Impressions of Poland

It would be a lie if I said that the opportunity to try every polish vodka I could was not a driving reason behind my trip to Poland. Currently I am lugging around three Polish vodkas in my bag. So so cheap, but more importantly so delicious!

While in Poland I spent most of my time in Krakow, a city which doesn’t seem to sleep. Every night was a party, during which I managed to achieve a few firsts. First police fine for public drinking.

20120717-170306.jpg

First time dancing on multiple bar tops within a single night.20120717-170313.jpg
First tram party – and hopefully not the last.

20120717-170423.jpg
The hostel manager was impressed by my ability to play tourist all day and then party the night away. When I fell asleep during a tour of the Jewish quarter it became pretty clear that I’d reached my limit and then strangled it to death.

Another first, here is a photo of the best pork ribs I’ve ever tasted.
20120717-170141.jpg
Krakow is a beautiful city. A beautiful city that during the day you explore above ground and during the night below.
20120717-164249.jpg

20120717-180711.jpg
The street is seven metres higher than its original level. This has enabled a labyrinth network of pubs and clubs to flourish underneath your feet. Entering what looks like a small pub via a steep set of stairs will most likely turn into a multi room, cavernous and jam packed club.

While in Krakow I did the obligatory day tour to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Not only was I satisfactorily depressed and disgusted at humanity, I was also freezing cold and rather wet in my t-shirt and shorts.

20120717-171847.jpg

20120717-172149.jpg
Krakow even has a bridge of love. When your start a new relationship and want it to last, you come and put a padlock on the bridge and then throw the key into the river. Six months later you come back with bolt cutters.
20120717-164308.jpg

I left Krakow hungover and tired. I know I dribbled in the over-full train and I’m pretty sure I snored and possibly farted.

Arriving in Warsaw I was surprised by how much I like the city. The rivalry between Krakow and Warsaw is so vocal that I was expecting to hate the capital. Instead I found it’s rebuilt old city rather charming.

20120717-172801.jpg

20120717-172811.jpg
In Warsaw I was lucky enough to meet a local who took me on a personalized tour of the city, both on foot and in his swish Alfa Romeo. After an exhausting few days it was great to see Warsaw via a more relaxed and often satisfyingly speedy means.

There is a positivity and energy in Poland that a lot of other countries seem to be lacking. It’s clear that the good times have arrived and that the country is making great strides in its
socioeconomic development and importance on the world stage. Unfortunately this also means that every corner either has an H&M, Starbucks or TK Maxx.

Cairo to Luxor. The worst train trip ever!

For the train journey from Cairo to Luxor it was recommended that instead of paying the exorbitant tourist price for a second-class sleeper ticket it would be both cheaper and just as comfortable to pay for a first-class seated ticket.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

My two friends and I purchased our tickets together at the station and were given two seats together in one carriage and a single seat in a separate carriage.  We tried to argue for three seats in the same carriage unsuccessfully.  Our hostel manager assured us that we would have no problem sitting together as the train would be mostly empty due to the lack of tourists.

We arrived at the half under construction, half collapsing and completely manic Cairo station with plenty of time to spare.  Our train rumbled into platform eight right on time and instantly a surge of people moved towards it, some attempting to board before it had even finished braking.  An extremely friendly tourist policeman took our tickets and spent the next ten minutes showing us to our seats and negotiating with our carriage conductor for me to have the spare seat beside my friends.  As jaded travellers we expected the policeman to ask for baksheesh and were pleasantly surprised when he didn’t.  We quickly settled into our reasonably comfortable first class seats and waited for our journey to begin.  First-class was also a very loose term and although the seats were comfortable the rest of the carriage would better be described as a worn out metal carcass dragged back from the scrap heap, painted lovingly with dust and grime and delicately scented with decay and body odour.  I was scared to take my shoes off.

