A Travellerspoint blog

The Crumbling World

The fact that Istanbul spanned two continents meant I just had to take advantage of the novel factor associated with being in Europe for the morning, spending the afternoon in Asia and then back to Europe in time for tea. Istanbul ran an efficient ferry service across the Bosphorus, which was the narrow straight of water that sliced through the landmass, connecting the Black Sea to the North with the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean to the South. What I was most surprised about however was the cost of the ticket. I'd been spending the occasional 1.50TL for the odd tram ride here and there around Istanbul, and I was pleased to see the ferry cost just the same. This was equivalent to less than 70 British pence. I wasn't used to bargains in Turkey. It was no longer the place to go for a cheap holiday, but still a long way off Western European prices.

The large vessel left Kariköy on the European side and docked at Kadiköy on the Asian side about half an hour later. The procedures were undertaken with such regular practice it hardly looked like work for the staff involved. I stepped off the boat onto the banks of Asia. But what exactly was I expecting? Paddy fields and cone-hatted farmers herding a mass of goats? No, and it was the same. Same people, same buildings, same flag blowing vehemently in the wind. The Turks were undeniably proud of their flag. In the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is the Northern third of the island of Cyprus, their Islamic-based flag graces a good portion of the side of the Beşparmak mountains. They carved it into the rock, and you can even see it from the Greek side of the capital Nicosia. Which remains the world's only capital which doesn't sit in one country, although TNRC is a de facto state, recognised only by Turkey themselves. I'm sure they light it up at night time just to piss off the Cypriot Greeks. In lettering next to the flag it says: 'How blessed is the man who can call himself a Turk'. The Cypriot Greeks read it as If you want it, come and get it, a goading message after the Turks took hold of the land in the Cypriot wars of 1974; and with great insult. It is a hotly debated topic amongst all involved.

I hadn't been to a real food market on the European side of Istanbul but I was getting the feeling that the food displayed so attractively in the market stalls of Kadiköy was of a more exotic nature. Vegetables that I didn't recognise, colourful spices and a dozen types of olives fronted busy stalls, but it was the combinations of foods and the distaste that I felt as I looked at it which set it apart from the cuisine I'd seen so far. And the smell of fish, the smell of fish was dominant above all others.

On the journey back, the night fell in and the lights of the city twinkled between the glorious sight of mosques, minarets and historic architecture on the horizon. The ferry approached the dock. I peered over the edge, the water looked like a dark canvas. The slick black of the waves brushed with neon oils of green and pink made from the reflection of seafood restaurant signs on land. I sat on the dockside for a while, taking in the sound of the waves and smell of the latest fresh catch as the night sky turned out its lights completely. With a sudden swoosh a big wave broke over the edge of the concrete sea wall and a swell of water whirled around my feet. That was my sign to get up and go. But I rather enjoyed that trip across the Bosphorus.

The next day I planned on leaving Istanbul for Bergama (Pergamum), but I wasn't leaving without one more dessert. I'd come to rely on the ready supply of decent cafés serving the most appealing cakes from their shop windows. Single person tarts with whole strawberries piled on top into a dome of deliciousness, generous slabs of spongy flan topped with thick slices of banana, kiwi and peach, and the most outrageously delectable profiteroles with thick chocolate sauce. The most astonishing thing about all these desserts is that the fresh cream, the chocolate sauce and whatever else might be piled on top, but especially the cream, was light, easy on the stomach and didn't even hint at the feeling of sickliness. It was as if God himself had made them in his spare time. Anyone that loves desserts should come to Istanbul and go nuts. Speaking of nuts, the baklava is great too. A pastry dessert made with layers upon layers of phyllo dough, chopped nuts and a special blend of syrup and honey.

On my last afternoon in Istanbul, one of the world's great and most interesting cities I wandered around Sultanahmet and soaked up the atmosphere around the small park along the main drag. A few crows, stray cats and dogs hung around the fountain for a sip. I wasn't even drinking the water from the taps here, it smelled like it'd come out of a swimming pool; so heavily chlorinated. The call to prayer echoed out across the city, the dogs stood and howled. As the volume diminished and silence befell, all I could hear were the quiet mumbles of foreign conversations, the bell ring of the tram and maritime squawk of seagulls overhead. Istanbul was so close to the sea on both sides that seagulls made themselves a permanent home on the air between the minarets of this city.

At the huge Otogar bus station that evening there was nothing for it, I would have to go round asking for prices and just keep comparing. There were dozens of companies lined up in simple shops next door to one another as far as the eye could see in the chaos of it all. The first quote- 40 Turkish lira. No thanks. 'OK, OK 35 lira....' the man offered from behind eyes which no longer bore the guilt of scamming tourists. 'No, I think I can get it cheaper'. The lady behind the booking desk interjected with a three and a zero on a piece of paper. 'I'm going and maybe I'll come back'. Why not just give me the real price in the first place? I got a ticket for 30 lira elsewhere.

The buses in Turkey were a professionally run affair. Some smaller buses operated between nearer towns, but anything over 4 hours would likely be a huge rolling coach with bug-like wing mirrors and cavernous interior. There's free tea or coffee or juice or mineral water, and if you're lucky some chocolate cake as well. On longer journeys the drinks were served every hour or two. The young attendants wore smart shirts and waistcoats. The seat allocation was supervised. The only downside was the terrible soap opera acting on the TV screens. Other than that, I was very impressed. At certain intervals the attendants came round to squirt a kind of fragrant lemon cleansing liquid into your cupped hand. The first time he squeezed the liquid from that bottle into my hand I was unsure whether to drink it or what I should do with it. A gestured charade from the man sitting next to me sorted that one out. It was the Turkish equivalent to a hot towel, which the Indians loved so much in the restaurants back home. I would come to see this stuff in restaurants and on many other coaches during my stay in Turkey. It was just another little thing that made Turkey unique among the places I had been so far.

The coach pulled up for a scheduled stop. A man stepped into the aisle and began his speech, selling packets of something unknown; maybe they were cigarettes. Either way I wasn't interested. Another man stepped aboard. The verbal diarrhoea that came out of his mouth was undeniably impressive despite the fact I didn't comprehend a word of it. As he rambled on he demonstrated the wonders of a 'leather' wallet that he held in his hands like a magician. The light touch he displayed with his thumbs, index and middle fingers reminiscent of any illusionist you care to mention. I was waiting for the trick, but it never came. Maybe the trick was the sale itself. He took out a lighter, a pen and a lighter gift set. Each one from a different pocket of his coat or trousers. If the next item was a rabbit I'd have bought something for sure, I was quite enjoying myself.

The bus rolled on to Izmir, from Izmir I changed for Bergama and at Bergama Otogar- bus station, I experienced my first dolmuş minibus, which took us to the town centre. On the dolmuş service a young man introduced himself as Ibrahim. He carried a guitar in a black fabric case. Upon leaving Istanbul, I sent my guitar home. My pack was too heavy, too cumbersome and every time I entered a train cabin or bus aisle I would unwittingly smack at least one person in the face with it. It had to go. Ibrahim was the first in a long line of people thereafter who either played or travelled with a guitar. My face was well and truly rubbed-in, but it was too late now. Anyway, I was too busy enjoying the benefit of a lighter backpack; it was so much more freeing. At Bergama centrum- a seemingly universal word for centre in every country I had been through, I hopped off the dolmuş and began walking the two kilometres North up to Odyssey guest house. I felt encouraged and flighty by the lesser weight on my back. In this town, the old and young chose the scooter as the preferred form of transport, I was really beginning to feel like I was in Asia for that reason alone. Chickens roasted on rotating spits in shop windows, the ubiquitous carpet shops broke up the line of cafés, convenience shops, butchers, trade shops and all other essential outlets designed for village life. There was nothing glamorous about this town, it was all old-world charm. Weathered men sat outside cafés drinking çay while their wives presumably looked after the house and grandkids. It was a cinematic rolling tape of traditional Turkish life and I had a prime seat to observe.

The Odyssey guest house was a renovated 180 year old Greek home, and proudly declared itself so. The owner Ersin welcomed me with few words and a perma-grin. The house was interesting but what lie at the top of the hill was the main attraction. Bergama's main hill was the home of the Acropolis, an ancient Greek site of archaeological importance. The road that wound up to the hilltop was a kilometre away from where I stood in the village. I began walking North through the network of tiny streets to get to it. A thousand worn shades of blue, pink and green lay exposed on the crumbling exterior walls of the stone houses. Doors splintered top and bottom and with gaping holes on several panels were the only protection from outside conditions. Several children of the village appeared from around random corners, looking at me with bemused faces 'Merhaba!' or 'Hello!' they would shout, which was then all too often followed by 'money!' They were taught early. I didn't mind. The thing I was learning about Turkish people was that even if they were asking for money (which happened a lot less than in Central and Eastern Europe) it was hard not to like them for their character. I appeared out of the stone matrix and onto the open road. It was going to be another five kilometres to the top. Three or four kilometres and an amount of sweat later I heard a vehicle approach from behind me along wth a string of male voices. I looked behind to see a dump truck and four or five men aboard, all encouraging me onto the back. Relieved and excited I jumped onto the back, just where you'd throw the rubbish in to crush it. I hung on for a free ride and jumped off at the top. 'Teşekkur ederim!' I declared gratefully, thoroughly pleased at the randomness of it all.

Five minutes later I found myself deep in conversation with a Turkish man at the café by the ticket office for the Acropolis. The subject of the discussion was salep. Salep was a hot milky drink served in Turkey, mostly after meals. The shame of it was that if you didn't know to ask for it, you missed out. Only one person ever offered me salep, and that was a gentle charactered man selling it from a wooden cart on the streets of Sultanahmet. It was usually kept in a brass-coloured urn, but in restaurants it rarely made it onto the menu. The possible reason for this, as I found out in conversation, was that salep was made, primarily, from a type of crocus flower which only grew in Turkey. It would likely become extinct in the next twenty years if they picked it at the current rate. It was dried and ground up into a powder which was then mixed with either milk or water. It smelled and tasted of rice pudding, milk and a hint of nuts. It was divine. The cinnamon on top complimented the thick, creamy taste and texture perfectly. Virtually every restaurant I ever went in I asked for a cup of salep. All too few sold it. But then, the fact that they couldn't cultivate this flower did make it something of a blessing while it was still about.

Having already been to a few archaeological sites on the island of Cyprus in the past I wasn't sure I'd get anything new from seeing the same things here in another country. I was right. Walking around the ancient ruins of the Temple of Dionysus and Alter of Zeus, I couldn't help feel that they were just that- ruins. It wasn't a grand city. It was ruins. Even the Temple of Trajan, which was the only barely surviving semi-structure, built during the reign of Emperors Trajan and Hadrian didn't inspire visions of Romans worshipping Zeus all around me. I did try but I was unsure if I was lacking imagination or whether this place was just too destroyed to feel it. I felt the same at the Asclepion which was another ancient Greek site a few kilometres down the road. Its use was as an ancient medical centre for the people of Bergama. It was founded by Archias who was a local man with first hand experience after he himself was healed in Greece at the Asclepion of Epidaurus. But the real claim to fame was that Galen (AD 131-210) who was quite possibly the greatest early physician, influenced the work in the medical centre here and brought favour and respect to the Asclepion. His work on the nervous and circulatory systems formed the groundwork of Western medicine until as late as the 16th century.

