Strange News From Another Star

And when we parted, I hurried home. Wary of my solitude like never before.
I woke up hung-over with the disco lights still flashing in my head. I had been on a pub hopping spree the previous night and it was a wild one. The hostel room was eerily quiet and empty as all the roommates had already left. Also the cranky old woman on the bunk bed beside had left. I checked my watch and it was almost noon. I got up from the bed, put on my floaters and lethargically headed towards the bathroom. I took a shower and freshened up, ready for the day. It was my last day in Budapest and I had kept it free. I had no schedule as such and had planned to explore this marvellous city one last time before I catch my flight back home. I grabbed my camera and my small backpack & went downstairs in the hostel cafeteria to see if they were still serving breakfast. To my disappointment they had wrapped up an hour ago. The coffee was still available though and so were the fruits. I poured myself a cup and picked up an apple while putting two apples in my backpack. They'd save me during my hunger pangs through the long day ahead. After finishing my coffee I ventured outside and damn it was still cold. It was sunny but cold. I took out my sweatshirt and put it on. I didn't have a winter jacket as the weather tricked me and I hadn't predicted this early onset of winter. The chilly breeze was pleasant but at times it cut through the meagre sweatshirt and made me shiver.

Strolling over across the street, towards Deák Ferenc tér, I reached the Lutheran Church. I stopped there for a moment to finish off the apple that I had picked up from the cafeteria and to think about where to go next. Since it was my final day here, I wanted to do some shopping. Gabon, the local tour guide with whom I had went on an orientation walk of the city, a day before, had told me about the Great Market Hall where I can pick up some of the finest Hungarian wine. I saved that place on Google Maps and then threw away the apple bud in the nearby dustbin. I just kept walking leisurely. Not towards the Market Hall as I was going to visit there in the evening. I kept walking ahead, wandering away with my camera, capturing everything interesting that I saw along the way. Trying my best to steal away these beautiful moments from time, in the form of pictures to lock them away in my nostalgia cupboard. Couldn’t get touristier than this.

I now reached the Danube River and could see the Buda Castle on the other side. Taking a left towards Széchenyi Chain Bridge, I saw a throng of tourists following their guide on a walking tour. Those vibrant and happy faces. I greeted the guide and after enquiring a little, I came to know that it was a free walking tour. She said I could join along if I wanted to. Since I had no concrete plans, I agreed to tag along with this horde and see where it goes from there. We all crossed the Széchenyi Chain Bridge and I clicked a picture those two giant and majestic toungless lions who greeted everyone right at the entrance of the bridge. The guide was telling a fascinating story about the sculptor who sculpted those lions and how he jumped off the bridge. I stood there motionless for a moment and gazed at those lions and the river gleaming in the sunny afternoon. It was all so graceful. I wanted to soak it all in. We kept moving and reached the other side of the river, which is known as Buda. There the group stopped for a refreshment break. I saw a small souvenir shop and entered it. There was a woman inside and she greeted me with a warm smile. I smiled back and pointing at the rack of postcards, I asked here "Good afternoon! How much for these postcards?"

She told me the price and then after choosing a few of those postcards I handed her cash. She said something in Hungarian returned me the change and smiled. I didn't understand it. I put the postcards in my bag and I replied "koszonom" and left the store.

Outside, the group had now again assembled for the further part of the journey and I was considering whether I should join them or just saunter on my own. The guide was waving her pink umbrella at me and signalling me to come over and join as they were planning to move ahead. I waved back hesitantly and crossed the road to join the group. We then went walked upwards towards Buda Castle. I tried some small talk with the guide. Although I suck at it and I'm terribly shy when it comes to initiating conversations. She asked me where I was from, how many days I had been here, where I'm headed next, yada yada yada. Her name was Christina and she was from Switzerland and had been in Hungary for the past two years or so. I also came to know that she worked as an assistant in some company and that this was her weekend hobby; to take tourists on free walking tours.

"You see, I love interacting with people. Also, tourists are always happy creatures and sometimes they tip me quite handsomely!” she laughed innocently.
"You'll enjoy it up there. The entire Pest region is visible from Buda Castle. It's a wonderful view"
I nodded in agreement.
"You'll get to click nice pictures from up there"
"Yes, I'm looking forward to it", I replied and smiled.

For the next 15 minutes or so, we kept treading upwards. And she kept on narrating the history behind each of the statues, sculptures & the type of architecture of the structures we encountered on the way. She was also entreating us not to record her while she was narrating. She joked, "I don't want to be famous on Youtube!"
After a while, we finally reached the castle. And she was right, it was indeed a splendid view from up there. The magnificent panoramic view left me mesmerised. I took out my camera and clicked a few pictures.

The tour went on for next hour or so. It ended after we reached Matthias Church. Some street musicians were playing traditional Hungarian music nearby and a tourist couple was dancing to its tunes. Christine gave her mini-farewell speech and people started offering her tips. I reached out in my backpack to get my wallet and took out some cash, about 4000 forints I guess and I gave it to her. She shook my hand and thanked me, wishing me the best for the rest of my journey.

