Saturday, May 14, 2011



A group of cheerful Canadians I ran into in Belgrade who were on their way to Bulgaria to do nature activities taught me this important traveler's tip - if you have a group of people and don't bring a deck of cards, you may end up playing the 'hand slap' game. For two hours.

Always carry a roll of toilet paper! Really!

Always have hidden money and a back up plan for more money.

If there is a chance you will visit Romania, tell your banker - specifically - that you intend to visit Romania.


The train... Dirty. Dingy. Graffitied. One of the seats is broken. One of the micro sized tables is broken. The luggage rack is missing some bars. Someone has stolen some of the cheap mirrors from the walls. One of the curtains has been ripped off of the window and lies atop the luggage rack. The windows haven't been cleaned in my lifetime. Welcome to the first class compartment of the train. Although the outside is clearly (clearly!) labeled second class (as was the whole train), the conductor assures me that this is the first class compartment. I asked him if he was sure. Without so much as glancing around he told me he was.

The bathroom is worse. You know why the toilet seat can be raised? It is because men are notoriously bad shots. If you are on a bumpy train, it gets worse. The toilet seat in the first class bathroom is bolted down so it may not be raised. Or presumably added to someone's collection of stolen toilet seats. There are no paper towels, no toilet paper, no running water.

At one of the stops, a guy came in and stood in the cabin looking at me. I nodded happily at him and waved him toward a seat, motioning that it was fine for him to sit down. Smile and nod. He eventually said "I am Serbian customs official." I smiled and nodded some more. A uniformed cop then came and stood behind the customs official in the door. I nodded happily at him. After staring at me for a long time, he asked for my passport. Sleep deprivation is not a good thing for border crossings. This non-uniformed official was also the first guy to ask if I had anything to declare. Is that your bag, he asked. After assuring him it was he asked what was in it "Clothes and stuff." I told him. I had remembered that Matt L. had used "and stuff" to cover a severed hookers head that he was toting around in his luggage. I figured "and stuff" was safe to cover my medicine, computer, etc.

I had also gotten a 'register with the police/authorities' card from Serbia. It was not examined in the same way as it's Bosnian counterpart wasn't. I suspect the requirement for this document is another old hold over from the communist days. According to Romanian customs officers, you need to register with the police only if your stay exceeds forty days.

After leaving the Serbia customs official shaking his head and sighing at me (with much the same expression Pete often used at me) the train rattled and ground its way over to the Romanian border.


A couple of the Romanian customs officials came into my 'rustic' cabin. After inspecting my passport, they took to pulling out the seats, presumably to see if anyone was hiding under them. We found a cracker from the 1950's. I wasn't sure who would be sneaking into Romania and so I had guessed Gypsies (aka Rom). Usually, everything bad is blamed on them.

There was also some guy with what appeared to be a sniffer of some sort. A box with a long tube coming out of it that could presumably sniff out things. From his body language he had either become very bored using it or the sniffer was just to freak out the uneducated smugglers. I still have no idea what this box thing is for.

I then heard from the next compartment a woman doing the weeping, pleading talk. I couldn't follow it but I guessed (correctly as it turned out) smuggling. What confused me is that although they had found something they didn't immediately haul her off the train. This was confusing to me. Eventually, they did haul off the tearful woman who was clutching several large rectangular shaped cloth bundles. She looked like the stereotypical Russian grandmother (Babushka).

Customs then decided to move everyone away from the car the grandmother had been in. I got moved back to second class. Second class was better than first class by a good way. My guess is some idiot hooked up the cars in the wrong order. Since it appeared the train was going to lose not one but two cars, everyone got a bit more squeshed together. I got stuck in with three people who spoke no English - or any other language that I spoke.

And then we waited.

And waited.

For hours.

Those who say train travel is 'romantic' (or 'cool') haven't done it in central or eastern Europe.

This meant that I've missed my train connection and would be late to Sam's. Sam, in Romania had given me his phone number to get into contact with him. The phones in this part of the world don't take coins at all - they take calling cards. Calling cards that you have to buy from certain vendors only. Not the kind of thing I can do at the border.

There was more talk (from the snippets I got and talking to other travelers) about customs maybe unhooking the train cars but it didn't happen.

I kept waiting to hear a single gunshot and then be told it was OK to move the train on. But, perhaps I have romantic ideals of the 'good old days' of communism. Speaking of communism, being that i am old enough to remember being there and stuff going on at the time, my only thought about the communism that people are seeming to remember with 'such fondness': Restricted travel and they had to build a wall (and land mines etc) to keep people in - not out. To enjoy their wonderful communism.

So, as the passengers were sitting around bored out of their minds, I was talking to a Serbian guy who had managed to injure himself with his earring somehow. He actually knew what the old woman had gotten busted for - cigarette smuggling. I was baffled. Apparently, there is a big price discrepancy and some people use this sort of 'smuggle 4-6 cartons of cigarettes, spend hours of work and risk possible arrest in order to make a minimal profit.

And for this I got to stand around for over two hours and miss my connection. I can hear Travis yelling to the customs inspectors in my mind: "Are you fucking kidding me?"

Since I hadn't spent hardly any time in Serbia, I decided to ask the Serbian guy a couple of questions about it. I asked him 'what is best about Serbia'. His initial answer was 'nothing'. I pressed and he eventually came up with a tennis player people rather liked and the fact they have many pretty girls there.