I walked around the ruins of the Asclepion with Derek. A long-haired and tattooed rocker from Ireland. I met him in the guest house while making coffee one lazy afternoon. But seeing as we were the only two there, I guess that was only a matter of time. Derek and I shared views on world politics, government agendas, spirituality, Radiohead and baklava. The annoying thing was that he could feel the positive energy from the Asclepion. I must have been closed-off, because to me it was no more or less energising than a night in with Ant and Dec. I found more rewards in hearing about Derek's adventures setting a hostel up in South-East China. He was a brave and positive man, who philosophised with ample knowledge on culture, religion and history. 'The Chinese....man, they'll fuck you over no matter whether you're Chinese or a foreigner, they're nice people like, but they won't think twice about ripping you off. The police are cool, we'd bring 'em inside the hostel for a free drink, make 'em feel like a celebrity and it wouldn't matter what you were doing inside, they'd turn a blind eye, or have a go themselves.' We spoke a great deal about human civilisation, nature and the spiritual self, some of my favourite topics. I was a little disappointed that Derek was leaving that day. I could have learned a lot more from him. Still, we had time to relax at the local hamam. A hamam was a Turkish bathhouse. Although the massage was a little rushed in this particular hamam, there's nothing quite like sweating it out in the citrus air of the stony enclaves. It's an essential experience as a part of Turkish culture.

Earlier that day whilst walking back down from the Acropolis I spotted a small stone hut in the distance down the bank. There was a small break in the fencing which was hinged back together with strategically placed hooks. I unhooked them and climbed through. There were virtually no cars on this road so I felt no worry about looking dodgy. A rusty tanker sat next to a makeshift wooden stick gate. The gate was locked with a sturdy padlock and chain and laced with barbed wire. I climbed on top of the tanker which would allow me to step down on the other side of the gate- criminals take note. I looked into the distance from on top of the tanker to see if anyone inhabited the hut. I noticed a scooter just around the corner. I felt the rush of adrenaline in my belly as I often did when facing uncertain adventures. I loved the unknown and the unexplored. Put me in a desert and I'd be excited to the pit of my belly. Or in a forest. Any landscape which provided isolation and the feeling of unlimited space in front of me. Somewhere I could be at one with nature, as corny as that sounds. I remember that exact feeling in the Australian outback. Wandering out into the bush and seeing what I could find. My wife at the time beckoned me back to the car on several occasions, slightly worried by nature's venom and not sharing quite the same spirit for the the wilderness that I had. I began having short visions of finding a local family down there who would feed me rustic foods cooked on a bonfire and that they would let me stay there for the night among the stars, then in the morning I might milk the resident goat for coffee and cornflakes. However, there were some things to consider, point number one- they had a locked fence complete with chain and barbed wire. To me, that doesn't say welcome all strangers. Point number two- I already paid for my room today. Point number three- they might have a gun. Guns were readily available in Turkey. The military and the police often walked about in the streets with automatic weapons and gun shops in the street seemed to offer little security. Despite this, Turkey always felt like a very safe country for me. Couple that with Islam, which seemed to have an effect on the people and you find that crimes such as stealing, pick-pocketing and mugging have very low rates by most worldwide standards. Points number one and two were enough for me to creep back through the hole in the fence and continue on down. Further down the road I poked my head into a small cave carved out on the hillside. The entrance was about three feet high. I was feeling inquisitive. I took my tiny LED torch and poked it out in front of me. It was nowhere near bright enough to allow me to see what was deep inside. Apart from a few scraps of rubbish all I could see was one passageway leading off into the blackness and another two which branched out to the sides. I crouched momentarily inside, only to see the mosquitoes buzzing around my head, If I had a proper torch I would have gone right inside. 'Hello?' I said, knowing I wouldn't get an answer. I thought about the possibility of wolves, bears and snakes and then backed out. I liked to take chances in life sometimes, but I'd rather be able to see where I was going.

Returning to the hilly village back streets I came upon a small boy with his family. He wore a traditional-looking waistcoat and slightly scruffy clothes. 'My name Ibrahim' he declared. He spoke to me in Turkish in an open and innocent fashion. 'I'm Adam, nice to meet you kid'. His Mother smiled at his innocence as if to say you have your fun with the foreigner. Further into the network a man in the funnelled distance of the street raised his arms up as I took a photo of the emaciated houses. 'Halo!' he shouted. 'Deutsche? Deutsche?' he questioned, in a friendly but raised voice from thirty metres away. It took me a while to understand the strange blurting sound coming from his mouth. He was asking if I was German. I came closer. 'No, no... Ingiltere'. His smile became all the wider. 'Oh, ok I no speak English, my English.... schieiße'. He was clearly Turkish but his second language was German. His wife and child joined him at the gate to his house, he introduced himself and shook my hand. The three of them smiled warm smiles and looked on with a kind of novelty written all over their faces. He offered his hand again and they waved me goodbye as I moved on.

Another two minutes passed. I turner a corner to see a young, determined-looking man sat on a tractor, trying nobly to back up into one of the narrowest parts of the whole street-scape. It reminded of that scene from Austin Powers. One inch forward, one inch back. He came so close to grazing the wall of someone's house with the trailer he was pulling, which had several people in it, naturally. Not that it would have shown. Maybe that's what happened to this town. This fella was let loose with a tractor and gradually over the last twenty years he set about scraping the place to bits. He welcomed a picture and smiled with a greeting. I was really beginning to warm to the Turkish people. At every turn there was a toothy smile, a wave or a merhaba waiting for me. These people were first and foremost all about the welcome.

I sat at the street café the next morning, watching the people go about their lives. Old men creeped past, wearing Grandad caps and thick suit jackets. The few women in appearance wrapped themselves up in a foray of headscarves and drape-like clothing. Half the people sat drinking çay. A large portion of people stood chatting and gesticulating, the rest waddled through the small crowds, hands behind backs or hands on walking sticks. Many people fingered through prayer beads while walking. Dolmuşes, cars, motorbikes, tractors and horse and carts all shared the cobbled road. Curled sausages, tied to shop awnings swayed in the breeze. Lamb carcasses hung lifelessly in the butchers window. The backdrop- a crumbled Ottoman house and above that the mirage of the Acropolis on the distant hillside. An aged, decrepit man walked towards me and rambled on in a foreign tongue. I looked at him and signalled my inept understanding with strained eyes. The café owner took him by the arm and lead him away from the outside tables. Even when they were shooing each other away there was a sense of closeness among these people. Bergama touched a little piece of my heart.

I arrived that afternoon in the Australia & New Zealand guesthouse in the town of Selçuk. I was here to see one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. I pushed at the brown-painted gate and became slightly startled by the heavy brass cowbell above my head which rang with a hefty gong. An old lady appeared to my left from a small utility room, 'Welcome, sit please, err, my son, he come, he at Mosque'. I nodded and drifted around the small courtyard. Three-seater sofas draped in patterned throws sat at right angles under a canvas veranda, potted plants lined the outer edges against the butter yellow walls. I remember the sound of the call to prayer going out over the town as I stepped off the dolmuş only five minutes before. The proprietor- Harry, came bursting in with a quick pace and an even quicker way of speaking. He spoke with an Australian accent through a Turkish moustache. His heavy-set figure peaked at the stomach. He joked at a million miles an hour with unfunny quips. Engaging in conversation, I would learn, was a tough task with Harry, and although he was filled with questions and constantly suggested staying one more night, you felt you had to give the right answers lest you receive another rapid machine-gun fire from behind his 'tache.

I read through the welcome pack inside the cosy lounge. Some hostels insisted on putting every piece of advice possible inside these shabby ring-binders. Where to go, what to eat, useful phrases, bus times and things to avoid. In this instance there was a warning about strangers selling supposed old coins dating back to ancient times. They were as fake as the 9/11 commission report. A little later, I walked up to the Karameşe restaurant for a bite. At the top of the hill a happy looking chap faced me from a souvenir shop, 'where are you from?'
'Do you know anything about the Isa Bey Camii?' It was the mosque at the foot of Ayasuluk hill which was all of twenty feet away and covered at least 75% of my eyeline. He began listing off a round of general knowledge content- built in 1375, the style was pre-Ottoman, the rest I would never remember. At the point where I had nothing to respond with he dipped his hand into his pocket. 'Are you interested in this?' Resting in the palm of his hand were two old coins. 'Alexander' he added. My brain went into rejection mode. 'Ah, no thanks, I'm off to get some food, see you' and I strolled away. Typical. I did find, however, that I was becoming less and less offended by sales techniques, scams and fake things sold as real. Anyone thinking they could get an ancient artifact from a dude outside a souvenir shop should think again before travelling with money in their pocket.

'Where are you from' asked the waiter in the restaurant, which was in fact a transparent marquee in a summer garden. 'Oh, I'm ahh...from Ingiltere'.
'Where in England?'
'Essex', I said. Then something unusual happened.
'Alriiiight, lovely jubbly...nice one mate!' the gentleman replied. Clearly, he knew about Essex.

The Temple of Artemis, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world formed a part of the Biblical city of Ephesus, just three kilometres from Selçuk centre. Unfortunately, as with most of the ancient sites in the world, it has been all but destroyed by earthquake and/or fire at some point in time. However Ephesus was actually appreciable for such a gargantuan pile of levelled stones. A certain percentage, however, of the structural splendour remained in tact and the layout of the city inspired a fair degree of percievable completeness. Three hours later I emerged, mildly educated, thirsty and acheing. I wondered if I should begin doing alternate things to the usual tourist trail as I rarely felt like the entrance fee was set in proportion to the enjoyment factor. It was worth seeing, but after a few ancient sites, a pile of rocks is just a pile of rocks, y'know. And so with that thought I reset my agenda to find uniqueness, Pamukkale might do it...

Posted by kookie888 13:13 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Train ache

Thirteen hours on a train is never an enjoyable experience, thirteen hours on a train that catches fire even less so. Is it a bit smoky in here? I thought to myself as the cabin filled with a light haze. A minute later I spotted a fire extinguisher glide past underneath the cabin curtain which was drawn for privacy. The ticket inspector rushed to open the train door as it stopped on the tracks. I hastily gathered my things and prepared to leave the train if necessary. Several attendants jumped onto the track and began hosing down the underside of the train in the section I was sitting in. Despite the fact none of us saw any flames, the smoke was getting heavier and we found ourselves having to move to the first class carriage, not an injustice in itself. An old woman raised her voice at me so I would close the electronically-operated sliding door and stop the smoke from entering, it wouldn't close and I looked at her with raised eyebrows as she continued to wave her hand from her seat and bark orders at me, it closed automatically and I felt I'd made a point by watching her as it closed on a timer. We looked around at each other, some were worried, others smiled in amusement and the rest sat unperturbed. I wondered if this was a normal occurrence, unable to speak with any of the passengers I just sat and hoped there wouldn't be any damage that would prevent an onward journey. An hour or so passed when the train moved off and Bucharest neared for the second time. I was just passing through, and moving onward into Bulgaria.

