The last week has been filled with many wonderful surprises. During our first week here at orientation, we were told that we will experience many “highs” and “lows” during our journeys as missionary teachers. Right now, you could definitely say I’m on a “high.”
When I first arrived in Vienna, I got in around the same time as the wonderful Tim and Michelle Olson. I landed before them, and while our driver went to look for them elsewhere, I was given sign duty. I held up a handmade ELCA sign to try to flag them down. I remember standing there clutching my two, huge suitcases and trying to stay calm (“I really just got on a plane and did this?” I remember thinking to myself), when the Olsons walked up to me with huge smiles on their faces. I felt at ease immediately, and I felt like it was meant to be that I arrived at the airport with them.
They are teaching in Liptovský Mikuláš, a town in the north of Slovakia situated along the Vah River. It’s also named after Saint Nicholas, and is surrounded by the beautiful Tatras. The Olsons invited me to come visit them a few weeks ago, so I booked a ticket and left straight after school on Friday.
Even at the beginning of my journey, I came across the nicest people who were willing to help a lost foreigner. On the platform in Bratislava, a guy around my age helped me find my car and even walked me to my seat; and in my car on the train, a woman who didn’t speak much English made sure that I didn’t miss my train stop (no one was announcing the stops so I had to just keep looking out of the window to check the train stations).
She must have thought I was crazy, because I asked her about 10 times, “Liptovský Mikuláš?” while pointing to my ticket and out the window. I’m not entirely sure what she was telling me since she was speaking in Slovak, but I’m pretty sure it was, “No, not yet, you crazy American. I told you I would tell you when it was time.”
At the end of the four-hour train ride, she looked out the window for me again and told me that finally, my stop was here. I thanked her profusely in Slovak, she gave me a warm smile (I think she must be a mom), and then I headed off the train. The Olsons were waiting for me along the track with their own homemade ELCA sign waving. I was so happy to see them, and it was such a great welcome to their town.
Friday evening after I dropped my things off at their flat (which is surrounded by a 360-breathtaking view of the mountains and the freshest air I’ve ever inhaled), they took me to their favorite pizza place. It was so nice to catch up with them and to learn about their experiences in a different school and town. We hit the hay pretty early after dinner to prepare for our long day of hiking the next day.
We woke up bright and early Saturday morning to get moving to our hiking destination. We took a bus from Liptovský Mikuláš to Závažná Poruba where we set off to hike 1,540 meters up to Poludnica Peak.
We met a friendly and helpful Slovak lady at the bus stop, and she (and one of the Olsons’ students who we also came across) helped make sure that we got off at the right stop. She even brought us into a small hotel at the bottom of the hill to meet her cousins and to double-check with them that we were going to the right place.
Once we got on our way, the green and misty, rolling hills were all we could see. That, and a hot air balloon flying high above us. We snagged walking sticks once we realized we were going to need them.
The guidebook said that the hike would take four-and-a-half hours, and that it was “moderate” with SOME steep ascents and descents. We decided about halfway through, however (when we realized we had just gotten to the top and it had taken three-and-a-half hours just to get there) that in America, we would describe the hike as much more than moderate.
All of the different views we came across, however, made it well worth the effort. Before we made it to the highest view, we came across an intriguing cave underneath a gigantic rock formation. Inside, we found an empty bottle of Slivovitz and tic tacs.
The view at the top was something in its own category. It was one of the most breathtaking pictures I have ever seen in person, and I wanted to soak it up as much as I could. You know those moments when you wish you could just freeze in time for a bit? This was definitely one of those moments for me.
We got a bit lost (there were just yellow and blue spray paint markings on trees along the path to guide us where to go) a few times, but there always seemed to be people who showed up just at the right time to offer us help. And, even though most of them knew little English (and us little Slovak of course), we always figured out a way to communicate with each other. It was always friendly, and the people were always willing to help us find our way.
During the point when we were most lost, a girl we had come across earlier went out of her way to track us down and to physically show us the trail we needed to be on. She could have easily just noticed it, thought, “Eh, oh well,” and kept going along her way. We were so grateful.
Another man who we met near the end of our journey, between the little Slovak we knew and the little English he knew, managed to tell us that bears had been spotted in the area recently and that he found bear poop with corn in it to prove it. Yikes! So, he told us, we had to be sure to talk loud and carry jingly things (he showed us his bells and demonstrated the horn around his belt). I immediately got out my keys to hang around my wrist the rest of the way.
At times it seemed like we would never make it back down to the bottom, especially near the end when we could feel our muscles screaming. At the beginning of the descent, I slid down a steep, muddy decline on my butt.
We found out that the week before a lady had wandered off the path and fallen to her death while picking cranberries, so I didn’t want to risk standing up too high (I decided early on that staying low would be my safety strategy).
Another time, we literally came across a 10-foot metal ladder that we had to use to get down another very steep decline. We laughed the whole way down, because, of course there would be a metal ladder along the way. Why wouldn’t there be?
Finally, after we thought we couldn’t walk any further (and we grew tired of ducking under tangled tree branches), we saw a break in the forest, and we walked out into a huge green field and to another wondrous view. We walked into the town Il’anovo, where we downed three tall glasses of water while we waited for our bus back to Liptovský Mikuláš. I’ve got to say, that walk into town felt pretty cool. Like from the scene of a movie or something when the heroes walk in to some sort of badass song.
Sunday morning, we went attended church at the local Lutheran church. The service was entirely in Slovak, so it was an interesting experience. It was also a learning experience though, because we read along as the people around us pronounced the words correctly. It wasn’t until the end of church when we could ask someone that we realized there were five pastors at church (and it was unusually long) because it was the church’s 227th anniversary. I guess I picked the right time to come!
After church we walked around town a bit and did some sightseeing. Because it was a bit rainy, we then decided to just hang out inside for the rest of the day (and taste delicious pastries with tea). It was a nice, relaxing Sunday after such an exhausting Saturday.
Because the Olsons are the only other American teachers in their town (unlike my situation in Bratislava, where there are nine other American teachers), it was so interesting to hear about their experience so far. It seems that they have the opportunity to get far more immersed in the Slovak culture, and even from just being there for a weekend, I felt like I learned so much about Slovakia.
Armed with encouraging words and teaching advice from the Olsons, I boarded my train home feeling refueled and ready to tackle the week ahead.
I even met a Slovak around my age after I saw her reading a Jane Austen book. We spent the rest of the ride teaching each other new Slovak and English words, and talking. In the middle of the conversation, her phone rang, and it was her mom calling to check on her. That made me smile, because it’s something my mom would have done, too. We are all so much the same.
Hiking this trail (as cheesy as it sounds — and I know I’m going to gag a bit tomorrow when I re-read this), and the journey it took to get to and from Liptovský Mikuláš, is a metaphor for how we should view life. It is wonderfully surprising and at times terrifying, but we have to enjoy the journey and soak it all in. We have to take risks. It’s good to be a little scared and unsure every once in a while — it means you’re alive.
A few years ago, I could have never guessed that I would be in Slovakia, of all places, working as an English language instructor. Living in Eastern Europe as a missionary. Sharing a flat with two older ladies I hadn’t met before. Surrounded by so many opportunities to give and to learn.
One of my favorite quotes sums up my experiences this weekend, and they are the kinds of experiences I have been dreaming of:
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”
Literally, or not.