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Curtains of Iron, Romania – Hand to Mouth to India Chapter 5

With chronic heartbreak and competition from a crowd of Romanian hitchhikers, the road gets rough and India seems a long way off yet.

After two hours of sweating miserably in the blinding sun, I walked to the train station only to discover that the train to Romania would cost me all the money that I had. With a moody, dragging feet I lugged my heavy bags full of warmth for the night (the last thing you’re concerned with when you’re pissed off and hot), to the next main road junction some 5km away. Every step was like an act of penance and I got some kind of grim satisfaction from leveling my physical state to a sweaty degradation that matched the hell my heart was enduring.

After another scowling hour, a car stopped to ask me directions – not so ridiculous as it might sound because hitchers often carry maps. By sheer force of will I hustled my way into vehicle belonging to two middle-aged tourists, with whom I had not a single word or thought in common.

They let me off some 20km from the Romanian border and a lift from a grey-haired lady speaking German took me even closer. She was very interested in how I managed to live my life without thought of food for tomorrow but didn’t offer to take me in.

Within two minutes of hanging around in this suburban area a young man in civilian clothes approached me, demanding to see my passport. I asked him for ID first, thank you very much and sure enough, it identified him as an agent of the ‘Green Police’. Once it was established that I was not a runaway Romanian, he wished me luck with a smile and a firm handshake.

Then moments after that, an old man came cycling slowly past and asked me in German where I was going.

“Don’t go.” he advised me. “The Romanians are very bad people-all thieves.”

I smiled at this peculiar neighbourliness that I would encounter time and time again on my trip.

I continued to try and hitch until the sun went down and as there would be no moon until late in the night, I decided to establish my bed in a field while there was still some light. Dogs yapped at me as I passed the garden hedges of the houses on the side of the lane and a few hundred yards away from where I laid down my sleeping bag, a blazing fire raged. I wondered if it might be a gang of gypsies waiting to cut my throat in the night, which popular knowledge held as common behaviour for the Romani folk. With a heart that weighed heavier than anything I might have been carrying, I almost wished that they would. I closed my eyes to the image of a grim and scarred face of a murderous bandit, which alternated with the pristine features of the girl I’ve never seen again.

What is it that Kahil Gibran wrote?

‘Love will strip you like wheat from the field, Then pound you into a flour, that you might be kneaded like dough, and baked in the oven as the bread of God.’

If the Lebanese poet was still alive, I’d have been the first to buy him a cup of goat’s milk.

In the morning, I resurrected my spirit and washed the tear stains from my face before walking down to the road and rejoining the trail that took me East, ever East, into the glowing red that coughed and spluttered its way into the sky with hung-over bloodshot eyes and pock-marked clouds – reality is a pretty subjective thing, no? In better spirits, I’m sure the sunrise would have been like the pages of a great tome splaying open to reveal the truth of the world with shafts of light striking forth as the voices of angels – but right then, I was not in the best of spirits so just bear with me.

Before long, a car shuttled me along to the border and I braced myself to face the first difficult border crossing of the journey. Romania is basically still a police state run by much the same gang as in the days of Ceausescu’s evil tyranny. I wasn’t too happy to be arriving at the border on foot because that generally completely freaks out the border police. They then give you a hard time as they just know your type of weirdo must be a criminal of some kind.

This happened to me crossing from Italy to Austria in the Spring. A gruff German had picked me up and then said not a word for the entire 2 hour drive. He suddenly told me that I would have to walk across the border on my own and that he would pick me up on the other side. Of course, he just drove off and I had to stroll through as a pedestrian. An old policeman came running out of his office, angrily demanding that I should go back to the train station. Then a calmer, mustachioed Italian officer bade me come in to the clearance building and after making a phone call for further instructions, he proceeded to search through all of my luggage. I could imagine what the guy on the telephone might have told him:

A young guy with a guitar, hitchhiking through Europe? He must have pockets full of dope! Very polite and thorough, the officer almost said aha!, when he came across my collection of herbs given to me by a young witch in France. He held each bag delicately before his sniffing nostril but could detect nothing other than sage, rosemary and thyme. Cue background folk song.

