Thursday, January 8, 2015

How I Got To Prague

This post is subtitled: Why I Love My Peace Corps Family

How many things can go wrong with one trip before it even starts? Let me count them out for you, because so many. 

Admittedly, the first snag on the trip was absolutely, 100% my fault. And it's so stupid that no one here is ever going to let me forget it (especially not my host mom, who's already brought it up multiple times since I've been back). I packed for Prague and Kelsey's house at the same time, as I was staying with her before heading to Chisinau to leave for Prague. I wasn't planning on going back to my village before this, so I had to be ready for the next 2 weeks, essentially. I thought I was, but as I'm standing on the bus Sunday morning going towards Chisinau, it hits me that I undoubtedly do not have my passport. I don't even have to check, because I know I haven't packed it. I texted Stephanie, because she's my Prague travel buddy, and Kelsey, because she always knows what to do, and then I called my host mom. She found my passport for me and after some well-deserved scolding, agreed to get it to me that evening. 

Now that the passport hurdle had been crossed, Steph and I were ready for our trip to start going super smoothly. Our overnight bus to Bucuresti left at 9:30pm, so we had dinner, got our stuff together, and headed to the bus station. It was just starting to snow and we thought, oh, how lovely, our winter vacation is starting off great with a pretty snowfall! Later I think we both regretted voicing those thoughts, but at the time, we were fans of the snow. 

We put our suitcases underneath the bus and get on, too excited. We drive through Moldova and enter Romania (where our passports are checked and stamped, obviously, so thankfully we both had ours then!), and it hasn't stopped snowing. It's the middle of the night and the drive is taking longer than it should, but I am absolutely fine with that if it means the driver is making sure to be safe on the roads. We take turns sitting on the window side, because it's stupid hot on that side with the heater right next to us. We try to get a little bit of sleep but I don't think either of us were very successful. 

At about 5am, I'm sitting in the aisle seat and I can't sleep. I lean out into the aisle to look out the front window, and I am baffled at how the driver is managing. It is really snowy and dark and I remember thinking, I can't even see the road, how can he?! I just figure he knows what he's doing, so I lean back into my seat. 

Moments later, we crash.

I'm sure I don't have an accurate recollection of this, based on pictures in the news and the fact that I can use my logical brain after the fact, but it feels like we flip over. The bus skidded and flipped on its right side (it was absolutely not flipped over) to land in the ditch. I held on to my seat and it was over as quickly as it had started. I think my thoughts, in some order, were: Okay, I'm safe; is Stephanie okay?; what do we do?; and I need to call Sasha. (Sasha is our Safety and Security Manager.)

Everyone was talking in Romanian and it seemed like people's phones weren't working. It was hard to not fully understand what was going on, but I could gather that everyone was okay, the driver was safe, and that we would just have to wait there. One woman was very vocal and called police, ambulances, the 12am bus to Bucuresti to see if they had seats, etc. Another woman near us realized eventually that we spoke English and she tried to translate things for us. 

We hung out there on the side of the road for about an hour and a half - with Stephanie literally hanging, as the bus was sideways and we had been sitting on the left side. I was able to sort of sit on the side of one of the seats on the right, and we were able to find our belongings when the time came to get them all (with the help of fellow passengers). 

After that hour and a half, we saw flashing lights. We figured out that they were going to get us out of the bus, so we put on coats (oh, and we had just stopped at duty free, so someone's wine decorated mine a little bit) and got our stuff. We were very close to the emergency hatch on the top of the bus so someone threw that outside and people directed us to the opening. I couldn't actually climb out on my own so someone lifted me out and then ambulance workers took over and set me down on the ground. They guided me to an ambulance where we packed in with half or a third of the passengers. 

Thankfully right before we left, another PCV had taught us how to put our phones on roaming. If we hadn't done that, we wouldn't have been able to get in contact with anyone. We couldn't figure out how to make calls at first, but we were able to send texts. I texted Kelsey to see if she could get PC to call us, but we eventually did figure out how to call and in the ambulance we were able to speak with both medical and the on-duty Safety and Security person. 

