Thursday, November 8, 2007

the lei of the land

20th June 1990

Arriving in Bucharest on the overnight “gypsy train” from Bulgaria I was completely ignorant to the fact that Romania was in the wake of an attempted counter-revolution, having only just executed the tyrant Ceausescu approximately 6 months before.
(More information: here )

The streets in central Bucharest were strewn with the still smoking shells of burnt out vehicles. Buildings, freshly glazed after the 1989 revolution were now skirted with glittering shards, and amidst fresh bloodstains on the streets were some hastily constructed wooden crosses hammered into the road surface. Tanks patrolled the streets.

On the positive side there were no other tourists.

Bucharest was partially through a process of street renaming, so none of the maps I managed to obtain were of any use. Navigation around town meant a careful study of the shape of a street rather than its name.

Food was scarce, in fact most types of goods were scarce and the value of the lei was so low that I had trouble finding enough things to spend the $30 I had changed.

Wandering the streets was unsettling. People avoided me. Later I realised this was because they were suspicious of me as the only Westerners in the city at that time were usually journalists covering the rioting.

One morning out walking, I turned into a street to be confronted by an entire platoon of soldiers who were arranged side by side across the entire width of the road from wall to wall and around 10 men deep. The front row of soldiers had their rifles with attached bayonets pointing straight out from their hips and the whole throng were marching down in an apparent street-cleaning exercise. I hastily retreated.

Bucharest, for whatever reasons (and there were many back then) was extremely depressing. So I stayed just a few days before deciding to head off to Hungary which proved more difficult than I had anticipated.

Arriving at the main railway station I was confronted by scenes of chaos. Crowds everywhere, at every window and at every counter.

I joined a queue which I hoped was one that would sell me a train ticket to Budapest in Hungary. A 20 minute wait and I reached the front.

“Ticket please to Budapest”.

“Globstak kboshtok aksorak snajlak”

“Ummm.. ticket…train..Budapest?” (pleadingly)

“Globstak kboshtok aksorak snajlak. SHOBNARG!”

At which point the 145kg woman behind the counter scrawled an address on a scrap of paper with a 3 cm stub of pencil grasped between fingers that looked like enormous pork sausages, which I gathered was the address of a tourist agency in the town centre where I was to purchase my ticket.

So I shrugged my (heavy) backpack higher up on my back and headed off into town - a good 20 minutes walk in the blazing sun.

Once arriving at the agency which I found more by sheer luck than by any orienteering skills, I was confronted by scenes exactly like those in the railway station. So once again I joined a queue.

“I was sent here from the railway station to buy a train ticket to Budapest. One single please.”

“Aksorak globstak snajlak kboshtok”

“Ticket…train…Budapest.” (emphatically)

She wrote out the address of the railway station on a bit of paper.


Back to the station. Back in the queue. Back to pork sausages.

“Ticket…train…Budapest.” (slightly hysterically)

She began to write the name of the agency on a bit of paper again. Suddenly I could see myself dying here in some Eastern bloc version of Groundhog Day. I was hot, tired, frustrated, hungry and very, very annoyed. So I did the only natural thing under the circumstances.

A major HISSY FIT.

I began yelling loudly about how I had BEEN to the $&?@&$!!* agency, they had sent me back, how I HATED this #@*!^#@!X country and wanted to leave and that’s just what I couldn’t do, how I was HOT and HUNGRY and I didn’t want to keep walking backwards and effing forwards for eternity.

Finally, in a paroxysm of utter frustration I took my backpack off and THREW it as far as I could down the main reservations hall of Bucharest Central Railway Station. Then I charged after it and started to put the boot in.

After an unspecified period of pack abuse I finally vented and sat down wearily on my gear to ponder my circumstances. I looked up to find around 300 pairs of eyes staring at this crazed Westerner doing his nut.

Finally, out of the crowd appeared a knight in shining armour. Or rather, a tall thin angular man with a briefcase who approached me and said haltingly

“You have problem?”

