Habitat build in Romania plus train trips through the Balkans

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September 16th 2016
Published: November 9th 2016
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Train station in ZagrebTrain station in ZagrebTrain station in Zagreb

Waiting on the platform
Just a few more days before my departure to Europe for the Big Build in Bacau, Romania. As part of my plan to visit 100 countries by the the time I reach 70 years of age, I am going on a pre-build tour through the Balkans. The first stop will be Ljubljana in Slovenia, then Croatia,Bosnia, Montenegro and Serbia before arriving in Romania. (late breaking news, on a count back, I discovered that I am going to not achieve 100 by the end of this trip.)

On September 20th, we left West Hawk Lake after the usual fall shutdown and drove to Winnipeg and then Lorette for a last visit with Aron, Fran and Xavier. Jan will be in the Winnipeg area for a bit, and then she will drive west to Ymir and on to Salt Spring.

I left Winnipeg on Westjet at 1237 , then bit of a layover until 1835 for WS 493 to Gatwick-a crowded flight (reflecting the cheap ticket price) WJ has a lot to be modest about (cramped seats, no complimentary beverages and meals for purchase) In addition the schedule is written in pencil so we got in too late for me to
Track side monasteryTrack side monasteryTrack side monastery

We are waiting for border control
catch the 1130 National Express bus to Stansted. However I was able to get the 1330 and got to the airport at 1630 to catch the 1835 Easyjet flight to Ljubljana. This was a long day.

AirBnb place modest but owner welcomed me with a free beer. Ahh sleep...

The next day I walked about 3k through the downtown area to get to the train station. The internet schedule was wrong as it said the train left for Zagreb at 11.00 versus the real time of 1435. Slovenia is a prosperous looking country and the downtown area is clean and tidy.

The train trip (9 euros) was excellent and I had a compartment all to myself. The train route after leaving the city, goes along the Sava River valley. We stopped at the Croatia border for a quick passport check, then on into Zagreb at 1715. During the trip, I did a country count and it appears Croatia is #94 so I will only be at 98 after Romania.

The AirBnb place was close to the station but no answer at the door so beer in a nearby bar seemed like a good way to spend the waiting time. The innkeeper finally awoke at 1900. This was a three story walkup inspiring me to give some more thought to lighter packing. Nice accommodation but with the window open, I got to experience the joyous sounds of a Friday night in Zagreb. My train the next day was scheduled for 859. I am gradually lightening my luggage by discarding books.

The next day it was off to the station early in order to give time to buy breakfast and lunch for the train. No euros taken here so I had to use M/C for food. Navigating the train system in these countries is pretty easy as all you need to know is the time of departure and platform number. It also helps to know the direction of travel. The trains tend to be right on time which helps make it easier. The PA announcements are useless as even the English versions can not be understood. Great people watching in the train station.

As we move further into the Balkans, the train equipment becomes ever more decrepit. On this train,I am in a 6 person compartment with two pleasant ladies from Croatia. One left the train
Mute Swans in the DeltaMute Swans in the DeltaMute Swans in the Delta

We have these in Canada now
after a few stops and the second continued on to Bosnia. She tells me she is Bosnian but works in Croatia. Apparently she is going to a wedding in a small village.

After she leaves the compartment is mine. The biggest challenge is temperature regulation. We have full heat from the register which is offset by a window which doesn't close...

The country side exhibits a traditional subsistence farming way of life including tethered cows, small poultry flocks, grape crops and pole centred haystacks.

A good train ride but we got into Sarejevo at 1915 which was about 2 hours behind what passes for a schedule. As we arrived, it seemed like finding the Airbnb would be challenging but the owner sent his cousin as a guide to the station which was vital in helping find me the apartment. After a quick unpack, I walked to an excellent adjacent restaurant (beer,fish soup, salad)

The next day Adnan (Bnb owner) got me an early taxi so I could go to East Sarajevo to catch the 0815 bus to Montenegro. On an early Sunday morning on the streets of SJ there is not a lot open. I am
Delta TourDelta TourDelta Tour

Hotel grounds
facing an apparently spectacular bus ride of about 6 hours from EJ to Podgorica-full junk food kiosk breakfast plus some supplies for the trip. This is a high quality minibus and it is not quite full. The W/C stops are basically ditch and tree options. The passenger list includes Bosnians, Serbs, Albanians and Turks plus one Canadian.