At the Bulgarian border town the train refused to move for a significant period of time. Border control was strict. They would demand your passport with a suspicious look. At any border crossing the guards would often inspect under seats and ceiling cavities for stowaways, maybe a contorted Romanian desperate to escape their inhabitance. From what I could make out, there were many Romanians that were happy to leave and start a life somewhere else in the world. Romania was far from a complete country, I liked it's backwater charm, but this often came at a price. The neglect from Ceausescu's presidency twenty years ago was still an ongoing problem. I'd heard first hand that people in hospitals were still suffering from malnutrition. A scenario which, surprisingly, much of the world had failed to see happening in recent times, especially since they shed light on the darker days of the 1980's.

A Bulgarian girl stepped back onto the train after a document check. She sat slowly in her seat, straight-backed and with a look of complete hopelessness. She began crying, silently, turning her face away to look out of the window. I offered her a tissue, she took it but her expression never changed from extreme sadness. She wasn't seeking attention, she wasn't volunteering any information. I watched her and as judiciously as possible weighed up the possibility that she may be after something. I judged not. We began talking, German became the preferred language, I did my best, but on the whole we understood one another. Her name was Fanka, she had typical Roma looks, but with none of their usual clothing, she was straight-cut and wore white knee-high leather boots, purpose-worn light jeans, a tight brown low-cut top and a soft scarf wrapped around the tanned curves of her neckline. She was short, somehow it seemed as if the clothes were wearing her. She began to smile as we spoke and she got up to sit opposite, occasionally wiping her persistent tears away with the tissue and then looking back through the window. She had two large matching tan-coloured suitcases on the rack above her seat. After some time in conversation I realised that she'd had her money and ticket stolen in Bucharest. She carried an official letter from Romanian authorities which allowed her to get across the border as far as Gorna Orjahovitza into her own country and then she would have to find a way to get back to Plovdiv where she lived with her parents. I offered her some madeleines I'd bought for the journey and a few swigs of water. She seemed quite hungry and thirsty, I was happy to help with the basics.

As the ticket inspector came through the carriage I stopped him and offered to pay for a ticket home for Fanka, ten euros from my own pocket would enable her to get home on new year's day. The inspector, who throughout this leg of the journey had at once become the most genuine and helpful person I'd met in any country so far, acknowledged her papers which allowed her to travel to a certain point and suggested the best route and ticket for her onward journey home. It was new year's eve and she was a person in need, it was the right thing to do. She looked deep into my eyes with her head tilted, she gave a small nod and mouthed 'danke shoen' through a relieved smile. She almost became a different person soon after my offering to pay for her ticket. She opened-up and revealed a cuteness of character that made her seem younger than her twenty years would suggest.

Hygiene standards in public places were pretty awful in parts of Europe, this, despite being charged a nominal amount every time you passed those foul-smelling doors. If you found a toilet for free in Europe, you immediately felt like you were stealing. The toilet on the train was quite literally the most repulsive corner of foul smelling space I'd seen so far, no flush and no water. I felt infected upon every breath. This type of repulsiveness made these journeys much more unpleasant than they should be.
I sat back at my seat working through the MacDonald's salad I'd bought in Bucharest. Time passed and midnight drew near. New year's eve 2009. I thought as I often did about my family, the celebrations of my friends back home and the many firework displays erupting into a thousand shades of red, green and yellow above the world's capital cities. Here I was, on a train, eating fruit from a can. Happy new year.

Veliko Tarnovo, set on the hills of the Yantra River is known as the City of the Tsars and is one of the oldest settlements in Bulgaria with evidence of human settlement dating back five thousand years. This resulted in some extremely old and extremely meandering and winding, narrow cobbled back streets that dipped and peaked like a matrix of sine waves. So, getting lost amongst that matrix for three...yes, three hours brought home the reality of carrying my life on my back and how far I was from home. I would never give-in during the tough times of this experience, I knew that; even if I had only been on the road for two months out of eight. Sitting on the village wall on a steep tiny lane- I rested. I was at my physical limit and with no energy to even remove my backpack from my body I allowed it to rest on the wall with me. My head turned up to the heavens and as the seconds turned to minutes and minutes to tens of minutes I began to fall asleep right there in the back street. It must have been six o'clock in the morning. I woke myself and stoked the internal fire in my belly to assist my legs in getting up and walking on, hauling my bag up again and regaining my weary balance from a forty five minute semi-conscious pause I pressed on. I would press on to find that Hostel Mostel was only three minutes away, around a couple of corners. That's just the way it goes sometimes.

There are certain times of the morning which are downright ungodly. Pre-four o'clock is one of them. So getting up and traipsing back to the station the next day to catch the five-fifteen train was definitely a slight mistake. Arriving at Stara Zagora in Central Bulgaria, I would find out that the next train out of there was twelve hours away. Twelve hours. In a town that I had no interest in seeing. I've never spent half a day in a train station before, I never wish to again. At home you take for granted your ability to freshen up, to make yourself a sandwich on a clean surface, to sit in a comfortable chair and watch TV when you get bored. Train times in Central and Eastern were not always frequent, timetables not always easily available, Add to that the inability to understand Bulgarian ticket clerks that have an unpredictable and supercilious nature, and Eastern Europe was becoming more difficult to travel than much of Asia.

So all in all, that was Veliko Tarnovo to Stara Zagora, Stara Zagora to Dmitrovgarad, Dimitrovgrad to Svilengrad, Svilengrad to Kapikule, Kapikule to Istanbul, no real stop-overs, no showers, no clean toilets and no solid idea of when the next link in the chain was going to break. On the train crossing from the Bulgarian border town of Svilengrad to the Turkish border town of Kapikule, I had my first encounter with a Turk in his own country. It began with a question. 'How much is a ticket?'
'Ticket to Kapikule...ten euro.' This was a short run and I knew it was overpriced. 'Sorry sorry, five euro'. I still wasn't sure. 'Ok, four euro.' I was already annoyed that as a British citizen I needed a visa for a European county for €15 and that I needed I seat reservation for €10, I was being leached and there was only so much I could do about it. I hadn't even crossed the border yet or got to within sight of a carpet shop and I was haggling over prices already.

'Istanbuuuul... Istanbuuuul...' came the call from the train corridor, accompanied by a methodical bang on each cabin door as we slept. This was the first time I'd used a sleeper cabin, and I was very much in favour of it. The journey had spanned the whole of early morning and the journey since leaving my last hostel stay in Veliko was over a day, I felt it in my bones. But looking out the window as the outskirts of Istanbul slid past I was surprised to see modern lines, well kept buildings, tennis courts, swimming pools and all sprinkled with a little bit of Asia. But this was still Europe. Turkey, and Istanbul specifically sat at the crossroads between Europe and Asia with each half of the city straddling the line; the only metropolis in the world to do so. I was just surprised to feel like I'd gone up a grade in living standards from Continental European Bulgaria and Romania. My preconceptions were being challenged, and that was a very good thing.

Time to disembark, refuse the taxi rides and find my own way to a decent lodgings. It was always the same when arriving in a new city. The taxi drivers wait like scavengers, ready for their next scam. The weather had definitely warmed a degree or two and I felt bright about that. A new transport system awaited and here, it was the familiar tram. Of course finding out how to buy a ticket was the first challenge, asking was always the quickest way to enlightenment. Turkish people often speak English very well and I felt appreciative of that fact, having struggled somewhat in Bulgaria in the transport sector, albeit only for a day. I bought my blue plastic token, a unique approach to ticketing, and entered the tram line mini platform in the middle of the busy street. Turkish music played through the outdoor speakers and the swarm of kanun, ney and tanbur instrumental sounds provoked the sense of new energy in the air. The faces had changed, the language evolved and the affectation of the people brought new idiosyncrasies to analyse.

Hotel Saruhan, an old yellow stone house with applications of wood in the ceiling décor, solid marble stairs, accommodating and comfy rooms, helpful staff and free apple tea. That was what I needed. After a few hard days on the road, the odd treat was a worthwhile spend. Turkish apple tea would become one of the most morish discoveries I would find in this country, morning time just wasn't morning time without a steaming cup of apple tea, which was essentially sugar and an artificial reproduction of apple. Strangely there didn't seem to be any tea in it at all.

Istanbul, of course, was formerly know as Constantinople and was the seat of the Byzantine Christian Empire formed here in 395A.D. It has been through a few incarnations and invasions, but I was most pleased to see those transitions and historical character mostly in tact throughout the city. It was the fifth largest city in the world with a population stretching to 12.6 million and although Ankara was the official capital of Turkey, Istanbul was the cultural and financial capital, and undeniably influential on the country as a whole.

The Grand Bazaar, a sprawling network of indoor and outdoor market stalls and shops beckoned me in. This was the spirit of hustle and bustle, free trade to everyone and anyone passing within three feet of a waterpipe, fake watch or belly dancing costume. The question 'Excuse me, where are you from?' rapidly sprung up as the net catcher. It was the line they threw out amongst the tourist fish to see who would bite. One question led to another and then to another, finally the questions stopped and the hand raised like a grand welcome to a palace royal, the arm splayed out, palm-forward. It said: Welcome to my shop, please take a look around so I can rip you off with my bloated prices....my friend. The truth is, If you can't find something you want in this mass gathering of human (and many production-line) creations then you're not looking hard enough. A bright red fez, a Turkey flag lighter, copper place-sets, carpets, kilims, ceramic bowls, fruit, vegetables, all-types of kebab, characterised chess sets, hanging glass lamps, linen of every colour and size and a hoard of Turks to barter, scrabble and hassle you into making your next unnecessary purchase.

I stopped in a Turkish café, dimly lit and devoid of much charm at all, but for five roughly suited men inside the window playing a range of Turkish instruments. They wore varied hats and sat with a kind of lazy melancholy, even when playing. It was as if they had been a part of each other's lives since childhood. I noticed that about Turkish males. The men had a brotherhood connection. They often walked, talked and sat in close physical proximity, there was no sign of homosexual element to this closeness at all. It transcended the segregated dogma which wrote the personal social habits of our behaviour around other men in the type of society that I was used to. It was admirable, they stuck together.

I sipped from the small, curved, handle-less glass cup. Turkish çay was similar to black tea. Persistently served with two sugar cubes on the side, this was a drink that typified the social element to Turkish street life. Men gathering on the side of the road, animatedly discussing life and drinking çay looked to be a daily occurrence. The modest décor bathed in semi-light, but marble floors and Turkish rugs added something of promise. Two older women with colourful headscarves sat in the window on the opposite side of the café entrance rolling, stretching and cooking what, to my untrained eyes looked like flat bread, on a domed hotplate. The waiters wore black or red waistcoats with decorative gold stitching. The call to prayer sounded out from the surrounding mosques. This was a regular feature in Sarajevo, so it was becoming a common thing to hear on a daily basis in predominantly Muslim countries and cities. The mosques have speakers facing in all four directions on each of the minarets. If there were two or three mosques in close vicinity, and there were often many more than this, they would synchronise the call so that only one sang at a time. It became a fond sound which reminded me of the difference in culture and my presence away from home. It sounded five times a day and early morning calls at six-thirty were normal. I quickly learned to sleep through them after a couple of days in Sarajevo, but I never minded the first time I woke to hear that glorious sound; it was majestic and humbly charming at the same time. As the call to prayer went out across the diverse urban landscape the musicians stopped playing but cars routinely rolled past and on the whole life continued as normal during this time. If you responded to the call, prayed in the mosque on a Friday afternoon and say the pledge to Allah then you have crossed from Dar ul Harb, the house of the Pagan and crossed into Dar ul Islam, the house of Islam, and you have become a Muslim.

