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Budapest: Water, Fire, and the Backpack Guesthouse

I haven’t stayed at a whole lot of hostels in my time. So far on this trip, Bec and I have mostly bunkered down in private rooms, enjoying the, er, privacy. Budapest was a different story though. A friend of mine who had travelled through Eastern Europe just a few months earlier (and who is now in Africa, and spent a week tracking gorillas not too long ago. Tough life, I know) recommended a hostel in Buda, a bit out of the city, called the Backpack Guesthouse. And even with my limited experience sleeping in bunk beds trying to block out the snoring of my roommates, sharing a kitchen with 30 others, holding your hand on a button in the shower to keep the water flowing, and answering the same three questions over and over again; where are you from, where have you been, and where are you going, I’m positive that the Backpack Guesthouse in Budapest will go down as one of the greatest hostels I’ll ever stay in.

It was set up in quiet residential street, was manned by uber friendly staff, and had an owner, Atilla, who was always smiling and helpful and who had travelled extensively. The walls were adorned by photos he had taken on his travels, some wonderful portraits in particular from India, Iran, Pakistan, and Papua New Guinea. It had a seemingly endless list of dvd’s and videos you could watch, and a chilled out soundtrack wafting from speakers in the kitchen and lounge. It had cheap, cold beer. But the greatest thing about this hostel, and something that should be madatory in all hostels, was the hammocks. In the leafy backyard were four hammocks, stretched out between trees, places one could easily lay down with a book and lose a few days.

Amongst the 50 or so travellers staying there, we met some wonderful people. We met Dylan, an Australian from the hills outside of Adelaide, and his Belgian girlfriend Mieke, who spoke with an almost flawless Australian accent. Dyaln was a big guy, but softly spoken, and listened to you speak with his big, round eyes. He was also a poi master. What’s that? You don’t know what poi is? Don’t worry, neither did I until I was nearly hit in the head by a flying sock filled with rice and lentils. Poi is a past-time popular with, well, I don’t know any other way to put it, so, popular with hippie types. It’s also common with fire twirlers. When you see a fire twirler with two chains, one in each hand, the ends of which are balls of fire that are spinning around said fire twirler’s body without somehow getting entangled; that’s poi. (If you’re really keen, or still have absloutely no idea what the hell I’m talking about, check out Dylan’s favourite website, Home of Poi.) Dylan always seemed to have in his hands two long socks, the ends filled with rice and lentils, and was forever twirling them around his body, weilding them like the weapons of some long lost martial art.

Of course, as with any large group of people, we also met some absolute nuff nuffs. One American girl in particular was the most obnoxiuosly rude and annoyingly loud and inconsiderate person I’ve ever met. But now, before all you non-Americans out there start mumbling about ‘yeah, Americans, know what you mean’, we also met some great folks from the States. Steve was in his early 40’s, was headed to Romania with Dylan and Mieke after Budapest, and spent last year travelling across the US on his motorbike, camping in National Parks. Someone who knew how to listen after he asked a question, he was one of the good guys. Sarah was another, a small, softly spoken girl from LA. Very friendly, with a gorgeous smile. And then there was Sam, a 19 year old from Florida who was our only constant room-mate whilst we were there. He was piss funny, and looked like a wookie. Enough said.

One of the major drawcards of Budapest are the numerous thermal baths that populate the city, and it was there that we ventured with Dylan, Mieke, and a few others after a typically boozy night. After paying the 12 or so dollars to get in, I ventured down into the change rooms, to be confronted by a number of fat, naked Hungarian men, drying themselves with hair dryers hanging from the walls. I quickly took my glasses off, so I didn’t have to see anything unneccesary, put my boardies on, and wandered, squinting, out onto the pool deck. Well, pool deck doesn’t exactly do the place justice. This was more like a swimming palace. I was standing outdoors, in front of me was a lap pool full of old men and women in ill-fitting swimming caps, to my far left was another pool where women stood, unmoving, over jets of bubbles bursting through the water surface. To my right, was a naturally heated pool with extravagant steps leading down from three sides, along the fourth side was statue with a fountain that flowed down into the pool, the water jets from which acted as shoulder massages for those standing underneath. Just to each side of the statue and fountain, sitting just above the chest-high water level, were three or four chess boards, surrounded by old, semi-naked, Hungarian men who stood for hours in the warm water moving their pawns and rooks and bishops about the board like war generals – except for the whole semi-naked standing chest deep in the waters of a thermal bath of course.

