How to save money in Las Vegas

vegas

(From an article written in 2009)

The city of Las Vegas is synonymous with gambling, neon, and ostentatious excess. Just being that close to so much money makes you want to spend yours. It isn’t nicknamed “Lost Wages” for nothing. Remember, all those flashy buildings were built on losers’ money. Despite the reputation, Vegas has much to do and see outside of gambling and many of its attractions are completely free. Despite its reputation, I’ve found it a good city for a low cost get away. And it is perfect for someone’s first solo travel experience.

Keeping costs low

Timing is everything, especially if you are booking airfare and hotels. To get the best rates, think off season. I’ve found the best prices on both flights and lodging in late summer and early fall, just after the kids have gone back to school. Because Vegas depends heavily on weekend gamblers, you will tend to find the best deals on hotels and flights by booking during the week, as long as there isn’t a large convention already booked into your hotel.

Also check out hotels just off the strip. I stayed at the Orleans, located just 4 miles off the strip on Tropicana Avenue, and got a deluxe suite for $65 (includes taxes) per night. Since they provide a free shuttle to there sister casino on the strip, it was almost as convenient as being located there. I’ve taken advantage of late flights, which are often very cheap. Taking a midnight flight home can mean that you get another full day at your destination without the additional cost of a hotel room. And most hotels will let you check out early and hold your luggage the last day for free. Flying the “red eye” is particularly worthwhile if you are able to sleep on the plane, so bring a pillow, blanket and ear plugs.

When shopping for a Vegas vacation, keep your eyes open for advertised flight and hotel packages, particularly last minute deals. I’ve found the biggest savings by booking them together most of the time, but you have to run the numbers to be sure. Regardless of the advertised price, you don’t know what the real price to you is until you’ve checked what the cost is from your city and determined what taxes, fuel charges and other extras will be added. If you are traveling alone, make sure the quoted price is for a single traveler. Often rates are “per person”, assuming a shared the hotel room. One hotel I booked through Priceline even added a daily $5 “entertainment” fee when I checked out. I protested, but found the charge vaguely stated in the details of the package. Spirit Airlines charges to check luggage and their beverage service is not complimentary. I find the internet to be a great way to book travel, but prepare to spend a lot of time reading the fine print to avoid hidden fees.

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Entertainment that is free:

  • · Lion habitat at MGM Grand
  • · Entrance ceiling to Beligio has blown glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly. Beautiful and totally unique. While you are there continue on through the lobby and see the courtyard.
  • · Water show at Beligio, only at night
  • · Waterfall/Volcano at the Mirage.
  • · Pirates on the water show at Treasure Island
  • · Grand Canal and St. Mark’s Piazza where there are often free shows at the Venetian
  • · Pretend you are going from around the world:  New York’s Statue of Liberty; Paris’ Eiffel Tower; the Spinx as the Luxor; see Rome at Caesar’s Palace
  • · Light show at the Freemont Experience. The stage has free entertainment most nights.
  • · There are acrobats working above the gamblers at Circus Circus.
  • · Flamingos and other birds at the Flamingo Hotel.. Also has a plaque to Bugsy Siegel
  • · Bahaman Shrine at Circus Circus

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Entertainment on a budget

  • · Set a gambling budget of $10 and see how long you can make it last on the penny slots. My personal record is just over an hour!
  • · Half price ticket booth for shows that day
  • · Food is cheap in Vegas, but beware of scams. One restaurant in the Freemont Downtown area had various advertising for a buffet at $9.99. There were restrictions like Tuesday and Wednesday evening only, but I was there during the specified time so I went in. Inside the cost was over $17. The cashier explained that they had “just raised their prices” and had not had time to change the advertising. Likely story. Another restaurant featured a special low price on prime rib which was pictured outside the restaurant to entice the public. Once you stepped inside, the prime rib wasn’t listed on the menu. To be fair, it was available, but you had to ask specifically for it.
  • · Las Vegas is located in a desert, so you must stay hydrated. I went in August and had to drink water constantly but bottled water and iced drinks add up. Carry a water bottle and fill it up every time you visit the restroom or pass a water fountain.
  • · Another way to keep within your budget is to drink water at meals. Iced tea can cost $2 a glass and alcohol is much steeper. Both add to dehydration.
  • · Always carry small bills, particularly to cover transportation costs. Most busses require exact change so if you only have a $5 bill you’ll have to hand that over even if the fare is only $2. And taxis never seem to be able to make change when you have a $20 but the fare is only $10. Even on a budget, don’t forget to leave a tip, however. If a waiter or driver gave you good service, you should reward them. These folks are typically underpaid and certainly under appreciated. I will tip up to 20% for excellent service, but I don’t feel obligated to tip for bad service at all. That’s just throwing money away. Save it for those who earn it.

Saving on Transportation

  • · Before you leave home, call your hotel and arrange a shuttle from the airport. These are usually much less expensive than a cab. A cab between the airport and my hotel off the south end of the strip cost $20 plus tip. The shuttle was only $7. Bus service would have cost less but would drop me off 5 blocks from my hotel in an area I wasn’t familiar with. Since I would arrive alone and at night, I felt safer taking the shuttle. Money isn’t everything.
  • · Most hotels and casino are inter-connected and have several free shuttles a day to other casinos. Take advantage of the free ride. This is especially important if you find a good deal on a hotel that is off the strip. You can use the shuttle to get there. Just make sure that you are clear on the return times, or you may end up having to take a cab back.
  • · Wear comfortable shoes and plan to walk. It is the best way to see the strip. The casinos are huge. To save your feet, make use of all the moving walkways and escalators. Also, there are free trams on the south end of the strip between Excalibur, Luxor, and Mandalay. Use the numerous pedestrian bridges to cross the street safely.
  • · For transportation from one end of the strip to the other, try the buses. The Duece is a double-decker and costs just $2 one way or $5 for 24 hours. You can jump on and off, but it is great to ride from one end to the other to get yourself oriented. I particularly like to see the lights at night this way. Try to sit on top near the front where the view is best. Some of the drivers even give impromptu audio tours.

Taking the train from Lisbon to Madrid, 2009

10/5/09

The trip to Madrid begins with the train from Apolonia Station in Lisbon. I successfully found the right line, coach and seat. It didn’t appear to be full and by the time we left, I had established that no one in my car spoke more than a few words of English. Most were Spanish speakers. The train left at 10:30pm and the ticket collector was very officious and spent a tremendous amount of time reviewing each ticket and checking off a series of lists on a clipboard. Once he was gone, my plan was to sleep until Madrid.

Or that was my plan. I had taken 2 melatonin, donned earplugs and eye shades, so it took awhile for the yelling to bring me fully conscious. And what yelling!  I awoke to two men calling each other names and posturing in the aisle less than 3 yards from me. One was larger and more aggressive, very cocky. The other was smaller and wore a wool cap over his close cropped hair. Their profanity was creative and spanned several languages. I really thought this was all it would be. Eventually one would back down and suffer injury to his male vanity and that would be that. But the cocky guy backed the wool cap guy into a corner and slapped him. Just for a second, everyone held their breath. In The States, slapping is something beauty queens do, prelude to a girlfight. I had only read about it, but even I knew it was much worse than an insult here, akid to spitting on someone. Wool Cap lost his composure, closed his eyes and began swinging like a child on the playground. By the smile on his face, this was what Cocky was hoping for. Fists began to fly, but before they got too many punches in, four train officials came to break it up.

The official in charge looked like a Spanish Danny DeVito—short, broad chested and arrogant in a classic Napoleon Complex kind of way. This is when the more productive yelling began—at least for me—because I could pick up a few words. Money was missing, 100 Euro, though I didn’t know whose. Despite the fight, it wasn’t Mr. Cocky’s money. Also a small Asian man was missing his electronic device, though after 10 minutes of questioning no one could determine if it was an Apple phone or an iPod. When no one has a common language, they quickly move to English, which puts them all at the same disadvantage. Bonus for me. Unproductive for them.

Spanish DeVito ordered a brawny young attendant to hold Wool Cap down on the ground. Something was wrong with his ticket and they may have said that he had a prison record. There were references to his buzz cut and that this proved he was a thief. He had been pronounced guilty, but where was the money?  DeVito began at the front of the car and questioned everyone, asking to go through baggage. It was clear that if you refused, he did not have the right to force you, but he would make it quite uncomfortable. I couldn’t understand him, but I started to open my purse for him to look through. My bag was locked in back and frankly I didn’t have much with me to steal. But the couple in the seat beside me explained to me that I had not once left my seat and was sleeping since we left the station. I was happy to be ignored. There was a plastic bag in the overhead ledge that no one claimed and DeVito snatched it and went through it. It was suspicious, though I couldn’t understand why, since it didn’t hold the missing money or electronic device. He confiscated it. And then DeVito pounced on the man sitting nearest the bag. The man was being suspiciously quiet and he had not been seated there when I fell asleep. He was also Italian, smallish, with glasses and frankly he did look guilty. He acted guilty. Or it may have been that his Spanish wasn’t very good. The Italian screamed that he was being persecuted and refused to let them go through his bag. He kept saying that the plastic bag had not been his, but he clutched his messenger bag in his arms as though it held his life.

