By Jessica Zafra
(An excerpt from Jessica Zafra’s new book, Twisted Travels: Rambles in Central Europe.)
IT TOOK me 15 years to return to Prague, half of the lifetimes of the people I was working with. We were in the Czech Republic for eight days to film a documentary. After three nights in Prague, the film crew and I would proceed to Litomerice, Mlada Boleslav, Olomouc, Brno, Cesky Krumlov, and Ceske Budejovice. The itinerary was designed by the Czech Embassy in Manila, particularly Ambassador Jaroslav Olša, who is translating Filipino stories into Czech, including one of mine, and sponsored by the Seoul-based Czech Tourism. I mention these parties because you know what they say about the best-laid plans. It’s the unexpected, unintended developments I look forward to: I travel for the stories, the weirder, the better.
We arrived in Prague in the early afternoon and were fetched by our tour guide Zoran, who announced that taxi drivers were on strike against Uber, there were violent clashes in the city, and massive traffic jams. This is perhaps not the welcoming one wants at the beginning of a packed tour, but it set a bleaky comic tone for the whole trip. There was some discussion in the team as to who our guide looked like. He resembled:
a. the original host of The Crystal Maze
b. one of the War Boys from Mad Max Fury Road
c. the vocalist of the ’80s group Right Said Fred of “I’m Too Sexy” fame
d. Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men
e. Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise
Zoran introduced himself as a Yugoslav. Apart from being a knowledgeable tour guide specializing in history, he is a photographer and an actor. According to his IMDB page he was in the Tom Hardy film Child 44, where in a bit of typecasting he played “Bald Man.” Unfortunately he could not be on camera because we had not made arrangements with his agent.
He was joined by our driver, Frantisek, a very tall man with wild, curly locks and a feral look. He has four jobs, he informed us later, as he snacked on enough cake to stop the heart of a shorter man: tour van driver, real estate agent, motorcycle mechanic, and motorcycle racer. Later, we agreed that we were being guided around the Czech Republic by Professor Xavier and Logan the Wolverine.
According to the schedule we would drop off our bags at the hotel and proceed to The Castle to start filming. As we had been travelling for 18 hours, this was not going to happen. At this point we learned that the definition of “driver” was different from what we were used to. Frantisek would pick us up from the hotel in the morning and drive us back at night. In between we would walk, schlepping all our equipment up and down the vertical city. I don’t carry equipment other than my journal, but my knee began to stiffen.
The hotel was a rather basic affair called Henrietta, but it was clean and the Wi-Fi worked. After a shower and a brief lie-down, I joined the team in the lobby and we took the tram to the city center.
It was exactly as I remembered it, beautiful and somehow melancholy. Prague is a great city to be depressed in: so much indifferent splendor to taunt your neuroses. It worked for Kafka. Zoran pointed out examples of different architectural styles and markers of how high the water rose during the Great Flood of 2002. On one hand we Filipinos are the last people to be impressed by floods; on the other hand, it might be a good idea to remind people of how high the water rose, because even if they happen frequently we cannot be blase about the danger.
At a stall on the riverbank we had the first of many, many, many sausages. A steady drizzle was falling. We walked past the opera, where my sister and I had seen La Boheme up in the bleachers and nearly frozen our asses off. Dinner was over-seasoned goulash at charming old restaurant called Flavia. We drank absinthe, agreed on the next day’s itinerary, and heard the first of Zoran’s disquisitions on how all our plans could fall apart.
Finally, he took us to the tram stop, told us the name of our stop, and said we could buy our tickets from a machine inside the tram. There was no such ticketing machine inside the tram. Thus we spent our first night in Prague breaking the law.
Jessica Zafra’s Twisted Travels: Rambles in Central Europe will be launched on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2-5 p.m. at Fully Booked in Bonifacio High Street, BGC. Twisted Travels will be available at Fully Booked, Shopee.ph, Lazada.com.ph, National Bookstore, and Powerbooks.