I may or may not have joined a cult...
06/16/2014 - 06/16/2014 70 °F
Woke up early this morning and had some nuts and some meat and cheese that I saved from last night to make for a quick start today. I showered (I may or may not have skipped a day) and was out the door in 10 minutes. I was still hungry so I grabbed a salad at the airport.
They had brilliant packaging for the salad dressing. No ripping off the top, just bend!
The Swedes are very fond of these tiny little shrimps. They’re also very fond of having one slice of bread (often pumpernickel or something brown) with some mayo, maybe a tomato slice then topped with little shrimp or salmon. This isn’t a great picture, but I didn’t think to take a picture earlier and this was my last chance!
Unfortunately, I would have loved to eat more in Sweden. Little shrimp and salmon are ALWAYS on the menu! Did I mention they love salmon? But as much as I love salmon, I wouldn't buy an entire salmon to eat AT THE AIRPORT!
Stockholm airport itself was great. The security check time might even have Rochester beat! Unfortunately, the plane was running late which cuts into my time in Budapest a bit. Once we finally got off the ground, the flight was pretty quick. I was actually pretty alert and decided to spend the two hours trying to catch up on my blog. During the times when I couldn’t use electronics, I read the inflight magazine, which informed me that Munich recently legalized nudity. Headed there in a few days...Watch out!
When I arrived in Budapest, it was about 1:30pm.
Immediately after stepping off the plane, I could sense a different vibe in Budapest. Whereas everything in Stockholm was clean, efficient and slick, Budapest is decidedly gritty in comparison. In Stockholm, I had noticed that most Swedes are very well kempt and almost uniform. The guys usually have their blonde hair slicked back and wear sport coats no matter the occasion. They could have just come from a GQ magazine. The women are almost invariable gorgeous (and I don’t even like blondes ;-)), also tend to have their hair pulled back to show their striking features and are in great shape. Everyone has perfect skin. Everyone seems to be well dressed. Combine that with the ultra modern rail system and social safety net that kept me from seeing a single beggar or homeless person the whole time I was there and it’s safe to say that Stockholm (and probably Sweden overall) is in it’s own little bubble. I didn’t fully recognize the extent of the uniformity until I stepped off the plane into Budapest. As I looked around at the people, I easily could have been getting off of a plane in Dallas or D.C. There were people of all shapes, sizes, styles and (hair) colors…still not a ton of ethnic diversity.
I’m always conscious of how I am perceived when I’m overseas. Am I an obvious American? In Sweden it seemed that I fit in pretty well. People spoke to me in Swedish and expected me to understand. I had two different people say “You’re not Swedish?” when their greetings were met with a look of confusion on my face. But now that I’m in Budapest, apparently I’m French. The airline employee directing passengers off the flight spoke a variety of languages as he sent us on our way and I’m almost sure he spoke to me in French.
I found the ticket office to get into center city and had to get a dual ticket with a bus to the train station and then a train into Budapest proper. When she quoted the price, my jaw dropped. It was 550 Forints. I had forgot to check the exchange rates and didn’t know how much that was, but I assumed it had to be at least $30. Oh well, I didn’t have much of a choice. (It turns out it was $2.50). I found my hostel, the Mandala, without too much trouble. On the way, there was this sweet bar with bars to lean against rather than seats...kind of a great idea!
I may or may not have joined a cult. When I got to the hostel, I had to take my shoes off at the door. There were a ton of pictures of the Dalai Lama as well as Indian and Chinese proverbs. Everybody was super nice. Like overly nice. Like that's probably how they get you to join. Scott who checked me in is from Australia and has been in Budapest for 8 months. Another guy, Yonnas?, is from Germany and has been traveling for years. Another guy, who may or may not be running the show, doesn't say much but is always sitting out on the porch with his dog. It seems like all but a few of the inhabitants “work” at the hostel in some capacity, whether checking people in or doing some vacuuming. Sort of seems like they bought an apartment in Budapest and figured they could open a hostel to pay for part of their rent. Here's the courtyard of the apartment building.
Scott was extremely nice and spent about 20 minutes with me drawing all over a map that he gave me showing me all the things to see. I was sort of blown away by his hospitality and/or cult recruitment campaign. He also directed me to the grocery store just down the block where I stopped quickly to grab some eggs, peppers and onions for breakfast in the morning as well as tuna fish and apples for a snack on the road. Other than the long-term occupants, I met Alex, who was a quirky kid from Chicago that seemed to think he knew everything there was to know about traveling. He means well, but boy is he chatty. He was not getting my hints as I kept trying to leave to explore Budapest as it was already close to 4pm!
Here’s my room:
Not a bad view out the window either!
Did I mention that this costs about $7 US per night? Quite a change from the high prices of Sweden!
