Budapest, Hungary • April 2014 • Length of Read: 14 Minutes
The following extract has been adapted from my self-published paperback travel book, Crobs Abroad: A Scot’s Misadventures with a Backpack. It follows my mishaps across five different continents as I get comatose drunk on the Thai islands; kicked out of a Hungarian lap dancing club; kidnapped by the mayor of a Peruvian city; and trek for a week across the Moroccan Sahara. If you enjoy this post, then please visit my online bookshop for more details.
“We will shortly be coming around with scratch cards. For only £1 you could be in with the chance of winning free flights to any European destination of your choice.”
The fasten-seatbelt light faded with a simultaneous ‘bing’; just loud enough to shake all the plane’s passengers from momentary peace and to hear the subsequent drone of the PA system. That’s what these budget airlines do. Sucker customers in with cheap prices and for three hours they’ve got an impotent audience; hog-tied inside a metal box 30,000ft above terra firm and susceptible to all forms of advertising being barked at them by a pre-recorded bourgeois accent of security.
“Choose from our fine selection of regional teas and get a half-price chocolate bar.”
Seat 27b had been my location in this circumstance; trapped between two complete strangers with no aisle legroom and no window view. To my left sat a man with the build of a rugby player immersed in a Hungarian translation of 50 Shades of Grey. To my right, a fading rocker with a tartan flat cap and dubious goatee soul patch. I’d been told that travelling solo would get lonely, but at this point, I was snugger than ever. ‘This beats a Bolivian bus journey any day of the week at least,’ I thought to myself.
“Get our meal deal: A sandwich, packet of crisps, and a drink for only £4.50. Choose from Cheese & Ham, Tuna, or Cheese Savoury.”
Resting my head on the prop’s shoulder in an attempt to snooze I was abruptly shaken awake by a jeering flight attendant, waving a menu in my face and looking like she’d suffered a head-on collision with a peach coloured paint pot. I wasn’t aware Willy Wonka’s Oompa Loompas had found new employment after the closure of their beloved Chocolate Factory. Perhaps they’d taken to the skies in an attempt to track down the Great Glass Elevator that now housed their eccentric employer. Behind the tangerine glow of fake-tan, I could just make out a mouth asking if I fancied anything from the trolley, her face cracking with every lip movement. It wasn’t so much a flight as an overpriced nomadic cafe.
“Celebrate with a bottle of champagne for only £29.99. It doesn’t need to be a special occasion to enjoy a few bubbles.”
I politely declined the Black Label Brut, seeing it solely as an attempt by the cabin crew to mask the taste of the cremated badger penis that they were now shipping down the passage; the stickers on the aluminium containers labelling the mystery meal under the pretence of bangers and mash.
“Get 20% off our duty-free perfumes – The perfect gift for any relative.”
No, not even a nice splash of cologne could have covered that burnt smell. Six months had passed since returning from Rio and we were still waiting on a response from Rick. Perhaps the favela underworld had finally sucked him in for good, or perhaps his 'pay to cum' philosophy had finally drained the South American piggy bank. Even as I write this I like to envision that he is still living the high life in Rio however, coding by day and running a pimp ring by night. Coming into land I made a note to hang out in run-down eateries more often. They’re still a step up from airline food.
Heading to my apartment upon arrival at Budapest Airport, I was greeted by two affectionate camp men dressed in painters’ rags. They kindly gave me a tour of the building and laid down some ground rules. This had been my first time using Airbnb and I wasn’t too sure what to expect from my hosts. Jarno was tall, tanned, and lacking eyebrows, whilst his companion was short and stumpy with a greased back pony-tail. As we walked around I poked my nose in some of the kitchen units and was surprised to see that in place of the usual crockery were just rows and rows of jam jars; stacked high with different flavours.
Jarno explained that renting out apartments in the Pest neighbourhood was his primary job, but that jam production was where his true passion lay. He made so much of it, in fact, that there was no room left in his own house to store the stock whilst waiting for it to be sold. Using a money-spinning marketing strategy seemingly taken straight from the pages of the Business for Dummies Handbook he had, therefore, made the decision to line his guests’ cupboards with as much of the produce as possible in a small hope that they would buy some and cut-out the middle-man. I applauded his honesty and entrepreneurship. Once everything had been pointed out the pair then plotted the main city attractions on a map before leaving me to head out for a stroll. A cultural weekend in Hungary awaited, or so I thought.
I glanced up from a meal of grilled zucchini pancakes four hours later to see my gay landlords hammering on the restaurant window, grinning profusely and waving fast enough to generate the same amount of energy as a small wind farm. Kiskakukk was their favourite restaurant in the city and they were clearly pleased I’d taken their dining recommendation on board. Acknowledging the food with a thumbs up and rub of the belly I washed down the main course with 4 pints of beer, settled the tab and wandered out to explore the nightlife of the city’s ‘ruin bar’ district.
Quizzing friends before my trip on where best to go out in Pest the preponderant answer had always been “Grandio Party Hostel,” and any residence that carried taglines such as ‘The Party Animal’s Playground’ and ‘You Can Sleep When You’re Dead’ sure does seem a good place to start. With some writing to do whilst away it also aided my decision to get an apartment rather than stay there, guessing correctly the peace and quiet I would need at some point might not be readily available in a place which refuses guests over the age of 36 due to its sexual exploits.
I had reached the corner of Andrassy Avenue and Nagi Diofa Ucta before realising I’d stupidly left the map on the kitchen table, so stopped the next person I saw to get directions.
“Excuse me, could you possibly tell me how to get to Grandio Party Hostel please?” I asked clearly and politely.
“Ah, I don’t know where this Grandio you speak of is, but that shouldn’t matter,” replied the middle-aged woman. “There is a hotel right here with vacant rooms. What are you looking for? Sex? Or perhaps just a blowjob?”
