The Carpatians
5 November 1999

Romania was amazing! Here is a really good travel story -- we had a great time, but this is how these things really work. We talk about how great things are, the wonderful things we do and see, we keep our attitude up, and it all sounds like everything goes smoothly. Sometimes it does, but we DID have to work for it this time!

We really enjoyed Cluj, but we were floundering. We saw a lot of the city, even became familiar with much of it. We began to get a feel for the place and the people, even though we really never had a long conversation with anyone. It was a nice city to explore and we felt pretty proud of ourselves for even being in Romania! But, underlying it all, we were very scared. We felt like we didn't really know what we were doing and the resources we were used to falling back on were not there. We kept talking about writing some postcards and then running back to friendly, safe, comfortable BudaPest! (But of course Budapest was pretty scary that first night too!) We wanted to meet people, we wanted to see how people really lived, we wanted to get out of the city and see the villages. I guess we were spoiled in London, Germany and Hungary: we stayed with people who lived there, we ate with them and talk to them, we saw the way they lived. That is the best way to travel! We wanted that here too!

The guidebooks, which proved even more useless than usual, listed a tourist information center run by the Transylvanian Ecological Club, part of the University, on the main square -- but it was no longer there. We found a sign for a Mountain Tourism Club at the Student center, but they only met on Tuesdays so were not able to connect. People were very very helpful, whenever we asked someone they would go well out of their way to help us. Many of the students were nervous because it was the first time they had spoken English to a native speaker! We visited a couple of normal travel agents -- with little luck.

We spent three days in this situation -- enjoying the city and being in Romania, occasionally running off to some medieval tower or interesting museum. But mostly hiding in the Internet Club, doing work we needed to do but also avoiding the things we were thinking. We were afraid of what to do next. We didn't want to leave, we wanted to do cool things, but things were not working. We were questioning if we were really up to this travel thing. It was tough.

In addition to what to do in Romania, we had all kinds of decisions to make, errands to run and things to work out. We didn't know where we were going to spend my birthday and where we were going after Romania... we had thought about going to Dalmatia for my birthday, but we really wanted clear weather for the possible meteor storm. Usually this is a good situation to be in. You start doing the little things, crossing things off the list, and things just start to fall together; but every time we tried to clear up a few of the errands we had to do, things didn't work. We were very discouraged.

About midway through the time in Cluj we decided to ditch the the stupid, inaccurate, guidebooks and follow our instincts. We walked 30 minutes away from the center and went into a travel agency we had heard about and asked about getting out in to the mountains, and how we could see a rural part of Romania. Andrei was so friendly he was almost overbearing! He gave us some options that were far beyond what we had thought about... rent a car and drive around Romania for two weeks!... take the train to 3 out-of-the-way places!... 5 hour train rides away!!?? aauug. Scary! We were thinking about just visiting a family on the outskirts of Cluj! We sulked away thinking that we couldn't handle it.

This only made our floundering worse -- we had something to reach for, but it seemed beyond us. Finally we found ourselves sitting in the central square for an hour or so trying to decide if we should do something that Andrei had suggested, go to a mountain resort village that another travel agent had suggested or just go back to Budapest. After we got something to eat to clear our heads we decided, not at all confidently, that we would do one of the excursions Andrei at Pan Travel had suggested. We had lowered down his many extensive ideas to just one, a place in the Carpathian mountains called Vama.

It took several phone calls to reach him, and collecting our motivation each time, but B&B in Vama that afternoon we finally started to get a few things done... post, phone, money... We finally talked to him and, after half a dozen phone calls, it was decided. Yes, we would go to Vama. Someone named Boca would meet us at the train station in Vama. We needed to buy a ticket and leave the next day at 12:38. It was a 6 hour ride. Of course, at the last minute he introduced some confusion by deciding that we needed to call him before leaving the next day to make certain all was ok. We were excited, but still scared.

