The flight from New Delhi to Vienna was routine, the one connecting to Budapest had us on tenterhooks. It was a propeller-driven mini aircraft, which gave us a feel of visiting the not-so-often patronised eastern and central Europe. We landed at the Liszt Ferennc international airport with a big sigh, especially the ladies, who had a nagging apprehension of what was in store for the next 10 days of a carefully chosen itinerary for Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic.
"You and your obsession with vague tourism," glared my better half though her vocal eyes. We, along with my two childhood 'friends in crime', accompanied by their 'we have no choice' spouses, entered the arrival lobby. The private tourism taxi counter was manned by a lady who greeted us warmly in Hungarian and quickly changed to English, handed us a stack of pamphlets on places to visit in Budapest. A taxi was hired and since we did not have florints (local currency), the euro was accepted without a squirm. We asked the lady to exchange our euros with florints to save us the inconvenience of expenses later, to which she candidly remarked, "Sir, you would get a better exchange rate in the city than here at my office." We were struck by an honest advice of an otherwise business employee. The episode came as a welcome start to our European sojourn.
We were awed by the culture and attitude of the local population. Helpful, decent and forthright, they were the epitome of "atithi devo bhavo". Our guide for the 'Budapest at Night' visit was a pensioner from the economic department. We got talking of the country's economy and future. Well read and aware, the gentleman quipped, "Friends, the way India cashes on its manpower, we depend on our self-discipline and ability to withstand adversities without compromising on our entity." We silently wished we imbibed the latter!
Once in Europe, the travel across countries is uninhibited and seamless like within a state in India. The Euro rail travelling at up to 275 km/hour prides by moving on the dot. Wilderness, lush countryside and sparse populace convinces you of aplenty for the meagre.
The public transport system, despite the developing nature of the countries, overwhelms our imagination. Metro, tram, cabs, buses and, of course, the pleasure of being a safe pedestrian! Salzburg, heard of through Rodert Ludlum's thriller of the 1980s, is famous for Mozart the mesmeriser and the super-hit Sound of Music has the serenity of a snug hill station. We asked our Asian taxi driver of his earnings. He was forthright in summing up, "Sir, the place is expensive and I hardly save anything, but I will not trade leaving the place for anything." He gave a hefty 10% off on the spirit of "sense of belonging".
Prague had an air of modernity, a strong koruna (local currency) compared to the rupee indicating a presumably strong economy. Liberal and light atmosphere stood out as hallmarks of the erstwhile Communist and now a well-to-do Czech republic. An oft-spotted beggar was seen kneeling with face down and the hat in front upside down as a begging bowl. We were told the beggars considered it shameful to be labelled as one, but the old Communist tradition of an assured income by the state dissuaded them from earning a living by other means.
What left us all mesmerised was the independence, respect and equality that the women enjoyed despite a rampant night club culture, a visit to which was firmly denied by our own ladies!
As we were reaching a consensus on our next tourist plan, the Lufthansa touched down at our own Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport in New Delhi. We drew a big sigh amidst a familiar environment. As we drove in a rickety pre-paid taxi towards the New Delhi railway station amidst loud blaring of horns, the feeling of 'Incredible India' engulfed us.