The prayer call dissipated and the five-piece took up their instruments and began to walk around from table to table playing, in search of a tip. I chomped down on a plateful of gözleme with cheese, a kind of hand-rolled pastry crepe. The violinist stalked up to my table and lurched to within a couple of centimetres of my chewing mouth with the headstock of his violin. He leered at me with intense open eyes right down the length of the strings, expecting at any moment that I might pull out a twenty. The foreigner next to me laughed and brought his hands together as if to say can you believe the audacity? The musician pointed to a ten lira note jammed under the strings and raised his eyebrows as he swished his playing arm artistically up and down with the horse-hair bow causing a screech that was whole octaves above the normal register in boastful bravado. Ten lira was equivalent to about five euros. No way mate. Move on. I could almost stay in a hostel for ten lira. He jeered, revealing a sharp incisor at one corner of his mouth and spoke disdainfully in Turkish as he retracted his presence from under my nose, at once leaving me feeling like the smallest person in the room. Many other people in the café were treated to the same ritual of musical interrogation, some caved, others sat firm, unappreciative of such a direct approach and undignified scornfulness. In my opinion, this was a part of the problem which resulted in most human travesties. The greed associated with monetary gain. It pushes us into a feeling of necessity and hence abnormal behaviour. Always trying to get one rung higher than your opponent, because someone else's loss is your gain. I was becoming disgusted by it and at this point in my own life I was seeing it everywhere, and not wanting to partake. I didn't want to prop-up the system. I didn't want to play the game. But like all others I had to. To traverse the grassless field and into a verdant pasture you have to tread the dry ground. The only thing was, I didn't want to reap benefits over anyone else. I would like to see everyone sharing the gift of abundance.

I was in the process of realising that my time in Turkey would result in me eating some sort of kebab at least once a day. Back home kebabs were sought after during a drunken walk home, during pub crawls and virtually any alcohol-related late night jaunt. Here they were a staple food source but unfortunately they weren't really any cheaper. After a non-kebab meal I walked up to Topkapi palace in Sultanahmet. Sultanahmet was the district of Istanbul I was staying in, it was the site of the famous Blue Mosque. The official name of this mosque was Sultan Ahmet, hence the place name. Just through the entrance gates of the palace approach a man leaned against the wall with his hands in his pockets. He was wearing a stripy red and white shirt and worn black jacket. On the floor next to him were two Marlborough cigarette packets placed strategically distanced along two marked lines on the pavement. Four feet away from the cigarette packs was an old football, the type of old rejected black and white football you see African kids playing with in the dust of a Ugandan sunset. The idea was obviously to kick the ball and knock over the two packets. No matter how easy it seemed, coming from Basildon and having seen many pound coins lost over a funfair game in Southend-on-Sea as a child I knew appearances could be deceiving. How hard could it be? I didn't pay to find out, but I knew the answer was very. Twenty feet away another man, an older man in a blue jacket and brown hat stood proudly next to a box on wheels. On the platform were two white rabbits and on top of the box a fine example of a rooster. Colourful and proud, it stood as if on top of the world. 'Fortune teller' he declared. I smiled and walked on, only pausing to take in the detail of the roosters iridescent feathers.

Topkapi palace consisted of grand, open courtyards, a treasury blessed with Ottoman jewels and a harem where the Ottoman Empire's Sultan was able to take any one of a selection of women to the royal bed. All in all, it was OK. I was definitely struggling at these type of sites to visualise the events of the time and get any enriching experience from them. I was learning that if you're just not that into history, there were more rewarding times to be had elsewhere. That in fact was the proof of a good tourist spot. Something you didn't expect you'd like, but came away enriched from.

Turkey was showing itself to be an outgoing tapestry of people woven with culture. In the capital they are not afraid to bypass shyness when it comes to approaching tourists outside their shop, or even in the street in general. You walk past and before you know it there's an ice cream cone on the end of a stick tapping you on the shoulder. 'Ice cream! Take!' the man bawled after thrashing the stick against the rusty bell above his head and then extending it out to me. I was often being assured in shops 'if there's anything you need, I can help you'. All this was mostly done in good humour, the Turks liked a laugh and they smiled, gestured and displayed such countenance that you had to respond with something. If it was done with a slap-dash and soulless approach I wouldn't mind walking-on, but I generally felt obliged to at least respond verbally to the tradesmen of Istanbul, even if it was a generic 'very nice' coupled with acknowledging eyes. I saw too many tourists failing to interact at all, for their own fear of being lured into a purchase. I was working on mine.

Unfortunately the appearance of friendliness and carpet selling went hand in hand. 'Excuse me, where are you from?' I heard as I came out from an afternoon meal in one of Istanbul's many restaurants. 'Erm, I'm not sure' I said, not meaning to be rude, but I'd been asked so many times I was beginning to grow tired of the sound of my own replies. He looked at me up and down for a split second. 'Not comfortable, why?' He spoke with such unequivocal directness that it threw me off, a point-blank zap to my senses. My mind scrambled momentarily, my face turned innocent. Then I said something I wish I hadn't. 'Well, I don't know you'. He shifted and replied 'this is how Turkish people are, we are friendly, we like to talk.' I began to feel shades of shame, the cool edge of contrition sliced a slither of humanity from my heart. I tried not to show it. I allowed for the possibility that he was just being nice. 'Not comfortable, why?' he repeated, I had no answer and looked at him blankly. 'We are just talking, I can see you. Not comfortable, why?' I felt like I was falling through the air, towards a realisation, and with a hard thud. Every cell in my body retracted inwards and I found myself mentally staring in to my own face. Each time his words grasped at my ankles and brought me deeper into the void. I felt empty of heart, but I wasn't going down this easy. I stared down at the pavement, my eyes blinked once. My head levelled, I stared through the brown of his eyes and into the space beyond his pupils. I brought every wrongful indictment and cerebral invective to the back of my mind to allow for a dose of absolution. I stood front-on and brought my honesty in the palm of my hand. I put that open hand out in front of me. Whatever words would come out of my mouth they would not be apologetic, I had too much pride for that. But I wanted to show him I was willing to talk about why I was mildly wary. It is the man who encourages understanding who pushes back the rot of ignorance. Before I could speak, he cut me off preemptively. 'I want to show you something, I have shop, you can come and look, I have nice carpets.' My heart sank. I briefly lost hope in innocence and I walked on with a no, but thank you. After only half a dozen steps I realised that what I wanted to say was that being friendly is wonderful, but being friendly to sell something- is not friendly at all, it's crafty. I could hear his words behind me, 'ah, you are bad person.' I walked away thinking only of what just happened, was I a bad person? I still felt the scratch of my shame, but it was overshadowed by the affirmation of his intent. What people we are. The one man who judges another man's worst, and the other who hides his will clouded in false benevolence. It took me most of that day to lay that encounter to rest, but I would forever be changed by it.

I walked the streets of Kumkapi and Kardiga. I could tell these people were not at all used to seeing tourists. No one offered me a thing. The streets were plain and slightly scruffy. Kumkapi had a heavy Armenian population. The shops lacked the flair and show of culture from the tourist spots. I felt like I had stepped into the staging area for the whole of Istanbul. Shops sold carpets, fabrics, spices, metalwork and clothes amongst other things, but these were by all appearances sold to locals and traders. I felt like I should have had a backstage pass. I wandered south, and came upon the narrow streets of Şehsuvarbey. Children played in the road, parents chased their kids in jest with outstretched arms. The old and weary navigated the pavements with careful consideration and arched backs. Housewives leaned from the waist-up from the windows of crumbling Ottoman houses fronted with broken wood slats and weathered concrete fascias to hang out their wares. Linen, rugs, clothes and head scarves blew like Tibetan flags in the funnelled breeze. Electrical cables were clipped to any available surface and the general contention against the elements with which these people lived was profoundly exquisite. I turned the corner and walked for less than two minutes to find myself unexpectedly back at the hotel via a route I'd never taken before. I remember walking through those doors thankful for what I was able to afford. And I know what I couldn't afford- a bloody carpet.

Posted by kookie888 15:37 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

The hitch

My idea of hitching a ride on the back of a horse and cart and paying the driver in cigarettes was ever-present in my mind. This was my preconceived image from reading various sources on the Romanian way of life in the North. It was the independent go anywhere and in any direction philosophy that I wanted to shape the trip around. I had already compromised on the in any direction part by buying myself a round the world ticket. This dictated that I be in a certain city on a certain date to meet a flight out. I was travelling overland in large, unknown chunks, but the overall trans-continental route was set out before me as a dot-to-dot, circumnavigating this Earth that over six billion of us call home. I also found myself in a bit of a rush. I was running out of time in Europe, my flight to Yemen was scheduled for about ten days time. I had Bulgaria and Turkey to traverse before then.

So a quick trip up to Sapanta, on the Northern border, should give me a taste of what this region was about. The moment I stepped off the maxitaxi (a kind of minibus) after 2 hours of bumpy, nausea-inducing hell, I knew I'd be in for a tricky journey back to Baia Mare. It was already well past midday and in winter the hours of daylight were limited. It took me as far as Sighet, from here I'd have to negotiate a taxi ride up to Sapanta. I asked a local for advice on a rough price for a cab, as preparation. I'd need some mental backing if I was going to laugh at the proposed taxi fare in a moment.
'Sapanta? Oh, mmm...forty lei', I frowned at his offer. 'No, twenty lei'. He smirked at my offer and gave a friendly expression which said I don't want to do it any cheaper, but with a slight hint which gave away the fact he was asking for too much. 'Ok, thirty lei' he offered as a middle ground. I accepted. At Sapanta the fare on the meter came to 28.80 lei, I stumped up the thirty we agreed on. I'd asked him to drop me at the Merry cemetery. The Merry cemetery was a light-hearted take on how the dead should be remembered. I walked into the deathly space that would normally be associated with granite and ageing concrete. Instead it was spiked with headstones carved from wood. Wood that was painted in a simple but pretty scheme of blue, yellow and red. The blue representing the sky to which the soul rises after death. Every one with a triangular top and a relief picture of the deceased in an important moment of their life. The epitaph below, written in the first person, is a anecdotal snippet designed to keep the emphasis on life's victory rather than on death and mourning. Although I couldn't understand the writing, I did find the carved images on each gravestone of cartoon-like people toiling the fields, skinning a cow or getting hit by a car to be mildly entertaining, and I too could see the funny side, which was in the spirit of this place. The beautiful memorials were the lifetime work of Stan loan Pătraş, a simple man and dedicated craftsman, and later carried on by his apprentice Dimutru Pop, otherwise known as Tincu. I remember feeling a little surprised at how many visitors it received, it felt very out of the way and although it was unique, it was after all just a graveyard, yet the people came in small groups, each taking their snaps and wandering off again. Which I guess is what I was doing too, I just had a bigger camera.

