Monday, July 31, 2017

Post 2: School of Learning of the Impossible--a.k.a. Polish Language School

April 2017: Getting to Poland can be kind of a hassle. If you look at a map, you'll see that it's a long way from America. If you come from the west coast like I did, it's even further away. Nine time zones away to be exact.

Marjorie had some distant Polish relatives who were helping me study Polish. =)

Actually, the timezone in Central Europe is absolutely enormous. Both Spain and Poland are in the same time zone despite being nearly 2,000 miles apart. Imagine if you will the contiguous United States operating under a single time zone. That's basically what happens in Europe--with a couple of small exceptions (like Portugal and United Kingdom). So Poland might technically be only nine time zones away from Seattle, but the sunrise and sunset is off closer to ten hours.

Anyhow, it's a long way away, and I hate traveling. I like seeing new places, but I hate getting there. When I travel a long distance, I want to spend some quality time there to make it worth my while, and I decided instead of a long-distance walk, this time I'd learn Polish. I'd need something to keep me occupied while spending two to three months in Poland, so why not learn Polish?

I signed up with a local Polish language school for five weeks in the charming town of Sopot. And I'm going to tell you a little about the school and how it works.

The classes are typically fairly small. While I was there, class sizes ranged between 1 and 2 people. I think April might be part of their off-season, though. Summer months, I'd imagine, are busier and perhaps class sizes might be four or five students.

I already knew some Polish from studying on my own so I didn't have to start at the very basic courses. I took a placement test before arriving and they figured I wasn't a complete beginner, but that my Polish was dreadfully terrible. =) Actually, they told me that my Polish was amazing! But I knew the truth--it was dreadful. They knew I knew this as well, but they were genuine in their assessment about my Polish being amazing because they were absolutely astounded that all of the Polish I did know I learned completely on my own. Apparently, it's very unusual for someone to know the amount of Polish that I did having never stepped foot in Poland before and learned it on my own.

But, let's face it, I was still a beginner student and while I could say things like "Good day!" (Dzień dobry!) or "I'm learning Polish" (Uczę się polskiego), that's a far cry from expertise.

My school for five weeks was this small, two-story building. My classroom was (usually) on the second floor in that bank of windows on the far right. (The building on the side and behind this building wasn't attached or part of the school.)

The school was located in a small, two-story building behind a bigger building off a busy street. Through the windows, we could hear trains coming and going into the nearby train station. Downstairs was the office, a bathroom and a classroom. Upstairs were two small classrooms and a small kitchen with free coffee and tea available, but since I'm not a big fan of coffee or tea, I stuck with water.

For my first day of class, they put me in a class with one other student, Steffi from Germany. She looked to be in her 20s and was learning Polish because her husband was from Poland. That, I would learn, was a common reason for people learning Polish: their significant other was Polish. Other common reasons for learning Polish were for work (I met two different people who were learning Polish to become translators while others worked in companies that worked with Poles) or because they had a Polish heritage. I was kind of an anomaly and didn't have any particular reason for learning Polish except it was different and gave me something to do while I was hiking the Appalachian Trail a couple of years ago. I had trouble expressing that in Polish, however, and usually told people it was a "hobby." (Hobby, I'll have you know, is also a word used in Polish, so I could say "Jest hobby" which would mean "It's a hobby.")

Our teacher was Agata. Steffi had been learning Polish for two or three months now, and I struggled to keep up with the lesson. Steffi was able to speak and understand Polish far better than I could, but I had almost zero experience actually speaking and hearing Polish. I knew a lot of Polish, but it was book Polish. Reading and writing I could do. Speaking was slow and laborious, and hearing seemed all but impossible. Often times, Agata would say something that I couldn't understand, then she'd write the word on a board and I'd be like, "Oh, yes! Why didn't you say so?!" I knew the word--I just couldn't hear the word among all those other words.

The lessons were broken into 1 1/2 hour chucks with a half hour break between the two, and at the end of the three hours of lessons, I was a little tired, but they asked if I felt up for another set of classes in the afternoon. This one would be with a guy from Norway named Andreas who was learning Polish because he married a Polish woman. His level of Polish was a bit behind Steffi's level so they thought maybe I'd have an easier time in that class and wanted me to try them both to see which was the better fit for me. So I had another half hour break, then dived into another set of lessons.

This is Andreas from Norway! We aren't in class, though. We stopped to have lunch together one afternoon.

The class was a lot easier for me to keep up with. While I felt like Steffi was above my skill set, Andreas seemed closer to my level. At least in terms of hearing and speaking Polish. My knowledge of Polish--the grammar and vocabulary was at a much more advanced level. But I was okay covering grammar and vocabulary that I already knew because I wanted to practice speaking and hearing them, but I think it frustrated him a little that I seemed to know more than he did.

My entire time in Poland was like this, and in all of my classes, I always felt like I was a little behind the class average when it came to speaking/hearing Polish, and a little ahead of the class average when it came to reading/writing Polish. There just weren't any other students who came into the language like I did as a self-taught student.

