To Hel & Back

jayus n. (Indonesian) Someone who tells a joke so badly that is so unfunny you cannot help but laugh out loud.

You must all know by know that I love puns.  My sense of humor is of a despicably low, eye-rolling, tongue-in-cheek grade and so when I decided I was going to a place called Hel, the pun machine began cranking.  So I’m going to apologize in advanced for this post because I’m not going to be able to resist putting a Hel of a lot of puns in it.  And so it begins.  Abandon all hope ye who enter here/ read on.

Hel is a sharp, knifelike peninsula of land that juts out of the northern coast of Poland just beyond the city of Gdynia, which is about a half an hour ride from Gdansk.  The peninsula itself is called Hel, as is the very small town located right on the knife’s tip.  This little town was the destination for my last full day in Gdansk.  The double name can make things confusing and at point, I asked someone on the train how much farther it would be to Hel.  He responded with, “We’re on Hel.”  Dziekuje (Polish for thank you) sir, you have been incredibly helpful.  To avoid any further confusion, I’ll refer to the town as Hel Jr. and let you all come up with your own mental images of some cute baby Satan each time your read it.  You’re welcome.

While I don’t know why the peninsula was named what it was, I can only guess it was named after the Norse goddess, Hel, or her realm of the same name over which she presides.  There is some disagreement as to her origins, as some works call her the daughter of Loki while others claim she was merely appointed by Odin.  Either way, she receives and rules over a portion of the dead.  I’m regrettably no expert on Norse mythology and so I’m not sure exactly how their afterlife system works.  However, the phrase, “Go to Hel,” is used in Norse mythology to describe death.

Because the weather hadn’t been great, I was hesitant to go on this little excursion, not wanting to waste the time and money if it was just going to rain all day.  The forecast said mostly sunny with no rain, meaning it would probably rain all day, but I decided to chance it anyway.  Why the Hel not, right?  Overall, the return trip would only cost me about $10 and a few hours on the train.  Hel was surprisingly easy to get to, but I guess that’s appropriate.  I got on the train and watched as we passed through both Sopot and Gdynia, the other two parts of the tri-cities, and eventually rolled into the beautiful Polish country side, with lush green grasses, bright flowers, and sparkling blue waters along the distance. The Hel peninsula itself is about 33km long with Hel Jr. being the last stop, the literal end of the line, as it were.  So two hours later, there I was, in Hel.  I always knew I was going to end up there; it was just a bit sooner than expected.

For being such a small town, Hel Jr. was bustling with people, though from what I could tell, not a lot of foreign tourists.  Most of the people there seemed to be Polish people taking days off with their family.  The main beach just outside the town was incredibly crowded with large families and screaming children, the stuff of my nightmares, so I kept walking until I crested around the point to the northern shore that was much quieter, much more peaceful.  There, I laid myself out on luke-warm sand, where I planned to stay for the rest of the day.  Man, if this was Hel, then send me there.  It was indeed a paradise ironically named.  Don’t get the wrong idea, though.  Hel’s beaches are not the warm beaches of the tropics.  It was still located on the northern coast of Poland on the Baltic sea, meaning the water was both jellyfish-filled and cold, even in July. Being from Montana and accustomed to jumping in year round glacial waters, the temperature of the water wasn’t so much the problem, as the intense wind that cut into my skin the moment I got out of it.  As a result, I chose not to wade any deeper than my waist, and even that was more of an accidental result of some surprise waves washing in off the choppy white-capped sea. But even the cold wasn’t unbearable.  After all, according to Dante, Hel is supposed to be a little cold.  And besides, it definitely at least wasn’t “Cocytus frozen-lake” cold.

But my favorite part of the beach was the sand, and I don't mean the warmth of it beneath me or the way it felt between my toes, or any of that cliche stuff.  When the wind wasn’t kicking it up in little bullet barrages at my face, I found myself fascinated by the entire microscopic world that existed beneath me.  I could see the tiny little beads of amber, too small to be of any value but beautiful nonetheless, mixed in with clear polished bits of sea glass and crystals of salt.  I could see the occasional black speck of volcanic rock and even tiny little seashells that once held impossibly small creatures. Ever since I was a kid, I have always been obsessed with miniature things and perhaps my fascination here stemmed from that.  The sand here wasn’t a find, soft powder, but a courser collage that most people probably didn’t even give a second glance.  Of course, my liking for the sand became much less as I was still scratching it off my scalp and shaking it out of my clothes days later. 

