It’s like a treasure hunt. The van bumps and grinds her way over cracked and potholed roads, chugs and grumbles up the mountainside. We’re looking for a “conspicuous large blue pipe with a right turning…”
Wait, was that it? – Nope, just a drinking pump. What about that? – Nope, no right turn here. That must be it! The van swings right. We follow the ever-shrinking road to where it stops abruptly, or rather continues into a creek… tire tracks and mud continue on the other side. No way will this van make it up there. An old man with a hat on steps out of his gate to our left. We read the names of the two people we have written down on a scrap of paper, unsure of the pronounciation. He knods silently and opens the gate for us. Here? Really? We follow him through his own garden and into another that leads on from his. A dreadlocked man with a German accent appears smiling with a great big hug. “Welcome home!” he says.
Now, if you read the last piece I wrote about Rainbow Gatherings during my Spanish adventures, you will know why I am a little suspiscious of these sorts of things and the people they attract. You may even wonder why I have decided to come to a Rainbow Gathering at all. Well, during my travels I have met a number of people that frequent these gatherings and most of them have been jolly nice, so I decided to give it another go. I hide my skepticism under my hat and give the man my best hug and smile.
This house is the Welcome House. The dreadlocked man doesn’t live here, but he and a Turkish woman with a baby welcome us warmly and so do their friends when they wake from their siestas and find us packing our bags in the van behind their house. We still have a long way to travel on foot before we get to the site of the gathering itself. Actually we’ve arrived very late. The gathering has been going on for a few weeks already and will finish in not so many days. Although tired, we refuse the offer of a night in the Welcome House and it’s not long before we’re clambering up the mountain at the back of the house, puffing and panting, loaded down with backpacks.
The walk up is stunning, but we’re racing to get up before the sun comes down. Dogs shout excitedly at us as we pass. I manage to get a few photos during rest stops. It really is a long way and three hours have passed before we hear the sound of drumming and head toward it.
Two people at a time get up from where they’re sitting and welcome us warmly like old friends. I try to commit each name to memory, but each new one seems to erase one I already programmed in. No matter, I’ll just have to ask again later. Fortunately there are left-overs from dinner and we scoff fire-baked potatoes and salad while asking and answering questions of the others round the fire. One man shows us a place to put our tent and it’s not long before we’re slipping off to bed, promising to be more interesting the following day.
We wake up late and revel in the beautiful view, the calm and peace. It’s almost midday before a shout goes out from the fire: “Fooooood ciiiiiiiiiirrrcllle!” Food. Yes!
This is my first ever Rainbow Food Circle. We’re encircling the fire, holding hands and singing, “We are a cir-cle…ne-ver bro-ken…with no begin-ning and ne-ver e-en-ding…” I hold the hands of the people either side of me and repeatedly swallow the scathing cynicism that rises in me. Gosh, where did that come from? I’m sure I used to be just as much a hippy as this bunch! Well, almost…
I scoff up the polenta, veggies and other food that’s been cooked. There’s only one other vegan here, besides me and Pete, but so far all the food seems perfectly edible.
We know perfectly well to avoid the Romanian-Hungarian issue, but Pete can’t help bringing it up. Soon we’re caught in a nationalist argument. You see, Transylvania was a part of Hungary until after the second World War, when Hungary lost about a third of it’s land overnight and the Transylvanian part was given to Romania. So now we have a situation where a large Hungarian minority feels increasingly isolated, with the state allegedly “moving in” Romanians to historically (at least within living memory) Hungarian villages, changing the names of those villages to Romanian ones and teaching the Romanian language in schools. Of course, before World War II, Transylvania had already been part of Romania, as well as being part of Hungary before that as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and also as an autonomous principality, but nobody alive today will remember any of that. You can read more about all this confusion here.
Having arrived so late there’s not a lot going on. People seem to mostly sit around the fire chatting and drumming, go off for walks or (presumably) just stay in their tents. There is, fairly predictably, a Mayan Calender workshop, but Knackered from the day before all I feel like doing is lying around lazily reading my book, so that’s what I do.
