Before the retreat I ordered a laptop to be sent to Budapest – an attempt to take writing more seriously and stop relying on couchsurfers and internet cafes to write my blog and other work. The idea was for it to arrive at Number 47 (our friend’s house, where we usually stay) before I returned. To collect it and leave after a couple of days.
Back in Budapest. No laptop. No package at all in fact, including the one I asked friends back home to send with a new sim card and second-hand phone. I anxiously make phone calls. Has it all gone missing? Been stolen? No. It just hasn’t been sent. The phone went missing in the post before it even got to the friends to send it to me. The man from Ebay who sold me the laptop says he didn’t send it yet as I mentioned I was traveling and he thought he’d wait for me to get back. So we have to stick around and wait – three to four days he tells me. I wanted to leave for Romania on Tuesday, but now have to wait til Friday. Ok, ok. Budapest is a nice city. Let’s wait.
Strangely, Pete’s parents have arrived. They’re also traveling Europe, in a different style. They take us to dinner, first in my favourite vegan restaurant, next in a hotel Pete’s Dad chooses. It’s the first time they’ve seen Pete since he gave me a lift to France ten months ago. I met his dad before, when we went to pick up his passport from London, but not his mum. She’s a lovely Polish lady, obviously worried about her son. She orders food she doesn’t want and coerces him to eat it. She’s trying to fatten him up by stealth, it’s sweet.
While waiting we are tourists. We go to the Buda Labyrinth (not worth it, don’t bother) with Pete’s parents, a couple of museums and Széchenyi Baths with people from the retreat. Budapest is trying to market itself as “The City of Spas”and despite this being my third visit, this is the first spa I’ve been to. It’s pricey, but worth it to stay all day. Szechenyi has a huge number of saunas, steam rooms and thermal pools, all different temperatures. We spend a good three hours going from one to the next, but are beaten by the final sauna which is so hot it’s impossible to walk on the floor with bare feet.
The Infoshop is a small room in Tuzrakter. Counter to what the website says, it’s not currently open to the public, but the collective who run it (most of whom live at Number 47) regularly hold info events and film screenings. Tonight is an event about surveillance, Fortress Europe and the crackdown on “illegal” migration. There’s also some hackers present, talking about internet surveillance and tracking. Some of it I ‘ve heard before, but it’s good to be part of a political discussion after playing tourist for a few days. Some new (to me) information: about a detention facility on a remote Italian island named Lampedusa.
Somehow we find ourselves doing an interview about the situation in Calais for a radio station with JD, one of the Infoshop collective. Neither of us has been there since September, but we give an account of what we’ve seen and learned and some background information. After the interview is over, conversation turns to migrant rights in general, and then to Roma. While I’ve been traveling around Eastern Europe I’ve been hearing a lot of anti-gypsy statements, even from other activists. People talk about “The Gypsys”, like they’re all one person. Like they know them all. Like they can’t possibly be any way other than “the way they are”, because they are gypsys, and what more could we expect? It’s worse than we thought. JD tells us about forced deportations, coercive sterilisations of women and various other state repressions around Europe. Apparently there’s a Roma Rights Centre here in Budapest. I hope to visit before leaving.
Saturday is Dumpster Day and we all go diving at two of the indoor markets. This is mostly for Kaszino, the recently-opened-and-sadly-soon-to-close social centre which currently has a small number of homeless guys living there. It’s also for us and for whoever else helps out. One person waits outside with the bike trailer while the rest of us walk round, look in bins and ask people if we can take what they throw away. This is sometimes degrading and the stall-holders aren’t too impressed with us. Very few give us anything and some guard their bins from us. Pete’s told off by a security guard while picking cauliflowers out of a bin, but still, we manage to get two trailers full of fruit and veg, which is cycled back to Caszino for sorting and dividing between us. A woman walks past while we’re loading the trailer, and mistaking us for a grocery stall, offers to buy some food. Daniel tells her she can have it for free. She’s ushered away quickly by the man she’s with. For free? – disgusting! But she comes back some minutes later and asks some questions in Hungarian. Daniel politely explains to her that we get this food, which is perfectly good, to save it from the rubbish. Eventually she gets over her snobbery, and much to the embarrasement of her companion, gets down on her knees and starts picking things out.
