Craptacular Košice Accommodations
Getting out of Poland and over to Košice was a surprisingly smooth transfer. We caught a bus from the outskirts of Zakopane to the terminal, where we grabbed a minibus to Lysa Polana, the decommissioned border/immigration checkpoint with Slovakia.
Unguarded, borderless borders—this is the way life and travel should be. The crystal clear river (with its light veiling of fog) dividing the two countries was absolutely beautiful in the early morning sunlight. We were in the middle of the mountain forest, and Tatiana had never seen such a sight.
Our budget worked out perfectly, and we were left with only the equivalent of a dollar after waiting around for a bit to catch the bus transport to Poprad. Hardly anyone was on it as we set off, admiring the scenery during our descent from mountain into farmland of green and gold.
Poprad's bus and train stations are right next to each other—a convenience found in Europe that I haven't know anywhere else in the world. It was a just quick walk over to the Cold War-era train terminal where I pulled out a new currency from an ATM and a non-English speaking ticketing agent issued me a pair of train tickets departing in less than five minutes. (Go! Go! Go!)
Two other joys that I've only truly known traveling in Europe have been shower-heads that are actually mounted at a height above my head—heaven forbid—and a lack of people attacking me for taxi or transport as I exit a bus. In fact, people could care less about me. How wonderful.
Ah, my first Eastern European train ride—I suppose I'll never forget Tatiana's references to a similar piece of transport in one of the Harry Potter books, and the hot, stuffy compartment without opening windows or ventilation of any kind—flashbacks from a sleeper train I took in Thailand around this day last year.
We jumped off the train at noon, to a beautifully warm and sunny day, and I was quite pleased that we'd woken up in Poland and actually gotten everyone to Košice so quickly (without a hiccup in the game plan). Unfortunately, the day totally unraveled after that point, leaving me to wonder if I even want to stay in Slovakia—or Eastern Europe—at all.
The Misinformation Center
"For available accommodation, the City Information Center puts out a booklet that includes summer dorms and private rooms (both from 300Sk [US$16])." —so sayth the guidebook on sleeping in Košice. Jolly good then.
We slowly made our way from the train station to the information office in the center of town. What's normally a 10-minute walk turns into 15 or 20 when Tatiana's walking with her pack on her back and baby strapped to her front. And the real crap of it is the slower she walks, the longer that 60 pounds of weight are going to stay on her shoulders.
I myself am rather bitter about having to carry a frontpack now—a medium-sized backpack that's slung around my chest (in addition to my belongings on my back). I've spent my entire backpacking career successfully avoiding such a nuisance, and now I've got one probably 2/3 the weight and girth of my own pack, filled with Aidric's bottles, food, diapers, and an assortment of other crap that won't fit in her bag. How annoying.
Tatiana collapsed inside the information office while I worked with one of the girls about a place to stay. Their hotel/hostel book existed, that was the good part—that almost everything in it was far above the 300Sk/night I'd hoped for was certainly not.
After some calling around and some back and forth with the girl about the price of the rooms (making sure the price I was being told was the total amount, not per person), we settled on one called Ubytouna Barmo at Tolstého 22.
"So that'll be 360Sk per night, plus the city tax of 25Sk." (US$20) She noted as she wrote down the address and circled the street on a poorly made photocopy of a city map.
"This city tax, is it per person, or per room? Just once, or every night?" I questioned, not wanting to get ripped off.
"Ummm, I'm not really sure. Per room I think." was her unhelpful reply.
The Room is How Much?
The scale of the map was again a bit deceiving, and our pace slowed as Tatiana was quickly getting exhausted after the first 10 minutes of walking. There wasn't much else I could do but take her backpack off her shoulder and place them on mine, exchanging it with my frontpack. For the next 20 minutes I labored in the midday sun with both our packs on—a good 90-something pounds—navigated, and tried by best to get Tatiana to keep up with me.
The address ended up leading us to an unassuming apartment building that appeared to be renting rooms out. Sweating and breathing deeply from the workout, we were handed information papers to fill out by the old, non-English speaking battleaxe of a woman, sitting inside a cage of glass and concrete.
I passed back the filled in papers and we got to the money and key exchange bit.
She held up a calculator reading a number that I wasn't expecting: 880.
"What? No, no, no. No TV." I could see the 'TV' etched into the room number dangling from the key she'd retrieved from the pegboard.
She typed in another number: 770.
I looked at Tatiana in tried frustration and disbelief. Did we not just get off the phone with this woman from the information office?
I wrote down the price on a piece of paper and held it up to her: 360Sk + 25Sk
She took her calculator and typed the numbers in front of me: 360 + 25 = 385 x 2 = 770.