He eventually let me through but the delay meant that it was now evening time and I was in an Alpine village with snowy mountains all around, the nearest white stuff just a few hundred feet away. But then within a few minutes, I was rescued from an icy grave by a woman who pulled over in a battered old car. She gave me my first real insight into the former communist dimension and it was she came to mind now as I stood by the Romanian sentry post.

She was an artist in her early forties, called Ute and she burnt with a ferocious creative fire, fueled by massive reserves of anger and bitterness accumulated during her youth in East Germany. With hair that smoldered like autumn and a sharp, pale face, she possessed all of the formidable beauty of someone who will always be free. She had proved to be too volatile for the communist authorities who eventually threw her over the wall to the West, before her outspoken criticism of the regime could muster significant support.

Many of her friends and fellow dissidents had not been so fortunate and were consigned to rot away in tiny prison cells, half-filled with icy water that forced them to remain in standing position for days at a time. I seriously doubted if I would have had the strength of spirit and purpose to risk such a fate in the pursuit of freedom.

Ute had taken me into Austria until we reached that make-or-break sunset situation when my evening’s fate is decided. It’s at this time, after hours of waiting that I sometimes receive a pity lift from someone, whose conscience prompts them to rescue this stranded soul. Or if I’m already in a car, the driver will often ask me:

“So where are you going to sleep tonight?”

“Oh, outside someplace, I guess – are the nights cold in these parts?” A thoughtful silence often then follows, after which, if I’m lucky, they’ll slowly say:

“Well, look – you could stay the night at my place.”

Ute didn’t need any hints to be dropped and as a warrior of liberty, she understood the intrinsic value of a warm bed and a meal. She drove me back to her place in Salzburg and gave me the keys to an entire spare apartment, adjacent to hers: complete with double bed, shower, balcony and mountain views. She had lease of the whole building as part of her current art contract.

Over wine and dinner, she had described to me how the communist reality intruded upon every aspect of the private and personal world. Even as a child she had landed her parents in grave trouble with the authorities. Watching West German TV was strictly prohibited but her parents did so regularly. One day at school, she was overheard saying to her friends how she liked the dog on West German TV who said ‘goodnight’, more than the puppets on local television. As a result of this slip, her parents had been severely interrogated and were kept under surveillance there after. Ute told me how her parents had shook her and shouted:

“Look, if you can’t understand that there’s a world in here with us – that is different from the world out there with them – then you can’t be part of our world.” She engaged me with a searing gaze and said:

“Imagine. You’re seven years old and your parents – who are your life, man – tell you that you can’t be part of their world any more.” I tried to feel what it would be like but knew that she and her people had undergone a suffering that I would never be able to understand.

Ute had channeled her anger and resentment into inspiration for her art, producing beautiful, unfathomable sculptures and photographic arrays. However, her fury still escaped at times in gasps of scalding steam, particularly when she was driving.

“Fuck you!” she’d scream in the middle of a pleasant chat, slapping both hands against the wheel in frustration when cars pulled out too fast in front of her. Her entire life had been one of confrontation, defiance and survival situations; it seemed appropriate that when she took me to the train station to buy me a ticket to Vienna, we ended up racing for time, fighting traffic and ultimately running down the platform so I could board the already-moving train. I barely had time to yell ‘Ciao’, let alone embrace her and I was left only with a bag full of fruit and some sandwiches she’d given me for the journey.

Her heroic spirit accompanied me as I left Hungary and dealt with the lean and hungry Romanian officials who grabbed £15 for the unexpected visa fee. They wanted to know if I was going to walk through their country.

I exchanged all the schillings I’d been given in Vienna and quickly found myself to be a millionaire in Romanian lire. I stuffed the absurdly large bundles of notes into various pockets and wondered why they didn’t just lop four or five zeros all the prices across the board.

