Thursday, August 31, 2017

Budapest, Hungary to Satu Mare, Romania: Dogs, Goats, and Hellos that are Goodbyes

The first part of this post is not a happy part. I will put a breaker - - - where it gets happy again if you want to skip ahead.

The day I left Budapest I had an anxiety attack. I won't get too much into it but I think it was a combination of things: the stress of having screwed up the laundry (this is small, but part of having anxiety is it makes small things big), being worried about finding enough grocery stores (since proven a frivolous worry), water, being in countries where I understand absolutely none of the language despite my best efforts, being constantly warned about thieves, and having mis-written something in the blog I was worried would offend someone (since corrected).

It had been so long since my last anxiety attack (a very small one upon landing in France maybe two months ago) that I wasn't sure what was happening, but after a while I figured it out and started taking a lot of breaks. For me, anxiety attacks are mostly disorienting: it feels like I'm not in control of my body or my thoughts. I can't think straight, sometimes I can't stand, it's hard to keep my balance, and if I start to feel like I'm losing control I'll start to hyperventilate. One time I collapsed and threw up; thankfully, I was with a good friend who took care of me. I can usually keep control of my body and this time I did: I was able to stay on my bike until the next break spot. But, the disorientation and discomfort of having lost control takes a while to fade even after I have control back, so it was a very long night. I took a break at a park with surprise internet (thanks Hungary!) to catch up with a friend and fix the blog post, which helped, but then I had to find a place to sleep as it was getting dark early (sunset at 7!). I didn't take any pictures because I was so focused on staying upright and not hyperventilating.

- - -

I thought I found a place in a field but then I saw lightning on the horizon, and I was too spooked after last time (the night I spent in the truck) to not put myself under a roof, so I went to the next city, arriving well after dark. The churchyard was unlocked and there was a covered alter where I spent the night, though I didn't get much sleep as I was anxious and it was windy, and therefore noisy. Aside from the wind, there were dogs barking the whole night – welcome to eastern Europe.

The next day was a mix of bad roads, busy roads, beautiful scenery, and trails. I'll let the photos do the talking.

Shortcut across some railroad tracks!

"Okay guys, let's only pave the middle part..."

Co-op, but also, let's all park our bikes here.

Hey! It's flat!

Helping the German family across a dam.

Hungary has beautiful lakes too!

6000 miles: let's celebrate with a camera that's falling over.

Sunset! Time to find a place to sleep!

I helped a family from Germany navigate for a bit and got to know them a bit. It was nice to have some English-speaking company, which seems rare in this part of the world except for Warmshowers hosts and the occasional guy who guides you through the market introducing you to gypsies.

I also saw, twice, a family that didn't speak any English, but seemed very interested in my tour. The father looked at my bike and asked me something in (presumably) Hungarian. “Sorry, I only speak English,” I said. He pointed at my bike and gave me a thumbs up. At the grocery store I would see them again. We laughed, waved, shook hands, looked at their bikes, looked at mine, and then waved goodbye. I seriously considered asking them (via Google Translate) if I could camp in their yard, but I wanted to go another 20k that night.

I found a spot in a field far enough from the road that I'd be ignored, got attacked by mosquitoes, and dove into my tent as soon as I could. It was a cold, quiet night.

The next morning the roads were a bit better and as I was biking through a national park, the scenery was beautiful – if flat. I stopped at the last major Hungarian city, Debrecen, to refuel, touch base with some friends, and was cajoled into actually ordering McDonald's when I was caught using their internet without having bought anything. I figured, “okay, one sandwich can't hurt...” but actually, I'd get a stomach ache later. Next time I'm going to try and get off with just a coffee.

National park!

Welcome to... somewhere in Hungary!

The road into Debrecen was quite busy – more or less a highway with a small margin – but the drivers here see bikes all the time as many people can't afford cars (see photo of the Co-op bicycle parking above). Some passed closer or faster than I'd've liked, but there was nothing I could do. I got some Romanian Leu in case there was a fee at the border and went on my way.

The road from Debrecen to Romania was much calmer. I had built up the border crossing in my mind to be a dramatic event with lots of questions and fending off bribes and searching of bags and then fending off people trying to take my stuff after the guard was done with them. Instead, the Hungarian and Romanian guards were right next to each other. I handed the Hungarian guard my passport. He examined it and, in a perfect-but-unintentional Arnold Schwarzenegger impression, asked, “Where do you go?”

“Uh... Ukraine,” I said (“around the world” seemed like not what he was looking for).

He flipped through my 50-page extra capacity passport, empty except for entry to the UK and France, looked confusedly at the yellow fever certification I had taped in the back, then took it into his office, did some paperwork, stamped it, and walked it five feet to the Romanian guard. He did some paperwork, stamped it, then handed it to me without a word.

I biked five feet forward and was in Romania. Time change! Sunset at 8, not 7 anymore.

