I met Abba six years ago in college. She sent me a message while I was overseas. “I’m traveling too, want to meet in Budapest?” Even though I did not know where it was, or what it might be like, I said yes and we agreed to meet in three weeks’ time.
After a week in Barcelona and almost two weeks in Belgium, I made my way towards Budapest, Hungary, visiting a few Italian cities on the way. Venice was by far the most inspiring city I had visited up to this point.
Budapest represented a welcome change of pace for me in a lot of ways. With the exception of the farm I stayed on in Belgium, I had mostly been staying in hostels my trip, and never for more than a day or two at a time. In Budapest we booked a two-bedroom apartment for two weeks. Having my own bed, a spacious living area, kitchen, and private bathroom felt like an unbelievable luxury. In terms of location we could not have asked for a better one; it was centrally located between the two sides of Buda and Pest, and was an equal walking distance to all the sights in either direction. The cost was $16/night. I was dumbfounded. I’ve paid more than that to spend the night with 8 strangers in bunk beds.
Having two weeks to become familiar with the city represented a huge shift in the way I had been traveling up to this point as well. In the three weeks prior to this, I had visited four countries and three times as many cities, so I welcomed the opportunity to relax and take things slow for a bit. Budapest was off to a good start.
Took a break from sight seeing to scout out my prospective future home.
We learned about the history of Hungary though two separate walking tours. After WWII Hungary was converted to Communism and the State took over most of the economy. The building that was the home of the stock exchange was taken over by a television broadcasting company operated by the state, and it provided the only television in town. Although mostly propaganda, and the occasional James Bond movie with “Evil Russians” dubbed over with “Chinese Pirates,” the broadcast company also had a talent show. The show was designed to allow for viewers at home to vote on their favorite acts. But there was a problem. No one had a phone, there was no internet, and voting by post would be impractical. The solution they came up with is nothing short of amazing. Because there was only one provider of electricity in town, usage for the whole city was easy to monitor. To vote on their favorite act, viewers would turn on every light and appliance in their home while the act was performing, and if they disliked the act they would turn everything off, even the TV. Because everyone watched the same show at the same time, all the television provider had to do was call up the electricity company and find out at what time usage peaked, and they had their winner.
A Few Memorable Experiences
- Our first night exploring the city, we came to a café in the park overlooking a frozen pond. We sat next to the window and enjoyed Hungarian coffee with tiramisu while a man behind us sang on the guitar. As we stared out the window on the ice below, teams began to materialize on the edges and before we knew it we were watching an Ice Dragon Boat racing tournament. What is Ice Dragon Boat racing you ask? I have no idea, but it’s amazing.
- Budapest is famous for its hot springs and baths, and one Saturday after we toured the Great Market Hall in the morning, we spent the day relaxing outside in one of the hot springs at Hotel Gellert. We took shelter from the cold air under a blanket of steam that rose off the surface of the water. That evening we toured the famous Fisherman’s Bastion, the whole city lit up below.
Budapest is on fire at night.
- During a free walking tour of the city Thursday morning, we met and talked with several interesting people. We arranged to meet again Friday evening to join the pub tour. It was nice to know we had plans for the weekend with friends. For just 10 euros we had shots and beer at every bar we went to, and along the way we had a local guide with us to tell us about the area and the bars we visited. Our group was an eclectic one, and included a student from Singapore on holiday from his university in London, a couple from Vancouver traveling Europe, two teachers from Switzerland, and a pair of American friends studying abroad in Scotland.
- Early in the week we met up with Kevin, a friend Abba made in Venice a week earlier. Kevin was staying near us, and he told us about a karaoke party being organized in the basement of his hostel. After we met him for dinner, we downed a bottle of wine at our place, and then walked to the party. Outside his hostel was a ghostly courtyard. A single light dimmed in the corner, and no one was in sight. Behind a wooden door we walked down a winding staircase and suddenly found ourselves in an old wine cellar that had been converted into a more appropriate space for backpackers. A mass of people danced under strobe lights, and we made our way past the bar to join them. Two hours later I had a microphone in my hand, surrounded by dancing bodies, as I pulled people together to join me in singing the chorus to “I Want it That Way” by the Backstreet Boys. It was a glorious evening.
- We met Kevin again one evening and the three of us followed a crowd outside of his hostel to a boat on the Danube. We filed in behind 100 people as we boarded a three story ferry, got our drinks, and watched the city lights go by from our place on the river. There was dancing on the middle floor, but for the most part I stood on the top deck watching the bridges pass overhead, reflecting on my journey thus far.
We would have liked to do more and see more, but I caught a bad cold and it made some of our plans impractical. The opera was one of those unfortunate cancellations, because I would not trust myself to sit through the entire program without coughing uncontrollably.
Taken from the party boat.
Afternoon of sight seeing with Kevin.
One of the many wonderful bridges at night.
Last Minute Plans
During our stay in Budapest, Abba’s friend, the editor of an online newspaper, told her about a class he was organizing through the United Nations soon. One of the locations would be Rabat, Morocco. The details of the program interested me, and she suggested I apply.
My friends Peter and Tori had spent time in Morocco a few months earlier, and I remember them describing how wonderful it was. When I looked up the country myself, I found a picture referencing camel tours in the desert. When I saw that picture I knew that I was going to Morocco. I worked on my cover letter, and submitted it with my application to join the journalism class. I would go whether I was accepted or not.
But I still had a couple weeks before then, and I was wondering what I would do next. The day before our apartment lease ended, Abba bought a train ticket to Prague, Czech Republic. That night I decided I would join her. The next day we were on a train.