Trouble in Slovakian Paradise

nemophilist n. A haunter of the woods; one who loved the forest, its beauty and solitude.

Life is about balance, good and bad, give and take, sweet and bitter.  I find that for ever amazing day I spend on these travels, I am granted an equivalent amount of stress or headache at some other point in time.  I often wonder whether that’s a widespread backpacker phenomenon or something unique to just me.  On my second full day in Ždiar, Jeff, Mitchell, and I woke up early and ate breakfast quickly with the intention of going out to Slovensky Raj, or Slovak Paradise, a popular national park just a bit outside the High Tatras area.   I had heard good things, including the promise of some technically challenging old via ferrata.  Something slightly difficult, dangerous, and high up?  Sign me up.  Unfortunately, it was a bit of a hassle to get there, since we first had to take the long bus to Poprad, then another train to a small village where we could hike in, hence our early start.  Right as the three of us were about set off from the hostel, a middle age Spanish woman also staying in the hostel ran up to us, asking if we were going to Slovak Paradise and if she could join.  Of course, we said yes and invited her along.  Travelers are a very inviting bunch, especially solo travelers, because at some point or another we all rely on someone including us, inviting us along, otherwise we would spend our trips very lonely.  Despite that natural instinct to include people and bond together, something inside me made me less than excited to say yes.  Call it a gut feeling. 

Either way, the four of us set out and about two hours later, finally got off the train in Spisske Tomasovce.  Time to reference the directions provided to us by the hostel.  “Walk 15-20 minutes through the village, fields and in the forest (follow the Green trail markings).”  Okay let’s stop right there.  Is it just me, or are those directions horribly ambiguous.  Even after figuring out our way through the village, we came to a massive field with several patches of forest, begging the question as to which one we were meant to walk through.  Even more unhelpfully, the trail splits right in the middle of this field, each fork seemingly going to a different patch of forest.  And no Green trail markings in sight.  The next step on the directions were, “Walk down the steep hill and when you come to the bottom follow the blue trail (right) through the Gorge, past Letanovsky Mlyn.”  So we needed to find a fairly steep hill.  We examined the two paths and eventually decided on the more worn looking one, figuring that seemed like a reasonably safe bet.  It wasn’t.  After about five minutes of walking, it became clear that this path was simply going to run along the tree line parallel to the town.  The other trail it was.

Mad about what I felt like was my mistake that cost us about 15 minutes, I was eager to set it right.  This time, I knew where I was going due to sheer process of elimination.  That’s when the trouble began.  Sarah piped up that we needed to go downhill and thus needed to go back to the village.  Despite our attempts to tell her the steep downhill would be once we reached the forest, she wouldn’t listen, insisting we needed to go back.  Something in me snapped.  Already frustrated by the ambiguous directions and my own slight error, I was in no mood to argue about this.   Instead, I went into mule mode, bent my head down, and charged up the opposite fork, regardless of what she wanted.  If she wanted to follow, great.  If not, it wasn’t my problem, I told myself.  I’m really stubborn when it comes to mountains.  I don’t get lost.  I can have no idea where I’m going or even where I am and I still won’t stay I’m lost because I define lost as not being able to find my back, which is kind of the most important thing, really.  Nevertheless, it can often be frustrating for people hiking with me who don’t quite share in the same spirit of adventure that uses adventure as a euphemism for error.

As soon as we crested up to the hill of the field, sure enough, there was a downhill path into the forest and figured this must have been what the instructions meant by “steep”. Again, it wasn’t, but we were at least on the right trail this time.  At the bottom of this hill and through another small bit of forest, we came upon the steep hill, a sharp downward grade riddled with rocks and tree roots that required some careful maneuvering.  Even worse, I knew we would have to climb it on the return journey, but one step at a time.  At the bottom of the hill, the path veered off in two directions, the right fork marked with a blue blaze, just as in the instructions said.  I tried not to feel a bit smug as Sarah seemed to, for the first time, actually admit that we were on the right path.   The worst part of the instructions seemed to be over.  From there, they only read, “You can grab food at the restaurant (Klastorisko Chate). Next take the blue trail back (left) through the forest and Cingov Gorge.  Ending up back at the steep hill where you first started the blue trail.  Walk back up.”  From that, it seemed like we quite literally followed this blue trail through the actual Slovak paradise until it looped around and intersected at the bottom of the hill.  So off we went.