I walked away leaving the bemused border police behind me and turned the corner into the first country lane. The breeze of adventure tousled my hair and lit up my smile as I took a large step towards the culture of the East that was the driving force for my whole trip. The August sun trickled morning rays through a loose filter of foliage provided by the overhanging trees on each side and a lattice of shadow lay cool on the quiet road. Chickens flapped and squawked around in the street and even an occasional cow stood about, as free as in India, chawing the berries that grew wild at the side of the road. The people seemed smaller and sharper: belonging to some archaic image of the country peasant. The women dressed in various skirts of green, red and blue, complete with small headscarves tied with a knot beneath their chins. In the space of a few hundred yards, I had stepped back a hundred years and i felt better. The modern world was obviously too complicated for my simple soul and so I stepped forth into the past and didn’t look back once. Except, perhaps, for a couple of glances over my shoulder in search of an Estonian blonde.

I’d heard that hitching in Romania is a public institution that flourished under communist times, when drivers went out of their way to pick up travellers in order to collect special hitching coupons in circulation that they could then exchange for petrol. In modern times, passengers simply gave some cash to the cars that stop for them – something that’s a bit tricky when dealing with unwieldy denominations of unfamiliar paper currency. To the first driver, I gave way too little and to the second so much, that he even gave me change – the Romanians have a well-developed sense of solidarity. It made sense, of course, as a social function to help share the costs of travel but it also stripped away a lot of the romance of hoboing around that actually relies upon a good division of rich and poor – for as long as there are the Haves and the Have-nots, the latter will be able to find at least a temporary way to Have for free. Either way, now that everyone and his dog could be seen hitching around, I didn’t feel quite so special any more – which popped the myth that I was trying to identify with the poor of the world. My trip became less pretentious by the mile.

The main problem came when I arrived in the first big town, named Arad. After getting some cheap breakfast of olives and bread, I walked down to the main road out of town and found myself competing with about 20 other men, women and children, all looking to flag rides East. And I mean it when I say compete. every car that stopped disappeared under a stampede of sharp-nosed men, a whirl of flaying handbags and a tumult of streetwise kids who negotiated and blackmailed their way through. Being English, I still had some naive and dainty concepts about queuing and the etiquette of waiting one’s turn. Forget it. The survival of the fittest had found its roadside niche and was not about to step aside and say ‘No, really, after you, my dear.’

The result was that I spent two or three hours running after slowing cars, struggling under the weight of my bags and being pipped at the post by old women who flew ahead of me, elbowing me in the ribs as they went past. After a few hours, I decided I was a fool to fuck around establishing a hernia in the heat when I still had money left to catch a train.

The train station was dusty, confining and busy. I felt like I was home in India already. I eventually located the queue for tickets to Bucharest. I leant against the wall in the middle of the line that stood complaining and moaning as the vending window remained closed and we fought off the occasional pleas of tired beggars; bearded old men who most probably had fascinating stories to tell, if they could only remember them and the archetypical struggling mothers with babes in their arms for emotional appeal.

The ticket window remained closed, happily oblivious to the ever-closer departure time for the Bucharest train and the line began to grow restless. Still clutching their beer cans, the beggars were just making their second rounds – quite unaware that it was still the same queue – when the office opened. Thirty minutes later, I was moving through the countryside in a shunting, swinging carriage, just pleased to be moving and on my way and fuck any pride about hitching 100% each last drop of the way. Was I trying to prove something here? I was just attempting to get from point A to point B with whatever means and devices as the journey cared to provide me.

We passed though small towns that were guarded by swollen green hills and crowds of children laughed at the sight of my head stuck out of the window, balancing the absurdly droopy black hat that Bishek had given me in parting. I knew I should have hopped out at one of these hamlets and made a bed beneath the stars but it was somehow easier to stay with the momentum of the train and just hope that things would shape themselves.