It was beautiful at first – forest, empty fields – but quickly became corn and sunflowers for as far as the eye could see. I stopped at the first city and seriously considered getting a hostel, not wanting to have to worry about a place to sleep that night. The only place in town, however, had a “Vegas Cafe” sign next to the “Motel” sign, and the hours were posted 0900-0300. As in, 9 AM to 3 AM. They wanted 100 Leu, about $20. It was empty at the time – about 6 PM – but I didn't want to sleep above a casino open until 3 AM.

As I was taking dinner in a nearby park I had another wordless interaction resulting in a thumbs-up. I wish I had Google-Translate-asked him for a place to stay, but by the time I remembered, he was gone. I biked out of town on the now-very-busy-road and after scouting three places in cornfields, finally found a place without someone working the field. A few stray dogs were my neighbors that night.

The next day I got up with the sun – 6 AM – and left the field, worried I'd get caught. It must have been close to freezing: with Under Armor, a sweater, and the heat of pedaling, I was barely comfortable. I continued along the very-busy-road though the cornfields-forever, stopping at a semi-major city to find a park where I could take a nap in the sun.

Cornfields forever! But really.

The bathroom for the park was manned by a woman playing Mario on her phone who let me in – no charge. When I was getting ready to go we had a miming conversation: she pedaled her hands, I nodded. She made a big circle with her arms – “where in the world?” I think she was asking. I made the same big circle: “The whole world.” She seemed impressed, then did some more miming I took to indicate “Where from?” I took out and started up my phone as three early-teen boys came by. We all waited for my phone to start, then I opened my map. I pointed at her, then at the park. I zoomed out, pointed at me, then at Minneapolis. Then I pedaled my hands and pointed the route I took from Minneapolis to Romania. They all seemed very impressed.

I got ready to go. “Hello!” the boys said as they left – “hello” and “goodbye” are the same word in Hungarian and Romanian, so they don't distinguish when they translate. I also had this experience once at a grocery store: I said “Thank you!” (in English) after paying, and the cashier said “Hello!” as I left; and, Zita's mom said “Hello!” as I left Budapest. It always makes me smile.

I made it another 30 miles on the very-busy-road through the cornfields-forever to my Warmshowers host in Satu Mare. Soren got back 15 days ago from biking to Tajikistan and back again along a route very similar to the one I'd like to take. I was excited to have a shower and a bed, of course (after a night in a covered alter and two nights in empty fields, being kept up by wild dogs and getting up with the sun at 6...), but I also wanted to hear his story.

A bridge! Great view of... fields forever!

Soren left last March and joined Warmshowers a week before leaving. He shared photos of the Pamir highway, a highway traversing the Pamir Mountains through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, and gave me the cold hard facts about how much everything cost and how wide my tires should be and how far it was between villages and how much water capacity I need (12L). We spent a lot of time looking at Google Maps and discussing visas and if-I-can't-get-this-one can-I-get-that-one? I was ecstatic. I am ecstatic.

As I got in quite early (3 PM) I was also able to spend some time on the couch catching up with friends, a much-needed morale boost. Soren made fasole cu carnati – beans and sausage – and later we'd go out for a beer with his wife and have mic (pronounced “meech”), plural of mici (“meechee”), which is sausage without the skin. For dessert they treated me to papanache, which is fried cheese... and was life changing. LIFE CHANGING. Cheese is my favorite food. Fried cheese with chocolate and cream melting on top? I was in heaven.

Phone picture; of course I thought, "eh, I won't bring my camera to dinner..."

We also discussed Romania's version of a s'more: pork fat pulled off the stick into onion and bread, eaten for an appetizer at the campfire (instead of dessert like a s'more). For non-American readers, a s'more is a marshmallow (a puff of sugar) roasted over a fire on a stick, then pulled off the stick into chocolate and graham cracker.

They insisted I stay a second night.

I am conscious of needing to get to Ukraine: I first said I'd be there July 15th, then August 1st, then September 1st (Friday – it's Thursday now), then Sunday. I felt incredibly bad about putting off my arrival another day, but also incredibly tired after the quality of sleep I've been getting for the past three nights, and a bit like I needed to catch up on my blog. And possibly still regretting having actually gotten food at McDonald's in exchange for internet. I think it'll be alright – I will just have to rely on my work ethic, and not my timeliness, to make an impression with my host in Ukraine. I can do that.

Soren also had a funny story about one of the -stans – sadly I can't recall which – but since I'm not updating the map at the moment I figured I'd relate it here. He stayed with a family who lived a very basic life (not a bad thing), including a rain bin on top of four poles as the shower, heated by the sun. When not in use, the curtain is rolled up to the rain bin; when in use, one unrolls the curtain... and then the goat comes. Because naturally, the shower is in the field with the goat. Who wants to eat the curtain. So Soren took a shower that night in rural one-of-the-stans, outdoors, standing on one foot, washing with both hands, and using his other foot to fend off the goat so it didn't eat the shower curtain.

I am so excited to bike through the Middle East.

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