Day 14 –Wed, May 17 – Woke up in freezing
Moscow, now sitting shirtless on a clear, sunny balcony in Europe overlooking
the Bosphorous to Asia. Istanbul
– where East meets West - the only city in the world straddling two
continents. This city has an
amazing history of conquests, crusades and empires from the Romans to the
Byzantines to the seat of the Ottoman empire that stretched all the way from
Vienna to Africa and the Middle East. All
this gives the city a cosmopolitan feel with oriental and Islamic flavors – a
combination unique in the world. I
was here for six weeks in 1995 working and saw much if it, but never really on
vacation. We’ve moved three hours
South and 30 degrees warmer. Now it
feels like the journey is starting in earnest.
Russia, with it’s lingering oppressiveness, economic depression, cold
spell and language barriers was a lot of work.
Nevertheless, I felt sad driving to the airport as I was leaving it for a
long time, perhaps forever, without really getting to know it.
The slight scratches I made in her surface didn’t really get to the
heart of Russia, but as Valentina said as we were leaving, “You must save
something for next time – there is never enough time in life!”
How right she is. I fear we
will leave most countries without really knowing it or its people.
This mornings breakfast was a wonderful combination of porridge, tea with honey, and bread with homemade forest berry jam. We showed Leonid and Valentina the website, but unfortunately could not go into a lot of detail due to time constraints. I’m sure they think we are quite crazy. They helped to get our taxi (including a reduction from the tourist price of $35 to the Russian-speaking customer price of $10). We hope to continue correspondence with them as they were very kind and generous, as well as hospitable. We now have some confidence in the Servas idea and plan to continue meeting people this way throughout our journey.
We seemed to be on the only flight arriving at Istanbul’s vast new gleaming airport. The taxi took us along the Bosphorous to our hotel in the Sultanahmet district. Once we left the waterside the streets got more narrow and winding and we started to hit some markets. We got a bit worried when the taxi stopped and said we had to walk the last 50 meters through a bustling, loud fruit market in the middle of the street. It was great maneuvering through the crowd with Wheely Beast and everything else. We arrived at our oasis of calm, Hotel Poem, two wonderful 100-year old houses converted into a small hotel with modern amenities, garden patio and views of the Bosphorous. As advertised on the web, we were met by the owner, Sevim, who not only debated our taxi fare for us, but welcomed us with tea and tourist information. The hotel’s rooms are not numbered, but named after poems written primarily by famous Turkish writers. We were shown to our room, called “All of a Sudden”, which appeared to be the best of the lot, with a huge balcony facing the sunrise across to Asia.
After resting and cleaning up, we walked through the wonderful fruit market and explored the neighborhood. When I was here last I didn’t even know that the area behind the Blue Mosque was a quaint neighborhood of restaurants, bars, shops and cheap hotels. We saw many backpacking tourists. I wanted to walk to the Blue Mosque because Naomi had never really seen one before and this one is among the most beautiful and famous in the world, with its six minarets outside and amazing blue tiles and stained glass inside. We only photographed the outside of the mosque and its much older neighboring counterpart, the equally amazing Byzantine church turned mosque turned museum, Hagia Sophia. Throughout our walk we were reminded of the legendary friendliness of Turkish salesmen which borders on aggressiveness. A simple “no, thank you” does not suffice when someone offers you the best quality, lowest priced carpets in all the world. The whole afternoon had a surreal feeling due to falling white tree seedlings which seemed to float all around us like blowing snow everywhere we went. We tried (somewhat unsuccessfully) to capture the effect on film below.
We had a great kebab dinner at a small place where our waiter discussed the somewhat chauvinistic attitude Turkish men have toward women. After dinner we went to Sultanahmet park to watch the UEFA cup soccer championship which for the first time ever included a Turkish team, Galata Saray. The match was on a big screen projected in a park. It was freezing cold, but free tea was being served by local merchants. The crowd was almost all male and very rowdy, chanting slogans, waving banners and yelling at the TV. Despite ending in no score (as often happens in action-packed soccer), the game was very exciting with many shots and saves, mostly by the Turkish goaltender. When Galata Saray won on penalty kicks, the place erupted in cheers and fireworks, followed by a rowdy parade of cars with blaring horns and people hanging out the windows. We felt free to join in, even though we had no idea what we were chanting (something ending in “Sim Bom!”). It was actually a little scary at times. Fortunately, there were no English fans around or it would have gotten really ugly. The next day we found out that pre-match violence in Copenhagen (where the match was held) got an English fan killed.