At 9pm, the train pulled into Bucharest. It suddenly occurred to me that it was a damned stupid time to pull into a large and unknown city with not enough money to get a room. I eyed a few 24 hour cafes and wondered if I could make a cup of coffee last until dawn, without completely collapsing on the tables. I didn’t fancy my chances.

So on a hunch, I went up to a blonde guy working on the American Fast Food stall and asked if he could speak English. He could and he found my entire situation to be an amusing and welcome break from the languid monotony of his job. He took me over to an empty cafeteria seating area where I could wait all night in safety, chatting to the other guy that worked there.

They sorted me out with some soda water and popcorn and I heard their depressing stories of the paltry pay and about the self-destructing society in which they lived but wished they didn’t. They all wanted to leave but assured me it was near-impossible to obtain a passport in this corrupt country. This I found especially depressing because they were deprived of even the opportunity to set off and realise their dreams like I was doing. I felt almost guilty for being so privileged.

I generally feel that anyone can empower themselves to do whatever they want without excuse. But I was taking for granted my birthright of a British passport, that absolute gem of good fortune that ensures me a minimum status most places in the world, regardless of my material position. In India, they would have called that the result of good karma in my last life. In Romania, they call it lucky.

Outside of my shelter windows, young orphans, only five or six years old, played around in their underwear through the chilly night. Their skin dark with grime and their faces wild with the scars of life, yet they bounced, leaped and chased each other around. Although it seemed to me that their laughter sounded thinner than the usual mirth of a child.

I couldn’t blame everyone for wanting to leave. That was my immediate feeling too – particularly when they kept asking me if I knew some secret as to how they could escape, legally or otherwise. They stared at me with an envy that was too large to conceal and wondered by what law I had been given the grace of freedom. Equally puzzling to them was by what perversion was I wasting my treasure to come to Bucharest, their personal hell. And why was I choosing poverty? I didn’t know. I just wanted to sleep, sleep, sleep and forget about today until tomorrow. Sometimes there is nowhere you can avert your eyes from blatant injustice and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Man, what a place.

My blond friend came back around dawn and offered to take me to his house in the countryside to rest and recuperate. We boarded some lump of metal on steel rails and sat opposite three peasant women, who crossed themselves each time the train started after each stop. I was pleased they were praying for all of us for I was too tired to raise my hands and make the appropriate gestures.

We went to the house of his grandfather in a really quiet village. To say that life was slow there would be more than generous, as even a motorcar attracted attention in the boredom that hung like humidity in the air. Maybe I’m being unfair but my head was too full of my personal Hungarian dreams to appreciate the peace and beauty there may have been here in the lowest ranking country in Europe.

I was something of a disappointment to my friend, because I did very little other than eat, sleep and fool around with my blues harp and clarinet. All this much to the bewilderment of his grandpa who ambled around nailing things, sawing and generally fixing stuff in a continual regime of maintenance and improvement to his wooden house.

The young guy wanted to fix me up with a job at the fast food stand. ‘Easy work’ he promised but I was having none of it. I’m a Piscean space cadet with an employment history of six days – four of them selling hammocks, one day as a garbage man and half a day each as a mail sorter and a nude art model.

I’ve sponged off the social security in England for months at a time, until I felt uncomfortable about receiving such will-sapping handouts. Otherwise, it’s pretty fucking difficult to make your talents pay in an alienated, hostile society where we all watch the hands of the clock go round and round, round and round, all day long.

The whole money question had completely spun my head into claustrophobic despair until I managed to scam my way out for a meagre season in Goa. There an old freak told me:

“Ah, well, you’re probably a sadhu-type, then.” Referring to the robed renunciates that live around the temples, ashrams and mountain caves of India. So maybe there was hope yet? Then I read his inspiring book* about his penniless hitchhike from San Francisco to Argentina and I was raring to get back to England, just so that I could return to India by the hard way.

 

  • Further up the Road, a genius work by Robin Brown.