The road is possibly the most spectacular ever experienced by me, and that includes some pretty impressive motorcycle trips in western North America. You have your basic sheer drops, tunnels, switchbacks,deep canyons, waterfalls plus an amazing impoundment lake behind a huge dam. We don't need no "stinkin" guardrails and there are lots of single lane stretches. Where is my motorcycle?

Uneventful border crossing into Montenegro (country # 96) and then it was on to Podgorica where the clean and organized bus station is right beside the train station. After a malt restorative and lunch I purchased the train ticket (18 Euros) for the next leg (Podgorica to Belgrade). It is apparently one of the world's great train rides which can be enjoyed for around 10 hours, but I am told the time table is in pencil. This train trip actually starts
View from the trainView from the trainView from the train

Bar to Belgrade trip
in Bar but my schedule didn't work for that so I got on in Podgorica. The total trip is 296 miles, with 254 tunnels and 435 bridges.

The Podgorica Airbnb had the main advantage of location (5 minute walk from station) but it also came with canine noise issues. Later there was a major flood event in the W/C from an overloaded washing machine. I rewarded the owner by leaving my Vivo HR charging cord in the room.

Food as I experienced it in PG was very cheap and worth every cent.

The next day I went to the station area early and mistakenly ordered bacon and eggs-the full grease experience.

The train was out on time at 1000 hours with every seat occupied and we have quite a few locals plus some tourists. Because the train was full, I didn't get the best viewing seat but the train gradually emptied out as we went higher into the mountains. It is a spectacular ride with lots of tunnels and sheer drops. The route includes what is described as the world's highest trestle and it is quite a sight.

As we moved along the route, my
Carpathian roadCarpathian roadCarpathian road

lots of switchbacks
car,which started with all 32 seats full, gradually decreased down to 8 tourists and/or train freaks. The big down side of this trip is the legendary bad toilet quality. Having ridden the Trans-Siberian Express, I felt that there was nothing left to see in terms of disgusting toilets, but this one was the easy winner. We will forego an exact description but I thought it was bad (and I used to shovel actual cow, pig and chicken manure growing up on a farm)

Our car was the rear end of the bar car which normally would have been a good thing. However time in the bar car typically results in toilet use... I also believe there is a local bylaw requiring bar car occupants to chain smoke.

At the border crossing into Serbia,we had a 20 minute stop right beside the Vrbnica Monastery which provided for some interesting photography.

We finally arrived in Belgrade about 2045 which was not too bad relative to some train rides I have experienced -Hello VIA. The conductor who was a recipient of an award from me earlier in the form of a Canada pin, graciously helped me find the Belgrade City
Build siteBuild siteBuild site

truss factory
Hotel. Hello to a good toilet and then off to the nice quiet restaurant for beer, fish soup, caesar salad and wine all to the sound of Serbian music-a memorable solo travel meal. During the meal, I booked a next afternoon flight to Bucharest, thus ending my Balkan train tour.

On the subject of epic and memorable solo travel dinners,here is a partial list 1) Abassihotel in Tehran-great buffet but no liquor 2) Alaska ferry between Juneau and Prince Rupert-great discussion on how to cook halibut 3) Neighbourhood bar/restaurant in Tiblisi, Georgia,-free vodka 4) Central Square restaurant in Jerusalem,- unique food 5) Fish Restaurant in Istanbul-a huge outdoor food, court was seated beside a big group who turned out to be from Toronto.

The City Hotel breakfast was truly excellent.I then caught a taxi to the Airport and got an informative lesson about Serbian culture, with a particular focus on the home manufacture of Raki, which is a high proof alcoholic beverage made from plums. More will be heard of this delicacy later....

