Sunday, September 9, 2007

The wheels on the bus go round and round.

Mother and daughter adventure.

My mom and I ventured on our own to visit Kazimierz Dolny, a little village about two hours outside of Warsaw. Known for being both a haven for artists and a weekend getaway for city folk, Kazimierz is one of those small gems filled with history and charm.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the Rynek, drifting into stores and stands with cheesy trinkets and souvenirs and taking in the lovely landscape paintings for sale. Overlooking the cobblestone square is a church that features the oldest organ in Poland, built in the 17th century and still in working order. While mom waited behind, I walked up the massive hill behind the church, along with an endless mountain of stairs, to see the remains of King Kazimierz Wielki's castle and watchtower that offered a scenic view of the town and the Vistula River.

As picturesque as the village turned out to be, our ride to Kazimierz was anything but.

We reserved space on an 18-passenger bus called the Halo Express.

"How many stops does this bus make?" my mom asked the driver, as she paid for our tickets.

"Just one," he replied. "It stops at Kazimierz Dolny." (Hence the name "Express.") The driver had an extremely loud voice, an easygoing manner and a moustache that curled at the ends. "But if you want me to stop somewhere before Kazimierz, let me know."

We boarded the bus which reeked of body odor, grabbing the last two seats together in the back row. My mom took the window seat and I took the center aisle. We scrunched together, our bags piled on top of us, because the seats were so tiny and the bus completely full. A woman about 70 years old, wearing a brown wig and what my mom calls the "polish old lady uniform"--a calf-length straight skirt with a slit on the back and thick-soled sandals--sat in the front of the bus, staring in our direction.

The driver started the engine and the moment the bus moved, my mom and I looked at each other.

"I can't tell if my seat is moving or the floor is moving," my mom said. Our seats were rocking all over the place. With every bump, stop, swerve and turn the bus made, we too, bumped, stopped, swerved and turned. Somehow, my mom managed to fall asleep and woke up only a few minutes later when we rolled over something that felt like a log. Our butts flew out of our seats and our heads nearly hit the ceiling. This happened repeatedly. For two hours. Slowly but surely, the body odor faded to be replaced by the smell of diesel fuel.

In Poland, most roads have only two lanes, which means you use the lane with the oncoming traffic for passing, which also means that horrible, body-mangling, bone-crushing death always feels near. Our driver, talking boisterously on his cell phone, would lurch into the left lane, step on the gas and then swerve back in the right lane just as we were inches away from colliding head on with the car coming toward us. With every pass, my mom and I (and our seats) went along with the ride. Since I was on the center aisle and had no chair back in front to support me and no seatbelt (big surprise), I had to tighten my abs every time we made of sudden pass or came to a screeching halt to make sure I stayed planted on my seat.

In the meantime, the woman in the polish old lady uniform began fanning herself with a delicate paper fan in one hand, and digging her thumb inside her nose with the other. This, too, happened repeatedly.

The express bus stopped every five minutes. People would join us from bus shelters and sides of roads lacking any kind of civilization whatsoever. In the same spirit of randomness, people would be dropped off anywhere from highway exit ramps to supermarket parking lots.

"Even I don't understand what is happening here," said my mom, who was born and raised in this country.

At one point, the bus stopped suddenly on the side of the road where no one was standing, and a few seconds later we watched a man run as fast as he could for about 200 meters and then climb on the bus. How the driver knew this man was there…we’ll never know.

Then the woman in the polish old lady uniform got off the bus and began walking into the woods.

"You've got to me kidding me," I said, in disbelief. Were we actually dropping this woman off in a forest? Had it really gone this far? "Where is she going?"

As soon as I said that, she stopped walking, her back toward the bus and she just stood. Then she hung her head and I realized what was happening. There was vomit happening. And everyone sitting on the bus was watching her and waiting for her to stop. When she came back on the bus, the driver made her change her seat with someone else, so she was no longer facing us. The woman who now had to sit next to her looked upset. No one said a word.

And then there was my mom and me, the Americans who couldn't behave, laughing with our mouths closed in our shifting seats, not believing that we were here, that this is Poland.

The Halo Express.

Mom standing in the Rynek.

The castle remains.

Inside the watchtower.


Squeen said...

"There was vomit happening." Fantastic use of the passive voice if ever there was one.

Annette said...

I liked the "spirit of randomness" line myself.