While I was traveling with my friend, it was hard to find time to write, and after she left I was so far behind I don’t even know where to begin…but now that I’m back home with consistent computer access, here’s a summary of the past few weeks.
It’s been a long, incredible road since I last left you in Paris. Now, our original plan had been to travel through Spain, France, and Portugal, but as usual while on the road, plans change, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but who can judge? What happens is the ultimate outcome. In our case, the train reservations were booked solid for the next six weeks, making our railpasses utterly useless (thank you, holiday season and the French railway system,) so we had to catch a last-minute Ryanair flight back to Madrid after Paris, for a considerable amount of money. Once we got back to Madrid, we were pretty much locked in since flights anywhere else were too expensive and the trains were booked up. So we spent the remaining five or six days of the trip in Madrid. I can’t say I regret not getting to see Portugal or the south of Spain though, because I got to spend some time in that wonderful city. We occupied our time walking through the narrow, winding streets, exploring the Christmas markets and talking to Spanish people.
Spain is a wonderful place; like Italy but cool. The people can be unfriendly unless you speak Spanish, when they suddenly open up and become the nicest people on the planet. They, in general, are proud of not speaking English, exactly opposite of most of the countries I’ve visited.
The food is excellent, the tapas bars are amazing, the Iberian ham phenomenal (though scary looking if you’re unprepared.) The sangria is delicious. If you ever get to Madrid, El Tigre is an excellent tapas bar where you can get a mug of sangria and a big plate of tapas for under 5 euro. Puerta del Sol, the central square in Madrid and the geographical and cultural center of Spain itself, is always busy with hundreds of people, both locals and tourists. Since it was the holidays, there was an enormous wire Christmas tree in the center that lit up at night and looked quite festive. No matter where you go in Madrid, it seems that the narrow streets always spit you back out right at the Christmas tree.
While in Spain we also tried paella a few times. It’s a delicious rice and seafood dish, complicated and time-consuming to make and therefore quite expensive, but definitely worth it.
We spent a quiet Christmas in Madrid, and then on the 28th I flew to Frankfurt, there to catch a train back to Budapest to spend the last two weeks of my trip. And what a two weeks this has been…
I made it back on the evening of the 29th and as soon as I stepped off the train I felt like I’d come home. There was Keleti station in all its glory, with its basement markets where you can buy anything for almost no money; the doors, thronged with blackmarket money-changers, scam taxis and others looking for opportunity from fresh arrivals; and outside, the wonderful rainy dark. Instead of taking the trolley bus, which is always packed tighter than a typical Ryanair airplane, I walked the twenty minutes to Blaha Luhja Ter and took the brand-new tram down Terez Korut to Nyugati station and then to walk a block back to Carpe Noctem. On the tram a backpacker with dreadlocks started talking to a Hungarian, “Do you speak English?” and pulled out a map. He didn’t, but I did, and I helped her find out where she was going. I felt like I was starting to belong to this city, being able to give her directions. The Hungarian man she’d originally asked smiled at me in gratitude for helping him out of an awkward situation. A Hungarian actually smiled at a foreigner! My life felt good.
Rang the buzzer on the unmarked hostel door–they’d changed the codes in my absence. I climbed those familiar 100 stairs and was greeted by….craziness, of course. Chooseday night, and it was Rock Star dress-up theme. There were more leather pants, ripped shirts, makeup, Sharpie tattoos, drumsticks, and leggings than I’ve ever seen in one place. Exxxcellent time to return. Within minutes after dropping my bag in the corner I was adorned with Sharpie tattoos, heavy eye makeup and some pink dreadlocks, ready to rock ‘n roll. I love this place. On Tuesday nights, we go out to a jazz club that opens only for about three hostels in the area. Take Five is a great place. They accept us no matter how crazily we dress up, they have excellent karaoke, and the bartenders are awesome.
My first night back was a crazy headbanging rock night, with way too much karaoke. Another guest named Ryan and I rocked out the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He is even more obsessed with them than I am.
I should mention at this point that at that time almost all of the guests at the time were like me, repeat offenders, on their second or third trips to Carpe Noctem, some of them former workers. Only two people were here as their first time, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be back. There’s a reason Carpe Noctem has been ranked #1 on Hostelworld worldwide, and is currently #3.
And like that, I was back with a vengeance in the loopy, insane, awesome world of Carpe Noctem. Suzi, the other owner, is now back from Australia and she is definitely the fun director of the hostel. Since I’ve been back we’ve gone to hockey games, Cinetrip (a huge rave in the Turkish baths on New Year’s, definitely NOT to be missed for anything, it is phenomenal) and one mad trip to a place called Mongolian Barbecue. There, you pay about the equivalent of $25 (it is a really really nice restaurant) and get five hours of unlimited food and beer and sangria.
But the food was even more amazing. They have a long buffet line, some of it prepared dishes, but the majority of it consisting of different types of raw meat marinading in a variety of flavors. There was goat, pork, chicken, beef, horse, rabbit, and lamb. You fill up a plate with raw meat, take it to the crisply-uniformed grill man, and he cooks it all for you. This is not a place for vegetarians. You eat platefuls of nothing but meat, washed down with glass after glass of Dreher, a truly excellent Hungarian beer. And after that, for the ones still standing, there was a hockey game. And after that, for the few hardy souls still standing straight, there was, of course, a pub crawl. I made it through the first pub and then Brad and I had to get Tumnus home, as he’d tried too hard to keep up with Brad, who is twice his size.