Pete and I, hungry and unfamiliar with the times and habits of these rainbow types, are selfishly scoffing chocolate in our tent. It’s the strong stuff: 85% cacao. Finally the food circle shout comes. Dessert involves… cacao! – fairly strong cacao cooked up with sugar and some other bits and bobs. Pete polishes off his, then seconds, then starts licking out the bowl. Then a woman brings a cake out. It’s a chocolate cake. Oh god, this is our punishment for scoffing the chocolate ourselves alone in our tent. Now Pete is really high, banging his drum and repeatedly looking at me and saying “I’m rushing!” with wide eyes. Yes, I can see that!
It’s later that evening and we’re in bed already when Pete starts feeling funny. He goes out for a piss and then wakes up, dazed with wet grass stuck to his face. He’s fainted! Later on he goes out again and is violently sick. Poor Pete – who would have thought you could get cacao poisoning?!
It turns out we’ve come even nearer to the end of the gathering than we thought. We’ve only been up here a day and a night when we find out everyone is leaving the following day. Apparently the man that takes the tat up and down in his horse and cart won’t be here at the weekend as he’s going to a wedding, so the whole thing is ending earlier than expected so he can get all the stuff down before he goes.
Well, I’m not sure this would clarify as a proper taster of a Rainbow Gathering, but it’s enough for me to tentatively try again another time. I’ll just have to be sure to keep my cynicism under my hat and my mouth closed when it comes to long-standing politcal arguments.
We have a final night and morning and take a far easier two hour stroll back down the mountain, although Pete is still suffering from his cacao-induced sickness. We all join together at the Welcome House for a night before returning to the road and “Babylon” – the world outside.
Romania. Mountain villages, cracked and bumpy roads, churches like wedding cakes and vibrant colourful houses, old ladies in headscarves, haystacks like silhouettes of giant lumpy people, horses, carts and packs of stray dogs, mountains, mountains and mountains…
Everyone is staring at us. I have to remember Serbia – how everyone stared at Sam and I when we cycled into it, how warm, friendly and hospitable they turned out to be. I love entering a new country, love watching my own mixed emotions of curiosity, excitement and fear. Fear of being misunderstood, of not understanding, making mistakes and social faux pas. Not knowing the right words to explain myself.
We find internet quickly and I write down a few key phrases, my lips unsure of how they sound. We get currency and work out the exchange rate (just over 4 Lei to a Euro). All this we do in Oradea, the first city over the border. Here we also drink coffee in a smokey locals bar, not so much for the coffee as to get a feel for the place and the people in it. The girl behind the bar is young and skinny with a yellow t-shirt and badly painted eyebrows. She carefully counts out my change in English, pausing after each number to check she got it right. I ask the Romanian word for “thankyou”. She tells me “mulţumesc”, as well as “Köszönöm”, the Hungarian word I already knew. I’m reminded of how often borders shift around. Not so long ago this whole region was part of Hungary and there’s still a large Hungarian minority within it - entire Hungarian villages throughout Transilvania.
We pick up a hitch-hiker on our way out of town – our second in almost ten months traveling, although Pete picked up a couple while traveling solo. Our hitcher is a young guy from Aleşd, on his way home from job hunting in the city. We decide to take him home before parking up for the night. While driving I get a Romanian language lesson, going through each of the letters to try to discover how it sounds. Maybe he thinks I’m trying to give him a lesson, as he keeps telling me the English names for the letters, but anyway I get an idea of how to pronounce some words. We drop our hitcher in Aleşd. He offers us money, the custom in Romania, but of course we refuse it and thank him for the lesson.
A search for a parking place takes us through village after village along winding roads. Eventually we stop. It’s not a perfect sleeping spot, but the view is amazing and a thick quilt of mist hangs over the mountains in the morning.
