Trip Start Sep 01, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Hungary  ,
Wednesday, October 12, 2005

After a 10 hour overnight trip stretched out on the second class train benches we arrived in Budapest. I felt a slight nervous anxiety and excitement as we deboarded. From then until Thailand, everything would be new to me. This is when we began using the East Europe guidebook that we purchased in Prague.
Finding a place to stay was easy. There were several people offering rooms the moment that we stepped off the train. After leaving one another would come up to us and make an offer just lower than the previous one. We settled with a mid-aged man who had two rooms in his house that he and his wife rented on daily basis. They were close to public transportation and within walking distance from a couple of parks and the palace. I think that the thing that settled the deal was the 2 euro breakfast buffet just around the corner. Besides that we would rather see our money go to a nice entrepaneurial couple than a hostel that packed people in. After a refreshing nap we set out to explore the town.
If you look beyond the dilapidation, through the soot and grime in Budapest you can see a remarkable city. Many of the buildings had ornately decorated facades. Pillars with Corinthian capitals, coats of arms under windows and above doors, elaborate friezes and scary gargoyles, none of which are cheap to build but most are covered with years of neglect. So much that it almost blends together camouflaged by street noise and exhaust. Certainly at some time there had been elaborate wealth there and its extravagance could still be seen if one looked closely.
The Hapsburg castle in old town Buda, separated by a river from old town Pest, is one of the cities bragging points, and fittingly so. It sits majestically about the 1.2 million person city and at night is illuminated with gold lights. Also, the Parliament building, stretched along the river with many severe flying buttresses and tall spires is very impressive. One of our favorite sights was on Margarit island. It is a dancing fountain choreographed to follow opera music that plays from loud speakers in that park surrounding it. At dramatic points, the fountain would rocket 30 feet into the air, then follow with smaller spouts precisely timed to dance with the music beat. We listened for a while then continued our walk aiming for central park.
Entering the park from the South end we headed for an old palace that had been changed into an agriculture museum. Rounding it and making our way in to the center we saw plenty of activity. There were stands selling giant soft (and deceptively bland) pretzels with cheese, large lollipops, men in their seventies controlling ping pong tables like they were Agassi, a couple of guys on mountain bikes acrobatically jumping onto tables then hopping them from one table to the next, trampolines with pads and netted walls, basketball and futbol rapido courts, and long haired skaters practicing tricks.
We exited at the main entrance into Heroes Square a giant plaza with a large horseshoe shaped colonnade at one end. The colonnade is probably 30 feet tall and houses larger than life statues of Hungary's 12 greatest heroes of the last millennium. At the center of the plaza is a large column standing on a 10 foot tall pedestal. Five statues of the early Magyar chiefs mounted on warhorses and armed for battle circle the column. We sat for a while and headed for the opera house.
Walking in, I felt a little out of place. My convertible pants, sweatshirt, cap and Blue blockers didn't go very well with the frescoed walls, gilded leaves, and tuxedoes that that attendants wore. Swallowing our vanity we tried to buy tickets, but the show was sold out. The sun had set and we returned via a street along the Danube that had spectacular views of the palace above Buda and the Parliament in Pest.
While in Budapest I had received an email from an old friend of mine from college. He is Polish born, but during High school he moved to Texas with his family. Knowing that we were in Eastern Europe he wrote offering us the use of his families house in Murzaschicle, Poland where he had grown up. Nobody was there and he said that were more than welcome to stay for as long as we wanted. We spent several hours one day figuring out our options to get to Poland and booked a seat on the overnight train to Krakow.
Boarding around 9:30PM we found a car to ourselves. We counted down the minutes until we would leave and have the entire car to stretch out in.
"10 minutes before we have our own car"
"5 minutes"
Thee train departed and we were alone, though many people had walked by our car none had stopped. We smiled, gave each other high 5's and began making ourselves comfortable. 20 minutes later the conductor came in to check our tickets.
"Krakow?" she asked.
"Wrong place." Then she said something in Magyar and mad an X with her hands. We didn't understand. She said something else, put her hands together like she was praying, then opened them quickly. She looked at the left and said "Krakow," then looked at the right and said something else, and we finally understood. At some point the train was going to split. One end went to Poland, our end went somewhere else. We repacked our bags and headed to the front of the train.
Most of the cars that we passed were completely full with eight people in each. One entire car was overfilled with children, each room packed with ten or more. As soon as they saw us walking with our bags on looking for a place to sit, they all began laughing and pointing at us through the glass. It was like being an orangutan at the zoo and having a class of third graders taunt you. We pressed on and ended up sitting with six other people making a full cabin. The only benefit to this was safety in numbers.
Three different books and two different people had told us that night trains into Poland from abroad were notorious for being gassed. Evidently several people had fallen victim to the ploy and had all of their belonging stolen as they "slept." However, maybe they wanted to exit before the gassing started, within 4 hours of departure all but one person had deboarded. We remained with Tiago, a Portuguese medical student who was (inadvisable) traveling for a month before returning to study for major exams six months from then. Telling him about the warnings that we had read we successfully scared each other into spending the night together huddled around our belongings. Tiago slept on one bench, Erin on the other, and I slept on top of the bags with my head at Erin's feet and my feet neat Tiago's.
At 2:30 in the morning we stopped at the Slovakian border. I opened the window and saw just what you would expect at an Eastern European border crossing. Fog crept along the ground. Two tall street lamps illuminated just enough area for me to see my breath. I looked down the dark tracks and saw a soldier with a German Shepard and a machine gun standing sleepily under one of the lamp poles. It was the perfect setting for James Bond or Indiana Jones to slide out of the shadows and break the guards neck. Several armed border patrolmen boarded the train. None too friendly they checked our passports, stamped them in the middle of the page and moved on. The next three hours until we reached Krakow were filled with spurts of uncomfortable rest.
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