Sunday, August 27, 2017

Bratislava, Slovakia to Budapest, Hungary: Tales of the Danube, Part II

After a complimentary breakfast of mostly pastries, but also fruit, fruit juice, and some... bacon? (I regret not taking a picture), I made my way out of Bratislava and back to the Danube. The roads in Bratislava are not that great – there are not always bike lanes as in Munich, there are bumps and cracks and potholes to look out for, and lots of tram tracks not to fall into, but the drivers are nice. Many times I didn't have the right-of-way, but people stopped and waved me across.

The trail along the Danube (which happened to be Eurovelo 6 again – my third (?) Eurovelo route of the tour) was flat and nice, but not as well occupied as it had been on the way to Vienna and Bratislava. I took it slow, knowing I had three days to do 180 km to my next Warmshowers host in Budapest. I did this on purpose: I could do two 90 km days, but... I didn't want to. I stopped at a bird-watching structure to take a long lunch and a nap.

Just as I was about to get on my bike – literally, I put my helmet on and was about to mount my bike – a rider came down off the trail and began inspecting the bird-watching structure, and then my bike.

“Is that a ukulele?”

“Yes! You're the first person to get it right! Everybody else thinks it's a violin.”

“I brought my synthesizer. Wanna jam?”

And that's how I met Martin (pronounced “Mar-teen”).

We played and talked for about three hours, changing instruments and improvising and singing and teaching each other songs, and then went on top of the bird-watching structure to watch the sunset. We talked about girls and life and I tried to get out of him something meaningful about Slovakia, since he was the first person I'd talked to extensively there, and would probably be the last. I'll put his story on the map, when I finally get around to updating the map, which I promise I will get around to eventually.

Then I got to sleep in the bird-watching structure, which was great except for all the spiders... despite it being too cold for mosquitoes, I still put my tent up. I didn't want any spiders making a new home in my sleeping bag.

It was a good night.

The next day I took off with the goal of making it to a grocery store before running out of food. This is getting harder and harder the farther east I go; but also, the food is getting cheaper and cheaper (checkout display for three loaves of bread: EUR 0.77, about $0.90. Me: “Can I see the price?” pointing at my eyes and then the display. Cashier: *points at display.* Me: “For everything?” Cashier: *shrugs*). I made it to the next major city, Gyor, in Hungary, with exactly nothing left (or less than nothing, since one of the apples I'd bought in Bratislava turned out to have a rotten core. So disappointing...).

Hungary!... ... ... right?

Hungary uses the Florint (Ft) at about 250 Ft for $1, so I traded 60 EUR for about 17500 Ft, hoping that would get me through a week here. Departing Gyor, I came up behind Willy, who is riding from Germany to Romania to fulfill a childhood dream. We got along swimmingly so decided to camp together, and found a spot on the Slovakia side of the Danube to bivvy. After exchanging the uke and some stories while watching the sunset, we went to bed. It was pretty, but every other hour a ship would go by and wake us up. Beggars can't be choosers.

The next day we spent the last of our Euro coins at a grocery store and crossed the Danube into Hungary again, saying goodbye to Slovakia for the last time, and the Euro until I get to Greece. I also had my first experience of the trip with beggars – I've seen them in the streets, of course, but they are getting more and more numerous the farther east I go, and while eating outside the grocery store in Slovakia we were actually approached and asked for money. Willy gave 1 Euro, then that beggar went away and told her friend, to whom he gave another Euro, and then she told her friend... there were only three there, but it was an interesting experience.

After crossing the Danube we explored for a bit...

…then, sadly, I had to bid farewell to Willy, as I had a Warmshowers host in Budapest who expected me by 6. Since Willy had only two weeks of touring under his belt, he wanted to go a little slower, and he wouldn't make it to Budapest at all that night. I felt a pang since I have been the one wanting to take it easy before -- on both my tours. But, I did truly enjoy meeting him, and we would have had to part ways in Budapest in any case, at most a day later. We traded numbers and shook hands, hoping to see each other again, and I took off.

"Oh, this looks like a good shortcut... except for the rickety bridge and the hole in the ground."

