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Surreal scenes from the night bus

Writers

  • Nick Robertson

30/07/2015 2.00am

The windows are grimy, the floors can be slimy, and the passengers are usually drunk… yet the experience of taking the night bus in Budapest has an adventurous appeal that goes far beyond the anticipation of whatever destination may lie at the end of the line. People from all walks of life travel together aboard the after-hours public-transportation system of Hungary’s capital, and while these coaches of darkness used to be considerably more uncontrolled than they are these days, night buses still present plenty of captivating craziness to contemplate – join us for a ride on the wild side.

Budapest is fortunate to have an extremely comprehensive public-transport system, with almost every segment of the city serviced by metros, trams, trolleys, and buses – and between midnight and sunrise a limited network of these latter conveyances operates continually, when most other mass-transit vehicles are cooling their engines. The riders of these night buses range from late-shift workers to sleeping vagabonds to kissing teens to straight-up freaks, and since most night-bus routes only offer service once or twice an hour, all of the disparate citizens aboard are typically crammed together in close proximity, creating a cross-section of Hungarian humanity hard to find anywhere else.

Photo: Juhász Norbert - We Love Budapest

Less than a decade ago, every ride on the night bus presented a much more turbulent journey – only in recent years did the city’s BKK public-transport officials start stationing a small team of ticket inspectors in reflective vests aboard almost every line, who now double as keepers of the peace among the oft-unruly riders. Before then, each night bus was only overseen by its driver, who generally would lock himself in the compartment behind the wheel like the captain aboard a ship with a mutinous crew; behind him, the uncontrolled crowds frequently engaged in openly boozing, fistfights, vomiting, oral-sex acts, and countless other types of disorderly conduct amid puddles of spilled beer and shards of broken dreams.

Photo: Juhász Norbert - We Love Budapest

Nowadays the atmosphere aboard night buses is considerably more peaceful (although unpredictable outbursts of drunken deviance are still certainly commonplace), and not only because of the almost-constant presence of uniformed authorities – today tram 6 traverses the tracks of Budapest’s primary ring road 24 hours a day, dramatically decreasing the motley masses of passengers that once crammed together on these out-of-control coaches with no other way to reach the next bar or brothel. However, for any casual observer of life in Budapest with insomnia and a little time to spare, a night-bus odyssey can still present fascinatingly unique sights of city society that almost always reveal new perspectives about our neighbors, or at least provide some amusing anecdotes to share with friends.Most night buses travel long routes from one side of the city to another, terminating at such far-flung locales as northern Buda’s panel-building bastion of Békásmegyer or Terminal 2 of Budapest Airport; Gödöllő (found in the flatland many miles east of downtown) or Normafa atop the Buda Hills; the southern factory district of Csepel Island or the forested valley of Hűvösvölgy. Many of these lines crisscross in the city center, when the quiet after-hours commuters from outer districts are suddenly inundated with a deluge of party people clambering aboard, and this is where the real experiments of anthropology and chemistry occur on almost every night bus… but even the quiet stretches bear curiosities worth discovering.

Photo: Juhász Norbert - We Love Budapest

We begin our voyage just before midnight from Astoria in the heart of downtown, catching the first 914A (all night buses have three-digit numbers starting with 9) en route northward towards Újpest, and at this ‘early’ point in the night the passengers aboard are scattered and subdued – a short woman in camouflage sits near an exhausted fellow with sunken eyes and cheekbones who looks like he just completed a triple shift in a coal mine, while at the very back a huge guy with tribal tattoos and a “Brazilian Ju-Jitsu” T-shirt focuses on his mobile phone. The air is quiet; at this hour on a night bus heading away from downtown, most passengers are just going home – surely we need to find another ride to see a little more life.Disembarking at Pest’s Dozsa György ring road, we escape the increasingly intimidating glare of the ju-jitsu martial artist and head to the eastbound 918 stop emblazoned with the black-and-white owl logo marking every night-bus station. Here we notice a workaholic fellow in a rumpled dress shirt listlessly carrying his briefcase and yawning, standing beside a pair of animatedly squealing young women drinking cheap wine from the bottle and obviously eager to get started on a long night of action ahead. Such contrasts are customary aboard the night bus, especially on the 918 – this short coach with no ticket controllers skirts around the city, never entering the downtown madness, so the people aboard are more of a mix of outer-district folks of all ages quietly going about their business… until the bus reaches the exterior of Budapest Park, where a concert seems to have just ended moments ago.

Photo: Juhász Norbert - We Love Budapest

A huge throng of youths suddenly floods into the bus as the flashing lights outside blind the sleepy folks aboard, and seats become a hard-fought commodity. Once the bus is fully packed, the temperature suddenly rises from combined body heat as the din of intermingling drunken conversations becomes an overwhelming wall of white noise… until one curly-haired girl apparently decides to go back into the Budapest Park party, and repeatedly shouts several meters to the driver, pleading with him to open the door so she can get out. For a moment the bus is silent, until the hydraulic hissing of an opening door answers the girl’s pleas; she shouts “KÖSZÖNÖM!!!” in thanks and leaps back out into the fresh air.We continue on back towards downtown Pest until we cross Petőfi Bridge to Buda; although the floodlights on the Liberation Monument by the Citadel have just now been shut off for the night, the shimmering views upriver provide a moving Budapest panorama… but we are among very few passengers squashed aboard who notice such niceties. Soon we are at the intersection of Móricz Zsigmond Square, and since the 918 only continues further out of town toward the Kelenföld train station, we decide to get out at this south-Buda transit hub and make our way back towards the city center.Now that the night is really heating up, we are surrounded by an even bigger flock of reveling tipplers at the bus stop – and when the 907 arrives, we all board with elbows up to establish just a bit of personal space amid all the exposed flesh shining with summer-night sweat. As the hoard aboard sways in unison with every tight turn, the scene is much more easygoing now – our intrepid photographer, who previously had to use espionage techniques to capture images on earlier rides without drawing undue attention, now has plenty of willing models – with their self-image surely boosted by the alcohol swirling through their systems.

Photo: Juhász Norbert - We Love Budapest

We cross Erzsébet Bridge and are soon riding back towards where our journey began; when an ambulance speeds by with its siren blaring, its blue lights fill the interior of the night bus with an intensity that makes the greasy windows flare up like disco lights. Many passengers disembark at Ferenciek Square and at Astoria, but we’re taking this journey a little further – to the gateway of District VIII, Blaha Square.

Photo: Juhász Norbert - We Love Budapest

Back in the days when night buses went unpatrolled, the Blaha Square stop was notorious for its reliable influx of degenerates and dangerously random behavior; tales of knife fights and aggressively industrious streetwalkers were far from extraordinary in this neighborhood after dark. However, perhaps because of the nonstop service now provided by tram 6, we find the Blaha night-bus stop almost empty, and certainly not appearing like the hive of villainy we kinda hoped to find… so it was with slight disappointment that we boarded bus 923 to progress north through Oktogon to Nyugati, all amid a relatively peaceful scene on board that is not too much scuzzier than what we would discover on any ordinary daytime bus.Concluding our journey outside of Nyugati, we reflect on our besotted sojourn – compared with our memories of lawless teeming swarms roaming on this same ride not too long ago, we find this night-bus trip to be quite tame – but that’s probably a good thing for most Budapest residents and visitors just trying to get to where they want to go anytime they need a lift, all grateful to have these wheels invariably rolling on.

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