Thursday, April 05, 2007

Ahoj, Slovakia

(click on the map to enlarge)

The plane took off from East Midlands Airport, United Kingdom like an eagle flying across the horizon en route to Bratislava International Airport, Slovakia. On the plane, the mixed feelings of curiosity and eagerness made a butterfly swing in my stomach as on this date 25 March 2007 will witness the start of my solo excursion through Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Poland, and Czech Republic. Everyone on the plane seemed to be heading to Vienna once Ryan Air landed on Bratislava International Airport, and as seconds passed by I almost succumbed to the decision not to go ahead with this solo excursion discovering the hidden charm of these Eastern European countries. I fought this failure temptation, kept on reminding my mind, go ahead with this. I kept on singing this line, and this was the only train of thought running on my mind while the plane flew across Germany;

“…the first condition of right thought is right sensation – the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it…” – T.S. Elliot, ‘Rudyard Kipling’

I walked through the arrival gate, and my first instinct was to catch the bus no. 61 to Bratislava Hlavna Stanica (main train station). I went to the information counter and a Slovak young woman with a short, black hair assisted me on the location to catch the bus. She was not that friendly as a person who works in providing information to the public should be, and her littleness of English may be the reason perhaps. I saw the bus stand, and I saw this word ‘Wien’. I made a quick guess; Wien must be the word for the main train station in Slovak. Having satisfied with my wild guess, I put down my North Face’s Tetra 40 on the ground and felt the relief on my back. It was my only luggage throughout this journey, with my clothes, four packets of energy bar, Eastern European Lonely Planet guidebook, hostels leaflets, and other important documents all inside it. As seconds passed by, the bus stand was full of people waiting for the same bus. A tall, young woman wearing a cap with the typical Eastern European flair stood beside me. Losing my patience for the bus no. 61, I made a random asking which I believed is essential throughout my one week backpacking days;

“Do you speak English?”

The woman nodded with a smile, and I was relieved yet surprised with her ability to speak English. The assumption that communication would be the main challenge for me to smell the charm of these post-Soviet countries slowly drained away. She showed a ticket machine nearby which I could buy the ticket and as I realised I had no change to put into the machine’s slot, she told me she had to go as the bus had arrived. I examined carefully the Slovak Koruna notes (1 GBP equals to 49.0 Slovak Koruna), like Robinson Crusoe who had just found a plate of well-cooked steak in the middle of an isolated island. I had a problem, to get the change to use this machine. While I was staring at the machine hoping that it would accept Koruna notes at least once for a traveller like me, I realised few other backpackers behind me were in the same shoes as mine. Without any greetings, we discussed about how to change the notes in English as if we were friends before and this kind of mutual understanding and friendliness cleared out any thorns in my journey from this day. We shared the same ambition, we had decided to go out of our comfort zone, to discover other countries which were beyond our eyes and comprehension, and we had to be mentally strong and helping out each other, even though I knew this encounter was the first and last in my life. This short meeting encountered me with an American couple who were students; just arrived in Bratislava from somewhere in Central Europe, a confident and energetic Scottish student from Glasgow who has been backpacking alone for almost two weeks, and three Spanish students who by coincidence in the same university of mine in Nottingham on the Erasmus program for a year. After getting the required change from the information counter, I hold my ticket with an enthusiasm like a child holding an ice-cream with a flake. Once the bus had arrived, we got on it without any hesitation. The bus cruised along Trnavska Cesta, the main road leading towards the main train station. The Spanish guys and the Scottish guy got off from the bus earlier than my destination, and I asked the two passengers in front of me;

“Ahoj. Hmm, Hlavna Stanica?” like a man who had just learnt to speak Slovak bit by bit.

The two men answered me in Slovak which was all Greek to me, and the only thing that I could understand was the man’s finger pointing further ahead and his advice for me to sit back. I smiled, and said “D’akujem”.

When the sight of a rundown-seemed-to-be a train station appeared to me, one of the men turned his head towards me and gave me a smile that was Hlavna Stanica. He talked in broken English, “This is the train station”. Appreciating his effort, I once again bid him “D’akujem” which means “Thank You”. I looked at my watch, and it was half to 9 at night. Realising that I had to set my watch one hour in advance according to GMT, I felt the urge to walk fast to the counter and ask about the train time to Budapest, Hungary. I had the European Rail Timetable by Thomas Cook and also the Inter Rail Pass which I could use for unlimited travel by train in Zone D countries but I did not know how to use them as this was my first experience. However, the easiness in getting information from the information counter shall be put at edge as the woman whom I tried to talk to did not speak English at all. I looked at my watch, and it was almost 10 o’clock at night. I looked around, few citizens wearing soldierly-clad uniform passed by and staring at me, really perplexed me on their taste of attire, few Roma ( - an ethnic group living in many communities all over the world. The Roma are among the best known ethnic groups that appear in literature and folklore, and are often referred to as gypsies or gipsies, a term that is based on a mistaken belief of an origin in Egypt. The Roma are still thought of as wandering nomads, but most Roma today live settled in permanent housing. This widely dispersed ethnic group lives across the world not only near their historic roots in Southern and Eastern Europe, but also Western Asia, Latin America, the United States and the Middle East) who just wandering around the train station and staring at me like tigers who by any time looking for their prey, homeless and poor old men and women lying down near the heater as if it was the most luxurious item in their life, a crying woman approached by asking me “Do you speak English?” and asking for money to buy her train ticket, a Vietnamese who tried his best to gain my sympathy to get few euro from me by showing his passport, laid upon me his story about an Asian should help an Asian; as he did not have enough money for his train to Poprad (located in north-central of Slovakia) and all of these made my heart beating fast, added by the dilemma of ‘staring at people with undefined intention’. I tried not to observe the people, and I observed the train station instead. It was an old train station with the information board and its big clock operated manually, reminded me of the old photos of Tanah Melayu (Malaysia) in the 60’s, and its big ceiling just above the main departure gate leading towards its platforms was decorated by a painting of different priests with a little Baroque element like one could see in a Gothic church. I was trying to get the message out of it, a man with a white robe reaching his hand out to the sky, a child playing with a bird, few people surrounding a singing woman; but to no avail. After all, this was just my attention in escaping the night crowd at Hlavna Stanica.

[further writings are in progress]


Sitt said...

dearest cousin of mine, i envy you so! someday, i'd love to go on a solitary journey like that too.

in the meantime, i'm looking forward to your posts on the rest of your journey (:

take care, God bless.

*oh, and i'm currently reading The Zahir by Paul Coelho (and i'm loving it too!). oh oh and The Kite Runner's gonna be made into a movie!

Sharazad said...

dear sitt.

am now very occupied with paperwork and revisions at the same time for my exams in May.

sorry for the late posting of my travel stories but bare my words, they will be posted soon ;)

to take this opportunity, convey my warmest regards to everyone in Singapore and Malaysia. Pardon me for the lack of communication, but the thought is always at heart.

ps: am glad you are reading The Zahir now and I hope you indulge yourself in his search for his lovely wife across Europe ;p. Oh The Kite Runner would be an awesome movie. at the mean time, i am reading The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux!

carpe diem