My friend Junaid, like the good, Earth-loving Californian that he is, works in the solar panel industry. I’m not sure what it is that he does exactly, since, to be honest, I sort of tune him out most of the time when he’s talking about work. In my defense, he uses a lot of big words, doesn’t gesticulate enough, and to my knowledge, has yet to become a millionaire. Anyway, regardless of my interest level in his actual job, I do find solar panels themselves to be alright little doo-dads, and the more time I spend traveling the Balkans in the winter, the more I realize how much we have in common. We are both eco-friendlyish, both of us are flat across the front and inexplicably find ourselves lying prostrate in the gardens of strangers, and both of us are perfectly useless without the sun.
I’m a pretty active person normally, but traveling such a cold region in the middle of winter has given me occasion to pause. Usually while under a mound of soft blankets. For a couple of hours. In the afternoon. In fact, when left to my own devices, I might not see much of anything at all. Buildings and museums and all that other stuff that requires brainpower to process isn’t really my thing to begin with, and when you take the sun out of the equation, you’re really just gearing yourself up to lose the battle.
Thankfully, the Travel Gods, as in all my times of distress or ennui, have intervened and sent a gaggle of ambitious Europeans (and one Asian) to light the fire under my ass and get me out the door. Since I last posted, I have done a bit of a blind rush… seeing things I never thought I would, and effortlessly tossing aside plans I’d had for months. Here’s what happened:
I rolled into Romania with a Lithuanian truck driver who will stand out as one of the best rides I’ve ever had. He stopped right away, wasn’t a pervert, spoke perfect English (although he was far from a Chatty Cathy), and, most importantly, wasn’t a pervert. He deposited me safely at a junction about 100 km off from Brașov, and I managed to get into town and find my hostel before shakily passing out. Note to self: When hitchhiking across borders, Bring Sandwiches!! The problem with catching long-distance, border-crossing rides is that once you’ve hopped over, you don’t have any money in the local currency with which to buy food. Most of these kinds of rides are with trucks, so while you could normally stop and hit an ATM, you don’t want to inconvenience your driver, for whom pulling over is a full-body workout. So you suck it down and eat a lot of Tic-Tacs until you manage to amass 48 calories of orange-flavored sustenance in your gut. Enough to keep you going, and enough to turn your feces red for a few days.
Anyway, I DIDN’T faint, I made it to town, and a few days later, I joined forces with a cheeky Singaporean to go sightsee the crap out of Transylvania. Sharmen, like most men from his country, used to serve in the Army and was more at ease in his combat boots than barefoot. While I think I may have unnerved him with my chittering, endless soliloquy that first day that we sightsaw together, he managed to refrain from hitting me in the head by smoking a lot of cigarettes. He wasn’t the first Singaporean I’d met or traveled with (Hi Jimmy, Ryan, Julius and Chris!), but he clued me into a fact that I’d never known before: Singaporean business, education, and all matters important are conducted in English. In fact, it is the first language for just about everybody our age in that country. It seems obvious now, but at the time, I was surprised… surprised that I hadn’t known it, and surprised that this dude, who was from a tiny city-state that most people think is simply a province in China, spoke far better English than me (than I?), an English major with a blog.
We saw Bran and Peleș castles together over the next couple of days. Bran castle was nice. It is the famed “Dracula Castle,” of lore, and they do a solid job of providing plenty of instructional tablets to explain how reality became legend. Vlad Tepes, also known as “Vlad the Impaler,” made his name by taking sharpened spikes and driving them up the anuses of invading Turks (missing all the vital organs) until they came out through their shoulders. The Turk was then left to die of exposure while Tepes sat back and watched the footy.
Vlad’s father’s name was Vlad Dracul. So, since he was the son of Dracul, he was “Dracula.” Ya dig? Being probably the scariest man from the scariest sounding region (Transylvania) that Bram Stoker could think of, the story of the real man morphed into a tale about a bloodthirsty, poly-lingual, bi-curious (?) immigrant to London.
Anyway, the castle was cool, but admittedly not very well connected to either the character or the man. They did have a decently clean toilet and a nice selection of magnets, though.
But, back to me! A couple of road-tripping Germans surfaced a day or so later, and then a tall Belgian lad after that. A Geordie mate that I had met in Albania and then again in Macedonia had done most of the Balkans already, and gave us some tips on where to go and what to do. Seeing as how Sighișoara was the next logical step on the East-West Romanian itinerary, the lot of us invited ourselves along on the Germans’ roadtrip and piled into their car the next morning before they had a chance to say no or physically overpower us.
