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20 September 2005

the chill in the air

systems online. after one point five months of reconnaissance in prague, czech republic, recon:one was go for roll out. destination: krakow, poland.

i'd packed most of my gear the night before. 0730 wakeup for the 1100 train from prague to krakow. took a shower, finished loading gear, charged all batteries, bid daniel farewell and exploded from the door of karmelitska 30 in praha 1 to continue the global reconnaissance mission 2005/6. the chill in the air the accelerator, i walked to the malostronska metro stop, on and off at staromestka, a mission to bohemian bagel to get a morning meal for the long train ride and more importantly, to connect my laptop to the worldwide net in order to transfer funds from savings to checking, lest i find myself in yet another iteration of the checking savings embarrassment.


train station. i'd already investigated train numbers and times and had written out the information on a piece of paper to facilitate the ticket purchase. yes, i'll have one of these please. the most friendly ticket agent at the counter asked my age. ah, the under 26 discount. i smiled. older than i look. no discount for me.

1100 -> 1730 on the first train to katowice, poland. czech republic/poland border and a troop of armed personnel boarded the train. the woman smiled as she flipped through my passport and handed it back. you are clear to proceed, recone:one. arrival in katowice, poland.

the train from katowice to krakow wasn't scheduled to leave until 1742, but when i arrived at the katowice train station at 1730, i saw only one train to krakow scheduled to leave at 1730, delayed five minutes until 1735. i wasn't sure if the departure times had changed or if this was an earlier train and the 1742 was still scheduled. the information board is god of all trains. after one minute of intense internal debate, the counsel decided to board the 1730/1735. 'krakow?' nod. this might not be my train, but it's going to my city.

by the time i arrived in krakow, the sun was gone. had i arrived fifteen minutes earlier i'd have been able to properly capture the most blazing sunset sky out of reach during the train ride. fifteen minutes late and fifteen levels below. through the train station... three times 'accomodation?' 'no, thank you.' to the town center through the darkness, florianska street, towards what i knew was beautiful. the massive town square was shaking from excitement and passed on the shaking to me. krakow was glowing and even more impressed me than prague, this a fifteen minute first impression. an openness which still had the chill in the air, the chill makes you pull your jacket tighter and feel warm inside. and i was in poland and i had my sweatshirt and jacket on both.

i found my hostel quickly, three flights up, and then three flights down quickly to the openness where i watched a collective of they who pretend to live on the streets spin fire, perhaps the most skilled of any i'd seen, one twenty four i'd guess the best who spun two with one hand. a revolution of light blurring behind his back and over his head. the others less so.

in the hostel i met anders (australian), daniel (austrian), serena and helen (british), and chen (chinese american). i'd forgot a little of what hostel living was like. the standard questions did not cause me to sigh; it was a new oldness that i didn't mind. after all, i was burning inside again.

posted by paul at Tue 20 Sep 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

19 September 2005

bring on the bugsicles

my mom wrote me the following after reading my last post. it's so unbelievably mom-like i just had to post it here. love you mom!


Hi sweetheart,

I dare you not to seriously consider any ridiculous dares, such as eating bugs, etc. or any dangerous ones either. You don't want to end up in some strange hospital. OK, so now I've said my piece... I feel better.

You know it's only because I love you.

God bless, love mom

posted by paul at Mon 19 Sep 2005 at 00:00:01 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

the missing on the far side of discomfort

IMG_9317.jpg

the current music selection involves thorazine.

i dedicate the remainder of my trip to the pursuit of discomfort. i know now what she meant: the trail to true traveller salvation leads through uncomfortable situations. i think i've been too concerned about being a tourist, the one who doesn't belong. and maybe this is deeper in me beyond just the scope of this trip, but regardless, it seems an appropriate setting to confront it. it is against [me] to walk willingly into the dark; far easier to stay in the light. i'll need to make a concerted effort to force myself. because what is the purpose of this journey? to seek the differences, yes, but i've been missing something important in my struggle to not appear the outsider. i think i'll find the missing on the far side of discomfort. discomfort is the beginning. so, to the readers, i must request your assistance in this endeavor. please push me screaming and kicking back into the dark when i stray. i'm serious. i envision these pushes in the form of challenges, as in 'i challenge you to eat crickets in vietnam', 'i challenge you to outrun a dragon on komodo', or 'i challenge you to experience gravity in new zealand.'. i challenge you to challenge me; the reconboard is waiting.


i will significantly increase the percentage of photos which focus on people. this will take some time and practice. i have a gigantic shimmering shining silver camera which doesn't know the meaning of the word 'discretion'. in addition, the three seconds of start up can mean the difference between capturing a brilliant moment and capturing the nothingness after the the moment passes. yet another shortcoming of my camera: the black halo effect that appears in some of my photos is definitely a design limitation during full zoom out. i can't believe i didn't notice the halo earlier; now i can't not. quite irritating. i feel i've advanced to the level above and i'd like to replace the camera, but i really can't justify spending 1k usd right now.

i miss my blackness. after three months, you would have thought that i'd have gotten used to the blue jeans and brilliantly browns. not at all. it will be a heavy day in hell when i pull the black boots on again. jenn and jamie, you are the keepers of the boots... can you feel their power?

end of the randomness. so what have i been doing for the past month in prague? i've been rebuilding the internal inferno and now i'm burning inside again.

the night sarah left, 07 august, i checked into the u melounu hostel with a lovely central garden in praha 2 for two nights. the hostel was full on the third day; i transferred to sir toby's hostel in praha 7 where i stayed for four nights and never learned the kitten's name. all the while i scanned the internet searching for a rebuilding room. i bought a beginner czech language book and created and studied an extensive vocabulary list all college student style. black is cerny. at the end of chapter one i was able to successfully decode a paragraph describing objects in a room. i never made it to chapter two, highly discouraged after three separate czech people told me not even to bother, the grammar is far too difficult and one month is not nearly enough. i'm one to conquer what others have not but realistically, i feared the acquired would leave me soon after i left the republic.

i looked at four flats and with energy ever waning after seven days of exhausting searching, i moved into the fourth at karmelitska 30, praha 1, with an amazing view of the prague castle, minutes from the charles bridge. i went to work immediately with the recharging, enjoying copious amounts of early morning sleep without the bother of cleaning personnel or checkout times or noisy dorm room roommates. after a few days, i'd reverted to my regular night time schedule; writing in this journal during the dark, sleeping during the light; i even went so far as to purchase a distressing sleeping mask to help dull the daytime brightness. but even the mask couldn't save me from a complete day/night reversal; as my night was ending i walked to the bridge to watch the sun rise. one of my roommates kept a similar schedule.

danny is a self proclaimed elitist with all of the traits associated with the self proclaimed elite; a 24 year old eating machine american from california, letting his days drift as he works on a book; he knows the meaning of life, a philospher, perhaps someday a physicist, but hopefully not always an elitist. laura is french, paris and lyon with six years in the carribean, martinique and guadaloupe; 20 years old, smiling and friendly, i harrass her endlessly with what she describes as a terrible french accent, finally i had a teacher. her english is excellent, but of course she doesn't think so; i told her that if she can get the 'th' sound down it will go kilometers to improving her mastery of the language.

i used my superior system administrator skills to install danny's inferior usb dsl modem; systems were online for approximately two weeks until the phone company eventually shut down the connection. it came to light that danny hadn't paid the phone bill for four months; i was less than pleased as the internet was a deciding factor when i took the room. i wanted to catch up with the entries here and had a lot of online travel arrangements to make. i handled all of the interactions with the czech phone company; learned that the line was not simply shut down temporarily for non-payment, in fact it was shut down permanently and would have to be reprovisioned from nothing, a fifteen days of waiting. i wouldn't be waiting.

i went out to a club several times with danny and laura, separately, and on several of those times, i had a bit too much czech beer and once ended up crawling across danny's unclean floor. less of a crawling actually and more of a sliding, propelled by pushing feet. prague is filled with americans, this club in particular. i danced to highly suspect music. met laura's very friendly czech and french colleagues: vladka, agnes, nicholas, nichola, carole, and clara. met lars, the club's danish dj, basir, born in india, now residing in denmark, and steve, a filipino american.

on 23 august 2005, i went to a show to see a horrible touring canadian band; enjoyed one of the opening czech bands far more, specifically one of their songs entitled 'don't trust klingons' during which a second vocalist, 'captain picard', came onstage to double the chorus. i kept a close watch on the flyers hanging around town and scanned the web regularly for other shows, but this was the only show which appealed to me.

on 31 august 2005, i visited the technical museum in prague and saw a special exhibit on hr giger, creator of the alien monster. kick.

the supreme counsel of the global reconnaissance organization held a covert meeting during the first week of september 2005 to calculate mission success rates given the physical appearance of the primary recon agent. results weren't good; the beard was attracting too much negative attention and making it difficult to meet new people. the order came down from the highest levels of command to clean up, shave, and cut my hair. i complied on 03 september 2005, a few days before applying for my visa at the indian embassy in prague.

