Saturday, October 14, 2017

Cluj, Romania to Craiova, Romania: Up, Down, and All Around

The past few days have seen an expansive range of emotions. Partly they've been intense in many ways; partly, I think, since the Color Farm I've become more in tune with what I'm feeling and working on my ability to feel it. While I can never say that my blogging covers the complete bicycle touring experience – to get that, you just have to go on a tour yourself – this post in particular will be remiss of a few key details because there are so many. I've dictated a few of them into my tape recorder so they might end up in a book; in any case, there is nothing to do but write.

So. Let us begin.

When I finished my blog post at the hostel I went downstairs to do something about dinner and was greeted with a scoffing, "Where have you been?" from someone I'd never met before. This was Liam, and the scoff was a joke. I told him I'd been blogging, at which point the fate of our friendship was decided: we wouldn't have one (this was also a joke). Also present in the kitchen were Aubrey, who was cooking what would end up being delicious pasta, and James, a professorr-from-the-States-turned-English-teacher-traveler. I'd like to write a paragraph on each of them and the others staying there that night, but that would be a lot of paragraphs, so I'll settle for one really long one instead.

Liam, I believe, would self-describe himself as a “drinker, partier, question-asker, and asshole.” Audrey introduced herself as “Audrey Hepburn” (and hey, I remembered her name) and cooks. James teaches English in Spain despite not having papers (“Man, we really like your resume, you're clearly qualified, but you don't have papers... man, we really like you, but no papers... hmm... can you start Monday?”) and doesn't believe anyone cares about how long you stay in the Schengen zone since he's spent the better part of the past six months there. Julia, the hostess-who-feels-more-like-a-friend, has animals follow her home, which is how she got a cat living under her bathtub surreptitiously guarding the toilet paper (entertainment for the night: have people over and don't tell them about the cat). “The drunk guy whose name nobody knows,” who, despite being drunk, was quite funny and kind and not a bad drunk at all: when everybody toasted but I didn't have a drink I jokingly asked, “where's mine?” and without missing a beat he went to the fridge, got me one, opened it, and called for a toast again. Forrest, from Mississippi, who I wanted to get to know better but whenever I tried Liam just answered over him, but he wears a cool hat given to him by his brother.

Yes, quite the crowd, there at the awesome, cheap (relatively), artsy, homey hostel, whose internet doesn't work upstairs so you have to use the city's from the park across the street but it's okay because it's much faster anyways. After two rounds of going to the Non-Stop (local jargon for 24-hour) convenience store for ramen (Liam: "You eat ramen with a spoon? Friendship over."), bananas, and beer (Me: "How many times do you think I have to go before he (guy who works there) starts judging me?" Liam: "None. In fact I bet he likes it."), I finally made it to bed just after midnight. The guy at the convenience store was quite nice and spoke just enough English for me to get the ramen, which for some reason was behind the counter. This was good, because Google wouldn't translate "instant" or any variant thereof: quick, fast, etc., so I didn't know how I was going to gesture my way to getting the noodles.

I had intended to leave the hostel by 10 at the latest or even an ambitious 9 – ample time to sleep in, shower, have breakfast, and be on my way. Breakfast was included in the price and it was served at 8, so I was up and showered by then. By 9 I was ready to go and doing the forget-me-nots while I still had internet as well as trying to decide which book to take from the hostel library – over coffee I got twenty pages into a book about someone's first child before deciding while it was funny and honest, she was too self-deprecating for me. I settled on a book about traveling though India, whose culture I'm always interested in learning more about. It was honest about how violent things can be there, but it was not self-deprecating.

I hate short days because I always feel rushed. It was 9:30 and I wanted to blog but I “had to go.” I had to make it 178 km in two days, so at least 78 km that day... I had to go!

And then I went into the kitchen and found Audrey and Forrest and we ended up talking until 12.

I regret nothing. I have more braindump about this on my tape recorder, but the short of it is I felt at home with those two. They belong in the Kyle-ville I am founding when I'm done with this tour with all the other amazing people I've met. I'm grateful for their time and I hope it's not the last time we see each other.