Still no laptop. I really did want to be in Romania by now. I need to leave this place, this city. I need to see trees and flowers. Why is it we always seem to get stuck places?
Laure has appeared, the one I met at Tramschule in Germany. It’s nice to have a friend from somewhere else. We have a walk about town, catch up our adventures, then go to a gig with Pete – a Balkan Beats night in a club called Gödör and the perfect music for dancing insanely for hours. I really miss dancing. I must do more of it.
The next day Laure gets a bus to Bratislava. I’m hoping Pete and I can get away too, at least for the weekend. There’s no post on Sunday. I email Christyanne and Balázs, the two CS hosts Sam stayed with on her cycle tour, before she met me in Budapest. They say yes, we can visit them – a chance to get out of the city! Hopefully my laptop will arrive by the time we return.
Christyanne and Balázs live in a small village called Kesztölc, two hours drive from Budapest. I like them immediately. They have a small, simple house in the village where Balázs grew up. They offer us sleeping space in their kitchen-lounge, but it seems to make more sense to sleep in our own bed in the van, parked in the driveway. Our own space AND couchsurfing-what luxury! Soon after arriving we all go mushroom hunting, but a storm is soon upon us and we have to walk back drenched to the bone, a mere 3 mushrooms collected between us all. Later they take us to the family wine cellar, built by Balázs’ great-great-great-great-grandfather and full of barrels of wine made by his father. There’s Palinka too and we all leave quite tipsy.
It rains for days. There’s not much to do but sit around chatting, sewing, making my mum’s birthday card, watching films and copying recipes from Christyanne’s books. She’s vegan too and a real foody like me. We are quite spoiled by her delicious food, so much so that we stay til Tuesday. Surely the laptop will be there by now?
Back to Budapest. Still no laptop. Now there’s more people staying at Number 47 and not much space for us. We stay one night, then find a new host from the Last Minute Couch Budapest Group. Our new host is friendly, hospitable and very kind to take us at such short notice, but we just don’t have much in common. He is very talkative.
In a Budapest Timeout magazine we find an article about a Treehouse Village. A treehouse village? In Hungary?!? Our Hungarian friends are equally mystified. I manage to get in touch with a guy who lives there and meet him in a crowded pub on a World Cup night (not recommended). Sadly, it’s mostly a commercial project, but he has some good ideas and is obviously commited to maintaining the integrity of the forest. He doesn’t invite me to visit, presumably for that reason – he wants to keep the location quiet.
The European Roma Rights Centre is in a huge glass building on the Buda side of town. After being given a little guest card to get through security, we make our way to the second floor to where a group of people are smoking in the hall. At first they don’t understand why we’re here, but I explain we’re activists, we’ve been traveling Eastern Europe, we’ve noticed this problem, want to get involved somehow, yadda yadda… We’re led into an office and introduced to two men, one of whom, Stanislav, explains a bit about the organisation, the Roma situation and some specific cases they have worked on. We decide to keep in touch. Romania is apparently the perfect place to be going if we want to get involved in this issue.
It really feels time to leave the city now. I’m emailing the laptop guy and calling Parcel Farce repeatedly, but they say they won’t talk to me, only the sender. After two weeks waiting the Ebay guy says he’s filing a claim and we might as well stop waiting around for it. So that’s it - it’s lost. What a waste of time and money! So we’re leaving Budapest – for the fourth time. It seems sudden, despite all the waiting. Romania, here we come…
On the way to Budapest Pete and I swim in Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe. Balaton was a detour on the cycle route Sam and I were following, one we didn’t take on our route out of Budapest. Pete and I will be back in that city soon, just as soon as we are done with our post-picnic relaxing in the sun.
