Less than two hours after we left Munich’s Frottmanning station the bus suddenly pulled over and driver switched on all the cabin lights. “Blahblahblah blahblahblah … passport“, is all I heard. Another person boarded the bus, immediately walked towards the back of the bus, and starting with the last seats, started collecting passports and identification. People who had, presumably, Hungarian and/or Austrian passports seemed to only be given a quick lookover before their documents were returned. The rest of us had to surrender our passports as the “agent” left the bus, a thick fold of international documents gripped in his hands.
The only thing that set him aside as an official of the state was a jacket that said “HALT” across the left breast pocket. Other than that, he was just a dude collecting passports. I mused at the ease at which people gave up such an important packet of paper, myself included. Although I guess, one could argue, I’ve done worse.
The driver boarded the cabin of the bus about 15 minutes later with the stack of passports. One by one, he started calling out names and returning them. I smiled. I knew what was coming.
Name after name, the driver struggled which each one. I couldn’t tell what country he was from, Germany, Austria or Hungary, but he was certainly struggling with the English alphabet, minus E’s and A’s with accent marks. “G–onz–alez,’ he stammered, calling out the name of the guy who assured me that the bus hadn’t arrived yet. And then finally, he opened one passport, read the name, looked up — his face had scrunched up like he was trying to read something through a mirror — and I locked eyes with him. Immediately his face broke out into the first smile I’d seen from him. He rushed to my seat and handed me my passport without saying a word. I grinned widely. You can go halfway around the world, to another country, to another language and another life, but some things are just not gonna change.
I had begun to drift off just before that passport check, and then just as I was closing my eyes again, the driver pulls over and snaps on the lights for another stop. Now granted, I could’ve probably used the stop: I bought a much needed bottle of water, but still, you’re killing me dude! And YET AGAIN, right before the stop in Vienna to let some passengers off, he made a loud announcement over the PA system. By the time we reached Budapest, at 8:30 in the morning, I was very tired.
I was the kind of tired when you’re eyelids stick to your eyeballs. When you blink about 100 times and you still can’t focus on the wild, multi-coloured pattern of the seat in front of you. I did my best to curl up in the two seats I had to myself, but it just wasn’t going to happen.
Fortunately, the information center at Nepliget station opened at 8, so I was able to find out exactly which train to take. I exchanged some money and bought a ticket towards downtown. I only knew the street address of the hostel, Green Bridge Hostel, and a vague recollection of a point on a map from a couple days ago. The train station in the center of town, Deak Ter, had a map, so I looked up the location in detail and set off.
Budapest had more twist, turns, small alleys and street malls than I was used to, but I managed to find the hostel. Other than the street address, the only thing that set it aside from the other businesses and residences on the street — and even aside from the other apartments in the same building — was the green call button labeled ‘Green Bridge’.
A woman answered in a foreign tongue and I simply said “Umm … is this the hostel?” She said “Yes” and the door started beeping. I walked into a lobby that was filled with construction bins, bags of cement and old, peeling walls. I walkd up a short set of stairs and to my right was a strange, decaying atrium, a shaded light of the morning sun came all they way down the 5+ floors to light the way to the hostel’s door.
Green Bridge hostel was old and homely, but impeccably clean and extremely friendly. There were to dorm rooms and fortunately they had space in the 8-share. The benefit of traveling during Europe’s winter season.
I checked in with the young girl who ran the reception desk and booked in for three nights. I would later extend to five. After the bus I was in dire need of sleep, so I unpacked and lay down for a moment before heading out again.
I only had the rest of the afternoon, about 4 hours, so I headed to the closest museum, the Hungarian National Museum.
The collections were OK, I mean, they showed off a good portion of Hungary’s past and there was a great lineage of past to present, but it just wasn’t what I was looking for. After the museum I walked towards the city center and then to the riverside of the Danube. By the way, the danube is not blue, and there aren’t any damn people waltzing on it.
I walked back towards the hostel, but first stopped at the 24-hour convenience store. I walked from aisle to aisle, my eyes scanning the shelves. Where is it … ?? I passed the jams and honeys and Nutella, but I still didn’t see it. I passed the roasted nuts, almonds and pistachios and even still, there was no peanut butter. Damn! I would soon found out that Eastern Europeans had yet to discover the magic, wonder and ultimate salvation in peanut butter.
By the way, on my way back to the hostel, I came across something familiar, but unexpected:
Man, how much did THAT cost???!?
I bought some dinner in the form of a freeze-dried packet of rigatoni, cooked it in the hostel and the called it a night. It had been quite a day, and I was just getting back into the swing of backpacking, which always calls for an early start. The other backpackers with whom I was sharing a room decided to stay up until 4 drinking and chatting in the common room, and I, the old grumpy traveler, simply rolled around in bed and cursed those young bucks.
After nearly two years I was back on the road by myself and my first few hours in Budapest were a stark reminder of what traveling by yourself entailed. The road never fails to show you how demanding it is, and how alone you are.