The Romania trip – originally published 10 Nov 2005

(written when I lived in Paris, 2005)

My boyfriend and I arrived at the Bucharest train in the early evening on October 25, remarkably well-rested after our 19-hour train ride from Istanbul. Arriving in a new country at a new train station is always a little bit stressful – I’m partly looking for an ATM machine to get the local currency as soon as possible, part checking my phone to see if it will work, part keeping my eye out for pick-pocket types, part trying to look like I know where I’m going. Our first priority was to buy a phone card and call our Hospitality Club hosts to try and meet up with them, which we accomplished without any problems. Our next priority, food. I wolfed down a croissant and coffee at a train station restaurant and relaxed for a little while. From there, it was on the metro to meet our hosts.

The Bucharest metro is maybe the strangest underground/subway/metro I’ve ever been on because there is absolutely nothing inside the cars. No map, no diagram of the subway line, no ads, nothing. It’s totally bare. It was really hard to spot what stops we were arriving at due to the lack of signage, and we had no idea how many stops we were going – just that the ride would take about 20-30 minutes and the name of the station was Lancului. Luckily, a nice guy saw me desperately trying to look out the windows for station names, and asked me (in English) where I was going. I showed him the name written down, and he said, “it’s the next stop.” I was so happy he said something, because I never, ever would have known. It was only our first hour in the country but already I was getting a feel that Romanians are incredibly friendly, hospitable, and helpful.One of our hosts, a very tall Romanian guy named Razvan, met us outside the station. We stayed in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Ramona, which was the 10th floor of a very bland communist-era apartment building. The apartment was really cute on the inside, and both of our hosts spoke excellent English and made us feel totally at home. They were so easy to get along with and conversation flowed all night. Around 9pm, they set to work making a huge “traditional” Romanian dinner. We sat around the table, eating their delicious food and drinking homemade liquor and wine, until we were stuffed. They wouldn’t let us clean up, instead we just went and looked at pictures and traded stories and enjoyed each other’s company until about 1am. We slept soundly on their lovely fold out couch and made very good use out of their hot shower.

In the morning, Razvan offered me coffee. “Yes!” I said enthusiastically. “okay, but um, you will have to help me make it… I actually don’t drink coffee.” It was so cute. I showed him how to use a coffee maker, and he set out a mug, sugar, and milk for me. He showed us to the metro, gave us advice for getting to our next destination (Brasov), and we said our goodbyes (Ramona had left much earlier in the morning for work). I had such a good time hanging out with those two; I wish we could have stayed in Bucharest longer. But our trip to Romania wasn’t about seeing big cities, we wanted to get into the countryside.

Razman couldn’t tell us exactly how to hitchhike out of Bucharest, but instead advised us to take a mini-bus to Ploiesti (a smaller town) and hitch from there. It was really easy; the mini-bus took us 60 kilometers (1/3 of the way to Brasov) and cost us about 2 Euros each. From the station in Ploiesti we walked about a kilometer or so to where we thought was a good hitching spot headed north. We stuck out our thumbs and people started pulling over almost immediately, but they were all going the wrong way, which lead us to believe we were pointed the wrong way. So we walked back, walked around some more, and long story short realized that we were just not in the right spot of the town to get on a road headed north to Brasov. We finally figured out that the answer was to get on a bus to the Ploiesti Vest (West) station, for about 50 cents each, which is where trains were headed North (the direction we needed to go). Once we were there, it was about 4:30… and I realized there was only another 2 hours of daylight. At that point, I decided that it would be better to take a train than hitch. It was a good lesson, and we remained in good spirits all day, so I didn’t consider it a waste– but I knew that I didn’t want to chance being stuck after dark on a road 2 hours outside my destination. The train was cheap and the ride was beautiful. I stood by the windows just marveling at what I saw – mountains with colors of reds, yellows, oranges, and greens. People herding sheep. Cows and horses and horse-drawn carriages. This is what I came to Romania to see!

