Spelunking in Budapest

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Budapest, Hungary
By John Adams

Fear. Some people fear snakes, others spiders, and most heights. It is the nature of fear to cripple without reason or justification. In the spring of 2003, two debilitating fears undermined the maturation of my character, well, at least just two fears that I was aware of. The first was what I called fear of the future; although, I am sure someone adequately trained in the psychological science might more correctly label this fear, misplaced anxiety, or it was a fear that my mother might even call “what you’re supposed to feel with a life like yours.” Regardless, I had embarked upon a four-month journey across Eastern Europe with intention of overcoming this fear. I thought that four months with no home, a limited budget, and waking up each morning to different money, language, and even climate would thoroughly trounce such misplace anxiety.

Second, I feared caves. The confining, imprisoning, suffocating, chocking, feeling that the tons of rock above my head would collapse and instantly smother my body to pulp, incapacitate my every muscle at the sight of a dark space. The fear seemed justified. Caves were bad. Logic even dictated that caves should never be. Rock was heavy; air not. Thus, it was only a matter of time (generally a time when I was present) when rock finally would claim its space and smother air, and the cave, into oblivion.

Since in the past my fear kept me from such grad adventures as Disneyland’s Space Mountain and since I was on a trip undertaken, at least in part, to overcome fear, I felt ordained to oblige when the opportunity to go spelunking presented itself.

“What’s this?” I asked.

It was my first morning in Budapest and I walked around the hostel’s kitchen in my black socks, drinking Nescafe (the only coffee in Eastern Europe) and looking at the “things to do in/around Budapest” wall.

“Oh, that’s really good,” Nino, one of my two Serbian hosts, said. Nino spoke with a gurgle in his voice, like he was chewing on a stone. When he spoke, which was rarely, he often hid part of his mouth behind his hand. Nino was a calculating businessman and owner of the Downtown Hostel. In the short time I was there, Nino managed to double his bed count and get his hostel added to a popular guide for backpackers.

“You want to do that?” Sergio, my other Serbian host, asked. He got up from the table and stood next to me pushing his long wavy black hair out of his face. Sergio had a booming voice and always a friendly demeanor. If Nino was the moneyman, then Sergio was the administrator of guest services.
“I will call that girl,” Sergio said.

I had endeared myself to Sergio and Nino the night before by offering beers and games of chess. (I stayed two weeks at their hostel and must have played fifty games of chess, and I never won once. They championed the stereotype that Serbians were good for only two things, chess and basketball.) For my part, I decided this was the best place for me to stay when I walked into the hostel and quickly grasped that it just two dudes who realized that selling bed-space was a good way to make money. They even placed a Hostel International sign (a picture of a little house and a tree) next to their door. Their sign was drawn in blue ballpoint pen on a piece of lined notebook paper and attached with a piece of scotch tape. (In the two and half years since, the hostel has become a ‘legitimate’ backpacker’s stop.)

“I don’t know about that…it looks a little…” I didn’t want to say “scary,” as I was in the company of men, but that was what I thinking. We were looking at a picture on the “to do” wall of Sergio wearing an orange jumpsuit and helmet with a flashlight.

“You should really do it,” he said with a smirk, sensing my unease. “It is really good. That girl will take you through all these small holes, and you will be crawling on your arms.” As Sergio spoke his gestures indicated that the cave was tiny, and to pass through would require shimmying on one’s elbows.

“I don’t know,” I said with a lump building in my throat. “Caves aren’t really my thing.”

“Then you should do it for sure. How often do you get a chance? I will call that girl.”

A few moments of silence followed, where I looked at the picture, and Sergio, with arms crossed, looked at me.

“You know you are right. I’ll do it,” I couldn’t argue with that logic. It was possible that this would be the one time in my life that I was in Budapest, and cave diving was what adventurous tourists did in Budapest. He out maneuvered me; he was too good a chess player.

Sergio dialed his Nokia phone and made the call.

“You will meet that girl at the train station tomorrow at nine. I will take you there.”
I looked green.
“It is really good,” Sergio said brandishing a smirk.

I had the rest of the afternoon to explore the city and let the idea of caves fester in my psyche.
After consulting my map, upon which Sergio marked everyplace to see, do, eat and drink, I noticed most of Budapest’s sites were off the Danube. I walked to the river, located only a few blocks from the Hostel. The street was a residential with cars lining both sides and consisting of large square buildings, which were mostly hotels and apartments and were decorated with either gargoyles or dramatic architectural spacing.