“Mate you have no idea!”

Vasile as it turned out spoke almost no English and as my Romanian was equally lacking we communicated via a mixture of bad high school French and gesticulations.

He managed to import that the country was in a state of partial lockdown and that the Government had stopped all cross border travel. Getting a ticket to Hungary would be difficult. He provided a welcome solution.

He invited me to stay with him and his family in their village in Transylvania (I know what you are thinking - but I checked his teeth and they looked normal) which was on the way to Hungary. He said he would get me on a train to the town on the Romanian/Hungarian border to which a ticket would be obtainable. As the train crossed the border I simply had to stay on board and then buy a ticket at the first stop on the other side to Budapest.

A man with a plan - I love it.

So thanks to this amazing Romanian factory worker, who, you must remember, had the strength of resolve to approach a ranting histrionic foreigner and offer aid (let’s face it - faced with the same situation in your railway station would you?), I found myself in the modest apartment of a Romanian couple with their young daughter in the middle of the countryside being the guest of honour at a dinner party.

The following day Vasile took me to the station, organised my ticket to the border and waved me off. All was going exactly to plan. I arrived at the border and the last of the passengers left the train. I know what you’re thinking… suddenly the train reversed and started going back the way it came. But no, it didn’t. It rolled on towards the no-mans land of the border crossing.

I left Romania and crossed into Hungarian territory.

Customs came on board and checked my passport.

He looked at my visa, then me, then my visa, clucked a little like a chicken with a stutter and then looked at me again with a frown.

The he walked off with my passport.

Five minutes later he came back with 6 armed soldiers and they escorted me off the train and took me away to a building not too far from the station and locked me up.

For 4 hours.

With an armed guard.

No explanation, no Consular representative, no détente, not even any spoken English.

Finally, the customs fellow returns. With 6 different soldiers. They walk me back to the railway station, put me back on a train and send me BACK to Romania.

As the train pulled out I leant out of the window and plaintively yelled

“I don’t want to go back to Romania, I just left there. I hated it.”

The guards, in a particularly Soviet way, starchly waved me goodbye.

So to conclude, here I was rolling back through the Romanian countryside wanting to be anywhere else but rolling back through the Romanian countryside.

On the train I chatted with a German journalist who was heading to Bucharest to cover the riots. He suggested that I try crossing the motorway border as they had a temporary visa issuing office and that if there was an irregularity with my visa they should be able to sort it out.

I hopped off the train at the first stop and flagged down a taxi. Fortunately I still had a couple of dollars worth of lei. Not sure of its exact worth, I waved it at the taxi driver while pointing to the border town on my map.

Well his little face lit up like a beacon and he grabbed my pack and threw it in the boot in case I was just some sort of magical mirage and was about to vanish like breath on a cold day.

He drove me the 50 odd kms north to the border, the last 5 of which we encountered a line of parked cars backed up on the roads completely blocking the single lane northwards. Many of the occupants were sleeping, stretching, or had set up blankets and were lunching on the verge. Mr Beacon simply crossed into the oncoming lane and continued right up to the border customs office where he dropped me at the door with my bag, practically kissed me and took off.

It was a simple straightforward matter to walk over the border, get another temporary visa on the Hungarian side, and walk to freedom!

(Postscript: I still needed to get back on the train for the 5 hour journey to Budapest, so I stuck out my thumb and hitched. Very soon I was picked up by a van full of English nuns who very courteously dropped me right at the station. I felt like I was in a scene from The Sound of Music.)

**The only photos I have from this part of the trip were from a rather dodgy Eastern European B+W film I had to buy in Bulgaria as I ran out of Kodak! I ended up only getting a proof sheet made as I thought the film probably wouldnt turn out. So these are scans from the postage-stamp sized images on the proof sheet! (Ansel Adams would turn in his grave)

crossing the Carpathian mountains near Brasov

Romanian church

The Palace of the Parliament (formerly The Peoples House)

Bucharest street scene

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