Thursday, June 30, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XII (Crossing the Iron Curtain-II)

I was taken to the Ambassador’s drawing room where he was waiting for me. He greeted me and asked me when I had come to Warsaw. Over a cup of tea and snacks, I related to him the whole story of my trip to Warsaw to meet the President of Polish Ski Federation Colonel Lipchevisky and the Police harassment on my arrival by train. He smiled and said that back home in India people did not understand the difference between West Europe and East Europe. He said that one should not visit any East European country without first informing the concerned Indian Embassy. He told me even his diplomatic mail was censored. All East European countries were like Police States and KGB was everywhere. Mr Kamatekar told me that even if I had tried to meet the Colonel for a year, I would never be able to get anywhere near to him! According to him, I had taken the right decision by calling on him.
Otherwise, I might have landed in some serious trouble! He called for his Commercial Attaché who soon joined us. The Ambassador asked him to get me room in Grand Hotel and arrange my meeting with the President of the Polish Ski Federation through diplomatic channels. He also advised me to be careful and not to enter into any loose talk. According to him most of the taxi drivers, lift men, and waiters were KGB informers. He also advised not to accept any offers for currency exchange at higher rates. It all seemed very scary! I thanked the Ambassador and bid him good bye. The Commercial Attaché took me in his personal car to the Grand Hotel and said that he would convey me the time of appointment and venue for the meeting later. Incidentally, I had a Polish travel agent friend who too was arriving in Warsaw next day with a group. That day I rested in the hotel till noon as I was tired and did not have any sleep on the train. I was keen to see the Church where the heart of Chopin is supposed to be preserved. However, I could not get in. The church goers were even on the road outside, it being the Sunday Mass. I was surprised to see all the churches full of people! In the afternoon, I went to see the Palace of Culture. It is a huge tall building built by Russians. I also saw some gardens. Warsaw is a nice city. It must have now developed much more?
In the evening the group led by my travel agent friend arrived. They too were staying in Grand Hotel. My friend introduced me to parents staying in Warsaw. They invited me to spend a couple of days with them. It would be a pleasure to stay with a Polish family. The group was leaving back in two days. I promised to shift to the home of my friend’s parents after their departure. Next evening the group had a dinner arranged in the night club Quo Vadis, constructed by the Poles in the basement of the Palace of Culture and Science. It was a lovely dinner and there was a special strip tease show arranged by the night club. It was a strange combination. On top was the Palace of Culture and Science and the Poles had deliberately set up a night club in the basement claiming to have the best strip tease show in Europe! Probably, it was the Polish way of getting at the Russians? Earlier during the day, I had a phone call from the Commercial Attaché informing me about my meeting with the President Polish Ski Federation. Meeting took place in his office. He was very kind but behaved more like a bureaucrat. He informed me that they had a very good ski station in Zako Pane but skiing did not seem as developed as it was in the Western Europe. As I did not have enough time so I could not visit Zako Pane. There did not seem any chance of collaboration with them as had been the case with the French and the Austrians. May be they have now opened up?
Next day I shifted to my friend’s parents’ house. It was in a modest locality and they gave me my friend’s bed room for stay. The father Mr.Zaromsky took me on a sight seeing tour to visit some palaces and gardens. We also had some snacks for lunch. I asked Mr. Zaromsky about life in Poland. According to him it was tough. On my asking about the strong religious beliefs of the people evident from the rush in churches, he smiled and gave an interesting answer. He said that the Poles are definitely religious and have faith but it is not extreme or fundamentalist type. The reason for such strong attendance in churches was the use of religion as a means of resistance to atheistic communist regime of Russia. The religion was the only weapon local people had against the communist onslaught of Russians! This reminded me about the similar situation back home in Kashmir. Here too Kashmiris are not fundamentalist in nature. We have our own brand of Sufi Islam which is less strict and more accommodative. However, local people use religion as a symbol of protest against the so called “Secular” Indian Government!
My short sojourn behind the Iron Curtain came to an end. Next morning Mr. Zaromsky dropped me at the Warsaw Railway Station to catch a train to Paris. The train journey was mostly uneventful except for some minor surprises. As the train started from Warsaw, four Polish engineers came to sit in the cabin where I was sitting. Some of them could speak German and I started a conversation with them. They too seemed to hate the guts of Russians. They were sure that the situation would change soon for the better. As we reached East Berlin station, a large number of uniformed police officers entered the train. They had sniffer dogs. They searched the whole train. I was told by a fellow passenger that I should change to the next bogie which was going direct to Paris. I raised the window to ask the police officer on the platform about it. He shouted and asked me to close the window and change at the next station. While looking through the window I saw armed soldiers at vantage points. It was a scary situation. Soon the train started and I changed the bogie in the West Berlin station. After the train started, we passed through very green and lush landscape. I raised the window and started filming with my movie camera. Suddenly someone pulled me back. It was a young French girl. She told me that we were passing through communist East Germany and the police could arrest me for filming! I had got my geography wrong! I had thought Communism ended in East Berlin! After it got dark, I fell asleep on the seat. I was suddenly woken up by a policeman. We were passing through Luxembourg. He asked for my passport and then demanded transit visa for Belgium. I told him that I was going to Paris in France and not Belgium. It was a repetition of the Czechoslovakian situation. But he did not demand dollars! Telling me that it being the first time he stamped the transit visa free but asked me to be careful in future. We reached Paris around mid-night and thus ended my crossing of the “Iron Curtain”! I was definitely glad to get out of the Communist part of Europe! Things have now completely changed which I discovered in some of my later travels!

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