As the train continued to fill up I became increasingly anxious about sitting in the wrong seat.  On numerous occasions while travelling through the Middle East I had been exposed to the importance of sitting in ones designated seat and the confusion and uproar caused by breaking the sacred seating rules.  On cue an Egyptian man came up and indicated that I was in his seat.  When we failed to reach a compromise I involved the carriage conductor who tried to reason with the man.  This inflamed the situation and ended with raised voices and the conductor motioning for me to move.   The Egyptian man, having asserted his dominance then sat his wife in the seat, said his goodbyes to her and left.  The conductor moved me to the front of the carriage and sat me next to the carriage door.  Within five minutes another argument for my seat ensued at which point I tried to explain that I was happy to take my assigned seat and spend a few peaceful hours away from my tiresome friends.  Instead the conductor convinced this second man to take my spare seat in the adjacent carriage.  As my current seat was jammed up against the front of the carriage wall and had a painful lack of legroom this wasn’t actually the outcome I was hoping for.

With my friends reclined in the two seats behind me I too valiantly attempted to make myself comfortable as the train slowly pulled out the station.  It was around an hour into the journey that the Egyptian man who’d swapped seats with me came back to see me.  He was looking a little distressed and asked if he could see my ticket and check the seat number.  I had tried to swap tickets with him earlier so we would have the correct ones but he had declined.  It turned out that someone else was sitting in my proper allocated seat and refused to move for him and the conductor of that carriage wouldn’t help without an original ticket being shown.  Together we went to the other carriage to sort out the problem.  As we entered the carriage it became embarrassingly clear from the consoling looks everyone directed towards him that this problem has been going on since we first left the station.  Confronting the illegal chair occupier I became the centre of a very large and loud argument between the lady in my seat, the carriage conductor, the man who swapped seats with me and a few other Egyptians who thought it was their business.  Although I didn’t understand a word it was painfully clear what was being said and that I wasn’t being discussed lovingly.  The interloper, red faced and finally out of options when presently with the official seat ticket finally extricated herself from the seat.  Apologising profusely for all the trouble I’d inadvertently caused I quickly slunk back to the other carriage and squeezed myself once more into my ill stolen front row seat.

Small mercies, but in a country where everyone seems to smoke everywhere it was a relief to discover that smoking was banned within the seated areas.  Although sucking down a cancer stick was allowed in the spaces between the carriages, which, as it just happens, was accessible through the door next to my seat.  It turned out that our fully packed carriage contained only three non-smokers.  The inconspicuous white tourists.  It also turned out that having everyone smoke in the carriage would almost have been preferable to the continuously use of what I like to call the Door of Doom.

With industrial earplugs and three inches of soundproofing wrapped around my head I was still jolted every time someone went for a cigarette and the Door of Doom was slammed closed.  This occurred on average every five minutes.  The entire bloody night.  When it wasn’t people going for cigarettes it was a man with a tray selling shai.  He came past every ten minutes.  Again, the entire night!  Seriously, who wants a frigging shai at 3am!  Shai guy was always shortly followed by the food trolley man with his rickety food trolley filled with exceptionally questionable food like items.  He too must have thought that sheer bloody-minded persistence throughout the sleeping hours would eventually wear down some poor desperate sod who’d pay him just so he’d piss off for a few hours.  To complete this symphony of noise was the baby resting beside us on his mothers lap.  This little fellow obviously didn’t like quiet time, as that’s when he always started a new burst of wailing.  Oh and I’ve now seen a mother in a burqa breast feed and I must say that I was impressed with the baby’s ability to suck anything through all those layers of material, not to mention his spot on targeting skills.  It was the only way I knew he was a boy.  Eventually I was asked to stop staring.

Eleven sleep deprived hours later, three exhausted, dishevelled, smelly, hungry and exceptionally grumpy travellers arrived into Luxor.  Local touts instantly burst into flame when we managed to focus our sleepy yet deadly gaze on them.

