The sign on the platform read Budapest. I climbed onto the train, no easy feat at that moment as I clutched my heavy bag of camera gear, my suitcase and the provisions I had just bought for the six hour journey ahead. Stale pizza, artificial looking bread and a big bottle of water. I’d hurt my shoulder in the crowd and didn’t want to travel far for food, so a station meal it had to be.
I left my smaller bag and food on the train, hoping no one would steal it and returned to collect my suitcase. The steps were steep, the door narrow, the bag awkward and the shoulder screaming.
I heard a voice behind me in a language I did not know, but I could not turn until I reached the top and set the suitcase down.
“Do you need any help?” he switched to English as we both realised the moment had passed.
I smiled, grateful anyway.
“Do you have any money for me? For ticket?” he said. My auto-response awakened and I prepared to look down and mumble my apologies and walk past. But then I thought, why not? I’m leaving the country anyway, these coins are no good to me.
I handed them over. He continued talking. I began to feel anxious, perhaps a little regret.
“Where are you going?”
“This is not the right train.”
Alarm bells rang. Was this the start of a scam? A detour to a fictional train? Would I have to spend more money? Go down a sidestreet? Get mugged…
The ticket guard arrived, striding past without hesitation.
I asked in English, the man in Croatian. “Is this the train for Budapest?”
We got no answer at first. Then I asked again. I suspect I sounded desperate.
“No, no Budapest.”
My eyes fled to the window where orange pixels still spelled out Budapest in uniform rounded letters.
The man said something to the ticket guard. Then another thing. Then another.
Finally, the guard grunted and gestured along the aisle of the train and I stumbled behind him, bags slipping and sliding and squeezing through the gap. The other man followed.
We reached a blocked door.
“Get off now,” snapped the guard. I hopped down the steps first, placing my water and paper bags on the station floor before returning for the suitcase.
By then the guard had opened the door to the connecting train, sighed at me and hauled my suitcase across the gap into the next carriage. I ducked back down to the platform to gather my things then scurried along after him.
“Budapest,” said the guard.
“Budapest,” said the man.
I thanked them both and took my seat.
“This is first class,” said the woman in front of me.
“Thank you,” I replied.
“Second class is further along,”
We said nothing.
“Although the guard is very nice. He will probably let you sit there anyway.”
“I hope so,” I said. “Since I have a first class ticket.”
She said nothing.
The train slowly rocked away. Carrying with it the notion that I’d walked into a fable.
#Ironroute is an independent journey with transport sponsored by InterRail. Read more about the idea for the project here, follow along on twitter using the #ironroute hashtag and subscribe here for email updates.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com