Burrowing Beneath Budapest

James Michael Dorsey

Travel writing can be a dangerous profession, especially when you are staying in a luxury hotel.

It was my final two days at the venerable Gellart in Budapest, a grand and aging old world hangout of the rich and famous whose rooms are each named for the illustrious personages that have occupied them. I wanted photos of the hotel’s subterranean mineral baths for a magazine article and was up at the crack of dawn to take them before anyone would be bathing. So imagine my surprise when I walked in with my camera to find it occupied by two-dozen naked and very hairy men. No one told me that the wee hours were when the city’s municipal workers occupied the baths for free.

We all froze in place--those staring at my camera, and me staring at shortcomings I had no desire to see so early in the morning, if ever. In that finite moment when an illogical image from a crisis fixes itself in your mind, it struck me that all of the gentlemen before me had very large mustaches. Without lingering on that thought, I beat a hasty retreat as various threats of violence were being hurled my way.

Not yet realizing the severity of my faux pas, I made it as far as the concierge desk before it dawned on me that I could not show my face again anywhere in the hotel without fingers pointing at the resident pervert. It was a brochure on the concierge’s desk that saved me.

It seems that Budapest sits atop a massive system of caves, carved over the eons by swift flowing thermal springs, the very same springs that feed the baths that I had just fled. The brochure advertised three different sets of caves that were open to the public for tours. My wife giggled about my early morning encounter and informed me that she could occupy the baths with impunity and intended to spend the day doing so. I hopped on a bus to spend my final hours in a cave where I would still get a travel story and, hopefully, not be accused of any sex crimes. An hour later, I was deposited at a comfortable looking station in the green rolling hills that surround Budapest.

I entered what appeared to be a massive locker room to find myself in the middle of eight young and totally buff bodies, both men and women, all of them no more than half my age in various stages of undress. I was instantly grateful that I was not holding my camera, but wondering how and why it was that I kept walking in on naked people.

A moment later, I found out that of the three different cave systems, two of them were guided walking tours that required about an hour of leisure strolling among the stalactites and stalagmites, while the third one, the one I was about to enter, was down in the dirt, crawling through cracks and crevices with a miners hardhat and lamp into alcoves where only a rodent should tread.

While my fellow explorers snickered at this aging addition to their group, they also began to help me suit up in overalls, boots, gloves, hard hat with lamp, and Jumar ascenders, curious hand held devices that resemble brass knuckles but allow you to lock onto a rope easily while moving up or down.

Now I had never done any spelunking, as it is officially called, but assumed that with so many young athletes around me I would be in good company, and within minutes we were walking through the forest in anticipation. We stopped at an ancient and rusting steel door in the side of a rock wall that our leader opened with an equally ancient looking skeleton key the size of a spatula. The door creaked and moaned as it slowly revealed total darkness inside and we all turned on our headlamps as we entered. Our leader was called Rat and I am not sure if that was his true name or just a moniker based on his resemblance to the rodents that I was about to share space with. Rat was old school. His miners hat held a candle in front of a mirror for light and he had callouses on his knuckles the size of golf balls. He was also stick thin, with hands like baseball gloves, built for caving while I am rather large and built more for lounging by the pool.

Immediately inside the door, the outer world disappeared and we had entered a separate reality, grim, cold, and dark. I was standing on a narrow ledge next to Rat, and one step forward was a drop into black nothingness. The Rat, who only spoke Hungarian attached his Jumars to a long rope and slid into the darkness like he was on a firehouse pole, leading by example. We all followed one by one. It was easier than I had expected with the Jumars locking in place when I applied pressure to them and loosening to let me slide down when I released pressure. At the bottom, a good thirty feet below the entrance, we stood pressed together while I watched Rat slither into a hole no larger than a small beach ball, and I wondered what had I gotten myself into.

