“Where are you headed next?” my British hostel mate asked me as I packed my bags in my dorm in Krakow, Poland.
“Budapest!” I replied, making sure to pronounce it the proper way after being chastised about it only a few days earlier. (For anyone wondering the proper pronunciation is ‘Budapesht’)
“Aw you’ll love it! It’s incredible!”
That’s how everyone reacted when I told them that I had plans to visit Budapest in April. No matter who I talked to, everyone adored the Hungarian capital. Whether it was the food, the architecture, or the club scene; Budapest clearly had some magic charm that enthralled everyone who visited. And with all the positive feedback and gushing enthusiasm, there was no doubt that I planned to fall in love with the city as well.
I arrived in Budapest at 7am after a rough night on an overnight train. Having barely slept I was tired, and a little bit grumpy, but eager to explore. As our train pulled into the city a bunch of us stood in the hallway to watch out the windows. It was here that I heard my first warning about the city. “Don’t take the taxis” a fellow backpacker told me. “They aren’t safe and will rip you off.”
No problem, I thought to myself. I planned to take the metro when needed and walk as much as possible. But although I had no plans on looking for a taxi, they clearly were out looking for travellers like me.
“Taxi? Taxi?” their yells over the crowd were the first things I heard upon disembarking the train. I hadn’t even left the station yet and the drivers were all crowding on the platform, pushing past one another in an effort to get a customer. Letting go of my bag I slung my backpack over my shoulder, but when I reached down for the handle someone else’s hand was already on it. “Taxi, I take you” an older man told me gruffly in a thick accent. “No thank you” I responded, but still he didn’t take his hand off my luggage. In the end I had to actually pull it out of his hands before walking away quickly and ignoring anyone else who tried to offer their services.
Less than an hour later my new dorm mates were imparting even more safety advice on me. One of the girls had her cell phone stolen the night before, and upon reporting it to the police, met another backpacker who had been ripped off on the metro; receiving the change for a 1000 HUF note when they paid with a 10 000 note. And the police? Well according to these girls, the police didn’t care to do anything about it and treated both issues as a waste of their time.
Needless to say by the time I actually got out to explore the city on my own I felt the need to be on high alert. I consider myself to be careful everywhere I go but here I felt the need to be hyper aware of everything going on around me. For the three days I spent in Budapest I clutched my bag as close to myself as I could and made a conscious effort not to make eye contact with anyone. Lone men standing or sitting near me made me extra wary, and I made sure I was never out by myself past sunset.
Although there’s no doubt the city was incredibly beautiful, my visit was marred by my inability to find a comfort zone. Besides all the warnings I received, I found the majority of the people to be colder and unfriendlier than what I have previously experienced. On my third day, while browsing a jewelry store, one of the clerks identified me as being North American. “You are shiny and glowy” he told me,” all North Americans are.” Although I wouldn’t have used those specific terms myself, I knew what he meant. From my experience, many Hungarians are closed off and reserved, very different than what I was used to at home, and as a result I felt unwelcome and unwanted in their city.
Despite my general discomfort I was glad I visited Hungary’s capital city. There was a lot to do and see, and despite the fact that I didn’t get the same feeling from Budapest that most others did, I still appreciated what it had to offer. And, although it’s not at the top of my list, I do hope to one day return in search of my own incredible experience.