Tag Archives: arrival

Romania — We’re not in Kansas any more…

We approached the Romanian frontier at a small crossing in the east of Hungary.  Ours was the only car visible as we approached the remote border post in the dusk of late afternoon.  A man in a green uniform was smoking and put his cigarette down on the curb as we approached.  The country of registration of most European vehicles is indicated on the license plate, so it was obvious that we weren’t from around here.  Two other men in green appeared.  They flipped through our passports and our vehicle registration.  One asked, in surprisingly good English, “Do you have any special baggages?”  I wasn’t quite sure what he meant or how to answer so I smiled, shook my head, and said, “Nothing special”.  They were handing us back our passports and the English speaker said, “Enjoy your stay in Romania”, when he noticed that we were from Canada.  Up to this point they had assumed that we, like our camper van, were from England.  This was apparently an issue.

All three men disappeared for a very long time.  We sat there with the engine off, waiting.  Ours was the only vehicle there.  We could hear the crickets chirping, but after what seemed like an eternity, they re-appeared with our passports and let us pass.  The English speaker said, “Welcome to Romania”.  Romania recently joined the European Union, but it is not yet part of the Schengen Area, the zone of 26 European countries that share a common customs and immigration boundary.  So we needed to receive passport stamps to leave the Schengen and to enter Romania.  I don’t think that many Canadians pass through this lonely border crossing.  I am thankful yet again for the fact that Canadians are welcomed into so many countries.  We bear one of the best passports for international travel.

As soon as we arrived in the first Romanian village we noticed a big difference from Hungary.  Things were visibly poorer and less developed.  The roads were paved, but full of holes or patched and bumpy.  The few cars we saw were small, old, and in poor condition.  There were as many horse-drawn wagons on the road as cars.  We passed a man using a pitchfork to load his wagon with fresh grass cut from the roadside using a scythe.  It felt like we had gone back about a hundred years.

Horse drawn wagon on road with wheels, rubber tires, white horse

Horse-drawn wagon on roadway (Photo Credit: Diane)

The houses were simple and some had outbuildings made of wattle-and-daub.  There were open ditches in town and no sidewalks or landscaping.  The ground in front of the small homes was just mud.  The children were playing in the street.  A popular toy for the boys appeared to be a whip.  Definitely not child safe.

Three children running toward the car wearing pants and jackets

Romanian children playing in the street

The few adults we saw had dark, weathered complexions.  Some women sat in front of their homes wearing kerchiefs and house smocks.

Romanian woman walking beside road wearing skirt and aprom

Rural Romanian woman walking beside road (Photo credit: Diane)

Several times we had to slow to pass small herds of cattle in the streets as they were being brought in from the fields.  Each group was being prodded by a man with a whip, usually accompanied by a boy.

Cows walking on the street. Picture taken through windshield of the RV.

Cows in the street!  (Photo credit: Diane)

As we passed, everyone stared at us.  It felt like we had been teleported back to a village in (rural Africa, India, or Nepal).  Suddenly we were curiosities again, instantly recognizable as being outsiders.  I had expected to encounter this somewhere in Central/Eastern Europe, thinking perhaps it might have occurred earlier in Poland or Hungary, but they were both more developed and more frequented by tourists.  In rural Romania our large vehicle and our light skin colour make us stand out.

Patrick driving RV with cows visible outside the windows

Dodging Cows!  (Photo credit: Diane)

There were not many shops and none were open.  Eventually we arrived at a gas station, hoping to buy a vignette.  There were no cars there, but there was a person filling plastic containers with fuel.  They didn’t sell vignettes.  Surprisingly, we did find a bank machine and were able to get some Romanian lei (pronounced ‘lay’).  I had to walk through the mud to get to it.

We headed for the only campground in this part of the country.  It is operated by a non-profit foundation led by a Dutch couple that takes in battered women and their families.  They are glad to see us and asked about our journey, seeming almost surprised that we had made it.  There is only 1 other camper here.

