With a week left on the road, I went in the opposite direction I should’ve been going in and headed east to revisit the Ginger Monkey for two days. By the time I got to the Poprad bus station, twilight was encroaching, it was cold, the gypsies were emerging, and I had another hour to wait alone for the bus. At least it’s not raining, I thought to myself. Sure enough, by the time the bus pulled up beside Zdiar’s petrol station, the biggest rainstorm I’d yet hit was pouring down buckets and I tumbled into the Ginger Monkey’s bright kitchen dripping, shivering, and sporting soaked shoes.
I again met (Czech) Dan the manager, Ivan, and a dance party in the kitchen. We drank through a bottle of something clear with a worm sinking at the bottom that Kevin had left behind, possibly the best drink I’ve ever had. Under its mysterious influence I made the split decision to extend my trip after all and volunteer at the Ginger Monkey for the next three weeks, Vegas wedding style.
The rainstorm left a dusting of first snow over the mountaintops the next morning, making them look even more beautiful than they had in August. My summer trip had crossed into Autumn. Zdiar had adjusted to the seasonal shift: we were lucky to get warm afternoons; the grocery stores cut their hours; Pizzeria Rustika was closed except weekends.
That weekend saw the summer’s last hurrah, and then it was quiet. Oskar and Stacey came for a few days from Olomouc, and Randy surprised us all by changing course from Prague, with a friend in tow, Christina. Another happy reunion and then some. One morning we got up early enough and with two other guests – musicians from Uruguay – went on one of the best hikes in the area: Siroke Sedlo (Wide Saddle).
This was by far the most strenuous hike I’ve ever done, lasting all day up and back down a mountain. We passed by magical-looking fields of white puffs; the Swiss guys from the hostel doing the same hike passed by us. Above the tree line lay patchy snow (if you ever want to make an Australian’s day…), and mountain goats, who stopped still and watched us as we climbed up, strangers to this quiet place.
At the top of a mountain is a silence like none other, in a literal sense since the air is thinner, but in a more profound sense, too. It’s the same feeling you sometimes get on an airplane looking down at the world, so far removed from its minutia and left with the essentials, except that on a mountain there’s no avoiding it with magazines and complementary beverages. The view is just incredible: an entire mountain stood before us and a dozen peaks lined up behind it, creating a craggy skyline. There are sparse fields and more snow, a high breeze, and nothing else.
There was a rock formation that seemed to be shaped for sitting in. This is where we spent a while before tearing ourselves away to begin the considerably longer way back down to catch the last bus into Zdiar. I’m not alone in my lack of faith in the Eastern European bus system; as we sat on a log near the bus stop eating the last of our trail mix, staring at the bus free road and the possibility of another hour’s walk, we formed hitchhiking plans and unsuccessfully took turns sticking out our thumbs for half an hour. But as usual the fear proved unwarranted, and the day’s last bus did come.
Back at the hostel we were serenaded nightly by Leo and Gaston, the Uruguayans, as nearly all the guests sat around the lounge, patterning the tables and floor with an array of tea, beer, and glasses of Tatransky Caj (Tatratea), which isn’t tea at all but an evil herbal liquor made in the High Tatras that has only led to hardship and tears yet continues to be cycled through in this place.
I walked into the kitchen one night to see three unfamiliar Czech guys sitting around the table, drinking moonshine from a plastic bottle; they were camping outside since the hostel was full, and hanging out for the weekend, adding to the weekend’s festivities with Czech music, dancing, and many odd conversations.
And then like a dream it evaporated. The hostel emptied, leaving a few guests, Dan, the other volunteer, Emily, and myself, and soon the added company of Kevin, and Holly, who’d been volunteering at the Loft in Budapest. So began a few weeks of the quiet life.
It was something I really wanted to do, live for a while in another place. Had I more time, it would have been more than three weeks. When you remain in place, the sparkling infatuation quickly fades and you notice more and more details of daily life. Every morning when I went to buy groceries, a middle aged man reeking of alcohol stood in front of me buying a bottle of vodka. It wasn’t always the same man, but whether I went to the shop across the street or the slightly bigger one several minutes up the road, he was there.
The shops were stocked like the “Russian store” I’d grown up around in Baltimore, only a third of its size: Some grains, a few meats in an icebox, shelves of breads, candies, and cookies, and barely any fresh produce, which went fast and was restocked infrequently.