Alex told me about how my next-door roommate, David, had been traveling for 2 years and was finally headed home in 2 weeks. Last week, his computer was stolen (before he got to Budapest) and along with it 2 years worth of photos disappeared. I was devastated just thinking about it. Here we had been upset about losing half of our two weeks worth of pictures and this kid lost all of his pictures from two years worth of traveling! I can’t even imagine. Alex also mentioned how much he loved the vibe at the hostel and how the reviews online were all so darn positive that he thought it was a cult. This did nothing to quiet my nagging suspicion…was Alex a plant? :-)
At long last, I escaped to hit the streets of Budapest. Budapest was actually two different cities, Buda on the west side of the Danube and Pest on the east side. Don’t worry…I didn’t know that either until I consulted Arthur during my research last night. Interestingly, Buda is super hilly—almost mountainous—and has streets that wander every which way while Pest is entirely flat and has grid-like streets. Pest is the more downtown-type area while Buda has a lot of the castles and palaces from centuries past. Plus, with the giant hills, it provides great views of the city. Since the hostel is in the southeastern part of the city on the Pest side, I decided to cross the southernmost bridge onto the Buda side, wander north through the streets of Buda cross back into Pest on the northernmost bridge and the come back down through Pest. It was an ambitious plan. Probably too ambitious.
As I set out, I quickly noticed another difference from Sweden. While I was in Stockholm, NOBODY crossed the street unless the crosswalk sign said they could. A very compliant people, those Swedes. It didn’t matter if there weren’t cars for miles and some tumbleweed crossed the road while the theme from Gunsmoke played, they were not crossing. Being an apparently rebellious American, I got plenty of strange looks when I crossed as soon as I had an opening. Now in Budapest, people are still hesitant to cross without permission, but as soon as I’m halfway across the street and they realize that nobody from the KGB has come to tackle me and take me away, they follow suit. I’m sure that I’m over-generalizing, but its fun to try to draw larger cultural themes from these minute occurrences.
As I was about to cross the bridge, I accidently passed Central Market, which had been recommended by Arthur, so I decided to stop and take a look. The lower floors were lined with shops selling meat and produce and were filled with mostly locals. The upper floors had all kinds of tchotchkes, a few restaurants and was filled with tourists. The place was enormous.
Some of my favorite souvenirs were hand-painted, hallowed out eggs. How the hell do you get one of those home in one piece?
Every little stand had gulash. Apparently, they’re known for their Gulash in Hungary. I haven’t even heard the word gulash since probably the 4th grade lunch line and I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I hope the Hungarians have something authentic to offer that's a little more exciting.
Also, they are OBSESSED with paprika. It’s everywhere and on everything.
Another highlight were these Russian dolls. They had all kinds, but these were like the dolls of evil, with each successive doll being painted with the face of another world leader, each more evil than the last. Osama, Sadam, Castro and Gaddafi all made the list.
It’s actually very interesting…beginning with the Russian dolls and the endless line of sausage vendors, you can really see how Hungary has been shaped by its Russian neighbors to the east and German neighbors to the west.
After Central Market, I crossed the bridge. In the background you can see the Liberty Monument on top of Gellert Hill.
That was my next destination. The walk wasn’t as bad as I expected. In just 15 minutes or so, I was up to the top.
The view was more than worth the trip!
At the top of the hill, I bore witness to one of the creepiest events of my life. An Asian tourist must have never seen white people before, because after he snapped easily 100 pictures of the view, he started snapping them of people. I’m not talking the quick, discreet shot from far away. This guy literally walked up to two girls who were looking at a smartphone and must have taken 20 shots of them from less than 3 feet away. When I saw him take the first couple shots I thought that for some reason they asked him to take a picture of them on their phone, but by the time the 5th shot clicked and the girls started to anxiously laugh and nervously look at each other to say “is this really happening?” I realized just how awkward this situation was. Later, there was a guy sitting on a bench with his girlfriend and they were being pretty lovey-dovey. After the paparazzi man had his fill of the texting girls, he turned his attention to the couple. By the time he got his first few shots and got close enough that the girl saw what was going on, she jumped up, exasperated and squealed NO! and ran away. The Asian guy laughed and waved his hand as if to say that the girl was ridiculous. I reveled in the awkwardness of the whole situation. I had an urge to take a picture of the paparazzi and the irony of that urge was not lost on me.
Seemingly right next door to Gellert Hill was another hill filled with important looking buildings. Unfortunately, there was no way up that hill without first climbing down Gellert Hill. In between the two hills, I noticed several buildings that seemed to be a metaphor for Hungary’s history. These once great buildings were now in noticeable disrepair. Nevertheless, it gave an authenticity and charm to the place and matched the “grittiness” of its people.
Just a few blocks away from that picture as I began my ascent up Castle hill was what looked like a palace. It too showed signs of wear but was actually in the middle of a renovation.
This is a completely unfair comparison, but I had to laugh when I saw the little hut that this guy was in and mentally compared it to the huts of the soldiers guarding the palace in Stockholm.