But I did leave eventually. And here's the braindump I did write up that came out of the combination self-deprecating-mom-book and completely-open-and-trusting-conversation afterwards and a Facebook-conversation-I'd been-having with a very-closed-minded-person:
Here's not a secret: everyone is imperfect. People share secrets about themselves like it's some... well, "big secret," but after you hear enough of them you realize, everybody has secrets and insecurities. I still love hearing them, because they are unique, and they make us us, but I wish we, as a society, and a world, would move past the stigma. The problem is, of course, the idiots who stigmatize and tease and react to these secrets without compassion, who make the secret-revealers think there is something wrong with secrets. But there isn't. If you share something about yourself, an insecurity, that you sometimes want to beat your baby or you think all men are assholes or that you like people who get a little too drunk, and someone tells you that's terrible, how could you, then that says more about them than about you (worth noting: I don't endorse beating babies; some things might be okay to think but not to act on).

My advice to you is that you continue to share who you are, share it loud and proud so people get used to others being imperfect. My advice is that you react with as much compassion as you can muster to the people who judge you, because they are only judging you because they have secrets of their own, and your openness scares them, and they don't understand you, and the only way they will ever understand is if they receive compassion. Just as people saying how weird or strange or upsetting your secrets are makes you feel like you don't want to share, so does attacking people who attack you make them not want to share, or understand, or feel.

We need to create a more open society, where people don't attack things they don't understand, but where they try and understand. Where people are okay with being uncomfortable, because that means they are learning something, seeing something new. Where everyone's weird, because everyone is already weird, we just hide it, we just try and be who we think society wants us to be... but we are society, and we can want us to be ourselves. All you have to do is shout, and people will listen. The world is full of lethargy, people waiting for someone to take control, to tell them what to think. Don't let the haters take control. Take control yourself. Lead the world towards compassion, and understanding, and open-mindedness, and discomfort, and learning, and weirdness.

Anyways... (side note: I'm typing this in a McDonald's. The party room door just opened and there are a bunch of five-year-olds dancing to the lyrics "my body is your temple." The good news is they probably don't speak English. With how loud the music is, they are probably deaf by now anyways). I made it up out of the hill-that-was-the-city-exit. I think all the cities in Romania are trying to keep me in, since the way out is always a hill. On the way up there were two lanes going up and one going down, nothing unusual. Going down, the opposite. But then... there were two lanes going both ways with a median in the middle and I thought... highway?


I checked my map to see if there was any other route I could take, but everything just dead-ended. The road scheme in Romania reminds me of the circulatory system: the main arteries go places and everything else just dead-ends. The good thing about this is, your route is chosen for you. The bad thing is, if it sucks, then there are no alternatives.

This church gives alternatives to telling the time -- a sundial!

So I had no choice but to stay on the highway, at least for the next 20 miles. The margin came and went. So did the traffic. I survived, though at one point the road narrowed but the amount of traffic did not, and I found myself shouting the f-word over and over as trucks whooshed by, barely giving me three feet. At one point I went round a corner and I all I could hear for the next five minutes was trucks accelerating around it behind me – trucks accelerating behind you, every cyclist's favorite noise. At one point the margin disappeared and was replaced by a foot drop onto uncomplete road and some cones. As I was riding this a truck coming from behind honked at me five times.

Honking has become part of the routine here. Eastern Europeans (I first noticed the pattern in Ukraine, but it's stuck into Romania) actually honk productively: "Hey! I'm gonna pass you in a bit!" or "Thanks for moving over" or "Hey dog, leave that cyclist alone" (this has actually saved me a few times). I usually smile and wave and sometimes they honk "you're welcome." So honking, despite that rather angry post I made up a few months ago when cycling through the States, has normalized for me.

This was not a normal honk. This was "please get off the road or you might die." It wasn't rude, it was just straightforward. Please get off the road or you might die.

So I did.

Finally I made it to rural roads that went somewhere besides nowhere. I left the highway noise behind, and after a few cities, I even left cities behind, just passing through villages of twenty houses or less. At one point a hawk started following me – it would watch me from a telephone pole, then take off and fly to the next one, land, and watch me again. "Hello, hawk," I said. He did this a few times before flying elsewhere, but I would see many hawks (or the same one?) in the days to come.

I imagine someone painted him naked and then went, "Eh, better cover it up."

The day had been cloudy on and off, and after a very, very large cloud spent many cold hours in front of the sun, it finally moved out of the way just as I turned onto a dirt road, and a bit of rain sprinkled down. I couldn't help but smile. There in the middle of rural Romania, with nothing but the sounds of raindrops around me, and the sun conquering the clouds, I felt the world was very beautiful. I smiled, and sighed a happy sigh.