I watched his feet kicking and twisting like a hooked trout as he fought his way through an impossibly small tunnel. Just as the first wave of panic overtook me, I laid out flat like Superman in flight, arms straight out, and slid downward as though I were on a waterslide and not in a subterranean hole. With the eight of us now in the bowels of the cave, our headlamps produced eerie shadows that danced around us like evil spirits wishing to drag us to hell. Our voices were magnified in the narrow caverns and echoed down passageways that had never known the tread of a human. For the next hour, we continued our descent as I fought the urge to flee; slipping, sliding, and squeezing through ever smaller openings that threatened each time to trap me in place forever.

I was holding onto the top edge of a large boulder and sliding my hands along as though hanging from a ledge while trying to position my feet for a good hold when I heard a loud pop and lost my grip, falling in a heap that raised a choking dust cloud of what was probably bat guano. When I looked down my right ring finger was pointing in a different direction than the rest of my body. Now I have never had a broken bone in my life and seeing my digit poised at such an odd angle, my first thought was that I had a compound fracture, an added bonus to having a panic attack underground with strange people I could not communicate with.

The Rat was quickly at my side, viewing my deformed hand with amused detachment, when without warning he grabbed the finger and gave it a hard jerk straight out. I swallowed a scream of pain and pulled my hand away, but the Rats’ maneuver accomplished nothing as my finger still pointed north while the rest of me was going south. Apparently, he had seen too many medical shows on television and when he realized his impromptu treatment had failed, he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “What can you do?” Up to that point, I barely felt the finger, thanks to rushing adrenalin, but after Rat almost pulled it off, it hurt like hell.

Next, I was blinded by a flash as, one by one, my fellow spelunkers began kneeling next to my hand and taking selfies as though it were something totally cool. At least they were not naked photos. The finger was now throbbing terribly and if it was not broken before, I was sure it was after Rat’s impromptu treatment.

Rat gave me a thumbs up and pointed the rest of the group towards a yawning hole in the wall. It was then that I knew he was not giving me a sign of encouragement but telling me I was on my own. Then he led the other cavers away to continue their descent. Apparently, the needs of the many surpass that of the one and I was being abandoned to my fate. I suppose that was one of those pivotal moments when your life is supposed to flash before your eyes, but all I could think of was that maybe I was bleeding to death internally deep inside a cave while my wife sat at the hotel bar nursing a Hennessey and nodding her head politely at the bartenders’ story about a pervert who tried to photograph naked men in the baths that morning.

There was only one way out, so I was not worried about getting lost, but climbing up rocks that I had previously slid down was no easy task with only one good hand. I kept banging my head and knocking my helmet off, cut my hands repeatedly on sharp edges, and jammed my mangled finger countless times. Slowly but surely, I made my way back to the rope by the entrance. The Jumar ascenders allowed me to negotiate the rope without much trouble and when I pushed the creaking steel door open, the blast of sunlight and fresh air almost knocked me over. A check of my watch revealed that it had taken me just over four hours to ascend from the cave, but I felt a wave of accomplishment at having done so alone. By this time, I was pretty sure that my finger was merely dislocated and not fractured, as there was no discoloration that would indicate internal bleeding.

I felt I now had a pretty good travel story and began composing it in my head as I walked back to the locker room on the forest path. I flung open the door and, as I did so, everyone inside froze in place with looks of horror on their faces.

Then I saw myself in a wall mirror, my face a mass of tiny cuts and bruises, hair matted with sweat, dirt, and grime, my overalls smeared with grit and torn in several places. I was a demon from the depths and looked far worse than I felt, but my extreme appearance and solo arrival must have announced that a catastrophe had befallen our intrepid group of spelunkers.

I raised my hand to explain my early return from the cave and a collective gasp of shock filled the room. I watched my errant finger waving about of its own volition, making its’ own point separate from what I wanted to say. Four attendants rushed to my side, forcing me to lie down, and began stripping off my gear, apparently thinking me to be terribly injured.