There was no use expecting some kind of public transport to appear and whisk me back to Baia Mare, or even to Sighet. I decided I was going to have a hitch a lift from the roadside. I went through the muscle motions in my head and tried to decide if my hitching face should be friendly or desperate. I went with friendly with a little bit of expectation. I knew that at some point on this trip that I was going to have to rely on someone's goodwill, why not now? So, barely had I been on the small main road for 3 seconds with my thumb out than a man approached me from his parked car only ten paces behind. When he spoke I had the feeling it was where are you going? In Romanian. 'Sighet' I replied, deciding not to try my luck with Baia Mare, since it was over 70km away and I hadn't figured out if this guy was a taxi man or not. He spoke again in Romanian and then walked over to his car and drew and '8' in the dirty side window. I thought, ok well, it's not free, but it's a fraction on how much I paid to get here. I accepted. It wasn't a taxi as far as I could tell, he seemed like a normal fellow, in the right place at the right time. We sped past the kind of carts I imagined, each drawn by two horses and each horse with two large red tassels aside their head. The cart overloaded with bundles of hay, others laden with a ton of mud with a spade comically sticking out of it. I stared through the back window as we passed, seeing the old man riding on the yoke, whip in hand and travelling at about 10 kph, max. I felt shamefully grateful for the first time that I was not on it. With more time it would have been an experience. Seeing the red tassels on the horses heads reminded me of the graveyard and the guys I'd seen dressed in monster costumes with bells and drums, they had the same tassels as part of the ensemble. I was unsure what it was all about, and that maybe it was similar to the ritual of people dressed in bear costumes in Brasov at Christmas time. The only thing is they weren't just costumes in Brasov, they were skinned bears with a person inside. The owner of Villa Cristiani had told me about a bear that descended the hill on a regular basis and wandered the streets of the suburban town in search of food. It hadn't hurt anyone, at least yet. But the whole thing seemed very odd.

I got out, thanked the man and began walking to the outskirts of Sighet. If I was to hitch-hike further I'd need to be out of town alongside the main road. The night set in and I protruded my left thumb out as I walked forwards. Romanians drive on the right so cars would be approaching from behind me. Each time I could hear a line of vehicles I would turn to face them, continuing to walk backwards and duck my head slightly looking into the reflective windscreen in hope of a kindness. I must have walked for fifteen minutes along the stretched, dark highway. It was packed-full of cars heading in both direction. By the time I reached a petrol station about 3 or 4 cars had stopped, I asked 'Baia Mare?' to each one only to be met with a shake of the head, some were cars with single people, some with families. Others had random people in the passenger seat waving a disapproving finger at me, mostly middle-aged ladies. I stood at the petrol station in a strategic location, allowing a passing car to see me under the light and be able to stop on the nearby slip road. A couple more cars stopped, it was then that I realised my mistake. I took out my map and jotted down each of the half-dozen towns which fell between my current position and my intended destination. I would probably have to do this in increments. I was on the right route, it was just that maybe ninety percent of people passing were not going the whole sixty kilometres back to Baia Mare.

A car stopped behind me as I was facing the oncoming traffic, he'd seen me, but I didn't see him. He approached me and with a simple friendly face asked if I needed any help, almost without words and by expression alone. 'Baia Mare?' I asked. I could tell he wasn't going that far so I updated my request to Fereşti. Success, his face smiled and nodded. He was young, he wore red beanie hat and drove a red Corsa. In the car he asked me if I spoke Spanish, in Spanish. I knew what 'Habla Espanol?' meant, so in an ironical response I said 'No.' I was a little disappointed in myself as I had learned basic Spanish on and off for a year before I left home in November, but as soon as I even thought about conversing with it, it was as if that mental lexicon just fell out of my head. Romanian music played from the speakers and with the language barrier between us we spoke only a few words. He seemed kind in the purest sense, no prejudgements, just helping a person in need as if it was no more or less normal than his daily routine. I could tell he drove further than he intended, just to help me, as he pulled in at a bay at the side of the black road. I thanked him as he got out the car, checking to make sure I could managed my bag okay. I was beginning to feel the kind of hospitality that I at first feared, or just suspected. I went with it and just accepted the act for what it was. I knew I needed to be cautious, anyone does when hitch-hiking, but I didn't want to mentally incriminate these people because of my own paranoia. If I was to enjoy this kind of experience, I would have to place a bit more trust in humanity. I was testing myself here, on this pitch black stretch of winding tarmac. I knew that to stretch myself would surmount to broadening the possibility for enjoyment. These events were placed on an enjoyment meter, limited only by my own ability to set the measurements and maximum threshold.

I strolled down into the blind corner, knowing that cars in this region were few and far between. The street lights were spaced in such a way that if I stood halfway between them I risked not being seen at all. The night sky stretched across this part of the world like spilled ink on a roll of sky-sized blotting paper. An old man dressed in traditional clothes and a lumber jacket passed me on the road, we conversed briefly in our respective languages and as he stared me down in complete curiosity I smiled and showed my thumb to illustrate what a foreigner was doing at night on a deserted village road miles from a tourist town. He smiled and waved, bye bye. I advanced further, a couple more cars failed to stop, but I was sure my hit rate would be higher on such a desolate road, the pity factor was increased.

Finally an old car stopped just past me and a slightly scrawny looking man, resembling a possible psychopathic hermit got out the car and gesticulated for me to shove my bag onto the back seat. His body language was not really cold as such, just indifferent,. Along the journey he barely spoke, he looked an unlikely sort to pick up hitch-hikers. It was as if it was his good deed for the day but that someone put him up to it, nevertheless I duly thanked him for stopping with a polite 'multimeşc'. I found it to be a strange word for thank you, especially because it didn't seem to be related in any way with neighbouring countries. As soon as you cross the border into Bulgaria it's blagodaria- it couldn't be more contradistinct. Overall, I liked the Romanian tongue, it had a more romantic sound compared to its Central European counterparts. It was, after all, a Latin-based language.
After he dropped me off I realised I'd gotten as far as a nameless village just past Guileşti. I was gradually getting there, even if it was in bite size chunks. Two more villagers passed me on the road, out for an evening stroll perhaps. They wore tall hats, one of the men continued to munch on some kind of seed, spitting out the seed casings with remarkable disregard. Of course, I said 'hello' which was my announcement as to my nationality. I did often try to greet people in their own language and follow with a set question, whereupon you receive a barrage of unintelligible replies, when what I should have done is use my own language to show my flag early-on. However, I liked the show of respect that you were at least trying with the basics, it's a tricky one. All I could really say that they would understand was 'Baia Mare'. That was all that was needed. Foreigner + Baia Mare + deserted village location + protruding thumb = he's hitch-hiking to Baia Mare but he's waiting for a lift. It was simple maths. I waved bye bye and continued on my way down into winding blackness, a road right out of someone's fiendish nightmare.

The road was so destitute and so lonesome that it only took three cars to pass for one to stop. The people carrier ground to a halt in a small bay about fifty metres up the road. I could see at least two men inside, one got out and began systematically rearranging the back seat and its contents. He paid such little attention to me jogging up towards the car that I wondered if they stopped for me at all. I reached the man, who was still throwing some of the things around, seemingly to create a space, 'Baia Mara?' I tried, 'yes, yes..' And that was it, I managed to score a ride for the rest of the forty or so kilometres back to my origin. Totally ebullient I thanked them for the car-share as I climbed into the back where a third man sat also. I could see his eyes wandered away from anyone or anything, he was blind. The lack of any conviction and expression in his pupils gave it away, he glazed over and sat quietly.

The journey slashed through a spaghetti route of twists and hairpin bends which produced such centrifugal force that I had to tense my every muscle so as not to flop about in a rag-doll fashion. 'I am rushing because eight o'clock, I have to be home to my wife, otherwise......boxing' he gestured a light punch. His driving style resembled that of a man possessed, only with a relaxed stance at the wheel, every car in front was an inconvenience, and he disposed of them with a short, sharp overtake, a gauntlet run based on speed rather than technique. 'I'm sorry, I speak little English...better Italian' I stated that my Italian was non-existent when the front seat passenger interjected in jest, 'Italian Mafia!' patting his driver friend on the shoulder as if labeling him with every tap. 'No, no' said the driver, 'I was ex-border police, no mafia...no mafia'. The gentleman in the back remained silent to the end of the journey. 'Where are you staying?' the driver asked. I gave him the road name and despite his earlier haste, he dropped me off to that very spot. 'Multimeşc, thank you so much, that's really great.' He threw his right hand over his left shoulder from the driver's seat and turned his head halfway toward me, I shook his hand. 'I am happy to help you.' And with that, I looked at the time only to see I'd made it back via 4 cars in 2 ½ hours; quicker than the bus and a more fulfilling experience, I felt great.

Posted by kookie888 08:01 Archived in Romania Comments (0)

It's Dracula Christmas

What were the odds of the nine of us all being from different countries? I asked myself as I waited for my main course at one of the most impressive restaurants I had ever been to. I sat at a large table in a grand, ornate setting blessed with classic architecture that supports the original label of Bucharest as 'Little Paris'. Caru' Cu Bere, one of the oldest beer houses in Bucharest opened in its present location in 1899 and hosted an amiable crowd, unlikely of its architectural caliber and offered meals at regular prices. Our table was nine-strong and consisted of Portuguese, South African, Taiwanese-American, Scottish, Swiss, Belgian, Romanian, Egyptian and English flavours. Franco sat to my right and kept the atmosphere light and humorous. He'd been the one to offer me a beer and invite me out with the group earlier that evening, so that's two friendly Portuguese men I'd met recently. Franco was not quite as cordial as Othello from the Turkish baths, but then that wasn't such a bad thing.

As we ate and drank, the entertainment began. Modern music blared from the speakers and five professional dancers got into the groove with youthful energy and tight costumes. The waitresses dodged and weaved past flailing arms and legs as each one of us watched in awe, awaiting disaster. A kicked drinks tray or a punch to the face would have cheered me up no end, but we were having a pretty good time anyway and it might have required us to give a bigger tip if one of the staff took a blow for our entertainment, so probably best all-round if they didn't. The problem started when the dancers began to disperse into the crowd and pull up unsuspecting diners with a mouthful of schnitzel. I decided sharply that I would get up if prompted, it's easier to go with it than resist, but until then my head would remain firmly in a downward position. I looked across the table, all the guys were now 100% dedicated to their soup, burgers and pork shank; face down and looking most involved with every mouthful. None of us did get up, Marcus from Switzerland was offered a hand, as was Wim from Belgium, which is precisely when my face became so close to my pork that I could virtually snort the sauce if I felt so inclined. It was good pork.

