Romania


An overnight train from Budapest put me, somewhat out of sorts, into Sighisoara the following morning. I'd spent most of the night talking with three fairly hilarious Romanian guys from Chicago who just couldn't understand why in the world I was choosing to go to Romania. Flash my American passport, they told me, and take the ensuing women to McDonald's. They also told me that Romanian's stereotypically tend to be really exuberant, good natured people who completely lack any common sense and I have reason to believe them on that.

Sighisoara was my first glimps into just how poor Romania is as a country. Sighisoara is probably one of the more touristy cities in Romania and when I went to the tourist office to buy a map of the city, they had a hard time breaking a 100,000 lei bill, or about 3 bucks.

Although less than bustling, Sighisoara was beautiful if not exactly kept up. One of its main claims to fame is the house where Count Vlad Dracul was born. Naturally, it's a cafe now that sells expensive (i.e. 50 cent) beers. Now you can drink there, too!

I stuck around for an extra day to do some hiking and wandered for a good twelve hours through forest that was lush and dense without being overgrown. The trees were spindly, but numerous enough to blanket everything in cool shade and soothing wind. Although I didn't see any unicorns or Romanian virgins, it was an enjoyable day nonetheless.

Romanian trains are diabolical; they only stop for a maximum of two minutes at each station. So when you're getting off a train, this means that you have enough time to do any two of these things; check to see if this is your station, grab your pack, or get of the train.

And when you're getting on the train, at least in my case, it means that you never have time to make it to the car where you've reserved a seat since that car is always the farthest from wherever you are. It was not an uncommon sight to see people running after a departing train and having to jump on.

So for the train from Sighisoara to Sinia, as per usual, I reserved a seat and then got on the first car with an unlocked door and picked a seat at random. My random choice for this train turned into a fortuitous one because that's how I met Toma. At first glance he looked like an overgrown...skater? Hat pulled low over a very sharp face with almost a cruel set to his mouth. And when he found out that I spoke English, he struck up what turned out to be my Romania-defining experience in a couple hours of broken-English and heartfelt conversation. There is no conversationalist quite like a Romania on national history.

To make a violent story short, Romania was suffering under the dictatorship of Ceausescu, a.k.a. The Destroyer of Bucharest, when, in 1989 the people of the capital rioted and dragged Ceausescu and his wife from the palace, after which they were exectued (and then tried).

Or were Romanias really suffering, compared to their present situation? A lot of people would and do argue the point. I wanted to learn from Toma what it takes for a people to do what they did, how it's affected the country since, and how some people could still call the time before 1989 the Golden Years.

"We knew nothing about the outside world" Toma got across to me, "Everyone had a job and a roof and gas and electricity and money. But there was almost no food in the stores to spend the money on. Almost nothing to spend money on at all" And then, in the early and mid-80s, little by little, people started to learn about what was happening, what existed, what was possible outside of Romania; mostly by huddling in secret around radios listening to broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and another similar American program.

About the same time, Ceausescu made the unwise decision of paying off his international debts by wringing everything out of his people that he could. As the people's horizon of knowledge broadened, their quality of life worsened until angst and anger boiled over in '89.

And now? Now it's almost the opposite. There's food in the stores and tv's to show the news, but no money to buy them and no jobs to make money. Homelessness, poverty, and the freedom to starve abound.

Country-wide concensus is that the politicians are inept, and country-wide knowledge is that the government is corrupt. Toma thinks it would benefit Romania to join the European Union, but the EU imposes sanctions and conditions that Romania simply has no means of reaching. They have no economy, no means of digging themselves out of the hole they are in.

"Was it better before or after '89?" I ask.
"We don't know," He looks pained.
"Can it be fixed?"
"I don't thinks so," He looks sad.

I had been on my way to Brasov but when I admitted to myself that really my only reason for going there was to do day trips to the mountains I figured I might as well stay in the mountains and stayed on the train until Sinia.

Sinia was another beautiful town, in part because every street corner and turn offered a great view down the mountain valley. There was also spectacularly oppulent Peles Castle, built out of pocket by Romania's beloved 19th century King (Karls/Karlov/?) who was actually a German prince brought in as a neutral solution to rule Romania's quarreling factions.

I also managed to catch a wedding party in the local Irish Pub.

On my last day in Sinia, I woke up early and caught a cable car halfway up the mountain (that was as far as I could afford) and ended up hiking most of the rest of the way up before returning to town to catch a train to Bucharest. The Transylvanian Alps were a strange and beautiful combination of short, lush grass covered hills with rocky outcroppings and, of all things, pine trees. I liked the wind most of all.

Bucharest was a harsh, grisly contrast to the mountains, and I stayed there only long enough to catch an overnight bus to Istanbul.

On to --> Turkey 1

Questions? Comments? Rants? Raves? Beer? -- Contact me at mcladdieweb-at-gmail.com