As I anticipated in my last post, a LOT has gone on in the past week and a half. I’m very excited to finally have time to sit down and write about everything that’s happened! Be warned, this is probably going to be a hefty post, so settle in, maybe grab a cup of coffee or some lunch, and read away!
Currently, I’m lying down resting my poor, poor flatlander legs that- despite a hot bath and a solid amount of stretching, are struggling to function after my eventful day yesterday. But on the bright side, being bed-ridden allows me to write this blog post!
So I’ll start at the beginning. From where I left off last post, I had my very first district-wide meeting. This meant that all 72 exchange students from around the world staying in Czechia and Slovakia (collectively district 2240) travelled to Trenčín, Slovakia for a weekend of activities, presentations, and lots of fun. The biggest group of students (around 20 I think)are from USA, but there’s also students from Canada (duh), Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Russia, Venezuela, Columbia, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and South Africa. Me and the ‘Banská Gang,’ as we’ve taken to calling ourselves, showed up pretty early, giving us optimal time to distribute our pins among the other students as they filed in. We stayed in a massive dormitory normally lived in by university students who had left for the weekend.
The Rotex of 2240 (that is, past exchange students that have got involved with Rotary upon returning) led most of the weekend, and the first night we had a basic overview of the rules for the weekend, and played some icebreaker games before heading to bed. It was kind of cool, because from our room’s balcony we had a perfect view of Trenčín castle, which we would have the opportunity to explore the next day.
Saturday was a busy day with not a lot of free time, but it was still enjoyable nonetheless. Right after breakfast, we wrote our language tests, which weren’t too difficult but were nonetheless stressful. We’ll get tested each meeting to see how we are progressing in learning the languages, and if we aren’t doing well there can be consequences. So I’m very motivated to learn Slovak! Haha.Most of the remaining time in the morning was spent watching presentations from Rotex members about things like culture shock, rules, and various information about Czechia and Slovakia. However, once the presentations were done, we went on a hike to Trenčín Castle, and had the opportunity to explore the castle a bit and take pictures! It was super cool, and the view from the top turret was, unsurprisingly, gorgeous. What was also really funny was that, on the walk there, so many cars were honking at us, and in the square there were several people that stopped to videotape us as we walked by! I guess that’s one of the quirks of international students walking around a country that doesn’t see very many tourists outside of Bratislava (and even then, it’s not considered a travel hot spot- yet).
After we returned to the dorm building, we had a few more activities, including a trivia game which became very competitive (I got third, but I pride myself in the fact that I, a Canadian, was the person who answered the question of ‘when did USA gain independence’ correctly. Haha). Then we had supper, and afterwards had an impromptu dance party (led by the Brazilians, unsurprisingly- they’re always ready for a party) followed by a massive, heated game of musical chairs. The rest of the night we spent in smaller groups discussing our exchanges so far, and asking questions about the year ahead, before heading to sleep.
Sunday marked the end of orientation, much to our sadness. We had a final presentation regarding travel within and outside of the district, and then got packed up and ready to leave. It was kind of sad because we had such a great time together as one big group, and won’t be together collectively until February, when we have ski week. The next few rotary district meetings (October, then December being the soonest 2) are split so that Czech students and Slovak students will go to different places for easier accommodation and travel. Despite this, it will make it all the more exciting when we do get to see each other again!
We had a very quick stop at Bojnice castle (yay!) and then Marián’s (my youth exchange officer from rotary) brother’s house in nearby Prievidza for lunch and a quick nap before heading home.
Always make time to swing!
The rest of the week post-orientation was fairly slow, but there were a few highlights. A few days into the week, me and Valerie (one of the other exchange students from USA in Banská) went walking around town, taking pictures, and foraging things we found on the ground! There are so many pecan, apple, and chestnut trees along with various other plants in the parks and public spaces in Banská, and Valerie had her camera so we sought out the coolest things to make the perfect picture. Hilariously, we were wondering where to find a chestnut tree, when suddenly they started falling from right above our heads! They were just dropping left and right, and it was actually kind of scary because I almost got hit in the head with one (and the shells are very sharp!).
That same day, Gabi, Sam, and I had been invited to a hockey game, by former NHL player Vladimir Országh. He is a member of the rotary club, and played up until 2006 with several NHL teams including Nashville, New York, and St. Louis. It’s the Slovak hockey league, so it was Banská Bystrica playing, but the stands were still almost full! The Slovaks are almost as passionate about hockey as Canadians are! We got VIP seats and really enjoyed watching the game- it’s not every day you get to say an NHL player gave you tickets to a game! As a Canadian especially, it was pretty awesome. We went again to the next game on the Friday.
On the 26th, even though I completely forgot until the day after, it was my 1 month anniversary of having arrived in Slovakia! I didn’t remember, so I didn’t buy any special delicious food or dessert or anything to celebrate (although let’s be honest, I’ve been eating enough amazingly unhealthy food on a regular basis). I’ll have to set a reminder for a 2 month celebration!