DeVito pronounced him guilty, though I don’t know on what grounds. He stood in front of the Italian and kept repeating that the police would pick him and Wool Cap up at the next station, at which point Wool Cap would let out a cry. Cocky kept egging the two prisoners on and DeVito encouraged it. At one point, Cocky grabbed the little Italian by the shoulders and pushed him against the wall threatening him with harm. The Italian squirmed and repeated he was being persecuted. Cocky actually head bumped Italian like this was an American Wrestling match. Or Soccer.

Finally we arrived at the next station and four policia boarded. They took Wool Cap away in handcuffs and dragged Italian by the arm—still clutching his bag. People were questioned, though only those who spoke Spanish. Someone pointed at me and said, “No Espanol.”  I was dismissed again. Happily.

After 30 minutes, we went on our way. I managed to get a bit more sleep before we rolled into Madrid late.

Prague, 2009

February 26, 2009 First Evening in Prague

I have just gotten back from a wonderful evening. Based on my state of inebriation I am a bit surprised I was able to walk straight to the hostel. I only had 2 beers and one shot (more on this later) but we all know what a cheap drunk I am. Mom, I get this from your side of the family!)

Before starting out for the evening, I laid in supplies for the morning–instant coffee, juice, milk and muesli (cereal).–at
a local grocery. The owner and his wife kept up an on going conversation (some might say argument) while I shopped. They greeted me in Czech, “Dobry den”. I said “hello” and, to be polite, they switched their argument to English as an automatic car does from first to second, seamlessly. How kind?

The woman who seems to live at the desk of the Golden Sickle Hostel, Pam, helped me arrange a walking tour for tomorrow. I am to meet at 11am at the astronomical clock in the old town, Stare Mesto. The system seems to be quite different here than anywhere I’ve been. Typically the hostel acts as a booking agent and gets their cut. But that’s not the case here. When I tried to explain it to the clerk, she stared blankly. Obviously, they have not been completely influenced yet by the west

Pam also steered me to an amazing pub. The U Fleku did turn out to be in my guide book, but I never would have found it without the hostel’s recommendation. This is an old pub–really old. The same family has been making and serving beer in the same place since 1499!  Here, as in much of Bohemia, beer halls, or pivnice, serve the brew of one brewery. There may be several beers, pivo, though this evening there was only one. U Fleku served a dark brew, but is was not thick or bitter. Judging by how I felt after 2, I’d say it has high alcohol content.

The waiters, who spoke just enough English to understand “yes I’ll have another” brought around trays of mugs and set them in front of you, marking a simple blank sheet of paper with a pencil–just like a Dim Sum restaurant with polka music. If you didn’t want another you had to clearly refuse. They also brought around trays of liquor redolent of cinnamon. I asked  3 waiters the name. The third waiter patiently said, slowly and clearly “ALL CO HALL” as though I was a simpleton who couldn’t figure that out. I don’t find it in my guide book, but I’d like to bring some home.

(later note: The liquor turned out to be called Bechrovka and it’s hard to find outside of the Czech Republic)

The hall itself was everything you hope for, frankly what I feel I missed in Germany. Dark, carved solid wood walls had hooks for coats and hats. Benches lined the walls with long tables. The ceiling had blackened wrought iron light fixtures that hung from a white, barrel ceiling. The windows were bottle glass.

Just about everywhere outside of the US, people sit together at restaurants and cafes, even if they have never met. Because I am a single, I will usually sit with a couple at a table of four. The couple was Italian, from near Bologna.

It didn’t take long for their grasp of English to win out over my 20 words of Italian. (most of which turn out to translate to “please excuse me”) As I sat, they were talking to a Russian photographer in the lingua franca of Europe–English. I actually got to help translate between the two parties. Not that I speak either language, but they would look at me and say a word and ask me for another word that was similar. So I just kept suggesting words until they selected one they liked.

Czech food is heavy, probably to soak up all that alcohol. I ordered sausages with a picked slaw, mustard and horseradish. Good choice to battle the cold I’m fighting. It was also just about the only thing on the menu that they actually had as my table mates found out. They finally split an order of roast chicken.

There was an old man playing accordion. All his songs came out sounding like a polka. Try to imagine everything from Doris Day singing Que Sara to the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine as a polka. Shame there was not enough room to dance.

Four young women moved into the front room of 4C at the hostel  while I was at dinner. They have been dressing for a night out while I typed. I was about to call it an early night when one of the women, a Czech, runs into my room. “You are pleased to talk, yes?” I was puzzled. “English?” and she handed me her cell phone. It turned out that someone who almost spoke English was on the line. I gave him directions to get here. Which is really funny considering I barely know how to get here myself! English does come in handy!

Prague, Day 2

Fri, Feb 27, 2009

I slept well despite trams outside my window and streetlights. The curtains don’t close, but I had a sleeping mask and something unusual for a hostel–a locked door! The three girls who went out to meet the “man on the phone”, did not come back last night. I dressed and had cereal and coffee and still they are out. No matter. It was sunny and I decided not to wear my long underwear today. Now, 2 hours later, I realize this was a mistake. It is now cloudy. But I’m sitting in the Old Town square, Staromestske namesti. I saw the astronomical clock strike 10a. What sun there is, is glinting off the solid gold Madonna and child of Tyn church.

Another bit of luck on my walk here. One only rents coffee, so when I passed a WC, I picked through my pockets for a 5Kc piece (about 25 cents). The smallest I had was 10Kc. Some workman nearby was trying to help me, probably thinking an American could not understand how to pay (which is true. We take clean rest rooms for free as a given) I showed him by coins and pointed to the smallest! “Ah!” He said and made a sign that he would be right back. He walked to a van and I thought he would bring back change. Instead he brought a wrench. He used it to open a compartment, flip a switch and the cabinet opened. He gallantly bowed, and ushered me in! My knight in shinning coveralls!  I had been a damsel in distress!  When I write the guide to “The Free Pee, Guide to Bathrooms in Europe” I will add this story.

This is the first place I’ve ever been to where it honestly felt “foreign” to me. This language is not Latin based and so it gets tough to figure out words. Most of the time I stare at the words printed on signs and want to call Vanna White and buy a vowel. This is a language of consonants.

When I travel, it is not the things I don’t understand that surprise me. I am used to how very ignorant I am. I am taken aback by the things I do understand. For instance, hot pants seem to be back in style among young women. They are worn with dark tights and boots, but they are still a questionable fashion choice. Particularly when the temperature barely rises above freezing. The other thing is the number of Kentucky Fried Chicken places. You wind your way between narrow passages, buildings from the Middle Ages or Art Nouveau facades. You pass statues of Kings from the 14th Century. Then you turn the corner and run into a larger than life cutout of the Colonel. Chilling. But at least it’s not McDonalds (though they have those too).

Later, 5pm

I think I have been walking nonstop for about 6 hours now. My tour was a walking overview of Prague, though it did not cover all it advertised. Frankly, I was thankful because I was not sure how much more I could walk. The tour was given by a student, Peter, who turned out to be studying Chinese. He gave a fair overview to the Old Town, Jewish Quarter, Charles Bridge and the Castle. Now that I am oriented to these areas I will go back on my own to investigate more thoroughly.

I have not yet figured out the trams and subway, but must learn or I will have no feet left on these cobblestones and mosaic walkways. Truly, hard as stone and not forgiving.

Climbing to the Prague Castle was a true killer. It is the highest point around and the view of the Lesser Quarter (Male Strana), river and old town beyond is quite impressive. I must work harder in my walking group on uphill and stairways!

Back at the Golden Sickle hostel, there is no sign of the three girls from last night who were in the first room. But the middle room is now quite occupied by “8 lads” the young British man told me. We had a laugh that I should expect singing and snoring, but I asked if he could keep the dancing to a minimum. If you want restful sleep every night, simply don’t stay in a hostel. I am prepared with ear plugs, eye shades and sleeping pills. And if that isn’t enough I shall be quite LOUD in the morning since I’m bound to be up before them. The woman at the desk plans to move me tonight tomorrow. Let’s hope I get some sleep.

I’ve taken a shower while the hostel is quiet. I started this trend as a way to assure privacy and hot water and it works so well and is so reviving I now do it even at home.

The only dilemma is that my travel hair dryer seems to be overheating and shuts off. This is not the weather I’d chosen for wet head.

7pm–I am celebrating my birthday with an adventure. I am sitting in an Absinthe house trying the “green muse” as Toulouse Lautrec called it. I’ve had it served to me with a flaming cube of sugar! Who needs birthday candles! Actually I’ve agreed to try it two ways–hot and cold. Absinthe was favored by many artists, including Hemingway. Made of wormwood it’s been thought to be mildly poisonous. The consumption did “inspire” painters and writers, but many died, causing it to be outlawed in some countries. Recently, it has been clear that the substance may have been adulterated, plus ANY alcohol is poisonous if drunk in large quality. So you can find Absinthe legally once again. I tried it once, straight, in Venice. I thought it vile. I gave a bottle of it away to a street performer in lieu of a tip and he hugged and kissed me. That made me think there could be more to this drink. And there is. It is served either hot–with a flaming cube of sugar dissolved into a shot. Or cold, with water slowly dripped over a cube that sits on a specially made spoon. The spoon is flat (no bowl) and slotted. The cube sits on the spoon hat straddle the rim of a glass containing a shot of absinthe. The hot preparation is downed quickly and then chased with a second sugar cube. The “cold” method (using room temperature water) is sipped slowly. If it is too strong, you add more water. It is all too strong for me and I will have to walk it off before dinner!

