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Bum Tourism in Bratislava

2007 Gonzo Travel Contest Winner – 2nd Place

When three great friends and I visited Bratislava in the summer of 2006, we certainly didn’t care about the historical facts that many tourists love to gather. None of that. We didn’t care about taking pictures or following any recommended tourist routes. In fact, we didn’t really have a purpose for going to Slovakia other than a determination of spending as little money as possible in the time span of three days and two nights.

We arrived at eleven o’clock on a Friday night at Bratislava’s Bus Station, armed to the teeth with sentiments of 1930’s Paris, 1950’s New York City and that very same fire that took so many dreamers to the untouched corners of the world.

It was late and we were standing with our backpacks in the middle of a dark and silent city. All we knew was that we wanted to reach “the castle”. Supposedly there was a vast green area that offered great views of the city as well as infra-structure (grass) for the weary travelers (us) with no beds for the night (or the next for that matter). Forty minutes later, we arrived, thanks to a local hobo who kindly pointed to us the way.

We raised camp on the grassy area. However, raising camp doesn’t involve pitching tents or starting bonfires. According to the bum tourist’s terminology, it consists solely of claiming the territory by delimiting the area with belongings whilst opening a box of warm table wine for a housewarming feast.

After a merry night and sleep, we were awoken by the five a.m. summer sun. The elderly were already out and about, following their doctors’ recommendations of morning walks around the park. A random canine came sniffing as a good morning gesture, giving us the license to interact with his owner”a simple head nod and an honest smile.

The tourism industry of any given location depends mainly on two pillars: accommodation and alimentation. We refrained from both and for that I apologize to the people of Bratislava. However, we did leave some of our hard earned money in the cash registers of the local supermarkets and beer halls, redeeming us somewhat of our insensitive actions. So after buying the ingredients for our breakfast and practically bathing in the supermarkets bathroom, we sat in front of the Presidential Palace, and, saluting the Slovak flag, we began to eat.

The alpha male of your typical tourist family will say: never allow alcohol to be an impediment for sightseeing, and we agree. So being the responsible tourists that we are, we foresaw the situation and, instead of stopping for drinks, we carried with us a bottle of absinth.

In a relatively drunken stupor, we headed to the Slovak National Theater. Tourists stood in awe to the architecture as their guides recite their everyday monologue. A tall American skimmed through his guide book eager to catch the orator in contradiction so that he can prove to his wife that he was right! They should never have wasted money on an organized tour, after all, look at the kids, they’re bored, they don’t care. But all was resolved when dad promised McDonalds for dinner. The kids hastily sold a fake smile to their parents’ satisfaction.

The tour continued. On the other side of the road was a pretty little classical palace with a pretty pink façade. In the 1870’s, Johannes Brahms lived here. Needless to say, we raised the bottle to this late German virtuoso and, chanting his Cradle Song, we marched on.

One of the advantages of bum tourism is that the bum doesn’t go after the history; it is the history that comes to him. By effortless meandering, the bum is bound to stumble onto something that, when combined with an inquisitive mind, can unfurl and reveal itself to be quite a lesson in history. All the nitty-gritty detail I bestow upon you, dear reader, is nothing but a result of swank vagabonding. An amalgamation of Bachelor of Arts and 80 proof alcohol, a potpourri of mendicancy and daddy’s monthly allowance. We were bourgeois hobos in a foreign land, sleeping on parks because nothing is sacred, boozed up and teaching apathetic teenagers about the Habsburgs and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We were literati nihilists, erudite blasphemers, conscious glitches of a pre-packaged world. Bum tourists with a lust for life, ever so willing to question quite about everything and doing so with pleasure.

It was now ten at night and we marched to the castle gardens. Once there, sluggishness becomes lethargy and finally we fell asleep.

This time I woke up before anyone else. It was probably around six in the morning, so I sat down on the park bench watching over my friends and reading a book. A local drunkard called Miroslav came by and forced his presence on to me. He was a young blond kid of around 20 years of age, swaying and displaying in his steps the fact that he had been up all night drinking. He had blood on his shirt collar but no signs of having been wounded. Speaking in a confused English as if not expecting to ever have to use a language he learned so long ago.

The initially entertaining drunkenness started getting hostile when an older yet similarly inebriated hobo showed up. Miroslav seemed to be in friendly terms with the hobo but he didn’t seem too willing to be convivial. I didn’t do much but stand around smoking cigarettes, hoping none of the bums would take the liberty of urinating on my friends.

My friends woke up and I said good bye to the bums. We marched in a supermarket and bought ingredients for our breakfast.

On the way out I was surprised to see Miroslav vagabonding past us. He paid us no mind and walked towards another early morning drunkard. The poor woman was in her fifties, rugged and sad. She had a half liter can of beer in her hands and Miroslav harassed her for a swig of her drink. She struggled, not wanting to part from her most prized possession. She probably blew it with her kids. Her husband probably left her long ago. The job she had she just stopped going to, probably forgetting about it, booze and all. She had nothing stable in her life besides her alcoholism and in her mind it was just as dear as the family she once had, except she was living in the present, the beer is what was dear then, and letting go of it would be as painful as parting from her kids long ago. She wouldn’t make the same mistake again so she battled with Miroslav with such determination that she managed to walk away without losing one gulp of her drink. A dignified and proud elderly drunkard. Pint-sized jelly-bellied superhero of the Bratislava underworld.

Hours later of inspired drinks, we decided to have a barbeque in the forest, so the street we needed to find was Puchovská. It went straight north and seemed to be the last urban residue before nature took over. We walked on and looked back and spotted the castle in the distance, majestically sovereign, with an entourage of boxed buildings and smoking factories. Yeah, it appears that nowadays forests are potholes in a tar world. God only knows when we’d be back in Slovakia, so we felt good about having come to see some unspoiled nature before it all became a huge dog food factory.

The global nomad has no home; he lives in an infinite backyard without a parent to put him to bed. And needless to say, neither do bums, walking bare-feet down the streets as if they were corridors of their homes, settling in alleys as their rooms, sleeping in dumpsters as their beds. The global nomad makes the city his home by treating it like one.

The fire was up and going and we had sausages over the flame. The fat dripped and sizzled as sovereign smoke journeyed with the wind, overlooking us as it flew and spread across the indefinite. Sunday afternoon and a picnic flavor that cost us three euros in total. Shirtless like brutes, unconstrained like eremites, bearded except for me, who sport mine only in thought. Raw meat pierced by sturdy sticks, incense of god’s tea, straight forward winos with intercultural susceptibility, spending a Zen afternoon like weekend bodhisattvas.

Time and place worked in our favor. A lazy sun starting to come down. It was time to go. Two hours later night fell and we found ourselves in the city. The same hobo from two nights ago pointed us to the bus station. I counted my money. Spent ten euros in forty eight hours. Bought the ticket and got on the bus back home. Just like that.

Guilherme Rocha