We arrived in Brasov with no real idea where we would stay for the night or for how long. I thought maybe we’d only stay a night, because we did have some HC hosts lined up in Sibiu, a town about 200 km West. But after spending 10 minutes in Brasov, I knew we needed more time. We were greeted at the train station by someone from the Kismet Dao hostel (the only hostel in Brasov) and at first I totally ignored him, just assuming he was one more scam artist targeting tourists at the train station. He actually followed us and insisted he was just trying to help, and then I saw the pamphlets from the hostel and the hostel shirt and I realized it was real, and I felt bad. He walked us to the buses and gave us very specific directions on how to get to the hostel. As we got on the bus, someone attempted to pickpocket my boyfriend, but being a smart guy, and had absolutely nothing of value in a spot where someone could grab it (like the side pockets of his pants or outside coat pockets). Later on we heard about how much pick-pockets target the #4 bus that leaves from the Brasov train station (it’s known as the tourist bus) to Pta. Unirii.

The hostel was a really good deal (about $9 USD a night), and immaculate. We slept in an 8-bed dorm room, but there were only 2 other really nice guests (it was a fairly large hostel, I think each room had about 4-6 guests) on the first night. I was totally floored to discover that I slept until noon the following day. My roommates were quiet, didn’t snore, and didn’t wake me up at all when they came in late! The hostel also had a very nice no-curfew, no locked doors, and no checkout time policy. Oh, and a spectacular view of the mountains.We had two nights and one full day in Brasov, and we spent that day outdoors. After getting breakfast from a small supermarket, we went hiking. There was a great path carved out in a beautiful mountain and actually made me sweat and work hard, which I wasn’t expecting! The view from the top was incredible, and the colors! I just couldn’t get over the colors; all over the damn country it was all so perfect. After the hike we made some quick sandwiches and explored the town as the sun started to set, starting off with the cemetery that was right down the street from our hostel. I really enjoy cemeteries, and something about this one made my heart pound hard the whole time. No one else was there, and we could hear the sound of digging coming from somewhere nearby. Spooky. After spending about an hour in the cemetery, we walked into St Nicholas Church (built in 1495!). The church was totally empty but there was music… it was a choir practice! I couldn’t see the choir anywhere, they were on the 2nd level or somewhere out of eyesight. When I craned my head up I thought I saw the conductor, but I still couldn’t see any people. It was so cool walking around this little church that was so intricately decorated with the sound of people singing hymns… I convinced myself that there were no actual people; it was a ghost choir practice. Yes, much better.

We went out to dinner at real restaurants both nights in Brasov because, honestly, it didn’t really even make sense not to – we spent about $3 USD per person on the first night, including tip and drinks and everything. Yes, it’s a really cheap country for Americans or Western Europeans. The people who worked at the restaurants spoke English really well, with their amazing Romanian accents. It’s such a beautiful language, and I’ve never heard English sound better than coming out of the mouth of a Romanian.

Hitchhiking out of Brasov to Sighisoara (a small town about 150 km northwest) was a cinch. We spent enough time looking at a map to know exactly where we had to go and left around 10am. We approached the “highway” on foot after walking a kilometer or so from the bus station (most Romanian highways are just 2-lane roads, most of the country isn’t populated enough for 5-lane interstates), and I saw what all the other hitchhikers had told me about: a line of people waiting to get picked up. Hitching in Romania is just that common; it’s super hard to go anywhere without seeing tons of people with their thumbs in the air. We still got picked up within 15 minutes and driven directly to Sighisoara, passing by dozens of horse-drawn carriages along the way. After a quick bathroom break and a conversation with a bunch of 10-year-old Romanian boys about American wrestling, we walked a few kilometers to the center of town. It was another case of just ending up in a town because a few people told us it was really pretty, but we had no plan where to sleep or how long we would stay once we arrived.

Sighisoara (see-ghee-SHWAH-rah) is the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler and a very pretty little mountain town, and we decided that one night would be enough time to see what we wanted to – though I think I could stay there for a good week if it was summertime and I was able to camp outside. We roamed around the Citadel (built by Saxons in 1191! cool!) exclaiming over the old buildings, the amazing views, the quiet creepiness, and the amazing graveyards that just seemed to go on forever. There were new discoveries around every corner – an old war memorial, a mysterious staircase, a broken-down funeral carriage – basically everything I had in my head when I pictured Transylvania.