At the end of the first day of classes, I decided I liked the pace of the afternoon class with Andreas better and I'd take that class with him for the rest of the week. Both him and Steffi would be leaving at the end of the week to go home for several weeks, and the subsequent three weeks I would be in a class of one--just myself!

I felt like I thrived in this setting since I could focus on my weaknesses (speaking/hearing), and move through the lessons quicker since the grammar/vocabulary I was often already familiar with.

There were always other students in the school, but for three weeks, none of them were considered at the same level as me so I didn't share a class with any of them. One week there were three new students who knew absolutely zero Polish, and I'd quiz them at the end of the day to find out what they were learning. (The numbers 1 through 10? You don't say?!) Another student who was studying Polish to be a Polish-to-Portuguese translator was considerably more advanced than my level. 

In my fifth week, Steffi came back to the school after three weeks of vacation with her family, but she was put into a different class than myself so we didn't talk much except during breaks. I know my last week at the school I shared a class with another student, but for the life of me I can't remember who it was! And for some bizarre reason, I never wrote the information down in my journal.

We weren't assigned any textbooks, but exercises were photocopied out of several different texts which is what I worked off from.

Inside my usual classroom. (Just one day of my five weeks did I have class in a different classroom.) You can see my backpack and gear at the far end of the table.

My first two weeks at the school I had Agata as a teacher, but then she took a week-long vacation during Easter break so I changed teachers to Gosia for the last three weeks. There was one day when I had another teacher when both Agata and Gosia were gone for the day, and for half of a day I had a teacher-in-training give us a lesson with Gosia in the back to observe.

The teachers, as a whole, generally were young women. I'm not sure why, but that was true at my Spanish language schools in Central America as well. I would have one male teacher later in Kraków, but I'll write about that school in another post.

But Gosia became my longest-running teacher at this school, and for two weeks I had one-on-one lessons with her. Early on she had given me a homework assignment to create sentences out of a list of about 40 words. I wanted to create interesting sentences--not something like "I am learning the word fill-in-the-blank" 40 times! I wanted to make every sentence entirely unique and interesting.

But it was tough. For instance, one of the words to use was "in a cake", but I couldn't really think of anything that was "in" a cake. Maybe a finger if someone was tasting it.... and then I thought it would be funny if my sentence was that someone found a severed finger in the cake. "Look, there's a finger in my cake!"

My teacher thought this was hilariously funny and it become somewhat of an ongoing joke the rest of the class. I'd try to work a severed finger into all of my homework assignments after that. =) She said that most people use some sort of ingredient. "There's flour in the cake" type of thing. I don't know why that didn't occur to me, but a severed finger in the cake leaped into my mind instead. Might say something about my mental state!

My other sentences had drama, told stories and she was so amused by them that she asked to take photos of my homework so she could have a copy to show others later. "Sure! Why not?!" =) There would be several times she'd take photos of my homework.

I'd encourage my teachers to give me lots of homework. The more, the merrier! I was here to learn Polish, after all, and class usually got done by around noon so I had plenty of time in the afternoon to study. Give me homework! They had started giving me short assignments that rarely took more than maybe 20 minutes to complete, but especially during my one-on-one lessons when other students weren't a concern, they'd give me a lot more knowing I wanted it.

On my last day of class, although I wouldn't be running the next Monday, Gosia gave me about ten pages of homework to work on anyhow. I rather liked that. She knew I wouldn't be coming back and that nobody would ever check whether I did the homework or not, but she gave it to me anyhow knowing I'd want it. I did it too, and I figured I could always have my new teachers at my new school in Kraków check it for errors as needed.

After class, I'd usually go out for lunch somewhere and try speaking Polish to my waiter or the counter person and read a little before heading back home. Back at the house, I'd check email, make sure Atlas Quest and Walking 4 Fun were running well and take care of other related business as a break from Polish.

My teachers seemed to think that I was.... unusual. Can't imagine why! =)

With that out of the way, I'd go back to my Polish studies and go through a list of new words, grammar and any sentences I wrote incorrectly and turn them into electronic flash cards for my phone which usually took a couple of hours. In a typical week, I'd add about 200 to 250 new flash cards for studying. Then I'd do my homework which might take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour depending on how much was assigned and how ambitious I felt.

Then I'd go into the front room and watch television with Barbara. The "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" game show (the Polish version, of course) was among one of my favorites to watch because they would display the question as text at the bottom of the screen (along with possible answers!) and the contestants and game show host would read them out loud. I usually didn't understand enough, but sometimes I could understand the question and on even more rare occasions, could even figure out an answer. And I did learn a bit watching the shows. For instance, I learned that the word 'hel' was 'helium' in Polish. (It was a question about the composition of Jupiter. I could understand "Jupiter is about 90% _____ and 10% what?" And although I didn't know the word for 'helium' in Polish, 'hel' was one of the multiple choice questions and seemed like it might be 'helium' in Polish. And it was! I didn't know the word for hydrogen either, but already knowing that Jupiter was about 90% hydrogen and 10% helium, it was enough for me to figure out the question and the answer. Score!)