I made it to Budapest at 4 and used the extra two hours to find a bike shop for a new cassette (the gearset in the back of the bike). In Vienna I'd put on a new chain, but it was too late, the old chain had already worn the old cassette down. So from Vienna to Budapest I'd had only 4 gears of 8 that wouldn't skip when I pedaled. With the new cassette, I had 8 again. It was heaven, with the caveat that my largest ring has only 32 teeth now. Previously it had 36, but I didn't think I would find one with 36 teeth outside the US. This means that up steep hills, I'll have to pedal a bit harder – 36/32nds as hard, to be exact – but I think I have the strength now to do it (knock on wood).

The new cassette was made possible by a donation from a relative. You know who you are. I also got a bell (which I should have had all along, because saying “Bike on the left” doesn't do much in non-English-speaking countries) and a water bottle cage (since one of mine had broken and I'd been carrying a bottle precariously strapped to the back of my bike). Thank you!!!

"You have money! Buy this 'bell' instead!"
Cool "bell." But no thanks.

My host for the night was Zita and Arpi, who... wait for it... biked around the world for their honeymoon! This is their profile picture on Warmshowers:

...and here is a summary of their trip if you are interested.

I was flattered that they accepted my request, but of all the hosts in Budapest, I messaged them because... what a privilege to get to stay with them! Their house is adorned with artifacts from their travels, including some amazing photos (“It was just a point and shoot,” Zita would say about their camera. Go Canon...). Zita (who is the woman, by the way... the genders of the names weren't obvious to me, I hope that isn't offensive to anyone) said she accepted me only because I was also biking around the world, so I was extra flattered.

In the basement: bikes that have been around the world.

Which is why the first thing I did was screw up.

When I arrived, Zita and Arpi were at yoga, so Zita's mom, Cauti, greeted me. Cauti speaks very little English (but she tries very hard!), so there was much gesturing about where I would sleep and where the shower was and how to do laundry. Later I would learn that I put too few clothes in the laundry machine, which frustrated Cauti, who vented to Zita, so the first thing Zita said to me when we met was that she was tense and I shouldn't take it personally. Later at dinner she would reveal my mistake, and I would apologize profusely and it would all be okay... but from now on I'm going to be much more careful about how much laundry I do, and (per Zita's suggestion) if it's not very much, do it by hand. Perhaps it's an Americanism to be so wasteful with water... something I need to be better about.

I had originally planned to stay only one night, but then Arpi said, “Are you sure you don't want to stay tomorrow and see Budapest? I could give you an awesome route...”

Yea, okay.

I also met Craig and Anna, WorkAway-ers from England. They are traveling Europe exchanging work for room and board (the premise of WorkAway), and you can read their blog, Where Two Go, here.

The next day I slept in a bit, caught up on e-mail, and finally got to market about noon, with the goal of (A) having an awesome Hungarian lunch, (B) trying kürtöskalács (“chimney cake”) and sajtos tejfölös lángos (fried dough with sour cream and cheese on top), and (C) meeting up with Willy again.

As soon as I got to market I spotted a truck selling chimney cake. I went up and asked, “You don't speak English, do you?” The vendor pointed to another customer, who introduced himself as Julius. “Could you help me with the menu?” I asked, and he did. You could get chimney cake in a variety of flavors – vanilla, walnut, pistachio, coconut, etc – ; I went for vanilla.

As the vendor was preparing it (see photo above – he drips the dough onto a spinning mold, puts the mold on a rotisserie, then when it's done, coats it in flavor and sugar), Julius and I got to know each other a bit. He thought I was crazy – one day in Budapest? I had to spend at least three or four there.

“Let me show you something,” he said. I paid for my chimney cake – 300 Ft, about $1.20 – and we went to another stall. As we were walking, he said, “You have met one of the nicest people in Budapest.” I was immediately skeptical... are people who say they are the nicest people the nicest people? Recalling that scene in The Alchemist where the kind English-speaker in the strange country ends up being the thief, I moved my camera to the front of my belt. But then, “here is the most beautiful gypsy in all the world.”

I have mixed feelings about this photo. It's part of the story, but I don't intend to objectify her.

He asked her how long I should stay, and she said a few days, if his translation is to be trusted. He also told me not to call her a gypsy, as that was like calling someone a nigger. I decided I could trust him. I don't think if he wanted to steal from me, he would walk me through the market introducing me to all his friends.

