Stuck on the Island of Freedom at Sziget Festival
Sitting in the dust on an island in the middle of Budapest, Hungary, listening to the Lumineers play out their live set, I began to imagine what my friends on acid felt like. The pinks and yellows of the sun slowly setting hung low over the city, leaving me to face the coming night on my own.
Being (usually) the only sober person in about a 50-strong crowd can sometimes weigh a little heavier than I imagine. But I hadn’t considered that when booking my ticket for Sziget Festival. Instead, I’d thought of the high of the Euro-life I’d led for six months prior, and the sweet smell of freedom that still oozed from my skin. So why not book a ticket to the ‘Island of Freedom’ nine months in advance, and only two months after returning home to Australia? I had no second thoughts, no doubts, and no responsibilities stopping me.
But when it came time to actually return to Europe for the festival, fear and doubt had crept in. I tried to remain positive that listening to Rihanna in the middle of Budapest would save me from my funk.
We arrived at Sziget with our belongings strapped to our backs, smiling through the painful possibility of someone robbing us of every possession we owned. After having our bags groped at by stone-faced security, we passed through the gates over to the Island of Freedom. Flags hung from the top of the bridge, welcoming us in five or so different languages. People were coming in herds of hundreds: the colourful and the strange, all flocking to the same place to live out the next seven days without limitation.
The first few days were met with unimaginable fun as we explored the island that held art corners and sculptures, food stalls from all over Europe, sporting activities, and of course, live music. We dressed ourselves in odd button ups and showered in only glitter to welcome the first taste of Sziget.
Before long, we had attracted our very own drug dealer – a thin, pale man with spiny hairs pointing outward from his chin. His pants hung low and the bum bag clipped around his waist held all of those goddamn disco biscuits. I stayed away. I’m terrified of taking anything that will heighten my anxiety, and getting thrown in a foreign prison isn’t too high on my bucket list.
Some of my friends dabble in anything that will give them a new high, and that’s totally okay with me. I probably would too if I didn’t have anxiety, but I do, so I remained sober. The dealer ran out of his supply of powders, pastes and pills on his first visit to our campsite, so he had to return to his hideaway somewhere in Budapest to re-fuel – almost every day.
I have no problem being around people on drugs. I can still have a good time with them because I’m just about as weird as they are. But spending an entire seven-day festival around people who, at times, couldn’t even form sentences was growing fairly tiring. I love them, and I wanted to be around them, but the fact that they’d get distracted 100 times in 10 minutes made navigating our way around an island nearly impossible.
By about day four, I was 100% ready to leave. No one seemed to be bothered by the fact we couldn’t sleep because street lights beamed onto our campsite all night. Or that the German backpackers around us decided jumping on other people’s tents should be a nightly ritual. Or the almost 24-hour DJ setup in a mini Colosseum near our site. But I wasn’t being powered by anything but the 10-euro gyros down the road; I needed to sleep. This place should’ve been a dream, where all of my wildest fantasies came to life. But instead, all I was getting was the festival flu and unwanted bodies on top of my tent at 4am.
The comedowns of a few of my friends got so bad that they ended up leaving the festival altogether. Some stayed in hostels in the city to recover; others found a quiet spot inside a tent to lay down and cry. A few bailed due to ferocious sickness, and one or two even booked a flight all the way back to Australia. The Island of Freedom had become a battlefield, a survival of the fittest, and we hadn’t even made it through the week yet.
Despite this, I still had high hopes, big expectations, and no money to spend on a hostel. So I stayed in the thick of it, fighting off a pretty serious flu, and dodging anyone dressed in their own vomit.
Then, the time finally came for Bad Gal RiRi to get on stage. Rihanna was one of Sziget’s headliners for the year, and after too much Jagermeister, I was ready to get down harder than I had ever before to some of her sweet lady jams.
When Rihanna finally came on stage, 30 minutes late, she mostly lipsynced. She played a minute-and-a-half of each of her songs, then dipped out the back every now and then, to do… well, nothing. If you were going to Rihanna to be wowed by whips, wigs and lasers, you were better off going to the gay club at Sziget. You would have gotten a much better performance.
By the time the rides had stopped spinning, the food trucks had closed their doors and the lights had dimmed, my entire body was hurting. Day eight was a full day of rain. Water was leaking down our tent walls, and we knew we had to get up and face it. Opening the zip revealed a scattered war zone. Rubbish, clothes and bodies lined our campsite, and only the groans of the weakened filled the air. The confusion of where the portable toilet waste stopped and the mud started was all-the-while ignored as battlers and survivors gathered their things. Beaten, but alive, I watched on as everyone packed their clothes, or left them out in the rain under the grey-streaked skies.
As eight full, intense, dirty days came to an end, I tried to reflect positively on this incredible opportunity. The full festival cost less than heading to Splendour in the Grass in Byron Bay, Australia, and ran for four extra days. In Europe.
I’d seen amazing acrobats and stage shows, met travellers from different continents and even helped twirl my Belgian friend’s moustache with wax. But I hadn’t felt like Sziget was the greatest place I’d ever been. Being further away from the situation now, I’m only focused on the parts where I felt free, and alive, but I had placed such high expectations that the festival couldn’t possibly live up to what I had in mind. Sure, as people are buying tickets, you’ll watch the videos and hear the stories, and you’ll probably want to go as well. I had a phenomenal experience, but I would definitely think twice before booking a ticket to a seven-day festival again.
Cover by Cesa Storm