I reached the end of the street and found the Danube. The river was cut into a cement channel for flood control. The channel was made of descending steps that ended in the river. I walked down toward the river in order to take in the full view of scenery and to put my hand in the water. The steps were dusty and covered in small black piles of baked pigeon droppings. The Danube was dirty brow and emitted a musty odor, like flat beer. Standing a few feet from the water, the Erzebet Bridge, a green suspension bridge, stood to my immediate left. Looking down the river I saw three other bridges including the famous Chain Bridge. The Chain Bridge linked the two sides, Buda and Pest, with dangling chains suspended from two white arched pillars. One fact that I was shamefully ignorant of before coming to Budapest, was that Budapest is really two cities, Buda and Pest. Through the centuries both sides continually grew, until eventually they grew so large that the merged into one city.

Standing on the bank of Danube the Buda side of the city was breathtaking. Contrasting flat Pest, Buda is covered by rolling hills. An enormous castle, peaking out between the hills, stretches high off the river bank. The castle is an enormous brown-colored square building, centered on a huge dome and with a crumpling wall protecting it from the river. To the left of the castle is Buda hill, which is a park guarded by the statue of some saint (after seeing Poland I was thoroughly tired of saints) raising a cross and standing over a small waterfall. A cement path zigzags its way to the top of the hill where a monument of a lady holding a palm stands to commemorate the ‘liberation’ of Hungry from the Nazis by the Soviets. She is the tallest point in Budapest.

Small green bulbs of foliage covered the tips of the trees throughout Buda Hill. The air carried with it the gentle bouquet and warming touch of spring. I decided to walk the distance from where I was across the Chain Bridge and up Buda Hill. By the time I reached the waterfall I felt invigorated and content. The spring air and the prospect of sunny times filled the blood pumping through my veins with lightness.

I turned and headed up the hill. The park was beautiful with penalty of benches for stopping to see the views, and many small alcoves and niches of which I imagined were perfect places for teenagers who had ditched school and come and make out or smoke pot.

I didn’t stop. By the time I reached the top I was winded, and inhaled several breaths of the spring air. I walked to the edge and looked over the rail.

Pest stretched into the distance with a cloud of smog covering horizon. Pest was flat and Roman Steeples and Orthodox Domes dotted the cityscape. The most interesting building of Pest was Hungary’s Parliament Building. The Parliament was to my left, across the Danube from the Castle. The Parliament was a gray and gothic. It seemed to be wrapped in decoration, with spirals and arched windows nearly covering every square inch.

As the story goes, Freddy Mercury once came to Budapest to rock Hungry free from communism. It is a simple truth that Eastern Europeans believe Queen to be the best band to have ever graced the planet. While taking a tour of the city, Freddy stopped in front of the Parliament, crossed his arms, and stroked his chin.

“How much?” he said waving his index finger at the Parliament.
His guides looked on confused.
“I want to buy it, how much?” Freddy asked.
His guides whispered to each other in Magyar, the official language of Hungry.
“Sir, that is our Parliament Building,” one Hungarian responded.
“Well it’s really awesome, and I want to buy it,” Freddy continued.

The next day the Hungarians called a special secession of Parliament to determine at what price they would sell the building to Freddy Mercury. Freddy, only joking, had already left Budapest. Parliament took a vote, and passed a decree that said they could not in fact sell Parliament to Freddy Mercury, but as the story goes, the vote was close.

I descended the hill and headed off to get something to eat. Walking upward had given me a reprieve, but heading down the hill my heart fluttered. Tomorrow I would descend into my own personal hell, and I agreed to let it happen. “I would be all right,” I told myself, “it’s just rock, and tons of people have done this before. It must safe.”

The next morning Sergio dropped me at the train station. I easily identified my group of fellow spelunkers, a group of ragtag backpackers all speaking English with different accents, and standing a part from the bus stops. Not being a morning person and beginning to feel the vice grip of fear around my neck, I simply introduced myself and waited.

“Budapest is crazy,” someone in the crowd said. “At the Station, the hostel we are staying, on the wall there is a group of records for messed up stuff. I have never seen a place like this; there is the longest stay in the hostel, four months, longest time never leaving the hostel, two weeks – I guess you just sleep in and order pizza. Can you imagine staying in one place for two weeks? But the Station is a cool hang out. Everybody comes and tells stories, they have a bar and a pool table…”
The night before Sergio told me that they had a bar at their hostel, and then he pointed to the fridge. I became happier with my choice of places to stay.

