Friday 22 January 2010

Signs and Portents: Poland 4

Did Sherlock Holmes ever visit Poland? How many wheels do you really need to sell chocolate? And would you rather stand beneath a tiger or a pear? It's been a few months since I posted my most recent example of curious signs encountered on my Lonely Planet assignment in Poland in winter 2006... so here's another serve.

1. I'm used to encountering Sherlock Holmes all around the world... usually in the names of pubs. This sign, in the southeastern city of Lublin, has Holmes' iconic profile aptly endorsing a school which trains private investigators. I wonder if they've read his classic monograph on types of cigarette ash?

Due to an unfortunate translation, the detective school planted a lemon tree in honour of Holmes' favourite expression. 

2. This political poster was also encountered in Lublin, which is located not far from the border with Belarus. My visit coincided with a presidential election in Belarus, in which the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko was returned amid the usual voting irregularities. The poster reads something like "Time to be together with Belarus", and Belarus' name is pointedly rendered in the same style as the logo of Poland's Solidarity trade union which fought against communist rule in the 1980s.

President Lukashenko was so popular that even the dead rose from their graves to vote for him - some more than once!

3. It's not really the sign that caught my eye here, but the whole vehicle. This gentleman outside the Lublin bus station is selling both public transport tickets (bilety) for city buses, and chocolate (czekolady).

Józef believed it was only a matter of time before the franchising rights to his chocolate-and-ticket tricar concept took off.

4. As I mentioned in an earlier installment, Polish businesses often include the preposition pod, meaning beneath, to refer to features of their buildings. Here's a picture of the Kraków pharmacy known as Apteka Pod Złotym Tygrysem - The Pharmacy Beneath the Golden Tiger.

Felinophobic customers could at lease console themselves that it wasn't a golden tigger.

5. ... and finally, here's Kraków's Restauracja Pod Gruszką - The Restaurant Beneath the Pear!

 Diners often experienced a strange compulsion to order the fruit salad.

Friday 15 January 2010

The Readers Strike Back

This week I'm featuring responses from Aerohaveno's followers to two recent competitions - one about travel disasters, the other about travel to movie locations.

First up, let's hear from the readers re their experiences when travelling to silver screen locations:

Justine: "I'm embarrassed to admit it now but I went on the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg when I was a wee lass. And I loved it! Made me want to make a dress out of old curtains and hang out of a tree. The locations were stunning. Austria is gorgeous."

Alison: "Bells Beach was a location in Bruce Brown's epic surf film Endless Summer and is one of the great surf spots anywhere, anytime. Although it comes to life at the Rip Curl Pro held each Easter, the best time to enjoy its waves are when the surf circus has moved on, the autumn winds and lowering water temperature have sent the sissies north and it looks like rain.

Then as the corduroy sets roll in, it's just the other desperados and yourself carving your names on the waves. You come in when you can't recall how many waves you've caught, your arms are like spaghetti from paddling, your feet are blue and you can't feel them any more. Bliss."

Carole: "My movie location was Universal Studios in Los Angeles; lots of action, actors and scenes from great movies. It was fun to wander around and see Marilyn Monroe and other greats, ride the train around the set, and see duels, action and the flashing lights of movies. Next stop Universal Studios in Osaka, as I'm in Japan."

And finally, here's the winning entry in the competition to win a copy of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?. The task was to write about a memorable hassle while travelling. The winner is Serehfa, with this fine remembrance:

"Quite a few years ago now I took a holiday in Egypt, partly on the invitation of my North African boyfriend who was going home to visit family in the next country and would meet me there.

Booking a trip went smoothly, my departure flight and arrival posed no issues. The trip however held some challenges. I actually managed to stay healthy for a few days before succumbing to the usual, 'Egypt Belly' in this case. That was manageable.

Snorkelling on the Red Sea coast was amazing; desolate desert above the waterline and coral paradise beneath. However when you forget to put sunscreen on the back of your legs, it can be awkward. By evening I couldn't walk. I was very surprised not to have blisters but somehow I escaped.

It was agony though, and I couldn't sleep and could barely eat my dinner. Of course, there was no help to be had - the tour guide only stopped places where the tour company got a kickback and was not the least bit interested in helping any of the party who got into trouble. She was an Aussie too!

Two days later we had a scheduled camel ride through some mountains; I lasted about 30 seconds before experiencing agony from the 'saddle' - actually a bundle of small logs with a rag draped over them, presumably designed to be as uncomfortable as possible for mount and rider!

Once again no assistance was forthcoming; I slid off the standing camel to the ground and was left to walk back to the highway, and sit for hours in the middle of nowhere until the tour returned and the bus showed up.

Even that, though, was manageable.

The final joy was the boyfriend. We had some new people join the tour for the last week, one of whom was a wealthy Rhodesian woman who was obviously there for a good time. Boyfriend started flirting with her to the extent that at one point they disappeared together in the evening... and at the same time he started to become physical towards me in an unpleasant way.