I'd also chat with Barbara asking her about the meaning of specific words.

And then it was late and time for sleep, which I'd do and repeat the process the next day.

Not really exciting, but it kept me busy and left me feeling like I had a full, satisfactory day. =)

One afternoon, after class a few days before Easter the school set up a "traditional Easter breakfast" for us to try. Teachers and former students who still lived nearby were all invited, and a group of us showed up at the restaurant where we were served all sorts of traditional Polish foods like bigos, kiełbasa, barszcz, etc. I'll talk about food in another post, but I mention this instance because a news crew arrived to film the event and I wound up on the local news. =)

I don't have any speaking parts in the video, but you'll see me in the background starting around 27 seconds into the video. =) You'll also see some of the other students and teachers in the background, but none of the people I mentioned in this post took on speaking roles.

In Poland for less than two weeks and I already make the news!

Friday, July 28, 2017

Post 1: Sopot, Poland

April 8: So.... I'm in Poland. Yes, Poland. I'm not on a long hike, but rather a mental walk learning Polish, traveling through an exotic land I'd never seen or experienced before. I'd never put much thought into Poland until meeting Karolina while hiking the Camino de Santiago. Karolina spoke of Poland often, with great enthusiasm, and with obvious pride--and it's been rising on my to-do list ever since. And after I started learning Polish while hiking the Appalachian Trail, it became a place I didn't just want to visit, but I wanted to experience. One of the best experiences of my life was signing up with a Spanish language school in Central America, and I decided to give it another try in Poland. I can be in Poland (and pretty much all of Europe) for up to 90 days without a visa (and I don't have a visa), so that's my limit. I can study, live and learn all things Polish for up to 90 days.

St. Georges Church
I'm dispensing with my usual Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, etc. updates because most days, I won't really have much to post. I wake up (budzę się), go to school (idę do skoły), perhaps eat lunch at a restaurant (jem obiad w restauracji), then go home (idę do domu), complete my homework (robię pracę domową), watch television (oglądam telewizję), then go to sleep (a potem idę spać). It's not exciting, and it's pretty much the same story day after day after day. (Any bets on if Karolina corrects one of my Polish phrases in the comments below? *raised eyebrows*)

So I've decided to post about subjects. This post will be about Sopot, Poland, my base of operations. Or rather, my first base of operations since I do not plan to stay here for my entire time in Poland.

I arrived at around midnight local time after traveling on four airplanes through nine time zones. I didn't get to see much immediately upon my arrival given the fact that it was after midnight and dark outside. I took a taxi to my temporary home away from home.

Sopot I've heard a lot about over the years from Karolina mostly because it's Karolina's hometown. Now, I realize that Karolina might be a bit biased in her observations of Sopot, but my google searches and reading up of the area made me think it actually would be a place I'd enjoy. The population, according to Wikipedia, is about 40,000 people. Large enough to be interesting, small enough to get to know well. It's located on the Baltic Sea in northern Poland, tucked between the two larger cities of Gdańsk and Gdynia. Collectively, the three cities are known as the Tri-Cities.

Don't be fooled by the hand with the net. It's just a distraction! It's the other hand I'm worried about!
Although Sopot is Karolina's hometown, she's off living and working in The Netherlands, so you won't be seeing her much in this particular adventure. (Although she is scheduled to visit her mom around Easter, so there might be one post with Karolina later.) However, Karolina did set me up with a room for me to stay at her mom's place, and that will be my base while I'm in Sopot--about a mile away from the Polish language school that I'll be attending.

As I type this now, I've been in Sopot for a week, and I'm giving it two thumbs up. The town is charming, the views over the Baltic Sea are wonderful, the people are friendly, and the food is exotic (but good).

On my first day in Sopot, Karolina's mom (Barbara) took me on a quick walking tour looping through town showing me where the school I'll be attending is located, the main tourist drag downtown, and good places to eat and shop. It was a Sunday afternoon and the downtown core was crowded with people--a lot of people--and I said that to Barbara. She shook her head in disagreement. No, she told me, in the summer--that's when it's crowded. This wasn't crowded at all.

Mental note: Don't go to Sopot in the summer. =)

Later, returning in the middle of week, I'll say that the crowds were much thinner than they were on the bright, sunny Sunday I arrived.

One thing I'll mention about the city, and this whole area for that matter, is that it's wonderfully walkable and bikeable. I don't bike so much so that's less of a concern for me, but it's very easy and safe to get around on foot or by bike. It is, in fact, perhaps the most friendly walking/biking set-up I've ever seen.

