Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Where in the World was Kellie Hazell: Prague, 1992

See my previous posts: East Germany, 1988, and Berlin, 1996.

The travel agencies that catered to the American military in Europe had a particular type of trip that must have had a clever name but that we called the "shop till you drop" trips. They were bus trips to one of several nearby cities. You'd sleep on the bus, tour and shop during the day, then sleep on the bus back home. If you've ever tried to get a regular night's sleep on a bus, you understand why this might not be the most enjoyable traveling experience. But the trips were a big success for the single military member or the young couple, and, of course, the occasional odd family such as mine.

In the summer of 1992, the four of us grabbed one of my uncles and my grandmother and went on a shopping trip to Prague. Or at least I think my uncle was there. This is one of those "memory is fuzzy" moments. We stuffed the six of us into a car, drove to a bus pick-up spot, the bus drove us to a coordinating center for several of these trips to various cities, and then we got on our bus to Prague. The bus was garishly purple, and that led to the moniker for this trip: the Purple Bus Ride from Hell. At first I thought my seat was comfortable, but shortly after we got underway, I managed to find fault with some funky footrest thing. It was a long night.

We had breakfast at some special place. We did a bus tour. We saw a couple of sights. Then we were turned loose on the shops to buy crystal and the other items that were fairly cheap in the city. At some point during the day, we went up to either a castle or an entire older, walled city on a hill. There was some changing of the guard. There was a great view of the city. There was Franz Kafka's house. I think I had just read The Metamorphosis, so I was tickled by this sight. I also remember it the clearest as I had a picture taken just outside his door. (Good ol' Franz was very, very short.) And then we piled back into the bus for the return trip.

Believe it or not, this was the part of the trip that I'll never be able to forget.

I actually slept well at first. The customs stuff at the border woke me up, though I don't think we had to do anything. I could be wrong there, as I think I remember my mother and father being annoyed or saying that someone was being overzealous or something. I slept fitfully after that. A commotion at the back of the bus woke me fully. I couldn't understand what was happening. There were some exclamations that were pretty muffled by the time they made it to me at the front of the bus, but a lot of people seemed to be going or looking back there.

We made an unscheduled stop at Nuremburg Air Base (I think), and everyone got off. I think this was the point where my mother explained to me that someone was sick. An ambulance showed up, although it was a German one, not an American one, which was odd because I know we were on a military base because we were sitting in front of a Burger King and something else that was specific to the military bases at the time. It's possible that this base was closed or closing to the point where it didn't have an emergency services hospital, but that doesn't seem right either.

The paramedics (or whatever the German equivalent is) boarded the bus and brought the sick man off the bus. He wasn't moving, he wasn't conscious. They put him in the ambulance and tried to work on him a bit there. That wouldn't have been a problem except German ambulances have fairly big windows with about three-quarters of frosted glass. I remember watching the paramedic bobbing in and out of the clear portion of the glass as he performed CPR. I don't know how long the ambulance stayed there, or how long all of us stayed off the bus watching. It seemed like a lot longer than it probably was. I'm not sure anybody really slept for the rest of the trip home.

I found out later that the man had just stopped breathing on the bus ride. There were three nurses on the bus, and they took turns doing CPR to keep his body alive until we could stop. I'm not sure anyone ever found out why a healthy man in his thirties just up and died on that bus. And due to the whirlwind nature of the trip, it's very likely that only a couple of other people on that bus had even talked to him the entire day. I wrote a story about it for my ninth-grade English class. I probably still have it somewhere. There was a little blurb about the death in the paper, which I feel in retrospect I should've cut out. At least then I might remember this man's name and who survived him. It seems odd that I was in such close quarters with a man who lost his life in my presence, and I can barely recall what he looked like.

Next week: Stratford-upon-Avon, 1995, definitely more up-beat


Dad said...

I'm hoping you slept through the hub bub with customs at the border, but it nearly ended the trip. The Czech Customs Police search all these tour buses and expect duties to be paid on items above a certain value. Hence we had to provide our receipts to the tour guide and driver which the Cutoms folk used in rooughly "vetting" the cargo they viewed in the baggage area of the bus. Of course those boxes sufficiently large to not "justify" receipts no higher than $30 draw suspicion. In spite of the tour guide clearly and repeatedly telling our fellow travelers exactly what not to do at the border, a handful did exactly what was forbidden. the police identified several boxes descriptively enough that the owner would have no doubt it was their's. When no one stepped up, I and a fellow in an adjacent seat agreed that we would step out and remove said boxes from the baggage area and turn them over to customs to be "confiscated" and taken away. As we stood, I looked toward the owners (we all knew who they were for they had been a total pain in the ass during the "shopping phase") and I said, "If the owners don't claim and pay immediately, we'll remove the boxes and turn them over to the police so we can all be on our way." The two of us then stepped off the bus and began to remove the boxes. As we pulled the second one out, the owners were bailing out of the bus to pay the duties, which amounted to about $12 between the lot of them. And the stress of that trip due to some of the absolute assholes we had along may have contributed to that seemingly healthy 39 year old man dying of a heart attack. We had to leave people behind who would not return to the bus on time, we had to repack the bus because people would shop at points when the "shopping phase" was over due to the schedule. We got behind schedule waiting for these jokers to come running down the street with big boxes of booty just as the doors were closing. If I'd had my way (and a couple of times I and a few others almost had the driver and guide convinced to go along) at least 6 people would have needed another way out of the country.

The most remarkable things I remember were how beautiful it is in the Czech countryside and the beauty of Prague.



Kellie said...

Wow. I remembered it wasn't exactly a pleasant trip, but I didn't remember all of the unpleasantness. Probably wasn't even aware of all of it at the time. I didn't realize that we had left some people behind.

Dad said...

Fortunately, the guide had anticipated it and had given everyone a copy of an approximate schedule of events with locations. Those left behind eventually caught up by taxi before we left Prague.