I’ve chosen a different beer hall for dinner. More modern, no long tables were people sit together. I’ve ordered a Pilsner Urquell, the most common beer in the Czech Republic. If this is a “short” I fear what a large looks like! I order the Cottager’s Sparrow for dinner–pork back w/sausage and mushrooms. It comes with dumplings which are almost raw dough (I love this, though most would not) and a sour kraut that is almost creamy in texture. The meat covered with gravy that has mushrooms and onion. If I lived here, I would never lose any weight! All the foods are heavy, filling. All bars and restaurants are smoking.

I am full and tipsy. Good thing I am close to my hostel. I hope I can sleep through the noise of the 8 lads in the room next to me!

Prague, Day 3

Sat, Feb 28, 2009

A new day and a new dilemma. First how to dress and eat breakfast with 8 young men sleeping in the room I must go through to get to the kitchen or bath. Once I heard their snoring I realized this was not going to be a problem! If that racket didn’t wake them, nothing I could do would. Suspect they had plenty of liquid aid to sleeping, judging by the empty bottles and cans. I had planned to take a bus tour to Terezin today, but I’m locked in the hostel courtyard. Despite assurances that the desk is manned “nonstop” and “24/7” it is locked up tight, as is the exit gate. It is now almost 9am and I will have to wait. There is a phone number to call, but I don’t have an international phone. The phone in the room just rings reception and no one answers. But there are businesses here too and I hope that one of them will show soon. In the meantime, I will read and re-plan my day.

I did hear the 8 lads come in early this morning. Not sure of the time, except that it was after 3am. I could hear them through my earplugs perfectly when one of them said

“Shhhh. That old lady is next door.” Honest, my very first thought was that I wondered who they were talking about. Had someone else moved in? I was almost ready to drift off so sleep when, “Hey! I’m not old!” But of course they meant me! It is hard to imagine that I am old enough to be their mother. When did that happen?

Later: A shopkeeper, who spoke no English finally opened the door at 9:40a and I was free! I now have the correct passcode and this should not be repeated tomorrow morning!

I did spend my time wisely, studying the public transportation system and have a better grasp. I’ve also discovered I’ve been traveling illegally for 2 days. I bought a 5 day pass, but didn’t understand how to validate it. People regularly travel with no valid pass. If you are caught it is a 700Kc fine on the spot. By contrast, a month pass is 550Kc. So today I validated my pass and am legal.

I went back to Prague Castle and St. Vitus Church. I took a different route there and passed by the ministry of defense. The building is uncharacteristically pink! Perhaps they are in touch with their feminine side?

Admission to the cathedral is free at the moment because the government and the Catholic Church are arguing over who owns it. I also took the English audio tour. Signage is poor, though typically if there is a sign, it will also have an English translation. The audio tour wasn’t very good and I would have done just as well with my tour guidebook. I buy the DK series City Guides and noticed many others use it to, in various languages. It looks to be the most popular for Prague travelers.

St. Vitus Cathedral was finally completed in the 20ith century, but began in 1344. It sports flying buttresses and Gargoyles and a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. The original entrance “The Golden Portal” is undergoing renovations, but the mosaic of The Last Judgment reminded me of St Marks in Venice. Highlights inside the cathedral are the stained glass, all 20ith century, particularly one by Mucha; tomb of

St John Nepomuk crafted from solid silver; and St. Wenceslas’ Chapel, with walls of semi-precious stones and gold. The church was dark so all my photos are poor.

I did not get to see much of the palace which was a huge disappointment. The lower

Romanesque levels were open, but these only form the cellars of the castle. The upper floors were closed. No explanation and no refund given. I did get to see St George’s convent, and Golden Lane (tiny houses, which are now shops, named after the goldsmiths who lived there in 17th century).

I also got to see the changing of the guards. Like their British counterparts, the guards are very grim while standing at attention outside their phone booth sized shacks. Their uniforms need an update as they look very Russian drab to me.

On the way back I stopped at a street vender for a very late lunch of sausage on roll.

They were selling gluwein (hot, mulled wine) for 20Kc (about $1). A Coke was 35Kc.

At Wenceslas Square is a small plaque to Jan Palach who burned himself to death Jan 16,

1969 to protest the Soviet occupation. Nearby was a small photo gallery of black and white pictures of events following immediately after his death, funeral and rallies. It is very moving. They quote him, “You must fight the evil you are equal to.”

I love the old churches and palaces, but the thing I can’t get beyond is how very cold they must have been in winter. Fireplaces simply don’t give off much heat. And the castles didn’t have plumbing or ceiling fans or vacuum cleaners. And these were the nice building for the rich folk. What must it have been for the regular folk, the hardy peasant stock I came from, for instance? It simply must be that most of the human race has been very uncomfortable for most of the time we’ve been around. You were hot in summer, cold in winter and clean never! You ate what was available, which could not have been much. Lack of clean water and basic sanitation must have killed all but the strongest. Life must have been dirty, brutish and short.

I began thinking in this vein after returning to the hostel to get off my feet and clean up for dinner. The “8 lads” in the room next to mine have made a disaster of their area. I should explain that the 3 sleeping rooms and kitchen area are all in a line, so that I have to go through each to get to my small room on the end. This affords me the maximum privacy available–which is good–but forces me to be reminded first hand of how college aged boys live. One suspects they are making the transition from a brutish existence in one life time and are now up to about the middle ages in development, with a serious nod to Roman drinking practices. The boy’s bedroom floor is a landmine of jeans, half empty drink containers, backpacks and candy wrappers. Plus wires everywhere to recharge phones, laptops and iPods. I could rob them blind, they’ve left out so much currency. The kitchen counter is strewn with bath towels and underwear. I won’t try to figure what is used and what is clean. I’d be afraid to prepare anything more exotic than cold cereal in there!  It is also cold in the rooms since they don’t heat through the day. Many hostels lock you out mid-day. Based on my observations, I presume they use this opportunity to hose the place down.

7pm

I’ve chosen the Novomestsky Pivovar (new town beer hall) for dinner. Their house beer is Kvanicovy Lezak. I’ve asked for a small (half liter!) Pivo svetly (light beer). It has a strong taste of hops, but is not bitter. I’ve ordered the Chef Surprise, which turns out to be crispy potato pancakes, smoked neck of pork (more evocative than “ham” don’t you think?) Marinated Camembert cheese and porcini sauce. It is stacked like a chef sandwich. This is served with braised cabbage (actually cooked sour kraut) and a fresh green salad! The salad is the first fresh item I’ve been served since I arrived. It is all very good and, as with all the food I’ve had here, filling. I could grow to like the cabbage this way. All the tables have bread waiting for you when you sit down. I’m using a piece to sop up the wonderful mushroom gravy. Silverware and napkins are in a mug on the table. No water, though. I have long since stopped asking for water in Europe. You get bottled water and pay more than the price of beer. Even waiters who speak perfect English when taking your order will suddenly be deaf to the words “tap water”. (Incidentally, in Italian, rubbinetto means tap water. So close to my last name, which is French. I’m told in French robinette means spigot or water carrier. Have always suspected we were ditch diggers, the middle age equivalent to plumbers.)

It is a huge amount of food and roughly half the calories are from fat. Based on my ability to put it away, I can affirm I am of the same hardy peasant stock this used to feed. The Czechs are kept slim by the shear amount of walking. There are cars, but for a major city, I don’t find it congested, like London, nor are cars parked willy nilly, like Rome. I can only guess that this amount of activity is what keeps the Czech arteries from closing off before age 30. This is hardy fare, which also helps endure the cold. It was overcast all day with spotty rain and temperatures below 40, humidity very high, so if you stop moving you chill quickly. Today I wore my silk long underwear and was glad for them.

I am not much of a shopper, but I do try to bring some souvenir back from a trip. So far, nothing. The only things that have tempted me are glassware and ornaments made from hollowed egg shells. Both are too fragile for me to carry.

I plan to make it an early night. I’ll lay in provisions for a bus trip to Terezin tomorrow. I’m to be at the Hotel Europa in Wenceslas Square tomorrow at 9am. I hope to be early enough to spot the Art Nouveau interior. More adventures tomorrow!

Prague, Day 4

Sun, Mar 01, 2009

So much for the darling boys in the room next door. They are now the “loud lads”. And if I could think of a nasty, four letter work starting with “l” I’d add that too, just to complete the idea and the alliteration. I did get some sleep last night, but only with earplugs and a pillow over my head!  I also took a Tylenol PM on top of last night’s “medicinal” beer. Honest I didn’t mind that they were playing music too loudly; it was their choice in music. Isn’t Rap dead yet? I still hope it will go the way of disco (which I now miss, comparatively). Most of the lads are sleeping, or should I say passed out, on the floor, probably because they have reduced two of the bunk beds to kindling. They damaged the shower, completely removed a panel so that it will now be impossible to keep the water inside the shower. More underwear on the kitchen counters and I am quite sure this is used. I will be eating out this morning. No one was at the “24/7, nonstop, we never close” desk this morning, so I let myself out with the pass code. I packed everything up this morning. I slid a note under the door saying that I’d need to change rooms and suggested that they survey the damage.

