Chain Bridge, Budapest

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Busójárás in Mohács

Holy Cow! What a weekend! Let me start at the beginning. Two weeks ago I looked the Funzine Magazine, a bi-weekly English-language publication of fun events happening around Budapest and Hungary. While browsing through the pages, I saw information about a goodbye-to-winter festival in a small town in southern Hungary called Mohács. It's called Busójárás. Every year there, the locals dress up in wooden masks and sheepskins to commemorate the revolution over the Turks in the 1600's. Sounds cool, I thought. Let's go check it out.

Fast forward to Saturday morning, February 13th. I arrived at the Keleti Train Station in Budapest at 7:10am to finish buying our group train tickets to go to the festival. There are seven other BSM'ers going to Mohács with me. We took the train from Budapest to Pécs and got an immediate connection (I'm talking seconds) to Villány where we had another connection to Mohács. We were only 90% certain that we were getting on the correct trains. I kept asking the ticket officers which were the right trains, but none of them spoke any English, so there was a lot of pointing involved. Luckily, when we arrived in Villány, we met a nice Hungarian couple who were on their way to Busójárás as well. They both spoke English and rode the final 30 minute journey to the town with us. The man, I forgot his name, told us all about the festival and what to expect when we got there. His mother (or grandmother, I can't remember) lives in Mohács and he goes to Busójárás every year to visit her. The town of Mohács itself has between 5,000 and 10,000 residents. The festival lasts from a Thursday to Tuesday, with the main events happening on Sunday. We arrived in Mohács on Saturday and had expected to not come back on Sunday, but we changed our minds after having so much fun. 
The train station was a small one-room nondescript building a little removed from the center square and when we disembarked we found a quiet little town nestled in the recent snow. Too quiet. For a small town in the middle of a huge festival we didn't see or hear anyone. Had it not been  for the nice Hungarian couple to show us the way to the square, we probably would have wandered around for a bit looking for all the action. After a ten minute walk we came up to the main street running through the historic center of town and saw street vendors catering to a few dozen people, not the hoards we expected. It was just after noon that day and we were hungry, so we found a pizza place opposite the main square and ate lunch. While we ate, a crowd gathered outside surrounding people playing music and dancing. Through the restaurant's window we saw people in sheepskin and wooden masks, the buso's, dancing and posing for pictures. They didn't look too scary and now I have a great idea for next year's Halloween costume.

After we finished eating, our group split up to walk around town until a wreath laying ceremony in the center square an hour later. I went to the local busojaras museum, dedicated to all things buso-related. The museum was fairly small. It was built into a house and only had a few rooms, but each room was stocked with costumes, clothes, masks, books, and all sorts of trinkets. The museum employees were very nice but didn't speak any English so we had a walk ourselves through the rooms. The items on display were labelled in what looked like Hungarian, Croatian, and German, but again no English. We walked in ignorance through the series of displays ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the outrageous clothes that most likely have some sort of cultural or historical significance it we only knew what it was.
We left the museum and went back to the square to watch the wreath laying ceremony. We waited for it to begin by watching some locals do some folk dancing to Balkan music. Then we started to hear drums coming from behind us. A column of busos with a drum line and people dressed as 1600's Hungarian soldiers (I think) marched into the square up to a memorial statue. The crowd gathered around the soldiers and busos, who laid the wreath at the base of the memorial to volleys of gunfire from the soldier's muskets. I had to take a step back and think about where I was and what I was watching, since I had never really seen anything like it before, at least not while people were wearing sheepskin. It was almost silly. There were even busos -- and child busos -- throwing wooden clubs at an effigy of a Turkish soldier. The busojaras festival is supposed to be based in the legend of the local Croatian population's revolt against the Turks, which isn't true at all. According to pamphlets I picked up in the tourism office in Mohacs, the Turks were expelled in 1687 and Croatians didn't begin settling the area until ten years later. This makes the effigy beating even more disturbing, one of those "never in America" moments. More likely, the festival stems from an old Balkan tradition that the Croats brought over, a tradition that has changed over the years to blend with other Hungarian and European customs including saying goodbye to winter, welcoming spring, and encouraging fertility. In the end, its just a whole mess of fun and shenanigans. It's kind of like Roundup Weekend at the University of Texas meets The Fourth of July. Why do we act crazy? Who knows? Have some palinka.
After the ceremony, we retreated into a nearby cafe to escape from the cold. Once we had drank some hot chocolate and played a few games of Set (more on that later), we ventured forth in search of the night's primetime event: the Queen cover band playing in the town recreation center. Looking at the tourist map that I had, I saw that the rec center was located somewhere beyond the boundary of the map to the left. Alright. How hard could it be to find? 30 minutes later it was dark and the group had lost hope in finding it. I had to ask someone for directions. An Emergency Medical Services station was next to us, and a paramedic was taking a break outside. I went up to him and pointed at my map where I wanted to go. He invited us inside the station -- not by speaking in English but by waving his hands -- to talk to his colleague who could speak English. That person, who looked like a skinny Kevin Smith from Jay and Silent Bob, told us that were in fact right next to the rec center, but that it was closed. He said that a member of the cover band had gotten sick and the show had been cancelled. The important thing is that I found where we had to go. The band member's health was out of my control. Nevertheless, Distraught, disinterested, and plain 'ol exhausted, we walked back to where we came from to catch a bus back to Pecs to stay in our hostel.  
The hostel arrangement turned out to be a pleasant surprise, which I welcomed after a very long day. Earlier that week once it became apparent that availability and price would keep us from staying in Mohacs for the night, I looked for hostels in nearby Pecs. The Olive Hostel showed up on many online searches, receiving mediocre reviews. However, they did have several beds availble for cheap and were located very close to both the bus and train stations. I called the hostel on the phone a few days before we left and made a reservation. The price was 3000 forints a night person, which is $15. We had two rooms with six beds each. Each room also had a TV, DVD player with a stack of three dozen DVD's, computer with internet, and a little refrigerator with a Sport bar (Hungarian chocolate bar) inside. It was exactly what we needed. The man who ran the hostel was in his forties and had a little 10-year-old son with him, who followed us around while we settled in. He didn't speak any English, but watched 20 minutes of a Jet Li movie with us before we all had to go to bed. 

