Bratislava Between the Streets

kismet n. Destiny; fate.

For nearly four days, I had lived luxuriously with three square meals a day, private bathrooms, and a comfortable quiet place to sleep.  For a backpacker, those three make up the trifecta of things we want but usually can’t have.  Sometimes we’ll get one or two of them, but never all at the same time. But of course, living lavishly had made it so that a score needed to be settled to bring balance to my life.  The minute I said goodbye to Radka and watched her pulled away from the bus station, I was on my own once again, with just Nellie for some company and a wonderful homemade lunch packed up from Radka that I would try to make last the next day or so.  Naturally, the bus was late by nearly 45 minutes and when it finally did arrive, it was completely full with broken air conditioning.  So I went from waiting in a hot bus station to an even hotter bus. I climbed aboard, took the window seat that I had selected when booking the ticket, propped up my legs so that as little skin was touching anything as possible.  The minute it did became an instantly drip line of sweat.

A few minutes later, a man came on the bus and pointed to my seat, then stood there as if waiting for me to move.  I hate to break it to you buddy, but I’m not moving.  “This is my seat,” I said.  “Seat 41,” he said and pointed at himself.  “Yeah I know.  Seat 42 is me and seat 42 is the window seat,” I replied again, my voice growing a bit harder and sterner.   Yeah, I could have moved to appease him but the fact of the matter remained that I had specifically booked a window seat and I was not going to give it up on sheer principle.  Still he looked at me expectantly.  “Look, I booked the window seat specifically,” I said slowly, unable to keep the agitation out of my voice at this point, “So this is my seat.” Finally he gave up and just sat in the seat next to me, his correct seat, and returned to reading, really not having the capacity to give a shit about the fact that I had just pissed off my bus buddy for the next few hours.  Normally I’m a pretty giving person on public transport, even if not the most sociable.  I’ll give up my plane seat so couples can sit together, I’ll choose to sand on buses so elderly people can sit down, etc. But sometimes with travel you just have to stand up for yourself when your capacity to care is beyond its limit.  I book window seats for a reason, and on this already hellishly hot trip, I was not about to give up the one solace the bus would give me.  Well that is until they announced they were refunding 30% of all our tickets for the broken air conditioning inconvenience.  For me, that only ended up being 2.30€ but still.  I was flattered by the gesture alone.  Usually these bus companies are much less considerate and I had to commend Student Agency for being the first bus company that didn’t make me hate public transport.

Having witnessed one of the most incredible sunsets of my life on the bus, it was dark by the time we pulled into Bratislava, Slovakia and I happily bailed off that bus into the pleasant night air and hoped my angry bus buddy had a great time in the window seat and smelly bus all the way to Budapest.  When I got to the area where my hostel was meant to be, I couldn’t find it.  Of course.  This was not the first time for this to happen so I double-checked my screenshot map then started looking at all the individual buzzer labels of the buildings on the street, thinking the hostel might just be poorly marked like others I had come across.  Nothing!  I wandered up and down the street, knowing the hostel should be right.  I stopped and asked directions at a local restaurant and they had never heard of it.  Fantastic. I wandered some more, and tried a local bar, but unable to find anyone who looked like they worked there, I eventually just sat down on the bench looking panicked and rather pathetic.

Now if there’s anything in the world that quickly attracts attention, it’s a young girl with a ton of stuff strapped to her back looking like she’s on the verge of tears in a dark city at night.  Sometimes the attention attracted can be unwanted, but fortunately for me, I was approached by a nice young guy named Thomas who asked me what was wrong.  I explained to him my situation and he assured me it would be okay.  He pulled out his phone and punched in the name of the hostel.  At first, his phone showed him the hostel was located about 1km away but after double checking the location using Google Maps, he indeed saw that it should be located right where we were.  Well now we had two possible locations for this hostel, but his advantage was having a working phone.  He easily dialed up the hostel’s number, quickly rattled off in Slovakian, and hung up.  He looked at me and said, “It’s right around the corner.”  Of course it was.  I had become so hung up on the fact that it should be right on this street that I didn’t even look at any of the side streets.  We walked outside, peered around the corner where the road forked and sure enough, on a little chalkboard sign, it read, “Wild Elephants Hostel.”.  Feeling extremely incompetent and stupid (I mean seriously, I’ve been traveling for damn near three months. You would think I would be beyond rookie mistakes by this point), I thanked him for all his help. “No problem at all.  I’ll be over with my friends in the bar where you found me for a while if you need anything else.”  We said goodbye and I went upstairs to the hostel.

The door opened and there stood a young guy with a scruffy beard who, in a very American accent, immediately asked me, “Are you the lost American?” I nodded wearily, so happy I had already earned myself a reputation and confirmed the stereotypes of my country. "I promise I'm not actually the complete imbecile that I seem to be right now.  I'm suffering from the bad side effects of travel today," I said.  He laughed and ushered me in, told me to relax and not to worry about my passport or anything yet. I already liked him.  Hostels that start out with such a relaxed vibe are always great places and I honestly hadn’t had a really good hostel experience since Tallinn so this was long overdue.  The more time I spent there, the more I would grow to love it.  Form he graffitied walls of the common room and friendly vibe to the free breakfast ad amazing staff, this place definitely neared the top of my “Favorite Hostels” list. 