It wasn’t long before the trail presented its via ferrata: chains bolted into the rock walls for handholds on unsteady ground, chain suspension bridges, wooden ladders, and a series of metal gratings drilled into cliff walls and overhanging the large drop to the murky river flowing below.  In case you’re interested, “via ferrata” is Italian for “iron road” and while the origin of the type of path dates back to the 19th century, they are mainly known for their role during WWI in which those built especially in the Dolomites of Italy were used to help move troops undetected.  Around 1,000 of these paths still exist today, mostly in the Alps of Italy and Austria, but Slovakia is home to a few along with some other sporadic places across Europe. 

Something I learned very quickly hiking through Slovak Paradise: tourist hikers are the worst no matter what country you are in.  Now, I know I seem like the pot calling the kettle black but when I’m hiking, I don’t define myself as a tourist.  Hiking is something I grew up doing and hiking is quite literally what I want to do with my life.  That has to put me on some elevated platform.  It all goes back to the ever important distinction between tourist and traveler.  Seeing as the trail wasn’t strenuous and only really slightly technically difficult, it was a very popular and thus it was crowded all day, with families and children.  And something else I learned was that the people there had absolutely no conception of trail etiquette.  Again, growing up in an area where hiking is your average weekend activity, I was instilled with instinctive and intuitive sense of trail etiquette. You say “hello” or at least nod an acknowledgement to people you pass, you move aside to allow people moving in the opposite direction to pass on narrow trails, and if there is someone behind you trying to overtake you, you sure as hell don’t fan out and pretend you don’t notice them.  But that’s exactly what people seemed to be doing and when I got stuck behind one couple with what I could assume to be their grandson for several hundred meters, with no sign of them moving to let us pass, I had had enough.  I quickened my pace to a trot and quite literally ran by them on the trail edge, very nearly running up the embankment, and not really make effort to disguise my irritation. After we were out of earshot of the group, Mitchell said, “You were quite aggressive in overtaking them.  Sure you don’t want to start throwing hips and elbows?” Hey, you snooze, you loose.  If I was going to have to adapt a passing attitude like that in a car here on the trail then so be it.  It didn’t help that it was just one of those days where every small thing irritated me.  The worst part was, I knew a lot of those irritations were irrational and of no fault but my own, and that only irritated me further.  It’s a vicious cycle.

Unlike the previous day, it was also incredibly hot and while the greenish brown waters running through the gorge did not look nearly so refreshing or appealing as the crystal clear turquoise waters of the mountain the previous day, it was better than the heat.  We eventually found a little beach-like area where the river looked both deep and reasonably clean and so we stripped off to our underwear, realizing a little too late just how bad the bugs were down by the water.  Horseflies, deerflies, you name it, and they were on us, pinching and biting at our patches of bare skin like we were the world’s greatest all-you-can-eat buffet and they had been starving for weeks.  There was nowhere to go but in the river and we dove in, not only to escape the heat as we originally planned but to escape the bugs.  Once in, we remained submerged up to our necks to keep them off us.

But once in, the water still felt great and for the time being, we forgot about the bugs.  Bracing our feet on boulders to keep ourselves from floating downriver with the current.  At some point, one of us, and I’m not entirely sure which one it was, decided it was a good idea to start an algae fight and before we knew it, the three of us were scooping up clumps of brown algae from the river bottom and flinging it at each other, laughing when we caught one unawares with a stringy clump to the face and catching all of it on Mitchell’s GoPro.  Was it entirely unnecessary and childish?  Probably.  Was it a little bit gross?  Definitely.  Was it one of the most fun and unusual things I have ever done?  Definitely.  Just because something seems childish doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, no matter what age you actually are. Growing up and being a child are not mutually exclusive things and backpackers, I find, are more acutely aware of this than anyone.  It’s refreshing to be around people who throw algae instead of complaints about the stresses of school and adult life.

Sarah, it seemed, had not learned about the joys of algae fights because she remained on the bank for most of this, occasionally wading into the water to cool herself off and swatting away bugs.  We finally decided we best keep moving but we then came to large roadblock of putting our clothes back on in the insect infested air.  At the riverbank, you could hardly stand around of two seconds before feeling the irritating pinch of little flies biting into your flesh, and so, the moment we left the water, we made a mad dash for our clothes, scooped them up in our arms, and ran like hell away from the water up to a little picnic table with a wooden roof over it, hoping the bugs might be better there.  They weren’t, and I found myself thinking how remarkable it was that I hadn’t noticed them on the trail.  I’m usually the one that insects magically stay away from.  Hiking in groups of people, everyone can be swatting mosquitos off their legs and cursing how bad the bugs are, and I whistle my way along, hardly noticing.  Either I have a remarkably high tolerance for creepy crawlies, or just bad blood (and no I don’t mean the Taylor Swift song).  But here, that insect invincibility was all but useless.

