Monday, November 9, 2009

Kosher Salt

How is it midnight fifty?! It was just seven o'clock. And I was walking home from the salt mines with my bag full of groceries – eating Chinese from a box. But then I ran into two people from my hostel, and one thing led to another – travel stories were shared, places to visit were exchanged, and now I guess it's midnight fifty. They have to get up in the morning for a fun filled day at Auschwitz. Or something like that. No one is ever really sure how to talk about that place – they want to say that they “enjoyed” their visit, but that's not the right word, is it? So there's the awkward pause, and then finally someone fills the silence with a mutually acceptable term.

I'm saving my experience for the following day – which also happens to be Poland's independence day, amongst other things. Although I'm told the bus schedule is a little bit different then, so I'll need to find out about this.

Anyway, all this is about how my day ended. We should really be starting where it all began. And begin it did, at eight in the morning. Bright and early so I could check out the breakfast that this hostel offered – how it offers free breakfast and free wifi when rooms are only four euro a night, I have no idea. But I'll not complain. And as I ate the cold cuts sandwiches, and drank the tea, and enjoyed the pickles I had nothing but pleasant thoughts for Hostel Zodiakus.

Outside it was raining. This would be no fun. it's not that I mind the rain – I shan't melt like some eight hundred year old salt carving. No – but my camera... ah my camera. It will have to have its lens cleaned, and I'll worry about damage. I'll also have my rain fly on my pack, which means that I'll have to spend precious moments taking that off and putting it on for each shot I want. Truth be told, many photos just do not get taken in the rain.

So I stayed inside and flitted away the time. There's also a practical reason for this too. If I get back to the hostel too early, I'll feel like a failure. But – if I leave late, and get back late, it will still come across as a full day.

When ten o'clock came, I could not longer feel like a success if I stayed inside, poking around the depths of these here interwebs. So, I packed my bag, put on my rain coat, and headed out into the soggy soggy world.

I had mapped myself a trail to the train station, hitting up all sorts of places of interest along the way. I then proceeded to lose my map. At which point I sheepishly asked for another. I saw the look in their kind eyes, as if giving me the proverbial pat on the head thinking, oh sweeties, we just gave you one three minutes ago. Don't worry – the big bad world won't hurt you that much.

With map 2.0 folded, marked, and ready for exploratory action, I headed out into the soggy soggy world – for real this time.

Stop one was the castle. I'd been warned about going into the castle – as it was expensive, and not all that great. But I'd seen my fair share of castles, so all I really wanted was the photo. Because of the rain this was hard to accomplish. I would line up my shot, get ready to snap it, someone would walk into frame, and I'd have to wait. The second they cleared a drop of rain would hit the lens at which point I had to dry it, then re-frame the shot, at which point someone would walk into frame and - - -

This happened more than I would have liked – and trying to take a picture of Harley just made it all the more difficult. Of what? Never mind. Moving on.

From there I walked to the main square, which had monuments, and towers, and giant heads all around. I snapped some more pictures, with painstaking precision, trying to time my shots for the least amount of lens exposure to the terrible, and hurtful, elements. Then I was back on track for the train station. Walking there required taking the sidewalks next to a dipping road. The dipping road allowed for the gutter to fill with water. The gutter filled with water allowed for a car to pass by, plunging its wheels into it. The plunging wheels offered the water an express, and one way trip, off the street, through the airs, and all over my shorts. Well – at least it didn't affect my photography. Water on me? No worries. It'll dry. Water on my camera – man, do I hate that. And then everything you're wearing gets wet, so what do you dry the lens with then I ask you?

The train station! For the first time I truly saw how ridiculous it was that I took to bus to the hostel rather than just walking – but, again, I had no map then, so what was I to do? At the train station I went to the ticket office. For the first time I met a ticket agent who spoke no words of English. Good – great – fun. Prague I said. Confused she looked. Czech Republic, I suggested – unknown words were spoken back. Pu-rah-aye-guh I attempted, turning on my North American charm of saying the same thing slower, hoping for results. At least I didn't yell each syllable. Prah-ha? She asked. Oh god. Czech? I questioned? More unknown phrases returned. Eventually a schedule was printed out for me. I circled the time I wanted, and waiting to buy it. She looked at my blankly. Can I buy? I tried – more confused stares. Price? She asked. Yes. Price – I said. That would be a good start. Window 10, she offered. What? Window ten? Window ten, she said pointing with animated glory. I then saw twenty windows selling tickets. The ones at the international counter all manned by english speakers.

What the good god damn was I doing in this ticket office? What is the point of the ticket office – its like foreplay from hell. Teenage foreplay. All you get it the build up. You can't buy your ticket. It's more work than it needs to be. It's confusing. It's frustrating. And no one really knows what they're doing. But then at the ticket windows, you're in the big leagues.

The woman there responded immediately when I asked for a ticket to Prague, hooked me up, told me there was a special price, and sent me on my way. Sent me on my way wondering where the hell this train will end up in a few days. Look – I get it, special price and all – but the internet told me this would be a 165.00CAD ticket, and I walked away having only dropped 35. Something is a foot. Hopefully a good one. With a mighty fine big toe. That someone may ask the condition of in the future.

But, there you have it. I have a train ticket to somewhere, and isn't that – after all – the greatest adventure of all?

On the way back I noticed a tour for the Wieliczka Salt Mine. It's a UNESCO site, you know. This tour was only 90 Poland monies, instead of 120 that I had seen elsewhere. What the heck, I took out way more than I would ever need in this country so why not hit up this tour. Sure I could have saved twenty pollars if I took a bus out and figured it out myself, but – really – that's only eight canollars, so what did I care? It's not like these bills would have any use in a few more days.