on 08 september 2005, laura and i took a trip to kutna hora, about an hour and a half southwest of prague. she'll deny it, but it was her fault that we got off the train at the wrong stop. [l: ha!] the prime target for me was the ossuary chapel. remember the schwarzenburg coat of arms from cesky krumlov? the ossuary chapel in kutna hora shows a similar schwarzenburg coat of arms made entirely out of human bones... complete with the raven pecking the eye out of a fallen turk soldier's severed head. [the full 08 september kutna hora gallery can be found here. all of the bones shown in the pictures are human and real. more information on the kutna hora and the ossuary chapel can be found at http://www.kutnahora.cz.]

my mom and her husband, george, visited 10 - 17 september 2005. two days in prague; the mucha museum. alfons maria mucha: a genius; i will absolutely be decorating my walls with his work when i return home. back down to the mother city, luhacovice. this time i'd brought blood more pure. my mother had brought all of the postcards and i was able to capture more pictures. we visited the museum woman again with the originals and learned that she'd attended school with a prachar in the neighboring town of pozlovice. we took a bus and found what sarah and i had not during our search in luhacovice a month before: a gravesite bearing the family name; most certainly some distant relation. truly gigantic. the two men had been born shortly after my great grandmother had emmigrated in 1905; they would have been infants referenced in the cards. we returned to prague after spending three days in a town the name of which my mother could not pronounce.

i've been bringing the globalrecon systems back online. laundry is done. i'm getting all of my equipment back in order. it's time to continue the mission. tempus perditur. tomorrow i'll be leaving prague and the czech republic; destination: krakow, poland.

posted by paul at Mon 19 Sep 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

11 September 2005

i can't help but feel

american_embassy.jpg

the american embassy in prague.

september 11, 2005.

posted by paul at Sun 11 Sep 2005 at 14:40:40 EST (-05:00) | comments (1)

07 August 2005

my internal incinerator

sarah was leaving today. we checked out of our hotel at noon and took a taxi to the nearest metro stop, malostranska, at the bottom of the hill. the ride cost just over 100kc (4 usd); had we realized the ride was so inexpensive we would most likely have taken a taxi _up_ the hill the day before. well, sarah would have tried to convince me it was the right decision, which it would have been, and i would have stubbornly wanted to walk. taxi -> metro -> bus. we arrived at the airport at 1245. sarah checked in and dropped her bag off. we spent the next couple hours hanging out in the airport and talking. then she was gone and i was by myself. myself.


my internal incinerator was no longer burning inside. once an inferno intense devouring every new experience into its emptiness was now just a faintly flickering flame. i needed some extended nothing time to rebuild the burning inside. alone time which couldn't be found in a hostel; i'd need to find an apartment. i would need to return to a nothing new resting repetion; every day like the one before just for a little while.

posted by paul at Sun 07 Aug 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

06 August 2005

silent morning shattered

the overnight train ride was fairly uneventful... no gassings, no muggings, no questionable behavior. too bad. i was on high alert most of the night with occasionally bouts of lost conciousness low alert. sarah was in low alert for most of the night. lying lengthwise on the seat, she deterred new passengers from taking our compartment space. through hungary, slovakia, back into the czech republic; in and out of conciousness, passports and stamps. we pulled into the prague central station a little after 0600... right on time. i'd stopped paying attention to the stops and time; somehow the engineers had been able to get the train back on schedule after our late departure the night before.


the train station in prague was less shady. a vending machine ate my coins. cough them up. a 22kc coke out of reach right behind the plexiglass. i asked for a coke at a small store in the station; he brought it over to the counter and said the price in czech. me: 'i'm sorry?'; him: '45'. wrong. i swear that it was less in czech. 'no thanks.'

sarah had reserved a room in a very nice hotel for our last night together. metro to malostronska and then a long[er than expected] walk up the hill towards the castle and our hotel. a silent morning shattered by the sound of plastic wheels on the stone sidewalks. we were able to check in at 0700; slept for three hours. beautiful view.

out for our last full day together. a lazy afternoon and a lovely dinner together.

posted by paul at Sat 06 Aug 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

03 August 2005

i reassigned the memory

breakfast at 0900; the same delicious ham and cheese and bread. i haven't yet acquired the taste for coffee, but it's coming. i managed to convey to the pension woman that we'd be leaving luhacovice on a train at 1356 [this involved a pretty intense drawing by yours truly of some train tracks and train (have i mentioned i'm a mean pictionary player? unbound by the game rules, i felt it acceptable to write out '13:56' next to the drawing of the train to convey our departure time.); the woman replied that she understood by nodding and making an amusing face and 'chugga chugga' train sound.]. i asked if we could leave our bags until 1300 at which point we'd return to claim them. she smiled 'of course'. we moved our bags back into the room and were out for our last few hours in luhacovice.

we had a few things to take care of before we departed. first: the pictures of the buildings in the postcard. it was obvious early on that the original photographer had stood farther down the hill where a new building was now standing. i contemplated contacting global recon central command for an air strike to take out the building but decided against it at sarah's request. i wasn't going to be able to get the original shot. i tried different positions for about five minutes before i got the best photo possible. typically the best photo possible doesn't include trash bins and powerlines, but i was going for the original shot. behold, the then and there and the here and now. amazing.

we descended back to the center of town where we intended to do some souvenir shopping. with the exception of a few t-shirt purchases, i've done very little shopping. if i'd seen something that i thought a friend or relative would _really_ like, i'd have bought it in a second, but i really haven't encountered any of those things. maybe i'm just a bad shopper. in addition, we didn't have enough time to go back to the post office; we'd have to carry anything we bought. sorry, everyone. sarah went down to buy some sugar wafers (very popular in town) and we decided to pick up a couple extra boxes and bring those home for my mother and grandmother.

back to pension ruza, we grabbed our bags, said our goodbyes to the manager, and walked and rolled down to the train station. over the next seven and a half hours we'd be riding on five different trains. the four transfers would be crucial; a miss early on would result in a complete disintegration of the plan. [hmm, i'm writing about transportation again.] to make matters worse, the transfer times left little room for error; in some cases we had only three minutes to catch the next train; in other cases we had the luxury of eight minutes. in addition, we weren't positive we didn't need to get a separate boarding pass for each train or if our two tickets would see us through to our final destination. tension was high as we waited for the first train to arrive.

about ten minutes before the arrival, a little man assigned to memory detail inside my mind began flipping a switch back and forth madly to get my attention. yes? on earlier trips in the czech republic (the bus ride from brno to luhacovice, for example), i recalled that a service charge was assessed for transporting large bags on some public transportation. i'd read an allusion to the service charge in a guide book as well, so i was confident that it wasn't just a tourist tax. as i reassigned the memory man to a new mission, i wondered if we would have to pay an extra fee to bring our large bags onboard the train.

i ran into the train station to the same counter where i'd bought the tickets the day before, hoping the same highly competent woman would be working. negative. the new attendant didn't speak english either but she did have a czech/english dictionary nearby and seemed eager to assist. i attempted to convey my question, pointing to words in the dictionary ['weigh', 'scale', 'money'] and then to our bags, accompanying the gestures with appropriate questioning facial expressions. minutes passed without success. sarah, sensing the desperation of the moment, broke out her notebook and quickly drew a picture of a scale and a $ symbol; the woman gave an 'ah!' expression, nodded, and gestured for us to meet her at the side of the building [wow! nice going, baby. have i mentioned that sarah's a mean pictionary player? i decided to let her use of the $ symbol slide seeing as how she allowed my use of '13:56' earlier in the day, but i did remind her that when playing with a czech teammate, the use of 'kc' to signify money may have resulted in a quicker response.]. we walked around and entered the side door.

a gigantic old scale was sitting on the floor... not the sort that required the addition of separate counterweights (kept in a small kit nearby) for balance, but of that era i imagined. sarah put her bag on the scale: 13 kilos. then me: 18 kilos. the woman flashed me a concerned look and pointed at a nearby sign written in czech. words words words 15 kg words words words. apparently i couldn't take a bag weighing over 15 kg on the train. _big_ problem made worse by the fact that the train was about to arrive any minute. i quickly began assembling a mental inventory of the bag to determine what could be jettisoned... the d-day book i'd finished, perhaps a few t-shirts, papers i'd picked up along the way, the sugar wafers... all the while cursing the memory man for not flipping the switch _yesterday_. it was going to be tough to get rid of 5 kg of baggage considering i'd already been through the 'take this/leave that' process back in _april_. strange; i recalled the scale in the airport weighing the pack in at 15 kg... how did i pick up an extra 5 kg of gear? i contemplated shifting items to my day pack or to sarah's pack. the woman, sensing our distress and noting the time, went out to get her supervisor to see if an exception could be made. the supervisor arrived and by the look on her face i could tell that the answer was no. in very broken english she conveyed that the extra weight might not present a problem in the czech republic, but because the bags were going to budapest, the slovakian officals might not allow it. at that point i sensed there might be a misunderstanding.

i surveyed the room and noticed other bags sitting on shelves. this was some type of storage room. sarah and i looked at each other. 'they think we want to ship these bags.' i made the motion of putting the bag on my back and then pointing out to the train. the women nodded. 'problem?' i asked. 'no problem,' they responded. WOW. everyone smiled at the same time, realizing the misunderstanding. i made the 'wiping sweat from the brow' motion and then thanked both of the women for their help. we dragged our bags out of the room just as the train pulled in.

the first train was more of a tram than a train. there were plenty of seats; i lifted both of our bags up to the luggage rack above the seats. we still had the outstanding boarding pass question. the ticket man announced himself about a minute into the journey. i gave him both tickets; he looked at them for just long enough to make me nervous before stamping them. success. train one down. sarah pulled out her notebook and made a checklist of the five trains, crossing off train one. i'll spare you the details of trains two through five. in summary:

. we met a nice czech guy named tom on train two. he was into climbing and outdoor types of things. he said he was interested in visiting the states. sarah told him about the sierra club and we swapped email addresses.