Julius guided me through the market, introducing me to various vendors, asking all of them how long I should stay. “What should I do with my four days here?” I asked a meat vendor. Julius translated.

“'Enjoy it,' he says.”

I also asked him to help me find the fried dough thing, and of course he knew where to get it. He ordered for me, translating all the toppings (“Do you want garlic?”), then was off to another vendor while I waited for my food.

The fried dough thing was 500 Ft, or $2.

I found him again on my way out, and he asked if I liked nectarines. I do. “Good,” he said, “because there's a lady over here that has the best nectarines. You will need to wash your hands afterwards, because they are so juicy.”

He would be right. 120 Ft for two of the best nectarines I've ever had – about $0.50. For bonus points, they had some bad spots – not nectarines I'd typically buy. But I trusted Julius, and I'm glad I did.

We exchanged contact information and he reminded me that I needed to stay longer. “I live not three minutes away,” he said. “Buy a swimsuit, leave your bike at my house, and come to the pool with me.” I told him I would consider, but first, I had to meet Willy. Needing to get to Ukraine, I told him I might need to come back in a year or two – he said that was fine, the offer stood as long as he was alive (“The best way to see a city is to have a local guide you,” he said, recalling multiple stories of times he went to a city and a nice local picked him. And yes, those stories are all on my recorder...) He was very insistent though, that this was the best time of year to visit, and that the best thing to do was go swimming in the pools. Budapest, apparently, has the best pools.

I really do hope to come back one day, but I've already put off the WWOOF in Ukraine for two months.

After market I went to Margaret Island to meet Willy. We had a grand day following the route Arpi sent to me, which including some of the best parts of the city – as far as I know. Great views, great streets, great people watching. It was wonderful, too, to see Willy again, and to explore the city together. We have a similar sense of humor and adventure, and once I figured out he was willing to take goofy photos, he was in for it. He also insisted we go down some alleys to find the “non-touristy” places, which was wonderful.

Japanese Garden on Margaret Island.

Budapest has, I'm pretty sure, more statues than any other city in the world.

All the important things in the city, including free wi-fi.

The first time we tried to take this photo, I almost fell off the railing. Barely holding on, I shouted, "Take it! Take it!" Willy ran up and grabbed my bike. My bike. I got to my feet and said, "The PHOTO! Always take THE PHOTO! I can get a new bike. That photo is gone." Later, he would agree the photo of me falling off the railing would have been better. Could I do it again? No...

"Oh, you haven't seen a castle in a while? Here, have one." - Budapest

Quick note: at some of the “touristy” spots we visited, chimney cake was 1000 Ft, more than three times as much as at the market that morning. I thought that was interesting.

After returning home and showering, I got a text from Zita saying they'd be staying at a party tonight. Zita and Arpi were presenting and attending a Digital Nomad infoshare that weekend, which was about 80 EUR to enter, but the afterparty was free. Drink, dance and socialize with people who travel the world for a living? Omg yes please!!!

Craig and I went shopping for dinner and as soon as we got back... “Actually we're coming home. Meet us at the pizza place?” read my next text. Well, okay. Dinner with friends would be just as good.

We all got our own 40 cm (large) pizzas and put the extra in food containers (text from Arpi: “Bring the five largest food containers you can find”). It was half off night, and taking home leftovers when it's half off is... discouraged. So after eating half our pizzas, we played a game of where-is-the-waitress and passing the containers under the table to each other.

I also got to connect with Zita, which was a privilege. The previous night I had spoken mostly to Arpi – also a privilege – as Zita had been tense about my washing machine mistake (fair!), but I wanted to get to know them both. We discussed the laundry thing again, I apologized again, and then we talked about Warmshowers and why she accepted my request (“Usually we only like to have one guest (Craig and Anna), but I thought you were special since you were going around the world”).

