Trafficking on a Train

In March of 2010 I was in my 10th month of living abroad. I was in a good rhythm at my job as a live-in nanny and had, by this point, developed solid relationships with every member of the family for which I worked. The city of Vienna had become my home. I knew the public transportation system inside and out. I was comfortable enough with my German to offer directions to tourists and order schnitzel from my favorite food cart by the Kagran U-bahn station. I had even made a couple of friends, who I still hold very dear and who were also nannies in the Vienna area.

With the confidence we’d gained, paired with our ever-growing appetite for traveling, one of these friends and I set out for Budapest, Hungary one lovely Saturday morning. Budapest was just a short, 3-hour train ride from Vienna so we figured we’d get there around 10 am, spend the afternoon and evening enjoying a new city, and be back in our homes before midnight. While most of that came to pass, there was certainly a lot more in store for us that we were not yet aware of.

Upon arrival at Budapest we realized instantly that this was definitely going to be an adventure to remember. Whether a good adventure or a bad adventure, we had yet to figure out, but an adventure nonetheless. One quick scan of the place allows one to take in the view of the obvious lack of money and corrupt government. However, I was in Budapest fulfilling another small dream so I made a choice to keep a positive outlook, enjoy the day, and learn something. Somewhere in the file cabinets of my brain, an old file labeled “Movies I don’t like” was pulled out and without thinking, I uttered the words, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Just being in Budapest was a huge, eye-opening experience!! Around every corner is just more and more evidence of a poor, ‘formerly’ communist country. Homeless people begging on almost every street, dilapidated buildings pleading to be bull-dozed, and public buses that fit no description within the comprehension of any middle-class American. Yet, despite the downsides to this city, we were able to see some amazing things and gain experiences that will forever burn in our minds.

At the end of the day, after we had seen and done everything on our list, we headed back to the train station to board the train that would take us home to our beautiful and clean city! We were extremely exhausted so we located a private, quiet compartment and settled in for the 3-hour ride. Approximately 30 minutes into the ride I heard an abrupt sliding noise, followed shortly by another sliding noise and a click. The sound of a compartment opening and shutting. A few seconds later I heard it again, and then again. A sure sign that the ticket controller was coming. Right on schedule. Being extremely familiar with the procedure by this point, my arm was outstretched with ticket in hand as soon as the controller entered our compartment. He immediately took my ticket and as he did I gave him a quick once-over. Something was off about him. His outfit looked fairly typical of a ticket controller, but his jacket was a different color than usual. The train line we were on, OBB, typically dressed their controllers in red but this guy was wearing gray. I told myself it didn’t matter and brushed it off. After the usual amount of time it takes to punch a ticket, about five seconds, I automatically reached out for him to return my ticket to me. Instead he brushed my hand away and gestured for my friend to give him hers. As he was inspecting them he mumbled something I didn’t understand, but knowing the normal procedures, I reached for my frequent traveler train card to show him that as well. With online tickets they often asked for multiple forms of ID. He looked at me as if this was not enough so I pulled my visa card from my wallet and displayed that as well. He continued to gaze at me disapprovingly. I’d been asked to show two forms of ID before but never three. Nonetheless, I wanted him to stop peering at me so I showed him my passport. Suddenly he became responsive and, practically throwing my passport and ticket back at me, he proceeded to say in strained English, “Dees teecket ees not valeed.” To which I gave the responded “Yes, eet ees! Check eet again!!!! And this was only the beginning of a very long and intense argument.

I honestly did try to be patient with this man but it should be noted that I was very tired and patience is not my strong suit to begin with! I just wanted so desperately to understand why he thought we were traveling with invalid tickets; I had the ticket, the receipt, and the required forms of ID. But with his broken English this discovery seemed unlikely. After a few minutes of agonizing and disconnected debating he finally asked me, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” which means “Do you speak German?” and I answered “Ja, Naturlich”, “yes, of course.” From here I proceeded to experiment with my German, which only resulted in the realization that I spoke better German that he did. Considering that we were on an Austrian train line, this was another red flag that I should have paid more attention to. As he continued his attempt to convince us that our tickets were invalid I could feel my blood starting to boil. He was stammering over himself and kept repeating in broken German and English, “you must get off at the next stop… I can do nothing.” Each time I would try to prove the validity of the tickets, he would shake his head and say “no matter… get off!”

Infuriated, I was not about to back down. I kept pushing and I continued arguing for a good 20 minutes but it was to no avail. He finally left, actually ran out of our compartment with a final “you must go,” and slammed our compartment door shut. At this point my energy harshly shifted gears to managing my nerves. The thought of being kicked off a train in the middle of Hungary didn’t really appeal to me. I’d been in Europe long enough to know that governments there don’t usually sympathize with young American girls. If we were going to be kicked off of the train, I was certain that we’d be escorted to jail for a crime I couldn’t even take credit for. This, somehow, did not sound appealing either. I had zero idea what do but when I noticed that I had 3 bars of battery left I decided to call Isabelle, my employer. I figured the least I could do was inform her of our situation so she would know where to start looking for us when I didn’t show up to the family dinner on Sunday evening or work on Monday morning. Isabelle, of course, was also very angry because she knew I was being taken advantage of. Her anger served as validation for my own. She told me that he man wouldn’t be allowed to touch me and that I should just stay on the train until he called the police. Just then, my battery went from 3 bars to 0 and completely cut me off. Thank you ancient Nokia phone. Poor Isabelle was left in suspense and I was left with no form of communication. Approximately 40, 000 emotions were surging through my veins. The thought of spending the night in jail wasn’t the most welcoming. But the phone call had refueled my fire and I had just the right amount and combination of anger and adventure to be willing to fight everyone on that train until they dragged me kicking and screaming to a Hungarian jail for the night! On the inside though, I was a lot more nervous than I was letting on. My friend was also extremely nervous of course.