. there were a couple of close calls with the connections, including an 'oh no, we're not going to make train four [our three minute connection train]' moment after train three was delayed a few minutes.

. we communicated with a station controller who spoke only czech and german at the brecar station.

. train five was delayed almost an hour (fortunately for us this was the last train on our journey).

. we met a nice couple on train five [spaniard and austrian] who told us a bit about budapest and bratislava. the austrian had purchased a small flat in budapest several years ago and had been renting it out. he asked us where we were staying; i pulled out our itinerary and gave him the address. he was familiar with the street and pointed it out on the map. the aboriginal hostel; sarah joked that there were probably paintings of boomerangs and kangeroos on the walls.

. a girl who worked for the hungarian tourist department came through the train [five] before our arrival in budapest to see if we had any questions about the city. she gave us a map.

arrival in budapest. first impression: looks like any other city. we'd printed out directions to the hostel at the internet cafe in luhacovice. they had seemed quite clear when we'd initially read them but as we began the trek to the hostel, we realized we were going to have a problem. not quite as clear as we had thought. it began raining lightly and we were tired from the long train ride. at this point i would have typically broken out the gps, typed in the address of the hostel, and it would have led us straight there. problem: garmin, the manufacturer of my gps unit, doesn't produce detailed maps of hungary. this was the first time during the trip that i wouldn't be able to use gps to find our hostel. we'd have to do this the old fashioned way [blech]. i broke out the map that the tourist department girl had given us on the train.

it took far longer than usual for me to get my bearings and find our location... we hiked a few blocks in the wrong direction in a shady area of the city before we saw a street sign and i realized my error. along the way a very nice couple saw us with our map out and pulled over to help us. [01: despite what i believe were good intentions, the couple gave us wrong directions. i had been 99% sure that we were on track and i went against my better judgement because they seemed to know what they were talking about. 02: i've said this before: if ever you see someone loaded down with a backpack wandering aimlessly with a map out through the streets of _your_ home town, stop to offer your help. of course, it helps if you actually give the person correct directions, but just the act of stopping and trying to help goes a long way to making that traveller feel good and more confortable in a strange setting.] we got back on track quickly and made it to the hostel in about twenty minutes.

sarah and i got the impression that a few friends had purchased an apartment and had decided to convert it into a hostel. i believe they only had 12 beds; we had one of the few private rooms. sure enough; boomerangs painted on the walls. no kangeroos. a very college apartment sort of feel. chubba, one of the people who worked there, was very friendly and pointed us to a restaurant. while we were eating a heavy storm closed in and drenched the hungarian world. we'd stay in budapest two nights and then take an overnight train back to prague the third night.

posted by paul at Wed 03 Aug 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

02 August 2005

to sample the everlasting life

sarah still couldn't prounouce the name of this town. loo.hatch.oh.vits.uh. [i think; well, the czechs understood me anyway.]

the woman who ran the hotel had breakfast on the table when we emerged from our room at 0930. ham and cheese and bread. delicious. i got the impression that her other guests typically wake up much earlier. but we weren't like her other guests. after breakfast she asked me for the payment, 2000kc, and i handed over two crisp 1000kc notes.

we needed to locate an internet cafe to take care of the funds transfers and to investigate transport options to budapest the next day. we walked to the tourist office and found a sign indicating there was a cafe on druzstevni. map: located. the terminal outside the tourist office was still not operational; i suspected it hadn't been working for months. but before the cafe; the cemetaries beneath a cloudless morning sky.

in the early 1900's, my great grandmother had corresponded with her family in the czech republic; i wanted to see if i could locate any family gravestones. we had but one name for which to search, yet after thirty minutes of walking through the rows of stones, we found not one stone bearing the name 'prachar' or 'pracharova' (the female form of the name). the mineral content of the luhacovicean water had apparently blessed my relatives with everlasting life. or perhaps not; the cemetary was very large and it would have taken sarah and i hours to search all of the stones. we decided to move on to the second, smaller, cemetary, descending the hill through the woods on an extensive mountain biking course and emerging at the back of a driveway where we caught a man by surprise. hello sir, just us americans; nothing to get excited about. dobry den.

the second cemetary was designated on the map [upper left] with only one small cross marking and looked like it was surrounded by houses from all sides. upon arrival, we found that to be the case. we walked around the entire block and could not locate an entrance to the cemetary or see any gravestones. i guessed that this cemetary would be much older than the first, but we would have needed to walk through someone's property to fully explore the area. it was early afternoon by that point and we decided to call off the search for the family blood.

down to the internet cafe, teeming with young children engulfed in explosive lan games. the one adult in the room was a smiling guy who exuded kindness [sarah and i guessed that he was letting all the children play for free because he looked so nice]. he told us that a terminal would be available in 15 minutes [first he'd need to displace one of the droning children]. i waited outside while sarah walked to a local supermarket to buy some refreshing tasty beverages. it took a bit longer than 15 minutes to pry the young boy away from his destruction; sarah got back shortly after i sat down at the computer. we investigated train options for getting down to budapest (we'd decided to call off the bratislava visit in order to spend more time in budapest), transferred funds from our savings accounts, and wrote some email. out. next item of business... unfortunately, more admin: train tickets and post office. sarah had picked up a few gifts in cesky krumlov and had decided to post them home so she wouldn't have to transport them for the rest of the trip. we returned to our room, wrote a few postcards [the first luhacovice, cr -> united states postcards in a long while] and then split up again; she to the post office and me to the train station to purchase our tickets to budapest for tomorrow.

train station. i waited until the queue was gone; i knew it was going to take a while to process our tickets. in the internet cafe, we had researched the trip on the czech train system website and it wooked like we'd need to take five separate trains from luhacovice to budapest. the queue moved quickly and i stepped up to the counter.

'mluviste anglicky?'

'ne.'

ah, you speak gesturese. me as well, and a little czech. i showed her the itinerary that we'd printed out at the net cafe, pointing to the date and the destination. 'dva jizdenky. [?]' two tickets. the woman seemed to understand and went to work on the tickets. she seemed highly competent; back and forth between different computer screens, consulting timetables in various books, even calling to the central office to confirm a time [well, that was my guess. she could have been calling her husband to complain about american tourists for all i knew]. she definitely knew train tickets... but still, it was taking her a long time to get everything straight. she paused several times to wait on other customers who were buying more 'simple' tickets. after fifteen minutes, she printed out two tickets and handed them to me. i paid and gave her a gigantic 'dekuji mockrat' and stepped to the side to make sure the tickets were correct. wow. the appropriate 'from' and 'to' cities were listed [luhacovice -> budapest], but it wasn't clear whether the woman had used my itinerary when arranging all of the transfers. none of the train numbers and only a few of the intermediate cities were listed. i stepped back over to the window to clarify.

i pointed to the itinerary and then to the ticket with a questioning look on my face... then pointed to the area on the ticket listing the intermediate cities with another confused look. she took the tickets and looked at them closely and then went back to the computer. okay. it appeared the ticket information was still in the computer memory... she pulled the screen up and went back to work. i wasn't exactly sure what she was doing, but she was doing something, so there must have been a mistake on the first pair of tickets. five minutes later she printed out two more tickets that were each about a dollar more expensive... and then she printed out an informational sheet listing each of the trains, their numbers, all of the stops, and all of the departure and arrival times. _this_ was what i needed. perfect. i paid and gave her another huge thanks.

[i'm afraid many of my recent entries have focused on the less than fun aspects of travel: transportation (tickets, trains, buses); accomodation (hostels, hotels, pensions); and cost. does it seem that way? i feel like perhaps i should be concentrating my writing on the more important: people i've met, sites i've seen, feelings i've felt. make no mistake, long term travel is no vacation; it takes time to research destinations and costs and to coordinate and arrange transportation and accomodation. there are days when i feel like i haven't been able to step outside because i've spent the entire day inside leafing through guide books, researching on the internet, or standing in line waiting to purchase tickets. it's a very real part of the trip. three months ago i almost allowed myself to drown in the administration of the trip. that no longer happens; i just no longer allow administration to consume my thoughts; it is a necessary part of long term travel. having said that, i wonder if i shouldn't allow it to consume the entries either. instead, focus more on feelings.]

so how was i feeling? i was smiling widely and excited to tell sarah that i'd booked the tickets. one of the best feelings arrives immediately after the unfun leaves, when tickets are in hand or when the hostel has been booked... or after arrival at the hostel and after bags have been stowed. sarah and i had the rest of the day to explore the town without the unfun parts hanging over our heads. we wouldn't be leaving until 1300 the next day, so we knew we had some time the following morning as well.

