Monday, August 17, 2009

Sziget Festival 2009; Budapest, Hungary

BUDAPEST, Hungary.

110 Hungarian Florents in my pocket (about 57 cents), one foot with a sandal, the other barefoot, and a few postcards...a vacation fulfilled.

Nine of my nearest and dearest TEFL alums up and decided to hop a cheap bus to Budapest this week. The Hungarian capital resides roughly seven hours south east of the Czech Republic. The trek brought us through the scenic (not really) Slovakian capital of Bratislava. The absurdities of Budapest began on arrival.

The bus, while comfortable (serving free coffee/tea periodically during the journey) dropped us off in God-knows-where on the southside. During the last leg of the ride, Domhnall and I met a Spanish/Hungarian couple that gave us a few pointers on the city and what to expect to pay for cabs from our desolate drop point.

If given the opportunity, cab drivers here are total theives - a few locals explained this as the Hungarian interpretation of how capitalism functions, and one that is not culturally exclusive to cabbies. For my part, I prefer hour-long walks to getting my wallet cleaned out, but sometimes you gotta bite the bullet. We were told 2000-2,500 florents ($10-$13USD) would be fair. The cabs next to the bus stop offered 40Euro rides (10,800 florents; $56 USD), which, for obvious reasons we argued about for a bit.

The girls couldn't be bothered with the negotiations. After seven hours on a bus, their tendency toward that familiar feminine impatience reaches a high. We managed to talk them down a bit, piled into the two cabs and headed for our hostel, not really sure of where it was. After about 2 minutes, we were finally able to communicate that we only had Czech crowns, which are about as useful as Japanese Yen in Mexico. Naturally, the cabbie found this upsetting (another case of mistaken Euro possession). After thinking of numerous ways to say "we need ATM," someone came up with the Czech term "bankomat!" I guess Hungarian isn't that far off.

There really is no comparison to the feeling of helplessness when you've just arrived in a foreign country lacking currency, language, and any real sort of bearings. We're getting gradually accustomed to it, though.

We pulled up next to a bankomat after some driving in circles. By now, the yelling, exhaling, sighing, and cursing was coming strong from our middle-aged Hungarian chauffeur. [I later found out that roughly the same was going on in the other cab, though they seemed to resist more. Domnhall kept shouting back "don't you raise your voice at me!" Awesome.] He originally only let one of us out, but we all needed cash so myself and a couple others piled out anyway. Our friend Jorge made the mistake of staying behind, so he got an earfull. Adding to urgency of the situation, it was rumored that the area where we pulled up was restricted and stopping there for any period of time was punishable by a 200Euro fine. Who knows if this was true. It was probably just a "stress the foreigner out so they will gladly empty their pockets to get the hell out of this cab" tactic. Clever alright.

I remember the ATM stop as more of a Chinese fire drill than a trip to the neighborhood bank. Only a few of us were able to run around and use it before we got back in when the cabbie threatened to pull away with all our luggage in the trunk.

We finally got to the hostel, and of course the dude wants 4,000 florents - skim a cool extra 1,500 off the foreigners. We agreed on 3,500 after consideration of all the time we wasted at the ATM. Not a terribly steep "tourist tax".

In contrast, our accommodation was great and the staff was extremely helpful directing us to places of interest: tours, restaurants, bars etc. Surprisingly, I realized this was my first youth hostel experience. For about $25 a night, you rough it in bunkbeds (a friendly squeeze), share showers and other amenities, and can expect a modest but decent breakfast included. Hostels are the way of European backpack tours on a shoestring and they are almost constantly full of worn, scraggly travelers. I saw some gargantuan packs, some of which fit instruments (when the cash runs low, you gotta strum for your bread). Our room was extra cozy because we were a group of 10 that only booked for 8 (the room capacity). We had to put on this whole charade and try not to make it too obvious when we would come and go.

We went out for a bit the first night - the vibe I got was that Hungarian beer openly acknowledges its inferiority to Czech brands. It sure wasn't Plzen, but I thought it alright.
The first day called for a trip to Margit (Hungarian Margaret) Island for the Sziget Music Festival. Dev, Dom and I show off our wristbands.
Think a week long Euro-Woodstock held on an island in the middle of the Danube river. It was huge and crunchy camping hippie-style was IN. Peace, love, and understanding dude.
Dev and Dom get rowdy on the booze-fueled see-saw viking ship rock-war.
Vlad Putin and I embrace. I am openly upset by his refusal to acknowledge the harmful erosion of democratic freedoms in the Russian Federation.

Big acts of the day we went included the Brit-electro-pop wonders The Ting-Tings, the energy-charged punk/pop/alternative guitars of Bloc Party, the rhythmic Cubano-Latin folk-jazz of Buena Vista Social Club, and the unmistable mash-up beats of Fatboy Slim. Bloc Party stole the show for me, as they kept the crowd jumping start to finish. Devon took it a step further, crowd surfing (see below) and losing a sandal and his hostel keys in the process.
Waiting for the next act to start.

Sun setting, intensity increasing.
From my shoulders, Dev gets a better picture.
He maintains it was worth it. I don't really doubt it.


You may still be curious as to how I eventually lost my own sandal. We'll get there. The next day, Domhnall, Devon, Jorge and I went on a bicycle tour of the city. It really is a pleasant way to see the sites as it allows for you to cover a lot of ground without having to move at too quickly a pace. I took around a hundred pictures - stay tuned...