And, I feel like the area is very safe. I'd have no qualms about walking around late at night. The people are friendly, and most people seem to speak English fairly well. Which is actually a disappointment for me as I'm trying to learn Polish rather than English, but for those of you less interested in learning Polish but might want to visit someday, English is common and all you need to have a good trip.

One short story.... I tried getting a gofry. They're everywhere out here, and I kept seeing everyone eating them, and I wanted one. So I tried to order it--in Polish. I wanted it all--put whip cream on it and fruit. She replied, in English, that I could choose two different fruits. So I replied in Polish with my choice, then she replied in English with the price. The girl seemed amused at my attempts at Polish, and sometimes didn't seem to understand me. (Although later, I would tell other students at the school that I was surprised that Poles couldn't understand their own language and seemed to prefer English!) But the point being.... it's easy to get around with just English. And the locals might even prefer it that way. ;o) 

I won't describe the city in detail.... as they say, a photo is worth a thousand words and so it's easier for me to post photos than words!

I thought this was crowded with people, but Barbara told me no, this was nothing! I should see it in the summer!
Krzywy Domek, or the "Crooked House"--called that for obvious reasons! (No, this photo has not been photoshopped!)
Convenience store
Now that's a sexy bike rack!
The parking meters were all wrapped up for the winter. Apparently, those are only active for the summertime tourists. Also note the wide sidewalks for walking and biking! They're everywhere! (The grey part is for walking, the red side is for bikes.)

This is the "Molo", or Pier in English. It's also the longest wooden pier in Europe, jutting out into the Baltic Sea.
The summertime tourists have to pay a fee to go on the pier, but this time of year (April), it's free. So I'd walk out on it quite often! =)
Dom Zdrojoywy (or Spa House in English)

I really liked how they made these planters. =)

I liked the lights on this tree. =)


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Day 7: Goodbye, Cuba!

March 21: It was time to part ways with Cuba, and we'd have a long way to get home to Seattle before the end of the day! But our travels wouldn't begin until 9:00 in the morning when a taxi would arrive to whisk us off to the Havana airport.

Before then, I headed into town just to look around and stretch my legs a bit. I knew we wouldn't be able to stretch our legs much later in the day! So I took the opportunity when I could.

I found this "sweat shop" while wandering around town in the morning. I hadn't noticed it during my earlier wanderings!

When I arrived back to the house where we had been staying--ten minutes before 9:00, I might add--the taxi driver had already arrived and we were ready to go. Our driver was on the ball! His name was Tomas.

Amanda asked if we could make a quick stop at a viewpoint just outside of town, which he had no problem with, so we stopped for a couple of minutes admiring a commanding view overlooking Vinales and the mogotes in the area, then headed back to the car for the long, two-hour drive back to the Havana airport.

Thomas was a friendly guy and mentioned having another job as a doctor.

"A doctor?" we asked, surprised. "A doctor of what?"

Some sort of heart surgeon and helping out heart attack victims and such.

In my head, I was thinking, "What the hell are you driving a taxi for?! You're better educated than I am!" Out loud, I just said, "Well, having you around would be very handy if I have a heart attack during the drive." =)

He also played a few different CDs in his car, including one from the Buena Vista Social Club which he gave me. I'd never heard of them before and enjoyed the CD, but I was surprised when he popped it out and offered it to me at no cost. And immediately, I knew I wanted to turn my video clips into a music video featuring a song from this CD. =)

I take photos from a nice viewpoint above Vinales.

The drive itself was uneventful, and we arrived at the Havana airport a couple of hours later. We thanked Tomas for the CD, paid for the ride, and he drove off. I wondered briefly if he was going to pick up another ride, or check in at a local hospital to perform a heart surgery. Who knows?! It's Cuba! There's definitely something wrong with an economic system that has doctors driving taxis in their spare time, though.

At the airport, we had to wait a bit before they would let us check in. A flight to Charlotte was boarding and they weren't checking in anyone except people on that flight. We were scheduled on a Miami flight a couple of hours later. While waiting, however, we met a guy who had just come in from that plane and had left his iPhone on it. He was well outside of security, through customs and immigration and had absolutely no way to get back to the plane or even the gate, and eventually found an employee who said they'd go and look for it.

In the meantime, he waited around and chatted with passengers like us who were checking in.

I said something to the effect that if he had a wife or something he was traveling with, she could be exchanging money while he was waiting to see if they found his phone. Those lines for exchanging money were slow!

"Yes, I'm with my wife," he told us, "and she is steamed at me right now! But it's an iPhone! Those aren't cheap!" Amanda and I laughed. We could imagine. The wife was nowhere around at the moment, though, and we wondered what she was doing if it wasn't exchanging money.

The man stood around for the better part of an hour before they found his phone and got it back to him. I love a happy ending. =)

Yep, there's our flight--to Miami at 3:30, and it's on time! Yes! (I also found it interesting that the headers for each column were all in English. I'd have expected them to be in Spanish.)
We couldn't go through security yet, though. Being stand-by passengers, they didn't want us going through security until just before boarding. I don't think they wanted us going through customs and immigration unless they felt pretty confident that the stand-by passengers would get on the flight. We were told to return about an hour before the flight was scheduled to depart.