the one museum in town was closing at 1600 and i wanted to czech it out [just this once, i promise; it won't happen again. wait... you didn't catch it, did you?]. we walked over and saw a man sitting on a bench outside and a sign hanging on the door. the man said something to us in czech and upon seeing our confused expressions, tried again with broken but comprehensible english. the museum attendant was on a short break and would return shortly. we continued talking to the man about nothings until she arrived. smiling, a nice gentleman. inside.

the first thing i noticed was the wall of old postcards. [the feeling inside started at baseline and grew exponentially to one thousand times above in less than one second]. i had _seen_ some of these postcards. i wished so badly that i had brought them, but again... i hadn't wanted them to get damaged. i wanted to break them out and show the older museum attendant that i belonged here on a level higher than an ordinary spa town visitor. the museum was small, showing traditional dress, some crafts, some information about folk songs. i asked the attendant if i could take photos; she nodded. my mother has the chest my great grandmother used to transport all of her belongings to the states; i thought of it when i saw this chest in the museum. on the way out i couldn't help but break out the photocopies of the postcards and show them to the woman at the front desk. it seemed like she was very familiar with them; i was excited, explosively so. i managed to ask her if the buildings in the one postcard were still standing. YES. she walked over to an information board and pointed to them (specifically to the two spires on one of the buildings) and then gestured in the direction, listing off the buildings we'd need to walk by to get there. i thanked her and as we left, i gripped sarah's hand tightly, very tightly, and rushed ahead of her, pulling, as if after all of this time the buildings could collapse at any moment.

we passed building after building, holding out the paper looking for a match, two spires. finally, after walking up a hill, we found them. we _FOUND_ them. this was one of the things i wanted most of all; to stand where the original photographer had stood and take the same picture. i did my best, but it was evening at this point and the light was definitely different than in the postcard. it looked like a morning sun. sarah and i decided to come back the next morning to try again. but regardless, we had found them and i was so happy and sarah was so happy because i was so happy. this evening, there was much happiness. i only wished one thing... that my mother and grandmother had been able to be there with us.

we continued in the same direction, so far that we were no longer in luhacovice, stopped at a small store and i got an orange italian ice sort of thing. we turned around and returned to the town center, stopping to take some pictures and to sample the everlasting life mineral water. well, to be clear, _sarah_ sampled the water and said it tasted like blood. despite my generally dark wardrobe and nocturnal hours of operation (my new 'morning guy' persona nonwithstanding; [for some reason i'm reminded of guy smilie of muppets fame]), i'm not fond of the taste and decided to pass. we moved on to dinner outside; the system. a good tip and a big smile. another walk in the night, back to the rose.

posted by paul at Tue 02 Aug 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

01 August 2005

i'd brought the blood back

IMG_8898.jpg

it was [right at THIS moment] that i remembered something i should have remembered long before: i'm a professional.

that's right, ladies and gentlemen, at this point in my life i'm a professional traveler. resilient and determined, prepared for the extraordinary, unlike the ordinary, i'm unstoppable. UN. STOP. PA. BLE. i have an army behind me ready to overrun the system and [right at THIS moment] there was a system which needed to be overrun. i'd encountered a problem which would require me to call upon the full and complete capabilities of the global reconnaissance organization; to mobilize the massive resources of our minds, to unleash the technological terrors of our security network, to reveal one of the secret weapons of our vast arsenal. where was i? ah, yes. i looked left and then right and then calmly reached down into my pants.

more on that later.

today i'd be the first in my family to make it back to the motherland, the czech republic, to the mother city, luhacovice, where my great grandmother grew up before she moved to the united states. we would be travelling by bus with three transfers: cesky krumlov -> ceske budejovice -> brno -> luhacovice. the first bus departed cesky krumlov at 0750. we got up early and were out of the hostel by 0715; we wanted to leave the requisite 'forgotten location of the bus stop', 'rolling suitcase cobblestone combo', and 'any additional potential problem' time. as we walked and rolled, we remembered the path and arrived at the bus stop with enough time to catch the earlier 0735 bus to ceske budejovice. 'dva for ceske bude...' and before i could finish saying the name of our first destination, the driver had handed me the tickets. thank you, sir. we were on our way.

after a short layover in ceske budejovice, we boarded the bus to brno, tickets in hand (we had been able to buy the bus tickets for this leg of our journey in cesky krumlov). this would be the longest of the three bus rides, a 4.5 hour journey eastward across the country, through the countryside on winding, twisting and turning roads. lakes and trees. the country was very beautiful but less than an hour after departing ceske budejovice, sarah and i were both ready for a nice smooth straight highway. i usually don't get sick in moving vehicles but during this ride i was feeling very nauseated. sarah wasn't feeling great herself; i remember looking over at her and seeing her sitting up in her seat and focusing on the horizon in front of the bus (apparently one of the ways to calm motion sickness). we had several conversations during which she talked facing forward. we were both happy when the bus pulled into brno at around 1330.

struggling with the language barrier, it took us about a half hour to locate the ticket office at the brno station. with two tickets in hand for the bus departing one and a half hours later to take us to our final destination, we walked across the street to a small mall where we discovered we had a problem. interesting situation really, and a little embarrassing. sarah and i had both let our checking accounts fall to zero, failing to remember to transfer funds from our savings accounts (inaccessible by atms) to the checking accounts [this was a repeat of the situation i'd had in galway, ireland, three months before]. together, with very little cash, there was no way to perform the transfer without a computer connected to the internet. had we really had an emergency, we had our credit cards and i was carrying enough funds in other currency to see us through any situation, but what we really needed now were some czech crowns. while sarah stood guard over our bags, i sent out global recon scouts to determine if there was an internet cafe in the mall. '[static] negative, sir.' we walked back to the bus station and boarded our bus for luhacovice. contingency plans: if we couldn't locate an open internet cafe in luhacovice, i'd contacat a global recon associate in the states and ask them to perform the internet transfer for me. we're well connected.

nearing the end of the two hour bus ride; we weren't exactly sure where to get off the bus. we didn't have a list of stops with us and we didn't know what luhacovice looked like. we knew we were scheduled to arrive at 1748, but the bus could easily be running fast or slow. at each stop, i tried to capture a clear picture of the list of stops, but was unsuccessful. we watched for signs and finally saw one; we were close. on our left, some 70's era apartment buildings. i felt a little disappointed. the bus stopped and i ran up to the driver with my ticket. using the international language known as gesturese, i asked him if this was our stop. no, one more. the bus drove on, passing the apartment buildings, into a smaller and much more delightful little area of town... a left turn... and we had arrived. we stepped off.

one hundred years later, i'd brought the blood back.

we looked around and got right down to business. i dispatched scouts to locate an internet cafe and our pension. they returned from the opposite direction twenty minutes later.

'report.'

'pension ruza located; seven minute walk. an outdoor internet terminal was located, but it's out of service and most likely won't be operational until tomorrow morning when staff return at 0900. we tried two atms to determine if funds could be withdrawn from a savings account; negative.'

'nice work, gentlemen.'

sarah and i proceeded to the pension along a path near a small stream and arrived shortly after. we walked through the door and a smiling woman began speaking to us in czech. from her tone and gestures, she knew exactly who we were and had been expecting us. she led us straight to our room on the bottom floor (a very clean and nice room) and explained the door locks and told us what time breakfast was in the morning. some additional gestures told us to get settled in the room and then come out later to pay and give her our personal information. hmm. yes... payment. that might be a problem. the guidebook had listed the price of the rooms in this pension as 1000kc a night, roughly 40 usd, but i've discovered that the guidebook is usually off by about 10% (in the bad way). we didn't have the czech currency to cover the price.

we emerged from the room about twenty minutes later, ready to tell the woman that we needed to withdraw funds from the atm, but she was gone. good. that gave us some time. we went out to find a phone to call back to the states to have someone transfer the money for us. ha. yes... a phone. and you're going to call... how? right. we didn't have a calling card and i hadn't yet purchased a sim card for my treo. calling cards were sold at the tobacco stores and the two tobacco stores that we located were closed. we assumed any other tobacco stores we'd be able to find would be closed as well. reverse the charges? we went back over to the phone to see if we could navigate the system. it was [right at THIS moment] that i remembered something i should have remembered long before: i'm a professional.

that's right, ladies and gentlemen, at this point in my life i'm a professional traveler. resilient and determined, prepared for the extraordinary, unlike the ordinary, i'm unstoppable. UN. STOP. PA. BLE. i have an army behind me ready to overrun the system and [right at THIS moment] there was a system which needed to be overrun. i'd encountered a problem which would require me to call upon the full and complete capabilities of the global reconnaissance organization; to mobilize the massive resources of our minds, to unleash the technological terrors of our security network, to reveal one of the secret weapons of our vast arsenal. where was i? ah, yes. i looked left and then right and then calmly reached down into my pants... and pulled out my money belt and withdrew two crisp 1000kc notes. our money problems were gone. as always, i had reserve funds in my money belt. i couldn't believe i'd forgotten about them. the way out is through.

and not one cloud in the sky as our problems melted from our minds and we walked the luhacovice streets for the next several hours until darkness with smiles wider than wide. i was _so_ excited and the moment was unforgettable. similar to when i visited cahans church in monaghan, ireland, and wished my grandmother and family were able to be there with me, it was now that i wished my other grandmother and famliy were able to be here with sarah and me. the little town was beautiful and i imagined my great grandmother running through the streets. i so wished i had brought all of the postcards with me, but i hadn't wanted them to get damaged. i did have with me several photocopies of the postcards, but only one had a picture of buildings in luhacovice. tomorrow sarah and i would first search through the main cemetary to see if we could locate any family gravestones and then we would seek out the buildings in the postcard. ice cream and sugar wafers. sarah and i walked back to the pension holding hands beneath the street lights. this was a gigantic day.

underneath it all
we feel so small
the heavens fall
but still we crawl
: the way out is through, nine inch nails

posted by paul at Mon 01 Aug 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

31 July 2005

soaking in the emptiness

a full day of the krumlov. a raining day, unforunately, but only a light raining day that would not stop us. first item of business: reserve a room in luhacovice where we would be traveling the next day. we found a different payphone with working buttons and called the first pension listed in our guidebook. i'd studied a few of the czech phrases in the book but i definitely wasn't prepared for any type of conversation. i needed to find someone who spoke english. i was ready with the pronunciation when a woman answered the phone.

