It started at a petrol station on the outskirts of Prague. I waited patiently for the last six hours trying several times to get lifts from the car and lorry drivers stopping at the station to no avail.
I was about to find a sleeping spot when an old rundown bus stopped for petrol. Several guys were onboard. Two came down to get some tidbits from the petrol station shop. This could well be my next lift.
Approaching them, I asked to be allowed on the bus. They said yes.
About thirty men were onboard. They claimed to be Czech national boxers on their way to Bulgaria for a friendly match. Bratislava was on the route, lucky for me.
We immediately got acquainted with each other. Mode of language were signs and gestures including caveman sounds. It was sufficient for us to share some light moments (or did they laughed for the wrong reasons?). To the untrained eye, we looked like spastic kids on an campfire outing.
As the hours ticked away, things began to turn ugly.
At first they asked for my money and camera jokingly. As I refused their request again and again, the tone of voice got more serious.
There were some sort of hints as they showed their boxing skills and once in a while slap my back in an exagerated manner. I understood what was going on, This was a veiled threat.
The boxing show means "give us what we want or you’ll get a punch in the kisser."
Uh… Uh… There’s no way I can take out these guys, so better play it cool.
I kept myslef calm hiding my shaking interior. Taking out some coins, I told them to have it. But they want US Dollars, not some Pounds (Hah! So much for Great Britain…). They opted strongly for the camera instead. That I can’t comply with. This was what I told them : "No… Camera can not… I need camera… Mama, papa see picture…" complete with the appropriate body language.
At last I managed to convince them not to take the camera. But I had to play a game of bluff. I had to keep cool, subtlely let them think I had Kung Fu or Black Magic. They can’t really figure me out, so the bluff worked.
However I was not allowed to be onboard anymore. They dropped me at Brno another 150 kilometres to Bratislava.
I wonder what would happen if I’d said the wrong thing… "Malaysian got bashed in Czech…." Huh, simpang malaikat empat puluh empat!
At Brno, I decided to take a train to Bratislava. I was surprised to find out a trip to Bratislava cost 74 Kroners (equivalent to RM8, by England’s standard chicken feed). Should have done that earlier instead of risking a fat lip.
Bratislava, capital of Slovakia had the cutest museums in Europe, literally midgets compared to London’s British Museum or Paris’ Louvre. Lacking the credibility of Prague, there were attempts to associate the city with greatness.
The tourist authorities traced Bratislava’s history to a thousand years ago pointing it out as a capital of the once powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire (was it in the 16th Century? Did anybody knew?). It was a good attempt but still the city can’t match the history of London, Paris or Prague.
There were grumbles about how the Slovakian region were treated like backwater parts while its inhabitants were considered country bumpkin by their relatively well-off Czech cousins.
That night, I came across a bunch of people under a tree in front of the French Embassy. Some of them were cosily tucked in their sleeping bags while others were chatting the hours away. There were banners with slogans reading "Stop nuclear testing Chirac" or something like that. Apparently they were protesters againts the Muruora nuclear testing in the South Pacific.
I had a closer look. There was a guy with a long blonde hair, three shaggy men and a girl with her face peering out of a sleeping bag. They asked me to sign a book. It was a petition aimed at France’s Jaqcue Chirac to stop nuclear testing. I don’t remember which organisation they belonged to but the blonde guy claimed they had quite an extensive network (no, they’re not Greenpeace).
We got acquainted and the tree became my shelter for the night. Jeez… It was bloody freezing.
Anyway my three-day stay in Bratislava was a Bohemian affair, carefree as I went around clubs and restaurants sampling free jazz sessions and traditional melodies. What it lacks in term of history and prestige, it made up with its warmth, cosiness and affordability.
On my final day in Bratislava, I had a conflict of plan… Head for the High Tatras in the middle of Slovakia, Sofia in Bulgaria, Budapest in Hungary or Vienna in Austria.
The plan still unsettled, I decided to stay another day. But I was out of Slovakian currency (Kroners). The money exchanger at the station didn’t accept my 50-Pound bill (They put a limit allowing only up to 15 Pounds for exchange).
On the way to town to change money, another problem came. I was caught without a ticket on the tram!
Two inspectors came asking for tickets. Feigning ignorance, I told them I didn’t have any.
They asked me to show my passport. Big mistake! I was forced to pay a 400 Kroners fine…
The next few hours were spent looking for a money-changer that will accept my 50-Pound bill escorted by the two burly six-footers with the passport in their hands. At a bus-stop, I lost my patience. I tried to grab the passport from them. A kind of Judo and wrestling match ensured as the two pushed and tried to hold me back, one trying to twist my fingers, the other trying to push me up against a wall.
We were about to trade punches when logic took over me… Consider these; the guys were bigger than me, they were the inspectors, I was in their country against… I could escape but without my passport or try to punch the lights out of them escaping with my passport. I might end up being crumpled like a crumpet or turned up being a fugitive and a international criminal… Fuh!
Suffice to say that we made peace and became friends later. But I still had to pay the fine (Hmm… Wonder what happened to the money).
The rest of the day was spent drifting around town aimlessly. After lunch-time, at last I decided where to go… Vienna. With only 20 Pounds left, it was the natural choice.
That afternoon, I walked all the way from Bratislava to Austria. I did really… Honest… To the borders anyway seven kilometres away.
I was greeted with puzzled looks by both motorists queuing for the immigration check-up and the Australian borde guards. Did the thorned-jeans, leather jacket, rucksack and worn-out clothes reminded them of someone else?
Well, Hasta La Vista Brtislava. Kalau ada umur kita jumpa lagi!