It doesn’t say much for my judge of character that I’d managed to stop the sole prostitute within a mile radius. Perhaps a little too much of Rick’s enthusiasm had rubbed off on me. Bumbling a confused excuse I hurried away, merry from the alcohol but still no closer to becoming a ‘party animal’. Along the street, I found was a much more respectable female perched on the wall outside a bar with a cigarette in hand. My same question was again answered in vain, however. I began to wonder whether the hostel actually existed or whether it was just an elaborate Chinese Whisper that had been packaged as some urban legend and passed down from backpacker to backpacker.
We got chatting and Esme was shocked to hear I hadn’t yet tried Palinka, a habitual Hungarian fruit brandy. My protests that I’d only been in the country for about six hours were quashed as she proceeded to pull me downstairs into the establishment where her boyfriend Paul was in discussion with the owner. Esme made the introductions and after a couple of quickly exchanged words in Hungarian the owner went to the bar and poured me a pint and one measure of the potent, clear, traditional beverage.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked, not too sure how far my Forint notes would get me.
“It’s on the house, my friend. Welcome to Budapest.”
“Legend,” I smiled, raising the shot glass in a toast before knocking it back.
The chat began to flow as Esme and I sunk further sporadic drinks. Paul, the designated driver on this previously desultory Thursday night, told me of their recent journey to the UK to watch the Manchester Derby and delightfully produced a crisp Scottish bank note from his wallet that had been kept as a souvenir from their foray across the Channel. Explaining to him my failed quest to find the Mecca of all party hostels he started to snigger.
“Grandio is literally 200m down the street. You must have walked past it to get here.”
“Shut up?” I responded, mouth ajar.
“True story. I’ll show you if you like, my car is parked a couple of streets back so we are heading in that direction anyway.”
Wandering out into the fresh air we made our way along the dug up street, severe road-works clearly in progress but having been abandoned for the evening. I continued to chat away to the couple when smack, out of nowhere I found myself face first in the concrete; dazed and confused as if I’d just been on the receiving end of a Mike Tyson right hook.
Dusting off, I looked up to see Paul and Esme in fits of laughter. Not paying attention to where I had been going I’d fallen straight over a manhole cover, ripping my jeans and tearing the lining of my puffer jacket. As the stuffing oozed out I quickly began to resemble a wounded teddy bear. Health & Safety laws were clearly not as stringent in this part of the world, cordoning off holes and hazards a seemingly unnecessary precaution. Lifting me back onto my feet Paul pointed towards a large black gated doorway.
“That’s it there mate,” he said.
Now, in my defence, Grandio had to be one of the worst signposted hostels on the planet. Apart from the equally dark lettering above the entrance, there was nothing to indicate that the door led anywhere other than the storage facility of a shop. There was no doubt that it was the place, however. I rang the small bell on the wall with anticipation for the electrifying welcome. Nothing. I tried again. There was still no answer.
“It is 1 am now,” shrugged Paul. “It’s possible that everyone has already left and sprawled out into the bars and pubs.”
“Mmm,” I reasoned. “That could be true. Hypothetically, where would the most likely place be that they’d head to?”
“Goszdu Courtyard probably. I could give you a lift if you fancy?” he offered, sensing the tone of my voice.
I stepped out his car after a short two-minute journey and wished them all the best. One of the things I love most about the randomness of travel is being able to make short connections with warm and amiable strangers who you’d never cross paths with during the monotonous routines of day-to-day life.
Kolor Bar was the first place that caught my eye, not because there were any other foreigners in sight but because of the three gorgeous Hungarian girls loitering in the foyer. We grabbed a table and over some more beers, they laughed at the tale of my prostitute encounter and torn rags. Sofia’s eyes sparkled at me as she exchanged quick-witted words in her strong dialect, but I’d become so shit-faced at this point I could do nothing but squint back at her like I was staring into a solar eclipse. Upon last orders at 3 am the girls sensibly hopped in a taxi and headed home, leaving me disorientated among the ‘ruin bars’ of Budapest. I stumbled outside in confusion and to my blind luck, a rickshaw skidded to a halt at the sound of my S.O.S cry.
“Hey man, can you take me home?” I drooled.
“You don’t really want to go home do you?” the jolly driver chimed.
“I absolutely do.”
“Are you sure?”
“100%. Categorically. Yes.”
“I know a place with lots of pretty girls…” he tempted.
“Okay, we’ll go there first.”
Like an absolute sucker, and after a fare of 5,000 Forint for a journey covering less than 500 yards, I found myself passing through the doors of a seedy strip club; the true dregs of Eastern Europe on show for the nocturnal underworld to see. Plonking myself down on one of the slimy leather sofas beside a scantily clad local the manager immediately bowled over and requested 9,000 Forint as an entry fee.
“Do you want a dance then?” asked the lecherous girl beside me. “10,000 Forint for one song?”
I took a sip of the beer the manager had brought back instead of my change from the 10,000 Forint note. A dance for the same price as the cover charge? What a bargain. ‘Perhaps this night has just turned itself around,’ I thought to myself. I then took out my wallet and was shocked to find it completely empty. Somehow my entire funds had been drained. How was this possible? I’d withdrawn £80 Sterling from the ATM upon arrival. Had I been robbed whilst in such a state of inebriation? I thought the cost of living in Budapest was meant to be cheap as chips?
Catching wind of my broke-ass the manager quickly booted me out onto the street, not even allowing the time to finish the lukewarm drink that was still clasped in my hand. As daylight started to break I staggered in the direction of where my hippocampus thought the apartment to be, muttering the words ‘probably for the best,’ under my breath.