While traveling long term, you are bound to experience some laps on the symbolic roller coaster. Despite what social media would have you believe, not every moment traveling the world is awesome. When you’re “up” there’s nothing that can bring you down, and it feels as if the ride will stay at the peak forever. When you’re “down”, it can be tough, and you’ll want to teleport somewhere comfortable, somewhere familiar. Life on the road is just that…life. Behind all the amazing photos, unforgettable experiences, the high fives and the sounds of beers clinking together, there are struggles and low points, just like in everyone’s lives. Luckily, when traveling, there’s always something to learn, some way you have to adjust and adapt to your new surroundings. When living with these challenges in front of you every day, it’s easy to see that the highs and rewards of travel significantly outweigh and are worth the lows and the struggles. Lessons can be learned both when you’re on the top of the roller coaster, and when you’ve reached the bottom.
Our 3 days spent in Poland were a microcosm of these peaks and valleys that are experienced through travel. There’s always a feeling of excitement and anticipation when arriving in a new city or country. Our bus from Budapest pulled into the terminal in Krakow, Poland. After a delay due to our bus getting in an accident, we couldn’t wait to get out and explore. As we checked into our hostel, the Irish dude behind the desk informed us that every night at 9pm, everyone gets a free beer. We looked at the clock behind the reception desk that was littered with pamphlets and discount cards for local restaurants and activities. The clock read 8:45pm. Perfect timing. It was beer o’ clock, and the exploring would have to wait.
We started commiserating with the other like minded travelers helping their wallets with an ice-cold free beer. People from Australia, Poland, India, Canada, Argentina and so on. Despite all our differences, we all agreed on one thing in that moment. This ice-cold free beer somehow tastes much better than the same one that costs you a few Euros at the bar. The bottoms of our cups were approaching, and a beer pong game was being set up. When you are American, in a hostel and in the presence of a beer pong table, you don’t have much of a choice. There is this stereotype among travelers around the world that Americans must be the best at beer pong. All those movies showing college parties with ping pong balls flying into the classic red solo cup must have something to do with it. The beer pong table was set, the target was firmly on our backs, and the stakes were high…more free beers for the winners.
We obviously lived up to our reputation as we dismissed the Aussie couple swiftly. Cheers mates, good on ya’, bring us some cold free beers and tell the Canadians that they are next. It wouldn’t be long before they were shaking our hands and saying, “good game eh!” as they fetched us more free beer for our 3rd match. The next one would be interesting in theory, as we were pitted against another pair of Americans from the west coast. Like the others, they too proved they could not hang with us on this night. The Bros were on fire. 3 wins in a row, all eyes on us, a nice buzz settling in from all those free cold ones. Next up was a couple of dudes from India, who admitted to us that they were expecting to lose, being that this was the first time they have ever played. Of course, there was no chance that we were going to take it lightly on these guys. We had them beat, when our rookie opponent hit his final shot to tie the game and send it to overtime. Then, miraculously, this guy does it again, and sends us to a 2nd overtime. Finally, our streak ends, unfathomably, to the guys from India who had never played the game in their lives. The entire hostel was cheering, hooting and hollering for the Indians who took down the Americans. Even we were caught up in it as we all laughed, celebrated and drank together. Our beer pong streak was over, but the highs of the night would keep on coming.
The party shifted to the bar downstairs, where crowds of travelers and locals alike were lining up for shots of Vodka, par for the course when in Poland. The inescapable Ed Sheeran of 2017 was pumping in the speakers as we bounced around, meeting some awesome people. As we were ordering another drink, we started talking with a local from Krakow who was doing the same. Michael was a chef at a local restaurant and was enjoying a night out with his coworkers from Krakow. We told them about our desire to see some local spots, and in the blink of an eye, the vodka shots were put back and Chef Michael and crew were leading the way to places you won’t find in your guidebook. You know you are crushing it when you are following locals down a narrow winding staircase after walking through an entrance with zero indication that drinks were being served. There is no way we end up here if not for Michael. Within minutes, we all have mics and are singing karaoke in Polish. It was just as fun as this sounds, trying to sound out words we didn’t understand and weren’t sure how to pronounce, all while attempting to stay in some sort of rhythm and harmony. The more vodka we drank, the better we were…or at least it felt that way, and that’s what our Polish friends told us.
The next day we spent walking around the city, taking in the sites of Krakow. Turning left when it feels appropriate, staying straight when the road ahead looks promising, and shifting right when the time calls. This was our standard procedure when exploring a new city…put the map away and just walk. Walk long enough and you’ll see everything in those guidebooks, and more importantly, you’ll see what’s not part of the tourist agenda. After all that walking, we worked up an appetite, and through the blurs of the previous evening we remembered one important piece of information. The name of the restaurant Chef Michael and our friends worked at.
