Final Adventures with Alex, Moldova – Istanbul, 3-10th September 2012
We arrive at the Romanian border. A guard in a ridiculous huge hat, making him look twelve years old, informs us between drags on his cigarette that it will not be possible to cross on foot.
We stare forlornly at Romania, a few hundred metres away.
The guard stands in the shade of the only tree, smoking slowly. There are a few parked cars, but no other people in sight.
After what feels like an entire summer, a Romanian couple stop and take us over the border.
The woman in the small cafe on the other side chatters away to us in Romanian, though we understand nothing. We order two coffees and Alex tries to pay with the last of his Moldovan money – 24 Moldovan Lei, around €1.70. She shrugs at him. He looks at her.
She shrugs again, then throws some sweets on the counter.
“Bread?” I suggest.
“Hlep?” asks Alex, trying the Russian. We point at the bread.
“Da, da”, she nods. I place a loaf of bread on the counter. She looks at me, throws a few more sweets in and we’re done.
A few short lifts later and ıt’s already dark when Julian stops to take us. He’s a DJ in some of Romania’s South-East coastal party resorts. He drives a shiny car and speaks with a slight American accent. “My phone, always ringing!” he tells us, as it goes off for the fourth time. He drops us 10km short of Vama Veche. “He could have taken us the extra 10km!” says Alex as he drives away.
An older couple take us the rest of the way to the infamous party beach, where we pitch our tents on the sand among many others, sandwiched between moonlit waves and a rock bar. We eat the bread, cheese and homemade jam and drink the wine our Moldovan friends gave us.
I wake in my tent to the sound of gently crashing waves. I can’t get out my sleeping bag and into the salty water fast enough, then cover myself in sand practicing yoga on the beach, insanely happy.
We’re only 1km from the Bulgarian border. We walk it with thumbs out, but nothing stops. Borders are always tricky. This time we can cross on foot. We drink a coffee in No-man’s-land and and walk to the other side, putting the bag with the cheese in the shade of our packs.
Two hours later, we’re still there. The back of the ‘Welcome to Bulgaria’ sign has a message for us:
16.08.2012.. 15:55 hitchhiking Budapest -> Bucharest -? Bulgaria seaside. NO TRAFFIC :(
We add our own.
If we wait another two hours for him to gather corn from the field, he’ll take us to the first town.
Ten minutes later we notice him scrounging for dropped cornheads in a field which has already been plowed. Why are the poorest of people so often the kindest?
We get a ride for a few kilometres, walk uphill on a main road in the blazing sun. A woman hands me a small melon from her stall as I pass, making me smile. An old battered Soviet pick-up truck, strapped together with string, stops to take us. A Romani man grins at us with his last few teeth. We climb in, giggling at one another as we take off along the bumpy road, the wind rushing against us. The man grins at me through the glass that seperates us and I give him a thumbs up.
The men in the petrol station frown at us. “Why are they so grumpy?” I ask Alex. “They are frowning because he is Rroma”, Alex tells me. The guy grins at me again as we set off, a twinkle in his eyes.
We’re in Alex’s home territory now. He’s been hitch-hiking around Bulgaria since the age of twelve, half his life.
A car stops with two guys. The driver speaks to me in English – “I love travellers!” he tells us. He’s driving to Sunny Beach, the even more commercial, more touristic Bulgarian counterpart to Vama Veche. No free camping on the beach here. It’s dark by the time we’re arriving and our new friend Vlad wants to show us around. What’s more, he insists on smuggling us into the hotel he’s living in, despite the threat of losing his job if we’re discovered. He really won’t take no for an answer. We have to wait until after 1am, so the staff will be in bed. Also, we have to leave before 5am, before the cleaners do their rounds.
Bleary-eyed at 6am on the road out of Sunny Beach, we find a coffee machine, standing alone in the dust. There are some things I always remember about Bulgaria: there is a coffee machine on every corner, often in the middle of nowhere; there is a sexy woman on every advertising billboard, no matter what it’s for; unexpected items appear in unlikely places.
On the road out of Varna we spy another hitch-hiker… “Shit”, says Alex. I can see why. Hitch-hiking etiquette dictates that we should wait our turn behind this guy, but he’s wearing a baseball cap, has tattoos all over his exposed arms, legs and face and is smoking a cigarette with dark sunglasses on. The word ‘shady’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. We begin talking to him and a car pulls in. None of us even had our thumbs out – Bulgaria really is awesome for hitching. The three of us get in together, Alex and I in the back. The guys in front are chatting. I barely understand a word of Bulgarian, so I tune out and look at the scenery.
