The previous day, I'd been looking at a map of the Szeged area trying to figure out what would be cool to do there. Veki suggested we could hitchhike down to Bucharest in Serbia and, exploring the idea, we saw a few nice lakes on the map that we'd probably pass. But, as I continued looking, with the map near full-zoom, I saw something which suddenly and irrecovably captured my interest.
The Triplex Confinium. Mysterious. Isolated. Only visible on the map's deepest level of zoom. No roads leading to it (at least from Hungary). The internet did not even know what it was!
Exactly the kind of thing that I could not help but visit.
But the clincher was the name. What, exactly, is a Triplex Confinium?
But we couldn't leave right away the next day. For the past couple of weeks, Veki had been feeling tired and having mental lapses. At first she'd attributed this to the stress of medical school, but gradually come to suspect that something was wrong, and she remembered having a rash between two of her toes. She visited the doctors and they concluded based on symptoms and history that it was possible she had Lyme disease. The immediate reaction to this was to send a blood sample into the lab to confirm the diagnosis and to put her on powerful medicines designed to kill Lyme disease the same day, before the diagnosis even came back.
As we take the metro line in towards the hospital, Veki tells me that she's already nearly a week into the treatments and the lab hasn't returned the results. In fact, she may be most of the way through treatment before this happens. But Lyme disease is serious enough that treatment can't wait.
The hospital, when we come to it, is an older building with a kind of aged feel to the rooms and hallways. We walk through it and out the other side, passing a man with a very modern looking ECG machine on the way, another reminder that old infrastructures house an up-to-date society. Veki explains that the hospital is really a collection of buildings with no hallways between them. Why? She doesn't know. But she tells me it's not uncommon to see a team of orderlies wheeling a hospital bed through the snow with a very bundled patient riding above.
Lyme disease is kind of a thing here (and more so, I'm told, in eastern Hungary), enough so that they have a ward dedicated to it. There are perhaps four other patients lying in beds when we come in. They hook Veki into an IV and leave us to wait for it to finish dripping into her. I squeeze her foot from a chair by the bed and we try collectively to overcome the feelings rooms and times such as these bring on, as an elderly man wheezes slowly in the background.
The nurse comes back to find Veki and I staring with mingled horror and fascination at a bubble sliding through the IV line towards her arm. With a grunt, she pinches off the line, pulls out the needle, and applies a band aid, telling us to come back at one.
We use the interrim to visit the farmer's market to buy pogácsa.
“We could bribe the doctor to meet with us earlier,” Veki says.
“Yes, it's very common. They're underpaid and the system is inefficient.”
We meet with the doctor at the appropriate time and Veki is given a prescription for the multi-week course of oral drugs which will follow the IV treatment.
Afterwards, we begin our journey to the Triplex Confinium.
We begin the trip by auspiciously taking the wrong bus. Before we know it, we've been whisked across the river and are heading to Bob Knows Where. Luckily, an Australian high school exchange student's aboard and offers to hop off and show us where to go. He leads us through a thinly-wooded park and points out a stop across the road.
Shortly thereafter, we're on the right bus. It takes us down increasingly-narrow roads and into parts of the city which remind me vaguely of Cap-Haïtien. Veki and I second-guess each other about when to get off as the bus takes a right and continues off down a side-street towards what looks like the edge of town. Then it stops. “This”, the bus driver says in Hungarian, “is the last stop.”
We get out and look around. Around us there's a sparse collection of walled compounds, houses, and shuttered buisnesses. A crumbling highway leads off in the direction of Kübekháza, which is the closest city to the Triplex Confinium.
We begin walking in that direction. Round a corner, pass a few straggling houses and a man on a bike, cross a railway track which looks as though it hasn't been used in a good while, and suddenly, we are out of the town. In this whole fifteen-minute period, not a single car passes us.
“We better try catching the first thing that comes by, because at this rate it could take a long time to get there,” I say. Veki nods.
Serendipitously, just after we've crossed the rail tracks, we hear and then see an old car driving up behind us. We thumb at it and it stops. Naturally, there's nothing else in the direction of Kübekháza, so there's not much to negotiate. I sit in the back, admiring exposed chunks of metal and rust, along with the dirt on the car floor. Veki, up front, makes conversation with the driver.
The highway's rough, with cracks and holes, some of which have grass growing out of them. It wends its way via corners which are not quite right angles. Outside, the landscape is flat, farmed, and green, with tree breaks and small forests. It reminds me off parts of the American Midwest, but when I look at it I have the intense sensation that something is wrong. I never figure out what it is exactly, but there's something about the landscape which is undeniably foreign. The width of the furrows? The degree of fragmentation? Something about water management?
