Checking out of my hostel in the hot hot morning, I shook hands with the two friendly guys that ran the place, humped my dusty rucksack up on my back, and made my way across the city to the bus station. It took me some 45 minutes, and by the time I arrived I’d sweated clean through my shirt and nearly been bonneted by half a dozen cars and buses.
Navigating Belgrade’s bus station was ass. To begin with, all the signs on the outside are in the Cyrillic alphabet, which of course I can’t read a single letter of. Inside the busy building I weaved through throngs of sweaty people and found a booth in a wall with a young lady sitting in it.
“Hello,” I said, staggering over, “I’m supposed to catch a bus to Budapest at 4.30pm today. Do you know which platform I go to?”
“Where are you going?”
“Okay. And when?”
“… At 4.30pm.”
“One moment please,” said the girl, fluttering her hands over her keyboard. “Platform 32.”
I mumbled thanks and lumbered away into the crowd, past people smoking and eating samosas and children howling and families brawling. I took a wrong turn that lead me straight out of the building and into the street, and was forced to double back on myself. I came to a turnstile with two old men in uniform guarding it. I could see my platform, number 32, beyond. The guards were talking animatedly in Serbian, and I stood in front of them for a good thirty seconds before one of them, an old grey-haired guy in sunglasses, deigned to notice me.
“Can I come through please?”
I wasn’t sure what to say to this, so I just said “Flixbus” with a hopeful expression.
“No,” said the guard.
I blinked at him.
“Over there, speak,” he added, waving me away in the directions of some other booths.
Feeling just a little bit annoyed, I went to the other booth he pointed me towards. I queued up first for a booth with a powdery-faced woman in it, her hair frozen into a giant poof by a full can of hairspray. I stood in front of her window for a minute without her so much as glancing up at me, so I moved over to a different window, where there was a dark-haired man chatting affably with two local boys.
“Hello,” I said, when it was my turn. “Is it here for the Flixbus?”
The dark-haired man shooed me away and pointed to yet another booth across the room. In this booth I found a middle-aged woman with tired eyes.
“Flixbus?” I asked.
She took my phone wordlessly and nodded. “You pay 300 dinars.”
“I’ve paid already,” I told her.
“For entry ticket to platform,” she sighed, taking my money and handing me a little slip of paper.
With this little slip I went back to the old security guard, and he inspected it – annoyingly closely, I thought – before waving me through. Being charged extra at the last minute to access something you’d supposedly already paid for: it didn’t feel wildly legal, but who knows.
I bought some confectionary for the journey, ate the entirety of it long before the bus even arrived, and melted in the heat to wait. When the Flixbus finally arrived, driven by two enormous men, they checked my ticket and immediately informed me I would need to pay for a new one.
“Why?” I asked, incredulous.
The driver pointed a beefy finger at the date on my ticket.
“Yeah, it’s Friday today,” I protested.
The giant finger patiently tapped the date. I read it again and my heart sank. I’d booked a ticket for the Friday after by mistake.
The driver gave me a long, slow look that said, ‘I would be more sympathetic if it wasn’t currently 42 degrees Celsius.’
“Thirty euros,” he said, flatly.
It had only been fifteen when I bought them online the day before. I sighed.
“Okay. Do you take card?”
“Is not possible,” said the driver.
Observe, now, as the sweat drips down young Daniel Hackett’s sizeable forehead as he contemplates his options. Does he make a run for an ATM, leaving his luggage here to maximise his speed? Does he bring his bags with him, jangling desperately through the streets like a spanked pack-mule? And either way he will need to pay the bastard security man again and go through the rigamarole of buying a depressing booth woman ticket – and does he have any change left in his pocket?
See him fumble in his pocket now, terror in his eyes as he realises that no – he does not have any change left – he spent it all on M&Ms and crisps half an hour ago because there was no indication anywhere that he would need to pay extra money just to access the shitting bus platform. See Dan’s pupils dilate as he realises he will need to first sprint to an ATM, then withdraw money, then in all likelihood break the money somewhere to get the right change for the twatting platform fee, and of course he has no Wi-Fi and his phone SIM doesn’t work outside the EU, which means he won’t be able to A) calculate the proper exchange rate or B) locate an ATM, and anyway the bus is due to leave in six minutes and there’s no way in hell–
“You have passport?” asked the driver, interrupting my long, anguished stare into the middle-distance.
