Thursday, August 09, 2007
Mass Transit, 'Black-Riding', and Czech Roulette (With Diagrams)
Last we left our heroine, she was headed toward Prague. There she was to meet up with the fabulously awesome Nina and take in Prague for everything it was worth. Prague was a welcome change after the illness that plagued me in Berlin - while my first day in Berlin was fantastic, the second was spent indoors with cold medicine (which had German instructions, so I hope I didn't overdose too terribly), baby juice with extra vitamins, fresh fruits and veggies, and my computer (acting in the capacity of a television/DVD player). I did venture out of doors once (to get food, I think) but - much like America's love-hate relationship with Chinese manufactured goods - the on-again/off-again nature of the rainy weather really got me down. And yes, my toothpaste is fine, thank you. (The Chinese don't taint their OWN people, after all...)

Praha (Prague) was amazing. Nina lived in beautiful Mala Strana - the "touristy" part of town if ever there was one - though the personal highlight for me was having my own room after sharing rooms in hostels for weeks. That, and all the Babybel cheese (good call, Nina!). I wandered by day while Nina worked, and by night we wandered the streets looking for trouble. Actually, we went in search of really good Czech food. And boy, did we find it. On the evening of my first full day in Prague, Nina and I met up first with some of her students for drinks, followed by other students for a (rather tame) bachelorette party, and finally with a fellow teacher, Darryl. We went out for drinks and regaled each other with stories - and then we went...
That's right. I went all the way to Prague to salsa. Makes perfect sense...

The next day, I was going to meet up with Nina for lunch. First, let me preface this by explaining that in most countries in Europe (particularly the ones I had just come from like the Netherlands and Germany), you buy a public transport ticket, validate it, and get on the transport of choice (bus, tram, subway, train, etc.) and - throughout this process - it's entirely likely that no one will ever check to ensure you have a valid pass. Call it "the European Mass Transit Honor System."

Well, I was running late to meet Nina and there was no place to buy passes for mass transit at the tram stop, only at the convenience store down the street. So I decided to tram it without one. I got to the subway - still running late, of course - and I figured, my luck being what it was, why not keep the rush going and try it again. Darryl and Nina had been telling me all about their "black riding" experiences the night before and they had only each been caught once or twice in all their time in Prague. They also mentioned that these guys have little or no authority and that most Czech people, when caught, just ignore them or run away. Fantastic!

So, back to the story. If only someone had told me that the place I had to transfer always has guards waiting to stop you (sort of like a checkpoint) during the daytime. So I get off the first train and go to transfer to the second one, and there I see them. There were probably about six of them.

I'm the red circle and the black "X"s are the guards checking tickets. Now, I had reached the point where you see the circle above and I had a major decision to make: should I turn back or keep going? I slowed down a bit and realized that they had seen me and that turning back was definitely not an option. So I had to suck it up and take it like a man, er, woman.

Looking busy and hassled in my best performance yet (so VERY Oscar-worthy), I waited for the gentleman in front of me to set up a block as he was stopped by the guard all the way to the left (I feel incredibly like Bob Costas at the moment), I pick-and-rolled past the left-most guard along the railing, slid my way down the stairs, and jumped onto a train that was just pulling up to the platform. See diagram below.

I didn't much care whether the train was going the correct direction or not; I couldn't risk being stopped while waiting on the platform if it wasn't. Once on the train, I took a quick seat and blended in with the other passengers. If there had been a guard on the train, I might've been caught. I was wearing shorts that day - OBVIOUS TOURIST. But as it turned out, I WAS on the correct train and two stops later - with not a guard in sight - I stepped off the train, glided across the platform and exited the station with my eyes peeled for Nina. Oh, the skills I possess. Maybe I should go into espionage...

I told Nina the whole story and she laughed, mentioning that she should've warned me that they would be waiting there. We toasted my moment of stealth and triumph over a plate of chicken vindaloo (which nearly burned the roof of my mouth off, but OH was it tasty), after which we walked back to the subway. I bought a ticket this time, don't worry. I wasn't about to go through THAT again. And upon arriving at the transfer station, that same guy I slipped past the first time eyed me and stopped Nina and me both. I reached into my pocket and my ticket was GONE!

Just kidding. I proudly displayed my freshly purchased ticket and walked right on by, smug and satisfied. So there.

That evening, Darryl came over and we rehashed the whole story to a similar reaction and we chilled out at Nina's place until I had to catch my train at 8-something. There was a tram that went directly to the station. I jumped on and bid Nina and Darryl adieu. Or however you say it in Czech. When I got off, I only saw a park, so I began to wander a bit looking for the train station. When I finally asked someone, they pointed out a train station behind me. However, this was not the correct one and a guard outside motioned that I would have to go through the park I had just walked ten minutes away from to the other side to reach my train. And I had only
twelve minutes to do it.

I rushed across the street - baggage and all - and bounded across the park, reaching the front entrance of the station with about three minutes to go. Mine was the third train down the corridor. I got to the platform about a minute and a half before the train was set to leave. The engines were already pumping. I found my compartment, opened my couchette (this would be a sleeper train between Prague and Munich), stowed my baggage and stretched out to rest.

Settled into my hot, cramped compartment (which I shared with four Korean girls and one snoring Korean guy) day faded to
night as I made my way back to Germany. In the next installment, Munich and beyond.

posted by Rachel @ 3:12 PM  
THE WILD WILD EAST: Everything you never knew you didn't know about life on the other side.
In China, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The Chinese, who call this land "home," and the expats who migrate here. My name is Rachel. I am an expat. These are my stories.
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