How To Get From Athens to Budapest With $80

Photo by Emily Garber

The cab dropped us off five minutes to midnight in front of the Athens train station. Without wasting an instant, we grabbed our bags and ran.

The train was grimy and packed. We had to hoist our luggage- one suitcase apiece- onto the racks at the end of the car. Even though it was an overnight train, the seats did not recline, nor were the flickering, incandescent lights turned off.

The entire ride, a man’s snores filled the car.

I still tried to sleep, even though my legs were cramped from my seated position and I woke every few moments with panic, eyes searching for my suitcase in the pile of luggage, heart not resting until I found it. As it was, the lights and sonorous snores made what little sleep I got a miracle.

The train pulled in to Thessaloniki, the major city in Northern Greece, a little after 6 am.

We emerged to a ghost station. Nothing open. No people. Our suitcases were loud against the tile floor.

“What time is our bus?” I asked my friend Jordan.

“Three,” he said.

Nine hours. My eyes were already drooping, my body was shutting down. No way I would make it.

Then there was the worry. Because when I’d said, “Our bus,” what I’d meant was, “The bus to Budapest that we tried to buy tickets for a few days ago and were told we could only get in person, but not to worry, it would be fine.” We had an address for a ticket office, a two and a half week itinerary starting in Budapest, already booked, and no backup plan.

Finally, we found an open cafe inside the station. We each got a coffee and a sandwich. I took a two-hour nap in the vinyl booth, curled up like a cat, my backpack as my pillow.

The cafe had Wifi, too, which was good. We found the hours of the bus station, as well as its location on Google Maps.

“It’s half a mile’s walk,” Jordan said, squinting a little at his screen.

I nodded, fantasizing all the while about finding one of those motels that charged by the hour and sleeping for a few. Maybe the walk would help me stay awake.

Suitcases in tow, we took to the streets of Thessaloniki. We’d both been there before as part of our abroad program. It’s a vibrant city, full of students and cafes and pastry shops. I was thinking we might stop at one of those places, thinking that the warm air outside and the energy of the city might make me feel better.

But it was pouring rain that day. Luckily, both of us had the presence of mind to bring umbrellas, but there was only so much an umbrella could stop during a half a mile’s walk in the deluge.

We were the only people in the ticket office. The man behind the desk looked us up and down. Wet hair, wet shoes, suitcases dripping on the floor. “Would you like some tea?” he asked.

We nodded. “Efcharisto.”

We set our suitcases down on the chairs in the reception area and took a moment to sit, to shake off some of the wet, though it was air-conditioned inside and my hands were turning purple.

“Do you have a bathroom?” I asked. The man pointed the way to an upstairs office.

When I came back, I was handed my tea. “Efcharisto polli.”

Jordan looked mildly concerned. “He says we can’t buy a ticket to Budapest.”

My heart fell. Two and a half weeks of booked hostels and trains, carefully planned, gone. Shit.

But the man was shaking his head, “No, no, no,” he said, referring to Jordan.

“No? We can go?” It rose again.

The man looked hesitant. He spoke in broken English, and Jordan and I tried to make sense of it with each of our one semester of Modern Greek and three years of Ancient. And finally, we understood what was going on, even though we had not learned words for things like “customs strike” or “border.”

“Beograd,” the man finished after switching back to Greek.

“Beograd?” Jordan repeated.

The man nodded.

We exchanged glances. “Wait. Belgrade? In Serbia?”

The man nodded.

“And can we get from Belgrade to Budapest?” I asked.

“Oh, easy,” the man said, shrugging it off in a very Greek way.

My heart pounded. Suppose we got stuck in Belgrade? But what other choice did we have?

“Fifty Euros each,” the man said.

Jordan and I locked eyes. Then I handed over my credit card.

The bus left from the main station across town. In the still-pouring rain, we walked to the nearest bus stop and waited, then boarded the bus and rode it fifteen stops before realizing that we were going the wrong way. Crossing the street was like fording a river. A river with a lot of oncoming traffic.

We each got a gyro, our last gyro after four months of living in Greece, in the main bus station and we sat and talked for a time. Fifteen minutes till our bus was to leave, we wandered around to find it.

Then we were running again because this bus left from half a mile up the road. We took a cab there and sprinted into an empty, tiny station.

“Belgrade? Bus?” I gasped in broken Greek. “To leophorio?”

The woman behind the desk nodded. “It’s coming,” she said.

So we sat.

There was air conditioning on blast. I unzipped my soaked suitcase and dug out a pair of thick socks and a sweater.

