There is a lunatic running down the train platform in a Serbian border town chasing after a moving train. The reason he is distraught is that the departing train is carrying all of his luggage and most of his money. As you might have guessed, that lunatic is me.
My day started in Budapest, where, inexplicably but typically, I waited until the last possible second to secure a taxi to the train station, and arrived too late to catch it, but not too late for the station agent to sell me a ticket for that very train anyway. Of course, it was foolish of me to believe in the Hungarian transportation system, but, you’d think that, usually, when you screw up and sell someone a ticket for a train that was already gone, and you sent that customer frantically flying from your counter, down a flight of stairs, under the tracks, and up another while toting 40 kilos of luggage in oxygen-depriving heat, only to find out through an interpreter that you missed your train, you would assume some kind of ownership of the problem.
Ha! Just kidding, of course. When I presented myself to the agent, drenched in sweat, after having hauled my baggage once again back to the ticket counter, where I had to wait in line behind a stinking Albanian purchasing tickets for what appeared to be most of his extended family and friends, she greeted the news of the departing train without a trace of surprise or empathy, and proceeded to tell me (with a Stalinesque joy that I couldn’t quite understand) that my ticket was non-refundable and non-changeable! When I protested that it was she herself that told me I would make the train, she allowed as how the ticket was good for 24 hours, and thus I could still take the late afternoon train from a different station or the (here cue the horror music) night train, in which I would not be able to secure a berth in the sleeper car, because of the aforementioned non-changeable nature of my purchase.
So it was that I found myself trying to navigate back into the city to a station that was actually within walking distance of my hotel to begin with. The station agent told me to take the train to the other station, so (and yes, this is my fault) I actually believed her and dutifully went underground again, where I began the long and laborious process of deciphering not only the route map of Budapest but also the Byzantine ticketing machine, which was encrypted in such a way that even the native Hungarian woman standing in front of me asked for my help with it. Eventually, I bought a ticket and went directly to the wrong platform, where I waited a while before asking for help myself. By that time, it was of course too late to catch the train to the next station, and I needed to once again take a taxi back into town, only this time I must pay more, because the cabbie takes one look at me and assumes I am mentally unstable, which is not far from the truth at this point.
I arrive at the main Budapest train station, which is an architectural marvel but run by…well, no one in particular, it seems, because the train has been delayed, and no one knows how long it will be until it arrives or even what platform it will arrive at. I am directed by a uniformed man to wait in a crowd of likewise bewildered passengers, where I stand in the sweltering heat, steam, and diesel fumes that are all part of the of the romantic charm of a train station in August, and in only twenty minutes they decide that the train will come in on the exact opposite side of the station from where we are waiting.
We rush to that side, and, in a manner reminiscent of the railway scene in Dr Zhivago, no one knows which car they are supposed to be on, especially me, so we all just cram onto the train wherever we can as quickly as we can to try to score a seat before they’re all gone, since of course none of them are assigned, as that would be way too easy for all involved.
I wind up in a compartment with a man, his two children, and two teenage girls, all of whom want to practice their English with me as soon as they find out that the new guy, the one who is sweating so much that his armrest is already wet, is an American. The girl next to me offers me a Wetnap with a sympathetic look in her eyes, then another when she sees the first one barely took care of wiping a single forearm, then finally gives up as it is obvious to her and to me that the entire box would be needed just to staunch the flow for a few minutes.
In effect, we are in a double solar oven, since the station has a greenhouse-type glass covering the entire roof, and we are securely sealed inside a steel compartment, so that is why, I suppose, we are allowed to baste for another twenty minutes while waiting to roll, just to make sure we are thoroughly well done, which we are. So I am amazed that, even once we get going, the father who is next to the window doesn’t push it down, but rather assumes an easy banter with his kids, who also seem nonplussed by the whole affair and relatively impervious to the sauna-like conditions.
So I sally forth from the torture chamber into the passageway, which is jam-packed with people who are all sticking their heads and limbs out of the open windows, yearning to be free, or at least cool, for a few minutes. I assume a position between two giant Slovakians and thrust my own head out of the window, only to draw it back in immediately when my face whizzes past a telephone pole at Worp factor 9. The Slovaks laugh cheerfully at my dismay, and soon enough, I hazard to stick my face and arms out of the window again, and am able to enjoy the hot blast furnace of air that dries my skin even as it cracks it.
