Budapest is home to two million people and transport choices are confusing so I’m pleased an English guy who is at the same home-stay has shown me the way here. ‘Will we find our way back without him?’ I wonder as I join the line of people at the ticket office. We’ve travelled from suburban Budapest to this castle-like building on the edge of the Danube: the journey – by bus, metro then trolleybus – baffled me.
Underground tunnels, where I lose all sense of direction, lead to the metro station where men and women were standing, almost silently, with their meagre goods for sale. Underwear, jackets, baby clothes, food, all held up to our gaze: only the eyes of the sellers asking us to buy. Their silence is daunting: their poverty makes me ashamed that yesterday I stole a train ride from this city, in a country that’s just emerged from a communist regime.
I was travelling by underground to a posh hotel for an all-you-can-eat afternoon tea when I didn’t buy a ticket – and was caught. Leaving the station two Aussies and I were approached by three or four inspectors. ‘Tickets’ they snap and we search our pockets for the non-existent items. I feel guilty, then intimidated, when they tell us we will have to pay an exorbitant fine. ‘We have no money on us,’ I lie.
‘I will call the police. You have to pay,’ said heavy number one. His dark-haired, surly partner joins in.
‘Give me your passports; I will see if our supervisor will let you pay less.’
‘I haven’t got my passport with me,’ wails one of the young women.
I don’t carry mine around either then suddenly memory warning-bells clang at the mention of passports and I recall being cautioned about such a fraud. ‘Be careful of bogus ticket inspectors,’ our bus driver had said, ‘they run scams to get money.’ My brain tells me that genuine inspectors would not be asking for passports.’ These guys are not for real, I’m not paying’ I say, ‘let’s go,’ and turn to walk off.
‘Stop! Stay here!’ shouts one of the heavies and grabs my wrist.
‘Take your fucking hand off me.’ With a quick flick that amazingly removes his grip, I walk towards the exit. An Aussie races past me, a moment later the other does the same while I continue in the same measured, but fearful pace – expecting the police or heavies to grab me at any second. Relieved to see my young friends waiting at the top of the stairs, I burst into hysterical laughter. ‘Boy, you two can run!’
‘Take your fucking hand off me,’ they mimic. ‘Wait until we tell the others what you said. No one will believe you’d talk like that.’
‘Well I know I’ll buy tickets in future. That was scary!’
Excerpt from Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad by Heather Hapeta – the kiwitravelwriter