Published: June 3rd 2009May 7th 2009
May 7th, Thursday....Oh Bucharest, where do I begin? Let's start with our celebratory drinks on Sky Europe flight #NE3208 to Bucharest. We were celebrating for many reasons. We had not slept in over 36 hours, we had stayed all night in Amsterdam at the Centraal Station and then at Schipol Airport. Our flight from Amsterdam to Vienna included an 8 hour layover. We even had to exit the airport and recheck in. But we had made it and had our second wind knowing we would be in Romania soon. Romania was one of the countries we have been most looking forward to visiting. Our plans once we landed were to head to our hostel, The Funky Chicken. I have to admit this night was one I had been dreading since leaving Minnesota b/c the Bucharest airport seemed far away from the hostel and getting there seemed to be a bit of a hassle. And our flight arrived around 9:30pm. I had even asked the hostel if they would pick us up and they said, "take a bus or take a taxi". Our Let's Go and Lonely Planet guides described Bucharest as a "gritty reality" with stray dogs, glue sniffing teens and
crumbling buildings. I figured they were just trying to make it look bad. They also warned tourists from taking taxis, they said don't take a taxi unless you absolutely have to. We planned to follow this advice and take the city bus as our hostel had suggested. When we arrived at the airport, we were shot out onto the tarmac and took a little bus to the terminal. I had been nervous about passing through Romanian immigration since London. The immigration officer in London was displeased that we did not have an itinerary and sarcastically wished us good luck in Romania with the language barrier and also not having proof of when we were leaving their country. This airport was crazy to me with no sleep and also I had never seen anything like it. It was like 2 rooms with surreal lighting. Immigration was right through the doors where the small bus dropped us off. I had no time to be nervous b/c it was right in front of me. A line formed and I approached the officer. She looked at my passport, asked me how long I would be in Romania, I told her, she didn't seem to
Our room at the Funky Chicken Hostel
understand and waved me through. I was so relieved. Tages was asked a few more questions but no big deal. Our bags were waiting in the next room and from there I figured we would be able to move into a lobby where we could use the toilet and get ourselves ready for the world outside. Oh no, the world outside was right outside baggage. There were dogs roaming, taxi men coming up to us every minute asking us to take their taxi, people hanging out on benches and no busses in sight. I felt a small panic but we kept it together. We decided to get our packs on quickly, no time to adjust our stuff, we didn't want to draw even more attention to ourselves. And attention drawing we already were. Everyone was staring at us. We tried asking a few people where the bus stop was but no one seemed to understand. One security officer wrote down a bus # that was totally different than the one we had. We just started walking, heading out into the dark, into what seemed like nowhere. We saw a group of people standing by a busy street and then saw
Anna and us
Anna was our favorite Funky Chicken staff! She really helped us on that first night and we will always remember this!
a bus pulling in towards them, nothing was marked, no bus signs but we headed over to stand by them. Eventually one of the busses we had written down pulled up. We got onto the bus expecting to pay the bus driver similar to how it worked in the Netherlands but the bus driver was completely enclosed in dark black glass so there was no communication what so ever. There were only 2 other people on the bus. I tried to ask one of them about purchasing a bus ticket but he didn't speak english. We were so nervous. It was so dark outside and the bus kept rambling down dark roads. We didn't want to get off but we also were nervous about riding without a ticket. We approached a lit plaza that seemed to be a shopping area with lots of teens hanging around waiting for busses. We got off here and tried to look for a bus ticket machine. We didn't see anything. We tried to ask some taxi guys about the tickets. They pointed us to a closed ticket booth. You apparently have to buy them from a live person but it closed at 7:30pm. They
laughed and said "Gratis". I was nervous so instead of thanking them in Romanian, I told them "Buna ziua" which means hello. They laughed even harder at us. We wandered around the bus stops but there were no times listed or bus #s. The same bus came again and lots of teens got on. We followed them. We were really tense and feeling very vulnerable with our big backpacks on. Everyone was looking at us strangely. I kept imagining police getting on the bus and hauling our non paying selves out of the country. The bus took a very long time to get to Piata Romana. It felt so far away. The bus kept thinning out but we finally made it. Piata Romana was the last stop. When we got off the bus, it was late and dark and it felt so chaotic. The buildings seemed so huge and there were cars speeding very fast on big busy roads. There were taxi men asking us to get in their taxis constantly and dogs, dogs, dogs. We saw a McDonalds so we headed in that direction to gather ourselves and figure out how to walk to the hostel. We came to
The Funky Chicken wasn't kidding about their offer of free cigarettes!