Welcome to India

We arrived in Mumbai a few days ago at 4AM local time. We had previously decided to wait in the airport until sunrise. After wandering around the airport to find an ATM that didn’t work, we needed to change some US dollars into Rupees in order to get a taxi. Unfortunately, once you leave the Arrivals area, where the money changers are located, they won’t let you back in (for security reasons). So after being turned away once, we found a security guard that would let Patrick in only if Diane stayed outside with our backpacks.

Mumbai is a huge city of over 16 million people, with a good mix of Indian culture, colonial history, and modern development. It is also the home of the Indian film industry known as ‘Bollywood’. We had heard that India was overwhelming, an invasion of the senses, and that it would be difficult. Many people had said that if you can survive the first couple of weeks that you’ll grow to love it, but it can be hard at first. Our experience has been exactly the opposite. Mumbai has been easy by comparison to a lot of other places we’ve already been. We’re really enjoying it and it feels safe here (which may surprise you after you read on below).

Here are some of the interesting things that we’ve experienced…

There are international stores here, probably because Mumbai is the wealthiest city in India. Nearby to where we are staying there are Adidas, Nike, Reebok, and Benetton stores. There are also coffee shops, much to Diane’s delight. And McDonald’s! All these things were virtually nonexistent in most of Africa. Because most Indians are Hindus for whom the cow is sacred, there is no beef sold at McDonald’s here. They do have chicken and veggie burgers, and Patrick had a ‘McAloo Tikka’, which is a spiced potato patty burger. We suspect that many of these things won’t be widely available beyond the large cities and tourist areas.

There are a lot of beggars here. They follow us on the street. Late at night there are people sleeping in doorways. Unlike in Vancouver, the beggars and homeless people are not just adults – there are a whole families begging and sleeping on the streets are night. When our taxi stops at a light, children come out to beg. They press their little faces up against the glass and shield their eyes with their hands so they can see in. If the window is open, they reach in to try to touch us. Patrick tried to close the window, but they hung on the glass, and he didn’t have the heart to pry their little fingers off the window.

We’ve spent a lot of time at a restaurant and bar called Leopold’s. It is one of the few nearby that serves alcohol. The beer comes in large towers with a spout at the bottom, and we’ve shared more than a few with some nice young guys we met from Holland.

Leopold’s is one of the places where a lot of foreigners go, and it was targeted in the 2008 terrorist attacks here. In addition to bombings at two large hotels, which are currently being repaired, gunmen fired many bullets into Leopold’s from the street. Eight people were killed, including six tourists and two staff. Many of the staff who work there now were working on the night of the attack. Whether to maintain the history of the event or perhaps due to lack of funds, Leopold’s hasn’t repaired some of the damage. There are still many bullet holes in the glass, wood, and cement, some of which have been covered by pictures on the walls.

Our hotel room has television, something which was rare in Africa. There are three English channels, two for news and one playing mostly old movies. The Indian channels seem to be a lot like we have at home – news, music videos, and a shopping channel.

We went to see a Hindi movie the other night called ‘New York’. It was not your typical Bollywood movie, as there was no singing and dancing, and it was actually filmed in America. It was a thriller about some Indian people living in America who got involved in a terrorist plot. There was a sprinkling of English words throughout, just enough that we could follow the plot, and the production quality was actually very good. Unlike in Canada, people stood to sing the national anthem before the movie, there was an intermission half way through, and the concession served sandwiches, ice cream, caramel corn, and tea. Also unlike Canada, there were metal detectors upon entering the theatre, and messages on the screen that said you could not leave the theatre once the movie started (not even at intermission), and in the event of an explosion, that you should try to help your fellow theatre goers.

July 3rd was a Hindu festival day here, and it was also a ‘dry day’, which means that shops, restaurants, and bars cannot serve alcohol. Leopold’s was still serving, but only upstairs (which is not visible from the street), and only to foreigners who provided their passport. It felt discriminatory that only foreigners and not local people could enter, but is also seemed a bit like an elite club from colonial times.