Day 15, Thurs, May 18 – We started with a tour of Topkapi Palace, the incredible former compound of the Sultan, his staff and various members of his harem. The treasuries and buildings were amazing, including some Muslim religious relics like Mohammed’s footprint, some letters and whiskers from his beard. However, what was really interesting was the Sultan’s living quarters in the harem. Our guide had great stories of the palace intrigues amongst the 400 wives all vying to have their children come to power and the servants and eunuchs assisting them. My favorite part of the palace was the unbelievably colorful and intricate patterns of tile work on almost every surface. We took a lot of photos to try to capture the look, but as with many things of beauty, photos do not do it justice.
There were many children throughout the palace as this was
a public holiday in recognition of Ataturk’s struggle for liberation after
Turkey wound up on the losing side of World War I.
The father of modern Turkey is present everywhere in public buildings,
statues, murals, and currency notes. The children were very friendly and
playful, some wanting to practice their English with us and some chanting what
sounded like the Galata Saray fight song. It
seems we are very lucky to be in Istanbul when two great events coincide as it
has put the whole city in a good mood and strangers are even more friendly than
usual. Turkey is a very proud county, as can be imagined from the
descendents of an empire that stretched far into Europe. We will visit
some of the countries "conquered" in the building of the Ottoman empire. As my dad always said, there's at least three sides to every story
- yours, mine, and the truth. I'm sure the rest of Europe sees history a
bit differently than Turkey does.
Turkey is a very proud county, as can be imagined from the descendents of an empire that stretched far into Europe. We will visit some of the countries "conquered" in the building of the Ottoman empire. As my dad always said, there's at least three sides to every story - yours, mine, and the truth. I'm sure the rest of Europe sees history a bit differently than Turkey does.
After Topkapi we had Doner Kebab and took a break on our
sunny balcony for cookies and milk before connecting to the internet with the
help of Kenan, who works at the hotel. We were even able to upload files from
our room for the first time of the trip! There
were quite a few disappointing moments with Mindspring that I hope to sort out
with them. After dinner of Kebab
(see a pattern here?), there was a holiday rock concert in Sultanahmet park
followed by fireworks.
Day 16, Fri, May 19 – We started at Suleymaniye Mosque, considered the most beautiful and important in Istanbul. It was completed in 1557, the midst of the Ottoman’s golden age, by Sinan, who supposedly worked without architectural plans. Mosques are very interesting due to the differences from Christian churches we are more familiar with. There are no aisles, knaves and seats as Muslim prayer is done while kneeling. There is also no central focus such as an altar or image of Christ or Mary, just the mihrab showing the direction to pray (towards Mecca). Walls and ceilings are decorated with flowing Arabic scripts, floral designs and geometric accents as representations of men and animals is not allowed. This is in stark contrast to Christian churches which usually rely on thought-provoking and sometimes harrowing images of martyrdom and crucifixion. The overall effect is a more peaceful public place, if somewhat intimidating to non-Muslims who may have difficulty understanding why women must be separated from men by a screen at the back of the Mosque. Also interesting are the water fountains outside for washing hands, feet and face prior to prayer. Some of the views are below:
From the spice bazaar we headed to the granddaddy of them all, the Kapali Carsi or Covered Bazaar. Funny enough, Naomi had been looking forward to this part of the journey since she first heard about it:
While she shopped, I used the time to talk to vendors and customers and get some interviews on tape. One guy, Mario, was a riot as his message to the world was to “use condoms”. Others took my questions more seriously and mentioned health and family. Na wound up pretty tired after buying many gifts for family and friends and we had a break of Turkish Tea.
Outside of the Mosque we met a tour guide, Moharred, who gave us some great background on the mosque and Islam, in addition to giving an excellent interview. He focused primarily on acceptance and tolerance of others and the hope inherent in the next generation of children.
Day 17, Sat, May 20 – A great adventure with UPS. Ever since we first started out the door in Santa Monica with Wheely Beast we knew we had too much crap to lug around the world. We figured Istanbul would be a great opportunity to offload some of it, especially since there was (much to our surprise) a UPS office walkable from our hotel. Well, by the time we gathered up paperwork, walky talkies, books, cassette tapes and walkman (an incredible sacrifice on my part, I might add), palm pilot (yes, Scott and Gary, I can live without it), and added Naomi’s gifts and souvenirs, we had filled a rather large box with a rather embarrassing shipping price. The lesson was learned the hard way and we will just have to buy things on the road if we really need them. After UPS we took a very clean, efficient tram to Eminonu. It is much easier for us to know where you are in Istanbul since they are much more accustomed to tourists and we can read what few street signs there are (i.e. they are not in Cyrillic). Unfortunately, I am still using “spasibo” for thank you and “da” for “yes”, causing some Turks to think I’m ex-KGB. At Eminonu we caught a boat to the Asian side of Istanbul. We debarked at Uskudar and walked amongst the fish markets and restaurants to the 18th century lighthouse tower, one of the symbols of the city.