Pushing onward while attempting to stop the bleeding.

It took us far too longer to redress, mainly because we were trying to do so while simultaneously using our clothes to beat the little biting bastards and dancing around to keep them from landing.  Have you ever tried putting on pants while running around like a chicken with your head cut off?  Not easy.  In the midst of this chaos, I bolted toward the picnic table to grab my shoes, the last article that stood between me and safety, and WHAM! My head drilled straight into the wooden support beam of the roof, actually denting the wood and cutting my head open.  What was worse, after I had finished cussing and stomping around in the instant rage hitting my head put me into, I examined the roof to find the support beam was approximately 4 inches in width, meaning that out of the entire roof, my head had found the four inch section that it could have hit.  Just my luck.  For most of the rest of the day, I would walk around with a tissues pressed up against the cut, soaking up the minor but annoying seeping wound.

Then Sarah fell ill.  No sooner had we ascended from the riverbed back to the trail that the restaurant mentioned in the instructions  came into sight.  As we approached the sign, Sarah suddenly leaned over on one of the posts and said, “I think I’m going to be sick.”  The three of us froze and exchanged nervous glances.  Sick?  What did she mean?  What was wrong?  What should we do?  There was nothing we could do and moments later, Sarah was crouched down next to the sign, head buried in a patch of high grass, discretely puking, at least as discrete as one can be while emptying the contents of one’s stomach.  A part of me was actually impressed at subtle she was being, and that coming from a person who has sat next to their best friend quietly puking into a Dunkin’ Donuts bag on a Septa train to the Philadelphia airport. 

It’s a good thing the three of us aren’t doctors or anything because we all stood around completely dumbfounded in that moment, flicking our eyes nervously between Sarah, each other, and the people eating at the restaurant only about 20 meters away.  And Sarah just kept throwing up without our intervention, until she stood, opened her eyes, and said, “I think I’m okay.”  We meekly offered her water, but that was about as much as we could do.  He worst part was that none of us, including Sarah, had any idea what had caused it.  Dehydration maybe?  But she had been drinking water.  Sun?  The bugs?  My charming demeanor? It was anyone’s guess.

We eventually decided the best plan of action was to at least get away from the bugs, in case that was part of the issue, and kept pushing on.  Not too much farther down the trail, we came to a green painted steel bridge, shrouded in shade.  Right in the center of it, I stopped in my tracks.  “Hey guys, you feel that?”  They all stared at me, giving me blank looks.  “No bugs.”  Their eyes lit up and we decided that was the perfect spot for a little lunch break and to let Sarah recover from… whatever it was.

After a lunch of Nutella and smoked ropes of cheese (not together, I assure you), I for one, felt much better and I think the same could be said of everyone else.  We continued on, almost got molested by a party of young gypsy boys playing in the river (they followed us a good while yelling, “Money!  Please!” at us, though they probably wouldn’t have been so insistent had Sarah not continued to answer than rather than ignore them as I have become accustomed to doing with gypsies), and eventually came out at this very strange military themed cluster of buildings and parking lot.  This did not seem to be on the directions at all and it was here that we began to question ourselves.  However, knowing that we were still on the blue trail (despite Sarah’s effort’s to convince us otherwise, even when the blue blazes stared us glaringly in the face), we figured we were okay.  We looped upward and the climb began but after several kilometers of a slow and steady uphill climb, the sky growing dark with storm clouds and the hour growing ever closer to when we had to be back, something didn’t feel right.  We finally emerged on a dirt road and ran into a group of people who showed us a map where we were.  We were nowhere near the village from which we had started!