Our driver turns into Kübekháza. The entrance to the town has a Hungarian flag flying proudly above an expansive flower bed. A sign welcomes us in Hungarian, German, and … some other language.
I'd expected the town to be small, and it is. But it still has the charm of clusters of trees and little parks by some of its main buildings. And it isn't entirely deserted either, the playground sports a pack of children along with some watchful adults.
As we stroll down the main street, it's easy to see how wealth works in this town. The houses with combines parked in the front yards are larger and in good repair; the houses without combines are smaller, with crumbling plaster and the occasional tree growing through the roof. But still, we're on the right track!
At the end of the street, Veki stops to pet a cat and to take more art photos of the houses with my camera. I avoid the cat, thinking how scratches, wounds, and fleas are inconvenient to the traveler, and how toxoplasmosis is possibly inconvient at all times. Then I feel like a germophobe, but I leave the cat be anyway.
As she's taking the photos, a man comes out of a house across the street and walks up to us, speaking loudly in Hungarian. He and Veki have a conversation that lasts for several minutes before he turns and walks back towards his house gesturing for us to follow. On the way, Veki explains that he thought we drug smugglers taking pictures of the town to document potential routes. She's convinced him we are, in fact, travelers. He's heard of the Triplex Confinium and knows a short-cut.
We walk through a door into a long, roofed-over, mud-floored section of the house filled with rusting appliances and two large, friendly dogs. Exiting the back end of this, we follow a tramped-grass trail through the man's yard past more rusting appliances and farming-related junk to the back gate. Once there, he gestures broadly to the Infinite Distance and begins speaking with Veki again.
A few minutes later, we exit through his gate and begin following a path by some pushes, heading straight away from the town and into the Infinite Distance. I make to turn around and take a picture, but Veki stops me, “Wait! He's still suspicious of us and will be watching.” Many minutes later, when the town has become small in the distance, I do take the photo… using full zoom.
The field is wet and muddy, with patches of snow. And that mud clings to our shoes, mkaing difficult our journey…
… and still the road reaches out before us, leading to the unknown horizon…
Intermeniable amounts of walking bring little change to the scenery. The whole world around us seems to glow with a kind of other-worldly light and we are the only things in it.
But then we see movement! The brown runnings of many deer.
And then a Serbian guard tower materializes, and a white obelisk.
And it's not the only one. Off to the right of it in the farther distance, we see a guard tower belonging to the now defunct Yugoslavia.
And, off to the left, a Romanian guard tower.
What could possibly need so so much protection?
The Triplex Confinium
Abruptly thereafter, a sign appears in the middle of the field and the road makes an abrupt turn to the left, following a series of small white obelisks in a curving arc towards the larger one.
And before we know it we're standing in front of the obelisk, which is adorned with the shields of three countries: Hungary, Serbia, and Romania.
It's obvious, when you look at it, that this is not the Triplex Confinium itself. Rather, if you touch it in the right way, the top will lift off to reveal a glowing staircase descending into the bowels of the earth. Or there will be a flash of light and you'll be transported to a similar obelisk on some distant world. We decide to explore the surroundings of this world first, before trying to activate the obelisk.
Nearby there's a little roofed shelter, such as one might find at a park. Up in its rafters, we see a collapsable table and a couple of chairs.
We walk over to Romania, where what looks like a large white wedding tent is set up by the ending of a highway. Yes, the well-paved road crosses over an arcing stone bridge in the distance, curves around, passes the tent, and then just… stops.
There's a sign by the road which I imagine says it was a job creations project by the Romanian government as part of an economic relief package.
Then we head to Serbia to check out their guard tower.
There's a kind of creepy bunker at the bottom. Peeking inside, we don't see anyone. So we climb up. The steps are covered with wind-blown dirt, rain, and clumps of snow and ice. At the top, there's a closed trap-door. We push it up and it opens with resistence, admitting us onto a creaking, but solid wooden floor covered with the shattered glass of windows that have blown out and crumbled with time. The inside and outside walls have a smattering of graffiti. Outside, there is, well, nothing…
… except for a lone jeep spraying up clods of mud as it sways, bounces, and jounces towards us along a hitherto unseen road. Veki and I peer down from our vantage point.
“Maybe they're just patroling the border?”
“I don't think it's a coincidence.”
A few minutes later, it turns out that it is not a coincidence. The truck comes to a halt on the Hungarian side of the border, and two uniformed people climb out and shout at us in Hungarian. I don't understand what they're saying, but the meaning seems pretty clear.