It was nice to look at the European side from this viewpoint and see very few tourists for a change. We took a boat back across to Dolmabahce palace, but it was closed for the day. We took a taxi to Ortakoy instead, a once-sleepy village just under the Bosphorus bridge which is now full of cafes, craft sellers and a very quiet rebuilt mosque. The people-watching was great from the café. For dinner we tried to go up Galata tower for some night views of the lit-up mosques, but it was closed. We walked down the hill through quiet residential neighborhoods to Taksim for chicken dinner.
Day 18, Sun May 21 – Spent the morning packing and off to Hagia Sophia, the church originally begun in the 6th century. It was apparently the world’s largest domed structure until St. Peter’s was built in Rome. The Ottomans converted it to a mosque, creating an odd combination of Islamic symbolism with Christian mosaics inside. The interior has many incredible designs, arches, wrought iron work, and marble columns in a dark, moody atmosphere. It is much different from its neighbor, but no less fascinating.
We then took the tram again to visit Yeni mosque, situated right on the water to greet visitors and tourists coming off the boats. I was required to wear a skirt over my shorts and Naomi a scarf over her head. Please send all fashion comments to www.wedon'tcare.com In addition to goofy-looking Americans, this mosque was also full of beautiful blue Iznik tiles.
We walked across the Golden Horn bridge watching fishermen and visiting the fish market on the other side. As the day was winding down we had to get back to the hotel. By the time we found a bank to get money for the bill we only had time for McDonalds for lunch. I think we’re doing pretty good since this is only the second McD’s meal in 18 days. Back at the hotel we had a final cup of tea and goodbyes with Sevim and her wonderful staff – Kenan, Suleiman, Ozkar, Adem, Yilmaz and Demiray. I offered them the rest of my Russian Vodka, but they graciously denied since they were on duty and Sevim offered to drive us to the train station. Before leaving, we had a great interview with Kenan, who talked about the different types of people he encounters and the spiritual objective of life. The amenities of Hotel Poem gave us a wonderful break after our Russian hotels, but the people there made the real difference for us. We definitely plan to go back some time, if only for Naomi to have Doner Kebab three times a day.
Day 19, Mon, May 22 – Well, we found out why our seemingly innocuous question of “why are the Istanbul train stations so small for such a large city?”. It brought a little laughter and the answer “most people do not prefer train travel”. Sometimes Turks are masters of understatement. The ride was fine in terms of comfort and I was lulled to sleep by the rocking of the train, but we were awakened no less than 5 times. First there was the ticket check, then Turkish immigration, then Turkish customs, then rousted out of bed at 3:00 AM to walk across the tracks in the cold to get the Bulgarian immigration stamp, then woke again a half hour later by Bulgarian customs on the train. Some time later we were roused to get our tickets back. Somewhere in the midst of this was an unfortunate trip to the train WC. One naturally tries to avoid this when traveling by train, but unfortunately overnight trips force a break in the boycott. Let’s just say train WCs are one more reason I am glad I am not a member of the fairer sex.
By the time we arrived in Sofia, we were in no mood to be screwed by baggage handlers or taxi drivers, so we fought off two of the former and three of the later and got a ride for half as much to the Grand Hotel Bulgaria which is an aging, former state hotel near the communist party headquarters. Although we were one of the few guests there, we received very little attention from the desk – no change, no map, no information. They did, however, manage a smile or two, particularly when we told them stories about attempted taxi scams.
Bulgaria was one of the tightest members of the Soviet
block, so much so that their communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov, was embalmed for
the people to admire a-la Lenin. Thankfully
he has now been moved to a cemetery and the building has been removed to the
history books. Bulgaria’s
struggle since the fall in 1989 has been somewhat more difficult than her
neighbors, with a sort-of follow-up mini-revolution in 1997 that CNN made famous
by showing the populace throwing stones and storming the National Assembly to
demand new elections. In addition
to their proud Orthodox Christian and Slavic background, Bulgaria also uses the
Cyrillic alphabet, keeping it closer to the East than the West.
Like most of South-Central Europe, it was part of the Ottoman Empire we
heard so much about in Istanbul until the Turks were finally ousted in 1878, so
a few slight Moorish influences remain. It
is also considered Balkan, but this is the closest we are getting to the areas
of the recent Balkan conflicts. Not
that I wouldn’t like to visit there - I would like to get some personal
insight into the “ethnic cleansing” mentality – but we could not convince
our families that Yugoslavia was a safe destination for our tour.
