Saturday, September 12, 2015

Quest to Budapešt

As probably everyone knows at this point, Europe is currently dealing with an epic migrant and refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East and Northern Africa are fleeing their homes, many of them war-ridden, hoping for a better life. Hundreds have died during this grueling trek through Southeastern Europe, and those who have made it have no guarantee that they will be allowed to stay. This has been going on for years but recently the numbers have risen exponentially and the crisis has gotten much worse. This week the EU laid out a plan to redistribute 160,000 migrants and refugees, making it the first time the EU has pushed for all member states to take responsibility. President Obama announced a couple of days ago that the US will accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, which is substantial since over the past four years the US has let in only 1,500 Syrians. However, since the UN expects about 1 million people to cross the border into the EU within the next year, there’s more work to be done.

Hopefully that wasn’t too much of a simplification. I have a natural inclination to sympathize with migrants, likely owing to my experiences teaching and tutoring migrant populations in Hawaii and Serbia, which enabled me to care for them and their plight. While this situation is absolutely awful with no obvious solution, I am glad to be based geographically close to it. When I get settled Belgrade, I will get involved in efforts to support the refugees, which will hopefully contribute to my writing on and work with the Romani population. 

Naturally, there are some drawbacks to being nearby. When a friend and I arrived at the Vienna central station only to discover that our train to Budapest had been canceled, we figured it had something to do with the crisis. We had thought it wouldn’t be an issue seeing as we were headed against the grain of the north-fleeing migrants, but because of the overflowing number of migrants at the station, all trains in and out of Hungary were canceled for at least a day. By talking with other English-speakers we learned that migrants and refugees were offering up their babies, laying on the tracks, and generally doing everything they could to make their plea known to the world. Uncertain if we would find make it to Budapest that evening or at all, we waited in line to get refunded for our train tickets among many disgruntled customers. No one we met had been informed of the cancelation before they arrived at the train station with bags in tow. When we got to the front of the line around 7pm, the customer service agent suggested we take a bus leaving at 7:30pm since buses were still running. The original train left at 6:12pm, and we had arrived at 5:45pm, so by that point we had been at the station without wifi (aka any means of communication with the outside world) and any idea where we would sleep that night for over an hour. The inability to communicate with either of our airbnb hosts (in Vienna and Budapest) felt most frustrating because we knew that they would have better ideas of alternative routes or suggested places to stay in the meanwhile.

We hustled to the bus station to catch the 7:30pm bus with a newfound friend who was behind us in line only to learn that, unsurprisingly, the bus was sold out. A large group no doubt made up of those intending to take any of the cancelled trains had gathered around the bus hoping to fill any unoccupied seats. My friend and I bought tickets for the next available bus, the following day at 4pm, and camped out in the free wifi-equipped bus station trying to find a place to stay the night.

We have exclusively stayed at airbnbs throughout this tour of Central Europe, which has continuously exceeded our expectations. When we told our Vienna airbnb host about our situation, she contacted a number of her friends and found a place for us to stay. What kindness! When we notified our host Budapest who we not yet met, she informed us of a Hungarian uber-type of carpooling service.

We looked into this service but didn’t have much luck since the website was in Hungarian, supposedly the third most difficult language in the world. We then asked our host in Budapest if she would make some sense of the website, and she booked us two places in a car that would arrive at 8:30pm in Vienna and take us to Budapest by 11pm. Getting our hopes up, we let go of the reservation to stay another night in Vienna and tried to figure out how we would meet up with this Hungarian car. Perhaps this service seems unsafe or unreliable to you, and perhaps it is. We had each other, however, and traveling with a male friend made me feel much safer than I would have alone or even with another lady. Unfortunately this car fell through; our host called him and he had just driven through Vienna without stopping (I believe his starting point was Munich).

At this point, it was 8:15pm and we had no place to stay in Vienna because our host’s friend was no longer available to host us, so we were desperate to find a way to get to Budapest. Through the inscrutable Hungarian website, we figured out that there was another car driving from Vienna to Budapest leaving at 8:30pm and, perhaps the most fortuitous element of this entire evening, this car’s pick-up spot was listed as none other than the exact bus station we were at. We frantically contacted our Budapest host, asking if she could contact the driver. For about ten minutes we heard nothing from her, so we began researching hostels in Vienna, but when she messaged us again, she confirmed that the car would pick us up at a place around the corner called “Burger Me.” At 8:24pm we dashed outside – as fast as we could dash with one suitcase, two large carry-ons, and two backpacks – and looked for this burger joint. Within two minutes we found the place and the car that we had been told to expect – an old, black station wagon – pulled up. We waved the car down perhaps a bit too excitedly, and a heavy-set Hungarian man stepped out and introduced himself.

