I have three more weeks to explore South Africa before leaving Cape Town for Madrid, Spain, as my second around-the-world winds down. My dear little dog-sitting charge, Pip, the Teacup Yorkie, has been reclaimed by his owner and I can become a free-wheeling tourist again. Wheeling, is right! I live in a lovely suburb called Parklands and it takes a full two hour’s ride on three city buses to do any sightseeing of the major points in town. So, that’s a four-hour daily commute just to be at the jumping off point for a tour; whether that’s a cable-car ride to the top of Table Mountain or the ferry to Robben Island, where Mandela was held prisoner for 27 years, or a lovely meal on the Victoria & Albert Waterfront. I can also choose two Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus tours to many famous city sites but they each take a minimum of two hours, if you don’t hop-off at all. Not sure I could cope with six hours on the bus, just to stay in town.
Anyway, I’m enjoying the chance to simply be at home in South Africa. The prices here are very good as the Dollar is strong against the South African Rand. I’ve just enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Wi-Fi café for $5.30. So, I suppose I’ve been sampling the Ex-Pat life for the past three months. When I get to Spain, I’ll check in at Costa Del Sol to see how the American ex-pats are faring there.
Now, I’d like to share an old file that I came across recently while rummaging in the past. It’s a story about a hidden treasure in Budapest, Hungary.
BUDAPEST’S UNDERGROUND LABYRINTH, WHICH EVEN LOCALS CAN’T FIND
(I’m reading old files and have found this great description of my favorite place in Budapest. This is what I was doing exactly eleven years ago.)
May 31, 2002 -I was looking for the mysterious Labyrinth again. The bus driver had no idea of what the word “labyrinth” meant. I showed him the address in the guidebook and he asked a schoolboy for advice. They put me off at a certain place and pointed down a side street on which I found a locked door for “Castle Caves,” a different attraction. “Batting out again!,” I thought. But, coming out of the alley, I noticed that I was on Uri Utca, the correct street. I was at #50 and I needed # 9, so I walked along the countdown to an unimposing entrance with a labyrinth sign above. After all that, hot and thirsty, I popped into a next door bar for a bottle of water to take underground. A big man stood talking with a friend and cradling a little Yorkie in his arms. Naturally, I had to pat the puppy and ask all about it. Chick Magnet!
Well, now, how to describe those labyrinths? They were well worth the search. I descended lots of steps into the deep rock cellars of Buda to find the ticket desk. It cost 1000 FT ($5.00) and I was there from 4 – 7 p.m. It was all clean and pleasant with wide corridors and muted, honey-colored lights set into the floor every so many feet. I was given a self-guide pamphlet and there were areas with a little more light to read them in. At a few points, café-style tables and chairs offered resting and reading spots with slightly more lighting available. But, it was all soft and cool stone, dark and quiet throughout. It wasn’t busy then, but not empty either. Just right, because I could wander single and contemplatively, but didn’t feel eerily alone either. The caves originated millions of years ago from hot water dripping through the stone. It is augmented by the connection and incorporation of hundreds of cellars under the buildings of the old city, which is a honeycomb of old ruins and rooms, long silted over and built upon. It’s been only in recent decades that they connected all of these subterranean spaces, using the ensuing labyrinth for resistance and military headquarters applications. During World War II, it was set up as a bomb shelter capable of holding 10,000 people.
Not too many years ago, they fixed it up as a tourist attraction and I don’t think the locals know about it. Not the ones I spoke to, anyway. It is very artfully and sensitively designed and is a very spiritual adventure as you wander through the millennia. The first rooms depict pre-historic, pre-human, times with cave wall paintings and bas-relief carvings of animals. Then, in the next room, man is included in copies of the great cave paintings discovered throughout the world. Every now and then, one encounters a “Great Being,” carved of stone, which stands silently, receiving or guarding, usually dimly perceived at the side of the tunnel. One wonderful room is called the Axis of The World, which I loved very much. Space/Time columns, bearing the names of the seasons, spread outward in four directions around a small platform. The loud, reverberating beat of a recording of a human heart thrums constantly here. Signs on the wall give statistics about where you stand at this self-appointed Axis. How far you are from everything else…the poles, the equator, each world capital, the latitudes, the longitudes, and this room then becomes an axis for you, a starting point, a reference, a point of orientation within the labyrinth of the world, or within self. If one sees it seriously, as I did, it is a most wonderful opportunity to relate to the spiritual realities. I had to do this between outbursts of loud American sightseers, unknowingly illustrating the words of the pamphlet:
“These sacred centers, showing spiritual, as well as geographic directions, have, in modern times, lost their importance and have been superceded by centers of trade, commerce, entertainment, finance, etc.”
But, there were long, quiet, sacred moments as well, and I stepped upon the platform representing the Axis of the World, the Centre, and turned in the four directions, looking toward the space/time columns representing the four seasons, the four directions. I did this on two different visits to this room, and once, when I was in the middle of my solemn communications, a bright burst of light entered, attached to three foreign-speaking voices. Someone was videotaping their personal cave experience and they taped me too. That’s okay. I didn’t let them disturb me. The second time I entered the room, I had decided that I wanted to leave something of myself here in this deeply symbolic place, but I could think of nothing that I had with me that wouldn’t actually be litter. At last, I realized that I had a little water left in the glass Pellegrino bottle I had bought on the way in. The bottle had called attention to itself, in fact, by rolling musically across the stone floor when I set down my backpack and the plastic bag containing it. So, I again stepped up on the lovely, lighted, star-shaped platform in the center, and poured a bit of water in the four directions, down into the hollow below me, as I turned to face each set of columns. That was very satisfying and also ecologically not defacing. To quote again:
“The Axis of the World, which can be found in Buda Castle Labyrinth, is that of the modern age, in the positive as well as in the negative sense of the phrase. It is broken, fragmented, but stepping forth into the center – which can and should be done with ease – the Axis of the world, though only momentarily, is completed, and in this universal, but equally personal, focus, something may yet be revealed….”
