Monday, March 23, 2015

Budapest To Niš

Be careful what you ask for ...

There was a bit more adventure than I expected in yesterday's trip from Budapest to Niš, though it all turned out well. After I said goodbye to the goats and the girls yesterday morning, Géza and Noémi took me to the main international bus station on the southeast edge of Budapest, where people were lined up waiting to go to places like Vienna and Krakow, Hamburg and Amsterdam. I went to stand #7 as instructed, where there were a few other people waiting for the southbound bus. When the travel agent arrived, she said that since there were only three of us scheduled, we weren't going to be taking a bus, but a car, and shortly a car pulled up; the driver unloaded some cardboard boxes, then shoehorned our luggage into the back and us passengers into the front. I hugged Noémi goodbye, wedged my knees in behind the driver's seat, and we set off.

And then we stopped again, in a deserted Tesco parking lot (the superstores are closed on Sundays), where we waited for about 10 minutes for someone to come by with a package to go to Serbia, or at least that's what I understood from one of the other passengers, who spoke some English. Mysterious package wedged into the little space remaining, we headed for the highway south, on the road to Serbia at last.

And then we stopped again. This time, it was because we were pulled over by the police. Apparently one or both of the taillights was out, or something, and the driver was explaining that the battery was low and not working well. I'm not sure he spoke Hungarian very well, and he had his passport out and the police were calling things in on the radio. I was afraid they were directing us to a nearby garage to get the battery replaced, but they let us get back on the highway after about 15 minutes. Unfortunately, they probably should have had us go to a garage (if there was even one open on a Sunday) because after half an hour driving, the battery died, and we stopped again. The driver pulled a spare battery out of the back and that got us going for another twenty minutes or so, before the battery died again. A passing motorist pulled over to jump-start the car, and that got us to the next gas station, where we waited for an hour or so while the driver wandered around asking people if they had a battery, or something - the passenger with some English couldn't explain, and the other passenger was a deaf Hungarian (I think) woman who probably had even less idea than I did what was going on. We finally got jump-started again, and made it another few kilometers down the road before the battery died once more.

This time the driver pulled out a yellow safety vest and started pushing us down the road, while the deaf woman and I sat in the back seat and the other passenger steered the car down the verge, occasionally turning the key, which made the car jump and shudder, though not start. Finally, a car full of young men pulled over, and they towed us slowly to the border, which fortunately was only about 40 kilometers away at that point. The hour and a half trip from Budapest to the Hungarian-Serbian border took approximately four and a half hours, and I was a bit worried that I wouldn't get to Niš until midnight. However, they had a bus waiting for us on the Serbian side, whose driver was laughing as he used his notepad to capture a video of our ignominious arrival.

The bus driver started a movie shortly after we set off, but as the sound was off and it was subtitled in Greek I wasn't paying much attention at first, until I noticed how weird the movie was, and started trying to figure it out. Tom Hanks playing some sort of tribal savage who also appears to be friends with a woman from the future, and who is haunted by a dead guy in a top hat? A bunch of Asian robot fast-food waitresses from possibly the same future? A slave ship in the 1800s, a gay piano player in what looks like the 1920s, an author in present-day London who attends a cocktail party in a high-rise apartment during which someone throws someone else off the balcony and who later appears to have telephone conversations with a younger version of himself before breaking out of a rest home run by a sadistic nurse? At some point I thought "This must be 'Cloud Atlas' because it is seriously weird, but I think I would like to watch it again, in English this time." Now that I'm online again, I checked and yes, Tom Hanks, and yes everything else pretty much, although the waitresses are genetically engineered, not robots. Seems kind of intimidating as a book, though maybe it's actually easier to follow, when you can keep flipping back to look up details.

The bus made a few more stops, though not due to battery trouble, thank god. Once, we pulled into a McDonald's parking lot, and an old man handed an IKEA-style recycled plastic bag to the driver, before getting back into his car and driving off. Somewhere between Novi Sad and Belgrade we drove into a lay-by that ran next to a fairly scary-looking tumbledown neighborhood, and picked up another passenger, though I couldn't see anything that looked like a bus stop sign. We got to Belgrade after dark, so I didn't see anything of that city, although I liked the bridges over the Danube.

After picking up another handful of passengers, we continued south and east towards Niš. My ham-and-quince-paste sandwiches were long gone, so I was glad that we stopped at a service station/rest area an hour or so later. I'd changed my forint to dinar at the border (except for a 500-forint note I just discovered, after having tried to give it to a shopkeeper this morning; I'll have to send that back to Noémi) so I was able to buy a healthy dinner of apple juice and potato chips. There was a fast-foody sort of place there, but I wasn't up to trying to decipher ingredients, plus I wasn't sure if anyone would notice if I hadn't gotten back on the bus when it started up again.

It was a relief to pull up to the bus station in Niš and see Srdjan and his wife Gabriela, who own and run Hostel Centar-StreetLife. It was very nice of them to meet me there, and help me get my bags back to the hostel and up the stairs to this room, my home for the next six weeks. Although it's just a block or so off the main road going through the center of this small city (pop. 200,000 or so, depending on which suburbs you include) it's very quiet. I plan on doing a lot of walking, when I'm not working. There are regular bus lines, but from the center of the city (where the hostel is) it's only 3 miles in any direction to get to the city limits, and Srdjan also has a bicycle I can use to get to the places that are farther away.

I bought some mandarin oranges at one of the greengrocers' around the corner this morning, and asked if I could also have one of the wooden fruit crates, which they gave me. I ripped off the top two slats on the long sides, flipped it over, and now have a small lap desk that I've put my computer on as I sit on my bed, pillows propped behind me against the wall, the sun shining in through the skylight, my mouse on a folded-up blanket beside me. I have a lot of work to do, and probably shouldn't even be taking this time to blather on about nothing, but I'm procrastinating a bit, I think. I'd rather be out in the sun, looking for the park that I tried to find earlier, but I need to get started researching kefir and kombucha, the two topics on which I have agreed to write 160,000 words over the next month. So I'll be good and work now for a few hours, and then take a walk before dinner. The weather's supposed to turn cloudy and rainy by Wednesday, so I won't be so tempted to sightsee. Okay. Work! Talk to you later.

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