Saturday, December 27, 2008

Train Strikes Are NOT my Friend...

Subtitle: Getting to Budapest (or going on an adventure that even David might qualify as there were occasionally life threatening moments...)

Traveling in Europe is one of the many benefits to living the life of a transient drifter. Last year, for instance, I managed to get around to 7 different countries. While it's not hard to hit that many states when living there, it's pretty impressive to see that many countries, complete with really different cultures and languages. (Granted some states seem to have those as well...) Anyhow, the Christmas holiday is one of the few times when I have extended days off and can actually get some traveling in. Naturally this means I booked up every possible moment to do so.
It's also really handy knowing people living in other countries. After the amazing Scandinavian trip last year, which I knew would be impossible to top, I decided to go a hopefully less expensive route this year, visiting fellow ESI teachers in Central (or more appropriately Eastern - but shhh don't tell them that's where they are) Europe. First stop on the trip: Budapest, Hungary.
Before heading out to Budapest, our wise leader Kelly had informed me that there were train strikes going on, which potentially meant some difficulty traveling by train in the country. We weren't sure if it would mean anything for trains originating outside the country, but we proceeded with some caution nevertheless. Laura and I headed out around 9 on Saturday morning for the Cheb railway station. Things went smoothly enough there. They took my money and handed me back tickets emblazoned with the destination of Budapest. So far everything looked perfect. We had an hour or so before departure, so we went back to Winfield so Laura could get some coffee from the dispenser in a lovely little plastic cup, and we could sit in a clean and safe place - quite unlike the train station - until it was time to go. Our trip to Prague was uneventful, and I quickly checked the departure board once we arrived. Things were still looking great, so we sighed with relief and headed to McDonalds for little taste of home at Christmas time. :)
After lunch we returned to the station only to have a moment of unrest in our travel weary spirits. While the correct departure time, and a long list of cities, were still listed on the board, the big bold name of Budapest was darkened. Hmmm...not so reassuring. We decided to walk to the platform to see if there was possibly just a glitch on the big board. However, when we arrived at the platform Budapest was still missing. We hurried to the information booth where we then waited a good ten minutes before I could point to my tickets and ask if the train at platform 2 was headed for Budapest. The woman scarcely even deigned to look at me and merely nodded and said, "yes, to Budapest."
I did my best to be reassured, and despite the fact that the messages over the loudspeakers that ran in Czech, German, and English all said the list of other cities and not Budapest, we decided to just get on and go as far as we could and then see what we could see. After all, we'd already paid for the tickets. There wasn't much else we could do.
There were a lot of reserved seats so we didn't get to actually sit next to each other, but we did at least have seats, and she was only one row in front of me so it was all good. I managed to catch up in my journal, every now and then sneaking glances at the computer screen of the guy next to me who was watching Babylon 5. Interesting. He was clearly watching it in English as well, but he was either Czech or Slovak and just ignored me the whole long trip.
My tickets were checked once and nothing special was mentioned, so I decided to just go with the flow, hoping against hope that things would somehow sort of magically work out. We heard some muttering in some language we knew nothing of in which the name of Budapest was mentioned, but we still couldn't do anything about it, so we just waited.
After passing Bratislava the train cleared out a lot and I moved up next to Laura. Around then a new ticket guy passed through and we I showed him our tickets he quickly said, "This train no Budapest. Get off at border, take a taxi." Um, excuse me, what? This message was relayed the a couple sitting in front of us, and they were equally concerned. They were from Berlin and had been on this train for a LONG time without anyone informing them of the situation. Not cool. Fortunately they had a computer so they pulled it out and we checked to see how far it was to Budapest from the border, and tried to figure out just how much this was likely to cost us. It wasn't exactly early in the day either, so finding some alternate form of transport wasn't looking very likely. The couple was super nice though, and they were willing to work with us to find some way to get to our final destination.
Shortly before we arrived at the border town the Babylon 5 boy decided he could speak English and told us that a taxi was going to be really expensive (Really?) and that we could probably walk twenty minutes across the border and find a bus there. Nice idea if we had any idea where we were at to begin with.
Once we exited the station there was naturally a long line of taxis awaiting us. The German guy, we never got his name but Laura and I decided to call him Kurt, just for kicks as it sounds like a good German name to us, talked to a driver who told him that it would be 60 Euros or for 4 people 50. We decided that 12 Euros apiece (about $15 or so) wouldn't really be that much to pay in order to actually get where we were going. So we went for it and tossed our stuff in the back of his little car and crammed ourselves in.
