And just like that, my amazing journey has come to an abrupt end. I don't want to dwell on what happened, because it could happen to anyone and it's a misfortune I'm frankly fortunate enough not to have encountered until 6 months into my backpacking trip.
Basically, I was in a complete groggy haze when I woke up at 5:45 AM this morning. I didn't know we were in Budapest (I had been sleeping in a pathetic ball with my feet against cold metal in a shoddy box of a train car). I only knew that the conductor had just checked our passports/stamped them. The next thing I knew I was hastily packing all of my crap into my bag, ensuring I still had my phone charger and my camera. Unfortunately, my small leather purse with all of my credit cards, debit cards, Burt's Bees chapstick, 3 Romanian Lev, passport, and some Euro coins was sitting carefully under my ass the entire "sleep" (it was more of a wake up every 30 minutes to the train loudly stopping/trying not to punch the guy who was snoring like a hyena). Unfortunately, as I headed to the Information section of the shoddy train station and instinctively grabbed at my side for my bag, I had a panic attack. I realized I left my bag on the train and it hit me like a ton of bricks. HOLY FUCK. I have never done something so stupid, well except for that one time in Vietnam...I sprinted to the Information center and they clearly did not understand english or simply didn't care because they pointed in an irritated way to the other end of the station. I sprinted there, waited in line, confused, and asked a lady who grumpily told me it was not their company. Okay, that's odd. Nobody can help me and this is an EMERGENCY. Seriously, do you guys want me to stay here? She told me to go track 4 (WTF) and of course, nobody was there. I went to tracks 5/6 and found some conductors there. They were so sweet even though they hardly understood me. They let me sit in their shed, drink hot green tea (ugh I hadn't drank water in hours!), and eat a homemade sandwich. Seriously? Some people are so damn sweet. He also called the Romanian train line and apparently my purse was not there which either means A) he did not ask the right person B) somebody stole my purse C) somebody brought my purse to a lost and found official. UGH. I spent the next several hours holding back tears, getting to my hostel, being comforted by a very sweet 40 year old woman staying at the hostel who gave me a pepper, 2000 Hungarian forint, and multiple hugs. She even offered to buy me a flight home (I had very little in cash for this emergency!) and of course I declined. What a sweetheart. Then I went to the police, who did jackshit. I filed a report for insurance purposes, contacted an English translator myself (because they would not do that) and then they never came out to help me, even after 20 minutes when the lady said she would be back. Unbelievable. So different from my generous experience in Vietnam. Good luck if you need the police in Hungary, they don't give a shit. I notified my credit card and debit card companies that my cards had been lost and to reissue me a card back in the U.S. I went to the American Embassy and got a passport within a day (thank god!) and will get a new one for the same price back home (I only have a temporary one). They even played phone tag for me with the Romanian train line, yet they did not help AT ALL. Fuck it. It's all been a chaotic 24 hours and I decided to buy a student flight back home (got one for $400 when they were selling for $800-3000, for LONG layovers!!!). Although it has been the worst day of my life, I have to grin. I am very excited to come home and I truly feel there is a reason this happened (although I don't believe in a higher power). It taught me to accept what comes your way, even at the worst of times, and adapt. I know I WILL finish this trip some time in the near future, just not now. I need to go home and work on my career, organize my life, be there with my family and friends, and figure it out. I will certainly update this blog once those posts are ready and I can manage to travel again. In the mean time, here's what I wrote before my god awful turn of events this morning.
What do I love about being in a completely foreign culture where people adore pork, share a history of horrific political oppression, have strange sounding names and live outside of dreamlike forests? Well, it's the experience. After adapting myself to 4 months of quiet, shy, modest, Buddhist culture I had to get used to being in a Western society that valued familiar cultural aspects like shopping malls, barbecues, camping, materialism (not that Korea, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur would be lacking in that concept!), heavy drinking, and pop music. After that, I was thrown right back into a slow, similar yet different enough culture that valued the sea, family, and the people (Greece). My flight to post-Communist soil brought me to a completely different place in time and space, Sofia and Bucharest.
