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Published: October 2nd 2018
I left the hostel quietly without waking my roommates.
The early morning bus out of Ždiar (in the Tatras Mountains in northern Slovakia) left on schedule, dropping me about 20 minutes later at the mountainous border with southern Poland. I hopped off the bus, looking around at the still-dark, empty nothingness, wondering where to go next. To my relief I spotted the only other humans around in the predawn hour - three gals walking up the road a short distance away. They were dressed to perfection, struggling to push, pull, and carry their oversized suitcases on the uneven and icy-slick surface. Turns out, they were also heading to Zakopane.
The border was deserted, save for the four of us and our bags. We quickly realized the frequency of the buses slows down considerably in the wintertime - even the cars passing us were practically non-existent that early in the morning – and since the gals’ need to reach Zakopane was more urgent than mine (my onward bus was leaving later than theirs), we found ourselves in a bit of a pickle.
They called a taxi and suggested we could all split the
cost. I told them I couldn’t afford it and would just wait for the bus, whenever it might arrive, but they insisted I go with them, at their expense, as they were unable in good conscience to leave me outside in the -5C temperature. Besides, there was no guarantee of a bus.
I had some time to relax at the bus station in Zakopane before the reliable Polskibus left for Krakow, but unfortunately I spent the entire day sitting on my duff. Serious post-holiday traffic caused the normally two-hour journey to take a whopping SIX
hours. The journey to Krakow was more stop than go.
These hours afforded me oodles of time to reflect on the past weeks: spending time with my father in southern Germany and then, after we parted ways, exploring Prague, followed by time spent with friends in Bratislava before heading up to the mountains in northern Slovakia to celebrate New Years in the snow. Or rather, the lack of snow.
The bus eventually made it to Krakow, and I settled in for a quick but delightful few days, both with friends and wandering the city on my
One evening while a friend, his girlfriend and I were walking near the main historical square in Krakow, I found a 50 zloty bill on the ground (the equivalent of just over $16). No one else was around, so...needless to say, the vodka was on me that night!
Time moves on and all too soon I left Krakow on a seven hour bus journey to Budapest. The city would be a definite highlight of my travels thus far.
Easy conversation flowed with my seat mate on the bus but when he offered me a sandwich, I politely declined. I couldn’t resist, however, his kind offer of chocolate cake his mother in law had made that morning. As it was, he gave me two generous slices. He was a great conversationalist, told me he played viola in an orchestra, and later, when we arrived at the station, knowing I hadn't yet had a chance to exchange money to Hungarian Forint, he bought a metro ticket for me. He was truly a good, decent and all-around nice guy.
While exploring Budapest I realized I had never been to a
city with so much architectural appeal and diversity; each neighborhood offered something unique and exciting. The grandiose buildings have been restored nicely and were quite pleasing on the eyes. The people too struck me as forgiving, patient, honest and unselfish. They didn't walk in front of me as I was setting up a photograph. They waited at the zebra stripes for the light to change before crossing the street. Occasionally I even got a rare smile from a random stranger walking down the sidewalk. While eating at restaurant one day, unbeknownst to me at the time, a 5-Euro bill accidentally dropped from my pocket onto the floor. The waiter swooped it up and immediately returned it to me.
One day I was in the hostel making lunch when I met a young, fresh-off-the-bus newcomer, Agustin from Argentina. Before I knew it, we were sitting together at a kitchen table, deep in travel talk. I finally got a chance to give back - ever so humbly - having offered him some homemade lunch. He took me up on the offer. By the end of our shared lunch we met Karim, a guy from France, of Algerian decent. Both
How fun is this?
these two guys had just arrived in Budapest, so, after we ate, we all went out exploring the city together, staying out well after dark.
On the way back to the hostel Karim bought us each a kebab from a Middle Eastern restaurant. We were all becoming fast friends.
In the next days we explored together the Parliament Building, the Grand Market, and of course Gellert Hill for spectacular views across the Danube, over to the Pest side. We checked out the different thermal baths (but dang it if we didn't actually experience them!), a popular ice skating rink, Heroes Square and the massive city park, Városliget. We ate in local cafes and cooked together in the hostel kitchen. We connected so quickly and got along as if we three had been life-long friends.
The night before Agustin left, Karim made us dinner. We three amigos sat at a corner table, exchanging emails and photos, enjoying a final meal and reflecting on the last few days we spent together in Budapest.
The next day Karim took me to lunch and insisted I take the leftovers (he had ordered
Crossing Over the Charles Bridge
If it is this busy in winter, I can't even imagine how crowded the bridge would be in summer!
enough to feed a small army!), and that night he made me another amazing concoction for dinner. It was, as expected, extraordinary. Another exemplary day with superb company.
On my second to last day in Budapest I was out exploring with Karim when it was getting on lunchtime, so we stopped at a quaint Turkish place to ask a question. The owner behind the counter could tell right away Karim was not fully Caucasian. “You Arab?
” he questioned. Karim said he was from France but he was born and raised in Algeria. “Ah, I knew it. You have same face my father. He from Egypt. We are brothers!
” The restauranteur was overly benevolent and insisted his wife get us some tea on the house, pronto
. We decided to have lunch at his establishment.
Lunch finished, we started counting our change, when the kind owner appeared at the table and said, “No money? No problem, we are brothers. No pay.
” Of course we insisted on paying and told him we had the money, just in various bills and coins, which just needed to be counted. In the end, I presented him with a wad of
small bills and a handful of coins and he didn’t even count it, just tossed it all into his register. He was so grateful. So were we.
I will miss you, Budapest, and all the wonderful memories you have given me. I will absolutely definitely unquestionably without a doubt 100% for certain come back and see you again.
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