The ambulance took us to a cafe/hotel bar of some sort. Peace Corps kept in contact with us all day, even though we rarely had anything new to tell them. Eventually the 12am bus to Bucuresti arrived, and some people got on it. Stephanie wanted to but I was confused and possibly slightly panicked about not knowing where we were going or where our luggage was, so at the last minute we got off that bus. I hadn't noticed the other PCVs on it at the time. 

Home-base for the day.
It turned out that it didn't matter that we hadn't gotten on that bus because it didn't get very far. The roads were closed so it came right back to where we were, and we were able to get on it to see our friends. Just being with them helped our stress levels a little, and their bus was closer to a gas station/cafe that had Internet so we were able to contact people with that. We hung out with them for the day while waiting for the roads to open, but during that time we missed our flight. 

When the roads finally opened around 2 or 3pm, everyone from both buses got onto the second one and we headed towards Bucuresti (without our luggage, as they wouldn't take it off our bus until the crash had been investigated.. or something). We were about 70km away the whole day. It was slightly scary to be on what felt like the exact bus we'd just been on, driving through snow again, but I managed to fall asleep for a bit. 

I woke up to a man nudging me to wake me up and ask if we wanted to share a cab with him to the airport. We had spoken to him earlier in the day so he knew we were trying to get to the airport, as was he. He had learned that the bus would normally stop at the airport, but with all the delays it wasn't going to this time, so the driver had agreed to let him off somewhere close where he could find a cab. We agreed to get off with him. He was a nice guy from Moldova with perfect English. 

We got to the airport and saw two more PCVs who had taken the train there instead (which will always be our winter travel option from now on), and it was as if they were sent from heaven. They went to the Czech Airlines counter with us, where the lady told us that since we had been late, our whole roundtrip was cancelled. We didn't really know what to do, so Amanda called Czech Airlines for us - thankfully, because they were terrible to her and I know I couldn't have lasted that long on the phone with them (I was crying just listening to her side of the call!). While Amanda was being so great on the phone, Elizabeth was cheering us up by being her usual sunny self. After getting no help from the airlines, the four of us went to get a drink before the two of them left to board their plane. Thank goodness those two were there; they were like lifesavers just with their very presence. 

They left and Stephanie said we had to eat something, so we had pasta in an airport restaurant while we tried to decide what to do. There's an RPCV in Bucuresti so we thought we could maybe stay with her, get our luggage back, and then head back to Moldova. Neither of us could afford another plane ticket. Stephanie had been talking to her mom at the time and while we were eating, her mom called back and said that she had talked with Stephanie's dad and they had decided that they would each buy one of us a new ticket to Prague. There was more crying, this time from both of us, because we didn't even think we were going to get to go on our trip and they so graciously made it happen. They even made the return ticket straight to Chisinau so we don't have to go back to Bucuresti anytime soon. We couldn't even believe it. 

So we spent the night on the very luxurious floor of the airport and kept in contact with PC, a fellow bus traveller, and our RPCV friend about the luggage situation.. But eventually we realized that we'd be going to Prague with only the things we had in our carry-ons. 

The next day, while still waiting on the floor, we met a Romanian family of four with precious little boys and talked with them. We told them of our "adventures" and they wouldn't take no for an answer when they left and left us with a bunch of food. They were so sweet! One of the little boys asked if I was married and I said no and asked him if he had a girlfriend. He said, yes, of course, but we only kiss on the cheek, not on the mouth. The dad had clearly given us some of the boys' Christmas candy, and they were young but didn't mind one bit. The whole family was adorable, and I could talk to them in Romanian, so that was a confidence booster I needed to keep making it through this travel. 

We finally left and made it to Prague just a day late. The whole trip took 48 hours and we went through 4 countries by the time we got there.. We were exhausted, but had great directions to our apartment, where tea (and a bed that was not a floor or bus seat) waited for us. 

We had so much support, both in person and through messages, from PCVs, RPCVs, PC staff, family, and also a ton of strangers (people translating for us, people just being kind to us, another passenger from the bus who gave us her number and texted us with information about where the luggage would be, etc). I can't really speak for both of us, but I feel safe in saying that we are so grateful for everyone who helped us along the way. Couldn't have done it without you. 

More to come on the actual vacation part of the trip! 

Spoiler alert: We didn't have our luggage for any of the trip, BUT Peace Corps got it back for us and it was waiting in Chisinau when we returned!

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