Sunday, June 10, 2012

Walking in the dark: Budapest and Zdiar, Slovakia (6/3/2012)

6/6/2012, 15:23.
I am sitting on a train from Prague to Berlin as I catch up on journal entries.  
Sunday, 3/6/2012
My alarm clock failed once again, but watch alarm function got me stirring, although it’s pretty weak.  It was a Sunday morning, and I had a lot to do before I left Budapest.
The day before, Aviv had recommended a hostel in the Tatras Mountains of northern Slovakia, where he had stayed recently on his solo travel trip.  I decided that instead of going to Bratislava (a city that everyone said I could afford to miss), I decided to change plans and spend a night in the mountains.  So as I ate my toast breakfast, I figured out how to contact the hostel, which train I should take from Budapest, how to get the rest of the way to the hostel, and what bus and train I could catch when I left the next day.  With the help and advice of Anniko, the kind hostel lady, I also made a plan for the rest of my time in Budapest: I would catch a bus to Normafa, northwest of the city, to see a great view of the town.  Then I would go to see the mummified right hand of St. Stephen and walk up Vací Street, the main shopping street.
For the most part, things went smoothly!  I underestimated how nice the weather would be, and was therefore overheated in jeans and a black shirt.  But with the help of several strangers (most of whom didn’t speak English but still took the time to help me), I mastered the ultra-confusing bus system and made my way to Normafa.  It was a beautiful forested park area, a bit of nature tucked away near the city.  I took a long walk in search of a lift that Anniko had mentioned, asking strangers for directions every few minutes as I went.  There were probably hundreds of people there, enjoying their Sunday afternoons with family and friends, playing on the playground, walking, running, biking, eating picnics.  It was a peaceful time.
Eventually, I reached the lift.  What I expected to be an observation tower with an elevator was actually a ski-lift, making a loop downward through the trees with a great view of the city, and back to the top of the hill where Normafa was located.  (Budapest is nestled between some bluffs, and Normafa is up on one of the bluffs.)  I took the lift down, snapping pictures as I slowly descended.  Then I found the nearest bus and found my way back to the city.  I stopped by St. Margaret’s Island (another nature park on a Danube island) and took the public transportation to see the other things I had planned to see.  Then I stopped at the Hostel, grabbed my stuff, and headed to the train station to depart for Slovakia.  
This was my first time using the EuRail Pass, so I checked several times that I did not need to reserve a seat and that I was at the right platform.  I boarded and sat across from a shy Czech woman named Cecilia who spoke very little English.  We exchanged a few kind words.  As we traveled to Korsice (where I would transfer to another train), an elderly Finnish man began speaking to me.  For the rest of the train ride, I divided my attention between the kind Czech woman and the Finnish professor and his two accompanying students.  As the ride progressed, the professor drank more beers, and simultaneously more annoying and more difficult to understand (his English was poor to begin with.)  He shook my hand as we exited the train in Korsice, telling me that professors always stay young and stupid.
Still unconfident about navigating foreign train stations, I went to the information desk to ask at which platform I’d find my train.  To my horror, they said the train to Poprad-Tatry (my final destination) was leaving in three minutes.  I sprinted back to the platforms, eyes wide and 15-pound backpack bouncing, and frantically asked people “Poprad? This train? Poprad?”  I was directed to a train, and jumped on, still not totally sure if it was the one.  I kept asking people if it was the right train, when finally a kind and attractive young woman told me it was.  
I joined the woman in her train car.  I felt like I was on the Slovakian Hogwarts Express.  We sat and talked about the typical things-- our travels, where we were going, etc.  I learned that the woman, Erika, was returning from a family wedding in Slovakia to Prague, where she worked.  I sat next to her as she showed me all her pictures from the wedding.  It was very clear that family was very important to her.  She was even considering moving to Germany to live near her dad, step-mom, and step-brother, to get to know them better.  The hour flew past, and we were soon in Poprad, where I left the train.
The train station was empty and quiet.  I went inside and found the information desk, where I asked the woman where I could get Slovakian cash and find a taxi.  She didn’t speak English, and so after miming and motioning for a few minutes, I discovered the ATM and the way out of the building.  It was completely dark as soon as I stepped out of the station, and I couldn’t find the taxi.  After a minute of discomfort at how sketchy it was, I spotted the glowing taxi sign.  The driver, who didn’t speak English, at first didn’t understand where I wanted to go.  Luckily, I had a pen and a scrap of paper in my pocket, and wrote down the name “Ginger Monkey Hostel, Zdiar.”  He told me it would cost 30 Euro to get there, since it was a half-hour to Zdiar.  Although the hostel manager had said I should offer twenty, I quickly gave in, not wanting to risk my last hope of safely arriving to my mountain refuge.  
The roads were all poorly lit, if at all.  The cab driver sped at 80 kilometers an hour the whole way there, hardly slowing down.  Neither of us said a word.  It was perhaps the most painfully uncomfortable half-hour of my life.  As we drove into the country, I had a slight fear that we would not find our destination.  Then, after I saw a sign for Zdiar, my fears came true: we drove throughout the little town, but the hostel was nowhere to be found.  I felt incredibly stupid for not having the exact address of the hostel.  Fortunately, the driver knew where the police station was, and the kind officer quickly told us (that is, the driver) the way.  I found comfort in those gibberish words.
Finally, at 12:15am, we found the hostel.  After profusely shaking the taxi driver’s hand in thanks, I stepped inside to comfort.  Everyone spoke English, and everything was lit up.  Familiar American indie music was playing.  And the hostel was incredibly cool, a giant log building decorated with funky pictures and items from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and a ginger-colored monkey hanging just over the main reception desk.  I was home.  
After dropping my backpack in my room and giving my passport number to the employees (“in case I should steal a refrigerator”), I went to the kitchen and had a delicious Slovakian beer for one euro with the kind folks around the table.  They were from England, New Zealand, and the States.  I sat next to a cute English girl from York, and we shared our excitement over the town and the Minster and the Evil Eye Lounge.  After some much-needed socializing, I went to bed, knowing I’d have just a few hours to enjoy the mountains in the morning before the next train ride.
Travel notes:  
  1. NEVER forget to write the address and directions to your next place.  You can point to names of places, and people can show you the way.
  2. Also write down the names of transfer stations and times of departure and arrival.
  3. Always ask questions.  To everyone.
  4. Always have a pen and something on which to write on your person.  You can take notes, get help, etc.
  5. Although it’s a bigger part of their culture, Europeans don’t necessarily take it easier with their alcohol than Americans do.  Avoid obnoxious drunken foreign professors.
  6. Go to the Ginger Monkey Hostel.  

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