During college, I went on a camping trip with a group of close friends. On this trip, we were all given Native American names. These friends, who knew me so well, bestowed upon me the name Shouts With List. To this day, I am…how shall can I put it mildly? A bit of a control freak. It’s a good skill to have in moderation. It’s gotten us successfully around Europe so far, armed with opening and closing times for attractions…directions all book-marked on various mapping apps…and saved us a couple of times from buying tongue (or other unknown horrors) instead of roast beef in the grocery store. It’s also caused me to question every decision I am not a part of…which is, very understandably, awful and condecsending. In an effort to curb this behavior, I loosened the reins on Shouts With List in Prague. This resulted in the following events, in order:
Turns out, SWL may be a bitch, but she’s a necessary bitch.
Our last day in Prague started out by the purchase of our night train tickets from the International booth at Prague central station. Our customer service representative was everything you would want: rushed and annoyed. Completely un-thorough and un-knowledgable on the topic of international train travel to Poland, which we discovered at approx. 3:10am the next morning. More on that later. Good thing I’m traveling with this guy.Our train left at 22:36 that night, so we had a whole day to kill in Prague. We had a couple of things on the docket: The Prague Zoo and the 14th International Tattoo Convention. We had planned on fitting in a trip to the top of the baby-infested TV tower in our neighborhood, but it got punted due to packing and such.We tram-a-lammed over to the metro station, metro-ed ourselves to the north side of the city and zoo-bussed to our first destination: Prague Zoo.
The Prague Zoo is no exception to The Sloth Paradox. The Sloth Paradox states the following: Zoos frequently have a Sloth listed in their collection. No zoo employee actually knows that the zoo houses a Sloth. Result: Sloth can never be found. Seeing as we are going to the Sloth Sanctuary in August, I didn’t make too much of a fuss.
One thing we noticed during our visit is that safety protocols in the Czech Republic seem to be fairly low. We were in a dimly lit, indoor exhibit called The Twilight Zone, which featured some large bats. I’m missing the exact details, as all the signs were in Czech, but they were too small to be fruit bats and much larger than regular bats. From wing-tip to wing-tip, they were about 1 foot across. They were adorably hanging around on their perches, flying to the floor to eat from a bowl of goodies and generally flapping and squeaking around. There were several people squeaking back at them, holding out their hands as if the bats could fly through the glass and land on them. Then I realized…there was no glass. As this fact dropped into place, a bat flew out of the exhibit and disappeared into the crowd. Bats were flying in and out of their designated space and all through the tunnels of The Twilight Zone exhibit. Maybe I am just used to living in such a litigious nation, but I can’t imagine this sort of bat chaos would be featured in a State-side zoo. Such things would not fly (see what I did there?!?!?).
“Okay”, you might be thinking…”that’s just a cool, interactive exhibit. That doesn’t seem particularly unsafe.” I agree, especially if you like bats. However, there were some more opportunities potentially to ‘interact’ with the animals. You could go into the enclosure with the Nubian Vultures. These guys have an average wingspan of 9.2 feet and they feed on dead or dying prey. When they flew around, you could hear the whooshing of air. The closest one was tearing apart a rack of ribs. My view was unhampered by any sort of fence or glass…he was about 15ft away. I was so surprised, I forgot to take a picture. There were toddlers running around. The gorillas were separated from the crowd by a small moat and hillock that the majority of able-bodied adults could cross with a medium amount of effort. As John said “If I can get out of an enclosure, I’m pretty sure a gorilla could manage it.”
Fortunately, zoo officials kept their wits about them when they designed the enclosure for the fiercest beast known to mankind; the Honey Badger. This one was furiously tearing up some meat (cobra?) and generally looking crazyass. There was another HB next door who was very frustrated at the lack of cobra in it’s habitat. Just before I took this picture, it was using it’s terrifying claws to try and dig under the glass to get some action. Fierce as it may be, it would be no match for our own #330; the beautiful, talented and badass Honey Badger of the Nashville Rollergirls
There were plenty of exciting animals to see, especially as the crowds started to dissipate in the late afternoon. There were also plenty of human-animals to gawk at, such as the 2-year-old proudly running around sans pants. We caught up with her later and she had been re-panted, and didn’t appear to be half as happy as she was when merrily showing her bottom to everyone. Augustus Gloop was also in attendance. This bilious and boggle-eyed child was actually wearing suspenders and a little pork-pie, German style hat complete with small feathers. His face was smeared with god-knows what kind of sticky mess. I recently asked John if my occasional desire to push children down on the street made me a bad person. He informed me that it did.
My favorites are pictured below, including the peacock who was definitely showing off. Best bit of the day: watching the leopards roll around in a big cat-ball as they played for about 15 minutes. It reminded me that, although very snuggly and passive, if my cats were leopard-sized, they would probably unzip my guts and slaughter me to death.