Again I’m returning somewhere and it seems to erase the time in between. Where is Sam? Did I dream the past month?
Back in that same flat in Pest, things are the same, but different. It transpires that our host from before is having problems with his flatmates. There is a huge argument the night we arrive which centers around us and which room we should sleep in. I go to sleep with earplugs. Pete isn’t so lucky.
The next day things are better and we at least seem to be getting on with everyone here. It’s nice to be in a familiar place and among friends, even if they are fighting with one another.
The main reason we are here is for some seminars with Keith Dowman, the Dzogchen Master who is to lead the retreat we will soon be going on in the Hungarian countryside. I want to get a feel for what he’s like before we go.
I have to say that I find Keith harder to follow than James Low, who we heard talk while we were in Berlin. He assumes a lot of prior knowledge and throws Buddhist terms around without explaining them. After the talk one day we go to the pub for a drink with some of the others, including Keith. I spend a long time talking to one girl who was on the retreat last year and has now become good friends with Keith as a result of a “strong experience” she had there. It’s this conversation more than anything else that convinces me to go on the retreat.
Left Budapest. Took ages. Wrong direction. Tired.
I slept sooooo well last night in our little grove. I was asleep by 9pm and couldn’t drag myself out of my sleeping bag until twenty to nine this morning, despite having set my alarm for 7am. We managed about 30km yesterday, which isn’t so bad if you consider how long it took for us to get out of Budapest and that we went at least another 10km in the wrong direction and had to double back. We also had three punctures between us on the first day. I have actually never cycled more than 20km in one day before, so for me this is very good.
Notes about Hungary:
- People never smile. In fact, the more I am smiley and polite at them, the more they seem to frown at me in return. Sam, who is one quarter Hungarian herself, says it dates back to the communist years when you were all in it together and there was nothing to smile about.
- Old ladies in rural villages all wear the same outfits. They look a bit like this.
- There is still a peasantry. We pass many people in fields, working the land by hand in small groups. It’s hard not to feel guilty as you cycle by, carefree. What have I done to deserve this? Oh yes, I was born in England…
We have abandoned the route in the book we were following (Bikeline: Danube Bike Trail 4) and decided to follow theEurovelo 6 route instead. It’s much better signposted and doesn’t go through so many towns. We suspect Bikeline is completely funded by the little tourist attractions, restaurants and hotels the route takes you past.
Time’s ticking on and we need to get some water before we find a place to camp, but there’s no towns for miles. We see a couple of houses and decide to ask there. A man comes out of his house as we are approaching, probably because of the dogs barking at us next door. We show him our empty bottles and he takes them from us and walks round to the side of his house where he has a pump. It takes a long time for the pump to start working and then he has to drain off some water first, presumably because it gets better after that for drinking. He doesn’t speak a word of English, but we communicate through mimes and gestures and Sam gets to practice the Hungarian she has learned, which delights him. When the bottles are full he invites us in for coffee. We look at one another. Neither of us drinks coffee anymore, but I decide this will be an exception for me. I like the man and don’t want to refuse his hospitality. We go inside. He has a small and humble house – little kitchen with gas cooker and table and a small lounge with the television on. We sit at the table and he makes a coffee for me and a hot water for Sam so she can put one of our teabags in. We sit and chat for a while, with lots of drawings and miming, the way you do when you have limited shared language.
It’s time to go as night is falling. I go and use his outdoor loo, collect some water from the pump to flush it with like he showed me. Sam comes outside. “He says we can stay the night”, she tells me. “How do you feel about it?” I ask. She says she feels ok about it and wouldn’ t mind staying if I want to. He seems very nice and unthreatening so we decide to stay. He offers us use of his cooker so Sam gets straight on it. He hangs around and watches what we are doing, clearly curious about all of our strange food items. Lots of laughing and misunderstandings when Sam’s Hungarian means she translates for me that he is offering me a beer and then salt appears, etc. He gives us some of his wine, homemade and very strong, but nice. It turns out he doesn’t have a separate bedroom, but insists we take the bed while he sleeps on the sofa next to it. We get a fairly good night’s sleep, despite his terrible snoring. Fortunately we both have ear plugs.
