Wednesday, June 05, 2002

Slap-happy Backpacking

This past weekend I was able to go backpacking with my main class, and we had a very nice time. The names of those who went were Petr, another Petr, one of the Petrs' girlfriends named Zuzana, Lenka, another Lenka (this country lacks name diversity...) Jan, Hamik (that's his nickname, his real name is Jirka), Ales, and Martin. Marsha and Sissel also came along, so there were three teachers and nine students.

We went to an area about 40 km southwest of Prague. It's an area near a town called Slapy, and there is a dam there on the Vltava river with a nice reservoir behind it. We had a long weekend due to a free Friday, so we left Prague by train at 12:19 Friday afternoon. It was a short train ride to a stop called Cisovice.

We got off the train there and began our trek through beautiful Czech farmland. There were still a few mustard fields in bloom, so it was mostly green scenery with big patches of yellow scattered around. After hiking about 2 or 3 kilometers, we came to a village where there just happened to be a pub. There just happened to be a pub there because pubs are the center of any Czech town. The Czech Republic is the beer drinking capital of the world, for those who don't know it.

So, of course we stopped at the pub since the Czechs' blood-alcohol levels were a bit low. They all ordered beer, except for Martin, who drank surprisingly little over the weekend. And, of course, they all asked us Americans if we wanted any beer to drink. We politely declined and ate our apples and rice cakes while they obliviously poisoned their livers.

On an interesting but unrelated tangent, in each village in Bohemia there is a decorated pole, which is similar in appearance to what we know as a maypole. In fact, it is what we know as a maypole. Every village sets up this pole in the spring. As the season goes by, the village must guard their own pole from attacks by neighboring villages while also making their own attempts to steal other villages' poles. Petr told me that he heard about one village that guards its pole with electronic surveillance equipment. We passed a couple of these poles over the weekend, so that's what brought them to mind.

Anyway, after finishing up at the pub, we continued our hike which began to follow a stream through fields of green grass and wildflowers. The weather was perfect all weekend, so the sky was sunny and beautiful. It was a great day for backpacking. We chatted with the students and discussed the difference between vacation and vocation, obstruction and abstraction, etc.... You know, the usual things that come up in conversations between people who are learning English and people who teach English.

Finally we reached the meadow where we would be camping. It was an idyllic location with a stream running alongside it and a small mountain (or large hill) rising straight up on the opposite side of the stream. We set up camp and played frisbee for a while. In the meantime, Sissel and Petr hiked to his nearby cottage to get his car with a grill and food for the other Czechs (which consisted of pork, bread, and more pork), as well as their stock of beer for the weekend.

When they returned, Martin, who has worked as a hotel cook, grilled the pork for the Czechs to eat. In the meantime, I waited nearly an hour for water to boil so us Americans could make pasta. My campstove was apparently not burning correctly, though at that time I couldn't figure out what the problem was. The water never boiled that night, although it eventually got fairly warm. So, we put the pasta into the pot, hoping that it would cook anyway. And cook it did, taking on the consistency of paste.

Once it was finished cooking, we had to drain the water. I adeptly picked up the pot with my handy pot grabber and took it to the edge of the camp, where it was suitable to dump the water out. After dumping out most of the water onto the ground, I proceeded to dump all of the pasta onto the ground along with it. It would seem that my handy pot grabber had handily slipped from the edge of the pot and lost its handy grip. This was a somewhat disenchanting occurrence for me after having unsuccessfully waited an hour for water to boil. Marsha and Sissel took the news surprisingly well, although I think that was mainly due to the extreme pleasure they find in periodically sniggering at me in my misfortunes (and I want my lemon back you miscreant kidnappers...).

Anyway, our only choice was to cook more pasta, which we did. This time we didn't wait an hour to put the pasta in, so it didn't take as long, although it cooked up to the same paste-like consistency as before. However, considering that we were pretty hungry by that time, it was a decent meal.

After that, we all sat around the campfire for a while. The class asked me to play my Irish whistle for them, so I did that for a short time. Then we chattered on about various things and I coined a new Czech phrase "Nebud' kaktusy hlava." which means "Don't be a cactushead." It might be useful for any of you who wish to visit the Czech Republic in the future.

So, I'll fast-forward through the rest of that night, including my headache, which kept me from sleeping for a long time, and go straight to the next morning. We got up about 9:00 and ate breakfast. I had an avacado on Arabian bread, which I consider to be a perfect backpacking breakfast. After breakfast, we took down the camp and prepared to set off on our day's journey.

We expected to hike about 6 kilometers that day, although that turned out to be wishful thinking on my part. Six kilometers took us as far as Slapy, and a restaurant where we stopped for a lunch of fried cheese, in addition to some rest. Fried cheese is a Czech delicacy, which consists of a big block of cheese which has been breaded and deep-fried. To use mild understatement, it's not the most healthy food in the world. It tastes pretty good though, if you like cheese.