So there we are on that train from hell, hanging our paws and faces out of the car like dogs, happily sniffing the stockyards of southern Hungary, except most of us don’t have our tongues out, as we must preserve that precious moisture in our mouths, when we cross the border into Serbia, where we come to a halt, and are boarded by grim, yet…humorless guards, who are so large that they must turn sideways and bend their heads to navigate the passageway. Everyone scurries to their compartments, like rabbits who know the wolves are out, and, when they get to mine, I foolishly rise out of my seat to hand him my passport, and he tells me in English to “Sit down!….Now!”, with the same accent as Arnold Schwarzennegger, only I think this guy is bigger and has perhaps actually killed someone before, and not in a movie.
It takes them 30 minutes to check all the passengers, and they do pull two of them off for further questioning. I’m not sure if they’re ever heard from again.
After a few hours of this, I have discerned a pattern, which is that the train stops a maximum of every 20 kilometers at every wide spot in the road and stays for about 5 minutes, which is why I am surprised when we roll into the border town of Subotica, we wait for 20 minutes. I ask the family man across from me how long we’ll be here, and he only shrugs resignedly, like a man banished to thirty years hard labor in a Gulag, so I decide to venture out of the train to buy some water in order to rehydrate.
I am buying water in the train depot when I hear a train moving, which doesn’t at first surprise me, given my location, but what does surprise me is that it’s my own train that’s moving…the one I just got off of. You know, the one with my luggage, money, and-yes-passport. Now, you may think I’m foolish, leaving all of my possessions unsecured aboard the Train from Hell simply to get some water, but I will say that I badly needed the water and that my luggage was secured by a family of three whom I’d met fully three hours ago. Oh, and I’m an imbecile.
I run for the train across the tracks, watching it slowly but inexorably pull away from me while screaming “STOP!” at the top of my lungs. My desperate plan, if the train fails to slow, is to race up to the open boxcar door and, like some stunt man in a B movie, jump into the opening just as it reaches escape velocity, which is about 7 MPH for a sweaty fat guy with a bum knee. A station employee, who is observing my frantic dash confronts me directly and orders me off the tracks, but he is countered by a group of bystanders who seem to be cheering me on, like a scene from Von Ryan’s Express.
Finally, I obey the orders and give up the chase. The angry platform agent gets right in my face to explain to me in what I assume is perfect Serbian that I am an idiot.
“Please!” I say to him. “I must get on the train! My luggage!”
I might as well have been talking to a Martian. Worse, the guy seems to think my predicament is funny, because a smirk plays across his face for just a brief moment.
Miraculously, and to my great relief, the train comes to a halt only about 100 yards from where it first started. The thought occurs to me that the agent knew this all along, but when I look at him, he seems disappointed that he was unable to personally witness the utter destruction of my puny and insignificant existence.
My mistake, if we get past my pathetic excuse for a life, was that I got off the train at a regular stop, and, in the usual cryptic Slavic way, no announcement was made about how long we would be there, or even the name of the town, so I thought I had plenty of time, especially since many other passengers also exited at that station, but of course, the schedule, such as it was, was left entirely up to the whim of the conductor, or mere joss, I cannot say for sure.
Back in the train, I survey my situation grimly. We left Budapest almost 4 hours ago, late of course, after baking in the solar double oven that was the light-filled K station downtown, Now, I ask my travel companions how long it will take to get to Beograde (Belgrade).
“Twelve hours,” he deadpans.
I can’t believe I heard him right, but after a few minutes I realize the train won’t get in until the next morning at best. I have a decision to make-quickly, before the train leaves.
“Have you ever been to Subotica?” I ask.
“No”, he replies. “But I’ve heard it’s nice.”
I pack up my bags and get off the train, reasoning that even the possibility of “nice” beats the absolute certainty of unbearable, and haul my luggage down the street to the nearest hotel, which I hope is livable, and check in. I can tell that the clerk is a bit surprised to see an American checking in unannounced from the Budapest train, but at least she does give me the name of a decent bar to visit.
So I’m sitting at the aforementioned bar in a Serbian border town drinking bad beer when I meet a young guy who invites me to drink with his friends, and that turns into a car ride to an unknown part of town, an all night party involving what I assume are illegal drugs, a free (but ugly) T shirt that I accept graciously, a girl that tells me, gratuitously, that I am too old for her, and a stagger/walk back to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning, in which I use the steeple of the town’s only church as an orientation point and the bicycle racks as leaning tools, but, miraculously, I DO return before the sun is up, and am able to say that I avoided the full desolation and misery of the train from Hell. So at least there’s that.
And, once I greeted through bleary eyes the dawn of a new day, I can attest to the fact that Subotica is indeed a very nice town, as these photos, all taken there, should prove. Nevertheless, my advice is, if you go to Serbia, don’t go by train…take the flight directly into Belgrade like all the normal people do.