I had been warned about cultural differences, and here were my first row seats to the show. He had earlier insisted we say we were married to save his pride - so I was caught between the twin humiliation of revealing a lie or putting up with the antics.

There were parts of the trip that were excellent, however, and some lovely people on the tour with whom I did not get to spend enough time.

All up it was an unforgettable experience; no matter how hard I try!"

Thanks to all who entered the competitions!

Friday 8 January 2010

Trouble in Paradise

No journey is perfect. Travellers go abroad knowing that, sometimes, flights will be delayed, baggage misplaced, hotel rooms disappointing and meals underwhelming.

And yet, they still travel, knowing that the occasional bungle and hardship is all part of the experience, along with the freedom and moments of sheer inspiration.

And, let's face it, those travel problems provide great fodder for travel anecdotes and even travel articles. Here are a few of my own travel glitches and awkward moments which have made good stories at a later date...

Poland, 1994: “We have here the homicide.” These aren't words you want to hear while you’re living overseas, in this case Kraków. Nor do you want to glance over the shoulder of the man who’s just spoken them, to see a pile of bloody surgical gloves and the body of your naked dead landlord in the living room. Of course, this is a moment of true horror. But as a writer, there's also part of me that's hovering, detached, thinking “What material!”.

French Polynesia, 2005: We've arrived in French Polynesia in search of its legendary tropical tranquillity, but discover that our hotel has closed for renovation - without telling us. From travellers in search of paradise, we've become lowly vagabonds in search of a room – any room – on the tropical island of Mo'orea. But it is a very beautiful place to trudge through with a backpack on.

And... the prices are a shock. Mo'orea is a major producer of pineapples, so I order a fresh pineapple juice from the bar of my eventual hotel. How much could it possibly cost? And it’d have to be cheaper than the imported stuff in a bottle, right? A few days, and a few juices later, I finally ask. It’s 700 Pacific Francs - about $9.50. Ouch.

New Zealand, 2005: Then there's our dodgy Balkan-born taxi driver in Auckland, who greets us with this line: “I am best driver in Auckland two years in row - this is honest truth”. Followed by dodgy detours, hair-raining turns, much passenger map reading, and a comical attempt to overcharge.

Chile, 2005: Walking through the night-time streets of Barrio Bellavista, a district of Chile’s capital, Santiago, my Narrelle and I are accosted by a smooth-talking man claiming to be a poet, supplementing his high university fees by selling photocopied examples of his work in Spanish and English to passers-by. We chat, I give him $5 for the poem; then the next day I encounter a completely different 'poet' selling the same poem.

Chile, 2005: We’re on the third day of a cruise through the glaciers and fiords of southern Chile, and have left the comfortable confines of the ship to ride on a small excursion boat among the ice. Without warning, the pilot sails up to an iceberg and rams into its flank. We're a bit concerned at the collision, but we watch him extract a large chunk with the aid of an ice-pick. A few minutes later we’re milling around, clinking glasses as we toast each other - with 12 year old Scotch containing 50,000 year old ice. So the minor stress was worth it.

Poland, 2006: Having left the minibus at the turn-off from the road to Białowieża, a small village near Poland’s border with Belarus, I’m trudging along a road caked with thick snow. It’s the middle of the day, but the sky is a strange muted grey and the bare spindly trees look like extras from The Blair Witch Project. And I know there are wolves in these woods. And I know the European Bison Reserve must be just a kilometre or so ahead. But my hindbrain isn’t so sure this is a good idea...

Poland, 2008: I've departed the city of Przemyśl in the country's southeast, on a bus across the snowy mountains to the town of Sanok. One of the passengers, a recently released prisoner returning home, decides I should buy him beer from one of the small towns we stop at along the way. He keeps demanding beer, and I kept saying "Dlaczego?" (Why?).

Then he casually threatens violence, but his English-speaking friend says not to worry about it, as he isn't serious. I'm not taking that chance, thanks. When the bus pulls into Sanok bus station at sunset, I zip through the terminal building, then cross a pedestrian bridge to the train station while my new best friends are still assembling their luggage.

USA, 2009: On my first visit to the USA, I kill time between flights one day in Los Angeles by walking from Hermosa Beach to Redondo Beach, trying to reset my body clock with lots of exposure to sunlight. I decide to catch a taxi back, and out of habit sit in the front passenger seat, Australian-style. I get the distinct impression from the look of surprise on the driver's face that I'm expected to sit in the back, and there's an awkward moment in the air... but he lets it slide and we have a good conversation re Australia versus California on our way to the hotel.

COMPETITION! Now it's your turn... share your most awkward or difficult travel moment, and you'll go into the draw for a copy of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, a book I reviewed in 2008. Just email a short description of your travel story (a single paragraph is fine) to me at

Note that by entering, you grant me the right to use your anecdote for free, perpetually and non-exclusively, in a future blog post about awkward travel experiences (but you will be credited!).

Unfortunately entry is only open to Australian residents - sorry about that. But if you'd like to send in a paragraph about your difficult travel experiences to be used in a future post anyway, please do.

That's it! The competition ends at midnight on Thursday 14 January 2010, so enter now!