Shortly after, I passed what I thought would be the perfect place to stealth camp. Upon scouting it out I found it quite visible from the road, but my brain had switched into lethargy mode, so I pulled out my map to make a judgment call. I judged there were a lot of villages coming up and I should camp. I found another spot at the top of a hill not half a mile farther, and was about to make camp when I heard cowbells. I went round the grove of trees I was about to camp next to and there was a shepherd and her flock.

I decided to risk it anyways. The shepherd wouldn't bother me but the dogs would find me, and remind me just how long dogs can bark for... three hours total throughout various points in the night.

So, I didn't get much sleep, and I woke up to a frozen fly. I packed everything slowly, stopping periodically to warm my hands, and was pointedly reminded why I'd quit my last tour two weeks early: having cold extremeties sucks.

Of course, when one has the Pamir Highway to look forward to, one doesn't give up that easy (not to mention sitting in the airport with perfectly warm fingers would have left me quite regretful). While I had to stop to rub my fingers and toes back alive more than once that morning, the first few miles alone were stunning.

Enlarge this one, there are sheep.

I biked through another day of off-and-on clouds, finding the "highways" this time quite calm compared to the day before, and paved from the rest of the day on once I turned off the road from the night before.


Dracula lives here.

I made it to my Warmshowers about 3, borrowing someone's phone to give him a call. "Meet me at the lake resort, gate 1," said Daniel, "Porto uno."

"Porto uno," I said, "ten minutes." Lake resort? I passed some lakes just a moment ago! I thought, and then proceeded to go to those lakes, which were not the lakes of the resort. Thus I found myself doing an extra hill that day.

But it was pretty so whatevs.

SPOTTED: A mountain I need to climb.

Daniel was a kind host, if a little authoritarian, as are many speaking their second language (since the wishy-washy words are generally late in a language education, you end up stuck with firm "Yesses" and "Nos" instead of ifs, ands, and buts). "You are skinny and weak," he said to me at one point, "you must rest." To be fair, he had done the Transfagarasan before, so he knew better than I...

Dinner was rabbit stew made by his dad, over which we lamented about "poisonous" supermarket food, and Daniel informed me he tried to cook as much of his food as he could. The next morning we'd do a comparison between eggs from his hens and those from the supermarket; indeed, the "local" eggs were better. He owned the "lake resort" and rented cabins on and near it, so I got to stay in one of his cabins, usually about 15 euro a night, for free. Having a room all to myself, including internet, shower, and TV, was very, very nice.

I spent the next morning researching bikes: trying to find something besides the Specialized AWOL that was exactly what I wanted, since AWOLs are fairly new and thus hard to find, trying to convince a bike shop in Thessaloniki, Greece that I didn't want a bike that was too small and wondering at a bike shop in Istanbul, Turkey whether a Rohloff (internal) hub could make it through Africa... around 1:45 ("We must leave at 1," Daniel had said) Daniel pulled up and ushered me into the car, then dropped me in the center of town and told me to be back at 4:30. I visited a grocery story and bought sandwich material since I hadn't had lunch, then wandered, wistfully passing a French tourist group led by someone holding a flag ("follow me!"), wondering if I should converse with them.

Space-efficient bicycle parking!

At 4:30 Daniel and I met and walked to uptown for "the best tripe soup." If you don't know what tripe soup is, I'll let you look it up.

The tripe was very good, but the broth was too fatty for me ("You need fat!" Daniel said. "Look at you!"). We walked back to downtown for a drink with Daniel's "associates --" he was organizing a mountain bike ride later that month and had to talk about various administrative things with his fellow organizers, who ended up being an eclectic group. "A drink" ended up being two beers (one of which was mine), a cider, a mint tea, a sparkling water, and two cokes. I understood nothing except the occasional "par que," which I inferred was "because," and the bit where someone stopped to introduce me and tell everyone about my trip before going back into race logisitcs. A $1 train ride and we were back at Daniel's, and I crashed. On the train we ran into some gypsies – not literally, but Daniel told me after the fact they were gypsies.

"I've heard there are a lot of those around. Should I be worried?" I asked.

"No, not at all. They're quite friendly. I see them every day, I sometimes walk by hundreds going about the city, and I've never been robbed."

So. The gypsies. Perhaps the stigma about them is just the same as every other stigma perpetuated about marginalized groups by the news channels on TV? Perhaps... but I digress.