After a few minutes of sitting there trying to figure out what we were going to do when the train stopped, my friend asked me if we could say a prayer together. I thought to myself, “Of course, why didn’t I think of that?” We took a few deep breaths and then I pleaded with God to help us communicate so we could find a way out of this mess. Once the prayer was said we were both filled with peace. We didn’t know what would happen next but we also knew that we were not alone. So now all there was to do was wait until the next stop to see if he was going to come back, likely with reinforcements, for round 2.

An hour and fifteen minutes and 3 stops later, no one had come by or said anything. At the last stop, just before the Hungary-Austria border we waited in suspense. If they were going to kick us off, this would be their last chance. Originally we were only supposed to be stopped there for 10 minutes but the time came and went and we were still sitting there. All we had to do was remain on the train until it departed again and then we’d be in it for the home stretch. With every tick of the clock the suspense rose and another bead of sweat formed on my forehead. An hour and half passed by and still no one had come to kick us off so we remained in nervous oblivion. There was an announcement blaring from some rusty old speakers that were dangling on a lamppost outside. It kept repeating over and over but considering neither of us speak Hungarian very well, or at all, it didn’t help us solve the mystery of why the train wasn’t moving. But our encounter with the ticket controller earlier, led our imaginations to believe that the announcement had something to do with us. What I couldn’t figure out was why they didn’t just come for us.

When the 90 minutes of waiting had passed and the train started moving again we considered ourselves very blessed to still be on the train and to not have had any more pointless confrontations. But I also knew that they would most likely be coming around to check tickets again soon, standard procedure after crossing the border, and I really didn’t have the energy to produce the would-be-needed amount of spunk and composure for another argument. Sure enough, after about 10 minutes a man came. It was a different man than the first time, and I couldn’t help but notice that he was dressed in the bright red that I was accustomed to seeing on these trains. In fact, I was convinced that I’d seen this very controller on another trip of mine.

When he said, “Fahrkarte bitte?” I nonchalantly handed him the ticket, as if nothing had happened before, and waited. Very routinely, he simply glanced at the ticket, punched it with his mini whole-puncher and handed it back it to me. He then proceeded to follow the same steps with my friend’s ticket. After returning our tickets and saying “Danke Schoen” he slid out of the compartment and went on checking tickets throughout the train. That was it? Really? After all that arguing, yelling, stressing, praying, frustration, preparing etc. etc…. THAT WAS IT?!

My friend and I looked at each other in utter disbelief and immersed ourselves in silent prayers of gratitude for the remainder of the trip.

You’re probably wondering why we had so much trouble with the first ticket controller. Don’t worry, we were too. At first we chalked it up to an incompetent worker. We figured he was just an idiot and discovered that he’d been wrong about our tickets after he left our compartment and didn’t want to come back and admit defeat. After all, I was very angry, I wouldn’t have wanted to return if I were him. But upon our return home we told our story to my friend’s cousin, who happened to work in the American Embassy in Vienna. The recount of our story caused her to become very pale and ill. She hugged us both so tightly and exclaimed, “do you have any idea how blessed you were today?!?!

She then proceeded to inform us of a human trafficking problem in that area. Apparently it is not uncommon for people to pose as ticket controllers. They simply dress the part, manipulate a situation in which the victims have to show ID, then convince them that they’re Schwarzfahren (illegal passengers). Unfortunately there are many people, young women in particular, who would not question this. They would see an ‘authority figure’ and be too timid to question the motive or stand up for themselves. In these cases, the girls that comply are led off the train by the fake controller only to be met by cohorts of his. At which point the girls are taken into captivity, then sold or used according to the heinous desires of these twisted criminals.

When I returned to my own home that night after learning about what could have been, I nearly collapsed by my bed as soon as I entered my room. I crumbled in a puddle of tears and instantly sobbed a prayer of gratitude. On the train I had been angry, frustrated, defiant, and annoyed at what I thought was just gross incompetence. But later that night I was just grateful for my life.

I don’t tell this story to discourage young girls from traveling. Traveling is the best thing that I’ve done with my life so far. There are so many wonderful things to see and great people to meet everywhere you go. Including Budapest, Hungary. I tell this story to help girls prepare for such travels. Being aware of dangers can help you when you encounter them! If I could, I would plead with every young traveler to conduct a little research before each adventure. Know the culture of the area and procedures of transportation. Know the danger signs! Then when red flags appear you can knock them down with questions and confidence!!

I thank God every day for the feistiness I displayed on that train and for parents who taught me to question authority and stand up for myself. If I’d behaved any differently on that train my life could be very different today; that is assuming I’d still have one. I’m so grateful that I had this experience so I can share with others the very real dangers of human trafficking. Until that day I thought that such things were only in movies like ‘Taken’ but they are real. And devastatingly so.

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