 

Today I went to Terezin Concentration camp. This was not a “death” camp but many who passed through went to them. Terezin was built by Emperor Joseph II from 1780 to

1790. It is named after his mother, Maria Theresa. Built as a fortification guarding the

North entrance of the Czech lands from Prussia. It consists of a smaller fortification for defense and a larger garrison town. But it was never used for defense, though the town was occupied with families. The small fortification became a prison for mainly political prisoners. WWI was started by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne. Gunman Gavrila Princip and his accomplices were held at Terezin. Princip died 4 years later, officially of tuberculosis, but he weighed only about 88 pounds at the time of his death, weakened by malnutrition, confinement and disease.

The Nazi invaded the Czech lands in 1939. Immediately they began using the small fortress as a prison, mostly for Communist Czechs and other political prisoners. The garrison town was cleared to be used as a Jewish Ghetto. There were no gas chambers here (construction was started, but not completed)  but there were crematoriums. Conditions were horrible and people died of malnutrition, lack of sanitation, overcrowding. Current estimates are that 155,000 men, women and children came to the camp between 1942 to 1945.

Sometimes, as many as 60,000 were here at one time. By contrast, the garrison held 7,500 before it was emptied for a ghetto. Of these, 35,000 died here, 87,000 were sent to death camps (mostly Auschwitz). Approximately 3,600 of those sent out were liberated at other camps. The math is staggering.

The tour includes 2 cemeteries, the small fortification, the crematorium/morgue and two museums: the former boys school showing children’s drawing and the former women’s house containing drawings, writing, music and a portion of a propaganda film made for the Red Cross. Mostly original furnishings are on display. The place looks cold, wet, miserable. It is hard to take in. The shear numbers of people, the waste. The thing I found most chilling was the sign over the entrance: “Arbeit macht frei” I don’t remember learning this phrase, though I’m sure I’ve been exposed to it. It felt more like a racial memory than anything else, something embedded deep in my body. I could translate it instantly, “work will make you free”. But it didn’t, of course. Also the group showers. You could see how easy it would be to gas people in mass. Chilling.

The guide spent a lot of time talking about all the preparations for the Red Cross visit of the camp–how the Nazis had 8 months to prepare and the visit took only 6 hours.

Our guide, Jane (pronounced YA ney) is an unusual woman and I can’t help but imagine that she has been greatly affected by this work. She seems German to me and walks through her spiel as though this is her penance. I’m sure she is speaking Czech, but it sounds German, and no one else does. I really mean a caricature of a German: contained and ramrod straight, commanding, stern, and needing to control us. She would try to give us time to look at things on our own, but you could see that she simply could not control herself. She had to start explaining the displays, even the ones with detailed explanations. Jane is very bitter about the Yalta Conference and feels the East, particularly the Americans, abandoned the Czech people to Russia. She spoke with hatred about the bombing here (which was less than in Germany) saying that the US “wanted to break up things so that the Soviets would not be getting such a strong country”. She mentioned this no less than 6 times and implied that we should feel guilty. She is, of course, far too young to have experienced the Yalta conference, but she would well remember Soviet control and the Velvet Revolution! Jane never mentioned if she was Jewish, but I think not. She is probably my age.

The entire Terezin area was under water in 2002. The Jewish cemetery stayed submerged for almost a year. You can see the watermark on most of the buildings. Hard to say what was lost in this flood. Jane was most disturbed by a tree, dying in the Jewish cemetery. She said it had been planted by school children as an emblem of peace. It still stands, dead and drowned. Frankly there are few signs in any language. Without a guide you wouldn’t get much from the visit, particularly of the cemeteries and small fortress, though the 2 museums are well marked in 4 languages. It is hard to say what will become of this area. The town emptied out about 10 years ago when the army left. Now only the old remain as there are no jobs. The Jewish cemetery has 9,000 graves. Approximately 22,000 cremains were dumped into the river when the Germans abandoned the camp. Another 3,000 were buried hastily. There is no way to identify any of them. There are several markers, but they have no name. Markers and tombstones have been added over the years by family members who needed a memorial, though few can be sure whether their family is actually buried here. These have all been moved to the far end of the cemetery.

At the end of the tour we were deposited at Republic Square, site of the Powder Gate and former site of a small palace. It is near Tyn Church and the Old Town square. Tyn church has dark, twin towers, but the church is “closed for climatic conditions”. The St. Nicholas church on the edge of the old town square is open. It has the most beautiful crystal chandelier I’ve seen. Amazing frescos. (There is also a St Nicholas church in the Male Strana, Little Quarter.)  I had a sausage and beer on the square and watch various street musicians before going back to the hostel for a break.

Later

I’ve moved to another room! It is the same set up in that I have to walk through another bedroom to get to my small private room, which I can lock. I feel good about this because the seven Italian men are cooking and it smells wonderful! They sat me down and fed me gnocci, which I love. These men are only here a few more days, working on a construction project. The hostel mistress indicated that they were “older” but not a one is over 27. But I don’t care because they are in great shape, very handsome and never wear their shirts!  Two more are staying here and I have not met them yet. One is reading a Bill Bryson book, one of my favorite authors. The hostel mistress, Pam, went with me to help me move, concerned that there would be trouble and to inspect the shower. I already had everything packed, even my bedding, so it took about 2 minutes to move. No problems.

I’ll go out for dinner, but will “try” for something light. Assuming that is possible!

I’ve just checked and I’ve only taken 415 photos so far!

7pm

I’ve come to Jama for dinner after the enthusiastic recommendation of the hostel mistress and a 10% off coupon. This is what a Czech must imagine an American bar is like. There are posters every where. But such a mix: Johnny Cash, Kiss, Kathy Ireland, R.E.M., Robert Plant, Janis Joplin, Yoda and Muhammad Ali, to name a few. I order grog (hot rum with sugar and lemon) because it is warm and cheaper than hot tea. They claim to serve “tradion food of Czechy” but I only see goulash listed on the very back page. The rest of the menu is hamburgers, wings and potato skins. There is one salad, but it is iceberg lettuce with fried chicken and bacon. I decide that I’m not really that hungry and it’s probably tough to ruin potato skins, so that’s all I order. The potatoes are tiny and the skins are completely hollowed out, only skin and no potato. But they’ve managed to put a pound of bacon into 6 potato halves. And melted cheese. And sour cream. My arteries will be permanently damaged by this trip. I set aside the sour cream and some of the cheese, but keep all the bacon. As Elle McPherson—whose poster stares as me across the room—says I could be a vegetarian, except for bacon!

Prague, Day 5 Mon, Mar 02, 2009

Last night I slept without aid of earplugs or pillow over my head! This wing is really quite full, but everyone is quiet. I had a nice talk with two of the young me here. One Scottish, the other Irish (they had to tell me as I can only occasionally figure it out by accent alone). They were having a wonderful time and blissfully unaware of most of the historic sites. No knowledge or interest in the castle or churches. For them, Prague is one big pub crawl. But they seemed happy and certainly kept their partying outside the hostel, so who am I to complain?

My room was quite chilly last night. They don’t turn on the heat through the day. This is steam/radiator heat and mine is the farthest room from the heat source, so it was the middle of the night before my room warmed. I added my long undies to my jammies, and I carry a silk sleep sheet–essentially a thin sleeping bag. I brought it in case the beds were not clean, but it also works as a thermal layer and I always carry it camping. Staying in a hostel is not for those who need luxuries like heat and privacy! By this morning my room was toasty.

Today I toured the Jewish Quarter, Josefov. For centuries Prague Jews were confined to ghettos and suffered from oppressive laws. In Prague, when Jews left the ghetto, they were required to wear a yellow hat. At first a mark of shame, they redefined it as a mark of distinction and used it in banners and symbols. Discrimination is particularly relaxed in 1784 by Joseph II, and the Jewish Quarter was named Josefov after him. In 1890s, the overcrowded slums of the ghetto were razed. City authorities installed basic sanitation, but almost all the building were demolished. Only the town hall (unusual for a Jewish quarter), cemetery and some of the synagogues were saved.

The Jewish community of Prague was decimated during the Holocaust, so it was fitting that I started my tour at the Pinkas Synagogue. Its walls are covered with the names of the Czech Jews who died, along with their birthdates and the last known date they were alive–usually the date of their transportation to a death camp. Under Soviet control, the names were painted over, but after 1989 they were once again handwritten. The names are continuously read aloud. Upstairs is a display of drawings from the children sent to Terezin.

Next stop was the Old Jewish Cemetery. This was established in first half of the 15th

Century and was the only place that Jews could be buried. An estimated 12,000 tombstones are crowded together, but the number buried there is much higher, as at least 12 layers of bodies are stacked one top of each other in some places. The level kept being raised over the years, though the stone were always lifted up. It had a very hard time making out any of the tombstones and there were only two tombs that were marked.

Next was the Klausen Synagogue, which now houses an exhibit of Jewish customs.

