Monday, June 21, 2004

Gdańsk, Poland—Day 142

Today we got into Gdańsk at the lovely, early hour of 7am. The train ride turned out to be just awesome—we both were shocked at how well we had slept despite all of the stopping and noises around us on the train. Our only other companion in our train car was this nice, extremely blonde girl who must have been from Poland. She came into our car right when we were both going to sleep and dint’ make any noise at all (well, I guess I was passed out and probably couldn’t have heard anything anyways above all of the train noises) and it was funny, when we pulled into Gdańsk, she said goodbye to us, saying “I’ve never before seen two American girls on one Polish train.”

Neither have we!

We were able to get all of our things together and get off the train with no problems. Now all we had to do was to find our hotel. My hope would be that there would be our hotel, just right out of the train station…

We headed straight over to the taxis and got in, and I handed him my clearly written note stating not only the name of the hotel, but the address as well. So our taxi driver agrees (“Tak, tak” which means “yes, yes” in Polish) and we were off, or so we thought, to our hotel.

After driving us around for a bit, he pulls up to this hostel and then gets confused. Ohhh, okkk, not this hotel? He must have asked us. Nooo, this one, I point out to him. Ohhhh, tak tak tak.

So he takes us back to where we came from and before we knew it we were RIGHT OUTSIDE THE TRAIN STATION just across the street. The hotel had been there all along! My bizarre instinct had been right and we were flabbergasted. To make matters much, much worse, the driver insists that we pay him FORTY zloty. Now for all of you that know about a zloty, there is approximately 4 zloty for every 1 US dollar, so basically he was asking us to pay him 10 dollars for that 3 minute ride away from the hotel, “getting lost” and then back in front of the train station. No way!

We both looked at each other and then at him and he kept insisting in Polish that we pay him, saying in English however “Business, business” and shrugging his shoulders. What the?!?!?! We refused and we handed him 10, which he refused, and then I said “20” and he looked shocked and horrified, again saying, “Business, business”. It was so, extremely slimy. I couldn’t believe that he wanted to rip us off for THAT ungodly amount. I mean, c’mon, at least rip us off moderately, and ask for 15 zloty, but FORTY?? So I thrust money at him and he came back with the change that equaled him getting forty zloty. I couldn’t believe it and all I could do was shake my head at him.

He’s just asking for bad karma.

So he tried to help us with our bags and even tried to shake my hand but I pulled it away and we walked into the hotel, mad as #&*$ that he pulled us off. I mean, its not like we are tourists here! We’ve been in Poland for a good 5 days and we know what is what when it comes to the currency.

Whatever, at least we were able to check into our hotel early and get a shower before heading to the zoo.

We took another taxi to the zoo (this time it was 30 zloty for a half hour ride…that’s more like it) and we were the FIRST people in the zoo! They hadn’t even opened the zoo up yet and we were waiting in line. We got our tickets and a nice little old lady ripped them off for us and we took our map (a very nice map I might add) and headed to the hippos. We found the hippo enclosure, but sadly there were no hippos in it! Only a man cleaning up all of the hippo dung that had accumulated from god knows how long. So we watched him sweep it up for a good while (he probably thought, what on earth are those girls doing??!) and took pictures of the hippos signs.

Where could the hippos be?

There was a house next door to the hippo enclosure and peering into the darkness we could kind of sort out that there were some hippos inside. But how were we supposed to get in? There was a big sign on the door saying something in Polish that made everyone who walked by the door not try to go in it (they would turn away after looking at the door) so we figured that we wouldn’t be the ones to try.

So we passed the time getting ice cream and wandering around looking at a few other animals, including the pygmy hippos and the zebras, checking back every so often to see if the hippos had come out yet.

No luck. We sat down and waited and waited and about two hours later we decided that it was time to ask someone. It was 11 o’clock at this point and not only were the poor little hippos (well, ok big) stuck inside for so long but they probably hadn’t been fed yet!

So we asked this funny little man on a bicycle and to our luck he just so happened to be the hippo keeper himself! Whoohoo! He whipped out the keys to the hippo house, opened it up and turned on the lights. That’s more like it! There they were! Four hippos all waiting to be let outside. I had written in Polish what I had wanted to ask him, and it went like this:

Hello. I don’t speak Polish. I love hippos. How many hippos? What are the names of the hippos? Thank you very much.

Or at least that is what I think I wrote, based on our trusty Polish phrasebook. Whatever I did write, he got the picture and while herds of school children pushed past us to see the hippos, he helped write down the names of the hippos and point out who was the mother (Hektorka), father (Yuzek), auntie (Kiwi) and the baby (Stanisław). It was pretty easy to tell which one was the baby, and of course the father because he was the biggest, but the two females were more difficult. When we found “what’s the difference” in the phrasebook, the nice keeper smiled and beckoned us into the gates that led to the hippos. We went back and around the big bars separating the hippos from us and the school children and were literally behind the scenes. He brought us around to the side where the hippos were standing in a group and pointed the four of them out. They were opening their mouths wide and he was really funny and kept patting them and pointing out who was who. It was great!

