Glacier

On a bus trip in the Andes mountains in Northern Patagonia, there was a short stop at a village called Santa Lucia.

We´d been a couple of hours on the way, the bus was cramped, and it was good to get out and stretch the legs.

The bus stopped near the local church.

It was a fine sunny day, the first in a week.

I took a photo of the church and besides that didn’t do much.

It was the first sunny day in a week and it was good to just stand around a luxuriate in the feeling of warmth and light……

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Patagonian Journey

 

It was raining when we got on the local bus leaving Puerto Monte (population 200,000) for the small town of Hornopiren (pop 1, 200). It had been raining for the four days previous. There seemed no end to it.  

Puerto Monte marks the northernmost point of Patagonia – Cape Horn at the end of Tierra Del Fuego – the southernmost.

The bus ascended into mist enshrouded mountains. A section of the mountain road had been buried under a landslide and whilst workers had cleared the road, our bus moved at a crawl.

The four hour trip to Hornopiren – with a ferry trip on the way – took longer.

Darkness was descending as we arrived…..

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The Metamorphosis Part 2

Sometimes, sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Zamecek after a long walk, the sun glancing the tops of the pine trees, the air filled with the sounds of the river, an image of Kafka appeared before me. Kafka sitting next to us in a chair, a blanket over him, looking at the forest, now and then a cough heard over the sound of the water.

Kafka suffered from TB and spent months in and out of various sanatoriums in Austria, his stays there funded by his father who owned a factory. He died from TB at the age of 40.

Once, Europe was dotted with sanitariums. TB, amongst other illness, were a scourge in the days before the invention of antibiotics and vaccines. Many of these former sanitoriums had been renovated and turned into hotels. Anya and I had stayed in a few of them.

I wondered if this wasn’t also the case with Hotel Zamecek and resolved to ask at the front desk about its past. 

 

The woman at the front desk spoke Czech – and English. She and her husband owned and ran the hotel and as it transpired, she was the right person to inquire about the hotel and its past.

She disappeared and came back and plumped down a book before us and opened it out at a reprint of an old black and white photo of the original ‘hotel’ – surrounded by other, long, plain looking buildings with sloping tiled roofs – where there was now grass.  

She explained that originally, the hotel was the private home of a the German owner of a textile factory. It was surrounded by the living quarters of the workers. 

As she  continued telling the story of the Hotel Zamecek, a strange thought flashed through my mind:

A textile factory!

Gregor Samsa: a travelling salesman selling textiles….

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The Metamorphosis Part 1

It took us a day to get from the Austrian border to the Hotel Zamecek in the west of the Czech Republic. We had to catch two trains and a bus to reach the town of Kaplice, from where we walked to the hotel. We followed a road out town. The traffic wasn’t too bad but our rucksacks were heavy and it was a warm day.

Late in the afternoon, tired and jaded, we saw it: the Hotel Zamecek.

Our spirits lifted.

It was beautiful, like a small castle. 

It was surrounded open grassy fields and pine forests. 

 

Our room was on the third floor and to reach it we ascended a wide, stone staircase with a high stone balustrade. The original decorations on the ceiling and walls had been freshly repainted. The hotel, obviously old, had been beautifully restored – inside as well as out.

In a large open area at the top of the stairs, there was a polished wooden bookcase with books left behind by departing guests. After putting our rucksacks down and showering and putting on fresh clothes, I checked the books in the bookcase. Anya loves maps and I love books; whilst I was perusing the books, she was in the room pouring over a map of Bohemia; we planned to do some walking in the area.

I found a few books in English. There was one which caught my attention.

‘The Metamorphosis’ written by Franz Kafka.

I grabbed it and put it in our room.

Then we went downstairs to order a meal. We were famished.

 

We sat on the terrace. It was on a low balcony with a railing. It was a fine afternoon and there was a magnificent view of a swift flowing river and behind it, a steep slope covered in tall pines. Anya and I sat down at one of the tables. The other guests sitting around were Czechs who’d driven out from town to have a meal and few drinks before returning to Kaplice. We ordered a couple of red wines and a meal. It was a beautiful setting to be wining and dining; the sun shone above the tips of the pines and lanced on to the large open area between the hotel and the river. The sound of gurgling, crashing water reverberated through the air. Behind it, merging into the background, was the sound of people speaking Czech, underlining that feeling of strangeness, of being somewhere else, which is one of the great attractions of travel.

 

That night, I began reading The Metamorphosis.

“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a revolting insect……´

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Ozymandias

 

All day I travelled through a wasteland: once fertile agricultural lands destroyed by decades of foolishness, now just empty fields filled with weeds and drift sand.

The beaten up bus I travelled in was forced to stop for a few hours. 

´Mechanical problems´. Wouldn’t have been the first time.

At one stop, an area of asphalt, there were the remains of a bus which had been burnt out – or bombed.

I missed my connection to a distant place well known for its historic ruins and had to spend the night in a slum city –  another very different kind of ruin.

A monstrous place, an urban nightmare: rows and rows of flaking, decrepit apartment blocks. Old run down factories filling the air with thick black smoke. Crowded streets pot holed, littered with plastic bags and gaudy foil wrappings. Trucks and old motor cars leaving behind them clouds of dense fumes.

People walking passed like zombies, grim faced, dour.

 

Accommodation was hard to find especially for a foreigner. I walked into a dingy excuse for a hotel only to be dismissed with a wave of a hand. Then another, then another.

Eventually I found a soulless, run down room. A dungeon.

What did I do to deserve this?  

 

 

As the sun neared the horizon and darkness enclosed the city, I walked the streets in search of a meal.

And walked, followed by furtive stares, derisive laughter.

Foreigner.

One of them.

On my part, one thought occupied my mind as I ate a greasy excuse for a meal: 

What it would it be like to live here?

 The country I had come to in search of difference, diversity, had never had a free and fair election. It produced nothing. Beyond its borders, its currency was worthless. Corruption riddled it at every level. Its human rights record was scandalous. It’s prisons crammed with those suspected of not being totally loyal to a brutal dictatorship. Minority groups were living a precarious existence. The role of women was to bear children, cook and submit. LGBT’s didn’t exist. Whilst gladly accepting foreign aid, the same regime blamed the rest of the world for its poverty. There was only one source of information, the state controlled media.

The people were told that they were blessed, never had it so good.

Did they believe it?

Did they have any choice?

The truth was: this  place was hell on earth.

Then again, who was I to judge?

Me, a foreigner, with my ideals of freedom of speech, social justice and human rights?

When I went traveling, I wanted to see another way of life, to experience strange sights, to be disorientated, culture shocked. To escape the feeling of being one of ‘us’.

Well, here it was. I was amongst ‘them’ and the view was ugly.  

What the hell was I doing here?

 

On the following morning I got a bus out to the ruins of an ancient empire. Stone walls, columns, statues chipped and pitted, lines of script which had only recently been deciphered. All of it unearthed and given importance and meaning by foreigners. Now a handy cash cow for the government.

It was incredible. I walked around as if in a dream. I was suddenly transported miraculously, as if on a magic carpet, to a time long ago, when a civilization, an empire, rose out of the earth like a vigorous plant, bloomed, and then died.

Yesterday I´d wondered what the hell I was doing here, in this hell on earth, and today, that question was far from mind.

Overwhelmed by the sheer wonder of being alive, I knew why I was here.  

Walking amidst stone relics, some of them bearing the symbols of a strange script, Percey Shelley’s famous poem echoed in the desert:

 

‘I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert…..Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round that decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.’