After standing in this pool for a while (standing was all you did – you could hardly call it a swimming pool, it really was a giant warm bath), I wandered over to the pool with the bubble jets, and found the greatest feature of any body of water I’ve ever set my milky white feet into. In the middle of this pool was a ciruclar wall, about 10 metres across, inside which was another circle – if you looked down from above it would look something like a target. Hidden in the outer wall, and facing inwards, were a number of jets which propelled the water around forming a giant whirlpool. For five or so minutes in every ten, the jets would pump the waistdeep water around the pool – you could lift your feet up, put your back against the wall, and fly around the cirlce. It was awesome.

These three pools/baths were surrounded by gorgeous old yellow buildings, which housed all sorts of saunas, spas, and more whirlpools. Three hours here went by in no time. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed, and so you will miss out on seeing the fat, naked Hungarian men.

That night, Bec, myself, and another Melbournite we’d met had plans to go to a local Jazz and Blues bar to see some music. As we were leaving, I waited outside the hostel whilst the girls got directions from Atilla. Bec came bouncing down the steps, “We’re not going. Atilla’s taking us to a better place.” Alright. The group of four somehow grew to nine, and we all piled into Atilla’s van. He drove us over the Danube and into Pest, down a typically dirty looking back street, and led us through an unmarked door leading into a rundown old building. Inside was a pumping bar, filled with hip young Hungarians. Fooz ball tables surrounded by cheering people stood in small rooms off the main corridor, which led outside to a chilled out bar. There was a chill in the air; in summer the place would’ve been perfect. A few beers here, and we headed down another dark back street, lined with what looked like abandoned warehouse buildings. A few young men mingled out the front of one, and it was into here that Atilla walked. We followed, and were led into an open courtyard, surrounded by derelect old buildings. The courtyard, though, had been transformed into an outdoor party. A thirty to forty foot bar lined one wall, tables were scattered about, and some fire twirlers danced to the beats of the DJ in one corner. At the other end, a pair of grumpy old women in their 50’s guarded the toilets; a row of porta-potties, usable at the cost of 50 Forint, or about 35 cents. Budapest had a great underground bar scene, and thanks to Atilla, we were right in the middle of it. The warehouse was due to be demolished in just a few months time, before winter set in, so the bar was near the end of its days.

A girl handed us a flyer with some Hungarian on it at 11pm, and mentioned something about a concert starting. We followed her into one of the abandoned warehouses, down some crumbling old concrete stairs, and into a large concrete room, perhaps 30 metres by 20. The walls were filled with holes, this place hadn’t seen any real action for years. At one end, illuminated in stage lights rigged to the ceiling, was a local new wave punk band, surrounded by stacked speakers, belting out tunes. Think The Killers mixed with The Sex Pistols, sung in Hungarian. A few folding chairs were scattered about, and 30 or so people danced around, or stood nodding their heads, drinking from plastic cups. It was one of those pinch yourself moments, when I have to remind myself where I am, and what I’m doing. Lucky is a grand understatement.

I went back upstairs, where I was chatting to Jodie, another Australian who I’d met earlier at the hostel. When she heard Dylan was a poi master, she had commented something along the lines of, ‘I don’t really use the socks, I only ever do it if they’re on fire’. Here at the warehouse, upon seeing the firetwirlers in the corner, including a girl doing poi, she ventured over to have a go. Now, Dylan was one of the first people I’d seen that could do poi, and he did it bloody well. He moved like someone doing tai chi, but doing it whilst dancing to a lounge dj. When Jodie got those two foot long chains in her hands though, lit the ends so that flame was shooting up nearly to her hands, and began twirling them around her arms, it wasn’t quite the same. She looked like she was under attack, bending at the knees and ducking her head, like she was avoiding giant flaming mosquitoes.

10 seconds after lighting the balls of fire, she whacked herself in the back of the head, and her hair lit up. She, of course, was oblivious to the whole thing, and continued twirling fire. And this was no little fire on her head, you could’ve roasted marshmallows there- the fire was practically roaring. Bec screamed out to her, but she couldn’t hear. Soon the guy manning all the fire twirling tools ran over and patted it out. All I could do was laugh.

Our final few nights in Budapest we stayed in at the hostel. With the cheap beer, and excellent music selection, it seemed like a giant house party, with everyone mingling about between the lounge room, kitchen, and hallway. And whilst for some people, this would’ve been the last thing they wanted after a hard days travelling, for us, after a month or so of private rooms, it was exactly what we needed.

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2 Responses to “Budapest: Water, Fire, and the Backpack Guesthouse”

  1. Bec Says:

    Let’s go back now.

  2. mieke festjens Says:

    it was just awesome we havent found anything like it anymore… :S 🙁

  3. Posted from Bulgaria Bulgaria

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