What do I know about Slovakia? Not a damn thing.
For someone as geographically oriented as me (at least compared to everyone I know), I couldn’t tell you where Slovakia was on a map. Somewhere in Eastern Europe, surely. Apparently, it borders Hungary to the north; sort of on the way to Lviv, Ukraine, my next target destination. Google Maps indicated the best way to get to Lviv from Budapest would be via Flixbus to Košice, Slovakia, then another bus to Uzhhorod, Ukraine and finally a train to Lviv in the north. A 24 hour+ journey that I didn’t mentally prepare myself for.
I said my goodbyes to my hostel mates in Budapest and taxi’d it to the bus station. I took a taxi over the cheaper public transportation because I had plenty of Hungarian Forints left to splurge a bit. The Flixbus arrived at 5pm, right on the dot. This was by far the most comfortable bus I have ever been on; brand new, clean, wi-fi enabled, and only three passengers on the entire thing! I was able to sprawl and stretch my legs to my hearts content! About four hours later, we arrived at the Košice Bus Terminal.
Now, this is the part where my one overly cautious mistake led to a very strange night.
Google Maps suggested I prebook the 11:15pm bus to the Ukraine but I instead opted to prebook the 5am next-day departure. Why? Because I didn’t want to risk missing the 11:15pm bus if my initial bus from Budapest was late for some reason. (I still had Nepali time on my mind where everything was always hours late). I figured I can just chill and maybe sleep in the bus station. It couldn’t possibly be any worse than that one time I spent the night in that ridiculously awful bus station in Dallas, Texas.
Well I was wrong. Just like the Dallas Greyhound Bus Station (which I highly advise no one to ever take…trust me), the weirdos were roaming around, but this time they didn’t speak any English.
It was raining outside and I had to pee. For some reason, the restrooms in the bus station were locked and there was no one around to unlock them. Where do they expect people to use the toilet? No problem. Fortunately for us dudes, we have the privilege of finding a tree or bush outside to use. Only I had to take my giant stuffed bags with me because there was no way I was trusting anyone here with my belongings. As soon as I stepped foot outside, two ragtag adolescent boys ran up to me holding out their hands and saying something I couldn’t understand, in Slovakian presumedly.
“I’m sorry.” I said, with the sternest of faces.
They realized I spoke English and wasn’t from these parts.
“Me. Money.” said one of the scraggly boys.
I shook my head and and walked right back inside the bus terminal. Those boys looked about eleven or twelve and had splotches of dirt on their faces. I noticed they were only two of a larger group of boys with an older “ring leader” lurking about just outside the bus terminal.
There was an alternate rear exit that I took instead but another boy ran up to me and begged me money. I went back inside.
Damn, I really gotta pee but I keep getting ambushed by these little hoodlums!
I usually feel relatively safe while traveling in unknown parts and I’m confident I can handle my own if necessary, but I always feel the most vulnerable when I am walking around with my two heavy bags. My 85 liter bag on my back and a standard backpack on my front, both stuffed to the max. They’re so hefty that someone could push me and I would easily topple down, completely helpless.
I noticed there was a train station about 200 feet behind the bus station. It was filled with more people. There has to be a toilet there. But I waited it out, for the street kids to wander off. After a few minutes, I made my way to the train station, in the pouring rain. Inside, I found a toilet but learned that you needed to pay Euro coins to use it. One, I don’t have any Euros on me and two, I despise having to pay to use a toilet. With that, plan of action was to find somewhere secluded outside. On the way, I was pestered by a homeless man, asking for money in Slovakian. I played the “I don’t understand” card and went off. I found a little shack where I was able to pee, freakin’ finally! I went back to the bus station to find a spot where I could chill until 5am. I couldn’t believe the amount of drunks/bums/sketchy mofos creeping about.
Around 11:30pm, I looked up from playing on my phone and saw that the whole terminal was empty; just me and a drunk sitting on the other side of the room, who was struggling to keep his head up when dozing off.
The lights shut off and the security guard inside motioned that we had to leave. Alright, not a big deal. I’ll just go sit at the train station.
There wasn’t really anywhere I found that was comfortable to chill in the train station. Most of the seats were occupied by homeless people. I did sit next to them for a while, but they were speaking to themselves, yelling at each other, and staring me down. I got up and just stood around far away from them. There was this one guy, who appeared to be “normal” and looked around my age who was walking around the station doing laps. I paid him no attention.
I went downstairs and saw that the final train left, and the building was empty; except for all the homeless people roaming around aimlessly as if they were zombies. I made sure not to make any eye contact. I sat on a set of stairs trying to figure out what to do. It’s only midnight. My bus leaves at 5am. It’s raining bullets outside. That “normal” guy who was doing laps earlier came to the stairs and sat behind me. Still, I paid him no attention.
Security came to us, pointed at his watch, and pointed towards the door. He was locking up the station and all of us, including the
zombies drunk bums had to leave the building. Shit, where do I go now?
I sat outside on small ledge, away from all of the drunks, underneath a small awning as shelter from the rain, but I knew it was only a matter of time until they would make their way over. I gotta think of something quick! The “normal” guy who seemed to be casually following me for the past 20 minutes sat down right next to me. This time I felt like I had to say something.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” he relayed and then said something to me in Slovakian that I couldn’t understand.
“I’m sorry. Do you speak English?”
He did in fact and what a relief. It turns out, he missed his scheduled train and he too had to wait until 5am for the next one to come. We were in the same predicament. Sitting outside in the shivery, rainy dark.
