Thursday, May 5, 2011

Prague - Day 4

Well, even though we've been through parts of Kazakhstan recently, we thought we'd take you back to Prague to finish out our stay there.

We had but one full day left, and we decided to take advantage of the rail system and get out of the city.  We had been given a recommendation to hit up one of two Czech castles in the countryside, so we decided to visit Konopiště.  This Castle has quite a history, but I think the most interesting was that fact that Franz Ferdinand lived there until his assassination (in Sarajevo) in 1914, which started WWII.

Okay, so we left on the train from one of Prague's train stations.  Round-trip tickets for both of us (+/- an hour each way) ran about $12.00.  Not bad.  Not bad at all.  The train was pretty quiet, and the country side was nice.

We got off the train in a small town named Benesov, looked at a map on the wall at the train station (took a picture of it) and started walking towards the castle.  After walking through a field, and then finding a walking path, we found this about 45 minutes later:

Really, quite a good looking structure, with well-kept grounds.  It is currently owned by the Czech Republic and it sounds like the tourism money that it brings covers the costs of keeping the place looking tip-top.  The grounds were a great spot to walk around and eventually have a picnic lunch in the rose garden.

There was a peacock:

Then we took a long walk around the grounds, along a lake, through the woods, through some meadows, and headed back to Benesov to catch a train back in to Prague.

That evening, I couldn't help but go see some more blossoms and then watch the light fade on the city and turn to night.

Alright, time for bed before the airport in the morning...  I don' think we'll make a post about our last morning in Prague.  Let's just say that a latte in Old Town Square was a great way to bid farewell to our wonderful city, and the only coffee I had while we were there (Katie preferred the more expensive drinks... like water!)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Heroic Men

I grew up with a father who said (once I was of an age), "Men are only after one thing" and a youth adviser who played a prominent role in my upbringing who would always say, "Men are pigs".  Fortunately for me, the first time I ever encountered a completely pig-like man happened at the age of 31.  Here is the story...

Last weekend in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Peter and I had the opportunity to be join up with Peter's good friend from college, Sam and another American, John.  The two of them, with teammates that had already left, had just finished teaching a week-long course on ethical business entrepreneurship at a local university.  Three university students were  gracious enough to give us a tour of the city on Saturday.

We went first to a place where you can ride a gondola from the base of a good-sized hill to its top.  It was on this gondola that we first met The Guy. 

On the ride up, squished together like sardines with a few missing, this guy begins joining in on our English conversation.  (I later found out that while on the gondola, Sam had asked him if he was in Almaty alone.  He responded, "Yes, unless I get lucky.")  At the time, he just seemed like super friendly American.

Only, he was too friendly and once we disembarked from the gondola, he did not leave our group alone.  He was particularly conversant with one of the local girls with us.  At one point, we were standing in a circle, looking into the mountains and chatting.  Peter was standing beside me, until he left, walked to a far away trashcan and when he came back he butted himself back into the circle in between the guy and the local girl.  (I, being a bit oblivious, only thought Peter had lost his usually great sense of social norms...). 

The guy used a pretty slick line - he asked the girl if there was horseback riding in Almaty and if he could get her contact info so that the next time he was in Almaty she could arrange it for him.  At this point, Sam and Peter turned so the guy couldn't see but the girl could and said "No, don't give him your number".  It was seriously like a bad movie.  We kept moving locations, he kept tagging along.  Of course, he was super friendly and talkative, but somehow he kept ending up next to the girl and Sam and Peter kept having to run interference.  Did I mention that the guy was at least 55 years old? And the local girl, about 21?

Finally, we had completed a loop and our group was going to go do a small rollercoaster on the mountain and the guy, having obtained a fake number from the girl, left to ride the gondola back down.  Or so we thought. 

Suddenly, as we are waiting to pay for the rollercoaster, there he was again.  Not funny. 

Then, the girl and another university student go up to the window to pay.  And guess what?  The guy butts himself in between the two students and says, "Let me pay for you".  At which point, Peter had had it.  Peter says, "Okay, you know what? Thanks but no thanks.  We are all hanging out here....etc..." and I don't even know what else was said.  (Why don't I know?  Because this loving, ever supportive wife suddenly found that her feet had transported her 10 feet away, and she was hiding behind another part of our group.  Hmm.. can we say conflict-avoidance issues?)  I do know that voices were raised, then the guy left and got on the rollercoaster.  Luckily the roller coaster cars were separate and by the time we finished the roller coaster, the guy was gone.

May the Lord redeem his soul.  Soon.

Perhaps men no longer stand guard with the shotguns outside of a circle of wagons, perhaps we womenfolk no longer need them to be the breadwinners, perhaps the horizons are bigger and broader for both genders these days, but I'll tell you what, I feel more protected and safe because their are men like Sam and Peter (and so many others I know) in the world.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Choose Your Own Kazakh Adventure

Adventure #1

You have already traveled 5 hours by taxi and crossed the border from Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan.  Night is falling.  You have entered the city of Almaty.  Somewhere in this grand city lies your destination:  Sanatorium Altin Kargaly.  You have in your possession an address (Zdasinova 204), a map printed off of the hotel website, a phone number, two cell phones that don't work in Kazakhstan and a limited knowledge of Russian.  You have now been driving around in circles in the city for about a half an hour.  Your taxi driver, a jolly older man, has turned not so jolly.  He has told you that you should have shown him the phone number earlier in the drive.  You show it to him now.  A minute later, he pushes it away and says he has never seen this kind of number and that it is not right.  You know the number works, it worked for the wonderful school secretary who called it for you.  You decide not to argue with him and the three of you keep driving, peering out of the windows in hope and despair.  Your taxi driver has stopped and asked people where the hotel is a couple of times.  You have figured out on the map where you think you are.  You show this to the taxi driver.  He pushes it away and says that there is not enough light.  You suspect that he does not like maps.  At this point do you:

A:  Sit back and allow your taxi driver to continue to drive a few blocks and stop and ask people, hoping that every time he comes back he will know where to go.  If so, turn to page 5.
B: Take control and start using your limited Russian to say "Turn right, turn left and go straight..." etc.. If so, turn to page 105.
C.  Hyperventilate and pass out, hoping you will wake up at Hotel Altin Kargaly.  If so, turn to page 25.

Option A, page 5:  At one point you are left in the car for 15 minutes.  A group of men standing outside seem to be eyeing your car.  You lock the doors and decide that when your taxi driver returns, you will try option B.  Turn to page 105.

Option B, page 105:  You tell him to turn right off of the main street.  Then you tell him to turn right at the first street you come across.  There is an intersection like a Y, with a street off to the right.  The street looks narrow and unused.  You decide to keep going straight.  Suddenly your husband (who is looking at the map) says, "Um, the street doesn't turn like this on the map".  You feel like you have failed, you are probably not on the street you thought you were on.  Your driver pulls over and asks people at a little store.  One woman seems to know the answer.  You drive back to the Y intersection and turn onto the unused street.  And there, not in the same place as it was on your map, is your hotel.  All three of you end up laughing with the driver.  You pay him a little extra and enter the hotel complex.

Option C, page 25:  You return to consciousness only to find yourself still lost in a foreign city.  You decide to try one of the other options.