We climb down from the tower, being careful not to let the trap door smack us in the heads and being wary of slipping down the steps. On the ground, as we wade through tall, dead grass, we're temporarily obscured from our visitors by a clump of bushes.
“They cannot cross the border themselves. So they will want us to cross. We'll have to choose quickly.”
We come out from around the bushes and jump across a ditch, approaching the line of white mini-obelisks. The two uniformed people are out of the truck. One, a muscular, blond woman is looking in our direction; the other, a man, looks like he is trying to play hacky sack with his radio. The woman laughs at his attempts.
Veki has a brief interchange with them, nods, and we cross the border. They examine her ID and then look askance at me, saying “Passport” in broken English. I shake my head; I don't have a passport with me. Or really anything else. There's a pause and no one seems sure what to do. The woman pulls out a pouch of Hello Kitty kleenex and blows her nose. At that moment, Veki and I both suddenly have the feeling that it will all be okay.
Then there's a longer conversation and Veki explains that they are scolding us for illegally crossing international borders and that they've offered to drive us back to Kübekháza. We agree, because it seems it like the best thing to do. The two of them clear the back seat of radios, water, and various survival supplies, loading it all into the boot while flirting outrageously with each other. Then we all climb in, fasten our safety belts, and begin the journey back.
The truck bounces and slides along the seldom-used road (which skirts directly beside more white mini obelisks), throwing an obscuring slew of mud across the windshield. The man punches at buttons and flips switches. Sirens go off, the doors lock and unlock, the head lights flip on, the woman laughs, suddenly water squirts and we can see again. Just in time: he pulls the wheel left and we slosh away from an on-coming bush.
As we go, the woman turns back to explain that a modernized watch tower with a telescopic camera somewhere in Romania saw us approaching the border and that the call got routed to their station in Hungary. They scrambled, jumped in the jeep, and drove out to the Triplex Confinium at top speed. Since they don't do this often, the truck's something of a mystery to them.
The man shouts something and Veki reaches over to pull my head down. The whole truck bounces and, for a moment, we are weightless, then there's a spray of mud and rumble onwards, turn a corner, and roll into Kübekháza. The two of them dig around for a while before coming to the conclusion that, in their hurry to come find us, they forgot the All Important Paperwork.
“We'll have to go get it at the station”, they say, and off we go.
The trip there is long. The highway we are on is as crumbling, or more so, as the one we used to get to Kübekháza in the first place. The truck sways as we dodge potholes. As the drive becomes long and longer, we contemplate that it wasn't crossing borders that brought them out to us, it was our mere proximity to the border. In some alter universe, we could walk out to the little shelter, sit there, and have cocktails with border guards while spitting across invisible lines. Then, in the distance, we see a stone tower. Then we fly by it, because it is old, decrepit, and no longer used. This happens maybe two or three more times before we enter a small village, make a turn, and come to a stop in front of a formidable steel gate.
The gate slides open and we drive inside. Our officers, who have been laughing at each other's jokes the entire trip are suddenly stoic and mechanical. The gate slides closed behind us and we all troop into a long, low building. Inside, we repair to a kind of break room. The woman retrieves a pile of paperwork and sits next to the man, filling it out. This takes a long time.
Finally, they pass a few sheets of paper to Veki. These sheets are covered with small writing. They speak to Veki. Veki speaks to me. “They say that this text says that today three countries observed us making multiple illegal border crossings. There is a fine of five thousand dollars for this, but this is the minimal amount and we should be thankful it is not twenty thousand.”
Then she passes me a piece of paper which is clearly a ticket with a little “5000” printed in boxes in the upper right. I notice that there are enough little boxes to fine an unlucky perpetrator some one hundred million dollars.
Naturally, there is only one possible thing to do: I offer to pay for Veki as well.
Then they offer us a ride to the bus. We all troop outside again, hope in the vehicle, and cruise to the edge of town. They stop in front of a group of parents and children, and we climb out, aware that ten people's minds are blazing with unasked questions. The guards cruise away. We discuss hitchhiking back, but it's become late. A few minutes later, a bus pulls up and we climb on-board and sink into its padded seats.
“This was a good adventure”, Veki says.
I nod. “But it's too bad we weren't able to activate the Triplex Confinium.”
Another thing the guards explained to us on our jouncing ride is that once a year the big-wigs of Hungary, Romania, and Serbia have a party at the Triplex Confinium.
For the rest of the year, it's a reminder of the economic and political realities of Eastern Europe, part of a border that must be patrolled to prevent illegal immigrants seeking jobs from sneaking across Serbia and into the relatively wealthier EU.
Also, it's worth noting that 5000 HUF (Hungarian dollars) is about 21 USD.