I was surprised to learn she typically wanted people to stay for more than one night, since otherwise it seems like a free hostel, so I was glad to have stayed for two (I was glad anyways). For me, I explained, I use Warmshowers to get to know people – a bed and a shower is nice, obviously, but the unique thing Warmshowers offers is getting to know the kind of people who are willing to open their home to strangers. I'll flatter myself that I'm good at getting people to open up, so while one night isn't ideal, I can usually elicit stories and personality and memorable quotes from people over yes, just one night. Requesting more than one night feels pushy and assuming, though often it is nice to stay for two or sometimes three nights... and to me, the two night stays are more “hostel-y,” since it's the second day that you don't spend with hosts – it is often spent blogging or exploring the city. This was what I said, but I was grateful to hear her opinion! The hospitality conversation continues.

Zita also advised me the best thing to do on tour was to watch. “There are moments when you need to be assertive,” she said, “like if a border guard is ripping you off or if you are being unfairly treated at market or when getting a visa. But barring those circumstances... watch, learn, and be humble.” She gave an example: in Asia, non-confrontation is the name of the game. If you ask for Coke and the waitstaff brings you Sprite, you say nothing. Be humble.

I wish I had recorded that conversation, but... pizza night, I thought to myself. My night off. No tape recorder. Oops.

Before we left I one-upped all the karaoke singers there by pulling out my Frank Sinatra impression (Come Fly With Me). The whole night we'd been listening to... well, let's just say Zita had been commenting on the other singers and song choices as we ate our pizza (“Your eyes are like a rainbow,” she translated one, “they are so shiny. Everyone is in love with you. Me too.” Please don't assume all Hungarian songs are like this... just the ones being chosen at that particular karaoke pizza place).

I hadn't sung karaoke since leaving Madison. It was wonderful. Some people even danced. I was told there would be a video all over Facebook the next day, but I think everyone was too awed by my amazing skills to pull out a camera (this is a joke). Next time.

Then we walked home and Arpi gave me ALL THE RESOURCES. We plotted my route to Ukraine and sent it to my phone, since apparently you can do that. He showed me about five websites for various purposes – route planning, visas to the -stans, visas to the Middle East, and is going to set me up with a letter of invitation to Pakistan for free-ish, when it's usually $150. We talked about the gritty details of getting visas and how to get from A to B and what the weather and the roads and the border guards were like and when and how to mail your passport to the embassies. It was glorious.

I asked if there was anything I could do for him. If you've been reading for a while, you already know the response: “You don't have to do anything for us. People were nice to us – we stayed with hundreds of people on our tour. We hope to host hundreds now. You are where we were. When you get back, be nice to others. You might not host us – we might never see you again – but you have the ability now to pass on the kindness.”

All that route planning it made the next leg real.

Ukraine and the Middle East have mostly been a pipe dream up till now. But now Ukraine is only a week away, and there's only one country in between (Romania). I've been running this whole time on two stamps – one for the UK, one for Schengen – but when I get to Romania I'll actually have to talk to a border guard for the first time since France (which was just, “Bonjour.” “Bonjour.” “One minute.” Stamp. “Bonne route.” “Merci.” Oh-god-I'm-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road). Seeing the route to my WWOOF through the Carpathians (including a 1000m climb), memorizing how much a hostel there costs so I don't get ripped off, talking specifics about how many days I'll have in Turkmenistan on a transit visa and when to be assertive and being reminded that thumbs-up is equivalent to the middle finger in Iran, seeing the poverty and being told by Julius to get a lock for my seat – it made it all real.

Some choice words go here, you guys. I'm not in Kansas anymore.

And I know this breaks the feels, but I really need to say again how privileged and grateful I am to have gotten to stay with Zita and Arpi. A lot. Very much. So much. THANK YOU.


  1. This blog is an absolutely fascinating glimpse into Budapest. I love the stories of Willy, Julius, Zita and Arpi; the food; karaoke!; playing where is the waitress! Zita's advice and Apri's PROVIDING ALL THE RESOURCES was fortuitous, but perhaps its just that the way that you are and the way your are approaching this journey creates those wonderful connections when you need them. You are leaving a wake of connection and kindness as you go. What is the deal with their bikes having the gears up in the air on the back??? I loved every photo and will check out Zita and Apri's blog. I am so proud of you.

    Love you, Mom

    1. At times it seems too fortuitous to be chance. Maybe it is luck, or skill, or a variety of things that cannot be reasonably articulated. I like to think part of it is that the world is so full of wonderful people it's impossible not to run into some of them.

      In the photo, the fronts of their bikes are to the left. They are reclining bikes.