Luck was on our side yet again as the driver, Laszlo, had enough room in his car for us and our belongings. In a usual uber/taxi situation, this is the point for a bit of small talk. However, Laszlo and his friend in the front seat whose name we did not catch spoke no English, so we did not communicate at all past our initial handshake. My friend speaks Russian, which was the language taught in Hungarian schools during the Communist era, so he thought perhaps he and Laszlo could communicate. But the only words Laszlo knew in Russian were “comrade” and “teacher.” Two telling residual words.

As soon as we entered the freeway and saw signs that indicated was Budapest 222 km away, then 200 km, then 180 km, and so on, we breathed a deep sigh of relief. Though we had the phone number of our hosts in Vienna and Budapest, it was more difficult to reach them outside of a free wifi zone. We could have turned on phones from the Fringe with our UK sim cards, or even turned Airplane Mode off, but the two-hour ride went without a hitch, so it never came to that.

Around 11pm, we reached Budapest’s Chain Bridge, which is a sight to behold especially at night when it’s all aglow. Laszlo indicated that it was time for us to get out, but in response to our confused faces he called our airbnb host and told us “400 meters.” We had looked up where the apartment was in relation to the train station, but we had no bearing on where we were getting dropped off. After futzing with a map we figured it out and realized that we were, indeed, very close. Gathering our things and paying the driver (just 13 euro/person for a two-hour drive! Even cheaper than the train!), we ascended the hill that led to our apartment (and then to the Matthias Church if you’re familiar with Budapest). A woman who works for our airbnb host was waiting for us at the door to the apartment, and she showed us in without words for she also had no English and we even less Hungarian.

When we stepped into our quaint new abode, we began to laugh. Anxiety, false hope, and uncertainty mitigated with mirth.

My friend later said he was wary of falling asleep in the car since he didn’t want us to wake up in a cellar somewhere. He even put his Princeton watch into his backpack so that Laszlo wouldn’t take it if he found out that we didn’t have the required money (we had to stop at an atm along the way) and asked that we give him valuables instead. That pragmatic, if pessimistic, line of thought did not cross my mind for the most part because Laszlo regularly called our Budapest airbnb host and both our hosts in Vienna and Budapest recommended this Hungarian uber service. Perhaps it’s naïve optimism, but I found the whole experience much more exciting than I did stressful. 

Three days hence, it still seems wild. We caught a ride with two Hungarian men who spoke no English through a potentially sketchy Hungarian online carpool service that our airbnb host arranged, and we arrived in one piece. It worked out better than either of us could have imagined.

Though our journey through Central Europe hasn’t exactly been smooth-sailing, it’s absolutely nothing compared to the grueling trek for which hundreds of thousands are risking their lives. At the train station in Vienna when the customer service agent handed me back my passport, she said, “If you have that, you can go anywhere.” What an indescribable luxury it is to be able to exercise freedom of movement.

This afternoon we take a bus to Belgrade. The bus company has notified us that it is delayed two hours, mostly likely because of the migrant/refugee situation, according to my host in Serbia. Even the city buses to the central bus station have limited service due to “public event.” I expect this will be a continual theme of my time in the Balkans.

All of the regional chaos is only adding to the nervous excitement to return to Serbia that has been growing inside me since February when I received the grant. At this point it’s basically boiling over…T-minus seven hours!

1 comment:

  1. Katherine,

    This is a beautiful post. I really like how you frame your adventure with the migrant/refugee situation as a backdrop—and your seamless transitions to and from your own story. The references to the larger social difficulties that bookend your travels simultaneously provide context and reveal your social conscience.

    This is a very cinematic post, with enough twists and turns, literal and figurative, and suspense to keep me reading, even if I didn’t know you.

    I hope that your readers appreciate that you’re a truly great writer. I look forward to the next installment.

    James in NY