Andrew and I had been in Prague the previous three nights, and we were leaving the following day to continue our journey South. Days before, we had been in Germany where I inherited what I hoped was the Swine Flu, and was still getting over it. So I took it easy our last night. Andrew, however, felt fine. So he and our Canadian friend Craig were compelled to witness Prague after hours. I’m not sure what exactly they got up to that night, but I do know it ended in a bout of violent vomiting at 3 a.m.
The following morning at the train station had me feeling much better. Andrew, on the other hand, looked terrible. We boarded the train that had seen better days (during the 1960s), but it rode smooth and didn’t erupt into flames on the tracks so we were happy. I pulled out my computer to write, while Andrew slouched down and stretched his body between two seats in order to sleep his mistakes away. We had the cozy compartment to ourselves and were contented with the solitude and the prospect of three hours of effortless travel.
After a mere forty-five minutes into the trip a train attendant, who spoke minimal English (which is fair, seeing as we spoke zero Czech), asked where we were going. “Cesky Krumlov” I answered. She nodded and began telling what I assumed was an entertaining Czech fairytale, which involved “two stops, getting off, and twenty minutes”. It wasn’t until she finished speaking and rushed off to help other passengers when I realized they were instructions. Our itinerary implied we would be on the same train until Cesky Budejovice, which was much further than twenty minutes away, so this was a bit odd.
“Did you get any of that?” I asked Andrew. He looked back with a blank stare that suggested his ability to speak, hear and possibly control his bowels had left him. “I think there was something about a bus.” I offered after a moment. “That’s what it sounds like.” Andrew managed to say. He had little room to be concerned about such matters, as his status had recently been downgraded from lousy to completely awful. His eyes were glazed over and dull. His movements were few and slow, more so than usual. My friend was no longer even humorous to behold. He was going to die and then what was I going to do? Knowing Andrew, he’d make a big mess out of the occasion. Being the closest thing to family in the country, the Czech officials would probably make me clean up the remains. I wasn’t looking forward to that. But, worst of all, I had no idea how to even go about selling his stuff. This was turning into quite a predicament.
I had almost figured out how best to divvy up my companion’s belongings when the train creaked into the second stop. Everyone, even Andrew, began leaving the train car. I grabbed my bags and followed the procession. Uniformed workers herded us out of the station and packed us onto busses.
As the vehicle jostled down some obscure road into the countryside, Andrew turned to me and said, “I’m never going to drink again.” I nodded in gentle understanding and said, “Well you won’t have to worry about that, don’t think they have alcohol where they’re taking us.” Surely this was to be it; we were heading for the camps.
We had recently visited the Sachsenhausen work camp outside Berlin, and over the past week we had been exposed to all the inhumane history of the region. Therefore, it was difficult to watch a bunch of people being shuffled on and off trains in decrepit towns beneath dim skies without making these references. I was pretty sure they weren’t hulling us off to work camps – but honest to god, if they had been, we wouldn’t have known.
The crowded bus carried on down two lane roads amidst rolling pastures, felled fence lines and rusted farm equipment. Indiscernible Slavic music played loudly and diesel fumes hung heavy in the air (I believe the exhaust was venting directly into the cab). For us the situation was at best confusing and uncomfortable. Yet, the faces around us were void of emotion; they certainly didn’t look worried. Either they had spent too many years inhaling leaded fumes or they knew where we were headed (probably both).
Twenty minutes later, we stopped at what would have passed for a train station during the Cold War. There was a crumbling building, rickety power lines and scattered pieces of garbage, the largest of which used to be a passenger train. The bus doors opened and the crowd began spilling off the bus, making way towards the tracks through bushes and gaps in the fence. For a brief moment I thought, “We can’t be getting on this thing.” Not in a disgusted or prissy way, of course. I mean god knows I wanted to get on it. I just honestly didn’t think the old heap could still move. The cars were covered in dust, dirt and the forty years of accumulated grime. Most impressive of all, the top of the train was coated in generous layers of rust. It was precisely the kind of junk your parents warned you never to play on. But as I stood back in admiration, I watched everyone else funnel into it.
I caught up to Andrew. I’m not sure he was in any state to share in my excitement, but he seemed content following simple instructions and being off that bus. We boarded the train and continued the journey with our adopted mob of Czech citizens. Andrew tried to return to sleep and I tried to type, but the erratic movements of the in-service artifact thwarted our efforts. We rocked and swayed from side to side constantly, as if the conductor was swerving to avoid livestock on the tracks (whether we were on tracks at all is still debatable). So I packed up my laptop and gazed out the shaky window, while Andrew curled up into an awkward ball. Eventually we alighted at the Cesky Budejovice train station. After several cautious seconds waiting to confirm the adventure was indeed over, I checked my watch. Then I checked the ticket and then my watch again; we were right on time! I couldn’t believe it.
I don’t know which feat is more impressive – making our destination on time after riding on two Soviet-era trains and one fumigated prison bus, or the fact that Andrew was still alive at the day’s end. Either way, I welcomed both surprises.