Since I couldn’t find any HC hosts in Sighisoara, we stayed at Nathan’s Villa Hostel. Very clean and comfy, and I ended up meeting an American backpacker girl (Elisha) who totally stood out from the rest of the typical backpacker types. She was traveling alone, she was from Jersey (again!) but lived in Alaska, and she was hitchhiking, not going around with a Eurail pass! We played cards for a while and had easy conversation that wasn’t all centered on “where are you going? I’m going here. I went there. I like that place. Blah blah blah.” I went to bed somewhat early (around 12:30 or 1am) because I had woken up very early that morning and did a lot of walking around, but was woken up around 4 or 5am by the annoying drunk French people. We had seen this little group when we checked in and they were exactly the kind of stupid travelers that I was starting to get sick of seeing at hostels – the kind that think getting drunk in Eastern Europe is just the greatest thing ever because it’s so cheap. I got up and asked twice for them to quiet down or move, as there was an entire basement set up as a bar open all night long – there was no need for them to be right outside the dorm rooms being so loud. I could tell they remembered me the next day when we were all fake-polite to each other.

We hitchhiked from Sighisoara to Sibiu on October 29th with no problems, taking just two rides to go about 200 km. We rode in a big truck for the first leg of the trip and an off-duty cab for the second part. Our HC host met up with us in the town and took us to eat dinner at a little snack bar where his mother prepared wonderful home-cooked meals. It was wonderfully non-touristy, full of friendly old Romanian men who would say “Goodbye!” to us in English when we left. We went out to a great little bar with live jazzy/loungey music that night, but unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling that great. The weather had changed drastically in a matter of hours… up until this point we were enjoying absurdly good weather, with warm days and cool nights, but no need for hats or gloves. I couldn’t stop sneezing, so we left the bar around 10:30pm. I drank tea and crashed by midnight, and ended up sleeping until noon the next day. That was the day the Stomach Problems began… we both felt kind of crappy and couldn’t really hold down food. This was when we knew that we had to make a decision: should we stay in Romania and wait it out, hoping that we’d feel good enough to make it to Castle Poenari (the ruins of one of Vlad’s real castles, not the fake touristy “Castle Bran”) by the 1st of November? Getting to the castle would involve more hitchhiking and a LOT of climbing (1500 stairs, to be precise). We weren’t sure if we could make it there and back to Sibiu in one day, so it might mean spending a night at the nearest town, Curtea de Arges, a really small place that I heard had a beautiful monastery.

I knew that Sibiu was not where I wanted to be. Hitchhiking and climbing mountains and meeting HC people and not knowing where you’re going to sleep are fun – when I feel healthy. I had been looking forward to roaming around Curtea de Arges, looking for a room to sleep in with a friendly Romanian family, but again, when I’m running for the bathroom every 20 minutes, all of those things become way less fun.

So, long story shorter: we decided to leave Romania. There was an empty apartment waiting for us in Budapest, where we intended to spend a lot of time. An empty apartment meant that we could be sick and quiet and still if we still didn’t feel good, without bothering an HC host or wasting money on a hostel somewhere. We had spent 6 days in Romania and loved every minute of it, so we left feeling like we spent our time well. It was a really hard decision, but it turned out to be the right one, since it was a few more days before we felt back to normal.

Daylight savings time had kicked in and the days got REALLY short. After struggling through lunch, we finally got on a bus around 4pm on Oct 30 bound for Cluj-Napoca (KLOOZH na-POH-kah), a town a few hundred kms west of Sibiu, which was on the way to Budapest. I’ve heard great things about Cluj, it’s supposed to be a really fun, diverse, college town. Getting on the bus was confusing – it was too full and it looked like not everyone on line would be able to get on. The driver could see we were obviously foreigners, and took it upon himself to let us on as the last passengers and give us the 2 front seats. A young Romanian guy saw I was having a hard time figuring out what was going on, and instantly started translating everything into English for me. I thanked him profusely, and he said “I’ve traveled abroad a lot, and many people have helped me when I didn’t understand – I know how you feel.” One of the women on the bus overheard that we wanted to go to the train station in Cluj, and told the bus driver (there were about 4-5 stops once we arrived in the city). She then told us, in English, “he (the driver) knows where you’re going, so just watch for him to let you know when to get off.” I was so touched by how genuinely nice the Romanians are… throughout the six days I spent in that country I had nothing but pleasant experiences with them. The only unpleasant people I met were other Americans and French people.