a KFC first and went in there. We bought a drink and looked at the map. I went to use the toilet and there were two police officers in there with large guns and full militant uniform on, I jumped back b/c I was so surprised to see them. They looked me up and down and I wanted to get out of there so fast. While I was away from the table, Tages was also getting looks up and down and feeling very uncomfortable. We got out of there fast. After heading in what we thought was the right direction and trying to ask people on the street, we were again on dark side streets. At one of the scariest moments, a stray dog shot out of the dark and lunged at us snarling and barking. Thankfully, it was behind a wire fence but came so close to us that I felt I might have a heart attack right there. We passed crumbling buildings and people huddled in groups on the street. We came upon a Golden Tulip hotel. I felt a sense of relief b/c I remembered the guide book had said that Bucharest is not equipped yet with
After 18 days of camping, hot food was a dream come true!
Tourist offices for non-Romanians. Hotels would be your best resource even if you were not staying in them. We walked into the hotel looking frightened I am sure and the man behind the counter was so incredibly helpful and spoke english. He gave us a map and pointed us in the right direction. I wanted to reach over the counter and hug him. We were back on the street and felt like we were close but couldn't seem to find the right street. We realized a man had been following us so we headed to a bar that was lit up. When he saw us "going in", he turned around the other way and scampered off. My heart was beating so fast. Tages and I were very tense and taking our nervousness out on each other saying things like, "I told you we should have taken a taxi" or "I knew we should have taken another bus". Which we laughed about later and agreed this was the scariest night so far. At the bar, I asked a staff where our street was located, St. General Berthelot. He didn't speak english but tried very hard to point us in the right
direction. The street he pointed us to was quite possibly the scariest street I have ever seen. It was almost an alley of sorts, completely pitch black with dogs howling in the distance. My first thought was, "Well, we better get out our head lamps". Tages just looked at me and with the firmest voice said, "There is no way in hell we are walking down that street." She marched in the other direction and I followed. We found it. With great relief we found the funky chicken hostel. We rang the buzzer and I am sure when Anna (our favorite favorite staff) came to the gate at what must have been 1am, we looked like absolute hell. She was so kind and so welcoming. She showed us all around the hostel, she gave us beds and even woke up the other guy in our room just to make sure our beds looked made and nice. She gave us a map and explained where everthing was. She answered all of our questions about the stray dogs and leering men on the street. She was wonderful and exactly what we needed after a night like that.
Day 2, May 8th,
Dish washing soap
This stuff is amazing and lasts forever. It makes so much sense! I wanted to send some home!
