Poland 2007: Miętne, end of week two

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2008-05-28Poland 2007: Tour the Second, and summary

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We set off at eleven in the evening, and weren't five minutes out of camp before the driver stopped to work out directions. Were we actually going to manage to leave?

A more serious problem was that this was an overnight trip at motorway speeds in a small minibus with no seatbelts. In the event of a crash we'd have been toast, and nobody managed to get any meaningful sleep. Some people were desperate enough to try to on the floor, but in the confines of the minibus, when the director clambered over seats to try to shut off the whine of the air-conditioning (which promptly came off in his hand), Lizzy got trampled, and the guy was turning out to be rather indiscriminately grabby whilst going up and down the bus.

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We got into Zakopane at 7:30, and found the hotel had given the booked rooms to "emergency cases" (we never did find out what that meant; it could simply have been they were only booked from midday) – so people went to deposit stuff and see if they could nap in the two that had freed up, and I went for a smoke in the rain. At some point the director came out and I completely failed to recognise śniadanie, though I was impressed when he translated to 'breakfast' as it was the first English I'd heard him use – most of the time he'd just go up to people and talk at them, which our Polish speakers were having some difficulty with on account of his accent and the regional dialect / idiom aspects of, though our Russian speakers had some success at a meal on the last night in Kraków.

Unfortunately he'd disappeared into the dining room by the time I followed, and explaining to the restaurant stewardesses wasn't on the cards ("[Zwroty po Polsku]" / "Uh. Anglikiem." / "Room number?" / "You haven't assigned us rooms, you gave them to other people...") so I headed back after the rest of our party. At this point the director snagged hold of me as I was halfway up the stairs, which seemed to be becoming the de facto method of getting people's attention.

I'm sure the director is a perfectly nice man most of the time (though the shouting at Sally and Maria [and indeed the reduction of our translator to tears] at several points early in camp hadn't gone forgotten) but by that point – the bus, the hotel, the communication – I could cheerfully have killed him. I'm not sure what Maria translated my sunny "could you [cough] find a polite way of telling the director that if he grabs my arm again I'm going to hit him" as over food, but he didn't make to do it again and we seemed to still be on speaking terms a few days later...

Afterwards lots of people piled into the two rooms we had and trying to doze for a few hours on floors and several-to-a-bed.

The bright side, though we weren't in anything like a good position to appreciate it during the trip or on arrival, was the hotel was plush and a short walk away from town. Compared to Olcza (a hotel area partway up a mountain, and some considerable distance away for travelling purposes) it was an ideal way to visit Zakopane.

Late afternoon we walked into town and I disappeared off to try to find a memory card – which I did, at a slightly insane price but with success. This was followed by wandering around the market, taking crowd photos, and sitting outside the church at the foot of the high street, listening to Pachelbel's Canon and stuff I don't recall the titles of but which featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral, watching a wedding party. It was very restful. The rest of the party had gone through town to the markets and took a cable-car up Gubałowska. Meeting back up with the others, Mick had gotten bored with Zakopane after about five minutes, a whole day less than us the first time we'd been in 2003 – there isn't a huge amount to do in the area apart from eat, drink and buy tacky souvenirs.

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Sunday most people went on a long drive to the Dunajec rafting, which would've involved sitting for another couple of hours and then doing the long drive back. Apparently it hadn't been possible to get a longer stay in Kraków, so we were in Zakopane for most of the week and tourist hotspots were further away.

I got some extra sleep, had breakfast in McDonalds, and found the main street closed for an international costume procession. Quite a few smaller stores (and the internet café I'd been planning to try to get photos copied at) were closed, so I watched the street parade for a bit. Afterwards I climbed up Gubałowska, which was pretty quick if knackering, and sat out in the warm sun.

In the evening we went out for big chunks of animal at the grill restaurant we'd been to a few weeks earlier. Against all odds this was turning out to be the most fun I'd ever had in Zakopane – wandering around away from the town centre at a gentle pace whilst tourists did the same more energetically was pleasant.

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On Monday we made a fairly early start for Morskie Oko, getting a horse and cart up and most of us then climbing up to Czarny Staw (the second lake) – the weather stayed quite clear for most of the morning, long enough to walk briskly back down. In the afternoon I spent a couple of hours and several misunderstandings getting copies of DVDs (the place didn't have burners apart from one admin machine) but emerged with a further five copies. Just in time for the heavens to open and a dash back to the hotel before the worst of it hit. The people who'd come back earlier sat watching the ones who'd yet to return dash back in sodden states, then passed the rest of the evening telling ghost stories punctuated by immense bolts of lightning.

Tuesday I went to Slovakia for absinth, as I'd noticed the border crossing was on the road in to Morskie Oko and got Sally to find a dworzec and pack me off onto a bus back there. Meanwhile, she'd gone off to do an essay whilst those who wanted to went on a round trip to Auschwitz and the salt mines. My switch card apparently died (that's the line HSBC spun, but it's rather a coincidence that it worked fine until I left Poland) though I'd fortunately taken cash with me. That evening we went out to rather nice café / juice bar on the main high street, watching the staff sweep up and close things down until they made it clear that they were trying to shut up. A couple of people discovered that playing the stereotype of the idiot Briton abroad (saying things as if to a child) didn't get them the flavour drinks they wanted, which was probably karma asserting itself. It doesn't hurt to grab a dictionary (or ask someone who does know how to ask for something) and just give the local lingo a shot. Ho hum.

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We left early on Wednesday, doing the salt mine on the way to Kraków as it'd been dropped from the previous day's itinerary. Quite a few of us passed, and Mel keeled over about an hour-and-a-half into the tour (all that salty air is very healthy, but there are an awful lot of steps) and came back up with Mark.

