Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

How can I be sore THERE!? October 4, 2008

The look of relief, as I drag myself out of yet another tight spot

The look of relief, as I drag myself out of yet another tight spot

Yesterday, after getting to Budapest, I went off to face the ATM for the first time since Venice, Italy. Although I tried to remain positive, I did feel a slight shiver of fear as I put my card in. I keyed in my PIN, got to the page where you select your withdrawal amount…and got confused. The amounts offered were 5, 10, 20, 40, 50. This might make sense in Lativa, where one Lat is worth about $2 USD. But here in Hungary, the Forint is trading at around 175F to $1. In other words, 1000F is less than $6.

These are the moments that make you feel like a giant dope. Were they truncating the amounts (i.e. 5 = 500? 50 = 50,000?) Had I misunderstood the exchange rate? This was Budapest, Hungary right??? What year is this? Who am I? Why is Madonna more famous in Europe than in America? What would you do for a Klondike bar?

Anyway, long story short, I am pleased to report a happy ending. Not only did I learn that you have select “other amount” and key in what you want (it feels super weird to key 200,000 into an ATM!), but it WORKED!!! The machine gave me money!!! Hallelujah! My ATM card really is back in the game.

Armed with what sounds like a ton of money, but really isn’t, I learned I had a choice to make. I had wanted to go to the Kiraly Baths on the Buda side of the city. Monday/Wednesday/Friday are female-only days, and yesterday was my one shot in that regard. However, Monday/Wednesday/Friday are also the only days you can take a guided tour through the caves outside the city, and the tour was leaving in 35 minutes. There are other baths open over the weekend (mixed gender), but I only had one opportunity to go caving. I changed into my sneakers and took off for the meeting place.

The woman in front of me, squeezing into yet another tiny space

The woman in front of me, squeezing into a tiny space. My ponytail filled with dirt during this section!


It was rush hour, so it took an incredibly long time to get there (via public transportation), but you eventually arrive at a little lodge/restaurant in the hills outside Buda. You’re outfitted with horrible grungy coveralls (mine was about four sizes too big and made me look like a member of the United Steelworkers Union), and inexplicably moist (later revealed as the sweat of the previous wearer. Ick.) hardhats. I shoved my camera into the giant front pocket, and we were off.

Caving is one of those experiences where if you suspect you might be claustrophobic, you’ll know for sure within fifteen minutes. I’m okay with tight spaces, although I don’t make a habit of forcing myself into them. Nonetheless, I’d pick that any day over serious heights.

Thus, it’s a bit harrowing to begin the tour by descending 100 feet down a ladder into the start of the caves. It’s already dark, so you really don’t realize how deep it is, until you’re climbing…and climbing…and climbing…and you still can’t see the lights on anyone’s hard hard. Once you get down, the real adventure begins.

For the next three hours you are led through a labyrinth of caves, and often via spaces that truly do not look big enough for a human body. A small cat, maybe, but not a whole person. At this point, these routes are well-traveled but I kept thinking about the people who originally went in there and found these ridiculous pathways.

The entrance to the Pál-Vőlgyi caves

The entrance to the Pál-Vőlgyi caves

They say ‘never say never’, but I can absolutely guarantee you that you will never in this lifetime hear me say, “Hey! There’s some caves no one has explored! Let’s go in them, and crawl through holes to see if we fit!” NEVER.

However, with a friendly Hungarian tour guide and a lopsided hardhat to protect me…why not!? There were seven of us in the group, and he decided to take us on the harder route. I’m pretty small, so I didn’t ever have a moment where I felt stuck or didn’t think I could make it through something, but it is pretty crazy to be crawling through a space so tiny that you have to turn your head sideways to fit.

It’s strangely exhilarating too…and far more physically strenuous than I would have imagined. You often have to kick yourself into a space with your arms stretched in front of you, flailing like some kind of failed evolutionary experiment. The fish that climbed out onto land, but didn’t quite make it off the shore. When you’re climbing back up and out of the caves, it’s like pulling yourself out of a tight, curved, slippery swimming pool…without the advantages of water buoyancy. It’s also a core workout like none the world has seen before, although I’m not really sure how to translate it into a routine that could be done at home. I woke up this morning feeling as still as a 100 year old woman. Even my bones ache.

Besides overworking every muscle in your body, you also spend a lot of time on all fours, which HURTS. I eventually mumbled that I could really use some knee pads, and the guide laughed and pointed to his Power Rangers-like outfit (quite a bit more snazzy than my Jiffy Lube uniform), to let me know he had some on. At least I had the helmet, because I hit my head at least 15 times. And whacked my elbows. And pounded my tail bone. And did something that has resulted in a big bruise on my hip. But I would do it all again. Tomorrow, if the tour were on Sundays.

I remember this moment as stressful and strenuous, but apparently I was enjoying myself from the look on my face!

I remember this moment as stressful and strenuous, but apparently I was enjoying myself from the look on my face!

It was super fun in a scary/exhilarating way. At the end of the tour, he offered us the option to go about 30 meters (90 feet) in total darkness. Caving, he told us, is a group effort, so we would have to take direction from the person in front of us, and help the person behind us.

Then we all switched off our head lamps and got started. We began holding hands and being shown (via touch) the walls ahead of us. I would inch forward a foot, and then stop and show the path to the girl behind me. Then there was a small climb up into a tube, after which you had to switch to a seated position and slide out. All the while you’re trying to make sure you understand what’s coming, while making sure to take care of the person behind you (who is in turn doing the same).

Then we got on our hands and knees, holding onto one another’s ankles in a train. I kept thinking I could see light or see things, but I proved that theory wrong when I tried to sit up (convinced I could see that there was space above me) and clanged my helmet into the ceiling for about the 20th time that day.

Emerging from the birth canal for the second time in my life...

Emerging from the birth canal for the second time in my life...

In a stupid way, it was strangely comforting. The Hungarians used the caves as a bomb shelter during WWII, and I kept thinking how awful it would have been to be down there in the dark, wondering if the world would end, or if you’d ever find your way out of this blasted cave to see it again. Navigating this way, I saw that it was actually possible (at least if the person in front knew the caves a bit or was willing to take some knocks to figure out what was coming) and not really that bad. In fact, it was kind of heartwarming, the way any sort of ‘trust experiment’ with other people (particularly strangers) restores your faith that in a pinch, we all really would help each other out.