India is currently experiencing the monsoon, the rains which just began and will continue for the next three months, coinciding perfectly with our time here. It has rained at bit every day that we’ve been here. Yesterday it rained so hard that we got wet to the skin on a ten minute walk, while we were using our umbrellas! The weather is likely to have some impact on our travel plans, but we’ll have to see.

So far, India has been great. The Indian food is terrific and cheap. We can both eat a good dinner for under $4 Canadian. Taxis are also cheap enough, usually under a dollar, that we can use them more frequently. We’ve started to figure out the train system, and are taking our first trains later today. We’ll let you know how it goes.

One Night in Cairo

We arrived at Cairo airport from London at about midnight. We cleared immigration on the 2nd try, after we went were sent back to buy a Visa stamp. Fortunately, it was $15US each, rather than the $25 we expected. Upon exit from the arrival terminal, we were fully expecting to be swarmed by airport “touts”, and had spent time on the plane discussing our strategy. The best approach seemed to be to push through the wall of men offering help with a taxi or hotel, and negotiate closer to the street. The guide book said 35 Egyptian pounds (E£35) was a good negotiated rate for a taxi to the airport, but this may have been only from the city to the airport. After negotiating with several guys, an impromptu auction arose, with Patrick talking to a group of men all at once. Eventually Patrick got a guy to agree to E£45.

He walked us away from the airport and down a long tunnel, which was a bit worrisome. We got to his small car, and Patrick got his first request for baksheesh (alms or a tip) from a nearby taxi driver, which was declined, because this other fella hadn’t done anything for us. Diane rode with our packs in the back seat. Why? Because it is easier to exit the cab for the agreed upon fare if you bags aren’t held hostage in the locked trunk. The car didn’t move for about 3 minutes, which seemed like an eternity, but I think it was because it may have been prayer time, as a chant came across the car radio.

Exiting the airport, the driver wanted Patrick to pay the E£5 airport fee, and he wouldn’t until the driver agreed that his remaining fee would now only be E£40. A bit of shouting ensued, but he was under pressure because we were blocking the toll booth. He reluctantly agreed, but it didn’t seem like he was committed to it, or very happy about it. He drove us to town, but didn’t know where the hotel was. After talking to a number of cab drivers (some while both cab were in motion) and a couple of street police offers, we made it to a huge locked gate on a very dark and dusty street with a painted sign that said “African Hotel” illuminated by a single incandescent bulb. Diane stayed in the car, which we couldn’t afford to lose until we confirmed that we could get in, while Patrick checked the gate. There was an old man on a cot inside the gate, who rose slowly, almost painfully, to unlock the chain that held the very old heavy cast iron gates closed.

We walked down a large hallway into what was once a grand old colonial building, with sparse lighting illuminating pealing paint. We climbed 3 flights of wide stone stairs, following small signs that said “Africa”. On the 3rd floor, we found a small, dimly lit room with a desk, and a helpful young Egyptian. He had our name already written in a book, from our online reservation done in London the night before, the technological advancement of which was in stark contrast to the environment we now found ourselves in.

We were shown to a huge room, with 15 foot ceilings, high door ways, and 3 beds. You could tell this was once a beautiful old building. It still was, if you could see through the dirt and the many layers of cracking paint. The old floorboards flexed so much when Diane walked on them, she was worried she might fall through. The sheets seemed cleaned based on the sniff test, and we locked ourselves into the room using an old-fashioned key from the inside of the room.

At this point, Diane was stressed almost to her limit, and it took some time for her calm down. Patrick laid out our sleeping sheets (individual sleeping bag liners made of silk), into which we put our money belts and ourselves for safekeeping. Diane clung to Patrick as loud noises outside made sleep difficult.

We wrote this the following morning, so we obviously survived our first night in Cairo. It was an exhilarating introduction to one of the world’s great cities.