We started our first day with a walk down the main thoroughfare to the most significant landmark, the Alexander Nevsky Memorial Cathedral, built in Byzantine style but at the beginning of this century and dedicated to Bulgaria’s Russian liberators.
Outside the church, Naomi bought some lace and I asked an older gentleman for directions. As luck would have it, he turned out to be a former candidate for the Presidency in 1990 and plans to run again next year! With this type of background and experience, Mr. Villem Meledjiev provided the most in-depth interview we’ve had to date. He was interested in our project and said he had formed similar institutions, but relating more to international business relationships and development. He said one of Bulgaria’s biggest issues is changing the mindset and the way of thinking of government and business to adopt free thinking and free markets. The current government is still influenced by communist ideologies and inflexibilities. Their inability to tolerate dissent and open discussion of issues even got him in enough trouble to spend a few weeks of “unplanned vacation” in Istanbul until things cooled down in Sofia. He believes it may take a few generations before Bulgaria operates as a true democracy. He was, however, encouraged by a speech given by Bill Clinton in this very square last year promising to help Bulgaria in the struggle. Fortunately for him, he is not holding his breath waiting for the blanket altruism of the US government. He invited us to his home to discuss these matters further, but unfortunately, we only had one day left in Sofia so we had to decline.
Day 20, Tues, May 23 – Our second day in Sofia was spent at museums (one was the particularly dark, eerie, and near-empty National History Museum), a wonderfully diverse outdoor market that sold just about everything, a delicious buffet-style restaurant for lunch that allowed us to use the “point-it” system again, and a visit to the newly rebuilt synagogue. We then had a great time at the train station surveying everyone in sight to see if they spoke English. The Bulgarian custom of nodding the head up and down for “no” and shaking side to side for “yes” caused some great moments of high comedy. I wish I had some of that on video. We finally found a very nice young woman who helped us buy our next tickets to the small medieval town of Veliko Turnova.
For dinner we stumbled upon this great theme beer hall that dedicated sections of the pub to the drinking and eating habits of different countries. There were Spanish, Irish, German, Italian, and Russian rooms, all infused with live American pop music. It was a great time seeing Bulgarians have a nice night out. Afterward we went to the casino in the Sheraton hotel just to see what it was like. It was small and full of mafia-types and their much-younger “girlfriends”. As with Russia, casinos are one of the more blatant expressions of capitalism to inundate the formerly communist economy.
Back at the hotel we wrote some and snacked on chocolate. It is amazing how quickly my original Plan A of eating more fruits and vegetables on the trip was replaced with Plan Z, eating every type of chocolate I could get my hands on. I’ve conveniently rationalized that this fits our mission of really experiencing the best each country has to offer.
Day 21, Wed, May 24 – We woke and packed for our train to Veliko Turnova. After a short adventure with the track numbering (they use both standard numbers and Roman numerals and line IV is different from line 4) we found our train. The ride was through beautiful mountains along a river, the scenery reminding me of Northern California and Sedona, Arizona. We were very lucky to have two very interesting Bulgarians in our car Marianne, an architect and Ivaylo, a law student. They gave us some great insight into Bulgaria and the economic depression gripping the country. The income disparity is really incredible. For example, Ivaylo's mother is a music teacher and earns about US$150 per month. I was embarrassed to admit that some members of my former profession (CPAs) earn more than this each hour. It brings to mind many philosophical questions about the relative economic values assigned to different people around the world. Is an accountant who keeps track of an American company’s finances really 173 times more valuable to the human race than a multi-lingual Bulgarian music teacher who may inspire the next Mozart? There are obviously many factors involved in this equation, but encountering the results of the equation is a bit jarring. Our question: "What is the most important thing in life". Ivaylo's answer: "the one universal love".
Arriving in Veliko Turnova was a welcome change of pace since it was our first small, non-capital city. The station was very small and we got a very friendly taxi to Hotel Etar. We had a very comfortable, delicious pizza dinner in the rain before updating the trip journal.
Day 22, Th, May 25 – After sleeping in due to the effects of the last train ride, we had a great omelet breakfast and bought our next tickets to Bucharest but the only train departed at 3:00 AM. Oh well, that left us plenty of time to explore the city’s main attraction, the restored medieval mountaintop fortress of Tsaravets. We had a great climb around its walls and up to the reconstructed Church of the Forty Martyrs, admiring its expressive, modern stained glass. Sitting on the ancient castle walls looking out over the town reminded me of Sentra in Portugal and Assisi, Italy. It was very peaceful as there were very few other tourists up there. We bought a mall sketch from a local artist. We've tried to make it a policy to support street artists, musicians and performers wherever we go (since we have no talent of our own to share!).
