Down The Dunajec:
Text and photographs by Robert Huszar
That night, sitting around the fire, sipping good Polish vodka, we listened as our new friends sang the songs that were popular in their university days. After five songs and much laughter, the guitar was passed to us. Our hosts wanted to hear the American campfire tradition. Now we were in trouble. I have a voice quite capable of creating an international incident. In fact, the Canadian border patrol were still looking for me after an unsavory affair at a Vancouver karaoke bar. Fortunately, Eugene had paddled with the Latvians and the Russians on the Bashkaus River in Siberia, and was hip to this important cultural exchange. He tuned the guitar and, looking nervously at his back-up singers, sternly admonished, "You better back me up on this, guys."
Several Beatles songs later we were in the clear, our "American" contribution well received. Except that for the next several days, every time we stopped for a break, someone would come up with some absurd song or another that we could perform at the next campfire. At one point, as all our boats were rafted together and we were drifting leisurely with the current, I announced I had the perfect song and launched into "I Wish I Was An Oscar Meyer Wiener" -- which seemed appropriate, considering the amounts of kielbasa we all consumed. Everyone giggled and picked up the melody, completing the song in four-part harmony. Of course, one of the Polish women we were paddling with looked at us aghast, her eyes saying: Americans have very weird sing-along tradition. Denise noticed her unease and quickly explained it was a joke: a commercial for hot dogs. "Oh," Paulina said, "I get it!" She laughed warmly but did not request an encore.
(Man's best friend, wherever you go.)
Like all modern countries, Poland is not without its problems. The government is in a state of division, with over 200 active political parties (in 1991, 29 different parties were elected into the Sejm, the lower parliamentary house). The culture is divided, with the church trying to fill the gap left by the departure of the super-authoritative Communist Party. The economy is weak, but stable and growing. And Poland's infrastructure is compromised, but steady and being rebuilt.
Consequently, traveling in Poland does have a few minor nuisances. The biggest problem in touring Poland is transportation. The trains and buses are often over crowded and very often sold out. During peak months, transportation arrangements must be booked in advance -- and preferably through a reliable travel agent. Or you can go with a group tour as we did, and have a professional take care of the details.
Also, you should be aware that traveler's checks are not welcome in Poland. You can get them cashed in major cities like Warsaw and Krakow, but not without considerable aggravation; in smaller towns you could wait for hours trying to get one cashed. Top-class hotels will cash almost any type of traveler's check, but you have to be a registered guest; and even then, they'll usually charge a whopping 5 percent, either as a commission or by adjusting the exchange rate in their favor. Barclay’s Bank of London actually advises tourists against bringing traveler’s checks to Poland, and instead recommends carrying plenty of cash.
The bathroom system is also a tad complicated. Toilets are never free (prices vary from between 10 and 50 cents) and are zealously guarded by the babcia klozetown, which translates as the Water Closet Sitter. These woman ensure that everyone pays the fee. The babcia klozetown also hands out a too-little piece of TP at some establishments, and, in theory, keeps the place clean; but, as you'll discover, price does not always reflect efficiency.
But these are all minor problems when compared to the joys of
alpine mountains, raging whitewater, and 800-year-old castles.
The Poles have a saying, "A guest in the house is God in the
house." And as you travel though their country, marveling at
a land and a people that survived insurmountable odds, you are
constantly aware, from every face you pass, that in Poland, visitors
are very welcome.