The Transfagarasan. 25 km and 2100 vertical meters – the biggest climb of the tour so far. Was I ready? I didn't care. 7 AM, barely light out, and I was off (Daniel and I had said goodbye the night before. Remember, I was in one of his cabins, not his house).


I stopped at the Lidl in town to stock up on prime cycling food – pastries and oatmeal cookies -- and had breakfast outside, briefly, though fondly recalling the morning of the Col d'Aubisque in France, with Francois, when I'd found a ten-pack of mini chassons-aux-pommes, my favorite pastries, and the grocery store played techno pump-up music, the universe conspiring for us to have a successful climb. My favorite climb to date.

I also stopped at a bike shop Daniel had shown me before to pick up a stove – I want to move from alcohol to butane for Africa – but they were closed at the wee hour of 9:00 that I arrived) and left town – it had been 10 km into Sibiu and was another 20 to the Transfagarasan, which showed itself periodically, looming in the distance like some demon waiting to be conquered.


I was passed by and then caught up to Graham and Robert from the UK, spending the weekend doing the Transfagarasan. I had what was becoming an all-too-familiar conversation: "Where'd you start?"


"No no, like, where'd you start pedaling?"



We traded contact information and would see each other once more when the mountain appeared in full force, but sadly, I wouldn't run into them again after that – I took the A1 (a highway) the last 10 km and they took a dirt road, being on mountain bikes.


Just after tuning onto the Transfagarasan I stopped at the city at the base for some coffee and lunch – I passed it, mulled, then turned around just as some kids headed home from school had started talking to me in Romanian. "Bicicletaaaaaaaa!!!" they wined in synchronization, as I turned around. I was reminded of Francois's story about the kids cheering him on, believing he was in the Tour de France...

It was almost 12 and I wanted to get up and down before it got cold, so I was wary of time. But, I did meet two (driving) tourists from Poland, who were planning a year-long backpacking trip to begin sometime soon. We geeked out about travel and talked about ways to make money on the road (my tried-and-true "sell postcards" has yet not to surpise anyone!), but eventually the time came to move on.

Too close?

It was flat for a ways, and then it wasn't.

This is what you would have heard if you were outside near the Transfagarasan that day:
Let's... go... ride a bike...
up... to... the highest height...

Then, the snow came.

And a few cars that cheered me on.

Then, the top came.

I wanted to carry my bike to the very top for a photo but the snow was 2 feet deep in some places, so I decided against it. I ran into a few more couples (I'm so sorry, I have all your names written down somewhere, but I literally met about 10 people that day and my brain can't keep it all straight just yet), bought a very expensive Snickers and some water, and began descending through the tunnel. On the other side was some snowfall which I got to carry my bike over, meaning I had a car-less descent until they cleared it.

I ran into yet more travelers, all of whom I was glad to meet. Even though for me it was the routine, "Where are from?" "Where are you going?" "How do you make money?" it was really nice to have people to talk to. I never mind when people stop me! I always love talking about the tour and getting to know them in return (if they'll permit me). Meeting people: it's why I tour. Also, sometimes they buy postcards... a tour car stopped on the way up, the guide and guests all took my picture, and upon finding out I funded the trip by "asking for a few bucks in exchange for a postcard," the driver handed me 50 Lei, about $13, and promised to e-mail me his address. Thanks Alex!

And thanks for the photos.

That could be you in the car, taking my picture!

I descended as much as I dared to with the sun having already set in the valley, settled on a place by the river, read, hung a bear bag, and slept like a baby. Except all those time I woke up thinking there was a bear around. But there wasn't – just the stream and my tired brain playing tricks on me.

The next morning I continued down the mountain and around the lake at the bottom. As the bird flies, it was only about 10 km over the lake; the road that winds around it makes at least 25. It was lovely, quiet road, it just seemed to go on forever. I was passed by a very, very sporty car all logo'd up going the other way – the only thing resembling a "racer" or "dragster" I would see those two days, despite Wikipedia's claim the Transfagarasan was populated by them. About halfway around I finished all my food, including my reserve half loaf of bread, and was left with only jam (one jar I'd bought and one jar Daniel had given me – "I know you've got a climb coming up, but..."). A number of the people I'd met the day before honked and passed me and said "How are you?" but I always found myself so much in the zone (of starvation and my-god-when-will-this-lake-end) I couldn't muster more than a "good" before they drove off. Maybe if I'd managed a "HAVE YOU ANY FOOD I'M DYING" they would have pulled over, whipped out a camp stove, and made a dozen eggs? Too late to know for sure.