We had lunch overlooking the walls where we met an American college wrestling team that was having a tournament with local Bulgarian teams. After lunch we noticed people gathering around the town square in formalwear. We thought at first it was just a party, but soon realized the whole town was celebrating the high school graduation that night. It looked very much like the similar American tradition with the kids laughing, screwing around, and posing for pictures while their parents beamed with pride and congratulated each other. It brought back long-dormant memories of my own ceremony and the way we were back then. The Bulgarian kids looked just like us; full of energy, hormones and adolescent angst; completely unaware of the gigantic gap between their current world of carefree innocence and the immediate maturity of college, careers, discovered joys, broken hearts, surprising victories, unexpected disappointment at the ways of the world. They may have graduated high school, but they have only just begun to learn.
Since we had plenty of time to kill before the train, we hung out at some local bars and a pool hall. We met two guys, Stefan and Dimitas, who asked us about the job market for musicians and accountants in the US because they were thinking of joining the other million or so "economic refugees" who have left Bulgaria to seek better jobs in the west. We gave them some websites to visit. Their interview focused on economic issues as it is “a shame but true” that these issues dominate their thoughts. It was an almost eerie reiteration of Maslow’s theory. Dimitas was very dismayed that the search would take him away from his home since the history and culture of Bulgaria provides a strong and deep connection for its countrymen. Time magazine had a special issue recently about the future job market in the 21st century. One article posed the question of what will become of the poor of the world in the new E-conomy - will they be better off or worse? The scholar who answered postulated that they have more and more hope as long as democracy continues to be the goal of developing nations. She argued that there is a very strong relationship between political freedom and economic freedom - noting for example that all major famines in the 20th century occurred under a totalitarian regime. More food for thought.
We took a very friendly 2:00 AM taxi and crashed on the train.
Romania has an incredibly colorful history, from early Roman conquests (hence the name) to Magyar and Saxon invasions, to the Ottoman empire and the infamous “Vlad Dracul’s son, Vlad Tepes (the Impaler), to the Hapsburgs and an incredible changing of sides in WWII, and to the nation’s sweetheart, Nadia Comaneci with her perfect 10s and Olympic Gold medals. As one friend told us, the retention of ties to ancient Latin origins after all this time has left Romania an “island of Latins in a sea of Slavs”. However, what may be most interesting is its recent history, the most incredible of any of the formerly communist countries we are visiting. Romania’s type of transition was not quite the perestroika and glasnost of Russia and their revolution was far from “velvet” as in Czechoslovakia. Nicolae Ceausescu was a perfect example of the stereotypically oppressive dictator. He and his wife, Elena, made every major decision, controlled all newspaper, television and radio broadcasts, built monuments and created honorary titles for themselves and would tolerate no dissenting opinions. Those who would dare to speak out were either murdered outright or made to “disappear”. While he was being knighted by Queen Elizabeth of England and being called “the good communist” by US President George Bush, he was oppressing and impoverishing his own citizens. According to some reports, he had the secret police, the secretariat, wire all phones and monitor all incoming and outgoing mail for anyone who was deemed a threat to his power. Travel outside Romania was forbidden. In a plan to increase the size of his empire, he not only outlawed contraceptives, but also instituted compulsory gynecological exams for all women of child-bearing age to ensure that no fetuses were aborted. His massive “redesign” of Bucharest in order to “modernize” resulted in bulldozing 26 churches, two monasteries and thousands of homes. There was finally an international outcry at his plan to raze 13,000 villages and relocate inhabitants to urban agro-industrial complexes and Romania lost “most favored nation” trading status in 1988. Other low pints include "selling" Jews to Israel and Germans to Germany. Despite the tightly controlled media, news of events in the rest of the Soviet bloc (e.g. the Berlin wall, etc.) stirred the revolutionary spirit. The last straw was the killing of hundreds of people protesting the forced relocation of a Hungarian Reform pastor. A week later, a live public address was met with boos and jeers of “murderer” from over 100,000 people. The live TV broadcast went dead and the shooting started, killing hundreds more. The Ceausescu couple flee by helicopter, but are captured and arrested. They are tried in a travesty of a military trial and executed by firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989. Legend has it that one of the priests who had his church destroyed had prophesized that Ceausescu would die on the birthday of Christ.
Now Bucharest is full of reminders, stories, ghosts and controversies
surrounding the revolution, adding mystery to the wide boulevards and spacious
parks to the “Paris of Eastern Europe”.
On our first day we decided to take it easy on the history since we were
meeting a Servas member tomorrow who would show us around.
After showering and resting up a bit we went to a photo shop to develop
some film to make sure the new Olympus we bought before the trip was working –
the first group of photos from London and St. Petersburg turned out great.