We also moved to another hotel, one right near the train station that was cheap, but really a dump (however, the people were very nice) and when we checked in we discovered that we only had about 120,000 lei and it cost 200,000 (about $12) -- so i had to leave my passport at the desk. I really don't like doing that. On the way back into town we walked past one of the hotels that the guidebooks said was terrible, and peeked inside. It was nice and reasonably priced. Oh well.

We felt like we were on a roll now. We checked out climate data and discovered that the mediterranean tended to have lots of rain in November, but that Prague and Eastern Germany tended to have very little. So we decided to phone a pen pal of one of Cheryln's friends who lived in Dresden to see if we could spend my birthday week there. It turned out that the phone number was bad... but we went to the internet place to look it up. I found the Deutchetelekom website pretty quickly, and we were able to figure out how to use the database but the name was not listed! Then we thought about the extra letters in German and how to substitute an e for an umlaut and it worked! We found the number and called her and she wasn't there. But we called back in an hour and talked to her and it turned out that were eager to actually have us stay in their house! Things were going well and we were excited.

In the morning, Saturday, all the ATMs were down for repairs... and we had to get out money, not only for Vama, but to pay for the hotel and get my passport back. We ran around and around, but we finally found one, paid for the hotel and caught our train.

It was another gorgeous train ride through Romania... mountains and forests (and lots of army guards along the tracks during one mountain pass!). We had a compartment to our selves, because we had decided to go First Class -- a mistake. The guide book said that first class was only about $2 USD more than the $10 USD 2nd class fare, but in fact it was over $30!!!! Also, although it is nice to have the compartment to ourselves --- it can isolate us too much. We only speak english... no cute old women in traditional costumes falling asleep on the leg of the super trendy teenage girl like on the previous train!

Also it was very dark when we got to Vama. We were very scared about getting off a the right station, but we managed it. (And learned the Romanian word for 'next' in the process: Prima!) The train pulled out and we were alone in the middle of nowhere.

Then a voice said hello, and there was a young woman who spoke perfect english. She was our host, or actually our host's daughter. Like most Romanians the parents spoke Romanian, Italian (which is almost identical) French, and Russian, but not English. So Ani came 4 hours home from her first semester at University to translate for us.

After a short drive along the dirt roads we came through a huge gate (all Romanian houses have big fancy gates!) into a yard with dogs and cats and chickens. We were directed to a little 3 room house with wood heat (very warm!) and hot showers.

After our shower we walked over to the main house and a HUGE dinner was laid out! As soon as they discovered that we don't eat meat, the meat was replaced with veggies and chicken (from the yard!). I was so hungry and not wanting to be rude, that I was eating every thing put in front of me. I felt like a glutton! (When travelling I train my insides to accept meat if neccessary for those rare times when there is no choice!) We joked that the mother was like a magician because more food kept appearing! We had not eaten well for the previous few days, but man we ate well in Vama!

The family was very friendly and we had a nice chat after our huge dinner and dessert (sweet pancakes). Then we slept VERY well in our cozy little wood heated house.

Church and Village In the morning, we awoke to find we were in this gorgeous valley with this tiny little picture book village in it!

We had a big breakfast before we set out on our 'program'. There was an interesting language thing that happened. At dinner the previous evening they asked us what we liked for breakfast. We said that we usually ate hot cereal like oatmeal. In the morning they had frosted flakes and warm milk. We wondered if this was something that they ate (it was actually quite good on a cold morning!) but you could tell from Ani's expression that it was new to her too!!!!

Our 'program' was getting into the family car (a Dacia, the only car in Romania before 1990 and still about 90%, unlike Lada and Trabant, they have updated them and still make them. The old ones look just like Peugeots, the new ones look like Volvos.) and exploring the area. Before we got in the car, the father pumped up the tires with a hand pump!

First we went to a Ethnographic museum with wooden tools from the area, some were recent and some were over 400 years old. It was FASCINATING and we had a private tour guide (the dad) and translator (Ani). Much of the technology was amazingly similar to the Native Americans!

Then we drove a long way through the mountains and over a mountain pass. We drove to within about 12 km of the border with Ukraine. We had a picnic with us for lunch and they passed out apples (from their tree) while we drove. I didn't want to throw the core out the window, but I figured, 'When in Romania, do like the Romanians!'.

