Hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere (Poland)

The famous Wieliczka underground salt cathedral

I suffer from the wanderlust bug that forces me to travel way more than most other people. I itch to lose myself amidst a breathtaking scenery, culture or experience. Well, I used “lose” metaphorically; but this is the story of how I literally got lost in the Polish countryside. I had no idea where I was and how to get back to Krakow; but fortunately could hitchhike back to civilization.

On the last day of my Krakow trip, I boarded a bus (read cramped van) for a 40 minute ride to visit the UNESCO world heritage Wieliczka Salt Mine. Surprisingly, I was the only tourist on board. To make sure I get down at the right stop, I approached the driver and with my limited Polish, I explained to him that I wanted to get off at the salt mine. He nodded his head and told me that he would let me know where to get off.

The bus soon rolled into lush green Polish countryside. Unfortunately, the charm of dreamy rural Poland put me to sleep. You can probably guess where this is going. I woke up and freaked. It was well past 40 minutes. I ran up to the front of the bus and asked the driver where the salt mine was. He stopped the bus with a jerk and pointed in the distance. Not sure why; but he insisted I get down and walk back two miles to Wieliczka.

As the bus disappeared from view, I realized it was a huge mistake. I was in the middle of nowhere. I had no idea where I was and I did not speak Polish. I had offline maps; but my phone couldn’t lock in a signal, GPS or cellular. To make matters worse, it started to rain. I walked briskly along the road. Five minutes later, I found myself at a T junction. Having slept through this part, I had no idea which route the bus had taken.

I tossed an imaginary coin and decided to keep on going straight. Not a soul on the road, no houses I could knock on. I tried to stop the cars passing by. No sane driver would stop for an Indian hobo in the middle of nowhere in Poland.

After walking almost 45 minutes in the pouring rain, I gave up trying to find Wieliczka. I was drenched, cold and it was getting darker. My main priority was to get back to Krakow safe and sound.

Walking a bit further, I located a bus stop. Not sure what the destination of the buses were, but there was one bus every 4 hours! I would probably dissolve in the ice-cold rain water if I had to wait that long.

A light-bulb of stupidity gleamed. I reasoned that if I could find another T-junction, the drivers would have to stop or slow down at the junction, I could then ask them how far Wieliczka Salt Mine was.

As I think back, it was probably the worst possible solution to my problem. Fortunately, my gamble paid off. A car stopped at a T-junction and a middle aged woman rolled down the windows. I asked her how far Wieliczka Salt Mine was, in a combination of English and broken Polish. She signaled me to hop in. I was not sure I read the signal correctly. I told her it’s fine, I would find my way. This time, she spoke clearly, “No problem, I drop you”.
A godsend Angel.

I couldn’t stop thanking her for the rescue. “No problem, my son also travel with backpack”, she muttered. “You from Indie?” I nodded my head. “He go to Indie..”, she opened her palms forward repeatedly, probably searching for the phrase “next year”.
She was missing her son. The world may be divided by geographical boundaries; but is united by maternal instinct.

It turned out, I had taken a wrong call at the first T-junction. From the junction, it was pretty close, at least by car.

I thanked her profusely as I got out of the car and offered her the two granola bars I was carrying. She laughed and refused. Wishing me good luck and advising me to dry myself up, she sped back.

The experience of seeing the underground salt mine sculptures of Wieliczka fizzled in comparison to the two hours before it. The mines are definitely interesting. However, in my opinion, it is not worth the time if you have seen caves and mines elsewhere and have a short time in Krakow.

It is surprising to me that as time flies by, only the memories of a trip that involve human interaction get etched in my brain; while the magnificent landscapes or architectures slowly fade away. My trip to Poland is defined by two events which define opposite extremes of human behavior. Auschwitz, where humans went out of their way to make life miserable for others. And this event; a woman’s maternal instincts led her to rescue a drenched foreigner from the roadside. My faith in humanity is not lost.

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Photos of Wieliczka salt mine

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