By Scott Bembenek
“What have I gotten myself into?”
That is the question that kept flying through my head as I was putting on that oversized red jumpsuit and bright yellow hardhat with a light on the front. Just a couple of months ago, I had been studying for finals back in Madison. Now it was February and I found myself in Budapest, more or less ready, if not a bit anxious, to start exploring the caves below.
I had been studying abroad for just over two months. In that time, I had the opportunity to familiarize myself with Rome (my host city) and John Cabot University (where I was going to school), and I had even gotten the chance to go on a trip to Switzerland. That trip to Switzerland was what got my friends and me going. We had gotten our way through a 12-hour bus ride and seen the Alps. We had wandered through both sides of Zurich. And after that we couldn’t wait for more.
My friend Josh, who I had met on a tour to our school’s bookstore in Rome, had been the one to suggest we go to Budapest. It was also his idea to go caving. He had promised us it would be one of the coolest things we had ever done and that there was no way we would regret it. So Josh, my roommate Peter and I booked our time in the caves and bought our plane tickets to Hungary.
We didn’t have much time our first night there (we got there to town Friday night), so we dropped our bags in our hostel and went out into the beautiful, brightly lit city in the clear night. Having spent most of our time in Western Europe, it was all pretty new. We kept trying to identify all of the monuments and buildings around us based on the admittedly limited research we had done beforehand. When the time came around, we met up with a local guide, Norbert, for a pub crawl that occupied the rest of our night. We got to experience a lot of local bars, ranging from the historic bars to the legendary ruin pubs and even one bar so massive it had about six bars within it. After all that was over, though, we had to get back to our hostel and get some sleep before the next day’s early start. It wasn’t exactly hard to do in our hostel either. We had booked it last minute just looking for a place to stay and ended up with an absolutely enormous apartment to ourselves (so big that each of the three of us had our own rooms) that the owner had bought and converted into a hostel for traveling students. Needless to say, we slept well.
The next morning we had to move quickly. We all took showers, got dressed and booked a cab to take us to a local shooting range (we went on the recommendation of one of the seven other roommates Peter and I lived with back in Rome). After meeting some intimidating bald Eastern European men who seemed to match all kinds of Hollywood stereotypes and having them show us what to do, we ended up having a pretty good time.
After that, though, was when the real fun began.
After a cab ride back to the hostel with a fun Hungarian taxi driver who asked us trivia questions and told us a little bit about the city, it’s government and some history, we dropped our stuff off and grabbed a quick snack before hopping right back in another taxi with a driver who was the exact opposite of the one we had just ridden with. He was stoic, dressed in a suit and made little effort to hide the fact the he really just wanted to dump us off where we were going so he could part ways with us and never see us again. After a taxi ride that lasted 20 minutes but felt much longer, we were at the entrance to the caves.
The waiting area to go down into the caves was a small cabin with some trinkets for tourists and travelers to peruse while waiting for the real attraction. When we arrived, the cabin was packed to the brim, and we watched as groups filed out bit by bit to descend into the darkness of the caves below. While we waited for our turn, we took a look around. It was a gray, rainy day that only added to the ominous mystery (at least for me, who, unlike Josh, had never done this before; I can’t speak for Peter). There was a small cat just inside the entrance to the cabin that we played with for a bit, too. Then, having expended all the distractions around us, we sat down and spoke with a small group of girls, who, along with the Josh, Peter and I, were the last ones left. It turned out that they weren’t so different from ourselves. They, too, were studying in a prominent capital city (Prague), and were looking to travel just about anywhere they could get a ticket to. After introductions and a few stories of the cities that were quickly becoming our homes, the head tour guide came in.
One note on this tour guide: he was not your average guide. He had long, crazy blonde hair and a countenance that made him look like he explored caves for a living. He came across a tad crazy, too, but that’s what you really look for in a good tour guide, right? Besides, he seemed like a genuinely funny and nice guy. He called us to get suited up. We were the last group of the day, so he was going to take us himself (a bit of an honor in my mind really, that the head of the guides would take us himself). And that’s how I found myself in that slightly ridiculous red jumpsuit and miner’s helmet. Now we were going down.
Before we descended the 30-foot red ladder down into the caves themselves, our guide explained to us how things would work. We would spend an hour going down and an hour coming back up again. After all the ground rules were made clear, we cautiously went down the ladder and into the caverns below. We, of course, being Peter, Josh, the girls and myself. Our tour guide revealed himself in that moment to be a human spider monkey. No lies. It seemed like he could move around more naturally clambering around underground and scaling cave walls than he could walk down a straight road. Once in a while, he’d stop and wait up for us and make sure no one got lost on the way down.
Then we started venturing around the caves. We’d be crawling on our stomachs one second, then flipping feet-first as we slid down through narrow gaps in the rock. Sometimes, we’d have to go one our stomachs and wiggle like worms through holes that no human should actually be able to fit through. But that’s where the magic came in. Just when you thought you had reached the end, just when you felt so cramped that you honestly believed the rocks would collapse onto you and crush you, you discovered a massive cavern that had been carved out by flowing water centuries earlier. Then you could stand up, stretch your legs and shake off the claustrophobia.
It was in these caverns that our amicable, eccentric guide would give us a bit of history about the caves and his role in exploring them. Naturally, he also liked to make fun of the terrible and cheap horror movies that see unknowing students on a vacation attacked by a hidden monster population deep underground. He also took the time to give us some advice about how to spend our time in the city, how to act around locals and taught us a bit of Hungarian, too. Note for future travelers: when you are in Hungary, don’t say cheers at the bars. Instead, sound like you studied up a bit before arriving and say egészségére (pronounced egg-esh ay-ged-reh). And don’t clink your beer glass with someone else, it can come across as offensive. Also don’t say “T-shirt” at the bar. You’ll be ordering 10 beers. If you ever run into our tour guide, you can thank him for that bit of wisdom. After all that, we’d go back down and start the cycle over again until we ended up in another large cavern in the middle of those tunnels better fitted for burrowing mammals than human beings.
