Budapest, Szeretem

We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.
—Jawaharial Nehru


Hungary is very cheap on the Döner Price Index. The DPI is the best way of judging cost in a European country, since every country has some variant on the Near-Eastern döner/shawarma/gyro/kebab. Berlin and Vienna, where a savory wrap costs €2.80, are the median. Munich and Salzburg are pretty expensive at €3.20. Budapest, though, sets a record at €2 flat. The quality is a little worse -- the döner is literally thrown together -- but the acrobatics involved in the split-second preparation make up for the food's jumbled composition.

Food here is excellent. The Hungarian staples are sausage, potatoes, and noodles with heavy doses of salt and paprika. It's good for curing the hangovers that inevitably follow consumption of cheap Hungarian wine, which is so awful that they usually mix it with coke.

Hungary is on the borer of the old Soviet bloc. After the communists departed, leaving behind concrete and glass Proletariat apartments, a self-deprecating irony, and a metric ton of Kalashnikovs sold for bottles of vodka, the re-liberated Hungarians ripped up the star-shaped beds of red flowers, sent all the Lenin statues to a huge stockyard a few miles down the Danube, and elected all the communist party members back into their new democratic government. Way to go!

I took a free walking tour my first full day here, and the guide took every opportunity to exercise her newfound freedom of speech: "Here is the building for the government finance bureau. Three-thousand people do the work that 1,000 could do. It is very big, very expensive." She then told us about the Hungarian national sport -- dodging taxes -- and showed us an old oil-burning Soviet car from East Germany that became a symbol of national pride, representing clandestine freedom from prying eyes.

Budapest has two sides: Buda and Pest. Buda, meaning water, is built into the limestone hills west of the Danube. The palace is there, as are extravagant Turkish baths and luxury accommodations. Pest, which means heating system, collects smog in a flatland on the eastern side. It has bustling markets for hearty Hungarian food, the Jewish Quarter and the largest synagogue in Europe, and the Parliament building, the offspring of a Turkish mosque and a gothic cathedral, and a flag that has a hole in it where the communist emblem used to be. They built a Municipal Concert Hall which looks great but has acoustics so horrible that no composer will take his work there. They hold raves in the basement and are in the process of leasing it as office space. Pest is much better than Buda.

The subway here was the first in Europe. The rickety old trains accelerate like F-1 racecars and then slam on the brakes so even the stolid Hungarians are thrown around the car. Charlie Brown's teacher announces the stops. It does not help comprehension that Hungarian is the most messed up language after English -- Central Asian roots with a little Finnish and German sprinkled in to make it more confusing. For example, "Thank you" is "Köszönöm szépen."

If you get ticketed on the Budapest Metro, just give the cops a US address. It costs them more to file the paperwork and send it to the states than they would get from a paid fine. So they don't fine you, and you get to ride the Metro for free. This is also one of those places where you have to negotiate the price before you get into a cab to avoid paying $50 a mile (or 11,000 forints, if you go by Hungary's inflated currency).

Enough background. Yesterday I visited one of the Hungarian bath houses. They have traditional Turkish ones, but I went to a more modern variant that was more like a water park with saunas. Saunas range from 50 to 80 degrees Celsius. Some have herbal scents in the oppressive air, and some provide fountains of ice that you're supposed to rub on yourself. Or that's what other people did. I'm not too keen on bath house etiquette, but I did learn a little at the Roman bath in England. I knew to jump into the freezing pool after soaking in the 40 degree mineral water hot tub or sweating in the sauna.

On Wednesday I went caving. The limestone hills under and around the Buda side are riddled with holes carved by ground water and are a popular tourist attraction. I went with some people I'd met on a bus up into the hills to a cabin next to the highway. Our cave guide was a Hungarian named Laslow. He was wearing a felt jumpsuit when he introduced himself and looked ridiculous. Later we all put on canvas jumpsuits to keep the mud off, but he still looked ridiculous since he had a butane candle on his forehead in addition to the miner's headlight.