My flight was on Air Serbia (Very reasonably priced flight on a new aircraft, free luggage check, complimentary beverages and meal, pleasant staff and
Shepherd Shepherd Shepherd

an ancient lifestyle
on time service in spacious seats) In Canada we get Russian quality air service with Swiss pricing. I expect AC and WJ will soon start charging to use the washrooms....

In Bucharest, the arrival system including passport control is quick and efficient. The taxi system uses an allocation machine- if you don't use it, there is a 30E surcharge.I was quickly shuttled to the Johann Straus Hotel and settled in to spend a whole day before the next adventure. On the advice of the JS front desk staff, I ate dinner across the street at Diesel's ordering a traditional Romanian dish of meat, polenta and soft pickles (my final visit to this establishment)

The next day, a team member (Bruce) and I did a walking tour of Bucharest. According to my Vivo, we did 15 km which is about 21,000 steps. We visited the Outdoor Museum,Old Town and a great city park. We also walked by the Canadian Embassy (quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping workers) We finally tired of walking and took a taxi back to the hotel where we met up with the Young's. Evening dinner was at the Brano Italian restaurant which was
Shepherd and helperShepherd and helperShepherd and helper

On the edge of the Carpathians
excellent.Reminded me of Delucas in Winnipeg)

The next day (Sept 27th) six of us were supposed to be picked up at 8.00 AM for our pre-build excursion to the Danube Delta. However just before the bus arrived, a quick check of my email revealed a change in the Big Build plan from 40 homes to just the building of components. Apparently a political intervention resulted in a cancelled building permit-hello Salt Spring etc. This is why flexibility is a key attribute for GV builds.

In any case, the six of us loaded up with Andre our guide from Buzz Travel and headed out on to the road to the east. The Romanian road system is still developing and Andre tells us there only 700 km of roads in the entire country. Andre is a mountain guide and budding Grand Prix participant. We stopped along the way at 2 roadside gas stations-what a contrast between Canada and Romania in terms of the food on offer. There is very little "fun food" (garbage snacks) like we are used to in Canada but lots of high quality baked goods and fresh healthy items.

Our first stop was Dulcea Harbour where
Farmers marketFarmers marketFarmers market

Hand made brooms
we had lunch. We are now in the Danube Delta area and fishing is a key economic activity. Therefore lunch was fish soup plus carp with cabbage. After lunch we continued on to Murighol and did a quick checkin at La Felinare. We then went to the harbour to catch out our delta tour boat.

The Danube splits into 3 main channels as part of the 5000 square mile delta at the outlet to the Black Sea and there are hundreds of cross channels. There are permanent dwellings out in this wetland and the occupants live off fishing, hunting and tourism. We did a three hour tour and saw quite a few birds but not a lot of different species. Apparently we were too late in the season as many species had already passed through the area on their way to Africa. We just missed the exit of Europe's largest colony of egyptian pelicans and the wintering red breasted geese had not yet arrived. However we did see grey herons, mute swans,great egrets,glossy ibis and pygmy cormorants.

There are 75 species of fish in the delta including beluga sturgeon and catfish weighing up to 200 kg. In one
Catateau Si BisericaCatateau Si BisericaCatateau Si Biserica

Fortified Church
of the lagoons, we stopped for a while to look at the various birds and swamp life. The water was crystal clear.

The next day, we toured some ancient ruins (Roman and Ottoman) on the way to Constata. The Roman fort was called Cetalecau and was 1000 years old. It had a thermally heated bath area. The Romans did leave an impact in a lot of places. On the way up to the Ottoman fort, we passed some modern day shepherds with a huge flock of sheep, cattle and goats. Their lifestyle does not appear to have changed much over the centuries except for cell phones. They are on a trail through public lands with their flocks all summer. After a quick lunch at the Black Sea Restaurant in the impressive Constata harbour, we did a rapid trip back to Bucharest hitting 160 kph in places. In honour of the Romans from Cetalacau, we went for pizza and had our first try of Palinka.

