Any trip or a holiday creates numerous memories, memorable anecdotes and photographs. But travel stories are created when your best laid plans go haywire. All good stories start with an element of the “unexpected” – getting lost in a city, taking a wrong train and arriving somewhere else altogether, missed connections, getting deported are a few of such unexpected elements and I am sure you get my drift. My travels are self-planned budget trips and despite a lot of research there have been many occasions wherein all that could go wrong has gone wrong and in return many memorable stories created. But my favorite so far is being “Homeless in Hungary”.
In 2013 we, a group of four girls, were traveling within Europe – my sister and I with our two friends. We had spent some time in Budapest and our next stop was Ljubljana in Slovenia. The day before our travel date we visited the ticket counter in Budapest and figured that we had two options for this journey – one was to go by an overnight train through Austria for which the ticket was approx. EUR 121 per person and the other was to take a day train through Croatia for approx. EUR 30 per person. Now for a budget traveler this was a no brainer so we all agreed and boarded the day train starting from Budapest traveling through Croatia for Ljubljana.
Our trip started well and we enjoyed the long journey with a book and some scenic views of the Hungarian countryside. Some of the towns that we passed by were so scenic that we craned our necks to see the names of the stations for adding these stops to our next trip in this country.
Around 5.45pm in the evening we reached the Hungarian border town of Gyekenyes. The train stopped here for a long time and just wouldn’t move. After a while we started wondering if there was a problem or accident when we realized that the Hungarian passport control team and customs team were checking passports!! Though we didn’t understand the reason for it at that time we waited for our turn. Pretty soon an officer came to our compartment and asked for our passports and with one look at our friends visa started shaking his head. We understood that there was a problem but as he didn’t speak any English, we didn’t understand what the issue was. He then called a lady officer who spoke minimal English to translate for us. The lady officer came and said to me and my sister ” you stay” and to our friends she said “you down from the train”!!!!
Flabbergasted we asked for the reason and the lady officer explained the following in broken English. At that time Croatia was to join EU in another 2 months but was accepting Schengen visa. In this arrangement, the Hungarian passport control was stamping you out of Hungary and on entering Croatia the Croatian passport control would stamp you inside Croatia. For this you needed a multiple entry Schengen visa. Since my sister and I had a multiple entry visa we were good to go ahead but our friends had a single entry visa and so they couldn’t cross the border.
But we couldn’t leave our friends alone and so we all got off the train thinking “we are in trouble” and wondering “what the hell do we do now”. No one around us spoke any English and there was no wifi. My friend who lives in Europe was in Saudi Arabia then and we couldn’t call home without needlessly worrying everyone (and they couldn’t help us anyways). We then realized that we were, in a way, the responsibility of the passport control officers who had gotten us off the train. These guys asked us to buy tickets to another border town called Szombathely and said we can take the train to Ljubljana from there. We had finished our Kroners and had to first go and withdraw some money from the atm. But at the ticket counter we figured there was some issue. The passport control guy was telling the woman at the ticket counter to give us the tickets to Szombathely but she was not willing to do that and kept arguing with the passport control guy. After a long time she finally gave in and gave us the tickets. The passport control person then told us that the train was at 8.30pm and he would see us then.
Once that guy left the ticket lady came out of her booth and started trying to communicate with us. But since she spoke no English we didn’t understand what she was trying to say. She then took us to a train station map and showed us that the station where we were headed i.e. Szombathely was the last stop in Hungary and had no connections to Ljubljana. We finally understood why she was angry with the other guy. As they had pulled us off the train they were putting us on the first available train and this wasn’t heading in the direction we wanted. We were now truly worried on what we should do. We then called a friend and asked him to search for the best way to reach Ljubljana from Szombathely. He researched and called us back saying we needed to change 5 trains but the route was as follows – Gyekenyes to Szombathely, Szombathely to Szentgotthard, Szentgotthárd to Fehring, Fehring to Graz and finally Graz to Ljubljana.
At 8.30pm the passport control guy came and put us on our first train to Szombathely that was filled with people who probably had never seen any Indians in their life. We reached Szombathely around 10.50pm, without any food, and barely made it to the last ticket counter before it closed for the night. Since the lady here too didn’t speak any English and for the life of us we couldn’t pronounce Szentgotthard we wrote the name of the station and bought tickets on the first train out (i.e. around 4.30am) . We then found some cozy sofa’s and decided to sleep the night away. Alas, we were not so lucky. The station guard came a little later and signaled to us that we had to leave. Since we gave him blank looks he took us to a notice board which said that the station was going to be closed from 11.30pm to 2.30 am. So all of us, with our backpacks and another homeless man were shown the door for the next 3 hours.
Tired, hungry (we all are vegetarians) and dejected we picked our backpacks and sat along the walls of the station in a nice nook. We were initially worried but then thought that this is Europe so there is no security issue. It was pretty windy outside and we didn’t have the right clothes So we were cold and hiding behind the backpacks and luggage. After a few minutes the cold started getting to us so we wore all our regular clothes to add on layers of clothing to block the wind. A little while later we saw two police officers coming our way! One of them spoke English and asked us for our passports and what we were doing on the road. We showed them our passports and tickets and they exclaimed “Indians!” looked at all of us, smiled, wished us a good night and walked away! Guess they had not seen Indians ever before either.
Since the policemen left us on the road we felt this must be safe even though the darkness of the night has a tendency to spook all of us. After a while it started getting really dark and there was not a single soul around, not even a stray dog! There was no light in any of the houses around the station and in one house a TV was on with a hazy picture running on it. After a while we noticed a black sedan speed through the one-way road (with us in view), go around and then come back for a second look.. Worried we sat still as the car approached us and then the car stopped right there – in front of us – waiting for something or someone! We observed the car, didn’t understand, didn’t know what else to do and were slowly terrified. All of us had seen the movie Taken and realized that we were in Eastern Europe and our fear magnified by leaps and bounds. To add to this we saw a white van stop near the car with two big guys with tattooed arms in the van talking to the sedan guy and we totally panicked! We got up and started banging at the station door asking for help, but this was Europe and no one opened the door or came out from anywhere else. We then rummaged through our bags and took out things that could help with self-defense. The items were – a bottle of Relispray, a baguette, an umbrella and frantic prayers to all Gods and Goddesses of India!!!!! In our defense, desperate times call for desperate measures.
This incident lasted for about 30 minutes but felt like a lifetime. Thankfully both the cars left after a while and we were all relieved! We then ran to the other side of the station to be out of view even if it meant extreme wind and waited for 2.30am and for the doors of the station to open. At 2.30am the station guard came and took us inside the warm station where we just dumped our bags, told the station guard to wake us up at 4.15am and slept off. The station guard, though he didn’t speak a word of English either, was one of the sweetest people I have ever met on my travels. He woke us up in time to catch the train, got the train doors opened and got us seated in the correct seats. We then proceeded to make the 4 next connections and finally reached Ljubljana in the afternoon the next day. Ironically we spent EUR 120 for this entire journey.
Though today it’s a story I love telling my friends and people I meet, I must admit I was terrified then. However this experience taught me some valuable lessons –
1. Travel, especially with my kind of travel, there is a high probability of things going wrong. But if you keep a cool head on your shoulders and think (instead of panicking) it’s possible to get out of anything.
2. You can communicate with anyone and language is just not the only way of communication.
3. This world is full of amazing people and you have to travel to meet with them.
4. Being homeless is not easy and its actually quite scary.
5. Always double check on visa requirements for any trip and keep your international roaming handy.