Then we arrived in another little village where we were ushered into a small nicely furnished modern looking house. I should tell you that the region we were in is called Southern Bucovina. Bucovina is split between Ukraine and Romania, so only the southern part is in Romania. This is the region where they paint the famous exquisitely detailed easter eggs.

We were introduced to a woman who sat down and started painting an egg for us. She learned it from her grandmother, and was teaching her 9 yo daughter! She described what she was doing, making a design with warm beeswax on an empty duck egg. Then she put it in yellow dye and put more wax designs on it, and again with red and finally black. After working for 40 minutes she had a black egg with lots of fancy beeswax on it. Then she plugged in her hair dryer and heated up the egg and wiped it off and underneath was a SPECTACULAR gorgeous red, white, yellow and black egg!!! It only took 40 minutes! It was an amazing experience! And then she... GAVE US THE EGG! It was a gift, she said! We were floored.

After lunch, on my way to the outhouse, I passed the chickens, the ducks and the beehives!!!!!

We left the village and went to the major tourist attraction of Bucovina, the Orthodox monasteries which have every square centimeter of surface, inside and outside, painted with iconography depicting biblical events for the illiterate. There are half a dozen of these monasteries in the close vicinity, each with their own primary color. I'm glad we only went to one, because, although it was a stunning and beautiful church, it was quite overwhelming!

The next day Ani had gone back to school, and we walked around the village of Vama, and even up the hillside a little bit. It was very Carpathian 
Mountains nice. The family did EVERYTHING for us... the bought our train tickets for us (a difficult process because we would have had to go to the next town) and even did our laundry. On that last night we had another huge meal, and the main course was a very hearty, yummy soup. The Europeans tend to put sour cream in their soups and so it wasn't a surprise when I was halfway through my first bowl the mother came in with a small red pail. But in this pail was cream, fresh, thick sour cream. FROM THE COW NEXT DOOR! It only a few hours old! It was indescribable... and it was GOOD!!!!

After a brief encounter with loud hungry mice in the night (our fault for leaving food lying around) we got up and were driven to the train station. I REALLY didn't want to leave!! It was such a nice place with nice people. Oh, and the cost? We paid in Deutchmarks, but it was about $101 USD. 1.8 million Lei. To us, a cheap weekend, to them.... they just won the lottery. (average salary is less than 200,000 per month!) AMAZING.

Romania was so wonderful and Vama was like a dream. But we had to leave, unfortunately. The whole time we were there we were wishing for snow. The Boca family kept telling us that it was very unusual to not have snow at that time of year, they expected it any day. The village has a horse drawn sleigh for rides on snowy evenings... that would've been dreamy. I think we will go back to Vama someday!!

As we drove to the train station Tuesday morning it was snowing lightly. We got on the train and found our seats, in a compartment with 4 other people. One, across from me was a young looking clean cut kind of guy, there was an old man in Romanian dress and two early twenty guys in baggy pants and so forth. One of the baggy pants guys had a personal stereo with the volume turned up so loud it was echoing throughout the compartment. It is always strange to see people listening to very loud dance music and sleeping! It was very annoying. We were just hoping that the batteries would die soon, since that kind of volume through headphones tends to kill batteries.

The batteries died after about 15 minutes, but we were disappointed to see him pull out a box of 24 batteries... he was set for the ride. He changed batteries constantly. I put in earplugs... actually soon after I put in the earplugs his friend made him turn it down, but it kept going back up again.

When we arrived in Cluj where we had to change trains I asked the guy across from us a question and he spoke English... I was disappointed that I hadn't started a conversation with him several hours before!!! Our connection was pretty tight... just time to buy some more bread and cheese and a real Romanian map before jumping on the next one... Our border crossing was uneventful, which was a bit disappointing after our wonderful experience going into Romania... we were alone in the compartment the whole ride.

We took the train all the way to Budapest that night and the next morning were in the baths!!!! Ahhhhh.....

© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000

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