The most amazing place I ever visited was someplace I would have never gone on my own. I spent two weeks in rural Romania for work, but the weekend trip into the mountains of Transylvania was spectacular. Part of my awe came from the contrast to the stark scenery on the rest of the trip in one of the poorest countries in Europe, but that wasn’t all of it. The other reason for the awesome trip was the people I met.
I arrived in Bucharest alone, my first trip to Eastern Europe. I’d grown complacent with travel in Western Europe where people spoke English and getting around was easy. My team, in Podari ahead of me by a few days, sent me a note: bring cash…lots of it. Their American credit cards weren’t working. Unfortunately, by then I’d already left the Bucharest airport with just what I needed to get the 200 km to meet them. I made my way to the train station with the first of many cab drivers who didn’t speak a word of English. I later learned that knowing Russian would have helped me, not that it mattered to learn that. Once at the station. I spent a nerve-wracking five minutes trying to communicate with hand gestures that I needed to go to a small prairie town by way of a second class ticket, to preserve as much of my precious cash as possible. I was eventually successful, guaranteeing that I would spend the next three hours traveling with average Romanians. I moved into the station to find a place to wait the hour for my train. The only place that looked comfortable, or even safe, was the McDonald’s–bright, well-lit, and cheery. I nursed a Coke for most of the hour until I realized that I’d better find a restroom. Turns out this was the only McDonald’s I’ve ever been in without one. I left in search of a WC sign, finding one at the top of some narrow steps into the basement. The tiny restroom was all that was down there: dark, dank, and cramped. It cost me a pittance of my precious cash, but there was no choice. It was the second worst restroom I’ve ever used in my life, just behind a filthy hole in the floor in an unlit closet in a government building in remote China. I finished as quickly as possible and boarded my train.
Though the car wasn’t crowded, an elderly babushka chose the seat right next to me. She wore a colorful scarf over her very white hair, which matched her very deep wrinkles. Her heavy black overcoat covered her dumpy frame, and hose-covered, thick ankles ended in sturdy black shoes. She attempted conversation with me right away, a futile effort. She was clearly disappointed as we settled back for our long ride. Proud of having navigated this far through the alien environment by myself, I settled in to read and watch the Romanian countryside go by. It looked amazingly like my native Kansas, with fields of sunflowers and grain elevators punctuating the flat land every 20 minutes or so. It was no coincidence that it looked like home; this was exactly the kind of place the agricultural company I worked for would locate a plant. After an hour of quiet, the old woman startled me by suddenly speaking to me again, quite animatedly. I was at a loss until, through gestures, I realized that she was lecturing me about crossing my legs. She pulled down one of her thick, woolen stockings and pointed at her varicose veins, chattering the whole time. She clearly didn’t want me to meet her fate. I sat with both feet dutifully on the floor until she got off on her stop 20 minutes later. I crossed my legs defiantly the rest of the way.
The work part of the trip was uneventful, beyond the unexpected September heat wave which made for uncomfortable sleeping in our un-air conditioned hotel, and one drunk taxi driver who decided to punish us with a 120 km/hour ride though city streets for some imagined slight. Another taxi driver who chased me down made up for him, however. I had left my fanny pack in his car. My passport, credit cards and phone were in there; I owe that humble man a lot. But the weekend trip to Transylvania was truly unforgettable. A colleague secured a van and local driver who spoke English. He was amazing: personable and passionate about showing us the best of his country. He succeeded. We saw castles and silver domed monasteries and gorgeous mountains and brightly painted gypsy carts next to campfires. It was truly magical. Our guide was a single dad who had lost his young wife to cancer. Quality health care was not available. Devoted to his young daughter, he had since fallen in love, but was working unsuccessfully so far to convince his prospective in-laws that he was a suitable husband. I have hoped for the five years since that he did.
He and the other Romanian people I met on the trip, while frustrated at their “lost 50 years” from Communism and the slow pace of reform since, were immensely proud of their beautiful country and their heritage. They should be. Some of the coolest things happen on the journey you’d have never taken on your own.
“How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams.” –Bram Stoker