Huedin has one small internet cafe – not the big posh one with “cyber cafe” in big letters, where you need your own laptop, but a smaller backstreet one beside a bar, where the woman ignores the hours she has posted on the door and comes and goes as she likes. If you sit in the bar long enough, she’ll probably turn up sooner or later.
I have an email from Ebay Man. My laptop has miraculously appeared in Budapest and must be colleced by Monday. This should be fantastic news, but my first reaction is to groan. It took three days to drive here. Although we drive notoriously slowly and I already plan to hitch back alone and get it to save time and money, it will still take me a day in each direction and means again delaying plans.
The already much delayed plan is to visit a Mexican named Roger living in a village 40km South of Huedin. He has some land and he’s growing food permaculturally. I decide to visit Roger for at least a couple of days before trecking back to Budapest. He’s already been waiting two weeks while I waited for the laptop.
We follow the directions I copied from his email. In the village Răchiţele (“Rruh-kits-elle”) we are to ask in the bar for “Casa Mexi-ca-nolue”. Actually there are three bars. The first has never heard of him. The second has, but the woman doesn’t speak English. She points up the mountain and makes a gesture indicating a right turn. Hmm, ok. We get back in and drive to the end of the village very slowly, feeling every pothole and crack in the road. My directions say “Good road til centre then hard road to top of hill. Hike up 45km or drive around” 45km? – that can’t be right. I must have copied it down wrong. Perhaps I missed out a decimal point? We drive up, up, up, but Princess is getting tired. We park her in a layby and continue walking up, up, up… It’s getting dark. There’s no phone reception and of the few cars that pass and the fewer that will stop for us, none have heard of a Mexican man on a farm up here. We reach the top and the road starts to head back down on the other side. No good, we’ve passed it somehow. We admit defeat and go back down to Princess, sleep in her where she’s parked.
My writing is interrupted by a young bemuscled border guard wanting to see my passport. He’s confused as the front says ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, but some of the gold lettering is starting to fade. He asks me if Ireland is in the EU. Then he asks how I got here. I reply that I got the train from Hungary, which he seems to accept. I wonder why he couldn’t figure that out himself when I’m sitting here on a train right in front of him at the Hungarian border. No matter, I’m back in Romania now.
I still haven’t made it to Rogers. I decided to just get things over and done with and hitch back to Budapest. I waited 5 minutes opposite the petrol station where Pete dropped me, got a lift all the way to Budapest with a cheery Hungarian trucker. I even made it to the post office 10 minutes before it closed and brandishing my Great Big Box made it to Tuzrakter just in time for a disscussion about Irish worker’s struggles. It was late that night by the time I nervously opened The Box and booted up the laptop. One of the batteries isn’t working, but the other seems fine and the laptop works – which is the main thing. It is a bit bigger and heavier than I expected, but other than that, it’s great. I just hope it’s not too heavy to travel with. We’ll see.
Today hasn’t gone so well. It’s been bad luck, good luck, bad luck, good luck… I got told off by police for walking on the road (impossible for cars to see me on the pavement) and shouted at by drivers, but then given money by a cyclist who was very sweet and told me which bus and metro to catch to get to a better spot. I made it to the airport as directed, but still didn’t get picked up. It was 34° and not a tree in sight. The only car that stopped replied “sex” when I asked where he was going. It’s little things like this that can destroy a hitchers morale. I went to the train station behind me, just to ask, then somehow jumped on a train without any money. Fortunately I managed to jump off and back on at a station and made it to a cash point. I’m exhausted, but I’m on a train! I love trains.
At Huedin station I ask a man how to get to the centre and he offers me a lift round the corner in his car. Oh, the irony. I meet Pete in the bar by the internet cafe where he’s chatting away to the woman who works there. “Aha, here she is!” he says as I fall through the door. I relay my adventures over a beer, then it’s back to Princess for the night. Tomorrow I might finally meet The Mexican. Pete already met him. A knock on the van door last night turned out to be him. Princess does stick out a bit with her scuffs, scrapes, GB numberplate and wrong-side steering – not to mention the chimney. He asked, “are you by any chance an activist?” Must have been quite odd.