He started off right away, and then asked for exactly where we wanted to go. We let the couple dictate that, and they gave him a paper with the address of their hotel. He read the paper whilst driving on the wrong side of the road, then, once satisfied, zoomed along even faster. Things seemed okay, when suddenly he veered off the main road and began zooming through a residential district. My initial thought was that he was going to dump us out somewhere on a dark street and inform us that this was Budapest and demand his 50 Euros. After several minutes of bouncing through massive water filled potholes, 80s rock blasting in the background, he slowed down and pulled up next to a parked car. "Kurt" quickly made a comment about him making us change cars, thinking maybe this guy couldn't cross the border. We had thoughts of drug deals, or human trafficking. As the guy got out and walked to the other vehicle I suggested that they might be planning to shoot us all and take what money they could find. I assured them that they would be pretty sad upon discovery that we're just poor teachers and really don't have any money. A couple minutes later he got back in carrying something. I said that as long as it wasn't a gun, all was well, and soon we were jetting off again to the sounds of "I kissed a girl and I liked it," pumping from the speakers.
We were soon back on a main road which made me feel a bit more secure. However the way the man drove there wasn't much to lend to our feelings of well being. He refused to stay behind anyone, and would pass as soon as he saw the slightest break in the oncoming traffic. Let me inform you all that those breaks weren't often significant enough to warrant such a decision. I sang along to "Feliz Navidad" hoping to ease some of Laura's white knuckled tension.
When we got into city traffic I thought things might get better, but on the contrary, he proved to be one of my least favorite types of driver. He would be sneaking past a car on the left, getting as close to the car in front of us as possible, and as soon as his hood had barely inched in front of the car on the left, he'd tear into that lane at an angle, whipping around the other astonished drivers. Fortunately I don't think we ran anyone completely off the road, but it wasn't for lack of trying.
At long last (although not as long as it no doubt should have been!) we pulled up in front of the German's hotel. The driver was quick to inform "Kurt" that he'd gotten us there in record time. This no doubt was meant to inspire a tip. It did not.
That harrowing experience completed, we went to a bank so Laura could pay her part of the taxi ride and we bid our wonderful German helpers a Merry Christmas Adieu. I texted Joanna to let her know what metro station we were at, and then the wait began.
Tired, and possibly verging on cranky, we went into the metro station to wait. And wait. Oh yeah, and wait some more. Budapest is not exactly Cheb. Just a wee bit bigger after all. And wait we did. As a blue funk began to settle upon us, I was inspired by a sign in the completely incomprehensible Hungarian language, and I informed Laura that she needed to get out of her "fogadunk." This proclamation was greeted by uproarious laughter, which helped to hold us together as we watched one side of the wall come down, signaling that the metro's run was soon to be completed.
In the last line of people to emerge, we saw the small figure of Joanna and were overjoyed. The relief that we had been rescued, however, was short lived as she informed us that normal transport was done for the day, and not knowing this part of the city very well, we were going to have to walk briskly in order to catch the night bus. This brisk walk turned out to be a marathon past at least four massive bridges. All the while Joanna apologized for the hassle, and did her best to keep us motivated to press on at our quickened pace due to the fact that the bus only runs once every half hour. We nearly lost her to a speeding car at one street crossing. We imagined calling Kelly, desperate and alone in the middle of a city of which we knew nothing, informing her that, not only was Joanna dead, but we had no idea where we were or how to contact anyone else. Not the most reassuring prospect. To our great relief on MANY levels, Joanna was not harmed, and we continued at our break neck pace along the Danube.
After several street crossings, and entry into a construction zone, Joanna pointed to a bridge still a quarter of a mile or so away (and at last that long) and told us we had ten minutes to get across said bridge. All Laura could manage to do was ask "Across it?" with obvious distress. Joanna merely confirmed her meaning, and continued along. We had to go up some stairs to even reach the bridge. Naturally these stairs had a re-bar gate across them. I climbed over, Laura took off her back pack and went through. We got up them as quickly as possible only to be confronted by a second gate. We were really not impressed by this point. Lack of food, dehydration, and general exhaustion were the names of the game at this point.
Joanna continued to cheerlead us over the street and across the span of the really long bridge. The view would have been amazing were we not so focused on the fact that there was still a line waiting for the bus, which meant we had a moment or two yet to get there before we would have to stand around waiting for half an hour.
Much to our great relief we did, in fact, catch the bus. It was crowded standing room only, but we knew that we at least wouldn't have to walk much more. We did still have a crazy street to dodge cars across, and a deserted street to walk along, but when we saw the welcoming lights of the Bazish (not sure how to spell that at all) we were nothing but relieved.
Once safely installed in our little room, we laughed like crazy about our fogadunks, and went soundly to sleep despite the rock like quality of the bed.


McNeil said...

bahahaa! oh goodness, the joys of traveling. my heartbeat was quickening as i read your entry. that laughter at the end, though, is just about priceless. traveling mercies, friend.

Bob said...

An epic and memorable travel adventure. Glad everything worked out safely in the end.