Next time not only will I sit in my predefined seat but I’ll pay the ridiculous tourist price for a sleeper cabin.  Better yet, I’ll fly!

The only gay in the village

Earlier today a small child in Aleppo’s main Souk accosted me. While holding onto my arm he pointed animatedly at my eyebrow piercing. His uncle went to pull him away but I interrupted indicating that it was fine and then showed my ear piercing to the kid as well. Facial piercings are very uncommon on men over here. His uncle and I got to chatting and as soon as he realised I was from Australia he proclaimed that his uncle had just returned from there two days ago and that I must meet him immediately. Seeing no harm I followed him to a nearby scarf store where he introduced me to the two gentlemen running the shop. The first one, Majid exclaimed, “you’re from Australia? I just came from Mardi Gras, it was fabulous!.” I had found the only gay in the village.

Over the next thirty minutes and a Turkish coffee I was regaled with surprisingly sordid stories using very expressive and imaginative language (i.e coarse). The explicit banter between Majid and his brother Aladdin was an unexpected, humorous and welcome change. Majid is about as gay and out as you can get whereas Aladdin is straight and married with four children. Both Aladdin and Majid also hold Australian citizenship and often travel there. Majid then started reeling off the name of clubs and more intimate locations in London, Melbourne, Sydney and of all places Canberra that he had visited. I knew of only one club in Canberra and another in London that he mentioned. His expansive knowledge was daunting.

I took the opportunity to ask Majid about the difficulties of being gay in a country where it’s illegal. He explained that there is a large underground scene in which you must learn what to look for and how to interpret discreet signals from potential partners, or ‘quickies’ as he called them. Although he lamented that it does take its toll and his escape is to travel to more liberal countries for a break, or again as he put it, “where I can have sex for breakfast, sex for lunch and sex for dinner”. I got the feeling that he is a regular at Mardi Gras.

As I was leaving Aladdin was attempting to lure a female customer into the store. His opening line was “It’s all very expensive, I charge you double!”. Aladdin, realising his mistake smacked himself in the head as we all laughed at his expense. This joke wasn’t as funny the second, third and forth times.

Continuing up the Souk I soon discovered that Majid and Aladdin have a big extended family and that their relatives collectively run many of the scarf shops in the area. Word had quickly spread of my visit and as a result cousins, nephews and uncles greeted me warmly as I passed by. Later in the evening I dropped back through the Souk and was invited to their house for dinner with their extended family. Unfortunately my annoying shyness kicked in and I declined the offer and instead went and had my third kebab for the day.

The Road to Damascus

9.20am, 15 March 2011

Charles Helou station, Beirut.

I’m standing in line at the bus ticket office. My mission is to purchase a ticket to Damascus for around $5-10US. The ticket Touts are stuck on repeat – Aleppo ALLepo ALLEPO. I turn and interrupt the dulcet tones of a fifty year old chain nagila smoker and inform him that I’m actually going to Damascus. Before I can blink an eye he has disappeared and returned with another gentleman who professes to be driving to Damascus in his cab. Not wanting the expense of travelling to Damascus in a cab I decline and inform the gentleman that I’ll be taking a bus. He informs me through his friend that there are no buses to Damascus. So ensues five minutes of ‘yes there is’, ‘no there isn’t’. At this point I notice another traveller lurking behind me, he is also going to Damascus and we decide to tackle this problem together. Round two of ‘yes there is’, ‘no there isn’t’ gets underway. The taxi driver KO’d us by getting the official ticket office seller to confirm that there was no bus to Damascus. Defeated, my new travelling companion Russell and I set about bargaining for our taxi ride to Damascus. The final price, $15US each. Not cheap by Lebanese standards, but still good. Plus we were going to get our own cab – so we thought. And yes, there are buses to Damascus, but sometimes it’s just easier to capitulate rather than argue over a few bucks.