Alex leans over. “Shit”, he says, “this guy just told our driver that he’s on the run from the police!”
“What? He told him, just like that?”
“Yeah.” We both shake our heads in amazement.
“The driver just said, ‘me too’.”
“No way, how did these guys find one another?!” Alex translates as the story emerges. One of the guys, the driver, just has some unpaid parking fines and a court summons. The other guy, the hitchhiker, has a warrent for his arrest for something like GBH after breaking a guy’s nose after unsuccesfully trying to rob him.
A while later we’re all back on the road. Alex gives our friend, the Bulgarian Criminal, some advice before we shake his hand – take of your sunglasses, pull down your sleeves to cover some of the tattoos. Maybe don’t mention you’re on the run from the cops…
Finally, we arrive in Haskovo, at Alex’s parent’s place. I have a decision to make: stay in Bulgaria, visit friends in Sofia and the Rainbow close by, or continue to Turkey?
Istanbul is like a dream. Am I really back here? It’ almost exactly a year since I left, rushing home for Dad.
We stay in a shared house where a friend of mine is living. I’m so happy to be back in Turkey, to be with friends again. I can’t stop hugging Dağlı – I really missed hugs!
I have two days left with Alex. “Please don’t be Evil Alex tomorrow”, I ask him before bed on the night before our last full day together. He’s been grumpy all day.
Alex is in a fine mood in the morning, even before drinking his coffee. We spend the day touring the city. We’re on my territory now and it’s nice to show someone around a city I love.
I introduce Alex to çiğ kofte and accompany him to his bus. We have travelled together through 11 countries, over 8,500km during the past five weeks. I give him a bracelet I’ve been carrying as a goodbye gift and he holds out his wrist for me to fasten it. We hug goodbye.
“Yolun açık olsun!” I yell as he climbs on-board the bus – may your roads be open!
We arrive in Braşov on a Sunday, which is never a good idea. Everything’s closed and it’s a while before we find an internet cafe and look for couchsurfers and anything else of interest. There’s not much going on and once again we find ourselves playing the part of tourists, getting over-charged and walking around with glazed eyes trying to take everything in. There’s a black church, a narrow street (they think it’s the narrowest in Europe, but it’s not), a Hollywood-style “Braşov” sign high up on the mountain – which, by the way, is right in the middle of the city.
It’s two days before we even manage to get in touch with A, a friend of a friend of Pete’s and our only prior contact in Romania. He’s known to Pete through activist channels and turns out to be a security-paranoid anarcho-syndicalist who comes to meet us in full anarcho-black attire, despite the blazing sun. Unfortunately, he’s also one of those people who thinks he’s right about everything and won’t let you do anything for yourself. Im sure he’s only trying to be helpful, but he’s really very pushy about it and I end up feeling I’m unable to make decisions for myself.
We’ve also been in touch with a man at Kászonszék Ecovillage Initiative and although it’s a fair way back up north again – almost as far as the Rainbow site – we decide our time will be better spent there meeting the people setting up Transylvania’s (first?) ecovillage than playing tourist and being shepherded about by A here in Braşov.
It’s a long drive up and we’re beginning to question our sanity at coming so far for a short meeting, but we meet the man, Áron, that I’ve been emailing. He’s a very nice and thoroughly interesting character with lots of ideas and plans, many of which are pinned up on the walls of the modest room from which he runs his business as an architect. Áron shows us his portfolio: designs and drawings of traditional Hungarian houses, some of which he has drawn from villages where they are due to be demolished. “This one is destroyed now”, he says of a few. He’s drawn them in architecture design form, but with the crumbling walls showing in the line drawings. It gives an interesting impression that I really like. Then we get down to business. Áron talks about his travels around various different communities and projects in Europe, much like Pete and I are doing now. He has a slide show of some of them. Then he talks about his ideas, plans for the future and dreams of establishing a sustainable ecovillage here in this traditional Hungarian village of Kászon. Actually, it’s more like a Transition Initiative than what I would consider to be a typical Ecovillage, as he wants to transition an established community and not start a new one. It becomes clear as he’s speaking that this really is the beginning. He’s cagey when asked how many are involved and I imagine it’s just Áron and his wife at the moment. Still, although not much has been set up, Pete and I are both impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of this man Áron and we both come away feeling inspired.