Going to an absinthe bar afterwards might have been a mistake had they not been closing after the first round of drinks. I've no idea of the percentage alcohol, but dripping the water from a mini tap attached to the central beaker on the table, and onto a sugar cube balanced over the glass was a novel touch. It might have been more fun if it didn't feel like I was drinking battery acid though. Scottish Lucy struggled to get her glass of green poison to the right consistency, maybe not all Scots were alcoholics after all. She worked for an NGO in Moldova, to the East of Romania, no one knew what an NGO was and needed explanations after each mention. To my right was Jocelyn. She was the first beautiful thing I'd seen after my arrival in Bucharest. I walked past the group in the living room that afternoon and saw her on my way to the kitchen. I heard the American accent and somehow knew it came from her. The image of Jocelyn's face imprinted on my mind after only one short glance and will probably remain there for years to come. She was sweet, short, shapely and well-travelled. She had a manner about her that was timid, yet confidently so. Her Taiwanese skin and straight black hair were perfect in every way. Her smile revealed smart white teeth and lips that you sometimes found yourself staring at while she spoke. Her eyes were definitely Asian in type, but larger, and framed by the delicate curve of her eyebrows. Her lightly-tanned satin skin was perceivably flawless, as was her nose, chin and facial definition. Occasionally she would sit upright and cock her head gently to the side with slightly pursed lips and stare to the far side of the room in a kind of courtly presentation of her features, she wasn't arrogant, but I suspected she knew how attractive she was and that reined me in while I sat in her company. She didn't speak very much, especially in a large group, so I sat with her and asked questions several times over the 24-hour period that our paths crossed. She told me of a trip she planned to Antarctica. The respect I had for my new buddy Chris, whom I'd met in Olomouc and who was spending the winter in Russia, was now trumped by a little Asian who travelled with a wheely suitcase and smart clothes, she pulled an ace on him. He had also spoken of a venture out to Antarctica, knowing that it costs in the region of ten thousand US dollars. Basing himself at Ushuaia in Southern Argentina and waiting for a cancellation was his answer to that future trip. I was absolutely intrigued by the idea, but decided that I wasn't quite ready for that, when you've been to forty countries I guess you begin asking questions on where to go next, and Jocelyn had come up with an answer in a big white ball of ice. Suddenly, I thought that walking around Bucharest was a way to just pass the time before she went on a real trip.

We strolled about randomly for a few hours the next day, taking in the Parliament building, which was the second-largest building in the world; the Pentagon took the top spot. But Bucharest's Parliament is still 10% unfinished, so there's still a chance guys, a conservatory perhaps? I knew that Jocelyn was going to Sofia that evening and so we relaxed and talked for most of the day. I got on the bus with her for Gara de Nord train station and decided to wait with her until she boarded for Bulgaria. As soon as we approached the platform a man spoke to us with a worried face. 'What train are you going on?'
This one, I gestured with a pointed finger. 'You must be crazy, this train is not safe for you, it is full of gypsies, it is local train. Not for tourists.'
'O....kay, but...' I paused for a moment, judging his sincerity, looking over my shoulder at the tatty carriages and the people on the platform. 'It is up to you but, uh...maybe for you it is OK' he said looking at me 'but for her...I don't think so, these gypsies they will bring a knife and take your money, here in Bucharest this train is die train.' He repeated the phrase several times and we both found ourselves questioning his accent to confirm what we thought he said. I looked at Jocelyn, she seemed mildly worried but at the same time cautious of his intentions, I felt responsible for her, although I knew she would never accept pity or dictation. He continued, 'you can get tourist train from Juju station, you take student transport from here, go to bus station and you can get bus from there to Juju.' He shifted as if walking off, like he had somewhere to go but that he was warning us before he left the platform. I tried to find the suspicious element in his story, all the time remaining protective of Jocelyn. If he'd faced us and stood close I'd have seen it, but his just passing demeanour made him seem slightly genuine. 'I just tell you as a friend, I don't think it is safe for you, but...' he gestured with his fingertips on his chest- a sign of sincerity. I turned to Jocelyn once again and asked her 'what do you want to do? I don't mind going with you, but I'm not sure....'
'Did he say die train?' she reiterated, 'yeah, he did.' The guy was still in the vicinity. Jocelyn kept moving towards the train little by little, I stuck close to her and we talked about what we should do until the man was no longer in our company. Looking on at the passengers on the train and the people waiting to get on we assessed that there was no real danger, although the train looked a little old, this was normal for Romania.

The station announcements prevented any of us waiting on the platform to board the train just yet. The air was crisp and mightily cold. Every breath resulted in a cloud of white steam and after ten minutes of waiting our toes and faces were beginning to lose feeling. Jocelyn stood beside me and put her head on my shoulder and I knew from that simple gesture that she was comfortable with me, she knew she could trust me not to take advantage of her and she welcomed my sticking by her before she left. Like two penguins facing Antarctic gales we did the only thing sensible in such bitterly cold conditions, we huddled. Jocelyn was the perfect height to nestle under my chin and she gave the warmest and most comfortable hug. I unzipped my jacket and wrapped it around her. Her hands wrapped around me and with her head pressed against my chest we shared the little physical warmth there was between us.

On the stationary train we discussed the man who warned us about the passengers. There were no gypsies here, and it wouldn't have mattered if there were, it was safe. We deduced that it was the student transport part of his story that was the con and would have resulted in us getting into a minicab of some sort, probably driven by an accomplice, and then charged an exorbitant rate for a ride to nowhere. I felt disappointed in myself that in caring for her safety I allowed myself to become slightly duped by his suggestions. The passengers on the train were very friendly, one lady asking us to come onto the train after seeing two shivering foreigners huddle for an hour and a half on the platform for vital body heat. This was the story of Romania, cold weather and consistently late trains, and this was the more reliable service when compared to the bus system. I reluctantly left Jocelyn on that train. She looked at me with bright eyes, responding to my hesitancy to leave the sleeper cabin with a thankful stare and perhaps a hint of expectancy, I kissed her cheek to say goodbye, paused and left.
I stepped onto the platform, and having been approached by one scam artist I pulled up my hood, brought my shemagh across my face and took to the street and bus ride with a don't mess with me streak written throughout my body language. I didn't like to cause a bad vibe amongst people, but close calls tend to make you quite defensive.

Christmas came and went, annoyingly, the snow that I'd gotten used to melted on Christmas eve. I remember the last white Christmas I experienced as a child, it was many years ago. My childhood best friend Ian Burnett and I attempted to ride our new BMX bikes in a fresh blanket of powdery snow, we must have been 7 or 8 years old and slightly stupid. It was a memory that was stored in the annals of my mind in a secure vault that hasn't worn or faded over the years. Maybe one that I'd see in a lightning-fast montage in the moments before I die someday. I heard that this year, the snow also melted in my home town before Christmas day. I felt remotely connected.

In the days before Christmas I'd been to Sinaia in Transylvania, the site of Peleş castle. A brave and fanciful structure that rose into the night sky with admirable taste, but it wasn't until I saw the inside that I could witness its true opulence. Wood carved ceilings that matched the pattern on the room-sized rug below, ornamental statues made from expensive materials and richly carpeted stairways and long corridors lead to the most intensely decorated grand spaces, and all in an historic taste that took the meaning of timeless beauty to new levels.

Spending three days of our beloved Christian celebration in a small village called Cristian was slightly novel, if not entirely well thought out. Cristian was on the outskirts of Brasov. I'd made the mistake of wandering the streets of Brasov for a couple of hours on a road called Strada Lunga and looking for a hotel called Villa Cristiani. It was a completely pathetic thing to do, as I later came to realise it was Strada Lunga in that neighbouring village that I should have been looking for. The young man who opened his door at number 153 Strada Lunga in Brasov probably didn't appreciate me telling him his house was a hotel. On the upside when I eventually realised the error and found the place I had a jacuzzi and top quality room for three days over Christmas, and the food was stupendously tasty. A la greg fuzz soup, sarmale and cozonac being more delicious than I ever thought possible of Romanian cuisine. This may not have been a family occasion but I remember thinking before I left for this trip in England that this was just one year, and it would be a year that I will remember for the rest of my life, for whatever reasons.

Dracula's castle, otherwise know as Bran castle stood on a hill in....well, Bran, and disappointed in its ability to give me the chills. Sighisoara in Transylvania did a much better job of that. The town of Sighisoara pinned its position on the map as the birthplace of Dracula. This whole section of Romania once belonged to Hungary, but after the axis powers lost in WWII, significant portions of land were sliced off and given to neighbouring countries. Romania received Transylvania and consequently the majority of its residents still speak Hungarian. The old town around Sighisoara played and flowed in historic lines made of rising stone staircases, bursting with character, many buildings never having seen a set square or straight edge since settlement in 1191. It had a genuine Dracula-esque mysticism and as the night drew to a blackly enveloping cubic nightmare the air chilled with more than just winter and snow, it frosted with mythological stories and inventions of over-imagination.

I treated that town to a snowman the next morning. I was rather proud of his three-tiered body and pine cone pipe. I don't remember ever putting so much effort into a pile of snow before. Three gypsy children appeared at the foot of his snowy base and begged for money, the smallest child's nose dripping with half-frozen mucous. Raggedy wares clothed their weathered young skin and a look of indeterminable desperation shaped their faces. I had given half a loaf of bread to a young kid earlier that day, in this case I was all out of foodstuffs and decided not to line his pockets with my change, be he genuine or not. This was a much bigger problem than I could solve with my money, I knew it would just get sucked into the system of the gypsy order. I placed the twigs in the snowman's head, as hair, and looked at the one remaining kid who'd been watching as I moulded the spherical head to greater effect, he smiled and gave a cheery laugh, the kind of laugh you might emit in response to an uplifting word or two right after an emotional cry. His face turned from troubled vagrant to innocent child for a few too-short moments and he wandered away back to his life in a system he neither chose nor I imagined, wanted. I watched him as he charged onwards down the street and hoped that someday he might have the privilege of choice in his life; something many of us take for granted.

Not only were the trains in Romania consistently late, they were also playing connection games. If you're lucky the ticket clerk will tell you which carriage to sit in, if you're even luckier you'll find that carriage and sit in it. If, like me, you get neither of those things you end up in the wrong carriage that, cunningly, while you slept, split from the rest of the train and you wake up a couple of hundred kilometres from your intended destination.
Expecting to see the Northern Romanian countryside and instead being greeted by border guards this side of Hungary, a country I had already been to, was mildly annoying and quite disconcerting. Just as annoying to me as it was to the border officials when I jumped off the train. 'No! What are you doing? Get back on the train...' The train moved off as the uniformed man reached his hand to his forehead as if suppressing a piercing migraine. 'I already put you down as crossing into Hungary, now you are here, argh!' I thought to myself this is gonna cost me. His voice didn't quite rise to a shout and his tone never exceeded mild annoyance. He was genuinely without hint of suggested bribery, and his objection spoke only of inconvenience. Not only did he not suggest a bribe to correct the situation, he quickly helped me onto the next train heading back to Arad, where I could correct my directional mistake. I was intending to head to Baia Mare, the central hub of Maramures, which was an area of Northern Romania where rural life and horse and carts were as normal as daily newspapers and internet access back home.

On the train back to Arad, the night brought nothing but horizontal torture when all I wanted was a deep sleep. I was beginning to lack an awareness of where I was and what I was doing here. One place name morphed into another as the ambiguity rose to take prime place in my sleep-deprived mind. The next leg was Arad to Oradea. At Oradea the sun rose and the day broke. I had 5 hours to wait for a connecting train. This journey was turning out to be a real headache, but I tried to enjoy the bad with the good for what it was worth in the balance of all things. Those five hours passed like a hairy badger swimming in treacle, i.e very slowly. And at the end of that wait I really did end up on a train full of gypsies. All the way there they tried for money, singing a half-hearted rendition of a song I'd never heard and finishing with a plea for charity, and it was always children, or children backed by an adult, used as a tool for sympathy; a money-maker. Some of these people were dressed in such comedy get-ups I didn't know whether to laugh or take a picture, the handlebar moustache, wide-brimmed cowboy hat and rolled-up carpet slung over the shoulder being my favourite look. Everyone seemed to be carrying a sack of something organic, some kind of plants or flowers. Many of the Roma women wore head scarves, but it wasn't unusual to see the kids in Nike trainers, the type you'd take to the recycling tip after having had them for 15 years.