The Ceremonial Hall looks like a tiny medieval castle. It is alongside the cemetery and houses an interesting exhibit on death and burial customs. The Old-New Synagogue was build around 1270 and is the oldest in Europe. The exterior is a distinctive 14th century stepped brick. Services are still held here.

The last two synagogues contain silver and some gold treasures from all over Bohemia and Moravia. Many of these amazing pieces were saved by the Nazis who planned to open a museum to a dead race once all the Jews had been exterminated. These treasures are housed in the Maisel and Spanish synagogues. The latter is an amazing, Moorish style, said to resemble the Alhambra in Spain. It is the most beautiful of them all.

For lunch, between synagogues, I stopped at the U Golem, at Golem–the mythical creature created by Rabbi Low to protect the quarter at night. The restaurant is small but quite fancy. I was not really hungry, but had some gluwein (mulled wine) and soup. Service is slow, but the food always arrives too hot to eat or drink and with fresh bread. The restaurant is lovely with old bottles of wine, brass candlesticks. But the music is The Best of the Mamas and the Papas. An Italian family came in shortly after me. Why am I not surprised that the only Italian I can remember involves food? I perfectly understood their order! In case of a food ordering emergency in Italy, I am prepared! As I left U Golem, they were playing the song “Love grows where my Rosemary Goes”. I think that was popular the year I first attended Girl Scout camp. It seems so out of place here, but most of the music I hear is American or at least English lyrics.

With the rebuilding of the Jewish Quarter at the turn of the 20ith century, most of the buildings are Art Nouveau. But there are also a few examples of Cubist architecture, a fashion that didn’t become popular much of anywhere else. Still it is a beautiful area and many of my photos are just lovely building facades. Speaking of photos, the ones I took today in the Jewish Quarter are stolen. “No Photo” signs are everywhere. I turned off the flash and took a few, but not all will come out, I’m sure.

7pm Dinner

I’ve just had the most wonderful potato soup!  The secret is always garlic, lots of garlic. And I have learned to say “prosim ucet” (PRO seem OO chet) Check, please. This language would be much more difficult to learn than Spanish or Italian. I think I have the coins figured out, but it would take years to learn the language. I’ve gotten better about checking the bill. I find that you are often charged for service, bread and “paper” separately. And today I was “accidentally” given back the wrong change.

I don’t have the map figured out. I guess I had not had enough adventure this evening because I managed to get myself lost. I took a wrong turn and ended up by the Vltava River in front of the National Theater. It is an amazing building and I’d love to see it from the river, but there are few boat cruises this time of year. I could also see Prague Castle across the water and just make out St. Vitus’ Cathedral in the dark. It was raining, no moon visible so the photo won’t come out. If I had a tripod, this would be the best view of the castle at night.

At this point I really *should* have pulled out my map. It was dark. It was raining. I was lost, mostly. But that would have been way to simple! Instead I got on a tram, and in 3 stops I was really lost! So I did pull out a map, figured where I was, found a Metro stop and made it back. And I got milk and snacks for tomorrow.

But I’m not sure what I’m doing tomorrow. I planned to go to Kutna Hora (a mining town) and ossuary (sort of a wild bone church) but the tour doesn’t run this time of year. But my guide book has a walk along Vysehrad, according to legend the first seat of Czech Royalty. I can see the spot where Princess Libuse is said to have seen the future glory of Prague! How could I miss all that?

Another adventure tomorrow!

Prague, Tuesday, Day 6  Tue, Mar 03, 2009

I must have been making up for lost sleep–or just wearing myself out. I slept about 11 hours last night. Even though I had cereal and 2 cups of coffee, I may lay down for a nap. I was the first one up this morning–in truth anyone up before noon will be. I tiptoed through the boy’s room. Made my morning ablutions as quietly as possible. Started the water pot for instant coffee. Reached for a “clean” mug. Washed it anyway because you can trust that nothing is really clean. And snagged a plate with my sleeve which came crashing to the floor. The entire floor stopped in mid-snore. Darn! I wanted to be the quiet one! There was nothing to do but clean up the mess. I had on shoes, thankfully, and so I went about picking up the larger pieces. There was no broom to sweep up the smaller ones and I know all the men go about bare foot. In the end, I wet paper towels and went over the floor hoping to pick up all the small pieces. I certainly got most of them, but feel I deserve at least an Associate’s degree in archeology for the layers of “civilization” I scrubbed up as well. Note to self: NEVER go barefoot in a hostel.

One thing I keep noticing–usually in the seedy sections of town–is “Black Light” Theater. No idea what this is, but suspect it isn’t a show you’d tell your mother you attended. Find it interesting that it is usually described as “Traditional”. How many traditions include electricity?

2pm–I don’t know how it is for others, but I spend a good deal of time simply lost when

I travel. This morning after a late start, I managed to hit all three metro lines before

I got to my stop at Vyshrad. Clearly I only needed 2, but if you get on the wrong way even once…. But now is a good time to mention how very polite I find the Czech people. They are exceptionally courteous in the Metro–on par with Londoners. And judging by the book shops and the number of people carrying books, people read here. Manners and a high literacy rate strike me as a civilized country.

What started off as a lark–a walk through Vysehrad, has turned into a lovely day and so interesting! The weather was not lovely because it rained all day, but once I finally got off on the right metro stop I found an historic park along the Vltava. According ancient legend Vysehrad (hrad means castle or fortified structure) was the first seat of the Premyslids, the original ruling dynasty, in the early 800AD. There are ruins of 10th century churches and fortifications, beneath 14th century fortification build by Charles IV. I passed right under the impressive Leopold (II) gate, part of a 17th century wall. These were widened further by the French in the early 18th. It makes your head spin. All of it allowed amazing vistas of Prague, though I don’t know how well my photographs will look in the rain and mist. Just below Vysejrad rock was a small underground museum, part of the fortification, that wasn’t in my guide book. For 30Kc ($1.50) I got to read quite a bit of history and just as much myth. The park adjoins the SS Peter and Paul Church, founded by Vratislav II in the 11 Century. The current building has foundation from the mid-13th Century (though excavations show a Roman Bridge beneath one corner) which has been build, rebuilt and renovated many times. The twin spires that dominate the skyline are Neo-Gothic, finished in 1902.

The Cemetery here is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. A clash of styles, it was founded in 1869 as a burial place for Czech’s most famous citizens. I photographed Dvorak grave site and a few dozen others.

On the way out of the park, I photographed a tiny Romanesque church, built in late 11th century, St Martin’s Rotunda. And my guidebook identified a “Devil’s Column” that supposedly sprang up after the Devil lost a bet with a clergyman. It wasn’t marked in any way. It would have been difficult to identify much of this area without a good guidebook.

Back on the Metro and I was feeling so good (my feet have been sore, but today’s walk was not so much stone) I decided to explore the Little Quarter (Male Strana) that sits below Prague castle. I visited St Nicholas’ Church (Kostel sv Mikulase). Building began in 1703. It is an amazing Baroque church. The ceiling frescos are in poor shape, but the rest of the church is lovely. They have an organ Mozart played. The photos don’t do it justice.

I walked around the square and took photos of the buildings and the Castle high above.

Walked back across the Charles Bridge and through the Charles Gate. The rain had stopped by then and I did a bit of window shopping. The glassware and figurines are lovely, but I don’t know how I’d get any of it home in one piece.

On a lark I went in the museum of Medieval Torture Instruments because the lovely British ladies who were exiting so recommended it. It was really interesting in a morbid way.

7pm

I am now at U BubenickU, listed as a traditional Czech restarance. I’m having a dark (tmave) beer (pivo) which my waitress assured me has less alcohol than light (svetle). For supper I have ordered Staroceska svickova (old Bohemian sirloin) which the menu says is beef in cream sauce with lemon, cranberries and whipped cream. I can’t imagine this is good, but every traditional menu has had something like it, so that should mean something. Sure enough the meat arrives with whipped cream straight from a can piped on top. The meat is tough but flavorful and the gravy is sweet. I can taste the lemon. It works, though I would never have put this together myself. And with the dumplings, I won’t have to leave a drop of the gravy behind! It is interesting to question the bill because unlike in the US, the price is not the price. I was charged for dumplings (that I didn’t order, but were added to my plate), “bread and paper” (I assume she meant my napkin?) And service. Still it’s  hard to argue with the price. The meal came to 210Kc ($11.50) and was more than I could eat.

I find that my ear is beginning to understand a little of the language. I can now hear when my stop is called on the Metro and respond Dobry den when someone greets me. I was able to say prosim vas when I bumped into someone today (please forgive me). Still working on thank you, Dekuji vam (DIE ku ji VAHM).

The main reason I travel in the off season is money, of course. But there are other advantages. For instance, I look a bit like a homeless bag lady when I travel. I’m usually tired, about half sick and disheveled at best. And the older I get the less I am able to pull off “disheveled” as a fashion choice. I don’t say these things to complain. It is well worth the price to me. But traveling during winter you find that everyone is dragging coats, scarves and has “hat hair”. My naturally ruddy completion looks like I’ve been in the cold like everyone else. And at least my straight hair remains so with a quick comb through. In short, I think I fit in and look less like a tourist, an ugly American. Well, until I open my mouth, that is.