Saturday was day one of the Habitat build schedule and generally consisted of waiting around for people to arrive, interrupted by a research trip to find a restaurant for our first team dinner. I
Our teamOur teamOur team

Early winter
was also able to purloin a poster from the hotel W/C (Give **** A Chance)

We ended up again at the excellent Gargantua Restaurant where all 12 people can dine for 720 lei (less than $20 CAD each) It was an early night as many of the team were sleep deprived and jet lagged. We have a great team once again... I called home and all is well.

Day 2 was our travel day and a large and luxurious bus picked us up at 0945 to take us to Bacau. Because this was a new bus, the windows were the "not opening" type based on the vehicle having air conditioning. Midway through the trip, the A/C inevitably stopped working and we were quickly provided with heat and lots of it. Just as grumbling was starting to become widespread, the driver stopped the bus and did some magic with a hammer and various other tools. (A/C back on)

We arrived in Bacau at 1500 hours and went to the Decebel Hotel which was apparently constructed during the Causecu reign. Not a bad hotel,but it has treacherous multilevel floor surfaces. We had a bit of free time before the

old part of city
offsite welcome banquet. It quickly became apparent that we are surrounded by 140 fervent Habitat builders from the USA, most of which are here through Thrivent. It was an early night.

Breakfast is provided on the first floor and so far there have been no injuries from the uneven floors and stairs-possibly the power of prayer??? The buses leave at 8.00 am and we are encouraged to get moving by our designated interpreters: Stefana and Alina-a very organized pair of grade ten high students who are volunteering for the week. Everything went well for the loading of the buses for our first build day and no one was left behind.

Upon arrival at the site, we start off every morning with A Big Tent Meeting, which undoubtedly felt like home to some. After the first part of the morning ceremonies, we then had an excellent safety talk before everyone headed off to work. Because this is a Big Build (modified version) our team was not together. Most were on the truss assembly teams but Paul and I got to cut gusset pieces for the trusses. (405 trusses were needed) Apparently the this translates to a need for 20,000 pieces that have to be cut.

Each day we worked from about 0830 to 1630, with time off for lunch and coffee breaks. The Decebel has a bar right at the front entrance thus enabling rehydration at day's end.

On the second day, all the volunteers (in stages) got to visit the abodes of the families who will be moving into the new homes. The place we visited was a 260 sf flat in a soviet era factory worker concrete apartment block.These apartments have a small kitchen and the rest is a one room combination living, dining room, bedroom etc. This place was occupied by a family of 4, all sleeping in the same bed. The bathroom down the hall was shared with the 15 other apartments and there was one shower for maybe 50 people. Pretty grim... as I have noted previously, there are people in North America who would feel deprived with a 260 sf MBR closet.

We also got to take a tour of an occupied home which was constructed as part of last years Big Build-quite a contrast. 2 bedrooms, living room , kitchen and a bathroom.

By build day 3, the pace of construction was picking up and there is optimism that all the rafters and some of the walls will be done by Friday.

Our evening dinners have all been at different restaurants and the various teams are sharing information. A favourable reviews usually means there is no hope of getting into the restaurant ever again...On Wednesday night our booking was at the Green Park Restaurant which is about a 20 minute walk from the Decebel. Stefana and Alina came along to guide us to the restaurant and help with the menus. We bought them dinner and got to hear what life is like for high school students in Romania. They did a great job for us. The next day Alina brought us a bottle of Palinka which had been made by her grandmother.

Our weather has been pretty good, virtually no rain and temperatures ranging from 6C to about 20C. We ended day 4 at about 300 trusses. I am hearing that a few people think Big Builds do not provide the same type of experience as we all enjoy with the regular small builds. The main difference is that you don't get to work together as much or at all in some cases. However,this still has been a good experience and Habitat Romania has done a great job, in difficult circumstances.