“Thank god the bus is late,” I said.

“Yeah,” Jordan replied.

The bus station had Wifi, too, another miracle. I took the time to send my parents an update, send some friends a Snapchat with the caption “NBD, going to Serbia.”

The time seemed to crawl by. But Jordan and I each had a book to read.

We checked our watches some time later. It was five in the afternoon, a full two hours after our bus was supposed to leave. There had been no movement in the station in all the time that we had been waiting. Not a single coming or going.

I was getting nervous. Again, that trip we’d painstakingly booked flashed before my eyes. “It’s not coming,” I said.

Jordan shook his head. “If I’ve learned one thing about Greece it’s that the bus is coming. It may be hours late — but it will be there.”

Despite my worry, I smiled. He had a point.

And, true to form, the bus did come. Another hour later.

It was one of those coach buses that I used to take on school field trips. One with rainbow seats and a built-in bathroom, as well as a small screen suspended every five rows. Our luggage was stowed in the underbelly, and we each got a row of seats to ourselves. The lap of luxury, compared to the train from Athens.

The bus to Budapest we had researched was supposed to leave at 3 pm and arrive at 8 am. This bus was three hours late and supposed to drop us off much closer in our journey. When, exactly, it would arrive was anyone’s guess.

For a while, we sat and read in our seats, and I relaxed. Okay. We were on the bus. It wasn’t the bus to Budapest, but we were leaving Greece, and we would be able to get to Budapest eventually. Hopefully. I even started to doze off and on, though it was still light out.

The Northern Greece flitting by was very different from the rest of the country I had come to know. Here were lush forests, farms. I had become accustomed to the yellow-green, grey, and shocking blue color palette of Athens and the islands, the “rocky Greece” of Homer, not this deep green and brown with the sun starting to set purple through the clouds.

After a few hours of watching the land go by, though, there was something familiar. A few hills, valleys between them, and then, against a water tank on the side of the road in huge, bold letters, the tag: “Fuck the Border Police.”

Behind it was a field of tents. Hundreds if not thousands of them, a rainbow of colors in various states of wear. They filled a whole valley. The bus going at highway speed took several long moments to pass them.

“Whoa,” Jordan said, looking out his window on the other side of the road from me. Filled as well.

I kept watching the side of the road after that. Trying to catch a better glimpse. Trying to understand better what I had just seen. All I saw, though, was the asphodel that grew unchecked in thickets on the side of the road, and distant villages that I would never visit.

Asphodel. That was the afterlife, according to the Ancient Greeks. Your spirit standing forever in the Fields of Asphodel, waiting for something that would never come.

Ten minutes later, we stopped at the border. The driver collected our passports, descended, and returned with them stamped. On we drove.

That was what struck me the most, I think. How easy it was. For me.

We stopped at the first gas station on the side of the road in Macedonia, only a mile from the border. Jordan and I disembarked and stretched.

I walked into the station, which looked exactly like every gas station I have ever been inside aside from the Cyrillic lettering of the big, red sign. I wandered around for a minute, thought about buying a snack, and then realized with a great shock that we were out of the Euro zone. I had no money, here.

I left a little while later, looking out onto the road. The day was turning grey and dark.

When I was getting back on the bus I turned around and took my camera out to take this picture:

Photo by Emily Garber

A man immediately started yelling at me and coming closer, and I put down the camera, heart racing.

“No photos!” He said.

“Okay, okay,” I said, making a show of turning off my camera and putting it away.

“I guess we’re still too close to the border,” Jordan muttered as I filed back onto the bus with him.

Darkness fell soon after. The bus driver had a movie playing on all the screens. Burnt starring Bradley Cooper. I watched for a while.

It was hard to sleep for a second night in a row sitting up. I had never before appreciated the importance of lying down to a good night’s sleep.

I eventually found a way to stretch out, legs extended over the aisle, a bridge between the rows of seats, with my backpack as my pillow.

We were woken some time a few hours later to exit the bus, yawning, freezing in the cold, passports in hand. After a few minutes in line, I handed mine over. It was stamped. I retreated back to the warmth of the bus.

We were in Serbia.

At three in the morning by the clock on the bus, we came to our final stop.

“Belgrade.”

Jordan and I shuffled off. We retrieved our suitcases, which were standing at attention on the side of the road, already removed from their lonely compartment.

“There’s the train station,” the bus driver said, pointing across five lanes of street. I stared at it, at the large steps leading up to the yellow façade. My eyes traveled counterclockwise, from building to building, all covered in shadows, all labeled, some in neon, with words from a language that I did not know. There were no people on the streets. The wind had a deep chill.