Before the retreat I ordered a laptop to be sent to Budapest – an attempt to take writing more seriously and stop relying on couchsurfers and internet cafes to write my blog and other work. The idea was for it to arrive at Number 47 (our friend’s house, where we usually stay) before I returned. To collect it and leave after a couple of days.
Back in Budapest. No laptop. No package at all in fact, including the one I asked friends back home to send with a new sim card and second-hand phone. I anxiously make phone calls. Has it all gone missing? Been stolen? No. It just hasn’t been sent. The phone went missing in the post before it even got to the friends to send it to me. The man from Ebay who sold me the laptop says he didn’t send it yet as I mentioned I was traveling and he thought he’d wait for me to get back. So we have to stick around and wait – three to four days he tells me. I wanted to leave for Romania on Tuesday, but now have to wait til Friday. Ok, ok. Budapest is a nice city. Let’s wait.
Strangely, Pete’s parents have arrived. They’re also traveling Europe, in a different style. They take us to dinner, first in my favourite vegan restaurant, next in a hotel Pete’s Dad chooses. It’s the first time they’ve seen Pete since he gave me a lift to France ten months ago. I met his dad before, when we went to pick up his passport from London, but not his mum. She’s a lovely Polish lady, obviously worried about her son. She orders food she doesn’t want and coerces him to eat it. She’s trying to fatten him up by stealth, it’s sweet.
While waiting we are tourists. We go to the Buda Labyrinth (not worth it, don’t bother) with Pete’s parents, a couple of museums and Széchenyi Baths with people from the retreat. Budapest is trying to market itself as “The City of Spas”and despite this being my third visit, this is the first spa I’ve been to. It’s pricey, but worth it to stay all day. Szechenyi has a huge number of saunas, steam rooms and thermal pools, all different temperatures. We spend a good three hours going from one to the next, but are beaten by the final sauna which is so hot it’s impossible to walk on the floor with bare feet.
The Infoshop is a small room in Tuzrakter. Counter to what the website says, it’s not currently open to the public, but the collective who run it (most of whom live at Number 47) regularly hold info events and film screenings. Tonight is an event about surveillance, Fortress Europe and the crackdown on “illegal” migration. There’s also some hackers present, talking about internet surveillance and tracking. Some of it I ‘ve heard before, but it’s good to be part of a political discussion after playing tourist for a few days. Some new (to me) information: about a detention facility on a remote Italian island named Lampedusa.
Somehow we find ourselves doing an interview about the situation in Calais for a radio station with JD, one of the Infoshop collective. Neither of us has been there since September, but we give an account of what we’ve seen and learned and some background information. After the interview is over, conversation turns to migrant rights in general, and then to Roma. While I’ve been traveling around Eastern Europe I’ve been hearing a lot of anti-gypsy statements, even from other activists. People talk about “The Gypsys”, like they’re all one person. Like they know them all. Like they can’t possibly be any way other than “the way they are”, because they are gypsys, and what more could we expect? It’s worse than we thought. JD tells us about forced deportations, coercive sterilisations of women and various other state repressions around Europe. Apparently there’s a Roma Rights Centre here in Budapest. I hope to visit before leaving.
Saturday is Dumpster Day and we all go diving at two of the indoor markets. This is mostly for Kaszino, the recently-opened-and-sadly-soon-to-close social centre which currently has a small number of homeless guys living there. It’s also for us and for whoever else helps out. One person waits outside with the bike trailer while the rest of us walk round, look in bins and ask people if we can take what they throw away. This is sometimes degrading and the stall-holders aren’t too impressed with us. Very few give us anything and some guard their bins from us. Pete’s told off by a security guard while picking cauliflowers out of a bin, but still, we manage to get two trailers full of fruit and veg, which is cycled back to Caszino for sorting and dividing between us. A woman walks past while we’re loading the trailer, and mistaking us for a grocery stall, offers to buy some food. Daniel tells her she can have it for free. She’s ushered away quickly by the man she’s with. For free? – disgusting! But she comes back some minutes later and asks some questions in Hungarian. Daniel politely explains to her that we get this food, which is perfectly good, to save it from the rubbish. Eventually she gets over her snobbery, and much to the embarrasement of her companion, gets down on her knees and starts picking things out.