So Amanda and I wandered around the airport a bit, looking for ways to blow the $40 of Cuban money we still had on us. Souvenirs! T-shirts! Food! Whatever! We had money to blow! The line to convert money back to euros (or even US dollars) was horrendously long and slow and neither of us wanted to deal with that. We'd rather just spend the Cuban money we had left, and that's what we tried to do.

We didn't actually do too well at it, though, only spending about half of it on sandwiches, drinks and souvenirs. Amanda wanted to get rum to take back to the states, but we didn't want to do that while still outside of security. Liquids, you know? Maybe she could buy some after we got through security, although there wouldn't be much time for shopping on the other side of security since they wouldn't let us through until the last minute.

At the allotted time, we headed back to the check-in desk and were officially issued tickets for the flight. We checked the checked bags, then rushed through security.

I lost Amanda in security. We had been in the same line waiting to talk to a customs agent. I went through, no problem, then turned around and saw Amanda talking to the same guy I had just talked to. I took off my shoes and was getting ready to go through security, but turned around to wait for Amanda and.... Amanda was gone.

Lots of people checking in for flights out of Cuba

I looked around for her, confused. I swear I saw her not five seconds earlier, but it was as if the ground opened up and swallowed her. She wasn't taking to the customs guy anymore, but I didn't see her at the security checkpoint.

One of the guards at the security checkpoint noticed the look of confusion on my face and said I needed to put everything through the X-ray machine including my shoes. She must have thought I didn't know what to do at security, not realizing that I had just lost my companion.

"But...." I looked around for Amanda. Oh, we were in Cuba. This person probably only knew Spanish. "Buscando para... mi.... novia?"

I was holding up the line and now becoming a distraction to everyone and went ahead through security. On the other side, I finally spotted Amanda walking up from a custom agent on the entire other side of the room. After Amanda made it through security, I asked her what had happened. She was there one second, then poof! Gone!

When she talked to the custom agent, he told her she had to go to the booth at the far end of the room. She didn't know why, but I had to guess it was her passport that was the problem. The name on her passport didn't match the name on her airline ticket. Anyhow, she finally made it through.

It was only a few minutes before our flight started to board. We boarded, taxied, took off, and I waved goodbye to Cuba.

The plane flew over the Florida Keys--beautiful, clear views of the Florida Keys this time, although I couldn't pinpoint the exact location from memory. It wasn't the 7-Mile Bridge down there, although I saw some very long bridges. After reaching the mainland of Florida, the trail banked right and I had a great view of the highway I remembered walking along connecting the Florida Keys with the Florida Trail. I could see the airboat trails through the swamp. I looked for the ValuJet Flight 592 memorial along the side of the highway. I knew it was down there somewhere, but I didn't see it so I figured it must have been on the other side of the plane.

Great views flying over the Florida Keys today! You can see Highway 1 stretching from the bottom of the photo to the top of of the photo where it fades out of view. Off the top of my head, however, I couldn't identify exactly where in the Florida Keys this was. (Later, I looked it up, and the town of Marathon is at the very bottom of the photo, and this is looking east towards Long Key.) Yep, I've walked that road. Twice! It's the first time I've seen it from the air, though. =)

The plane touched down and we were back on American soil, but we still had to make it back through customs and immigration before we were officially back in the United States.

I had no trouble going through, but once again, Amanda caused more problems. There are machines that ask the routine questions that customs and immigration officials used to ask. Automating stuff to make it more efficient. I did it and had no problem. Amanda did it and it printed a giant X on her receipt, which meant she had to go through a much longer, slower line for additional screening. I was directed in another direction and took all of about five seconds to get through. Since Amanda and I had to split into two separate lines, we agreed to meet at the baggage claim.

I arrived, picked up our bags, then waited for about a half hour before Amanda exited the byzantine maze of corridors. So far as we knew, the only reason for her extra screening was the discrepancy between the name on her passport and the name on her ticket. I joked that I blamed her parents for her current troubles. Why would someone give their child a first name, then call them by their middle name their entire life?! "If they wanted to call you Amanda, why didn't they make Amanda your first name? I don't get it?! I blame your parents," I told her, nodding my head vigorously. =)

We followed more signs, re-checking our bags the rest of the way to Seattle and going through security again to make sure we didn't pick up anything from our checked luggage that shouldn't be with us on our carry-on luggage.

And finally, we made it through the last of the checkpoints and walked into terminal D of the Miami International Airport. America! Even the air smelled free! =)

We got dinner at TGIF--we had a couple of hours before our flight to Seattle would leave--and eventually made our way to our flight, boarded, and continued on to Seattle.

The Seattle flight was uneventful, landed a little after midnight (a little after 3:00am eastern time, which is what we were still working on), and after picking up our checked luggage, made it home another hour later. Cuba was done!

