Saturday, July 18, 2009

Oxymoron of the month: Slovak organisation

Last year I may have wimped out of the Slovak Partisans’ hike and scuttled off down to Exit, an experience which was also fairly punishing but in a quite different way, but this year there were to be no such excuses. The macho chest-beater in me was looking forward to the bracing challenge and pure mountain air, though I was apprehensive when I saw the weather report, indicating heavy rain, thunder and hailstorms, especially because a few days before I started to feel I might be coming down with a cold, something I attempted to stave off with slivovice, successfully I might add. In any case, there was no getting out of it, since I’d promised to be there and had friends flying in for it from England and Germany.

In the event I needn’t have worried and my Who-Dares-Wins rugged outdoor side was rewarded, since we were mostly very lucky with weather – there was rain aplenty, but to our relief we mostly managed to avoid hiking or putting up our tents in it. All round it felt like a hardworking week in which we toughed it out against the elements to overcome adversity and all of that clichéd bollocks.

So far so good, but over the years I’ve inevitably been puzzled by certain, er, traditions of this occasion. This year was the 45th annual walk over the Low Tatras in honour of the Slovak National Uprising, which itself took place 20 years before the hike was established. Still going strong, then? Well, to be still going at all after 45 years in itself is quite an achievement, but there’s always room for improvement and in the four years I’ve taken part this is something I have yet to see.

The idea is certainly a good one – it’s a holiday which costs virtually nothing, you bring your own food, camping gear and spending money for those occasions where it’s actually possible to find outlets to spend it in. The only actual charge paid to the organisers is 25 Euro, for which they take your rucksack, tent etc. in the wagon while you hike over the peaks, plus there’s a place to camp every night. Can’t complain about value for money then, but there are a couple of drawbacks in the peculiar manner of organisation.

This year these quirks became evident right from the outset – the initial registration always takes place at a hotel in a relatively insignificant village in Central Slovakia, where it’s also possible to get a welcome goulash before the first afternoon’s (admittedly small) hike. Except that the hotel was closed and evidently had been for the best part of two years, which the organisers evidently felt was no reason to move the starting location. This was fairly characteristic of the entire setup. The organisers are mostly a rather ageing bunch who are staunchly resistant to any form of change, led by a well-meaning but slightly distant gentleman who I’m told is a university professor, the rest of them being largely hopeless pissheads.

I mentioned the alcoholic aspect of the trip a couple of years back so I won’t dwell on it now, suffice to say it’s still a dominant feature, and I’m not pretending I didn’t indulge either. In any case it’s something that is clearly not going to go away, even if it occasionally does raise alarm even in fairly regular drinkers such as myself. On the other hand there are adjustments the organisers could make, but the will is obviously not there. It’s quite evidently an outfit in decay. As a result, the amount of people attending has been steadily dwindling during the time I’ve been involved. It’s nice to see old faces and more or less the same people doing the hike each year, but there’s a need for new blood. The only way to find out about it in the first place is by word of mouth, and the number of mouths is in serious, possibly terminal decline.

A while back there was talk about setting up a website, which I personally considered an extremely good idea and offered to translate into English. Of course, I heard nothing more of it, clearly three years on it’s still in the embryonic stage. In fact information is the key issue here – there’s either a woeful lack of it or way, way too much. A few years ago it was virtually impossible to walk over some of the route due to fallen trees caused by a hurricane a good 8 months previously. The result was that on one of the days we had to walk down from the mountains and travel by train instead, but not before our lives had been put at risk over certain stretches. How difficult can it have been to find out about the state of the path in advance? Similarly, there being no website, the only information about such trifles as what equipment to bring, options for refreshments during the trip etc. is published in a rambling brochure, which is for starters hopelessly out of date, having quite possibly contained exactly the same information each year since its foundation and secondly is only available at the start of or during the walk, by which time it’s too late for any newcomers.

This stands in stark contrast with the interminable, awesomely pompous speeches made by the head of the organisation, which contain little relevant information about the state of the path, signposting and important things to look out for, but are steeped in the great Czechoslovak tradition of astonishingly punctilious, content-free fulmination, which can be experienced not only in academic circles but also on the classic bus excursions for docile pensioners and the like. A typical speech around the camp fire starts with the formalities of thanking the members of the organisation, frequently individually by name and rank, then thanking us for attendance and for behaving responsibly, and once this is out of the way we’re treated to a lengthy description of what we’ve just undergone, as if we didn’t know, with scant regard paid to what actually lies ahead. Towards the end of it there’s a chance to discuss possible improvements, when vague promises are made regarding websites etc., but it’s decidedly a token effort and by that stage virtually everyone there’s drunkenly ignoring Our Leader, who naturally carries on regardless.

The walk ends in heart-warmingly cute fashion, as we’re treated to a firework display mimicking the sound of gunfire on our approach to the final village, where flowers are then lain at the monument to the fallen partisans, followed by….. more speeches, which few people stay until the end of because they’re dying to get to the pub.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful here, it’s still good value for money and I do appreciate the work of at least the more sober members of the crew. In addition to that, I have now, on more than one occasion, suggested improvements and offered to help myself. Having said that, I haven’t yet had the chance to make any effective contribution, and so all I’ve done essentially is to rant on about it. All of which makes me wonder: am I becoming one of them?