Rooms in Kraków were in the same place we'd stayed previously, but even less organised – Mick and I just grabbed one of the last two rooms after others had split off in, then lost each other on the way up to it. We didn't know where other people were rooming, nor had anyone bothered to tell us what was meant to be happening, but were Brits and dammit we had a kettle. Sometime thereafter (I assume food happened before we left) everyone ended up in town, in a cellar shot bar edging around a conversation with a bloke called Michael from Tennessee about Churchill, the history of the Liberal party in the 1900s and the state of healthcare in the US. After that we moved onto a cellar club with arsey bouncers where there was quite a lot of slow dancing. Then some of us went for a quiet walk up to Wawel, where Maria tried to persuade a remarkably tolerant security guard to let us into the castle.

Thursday I confirmed my switch card was completely dead or blocked – not a major issue that close to leaving, and HSBC claim otherwise on the blocking, but extremely annoying in light of the fact they'd blocked a different card shortly before we left for Poland because I'd bought something from France. At the time, I'd made it clear I'd be using cards in Poland and surrounding countries, and it's unlikely any 'magnetic damage' the card could have suffered wouldn't have destroyed other's people's stuff too. In short, make sure you take cash as backup wherever you're going, as travelling in the EU is likely to class as suspected fraud. Hongkong and Shangai Banking Corp's claims to be "the world's bank" seem, regrettably, to be utter bollocks.

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In the morning we sat out on the main square, wandered around the markets for a bit, went back up to the castle and got some souvenirs (Mick got a giant peacock feather) and Sally drew on Mel's expertise to pick something for Maria. Afterwards most of us took a bus out to the aqua park we'd been to last time, which wasn't nearly as much fun as when new and the weather meant it was rather dull and lukewarm inside. Tempers were fraying a bit before the journey back into town.

For the last evening we went out to a restaurant off a square adjacent to the main one, where service was slow enough I was able to steal Mark's card reader and try to get a copy of Maria's photos at a 24hr internet place. The systems, whilst well-spec'd, were crawling under the setup and crap that users had installed on them and it was a no-go until we went back later with the actual camera. It is good to know there's a cheap all hours place with DVD burners and USB on the main square for 6zł/hr, though.

Friday we were up at 4:15, down and out for ten to five. The storm had keep people awake, and turned out to have been severe enough to bring down trees on several roads. Roads that we needed to be going down.

The director picked up a random passerby – some guy on his way to work – and got him to take us a direct route to the bus station. We made it with a couple of minutes to spare before the coach should have left, then discovered that the 6am on the APASS sheet was about an hour ahead of ATAS' 2007 timetable. Really need to pass that on.

Going back was a lot of dozing. At some point Mick bought doughnuts for everyone, and when we stopped at the castle restaurant service was sufficiently crap that people decided to just chip in their leftover loose change on picnic food from the general store up the road. When we finally got back to Digbeth it was crowded and the weather very sticky; the hours back to the Midlands almost as bad as the overnight coach. Unfortunately we had to leave Mick in London as services were maxed out and we had prebooked tickets, but he left Vicky a note to read on the way home. Aww.

In summary:

Miętne was very much a mixed bag. The group had been railroaded in several cases (evening activities, timetabling, a dangerous minibus) and I feel it's unlikely there are plans to handle anything differently in subsequent years; new people would be faced with a similar situation and expectations. There was also the matter of irregularities in the earlier camp that merged into ours, with a team being arbitrarily split on arrival.

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On the plus side, the motorway is likely to be complete and transport in the area functioning more normally – though you won't have time between lessons and activities to go to Garwolin in the normal course of things, and there's little there if you do. As far as very basic practicalities go, everyone needs to take cash since there's nowhere accessible to change currencies or withdraw money – and having some smaller notes is useful, as small shops don't take kindly to a string of people needing to break big ones.

I wouldn't really recommend it as a first TEFL / language camp experience, and hope APASS will avoid putting people in that position again after feedback for this year is received* As explained at the beginning, the camp had been operating for six years with a mostly fixed returning group, with APASS unaware that arrangements differed quite substantially from their own.

[*Actually, by this point I know there'll be enquiries made now that they're aware of several issues – another thing I'd mention is that any team leader who feels they have an issue can get in touch with APASS in the UK under most circumstances. It was an  unfortunate set of circumstances that Anthony's group lost their team leader just before they travelled, and that we were in the last batch of camps – my sister played it by ear for the first week were there in the hope that things would settle down, by which time the UK office had closed. In the vast majority of cases there's a point of contact. They may be limited by geographical presence, but camps will listen to them because it's the UK side of APASS that deals with the Polish ministry of education.]

All told, from the two camps we came back with about 20Gb of photos and videos, probably 5,000 of which involve people caught unaware, gurning, studiously ignoring the camera, mock seductions, people hugging random strangers, or bars. Sometimes all of those. I won't lie, Puławy was more enjoyable, but that's not a reflection on folk in the Miętne team – I just hope nothing put them off to the extent they'd suggest other people not try it. Fun certainly seemed to be being had a lot of the time, and others will have their own impressions... in particular, those for whom it was a first experience wouldn't have been as cynical – the high of new places and new stuff can go a long way. People got along most of the time, and it was doubtless little more than circumstances that had us going rargh at each other occasionally.

To give some context for Miętne's remoteness... and this link may not remain valid into the future, but has been around since 2005 so it probably won't disappear soon; it's a forum dedicated to developments in different parts of the world and has photos of the area and some of what we ran into the tail-end of...

http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=246182

...I have an immense amount of sympathy for the locals who put up with that for two years, and hope it drives investment to the area. Or at least some damn buses.


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