I handed him it and he leafed through it.
“Okay,” he said, snapping it shut and handing it back. “You pay at border. Is ATM.”
He nodded me onto the bus.
“Sit in green zone only.”
I couldn’t figure out what the hell the green zone was, so I just sat anywhere and nobody complained. The bus chugged into life and we set off, rolling out of the station and out of the city on a gigantic raised motorway, a hundred feet up. I’ll tell you now: I didn’t feel particularly thrilled at the prospect of my card not working and my being abandoned at the border between Hungary and bloody Serbia.
Several hours later, we hit the border and slowed to a crawl, our bus entering a stream of holiday-making traffic. We gradually came to a halt, at which point the bus tannoy began bleating. I was in a bit of a daydream, so it was a good 30 seconds before I realised that the weird sound coming out of the speakers was somebody calling my name in a foreign accent.
“Dinnyahl Hayckutt. Dinoyl Heeckut. Dinael Heorcut. Doylin Haircunt? Come to the front, please.”
I came to the front, reddening.
“We go to ATM.”
The enormous driver left his enormous friend in charge of the bus, idling at the roadside, as we set off weaving through the queuing cars to a small hut. This hut was filled with fat-bellied police officers and disgruntled truck drivers being told off. I got in line beside the enormous driver and felt anxiety creep in as the minutes ticked by and the queue didn’t move. If I was holding up nobody but myself I wouldn’t care – but there was a coachload of people a hundred metres away awaiting my return. Deeply uncool.
After fifteen minutes we reached the front of the queue, and the enormous driver asked the grumpy money converting man to take my card and withdraw 30 euros. The grumpy money converting man looked at me with droopy eyes and asked for my driving license as proof of ID. I told him I don’t have a driving license because I lost it in Thailand when I was drunk four years ago (something I really ought to rectify). The money man told me I needed to get my passport then, and the driver told me to go and get it.
“Go, go,” he shouted after me, and I could hear the chuckle in his voice. The guy didn’t give a toss if his bus and everybody on it was late. I supposed the 100% markup on the cash tickets was to go straight into his personal beer fund.
I jogged across the ten lanes of queuing cars, climbed back onto the coach, and tried very hard to ignore the focussed stares of 30 furious, sweaty passengers. My passport in my hand, I hopped off and sprinted back to the hut.
Five minutes later I was seated on the bus once more, my ticket bought, my enormous driver bribed, my dignity beaten with a mallet into a fine paste.
It took us another 90 minutes to fully pass-through security. It could have been worse: a Serb guy I bummed a smoke off while we waited for everybody’s passports to clear told me that wait times had been up to 7 hours in recent weeks. Madness. They ought to invite a troupe of those irritating clown people that juggle and hula hoop at traffic lights for money. A 7-hour captive audience – they’d make bank.
I reached Budapest around 11pm. It was still 36 degrees, and I decided to walk all the way to my hostel, despite Google maps warning me it was a one-hour hike, because I never, ever learn anything and I’m a stupid idiot boob of a man. And so, in the end, I arrived at my hostel after midnight in the same fashion I have arrived absolutely everywhere on this blasted trip: sweating from my eyelids, tongue-swollen with thirst, hating everybody in the world, and absolutely gurning for a piss.
“Hello,” I wheezed, leaning on the counter with both elbows. “Here’s my passport.”
Soon, I thought, soon I will be in a lovely nice bed with a lovely big air-conditioning box above me, blowing nice air on my poor damp weary body. So close. So very very close.
“You would like to check in?” asked the neat, polite receptionist.
“No, I just came in here for a chat.”
“That was a joke. I’m sorry. Yes I would like to check in please.”
“Okay Mister – ” he squinted at my passport – “Hackett. Your room will be 203, bunk number 3. Check out is at 11am, and breakfast is served between 8am and 10.30am. You have mixed gender bathrooms on each floor, and if you need laundry, just ask at the front desk. Oh, and I must apologise, but the air conditioning is broken.”