It was in one of these caverns that I found Madison.
Not literally of course. It was more like I found the Badger spirit. Just give me a chance to explain. Naturally, I was having the time of my life, both studying abroad and spelunking, but I did miss home. Still, I never expected to feel like I was back in Madison while I was sweating and covered in mud in some mysterious, winding and seemingly endless cave under an Eastern European capital city.
Eventually, we came into what our guide informed us would be the largest cavern we would come across that day and the last one before we started to head back up into some of the others. He showed us exactly how big it was by letting his voice echo through the darkness. Then, he told us to sit in a circle in the middle of the cavern to get an even better idea of how captivating those echoes could be.
When the group of girls and the three of us were seated, our guide told us, “Ok, now turn off your helmet lights.” Naturally, we were hesitant to do this, but we all liked him enough that we trusted him not to drag us into some unknown depths below. Then, he told us what he was going to do to make the echoes so magical. He was going to sing a Hungarian lullaby. The song in the absolute, pure darkness of the caves was unexpectedly beautiful. The lyrics flowed together and captured the imagination as they floated through the black of the cave. With nothing to feel but the ground beneath us, all we could focus on was the trancelike words of the song, even though we didn’t know what they meant. Then, as smoothly as they began, they came to a soft stop.
“Alright your turn. One of you start singing a song you all know, and the rest of us will join in.”
Singing in the dark with a group of half strangers was, of course, not exactly enticing to any of us. And try as we might, looking around for awkward eye contact like a clueless group of students who don’t know the answer yielded no results in the impenetrably dark atmosphere around us. It was in this moment that I found Madison though, sitting in the dark, mud-covered, sweat-drenched and still regaining my breath. I found a connection to home because Josh started to sing.
“Why do you build me up, buttercup, baby
just to let me down
and mess me around”
Something I haven’t made clear: Josh and Peter are both students at UW-Madison (neither of whom I’d met before arriving in Rome), so it’s not like the choice was completely random, but that doesn’t change a bit how hard the song hit me right then and there.
Instantly a massive smile took over my face. It was, believe it or not, just as much fun as belting it out with a massive and rancorous student section on game day. As our group sang it (because of course we all knew the words, even the girls who were with us and did not go to UW), I felt that much closer to home. I hadn’t been particularly homesick or anything like that, but it was still a moment that went straight to the heart. I was reminded of all my friends and family back home and appreciated just how extraordinary the moment was, what an opportunity I had to be there in that moment. It was that song that not only brought me through the dark of that cave about a mile under Budapest back to Madison, almost 5000 miles away, but also simultaneously made me appreciate the moment I was in and how incredible a time I was having.
After the song ended, I was sufficiently rejuvenated to get back going, not just back to the surface, but also through the rest of my travels, remembering each and every moment that I needed to take every opportunity that came my way and make the most of it. I could not waste the most incredible four-month adventure of my life thus far.
As we ascended toward the surface, we had a little more wiggling to do through caves. There was one moment where I had to slide down between two rocks, but the only way down was to go into the same position Superman does when he takes off for flight and let myself fall through trusting I wouldn’t slip and hurt myself. Then there was one hole so small that Josh and I didn’t even try to go through it. Instead, we just climbed up a nearby rock to where the girls were waiting. Peter tried to crawl through like the girls had, but our tour guide took the opportunity for a joke and tied Peter’s shoes together, naturally terrifying him into thinking he was stuck while the rest of us just laughed on the rock shelf above. Our guide liked to prank us like that. He even went far ahead of us at one point and hid behind a corner just to jump out and scare the life out of each of us as we worked our way around the corner.
Getting up was much harder than sliding down, as you would expect. We had to claw our way up wet and muddy rocks back into the tunnels and caverns we had been in before. By the time we got back to the red 30-foot ladder we had come down at the onset of our expedition, we were exhausted. It had been a long day for all three of us, and we still hadn’t had a full meal. As we climbed up the ladder, our tour guide (who seriously must be Peter Parker’s cousin or something) scaled the entire wall in about 30 seconds, hopping from one rock to the next. After two hours going down and coming back again, we went out the cave door that our guide had so ominously shut behind us when we first went in.
The sun had been up when we went in, but now it was a dark, clear sky and we could see the moon. Dodging the mud puddles on the ground, we worked our way back to the cabin and returned the jumpsuits and hard hats. Then we thanked our guide, got directions to the nearest bus stop and parted ways with our new friends who studied in Prague once we got back to the city.
The rest of the night was a relaxing experience. We took a cruise on the Danube River and watched the lights shine exuberantly on the building as we enjoyed a glass of champagne. Then, after all of that, we finally got a meal at a local restaurant. I don’t remember what I ate, but I remember it was one of the most fulfilling meals I’ve ever had.
Too exhausted to head to the infamous Budapest spas, we went back to the hostel and collapsed onto our beds so we could get up in time for our early Sunday flight.
So that is how I found myself back in Madison even while I sat in a cave somewhere under Budapest. It may not have been the longest moment in our roughly 36 hours we had to enjoy the city, but it was without a doubt the most impactful. It was “Build Me Up Buttercup” that reminded me of some things that all kids traveling abroad should understand: never forget where you came from, and use the knowledge that you only have a short time before return home to fill each and every part of your studies and travels with adventure. Josh didn’t lie when we booked our trip, crawling through the mud in that expansive cave network was and remains one of the most incredible moments of my life.