“My name is Peter,” he said as he shook my hand.
I introduced myself and as I did, three scruffy drunk scraggly men, who reeked of cigarette smoke came up to us. My spidey sense was tingling. This was not good.
They started speaking in Slovakian and Peter responded in the calmest, yet friendliest demeanor. They said something to me but Peter informed them that I don’t understand and that I am from America.
Their eyes widened when they heard that I was American. Not good. Not good. It’s a stereotype that being American equates with being filthy rich which is so far from the truth, at least in my case.
They weren’t aggressive but they weren’t exactly exuding any warmth either. They would speak to me semi-slurred in their native tongue and Peter would translate, as I sat there going over the series of events that put me in this situation. I was supposed to be in Tajikistan right now, not Slovakia.
“He wants to know if you’re from Kenya, because you look like a runner,” said Peter, who seemed embarrassed to even tell me that.
I laughed. “No, I’m from the USA.” I thought we already established that?
“He wants to know if you can run fast?” said Peter.
“Yes, I can run very fast.” Which was a stone cold lie. I only said that just in case they did try to mug me and run off, I wanted them to think I could easily chase them down.
I was playing off of Peter’s body language. He didn’t want them there as much as I did.
“They are asking if you have any money.” he said.
I shook my head. “No.”
The man asking all of these questions, his name was Roman. He seemed like the leader of the drunks and constantly scolded or bickered at the others, who listened like his puppets. He was shaved to a buzz cut, tall, and smelt like an abandoned basement filled with dust and old junk no has touched for years. Yes, he was that close enough to me that I could smell his stench.
A wrinkly, elderly woman who reeked of tobacco then sat next to me and tried to give me a cigarette. I politely declined, much to her persistence that I must have one. I sat there looking out into the rain, surrounded by all of these creeps. I have four hours until my bus arrives.
I’m not sitting out here with these guys any longer.
I suddenly stood up and told Peter that I was going to find a hotel for a couple hours. He wasn’t comfortable around all of the increasing number of drunks around us either and decided to join me. We walked off into the rain, while periodically checking if anyone of them was following us. None of them were. Thank God. If there is one thing that always makes me nervous, it’s drunk strangers.
Peter and I checked several different hotels. Only one of them had a room available, but it was expensive. A whopping 115 euros for four hours worth of sleep. So then Peter suggested that we go to a pizza place he knew of nearby that stayed open until 4am. We could eat pizza and relax there. Sounds like a plan!
As we walked to the pizza place, Peter apologized regarding my first impression of his country. I told him no need to apologize. I’m sure Slovakia is a great country regardless of this. I ordered a chicken pizza and finished the entire thing. We still had a couple hours to kill so we sat there and played with cards that I had in my bag. Next thing you know, Roman pops in, along with his band of bums. He sees us and sits down at our table. The others sit at the table directly behind us. How in the world did they find us?
He says something to me and Peter translates. “He wants to know if you can buy him a small beer.” If a beer will keep him from trying anything funny then sure. I said yes and he gave me a dirty handshake. He ordered a beer from the waitress and she proceeded to bring out a tall draft. I swore he said a small one. I went to pay for it with a few Euros I got from the ATM just before. She gave me just a few Euros in change back. I sat down back at the table and I handed Roman the spare change. He shook my hand again, barely let go, and said some more stuff in Slovakian.
“He said this is a very good day for him” said Peter. “He never expected to meet an American from Kenya and he thanks you for your kindness.” I’m not from Kenya but whatever.
I expected Roman to pocket the change and save it for later but instead he went to the front counter and came back with a box of Marlboro Gold’s. I never usually give money to homeless people on the street. I always feel guilty about it, but this was just a reminder as to why I won’t give money to beggars. They buy really unnecessary things with it.
If someone told me that I would be drinking beer in a pizza bar at 3:30am with a bunch of Slovakian street bums and also a good-natured college student, I would actually believe them. How it came to be though, would be baffling.
In spite of that, it seemed things were under control. Peter and I would just have to wait it out, keep the drunks level, and then make our way to our 5am transportation. I’ve been fighting the urge to sleep since 1am. That in itself was a struggle.
After another hour of painfully trying to keep Roman and his gang in good spirits, 4am hit and I thought the train and bus stations had to be open by now, so Peter and I left the drunks to the bar as we quickly, yet stealthily made our way back out into the wet, empty streets of Košice. Just like I assumed, both stations were open and it was safe to wait inside again. I said my goodbyes and also my thank you’s to Peter. Without him, I’m not sure how I would have managed on my own. Could have been a completely different ending to this story. If you’re reading this, thanks for your company, Peter!
The little street kids were still there and bombarded me! I expected them to be long gone by now but no, here they were, as if they were waiting for me to come back. This time, I rushed through them and straight to my bus terminal marker, where other passengers were waiting. Those kids disappeared into the Slovakian streets. Why do bus stations always have to be in the sketchiest places?
I boarded my bus that arrived promptly at 5am, along with dozens of other passengers. I sat in the middle of the bus, without realizing we were assigned seats. The non English speaking bus driver motioned for me to sit in the back. Fine. I can finally relax and sleep.
As it turns out though, my super strange night in Slovakia was just the appetizer—a small taste of what Ukraine was about to lay on me.
It would be about five hours until we crossed that border…
…five hours until one of my most stressful and surreal travel experiences ever!