As I watched, the bus stirred behind me and then was gone.

Jordan and I crossed the empty streets, bags in tow rolling loudly behind us.

Up the steps we went, through the façade, through the atrium, to an open-air plaza with four tracks in front of us. To the right was a separate complex with a door and guard. To the left, the building façade extended. A closed café had outdoor tables in front of it. Quite a few people, silent and somber, were seated there, huddled up to stave off the cold.

We both started to the left, away from the people. There was a light on in a room built into the station and we peeked inside.

A man emerged, brisk. His hair was cropped, his dress was military. A massive gun was strapped across his chest and in his hands.

Stammering, we asked in English, “Ticket booth?”

His face did not change. He pointed to a door past the café, past the collection of huddled people.

We thanked him and he returned to his room.

Still trembling, a little, we walked through the gauntlet of people, through the doors, and into a dark ticket office. We sat on stone barriers as others were doing. I looked at the station clock and my heart sank when I realized that we had crossed time zones. It was 2 am here. Three hours until the ticket office would open.

The station was not empty. Many people sat with their bags. The glowing screen of the arrival and departure times indicated that there would be a few trains every hour until we left. Nobody was talking.

I pulled out my book, Gone Girl, and Jordan did the same with his. I read, fighting exhaustion. I had never been so tired. My shoes were still wet from the rain in Thessaloniki. And perhaps it was the image of the gun carried by the guard, perhaps it was the fact that I was reading a thriller, but whenever someone so much as moved in the silence of the train station, the back of my neck prickled.

At some point, Jordan left to find the bathroom, and I sat with both our bags, alone in the dark, heart thumping until he came back.

“Well,” he said in a hushed voice when he returned. “You have to pay to use the bathroom. And pay extra for toilet paper.”

“Seriously?”

“Yep.”

The time passed in dollops. I started to mark the progression of the morning not by the clock, but by the gradual lightening of the sky, taking comfort in the small amounts of light that were slowing trickling into the sky.

Air that smelled like autumn came with the rising of the sun, though the city did not get warmer.

The light calmed me a little. It made the blank stares that I would occasionally exchange with the other people in the station feel less sinister. It made me see behind those stares, to the eyelids drooping, the hands clutching bags close, and remember that they, too, were here for a reason.

The ticket office opened ten minutes after five.

When we were two from the front, I turned to Jordan in a panic. “What’s the exchange rate, here?”

“Oh no,” he said. He pulled out his phone to furiously Google.

But before we could find an answer, it was our turn. “Two tickets to Budapest?” I said.

The woman said something back to me in Serbian. Then, at my blank stare, she handed me the receipt. It said 40,000.00 of their currency.

I stared at it. I looked back to Jordan. I stared at the paper again. “Well…” I gave her my card. It wasn’t declined. Well. Good news for that, at least.

We got our tickets and noticed, to our dismay, that the train departed at 7:20 am. So we had two more hours to kill.

I lent Jordan my jacket and we walked a little away to find a coffee shop, because we both needed caffeine desperately.

Photo by Emily Garber

We boarded the train on time, and it left on time. And we chugged along, passing by green fields and villages, stopping occasionally as we went and exchanging passengers.

We had meant to take turns napping, to have someone keep an eye on our bags just in case, but I kept falling asleep when it was my turn to keep watch.

“Emilllllllyyyy,” Jordan kept saying.

“Sorry,” I kept replying.

After hours of traveling, a woman came through, checking and stamping passports.

Once in Hungary, I thought that it couldn’t possibly be long now. For hours I peered across the vast, flat land and just kept thinking, “I will see the city soon,” but only saw flat and green.

I really tried to stay awake, but in the end, I spent the entire ride drifting unwillingly in and out of sleep, fighting hard against my exhaustion but losing every battle. Each time I opened my eyes, I’d see new shades of green in farms, in fields, in bushes, and in the forests of thin-trunked trees, and then my eyelids would clamp down again like heavy metal doors.

Close. A dream of checking the time, reaching for my bag.

Open. I’d jolt, my cheek pressed against the window, no idea what time it was, and all I’d see were fields.

Close. A dream of talking to someone, starting to see the city on the horizon.

Open. I checked to make sure that my bag was still safe on the seat next to me. Jordan was asleep across from me, cheek to shoulder. Oops.

And then my eyes snapped open, and we were there.

Photo by Emily Garber
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