Today was a transition day; we were leaving Brenna and Scarlet in the capable hands of their grandparents and heading to Budapest to catch our flight home. The morning started wonderfully, with a breakfast at the Best Western Astoria – a light fare of eggs, cheese, mozzarella salad, mushrooms, brats, cereal, pastries the size of our heads, fish, and other local cuisine. Then Brenna and Scarlet were introduced to the tour group at their initial briefing. They were intrigued by some of the questions posed and statements made by their fellow travelers:
“Will we be able to see the ground from the bus?”
“Do taxis take American dollars?”
“I didn’t read the information, but …”
“How many steps will I need to navigate during this trip?”
“I didn’t know we were going to Athens!”
“Did I remember to dress myself this morning?”
OK – that last one was made up, but the girls walked away a bit concerned but confident that their grandparents prepared them for the trip.
But alas, we needed to catch the train, so bid farewell and headed to the train station where the nightmare began…
It’s a solid trip between Zagreb and Budapest, about 7 hours by train. We made it to the border of Hungary where our passports were checked by the authorities. They took everyones’ passport to the end of the rail car and phoned them in to headquarters for review. Most border patrols have electronic readers and can complete the task in no time flat. Something seemed wrong, considering they didn’t even start their antiquated process until departure time for the border station. When departure was delayed by an hour, rumors began to circulate that storms in the area caused a track closure. Of course, rumors were all we could go by, since none of the rail staff spoke a lick of English. After 5 hours at this war-torn train station, we were told that we would be put on buses and driven somewhere (would it be Budapest, back to Zagreb, to Auschwitz, we didn’t know – just get on the bus). Elizabeth commented that none of the locals became irritated at this news. Seriously, I think that they are so used to bending to authority that they don’t even question it. But I digress. Now it’s 17:30 and we should be in Budapest getting ready to go out for dinner. But instead, I find a local grocery (running her business from her garage) and buy a nutritious dinner of pretzels, pudding, lemonade, bananas, and cookies.
Next is the bus boarding. Since they couldn’t communicate in the language of their passengers they didn’t even try. We saw some people deboarding, so I sauntered over to a guy with a train cap and kept it simple, “Budapest?”. His answer came in the form of a nod (“yes”) and a pointing finger (“over there”). Now I know how cavemen communicated (and why they clubbed each other). So we get on the bus, Brody and Arden up front, Elizabeth and I in the back. We distribute our food and settle in. Now for the bladder check. About 10 minutes in, Brody needs to use the restroom. Regrettably, the door is locked. So I grab an emergency bottle and get ready to take drastic measures. But since we were stopped (ironically at a train crossing) I try to explain the bathroom situation to the driver. He says something in his native tongue, which is translated by a nice old lady – “we’ll be at the train station in two minutes”. Now I possess information that all of the English-speaking folks are desperate to hear. So on my way back to my seat, I’m able to act as train/bus ambassador. Of course, this information is meaningless as we still don’t know where we are. But we will be able to use the restroom which was the short-term goal.
So now a train load of folks are crammed into another third-world station. The attendant, knowing she won’t be able to communicate with this crowd (the non-English speakers seem to have made other arrangements and are gone) has hidden in a back room. Some of the travelers have found a local liquor store and are now passing the bottle, literally.
An hour later, a train rolls into the station. Now we’re 10 hours into the 7 hour trip. We board the train with the rest of the English-speaking crowd. The lights go out and we rest as best we can on a train of college kids and drunk folks who decided to have an 80s dance party – Girls just Wanna Have Fu-hun!
By the time we get to Budapest, it’s midnight and the transit system has shut down meaning it’s taxi time. Ignoring Rick Steves’ advice, we just hail the first cab we see (we were supposed to call Rick’s trusted cab companies) and are driven safely to our hotel.