On the first of June, Prasanna Thengodkar and I set out on a bicycle journey from Vienna to Bratislava. The guys at the bike rental shop were pretty nonchalant. They said we’d cover it in less than half a day. After all, it was just the first leg of a week-long guided tour they generally ran. Guided being the operating word in the previous sentence. But, in the spirit of intrepid explorers before us and thousands of men all over the world nagged to pull over and “Just ask, will you?”, we weren’t going to take directions from strangers, dammit. Did Columbus bring along tour guides on his voyage? Well, as we learnt the hard way, he should have. Or at least made a few points painfully, unambiguously clear before starting.
1. Make sure you understand exactly what someone wants to tell you.
Along with the bikes, we were handed a map and some useful advice about the path. We were told of this one particularly tricky left turn along the way, just across the bridge over the Danube in Vienna, which many cyclists tend to miss and reach a dead end. The guy offering us advice was unfortunately unaware of the finer nuances of the English language. He said we would see large cylindrical structures just before the turn and we should take the turn as soon as we see them or we would reach the dead end. He was struggling to give us a very specific term to describe these structures, though, and I helpfully offered, “Smokestacks?” “Ja! Smokestacks”, he said. And we remembered that and set off at 11:45 a.m., hoping to reach Bratislava by 6 p.m.
Yeah, you know what aren’t smokestacks?
What he meant to say was storage tanks of a refinery. We would have maybe figured it out on the way, but the ones which were supposed to serve as our landmark happened to lie about 10 kilometers further away from actual smokestacks. So, we ended up taking a happy detour, going the wrong way, and horror of horrors, having to ask people for directions!
A lot of this path finding involved doubling back, compass following and general frustration. Finally, at about 2:00 p.m., we were on the right path.
2. Old Europeans greatly overestimate the abilities of the average young person.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the average Grandma here probably lifts more than I do. We encountered plenty of pensioners whizzing past us wearing cycling suits (the horror!) on racing bikes. There was also one lady who was trudging along the cycling path with Nordic walking sticks, supposedly covering the better part of 20 kilometers in a few hours.
So anyway, we tried not to let it bother us too much, until we encountered a helpful gentleman some time later. There had been some flooding upstream of us recently and the river level had risen quite a bit. A bridge in the National Park we were crossing had been washed out. Unfortunately, this bridge happened to be part of the shortest route to the cycling path to Bratislava through the National Park. So we were standing there, thinking about what to do, when this elderly gentleman, wearing a cycling suit, and his wife offered to show us an alternate path. We rode together till we reached a map of the area. In broken English and sign language, he pointed out a village which was about 20 km back the way we came, from where we could reach the cycling path by traveling another 30 km. We smiled, thanked him, and he went on his way. Then we gave each other knowing grins, which conveyed “Man, no way we’re gonna do this shit.”
Bratislava was still about 40 km away by the shortest path. Following his route meant another 50 km. Plus, we were in no mood to ride backwards after the smokestack fiasco.
So we charted a path of our own on the map, which involved yet another small-looking bridge that was about 10 km away. If this one had been washed out too, we probably would have given up and turned back. It wasn’t.
3. Europe has no people. None.
This may not seem to be an immediate adventuring lesson, but the implication here is that if you’re caught in a pinch, you’re pretty much on your own. Pretty much all paths happened to be like this one.
There were occasional bikers and walkers along the more popular paths, but even along the main cycling path, there were stretches of tens of kilometers with no one to be seen. Not a soul.
Luckily, nothing untoward happened to us, but the pessimistic-scenario-generating side of my brain was on overdrive. “What if I break a leg? I’d have to live here as a hermit and eat wild plants and ducks.” “What if I get a deep cut? I’ll bleed out before reaching a hospital.” “What if I do a totally awesome bike stunt? Not one hot chick will notice.”
4. Cities are a lot harder to navigate than countrysides.
After a lot of bumbling around, we finally reached Bratislava city limits at about 8:00 p.m. Astute observers will notice that this is two hours later than we had hoped. And we still had to locate the youth hostel where we were going to sleep. That was not easy.
You see, the thing with the wilderness is that directions tend to be of the form “Go south” or “Turn left after the river”. These are pretty hard to misinterpret.
Cities on the other hand, have lots of streets, lots of turns and lots of people giving bad advice. Misreading a map can be disastrous.
This, as you can imagine from the general tone of this body of work, did happen to us. We were completely lost in the outskirts of a darkening city with not nearly as tourist-friendly a native population as Western Europe. Bratislava is quite dystopian if you go to the older parts of town. Crumbling infrastructure, large, ghettoish housing societies and streets littered with refuse and graffiti. A woman and her daughter muttered something and practically ran away from us when we tried to ask for directions (Yes, we were weak). Having long exhausted our food, water and physical endurance, and with the time nearing 10:00 p.m., we hit our lowest point. May the Lord bless whoever thought of making convenience stores in petrol stations.
Newly invigorated, we pushed on. Asking some other people along the way (Again, yes. No need to rub it in), we reached the part of town that was actually detailed out on our map. A nice, touristy area which reminded you of other touristy areas, like Salzburg. We have no pictures of this area as it would have interfered with our prime directive at that time : “Get your ass to the hostel and sleep.”
As some concluding remarks, let me say that this was a very enjoyable experience, even after correcting for rose-tinted hindsight. The return journey being by train might have had something to do with that.
If ever there was a place to get lost in without worrying your mother too much, it’s Europe.
The above post was submitted by Vighnesh Vatsal.
The above post was chosen for the first runners up prize of our Travelogue competition, held between 24th-June and 6th-July 2013 for IIT-B students.
Read more about Skydiving at Travel blog