After dinner, I took a walk along the river Vltava and tried again to get a photo at night of the Prague Castle and the National Theatre. Better than last night in the rain, but still not good.

When I got back to the hostel I found I no longer have a private room. I didn’t pay for one, so really I’ve just been lucky so far. Fernando is from Spain but has worked in England and Florida, so his English is quite good. He is currently watching a movie. Most everyone seems to bring laptops. I thought it would be too heavy and fragile to carry, plus I was afraid it would be stolen. Fernando explained that he is “working on a project” here, but is vague about the details. Hummmm.

Tomorrow is my last full day as I’ll be leaving so very early Thursday. In some ways it seems like I’ve just gotten here, but in others I feel like I’ve actually settled in a bit. It seemed so very “foreign” when I got here, but now things are beginning to seem normal.

Prague, Wednesday, the 7th and final full day

Wed, Mar 04, 2009

Fernando’s computer went off at 7am and that seemed like a good time to get up. I slept well. The room was much warmer the last 2 nights, so the adjustments to heat seem to be working for me, though everyone else has a window open.

I keep getting these emails from everyone saying how brave I am. The funniest email came from my brother Rod, the policeman who has spent time in 2 wars. He was on surveillance for a drug bust when he emailed and probably had to cut thing short so he could don his bullet proof vest and storm a building. He makes my “bravery” sound like the child’s play that it is. Seriously, after you’ve gotten used to driving in Atlanta, hardly anything seems dangerous. Prague is a city of 1.2 million people (Atlanta has 4 million) so it has the same dangers as any other large city. Most of the crime is theft: pickpockets, purse snatchers. You can guard yourself against this. If you take care when crossing the street you have 90% of the dangers licked. And you can’t protect yourself from everything. The thing I keep learning when I travel or backpack is that most people are good. I don’t flash large sums of money or fancy jewelry to tempt anyone and I try not to make myself a target. Exactly the things I do at home. But most people will help you if they can, or at least do you no harm. This isn’t much more dangerous than visiting NYC and far safer than crossing Buford Highway during rush hour. (My friend Dave tells me that is a little like saying it’s no more dangers than sword dancing on a freshly waxed floor!)

I managed the tram back to the National Theater (Naroodni Divadlo) to take photos of Prague castle and St Vitus Cathedral again. My night photos are poor, so a day photo will work too. I am using the little Nikon Coolpix I just bought. I love my larger Nikon D40x, but it is not practical to travel with. Plus this one is 10 Mega pixels with a decent zoom. Will see how they turn out when I get home. I think my photos are improving with use, but it probably would have made sense to read the instructions before I left. (Instructions are for amateurs!)

For as much as my feet ache at night, I’m surprised at how very good they feel in the morning. I wear trail runners–hardly a fashion statement!–with special insoles and I think it does make a difference.

Today’s excursion is to Kutna Hora, a silver mining town 70km east of Prague. In the trip out, I was kept occupied by a lovely Welsh couple, who told me stories about her father, who had a pet sheep that road in the car with him. When they told me they planned 4 meals a day plus snacks “cause ya neva know when a fah-meen (famine) ca happen”, I knew these were people I’d like. It is interesting the impression one has of another country. The man has been watching a Welch TV program about extreme fishing around the world. The two US segments fascinated him. In Louisiana, they were using a glove to reach under rocks and grab catfish, which usually bite onto the glove. In Florida, the program showed shooting fish with a bow and arrow. I hated to tell him that I’d never even heard of the glove catching technique. I think he was under the impression both styles were common sport. He was thrilled to know that my youngest brother, Matt, has done some bow and arrow fishing, though.

Kutna Hora was settled by monks in the 11th Century and in fact “kutna” is the name for a monks robes. According to legend, a monk dreamed about the silver mines here and lay his robe on the spot where silver was later found in the 12th century. By the 13th century these mines were providing a third of Europe’s silver and the Prague Groshen (coin) was one of the most stable currencies. By the time the Osel mine was closed in the 16th century, it had been the deepest mine in the world for 200 years, at 600 meters.

Our first stop was at the Church of All Saints in Sedlec, just outside Kutna Hora. This small church is located near the original monastery (which is now a tobacco plant, owned by Philip Morris, go figure). The church’s cemetery was very popular because it had been sprinkled with dirt from the Holy Land. By the 16th century they began digging up the bones and storing then in the chapel. By 1890 there were the bones of about 40,000 people, so a rich family commissioned a man to form the bones into decorative piles and arrangements. It is truly the last word in decorative styles! The Ossuary has garlands of long bones and skulls, four huge pyramids, even a coat of arms all done in human bones. I admit, this was the main reason I came on this tour. Hummmm I’m seeing a macabre pattern: ossuary, Terezin, the Museum of Torture…Maybe therapy?

 

In town we were given a walking tour, traditional Czech lunch, then we continued the tour with the Church of St Barbara, protector of miners. It was begun in the 13th century, though building continued through to the early 20ith. It is mostly Gothic, with some Baroque touches, flying buttresses, and modern painted windows.

Our tour guide, Tonya, was so interesting. A tiny woman of indeterminate age, she was trained and worked as an electrical Engineer, then worked in copy write law before taking the test to become a guide. She speaks 4 languages, but claims to “have forgotten how to speak Russian”. And then she smiles.

We got back to Prague with enough time for me to visit the Museum of Communism. It isn’t great, but an interesting novelty. I learned a lot. While there, I met a Frenchman, currently living in Jersey, who told me I was very lovely and should have dinner with him. Even though I suspect he was hoping I’d pay for dinner, it did wonders for my ego. I politely declined and wished him well. Besides, who would trust a Frenchman who lives in New Jersey!

My plan is to have an early, light dinner and make it an early night. My plane leaves at

7:15a and I’ll have to be at the Metro when it starts running at 5am to make it.

I will be very sad to leave Prague tomorrow. I have tried hard to capture the city of

Prague and the few surrounding areas I’ve visited. But of course, I’ve failed, as one always fails to explain a place, an experience. Now that the end is in sight, I realize I’ve forgotten to say so much: that the place is so clean, the lovely statues everywhere, the shear amount of art–even the sidewalks are patterned mosaics. This city has seen humanity from the Stone Age, probably before, and it must have a million stories to tell. I have not even scratched the surface of this amazing place. So I try to capture what one can in a mere week. It is not enough. Three lifetimes would not be. And yet it is still wonderful. As Rick Steves says, “Travel is one of the last legal forms of adventure.”

So come to Prague yourself, or where ever your heart leads you. And take my travel advice: Pack light, wear good shoes and never, never miss an opportunity to pee!

Day 7, coming home

Thu, Mar 05, 2009

Last night the 2 young girls who checked in were terribly noisy. Their suitcases outweighed them and they kept zipping and unzipping them, alternated with rattling plastic. And the constant talking. One could not possibly be listening to the other as they talked simultaneously. At midnight I reminded them that I was getting up at 4am and that I intended to be just as noisy as they were. And it worked!

But I still woke up before the alarm–which means they didn’t have to hear it. And that I got less than 4 hours sleep. Because I was already packed, it took me 15 minutes to dress, brush my teeth and hair and throw down a quick cup of coffee. I find that I am usually able to get somewhere–in fact I put lost of energy into planning how to arrive for an adventure. And no thought for how to get back until a day before. My flight was at 7:15am and the airport was better than an hour from my hostel by public transportation. I’ve had uneven luck with taxis. When it has gone well, they are expensive. When it’s gone badly, it is more expensive. Either they take the scenic route or they cannot make change, forcing you to leave them with a large tip. The most frightened I’ve ever been in a car was a taxi ride from JFK to Manhattan. (I suspect I’ve had more dangerous rides, but never so very sober ones)

The trams were running, but I walked to Metro station Mustek, which was locked tight. It opened, eventually the train came and then 4 stops and the rush up the stairs to catch the 119bus transport to the airport. I knew if it ran on schedule, it would arrive at 5:08a and I had an entire minute to spare. I had forgotten how very long the bus ride was. Did I only arrive a week ago? Had to ask which of the three terminals I needed to get off at (terminal 2). The perfect English voice over the bus intercom said that terminal 1 was for private planes, Terminal 3 was for the (unintelligible Asian sounding word) and Switzerland. Terminal 2 was for outside the (unintelligible Asian sounding word). Well, I felt like an outsider, so Terminal 3 it was! Plus it’s where everyone else with luggage got off.

On the plane to Paris, I sat near a man in his mid-60s from Lebanon. I find it very interesting what people tell you about themselves. He offered that he was visiting ex-wives number 1 and 2, plus his godsons, who were in their 30s, the sons of ex-wife #1, after their divorce. He had been married three times total, but had also lived with women. “But this you cannot do so freely in Lebanon as in Paris”. He was leaving a woman behind in Lebanon, though I didn’t get the impression that he was married to her. It pained him, I could almost see a tear in his eye and with that I think I may have begun to see the secret of his attraction: passion. It wasn’t looks. He was not ugly, but I would call his face “interesting and worn” rather than handsome. He was portly, no longer young. But he spoke with enthusiasm. He had left Paris to help the refugees in Lebanon resettle after the “civil war”. He said it was hard and frustrating work. Only 11% of those displaced had been able to go home, and those were the ones who had not left the country. He was on his way to Paris also for a conference on which he was to speak and also to, along with others from around the world, determine the definition of Terrorism. “But this will cut the hands of many”. Terrorism can only be “the killing of the innocent” and this will mean that states, countries are terrorists too. He lamented the expected war with Israel; he did not see how it could be avoided. He was on the side of Lebanon, clearly. But he wasn’t against Israel. He actually gave me hope, though he claimed to have none himself. If a passionate man, clearly on one side of the debate could speak kindly of the other side, well that is how peace starts, no?