A lull in the singing and jostling came, just then a Romanian vagabond dressed in dowdy clothes thrashed his hand against the window of our cabin, he peeled open the door and screamed at everyone inside, he spat as he spewed words of anger. He had been past earlier that morning and asked for money, a small bell in his hand signified something I didn't understand. He looked desperate and ready to scold anyone and at any moment. He whacked his hand as hard as he could against the window in the corridor, all his strength mustered in the short swing in the narrow space, he turned to face us again. My body tensed, ready to fight if necessary, my hands on my knees and stomach taut, I looked at him with unforgiving eyes. The two girls in the cabin sat silently. He slammed the door shut and continued shouting through the glass, it was clearly directed at everyone on the train who refused to give him money. The man opposite me stood with impressive stature for a middle-aged fellow and stepped out of the cabin into the corridor to reason with the frantic Romanian, all the while displaying an assertive but relaxed position. The shouting man quieted himself, stopped talking altogether and walked on down through the carriage.

Now, I have never been a big fan of the monetary system and I asked myself a thoughtful and rhetorical question, why would someone behave like that to people that have nothing to do with his problems? Being left out in the cold, with no help and no system to back you up when you need it most, I imagined, would be enough to send you mental at everybody. You, as the subject of the problem, go through the motions of desperation and everyone around you seems privileged enough to be able to work and have family and moral support, life must seem so unfair. I knew it was. A system based on money will always produce the have-nots and to me, that was no system at all, at least not one with any credence. I was a firm believer that no one acts out of line, considering their point of view at any given moment, and that the concept of right and wrong is not an absolute one. They are only based on what we decide to be right and wrong together as a people. We are born and we are shown a certain life. We mould ourselves either around that, or around our adopted ideals from what we see on the outside, and from that we determine our behaviour, our reactions and our habits. I pitied the man, but all I could do was shape myself, to focus on my beliefs for the greater good. I relaxed, grateful for the silence and for the next few hours I awaited my late-night arrival in Baia Mare.

Arriving in Baia Mare was supposed to bring relief from a lengthy day's travelling and a lot of waiting around, but not only did I wake up the owners of the hostel, I had also booked the room for the wrong month. A simple mistake, but one that left me in a familiar situation, a dark street and no where to stay. Luckily enough the accommodating middle-aged couple beckoned me inside and offered to phone around. Looking slightly dazed, they fumbled around with phone and directory. 'If ehh...no hotel, then..we make you bed here, it's ok.' She dialled several numbers, coming back with good news. 'I find hotel, eighty-five lei for room, one night, it's ok?' I wasn't in a position to say no. 'Thank you very much, yes.' The man rubbed his hands together, and after de-icing the lock of his car door bundled my bag into the tiny boot and drove me the 200 yards to the establishment. I felt very guilty.

And so I stayed. After a very tiring journey, in an average hotel, with average prices. I knew one thing, I didn't want to stay in Baia Mare for long. It was very, average.

Posted by kookie888 00:38 Archived in Romania Comments (4)

War and dogs

'War can bring out the best and worst in you, it depends which side is stronger' he said looking out onto Sarajevo's roads which, fourteen years ago were quite literally the most dangerous place in Europe to be standing. Nedim pulled and tugged at the Land Rover's steering wheel, the snow presenting no problems for it's gnarled tyres and four-wheel drive. Our guide was an ex-soldier in the Bosnian army. The siege of Sarajevo in 1992 roused the inner steel of the Bosnian people, who up to that point had been living in relative peace and harmony in a city where a Muslim mosque sat on the same street as an Orthodox Church and metres away from a Jewish Synagogue. The self-proposed independence of Bosnia & Herzegovina from the Yugoslav Republic prompted Serbian forces to surround the city of Sarajevo and plan an invasion which they assumed would result in subservience. Five days- this was the estimate by Serb commanders on how long it would take them to capture the city. The war lasted almost 4 years, and still they didn't submit the hardy Bosnians.

The remnants of war remained in the mind of Sarajevo's people like the bullet hole scars in its buildings, many have been rebuilt, but the image of which shall forever be tainted with the memories of such brutal and measured destruction.
500,000 people besieged, by an enemy accumulated by Radovan Karadžić under the Presidency of Slobodan Milošević. The former Yugoslav army was in those days the fourth most powerful on the planet. They gathered soldiers from neighbouring Serbia, mainly of Orthodox conviction and kept those arms, tanks and weaponry firmly in their own hands, leaving Bosnia with nothing but a few illegal Ak47's donated by resident criminals and some other heavy-hitting guns and missiles bought from the black market in the early days of war.

'They surrounded us and when they sent in the tanks to take the city, we destroyed two of them with our RPG's. They knew then, that it would not be so easy, so they placed themselves on the surrounding mountains and buildings and shot at us at random. It was their mission to destroy everyone and everything, no exceptions, to cause as much damage as possible. For every person in this city, eight hundred grenades were dropped.' His eyes glazed with a solid determination as he envisioned the days of war. 'In any place and at any time you could be killed in Sarajevo in those years.' He pointed to the empty market, which I had seen filled with fruit and trade the day before. 'Here, in this marketplace eighty people were killed by grenades in one hit, eighty people, it was the single worst day in our lives.' He pointed across the street, 'thirty five people...killed, waiting in line for bread.' Myself, Clark and Pat sat quietly as he delineated a picture of evil and human hatred. Sat in the front I felt a knee-jerk reaction pulse from my heart. The thought caused me constant angst as to how we can destroy so mercilessly when we are so good at creating, but one cannot exist without the other and it was that dichotomy that we suffered for. The ingenuity and artistry of our creative intellect turns to reveal the black shadow of its opposite pole. Trees burned in the world's forests giving life to new seed and out of those ashes rose new life, the people of Sarajevo were still charred but amazingly, carried on and stuck with the city they called home.

We turned onto a dual carriageway which scratched through the city like a vital artery. 'This...is sniper alley, the aggressor, he placed himself high in the surrounding buildings and shot at us as we tried to navigate this stretch of road, many people died right here on this road.' He used this term the aggressor with such frequency. The Balkan people were proud of the Yugoslavian army, but when all the weapons ended up in the hands of the Serbs it became the ex-Yugoslav army to him.

When Slovenia announced autonomy from Yugoslavia in 1991 the integrity of this Balkan union of States, which had existed in one form or another over the previous sixty years, lost its potency for some. One state after another declared independence over the years up until the present day. Kosovo is still playing the same game, it hangs in the balance as to whether this autonomous region of Serbia will gain the title of an independent country. Montenegro was the last to manage it in 2006.
'We had to fight hard and brave, so that we could take guns from them and use them ourselves to defend the city. We used the trams on this road, to hide behind. The bullets mainly came from the left side, from those windows you can see and from the mountainside.' I looked forwards and imagined the snap of a bullet entry point in the window of our car, trying hard to splice that missing section of film into my life's own reel. I thought back to 1992 and remembered my own fortune in a secure childhood spent in Basildon. It was never a proud town, but we at least had relative peace. Nedim had spent the second half of his teenage years dodging bullets and staring into the face of Serb soldiers he had killed.
The tram system was the first of its kind in continental Europe. 'The Austro-Hungarians used us as a testing ground for Vienna'. If it worked here they would use it in their capital, and they did. Much of the former Yugoslavia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Sarajevo displayed the clues in some of its buildings. Those buildings represented one pattern in a patchwork canvas. The heartbeat of this city resonated with a will to coincide together, be they of different faiths. The war was an attempt to filter and ethnically cleanse parts of Bosnia which the Serbs claimed as adjoining land to their own nation, to create a Greater Serbia and restore it's former Yugoslav glory.

'The war started when I was fifteen and a half, at sixteen I joined the army and fought on the front line with my family. This building...' he pointed to a bland concrete structure, 'this building was constructed by the Soviets, they loved concrete. It was the television station and it became our voice to the world, the aggressor never managed to bring it down, it was fucking indestructible.' We gave a muffled laugh of approval. He went on 'The UN peacekeepers came here during the conflict, but because there was no peace to keep they just observed. Every day our people were being murdered, they had no way out, the UN just said they couldn't intervene. After the first 3 months they took control of the airport and began flying in humanitarian supplyments. But it was never enough. Even UN troops were shot at by the aggressor. This hotel on the right...' he pointed to the Holiday Inn, '...it was the only hotel in operation during the war. It was used for journalists, some of those reporters, they lost their lives also.' He spoke in clear English, with the odd invented word, supplyments being the most common.

'When we built the tunnel, we built it under the airport and from there we could move our supplyments through the next village, which was a free territory, then over those mountains behind, you can get to Croatia. We traded with them in arms, obviously whatever we bought, they took a percentage and we had the rest.' The tunnel was hand-dug and started at a secret location within the Bosnian stronghold close to the airport, they burrowed for 6 months in 1993 and came up on the other side of the runway. The aggressor never did find where it was. Without that tunnel, the Bosnians probably would have starved to death, they certainly weren't about to give up.

'Before the tunnel, people ran from here, across the airport runway and risked their lives to bring supplyments to their families. Thirty, forty, sometimes forty-five kilos they would carry on their back, and with a weight like that, you could not run fast, there were snipers placed 200m from there and you had to take the chance, or die anyway. We had nothing.'

The snow drifted down from the sky as we drove through small village roads to the site of the tunnel entrance, 25m still remained intact and it was possible to see it at the place they now called Tunnel Museum, it was the same house at which they strategically chose to start digging. We all got out of the car, the snow becoming heavier and causing us to strain our eyes. 'This was one grenade that landed and another over there' he showed us the marks in the floor from the explosion. 'It was not unusual, they dropped thousands of bombs on us in every place, they didn't know we were digging here, it was just a normal attack.' We walked inside, and I asked him what kind of weapon he fought with, 'I was issued with an AK47, it was very old, not in....good condition at all, and I had 150 bullets.' He continued, 'the humanitarian supplyments came in lunch packets, just like this,' he held one aloft, it was a plain army green rectangular sealed pack. 'One of these, was for 3 people, for one day.' My eyebrows raised. 'They came numbered, 1-12, I liked number 7, it was my favourite... chicken, and there was chocolate in there too. 125G of food, for 3 people, for one day' he repeated.

The other UN supplies that landed at the airport were of a standard so disgusting that much of it was inedible. We're talking about canned food from the Vietnam war that not even the dogs would touch. 'On the first plane that came in with medical supplyments, we were disappointed to see the whole plane was filled with medicine for malaria. We didn't have malaria, it was a joke. But as soon as we met from both sides and finished the tunnel, 12 tonnes of supplyments came through on the first day. Guns, food, medicine, clothes. I didn't even have a uniform until then. I had jeans, that was my uniform.'