The next day we slept late and woke up wanting to go back to Mohacs to see the rest of the festivities. Sunday was supposed to be the main day of the week long festival and we all wanted to see it. The hostel's internet unfortunately was not working, so we had to go look up the train and bus schedules in person. Our hostel was nestled in between the train station and the bus station, but neither was more than a 5 minute walk away. We first walked to the train station and were told the next train left at 2 o'clock. It was already 12 noon and the busos were going to row across the Danube in boats at 1:30 p.m., so we went to the bus station to hopefully hop on a bus to get there ASAP. We weren't the only ones in Pecs with that idea, though. The next bus to Mohacs left in only 20 minutes, but when the time came twice as many people lined up for the bus as could fit in the seats and in the aisles. At this point, half of our group of eight decided to call it a day and remain in Pecs for an hour before catching a train to Budapest. It was Sunday and we all had class the next morning a 3 hour train ride away. The remaining four, including myself, waited at the bus station for the next bus to Mohacs, which came in ten minutes, and then another immediately after that. I think the transport people may have re-routed buses or something since none of the buses that left to Mohacs listed Mohacs as a destination on their above window panels. While we were waiting, I overhead people speaking an American-accented English and went over to say hi. It was a group of five Americans who were in graduate school in Pecs. They were heading to Mohacs also, and helped us get on the right bus. I wanted to get their names or emails but in the hubbub I couldn't find them again. But thanks to them we made it back to Mohacs. 

We didn't get there in time to see the busos cross the Danube, but we did get prime spots for the parade. The town had been filled with people the day before, but on Sunday it was absolutely jam packed. At least five times as many people were there making walking around a time consuming navigation through crowds. The parade alone was worth the trip back. About 500 busos waltzed and danced down the street towards the square carrying a variety of accessories. I should probably take some time and describe the dress and mannerisms of people wearing the buso suits, who are primarily men but some are women. The main part of the buso costume is the wooden mask with the sheepskin hood covering the head and shoulders and usually painted with the blood of animals. The busos also wear a wooly coat and baggy white pants filled with straw. Around the cloak there is a leather belt suspending cowbells, causing busos to make lots of noise wherever they go. Each buso of course must have a large noise maker (think gragger like in Purim, except a lot bigger) or some sort of wooden mace or stick. The idea was that the original buso scared away the Turks in the dead of night by rowing across the Danube from their outpost and making all sorts of noise and other intimidating expressions. On top of their appearance, the busos also act a unique way. The festival also celebrates fertility, and the busos are supposed to be good luck for women. This custom results in busos chasing down everyone from teenage girls to adult women, hugging them tightly, dancing with them, petting their face, and even sticking their wooden maces or sticks towards the girl's you-know-where. The most bizzare part of this routine is the local girls acceptance of this tradition. They try to run, but not that fast. My American friends, however, wanted none of that. Of course, even though I was a guy it didn't stop them from doing the same to me. I couldn't help but laugh at how ridiculous this must look. On the right is Reggie, another BSM'er from Illinois.
After the parade finished, the mayor of Mohacs started speaking on the stage, but left towards the river to get a glimpse of casting the coffin symbolizing winter onto the Danube River. We picked up some hot wine and palinka from a street vendor to warm us up, and then hurried to the river bank to catch the tail end of the event. Thirty busos along with cameramen and other people were on board an automobile ferry in the middle of the wide river. They lowered the ramp and shoved the coffin into the water. 
People cheered and somewhere a cannon fired. Winter was officially over. Triumphant over nature, we walked back to the train station, stopping to help a lady push her car out of the snow. After making two more train connections, at 10:40 p.m. Sunday night, we returned to Budapest. What had started out as a neat trip idea had turned into an amazing adventure through sight and sound. No, we weren't in the Twilight Zone, but we were close.

Check out the complete set of PICTURES from the weekend in Mohacs and Pecs. 

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