Just before the end of the lake I stopped at a hotel to see what they had for breakfast... well, they had a buffet. I was torn. Steal from a ritzy, overpriced hotel? Risk getting arrrested? In retrospect probably nothing would have happened, but I settled myself in the lounge to wrestle with my conscious, and by the time I'd made up my mind, they were clearing the food away. All those eggs gone to waste... (eggs are great cycling food – protein, and a good excuse to eat salt). As I left the hotel, I noticed a sign on the door: "Bears in the area. Do not leave the hotel at night!" It was only in English, as if to say, "the locals all know this already, idiot..."


From the dam at the far end of the lake I took one last look at the mountain and descended into the valley below. And then... it was warm? And the roads weren't windy? Weird...

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful except for it being warm and traffic picking up the farther I got from the Transfagarasan. I would occasionally steal glimpses of it, and I remembered that time I went hiking in the Himalayas and got a few of Mt. Everest... Who is climbing you now? I thought.

I also wondered about where all the gypsies were, since this was the part of the country they were supposedly concentrated in. I'd been warned again and again not to approach them, and told specifically not to catch any babies they threw at me ("You can't not catch the baby," Mandy said, "so once you've got your arms occupied with the baby, they rob you"). I imagined babies flying out of the bush at me, but the only thing flying out of the bush was dogs. I must have been accosted by 10 dogs that day, all driving me from my peaceful cycling headspace to a much more pissed-off one where I worried about getting rabies or getting hit by a car while trying to keep my distance. I'm usually a dog person but it crossed my mind more than once to teach one of them a lesson. I never did, but it reminded me that we all have a dark space inside of us, and those of us who say "I would never do such a thing" probably just haven't had the right buttons pushed, or pushed hard enough.

Just casually hopping a ride in a hay trailer.

At the top of the hill:
Nope, just Jesus."

Someone lost a card game...

I haven't been bit, and most dogs don't even chase me, but a fair few run after me just beside my leg, staring at it, barking, growling... it's unnerving, and not a place I like to be in any more than neccesary. Also, for whatever reason it seems like more domesticated dogs than strays do this. As I ride into a city I'll see a few strays in the middle of the road glance up as if to say, "What's that? Oh, nothing important," then returrn to their business, before the whole neighborhood ignites with dogs behind fences and on leashes barking in a chorus, like that scene in 101 Dalmations, except instead of saving 101 Dalmations they are plotting how best to brutally murder 101 Cyclists... *ahem.*

At 5:30 I found myself going about 2 mph up a hill and decided I should call it early. I saw a spot just across the river and decided that was good enough. Between getting there and 7:30 I walked around, hoping for a better spot, as it was a bit exposed... but at 7:30 put up my tent and was asleep by 8.

Before Daniel cajoed me into a break day before the Transfagarasan (and it's good he did, I needed it), I had messaged someone in the next city, saying I'd be there that day – Friday the 13th (not surre if it's an American thing but just some context: for whatever reason there's a stigma that bad things happen when the 13th is a Friday). I had desperately wanted to be inside that day. Nothing bad had happened, really, but between the dogs and the fairly exposed camping spot I was ready to be indoors. Fortunately, that host, Alex, was available the next night, so I would get a safe place to sleep eventually.

I decided to get up early the next morning to make it to Alex's city early and write my blog so I could spend the entire evening with my hosts. The day was uneventful, except for a few climbs and a thorough imagining of circumnavigating the globe entirely by human power – on a bike that could also function as a boat. It would no doubt need more than one person for balance and power across the oceans, so why not put a few tandems together? And then, why not build a few of these and have the cycle city I've imagined so many times before? Maybe one day...

In Craiova I stopped at McDonald's to see if they had internet. They did, but it didn't work at first, so I went to a nearby park to weigh my options. There I was approached by Rares (whose English name is Theodore), a local high school student very interested in cycling and cycle touring. I told him my story and he gave me a few connections that might be able to help me find a new bike, we traded contact info, and I went on my way. He told me to try the McDonald's internet again – so here I am. But I'm glad I visited that park and met Rares.

This may seem like an abrupt end, but I'm eager to finish up and get to my host. Tomorrow, I'll continue south to Bulgaria. I hope you enjoyed this episode!

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