Now I was feeling hungry. The morning apple had already evaporated and I needed to eat. It was almost 3pm now. The walk down was less tiring and reached back to those lions in no time. I had heard about this famous local dish called Lángos and wanted to taste it. I spotted an eatery which served it and went inside. The guy welcomed me.

"Hello Sir, what would you like to have?"
"Well, I want to try the Lángos. Would you recommend me the best in your opinion?"
"Awesome! Do you like cheese?"
"Who doesn't?"
"Well, then I'd suggest you go with this one", he said pointing to a random name on the menu card.
"Okay, whatever you think is the best!"

It was delicious! Imagine a deep fried pizza topped with lots and lots of cheese. After filling my belly and satiating my hunger, I decided to finally start with my intended shopping. I reached the Market City Hall. Skimming through that plethora of shops, I picked up the bottle of wine, a few boxes of chocolates and a t-shirt. That’s it. I was getting tired now and decided to walk back to the hostel. It was almost a kilometre from there. The light blue sky was now turning tangerine due to the setting sun and an uneasy feeling of restlessness was creeping upon me. The feeling you get just when you’re reading the last chapter of a book that have enjoyed reading so much or the last fifteen minutes of a wonderful movie.

I reached Deák Ferenc tér and I remember there was this quaint little bookshop right beside the hostel. I’ve always loved books and I’m guilty of even hoarding them. Anyway, I entered the bookshop and spent almost half an hour just looking through the various titles they had. Kafka, Nietzsche, Fitzgerald, Rilke, Proust, Flaubert and so on. I asked the lady who was dusting off the books to recommend me some Hungarian poetry. She handed me this book called ‘The Lost Rider’ which is an anthological collection of some of Hungary’s finest poets. I picked that up along with a collection of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald called I’d Die For You and a collection of poems by Charles Bukowski titled The Pleasures of the Damned. There are ardent critics of Bukowski but I admire him for his raw and unabashed style.

Upon reaching the hostel I found that it was jostling with new tourists now. The lobby hallway was filled with people. Some were playing pool, a game of chess was underway between two friends, another group of pretty ladies just sat there in the bar, giggling and laughing away in merriment. I went up to my room and entered inside. There was one guy on the upper tier of the adjacent bunk-bed. He nodded and said hello and I nodded back in courtesy.

I put down my backpack near my bed and put my phone and camera for charging. I crashed in my bed and lay there staring at the ceiling. It had been a good day. I was thinking about how these past ten days had been magical. And this sudden realization dawned upon me that it’s all ending now. I had to get back to the same old routine in a couple of days. That’s the worst part about travelling or escaping away I guess. I think whenever you travel, you leave a part of you at the places that you visit and a piece of your soul with all the amazing people that you meet. You’re never the same person when you return. I was feeling depressed now and pitying myself for feeling this way. I had to get my mind off from this and so I started reading. As I was scrolling through my Kindle, I heard the front door unlock. A tall lady entered.

“Hello!” she greeted cheerfully. “Is this occupied?” she asked me pointing to the empty bed where the old woman had been this morning.

“Hi! It’s not occupied as of now. There was a woman here before but she left in the morning.”
“Okay, I’m taking this one then.” saying so she put her bags down on the bed and sat there.

I saw that she was holding a paperback in her hand. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. I hadn’t read the book but I had heard about the writer. I noticed she had a lovely face. Only to later realize how wonderfully charming as person she was!
I kept staring at the book in her hand and was momentarily lost in my thoughts.

“What are you reading?” her voice broke my stupor.
“Oh there’s this collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. The book’s called Interpreter of Maladies”
“I’ve read that book. It’s a good book!”
“Yes. I just read a couple of stories and I enjoyed them.”
“So, where are you from?” she asked.
“Oh, India! Awesome!”
“And you’re from?”
“I’m from Amsterdam. You’ve been to Amsterdam?”
“Nice! No, unfortunately I haven’t. It’s on my travel bucket list though. Right at the top of the list, I must say!”
“It’s an amazing place. You’ll definitely love it.”

We kept on talking for the next hour or so and I still remember everything we spoke about. I’m sort of a taciturn person and I speak only when I’m spoken too. But I must admit, I never had such an engaging conversation with someone who happens to be a total stranger. She asked me how long I’ve been here in Budapest, what do I do and where I’m headed next and general details about my overall trip and purpose of travel.

She told me she was a professional jazz singer and then we went on to discuss our musical tastes at length.
“Have you listened to jazz music?”
“No, unfortunately I haven’t explored that genre yet. I’m more of a rock n’ roll person you may say. Classic rock to be specific. Floyd, Beatles, Led Zep…”
“Oh, I used to listen to rock n’ roll when I was young. But then I discovered jazz and fell in love with it.”
“Could you recommend me some jazz musicians I could start with? Like something you’d suggest to a total newbie?”
“Well, let me think. Uhm… I really like Ella Fitzgerald. So you can listen to her, she’s really amazing! Apart from that you can also try Louis Armstrong. He’s a great too. Listen to their duets.”
“Let me note that down” I scribbled those names on my pocket mini dairy that I carry with me.