But don't think this blog is done.... a week later, I'd be flying off to Poland (yes, Poland!) and will undoubtedly be sharing some of my Polish adventures with my next post in two days. ;o)

Viewpoint from near Vinales
The long drive to the Havana airport wasn't all that exciting.
Still not exciting!
Eating lunch at the Havana airport. Ham and cheese sandwich. Somewhat surprisingly, there weren't a lot of food options at the airport, but the sandwich was good! =)
I took this photo while waiting for our flight to board.
Taxing for take-off! That's the Havana airport.
My last view of Cuba, fading off in the distance....

Amanda really liked these decorations at the Miami airport. =)

I created this video of our flight taking off from the Havana airport as we say goodbye to Cuba.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Day 6: Getting Lost

March 20: Amanda and I had no real plans for the day. Just do whatever.... Amanda slept in late and we didn't hit the streets of Viñales until about 11:00 in the morning. The first order of business was to exchange more money because after tallying up the expected costs of our lodging and the taxi ride back to Havana, we had no money for anything else. No food, no drinks, no taxis or buses around town. We needed more money!

I stand in line, waiting my turn to turn 50 euros into 52 CUCs.

The line to exchange money had a dozen or so people and took the better part of a half hour to get through, and I exchanged 50 more euros for Cuban dollars. It was probably more than we strictly needed, but I figured whatever leftover we had by the time we flew out at the airport could be used for lunch or souvenirs for friends and family while waiting for our flight out of the country. Better to have too much than not enough! =)

And at that point, Amanda and I parted ways. She planned for a leisurely afternoon swimming at a pool while I intended to hike around the south side of Viñales --an area we had yet to cover. Check out some new ground.

I saw Amanda off on a bus that would whisk her on an air-conditioned journey around the area--including a stop at the hotel with the pool--while I followed large roads out of town that petered out into smaller roads.

A couple of young German women, fresh off the bus, asked if I was familiar with the area hoping I could direct them the correct way. Alas, I could not, but they were maybe a minute's walk from their destination and found it without my help.

I had a very rough map of the area. Some would call it a terrible map, but that's being somewhat complimentary. It was much worse than terrible. I'm convinced it deliberately tried to mislead me at every turn. It didn't help that the intersections I arrived at were unlabeled and left me with nothing but my wits to guess directions.

I knew, roughly, that I needed to travel south and west, so I tried to pick roads leading in those directions, but they invariably petered out to dead ends which required me to backtrack and try the other direction which split again before leading to another dead end.

Amanda would be whisked away in an air-conditioned bus while I tromped through the heat of the day.

Each day we were in Cuba seemed to grow warmer and warmer and today was no exception. The sun was brutally hot and the narrow streets and roads I followed provided almost no shade. I wasn't having fun and was finding myself somewhat annoyed at the poor maps and lack of signage.

Finally, I reached a hotel listed on my map--I knew where I was!--but I should have veered off to the west before reaching it so I wasn't in the correct location. Unsure of where or how I missed a trail leading west (I thought I tried them all!), I finally threw in the towel and decided to call it quits. I was hot and sweaty and didn't have enough water anyhow. (I hoped to get a cold drink after reaching my destination so didn't fill up my water bottle.) I turned around and headed back into town retracing my steps. Well, I refrained from retracing them down the multitude of dead ends that I had tried and bee-lined back into town.

Not entirely willing to give up my walk, I started walking down the busy road to my original destination, but I didn't make it far before I gave that up as well. I didn't get lost this time, but the road was narrow and busy and had little or no shoulder to walk along and was just plain horrible for walking along. I did it for ten minutes before deciding it wasn't worth the effort and turned back.

I still wasn't ready to give up on my walking plans however, and decided to hike north of the town, making a small loop that would merge with the trail I had followed the previous two days. Even approaching previously traveled terrain, however, I managed to get lost again somehow crossing over the track I had followed twice before and winding up on the east side of town. To this day, I still can't figure out how the heck I got from the west end of town to the east end of town. I had to have crossed over the trail I took the previous two days, but I totally missed it.

And after that, I finally called it quits with my walking around. It was too hot for hiking. I was done.

View overlooking the town of Vinales.

I headed back to our room at the casa particular to trade out my hiking shoes with more airy and comfortable crocs then walked up to a bar and restaurant nearby where I agreed to meet with Amanda a couple of hours later. I tried to order a cola--I didn't really care if it was a Coke or the local TuKola, the but waitress shook her head and said no, they didn't have that. (Which made me wonder, what do they use for someone ordering a Cuba libre?) I wound up ordering a glass of mango juice instead which was probably healthier, but it would cost three times more.

I was also a little peckish not having eaten lunch yet. I didn't want a big meal, however, waiting until Amanda returned when we could order dinner. Looking through their menu, however, the only appetizer type of thing I could find were "papas fritas"--French fries. I was a little disappointed about that. That was it? Well, so be it. I got the waitress's attention and tried to order that, but she shook her head no again. They didn't have it available either.