Normal 35mm is still much better quality than digital (as you can tell
from the photos on this website), although I’m sure the technology will catch
up in the near future. We also had to go to the train station for our next tickets
since the offices would be closed for the upcoming weekend. The ticket office was incredible - completely manual, with
each clerk manning a huge rolling file cabinet full of row after row of
multicolor tickets. We had no idea
how it worked or whether we got the correct tickets, so all we could do was to
thank her wholeheartedly and go on our merry way.
Now Bucharest is full of reminders, stories, ghosts and controversies surrounding the revolution, adding mystery to the wide boulevards and spacious parks to the “Paris of Eastern Europe”. On our first day we decided to take it easy on the history since we were meeting a Servas member tomorrow who would show us around. After showering and resting up a bit we went to a photo shop to develop some film to make sure the new Olympus we bought before the trip was working – the first group of photos from London and St. Petersburg turned out great. Normal 35mm is still much better quality than digital (as you can tell from the photos on this website), although I’m sure the technology will catch up in the near future. We also had to go to the train station for our next tickets since the offices would be closed for the upcoming weekend. The ticket office was incredible - completely manual, with each clerk manning a huge rolling file cabinet full of row after row of multicolor tickets. We had no idea how it worked or whether we got the correct tickets, so all we could do was to thank her wholeheartedly and go on our merry way.
We walked through the University district, where revolution protests were rampant, and the old artists area of Lipscani (including the famous artists' alley of Hanul cu tei), before heading to a great outdoor park called the “village museum” which had examples of historic houses from all over Romania, some dating back hundreds of years. It was a wonderful example of dwelling architecture (houses, farms, workshops, churches, mills, etc.) and the first such museum we had ever seen. I think more countries should try this. Back at the hotel we took advantage of the sauna (since we won’t see many of those on our trip) and had a great traditional Romanian dinner, complete with local gypsy songs. The gypsy (also known as “Roma”) minority has its largest concentration in Romania. As with most minorities, the very topic brings intense emotions from most people. Depending on who you ask, they are either a simple, misunderstood and persecuted people or an unskilled drain on society because they take without giving anything back by way of work or taxes. Of course, we lean toward the former, but all minority issues are complex. Almost every government has their minority conflict they would rather sweep under the rug when tourist dollars arrive: Palestinians in Israel, Kurds in Turkey, Chechens in Russia, Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, Pakistanis in England, Africans and native Americans in the USA. As indicated in our mission statement, we believe in the respect, tolerance, and equal treatment of all. Unfortunately, modern politics and ancient prejudices make this ideal very hard to accomplish sometimes – especially when some minority groups condone terrorism, which we abhor. The complexities of these issues are always depressing and sometimes overwhelming.
We had lunch at one of Bucharest’s oldest beer halls, Carul cu Bere, which was recommended by our very handy local guide, "Bucharest in your Pocket", then visited the great international art collection at the renovated former Royal Palace. Some excerpts below:
We then got a private tour from the caretaker of the Atheneum concert hall. I’d been needing a haircut for some time, so decided to “risk it” at the hotel barber shop – they actually did an OK job. We were joking with some friends before leaving the US whether I will go for the “hippy” or “Michael Jordan” hairstyle since I was leaving for so long. The weather has been so hot, I will probably want to shave my head by the time we get to Africa. Naomi has cut hers, but I don’t think she’s quite ready for the full “Sinead O'Connor” just yet (check back in a couple of months)
Got caught up on world news with CNN at the hotel. Although it is very repetitive, it is a great way to get caught up when traveling. It's hard to believe, but they are celebrating their 20th anniversary next week; they've been running retrospectives of the major events. My favorite image remains the lone Chinese man in a white shirt and shopping bags, staring down a column of tanks during 1989's Tiannamen square pro-democracy demonstrations. You can still be thrown in jail for mentioning the government "crackdown" in a light which is unflattering to the government.
Our local Servas hosts, Serban and Eugenia Boicescu,
proved a great source of information as we walked around town, from the hotel
through Cismigiu Park. He is an
English professor for international students and she is an accountant
with a good-sized company. He told us of the difficult political and economic situation,
both before and after the revolution as he pointed out bullet-holes and ruined
buildings that still remain. The country
is still struggling with a reasonable form of democracy, with 45 different
parties contesting the upcoming election, including many members of the former
communist party in renamed The
park was beautiful and relaxing, but we sometimes lost our concentration amongst
the many amorous young couples confirming their Latin lineage.
We’ve noticed that the women here are not reserved at all in their
manner of dress, with short skirts and tight pants predominating – much more
so than in other countries. Our (unconfirmed) theory is that they were repressed for so
long, that they are really taking their freedom of expression to heart.
