Just days ago I received a LinkedIn invite from someone I met a long time ago. It was a very pleasant surprise to have communication again with A, who I met while backpacking in Romania in 2000. It brought me back to that time, when I was in the midst of an 11 month solo backpacking trip through Europe and Asia, long before I was a mom, when the Foreign Service, even my graduate degree, was just a twinkle in my eye.
I do not have any email stories from that time in my life. I know I sent some, but the Internet was a much newer thing, and anything I sent during that time is lost to cyberspace. Romania was sort of a turning point in my trip, most certainly when I look back at the people I met there and in the weeks just after. I had already been on the road for 3 months. Beginning in Helsinki, Finland, I had made my way through the Baltics, to Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bavaria, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Hungary to arrive in Romania. I was getting tired. I nearly missed a train change at the Hungarian-Romanian border when the train stopped somewhere around midnight and I noticed I was alone. I was wide-awake as I had been primed to fear strangers coming onto the train to rob me or gas me and do me harm. I stepped off the train and noticed there was another train on an adjacent platform idling its engine, while my own train engine was already growing cold. There were a few men, wearing dark clothes, moving like shadows around the train yard, lit only by a few poor lights. I asked them if they spoke English. They did not, and only laughed. Somehow, I do not remember how, I figured out the other train was the one I need to be one and I changed, grateful then for the other passengers.
Once on the right train and with the morning coming and more passengers, I allowed myself to sleep. And so I missed my stop at Sighisoara and ended up disembarking at Brasov. In Brasov, I was harassed by two bus ticketing thugs, who muscled me off a bus and then demanded money and my passport when I did not comply. Because it was midday I defied them, arguing with them, telling them with bravado I did not feel that if they wanted money from me I would be happy to accompany them to the nearest police station. I only escaped when I jabbed my finger unexpectedly into the chest of one of the men, yelled “leave me alone!” and turned and ran as fast as I could for several blocks. I lost them.
Then on my final day in Bucharest I was attacked by dogs. No kidding. I was walking along, minding my own business, headed for the Palace of the Parliament, the world’s second largest public building (after the Pentagon), when out of nowhere four dogs appear and surround me. They are barking and jumping and nipping at me. A woman leans out of a nearby window on the third or fourth floor to yell. I think she is telling me to be quiet and not the dogs. Maybe I am screaming? The dogs start tearing at my clothes. I know one dog had my left hand in its mouth. Another was pulling at my pants behind my left knee. A third was pulling at my right pant leg at my ankle. I have never been able to remember what the fourth dog was doing. A man approaches and holds off the dogs and tells me to run. I assume he told me in Romanian, but in my head I heard English and I took off like a shot. I ran across a large street, I’m not sure how many lanes, and the dogs did not pursue. I catch a glimpse of myself in a tinted bank window and I look like a crazy person. My hair is a mess, my fast red and tear splotched, my pants torn. I collect myself and limp a few more blocks to the Palace of the Parliament. There I first request a ticket for the next tour and then a first aid kit if they have one.
It is after the tour I head back to the hostel. I start every time I see a dog. And there were a lot of dogs. According to the “Welcome to Bucharest” brochure I find at the front desk of the hostel upon my return, the approximate population of Bucharest is 3 million people and 2 million dogs. The brochure explains that the dogs have become wild and rabies shots are required if bitten. I think about whether I would have wanted to know this information before my incident, and cannot make up my mind. What I do know is that my plan to depart Romania that evening on the night train to Bulgaria seems too much for me to take on.
It is at this point I meet A. He is backpacking for a few months through Europe while on leave from a teaching job in the UK. He tells me he is traveling to Bulgaria the next day and I can tag along with him instead of leaving that night. I feel so relieved. (especially as on the way to dinner that night with another hostel-mate, we watch a dog attack another person in the street)
And wouldn’t you know it. As we try to leave the next day we are confronted by a fake policeman at the Bucharest train station. As soon as we enter the station he approaches and requests to see our passports. We hand them over. He gives an exaggerated sigh and tells us that unfortunately our permission to remain in the country has expired and we will have to pay a fine. We have had enough of these poor attempts at bilking tourists and we grab our passports back, tell him to shove off, and continue on our way. Yet our trials with Romania are not complete. At the Romanian-Bulgarian border a fake border officer boards the train and tries one last shakedown. We almost fall for it until A notices the officer’s badge is flimsy, like a Cracker Jack sheriff badge toy, and hanging off his nondescript khaki uniform at an odd angle. Minutes later the real guys come through and it is obvious our first guy is an imposter.
I travel with A for 5 days. We visit Veliko Tarnova and Sofia and the Rila Monastery. In Veliko Tarnova I search the Internet for information on rabies and grow a little concerned that my days are numbered. A agrees to monitor my progress and let me know if I start frothing at the mouth. He goes with me to the US Embassy in Sofia as I make inquiries with the Embassy doctor about my possible rabies vaccination plan.
After Sofia we parted ways. I headed on to Macedonia and A went back to the UK. He and his girlfriend were preparing for a visit to Iran, a country Australians could visit, though Americans could not. His girlfriend was having an abaya made to wear while they traveled. A and I kept in contact for a long while. After his trip to Iran and the end of his contract in the UK, he made a plan to return to Australia entirely without flying. He traveled by train across Russia to Beijing, south to Vietnam, then by bus through Southeast Asia to Singapore, then by boat through Indonesia to Bali. It was only on Bali when he learned he had missed the boat to Australia and the next would be awhile when he finally hopped on a plane. He joined Australia’s version of the Foreign Service and served in Vanuatu, then Afghanistan, when we lost tough. Until now, when returning to Australia after 3 ½ years in Pakistan, on the recommendation of a friend he joined LinkedIn.
It’s hard to believe it has been nearly 14 years since we met in a hostel in Bucharest. Those days in Romania do not seem that long ago.