'dobry den.'

'dobry den. mluvite anglicky?' [good day. do you speak english?]

'ne.' [uh oh.]

'mluvi nekdo anglicky? [does anyone here speak english?]

'ne. ne anglicky.' [additional sentences in czech. hmm, i wasn't prepared for this. red alert. abort the mission.]

'prominte. nerozomim cesky. dekuji.' [i'm sorry. i don't understand czech. thank you.]

we guessed that we'd experience the same situation when calling other hotels in luhacovice, a very small spa town on the east side of the country. almost everyone with a public facing job in prague was able to speak at least a little english; not the case in smaller towns in the czech republic. we needed to find someone to help us. sarah had already made friends with a girl in the tourist information office when she was researching transport options to luhacovice. we walked over and asked if she would be willing to call the number we'd just called and make a reservation for us in luhacovice. they obliged and reservations were made. [thank you so much, infocentrum in cesky krumlov!]

sarah secured an audioguide for the city and we went out to explore. the rain was off and on, misting, but wasn't bothering us. the guide was excellent and filled with interesting stories and as we followed the map we learned a lot about the city [of course, much of that knowledge, once bright has now dimmed.] the town hall and the marian plague column, erected in the town square in 1716 to commemorate those who died by the plague, a coat of arms of the czech republic and of cesky krumlov, the schwarzenberg family coat of arms (featuring a raven plucking the eye out of the severed head of a turkish enemy soldier), the rosenberg family coat of arms (featuring the five petalled rose, a symbol which can be seen throughout the city), the church of st. vitus. we weren't able to complete the entire tour by the time we needed to return the audioguide; we contemplated extended the time but decided we wanted to see other things. ice cream, up to the castle, passing a pen with live bears in it [rain prevented pictures] and through a beautiful garden. the hostel had a laundry service; over to give them our clothes, and then back out. a great memorable dinner in the town square with czech zon cola [http://www.zon.cz], very tasty; sarah had garlic soup and an eggenberg [http://www.eggenberg.cz], the oldest beer in the czech republic.

eventually the rain was gone and darkness had come; we wandered the streets, soaking in the emptiness and beauty of the city at night, taking photographs. back to the town square where i experimented with exposure times as cars carried back in time drove the cobblestone pestering the pedestrians. such a wonderful night. we returned to the hostel; laundry wasn't finished until around 0200. we set our alarm; we'd be catching a bus to luhacovice the next day at 0730.

posted by paul at Sun 31 Jul 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

30 July 2005

eye contact during a dramatic pause

happy birthday mom!!

sarah and i would be leaving prague today to travel to cesky krumlov, a small medieval town in the czech republic, three hours south by bus. we checked out of our hostel, took the metro to the florenc stop, and walked to the bus station (the same station we'd visited two days before when traveling to terezin). two tickets secured, one way to cesky krumlov. breakfast at the restaurant in which we'd eaten previously, a quick internet stop to send a happy birthday greeting to my mom, and then back to the bus station. while we waited at the bus stand, it became obvious that cesky krumlov was a popular traveller destination. lots of giant backpacks. [ah, backpacks. short digression here:

99% of the prague sidewalks on which we walked are comprised of small white or gray stone cubes arranged in geometric patterns (if you look closely at this picture, you'll see that each of the large checkerboard squares on the left side of the picture is composed of 100 smaller stone squares; the small checkerboard squares on the right are each composed of 25 smaller stone squares. the checkerboard pattern is just one of the various white and gray patterns throughout the city. i've seen construction workers laying the cubes; it looks like time consuming work.

while we were in miami back in march, sarah purchased a rolling suitcase. when we talked on the phone before her arrival in prague, she asked me if i thought the rolling suitcase would be all right for her trip to europe; i said yes, it would be perfect. wrong. rolling suitcases and small stone cube sidewalks do not mix well, nor do rolling suitcases and large cobblestone streets. not only did the uneven surface make it more difficult to pull the suitcase, but the plastic wheels rolling over the stones created quite a racket. there would be no stealth mode for us until we arrived in cesky krumlov and had checked into our hostel. end digression. back to the florenc bus station... ]

we had learned from our terezin bus experience that the buses generally pull right up to the sign listing the bus departure and arrival times. passengers had the choice of purchasing a ticket beforehand at the ticket counters in the station or purchasing a ticket directly from the driver; those who had already purchased a ticket were permitted to board before those who need to purchase a ticket from the driver. [why everyone wouldn't just buy a ticket beforehand escaped us... short of time, perhaps?] on this trip, we had all of our baggage with us and would need to stow it in the bus cargo holds. as more and more passengers arrived at the bus stand, we began to get nervous. it appeared that the demand for seats far exceeded the supply. we stood directly in front of the sign, ready for action. sarah would be the first onboard and would secure the seats; i'd store our baggage and then join her.

bus arrives, early. i looked at the number on the bus and consulted our tickets. this wasn't our bus. over the next 10 minutes approximately 30 people asked the driver if he was going to cesky krumlov... by person #10 he'd worked up an evil glare. a woman walked up to us and asked if we knew where the bus was going. i replied 'not to cesky krumlov.' she smiled and said thanks. wow, we were about to travel to one of the czech republic's premiere hotspots.

more waiting. the bus in front of us didn't look like it would be departing any time soon and our bus was scheduled to depart in a few minutes. 'hmm, this doesn't look good...' exactly. our bus pulled in _behind_ the standing bus, right next to the mob of passengers who had arrived at the stand only a few minutes before. we now found ourselves at the _back_ of the line. chaos ensued as everyone rushed to stash their bags in the cargo hold, taking no time to pack the bags in properly so that there would be enough room for everyone's. as expected, by the time the dust had settled and i got close to the cargo hold, there was no room left.

i could see through the spaces between the bags that the hold stretched the width of the bus and that there was room on the far side... and that the cargo door on that side was closed. walked around and tried it: locked. sarah had already made it onboard and was watching my desperation through the window. it looked like all of the passengers who had already purchased tickets were already onboard and that the driver was beginning to sell tickets to the others. i needed to get the baggage stowed and get onboard before my seat was sold. i walked up to the front of the bus and squeezed through the line to ask the driver to open the cargo hold door on the other side of the bus. [for some reason this interaction sticks in my mind. it just struck me as very amusing: ] after he listened patiently and intently to my request, the driver looked directly at me, unflinching, and responded: 'you speak english...' [he maintained eye contact during a dramatic pause before he continued, shaking his head from side to side]... 'i don't.' ha! okay then. it appeared i'd need to be creative. as luck would have it, another passenger had somehow managed to get the far cargo door open; i rushed over and threw our bags in. squeezed through the ticketless line and made it to my seat, sweat dripping down my face. gripped sarah's hand. made it.

three hours later we arrived in the little medieval town. rolling wheels and cobblestones, we clunked into the town square. to prevent unnecessary clunking throughout the town, sarah waited in the square while i located our hostel. i carried her bag the rest of the way.

'i'm sorry, you were scheduled to arrive at 2pm and when you didn't arrive on time, we gave your room away.'

[l class missiles: armed. lock ons: armed. stand by for orders.] 'do you have another room available?'