We arrived at 10pm, and our Budapest train was at 1:40am, so we killed time getting something to eat (ugh, bad idea … that was the night the major stomach problems started for me) and hanging out in a 24-hour Internet cafe. The train to Budapest was almost empty so I got to sleep most of the way there, spread out over 4 seats.

I’m already planning to go back to Romania, maybe this spring. Other than getting sick, nothing bad happened in Romania at all. It was a perfect six days – actually, the only problem was that I wasn’t in Romania longer.

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The Istanbul trip – originally published on 1 Nov 2005

When one boards an airplane in France, headed for Slovenia, connecting to flights toward Turkey, one hears a lot of languages… and sees a lot of men in suits drinking large beers. The flights were easily 75% male, which was an odd thing to notice. After changing time zones, we ended up arriving in Istanbul to greet my friend Helene at 2:50am. What better time to arrive in a new city? Seeing Helene at the airport was such a welcome sight – she took a cab all the way to and from the airport to meet us, and arranged hostel accommodations in Sultanahmet. The hostel was filled with Americans, many of them from New Jersey. There’s no escape!

The hostel wasn’t that great, but it served its purpose by being in a very central location. Soon after I fell asleep very late Thursday night/Friday morning, I was woken up briefly by the morning call to prayer coming from all the mosques.

Friday was our first full day in Istanbul, and we went in search of food around noon. Even though it came recommended, I hated Ayran, a yogurt “drink” made by whipping yogurt with water and salt to the consistency of a light cream. Ugh. I found a supermarket and bought fresh bread, a banana, and normal yogurt and enjoyed a Turkish coffee. I thought it was funny that even in Turkey, you order “Turkish Coffee.” Nescafe is very popular, and why, I’ll never know. Turkish coffee is strong, yes, but I got used to it quickly. I’m used to drinking espresso these days anyway, so Turkish coffee wasn’t that much of a leap. I also drank about ten zillion (small) glasses of tea every day, which kept me properly caffienated.

Helene introduced us to her friends at Arsah, one of the thousands of carpet stores in Sultanahmet. The guys that worked there were incredibly warm and extended every hospitality to us, simply because we were Helene’s friends. We were given endless amounts of tea and were able to witness some carpet sales going on in the store. The guys who worked there really knew their stuff, and allowed me to ask tons of questions without making me feel stupid at all. Teufik, a salesmen, took the 3 of us on a walk around the neighborhood and acted as an informal tour guide, telling us the history of the monuments and mosques in the area. We were lead to another carpet/dress shop, a beautiful secret little room in the attic behind a hotel. We lounged around on pillows and drank more tea. When Helene had to leave for work, Teufik decided to stay with us and bought us even more tea at one of his friends’ coffee shops. It was such an amazing first day, and when we were hungry for dinner, Teufik personally took us to a cheap non-touristy neighborhood and picked out a place for us. Before we sat down, he talked to the men working at the restaurant (in Turkish) and said what I assume was something like “these are my friends, don’t rip them off.” We were treated like VIPs and had an excellent meal.

Saturday in Istanbul is nuts, and we fought our way through the crowds to see the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar. The Spice Bazaar smelled so good and I wanted everything I saw. We spent the entire day exploring the city, from the crowded areas around the Blue Mosque to tiny little not-at-all-touristy neighborhoods along the river. We crossed the bridges and watched the fishermen. By late in the afternoon, after walking all day, the crowds, pollution, and cars were starting to get to me. There are simply too many cars in Istanbul and absolutely no set traffic patterns. The sidewalks are under constant construction and crossing a busy street was sometimes impossible. Just as we were starting to get moody, our oasis appeared – a spotless little cafe selling fresh pastries, coffee, soda, and treats. The people behind the counter were young and spoke some English, and the bathroom was spotless. After that diversion, I felt totally rejuvenated and ready to face the city again. We walked around a beautiful old mosque as the sun set, and headed back to the hostel just as sundown became official and all the fasting Muslims crowded into sidewalk cafes and restaurants.

Helene met us back at the hostel that night, when she was done with work. All three of us were pretty worn out from our days, so we happily spent the night in the hostel bar, which was mostly empty. I drank raki and shared an excellent vegetarian stew & pizza with Helene.

