No sleep till Poland

Dec. 23 – Krakow, Poland

The train pulled into Krakow at 6:30 this morning. I clattered down foggy, cobblestoned streets into the old town, wondering at its elegance and wintry beauty. Such a contrast to the size and pace of the other cities I’ve visited.

At the Kiev station, a traveler told me it would be cheaper and faster to take buses across the Ukraine-Poland border, rather than the train. I took her advice, which still meant a ten-hour rail journey to L’vov. Western Ukraine was picturesquely ugly. Tall, skinny, trees. Plank-fenced, snow sprinkled villages of grey-brick houses. I imagined it had not changed in 40 years, though it probably had. My compartment mate this time, Konstantin, was a nuclear safety engineer from Sevastopol in the Crimea. My conversation-without-language-skills are improving, and I was able to understand that Ukraine’s base energy needs are all covered by nuclear power.

I knew nothing about L’vov or the bus-to-border system, and half expected to spend a frustrating time looking for the connection, perhaps at the other end of town. In the event, the so-called “marshrutka” was right in front of the station and cost the equivalent of $4. For a bit more than an hour, the minibus bounced and shuddered through the night, passing illuminated statues of the Virgin Mary and convenience stores on the way to the border. I eventually found the pedestrian checkpoints and did an awkward luggage-dragging shuffle through the turnstile to leave Ukraine, and again to enter Poland. The Polish customs officer made me open my suitcase, and poked my clothes:


I shook my head.


I shook my head again and we both chuckled. I guess I didn’t look like a smuggler. He waved me through and called forward the next in line.

As I walked into Poland, long lines of Ukrainians headed for home in the opposite direction, pushing shopping carts crammed with goods. I looked in vain for a bus among the money-changing shops and shashlik stands. A dark figure approached, asked if I wanted a lift – an “unofficial” taxi. I accepted, with the optimism/fatalism of one getting into a stranger’s car at midnight headed somewhere he doesn’t know.

Fifteen minutes later I was at the small railway station of Przemysl, with a ticket to Krakow. I had a two-hour wait in -2C temperatures. There was a semi-heated waiting room, but it contained three slumped, muffled, snorers. I preferred to pace on the platform, while occasionally drunks stumbled past, one couple arguing loudly. The train to Krakow took four hours. I slept poorly, contorted on the bench. When three others came into the compartment, I did not sleep at all.

In Krakow, I had four hours until check-in, I strolled the park that encircles the old town. It’s a popular dog walking area – I saw alert German Shepherds, a loping Weimaraner, two frantic, hapless Dachshunds colliding. A pale sun rose through the bare branches over the Wisla river, casting its rays on the old castle wall’s red bricks. More about the town, in Christmas spirit, tomorrow.

The evolution of “staying in touch”

Dec. 1

What it means to communicate has changed in the two decades since I first travelled.

Way back in 1992, backpacking through Europe after high school, email was an obscure electronic tool for the geekiest of computer geeks. I was in contact with my parents, infrequently, by long distance phone call, and I sent postcards. Every morning that autumn, my friend and I sought the USA Today in newsstands to find the latest on the Toronto Blue Jays’ World Series run.

By 1997, when I was again in Europe as an intern during University studies, the internet had gone mainstream. As the dial up access crackled and pinged in Bratislava, Slovakia, I waited eagerly for news from home. But I did this from a desktop computer in my office.

Ten years later, in 2007, much had changed again. I had my cool new Blackberry with me as I travelled through India and could send/receive messages in real time from Rajasthan. I had a blog too, on Myspace (remember them?) and could easily file my stories from Internet cafes anywhere on the subcontinent.

In 2011, I have a newer, better blog than the one I had in India. I have been posting every day on this trip. I can access my friends much more easily, due to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I’m writing from the ultraslick Macbook Air that I can carry with me without serious encumbrance. If I want, I can also use Skype rather than pay long distance changes. I have a newer, better Blackberry, but am aware there are superior devices available.

So over time my travel communications have become more frequent, have provided more information, and are reaching many more people. I can only hope that the quality has increased as much as the quantity.