Wednesday, October 16, 2019

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Salty Prices

On the hottest day this summer, my gal and I finally wedded after flirting with the idea for some years. You can probably still hear our families sighing with relief, or maybe heat exhaustion. Instead of drinking mead for the requisite 28 days, as a “honeymoon” would have it but our livers wouldn’t, we opted to hop over the Atlantic to–where else—Krakow, Poland’s unscathed medieval city, honeymoon capital of the old world, at least for a few of us.

Leaving that hottest day behind, we particularly wanted to cool our heels in the ancient salt mines of Wieliczka, just beyond Krakow’s city limits. Despite appearances, honeymooning in a working mine wasn’t meant as a cynical metaphor for nuptial bliss. We did, however, find another metaphor and a hard reality in its rocky chambers, one which tells much of the depths to which capital-G globalism will descend. Here we found yet another culture’s history exchanged for a listing in the world’s bizarre repertoire of jet-set theme parks. This one happens to have gone underground, quite literally, with some shadowy effects.

Ironicly enough, on June 7th, the day after we cut the wedding cupcake and declared our mutual enhancement, thousands of Poles went to the aptly-named polls to declare their own mutual enhancement with the EU, voting 72% in favour of joining the Polish economy with the European union, ringing in a new life of global market capitalism and, hopefully, ringing those Polish cash registers with more frequency than to date. What with an astonishing 245,000 soapy Avon representatives on the economy’s makeover front lines, and with a symbolic 200 troops slipped into George W. Bush’s oily war pocket, like a crisp fiver to the valet, Poland is ready for some western-style change to come around, with all globalization’s peculiar offspring in tow. And why wouldn’t they? When your country’s GDP is less than Wal-Mart’s annual revenue, something’s got to give, or give up. So, marriages for everyone, we discovered, strolling the streets of New Poland. It’s a small world after all, and getting smaller, unfortunately, as the uniting markets get bigger.

Now, although Poland’s nuptials with the EU won’t be realized officially until next year, the signs of an ongoing flirtation with the wilder west abound. The first wave of globalization’s effects have swept in and, like water, sought the lowest level to settle at. Tourism is on the rise, and what better way to attract that than with the west’s best tourist bet—strange kitsch. Consider Wieliczka’s salt mines. They’re filling with it, and fast.

The first thing to understand is that the salt mines are, indeed, a marvel of labour history, artisan craft and geology. This is why the mine was added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites in 1978, and declared an endangered site in the 1980’s when humidity levels threatened the 300 kilometers of underground passageways and chambers. Tourism introduced its short-sighted method of alerting global attention to the mine, and injected some regular cash to preserve what the salt itself could not. Travelers like us are invited to enter by descending the mine’s spiraling staircase to a depth of 64 metres below ground level. There, the tour begins a two kilometer hoof through a mere handful of the mine’s more than 2000 eerie chambers. When you huff and puff your way to the final depths, you have most definitely seen more than the swampy green rock salt you bargained for, and perhaps invested in its perversion as much as its preservation.

The miner’s of Wieliczka both imprinted themselves into the salt they mined and drew their god and culture through its stone. Because they spent much of their lives underground, the Catholic workers brought their churches and iconography down with them. Statues of saints carved from salt line many of the chambers and their connecting passageways. Nested among the dripping stalactites overhead, ornately carved likenesses of stately chandeliers dangle. All of it salt. There’s even a natural underground lake of green brine so saturated with the stuff the lake water can’t dissolve its equally salty bedrock.

But perhaps the most awesome sight is in the subterranean cathedral left by three brothers who excavated the necessary 20 tons of rock more than two hundred years ago. This cathedral is complete with altar, staircases, chandeliers and statuary, an entire polished chapel of salt for the miners to worship within. A common sight, however, were the boozy frat boys in our tour group who confirmed the cathedral’s savoriness by licking a few saints here and there for good measure, or out of hungover desperation.

