I was looking forward to Budapest. To travelling alone again. Moving on from hostels and back to couchsurfing. This was the trajectory I had set myself on for this trip, and although it had been nice to meander into the realm of travel buddies and hostels, I was happy to return to my original path.
I climbed onto the sofa pallet bed, stepping over Stuart to lie down and give him a hug. It was 8am.
“Goodbye Stuart. Maybe see you in Budapest.”
I got to Budapest at around 12:30pm. I wasn’t able to arrive at my host’s house until 5pm when she got back from work. I wandered the city.
I found a pub. Ordered a Guinness, and sat writing at a table in the window.
The pub I was in was called The Pointer Pub and claimed to be the number one English pub in Budapest serving full English breakfasts all day.
The Guinness was thin and watery.
As I wandered the streets I looked at the buildings. So similar in style to that which I’d seen and loved in Prague, but less opulent. The features less grand and less well maintained. The faces of these buildings crumbled.
When I’d told a friend before coming that I was looking forward to Budapest, she warned me that after Prague it would pale in comparison. “I was the same as you, but it just isn’t as beautiful once you’ve been to Prague.” I hadn’t understood at the time, but I did now.
I arrived at my host’s house a few minutes early. I rang the doorbell just in case and waited.
Fifteen minutes later, Dóra cycled up the street smiling. She was smaller than I’d imagined having seen her profile picture on CS, and her hair was a different colour.
We hugged, she let me in. She talked about how she had a guest staying with her at the moment who was on a year-long bike tour. She was planning on doing one too, starting in a few months’ time.
We walked through a courtyard. Potted plants and a picnic bench sat outside of her apartment. She’d described herself as being zero waste on her profile, so I was looking forward to seeing her home and way of living.
“We’re going to the baths tonight. Would you like to join us?”
“I’d love to but I don’t have a swimming costume.”
“You can borrow one of mine.”
I met Alun, her other guest, and quickly gathered that they were together.
Dóra’s home was a small studio apartment.
Dóra and Alun stood in the centre of the room canoodling. The small space didn’t leave much room for me to give them privacy. I felt awkward but tried to ignore it. You’re probably just nervous. You’ll settle in. It’ll be fine.
I unloaded my things and we set off for the bathhouse. The one we were going to was the most famous one, Széchenyi. As we walked, Alun and Dóra walked in front, deep in intimate conversation. I dawdled behind a little. Not wanting to feel more awkward than I already did. It’s probably just anxiety. Don’t take it personally. You’ll settle in.
We walked past a park filled with tents and banners. I wanted to ask what was going on but the two of them were deeply engrossed in one another. I’ll ask later.
We arrived at the baths and went into the changing rooms. It was at this point that I realised how flat Dóra’s figure was and by comparison how curvy I was. There was no way I was fitting into this swimming costume.
“I’m not sure this is going to work.” I held up the tiny black bikini she’d leant me. It was one of those ones that prides itself on being mostly string, featuring two triangles for the bra.
“Yeah… I don’t really have that problem as you can see.” She stood there topless. I laughed.
“It’ll give Alun something to look at,” she said, slipping on her own bikini.
I was halfway into the bikini now and attempting to regain some modesty by stretching the material as far as it would go.
“I’m not really sure I’m OK with that…” I said lightly, trying to be jovial, but also making my point.
“Sometimes, they only need to be able to look.” She looked me in the eye and smiled.
OK. This might not be your anxiety. This might be awkward.
We walked out into the cool evening air where the thermal baths were. Huge, hot pools of water, naturally heated by the Earth. The water was 38°C.
It didn’t feel so awkward in the pool when Dóra and Alun ignored me. I could lie back in the water and look at the blank night sky.
I haven’t seen a star since I left Wales.
I pictured them twinkling. Tried to close my eyes and see the vast expanse like Sion and I can from our garden.
We worked our way around the spa, going into all the different rooms. The different pools offering different benefits. Enriched with different minerals.
By the time we left my mood was lifted. I felt less anxious, more positive. My adrenalin fuelled by diving from the sauna into the freezing cold pools of water.
As we walked home I let myself sink into my own thoughts. Dóra and Alun walked ahead together.
We got back and Dóra made dinner. “The curry’s cold. Alun doesn’t mind it that way.”
I settled down onto the mattress allocated as my bed on the bottom bunk. They sat on the floor next to each other talking. I tried to join in. I was ignored.
Just get on with something of your own. Forget about them. I got out my laptop and started looking at things I could do tomorrow around Budapest. “What would you recommend doing in Budapest?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’m not the tourist.” They looked at each other and carried on talking.
At 10:00pm Dóra announced she was going to bed. All the lights were turned off and I was suddenly plunged into darkness.
OK… I guess I’m going to bed too.
I got my things together and got into bed.
And then I heard her moan.
It was only quiet at first.
Just a yawn. I thought.
But then again, and again.
I thought about my headphones. They’d broken the day before so only one of them now worked. That wouldn’t cut it.
I heard Dóra – it had to be Dóra – moan again, but this time louder.
You’ve got to be kidding me. If they fuck above me, I’m leaving.
I heard their bodies move around. Their voices a low whisper. And then silence. As if they’d thought better of it.
The next morning I woke up, I was tired and anxious.
They either don’t want me here, or they just want to be able to act like I’m not here.
I didn’t feel comfortable.
Maybe I just need to break through. Cook them dinner and bond with them.
Dóra had already gone to work so I messaged her, “Would you like me to cook dinner for both of you tonight?”
“Alun wants to cook tonight.”
That’s cool. No problem. I suggested a couple of things we might do in the evening together. She seemed to be warming slightly. Maybe I was right. Maybe I just needed to persevere a bit more.
