Christmas came and went with egg nog, random late night Christmas song karaoke (never thought that would happen), more Mexican food and everything mentioned in my previous post. Once all of the festivities slowed down, it was time for the next leg of my holiday journey: Poland.
It was my original plan to meet three other guys in Krakow (go visit) for New Years. However, it worked out that there is a long gap – longer than I ever actually realized or noticed – between the holidays. A group of four female volunteers were heading that direction so I went along to keep them company – who says chivalry is dead, right? Tickets and bags in hand, we made a mad dash to the train station for our 11:59pm train to Poland. Seriously, we thought we might actually miss the train…thankfully we didn’t.
Once we were safely on board, bags sufficiently stowed, and travel accessories organized, we were off. Now, normally a train ride is pretty standard: the conductor comes around, asks for your tickets, you can order tea/coffee if you want, etc. However, we had to do a border crossing. In addition to this border crossing, all rails in the former Soviet Union are a different size than those of the European Union – meaning a change of the wheels, I’m not kidding.
While we were at the border and having the wheels changed (the cars are literally lifted up off the track and the wheels changed), we had to show our documents to get into Poland. Being American, we can just show our passports and we’re good to go. However, it occurred to my traveling companions that they should, for some reason, provide their registration cards (required to live in Ukraine) along with the passports. I only mention this because here I am, in a tiny room full of women, also with a completely different registration card that most Ukrainian police and border guards have never seen (the registration laws changed after my group arrived).
At this point, something had begun to irritate my eye so not only do I have a swollen, red eye, but I am having a hard time understanding the barrage of questions directed at me (even though they were in Russian and I understand everything I was being asked…for some reason, that night it just wasn’t clicking). Essentially, to the border guards (at this point, three of them), I probably looked and sounded something like this:
We got everything squared away after I had sufficiently attempted to answer border patrol’s questions and explain that my passport, visa, and identification card were all legitimate forms of documentation (again, thank you ladies for feeling the need to show more than one document while entering the EU). After a good solid week of “socializing” we were all pretty tired and fell asleep shortly after the border. Next stop, Krakow!
Little did we know, upon our arrival at 6am, that Poland loves to celebrate TWO days of Christmas. Therefore, we met a sleeping city…not even McDonalds was open…yeah. Now is a good time to mention that yours truly did not print off directions to the hostel from the train station (thinking…eh, no problem…we’ll find someplace close to the train station with WiFi). We were able to somehow make our way towards the Main Square – this may or may not have been on purpose. Thankfully, we found a McDonalds that had not turned off it’s wireless router and we were able to pick up a signal and find directions! Problems solved…
…until we arrived at the hostel, to find it locked. Apparently they also were observing the second day of Christmas…and did not tell us about this in our reservation. For about an hour, we banged on windows, rang the doorbell, tried to somehow get inside. Finally, two of the girls decided they had had enough and went off to find “something.” What they found was a travel agency that was open and they were able to make a call to the hostel’s duty cellphone. I’m still amazed that worked. Close to 45 minutes after that, we were finally inside the hostel. We were also able to meet the person who was supposed to be sleeping downstairs to let us in – who really didn’t seem to care that we had been outside for close to two hours. As compensation, we were switched to a nicer room, with a private shower, and we had it to ourselves for the duration even as the hostel welcomed more and more visitors.
If you have never eaten a true Polish sausage from a street vendor, add it to your list. I do not poses the vocabulary to accurately describe the succulence these contain. Mixed between bites of grilled mushrooms and spicy mustard, this taste explosion may have been one of the highlights of my day (I stopped at nine sausages while there). Polish cuisine is definitely filling, random at times (pork knuckle), yet absolutely delicious. With the food washed down with some mulled wine or a tasty local brew, hunger was not something that visited us frequently during our stay.
The portion of the trip with the girls wrapped up very nicely. Interestingly enough, we spent a significant portion of the time getting to know one another, intentionally or unintentionally. Whether it was random conversations at a bagel/coffee shop, getting on the wrong tram and heading to a completely random section of the city (30 minutes out), grabbing a bite to eat, exploring St. Mary’s Basilica randomly stumbling across a reggae band and dancing the night away (which was awesome!), or spending time in the hostel with other travelers, very little was planned. The girls even met three seminarians on their way to Rome and we had a lengthy religious discussion over mulled wine that was a definite highlight. Yet at the end of it, if I were still a betting man, my guess is we would all say that was just how we wanted it.
Note: I apologize for the quality of some of the pictures, some were taken with an iPod (not swinging one of those fancy iPhone 5’s yet)
Next up this week: The story of “the hat” – no details will be left out – with more pictures of Krakow
Followed by: The Guys Arrive and a Humbling Experience