On Sunday the 23rd of October, we spent the morning in the English-language school watching Helene teach. It was great to see her in action, and I sympathized with all the students struggling to learn the language. Helene is really, really good at what she does and I was impressed with how seriously she takes her job. We left the school around 4:00pm with a fellow English teacher and about 6 Turkish students and went to Buyucekmece (I’m not sure if I’m spelling that right), an amazing area outside the city. It was quiet and peaceful, something we were all craving. That night was one of the best in my life – we lounged about in a spectacular restaurant/cafe/tea room (I have no idea what to compare it to, something very Turkish that just doesn’t exist anywhere else I’ve been) on comfy couches and pillows and drank tea until sundown, since one of our new friends was a devout Muslim who was fasting. After the sun dipped below the horizon, we heard a loud noise (like a horn) indicating that whoever is in charge of this type of thing has decided that yes, it’s officially sundown, so go ahead and eat! We were given amazing service and my Turkish friends were able to order non-meat items for me without a problem. I loved the food, I loved sitting next to Helene who was all curled up with pillows and coats, and I loved the company. The students couldn’t speak great English, but they tried, and were incredibly nice. As the night went on, a musician came on to play quiet Turkish songs with an acoustic guitar. The place filled up with people and the smell of apple-scented tobacco. We drank copious amounts of tea and the atmosphere was so calm, so unhurried, and so relaxing.

On Sunday night, we slept in a real apartment! Victoria, another English teacher at Helene’s school, let us stay at her place. It was out of the way but totally worth it. Her and her fiancé made everyone a late-night dinner, gave us tons of warm blankets, and use of their nice, clean shower (which after 3 days in a hostel was a very welcome sight). We crashed close together on a couch and slept soundly until Monday morning. We spent Monday searching for body jewelry replacement in Taksim, the somewhat non-conservative area of Istanbul.  The carpet shop guys let us keep our stuff there while we wandered about the city. It was our last full day in Istanbul; a train to Bucharest, Romania was leaving at 10:00pm that night. Istanbul is pretty inexpensive for someone converting US dollars, and we discovered that an upgrade to a sleeper car on the train was an extra $15 USD or so, bringing the grand total for two train tickets to 165 Lyra, which I think is about $105 USD. The trip was 19 hours long, and getting a sleeper car was the best decision we ever made.

It blew my mind to walk around Istanbul and look at things from the 4th or 5th centuries. It’s an amazing city, but I think my favorite part about the trip was just being able to hang out with Helene and see what she does with her life. I loved meeting so many Turkish people, hanging out at the carpet shop, and sitting in the hostel bar for hours. The Turkish people we met were just so incredibly generous, without any kind of hidden agenda. This is a pattern that I saw more and more during my Eastern Europe travels.

There were some not-great aspects of the city as well. There was an overwhelming feeling of male domination that surprised me. I simply didn’t see nearly as many women. Being in a predominantly Muslim city had benefits – I enjoyed learning about Ramadan, I got used to hearing the call to prayer 5 times every day, and I loved seeing the Mosques as big cultural centers instead of just a place to go pray. But the culture of Istanbul isn’t as modern as I had hoped, and I didn’t enjoy seeing the way that women really just seemed like second-class citizens. It’s hard to describe one certain scene or event that I can give an example of, but when we arrived in Bucharest, we both instantly noticed – wow – there’s women everywhere! And they’re just walking around, not in large groups or with men. And they’re wearing skirts and heels and no one is commenting about it. Women in Istanbul range from those who fully cover themselves (which is actually illegal) to women who dress like me, but the harassment that those women face walking around by themselves makes me see why it’s just easier to be as conservative as possible, which is a shame. I also found the pollution, smoking, traffic, and the over-crowded streets to get on my nerves a few times, even though those things are a fact of life in any big city.

Anyway, all that being said, it was a wonderful four days, and I would certainly go back. We had perfect weather, the food was wonderful, and there’s so much I didn’t have time to do. I’d love to spend more time in the Spice Market, on a less busy day. I would love to go inside the Mosques with a Muslim, who could explain everything to me. I could walk across the bridges and stare and the skylines all day, and take pictures of the old men fishing. One day, I would love to have an entire room totally Turkish-themed, with dark carpets and thick pillows, an elaborate tea set and apple flavored tobacco for anyone who wants some.