Well, shoot. The only things left to eat on the menu were about half a dozen entrees, and I had a sneaky suspicion that half of them probably weren't even available. I decided to pass on food. I had some snacks in my pack I could subsist on until dinner.

So I drank my mango juice and read my Kindle for the next couple of hours until Amanda arrived all bright-eyed and cheery from her time at the pool.

I told her about the disappointing menu and that we ought to go somewhere else for dinner, so I paid my bill and we headed off. Amanda wanted to stop at our room to change clothes first, so we did that, then wandered back into town and found a new place to eat.

I ordered the ham and cheese pizza. Amanda ordered the grilled lobster. (Amanda wants everyone to know that she got a huge portion of the grilled lobster for just $8. It's an expensive meal--my pizza cost a mere $3.) Life was good.

And that was it for the day. We lounged around on the outdoor patio of the restaurant for an hour or two reading books and watching the traffic go by before eventually paying our bill and heading back to our room for the night.

Tobacco farm
Horse drinking from a water trough made from a large tire
Tobacco leaves that had been set out to dry in the sun.
While I tromped around the countryside hot, miserable and getting lost, Amanda enjoyed her time at the pool eating a ham and cheese sandwich, drinking a beer and reading a book. =)
Dinner at the end of the day! =)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Day 5: Searching for Amanda

March 19: Amanda and I woke up and ate the breakfast provided by our casa particular which included fruits, bread, ham, cheese, juice and scrambled eggs enough for an army. After brushing our teeth and getting ready for the day, we headed off--in different directions.

Amanda would take a taxi to Indio Cave while I would walk there on a network of walking trails until reaching a paved road I'd follow the rest of the way. I figured it would take me at least an hour to walk. Amanda said she'd wait for me at a restaurant by the cave until my arrival.

The walk, at first, followed some of the same trails we covered yesterday and the number of people riding around on horseback astounded me. I must have passed a hundred of them! And I did, in fact, pass them, as the horses seemed in no particular rush tromping down the trail. Much of the trail had split into two so I took whatever path the horses weren't using to get around them.

Eventually the trail veered off into new territory for me. I didn't have a good map of the area--just a very rough one with many smaller trails and landmarks not listed at all, but I knew I had to eventually come out at a road to the east so as long as I only went north and east, I'd eventually get to the correct place. I wasn't too worried about getting lost.

The only obstacle of note that I came across was a small creek with no bridge. Not really inclined to get my feet wet, I walked upstream a bit to where the creek narrowed and leaped across to the other side, then followed a barbed-wire fence back to the trail.

The trail eventually led out to the main road, which had more buildings, people and animals to see, but I didn't much care of the narrow or non-existent shoulders on the road and the busy traffic passing by. I intersected the road much earlier than I had expected and still had another 3 kilometers of walking to reach the cave entrance.

At one point, a man being pulled in a cart by a horse offered to give me a ride to the caves for a fee--which was tempting since at this point I was on a fairly miserable road walk and it might shorten the wait Amanda would have, but we were running low on Cuban currency and I decided to pass to stretch it out a bit.

Oxen pulling karts was a common sight! =)

About 80 minutes after I left, I arrived at Indio Cave but looking around, Amanda was nowhere to be found. Perhaps she stopped to use the restroom? I took a seat on a bench. It was hot out, and I was sweaty and needed a rest. After about 10 minutes, my bathroom break theory was starting to deteriorate. Where the heck was Amanda? Taking a taxi, she should have beaten me here by an hour! I wasn't concerned about her... just a little annoyed that she wasn't where I expected to find her. I had no way to contact her. I couldn't call, or email, or leave any other type of message. Had she gotten here and left for some unknown reason? Or maybe she went shopping in town thinking she had plenty of time to meet me at the cave then lost track of time?

I ended up waiting for about a half hour, and still there was no sign of Amanda. I had another theory about what might have happened to her. I thought we had agreed to meet at Indio Cave, but maybe she thought we were meeting at an earlier cave that I passed about a kilometer back? I saw it on the side of the road as I walked by. This area is littered with caves all over the place. Perhaps we had gotten our signals crossed?

The cave was maybe a kilometer away--not terribly far--so I decided to walk down there and check things out. I didn't know what I'd do if she wasn't there, though. How long should I wait at Indio Cave before giving up?

I didn't make it to the other cave, however, because halfway there, I ran into Amanda walking up the road from that cave. Turns out, Amanda never took a taxi at all and had walked all the way in from town! That was one theory that had never even crossed my mind. She said she couldn't find a taxi in town, and she didn't have small bills in any case. I'm not sure why it mattered if she had small bills or not since the taxis would most likely be able to provide change.