And then, yesterday! I can honestly say it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, but I have no regrets, and am honestly pretty proud of myself for this accomplishment!
So what did I do? I hiked, and climbed to the peak of Krívaň, Slovakia’s most famous mountain!
We (myself, Marian, and another Rotarian) got up bright and early and drove to the high Tatras, the most famous area in Slovakia, located on the Northern border of the country (with Poland). Approaching the mountain by car, I only got a quick glimpse of the mountain before it became shrouded in clouds, but I was definitely a bit worried. We parked, put on our hiking shoes, got our snacks, water, coats, gloves, and hiking sticks ready, and headed up! The first hour of the hike was fairly easy, but was really beautiful. It reminded me a lot of hiking in Narrow Hills back in Saskatchewan, surrounded by pine trees, with just enough of an incline to remind you you’re not on the prairies any more.
Then, as we got higher and the incline got steeper, the pine and aspen(? I think) gave way to a sea of little evergreen shrubs, which I think were also a various of some sort of pine, but I’d need Mom or Dad to verify that for me in order to say it with confidence. Anyways, from this height we could see the landscape down below, and though it was cloudy it was still really beautiful because you could start to see the scale of the land mass we were currently on, and the base of the mountain spreading wide and low before flattening into the valley we had come from.
Then after that, the dirt and roots of the walking path quickly turned to stone, and the shrubs began to thin out as well, being replaced by short, orange grass and exposed rock. The temperature started dropping and I began to see that the incline was about to get a lot more severe. We were walking in the clouds, which was really cool but also made me a lot more apprehensive, because I couldn’t see what our final destination was going to be, and I knew we were only around halfway into the climb.
Then, the ground turned completely to rock, and we reached the last resting place before the summit. There were lots of people perched precariously on the now sheer incline, stopping to rest, eat, and generally prepare themselves for the last hour and a bit of the hike, which could now be considered a climb. This is the part I wasn’t expecting beforehand, haha. Never having been to the top of a mountain before, I assumed we’d just be following a trail, walking to the top. I didn’t know that from this point forward, we would be crawl/walk/climbing, mostly on hands and knees (or at least 3 points of contact) and relying on our own instincts for much of it to decide which route to take up the rocks. Everybody knew the direction we had to go, but in many places there was no obvious place, so everyone had to find their own ways, trying to climb up different boulders and rock faces with various amounts of success. And keep in mind, below us is a steep, treacherous plunge to the clouds and, presumably, the bottom of the mountain. Much of the really scary parts I couldn’t take pictures of, because the wind was really strong, and it was hard work having to take my gloves on and off in the cold. However, I did get lots of videos of these parts on my GoPro, and I plan to make a video at some point that better shows how terrifying it was.
And then, after 4 hours of climbing (about 1 1/2 hours of that being in the conditions as seen above), 1,400 metres elevation climb (total elevation 2,495 m), and about 7 Tatransky wafer bars (my favourite), we made it to the top. It was such a great feeling, and I didn’t even feel tired at that point because I was so happy to have made it to the top. Even though it wasn’t clear (and the view of Slovakia, Poland, and the rest of the high Tatras is supposedly spectacular), it didn’t matter to me, because I had actually climbed a mountain! Without falling!
After resting for a bit on the top, we had to try and quickly go down, because the wind was supposed to pick up even more and it could have been very dangerous. So, we began the descent. It was actually kind of hilarious. Rather than climbing down facing the mountain, which I couldn’t do because I was scared of not being able to easily see where I was headed, I resorted to- and I am not joking in the slightest- crabwalking. Down the summit of the mountain. Crabwalking. I can only imagine how absolutely buffoonish I looked, but believe it or not it made it about 10x easier for me to physically, and mentally, convince myself to take each precious step down the rock faces.
By this time, my legs were starting to shake, but I forced myself to keep going, and was able to take a deep sigh of relief when we got back to the walking-path section below the summit. The rest of the hike down was pretty easy, despite the fact my knees and legs were begging me to sit down. The clouds cleared off a little bit, giving us a fairly spectacular final view as we made our way down the lower part of the mountain, and then we were done!
After almost 9 hours of hiking, we drove back to Banská, completely what was probably the most physically and mentally exhausting day of my exchange so far. And even though I’m in a decent amount of pain today (the day after), I can honestly say I have no regrets, and am incredibly happy to have agreed to make the climb. Especially coming from the elevation-scarce prairies of Saskatchewan, I’m impressed my legs didn’t give out as soon as they saw the final stretch of the hike. Anyways, I’m really pumped that I had this opportunity and was able to follow through with it, and I got a souvenir pin out of it for my blazer, which makes it all the more worth it!
And that’s my incredibly busy week and a half shoved into one post! If you managed to stick it out and read all the way to the end, thank you! I appreciate hearing all the comments and questions both from back home and from those I’ve met here in Slovakia and Czechia.
And now, I have 5 days to try and get my legs to recuperate before I run a Minimarathon on Saturday! Wish me luck- I’ll most definitely need it 😉