Another picture I sort of manufactured to capture the grittiness of Budapest was this unbelievable mural at the base of Castle Hill. There happened to be a completely unrelated pile of paving stones nearby and if I got down low enough, I could get them in the same shot. Kinda neat.
Speaking of rubble, I was passing Budapest’s first and most famous bridge, the “Chain Bridge.”
There was a picture on the journey up the hill that showed the Chain Bridge destroyed at the end of WWII.
The top of Castle Hill is deceptively vast. First, here was the office of the president, with a proper guard’s hut to boot!
I also found St. Matthias’ Church, which had an absolutely beautiful roof covered in colored tiles.
By far the best of all was Fisherman’s Bastion.
It looked like a Disney castle and really inspired the imagination. Everywhere I looked, I literally couldn’t help but to fabricate backstories of the characters in the castle. This girl was looking for a prince as all Disney princesses seem to do.
The group of guys at the highest point of the castle were well dressed and must have been royalty. (later I found out it was a wedding party)
Fisherman’s bastion was really incredible and my timing to be there couldn’t have been better.
As I descended Castle Hill, I discovered that my camera memory card was full. I last bought a 16GB when I was in Germany so just over 1 year later and it’s full…that’s a lot of pictures! I had to delete a few errant shots so that I could keep snapping away as my journey was still less than half over! It was starting to get dark and I was starting to get hungry. It was probably 9pm by this point. I had had my apple and tuna fish a few hours early to tide me over, but the tide was turning. Things were pretty dead over on the Buda side. I figured that I would need to take out some cash for food so I stopped at an ATM. As a rule, I never exchange cash at the airport or with a person because you get absolutely destroyed on exchange rates. This ATM posted a fair rate (the smaller the difference between what they buy dollars for and what they sell dollars for, the better), so I stopped to grab some cash for the next couple of days. Big numbers hurt my brain. Apparently I’m a little out of practice on my math because I intended to take out 10,000 forints. Everything here is dirt cheap, plus I pay by credit card whenever possible, so 10,000 forints or about $45 would be plenty. Instead I clicked 100,000 forints and by the time I realized my mistake, I had $450 worth of funny money in my hand…ten 10,000 forint bills. I later learned that this is a tourist trap… and I fell hard. Apparently, the ATMs that have decent exchange rates get their money by taking advantage of the crazy exchange rate (and of people who can’t do math) by posting huge numbers as the defaults for taking out cash. The smallest was 50,000 ($225) and the largest was $250,000 (about $1,200)….who takes out that much cash from an ATM ever?
Anyways, I tried to distract myself from being pissed off at being the target of a tourist trap and found a street vendor selling gyros. Those giant hunks of meat on a vertical skewer that spins endlessly that you see at festivals are everywhere here. After filling my stomach, I was almost at the northern bridge when I caught a glimpse of the parliament building lighting up the night sky. Even though it was taking me back in the wrong direction, I couldn’t help but trek back south along the river to take a few shots. It was truly breathtaking.
After I made it back up to the bridge, it was almost 11pm and the US World Cup match was scheduled for 12am local time. Scott had mentioned a giant park about halfway down the Pest side that had several outdoor bars that had put up large screens for the World Cup, so I found it on the map he had given me and set my next destination, and bid the Buda side adieu. (But not before snapping a few more shots)
The bar did not disappoint and neither did the US team! A Clint Dempsey goal in the first minute! There was a great crowd there and I got to try a Hungarian wine. Pretty good contingent of USA supporters too!
At halftime, I saw that I still had a half hour walk back to the hostel and I was completely spent after waking up at 7am in Stockholm. Sure managed to cram a lot into an afternoon in Budapest! On my walk back, I saw this interesting bar with real grass?
Also, it must have been obvious that I had 100,000 Hungarian Forints burning a hole in my pocket because I definitely got solicited by a hooker. She walked past me and casually mumbled a few words that I didn’t understand and one I did (sex). I’m guessing she just said sex in a bunch of different languages. I kept walking.
When I got back to the hostel, there was luckily a few guys watching the game on their computer in the common room. Scott, Ryan (from Canada) and Chris (from Tennessee) were all good guys and we had a hell of a nail biter but somehow the Stars and Stripes managed to pull out the victory!
A few random cultural notes that I noticed before falling asleep…
In Europe, this counts as wheelchair accessible.
It was the same in Sweden too. I guess I understand that all these old buildings with stairways made of stone are kind of impossible to retrofit, but dang those ramps are steep!
Here’s everyone’s shoes that we have to take off at the door.
It seemed silly at first, but I must admit that it adds to the home-like atmosphere.
Finally, the toilets.
They are built with the drain in the front and a depression in the back where everything pools up. I’m sorry if this is gross but you can’t really tell about the pool if there’s nothing in it. This doesn’t make too much sense to me in terms of cleanliness. I haven’t tried it yet, but I can only imagine what happens when you have to poop.
With those visions of sugar plums dancing in your head, I’m off to bed!