March 8, 2008

Budapest Day 3 - Stopped by Police

Walking around Budapest with a camera you are prime pickings for weirdos. At first we would listen to these people when they asked if we spoke English. But then we decided it was better to pretend we didn't know what they were saying as they were always asking for money or telling us how Americans don't understand their situation.

Last night walking back from the Buda side to our hotel my father and I were approached by a man who asked if we spoke English. My dad was pretending he didn't speak English, following my suggestion, but I felt soft-hearted and said yes. He then asked us the way to Margarit Island, said he was from Greece and then wondered how he could exchange his cash to Hungarian HUFs. We really weren't suspicious of this man even though it was on a back street and we could have been mugged so easily.

Suddenly another man, in his 50s or 60s dressed in a black coat bursts onto the scene and flashes a black leather passport-type wallet that says Police. He opens it up to show us his photo and credentials and then announces that we are not to exchange money on the street. Huh? This was so sudden and strange. Actually, it was a scene out of the Soviet Regime. He starts interrogating the Greek (is he really Greek?) man about what he is doing and asks for his passport. The man flashes the passport and then the Police officer (is he really a Police officer?) asks for his wallet. Now I know something is strange. He takes the money out and looks at each bill. Next he sticks his nose in the wallet and takes a giant sniff. My dad thinks it is for drugs but I think it is to smell for fresh ink because the officer's next comment is that there is counterfeit money all over the place.

We figure we can get out of this crazy scene and begin to say goodbye and begin to walk away. No says the officer, he has questions for us next. He asks for our passports which are in the hotel. So he then demands to see for our wallets and our money. My money is all crumpled up and my dad has nothing (hum). The officer doesn't sniff our wallets but lets us go. I thought for sure he was going to take our cash.

It was strange because there was a currency exchange across the street. Plus, the man said his wife and kids are in the hotel waiting. Why didn't he ask the hotel for directions to the island or to help him get his currency exchanged?

The experience helped me understand why people look so sour faced here. Imagine the feeling of being watched all the time and then the repercussions of actually talking to someone. The experience gave me a new lens through which to see Budapest.