We made it to Sighișoara early in the afternoon that day. We made it safe and sound in spite of the snow, although- like all major cities- Brașov was something of a pain in the ass to get out of. Big cities in Europe are like black holes from whence nothing can feasibly escape. You’re taken round and round– and if you miss taking a left where you should have,… well, then I guess you’re not going to be leaving. Ever.
But we DID make it, and got to enjoy the little town without the crowds.
In all honesty, we got to enjoy it without anyone. At all. The place was completely deserted, and we roamed about the picturesque village, while snow gathered atop our heads and shoulders, like players in a silent film. The buildings seemed to bug out at the injustice of it all- flaming pink, orange, and yellow divas finding themselves overcome by the silent, persistent, heaven-sent whiteness.
I should make a note here. Sometimes, the best things in life aren’t about checking off a list of experiences or seeing things for the first time, but rather learning how to appreciate those same things anew when someone else sees them or does them for the first time. Sharmen, being from a tropical region, had never seen snow before. He was overjoyed and took lots and lots of pictures of snowbanks and puddles, and I was reminded of my childhood fascination with the snow. I wondered solemnly when it had turned into calculations about how many inches had fallen and whether or not they’d be tracked out by X time or not. Since I wasn’t planning to ride in Romania, I turned my attention to trying to spot a perfect snowflake on my jacket before my emanating body heat ruined it. It was a lot of fun.
The plan was originally for me to stay and the boys to leave, but since the snow was not about to let up, and there was a birthday to be celebrated, they decided to stick around. No straight European fellow really wants to spend the night of his birthday sleeping in a car, coiled around another man. Tilman was turning 22 and agreed with my sentiment that all the best years come in 3-year gaps. He had a strange calcium deposit on the back of his hand that he loved showing off to people, and worked for some sort of television crew that had once interviewed Quentin Tarantino. After graduating from high school, he opted out of the immediate college route and spent a year working in South Africa and traveling the continent. It was clear that the experience had changed and wholly benefited him, and it left me wishing that I had started travel earlier, when I was more moldable and had more room for feeling in my fossilized heart. This young German also possessed a kind of wiggly enthusiasm and that charming naïveté that works so well when worn on people in their early 20s, although in his case it often manifested in being extraordinarily bad at drinking games.
So it was his birthday, and we celebrated by having a few rounds of King’s Cup and a few dozen liters of beer before marching out into the snow to go to a club that everyone tells me was shit, but which I thought was great. This is a sign of oldness, by the way,… when you can no longer tell whether or not a party is lame. Or maybe it’s just a sign of drunkenness. Who can tell, anyway? Either way, we went out to a club, where I got groped while line dancing to “Cotton-Eyed Joe” with a pack of Romanians. It was here that I learned two things about myself: #1- I don’t know how to line dance, and #2- I hit like a girl.
Anyway, crappy club or not, we rolled with a fun crew, and danced our silly asses off until the wee hours.
We woke up the next morning and I prepared (hung over) to split from them and hitchhike up to Cluj-Napoca, where I was going to gorge myself on ballet until I puked.** Thankfully, my unbridled laziness won out at the last moment, and it wasn’t until the day after that I, refreshed and revitalized, headed northwards. I scored a ride nearly right away and spent a few days in the city blindly fumbling around a 4-story hostel that had installed a motion-sensor light system that was irritatingly insensitive to motion. The beds were soft, though, and I was only 10 minutes away from some damn good ballet. I watched Coppélia for less than one euro. I didn’t really understand what was going on… but hey, it’s ballet. If you understand it, then you’re doing something wrong.
Cluj-Napoca isn’t exactly a beauty of a city, but there are hoardes of university students roaming the streets with their good English and interest in foreigners. People are unpretentious, chicken sandwiches are plentiful, and I was lucky enough to have visited it over a couple of dry and sunny days.
Paul, Tilman, and Sharmen were running a day behind me at this point, so I only had enough time to thrust a flyer for my next hostel at them and shout a hurried, “See you in Budapest!” over my shoulder before running out the door. Getting to the border was alright (although the passport authorities there were Grade A Assholes- I don’t think I’ve ever gotten such a harsh grilling before), and once I was over, I had rides falling into my lap like confetti at a campaign speech. Unfortunately, my last ride left me at the side of the freeway in the middle of the night, and it took over an hour of skirting the guardrail and another hour of crawling through pokey, foxtail-ridden shrubbery before I emerged out of the thicket and managed to flag down a bus. I arrived at my hostel feeling harassed and looking even worse, but was immediately greeted by warm Hungarian stew, and a glass of wine delivered by a friendly brunette. Jackpot!