I had two hours before my tour would leave. Just enough time to head down to the Jewish district. And head down i did. I saw the synagogues. All of them. There are over half a dozen. They have plaques. Oh – it's important to note that at the train station I discovered that I had my camera set to ISO1600 from a map I had taken a picture of the night before so I could make my way around. For those in the know, that means that every picture I had painstakingly took in the rain, was completely useless. Too grainy and of low quality for any real use. All that effort – wasted.

I would need to retract my steps on the way to the Jewish district, re-shooting them all. But, hey, at least the rain cleared up. So there's that.

The Jewish district was a very lovely place reminding you about the tragedy that had taken place all those decades earlier. But it was in remarkable condition – just waiting for all those kebab restaurants and Indian food houses to move right in.

As I was pondering these developments, my alarm went off, reminding me that I had only thirty minutes to backtrack to the tour stand, and catch my mini-bus to the mines.

The salt mine is “the only open mining facility in the world working continuously since the middle ages,” so says my brochure. The tour of the mine begins by walking down a dizzying number of steps. Except, because the shaft is so narrow, it seems like you're walking down the same seven steps each time, turning just to face them in some sort of nightmarish loop. It can feel as if no progress whatsoever is being made. And this feeling continues for longer than you would like, until you reach the bottom. It is only then, on solid ground, that you can try and stop the world from spinning. So tight are the corners in the stairs, that it is as if you have just spun on the spot, forehead on a baseball bat, ready to take part in some juvenile (yet most likely delightful) obstacle course.

The tour shows the mines for what they are – a salt mine. All the caverns are carved from the salt, and there is a statue of – well there are lots of statues of lots of things carved from salt, but the first one you see is – Mikolaj Kopernik, known to us as Nicolaus Copernicus. Why is it, again, that we feel the need to change all these names? The tour guide said it really was salt, and that if we wanted we could lick it for proof. The group had a good laugh. Ha ha, what a funny joke.

I waited until everyone had moved on to the next room.

Believe you me, it's made of salt.

You then hear about horses were kept in stabled carved into the mines, because they were so hard to lift in and out. And then you're told about the workers, and how breathing all the salt in the air is quite good for their health. Then you notice your saliva does taste rather salty, doesn't it?

Then you hit the church. Yes – this mine had so many levels, and people spent so much time in it, that churches were carved into it. And religious sculptures were also created – most melting now due to the raised humidity in the caverns.

And the first chapel you see is really quite something. But then there's another. And another. And – blah blah blah – but then you get to the great room. It is at this point that the tour guide says he forgot to mention that it cost ten pollars for a photo permit, and that you could buy one from the man opposite, if you wanted. I noticed this sign outside the entrance, but choose to ignore it, like most others. Then when given the option to buy it, you still don't – and you still take pictures – and no one cares. And then you feel bad for the people who felt they had to.

Look – I just paid one hundred something or others, I don't feel as if paying more to shoot photos makes sense. And clearly neither do the guides, because they never mention it again.

There's a salt statue of the pope, and a salt reproduction of the last supper, and a salt alter, and salt chandeliers. It's really quite something. But, by this point, you've seen salt carvings, and you've seen salt chapels, and so you recognize that its neat, but you're just kind of like – so? What's next.

But there is no next. This is the show piece – and it's just so hard to really understand that you're 130 meters underground, and you're in a huge room, enough for a 300 person wedding, all carved from the salt of the earth. For a flickering moment you may remember that, and then it's fantastic again.

Part of me wanted to be the annoying child and ask – And the statues what are they made of salt? They are. Ahh. And the walls? Oh – salt too. And what about that bench is it sal... it is! You're kidding?! What about the chandeliers ar... WOW! Get out? Made of salt? But what about the tiled floo...

At this point I imagine the guide would snap and scream: salt! It's made of salt! Everything is bloody well made of salt down here! O.K.?! Do you get it?

And then I'd ask – what about those wood support pillars – and his head would explode. And those innards may, or may not, be made of salt as well. Sadly, at this point, there'd be no one left to ask.

Moving on though, there was also a restaurant. I bought a bun. It was delicious. I ate in a restaurant 130 meters under the ground. What did you do today?

Also there were posters about a movie filed in the mine called sexquest, sextrek – ah! Sexmission. That's what it was called. Filmed in the mine, it was. Seems like an odd thing to be proud of. Google it, it's true.

And then was the quick ride up the elevator back to the surface for some good ol' clean air. The fog outside was thick as to make a hardy breath impossible, but still, the attempt was a good one.

Back in Krakow I looked into my wallet. Well – this money wasn't going to spend itself. So why not explore the market. I bought a full sized candy bar, all for me (too much chocolate!) and a bread stick, and some tzatziki sauce (70% real this time! A quasi success!) and a tartufo. And a Pepsi Plan B (isn't that what the morning after pill is called? What have I just devoured?) All that came to 11.11P. Hmm – that would only be half my food budget in other countries. So walking home when I saw a chinese noodle shop selling a box of noodles for just 10P I jumped right on it.

Yes – that's right – a box of noodles. Chinese food, eaten from a box. Just like in the movies, but never in the real life... Ahh, how proud I was. Until the most depressing thing that could ever happen, happened to me.

I dropped one chopstick.


I still had the other to spoon with, like some sort of uneducated swine – but I could no longer pick up, no longer grasp. I looked as if I was new to these strange and unknown hand twigs. But there sat the partner, in a small puddle from the morning's rain. Forever unreachable. Sigh.

Still – Chinese food from a box!

Right as I finished the noodles, and tossed the box in the bin, I ran into the two people from the hostel. And the rest you know.

It's also worth nothing that I say the word Tomato differently now. Not unlike how I say Banana. Basil has suffered the same fate. All hope on reclaiming the Canadian pronunciations is lost. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.

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