It was not long after we met Valentina that we learned about the Coldplay dollar.
We bumped into her right after checking into Carpe Noctem, an affordable, highly-rated hostel in the heart of Budapest. It was the first stop that me, Amit, and Box had mapped out in our plan to hostel-hop around Europe. Carpe Noctem is a youth party hostel, with a strict upper age limit of 36 and a massive drinking culture, located on the top floor of a five-story, austere-white 19th century heritage building. We were halfway up the many wide stone steps to the hostel when the motion-activated lights turned off, leaving us to make the rest of the journey by aid of our flashlights like torch-wielding monks.
Any pious feelings we had vanished the moment we reached the door on the top flight, which advertised our arrival in bright signs and neon lights. We were greeted by one of the hostel workers, a laid back, beer-clenching man I’ll call Adam. Adam wore a tank top, black earring gauges slightly larger than a quarter, and a tattoo sleeve on each arm. He checked us in and showed us to our room. On the way over, we made small talk with a group of young adults playing a game of “Never Have I Ever” and passing vodka around liberally in the living room.
While we were unpacking, we met Valentina, who had checked in earlier that day after touring the city. She had blonde hair, dyed a slightly darker brown, and sported a butterfly tattoo halfway down her arm. She was from Argentina, where she was in her last year of university studying Visual Effects. At that time, she was taking time off to solo travel around Europe. One of the first things we asked her was whether she had worked on any explosion VFX—to which she said yes, much to our wide-eyed delight.
We grabbed dinner with Valentina and, like the adults we were, traded notes on the party scene in our respective home continents. Valentina regaled us with stories of parties with pre-games starting at 7 p.m. and post-games starting at 4 a.m., making a very solid case for Latin America’s supremacy on the party front. She also soberly added that visiting her home country would be pretty cheap, given the general economic circumstances—inflation had gotten so bad that instead of getting change at the store, you got to choose between items of candy.
And then she told us about the Coldplay dollar. Argentina’s wild inflation has led it to adopt a number of different currencies (up to 17) with different exchange rates designed to discourage the purchase of foreign currencies. One of such currencies is the Coldplay dollar, used for Coldplay concerts and other international artists’ concerts. The name stems from Coldplay’s frequent performances in Argentina and the love the two have for each other—frontman Chris Martin proudly dons a tattoo commemorating a concert the band played there.
During our stay in the hostel I noticed Valentina struggling to operate the in-house washing machine. Hiding behind a sheepish smile, she admitted she’d never used one before—at home there were others paid to do it for her. I imagine she’s at least doing fine when it comes to her own economy.
We met Rose soon after Valentina, and it turned out that the two had met before at a different hostel in Bratislava. Rose is somewhat tall, blonde, with a sharp face, and—despite her inexplicable Australian accent—comes from Maryland, where she works at a recreational swimming pool center. While we brushed our teeth in the communal bathroom, eyeing a makeshift sign with the words “Don’t Fuck On The Sink Or Mary Will Hate You” written on it in Sharpie, Rose gushed about a fellow traveler she had met in a previous hostel. They’d gotten engaged after a week, and Rose poured out their plans to hop around France, Sweden, and finally, as a glimmer set into her eyes, to John’s home in Australia to get married. I wondered if this might explain her accent.
The hostel the two had met at, the White Elephant, had a reputation as one of the rowdiest hostels in Europe, and by far the rowdiest in Bratislava. A large part of John and Rose’s brief honeymoon period thus far had consisted of party games at the White Elephant, which involved different challenges for which guests could be rewarded with shots of vodka. These included: letting others write on you in Sharpie, getting makeshift piercings, finishing a bowl of mac and cheese, or getting an eyebrow slit. Rose had three eyebrow slits.
Rose and John broke up during our first night at Carpe Noctem during a bar crawl to one of Budapest’s many “ruin bars.” Ruin bars are located in old or run-down buildings, often abandoned, part of the aesthetic being the presence of graffiti and decrepit things: broken mannequins, ancient vending machines, and damaged TVs. We comforted her beneath old graffiti, crumbling white walls, and neon lights as we planned a trip to one of Budapest’s thermal spas to help get her mind off of John.
We didn’t quite succeed. While Box, Amit, and I alternated between sitting in a sauna and getting ice cold water dumped on us, Rose vanished for a bit to take a call from John. After a few minutes, she returned and filled us in while we sat in the rooftop hot tub overlooking the Danube. Apparently John had been jumped by seven men with machetes and fought them off semi-successfully with his black belt skills, but still sustained a gash to the neck and chest that she had to go over and stitch up.
So the impression arose between our traveling troupe that Rose was a bit of a compulsive liar. If what she said was true, on top of the gang and her surgical skills, she had connections to the Turkish mafia and the C.I.A.
She had also mentioned earlier that one of her friends was writing a book with Rose as the inspiration for one of the characters because of how crazy her life was. I felt this gave some insight into her mindset: Tell a crazy story at all costs, and if that fails, make one up. This was somewhat confirmed when we ran into John shaving the next morning, having recovered remarkably well from his neck gash.
Later, we saw what looked like a trail of blood—or maybe red wax—near where Rose said the machete attack had happened, which made us wonder.
We set out from our hostel to try what was rumored to be the “fanciest McDonald’s in the world,” one set in an old chandelier-clad 19th century train station, but some wrong turns ended with us settling for a less celebrated McDonald’s. It was 2 or 3 a.m. and we were sitting at a table waiting for an embarrassingly large order of chicken nuggets and fries when Aman came and sat with us. While he played with his scruffy black hair and we made our way through the barbecue sauce, we exchanged our stories—Aman was a serial traveler, having visited over 70 countries since graduating from university in India. He planned to visit 80 more.
Aman’s travels came about as a mix of personal travel and travel for his job, which he explained as helping developing nations implement their educational plans. He matter-of-factly described working in a terrorist-occupied nation, where an attempt to transport textbooks in a forbidden language led to burned textbooks and murdered drivers. It then came down to Aman to hop in another truck to drive down to, and negotiate with, said terrorists. I imagined looking through his dark brown eyes, in a country I didn’t know well, trying to keep my eyes off of the guns that had been fatally leveled at others not long ago.
Not all of Aman’s work trips ended bulletless. Throughout our conversation he massaged the middle finger on his right hand, which had a dull white scar toward the tip separating the two fleshier-colored segments. He was secretive about where it had happened, but he explained that he’d been shot once during his work, when a bullet severed his finger. On instinct he’d held onto his finger to put it in an ice box so it could be surgically reattached.
We waved Aman off outside the McDonald’s and saw him merge into, and become one with, the crowd of other nighttime travelers. I knew his stories wouldn’t leave me for a while, and I wondered if there was any part of our lives that he’d hold onto and remember, too, once in a while, as a part of the exchanges that happen when lives collide briefly in an ever-shifting world.