We talked and talked. She told me about her musical expedition to Nepal where she was teaching music to kids. She told me how she knows a few Hindi songs which those kids taught her back then.

“You know that song? Piya piya o piya piya?”
“Oh yes, I do!”

We excitedly hummed together a few verses and gradually the conversation moved from music to literature, discussing our favourite books. I told her about my ardent love for literature and writing in general. And how literature was the primary motivation behind this rather romantic trip of mine. And how most of my favourite writers are European.

“So you really do love literature and you want to write a book but you’re working as an analyst in a corporate firm? That doesn’t match eh?”
“Well, I’d have to blame capitalism for it I guess” I laughed.
“Also, my job helps me pay my bills and it also helped with this trip. So I guess, it’s not that bad after all. Writing or any other art from requires financial freedom. And my job’s providing me that currently.”
“I totally agree with you on that.”
“I have this belief that if you’re good at something, never do it for free and if you love doing something, never do it for money.” I added nervously and then immediately cringed at what I had said.
“Hahaha, interesting!”

Later I found out that she too was a fan of Hermann Hesse, who’s sort of like my favourite author. I showed her an old paperback copy I had of Hesse’s fairy tales and also the books that I had picked up at the bookshop earlier.

She had a delightful persona and I was now very much engrossed in the conversation. It was already 9pm. I absolutely hated doing it but told her I need to go now to have my dinner as I have an early morning flight and I need to sleep early so that I could wake up at three in the morning to catch my flight.

I took her leave and headed downstairs to the bar and she went back to her bed, working on her laptop about a certain project that she had to finish off that night.

Downstairs in the hostel bar a small band was jamming some songs and a group had assembled around to listen to them. The guy was playing the acoustic guitar quite brilliantly. I got myself a stool near the the bartender and asked for a glass of beer and some nachos. The band kept on playing while I sat there sipping my beer. I even had a few shots of Palinka, upon the bartender’s recommendation. I tipped her and then went outside to eat something.

It was freezing cold now. The temperatures dropped drastically at night. The puny sweatshirt wasn’t warming me anymore and the cold wind was making it too uncomfortable. I decided to just grab a couple of Doner kebabs from this nearby outlet and head straight to my room to sleep.
It was midnight now. The city was beautifully shining with night lights as I was walking back towards my hostel. I entered inside and told Jason at the reception to book me a cab for the airport, scheduled for 3am.

After heading back to my room I saw that the lights were turned off. I waded through the darkness towards my bed and put on my bedside lamp. After setting my alarm for 2:30, I dozed off.
The vibrating phone under my pillow woke me up and I checked my watch, it was about time. I had already packed away by stuff. I went to the bathroom and splashed ice cold water on my face to wake up those melatonins. I picked up my backpack and headed towards the door. I glanced at the lady and she was fast asleep. I wanted to say goodbye to her but it’d be really horrible to wake her up at such ungodly hour just to bid her farewell. I closed the door behind me and waited for the elevator.
In the hostel lobby, I sat alone waiting for my cab. Jason said it’ll be here in 15 minutes. I plugged in my earphones while John Denver’s Leavin’ on a Jet Plane started playing. Perfect. I had a flashback of my past three days in Budapest. The places that I saw and the wonderful people that I met, the conversations we had. This entire trip was a magnificent experience that will always be with me, till my last breath.

Instinctively, I took out that old paperback copy of Hesse’s fairy tales and started writing on its first page.

To N,
Here’s from one Hesse fan to another. May you shine on like a diamond with your music! 
~ Emil Sincliar

I ran back upstairs and entered the room. It was dark. I went over to my bed and turned on that bedside lamp once again. I took that book and kept that paperback right beside N’s bed. I hate parting with my books and I never like giving them away to anyone. But this time it felt different. I went back towards to door and had a one last look at the room.

The cab was waiting right outside the hostel gate. I handed over my room’s key card to Jason and thanked him, bidding him a final goodbye as he helped me with my heavy backpack. I entered inside and the driver asked, “Airport, sir?”

“Yes please.” I replied.

He started the car and I saw Jason in the rear-view mirror, waving me goodbye. I waved back at Jason. I leaned my head against the window and sat there gazing at those droplet shaped lights as my vision blurred away with John Denver soothingly singing in my ears;

All my bags are packed
I'm ready to go
I'm standin' here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin'
It's early morn
The taxi's waitin'
He's blowin' his horn
Already I'm so lonesome
I could die...

The streetlights went passing me by, one by one, like these past ten days had gone by. It had been nothing less than a fairy tale. Like a rainbow in the night sky. Like sonorous melodies from a guitar. Like some strange news from another star. 


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