When we were geared up, Laslow led the eleven of us across the highway and down into a gully, then unlocked and opened a metal door into a manmade tunnel with a thirty foot ladder that went down into subterranea. The limestone walls were cool and wet with underground humidity that turned the dust into adhesive clay. The caves ran 100 meters deep, but in some places tree roots pierced cracks in the roof and dangled worthlessly overhead. Once we saw sea shells embedded in the clay like decorations in a cheap hotel room.

"You must not think that cavers are old men with glasses and beards," Laslow told us defensively, and he proceeded to describe the free-spirited youth of cavers. He always had the ladies go first when we moved out. At first he said, "I am a gentleman," but later he told us the real reason: "It is good to let the ladies go first so then you can watch the bum."

At one point Laslow showed off by climbing up a tall, narrow part of the cave like Spiderman. From the top he wedged his knees into the wall and slid down the bare rock, then stopped halfway and climbed back up. Later he shimmied through a hole in the rock that looked too small for a fourth grader. The ring was called the Pooh Hole. A lot of spots in the cave have names -- the Library, the Elephant, the Giant's Hall -- and some are more insalubrious than others.

"This cave is called the Birth Canal," Laslow announced at one of the narrow parts of the cave where we had to crawl on our elbows and bellies. In case some people were confused, Laslow clarified, "It is called the Birth Canal because it is tight."

"I am a gentleman," said Laslow, "but when men are away from the girls, their girlfriends and wives, for a long time, we become very vulgar. That is why they call us. . . men."

Our three hour tour took us over one kilometer of the underground labyrinth. We had to crawl for about thirty meters of this. The group was all young, fit people, so Laslow took us on a longer route through some pretty difficult obstacles, including one of the narrowest passageways in the Budapest caves.

The tunnel was shaped like an inverted triangle with a deep, narrow rut along the bottom. A person could fit in the top half only if she turned on her side. To complicate things, a rock like a shark's tooth stuck up out of the ground at the entrance. So to navigate this tunnel, we had to keep ourselves elevated above the rut and worm into the passage on one arm, with our right arm wedged against the stone ceiling, and then push ourselves forward with our feet while taking care not to catch a shoe on the shark's tooth or wedge it in the narrow rut below, or to lie down or catch our helmets on something, because then we would be stuck.

"Where is Jon?" Laslow asked after explaining this. He was asking because we were lying side-by-side under a slab of rock, like cigarettes in a case. Everyone between me and Laslow laid down so I could see him.

"Jon, you are very tall. You must keep your bum up and raise your. . . your bum to make it through. You won't be able to bring your foot in until near the end. Don't get your foot caught and don't lay down."

"Okay."

"Don't worry, it is easy."

"Sure."

Well my turn came and I squirmed and shoved and twisted into the mud-slick rock until I knew I was stuck for sure, only I wasn't and kept moving. The passage went straight like I said for a meter and a half past the shark's tooth. Then it widened a bit and curved right 90 degrees onto a shelf a foot off the floor, with the ceiling a foot above that. Like a worm I turned and pushed my chest onto the shelf, and with my arms I pulled my legs out of the clinging triangular chute and into the chamber beyond. Only then did I exhale.

Laslow talked while everyone caught their breath: "Some people can make it physically, they just get mentally tired and lay down and say, 'I am stuck.' That is why I go first. I show them I can do it so they believe it can be done. I know it is silly, but if you believe it can be done you can do it, too."

It was pretty easy going after that. We climbed back out and came into a familiar part of the cave, then headed back toward the ladder and the world above.

"Ohp, here comes a cave monster. I hope a female," said Laslow. An old man with a thick grey beard came around the corner. He looked like a miner in a Disney movie, and he and his two friends strolled through the crowded passage faster than I move through a city street. "Nope, today I have no luck."

"I think we lost someone."

"No everyone is here God damn it. Haha, I am joking. We only lost two people yesterday. Haha."

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