Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Wild, Wild East

Much of the eastern part of Hungary is given over to the Alföld, which is really just a great big plain, sort of like the Argentinian Pampas or the Great Plans of America. A portion of the Alföld is called the Puszta, and an even smaller portion of the Puszta is known as the Hortobágy. These are all just geographical areas of eastern Hungary, and they support a wide variety of farming, agriculture and wildlife. I had never been there before, but a sudden opportunity to visit friends arose and I took it. Only a brief three-day trip, but one crammed full of activities. One of my former students, András Skiszai, was planning to move to Hawaii with his family in October. He had put together his resumé and cover letter and wanted some help with format and language to ensure it met American standards before he began submitting it to potential employers. Since he couldn’t come to Budapest to discuss his documents, I decided it would be a good time to visit him in Hortobágy. András told me he would make the arrangements, including booking the train tickets for me; he would find me a place to stay and he would show me around when we had some spare time. Great. Of course, he had forgotten that, as a nearly-13-year resident of Hungary, I was certainly capable of making my own travel arrangements. So I did. I hopped over to the MÁV office (Hungarian Trains), punched in my selection for Hungarian Tickets on the call board, and waited for my turn. When it came, I sauntered confidently up to the window and began to tell the young lady what I wanted. Okay, so my Hungarian isn’t quite yet fluent, even after all this time. But, with a variety of arm waving, eye rolling, finger pointing and, of course, talking in a loud voice, I was sure I got my needs across. She typed quickly at her computer keyboard, looked at what she had, turned to me and said, in perfect English, and in one of those condescending voices every non-speaker of a foreign language hates to hear, “So. You would like to fly on Malév Airlines into Debrecen International Airport at 3 o’clock in the morning on October 34, in the year 2026.” (NB: Malév had gone out of business several months ago and Debrecen doesn’t even have a local airport much less an international one). I looked her in the eye, gave a big sigh, and managed to look ashamed and embarrassed. She took pity on me and asked me to tell her what I wanted to do, in English. I did, she typed some more, collected my 10,000 forints ($50) and thanked me for using MÁV. I slunk out of the office as the other Hungarians pointed at me and whispered to each other. At least the other foreigners needing to book a train were sympathetic and gave me a sitting ovation as I left. So I appeared at Budapest’s Nyugáti (Western) Train Station at 9 AM on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2012 and, precisely at 9:23 AM, as promised, the train pulled out of the station and headed for the Great Hungarian Plain. I love traveling by train and still take every opportunity to do so. It was only a two-hour-and-45-minute journey, with several stops, but nice and easy and comfortable for all that. I was in first class, and it seemed the coach even rode easier than the ones used by the hoi polloi back in steerage. I arrived in Debrecen at the exact time shown on the schedule, 12:07 PM, and there was András waiting for me. He was accompanied by his wife Kati and their youngest son Benjamin (pronounced “Ben-ya-meen,”), a two-year-old toddler with boundless energy. We walked from the train station through downtown Debrecen, a city of about 200,000 population, where András was born and lived until finishing high school. We had lunch at a Belgian Beer Pub, where I tasted the local delicacies: fried goose liver with potatoes and peach halves, along with some good hearty Belgian beer. The temperature was in the 80s and I was glad I had worn shorts and not long pants. After lunch we strolled around town some more and then ambled over to the bus station to catch our bus to nearby Hortobágy, around 40 kilometers away. Kati and Ben had left earlier to pick up older son Márton (four years old) at his kindergarten, so it was just me and András. There was only one line for tickets at the bus station, one cashier, and it moved at a snail’s pace; if we had stayed in line we would have missed our bus. More great Hungarian service. So we skipped out and boarded our bus, as it turned out we could buy our tickets on board. No problem. It was a beautiful new bus with air conditioning, so I presumed we would have a comfortable and cool ride, which would have been a nice change from the 90-degree heat. Silly rabbit. We sat in the very last row, and there wasn’t a breath of air, cool or otherwise. I must have sweated out two liters of water, which was okay as I could stand to lose a little weight. Of course, when the bus approached our stop after 40 minutes and we moved toward the exit, we found there was cool air blowing from vents on both sides of the bus. Sigh. Did the wrong thing again. Anyway, we departed the bus in downtown Hortobágy, a misnomer if there ever was one. We were in front of a Tourist Information building and across from the Hortobagy National Park, which we would visit the following day. A restaurant, post office and a few shops made up the remainder of the village. In every direction was the Great Plain of Eastern Hungary, not a hill or tree in sight. András took me on a brief walk, about 400-500 meters, through the residential area of the village and we found the guest house where I would be staying for the next two nights. It was situated at the rear of the main house, surrounded