Everyone in the group had smiles and agreed that Budapest was right now the place to be. In the next few days I learned what they were talking about. It was a good week because Hungry had just been accepted into the European Union and this was the week of the planned celebration. Fireworks, free concerts, food, and festivals filled the streets. But not only that, Budapest felt like Prague of a few years ago. It was being ‘discovered’ by backpackers. Budapest was the next step further east. It was remote, but not really that remote. Budapest was easy, most people spoke English and there were plenty of accommodations, but in the mind of the backpacker it remained exotic.

Our guide showed up a few minutes later. I recognized her from the pictures.

She was a short blonde girl, named Katie, who first counted everyone and then led us onto the bus, telling us not to buy a ticket because the police never checked this route. In Eastern Europe bus tickets are purchased from a machine or kiosk to the side of the bus stop. Upon entering the bus the passenger must stamp a time a on his or her ticket, which is good for a ride anywhere, but only for a set amount of time. Roaming police go from bus to bus checking to make sure everyone has a stamped ticket. On average I have been stopped and checked once a month, but the fine is quite heavy and the ticket quite cheap, so I always buy the ticket. The bus crossed the Danube and wound its way through the Buda hills.

I stood gripping the bar above my head and rolling my wrist like the gas on a motorcycle while whipping my mouth on my shoulder and looking out the window. As the bus ascended, the hills dropped into a valley with mountains and high rocks. My eyes shifted from the mountains to our guide, Katie. Her blond hair was tied in a ponytail and she held a hard helmet under her arm; she shifted her head from looking out the window to making sure she knew where everyone on the bus was.

While keeping my balance I tried to study her, to see if I could trust her. She seemed serious and quiet, and as if this was her job, but she also seemed the kind of girl that once you got to know her she would be a lot of fun to drink with.

“This is our stop,” she said.

She led us across the street to a small bar buried underneath a mountainside, the staging area. Katie showed us to a room where hung multicolored full body suits and hard helmets with flashlights attached. A tall British guy, whom I overheard was named Bunny, was the biggest person in the group, and after prying himself into a suit wasn’t able to raise his arms above his head.

“This could be a problem.”

Katie came outside from the bar.

“We have to wait for two more; they should be on the next bus,” she said.

After waiting a half an hour the group grew restless.

“I can’t believe they are making us wait,” a small Indian girl said with a British accent. “When they get here I am going to give them the evil British stare, but with my luck, they won’t even know what I am doing. They’ll walk by and not even realize we’re pissed.”

The longer I sat the more I grew nervous. I needed to move. I squished the fingers of one hand in the other (like I was shaking my own hand) and slid from one hand to the other. I couldn’t speak and more often than was normal I got up, went to the bathroom, and looked at myself in the mirror. I always told myself, “it’s ok, you are not going to die, and if you do, then, who cares, it’s over. But what if I get stuck. You are not going to get stuck. It is just a hole in the ground! You live on the second story of house, it’s above air, it doesn’t fall! Plus, how long have those caves been there? Longer than I’ve been alive.” I repeated this conversation with myself a good seven times.

The two people we waited for arrived an hour later. They were two relatively plump American girls. “If they can fit,” I thought, “Then I should have no problem.” The small Indian girl crossed her arms, looked directly into the two girls eyes, and stared at them speechlessly.

With the new arrivals Katie lead us to the cave. We crossed the street and walked down a small gravel path. The wind blew the trees and the clatter of about thousand birds swarming a nearby tree filled my ears. As we continued down the path, we came to door wedged into the side of one of the hills. The door was made of iron door and had a window with three bars across it resembling prison. Katie reached in between the bars and pulled out a key that hung from a chain attached to one of the bars. We walked inside and everyone turned on his or her helmets. As I entered, my hand shivered against the cold and coarse iron door. Katie pushed a button and a popping echoed into the dark and the cave lit up. Katie’s helmet was three times as bright as anyone else’s and fueled by propane.

“There are a few rules,” Katie began as we sat just inside the door. “The most important thing is that everyone has to help each other…”

As Katie spoke, the whisper of translation caught my ear. Behind me sat two Italians, both small and to me (a native San Franciscan) obviously gay. As I turned to look, the three of us smiled and nodded ‘hello’ at each other. One of the Italians was translating for the other..

