My girlfriend, Emily, and I are barely two weeks into our six-week journey around Poland when our yearning for new and unique experiences, and the fact we have nowhere else to stay, brings us to a tiny village about one hour south of Wrocław that nobody — not even the locals — seems to have heard of.
We get off the train at Henryków, which is as close as we can get by rail but still leaves us nearly two hours’ walking distance from our destination, Nowina. This we realise only after asking directions from whom we think is a local but actually turns out to be a fellow South African making a damn good go of passing himself off as Polish. (To say we asked directions is also overstating it a bit: from Henryków you can either turn left, taking you to the town centre, or turn right, taking you deeper into the countryside.) We have to clarify to him that it’s not Nowiny we’re looking for, but Nowina. Annoyingly, there are two places not far from each other with almost identical names, and only one that anybody’s heard of. We’re looking for the other one.
With the man unable to help us, we find some signposts and a rudimentary map outside the train station, and there we spot an arrow pointing to Nowina. We set off, the weight of our bags offset by the lightness of our spirits. Barely twenty minutes into our trek, though, we manage to take a wrong turn and end up in a town built on the main artery connecting Wrocław to the Czech Republic, which looks almost deserted but for a few guys we spot in a backyard chucking hunks of wood onto the back of a flatbed truck and the muffled radio music and clangs of a hammer coming out of someone’s garage. Front yards are cordoned off by chain-link fences, some partially kicked in or blown down, inside which weeds and plastic bottles overrun the land and chickens peck for scraps of food among burned out cars and abandoned farm equipment. There’s plenty of traffic going in either direction, but nobody seems to stop or even glance at anything but the road ahead. We spot the sign of a shop where we stop to ask for help, but the doors are closed, the windows barred.
Finally, we happen across a couple out walking and, in her best Polish, Emily asks the way to Nowina. There’s a bit of back and forth between them which leads us to believe they’ve never heard of Nowina either and, like the South African guy, are trying to find the most delicate way of breaking it to us that it’s 47 miles to Nowiny (48 if you include the mile we’ve walked in the wrong direction to get here).
But after consulting our map a few times — and by ‘map’, I mean a picture I took of a large but not very detailed map on a signboard outside Henryków station, our only proof at this moment that Nowina is real and we’re not mispronouncing Nowiny; the fact that we’re foreign doesn’t help here — they seem fairly sure that if we just double back on ourselves and take an earlier turning that we’d ignored, that would lead us to Nowina.
We thank them and turn back to join the road, at which point Emily’s phone gets a bar of signal, bringing her 3G connection to life and suddenly all of our resourcefulness and thinking on our feet is made redundant by the miracle of satellite navigation. Google Maps sometimes feels like a crutch you wouldn’t need if only you trusted your two perfectly good legs. But after taking some wrong turns already, we’re not in the mood for more and are grateful for the helping hand. Sure enough, the road we’re on now is indeed the one to Nowina — Google has verified this for us — and we press on with renewed vigour.
En route is another village that we approach, but we have to take a right rather than turning into it and find ourselves climbing a slight incline with nothing but sprawling farmland all around, the murmur of village life — mostly barking dogs and someone playing loud music out of a speaker — fading gradually behind us.
The sense of limitlessness is unlike any you feel on a backpacking trip these days, when independence and adventure seem like things we make up to convince ourselves we’re travelling properly. Really, everything is planned, structured, easy. Entire countries are reduced to their backpacker trails, the hostels and bars, mostly. Everyone’s story starts sounding the same. Done Kraków? Yep. Done Warsaw? Yep. Done Rock-law (Wrocław in Australian)? Yep. Change the country and the city names as appropriate but the idea is the same. You turn up, book into that hostel that’s rated 9.5 for atmosphere on Hostelworld, meet some sick people from every country except the one you’re travelling in, do a bar crawl, drag your ass out of bed for a free walking tour, find some cheap food, do another bar crawl. After three days, you leave the city without ever stepping out of your little backpacker bubble and you tick it off your list with no intention of ever coming back.
I know, I sound like a snob. Emily and I are not exactly hacking our way through jungle while fighting off snakes and tarantulas and shitting in a hole in the ground. We’re also benefiting from the accessibility of modern travel, which really is a blessing. We know where we’re going, who’s meeting us there, and that sooner or later we’ll arrive. But we also know we’re somewhere we can almost guarantee nobody we meet on our travels will have been to.
And for once, we find ourselves in a situation where we have to think. When the most difficult part of your travels is missing a train or finding your hostel or realising you can’t use your card in the local supermarket, you’d be amazed how freeing it is to be dropped into the countryside with patchy GPS and a rucksack digging into your shoulders and have to find your way to a tiny village that you’re not even sure exists. It’s the kind of challenge I relish, the travelling I’ve been dying to do since I started backpacking. It is, of course, made so much better by the fact Emily is here. I’d have crapped myself out here on my own, never mind the fact that I don’t speak a word of Polish. With her it’s something memorable, something funny. The security of knowing we’re looking out for each other allows us to relax a bit and take in what’s happening around us: the lights and smoke of distant villages, the autumn winds robbing the trees of their leaves, the flocks of swallows, hundreds strong, rising, arching, swooping low and rising again, moving as if one singular consciousness. And Emily, chatting and laughing beside me, completing the picture.