Here, there was the thrumming heartbeat sound, but other areas had their own wonderful, soothing music, which perfectly fit their themes. Many themes illustrated, very subtly, Hungary’s long history – from its religious roots in shamanism; in the psychic trance of the spiritual leader, priest, soothsayer, healer; to the establishment of Christianity, 1000 years ago. At the baptismal font, I stirred my hands in the cool, clear water, and…..yes, I did…..drank a little from my cupped hands. I did the same with each of the fountains gushing red wine in the Renaissance Hall of the Rocks, where Gypsy music was playing a Hungarian dance. I immersed myself with total trust in these symbolic drinks….and, no, the queasiness is not from that, but from the large glass of the same kind of Hungarian red wine which I had with my meal at the Hilton. I know these things!
I think that this three-hour visit to these caves was my real reason for visiting Budapest and I “drank it all in.” The final part was really strange and funny, as befits itself, and I’ll spend time on that later, as I must get going now. It’s 7:04 a.m. By the way, the weather is most gorgeous today. No wind, clear blue sky. Going to be hot, perhaps.
9:15 a.m. – I’m in my favorite breakfast joint – this airy, light McDonald’s, eating the same round toast sandwich. There’s no real restaurant anywhere near my floating ship hotel other than the ship’s own and why spend big money for breakfast?
Ohhhhh – I’m looking out the windows…..I’m observing a very studly young man waiting for the tram car on the street below. His back is turned, but I can’t help observing the GQ poses he’s casually putting himself into. He is dressed for an office job – well-fitting slacks, and a shirt, carrying a briefcase. But he stands with feet wide apart to stretch those pants to the max and show off what he knows to be his cute buns. Every minute or so, he changes to several different variations of this wide-stance pose. No one is photographing him. He’s just a young man, full of himself, and showing off his body.
Okay! Caves! This report is about as labyrinthine, but I have to keep after it or it will all get squashed with the columns of what I need to write. I kept missing the passageway to the Cave of the Other Worlds, and I was keen on it because the pamphlet spoke of amazing footprints, 40 million years old, which had been discovered, and the conclusion was that they were alien, from another planet, those of “homo-consumerus” or something. Well, this was worth the price of admission, for sure! At last, at 6:15 pm, I found the exhibit and was just registering shock that these Eocene era footprints were of a shoe with a very modern day rubber bottom! “My gosh! What is this?,” said I, fully into the mood of things. I found the descriptive wall plaque to get the scientific details, which I had already read in the pamphlet. Then, the lights, dim as they were, went out! I was pitched into total blackness. The caves were open until 7:30 p.m., but the lights were out! I had a flashlight with me in my backpack, but I couldn’t find it. Just then, a German family, each carrying a lantern, came by and I was grateful for tourists. They invited me to accompany them and led me out. Odd thing was, all of the other displays were still lighted. I think the Hand of God must have been saying to me, “Hey! Lighten up! You’re taking all this too seriously!” I went to the ticket desk and the only explanation was that it was after six. But why only that part?
Anyway, they gave me a lighted kerosene lantern, and I found my way back. There were more running shoe clad footprints and some casts of feet and vacumn cleaner hoses and one that was unmistakably a computer keyboard and a monitor face, another of a gravesite containing “funiary furniture” with a cell phone imprint. While my mind was trying to incorporate all this, shining my burning lantern on each mud-colored piece, reading the perfectly academic descriptions, I came to the largest piece of all, a white stone tower about nine feet high. You walked around it and discovered it was hollowed out inside and smoothly fluted, with curliques halfway up on either side. It was a cast of a gigantic Coca Cola bottle and the curliques were the front and back half of the logo. That’s when all of the suspicions of waggishness were confirmed and you left with your leg feeling thoroughly pulled! They did it so well! Just roped us all in, and yet, it’s a wry comment on the direction that present day humanity seems to be heading.
When I emerged at 7:00 pm, through a back door, into a tree shaded street, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the day. It was that gentle hour of slanting sunlight, just diffusing goldenly everywhere. The air was warm and not moving. The sky was a lovely shade of blue. Sun shone through the green overhang of leaves. It was silent and a new feeling after the bluster of yesterday, cold and cloudy with skin-shearing winds. It was a particularly new feeling after thirty or forty days of nothing but rain around the half a globe I had wandered. I strolled in this loveliness, thinking I should find a glass of red wine and a bowl of Hungarian goulash to celebrate this country. That’s when I wandered into the Budapest Hilton.
(My memories of that expensive Hilton dinner are not as happy. Thinking it was only a slice of green pepper floating atop my goulash, I put the whole thing in my mouth and chewed! Yoiks! It was their spiciest paprika and it blew my brains out!
Ya’ win a few, ‘ya lose a few!)