'yes, but it's a dorm room.'

sarah and i discussed and decided to make an attempt to find another hostel, but after failing to navigate a cesky krumlov payphone with a broken '7' button, we decided to take the dorm room. the next night we'd have a private. met english chris and american adam and will in the snail hostel dorm; bags stored. OUT.

the little town was postcard picture perfect, the winding vtava river looping through the center, the tall tower of the castle set against the forboding sky, truly beautiful. we understood exactly why it was such a popular destination. we walked around, exploring the narrow stone streets, and had some dinner at a restaurant by the river. while we were eating, a massive thunderstorm closed in with fierce lightning and heavy soaking rain. we ran back to the hostel. loud guitars were erupting from a basement bar beneath the hostel [the snail bar, as it were]; we descended to watch the last few songs of a czech hardcore band's set. between song banter in czech; vocals in english. the lyrics weren't amazing, but the music was damned good and the singer had a powerful voice; good mix. upstairs to sleep.

posted by paul at Sat 30 Jul 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

29 July 2005

other ways to conquer the armies

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sarah and i got up early with ambitious plans. today we would sack the prague castle, capture tickets and photographs, plunder all there was to see. we would attack the tourista troops, take no prisoners, show no mercy. we would climb the tower of the cathedral and claim the city of prague as our own. once victorious, we would celebrate by taking a day trip to kutna hora in the early afternoon. it was time to attack.

my compatriot and i were outfitted for tourista combat. she carried guide books and i carried electronic surveillance equipment; we carried superior gear, of that we were sure. we made a stealthy entry into the old town using public transportation and arrived a little before 0900. fortunately, the enemy had not destroyed the stone bridge [digression ### below]; we crossed with little resistance, in fact, the least resistance we had encountered since arriving in the city several days prior. apparently the enemy was not expecting us this early; we obviously had the advantage. despite the early hour, the sun had a firm grasp on the day and was beginning to sap our energy. the long uphill climb made matters worse, but we persisted and made it to the top by 0922, still undetected. we were both pleased to see that the enemy had not yet arrived. while energy reserves were low, morale was high. we pressed on.

the main entrance to the castle was guarded by but two armed men wearing light blue uniforms. bah! we scoped the area quickly and decide to attack straight on, straight in. we walked deliberately to the gate, ready to break out the camera and shoot should the need arise. as we closed in, it became obvious the guards were paralyzed by fear; sensing they were outclassed, out... fitted [?], out-outfitted [?]... er, and outdressed (did i mention their light blue uniforms [intelligence had told us that these uniforms were designed by the costume designer for the film 'amadeus']), they moved not one inch to stop us. we breached the gate and soon after the first courtyard.

in the second courtyard, it appeared the alarm had been raised. there was a state of confusion as small groups of touristas wandered aimlessly looking for their commanding officers. we quickly consulted our charts and realized we needed additional intelligence; it took little to 'convince' a young castle guard to give us the location of the ticket booth. we dashed out and through the second courtyard, making it through unscathed. the last fifteen minutes had been a blur. sarah and i didn't know how we had gotten to this point without opposition; we just knew we had made it and hoped that we could complete the mission without incident. unfortunately, that was not to be the case. we stood in front of the massive st. vitus cathedral, pausing to survey the scene.

a large mass of troops had gathered at the entrance to the cathedral. the tourista armies were assembling quickly, officers waving their brightly colored standards in the air and shouting over their portable pa systems. we saw umbrellas... canes with dangling ribbons... pinwheels which spun in the wind... long sticks with paper flags. the officers raised their standards and the troops fell obediently in line like flocks of sheep. castle guards were posted at the entrance to the cathedral and at a nearby ticket stand. clearly we had met our match. the sun beat down upon us as we looked at the long line of touristas winding around the counter at the ticket stand. morale was low. we decided to find cover and rethink the plan.

i proposed conducting a mission to seize all of the officers' standards. without the umbrellas and twirling pinwheels to lead the way, the armies would quickly fall apart. the officers would still have their portable pa systems to give orders, but i was confident that i could reconfigure my gps receiver to jam their systems. sarah didn't like the idea and consulted the guide books while i thought about other ways to conquer the armies. i proposed conducting only an external survey of the cathedral until we could regroup and devise a plan to enter without resistance. ultimately, timing dictated that the mission was completed today; we needed to proceed with the original plan despite the masses of touristas. we summoned up our energy and ran to the ticket office, each of us completing not one but two rambo rolls in the process to evade the enemy.

much commotion in the ticket office. we saw two cashiers and three distinct lines leading to them. a man in charge of the audioguides continuously yelled out 'i have only audiogeeds. no tickets. only audiogeeds.' a clear sign above his post would have ended his misery, yet he struggled on, signless. i contemplated informing the chief executive officer of audioguides that he was mispronouncing the word but decided against it when i couldn't think of a way to tactfully present the information. after all, did i know how to say the word in czech? of course not. i did however know how to say it in german: audiof├╝hrer. the ceo of audioguides continued yelling while sarah and i split up to cover two of the three lines. she reached the objective first, and only after she had secured two tickets did i remember to tell her that i wanted to buy a required license ticket to take photographs. she gave me a mean look [sorry sweet. :)] back in line. i'm not sure how she did it, but she managed to secure the license ticket within a few minutes. out the ticket office door, we continued with the mission, walking directly through the cathedral entrance, bypassing several groups of scrambling troops along the way.

once inside, we realized we had made the correct choice with proceeding, not because it wasn't very crowded inside (to the contrary, it seemed that more than half the population of both japan and italy had descended upon this czech cathedral) but because the stained glass was magnificent. i would say the most beautiful stained glass that i've ever seen. in particular, this window, designed my czech artist alfons mucha, was stunning. [there is an alfons mucha museum in prague which we planned to visit later if time and energy permitted.] a wood carving of prague, hundred of years old, showing the charles bridge which we crossed less than an hour earlier. tombs, hundreds of years old.

the long column of tourists wound clockwise around the cathedral in a long rectangle. if the rectangle had been a circle, which of course it wasn't... in fact, it was a rectangle, but if it _had_ been a circle, and if the circle had been a clock, we entered the clock at about 0700. at approximately 0300 we saw a small staircase leading down. while the rest of the horde continued walking the clock, we descended, unnoticed, so we thought. below, we found the crypts. as we continued, we discovered that the exit of the crypts took us back up to the rectangular clock at an undesired time, so we backtracked to the stairs we had descended. it must have been just seconds before we arrived back at the bottom of the staircase that a major contingent of the clockwise winding column of tourists above located the _top_ of the staircase and broke off from the pack to see what was downstairs. the staircase, while only containing at most 10 stone stairs, was only about 1.5 people wide; sarah and i waited for literally two full minutes while a steady stream of people descended single file until we grew impatient and decided to attack straight up. each person had .75 person width... [outta our way, we're coming through, damnit]... we crushed by and made it back to the rectangle clock.

at 0400 we located the tower staircase. there was of course no discussion of whether or not we would ascend the 287 stairs to the top; the tower was part of our mission agenda. the guard stamped our tickets and we were off to the top, up, as others returned to the bottom, down. fortunately this winding windowless staircase was just a bit wider than the cryptcase and it was easier to slide around the descenders. i counted the stairs as we climbed. 285, 286, 287 stairs later, we had reached the pinnacle, the zenith. we had conquered the st. vitus cathedral staircase and captured photographs of the city. we left no photograph uncaptured, in fact. we captured them all. i counted the stairs again as we descended. some insidious voice inside me made me misrepresent the height of the tower; i told several sweating people who were within 30 stairs of the top that they had made it to the halfway point. i know, not nice... but they _were_ the enemy afterall.

sarah and i continued the clock and exited at 0500 with a burst of morale and a sense of accomplishment. we had seen the inside of the great beast and had survived. we continued on to the castle palace. once inside, i discovered some dates and names carved into the courtyard walls of the palace [photographs of other carvings can be found in the gallery here]. here sarah and i had a heated debate concerning the authenticity of these carvings. my claim: that they are authentic, carved in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. her claim: that they were carved long after, that if they were as old as the indicated date, the powers that be would have taken measures to protect them. she's seen my website and knows that i've been collecting photos of old stone carving 'graffiti' whenever i've encountered it, but despite all of the photos i've collected of carvings all over europe, she still insisted that these carvings were not authentic. were they all fake? was there some devious plot by some modern day taggers to carve old dates into cathedrals around europe? i suppose there can be no proof either way and i suppose she did have a point about the protection; they were old enough to warrant some type of plexiglass covering (which, incidentally, we saw over some indoor carvings in buildings on the castle grounds). we agreed to disagree. anyone care to share an opinion?

back inside the palace, the giant vladislav hall, once used for banquets, councils, coronations, and occasionally, jousting. we walked on and came to a room showing a movie about the castle [in czech; the english showing required a separate ticket that we had not purchased]. we decided to stop briefly. i watched the images intently at first, then less intently, and then not at all as the darkness and drone slowly stopped me for just a short rest. sarah shocked me awake and we were off... out of the palace to the golden lane, a series of old cottages originally used by castle sharpshooters, later by goldsmiths, now a long line of retromedieval shops wherein any d&d gamer would have traded his broadsword +2 and one thousand gold pieces to work. one shop sold all sorts of hardcrafted armor and weapons [aforementioned d&d gamer behind the counter], another room had an exhibit of torture devices. we walked on down the street, through another gate, past an interesting sculpture, to the black tower and down into a prison chamber, before leaving the prague castle. mission accomplished. venimus. vidimus. vicimus.

fatigued from our castle seige, sarah and i decided to change our victory celebration from a trip to kutna hora to a leisurely walking afternoon around prague. we made a quick stop into an internet cafe to make some additional accomodation reservations for the rest of our trip. i hadn't brought my laptop and we needed to make some reservations then and there; i reluctantly typed my credit card number into a public terminal and soon after realized my worst fears. the browser had saved the form information [very important financial form information, as it were] and without admin rights i was unable to clear the forms. the staff person didn't have the admin password either; perfect. he said he would shut down the computer and only after the admin had cleared the forms would they put the computer back into the cafe circulation. fine. sarah and i stopped back into the cafe three additional times that day to see if the admin had been in; negative, but the computer was still powered down.

after a lovely sunset, we had a delicious dinner in the old town square. blah to the couple behind us. tomorrow we'd be leaving prague for cesky krumlov. we returned to the hostel and packed so we could get another early start.

