Kayaking from Sweden to Africa: 1001 Ways to Fail (Part Two)
On the ninth day I arrived to Magdeburg and met the Elbe again. My plan was to go to Prague through the Elbe. I could feel the current. In some areas I had to take 20 strokes in order to move a meter forward. I decided to remain in Magdeburg.
I made contact with a Czech barge company, where I met Vladimir. In his office, I told him what I was planning to do. Vladimir listened without uttering a word. When he finished his workday, I got my first shower in nine days, food, and a night with a proper roof over my head.
The next day my kayak and I boarded a barge headed for the Czech town of Usti. My companions were Captain Kostka, Engineer Thomas, and First Mate Willie Thomas. Our first day together was short. Six hours and 50 kilometers upstream, we came upon the small town of Aken. Aken still smelled very GDR—dark streets, old gray worn stone, irregularly laid cobblestone streets. Anyone who didn’t live there would probably call it quaint.
I enjoyed walking along the streets without having to watch over my kayak. I walked in to a small bar, no larger than five or seven square meters. It was going to be my temporary office where I could sit and write for a while.
In one corner a noisy group of men were playing darts while their two female fans cheered them on. A tall shape filled the doorway. The newcomer moved from table to table, knocking on each one as a way of greeting. The occupants at each table knocked back in response. Someone else went through the same motions while leaving the bar. It reminded me of the customary greeting between Arabs:
Near the port, in another bar, I found Kostka and Willie in a smoky corner. We were joined by the bar owner’s wife, Martina, whose brother was shot on the western side of the Inner Germany border. The night ended as expected: patrons happily toasting the end of the day while some danced or engaged in arm wrestling. The following day would be the same story.
The days crept by. We were running 18-hour days. After six days and 40,000 kilometers, we arrived in Usti. For six days I had been living like a king. And between the three men onboard, my every meal tasted like a Czech specialty. The one thing that the dishes had in common was that they were seasoned with cumin.
The always laughing and jovial Willie was the best cook. A narrow, weasel-like man, he was always lounging around with a cigarette in his mouth while his eyes were constantly scanning the beach for pretty girls. Kostka was round of belly from all the beer, with a meowing cat voice and a look as calm as that of a smoking Rastafarian. Thomas, a young man of 40 years, was the most vociferous. He could hold a monologue for hours without anyone being able to get a word in edgewise. They were all wonderful people and gave me some nice, slow days that I would never forget.
I stayed two more nights on the barge in Usti and met Vladimir’s son, long-haired Martin, a 24-year-old history student. A slim and slender guy with a sensitive nature, Martin was happy to sit with me and give me a lesson on student life in Usti. We shared movies and music and talked about a broad range of subjects. One day, while we were sitting at the table and having a discussion about women, I chanced to look upon our hands, or rather his hands and my fists resting on the table. I realized that some people might see me as grotesque.
Early one morning I stood there with my kayak, out in the cold again. I wandered four kilometers past the first lock outside Usti, singing Madonna’s rendition of Evita Peron’s Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina. So where do I take a simple meal and a few beers?
Before I put my kayak in the water, I went into a Kneipe, a little shack. This set the backdrop of my meeting with a Finnish sauna vendor named Miko. He asked if he may sit with me despite the fact that the entire premises stood empty. After gulping down a few cups of coffee and taking several bites of his snack, he related his experience while wandering in the Pyrenees, where he encountered a three-meter high creature. Scared out of his wits, he lifted a rock in self-defense… then he remembered nothing more. He woke up the following day lying next to a road. I saw no reason not to believe him.
After we finished our meal, Miko fished out a pen and paper from his car, gave me his address, held up a thermometer, a ladle and a bucket, and said, “Next time we’ll take a good sauna, huh?”
That was the last time I saw him. I climbed into my kayak and pulled away.