I walked back the rest of the way to Indio Cave with Amanda who sat down for a much needed rest. While she was resting, I went ahead and used the bathroom because--why not? Fortunately, everything went well. =)

Then I got in a line to get a number, which was then called out about 10 minutes later which I turned in so I could buy us tickets for the cave. The process seemed strange. I had to take a number just to buy a ticket?

I stand around waiting for my number (40) to be called in order to buy us tickets.

Anyhow, with tickets firmly in hand, we arrived at the cave entrance to wait in another line before they finally let us in.

The most remarkable thing about this cave, in my opinion, was how incredibly warm it was inside. It was a comfortable temperature, but I'm used to caves being cool--cold enough that I usually wanted to add an extra layer to stay warm. In this case, however, the inside temperature was only marginally cooler than the outside temperatures--and that's probably only because outside we were in direct sunlight.

From a natural perspective, the cave was in sorry shape. It was dry, and what used to obviously be magnificent cave formations were broken, dirty and not particularly impressive. They didn't even bother putting up "no touching" signs because really, at this point, touching everything in sight wouldn't cause any undo damage.

The cave wasn't particularly long and included one tight squeeze that large people might have trouble navigating. I had trouble ducking through the low opening.

The main highlight of this cave was the river running through it. Large enough for a couple of small boats to pass each other side by side, we queued up in yet another line for the underground boat ride. We were in that line for probably 15 or 20 minutes. While waiting in line, I took off my long-sleeved shirt. I wore it to protect me from the sun--not to keep me warm, but in the cave, the sun was not a concern, and even in the cave I was a bit too warm with the shirt. So I took it off while waiting in line.

Inside Indio Cave....

We unexpectedly got moved to the front of the line when they were looking for two people to fill the last two seats in the boat. Turned out, none of the dozen or more people ahead of us were a party of 2 (or smaller), and Amanda and I gladly cut in front of everyone to score our seats in the back. =)

The boat driver pointed out formations on the cave walls and what they supposedly looked like--in Spanish, of course, but even if we didn't understand the Spanish, we could usually figure it out based on the formation itself. He pointed to the rock formations with a laser pointer and if we didn't understand it, made educated guesses about what it looked like.

The boat ride lasted for all of about five minutes before exiting the cave and ending our tour. It wasn't particularly long or exciting but for $5 (each), we agreed it was worth it.

Amanda wanted to check out a pool at a nearby hotel to visit tomorrow, so we did that, then decided to walk back to the other cave we had passed a kilometer before--El Palenque. It had a bar set into the front of the cave, which was shaded and wonderfully scenic, so we sat down and ordered drinks. Amanda was in serious need of a good long rest--she had walked here all the way from town, after all! And this was such a wonderful place to rest!

We lingered around for over an hour, then finally paid our bar tab and entrance fee for the cave ($3). The cave wasn't really anything to write home about. It too was warm but had only a few people in it when we entered rather than the large hordes that went through Indio Cave. There was no boat ride at the end, although there was an optional horse carriage ride from the exit back to the entrance for an extra $1 each. We decided to pass on that.

Drinking inside the Palenque cave.
It took all of about five minutes before we made it through the cave, then followed a road around the mountain back to the entrance and continued walking down the road. We were prepared to negotiate a taxi fare, but none of the drivers in the few taxis we passed seemed to even look our way so we never bothered and started walking back to town.

We stayed on the road all the way into town--it was the most direct method into town and Amanda definitely wanted direct. We stopped for dinner at a small, Italian restaurant while live music was playing in a nearby plaza.

Afterwards, we headed back to our room at the casa particular, but only for an hour until just before sunset when we headed out again to watch the sunset. We found a decent vantage point for the sunset at a baseball field where Amanda and I watched four separate groups of kids playing soccer and baseball. Amanda got really excited whenever one of the kids made a good catch played really well, even going so far as to hollering out at them, "Good job!" Keep in mind, we were the only people in the bleachers. They probably thought we were those "crazy Americans" they always heard about. =)

After sunset, we retired back to our room for the night. The day was done!

Lined up and waiting to get into Indio Cave
While waiting to buy our tickets, we were entertained by these fellows and their animal props.
Inside Indio Cave
Even inside the cave, there was another line we had to wait in... the line to ride the boat through the cave! But we should skip ahead a dozen people or so when they were looking for two people to fill up the boat and everyone else ahead of us were in groups larger than two. =)
The exit from Indio Cave
Outside of Indio Cave
Amanda watches, wondering if one of the boats would go over the weir!

View from inside the bar/cave looking out.
Watch out for snakes! I almost missed that one! =)
Escaped slaves supposedly hid out in these caves, so the decor was themed around those. Here, I'm defending myself from an attacking former slave. *nodding*
Exiting from cave number two, we find... another bar/restaurant!
Okay, I'm going to say it: That's a seriously weird mural! Decapitated naked people and dead babies in a bowl being pecked at by birds? What the hell?!
Tobacco leaves drying

Dinner! (I had lasagna.)
Watch out for dinosaurs in town!
Sunset over a mogote