by gardens and trees and grass. It was beautiful, like a little gingerbread cottage. Several bedrooms, bath and kitchen and a really nice little patio with table and chairs. See a picture on Facebook. It was great and our landlady Irma was cordial and welcoming. The cost for two nights plus breakfast was 8,000 forints, about $40 US. A deal not to be beat. After a refreshing shower, I retraced my steps back to the Hortobágy Csárda restaurant near the bus stop, to wait for András, Kati, Ben and Márton, and to cut the heat with a beer or three. When they arrived we had another great meal; I had the Hortobágy palacsinta and the duck bits with noodles and cabbage. Mmmm, yummy. Palacsinta, BTW, is a crepe filled with various goodies, in this case with meat, and covered with a creamy sauce. A true Hungarian delicacy. We were all pretty well beat after a long day, so we walked back to my guest house, where I left the Sziksais to continue on to their residence another kilometer or so down the road. I crashed early. The next day it was up at 7 AM (Gasp!), shower, a home-made breakfast prepared by Irma, my hostess, and András showed up around 8:30. We walked back to the bus stop area, across from which is the Hortobagy National Park and Museum. Kati and Ben joined us and we boarded an old-fashioned bus for the short journey further into the park, on the first leg of our Pusztasafari. Once there we watched the pelicans and storks being fed, then boarded another, smaller open-sided Landcruiser to tour the wide-open spaces. We stopped and gawked at the formerly-extinct plains cattle, which had been brought back to existence by careful planned cross-breeding; checked out the special plains horses, looking sort of like Mongolian ponies, which are also being bred to increase their numbers (and which cannot be domesticated); walked around the enclosures holding wolves, bobcats and foxes; and finally bused back to the main museum. An interesting and educational tour, which I don’t get to do all that often. And the temperature was only around 90 degrees in the sun – the Hortobágy area has no shade. In fact, I believe the English translation for the word Puszta is actually, “No shade for 100 miles in any direction.” I believed it that day. After a light lunch of chicken strips at the same restaurant at which we dined last night, András also told me it was an easy walk, but neglected to mention the absence of any shade along the way. Plus we got off the paved roads and completed our walk by trudging through someone’s field. I managed to crawl the final 100 meters to the main clubhouse, where I ordered two beers, one to drink and one to pour over my head. Damn, it was hot! Anyway, this ranch is actually where local beef cattle and horses are raised for fun and profit. There are also families of workers living here, many of which are known as “csikos,” or Puszta Cowboys. They have a distinctive outfit, consisting of bright blue floppy-legged-and-armed trousers and shirts, heavy boots, black vests and black hats with wide brims turned up all the way around. Interesting clothes. They are the ones who herd the cattle and horses and take care of the animals.
In between performing for the tourists and visitors, they perform all the duties of a real cowboy-type person. Tough guys, and amazing horsemen. One of the demonstrations we saw was a Csikos standing with one of his feet on the rump of two horses while he held reins in his hand for three more horses out front and galloped around the plains. Amazing. See my Facebook pictures. Since Hungary really doesn’t have much in the way of national world-renowned souvenirs, I rarely have a chance to pick up gifts for the family, but the Hortobágy is a separate district, and this time I was in luck. I won’t describe them here, as they haven’t been sent back to the states yet, but suffice it to say if my grandkids get out of line Tony and Morgan will now be able to “crack that whip” and get them under control. Cool stuff. Another walk back to my guesthouse, only about half as far as previously, a nice long cool shower and it was back to downtown Hortobágy for a dinner of pizza and beer. A nice break. People retire early in agricultural communities, and Hortobágy is no exception. They would roll up the sidewalks around 9 PM if, indeed, they even had sidewalks, which they don’t, so everyone just knows to turn in early. My last day in eastern Hungary was another early breakfast, after which András picked me up (on foot, of course) and we walked back to the bus stop area, which is pretty much the center of crazy activity in Hortobágy. We caught the bus for Debrecen, and Kati and Ben joined us at the next bus stop, which was closer to their flat. We got to Debrecen around 11 o’clock and walked around the University area for awhile, then had a nice lunch; this time it was a club sandwich and fries for me, as those big, heavy, tasty, wonderful meals were getting to be too much. Took the tram down to the train station, where we said our goodbyes. I may get to see the Sziksai family on their way through Budapest when they go to Hawaii in October, but the plans are still uncertain. I caught my train to Budapest on time, although another surprise was in store for me: the coach on which I had reserved my first-class ticket was not attached to the train! Just another part of The Hungarian Experience. At least the train was going to the right Budapest station, so I was happy to sit anywhere just as long as I got home. Which I did, around 5 PM. Took another shower, had a light dinner and was asleep before my head hit the pillow. A fun but tiring few days. Thanks again, András, Kati, Ben and Marton, for making it a great experience.