In 2002, I discovered that international travel could quickly become the most horrible experience known to man. Having made several previous trips without incident, I was unprepared for the travel disaster awaiting me. The ultimate lesson of the story is to pack light, keep your bags close and avoid alcohol on the airplane. After this incident, I have never repeated the mistakes I made on my second trip to the Czech Republic. This was perhaps the worst vacation I ever experienced.
I left Texas on a plane headed to Frankfurt, Germany. At the time it was significantly cheaper to fly to Germany and hop a train than fly directly to Prague. Emotional and exhausted, I ended up having two cocktails on the plane. This did nothing to alleviate my general anxiety and made the eight hour flight worse. I was tired, dehydrated, cramped and miserable for most of the flight. I finally landed in Germany. German airports are remarkably clean, I have noticed. I found a nearby bathroom and dragged myself in to clean up a bit from the flight. Apparently the best place to mug someone is in the bathroom because it seems like such a violation of a person’s privacy that they are too shocked to fight. A large German woman grabbed my purse and shoved her hand inside. Too surprised to scream, I flailed my laptop bag at her snatched my purse back. The large German woman managed to steal a chunk of cash from my wallet and disappear into the crowd. Feeling rather violated and depressed, I jumped on the next train to Prague.
By the time I made it to Prague, I was sleep deprived and edging toward delirious. I managed to buy a train ticket to my destination in Brno, thanks to a handful of Czech koruna given to me by a friend before I left Texas. Purchasing train tickets in Prague is an exercise that can make even the most experienced traveller cringe. The schedule boards seem to always be chaotic, and the ticket windows only take cash. I placed some hysterical phone calls back to the US on a credit card. In doing so I managed to terrify my mother, who called the US Consulate and sent police in two countries looking for me. By this time I was so exhausted I was sobbing. I missed my train, and ended up on a later one. During this entire ordeal, I’m dragging two suitcases and a laptop. I could barely get myself onto the train. Too tired to even imagine pushing and pulling my bags into a compartment, I piled them up at the end of the aisle and perched on them for the next few hours. From time to time I would nod off, only to wake with a snap feeling more out of sorts than ever.
At this stage, I could barely remember where I was going. I almost got off at the wrong stop in the middle of nowhere. when we finally made it to Brno, I didn’t have the money for a cab or tram ticket to get me where I needed to be. I hauled my ridiculous suitcases onto the tram and prayed the ticket inspectors were gone for the day. It was the one bit of luck I had during that 48 hour period. Several stops down the line, I shuffled my way off the tram. Apparently I looked pretty forlorn and lost, as an elderly Czech man took pity on me and guided me to my hotel. He even insisted on carrying one of my bags. I’m not sure I would have made it that last block without that kind anonymous fellow.
While riding on the trams and walking the streets of Brno, things seemed fine. I was enjoying myself until I ventured back to the train station. The train station sits more or less in the center of the city. There is an underground arcade with shops and vendors that is the fastest way to get over to the local Tesco . Because the general flooding of Europe made it impossible for me to leave town, I decided to go to Tesco for eight million kinds of potato chips and toothpaste. Everything was pretty damp, and that may have played a part in the events about to transpire.
As I descended the stairs into the arcade, I was just a few feet behind a middle aged man wearing a jean jacket and blue jeans. I remember the streaks of grey in his hair quite vividly. the next events happened quickly. One moment he was walking down the stairs, the next he was falling head first towards the concrete floor. I don’t know if he slipped, was pushed or was intoxicated. When he struck the ground, his head snapped sideways. It was possibly one of the most grotesque things I’ve ever seem a human body do, and it was clear to me in that moment that he was dead. A man next to me leaped down to the bottom of the stairs to check for a pulse. I just sat down, staring at the dead man in stunned silence. I had never seen a dead body before, much less anyone’s actual death. Eventually the police came, and I was able to give a semi-coherent account of the man’s fall. When they took his body away, there was a little puddle of blood at the foot of the stairs. I couldn’t bring myself to go near it. Instead I walked back up the stairs and straight down the street to the nearest bar. Ensconced in a booth, I ordered an ice cream sundae and three gin & tonics. I kept drinking until it was time to stagger home.
The next few weeks were quiet, at least until I decided to return to Texas. The flight home would involve less violence, but take days of my life. I left Brno on a bus to the airport in Prague. It wasn’t a bad ride, and they served snacks. I hopped a flight that evening to Frankfurt. It landed after dark, when most places int he airport were closed. The airport itself never closes, but there don’t seem to be any open stores or midnight flights. Unwilling to fork out an obscene sum of money for the hotel next to the airport, and reluctant to try my hand in the middle of the night at finding another place, I decided to sleep in the airport. I loaded my ridiculously heavy suitcases onto a cart and laid on top of them beside the smoking section. There were a handful of other lost folk sleeping on benches and seats in the area. I couldn’t really sleep though, and spent the night in a haze. At one point a janitor chased me away from my comfortable spot, and I had to move to a bench under a staircase. Around six in the morning, people began arriving and lining up for the counters. I ended up next to a gregarious German woman married to an American doctor. She kindly shared some granola bars and water with me when she learned I slept in the airport.
Now the real battle began. First I had to change my ticket to the flight I wanted, involving pointless and complex negotiation with the ticket counters. Then I had to explain to German customs why I was flying to America from their fine airport after spending several weeks in a neighboring country. Despite the changes due to terrorism, it seemed a bit overzealous to me. The agents demanded to see my receipts and certificates from a university I attended in the Czech republic. then they dumped my suitcases out on the floor, scattering my belongings everywhere. In the process my digital camera was dropped and stopped functioning. It was a bit humiliating and terrible to have to gather all my underwear together after it was dumped out on the ground in front of everyone in line. After twenty minutes of questions, security finally took my bags and let me into the airport proper so I could find my gate and my plane.
My battle wither German security ended my worst vacation ever. Approximately ten hours later I crashed off the plane in Texas, suffered through customs once again and ran straight into the arms of my ride home. Since that trip, I’ve learned to pack as little as possible so that I don’t end up with bruises hauling bags from one country to another.