Upon walking into the restaurant, the hostess greeted us with a warm smile and a table in the center of the dining room. The kitchen was not in plain sight, and we didn’t see the waitresses from the night before. Did we have the right place? As we waited for our beers and plate of Polish meats and sausages to be placed on our red and white checkered tablecloth, we spotted one of the waitresses from the previous night approaching us with a big smile. She couldn’t believe we were there and ran down to the kitchen to inform the chef. She soon returned with a lineup of way too many different types of vodka shots, none of which we ordered. In between downing one after the other, we put in an order of pierogies, another Polish staple. When the plates arrived, we couldn’t help but laugh. We tried our best to shield our plates from the other patrons in the restaurant, because the chef obviously put way more pierogies on our plates than the diners seated on either side of us. It pays to know the chef. After we were stuffed from the delicious Polish dinner, we made our way down to the kitchen to say hello and thank Michael and the rest of the crew one more time for all their hospitality. It’s funny, sometimes when you are in the moment and having so much fun, you don’t even think to take a photo to capture the moment. This was one of those moments, and it’s okay, because the moment is captured in my head where it will stay for a very long time, unable to be lost due to a corrupted file or misplaced hard drive.
Back at the hostel, we capped the night off with a final beer and conversation with a few new backpacker arrivals. What an awesome couple of days in Krakow so far. For sure, we were on the top of the roller coaster, riding those highs. However, that would all change very soon. Nothing lasts forever and the roller coaster only goes one way when you are at the top.
It started off as tossing and turning. Normal sleeping patterns when you’re in a 10-bed dorm. Then I started to feel sick. I tried to fight through it, but it wasn’t going away. I proceeded to spend the next few hours commuting back and forth from my top bunk to the bathroom down the hall to throw up. In my mind, the culprit was the hair that I pulled out of my beer in the hostel earlier that night, as obviously Michael’s pierogis were sitting fine with Nick. There was little sleep to be had, and it was officially over when the alarm hit early in the morning. It was time to get ready as we had booked a tour of Auschwitz.
Visiting Auschwitz was an incredibly important, educational and horrifying experience. We of course were taught in school about the Holocaust and the atrocities that took place at Auschwitz and the hundreds of other concentration camps throughout Europe during the regime of Nazi Germany but being in the very spot where these crimes were committed was just another story. It really resonated so much more. You begin to imagine what it must have been like, and then you realize that you still can’t fathom it. It really was a mind fuck. The whole place was eerie, and I just felt this weight over me the entire time. I felt emotional, angry, pissed off and every feeling in between. From 1942 to 1944, an estimated 1.3 million people were transported to Auschwitz as if they were cargo, and at least 1.1 million of them died there, over 90% of them Jewish. What went on there is truly senseless and it’s important that people understand the magnitude of it, if only to prevent it from ever happening again.
After the tour of the Auschwitz II – Birkenau camp wrapped up, we handed a tip over to our informative tour guide and hopped on the bus back to Krakow. It was a quiet, solemn ride back as we sat alone wrestling with our thoughts of what we just saw and experienced. When we arrived back at the hostel and the Wi-Fi kicked in, we were hit with news that American rock star Tom Petty was in cardiac arrest, and some media outlets were reporting that he was dead. Being that Tom Petty was just 66 years old and was one of the best-selling music artists of all time, this was shocking news. Besides that, anyone who knows me well knows that my mother is a die-hard Tom Petty fan. This news may as well have been that a family member had passed away, because I knew that’s how my mother would take it. I texted her while keeping my fingers crossed as the media reports were conflicting. A few hours later, the rumors were confirmed. Tom Petty had passed.
What a ride it was for us during these 3 days in Poland. The highs were epic and created special memories that will last a lifetime. The lows were tough, challenging and were moments that were equally as important. Some lessons were learned during these 72 hours that can be transposed into lessons about life in general.
When you are sick, all you want is your health back, and you realize how much you take your health for granted when all is running smoothly. In life, if you lose something, it will allow you to gain an appreciation for what you do have. Traveling the world with nothing but a backpack, we were forced to appreciate whatever possessions we did have in that pack. No longer having a closet with 10 pairs of shoes made us really care and appreciate the one pair of shoes that we did have so much more than you’d ever think possible. Shedding all our possessions led to less distractions, and enabled us to have more time and freedom to care about the little things that were important in life. These “little” things are really the “big” things in life, but it’s tough to see when you have a house full of things and a never-ending hamster wheel of commute, work & repeat in order to pay for it all. When you can slow down, jump off that wheel for a bit, and go with the flow of life, you can start to see things through a different lens. It’s funny what begins to matter, and what doesn’t…and how happy one can be with a simple way of life.
Even being surrounded by the loss of life, there is a teaching moment in that. Whether it’s Tom Petty, the 1.1 million people who were murdered in Auschwitz, or any person in the world for that matter, death, although a mostly negative experience, brings positive lessons as well. Losing life makes us more cognizant of the life that we have in front of us, and how fragile it is. It can run out at any moment and end rather quickly. It makes us appreciate the life that exists all around us and be more purposeful with our unknown time on this magnificent planet.
Learning through travel is seamless, and the more you experience in the world, the more you will understand the world and its people. You’ll even learn more about yourself. The highs and lows of our time in Poland were just a metaphor for how life on the road, or even life at home can be. There are peaks, and there are valleys, and there are lessons in every moment. When you’re on top, don’t get too comfortable. Throw your hands in the air or hold on tight, whichever you prefer. When you are at rock bottom, there’s no reason to worry, as there is always another lap, bringing you back to the top. After the lows we experienced in Poland, there was a bus awaiting us in the morning, ready to take us to a new country and a new city. You know that feeling when you are slowly creeping up that incline on the roller coaster? Here we come, Prague.