I looked at Tatiana again, jaw open. BULLSHIT.
I argued with the woman for about a minute, and then gave her the good 'ole 'thanks for trying to screw me over' hand gesture, grabbed our packs, and walked out.
This was nonsense. I'd made sure that the price quoted was for the room, not per person. And not only was this woman trying to charge double the rate, but a city tax per person as well!
So there we were, at the ass-end of town, exhausted and homeless.
We walked down the street a bit (as far as Tatiana's anger would fuel her), and I promptly dumped her and my baggage at the outdoor section of a neighborhood restaurant. She'd stay there, and I'd go back to the information office to give a piece of my mind to the girl missing a part of hers.
It's a Saturday, but the entire town is closed up. The streets are empty, stores are gated, and the information office—ah, the information office… The information office closes at 1 p.m.
By the time I hurried back, it was already 1:15, and not a soul was in sight inside. Not only did I get denied the opportunity to vent at someone, but I was also denied the listing of other available accommodations in town. Clearly, the big mistake I made was walking away from our initial visit without some alternate locations as a backup.
Most everything in my guidebook was priced at the $75/night hotel level, and without local assistance, had only three options to give to Tatiana upon my return to her:
- We locate the other tourist information center (that's listed as open until later);
- We find some Wi-Fi and search for suggestions online;
- We pick the grungy last resort option listed in the guidebook; or
- We leave town.
With storm clouds encroaching on our position, we headed back into the (truly lovely) center of town.
In keeping with our luck for the afternoon, it turned out that the Municipal Information Center—the alternate—had been recently replaced by a wireless company's storefront. Joy.
That left us with the Ubytovna Mestský Park, which at 245Sk/dorm bed/night is described in the guidebook as a "Workers' hostel; mostly male guests."
After a great deal of hunting, we stepped into this slummy hole just moments before the rain came crashing down on us. The place looks like the type of rat hole the movies depict people living in during the bitter Russian winters—now our home, all for the low low price of $13 a person.
I'm already getting tired of being totally crippled in these cities when I don't research with the Internet and make a reservation ahead of time. I hate this shit.
And I'm greatly annoyed with how much it costs to move such short distances. Our 40-minute ride to the border was $4/person; the one-hour bus to Poprad $5/person; and the 1.5-hour train ride was $8/person. Even a quick five-hour ride to the capital from here costs a lofty $30.
The prices I'm paying here for accommodation and transport are in line with the worst of Brazil—a savage lesson learned on how the 1-2 combination punches of high priced transport and accommodation can make me quite miserable.
Am I doomed to repeat the same emotional highs and lows of Brazil as I am with this region of the world? Maybe I should get out before I spend too much time and money in this place.
Housing, transport, food, and Internet—the four primary pieces of the shoestring travel pie.
I'm honestly beginning to believe that the only way one can affordably travel through this region is to remove (or reduce) these two high-priced obstacles from daily life. To remove exorbitant transport expenses you need to travel to fewer destinations and stay longer in those that you do visit, and/or ride a bicycle instead of juggling planes, trains, and buses.
Accommodation expenses can be removed or reduced by trading a service for your room and board, or using a service like CouchSurfing.com to find free open spaces in people's homes/apartments. Combining camping with bicycling and CouchSurfing could conceivably bring your travel budget down to only food, Internet (which could also be removed if using a laptop with open Wi-Fi signals), and the occasional campground or hostel fee.
Wade of VagabondJourney.com is pretty much doing just that after reacting (the way I am now) to the cost of accommodations and transport when he touched down in the Czech Republic. He says he's been running on about $8/day for a month or so now.
And strangely enough, I find myself rather envious of Wade's position, as I know there's no chance in Hell of getting Tatiana and I (plus baby), mobile and happy on bicycles.
I think my dream has become to have a motorcycle with a sidecar attachment and camping gear. That's my dream for this region of the world.
But here we are, stuck in this Košicean shithole of a communist worker's barracks, where my girlfriend doesn't dare take a cold water shower in locker-room-like bathroom facilities, and has to admire shit-stained fingerprints as she hovers over an absent toilet seat to take a piss.
About the only saving grace out of this entire mess of a place is that we've got an entire dorm room of tattered mattresses and decades-old pillows to ourselves. And now, with rain outside and without Internet access inside, I've got to plan our escape.
Do we go to northeastern Hungary, and purge ourselves of Slovakia, or do I roll the dice of change again on another city in the country? If so, where?
Tatiana understands our position, but upsets her it to think that she's only six or so hours away from someplace like Vienna, with me talking about bagging the entire region west of our location.
All I know is that we'll be out of here long before the (stupidly-early-so-we-can-charge-you-for-another-night) 9 a.m. checkout.