Still, beyond the mine’s awesome labour and design is a palpable sense of romance and history. One early danger of mining was the collection of lethal methane gas in the shafts and hollows. Some miners crawled from chamber to chamber on their bellies, each extending a raised torch to the ceiling, their job being to burn off any gathering gas with a violent flash. No, these are not undiscovered scenes from a Michael Ondaatje novel, but they do share something of that labour lyricism.

Yet more literal to the romantic quality of the mine is its founding mythology. Poland’s Saint Kinga, legend has it, dropped her wedding band down a mining shaft in Hungary, only to break ground years later in Wieliczka to establish Krakow’s economy, plucking her wedding band from the first scoop of brine that had traveled the Baltic distances. So, again, marriages abound here, and the promises of a prosperous future are hopefully drawn from below. Or so it would seem.

More than salt is rendered from the mine these days. In fact, the only salt mined now is from the groundwater pumped to keep the mine from flooding, as it still tends to do, even as recently as the early 1990’s. Little money is made from the 60 tons of salt produced annually. That is simply a byproduct of the mine’s real financial value in remaining a functional tourist attraction. Well, maybe dysfunctional is a better term for it. As if the mine itself is not enough to dazzle descenders, its marketeers have tarted-up the show to satiate more Disneyfied tastes. Compare its natural and historical highlights with a glimpse at what Wieliczka’s makeover has slathered on for a brighter look. It’s enough to make Avon quiver.

Among the statues of saints and ancient royalty, for example, contemporary sculptors were commissioned to add seven peculiarly familiar dwarves, and one familiar Polish pope. Then, for the trippier crowd, another chamber now features a multi-media laser show on its walls and ceiling, including audio-visual projections of a less-than-spooky resident ghost. This, of course, renders the mine more a Radio Shack funhouse than an endangered historical site.

The cathedral, too, has some new iconography and lost souls. One week before our own visit, Richie Blackmore, creator of rock’s holy trinity of guitar licks—yes, the opening riff for Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”—held a concert in the mine’s underground chapel to promote its marketable acoustics and his own whereabouts. Did I mention subterranean bungy jumping? They’ve tried that, too.

But the most salient image of what has happened in the name of tourist creature comforts and theme park musts is present in Wieliczka’s final chamber. There, in fully-lit glory is a mini-mall of gift shops bursting with rock salt lamps and, of course, a food court, 134 meters below daylight. Employees take the iron mining elevator down each morning to flip perogies and sell Doritos. There are perhaps as many service workers employed here, in the shops and guiding tourists, as there are actual miners beyond the public passageways.

This should not be taken as just another story of cultural authenticity lost. It’s lessons are more specific than that. There are many equally irksome accounts of historically rich bathtubs being peed in for profits. What is vital here, and visible to the eye, is the actual process of that common global exchange, giving over one’s own salt for tourist dollars, along with the exchange of miners for customer service reps—of mines for malls. And that bizarre future was always there, oddly enough, in the memories of the word “salt” itself.

The swampy brine from which salt is extracted runs green underground, but so does tourism’s greenbacks, if you can extract it as well. Salt is what workers were once paid for their labour, which is where the term “salary” comes from. In Polish, too, a phrase for something “expensive” roughly translates as “salty Prices”. So tourism, it seems, has its own big-ticket price, in this respect, because the salt and the mine aren’t enough any more, nor are either’s natural and historical dignity. What’s really going on down below is a true currency exchange, and a cultural one for McWorld’s strange tastes in getaway kicks.

If all this leaves you a little claustrophobic, as mines tend to do, and you feel yourself a little short of breath, even a little panic-stricken, don’t worry. You can always visit Wieliczka. On the mine’s fifth level is an air-locked sanatorium for vacationing folks with extreme environmental sensitivities. Look out Club Med all-inclusives coming soon, because the honeymoon is over. Now the question is where places like Wieliczka go when they become allergic to their so-called preservation.

August 11, 2003: 1548 words (a version of this appeared in the Vancouver Sun)

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Ryan Knighton

Ryan Knighton lives in Vancouver, teaches at a college in North Vancouver, and peers at the world with a strange but distinctive focus. He just signed a whopping book contract based on a series of pieces that appeared on this site, and his publisher made us erase them.

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