My wait in Paris is just long enough to be tedious, but not long enough to give me time to take a quick taxi to see the city. This would be one time I’d risk a taxi too. But my typing and sitting at the gate has drawn attention. A security guard walked up to me and spoke in French. Two others were several steps behind her but paying close attention.

When I identified myself as American, she asked for my boarding pass. I know I look like a bag lady, but I’ve always been identified as harmless. My rumpled trousers which have lost a button, messy hair and lack of make up probably are frightening to the French.

“Ah, you must wait,” she said. Then she looked at me with a sad expression, “I am sorry.”

But it was clear she wasn’t sorry about my time wasted. She was sorry that my appearance was messing up their lovely lobby. I was lowering the standards for all women. I realized after she left that I had crumbs on my shirt. I bet they have sensors that can detect the two chin hairs I seriously need to pucks. Women simply don’t go around looking frumpy. Make up must be perfect, complete with eyeliner. No backpacks, perfectly coiffed hair and an Hermes scarf are de rigueur. And that’s just for the grocery. So to them I am a terrorist, though I only slay the image of fashion.

Well, if you can’t set a good example, be a horrible warning!

 

 

 

Too old for hostels, Prague 2009

When I was in college I dreamed of grabbing my backpack and traveling through Europe for the summer, staying in hostels, sleeping on trains, exploring the world. Maybe some of the rich kids got to do that, but all I got were the stories. I went to school on scholarships and hard work. No job was too small, either. I sold shoes, was a magician’s assistant, posed for art classes (this was the Midwest. I was fully clothed, Mom), and sang at college dinners just for the leftovers.

But the college days are far behind me now. I no longer have to count out pennies and check under the sofa cushions just to go to the grocery. I am now older, wiser and, most importantly, able to afford international travel. I started by booking tours that included hotel, food and a guide. I learned a lot. I had a great time. But eventually, I wanted to go out on my own, like I would have done in college, if I had been able. I want to backpack Europe!

I knew there were going to be issues when I signed up for an on-line hostel booking service and couldn’t give my real age. Not because I was lying about my age, but because they didn’t have an option for anyone born before 1970. That’s younger than the age I lie about being! But despite this, I managed to book a hostel in Prague, The Golden Sickle, because it was located well and I thought the name was reminiscent of Russian occupation.

When I arrived, the hostel mistress asked to see my passport. This is completely normal and I thought nothing of handing it over. Her English was fair, certainly adequate for us to conduct a simple transaction like renting a bed. My Czech was nonexistent. She started writing down some information from the passport, then stopped abruptly and set up. First she looked at me. Then she looked at the passport, then back at me. And back at the passport. Then she got up and went into the back room, taking the document with her. I could hear her having a discussion in Czech. There was silence. The head of a young woman peered around the doorway at me wearing a weak smile, and then disappeared. More talking. Then a young man looked through the door at me and half-heartedly waved before disappearing. More talking. Finally the three of them came out of the back room as a group and stood before me.

Now I was worried.

“We wondering, yes?”

“Is there a problem?” I asked. I said it slowly and clearly while trying to look very innocent and open.

“No! No problem!” They were emphatic in a way that lets you know that there is indeed a problem.

‘It is, how you say, date?”

I’m a liberal person, but going on a date with three strangers was out of the question!  I decided to go with the only safe response I could think of. “I don’t understand.”

They lay the passport in front of me and pointed at the birth date. I assured them this was correct. More talking ensued. I heard them use a word that sounded like “star-ray”. Perhaps they thought I was a famous actress, a movie star?  I smiled confidently. Between them, they must have decided that everything was OK, because they processed my passport and showed me to my room. I quickly unpacked, grabbed my guidebook and figured out how to get to the Old Town section. My map was in English, but the street signs were all in Czech. A quick reference showed me that the Old Town was called, Staremeska, pronounced STAR ray MAY ska. Wait a minute!  If “meska” means “town” then “stare”, must mean…..old. Ick.

I shook it off. After all, isn’t age and wisdom appreciated more in Europe? Probably they were just discussing how to properly accommodate someone of my stature and….ah… well, maturity level.

That night, I found that 8 “lovely lads of the UK”, as they described themselves, had moved into the bedroom next to mine. Since we shared a kitchen and bath, I made sure to introduce myself. They were polite, but it was quite clear that they had a big night of drinking and carousing ahead of them. In the states, not one of them would have been old enough to drink legally, but I didn’t question it, being unaware and unconcerned of the legal age in the Czech Republic.

I was sound asleep when they returned to their room at 3:30am. There was laughing. Something that sounded like bottles were knocked over. Someone stumbled. There was more laughing. And then I heard one of the boys clearly say, “Shhhhhh! That old woman is probably asleep next door.”

I didn’t realize anyone else had moved into the hostel. I rolled over in bed and made a mental note to meet the old woman and make sure she was comfortable.

As I drifted off to sleep, the last thing I remember thinking was, “Hey! You don’t think they meant me, do you?”

The next night, I officially changed their names to the “loud lads”. They turn up their music and start drinking early in the room. It was their taste in music that I hated most. Isn’t rap dead yet?  Can’t it go the way of disco? I used earplugs, a pillow over my head and a sleeping pill, but I heard the pounding of the bass music until they finally went out around 2am. Just as I’d drift off, I hear a loud crash. It sounded like they were demolishing the room.

As it turned out, they were only demolishing the furniture. The next morning, their bunk beds were reduced to kindling. The boys draped around the room, presumably where they had passed out, in variously states of undress. Worse yet, their underwear and towels were spread over the kitchen counter. And they looked like they were very used. I wouldn’t have fixed cold cereal in that kitchen. I would be going out for breakfast. When I entered the bathroom for a shower, I found the shower walls were missing.

When I passed the 24/7, Non-Stop, “We Never Close” front desk, no one was there and it was locked up tight. In truth, no one had been there for at least 10 hours. I left a note saying that I would need to change rooms that evening and they just might want to assess the damage.

That night I was moved to another wing where 7 Italian men were staying on a temporary construction job. I had been assured all of them were “older”, but not one of them could have been over 27. I got a chance to look them over fairly closely because none of them wore shirts and they all shared in the cooking duties. When I correctly identified the pasta dish as gnocchi, they sat me down and filled a bowl for me. I was in heaven!  Beautiful men who cook!  Who cares that they didn’t speak a word of English?  Mostly they smiled at me, winked at me. It was lovely.

It was only later that I remembered they were calling me “all’anziana”. Old Woman. They were gone before I realized that they were just being kind to their elders.

The day the Italians left was also the day the loud lads left. I could tell because two workmen arrived to rebuild the bunk beds and shower. It makes me wonder what it takes to be thrown out of a hostel.

The place was empty until the last night of my stay. I had gone to bed at 10:30p because I needed to be up early for my morning flight home. At 11pm, just as I was falling asleep, two girls will luggage that out weighted them came into the room. I have no idea why they had to share a room with me since there were so many empty rooms, but that was the key they were given. I greeted them explained that I had to be up early and asked them to keep it down. They responded in English, so I believed they had understood the situation and I rolled over to go back to sleep.

I expected them to need a few minutes to get situated—either to get ready for bed or more likely to go out for the evening. I had hoped that they would make some attempt to be quiet, but they talked non-stop, simultaneously, in Spanish. And they kept getting louder and giggling. After about 20 minutes, I asked them if they could keep it down, I really needed to sleep. One of them said, “No entiendo inglés” but then they both giggled in a way that led me to believe they understood perfectly.

I put my finger to my lips and said “Shhhhh” as the universal sign for silence. I also put in earplugs but they didn’t help much. The talking continued. They could not have been listening to each other, because they were both talking at the same time and all the while zipping and unzipping their suitcases. What could they possibly be doing?  There was nowhere to hang clothing, no lockers, not benches. But the zipping, unzipping and rattling of plastic continued.

After midnight I again requested they be quiet. This time they acted like I didn’t exist. I was beginning to sleep from sheer exhaustion when I realized that I had heard them same this same phrase several times “mujer mayor.” It took me awhile but eventually I realized they were talking about me. I sat up in bed and loudly and clearly said, “NO the old woman is NOT asleep. And the Old Woman will be getting up at 4am which is just a couple hours from now. And I promise you that I will be as noisy then as you are from NOW ON.”

Since they shut up, I’m certain they understood perfectly well.

I was quiet when I got up the next morning, dressed. But just for good measure, I slammed the door on my way out.

Don’t Pet the Mongoose

I’m not fearless, but I wasn’t that worried about camping overnight in the Puerto Rican rainforest in 2007. I am an experienced backpacker and I’m used to camping by myself. But when I entered the Bosque National, the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Park System, it just made sense to ask what hazards I should avoid.