“…I will give instructions on how to do it and you have to pass that information on to the person behind you and so on…”

I thought of the telephone game we played in kindergarten and how “A is for apple” some how mysteriously became “the purple monster rides a broomstick to the moon at midnight.”

“…If you get stuck, don’t panic, that will only make things worse, and the people behind you will get nervous. The other rule is never take off your helmet. The most dangerous part is first. We have to go down a ladder for twenty meters.”

As we climbed down the ladder we formed a single file line. Katie first, followed by the two big American girls. I made sure I followed Bunny figuring that he was the biggest and I would learn I needed from watching him. The gay Italians were behind me. In total our line was twelve people.
Twenty meters is a long way. It’s about sixty feet, or three stories. After giving Bunny ten feet of clearance I started my descent. I turned and swung my feet over the latter. Of heights I am not afraid, but I did grip the steel ladder with so much strength that my palms mirrored jagged imperfections of the rails.

The latter lead into a large room. The constant splash of dripping water reverberated and amplified off the solid walls. I believed water and caves to be a bad mixture, but the pounding of my heart against my chest didn’t give me space to consider the matter.

Swiveling my head around the room I got used to the flashlight. I looked to my right, and I saw solid rock, to my left, solid rock, behind me, a latter and solid rock.

“Ok, we are going to get going. It starts off easy and gets harder as we go. Just follow the person in front of you,” Katie said getting on her hand and knees, and her light disappeared into a tunnel.
After several breaths, I got down and felt my weight crushing my knees and hands against the rock. I shuffled slowly forward concentrating on Bunny’s feet and not the tunnel. The tunnel was four feet around. The rock confined and constricted. I pushed up and my spine thumped more rock. The air was stale and damp, and tasted old. The heat drew sweat from my pours. As I crawled my shoulders grated the sides. A sharp stone dug into my palm and I fell to my forearm. With every hurried breath I grew hotter and the air heavy. Sweat dripped of my brow and spilled onto the moist rock. My helmet scratched the top, so I lowered my head and my following ass, to pass through. All I could see was rock, the rock beneath me, rock above me, and rock on the sides. I continued forward. And I didn’t die.

After the first tunnel, I concluded that I wasn’t going to die, that my fear was in fact silly, and that caves were good after all.

We took a break. Katie counted us and checked to make sure no one was freaking out or taking on more than they could manage.

We continued on and for the next two hours walked, crouched, snaked, shuffled our hips, and sometimes shimmied on our stomachs through the maze of caves in the Buda hills. We reached a large opening and took a break.

“It gets more tricky at the next part. Next is the birth cannel…lets have everyone turn off their lights so you can see.”

We all turned off our lights. I stretched my eyes as wide I could make them and saw nothing but blackness. It was the first time in my life that I can truly say I saw nothing. My confidence grew, and I felt empowered. I had overcome a legitimate fear.

“Ohhhh,” someone mimicked a ghost.

Clicking echoed through the darkness and Katie’s propane lamp sparked.

“So are you ready?” Kaite asked.

Everyone turned on his or her lights and Katie lead us to the birth cannel.

In the same order we crawled on our hands and knees, the rock tightening its grip. Soon we were on our stomachs, swiveling our hips and shimmying. The rock wrapped around us and immovable pressure of stone squeezed me. As I held my head off my shoulders, my helmet scraped rock. For twenty-five feet we moved forward and the cave shrunk.

And then we stopped. There was mumbling from the people ahead. For seven minutes I didn’t move, and only heard muffled voices.

With nothing else to do, and anxiety mounting, I studied the ground. It was solid, and at some points made of clay and others solid stone. It was damp as if the water seeped from below, and it tasted like salt.

“I can’t do that,” the voice of the one American girls cried.

“Oh great,” I said, “Just what I wanted to hear.”

“No kidding,” Bunny agreed.

Fifteen minutes passed. We moved forward the length of two people. The birth cannel seemed like a coffin. It was hot, I couldn’t move, and I was buried. I obeyed rule number two; I didn’t panic. I accepted it. Nothing was going to happen. I could go backwards.

We moved closer and the British Indian girl passed the directions on to Bunny. She didn’t have a face, just words and the dancing of her light on the cave wall.

“Ok this is what you are going to need to do…” she said. “You crawl up and then there is the point where the cave narrows, do you see that?”

“Yes,” Bunny said.

“When you reach that point you have to lead with your left arm. It has to be your left, and then squeeze your shoulders through turning on to your right side…”

“What do you do with your right hand?” Bunny asked.

