I had arrived in my furthest destination east – Budapest. Here I was at the crossroads between the West and the East. You could see examples of both worlds all over the place. Once off the train, I made my way over to the old-city side of tow, better known as Buda. This was a fact that quickly caught my attention. The city was divided by name and by the magnificent Danube. The Danube was at its full strength as it moved its way through the middle of town. Budapest was made of 2 sides. One was Buda, where the old city dominated the landscape. The other was Pest, where the lights and buildings of a new era were sprouting up everywhere. I was soon to discover the two personalities that shaped theses two distinct sides of the city.
One side was for the daytime. During the day, you would wander around the ancient streets of Buda, admiring the castles and churches. You could climb up a tower and upon reaching the top, you could see all across the city. You could see the Danube and you could see Pest. In the tower, there was also a guy shuffling cards and trying to tempt you to make a bet to keep up with the Queen. I fell for this trick and soon found myself short a few bucks. No worries, I moved on, thinking that this was my fee for being able to see such a great city. The other side was for the night. This was Pest, full of night-lights, full of fun. At night, you would wander across the bridge from your hostel and find your way to the bars. The nightlife was calling your name. One bar in particular, the Irish Cat, was calling my name. Here I found a thriving group of drinkers, from all over the world. I also found good local music and pretty Hungarian women. One local girl caught my eye and I soon found myself walking her to the bus stop. Before the bus arrived, I managed to sneak in a kiss under the streetlights. It was cool; it was romantic. I was in Budapest, kissing a girl. I never saw her again, but the moment has always stayed with me.
I soon started comparing Buda and Pest to the analogy of Jekyll and Hyde. Buda was Dr. Jekyll, a mild mannered town during the daytime. Pest was Mr. Hyde, a nighttime indulgence of secrets and fulfilled fantasies. You must go to Hyde at night, it called your name to enjoy your youth and revel in the moment. By day, you must look around Jekyll and understand the significance of the past. One place on the Buda side that screamed out from the past was the Rudas Baths. This was 500-year-old Turkish bath, obviously created by the Turks when they ruled over this land. By my second day in the hostel, I had hooked up with a mixed gang of Americans and Europeans from all walks of life. The girls of the group went off to wander the streets of Buda and I convinced the guys to go with me to the Rudas.
The place was a relic of a building with the words Rudas across the entrance. This was a famous bathhouse and I was eager to step into the past. Once inside the door, we were told that the entrance fee was around 1 buck. That suited us just fine and we all realized that a bargain was in the making. After paying, we were led back into the locker rooms. We still had no idea how all this was going to play out. The attendant soon cleared that issue up for us when he handed each one of us a small loincloth that only covered your front area. Once you put this thing on, your ass was hanging in the breeze. We all tried not look down too much. The goal was to get in the baths and experience this ancient water treatment. This bath was pretty legit, with no hanky-panky going on. Which was cool with all of us. So here we were –6 guys who had just met a few hours ago, walking into a 500 year old Turkish bath with our asses hanging out. What a trip!
We soon entered the bath area. It was like stepping back into time. Everything was as it stood 500 years ago. We saw what the Turks saw. We felt what the Turks felt. The ceiling was a dome with 70 small circular skylights. The effect of the light beams shooting down through the steam was mystifying. In the middle of the room was a central bath with water fountains pouring in. Around this circular pool was a separate bath in each corner of the room. All around the pools were old Hungarian men lying on the red marble slabs just like they might have posed long ago. Some were conversing with each other, while others read the paper. This was a social club for them. I imagined they came here every week to gossip and talk of old times. They barely glanced in our direction. They were consumed with the moment.
We hit the center pool first. The water was warm and inviting. The 4 other pools each maintained a different temperature. One was extremely hot and another was extremely cold. The temps of the other 2 fell somewhere in the middle. So, in essence, all 5 pools covered the gamut of temps for the body to experience. And this is exactly what we did. We went from one pool to the other, getting a thrill from the temperature changes. The greatest shock occurred when you went from extreme hot to extreme cold. When you did this, you experienced a tremendous rush. In fact, it was an addicting feeling. There was one guy, a local, who kept going back and forth. He was an addict.
After getting the maximum effect from the pools, we moved into the steam room. This was no ordinary steam room. There were no regulations for temp control as you might find in the States. Therefore it was damn hot and the slightest breathing literally took your breath away, making your chest feel extremely tight. However, once you got used to the hot steam, it was heaven. From this room, you had the option of getting a massage. We glanced in the massage rooms and saw big harry men rubbing down the patrons. We decided to skip this part of the experience. Know what I mean. Once outside, our heads were light. We felt relaxed and refreshed. It had been a good experience and a cheap one too.
Over the next few days, we became a tight group. It was if we were destined to spend these 5 days together, enjoying each other’s company and enjoying Budapest. Every day we would head off to explore everything the city had to offer. I was good with a map, so I led the way. Many in the group didn’t have a clue how to get where we were going. They relied on me. As a result they started calling me “chief”. I thought it was cool. I could walk away from the group at any moment and they would be totally lost on how to get back to the hostel. They just said, “just follow chief, he knows where we are going.”On the final day before everyone took off his or her separate way, we gathered for a group picture. There we were – young, carefree, and eager to learn from our experiences. Looking at the picture you could see the delight in each of our eyes. We were doing what we wanted to do. There were no timelines, there were no schedules, and there was no stress. We would soon go our own ways, only looking back occasionally to remember those 5 days we spent together.