[### digression about the charles bridge. completed 600 years ago, the stone bridge was open to wheeled traffic until the 1970's when it was turned over to pedestrians. there are statues along both sides the entire length of the bridge; one particular statue draws a lot of attention. it's said that if you rub the plaque at the base of the statue of prague's patron saint, jan of nepomuk, tortured to death by vaclav iv in 1393, you'll return to prague later in your life. there's obviously more to this story; i need to do a little research. and of course i rubbed the plague.]

posted by paul at Fri 29 Jul 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

28 July 2005

some only with numbers

a slightly less early start than the day before, but we made it to the florenc bus station around 1100 after a bit of wandering and tracking. past this highly ornamental clock sculpture. we were heading to terezin today and needed to determine which bus to take and how to secure tickets. in the station, we perused the informational signs. a man saw us gasping and asked if we needed assistance [first in czech, incomprehensible, then in english]; told him we're going to terezin; he pointed us to counter 15 and 16. as a traveller you must always be alert for the scam, it's unfortunate not knowing if you can trust someone. most likely just a very nice helpful man, but a slight chance he was working for a specific bus company and was directing us there and to a potentially higher price. the charge on the shock system: full power. it's so hard to know, but best to always be careful. sarah continued searching the signs while i went to check out the counters. as it turned out, counters 15 and 16 were where i needed to be; thank you, sir, sorry for suspecting you of evildoing.

i stood in line at the ticket counter and listened as the woman in front of me asked the ticket agent, in english, for two tickets to tabor [pronouncing 'tabor' with emphasis on the 'bor' syllable (go ahead, try it out: 'taBOR')]. the young ticket agent looked back confused. the woman repeated her request: 'taBOR.' another confused look with a response 'that's a city in the czech republic?' the woman nodded and started opening a map when another person witnessing the struggle came to her aide... she said to the ticket agent: 'TAbor' [with emphasis on the 'ta' syllable rather than the 'bor' (again... give it a shot: TAbor)]. interesting. TAbor... not taBOR. i wondered if terezin was pronounced A) TErezin, B) teREzin, or C) tereZIN. i went with A. correct response. i walked away with four tickets (two for to, two for back). again, i felt at one with my people.

the earliest bus wasn't leaving until 1400. sarah and i had some time to kill; hadn't eaten yet; over to a very delightful restaurant with a very decorative interior. two points of interest. one: all of the restaurants in the czech republic at which i've dined have brought silverware and napkins, occasionally salt and pepper and various sauces as well, neatly arranged on a plate. i like the system. this restaurant was no different. two: my grandmother typically bakes rolls for all family functions. small, simple, salted, and absolutely delicious, they rarely last for more than ten minutes after being set out on the table, and it's not uncommon for several family members to hide a few for later consumption. i'm fairly certain that each of her nine grandchildren (me included) and at least a few of the seven (seven, gram?) great grandchildren have baked these rolls with her. [great memories]. the czech republic is the first place i've seen rolls like these outside of my grandmother's house. it made perfect sense... she learned how to bake these rolls from her mother, who grew up here... well, in luhacovice (where sarah and i would be travelling in a few days). such an amazing thing.

back over to the bus station and onto the bus. we stepped off in terezin about an hour later at 1500. i walked to the nearby tourist information center and grabbed a brochure and then took this picture of a map [i do this frequently. see a map on a sign : take a picture : use camera with zoom function for instant portable map. great system.] our return bus was at 2005. from the looks of the bus schedule at the arrival stop, it didn't look like the return bus would be leaving from the same stop. i looked around quickly and located the return stop.

our first destination: the museum of the ghetto. first, history. terezin was originally an 18th century defensive fortress built by emperor joseph ii; brick walls and a gigantic dry moat surround the entire town. a second smaller fortress was built nearby. in 1940, germans established a prison and work camp in the small fortress and in 1941 evicted all of the townspeople from the large fortress. the town of terezin became an intermediary transit camp for jews on their way to extermination camps in poland. overcrowding was a primary factor in the poor living conditions. approximately 35,000 jews died in terezin as a result of starvation, disease, suicide, or at the hands of the germans.

inside the museum. drawings and poems by children living in the ghetto. dreadful and sad, the reality, the children knowing what was to happen. the walls of the room listing the names of those victims who were known, but so many names were not. like the holocaust exhibits i'd seen in germany, the museum exhibits here were thoughtfully written and contained a lot of information, so much so that sarah and i spent an hour and a half in only three or four small rooms. interesting point: during wwii, international red cross officials asked to visit one of the jewish camps; the nazis went to great lengths to dress up terezin and present it as a refuge with its own jewish administration and cultural events to fool visiting officials.

despite only making it through about three quarters of the museum, sarah and i left at 1630 when we realized that the cemetary and krematorium were closing at 1700. it took us a little while to get our bearings and we didn't make it to the cemetary until 1655. the krematorium was closing and we decided to walk around the cemetary before heading to the lesser fortress which was closing at 1800.

the less fortress. isolation cells. photographs. rusted barbed wire. arbeit macht frei. three tiers of beds, long platforms. sarah and i looked closely at the wood, searching for any carvings, finding nothing. walking quickly to see as much before the closing. no one else around. quiet and heavy and somber, the air cold in the rooms. a little over sixty years ago, horrible things happened right here. finally a man tells us we must leave. i felt like there was more to see. outside, a cemetary for those exhumed from mass graves. some graves with names, some only with numbers. we walked back towards the large fortress containing the town, bearing right to follow the ohre river to a site where the ashes of 22,000 jews were thrown [memorial plaque]. it was right here that i captured a beautiful sky which seemed to fit the moment well.

we returned through the walls of the fortress, back to town, finally back to the central square at 1930 where we waited for our 2005 bus. small issue. we found what looked like a typical bus stop with a sign listing the departure times (including our 2005 bus), but we still we weren't completely sure that we were standing in the right place. there really wasn't any one else around (in fact, from the moment we arrived we noted that most of terezin seemed to be abandoned despite the cars and curtains; certainly this didn't seem like an appealing place to live and we wondered about the current population of the town). the 2005 was the last bus leaving for prague today; if we missed it we'd be sleeping in terezin tonight. while we were waiting, i wandered the square looking for other possible bus stops. found this. we decided to split up. sarah remained at bus stop alpha and i moved down to bravo. at 2008 the bus pulled into bravo; i yelled for sarah and she came running. on the way home we saw a beautifully bright red sunset. dinner and then the hostel after a heavy day.

posted by paul at Thu 28 Jul 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

27 July 2005

halos of insects; it is a good day to be a spider in prague

czechspider.jpg

the sun hung high today, heat and humidity holding us down and making us yawn. sarah and i got an early start. metro to mustek, emerging into a mass of people. we walked through the old town square [here my travel weariness screamed at me; the differences in our reactions were obvious. sarah was so excited to see the city, constantly looking around taking in as much as possible, commenting on every amazement, very much like i was still just several weeks before, but regrettably now still unable to see the beauty in things, simply unable. i felt bad that i was in this state for sarah's visit, but only rest would change me.], stopping to watch the astronomical clock perform its dance, across the charles bridge, seeking an alone place. high above with a beautiful view, up a long steep path. we watched others walking below looking up, and some came and some didn't. finally back down, the heat again sapping until we found a secluded quiet park and rested. dinner and then a slow quiet walk in the dark up to the castle, circling, and then back down to the bridge for the swirling sky. the heads of the statues alight with halos of insects; it is a good day to be a spider in prague. intricate cities of orbs; a hierarchy, unified and feasting. the end of a slow sweet day.

back in the hostel we discussed our plans for the next several days. tomorrow we'd visit terezin, a jewish ghetto and concentration camp during wwii, approximately an hour north of prague. the following day we'd visit kutna hora, a small medieval town southwest of prague. we'd then leave prague to travel to cesky krumlov, over to luhacovice (where my great grandmother was raised), and eventually down to bratislava, slovakia, and then budapest, hungary.

so where were the spiders while the fly tried to break our balls?
: ziggy stardust, david bowie

posted by paul at Wed 27 Jul 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

26 July 2005

$16K in american currency

sarah was arriving today (yay!) at 1450. she had booked a private room at a different hostel in prague. i planned to check out of my current hostel, into the new, and then meet her at the airport. packed up and stored my pack in chris' room and then went out for some breakfast. back, said my goodbyes, and i was off.

bad news upon arrival at the new hostel. a sign hanging on the front door indicated there was ongoing maintenance on the hot water system and that there most likely wouldn't be hot water for several days. blah. i spoke with the receptionist and learned that they had rooms in another building; perfect. checked in; very clean, very nice, i was excited. off to the airport on bus 119; i was a professional.

i thought about taking a picture of sarah right when she stepped through the entryway, but i know how i feel when i get off of a plane after a long flight; the last thing i want is someone standing there with a camera aimed in my direction. in retrospect, i should have taken a picture because she looked very cute and fresh when she arrived. she'd been through a lot of transport in the past 24 hours: a 3.5 hour drive from boston to burlington, vermont; hours of waiting at the burlington bus station while greyhound tried to locate a driver after the assigned driver failed to show; a bus ride up to montreal, quebec [which included a long border stop when canadian border officials discovered that two algerian passengers were carrying $16K in american currency]; a flight to paris and then a flight to prague. had i endured that much transport, i'd have been ready for the new city nap; fortunately she had been able to sleep on the plane and had still had energy in her. we returned to the hostel, dropped off her bags, and then metroed into the city center for some dinner and a long walk. so happy to have her with me.

