I often speak ad nauseum about the journey vis-a-vis the destination – how the line connecting point A and point B is often more memorable, more educational, more action-packed, more tale-worthy than the points themselves. This particular line has four parts:
Part One: The Place that Doesn’t Exist
Eastern Hungary smells like smoke and sunflowers. I’m currently at a tiny train station in Lőkösháza, so I would know. Rather, I’m sitting on the concrete platform watching local men and women socialize. They appear to be railway employees but they’re not doing anything official, just the occasional joke and smoke. It’s dusk already. A light flickers on overhead; a line of lights soon follow suit, flickering on in a systematic fashion down the line.
I have to change trains in Lőkösháza. I step onto the empty platform. All the other passengers quickly scatter and disappear. I’m the only foreigner, the outcast, the person who doesn’t belong. It feels good in the way that something familiar feels good.
There are Hungarian signs with Russian translations underneath. I try Russian with a nearby railway employee. He smiles and looks at me blankly. I do the same. Then I show him my ticket, point to the platforms, and tap my wrist; these minute gestures should be enough to ascertain the information I need. He nods, points to a platform, and traces “22.36” on the side of the train. I will be in barren Lőkösháza for three hours.
I sit down and search my things for sustenance or entertainment, whichever I find first. I had prepared for this eighteen-hour overnight journey by bringing along a granola bar. Now as I’m eating “Apple and Cranberry Smoothie Fusion”, I’m realizing it’s much too sweet. Too much fusion. I set it aside on the ground. Presumptuous ants begin to carry the crumbs away.
The blisteringly hot day finally cools. I have fresh air now; I spent the last three hours in a second-class sweatbox from Budapest with equally sweaty Hungarians. The cold night air feels good against my hot face; I’ve had a fever since Vienna. But life moves on, and so do I. Which is why I find myself alone here. There are shouts in the distance as well as barking dogs. Crickets and cicadas go on with their harmonies. The occasional loud “ZAP” sparks from the electrical wiring above the tracks.
The helpful railman reappears, this time with a map. He flashes a toothy grin and points to the map and then spreads his arms wide as if saying, “Welcome to the Marvelous Lőkösháza!” Population: 3.
There is no other bit of information I consider more valuable than the “where”. I’ve devoured geography all my life, and there is something unbelievably comforting about orienting myself, being able to point to the exact spot where my feet stand on the globe. The “where” tells you things that all other question words cannot. And as soon as I know where I am, I like to imagine a rapid and dramatic picture of everything zooming out, beginning with me standing on the ground and ending with the earth as it is from space.
So I inspect this map of his. I know that I’m on the border but I’m unaware just how south or east. He points to Lőkösháza on the map and then points down to the ground, saying “we are here.” But on this particular map, the town is unmarked, unlisted for whatever reason. There is no Lőkösháza.
Nightfall hits like a curtain. The railman sees my confusion and leaves me with a torn piece of yellowing paper with numbers on it. It reads: 46.4256, 21.2483. I realize these are coordinates. Quite suddenly, I have exact bearings as to where my feet stand on this round gigantic planet of ours, and it happens to be in a place that one cartographer failed to draft into existence.
As I sit here alone at night on a cracked and weeding train platform somewhere on the Hungarian border, I feel unburdened and calm. The night sky becomes dotted with stars. The air smells smoky, as all Eastern European villages do. A train light illuminates the metal track in the distance. I become fixated. Nothing can deter my gaze. And then I hear a loud “ZAP” on a nearby wire and I’m brought back to life.
Part Two: Laszlo
An hour later, I’m being questioned by the police. Where am I from? What am I doing here? Who am I? I can’t believe they ask me this! Some people go their whole lives without being able to answer that question, and here they are, asking it of me. Their pragmatic nature doesn’t suit my pedantic one.
I let my papers do the talking. And then all of a sudden, their collective temperament changes. They read my passport info out loud and then begin to gawk at all the stamps. One cop removes his cap and sits down next to me. His name is Laszlo.
We speak about history, politics, education, society, and cultural perceptions and differences between Hungarians, Europeans, and Americans. Not quite what I was expecting. His colleagues leave – they’re on duty after all – and we sit and talk. He’s friendly, engaged, and educated about the topics at hand. It is nice to hear a Hungarian perspective.