The big issue for this project was basically that after gearing up for the full Big Build which was to be 20 duplexes in 5 days, the city of Bacau refused to issue a building permit. Apparently this was political, coming on the heals of the election of a new mayor and even appeals to the Romanian Prime Minister failed to get the decision changed. As a result of this 11th hour decision, Habitat Romania had only 3 days before teams were arriving to change the build to fit the new circumstances. Apparently the permit will be issued sometime in the spring, so we all ended up making components for the houses. Instead of of 800 people on site, we had about 200.

We had a farewell dinner Thursday evening back in the huge banquet tent-lots of fun including Romanian dancers and a musician.

On Friday we worked until noon and managed to get very close (380) to the 405 truss target The crews also completed quite a few walls and a huge play structure for the community children. The closing ceremonies after lunch provided the opportunity for yet more inspirational messages. I took the opportunity to make the crowd nervous by indicating my intention to talk about American Presidents. People seemed happy to hear that it was Jimmy Carter that I had in mind... There is some apprehension about the forthcoming USA election.

Saturday morning we were picked up by Ion Dima of Buzz Travel for our R and R trip to the Carpathian Mountains. Our transportation was a brand new 20 passenger Mercedes bus. After leaving Bacau, it didnt take long to get into the mountains. As it is fall, the colours are quite spectacular and I think we are seeing larch as well as lots of hardwoods. Our first stop was at a village farmers market where there were a few unique hand made items such as carved wooden utensils, leather goods plus lots of food.

Further along, we stopped at a gas station for the w/c - usual modern clean attractive set up. Across the highway, we saw a nomadic sheep herd accompanied by several shepherds and their dogs.Apparently this is an ancient method of livestock rearing which only persists in a few places ( Scotland, Iran, Romania etc) The shepherds do herding on behalf of livestock owners from the villages on an animal share basis (percentage of lambs born etc) and live with the flocks from spring until fall.

Our next stop was at a well preserved walled church (Catatea si Biserica) which was built by Germans in the 1300s. This is well worth a visit. Across the street there was a fall fair with lots of cheese, cured meats, fruit etc. We then continued on to Brasov which is an old city with German roots. After some free time we continued up the mountains to the Busteni Mountain Resort in Predeal. This is a ski area and the resort has a bear theme which is apparently because Romania has Europe's biggest population of bears.

Starvation rationing continued with the evening meal of goulash soup, veal schnitzel, potatoes and desert etc. We did some additional research on Romanian wine and concluded that more study is needed. Wine research in Romania comes with some risk as the stair tread measuring is unique to say the least. The first flight to my room had some variety in the tread heights and then when you arrived at the top, the final tread height was 2 inches???

The next day short rations continued with the biggest and best buffet breakfast since arriving in Europe. At 9.00 we loaded the bus and left for the Busteni cable car site, where we expected to find the cable car trip to be cancelled due to inclement weather at the top. However, possibly due to a Thrivent intervention, the sun was out so up we went. This car took us up the side of the appropriately named Massive Mountain to a plateau which had about 6 inches of snow. Thus ended our plan to do a 3 hour mountain trek. We did a bit of a walk, took some photos, had some more Palinka and then it was down the mountain to visit Peles Castle-supreme decadence (lots of basic home decorating ideas if you are into Baroque)

We ended the R and R in Bucharest with a final meal-lots of interest in diet books.

The next day, due to a scheduling issue (calendar incompetence on my part) I had an extra day in Bucharest so Bruce, Buck and I did a communist tour with Ion. It was basically a story about Causecu and his monster wife. One monument to their excesses was the 33,200 square meter parliament building (second in size only to the Pentagon) We passed on the tour but used the basement washrooms. Interesting tour and we ate lunch at a kebob restaurant.

The next day it was off to the UK for a one day layover. The only bad issue was a major "tire fire" with my Airbnb reservation so I ended up in a different hotel. I also spent part of the evening in the Hungry Horse pub. Good flight back to YVR and then home by 1815 on Harbour Air. Next Habitat trip will be Trinidad in March and I already have some interest.


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