As we frog marched across the crazy highway we beheld our chariot for the first time. What a thing of beauty! A beat-up old American Chevrolet. Suddenly this border crossing became way more cool. Russell and I threw our luggage in the boot and then jumped in the spacious back seat. While we were congratulating ourselves on a good score the driver turned back up with another passenger and put him in with us. Ok, three people was fine, we could handle that. Our driver disappeared again as we were rearranging ourselves. Just as we got comfortable he turned back up with another two people and requested that Russell and I move into the front seat. What the? The Chevrolet had a roomy front, but it was more of a one and a half kinda roomy front. Once we had all squeezed in we set off – seatbelts weren’t optional as, well, there were none. Russell was stuck sitting half on a seat, quarter on a gear stick and the rest on pure faith. In our now cramped enclosure, with a three to four hour trip ahead of us, Russell and I were bound to get to know each other quickly.

The trip turned out to be a blast, with Russell and I luckily getting along famously. We drove up through the snowy mountain pass and across a beautiful and increasingly desolate landscape. Once we crossed the border into Syria the roads widened and straitened, the potholes disappeared and the traffic decreased. It was a relief as much as a disappointment. We were dropped at a junction in Damascus. Russell spent ten minutes arguing with the driver as he had overpaid him around $10 expecting change at the end of the journey. The drivers slim grasp of English slipped completely at this point and Russell gave up.

Next, a taxi into the old town, followed by a long and confusing search for our separate accommodation. My accommodation turned out to be similar to a converted roof terrace with some rickety stairs and random rooms off open-air concrete sections of roof. It was unique to say the least and had a certain welcoming charm about it. The back entrance faces over the old city wall and has a dodgy rope ladder that extends the ten metres down to the ground. It’s a fun if precarious climb. Five small tortoises inhabit the hostel and all regularly dance with death from above as clumsy feet come crashing down. These were rare desert tortoises, purely because their owners didn’t seem to think water was required for their concrete habitat and rare because I can’t see them surviving long.

Russell and I spent the next two days wandering around the city together, eating copious amounts of baklava, souk’ing it up to the max, checking out the amazing mosque and palace and generally looking as god awfully tourist like as possible. We even took photos of each other smoking a Nagila… Oh, did I mention baklava?

The Damascus old city is ancient. It’s ancient and it’s beautiful. They strangely have eucalyptus trees everywhere! I’m not sure how many of the buildings are still standing, nor how the hell they built them, but they all add to the feel of the place. A lot of the streets remind me of Venice, well, if you squint your eyes a little bit at least. The people are generally fantastic and will often take time to chat with you, most of the time not wanting money for the privilege.

After two days of sightseeing we decided to check out a Hammam. For those that don’t know, a Hammam is basically a Turkish spa. They are mainly restricted to men, with women being allowed in some during daytime hours. We turned up at an ancient Hammam wide-eyed and unsure of what to do. Like kids in a candy store we wanted everything on offer and subsequently asked for the full royal treatment. We were ushered into the grand entrance/relaxation area where you strip down and then wrap your neekid body in a waist to knee length sheet – this process is all visible from the street. Next stop insanely hot sauna, followed by insanely hot steam room. The steam room has knee high basins set around the entire large room where life saving cold water can be thrown on your body with a provided dish. Within the steam room groups of grown men were running around through the thick haze and throwing dishes of cold water on each other. For brief moments they were children again and their exclamations of surprise and laughter in response was contagious. I threw a dish of cold water on Russell, he didn’t laugh.

Our Hammam finished with two full body scrub downs, a quick massage, cold shower, being wrapped in different sets of towels twice more and then finally a nice cup of tea. It was exhausting! We got kicked out at around 11pm at which point we made our way to a restaurant for dinner. The restaurant kicked us out at 1am when we didn’t have enough money to pay the bill.

Russell left the next morning back to Beirut and I headed out to Bosra for the day. Randomly we both ran into each other at the main bus station on the outskirts of town. He’d paid WAY more than me for his taxi ☺