He offers to help me find my train when the time comes. There are only two platforms and I have the time of departure, but part of me worries that under some perfect storm of failure I’ll miss my train and be stuck in Lőkösháza indefinitely, so I thank him and accept his offer. He leaves temporarily and then returns running, calling me by my middle name, saying excitedly that my train has arrived. He picks up my backpack, curses under his breath at its weight and escorts me to my car after my passport is checked and stamped. He then drops my pack on the seat, we do the typical goodbye, he salutes me and vanishes into the night.
The kind or interesting or intelligent or all of the above people I meet on the road are defined in my memory by a few short hours, often less. They are interactions that have no chance to be flawed or tainted by clashes of outlook or personality. They are perfect moments in time, forever.
Part Three: Feel Something
Some interactions you want desperately to happen, like a meeting with a crush, and some are thrust upon you and you’re forced to react.
The train ride is long and, unlike the first one, freezing. It’s four in the morning. A barefoot Roma boy asks me for something. I have no money and no food. He leaves. An hour later, his brother pays me a visit. I realize that their mother is commanding them to do this; they’re tired and don’t seem willing to beg but she stands a few meters away with a watchful eye. One of the boys is trying to sleep; she wakes him up every five minutes for no reason. She yells at the other boy. He looks to me and gestures that he wants my entire backpack. I put my hand to my heart and say, “no, I’m sorry”. Because I am.
They leave eventually. Unable to sleep because of my stuffy nose, I sit and I think. I think that it’s nothing but a twist of circumstance, a genetic accident that I wasn’t born into such a situation as these boys were. I think I am very lucky for never having to endure the type of poverty that forces you on the street at night with no shoes and a desperate mother who uses you to scrape away coins from strangers. Billions still endure this; the chances that anyone is relatively well-off are comparatively small, in fact. Luxuries I’m used to – I’ve gone without them but they’re normally at hand – are taken for granted by so many, all the while some people search for beds and scraps of food and sips of dirty water on the daily. Then I think this: after traveling the world and concluding that terrible poverty has no borders, I think that I’m no less sensitive to it now than I was viewing it as a small child. Shouldn’t I be hardened by now? Shouldn’t I not feel bad anymore? I’m used to it, to seeing it, to being around it. It’s everywhere, after all, and there is no fixing it. While I have a solemn acceptance of the hardships that are possible in this life – otherwise Africa will be harder than it has to be – it simply doesn’t make it suck any less. Is it silly for me to feel something for these poor puppet children who bother me in the early hours of the morning and request that I give them everything I have?
I think no. Because not feeling that would be the demise of conscience and the demise of conscience is the demise of compassion and goodness and the chance that I’ll use my life, no matter in what small inconsequential way, to make the life of someone else a little better.
The most rewarding places to travel to are the ones most plagued with misfortune. This is because you’re especially human in these places, and you’re especially aware of it. Perspective is dumped onto you in brutish ways. You see the world for what it is: people doing what they can to survive, not always succeeding. Dirt and poverty own more than they should. And as I explore the world, it becomes clearer and clearer that the biggest tragedy that may fall onto any human would be for that human to see a dirty little boy in rags begging for a coin and not feel anything.
Part Four: The End of the Line
As lovely as Western Europe is, as grateful as I am towards the friends who’ve hosted me, I feel at home here. As I weave through a more untamed part of Europe – less popular, less beaten, less known – I feel that classic “travel” feeling: uncertainty looms overhead, energy-sucking awareness is necessary at all times to keep myself safe, not knowing whether to go right or left but ending up at my intended destination eventually – it’s at these times that I feel most alive. I’m not certain of anything, really, except myself. I’m certain of my ability to self-preserve. Lone travel shows itself to be solid verification of solipsism.
In the midst of sun, steam, smoke, and a bustling train station, I find myself in Bucharest. A kind train conductor helps me off the platform. Before departing, I ask him if he has any advice. His English is not good but good enough.
He steps onto the train as it slowly begins to pull away. He yells at me over the noise: “Watch your stuff and know when to run!”
I dissolve into the crowd and head outside into the southern Romanian heat with the sun and a smile on my face. I live for this shit!
* * * * * * * * *
There is more to the line than meets the eye. When planning for a trip, I’m reminded to reserve a day or more between points of interest for travel, physically changing places. These days seem like throwaway days, as if they don’t actually matter in the grand scheme of things. As if they’re just inconvenient logistical necessities. But travel isn’t just seeing new places, it’s getting to them. The beads on a necklace cannot hold together and create something beautiful without the string, just as the points are nothing without the line and its parts.