The zoo seemed to be situated on a mountain, and we had worked our way down to the bottom by closing time. In an effort to spare our tired feet, we opted for the cable car back to the entrance. Another fine example of safety regulations thrown out the window. They were single seats, the mounting of which required waiting for them to line up with your backside, then running a couple of inches in front until you could fall backwards into them. The operators didn’t steady them at all…they just watched on as waves of people did this little dance. If you were lucky enough to plant yourself the first time round, you were 13 feet in the air before you finally settled in and realized the absence of any sort of mechanism to hold you in. It was at the height of about 25 feet that I noticed the loose chain dangling around, which when clipped, did nothing to prevent me from escaping. We passed people who were descending that had squirmy toddlers in their laps and no chain attached. It was terrifying.
Our zoo trip was complete and we still had 4 hours before our train left. We had seen posters for a Tattoo Convention earlier in the week, so we checked it out for about an hour. Usual tattoo convention stuff: 1:5 ratio of cool tattoos to horrible decisions, questionable fashion choices, dub step music at a harmful volume and people lining up to get convention flash. Our second bare-ass of the day belonged to a lady who was getting a huge pug tattoo on her thigh. Think people, think!. As it always does, it prompted us to discuss next tattoos. In all seriousness, I am pondering a cobra. I would never want to be tattooed at a convention though, it’s an awful environment; loud, noisy, and rushed.
Finally it was time to head back to the station and board the night train. As I had mentioned before, we picked these tickets up fairly late in the game, so the only space available was in a 6 person couchette cabin. I had mentally been preparing myself all day to be sharing a cabin with 4 drunk Poles, downing Vodka like water, singing in the night. As we navigated to the platform, the odds of this were getting more and more likely as it appeared that a soccer game had just ended. The tunnels, streets and squares were full of be-scarfed Czechs, chanting their team’s anthems. Fortunately, my couchette consisted of 1 Irish girl, her Scottish boyfriend and 3 extremely polite Chinese lads. That’s right…count ’em. I shared my couchette with five other people, none of which were John. His space was at the other end of the wagon. -1 for our reservation lady, who did not inform us of this split. I realize that we booked last minute, but a heads up would have been been nice. Split-second decisions were made about who took what. John kept Angus and his backpack. I got my backpack (Bertha), all the tickets and passports and my phone. This required a lot of back-and-forth later in the journey, exchanging one set of things for another, as space was limited. You couldn’t amass more items, you could only trade. It was a bit like old school Resident Evil; I’ll drop my 3 red herbs and pick up 2 rounds for the shotgun.
For my friends who have not had the pleasure of taking an Eastern European night train, let’s do a little imagination game. Picture a piece of plywood, 6’x2.5′ Now, cover that plywood with a scraggly piece of carpet that came from a casino, circa 1970: now you have a mattress! Imagine a 7ft square cube. Mount three of those mattresses on each side of the cube, stacked on top of each other. Make sure to allow about 16 inches of space between each one. Insert 6 people, their stuff, and a ladder into that space. Now, lie back and enjoy a luxurious 9.5 hours in your mind palace.
I was in a state of shock…my fat backside, covered in a layer of blubber, nurtured for years with all of our Western conveniences and pampering had never encountered such an unyielding surface as was my bunk. I realize that this was lightyears away from the conditions that a huge percent of the world’s population live in daily. I mean, how many KGB prisons have we visited on this trip? For Christ’s sake, we are going to Auschwitz-Birkenau in a couple of days! However, I come from the land of cheeseburgers and XXL movie theater seats. Orthopedic mattresses and down-filled comforters. I was not mentally prepared for this space. Every movement had to be thought out in advance, it was like living in a Rubix Cube. There was no space for my backpack to go on the shelves, so Bertha and I shared a bunk, automatically cutting out 1/3 of the space for my body to fit. I was in the middle bunk, which required some delicate maneuvering to get into, the perfect situation for someone with a bad back. Our window was open, which provided some air-movement while we all huffed and puffed, taking turns to make our ‘beds’ with a turning radius of about 6″ inches to each side.
I visited John down the hall. He was not amused with his accommodation. His couchette was unbearably stuffy and was missing a ladder. Apparently, the opening of the window had been vetoed by the old Chinese woman on the bottom bunk. We traded tickets, passports and a goodnight kiss, making plans to meet at 6:30am. When I got back to my couchette, the train had pulled away from the station and was kracking along to Krakow. Our window was still open, which turned our couchette into a wind-cell. The curtains were whipping around like mad, getting sucked out the window for a spell and then flipping back into the cabin for a good bit of slapping the shit out of everything. Climbing into my bunk was like playing a game of Tetris in a tumble-dryer. The closing of the window was vetoed by the red-faced Irish lass. We took a cabin vote and compromised by cracking the window and stuffing the curtains into the gap.