I spent all day worrying about what the evening would be like. I’d asked in the morning what time I would be able to come home as I didn’t have a house key. They’d been vague about committing to an answer. Was I just going to get a message part way through my day saying they were home and going to bed? I felt like I was awaiting a curfew. It bruised my day. I struggled to relax. Felt trapped.
Stuart had arrived late the evening before in Budapest. We hadn’t planned on meeting up. But when you’re low, there’s nothing worse than being alone. And I wanted the company of someone to distract me.
I had left the house early, not wanting to hang around. Dóra had gone to work but Alun was still there. I skipped having a shower. The sulphur, magnesium, and iron from the baths clinging to my hair.
I was in Buda Castle. Walking around. The weather was hot. So much warmer than Vienna. I was surprised by the difference.
I bought a cheese covered pretzel from a street vendor. The sky stretched out across the city. The river Danube separating the two halves of the city, Buda and Pest. The one side flat, the other a rocky range of highs and lows.
There were guards in uniforms with guns doing salutes and marching parades. People stood behind a red rope watching.
As I looked out across the Danube it occurred to me that so many of these people in Hungary might have never been to the beach. Something so intrinsic to British summer time. Completely absent in this country.
We met up at around 2pm at Vörösmarty Square for the walking tour. There was a group of us. We’d all met at Hostel Postel in Cesky Krumlov and were now gathered here in Budapest. It was good to be around people. I wanted to be distracted.
The tour guide, although kind and lively, was quietly spoken. I struggled to hear him but enjoyed the tour of the city nonetheless.
As we walked I received a text from Dóra and Alun, “When are you coming back?”
“I want to go for a run before dinner,” the next message said, and then, “What time are you making dinner?”
At this point my anxiety mounted. I felt suffocated.
I unloaded my awkward CS experience onto Kelly and asked her if she thought I was being fair, “Am I the one that’s being difficult?”
“No, not at all, get out of there girl.”
The dilemma frustrated me. I didn’t want to bail ship needlessly but simultaneously I’d spent the whole day dreading going back, and these messages only furthered my anxiety. If the experience to this point hadn’t been so awkward, I wouldn’t have minded what could easily have been a miscommunication. But I just felt fed up with their unwillingness to cooperate and interact with me.
That isn’t what couchsurfing is about when you’re the host or the surfer. It’s about interacting and exchanging culture. It’s about meeting new people. And if you don’t have interest or time for that, then you state that on your profile. CS is based on trust and a mutual understanding of what is expected from both sides. This had felt unwelcoming from the moment I’d arrived and I didn’t feel as though it was as a result of my lack of trying.
Everyone else was going to a boat party that night. “It’s just a huge party, but on a boat,” said Mitch enthusiastically. “All the hostels go. They pick people up as they walk over.”
It sounded awful. A mass organised piss up on a boat with awful music and no real focus other than to get shit faced. I don’t mind getting drunk. I love it. Who doesn’t? But I don’t like mindlessly downing alcohol for the sake of it.
“It’s not really my kind of thing…” I said, a pleading tone in my voice, “Why don’t we go to the ruin bars instead?” These bars were mass tourist attractions, although no more so than the hostel organised piss up on a boat. The ruin bars were a series of bars set up in caves, dilapidated abandoned buildings, and more.
No one was game.
Eventually, Kelly and I agreed we would go to the boat party together and that I would also check into her hostel for the night and escape my awkward CS experience.
The hostel Kelly was staying in was called Home Made Hostel and it was well lush. Kooky and quirky, it had charm and a distinctly homely feel.
I checked in, we ate, I showered, we got ready. For the first time on my trip, I wished I had something other than unwashed jeans to wear.
Bottles of cheap champagne were flowing all over the boat, being passed from hand to hand. I’d already had three beers, I said I’d rather not. “I shouldn’t mix my drinks. It always goes badly for me when I do!”
“Oh go on. It’ll be fine!”
Why did I cave?
I have no idea. It wasn’t a good idea though.
The night progressed and every time we went under a bridge everyone kissed.
A few hours passed and I, predictably, found myself in the toilets throwing up.
I had mixed my drinks. What had I expected?
There was a bang on the door. The boat had emptied. Security were there.
“Alright. I’m coming out. I’m fine.”
They banged again. Shouted something angrily.
I stood up and opened the door. And suddenly a very angry security guard looked sheepishly away as we locked eyes. He said sorry and pointed up the stairs.
A security guard on each side, I was escorted off the boat.
Getting back to the hostel was a rigmarole I’m loath to repeat. I rang Sion. He stayed on the phone to me until I was safe.
The next morning I had messages on my phone from Stuart. “Are you OK?” “Are you home?” “Where are you?” “Are you safe?”
I’d got back to the hostel and fallen asleep on the toilet for two hours before dragging myself into bed.
I’m not a boat party person. I should also not mix my drinks.
The next day I woke up feeling horrendous. I had planned to move on to Slovenia today, but I felt as though I was going to be sick at every move.
Kelly and I went for breakfast together. I struggled.
I made it to the train station just as my train pulled away.
There wasn’t another one for four or five hours.
“Me too. I just missed my train. I need a hug.”
Forty minutes later and I checked in to Maverick Hostel. We sat on a sofa together. Hungover and not feeling at our most social. Stuart was winding me up. I was in a bad mood.
“Drink a coffee.” He kept saying. I was refusing. He made me a coffee. I drank it. I felt better.
We spent that evening on the sofa watching Netflix, recovering from our hangovers.
Before going to bed, we said a final goodbye. I was going to Slovenia, and he was staying here. The partnership officially coming to a close.
“Well, I guess I’ll see you… Probably never again,” I said laughing.
He smiled. “Sounds good to me! It’s been nice travelling with you Hope.”