Serban was kind enough to bring along a gift of Albanian Cognac, which we shared
back at the hotel. They were surprised that a couple on a charitable
mission could justify the expense of "the best hotel in Bucharest",
but we explained that the stay was free with frequent-guest points we earned
during our previous business travels.
Serban was kind enough to bring along a gift of Albanian Cognac, which we shared back at the hotel. They were surprised that a couple on a charitable mission could justify the expense of "the best hotel in Bucharest", but we explained that the stay was free with frequent-guest points we earned during our previous business travels.
After an Italian dinner and a visit to a very efficient
internet (and beer) café, we walked around the bar neighborhood.
Like Russia and Bulgaria, capitalism has brought a deluge of
western-style bars and nightclubs, as well as an inordinate number of casinos
and strip joints. The entertainment
choices for Bulgarians are now much broader than their great tradition of classical music.
bar had a great Joe Cocker album playing to the outdoor patio crowd so we
stopped there for a while.
Day 25, Sun, May 28 – Had the hotel’s great
breakfast buffet before meeting Serban and Eugenia for another walk
around town. We went to the oldest
part of Bucharest to visit ruins of Vlad Tepes’ original palace and old orthodox
churches and monasteries. Like most
people from extremely religious countries, they were shocked to find that we do
not practice any organized religion. Without
going into much detail we explained how it seems to us that the accumulated weight
of hundreds of years of interpretations, traditions, ceremonies, inquisitions, rituals, customs,
crusades, and “religious wars” promulgated by all organized religions have
unnecessarily confused a very simple message, taking people further away from the divine and putting artificial barriers and constraints
on the natural relationship between people and their God. However, this
did not keep us from scheduling some of the most important religious sites in
the world for our trip since we also believe that they all share a lot more
common ground than their leaders realize sometimes. I think Serban and
Eugenia understood what we were getting at, but nevertheless quickly changed the subject.
We discussed the rich Romanian culture and history and Serban pointed out
other areas where the streets were literally “covered with blood” from
murdered protesters. As we said our
goodbyes, Serban’s interview focused on the importance of education, loving
what you do and making no enemies in life.
train to Brasov was only a couple hours. We
shared a car with two wonderful couples who looked to be in their 70's.
We did not share a common language, but we communicated well in sign
language. We could only guess at the
things they had seen in their years in this part of the world - I would love to
talk freely with them for a couple hours. One of the men was very
intrigued by our video camera – his eyes lit up when I let him film his wife
and see the playback.
Brasov, Romania's second largest city, is in the heart of Transylvania, known to the Western world primarily as the mysterious home of the fictional Count Dracula. The Irish writer Bram Stoker never visited the region, but heard the grisly tales of the very real 15th century Wallachian warrior Vlad III, whose penchant for skewering his enemies for show earned him the reputation of Tepes ("Impaler"). The "Dracula" name came from his father's receipt of the honorary Order of the Dragon. In spite of the global cult generated by Stoker's novel; the fangs, bats and blood-sucking is pure imagination. Romanians are quick to point this out, unless they have a connection to the tourist industry. The real Transylvania is even more complicated, having provided a backdrop for a historic struggle between Hungarians, Saxons from Germany, Turks during the Ottoman reign, and Roma arriving from India. Brasov was settled by Saxons invited by the ruling Hungarians to help defend against Turks - ethnic Romanians were allowed to live only outside the city walls. Centuries of resentment at Hungarian rule eventually led to Romania joining World War I on the allied side. Although Saxons have largely left for Germany, a strong Hungarian minority remains. In another odd Transylvanian twist, Brasov was renamed "Stalin City" for a few years, with his name clear-cut into the mountainside.
We took a quick taxi to Hotel Coroana. The oldest and largest hotel in town left us a bit worried since I was convinced I could break in the room with a strong shove or a Swiss army knife, thankfully, it seemed like we were the only guests in the whole building. We walked through the pedestrian street to the town square for a sunny patio lunch. The town center is a beautiful old baroque square, tainted only by a modern fountain and the inevitable arrival of Bennetton, Panasonic and the nearby “Bimbo’s Pub and Strip Club”, a strip joint with an appropriately descriptive name. During lunch, a young gypsy boy hung around the cafe asking all the diners for handouts. It was very sad, but thankfully we saw him later laughing and playing with a group of his friends.
Back at the hotel we got caught up on paperwork and writing and finished the Albanian cognac.