Afterwards we thanked him and then had to squeeze through these tiny bars to get back into the “real world” and wait for the hippos to actually be let out of their inside pen. So we waited and waited while our trusty hippo keeper relocated the, err, mess in the outside pen and since there was a lot of it, it took quite a while. He kept smiling and winking at us while we waited and probably hadn’t had anyone quite so interested in them before! At this point we had been waiting for three hours so we were eager to at least get a glimpse of them outside!

Finally the time had come and the four were let out to eat the hay that had been laid out for them. Unfortunately this was all behind these huge green bars in an area that connected the inside and outside pens so we had to wait for them to finish munching before I could get a good picture of them outside. When they were finally done, they all wandered into the outside pen and I clicked away. They all followed each other to an area of grass in the middle of the enclosure that appeared to have just a tiny bit of water on it. The pool itself had yet to be filled so they had to make due with this tiny patch of grassy water.

Now anyone would agree—watching four hippos trying to squeeze onto a tiny patch of grass and share the water is quite a funny sight, and we were definitely amused. Once they all settled down, there was a few minutes of “calm” (and picture taking) before a large truck pulled up bearing tree braches. All four of them jumped up and bolted towards the connecting fenced area and eagerly awaited the branches that were being thrown to them. Satisfied with my pictures, we decided that it was time to move on from the zoo so we said goodbye to the hippos and made our way out of the zoo, stopping first at a small table where a young man was selling magnets and clearing him out of all of the hippo magnets that he had.

We headed out of the zoo, smiling goodbye to the nice little old lady/ticket ripper and decided to take the bus back to the center of Gdańsk. We found the bus stop nearby and when the bus pulled up, we boarded, along with an entire group of zoo-going school children and their teacher. The bus driver was extraordinarily nice, in fact, probably the nicest and friendliest person we have met so far in Poland. When we asked him how to get to the center (we didn’t even know where this bus went or even where we were on the Gdańsk map) he smiled and spoke back to us in PERFECT English that his bus didn’t go to the center, but that we could transfer onto a tram that would take us back. He would show us.


So we got on and rode the bus until he told us to get off. The whole while the children on the bus were quite amusing. Two of the girls had these sticky little hand toys that you could sort of project like a frog’s tongue or something by throwing it and holding onto the end, and the hand part (it was shaped like a and) would stick to whatever you threw it at. Does this make sense? My shoe became an unsuspecting target.

We stopped and the bus driver beckoned us to get off. He told us that we must not get on any other tram except either the #6 or the #12 and sent us on our way. We stood waiting for the tram and boarded the #12 when it pulled up. Now riding on the tram here is unlike anything that I have done before. Its like riding on a roller coaster that only goes straight, but has the same sort of jerking and swerving effect. I literally had to hold on so that I didn’t fly or crash into anyone next to me, and was impressed by everyone around us who so calmly and collectively held their stance without showing any signs of instability.

We got off near the old town center, which also just so happened to be near our hotel. We spent the afternoon walking around Gdańsk, going into the largest brick church in the world called the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (walking up 405 steps all the way up to the top tower to see the spectacular view of the Baltic Sea). We then walked down a very touristy street were amber is sold (this is the best place in the world to buy it!) and then found the beautiful old main square and cobblestone streets, all magnificently restored. After walking through the square we made it back to our hotel, dropped off a few things, and then headed back to the train station to get a train to Sopot, which is a seaside city about 20 minutes on the train from Gdańsk.

We walked across the street (well, under the street really) to the train station and tried to get tickets to Sopot. Three frustrating conversations with three different ticket vendors later, we were still confused and finally a girl who spoke some English who was behind us in line told us where to go. We had to buy our tickets in a completely different spot than what we had thought so we thanked her and went and found where our tickets were to be bought, bought them, and then boarded the train that the ticket lady showed us to.

We hoped that we were on the right train.

Luckily we were and not too much later we were in Sopot. We got off and our direction told us to “follow the crowds” to the main boardwalk area. Hmm, considering there were no crowds to follow, we did a pretty good job of finding our way to the beach based on the small map that we had. We walked along the beach and put our feet in the Baltic Sea (how cool is that?!) and walked along the biggest boardwalk in Europe (making good use of our 3 zloty entrance fee). We then walked back towards town along another cute little cobblestone road and got an Italian dinner. Our waitress just so happened to speak wonderful English and asked where we were from. When Sarah told her Arizona, she was quite shocked and happy because she herself had just spent four months working on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. She was definitely surprised to find two Americans in Poland (let alone Sopot, she says) and we were surprised to see that she had been to Arizona.

After dinner we walked back to the train station in Sopot and boarded our train to Gdańsk. We made it back to Gdańsk and walked back under the road to our hotel, still a little peeved about our taxi driver this morning but feeling like the rest of the day made up for it.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.