It’s a small world, this hostel. Everyone knows everyone and it’s like a large, extended family because everyone just keeps coming back, and back, and moving to Budapest, and crazy stuff like that. I’m starting to become one of the family as I meet more and more members. I miss everyone now that I’m back in the States, but I’m keeping up with them online and there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be back soon. I missed seeing Kurt again by a week, as he and Hawaii went to Thailand a week after I arrived the first time and he is coming back to Budapest today, less than a week after I left. Speaking of which, their pictures of Thailand are absolutely phenomenal. I’ve added it near the top of the list of places I want to see next. It doesn’t hurt that I love Thai food. The place looks absolutely gorgeous, paradise on earth–plus it’s ridiculously cheap and has good food.
Ah, I miss everything about Budapest. I miss the people, I miss NOA Pizza across the street, the river, the street vendors, the supermarket, the trams, the goulash, the crazy traffic and taxi drivers, the language (Magyar is the second-hardest language in the world to learn, allegedly,) even the taste of the tap water. I miss the people I met there and made friends with.
I’ve spent almost a third of my trip in Budapest so it’s no wonder that I know it better than any other city I visited. I’ve walked home in a surprise snowstorm in flip-flops, had midnight snowball fights on the streets, made group dinners for the hostel, eaten group dinners for the hostel, slept in the staff room and every dorm room, cleaned the bathrooms, smoked the shisha, read every book on the bookshelf, spent too much time on the computers, and feel completely at home when I walk in the door of Carpe Noctem. I know the streets of Budapest better than I do Traverse City. I have an instinctual knowledge or something of this place. I know the nearest supermarkets, secondhand shops, the routes to all the tourist attractions, the cost of admission, hours of entry and which Turkish baths are the best. I know how much groceries cost at Kaiser’s, where the towels are hidden in the hostel, how much a taxi should cost, the website and cost of every delivery restaurant in district 6, both the ladies who work at NOA pizza across the street, the other good hostels in town (Tiger Tim’s and the Bubble,) and so on and so forth. It wasn’t easy to leave and I seriously considered not getting on the horrible plane back to the States.
But I’m almost out of money and had to come back so I can earn some more to get back to Buuudapest. (And Thailand!)
This trip was incredible. It opened my mind to the numberless ways that people live and interact in the world and made me view my own country with far different eyes. We have this culture of fear and ignorance in the US, unfortunately, where people are afraid to travel, or view it as a luxury or indulgence. This is the wrong attitude to have. Traveling has been the best thing that ever happened to me. In American schools, we learn about America, and the attitude unfortunately exists in our culture that the most important country in the world, the only one worth really learning about, is America. The other countries are something of a curiosity, something far away. We are separated from the rest of the world (except for Mexico and Canada) not only geographically, but mentally. Coming from that, it’s absolutely astounding to see how connected and educated the rest of the world is about everything, including us. Coming from that, we look kind of like the dunce in the corner, afraid of everything.
Don’t get me wrong. Americans are some of the friendliest, most outgoing, generous people you can meet–in general; you can’t stereotype, but certain generalizations do tend to hold true. It’s a cultural thing. However, we are ignorant compared to the rest of the world. Look at Australia. It’s built into their culture to travel for a long period of time, either when they graduate high school or university. You will find Australians all over the globe, in every corner of every city and out-of-the-way town. Instead of being afraid of travel, that’s just what they do. And in general, they’re very good people. Unprejudiced, friendly, intelligent, and guess what? They don’t have any bad stereotypes about them that I know of, unless it is that they drink too much and party too hard (true, but who can blame them?) And they tend not to get in wars, as well.
It should be a requirement for every American to venture forth into the world for at least a few months, and I guarantee we would start to lose some of the negative stereotypes attached to us. (That we’re ignorant, arrogant, love fighting, stuck-up, pretentious, redneck, etc. etc,) It could only be an improvement for this country.
Some numbers: I was gone for 98 days, spent an average of $67 a day (including the transportation I bought in Europe but not my Eurail pass), spent $1349 on a Eurail pass which covered all my transportation save for about $100 of reservation costs, $x for in-city metros, trams, buses, etc, and about $450 for four in-continent flights; took over 39 train rides, the longest lasting 14 hours; visited 13 countries and 31 cities; and made 82 friends on Facebook, all of whom I still talk to. I have invitations to go stay with people in countries all across the globe. My favorite places were Budapest, obviously, but I also fell in love with Germany and Scotland. I’d love to go back to both Edinburgh and Berlin and spend more time like I did in Budapest.
This was the best three months of my life and what I know now without a shadow of doubt that my road lies on the road and I’ll be back out there asap. I’m not just going to put my souvenirs and old maps away in some drawer now and return to what everyone likes to tell me is ‘real life.’ There’s another real life out there, populated by the most interesting characters and places and adventures any novelist could ever come up with, and the difference is that it’s reality, not fiction, and anyone can access it if they want to.
I’ll see you on the road.
From now on I’ll probably devote this blog to travel advice and tips that I picked up on the road and wished I’d known before I left, at least until my next trip when it’ll go back to this. If you know anyone who wants to travel, getting ready to travel, or who’s currently on the road, pass this link on. I’d appreciate it and so would they. Happy travels!