Day 26, Mon, May 29 – In the morning we tried to eat the hotel breakfast as pop music blared out of speakers in the breakfast room. This seems to be a staple of formerly communist countries. We have decided if we never hear another Britney Spears or Christine Aquilera song again it will be too soon. After that we attempted to retrieve my inflatable back support I had left at the restaurant yesterday. The attempt was pretty funny – English to Italian to Romanian with the help of a friendly tourist from Italy – but futile. This has been our only loss to date, which is pretty good for 26 days (touch wood). We bought our next train tickets and found out that the cable car up Tampa Hill did not operate on Mondays. We decided to go ahead and hike up ourselves for the exercise. We figured, since it’s not technically a mountain (being 40 meters short of the minimum 1,000 meters), it would be an easy stroll. Well, as a testament to our excellent health, it took us hours and we nearly passed out at the top. At that point, we had a lot of sympathy for the townsfolk impaled on the mountain by the marauding Vlad Tepes a few centuries earlier. The views were beautiful over the town and the surrounding Carpathian mountains, which serve as prime ski areas in the winter. The forest has thankfully recovered from the Stalin era. We walked back through the old Schei district and city fortifications.
Today's CNN special on the US Memorial Day holiday included a speech at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington DC by the woman who was the subject of the famous photograph of the naked little girl running down the middle of the street screaming in pain. She said, "If I could meet the pilot who dropped the napalm on my village, I would tell him that we cannot do anything to change history, we can only do good things in the present and in the future to promote peace". It reminded me of the quote from Ann Frank's diary - something like "In spite of everything, I still believe in the goodness of people". If these people can have faith, why can't those who have never really suffered?
After dinner, we went to an internet café where passers-by
kept looking over our shoulders as if they had never seen a computer before.
Naomi got a tap on the shoulder from her guardian angel to let her know
that one of them had a hand on her backpack.
They quickly left after she turned around - this is the closest we had
come to having something stolen.
Day 27, Tue May 30 – Woke up to the sound of rain. We hired a taxi to take us the 26 km to Bran castle, Romania’s number one tourist attraction due to the tourist industry’s very effective marketing campaign to associate the castle with Count Dracula (although the real Vlad Tepes only stayed there a few times at most). It was well maintained and fun to poke around the crowded rooms and passageways - the rain and dampness provided the perfect atmosphere to add to the drama of the setting. We also stopped by the 14th century ruins of Rasnov fortress, which was a welcome break from the tourists as we were the only people wandering around the cloudy, wet, eerie mountaintop. Our taxi driver was very accommodating, as the $30 tour was about two weeks pay for the average Romanian.
Back in town, we got our train to Sighisoara, another Saxon town with a wonderfully preserved medieval old town and fortifications. It is also well known as the home to Vlad Dracul and probable birthplace of Vlad Tepes. When we pulled in, it was glowing in night spotlights. We found it was a very small sleepy town with few tourists and about 5 restaurants, 4 of which were pizza. It was great to walk around alone at night.
Day 28, Wed May 31 – We walked around the old town in the sun, mostly hanging out around the clock tower watching school kids play with hula hoops and badminton, just like kids everywhere. Every turn down the old cobblestones and dirt paths seemed to be a step back hundreds of years. We saw many of the Gypsy kids and talked to some in broken English. They were very open and playful. We had more communication problems with adults and got very few good interviews. Like Bucharest, the town was full of campaign posters, billboards, and cars blasting campaign messages. The democracy is wild and wooly, but they appear to enjoy at least having a choice.
We had a pasta dinner and went to a cavernous pub/disco in the bowls of the 15th-century clock tower. It was the most unlikely place for a disco I’d ever been in, but that certainly didn’t stop the Romanians from enjoying it.
Day 29, Th, June 1 – First day of the second month of our journey. We went up to the top of the clock tower for views over the city and our traditional flag photo. We've been getting great reactions from people with our amateurish marketing techniques.
We then ran into the same gypsy
kids again. This time we noticed
that the youngest one, Zola, had sweatpants on from my alma mater, Indiana
University! It was an amazing
coincidence, which Zola seemed to appreciate as much as I did.
I couldn’t help but think of the simple twists of fate that impact our
lives – how easy it would have been for me to be born in Romania and Zola born
in Indiana. Why did it happen the other way around?
The kids showed us where the local internet cafe was and followed us inside. As a thank you, we bought them some sodas, which of course they couldn't resist shaking up so they sprayed when opened. Later on they offered us some of the ice cream cones they got from the campaign office of one of the local candidates. We hadn't realized they had been carrying them since they were conveniently stored inside their shirts. The nasty looks we got from non-gypsy locals while we hung out with the kids were a little disturbing.
We met the French owner of the recently restored Vlad Tepes
house and restaurant. He invited us
for the grand re-opening (it was state-run before being privatized after the
revolution), and in fact, we were the first guests. As a matter of fact, we were the only ones there for an hour
of our meal – it was a very weird feeling.
For the continuation of our journey into June, please click here: Journal June 2 -19, 2000.
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