“I don’t know… but then you take your left arm and reach upwards and grab a small notch and pull yourself so you’re sitting. You can’t see the notch. You have to feel it. From there you want to stand up and then you will be able to see me, but you will then need to wedge yourself against the rock leaning backwards and push with your feet out the cannel… did you get all that?”

“No, but I am coming anyway,” Bunny said.

I watched Bunny’s movement and once he was out of sight I laid my forehead on the ground. I just sat, waiting.

My turn came. The birth cannel was a diagonal step upward, but with complication of a rock jutting into the path, so that in order to get through one had to roll (which was why it was important to lead with the left and roll to the right). I shimmied into the cannel stuck, rolled onto my back and lifted my left arm up. I attempted to roll onto my right shoulder, as per the instructions, but my right shoulder got stuck. I reached up and twisted my wrist and dug my fingernails against the wall feeling for the notch. Damp clay dug underneath nails. After a second of searching I gave up on the notch and breathed all the air of out my lungs. I was going to force my way through. Twist my body around the rock. Rather than using the notch I simultaneously pivoted off my heel and wrist and giving me leverage form the middle of the birth cannel rather than pulling up from the notch. I squished my way through, until I was finally sitting on the top of the step. From there the way out was three feet above me and to my back. I wedged my knees and butt against the opposing sides of the canal and shimmied my way up, one inch at a time. Bunny’s hand directing my head and neck, until I fell out, back first.

After being born, a birth in which I am sure my mother would have killed me, everyone took a rest in a small alcove. I felt exhilarated, on top of the world. I felt that I had accomplished something difficult, and that made me proud.

“Now that you have all been born we have one more hard one,” Katie said. “You don’t have to do this one if you don’t want to there is another way around. It is called the sandwich. It is the smallest part of the cave and it is about thirty meters long.”

After the birth cannel the sandwich sounded easy.

Katie led half of the group, including Bunny and the gay Italian couple still behind me.

The sandwich was an angled craw. I lay on my stomach at a forty-five degree angle, and as we moved forward, the rock above us continually got smaller and tighter. It looked like a waffle maker and I was the toasting batter.

I lay on my stomach and slowly shuffled my feet, like Charlie Chaplin. As I moved, the bottom ascended and soon my helmet scratched the top. The screeching noise of plastic echoed through the cave and then it stopped. I was stuck. My helmet wouldn’t move. Bunny inched away. The sandwich continued for another ten feet but I couldn’t move. In my wisdom I figured that if I could push my helmet a little further then, maybe, there would be a rut in the cave and I could move forward. I pushed my forehead against the leather strap forcing my helmet through. And then I was really stuck. I could feel the pressure of the rock even pushed the plastic against my skull. I panic and jerked my head back and forth, but nothing.

“Bunny I am stuck, how did you get through?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“I am stuck. I am stuck.”
I thought of yelling for Katie but I knew she couldn’t get to me.

“Well,” I thought. “I only have one option. I have to take my helmet off and squeeze my skull through. The helmet is making me too big. So it’s either squeeze my skull or sit here and die.”

I freaked and violently shook my head popping free, out the way I squished it in. I breathed relief. I took a moment and calmed my beating heart. I decided the best thing to do was to turn back, even though that meant forcing everyone behind me to abandon their adventure. I dropped my head and rested my nose against the cold rock.

I felt a tapping on my shoulder. The little gay Italian that didn’t speak English wanted to get my attention. He looked perfectly calm and at first just smiled at me. He pointed down. Looking I realized what he wanted to say, the sandwich was broader the closer one got to the ground. I bent my knees and slid through.

“Thank you, thank you.”

I popped out of the sandwich and into and open area. Everyone sat around and a notebook titled the “the sandwich” passed among the group. Everyone who went signed.

By the time we got out of the cave it was dark and everyone one of my muscles burned. We thanked Katie, and the group agreed, after much needed shower, to meet for beers.

Fear? I feared no more. Caves, once a cause of perspiration and quick feet, are now only rocks with holes. Budapest was amazing and this was only my first day. I wound up staying for two more weeks, and many more stories.

John Adams is an English teacher currently residing in Bratislava, Slovakia. He is twenty-nine years old. His two hobbies are writing and traveling and he hopes that people will enjoy this combination of the two. He has traveled all over the world and finds Europe the most peaceful and the Pacific Islands the warmest.

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