2009. I won't lie. It took a lot for Tages and I to even want to step foot out of our safe little hostel. We met another staff named Andrea who worked at the funky chicken. The staff there works a full 24 hour shift. They start in the morning so we would see them all day and were there all night and then would leave the next morning. Our room was a 6 bed dorm. It was so nice to be in a bed after camping for so long. It was also nice to have a shared kitchen, fridge and living room with a tv. We hadn't seen tv in what seemed like forever. And some of the tv was in english with romanian subtitles. There was also a nice little courtyard where you could hang out on picnic tables and eat or play cards. It was nice and safe in our hostel and we hung around for awhile before we could venture out. However we smelled quite bad after camping for so long and were in dire need of a laundromat. We soon found out that they did not exist in Romania. The hostel's washing machine was broken
so we set out to find a laundromat. We walked to a place that Anna had told us about and it turned out to be a very expensive dry cleaner. We saw a Hilton Hotel and thought we could maybe ask them if we could use their washing machine. They also had a dry cleaner service, self service washing machines were unheard of. Tages was desperate so she gave them 3 of her t-shirts to do. When we got back to the hostel they were installing a new washing machine. damn. We also went to the closest small grocery store which is always an adventure. I think grocery shopping is one of our favorite things to do because it's different in each country. I was starting to have hurt feelings b/c no one was smiling back at me. Being from the midwest, I often smile at others on the street and say hi. However, this is just not common in Bucharest and I was learning the hard way. Anna had told us to not make eye contact with men on the street and not pay attention to anyone. Also, we were supposed to walk confidently past all the stray dogs
b/c they can smell fear and will more likely attack those they feel are more scared. Oh god, for me this was quite the task on the 2nd day. We past what seemed like a hundred stray dogs and I was terrified. I kept thinking of my friend Zeinab back in Minnesota and what she would do in this situation already being afraid of even the smallest and nicest dogs! We cursed the US's short supply of the rabies vaccination and how they would not give it to us. We were convinced we wouldn't be leaving Romania rabies free. However, being in Bucharest during the daylight was much better than at night and Tages and I agreed we would not be going out at night by ourselves again. The first night had scarred us. Tages made a delicious pasta dinner back at the hostel and it felt great to have a warm meal and a nice atmosphere. More backpackers arrived at the hostel and one in our room turned out to be the first american we would meet on our trip. It felt so foreign but so familiar to hear his american accent when i heard him introducing himself to
would you understand this sign?
the german guys in our room. His name was James and he was from West Virginia. We started to get to know each other and he explained that he was temporarily living in Bucharest to be with his Romanian girlfriend Laura. He promised we would meet her soon. He said she was very helpful and could probably answer many of our questions we had about Romania. Here is a recap from my journal entry for this day. "Friday-Vineri, 13:21...As I stand here outside of this very tiny supermarket close to our hostel in Bucharest I am reminded of one of our tour books calling Bucharest "gritty" and Tages asked what that meant. I thought the books were exaggerating and making a poor country look bad but it's true. What I've seen has seemed gritty. A "gritty reality", as they put it. and no one in the shops has seemed friendly but i think it's just the language and they seem so shocked to hear english and to find the right english words in their mind. however, the english speaking romanians in shops have been very helpful and so nice. tages and i are tense but i think that comes with
the territory of being in this strange busy new city."
Saturday, May 9th. Today we were feeling a little more comfortable and ventured out of our neighborhood. We went to Parcul Cismigiu which is a very central park in Bucharest and a beautiful one, too. I think they call it the lovers park, fitting because we seemed to see lots of teens and lots of public displays of affection. We enjoyed the paddle boats for an hour around the lake. It was great fun! We love paddle boats. We wandered around the parcul more. It was beautiful. There just happened to be a festival going on in all of the parks this week. Europefest they called it and there was live music everywhere. We saw a Romanian band performing traditional mexican songs. We bought some popcorn and enjoyed the Mexican Hat Dance and La Cucaracha. We were loving it. We also walked to the University area and saw amazing buildings everywhere. I have never seen such huge apartment complexes all made of concrete. I felt awe struck everywhere we went. It was like nothing I have ever seen before. We walked and walked and walked. Excerpt from my journal
paddleboats in Parcul Cismigiu
entry from this day..."I think of all the big cities I have gone to, I have never felt so lost and alone as this one. (with the exception of new york at times) I don't feel this way in the hostel but outside it's gates, I do. Yesterday we saw some Roma beggars that made us very sad. A woman who was very dirty with a small baby in her arms. And a very old lady with legs that did not work sitting on the dirty ground with hand outstretched. We also passed a woman on the street that looked at Tages so disgustingly, it was weird and left us with a strange feeling. We are very on guard here about being gay. We have even discussed whether we are safe in the hostel or not. We have decided to pretend to be friends. It's a very uncomfortable thing to do. Something we have been lucky enough to never have to hide or lie about. But we feel that this is what we have to do right now for our safety." This night we met James's girlfriend Laura who is an absolutely amazing woman. Tages and I were amazed at