I burrowed under my sheet, which I later supplemented with a scarf and my pack-towel for warmth, and fell into a light sleep. The night was punctuated with frequent spells of waking up, freezing cold, listening to the screeching rails and the fading chants of football fans. Around 3:00am, I was shaken awake by John. He informed me, “there’s something wrong with our tickets.” I clambered down from my shelf and creaked out into the hallway, blinking under the fluorescents. We had officially crossed the border between the Czech Republic and Poland and it was time for a shake-down. As it turns out, our Eurail passes are not valid in Poland. This would have been helpful to find out when we showed our Eurail passes to our reservationist and were told we didn’t need a ticket, only a reservation for the couchette. -1000 points for her.
Little did I know, John had been given this news by our super-nice Czech conductor, Tony, about 2 hours previously. John had also not slept a wink, rather he had been pacing the halls and staring at the dark country side for a couple of hours. Tony had informed him that when we got to the border, the Polish conductor would want us to buy a ticket. No problem…except that the Polish conductor refused to take a credit card. He spoke little English, only German. Most of the conversation included him jabbing his finger at our passes and saying “No Poland!” He was asking for 100 euros (about $160) for the two of us, in cash only. John kept explaining that he couldn’t pay until we arrived in Poland, after which, he would gladly fork over the appropriate amount. I was woken up in an attempt to pry some cash out of me, even though John explained that I didn’t have any either.
Around 3:30am, we passed a deserted station in the borderlands. I could tell by John’s body language that there was no way this conductor was going to remove us from the train in the middle of the night. The exchange went back and forth:
Conductor: “100 euros. No Poland.”
Intrepid Travelers: “We understand. No Cash. Pay in Poland”
Conductor: Jabbing pass “100 euros. No Poland.”
Intrepid Travelers: “Yes. Pay in Poland. Only credit card.”
Conductor: “No credit card. 100 euros. No Poland.”
Intrepid Travelers: Shrug “Only credit card.”
Conductor: “Zehn minuten.”
He away marched down the hall. 10 minutes. 10 minutes until what?!? We had now been joined by a Czech art student, Jacob, who offered to help translate. Tony, Jacob, John, and I had a meeting on the mound in the hallway. “What do we do?” we asked. Tony rolled his eyes and said “Don’t give him 100 Euros. They are always trying to shake people down. Give him no more than 50” Jacob agreed, “I payed 30 Euros, that included my bed. He’s trying to rip you off.”
I remembered that we had a pile of leftover Euros from our time in Estonia. John went to investigate. I felt like a prize idiot…how could I have missed the fact that our Eurail passes weren’t valid in Poland? John came back with about 300 Euros, but in light of our realization that we were being forced into lining this guy’s pockets, we weren’t going to give it up. The conductor approached so we clammed up. Lo! And Behold! He had managed to find a little credit card machine! It must have been abandoned in lost and found by a past traveler. What a stroke of luck!
The conductor dissapeared in a hurry. We all shared an eye-roll and went our seperate ways.
6:30am came soon after that. I was operating on about 3 hours of awful, bone-aching sleep and John managed to get about an hour’s worth. In prime condition, we made our way to the luggage lockers, stashed our stuff and bought two large coffees. We had 7.5 hours to kill before we could check into our flat. The first couple of hours passed in a bit of a haze. I know I consumed an Egg McMuffin and charged my phone in a coffee shop. John wrote a blog post, while I drifted in and out of consciousness. Around 11:00 we needed to get up and wander around, before we got kicked out of Coffee Heaven.
Krakow is lovely! It was a sunshiney Sunday morning, the tourists had yet to wake up, so it felt like we had the whole town to ourselves. Krakow’s mascot is a Dragon named Smok. He apparently lived here, spending his time eating sheep, children, and knights. Krak, the legendary founder of the city, tricked Smok to eat sheep stuffed with sulphur; to stop the burning in his belly, Smok drank the entire river, causing him to explode. Unbeknown to us, we were visting during the annual Dragon festival. As we pushed through the other side of our exhaustion, a parade was about to start.
The Dragon Festival coincided with the ever popular Silly Buggers on Bikes exhibition, which included men hopping around at inappropriate heights on bmx bikes.
It may have been a mistake to eat the pizza, as it hurtled us both into a food/lack of sleep coma. We finally made it to the flat, where we collapsed into bed and slept like the dead for 3 hours. Inexplicably, we woke up hungry, so we ventured out into the real world for a couple of these beauties:
It had been an adventure filled 40 hours, but it was time for real bed. We’ve got a full 5 days in Krakow to fit in a lot of sights: Saltmines, Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Tatra Mountains. We’ll need the rest!