[B]udapest, Hungary – It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I had agreed sight unseen to sublet a room in after accidentally ending up in Budapest. Anyway having my own place for a while meant I could travel slower, catch up with writing and walk around the flat in my underwear without making anyone cry.
It had worked out well last summer, where I had ended up in the best neighborhood in Riga. This time however, I was in the worst neighborhood in Budapest. But I had only realized this after I got off the bus in District VIII.
A drunk, shabbily dressed young man slurred at me, seemingly interested in helping me with directions. I suspect he was more interested in the iPod Touch in my hands. I quickly walked away, suddenly aware of the vulnerable position I was in. This was clearly not a flashpacker-friendly area.
District VIII or Józsefváros, is also known as the “Roma District” is one of the most densely populated and poorest districts of Budapest. It’s also the district “known for prostitution and other types of crime that go along with it”. The buildings in neighborhood were rundown and in disrepair, which almost seemed to compliment the people milling about in their worn out clothes. It seemed like they were watching a public domestic disturbance between a man and a woman. They were screaming at each other and even trading punches. I would come to get accustommed the loud public arguments over the coming days.
I had that sinking feeling that my implusive decision was a very wrong one. This was a massive culture shock for me, coming from a developed country and middle-class background. I found the flat nearby. It was very modest and in dire need of maintenance but it seemed secure enough. I had stayed in better places, even when I was a poor student but this would have to do.
I felt anxious the first night. I didn’t want to be out too late. I’ve volunteered with the poor before but never lived beside them. There were gypsys poor migrants, sex workers, drunks and drug dealers. And then there was that look many seemed to have. It seemed like the look of despair, as if they were resigned to their fate.
The next day was better. I left the flat, dressed simply. No watch, no flashy devices. I made sure not to speak any English, so for all intents and purposes I could have been a gypsy. A drunk, shirtless man on the street asked me a question in Hungarian and I stared past him. I wondered if I would need to put my Muay Thai training into practise soon.
I met up with a couchsurfer in downtown Budapest, at as popular open-aired bar called Akvarium. It seemed surreal and futurist, especially when compared with my neighborhood less than 2 miles away. People were dressed nicely and enjoying themselves. It was a completely different world.
Over the next few days, I visited the Castle district, Margit Island and a few trendy bars in the Jewish district. But it all felt like an illusion. At the end of the night, I would return to reality of the ghetto. It seemed like I was living a lie and faking it as a tourist. I felt more connected to the people in my neighborhood than to the pretentious hipsters who hung out downtown, drinking their fine full-bodied wines.
I really wanted to like Budapest but I can’t say that I did. However, I experienced something completely rare and unexpected when I was there; I saw the city from the eyes of a sector of population which is often marginalized.