, I don't. However, this time it was convenient to leave for Phuket at the same time as picking up Ryan, our fifth hardy traveler after Mr. Alberto Lugo's sad and tragic departure. Once we got to Phuket, our experience was filled with sleeplessness, overly aggressive taxi drivers who are used to nonbargaining Eurotrash, and some surprisingly good Chinese food. As soon as we rolled, scuffled, and hauled ass off the ferry at Ko Phi Phi, the group consensus seemed to be that we would never leave. Much to my dismay, even considering it is the low season, we didn't. At least not soon enough.

It's not so bad. Really. Ever seen the excuse for a movie called "The Beach" with Leonardo DiCaprio during his floppy haired days? This is where it was filmed. Only in real life, it's overrun with Swedes who give you an insecurity complex with all the tanning in bikinis they do all day. It's a rough life traveling on the kroner.

As for us mere mortals, we sat at the Sunset Bar and read and swam during the day and drank there at night, watching the fireshow put on for benefit of hippie tourists. To add insult to injury, we paid three times as much as we would in Bangkok for the much beloved banana pancake (beloved by farangs anyway). One night I was awakened at 3am by Canadians in the hallway of our guesthouse who were arguing about American politics.

OK, sarcasm aside, we did do a day trip to little Phi Phi that was amazing. It wasn't even as crowded as I expected it would be. We jumped off rope swings into the ocean as our friendly longboat man tooled us around the island, finding inlets that were beautiful if not deserted. We also met gap year Brits who we hung out with for most of our time there.

I may have become a beach snob, but I personally thanked God for having created Krabi when I first saw it. Finally. I am in my happy place.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Whatever you do, don't fall in the river

We're back today from a two-day trek through Konchanaburi, about 2 1/2 hours to the west of Bangkok. It was jam packed with the bread and butter of farang behavior in Thailand: riding elephants, swimming in waterfalls, and partying with other backpackers. My elephant's name meant "Pig" in Thai, which made sense since when he wanted a snack he destroyed most of a tree, carrying it off in his mouth like a dog to save it for later. The waterfalls were pretty spectacular as well, and less packed with tourists than the ones near Chiang Mai, which has a pretty similar landscape.

Konchanaburi is famous for being the home of the bridge on the river Kwai and other WWII memorial sites. Most of the monuments and museums had very apologetic and occasionally humorously worded/gramatically dubious displays about the Allied forces that were in POW camps in Thailand, which had sided with the Japanese. Konchanaburi is pretty close to Burma and therefore was pivotal in the transportation of supplies for the Japanese to fight the British. The sites, especially Hellfire Pass (a museum funded by Australian ex-POW veterans), were disturbing but very interesting. Since there were not very many Americans in Thailand during WWII, it's not something you generally would read about in a US history textbook.

Although the history was interesting, what made me happiest was the floating guesthouse we stayed on in the river. There was, of course, the requisite United Nations of Alberto's 20th birthday party. He got a better deal than when I had my 20th in Thailand: all I got was a Christmas decorated birthday cake (my birthday is in October) while he got to hang out on a party boat with cool travelers from all over the world (Sri Lanka, England, France, Germany, the list goes on). After that, coming back to Bangkok was a bit of a letdown, rife with dehydration, downpours and the first man down with food poisoning. Although the honeymoon period of Thailand may have worn off, at least we are headed to the islands this weekend!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Does this city never sleep, or is it just me?

Now I remember why we left Bangkok after only two days last time I was here...this place is overwhelming. I am loving every second of it.

My first day in the city began with Nate's loud knocking on the door at 6am. All of us were massively thrown off because of jetlag, but we weren't about to let that stop us from an early morning jaunt around Banglamphu. Thailand accosted us immediately: the hilarity of the ladyboy guesthouse receptionist, the unforgotten tastiness of Fun-Os, the random strangers who try to help us, or help us relieve ourselves of our all came back in a rush of feeling. I got a whiff of the smells emanating from the market stalls, and wondered why I ever left. The stupid grin on my face may have labeled me as a naive farang, but I'm remembering more and more Thai words the longer I stay. Watch out, kon Thai.

That being said, it is much hotter here than it was last time, and the pollution is hurting my eyes almost as much as Delhi's did. Per Emily's request we finagled ourselves an upgrade into an A/C room, but alas, we leave today for a much cheaper guesthouse - one, weirdly enough, I recognized from two and a half years ago. With six weeks of travel ahead of me and no particular plans, its price is comforting, especially since I am still unemployed. Thailand has become a sort of place of limbo for my life...but at least it's cheap limbo:

Guesthouse: $3
Noodles from a stand for lunch: 50 cents
Taxi to the other side of town: $2
Hourlong Thai massage: $6
Triumphant return to my second home: priceless