Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Budapest: Almost a Great Story

From Ukraine and Romania
I'm at the Red Bus Hostel in Budapest. There is hardly a soul here. The room of four beds is mine alone for the moment. My former roomie, a quiet Chinese girl who has been winding her way through Central Europe, left this morning. She gave me all sorts of pills to help me with my coughing, presumably because she didn't want to be kept awake by it. So I have Chinese cold medication and cough drops. She also gave me something that I think is for acid reflux, but I am not sure. Since I haven't been drinking lately, I tried it hoping for a buzz.

I said to her, "I know what you're up to with all your travels! You're a drug dealer!"

I was half-right. After she departed I found, on my bed, a shrink-wrapped copy of the Bhagavad-Gita. In fact, I am quite interested in reading it. Perhaps I will be more enlightened after the next few train trips I take. Often times the things I say are mistaken for sarcasm. Really, I am interested.

In fact, I envy people of faith. They wear an extra layer of armor that atheists must do without. I wrote recently about the stress of dealing with ne'er do wells at a Cluj Napoca autogara. I always assume religious people are better able to face that sort of stuff. Most religion seems to say, "Don't worry; everything will work out in the end." And usually, things do. Oh ye of little faith, indeed.

Last night I was targeted for a different sort of scam than any I've described before; something much more sophisticated than a mere selling of a pick-pocketed cell phone, and with far greater potential for terror. This scam is so excellent because it involves an entire cast of cons, each of whom must be excellent playing their role. Mine is "almost" a great story because unfortunately for you, dear reader, I was suspicious enough to walk away from what was unfolding. Had I fallen for it I would have had a much more interesting story to tell, something along the lines of this one.

My story is as follows. While wandering about on my own last night, two blond women, probably in their mid-30s, saw me, shouted something to me in Hungarian, and then switched to English when I told them I spoke English. They asked me for directions to "an Irish Pub" (you know you've been pigeon-holed in a foreign country if women ask you about Irish pubs, but I am admittedly fond of such places). I told them I thought I had seen one in the vicinity called the Guinness Pub or some such thing, but I was not sure being new in town myself. They were friendly and told me they were visiting from the Lake Balaton region of Hungary for a few days.

They asked where I was headed that evening. I told them I was looking for dinner. They invited me to join them. Thinking this a bit odd ("instant friends" usually set off alarm bells in my head) I declined. They expressed disappointment, then pointed in a particular direction they were headed saying they had found a good pub on the Lonely Planet map I had shown them. So they headed off that way, and I went in the opposite direction thinking, "Strange, strange," but not sure why I thought it was so strange.

Being lost and confused, I circled the block. Sure enough, like an idiot, I wound up at exactly the same place I had met the two women before. And who should come strolling down the same street from the same direction I first saw them coming from but the same two women. They had not gone to that Irish pub after all; they were walking a loop.

At first I was embarrassed, so I waved at them and laughed. "How funny! We run into each other in exactly the same way we did just minutes before! Haha!" They laughed back (actually they impersonated my laugh, because unfortunately I have a horrible laugh).

I went back to the hostel, then Googled for Budapest scams, and lo and behold all became clear. As the link I provided above demonstrates (here it is again), this is how the trick is done (the guy in the link tells it beautifully, but if you want the short version, what happens after you say yes to the women is you wind up in a restaurant, bar, or strip club where the final bill winds up being phenomenally and inexplicably high; you hand over a lot of cash; in some cases you get marched to an ATM by somebody with a gun and hand over more cash; and you realize at some point later on that the women were in on it from the get-go and had deliberately brought you to that place with that outcome in mind). The U.S. Embassy in Budapest has a list of establishments implicated in this scam.

It is fortunate also that I love my girlfriend, because that added an additional cautionary voice in the back of my head which said, "I wouldn't 'do anything' with these two, but my girlfriend would be—to use her perfect words—'quite PISSED, actually' if she knew I went off drinking with a couple of Hungarian women anyway, and that would make me feel guilty, so why bother?"

Since my story was merely "almost great," I have included a great photo of some men moving a statue of a guy on a horse taken later that night.

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