For some reason we agreed to give A a lift to Bucharest. Normally I would be overjoyed at the rare opportunity to pay off some off my hitching karma and reduce the amount of traffic in the world, but somehow A seems to have a habit of trying to control everything. First he tries to dictate what time we leave in the morning, then when I mention that I’d like to stop for coffee he calls up his friend who lives in a city on the way and orders him to bring a flask of coffee to a point where we will meet him. This he does in Romanian so that we have no idea what he’s done until it’s too late and we take a detour into the centre of the city to meet this poor boy who’s got – not a flask of coffee, but a bottle of water for us. Um.. great, thanks! Ok, so I realise A is just trying to be nice, but it’s the way he does it – infuriating.
We arrive in Bucharest. The first thing we notice: it’s hot. It’s as much as we can manage to drop A off in the centre and navigate through the busy, smoggy streets in Princess, our metal oven on wheels, to the jungle of large Soviet-style tower blocks where our CS host lives on the East side of the city. Alexandra lives on the 6th floor, where we all sit, melting into sofas and discussing politics (she’s a vegan socialist, for reference) until it’s cool enough to venture out into the evening air.
Bucharest is not a beautiful city, but it is very green. There seem to be as many trees as towerblocks, at least so far.
I’ve never enjoyed a punk gig before. Alexandra is a bit of a party animal and after our obligatory political debate (the finer points of difference between socialism and anarchism) we head out to watch Dead Ceausescus. It’s a great show. The band really know how to work the crowd – leave them waiting then pump them full of energy, plenty of posturing and comical multimedia use of communist era footage of Ceauşescu, old national anthems, costumes, etc. A mosh pit develops instantly as soon as the band begin and I quickly step back and back and back as it widens out and more people dive in.
I’ve been intending to go to some museums, but it’s just so bloody hot. By the time I feel capable of doing anything much it’s usually getting into evening, the museums are shut and the dogs are out. I laughed the first time I read a warning about the dogs, but it’s all true. There are somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 stray dogs in the capital (or 1 million if you believe Wikitravel). They roam around in packs, and are hungry and hostile, which to be fair is unsurprising given the lives they lead. I didn’t take this at all seriously until Pete and I were chased and barked at all over the city while out riding our bikes in the evening. They are bloody terrifying. Almost everyone I spoke to had been attacked by dogs at least once.
The other thing the wikis (Couchsurfing Wiki, Wikitravel, Wikipedia) warn you about are the tricksters, pickpockets, gypsies and homeless children – all of which you are to avoid. Wikitravel is particularly good for a laugh on these issues (see dog link above), especially the parts about not attempting to bribe a policeman and to avoid the gypsy area because “there is nothing of interest there”.
There are also many good things in Bucharest and the Biblioteca Alternativa is one of them. It has two sets of bookshelves -rather modest for a library, yet manages to contain an enormous number of books I want to read so that I keep jumping between them and don’t get a lot of reading done. They have events in the library too. This week is Spanish Civil war week and we manage to make it to a showing of Land and Freedom, an excellent film which they even put into English subtitles just for us.
A Friend Arrives
Rhiannon is here! Strange the way one can seemingly go anywhere in the world and still run into a friend. Neither of us has a phone and we’re both quite chaotic creatures, but somehow we manage to meet up. Rhiannon is a loveable Geordie pixie, one of those that’s always popping up in unlikely places. Still, I can’t believe she’s here. “What are you doing here?!” I ask. “Oh, I don’t really know. I just thought I might go to Bucharest” “But how did you get here?” “I got the bus.” “From Newcastle?” “Yeah.” Wow!
It’s so nice to have a friend. Well, ok, I’m traveling with Pete who is one of my best friends and we’re staying with Alexandra, who has become a friend, but it’s nice to have a friend from back home. I show Rhiannon the library and the punk bar. We get very wet, escape from dogs and discuss our disgust at people’s attitudes toward “gypsies”. She’s been having her own adventures after being rescued from her slightly misjudged plan of sleeping rough in a park in Bucharest by some well meaning strangers, who were thoroughly lovely apart from the Roma issue. What’s wrong with everyone?
Before leaving Bucharest I hand down to Rhiannon the wisdom I have gathered during my Romanian adventures and tips for vegan survival: Mandy brand pate vegetal, salami biscuit – which I never did find, Zakuska and the immortal words “Mancare de Post“.
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.