Day 37: Krakow/Kiev

Because the weather was constantly raining in Krakow, I didn’t bother to take any pictures. Hopefully the weather will be a bit better in Kiev.

The past couple days I’ve been wandering around Krakow hanging out with people in the hostel. I took a bike tour on the 18th which was decent but I could only understand every third word our tour guide was saying. It was raining too so that didn’t help things either.

On the 19th, I just relaxed in the hostel and figured out how much money I’ve spent. So far, I’ve spent $3,099.47 since May 16th, averaging $83.77 per day. If you multiply this average by the 77 days I’ll be in Europe, I should end up spending around $6,500, not including my Eurail pass.

One of the reasons this number is so high is because it includes a $450 round-trip flight between Krakow-Kiev, which wasn’t in the original plan. I budgeted on €80.00 per day ($100) so I’m still doing pretty well. I expect costs to go up once I get to Switzerland and Italy though. It gets confusing going to so many countries, especially ones that aren’t on the Euro. I reach into my pocket to pull out some change and I have Euros, Czech Koruna, Polish Zloty, (and soon to be Ukraine Hryvnia) coins. After I figured out my money situation, I got some dinner with a Swedish girl from my hostel at a Georgian restaurant in Krakow. I was surprisingly good, considering that I didn’t know what to expect and probably couldn’t locate Georgia on a map.

Yesterday, the 20th, I went back to Auschwitz with an Australian girl from the hostel. I was planning on taking more pictures, because some of mine didn’t come out well on my first trip, but it started raining as soon as we got there. The train ride was interesting though; you learn so much more talking to someone who lives in another country rather than reading about it, e.g. Foster’s is Australia’s worst beer. After Auschwitz, we went to the same pizza place I went to earlier and then caught the 8:13pm train back to Krakow.

Today, the 20th, I woke up, packed up my things, and then took a taxi to the train station since it was raining. Because I had an hour before the train to the airport left, I went into a bookstore and bought one of the few English photography magazines they had. Looking back, I wish I would have subscribed to a photography magazine a year ago; it definitely would have helped me take better pictures on my trip.

It’s hard for me to ‘see’ a good picture. Before I go to Chernobyl, I plan to go on Flickr, find good pictures that other people have taken in Chernobyl, and then save them to my phone. I’m not that creative when it comes to taking pictures, so it helps having other pictures to look at for composition. I did the same thing the second time I went to Auschwitz, but because it was raining and I didn’t want to ruin my camera, I didn’t take any pictures.

I then got on the train which took about 20 minutes to get to the airport. I got there in plenty of time, and had to sit around for a couple hours before I could board my plane for my 3:15pm flight. I spent most of the time planning the rest of my trip. Because Kiev wasn’t on the original plan, I have to cut some cities out, probably Bratislava and Rome. I’ve already been to Rome, and with limited time, I shouldn’t be seeing the same place twice. After Kiev, I plan on going back to Krakow (possibly going to Auschwitz a 3rd time since I didn’t get to take any pictures last time). Normally I wouldn’t visit the same place three times, but I figure I’ll probably never go back after this trip, so I want to make sure I do everything I want.

After Krakow, I will probably take an overnight train to Vienna, then go to Munich, Innsbruck, Interlaken, possibly Zurich, Venice, Florence, Naples (Pompeii), Cinque Terre, Marseille/Nice, and then take the TGV back up to Paris to fly out on August 1st. I think I definitely spent too much time in some cities and didn’t always cram in as much as I could. Some days I would sleep until 10:00am or 11:00am, grab lunch, and then only have four of five hours before things would start closing. Another problem is that I go to a new city every few days, so it’s hard to find time to research a city, figure out what I’m going to do, and when I’m going to do it. I think the rest of my trip will be a little bit more crowded. That means I’m going to have to pick out the highlights of each city and be forced to wake up early and do as much as I can.

After waiting for a couple hours (security took a lot less time than I thought it would) I finally boarded my plane to Vienna. It was a prop plane, with four chairs to a row, with an aisle running down the middle. I was a little bit nervous about the safety of the plane, but we landed in Vienna fine. As soon as we landed, I realized that I didn’t clear any of my credit cards for Ukraine. I had about 45 minutes before I had to board my flight and I still had to find a gift for Irina. So I am running around, trying to find a something to buy, while trying to use my phone. Luckily, the Vienna airport had free wi-fi so I could use Skype on my phone and call for practically free. I managed to call Wachovia and Capital One and they said Ukraine should be authorized for purchases starting tomorrow. I went ahead and withdrew €200 from the ATM just in case my cards don’t end up working. I also managed to find a bottle of wine in the terminal which they placed in a big “Do Not Open” bag due to security.

I had time to briefly check my email on my phone and then boarded my connecting flight to Kiev. The flight went pretty smoothly and ended up sitting next to an Italian woman. We talked for awhile about work (it turns out she is an industrial engineer, works for Coke, and gets 25 vacation days a year) and traveling throughout Europe. We landed around 8:35pm local time in Kiev (7:35pm in mainland Europe) and then had to go through customs. The immigration officials in Kiev do not look like the type of people that would be fun to go out with. They showed no emotion and seemed like they would have no problem pulling out their gun to set someone straight. I’m just happy they didn’t find anything wrong with my immigration card and let me pass through without any trouble.

I then went through customs through the ‘nothing to declare’ line. After scanning my luggage and looking in my bag to see how much wine I had, they let me go through. Irina picked me up about 25 minutes later with a family friend and coworker, Alik.

They drove me through Kiev to Irina’s apartment, about 30 minutes away. So far, Kiev is the most unique city I’ve been to in Europe – no other city really compares to it. Most of the other cities (with the exception of the Le Defense district in Paris) had no high rise buildings, but in Kiev, with the exception of the communist-era architecture, they have tall apartment buildings similar to what you would see in most major cities in the US.

When we got to Irina’s apartment, we had a nice dinner, starting off with a traditional glass of cognac (from Armenia). We talked for awhile, about traveling and Ukraine. Both Irina and Alik were alive when Chernobyl happened so it was interesting to get their perspective on it. The accident occurred on April 26th, 1986 but most people didn’t know (or start moving away) until ten days later. Alik said people were crammed on to trains, packed in tightly, and holding onto the handrails ‘like grapes on a vine’. Luckily, his family had a car so they could drive away safely. Irina recalled that they she requested off for work to move the children out of Kiev, but they denied her request, telling her that if she left, she would lose her job. The government tried to cover up the Chernobyl accident, but had to recognize it when other countries reported high radiation levels. The government eventually set up camps for people who relocated, but it was primarily for the children.

I also found out that Alik is an avid photographer. He has a Canon 5D Mark II, which the body alone costs $2,500. It shoots in full 1080p HD and has 21.1 megapixels – pretty unbelievable. He might join me in Chernobyl on Thursday so maybe I’ll be able to learn something.

After having some chocolates for desert, I made my way into bed. Tomorrow, I am going around Kiev with Tim and Sergei, Irina’s nephew and son, respectively. It should be good to get a local’s tour of the city.