While I studied and worshipped the fundamentals of biological science in school, I never got much of an education in politics, economics, or European history. That's why I find Eastern Europe to be so fascinating. While capitalism has an absurd amount of flaws (and that's a long winded conversation for another day), it is absolutely shocking how horrible Soviet communism was to its people (and not the government per se). While my guide in Sofia to the Rila Monastery and Boyana Church did not talk much about life in Communist and post-Communist Bulgaria, she did mention how a small amount of elderly Bulgarians wished it returned. She remarked how many people forget how horrible things were back then, and only wished to alleviate a stagnant economy. For example, people used to wait in line for days at grocery stores (though they were really only places people exchanged government supplied coupons for food rations). Often times, they did not have basic food like vegetables and fruits. Could you imagine how awful that would be? Elbowing and fighting with your neighbor to have a simple loaf of bread or a few tomatoes to feed your family? What a meager life!
While I am not spending as much time in each city as I would like (due to my 90 day Schengen Zone obligation and life obligations I have back home) I am very happy I decided to learn more about life in Eastern Europe, which is definitely not on the typical backpacking route (though it should be!!!!). Visiting Bucharest and Sofia has allowed me to meet many bright, hardworking young people and I truly believe there's hope for improvement in Bulgarian and Romanian society. I was beyond blown away by how corrupt Romania used to be (and certainly still is!), as there were so many issues with government ownership of land, including the demolition of apartment buildings, hospitals, factories, and churches for the slave labored production of the ostentatious Palace of the Parliament. There are a few amazing free Al Jazeera documentaries on the corruption in the Romanian government and Communist rule, so if you are interested please do watch them. While I was very moved by what happened under Communist rule (especially in relation to the torture of intellectuals by force feeding them human feces and forcing them to torture their comrades) and I learned a lot on my tours, I know I only have a fraction of the stories on corruption. Who knows how much hardship and how complicated the story of Communism is in all of the Eastern European countries??? It makes me realize I also know nothing of the Fascist rule in Italy and Spain, aside from what I read of it in For Whom the Bell Tolls by the brilliant Ernest Hemingway. Hopefully I can learn about this opposite political movement when I visit Bologna and Barcelona.
On a more positive side, Romania is a VERY beautiful country. There are many beautiful castles in the countryside, with beautiful forests (sadly, many of the forests are being destroyed for logging on private land due to corruption in their government (of course the Romanian people are not seeing any sort of profit from the destruction of their natural resource)). I would love to come back here again someday. I know I also saw very little of Bulgaria (only Sofia and Rila Monastery). Unfortunately, if I took as much time as I needed to see all of these places, I would never come home. I still do not regret coming here as I know this will be the last large trip of my life, before I am retired.
I am currently on the train (15 hours!) to Budapest. Blegh. While it will be easy to get to Vienna, Salzburg, and Ljubljana afterwards, I need to go both south and north. I am having a hard time deciding if I should head down to Italy (most practical idea) or go North to Prague. Most likely I will be going to Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco from there. In order to take my language course in December in Stockholm and prepare to head to Iceland and back home, I need to see Norway, the Netherlands, the countries aforementioned, and the rest of Eastern Europe on my route (i.e. Berlin, Prague, and Gdansk). It is certainly not as easy as planning my route around Asia was! The distances between cities are further apart.
It is crazy how much of my trip I have planned by the seat of my pants. I hope that encourages others reading my blog that you too can just as easily figure out traveling on your own, and you should not be intimidated by it! There have been quite a few frustrating moments in my trip (e.g. I just had to go to 5 different train kiosks, find a money exchange (after the price was misquoted by my hostel), and choose to take the long way to a city because it is 1/3 of the price), but the pros have so outweighed the cons. Despite my "rushed" trip in Eastern Europe, I have had much down time to think, relax, and plan ahead. Why do I need to fly everywhere and spend way more than I should? Why not relax and look out the window and use that extra $100 to enjoy my time in a city?
Pictures from beautiful Bran Castle in Romania (Dracula castle)
Despite my adversities on this timeout, I will never give up my dream of living in Stockholm for a few weeks to learn Swedish. Apologies Sweden, you're at the top of my travel list :) <3 (not my photo)