Jakub, the guy who had greeted me at the door, then said, “Hey, by the way, we’re going on a night swim at a nearby lake in like five minutes if you want to join.”  Did I want to join… I had just spent three hours on a sweaty bus with broken air conditioning.  I night swim sounded like exactly what I needed.  I threw my stuff into my room, donned my bikini, and went downstairs to meet up with the group that was going.  

As I stepped outside and into the circle of people, I heard, “Amber?” I looked up and could hardly believe who I saw.  It was Christale, the girl I had met back in Tallinn who had gone with me to the Polymer factory cultural event.  *Cue chorus of “It’s a Small World After All”.  I could hardly believe it.  What were the chances?  We exchanged an excited and disbelieving greeting.  “I was just thinking about you today,” she said, “wondering if you were in this area yet.”  Call it fate, call it luck, or what have you, but I am continually stunned by the power of the world to maintain human bonds over distance.  As a backpacker, I often find myself questioning whether I will ever meet any of these amazing people I encounter along the way again and this instance was proof that it is indeed possible, even if you aren’t looking for it.

As the group departed and we walked through the darkened streets of Bratislava to the bus we needed to catch the outskirts of the city, we caught each other up on the last several weeks of our travels.  Dario and Trampis had both left to go home several weeks ago and since then, she had continued on to Greece where she spent near two weeks sleeping on piles of dirt, laying in the sun, and partying all night at these traditional Greek parties.  As I heard her stories, I found myself admiring her, even envying her a little bit.  Christale rarely uses hostels.  She just tramps it, sleeping wherever; “roaddogging it”, she called it, a term she picked up from Trampis.  I consider myself adventurous but compared to her, I can’t help but feel like a bit of a failure.  I know that’s silly.  Everyone travels differently, “hike your own hike” and all that, but still.  A part of me wanted to be so freewheeling, so plan-less, and yet so completely and utterly confident that things will work out.  Maybe that sort of confidence just grows from experience.

We met other people on the bus, exchanging our stories with them as well until we finally pulled up to a small little lake on the outskirts of town.  Wasting no time, I stripped off my clothes down to my bathing suit and plunged into the water.  It was heaven, the perfect cool temperature that melted the heat away from my skin and washed away the sweat of the day without making me feel cold in any way.  I swam out into the dark water until I could no longer even remotely touch the bottom and drifted backwards into a back float.  I was in tune with every single one of my senses, the water surrounding me, lapping at the edges of my skin not completely submerged, the water filling my ears and muffling the sounds of chatting and laughter all around me, the blanket of stars overhead glimmering against the black abyss of sky, my own breathing and slow, steady heartbeat.  It was one of those moments where the reality of my life and how beautiful it was crashed down around me.  My head rang with the single, simple thought, “This is my life,” and every nerve vibrated with the complete and utter affirmation of my existence.  If you’ve never had one of those moments, then you don’t know what you’re missing.  It is the single most intoxicating natural high a person can have.

We splashed around in the water, swimming and floating for the next half hour or so before getting out and heading back for the bus.  Once back in Bratislava, A small group of us, including Jakub, Christale, and a few others, headed out to a pub for a beer and some friendly chat.  I started talking to Jakub about my ambitions as a writer and my travel blog and he actually offered to share the link to my blog on the Wild Elephant Hostel Facebook page, which he did the next day, as well as keying me into a great travel group on Facebook that might also be willing to promote.  I was incredibly grateful to him, and for the first time, felt a bit like an official writer.  I was getting my name out there and to me, that meant the world.  Hearing about my love for hiking and the outdoors, Jakub also asked if I had any plans on going to the Tatras mountains while I was in Slovakia.  I hadn’t, but as he told me about an amazing hostel up in the High Tatras and all the cook hiking I could do there, I became increasingly entranced with the idea.  I had already deviated from my plans once, why not do it again?  He promised to give me more details about how I might get there the following day and I could make up my mind then.

The next morning, I woke up a bit earlier than intended after a slightly restless night, due to both the extremely hot room and the girl talking in her sleep in the bunk above me.  What was funny about it was that she kept switching between English and whatever other language she spoke.  I’ve heard couples sleep talk to each other before but the dual language sleep talking is definitely something you don’t’ really get back in the States.  As I sat there in common room, blogging and sipping casually at my coffee, I felt a bit bad about not heading out to see the city, since this was my only full day there, but at the same time, I was really enjoying myself just relaxing there.  Coffee and writing (even if it is usually homework) is my morning ritual back home and I forgot how much I had grown to miss that over the course of my travels.