The room was filled on all sides with bullets, shells, mortars, uniforms, wooden crates and photographs. Many celebrities had been through here and had their picture taken, having had the same guided tour of the city. In a darkened room we all sat on munitions crates and watched a 15 minute video on the tunnel construction, it was dated and of the same standard as the type of videos we watched at Junior school. 'It's funny...the war started and ended in the nineties, but they filmed and edited it in the eighties' joked Pat. Ducking our heads down we then walked through the preserved tunnel section and surfaced out into the cold snow on the other side. The simple landscape was beautiful, but strangely I could really see it as a wartime ground. I'm sure, each one of us imagining the assault and difficult circumstances in which these brave men brought through the supplies. 'Sometimes I could get through the tunnel in ten minutes' he said, 'but at other times, because of the water ingression it might take one hour for the same distance.'

On the drive back Nedim told us of his times in war, 'I was shot twice in 1994, the fuckers got me, right up on that mountain there. One in the chest and one in the stomach, I was in hospital for half a year. My fellow soldiers, they carried me, the next thing I knew was waking up after the surgery. When I recovered, I went back to the front line.' I admired his resilience. 'Now I study medicine and I work in a hospital as an assistant to an anaesthesiologist. In the same hospital I was staying in after I was shot. Four years was enough.'

'So you guys, you want me to drop you back near to some place for food right? You can get some cevapi, you know we don't have any McDonalds in this city. They don't stand a chance against our cevapi.' Their famed meal was a pitta filled with small sausages and lots of chopped raw onion. We'd had it on previous days and were becoming addicted to its late night kebab taste, as men do.

We left Nedim at the river, close to the bridge which became famous in 1914 when a Bosnian assassin shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg throne, the event triggered the start of WWI. We all shook his hand, and I for one felt richer for the experience.

A couple of nights later I found myself walking at night, as I often did in this intriguing city. I had been to meet a Bosnian local at the shopping mall, we walked in the snow and had drinks at a dimly lit bar for 4 hours, it was a connection that I felt very happy to have made. I slowly tackled the snow on the quiet, still road, the street lamps illuminating the snow in a murky orange, the surface glistening like a galaxy of tiny diamonds. Fire licked the air from the corner of Marshall Tito street and Ferhadija pedestrian street, it was the eternal flame, a commemorative bowl of fire which burned day and night in remembrance for the victims of WWII and the Nazi occupation. I moved close, the air above it hazy and distorted from the heat, the image of the street ahead waved like a flag in the wind. I must have stood for five minutes, with nothing and no one around. The only sound the gentle whip and thrash of flames in the winter air. A Roma boy came and stood opposite me on the other side of the fire, he clasped his hands together dangerously close to the orange flames. He rubbed his upper arms with his hands, in a shivering self-hugging action. He looked at me with indiscriminate eyes, breathing heavily through his teeth and large pursed lips. This kid was cold, he brought his foot up to warm it on the heat, but actually placed his whole foot, still inside his shoe, into the fire for a few seconds. Nothing happened. Nothing caught fire. That was the extent of the evening frost. I tilted my head and looked at him through the heat haze, wondering if he had a home to go to, there was no request for money, no words spoken at all. In the daytime this kid would be hanging on the edge of my coat for a mark or two, but this night he just needed the warmth from the eternal flame. A fire which this city had given him in respect for the dead, I had seen that fire in the eyes of Nedim. It too, never went out. Even under siege, it burned long into the night.

Romania shifted to the forefront of my mind, images of horses and carts in the North, aged industrialism in the Capital and thundery mountains in the centre took shaped in my imagination. However, a thought or impression of a country is rarely accurate if you've never been before. I remembered my first vision of a place like Fiji many years ago. I could see myself walking down a dirt road plucking fruit from the trees and basking in the life-giving warmth of a Pacific ocean breeze as the birds sang a sweet song upon the air. To be fair, there were plenty of dirt roads, and fruit on the trees, and it was very warm. But when you get somewhere, you're still with you. You're the same person, only in a slightly different place and all the dreamy images and ideology fades, as the lucidity of the current reality grabs you. We don't live in the future, we live now; always now.

The train would not connect on the same evening in and out of Belgrade in Serbia. I would have to sleep here for the night. Leaving Sarajevo felt like a sad farewell, the stunning winter scenery from the train window left a lasting impression. The trees, laden with heavy snow, drooped their branches and the virgin snow covered the entire landscape in a false purity which hid a silent killer- land mines. They still littered this country from its troubled past. Sarajevo was a city that I would definitely come back to. The Balkans promised so much, and if I ever were to take flight again, this small part of Europe would absolutely draw me in like a magnet. It had so much more to reveal.

Into Serbia, and the air remained just as cold, and the ground just as mushy with dirty snow. The people looked just the same, and the language just as foreign. Again I had no money and only a vague idea of the whereabouts of a hostel in the city. I trudged through the deep sludge, thankful for the new all-weather boots I acquired in Bosnia. Thirty minutes later I scraped through the door of a barely-lit apartment block guarded by a black cat lit in amber by the late-night street lamps. There is a point at which, after you ring someone's doorbell, that you fear there may be no one inside to let you in just when you need it most. That point came and went, with every attempt to rouse the hosts within. 'Come on, come on, uhh, where the hell?' I moaned to myself, aware that the door opposite just might have a spying eye pressed up against the peep hole. My bag hit the floor, I de-robed all unnecessary accoutrements and sat slumped against the wall. I would wait. Surely they just popped out for milk.
I pressed the doorbell harder, knowing full well it was pointless. I began to partake in an internal dialogue to myself, I saw a hostel on the way here, just go there and get your head down for the night and catch the train tomorrow to Romania, plus it was right outside the train station, I argued. I tried not to punish myself mentally for not choosing it in the first place. I was beginning to like marching around fruitlessly for a place to sleep in a sadistic kind of way, the hard times made the restful times all the more appreciable. Central Station Hostel- it was no party place, nor was it a clean-cut professionally run affair, but boy was it close to the station. I knew the Serbian money I drew out would grace my pocket for months to come, you try your best not to accumulate change but there's always one coin left over once you pass the border crossing.

'Is this Timisoara?' I asked the lady on the train. 'Yes', she nodded her head vigorously. The train had arrived late to take me out of Belgrade station the next morning but Timisoara had appeared sooner than expected. Again, no sign, no announcement, just a frosty window and the hint of a destination on the other side of the glass, had I not thought to ask I'd have been on my way to Bucharest three days early. I summoned the kind of strength in my arms and legs that we reserve for panic situations, there's always an extra 25% which enables you to pick up the heavy bag with relative ease compared to the way you heaved it onto the carriage when getting on. All my things were now attached, clasped or just hanging off me as I disembarked down the steep metal stairs onto the platform. I like to call them suicide stairs. They're almost vertical and the gap to the platform is always a substantial one. Old people get on and off these trains only with assistance from other passengers, they haul the luggage up first and then themselves afterwards, as if climbing a steep embankment. Romania had something to learn about passenger comfort, but I was sure worse was to come in India.

Unprepared, my whole body began to shiver. I quickly threw on layer upon layer- jumper, hoodie, jacket and hat, and took to the street. The street name across the road was too small to read, I took out my camera, fixed the telephoto lens onto the front and took a picture. Then zoomed in and read it from the camera's LCD display. My eyes were pretty good, but my camera did me proud. Only trouble was, I was off the map, again. I toyed with the idea of jumping in a taxi, it was night and by this point I was shaking uncontrollably from the cold. Romanian taxi drivers are renowned for over-charging. I did the maths for the local currency conversion and drew out some money. Romanian money was made from plastic, just like the Australian dollar. You could go surfing with it and it would stay perfectly intact; unlike our frail paper pounds back home. You could draw out a crisp £5 note from the cash point in England and after a couple of days it'll look like you swallowed it and crapped it out after a night on the beer and curry. I paid the driver in Euros, knowing full well it was too much, but unable to bring myself to argue any lower than half the original price that he offered. What was I to do? I was off the map, I forgot the name of my pension and I had no directions. I had survived thus far and I would survive tonight, albeit €5 poorer. It was better than becoming a living ice sculpture on the roadside, it really was that cold. The pension owner was more riled that I was about the cab fare, 'he want to fuck you!' being the chosen expression for his fellow countryman. I was more worried about the lacklustre heating system in the room when I arrived. The chimney was temporarily blocked and for the next two nights no amount of dried cow shit would heat this place to within 20 °C of what it should have been. To be fair to Moretti Plaza, it was a nice secluded little spot and as the snow continued to blanket the streets, it was made all the more serene. Timisoara was pretty, the streets were obviously historic and the central square, which was more like a stretched oblong, was very beautiful. Timisoara surprised onlookers as it became the spark that lit the 1989 revolution in Romania. The revolution ultimately led to the execution of President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena after a series of economic schemes designed to erase Romania's foreign debt left many of their own people starved.

At this time of year, the lights and festivities won me over as soon as I stepped foot on that first paving stone; covered in ice. The Orthadox cathedral and the imposing and lofty baroque palaces that flank Piata Victoriei reached into the sky. The arcing face of Palatul Dauerbach seemed dark and sinister compared to the delicate intricacies of the European grandeur I'd been used to. This was a town of very impressive architecture, shaped by its historic invasions. It seemed odd and out of place to have a giant caricatured nativity scene and shining snowman on the square, but the locals seemed to enjoy it.
Despite my mild contempt for that brand of Frosty the snowman glitz, I would have preferred to share my dorm room with a nativity donkey rather than the fellow who laid in the bed opposite mine. He was an odd German who answered every question on politics and world affairs with 'it's just a matter of corruption.' His weathered and stubbly face piercing the atmosphere like a needle to a birthday balloon. As far as I know he spent Christmas in that pension, alone and away from his wife and kids. I didn't probe into his reasons, but his demeanour resembled that of a confused killer on the run, dead inside and refusing to back-up into his own thoughts for fear of regret and remorse, rarely making eye-contact and smiling weirdly at all the wrong times in conversation. I asked him about Germany and he didn't respond with anything positive but for their ability to organise and run a good transport system.

The next morning I found myself walking at 5:30am in deep snow for 2 miles to get to Gara de Nord train station in Timisoara, every step was an energy-sapping one. Like running on sand, it's never as easy at it looks, and the strap holding my guitar in place was failing miserably. The case descended to the backs of my legs and made the whole ordeal that much more painstaking, no way was I getting up this early, walking this far and carrying this weight to miss this train. For some reason this early morning service was a popular one. Scores of people laden with baggage swirled around the platforms and various languages conglomerated to form a wall of impenetrable murmurings. I felt happy to be sitting on a warm train, but not so excited about the destination. Bucharest may have some charms but from what I'd heard, they take some finding, and even the Romanians themselves struggled to find compliments for their capital. The train weaved through mountains, lakes and snowy forests. Villages brushed in a paste of snow to their entirety, smoking chimneys puffed away and the occasional villager emerged to see the train pass through, standing at the doorway of a wooden shack, pitchfork in hand and breathy crystals emanating from their chapped lips. A ten thousand-strong flock of black crows bustled upon a distant white hill, the restless of which blocked out a portion of the sky above. Bucharest neared, and wholesome village life gave way to drab concrete and broken structures, stray dogs crossed the lines and the transition to 'modern' life materialised. It was rural Romania that I came to see, I would have to push myself to get out there amongst it. But for now I was here, in another capital, wondering just what it would bring.

Posted by kookie888 16:31 Archived in Bosnia And Herzegovina Comments (0)

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