I was duly joined a day later by my crew from Romania, which was doubly delightful because it was somewhat unexpected. Tilman and Sharmen were fine with doing whatever, but Paul was keen to get to Belgrade, as he’d already seen Budapest only one year ago. He was an interesting lad in that respect, though. He made pretty detailed plans that maximized his time, but then usually abandoned them to go with the flow. He knew how to make exact approximations for ingredients for the marvelous dishes he would cook up, but ate streetside pizza with the same amount of gusto. He had the sweet boy-next-door look down pat, but could bust out “Rapper’s Delight” from beginning to end with no sweat. He refused to let a pretty Hungarian friend of ours trim his hair, but then, when he went to a barber and it didn’t come out right, he very nearly acquiesced to letting us drunkenly give him frosted tips. To top it off, Paul had an extraordinary sense of direction and a bleeding heart when it came to Chicagan prostitutes and it was with exultation that I saw that they had arrived with him intact after all.
Budapest was fun. Our hostel was great and right in the center, and we partied pretty much every night. Everyone else was industrious and took a walking tour of the city, but I was a lazy prick and only remembered to sightsee when I was already on my way out of the city. Thankfully, I had Nora in tow- a sweet, blonde, Hungarian almost-teacher that gave me a panicked summary of each major building as we passed it on the tram. I managed to get a couple of good shots as the doors opened and passengers filed in and out, as well. Booyah!
I won’t talk about our trip hitchhiking from Budapest to Belgrade. It’s just depressing. We’ll put it this way: Too much time, too much snow, too many rejections, and not enough ham sandwiches. Thank god my Hungarian friend was with me, though. After having waited for what seemed like hours at a truck stop, a long-distance bus pulled in on its way to Greece… just long enough to cast us fearful looks and tell us that we weren’t welcome to come onboard out of the snow. Had Nora not been there, I would have spent the night in a Hungarian jail for ripping the last remaining hairs out of the crew leader’s ugly fucking head. There were many trying moments that day: from truck drivers that mistook my sunny companion for a prostitute, to a car full of bitchy Austrians that wouldn’t let us cut in front of them and insisted that we stand at the back of the line to cross the border… in a blizzard… while they sat in their warm car.
In the end, through the kindness of strangers, we DID make it to Belgrade, and met up with the Germans, Singaporean, and Ben, or long-missed Belgian, for our last few days as a posse. Ben had missed out on Budapest, since he had already been there, and was intent on catching some Romanian opera before heading onwards. His interest in opera seemed freakily out of place with his 2 meters something of height and his shaved head, but to the opera he went, and it sounds he like had a great time. More to character, he was an avid fan of basketball and would stay up, after a hard night of partying, to catch a regular season game streaming live on NBA.com at 4 in the morning. He was backpacking for the very first time (and in Europe in the winter, no less!), but somehow still managed to pull off doing it with nothing but a small, schoolbag-sized rucksack. Yet, in spite of his small bag, he always managed to look flawlessly neat, with his freshly shined shoes and clothes that matched… a near impossibility on the road.
After traveling with Ben, I did a small inventory of my bag and realized that most of my clothes are simply chilling out at the bottom, awaiting May 2nd, when they can leap into action on the shores of Malaysia. The only clothes I own that are in any way suited for the winter haven’t left my body in weeks. BLEGH!!
That being said, after we all parted ways in Belgrade, I made a quick detour up to Novi Sad (meh) and then bee-lined south to try to grab a few rays of sun and shed some unnecessary weight before summer really kicks in and I can run around in sundresses and flip-flops. I’m in Bosnia at the moment, and have a post forthcoming (GOD I love this country!). For now, I’ll leave you with a picture of Zlatibor, my last stop in Serbia before hopping the border. I could actually see both ends of it!
** Sidenote: Hitchhiking is not fun when your full faculties aren’t there. There’s a lot of walking, scoping out good spots, and weeding out of pervy drivers to do- all in another language- and it’s not easy when you’re using all your available wherewithal to keep your bile south of your (cardiac) sphincter.
“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” – John Ruskin