As the rest of the hostel began to wake up, Jakub came out and we sat down and talked about the details of how I might get to the Tatras.  The last thing that would decide whether or not I would be able to go was whether or not the hostel had space for me.  I checked online and found both nights I would stay there full, but with a quick phone call to them, Jakub was able to secure me a reservation.  So that was that.  I was rebooking trains, cutting back my stay in Budapest by two days, and heading up to a tiny village called Ždiar on the morrow.  The only downside to this was that I would need to catch the 5:50am train the next day.  I could have caught a later one, but I wanted to maximize my time in the mountains and so an early morning seemed like a pretty mild trade-off for some extra hours of hiking.

After sorting all that, Jakub invited Christale and I to go to a yoga class with him, if we were interested.  My shoulders had been killing me since that bike ride with Radka.  You always forget how much you use your shoulders when cycling.  I was so tense and stiff up there that yoga sounded exactly like what I needed and when I found out it would only cost 4€, a mere fraction of what I would pay by home, I was definitely keen.  The three of us set off for a tiny little yoga studio on the top floor of a run down old building.  The instructor greeted us warmly and welcomed us to the class.  She also assured us that it was going to be a very light day due to the extremely hot temperatures outside, which I was 100% okay with.  Flexibility has never been my strong suit.  As a kid, I used to walk everywhere on my tiptoes and an orthopedic doctor later told me that doing so had effectively done two things: increased my calf muscles to giants they are today and shrunk my Achilles tendon.  It was always something I was careful of when doing sports and something I am still acutely aware of today.  As such, I kind of look like an idiot doing yoga and since I hadn’t done it in a very long time, I was I would look even more stupid.  Gentle was A-okay with me.

“We have some visitors with us so today we’ll be doing the class in English,” she announced as everyone settled down onto their matt.  Once again, English speakers are the failures of the world that need to be given special treatment because we’re too incompetent to learn other languages.  Oops.  The yoga turned out to be exactly what I needed.  For the next hour, we focused on breathing and gentle, gradual stretching, using the mind to push beyond physical limitations without pain or strain.  At the end, the tension in my shoulders was all but gone and I felt loose and relaxed.  I don’t really know why I don’t do yoga more often, even on my own as I can’t really afford to take regular classes.  The benefits of it are so entirely worth the time and effort put in.  When I get back to school, I am making a mental note to myself to take up yoga.  With three thesis projects, an internship, four jobs, and all my other course work, lord knows I’ll need the stress relief. 

After the yoga class, the three of us sat on the rooftop terrace of a bar located right next door, soaking in the sun and relishing in our newly relaxed bodies.  Form there, Christale and I took a short trip to the nearby Tesco (a slice of familiarity courtesy of the UK) and went back to the hostel to make lunch.  Not long after, Christale had to leave to go meet a couchsurfing host she was staying with on the outskirts of Bratislava for the next couple days.  We said farewell if only temporarily.  You never know where life is going to take you and our paths may yet cross again.  Despite the fact that the heat had made me extremely tired and lazy and I could have just as easily sat in the hostel for the rest of the day, I felt as though I should at leastmake some sort of effort to see the city and off I went.

Since I was in Bratislava for such a short amount of time, I really didn’t have time to dig into the meat of it and the only bit of history I really learned about it was from my cheeky map found in the hostel.  Seriously, I get so much entertainment out of reading many of these maps.  I find maps fascinating anyway and when they are punctuated with fun facts and hidden locations, they’re even better.  Here is what the map taught me about Bratislava: It was first technically established around the 8th century but not much rally happened there until the early 1900s when it became part of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and did not even appear officially on the map until March 17, 1919, which is odd considering it is now the capital city.  It briefly became the capital of the First Slovak Republic in 1938 but once the communist party seized power again, it lost this title.  Things got worse in 1968 when, “Big Brother comes to visit us.  We woke up with Soviet tanks and soldiers in our front gardens.  Young people took in the streets shouting out their protests, but the Russians are here to stay.”  The communist regime lasted until late 1989 until the Velvet Revolution occurred, a nonviolent transition of power initiated by students.  In 1993, Czechoslovakia officially broke into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  And of course in 1995 they got their “first McDonalds- We’re really not a communist country anymore.”  See? What did I tell you?  Cheeky as hell.

It’s quite funny but I can’t help but hear the name Czechoslovakia and think of an old theatre warm up we would do in the children’s theatre I grew up performing in.  “Czechoslovakia, boom see boom.  Yugoslavia, boom see boom.  Who’s got the rhythm of the feet?” And it went on.  Now that I have actually visited and learned about the countries of both former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia and learned what terrible regimes they were and what blood was shed to end them (particularly for Yugoslavia), I can’t help find this cheery little warm-up a bit insensitive.

I quickly found that Bratislava itself didn’t have a whole lot in the way of sightseeing, at least not in the center of it, and it was far too hot for me to want to expend the energy venturing farther.  So, after a couple hours of relaxed meandering, I returned to the hostel for a satisfying dinner of cereal (see? Just like being back home) and an a fairly early night.  Everyone at the hostel was going on a pub crawl that evening and while a part of me wanted to join them, I knew I would come to regret that decision on the 5:50am train the next day.  Despite knowing the miserable morning I would have in just a few short hours, I went to bed happy and content, having had a wonderful, if only brief, stay in Bratislava and looking forward to getting back in the mountains.