I started to panic and my head instantly snapped to “where did I go wrong mode” as I obsessively read over the directions and mentally retraced my route.  Unfortunately, that would have to wait.  We had to be back in Poprad no later than 18:45, as that was the last bus that would take us to Ždiar for the night.  If we missed that, we had a long road of hitchhiking ahead of us, and the chances of four people getting picked up were slim to none.  While I was having my little moment, pacing back and forth furiously and lost in thought about what we would do if we couldn’t make it home, the boys were talking to the group of people, finding out about a town 3km down the road from which we might be able to call a taxi to Poprad.  It wasn’t ideal but it was the only option we had.  So off we went, all but running at some points.

They say when it rains it pours and while this day had already proved that old adage, it sought to reinforce it in a literal sense.  Just after we set off, the sky opened up and the rain came pouring down in sheets.  Motivated to go even faster by flashes of lightning and subsequent thunder booming across the sky, we finally made it to the little village, soaked to the bone, cold, and looking a bit like drowned rats.  At the first hotel I saw, I ran inside and asked them to call a taxi, for which we would have to wait about 20 minutes.  That was fine.  We were doing okay on time.  The end was now in sight.  We still had about an hour to get to Poprad and, by all rights, it shouldn’t take that long.  As we stood there, waiting in this village, I found a map of the national park and began tracing our route.  At one point, a different color trail veered off to the left from the one we had taken and that indeed appeared to lead back to our starting point.  However, the directions never once mentioned this trail and in fact instead implied that we stay on the blue trail the entire time.  They needed to be burnt.  Seeing the map, it seemed like such a stupid mistake and if we had had a map with us, we wouldn’t have made it.  So the lesson in all of this: written directions are about as reliable as the people from which they come, while maps are friends that do not lie.  Wallowing in self pity and self stupidity, I cracked open my Nutella, finished what was left in the jar, then stood sadly in the middle of the road, spoon hanging out of my mouth, watching for the taxi.  Mitchell got quite the laugh from that image.

Finally, the taxi arrived, drove us to Poprad, for only about 3€ each, and we caught the last bus back.  It was a miserable ride.  For much of it, the bus was jammed with people and one woman decided a good remedy to the stuffiness would be to open the window.  Sitting right below the window, however, she couldn’t feel the biting wind sweeping through it.  Only the four of us seated along the back row, soaking wet and already cold, could.  All that on top of the fact that my bladder was about to burst made the Ždiar bus stop the sweetest sight in the world.  Mitchell and I were in the same bladder boat and so we set off at a near run from the bus stop to get back to the hostel. 

Yet oddly enough, looking back, it was a great day, and even the unfortunate annoying parts contributed to the overall adventure of it.  As American alpinist Mark Twight says, “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun,” and that, my friends, is a perfect summary of what it means to be an adventurer. 

After a quick hot shower to wash the sweat off ourselves and warm our bones, food was the next priority.  All day, we had talked about going to this famous pizza restaurant in Ždiar where you could do what was called the XXL pizza challenge.  If you managed to eat every bit of their massive 50cm pizza, you got a tally mark under your country on the wall of the hostel.  America and Australia were quite close, with Australia up by just a couple.  Naturally, Jeff and I took that as a personal challenge against Mitchell.  Yet earlier in the day, we decided eating an entire 50cm pizza alone would probably make us miserable and thus we should split one instead.  By the time we got back, however, an entire pizza didn’t sound like such a bad idea.  Everyone else from the hostel was going out to a different traditional Slovakian restaurant and when they invited us, I said, “I’d love to, but the thought of pizza is literally the only thing that had sustained me for the last four hours or so.”  Mitchell and I were unable to find Jeff, however, but we were done waiting around for the day.  We needed food…immediately.  And so we set off, figuring he knew where we would be if he wanted to join.

We were also joined by a middle-aged guy who, at one point, apparently helped the owners of the Ginger Monkey built it.  Though he no longer lied in Ždiar, he came back every so often to visit.  We sat down at a table in Pizza Rustica, a darkly lit upstairs restaurant decorated with all sorts of hip memorabilia, from license plates to old records.  “Have you guys tried the local spirit?” he asked us.  We said we hadn’t and he immediately ordered three shots of it and three beers.  The shots came, in giant 40ml glasses and we tipped them back, nearly gagging on the giant amount of liquid that felt like fire coursing down our gullets.  On the menu, we found what it was we had just drank: Slivovica, coming in at a whopping 52% alcohol content and only costing 1.40€.  I am forever astounded by how cheap alcohol is in Eastern Europe.  Mitchell and I decided not to risk being miserable and split the XXL pizza instead, me ordering the spicy Quasimodo on my half and him some meaty thing that I couldn’t eat. 

