Wednesday, October 29, 2003

The Backpacker

In June 2001, I went to Poland with my Grandma. For the first couple of weeks I was there, I didn't get to do much travelling or sightseeing at all. I didn't speak Polish and most of the time Grandma was my only English-speaking companion. It was observed that I was not as bubbly and chatty as my sister, who had visited Poland before me. I kind of resented the comparison, even though it's true.

It wasn't until some other Australian relatives arrived that I got a bit more organised in planning some activities, and finally just before we were due to leave Poland, I even plucked up the courage for a short trip alone. I spent about three days visiting various places in Krakow and surrounding areas (including Auschwitz) with my aunt, uncle, and cousins. Then they all went back to the farm at Kamien, and I got on a minibus alone to visit the mountain town of Zakopane.

This was my first overseas trip, and I had spent most of it so far in living rooms eating cake and drinking tea, or in the farmyard kicking a ball around with the kids and befriending the dogs. So I was feeling raw, inexperienced, and tongue-tied.

I had borrowed a backpack from my cousin, because I had travelled to Poland with a suitcase. The pack was really too big for me, and even without a lot of gear in it, surprisingly heavy. I wasn't really comfortable carrying it far, and had already had trouble with it, bumping into people on a crowded tram in Krakow.

My general instinct as a tourist - and actually any situation where I'm a stranger - is to be as cool, calm and collected as possible. My (possibly stupid) rules are: 1.Work it out yourself rather than asking dumb questions. 2. Bluff. You might be ignorant but don't show it. 3. Avoid showing surprise or amazement.

So at the same time as feeling a bit uncertain, I was also being Ms Cool & Natural and trying to blend in with the scenery.

I checked into the hostel, which I had picked out of the Lonely Planet Guide, at about 6:30pm, having arrived in Zakopane much later than I had intended. The young woman at the reception desk spoke English haltingly. Because I would be staying in a 12-bed dorm, and I wanted to go out and explore the town, I asked if there was somewhere I could lock my bag. She said 'I'll just ask someone', which I thought was a bit strange. A few minutes later she came back with a big guy, maybe a security guard, who proceeded to carry my bag up to my room for me. Suddenly I realised that that was what she thought I had asked for, some kind of porter to carry my bag! I was completely mortified. I felt like an utter failure as a backpacker, and I was glad when we got to the room that there was only one other person there to witness my terrible shame.

In the end I took my valuables with me and left my bag in the room. I actually had a very interesting stay in Zakopane, and I might write about that some time.

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