Monday, September 6, 2010

Bialystok to Warsaw to Wroclaw, Poland


I left my wonderful hosts Dominika and Karol (as well as Karol's parents and dogs) in Bialystok yesterday for Krakow via overnight stopover in Warsaw. They sent me off with plums from their garden, homemade french fries, hardboiled eggs and a full stomach of blueberry soup with rice and homemade mushroom soup from mushrooms I picked with them while I was there. Karol's mother was an excellent cook and one of my favorite memories from those few days was going out with Dominika and Karol's father to a delicious gelato place late at night (or early, by their standards- Karol DJed from 10pm to 5am).

I returned to the same hostel I stayed at in Warsaw my first two days, but was assigned to a different room and met some cool Australian girls, a Canadian guy, and one of the Australian girls' brother, who was too hungover to leave his bunk and say hi properly. Everybody but the brother went out to check out some train tickets at the central station, then on a wandering walk to a supposedly beautiful park which I am still not sure we ever found, though the park we did end up in was quite nice. We talked about stereotypes about different travelers--apparently Americans are identifiable by their tendency to wear running shoes all the time (I was, in fact, wearing running shoes that day) and North Face clothing (I just bought a North Face rain jacket before I left). I've found that more or less all the stereotypes about travellers have some truth to them. Luke, from around Vancouver, told me I had to try a Lion chocolate bar, so I went ahead and bought one out of a convenience store for something around $.30 US. It's kind of like a Twix bar mixed with a Milky Way mixed with something else- salty and sweet and crunchy and squishy and really, really good. Thanks Luke! The Australians recommended I go to Wroclaw, which none of us could pronounce, but I had read that it rivaled Krakow in beauty/architecture/history, and the aussies showed me a bunch of pictures of the gnomes that are the signature of the city, spread out as a reminder of protest back in the city's communist days. We called it gnomeland and I went to look up train tickets. When we got back the hostel I took my first shower in a few days, as Dominika and Karol did not have a real shower to speak of in Karol's house and it would have been a bit of a hassle to go back to Dominika's house just to shower. My standards of cleanliness have definitely gone down.

Despite the snoring Turkish guy at the foot of my bed and my extreme dehydration, which I only noticed when it was too late to do much about, I got a fairly good night's sleep. The next morning I packed up, probably in more like 40 minutes (I'm getting better) and headed out to walk around the area of Warsaw that used to be the Jewish Ghetto during WWII. I had limited time, so I headed for the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, old Jewish cemetary, and the oldest Jewish synagogue left in the city. I never made it to the synagogue, and the monument--if I found the real one, which I'm still not sure about--was pretty disappointing, but the cemetary was a powerful place. I walked along the wall for a while to a plaque that explained the significance of the cemetary and that the very wall I had been walking along had once been part of the Ghetto's wall. After access to this official cemetary was cut off, Jews in the ghetto had used a former sports field to bury their dead. I had been particularly drawn to this bit of Jewish history because in middle school I read a book about a kid surviving in the Warsaw ghetto, and some of the imagined scenes had really stuck with me. As it turned out, those images were probably very inaccurate, but seeing the real thing made an impact on me, and I think that for the rest of my time in Poland I will make an effort to explore more of the Jewish history here.

It was raining pretty heavily once again, and I underestimated the walking time, so by the time I got back to the hostel to pick up my backpack I had to run to catch my train. Because of this I failed to pick up food, and having only eaten a handful of cereal that morning I was much too hungry for the roll and hardboiled egg (thank you Bialystok friends!) I had with me. My pack with food supplies was way up on a rack, and as there were seven people and several bags in my 8-person train compartment, I did not feel it would go over well with the conservative-looking grandmother types to mess around with an overstuffed pack just to find some crumbly cereal and further mess up their train compartment. This train was similar to the one I took on a ridiculously hot day from Zagreb to Budapest, at least in set-up, but it was newer and had a certain Hogwarts Express-style charm accentuated by the multiple food carts selling tea, coffee, and other things that came down the hallway every once in a while. Also, we were in a bit of a cold spell, which is much more pleasant to endure while on a crowded train than is a heat wave. Eventually my compartment's inhabitants thinned out, and soon I was left with three grandmother-types. They took pity on me and fed me some grapes and cookies, a welcome respite from my attempts at distracting myself from my hunger by plowing through I Capture the Castle, which I'm loving to read. I had estimated the time of the journey wrong, and it turned out to be an hour longer than I thought it was.

When I arrived in Wroclaw, my first impression was not so great. It looked a bit like Bialystok (a small, fairly industrial town far from any cosmopolitan center of culture) might look on a Sunday, but today is Monday. However, as I walked closer and closer to my hostel, the city transformed. Somewhere between the late night open air flower market, the super cheap dinner and hostel bed, the gnomes I started to see and the massive ratusz, or city hall, in a square with people of all ages walking around despite the chill, I felt myself relaxing and beginning to actually enjoy this city. It didn't hurt that I got some dinner in there. Wroclaw was the first city ever in which I arrived with no hostel reservations, but there were no problems. I think you just have to be aware of festivals, weekends, and school/work holidays in the area, and then you can plan accordingly. I opted for the ten-bed dorm rather than the eight-, figuring that the difference in price would work out as I was so beat from the train ride I figured I could sleep anywhere. As it turns out, there are only about four people sleeping in the ten person dorm! I went out for a nice dessert at the Soul Cafe, which I really enjoyed after my day of fasting, and it cost, at $9.50, more than my hostel had. I realized that I have lived off the money I withdrew from the ATM my first day here, a little more than $150 US. Not bad, considering it includes all food, hostels, buses, trains, and entry fees for seven days. If my whole trip costs this much per week, I'll be good to keep going for quite a while.

I've been thinking about how I can use all the knowledge I've amassed about traveling throughout my life. I think it would be so cool to do some sort of consulting business for students looking to travel alone/independently on a budget or to unusual places. I just sent an email to my older brother Alex explaining how he should advise his friend to search for cheap plane tickets to Africa in December, and realized that I really have learned a lot, just from planning this trip. It's cool to realize you've learned something without noticing.

LOVE from Wroclaw (which I would pay you to pronounce correctly--I have enough trouble with thank you, which sounds like chingku-yeh, sort of)

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