Still no laptop. I really did want to be in Romania by now. I need to leave this place, this city. I need to see trees and flowers. Why is it we always seem to get stuck places?
Laure has appeared, the one I met at Tramschule in Germany. It’s nice to have a friend from somewhere else. We have a walk about town, catch up our adventures, then go to a gig with Pete – a Balkan Beats night in a club called Gödör and the perfect music for dancing insanely for hours. I really miss dancing. I must do more of it.
The next day Laure gets a bus to Bratislava. I’m hoping Pete and I can get away too, at least for the weekend. There’s no post on Sunday. I email Christyanne and Balázs, the two CS hosts Sam stayed with on her cycle tour, before she met me in Budapest. They say yes, we can visit them – a chance to get out of the city! Hopefully my laptop will arrive by the time we return.
Christyanne and Balázs live in a small village called Kesztölc, two hours drive from Budapest. I like them immediately. They have a small, simple house in the village where Balázs grew up. They offer us sleeping space in their kitchen-lounge, but it seems to make more sense to sleep in our own bed in the van, parked in the driveway. Our own space AND couchsurfing-what luxury! Soon after arriving we all go mushroom hunting, but a storm is soon upon us and we have to walk back drenched to the bone, a mere 3 mushrooms collected between us all. Later they take us to the family wine cellar, built by Balázs’ great-great-great-great-grandfather and full of barrels of wine made by his father. There’s Palinka too and we all leave quite tipsy.
It rains for days. There’s not much to do but sit around chatting, sewing, making my mum’s birthday card, watching films and copying recipes from Christyanne’s books. She’s vegan too and a real foody like me. We are quite spoiled by her delicious food, so much so that we stay til Tuesday. Surely the laptop will be there by now?
Back to Budapest. Still no laptop. Now there’s more people staying at Number 47 and not much space for us. We stay one night, then find a new host from the Last Minute Couch Budapest Group. Our new host is friendly, hospitable and very kind to take us at such short notice, but we just don’t have much in common. He is very talkative.
In a Budapest Timeout magazine we find an article about a Treehouse Village. A treehouse village? In Hungary?!? Our Hungarian friends are equally mystified. I manage to get in touch with a guy who lives there and meet him in a crowded pub on a World Cup night (not recommended). Sadly, it’s mostly a commercial project, but he has some good ideas and is obviously commited to maintaining the integrity of the forest. He doesn’t invite me to visit, presumably for that reason – he wants to keep the location quiet.
The European Roma Rights Centre is in a huge glass building on the Buda side of town. After being given a little guest card to get through security, we make our way to the second floor to where a group of people are smoking in the hall. At first they don’t understand why we’re here, but I explain we’re activists, we’ve been traveling Eastern Europe, we’ve noticed this problem, want to get involved somehow, yadda yadda… We’re led into an office and introduced to two men, one of whom, Stanislav, explains a bit about the organisation, the Roma situation and some specific cases they have worked on. We decide to keep in touch. Romania is apparently the perfect place to be going if we want to get involved in this issue.
It really feels time to leave the city now. I’m emailing the laptop guy and calling Parcel Farce repeatedly, but they say they won’t talk to me, only the sender. After two weeks waiting the Ebay guy says he’s filing a claim and we might as well stop waiting around for it. So that’s it - it’s lost. What a waste of time and money! So we’re leaving Budapest – for the fourth time. It seems sudden, despite all the waiting. Romania, here we come…