It was decided. We would spend two weeks in Europe in August. There’d be a reunion of the Playmate’s clan in coastal southern Scotland followed by a week exploring the previously unvisited central European city of Budapest in Hungary.
In Scotland, siblings would gather from around the globe to scatter their parents’ ashes at a place of significance from their past. Hopefully the Scots cousins would remember our weakness for whisky and put a hold on the haggis. In Budapest we’d discover an historic city, an old culture and a new cuisine. We’d cruise the Danube, ride the metro and generally test our competence at functioning in a structured and orderly city.
With the British-accented tones of the Singapore metro’s “Please mind the platform gap” warning bouncing about in my brain, I recalled the disorientation of trying to operate in sophisticated Singapore after two full years inside Indonesia, much of it in developing Lombok. What gap? The cracks in what passes for our pavements are craters compared to that teeny space between your clean, tiled platform and smart, futuristic trains.
Yup, we struggled with the metro ticket-vending machines, tried to hail cabs in no-hail zones, forgot to use pedestrian crossings, felt woozy on the escalators and got very hungry when, unbelievably, all our local restaurants closed promptly at 2pm, sending their lunchtime patrons scampering back to work. It was all, to us, menacingly methodical, sinfully systematic and logical enough to drive you to lunacy.
Frequent visitors to the West Australian city of Perth, we feel stripped naked in its cavernous spaces and, frankly, are the cause of some chaos on its big, smooth and underutilised roads on which we brake, and break the law by tooting, unnecessarily because we can’t trust other vehicles to obey the rules. It’s too scary. It’s inconceivable that the huge road train entering the freeway right in front of us at high speed will actually stay in its lane. But it does, after we’ve taken unwarranted and dangerous defensive action.
Budapest, with two million people, should be a perfect mix between sterile Singapore, empty Australia and unruly Bali. We designed a schedule and set about booking flights, accommodation and cars. Five days later, with an aching back from too many hours at the computer, I am hopeful it’s coming together, perhaps.
I tried to use a Singapore-based search and booking site. It wanted to take us to the ends of the earth on a 40-hour one-way economy trip to Europe for which we would pay more than US$6,000 each. I tried to use a Middle Eastern airline with frequent flights to Bali, through its own site and those of agents. Prices on its own site were escalating by the second and after getting to the very end of the long and tedious booking process with a big global agent, it advised the airline would not confirm the flights at the specified price. At the end of the booking process with another major agent, we were told our booking was not possible as were residents outside the US. Country of Residence had been specified at the start of the elongated procedure. Zero satisfaction and zero intention to use the site again featured in our feedback.
Unscrupulous car-rental agents advised only after the input of all information, including payment details, that their total price excluded insurance, or taxes, or other mandatory add-ons. It took days to find the perfect Budapest apartment. Four days after offering lots of dollars to its Hungarian owner, we don’t have a reply.
After five days of pounding the keyboard, cursing wildly and devoting hours to working out just what minute detail of data input each site found unacceptable – was it a space between a number, the absence or inclusion of a country code, a day before a month, a day after a month or one of countless other pesky little individual idiosyncrasies? – I longed to give the whole wretched affair to a human travel agent and pay the premium for personal service. Hang on; I tried that. A full week after emailing a Bali-located major Indonesian agency, with details and a request for confirmation that action was in progress, I’d heard nothing. Business must be booming.
While waiting anxiously for e-tickets to arrive, I decided to get some tips on Budapest. Here are the highlights. The air is dirty with traffic pollution. Restrooms can be grungy, often with no toilet paper, no soap and a shared hand towel. Beggars are rife and petty theft is rampant. Common scams involve beautiful women and forced ATM withdrawals.
Traffic police will ask for bribes in lieu of fines and may charge tourists with infringements they have not committed. Criminals may pose as policeman and issue on-the-spot fines. Traffic is manic and some cab drivers charge tourist tariffs. Negotiate the price in advance. Check restaurant bills and don’t change money on the streets.
I think we’ll feel right at home. However the city’s public transport system of three metro lines, trams, buses, trolley buses, night buses and suburban trains for which multi-modal tickets must be purchased from non-English speaking vendors has the potential to make Singapore a cinch.