The shorter hours were an easy adjustment; the diet was a challenge, especially for Emily, who eats vegan. A tiny Slovakian village has to be one of the hardest places in the world to be a vegan; even the restaurants – and there are plenty of them – serve local cuisine, which is mostly meat and cheese. One day we took a trip to the nearest city, Poprad, and loaded a shopping cart and a half with fresh produce, which got us some weird stares.
But then, weird or at least uncomfortable stares were common. The women in the grocery shops seemed apathetic at best whenever I walked in (but maybe that was more my acclimatization to markedly friendly and outgoing service everywhere in the states). The hostel was right next to the village church, and on Sunday mornings when the whole town filed in they saw us relaxing on the porch or hanging up laundry, distinctly not going to church. These were the times when I most sharply felt our outsider status.
Our one regular local visitor was the gardener, a kind, middle-aged man in a heartbreakingly perpetual state of drunk who sometimes brought us flowers and sometimes took our beer, and always helped with repairs when we needed it. It was a good thing these days the hostel saw only a trickle of guests, most of whom went on hikes during the afternoons, because he never failed to come around at lunchtime.
Another friendly soul was the Goulash Man, proprietor of Bufet Livia, a small stand that served hot goulash and sausage while blasting American pop songs down the street, and stayed open late every night. It was people’s only dinner option when the pizza place, restaurants, and shops all closed. I visited him one afternoon the first time I came to Zdiar to try this sour vegetable and beef soup, and discovered he served Turkish coffee as well. Here I met two men taking vodka shots at the tables outside. One of them was very chatty with us, even though my Australian companion was completely lost and I strained to get the gist of what he said.
We stopped by his restaurant after the hike, too, where I tried to explain to him what a vegetarian was as one of the people in our group attempted to order something without meat, slim pickings on the menu. It was rather like the scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Slovak is at least much easier than Czech for a Russian speaker.
Like the Goulash Man, the pace of life in Zdiar was very slow. Most days, we sat on the porch and looked at the mountains, listening to Wally howl with the church bells every hour and throwing toys for him, even the disgusting, long-dead-and-buried teddy bear he resurrected from the dirt one day. Often that was all I wanted to do, and I did it without a trace of guilt or a single thought of how this was helping my future. Here I understood how dramatically your surroundings affect your perception of wasted time. At home I can barely watch T.V. for more than an hour; a walk in the park is a brisk affair of movement and hectic planning. It’s that east coast workaholic rush driven by the golden word pressure; in Zdiar, there was none. It’s an indisputably right life to sit for an undetermined number of hours looking at mountains and breathing fresh air. There’s no theorizing about this; you must experience it for yourself, be placed in drastically different circumstances to understand how circumstantial your ideas of a “right life” – a “right” many things – are. Only then, I believe, can you begin to sift out what is really right for you.
Our nights were as lazy chilled as our days; we curled up in the lounge under blankets watching movies while the hostel’s collection of empty Tatransky Caj bottles slowly filled to completion. There are 22, 32, 42, 52, 62, and 72% alcohol varieties; respectively, they’re coconut, citrus, peach, original, forest fruit, and outlaw. The coconut is headache-ingly sweet; the citrus is okay; peach is by far the best; following is the original; forest fruit is abysmal; and the last one I didn’t try but it’s the same as the original, only with more alcohol. By the time I left the display was growing a second layer; one might call it a winter buffer.
Poprad was our one trip out of town this whole time, but no one was keen on leaving, even to venture to Humno, the nearest club a cab ride away which sits in the High Tatras and is, I’ve heard, a haven of beefy shirtless men and tacky clothes. Nights out were on weekends when we went to Pizzeria Rustika, where, after a long struggle, somebody finally put Hong Kong on the victors’ tally for the first and probably last time. These competitions with the 52 cm pizza ranged from gruelingly painful to straightforward steady battles. There is, however, no creature more capable of eating his body weight without fret, even with delight, than Kevin the cat. One night, Dan brought back a bag of four sausages, each half the length of Kevin’s body, and set it down for a few minutes when something else called his attention, then turned around to find the bag knocked over and the sausages gone. Otherwise constantly underfoot, Kevin wasn’t glimpsed for two days. When we finally saw him walking into the kitchen again, he looked jaunty and content.
I left after the first week of October, well rested and ready to resume traveling at full speed. Alas, this time was truly the end. I had a new jacket, which would be essential for my last stop before the flight home.