how smart she is and her invaluable knowledge of Romanian history. She also made the three of us Americans feel absolutely stupid knowing more about our constitution than we did. We also met some hilarious Australians named Alice and Micheal. The 6 of us took over the living room and talked all evening. Alice and Micheal told us funny traveling stories about Moroccan bath houses and emergency under the bridge camping and Laura shared stories of her life during Communism and Ceausescu's rule. Journal entry from tonight... I feel so lucky to have met Laura. She is so nice and a wonderful guide to Romania. It's exactly what I wished for. The stories she told tonight about her life pre-1989 just absolutely blew my mind. Most everyone had a job and an apartment but you had to work seven days a week and when you weren't working, you were standing in line. Standing in line waiting for something whether it was a sock delivery truck, bread, umbrellas, anything. You had to wait for a long time. Laura said there were people who waited 10 years for a car. This explains why there are so many cars in Bucharest. Laura said
when she was a little girl she would play in the shops below the apartment complexes and when a truck would pull up, she would run to get in line b/c that's what everyone did even though she had no idea what the truck was delivering. She said people had money but nothing to buy. She said the tv and radio were government controlled with propagandha that only showed infomercials about how great the country was. and she would sit and wait and wait and wait hoping for Bulgarian cartoons to come on. and in school they were only taught Russian and Latin which is why many people don't speak English. She said her uncle worked in a needle factory and would take a few needles home every day and soon he had a huge bag of them. Their family used to tease him about his bag of needles but he said maybe one day he would need them. hoarding in desperate times."
Sunday, May 10th. Things are so different here than anything I have experienced before and I am really loving it. The toilet paper to us is exactly like a roll of streamers. When I first saw
We were lucky enough to be in Bucharest during this EuropeFest so there were bands and music in the park. We just happened to be near a group playing Mexican Music. We stayed and ate popcorn for awhile.
it, I thought "brown, weird, what an unfestive color for streamers" then I realized it was a roll of toilet paper. And believe me, it also feels as if you are using streamers. We are rationing the coveted Charmin toilet paper that Sonia gave me before I left PPL. Also, they have a genius dish soap. It's a solid in a big tub called Axion. I realized that I waste so much dish soap in liquid form but this solid lasts forever. Genius! Also, the Romanian language is really beautiful and sounds so nice. It's a romance language so to me it sounds like french and italian together. I love waking up to the sounds of Anna and Andrea enjoying their morning cigarettes in the courtyard speaking in Romanian and everything sounds so dramatic. Journal entry from today...."I was ready to go explore Bucharest today. My feet had recovered from yesterday but Tages had zero motivation. As we left the hostel at 2pm :), I felt a sense of confidence that I haven't had since we arrived. I feel I owe that to Laura. and the night of hostel comaraderie to boost my spirits. As we walked down the street
in the living room. who's that funky chicken?
in 80 degree weather, I thought about the rich experience I have had here so far. Bucharest has definitely been my favorite stop on the trip so far. We walked thru Parcul Cismigiu again, Palatul Parliamentului (it's massive), Piata Unirii and Piata Revolutiei. We also stumbled upon a large flea market close to the Parliament. It was awesome!
Monday, May 11th. Today was great because we spent it all with Laura and James. Of course it was a richer experience with Laura b/c as we walked she just naturally spouted out all this history about everything we were passing. We would have just stared at the building or monument but not have known what it was really all about. And I had hoped that maybe I would get my haircut in Romania. And I did! Laura took us to Salon Diyona on Bd Uverturii. I looked through some magazines and showed the hairdresser a haircut that I wanted, Laura translated and it turned out fantastic! We also went to the library to use the internet, Parcul Herastrau, Triumphal Arc, Kremlin replica building, Ceausescu and his wife's grave, building with bullet holes from the 1989 revolution, delicious lunch of Senor
patata and Springtime in the mall and got ourselves into a bit of trouble with some bus officials. No worries, Laura talked our way out of the hefty bus fine. I haven't seen someone debate their way out of a sticky situation for that long since our friend Sherene left Minneapolis. I was scared speechless and Tages and I insisted on purchasing bus tickets after that. Laura still thought we shouldn't and assured us she would talk our way out of it again but we had to go against her better advice. It's a long story and a better one if I tell it in person. (you know i love to do that!) That night we had to say goodbye to Laura which was tough but hopes to see each other again someday, maybe in the states!
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