Eventually, I grew a bit cold on the beach and decided to wander back toward the town, as I would need to start thinking about catching a train back soon anyhow.  But I wasn’t in any hurry, yet and I decided to take a bit of a detour.  When in Hel, why not?  Between the two coasts lie a narrow strip of woodland, and as the beaches were the main attraction, the woods were all but empty, save me for me, some old military bunkers, and the wind rattling the pines.  The peninsula itself is littered with WWII military fortifications.  During the war, Hel was actually strategically located as a protector of the tri-cities.  The largest event of the time to take place on the peninsula was the 1939 conflict known as the Battle of Hel, in which Polish troops were able to hold off German forces for over a month.  As I walked the narrow grown in paths, I found myself thinking how much that place felt like childhood, specifically, my favorite childhood camping spot, Monocreek.  It even smelled like it.  Most people assume that woods of a similar nature smell the same no matter where you are, but lovers of the outdoors will find that is false.  The Jewel Basin, for instance, smells drastically different to me from the mountains around Butte, though they are essentially still comprised of pine.  But this place smelled like Monocreek, the way the dust mingled with the scent of pine and sunlight filtered in through the pine treetops onto the pine needle ridden ground, scant with underbrush. One again, I was back on the path around the mountain, the one that would take me past the spot where my dad’s ashes were spread.  Of course, all that nostalgia sent me on a rant talking out loud to my grandpa whose own ashes I wear on a chain around my neck wherever I go.  A lot of people think that’s weird or morbid, but those people clearly haven’t lost anyone.

I don’t actually think I’ve talked much about my grandpa on this blog because it starts to get rather personal.  Though it’s been nearly five years since his passing, the wound is still rather raw for me, and because of that, it defines me.  Next to my mother, my grandpa was easily the most influential person in my life.  He is the one who took on the burden of an unkept promise from my father to teach me how to hike, and camp, and fish when my father was rendered unable.  My love of the outdoors comes from him, as does my love for travel in general.  Now, every mountain I climb, every craze trail I walk, I find him there with me.  I can so clearly remember hiking with him, his sixty-year old body nimbly climbing over rocks and logs and leaving his winded granddaughter in the dust.  He always craved seeing what was around the next bend and just over the next peak, despite the fact that often all I wanted to do was sit down on a log and eat a package of Oreos (thankfully I’ve now mastered combining those two wonderful things).  That is precisely the attitude I carry in my heart now when I travel.  There is always something around the next corner and I wear his ashes on a chain around my neck so that he can see them along with me.

But my day wasn’t all a Hel of a good time.  In fact, at the very end, I went through a rather Hel-ish ordeal.  Okay, I’ll stop with the puns now, I promise.  If I don’t there will be Hel to pay.  Last one.  About an hour into the train ride back, one of the ticket checkers came up and asked for my ticket.  I handed over the return ticket I had been given earlier that morning.  He looked at it and shook his head.  “Hel,” he said.  Okay… Hel what? Yes, I was aware of where I just came from.  He tried again.  “Only Hel.  Not back.” Not back?  There had to be some mistake.  “No, I bought a return ticket this morning,” I told him, but he didn’t understand what I said and walked off.  Not really sure where I stood on the manner or if I was about to get chucked off the train, I sat there, waiting.  Eventually, he returned with a young girl to translate for him.  I explained to her that I had asked for a return ticket and this was what I was given and she in turn explained that I hadn’t been given a return ticket, only a single.  Fantastic.  Eventually, the ticket taker essential just said, “To Hel with it” (couldn’t resist) and just walked away, clearly thinking that sorting the issue out was a bigger hassle than just letting me continue the last twenty minutes or so of the ride.  As an native English speaker, I take for granted the fact that most of the world is smarter than me and can thus make up for my own incompetence and speak English.  However, this situation demonstrated both the pros and cons of the language barrier.  On the good side, sometimes it’s an ignorance that lets you get away with things you wouldn’t normally, like free train rides.  On the bad side, it often puts you in those kinds of situations in the first place.