The charming woman at the desk who helped me fill out my camping permit, which was in Spanish. I asked if there were any unusual hazards to avoid. She didn’t even look up. “Don’t pet the mongoose.”

Pardon?

My first thought was that this was a euphemism for something that I wouldn’t want explained in front of my mother. But she was perfectly serious. There are no snakes, no large carnivores to be wary of.  Few plants and even fewer animals are poisonous, and those only if you are silly enough to eat them. The problem was mongoose. Mongoose (mongeese? mongui?) are not native to Puerto Rico, which is unfortunate enough, but the population is infected with rabies. Naturally secretive creatures, you usually never know they are around. If I saw one, I was to consider it a sick animal.

Well, I was trying to cut back on mongoose petting anyway.

The other information she gave was that I was the only camper that night in the 28,000 acre forest, which really should have been my first clue that this would go badly. I confess, that I was distracted, because she said that they “closed the rainforest at 6pm” so to make sure I was inside the gates by that time. I had no idea that one could close a rainforest. Do the tree frogs get evenings off? She also mentioned, almost in passing, that I needed to camp 30 feet off the trail.

Since there were absolutely no facilities and the rainforest would be “closed” in about an hour, I quickly bought an assortment of local snack foods and bottled water from the gift shop. I stuffed the white paper bag into my backpack and was off.

The park is known locally as El Bosque, The Forest. It has trails that are marked with the familiar brown park service markers with distances in kilometers. Puerto Rico is near the Equator, so nightfall is around 6pm, regardless of the time of year. It was already past 5pm when I hit the trail and I knew the moonlight might not pierce the canopy. I didn’t have a moment to lose.

My plan was to hike to the first clearing where I could get off the trail and set up camp. Like I said, I am an experienced camper. An experienced deciduous forest camper, I should say. I camp often in North American forests, so I didn’t anticipate any issue with getting 30 feet off the trail. I was wrong. After hiking 5km on a narrow, slippery path, I had not found a single area clear enough of vegetation to even step off the path. As a girl from the Midwest, it is ingrained in me to follow the rules. I felt I had to camp off the trail, but it was getting dark and by now the gates we locked behind my parked car. I picked a relatively clear area and I tried to push my way through the tall grass and vines. Within three yards, my legs were hopelessly tied up in vegetation. When I finally extricated myself I was bloody, my forearms and lower legs a mass of superficial cuts. Those innocent looking grasses were knives. Even the ferns were serrated.

Even without the vegetation, walking off trail was hazardous. I stumbled over tree roots, pot holes and vines. Standing still wasn’t an option either. The ground was such a sponge that if you stood in one place for just a few minutes, you’d be in a puddle. Tent camping was hopeless! If I had brought a tent I would have walked back to my car and slept in the back seat. (Of course I would have lied about it later to make a better story!) Luckily, I had brought a hammock. It had mosquito netting and a tarp I could rig over the hammock for protection from rain. Even though I felt guilty, I slung the hammock diagonally across the trail. I rationalized that since I was the only person camping that night, it wouldn’t inconvenience anyone if I blocked the path.

It was on the dark side of dusk when I finished setting up the hammock. I crawled into the mosquito netting with little white bag of snacks. The first thing I tried looked like a bag of potato chips, but made from plantains, cassava and yucca. There was an overly sweet guava paste and a nut bar with coconut. All were quite good. I shoved what remained back into the bag and placed it in the top of my backpack, which lay beneath me under the tarp.

I was set for the night, except that is was now only 7pm, pitch dark, and I was still wide awake. As I lay listening to the noises of the night, it hit me for the first time that I was completely alone and no one knew where I was camping in this vast forest. The only sound I could identify for sure were the tiny coqui frog, singing koh KEE koh KEE koh KEE from every scrap of vegetation. I’m sure the natives are used to it and think of it as the background noise of the island. I had thought the sound was “cute” at the hotel when I could just hear them between the songs of the band or above the ocean surf. Trapped in the dark with millions of them, it was oppressive.

I tried to relax, but everything was so unfamiliar. I couldn’t see a single star through the forest canopy and there was nothing else to concentrate on but the unfamiliar noises. Nearby was perhaps a bird with a fast coo coo. The wind picked up and the trees creaked and swayed, eerily. Occasionally a limb would fall, crashing through the canopy. At least I hoped that’s what the sound was. There was unfamiliar rustling in the grass, squeaks and squawks in the leaves and the drone of insects.

Birds began fluttering in the trees overhead. It sounded like one flew right above me. Another landed on the ground nearby. I like birds. The thought of birds flittering about was pleasant and comforting. Well, it was pleasant for about three minutes, which is how long it took me to realize that the sounds couldn’t possibly be birds. Birds simply don’t flutter about at night. That could only be…..

(…If I could invent a gadget to improve the human body it would be an emergency “stop” button for your brain. Generally, the truth is a good thing, but this was one of those times when working out the correct conclusion was not going to improve my situation. Alas, the Brain Emergency Stop has not been perfected yet…)

…Bats! The only thing that flapped and flutters at night were bats. I’m calmer than most women around bats. I’ve encountered them in caves and am not frightened that they will get into my hair. In Wisconsin I learned to love the tiny creatures that ate their weight in mosquitoes. But in my frantic state, I was trying to remember if Puerto Rico had vampire bats? And all bats can carry rabies and other diseases. The more I listened, the larger they seemed. I was defenseless with nothing but a thin piece of nylon hammock between my backside and any of a number of rabid, monster-sized, vampire bats! I was sick to my stomach with fear.

Every few minutes there would be a new sound I couldn’t identify, leaving my heart racing and the metallic taste of adrenaline in my mouth. There was no light. If there had been a moon, it’s light would have been blocked by the leaf canopy. All I had was a small flashlight, whose light didn’t reach far into the darkness. It was too far to walk out safely on the narrow, treacherous path. I knew intellectually that it was safer to stay put, but every muscle in my body wanted to run. Sleep was impossible, but I needed to calm myself before I had a heart attack. Or wet my hammock.

That’s why I was so relieved when the fireflies came out. They gave me something to look at and concentrate on besides “things that go bump in the night”. The Puerto Rican lightening bugs were far more agile than any I’d seen growing up in the Midwest. First one firefly, then another landed on my mosquito netting. How interesting, I thought. I can get a closer look! Two more landed. A dozen. Two dozen. I became concerned. At four dozen, I had visions of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Bird, but with lighted insects. I was Tippi Hedren and I couldn’t remember if she survived the film. Would I? I was trapped. The fireflies continued to gather. Would screaming just bring more? Could they sense fear?

It took a minor lifetime, about 20 minutes, to find the cause: My cell phone! The blinking light on the Blackberry phone was almost the same color they glowed. These were male fireflies who had mistaken the flash for a the call of a female. My cell phone had been accidentally programmed to say, “Hey, Sailor” in Firefly-speek!  I turned off the phone and they flew away within 3 minutes. Back on, they returned. I was Dr. Doolittle, even if all I knew how to say was “Come hither” in Firefly-eese. I would have continued it for hours, except the rain chased them off permanently.

My heart rate was back to normal, but I still slept poorly. When I did sleep, I dreamed that people were trying to cross the path that I was blocking. Between my sense of guilt and the unfamiliar sounds, it was a long night. At first light, I stumbled out of the hammock.

After a call of nature, I went for sustenance. I reached for the little white bag at the top of my backpack for water and the last of the snacks. Or at least I tried. The white sack now consisted of the two handles on top, the bottom, and gaping holes where the sides should have been. The culprits were two of the largest snails I had ever seen. Their shells were easily 4 inches in diameter. I could see the slime trail where they had oozed up the side of my backpack in a beeline—or what must serve as a beeline if you are a snail—directly to the bag. Ewwwww. I guess bleached, white paper is junk food for snails? How had they even known it was there? I tossed them outl and reached for the bag again. But the sight of the second largest cockroach I have ever seen (Costa Rica still holds the record!) made me lose my appetite completely. Once your snacks have been slimed by snails and trod on by huge cockroaches, they lose their appeal.

And just to add insult to injury, it started to rain again.

I packed up in the rain and started back to my car. It had been slick hiking in, but with more rain, the trail was perilous. I fell several times adding bruises and mud to my lacerations. Even without a mirror I knew I looked bad. When I reached the parking lot, day trippers shielded their children from me and pushed them down the trail to get away. Stay away from the crazy lady, children.”

Looking like a madwoman has its advantages, though. It gave me enough privacy to change my shirt and clean up a bit before I got into my rental car.

Later that night in a bar, several locals laughed heartedly at my story. They admitted that camping in a tent, 30 feet from the trail in a rainforest is a joke befitting the Puerto Rican sense of humor. Only a gringo from The States would try such a stupid thing. They assured me it was all in fun and congratulated me on lasting the night alone. They even bought me a Medalla, the local beer, to celebrate. To show there was no hard feeling, I bought the next round. After a couple more beers, it did seem funny. Not subtle, but funny.

And like all good jokes, they are better when you pull them on someone else. I wonder if my brothers want to go camping in the rain forest.