posted by paul at Tue 26 Jul 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

25 July 2005

of some horrible spirit

i slept in late. sarah was arriving tomorrow and i was trying to build my travel spirit. spent time reading and hanging with chris. we eventually made it out of the hostel in mid-afternoon, out for another new city walk, this time passing through the old town square and by the astronomical clock. the skeleton ringing the bell and the parading disciples. we ran into james, an australian chris had met the day before. chris and james had eaten dinner at a restaurant which chris had praised several times during the day for its low cost high quality food and exceptionally beautiful waitstaff; he wanted to return again this evening. back to the hostel to see if another chris accomplice, shawn, was around: no; chris, james, and i were off to the restaurant. as chance would have it, we ran into shawn on the way; the four of us continued on and arrived shortly thereafter. after dinner, i found chris' earlier exhultations to be somewhat unfounded. my food wasn't amazing and the final bill was approximately 10 usd a person. still a good deal; just not quite what i expected based on what chris had said. oh, and the waitresses were all horribly grotesque. :)

we returned to the hostel to find level 10 well underway with a gigantic bottle of some horrible spirit. over the next hour in the intangible layer involving mesh just beneath formality, plans changed and i ended up going out with chris, james [camo shorts], shawn, and another australian we'd met at the hostel, cameron, for a level 10 night without level 10. shawn negotiated a rate with a taxi driver who proceeded to drive us in a wide circle to a club which probably was about a ten minute walk away. at the door, the large bald bouncer asked me if i had any bombs to check. no, sir, no bombs to check. at the end of the night, we walked back to the hostel; shawn stopped at a street vendor stand to buy a chicken sandwich which was most likely prepared ten hours earlier. finally to sleep.

posted by paul at Mon 25 Jul 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

24 July 2005

the charge on the shock system

exit: scandinavia. if i wasn't meeting sarah in prague, i think i'd have stayed in the far north far longer. hidden away, from. but i was very excited to see my girlfriend, and so south for me. back to the oslo bus station, i was a professional now. [although i think a professional would have successfully found the airport bus without asking for help. she looked at the gigantic sign right behind me to find the platform and time [hi, i'm the gigantic sign right behind you which gives you information so you don't have to bother the nice bus people]. like i said, professional.]

my flight was leaving at 1220 and i got to the airport at 0930. the man eyed me suspiciously. i didn't blame him; _i'd_ eye me suspiciously. checked in, plenty of time. through the security detail to the other side. wandered; ate; waited, too long [look at watch] damn. run to the gate on the opposite side of the airport, through customs, to my plane. instructions in norwegian.

for one reason or another, whenever fellow travelers related travel horror stories, the czech republic always came up. night train gassings, grossly inflated bills at bars and restaurants, corrupt police, pickpockets, scams, you name it. for this reason, while i was waiting in the oslo airport, i made a point of locking up my bags with padlocks and rearranging my pocket contents so that i knew where everything was; secure and protected, there would be no blind fumbling. i also installed one of the anti-pickpocket electric shock systems i'd constructed... anyone who attempted to pick _my_ pockets was going to get far more than a wad of cash. >> POW! << let them try it. [pinchers of peril! you guys, i've been saved by my pinchers of peril! : source]

arrival in the czech republic. picked up my pack; aimless wandering; through customs with zero questions; into the terminal. i looked around suspiciously and checked the charge on the shock system. full power. perfect. first mission: withdraw czech currency.

there were two atm's in the terminal... i stood against a wall, pulled down my shades and scoped them out, looking for any questionable individuals standing against walls scoping out the atm's for unsuspecting victims. er... wait. okay, none that i could see. alpha team: GO. i stealthed up to the first atm palming my atm card. as far as i could tell, the atm hadn't been outfitted with an external account number reading system; clean. proceed. i looked left, then right. then left again. then right again. i wanted to look left again, but decided i better proceed with typing in my personal identification number. access granted; i was in. four thousand czech crowns (koruna cesky): 4000kc. card ejected. two notes ejected. receipt ejected. i stealthed away and returned to the wall. mission accomplished.

fortunately, ronnie (from the sketchy oslo hostel) had filled me in on the transport details for getting into the city center: bus to the metro; metro to the center. i didn't think the bus driver would appreciate a 2000kc note. i needed change. one refreshing coca-cola would do. 65kc. okay, sure. i handed over a 2000kc note and she looked up, annoyed. i smiled; one refreshing coca-cola please. i quickly grabbed my changed and sat down at a nearby table to check out the czech currency. (1) 1000kc note; (1) 500kc note; (2) 200kc notes; (1) 10kc coin; (1) 5kc coin. wait a second. 1000 + 500 + 200 + 200 + 10 + 5 = 1915. wait just one second. 2000 - 65 = 1935. I'D BEEN SCAMMED! she shorted me 20kc! nooooo! i couldn't believe it. i contemplated walking back to the checkout counter to straighten out the situation and then decided against it. 20kc was about 80 cents. it had taken me a few minutes (and a scientific calculator and slide rule) to determine that i'd been shorted... i didn't want to start a 'no i didn't'/'yes you did' battle. i'll take this as a learning experience; count your change. i summoned up as much evil as i could spread across my face, locked on target, and fired a glare directly at her. direct hit; she knew; i knew; she knew i knew. i checked the charge on the shock system. still full power.

bus 119, just as ronnie had described. i found the bus stop. my destination: dejvicka. damn, i should have read the czech pronunciation guide before arrival. there's no way 'dejvicka' is pronounced 'dej - vic - ka' here. no way. i was going to have to guess. i decided to go with a silent 'j'. and that 'ck' sound needed some sparkle. i threw in a 'ch' sound. 'day - vitch - ka'. sure, that sounds czech. time to try it out. bus: on.

me: 'one for dayvitchka.'

bus driver: [czech: i got the dayvitchka part, but that's about it, tourista. [confused look]]

me: 'dayvitchka?' [index finger in the air indicating 'one']...[come on man, you're a bus driver, i'm a passenger. obviously i want a freaking ticket. hand it over.]

bus driver: jeden?

me: [YES: jeden.] yes. [head nodding]

bus driver: [czech: 25kc]

i had no idea what he had just said, but i handed over a 200kc note and he returned me some change. i validated the ticket in the little yellow box and took a seat. despite the earlier change shorting experience, i wasn't very concerned about the change (which was the correct 175kc, by the way)... i was beyond excitement: the bus driver had said 'jeden' and i had understood it; one of the few czech words i knew... taught to me by my czech-speaking grandmother! i was smiling as the bus drove away. i felt as one with my people. [digression] the motto of the united states of america: e pluribus unum. how cool is that? i think it is above level cool. out of many, one. so simply, so perfect. [end digression]

i was sitting on the right side of the bus and watching the bus stops intently. the bus was equipped with an led screen which showed the current and next stop; a prerecorded voice announced the same. dejvicka was the very last stop on the 119 line, so i wasn't concerned about missing the stop; mostly trying to learn the czech pronunciation. arrival: day - vits - ka. i'd been very close.

down into the depths of the metro system. alert. full power. i was fairly certain that my bus ticket would work for the metro as well, but i confirmed with an attendant regardless. the ticket was good for 90 minutes after validation. i'd made reservations at the old prague hostel and the hostel had provided directions: dejvicka -> mustek -> [switch lines] -> namesty republicky. done with no difficulty. i emerged from the depths.

gps. satellites acquired. i was on my way. fifteen minutes later, i was checked in and the pack was stowed. _great feeling_.

sarah would be arriving on tuesday and i didn't want to check out any of the city museums or galleries before she arrived. i set out on a new city walk up to the castle; uphill cobblestones (i imagined each stone being laid). i immediately liked prague; such an old and beautiful city. all of the sidewalks made up of very small stone cubes, gray and white, in varying patterns. across a powerful stone bridge, statues and spiders, crowded and flashing. after a long walk, i returned to the hostel.

many americans. i met chris and lindsay and the level 10 crew: a group of seven recent high school graduates from los angeles who were traveling across europe together. five of the seven were staying in the hostel; the other two had already had reservations in a hotel. level 10 had been traveling for three weeks and hadn't seen a single museum or art gallery, hadn't visited any castles or fortresses or towers or botanical gardens. they were in europe for one mission and they were conducting that mission on level 10 at every waking hour (which tended to be 1500 - 0500). i won't list the details of their adventures, but suffice it to say that they involve much nightlife and many beverages. i'll admit; this was a mindset that i didn't understand. to travel to a distant country and not visit places of cultural significance? why travel if only to see the inside of clubs and bars that look very similar to those back at home? but after talking with level 10 for a while, i felt things align in my head. travel is very personal; everyone experiences new places in their own way. if these guys wanted to party across europe, more power to them... at least they were traveling. they seemed to be having a blast and i was happy for them. we made plans to go out the next night; a level 10 night.

i disarmed the anti-pickpocket shock system before heading to bed, talking to chris and lindsay. lindsay's friend obviously had good dreams.

posted by paul at Sun 24 Jul 2005 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)