Everyone was speaking at once, giving orders, asking me questions and yelling, but I understood nothing, and when I tried to say anything, a burly fellow put his finger to my lips to quiet me. Another girl was on the telephone, yelling loudly while two men began to suit up and grab ropes in what I then realized was the start of a search and rescue operation for the rest of the cavers that were now believed to be in serious peril if still alive at all. I heard myself yelling that everyone was just fine, but no one was listening or understood me in the general panic of Hungarian spoken triage.

One young man had been winding my mangled hand with a gauze bandage during all of this, and when he stopped it looked as though my arm ended in a large white bowling ball. I made one final protest that I was all right, just as I was being picked up and carried outside to a waiting taxi and thrust into the back seat. People yelled instructions at the driver as we pulled away.

The driver kept checking on me in the rear-view mirror as we picked up speed and I tried to motion for him to slow down, but all he saw was the large white orb on the end of my arm and drove even faster, convinced now that this was a race of life or death. I unwound the ungainly bandages and when the driver saw my finger he let out a cry and hunched over the wheel, driving now with renewed determination.

He was taking hairpin turns at dangerous speeds and the tires were screaming in protest as we entered the afternoon rush of Budapest. We zipped in and out of traffic with the abandon of those about to die, changing lanes in the blink of an eye, horn continuously honking, and the driver hanging halfway out the window to wave people out of our way. In the rear-view mirror, I could see the whites of his panicked eyes and prayed the police would stop us, but none appeared.

I watched the city of Budapest zip by in a blur until we hit a curb and bounced into the parking lot of an emergency hospital in a display of skidding tires. I jumped out quickly, grateful to have survived the ride, and before I could search for money, he waved me off towards the emergency entrance.

Inside, I walked down several vacant corridors before finding a living person, and if I had been truly injured I would have bled out before making human contact at this “emergency” hospital. Finally, in what appeared to be a lounge, I found two women in scrubs that I thought might be doctors. I simply held up my hand and one of them led me into a small examination room, while still munching her sandwich, and then she disappeared.

Within minutes, four people with surgical masks and wearing stethoscopes entered the room. Each took turns examining my finger while chatting amongst themselves. They retreated as a group into an office next door and I heard their conversation escalate loudly. After several minutes, a lady appeared and I heard English spoken for the first time that day.

“You are foreigner. We cannot treat you unless you pay first,” she said.

“Fine,” I replied, and pulled out my wallet and a credit card.

“No credit, cash!” she said.

“How much is it?’ I asked.

“Nine dollars US,” she replied.

Let’s hear it for socialized medicine. I dug through my pockets and found a crumpled ten spot.

“Keep the change.” I laughed as I handed her the money, but she did not understand.

With that, she grabbed my hand and pulled my finger straight out with a quick jerk. I heard a loud pop, felt a brief flash of pain, and was whole once again. She splinted the finger and wrapped it in gauze that made it about ten inches long, and now it looked like an albino banana.

The taxi driver had waited for me, relieved to see I was still alive, and took me back to the hotel, where I retreated into my room to relate the whole story to my wife who had assumed I had spent my day strolling underground among tourists.

That evening, we had a farewell dinner in the hotel dining room, in low candle light, where I was sure no one from the baths would recognize me. The food was wonderful, but my elongated finger kept jamming into the mashed potatoes.

We decided to take our desert in our room when my wife pointed out that a man with a large mustache had been staring at me intensely from across the dining room.

About the Author

James Michael Dorsey is an author, explorer, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in 45 countries. He has spent the past two decades researching remote cultures around the world. He is a contributing editor at Transitions Abroad and frequent contributor to United Airlines, The Christian Science Monitor, and Perceptive Travel. He has written for Colliers, Los Angeles Times, BBC Wildlife, Geo Ex Wanderlust, Natural History, plus several African magazines. He is a foreign correspondent for CameraPix International and a travel consultant to Brown and Hudson of London. His latest book is Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails. His work has appeared in nine literary anthologies. He is an eight-time Solas Award category winner from Travelers’ Tales and a contributor to their Best Travel Writing, Volume 10. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a former director of the Adventurers club.