Very sad to leave our new friend this morning. He offered us the room in his attic which he has kitted out. He seemed to want us to stay longer. He seems very lonely. We gave him our email addresses. He has a computer in his bedroom-lounge, which he doesn’t know how to use, but says he will get his daughter to email us. She lives in London and works for the BBC. His son lives somewhere else too and his wife died years ago. It’s all very sad, particularly for Sam who had a Hungarian grandfather. I think he reminds her of him a little.
Waiting for Sam to come out of shop in Baja – cycled like hell to get here before shops shut. 4pm now, all ok. We found a MaxiCoop. Now I wait with baited breath in the hope Sam will find Manner, food of the Gods. It’s like pink wafers mixed with Nutella, it’s vegan and we were practically living on it for the first few days but haven’t been able to find it at all for the past 50km. I dare not fear the worst.
I’d like to take it easy for rest of day, but not so sure about Sam who gets impatient when we’re not hurtling along concrete at speed – like this morning when most of our bike path was covered by a gravelly kind of quick-sand.
More cyclists starting to appear on route now. We met two yesterday – boys from France, all kitted out in the best high-tech gear. Quite a contrast to us bike-punks with our numerous bags strapped to the back with bungees and bits of old inner tube. Sam got a bit impatient when I started talking to them and I suspect she was embarrassed as with all of our numerous punctures and Manner breaks, we’re struggling to average 50km a day when these guys say they do 100. I don’t mind though. I’m quite proud of our DIY, non-competitive relaxed riding style.
Have most of day off after both getting extremely knackered yesterday – we even paid for a hostel in Baja, unheard of! We were expecting to be in Croatia by now but have been moving very slowly. I don’t mind so much and it’s nobody’s fault, but Sam has been getting quite stressed. We talked it through this morning. I’m really happy to do a big long cycle tomorrow and Sam has found what seems to be the source of her repetetive front wheel punctures – one of the main things that has been delaying us. She has kept the thorn in her necklace as a reminder.
Some kind of festive thing happening in Baja, which is the “cultural and economic capital of the region”. Involves horse racing, folk music and women in fancy dresses, men in jodhpurs. Go to have a look. People staring at us a lot. Notice men wearing the whale on t-shirts (see last post).
Checked email before leaving Baja. We might not go to Croatia at all now, in which case we hope to be in Serbia tomorrow afternoon. The route in our book goes through Croatia, but we are not sure about the Eurovelo 6 and the webpage isn’t much help. Leaving the EU seems like quite a significant event for me, although I’ll likely be back in it again soon enough. Pete emailed with news of a Dzogchen retreat in Hungary at the end of next month.
Sitting on a beach on bank of Danube while Sam cooks dinner on a small fire. One of the best things about traveling with Sam is that she’s *always* in the mood to cook. She sees it as her chill-out time. So, she does the evening meal and I take care of breakfast as that’s when she has her faffing time. Yes, I have my own caterer! I just put our tents up as the sun went down – whole river went pink. Beautiful here, very idyllic.
I have been very tired while cycling, especially the evenings, but now I seem to be getting used to it more. My wrists hurt and my arse is sore, despite my nice new saddle (the one I had to buy twice after it was stolen in Budapest). Mostly though, I feel very healthy both mentally and physically. I don’t really mind where we go or what we do and everything is new and exciting.
Our path has split: One way points to Serbia, one to Croatia, another to Austria and Slovakia – back the way we have come. Hell of a crossroads. I take pictures (now lost, sadly). Now it’s time to decide, will we go to Croatia? We flip a coin. Flower: Serbia it is.
Serbian border. Woohoo! We made it! More on Serbia next post…