As we sat there, I could feel the single shot of Slivovica coursing through my veins.  I could see how that could get you into trouble because after only one shot, I was already feeling good and Mitchell was the same.  One the pizza came, Mitchell suggested we do another shot of something, anything but the Slivovica.  I usually make a point not to drink too much when I travel, but considering the day we had just had, I figured, “Why the hell not?”  Two shots of rum, please!  Even the rum here was strong at 50%.  Between the alcohol and pure bliss of what may be the best pizza I have ever eaten, we forgot about the trying day and lost ourselves in conversation.  Before we knew it, the pizza was gone… And so was our friend, we noticed.  He had gotten up a while ago to go sit with some other friends of his from the village at an adjacent table but they were all gone now, and, sure enough, when the check came, all of his drinks were still on our tab.  Instantly suspicious, we started getting the feeling that he did this a lot as a way of getting free drinks off travelers.  Odd as he was, he was quite the smooth operator.  But we weren’t going to fall for it.  We waved waitress over and with a combination of slow English and hand signals, we managed to get our point across that some of the items needed to be put on his tab, since they knew him there.  She took off his stuff and brought our check back to us, and we got a bit of delight in imagining what his face would look like when he returned to find out he had a tab waiting to be paid.  For all stuff, the meal had only cost each of us 10€.  I liked Slovakia more and more by the second.  And maybe it was the alcohol talking, but as we went to leave, I remember vaguely thinking how I probably could have eaten that entire pizza.

My bedroom for the last night.  

The second we got outside, it started raining again, and we sprinted back to the hostel along the dark roads, soaked for the second time that day.  For the rest of the night, Mitchell and I sat in the kitchen, flipping through the guestbook titled, “Traveling Tips” and reading the funny advice past guests had written.  Some of them, you could relate all too well to, but some were just downright weird.  And such is the life of a backpacker.  We share many common experiences, but travel is still a wholly unique thing and you can never fully understand the experience of another, though Mitchell seemed to really resonate with his fellow Aussies complaining about lack of Vegemite.  The American equivalent is peanut butter, except, you know, peanut butter actually tastes good.  The next morning, Mitchell made me try a bit of Vegemite on toast from his precious tube he carried with him and I must at least say that it is better than Marmite, if only slightly.  Maybe it was exhaustion, but when I went to sleep on the couch that night, I found better than any bed I had slept in as of late.

The next morning was tinged with the sadness of my looming departure, but I still had a few hours.  After a lazy breakfast enjoying the company of everyone in the hostel and recounting the details of our harrowing day in Slovak “Paradise”, Mitchell and I set out with the intentions of exploring the abandoned building across from the bus stop.  It would be a complete adventure for me without breaking into some old abandoned place, but hopefully I could avoid almost being arrested this time.  After finding a single window that wasn’t boarded up, we entered the building and explored its four levels and multitude of rooms for the next hour.  We could only assume it must have been an old lodge or a bed and breakfast, and even its decrepit, dilapidated state, I could visualize the charm it probably once held.  I could imagine myself staying there, typing away on an old typewriter in the front of the window in one of the rooms, a soft record playing in the background.  Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong era.  Having exhausted the place, we carefully climbed out, took a brief walk along the stream, and came back to the hostel so I could grab my stuff and head out.

I was sad to be leaving.  In truth, if I hadn’t needed to be in Budapest the following day for a scheduled appointment (have I built up the curiosity enough yet?), I would have considered skipping the city altogether in favor of staying the Tatras for another three nights.  There were mountains still to be hiked and more memories to make with Jeff and Mitchell.  In all truth, they were probably some of the best friends I have made on my journey so far, but like a sun shadow, I pass in and out of peoples’ lives as quickly as I seem to enter them.  That’s the unfortunate thing about travel.  You fall in love with places and find friendship in people only to leave them behind, plagued by the nagging question in the back of your minds as to whether you’ll ever see them again.  Usually, I leave places at just about the right time, but every so often, it’s hard for me to pull myself away, and it’s usually a result of the people I leave behind.  It happened in Podgorica and again here.  But those feelings of longing to stay, the tugging you can physically feel on your heart, let me know those are the special places, the ones I will one day return to.  And thus as I walked away from the Ginger Monkey (and from its adorable mascot, Wally), I said not a farewell but instead a silent, “See you later.”