Another eventful week and a half in Hungary has passed by! This week I've continued to explore the city (and the delicious food here) and study Hungarian. I also started service-learning and this past weekend had a lovely day trip to Lake Balaton! Additionally this week I've wrestled with some challenging questions regarding my own privilege in being here and how to be a respectful traveler, not an exploitative tourist.
Lake Balaton, located west of Budapest, is the largest lake in Central Europe and is utterly breathtaking! Surrounded by rolling green hills speckled with villages and homes, beautiful turquoise water, and seemingly endless white sailboats decorating the horizon, it felt like we were in paradise.
Early Saturday morning we caught the Harry Potter-esque train and rode the two and a half hours west to the town of Balatonfüred. After meandering and drinking the town's famous “healing water" we boarded a boat to Tihany. Tihany is a peninsula that juts into Lake Balaton and is a designated historical district. Aside from the stunning views over the lake that Tihany offers, it is also known for its echo and the lavender that grows there. So in carpe diem fashion I had a lavender beer and a lavender-lemon soup for lunch – when in Rome, right? Overall it was a lovely day and I’m so thankful we had the opportunity to see such a gorgeous part of Hungary.
The Problem of Privilege
Several times in the past week, and especially while at Lake Balaton, I’ve been overwhelmed with how incredibly blessed I am to be here. It sounds so cheesy, but living in Budapest really feels like a dream. Every time I cross the Danube on the tram and see the cityscape, or catch a glance at Parliament (I’m convinced it’s the most beautiful building in the world), I can barely believe it’s true – that this is now home.
Twice last week I relaxed by the base of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge and read while the sun slipped beneath the horizon. If I have ever felt absolute bliss, it was in that moment. However the bliss left in its wake feelings of guilt and unworthiness. How is it possible that this “dream” is my life? When millions around the world are plagued by war and violence, poverty and disease, slavery and hopelessness? Why do I get to live in such a beautiful city, take fascinating classes, and engage my passions through volunteering? Why am I granted every opportunity I seek and desire?
It’s not fair. Yet at the same time, guilt should not hinder me from making the most of this experience. So, where do we go from here?
Honestly, I’m not sure. But I think awareness of this inequality is half of the solution. I, and others in similar situations, must live in a place of awareness of our position, continual gratitude, and intentionally seeking for what purpose we have been blessed and how we can use our blessings to bless others. How will our experience here lead us to serve others? What does God want to teach us and show us while we are abroad? How might God be using this time to prepare us for His work?
On Being a Tourist
Something else that has been on my mind this week has been the idea of tourism. While siting by the Danube this week, a bus pulled up and out flooded a swarm of tourists. They eagerly ran up to the bank of the river, and without pausing to take the view in, whipped out their cameras and snapped the sunset away.
Watching this take place just made me sad and it convicted me of my own tendencies to document the experience instead of live it (something Johnson, a student on our trip, so eloquently wrote about recently). It's so easy to get greedy and solely seek to check a new country off the list, post a selfie, and move on. Although I often fall into that trap too, I find it to be an extremely selfish way to approach travel and an abuse of our privilege as travelers. Instead, we should ask ourselves, how do we treat the places we go with respect? How would I want myself, and my home, treated by visitors?
I think a few ways to show respect is by being present, observant, self-aware, and doing everything in our power to understand a place’s unique culture, language, history, and people - instead of simply popping in and out and “using” it for our own agenda (like bragging rights or more stamps on our passport).
Service-Learning with Református Missziói Központ
In struggling with the idea of tourism, and with the first two weeks in Hungary feeling very touristy, something that has helped me transition out of that mindset has been starting our service-learning. Tonisha, another student on the trip, and I will spend roughly 10 hours a week at Református Missziói Központ or the Refugee Mission of the Reformed Church in Hungary.
The Refugee Mission has three programs that help refugees and immigrants transition into life here in Hungary. They have a school integration program, helping new students catch up academically and integrate into the Hungarian school system, an after-school tutoring program, and fifteen flats that are available to families transitioning out of refugee camps. While families live in the flats they also receive help finding employment. Throughout the semester Tonisha and I will likely be helping with English conversation and very basic tutoring and helping plan and participate in craft and game times.
Many of the refugees and immigrants are from the Middle East, particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan. Interestingly, my brother Luke is in Afghanistan right now with the U.S. military. He studied international relations, and will likely continue to work at the government level, and with studying international development and wanting to work at the grassroots level, I have a feeling this won’t be the last time our two worlds intersect!
I hope and believe my service-learning placement will be a highlight of my time in Hungary. I have the highest respect for refugees and immigrants, and have long desired to volunteer with an organization that assists them in their transition to a new life. I'm so thankful for this opportunity and look forward to sharing more about it with you as the semester progresses!