I remember the panic like it was yesterday, although it was thirteen years ago. I was fueling up my pickup in Lubbock, Texas, after finishing a recording session for a historical trail series I had produced for a consortium of museums on the Gulf Coast. My phone rang; it was Yasuko.
That alone was a bad sign because she and the kids were in Japan on summer vacation, and she never called when I was on the road. “Hi, Honey,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Cassady lost her passport,” was the terse reply.
“That’s not good,” I said.
“And she needs a new one in two days.”
“That’s not gonna happen.”
“Or else she misses the flight back and misses the start of school and gets removed from all of her classes.”
“That’s really not good,” I said.
The U.S. Embassy in WhateverLand is set up to handle the very Cat 5 Traveler flub of losing your passport or having it stolen. It’s just not set up to do it quickly. Since I was living in the Panhandle at the time, I happened to know the brother of the guy who ran the local congressional office for Mac Thornberry. Waaaay to the right of Donald Trump, politics don’t matter when you need a favor; I’ve never been too proud to beg.
With a lever pulled here and a button pushed there, Cassady got her passport in time to make it back to school, albeit at the cost of a re-booked, full fare ticket. What I learned from that was don’t ever lose your fuggin’ passport unless you are at home in the good ol’ U.S.A.
Bike rental in Bratislava
I don’t know if you ever use TripAdvisor.com, but it sucks. I’ve only used it once or twice and it is invariably bad. It’s like a bad case of Yelp, only antibiotic resistant. Slovakia is behind the times in a lot of ways, which is part of its charm. One of the times it is very much behind is bike rental.
Although TripAdvisor says that Bike Bratislava is the bomb, you don’t have much choice because it’s the only going bike rental concern in the city, therefore the country. The other “service” requires reservations at least a day in advance, and the bikes are all chained to a post down by the river. Few of them look like they would qualify for the Tour.
We got to Bike Bratislava bright and early, since it opens at 8:00 AM, but not very pointy-sharp, as it turned out. At first we weren’t even sure if it was the right place. Was it a bike shop? Was it a jail? In any case it was plastered with lies, including Trip Advisor, opening hours, and working phone number.
We hung around for a while but no one came, and we called the number that said “Please call anytime if you need help!” but no one answered, so we gave up and started walking around the city looking for a place that might rent a bike. We saw a lot of cool stuff, but no bike rental.
Thankfully, we had eaten a hearty breakfast at the hotel and so were well provisioned for the endless walking. The weather was perfect, which helped, and by the time we finally found a bike shop we were glad to step in and ask about a rental.
“Sorry, no rental,” the dude said. “But you might try Freddie Hostel Bratislava. They have some bikes.” The way he said “bikes” it was the snobbery of a dude at a good bike shop, and it meant “good enough for a wanker like you but I wouldn’t be caught dead on it.”
“Thanks,” I said, and we retraced our steps a mile or so to Freddie’s. The lobby was narrow and dark, and as we entered I spied four truly wretched bicycles chained up against the wall. At a glance you could tell all you needed to know about these steeds: Rusted chains, soft tires, no tread, derailleurs that looked like they hadn’t been shifted since ’98 … in sum, exactly what you’d expect for $10/day and a $50 dollar deposit apiece.
The very nice lady took our passport numbers, got my phone number, and sent us on our way. “Be careful!” she said as we left. “Slovak drivers are not too careful about the bicycle!”
Crazy fast downhill
We descended from Freddie’s all the way to the Old City, where we wound up on a high speed, very narrow two-lane road dropping down to the river. Up against the edge, where we were jammed, helmetless, there were numerous giant gratings. I was suddenly thankful for the giant MTB tires and the shocks. Cars passed us within inches. We were scared.
At the bottom of the hill we navigated another awful street, then crossed it over to the Danube bike path. The whole time we were bouncing and slamming like a frenetic drumset, and the bike path, which was under construction, kept up the bouncy ride. We crossed the river and got ready to start on the scenic paved path, when Woodrow stopped.
“Hey Dad!” he said.
“I lost my passport.”
“That’s a problem,” I said, which he already knew because his face was white.
“It must have come out of my pocket, maybe on that bad downhill where we kept hitting all those gratings.”
“Did you leave it on the counter back at the bike rental?”
“No, I’m sure I put it in my pocket. But check your phone. They have your number and would have called, right?”
I checked my phone. Nothing. “There’s only one thing to do, then.”
“Retrace our steps.”
Return to hell
If the trip there had been bad, going in reverse, the wrong way against traffic, uphill on bikes, was way, way, way worse. In addition to the fact that there was no way we’d see the passport, Woodrow had put it in a plastic zipper bag along with a couple hundred euros. With all the sharp-eyed street people we’d seen, there was no way that plump little present could have gone unnoticed.
I sent Woodrow back to the hotel, reasoning that only one of us needed to get killed on this fool’s mission. About halfway up the long hill, cars honking, my heart in my mouth, trying to scan the gutter and not get hit, something happened: My seat bolt fell out and the saddle jerked straight upwards into my butt.
Now I couldn’t even sit down, making it even harder to concentrate on the scavenger hunt.
I retraced the entire route and of course found nothing. At the same time I tried to figure out how we’d get the new passport. He had no other physical ID. The U.S. embassy was near our hotel, but good luck getting anything done there on Friday afternoon. Although no one had checked our passports coming into Slovakia, passport control going the other way into Austria was a whole different matter.
In addition to the practical problem of replacing the passport, there was the more minor issue of my German classes, and his, which were to begin on Monday in Vienna. I gritted my teeth at the thought of $1,600 euros flushed down the drain. And then there was my buddy Damir, who had set me up with a nice road bike that I was to pick up on Sunday. Looks like I’d have to flake on that, too.
The bike was unrideable and I had reached the hostel, deciding to turn it in. The lady was surprised to see me back so soon, as we’d rented the bikes for the entire day. “Everything okay?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “The saddle has come loose. I want to return the bike, thanks.”
“Oh,” she said. “We can fix it.”
“I’m good,” I said.
“Well, let me get you your security deposit, then. I can’t give you the other deposit until you bring the other bike back.”
“No worries,” I said. “That’s the least of my problems.”
She rummaged around behind the desk and handed me my security deposit. “And here’s the passport you left behind, too.”
I stared at her for a second. “Really?” I couldn’t believe it.
“Yes, I put it in the safe.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I went with the safe move. “Thank you so much.”
“Oh, you’re welcome. Are you sure you don’t want us to fix the bike?”
“I’m sure,” I said.
And I was. Very, very sure.
I got back to the hotel and we celebrated with some awesome Turkish food, one of us with more eager, relieved abandon than the other.
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