While we were sitting there, a platoon (by platoon, I mean 3 or 4 jeeps...) of Czechs masquerading as American WWII soldiers pulled into the restaurant parking lot. It was an interesting sight to see. They had the uniforms, the jeeps, the howitzers, basically everything, with the exception of an ability to speak English, which they lacked. They were apparently taking part in a nearby reenactment of a WWII battle.

Anyway, from the restaurant in Slapy we could see a sign which said "Autocamp 3km." It was a disappointing sign because this turned out to be the camp that we needed to stay at, and we (meaning, "I") had expected it to be closer to Slapy. Alas, what could we do but hike? And hike we did. We hiked all three kilometers to the Slapy dam.

Alas again, while we found no pigeons on the grass there, we did find another sign which pointed across the dam and said "Autocamp 2km". At this point we wondered if after hiking the next two kilometers we would find a sign that said "Autocamp 1km." Luckily, this was not the case, and we arrived at the Autocamp after 9 or 10 kilometers of hiking instead of our expected 6.

We set up camp there and hung out the rest of the afternoon. The camp was on the shore of the Slapy reservoir, so there was a nice view of the lake and nice grass to camp in. I laid down on my air-mattress in my tent and rested peacefully there for a while until I was forced to exert energy using strategic bottle placement when Martin decided to go swimming in a speedo. Speedos are normal swimming attire here, I suppose.

Nothing else spectacular happened that afternoon, although I did take a nice hot shower in the bathhouse, which I hadn't expected to be there. Backpacking isn't generally known for having an abundance of positive hygenic opportunities (although negative ones abound...), so you have to take advantage of the ones you get.

The next day we got up around 8 or 9 o'clock and ate breakfast. I heated up a can of corn on my stove, which Marsha had helped a great deal in fixing the day before. Turns out that when the nozzle isn't being stopped up by the self-cleaning pin, you can boil water after 3 minutes instead of 60. I tell you what, that technology stuff is somethin' else. So, I had corn, an apple, and some musli bars for breakfast.

After breakfast we broke camp and sat around some more until 11:30 when we went to catch a bus back to Prague. This turned out to be more of a fiasco than we had thought it would be. Earlier in the morning, Petr and his girlfriend had been up to the road by the camp, where there was a bus stop. They came back and informed us that the bus would leave at 11:50. Well, when everyone went up to the bus stop, we found out that it didn't actually leave until 2:30. Not everyone was willing to wait that long.

There ensued a heated debate in Czech among the Czechs as to what they were going to do next. Marsha, Sissel, and I, not being useful for much else, just sat back and watched. Eventually they asked us what we wanted to do, because some of them were considering hitchhiking and wanted to know if we would be willing to do that. Sissel and I were content with Martin's idea of sitting there for a while and then visiting the nearby, I kid you not, "Nick Slaughter Beach Bar" for some fried cheese before catching the bus. Marsha waffled back and forth between wanting to hitchhike and not wanting to hitchhike.

Eventually, all the Czechs except for Martin and Ales decided to hitchhike, and Marsha also went along with them. So the first to go were the two Lenkas, who said goodbye and took off walking down the road. We waited a little while, and then Petr and his girlfriend went. After that, Jan went by himself, shortly followed by Hamik and Marsha.

Sissel, Martin, Ales, and I stayed at the bus stop and played frisbee for a while, and spoke for an entire hour about our plans to eat fried cheese at one o'clock, and how great it was going to taste. Then when a tour bus full of old people pulled up and threatened to fill the Nick Slaughter Beach Bar beyond capacity, we rushed over there to grab a table before they could get out. Unfortunately, the Beach Bar didn't serve fried cheese, so we were disappointed in that respect. They did have a nice ravioli dish, but it just wasn't the same.

While we were eating, some reports started coming in (via cell phone) of success in hitchhiking. The two Lenkas, being attractive young Czechs, had no trouble finding some guy to pick them up and take them all the way to Prague. They were already there by the time we had sat down to eat. Hamik and Marsha had gotten someone to take them to a bus stop two towns closer to Prague, and they caught a bus from there within 10 minutes and were arriving in Prague as we were ordering our food. We didn't hear anything else at that point.

We finished our meal and went out to catch the bus. We were at one of the first stops the bus made on its way back to Prague, so we easily got on the bus and sat down. At the next stop, the bus started to fill up. By the time the bus stopped in Slapy, all the seats were taken and there was standing room only. It was in Slapy that we met up with Jan again. He had hiked all the way there and stopped at the restaurant we had previously visited the day before. When we stopped in the next town, we picked up Petr and his girlfriend, both of whom also had to stand, along with Jan. They had hiked all the way there because they hadn't had enough money to board a bus in Slapy. It hadn't occured to them to ask somebody in our group if they could borrow money, I guess.

Anyway, that accounted for the whole class, and we all made it safely back to Prague after a near perfect backpacking trip.

I'm looking forward to returning home to Tennessee for a short time this summer. I'll be arriving on July 3rd, so I trust everyone is getting ready for my welcome-home party on the next day. I think it will be a pretty big event, and I'll probably have some fireworks or something to celebrate my arrival. If you guys don't come to the party, but you hear loud noises in the distance, that's what it is, just so you don't get startled.


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