Eventually, I saw the same old woman (grandmother is a term I reserve for old ladies I don't want to hit with a car) who had been hauled off weeping hours before being allowed to reboard the train. She looked smug. Either her crying had affected the customs officers or she was actually a witch and had cast some sort of spell on them. Either way, the train soon was cleared to leave.

Here's the really amazing thing - all of the people back in the nicer second class cars then stampeded back to their shittier first class cars. Un-fucking-believable.


At last, I'd made it into Romania.

I haven't slept since Bosnia. Just keep that little fact in mind. Couldn't get any sleep on the trains, none for me in Belgrade. No sleep. For over twenty four hours. [Note, this clock eventually got up to over forty some hours.]

The train station and area around it reminded me a lot of the first class cars on the train. The danger level during my six hour layover was a bit higher than usual.

The cops (or are they armed security guards?) traveled in groups of six.

And my bank card seems to have stopped working.

And the nearby currency exchange refuses to change over my Bosnian Marks (BAM).

And I don't have much money.

I need money to get the next ticket to continue on to where my couch surfing contact Sam is. Oh, this is going to be a rough one.

Fortunately, I had an ace in the hole. I had a hidden away $100 bill. I'm not sure what I would have done without that. Seriously. I used it at the currency exchange in order to get money for the ticket and such. It was a close call. [In fact, now that I have no more ace in the hole I should probably try to buy some more American money just in case this shit happens again. While money from a particular country might not work and my ATM card might again not work, US cash hasn't yet fallen to such a level that people laugh when you pull it out. Maybe soon, but not yet.]

I'm not sure why my card had stopped working. I guess when I told them 'activate it for the whole world' they read that as the 'whole world except Romania'.

So - train station. After midnight. Most of the services I need - closed. No where to buy a telephone card. I even learned the words to buy one but everyone who I was told does sell them assures me they don't. So, I can't call Sam. Super.

So I'm hanging out at the train station waiting with some of the other people that are waiting on trains. Also, I am waiting with luggage thieves, beggars, homeless people and a few over the top insane ones. Super.

And nobody at the train station seems to speak English. Only one lady spoke a little German but it was a very little. She was very nice and wanting to be helpful though. Everyone else was of the 'you are in our country, learn Romanian' who worked at that train station.

The danger level was high enough that as I sat on my piece of cardboard I had found shivering in the cold with both my jacket and sweater on that my mind wandered back to a time twenty five years ago when Roy, Hunter and I were traveling together. It was just after the wall had come down (just after) and we were in some train station of a country that either still was communist or had just literally thrown off the yoke. For some reason that escaped my mind, I had climbed into my sleeping bag while we all sat around waiting. At that point, two drink cops wandered up. One of them had his pistol out and was gesturing around with it. The police were in uniform and staggeringly drunk. You know, when you are in a zipped sleeping bag confronted with armed men who aren't necessarily noticing you but might at any second, your options don't look real good. You are in a big cloth tube. You can try to slowly and silently try to move the zipper down but that shit takes a lot of time. You can try to struggle out of the backpack hole but it's really obvious and may attract attention. You will probably just freeze up and wonder if any motion you make might attract attention. You might want to pull your sleeping bag slowly over your head to decrease your chances of getting noticed. But you won't want to because you want to see. You want to know right away "Am I completely fucked?" So you will probably do what I did and just lie there and look at the drunk men with firearms and wonder what will happen next.

The train station in Timisoara felt just a bit - just a portion - like that. There was a fair bit of danger. It could have been the gang of twenty something years old that had a guy trying to beg from me to see how much (or in my case) how little money I had. It could have been the men screaming at each other and throwing empty beer bottles provocatively close to each others feet. It could have been that I was over thirty hours (by the time a fair bit of waiting had gone by) without sleep and my paranoia level was tweaked.

At the train station, they had a 'waiting room' where there were chairs against all of the walls in the square room. No other furniture - nothing in the center of the room. Everyone sat in really shitty chairs along the walls. Everyone was asleep. I went in there eventually when I was so tired and cold that I didn't mind the noise of many people snoring or the smell of a lot of people sleeping. Including many homeless people who apparently used this as a shelter.

It's even a bit more gritty than the train's first class cabin.

I must have dozed off because the next thing I know, one of the three witches (as I'd named the cleaning crew) was poking at me and babbling at me. Attempting to tell her I didn't understand in five different languages, no effect. Eventually, I got the point that they were kicking everyone out of the room to clean it. At 03:15 hours. Checking my watch, I discovered that I had literally gotten about 7 minutes of sleep. Groovy. So, the three witch cleaning crew service mopped the floor. Their mopping did absolutely nothing to help the floor, but the smell of the disinfectant was strong enough to temporarily block out the smell of 'humanity'. Unfortunately, some guy who was lost in his own world playing music and falling off of the chairs in turn as well as a guy and a girl who were the only ones talking in there managed to keep all but the most stubborn of sleepers awake.

Aside from the train I entered the country with, I haven't seen graffiti on any of the others. That strikes me as 'odd'.


After the endless night, the train to Cluj showed up. I was told this train had been designed by the French. It was aesthetically very nice although the seat hurt the backside much more than the Soviet train design did. It was like the French guy had never ridden a train but designed them based on what they should look like from the outside.

So, I eventually got to Clug, bought a phone card and called Sam. Apparently, taxis are pretty cheap here. You can go across town for a few dollars - no big deal. So, I went over to Sam's place.

Sam owns a two bedroom (one is an office) apartment on a quiet street in Clug. His apartment is one of the neatest I've ever seen. A place for everything, everything in it's place. I am working on not fucking that up. Sam is a super nice guy who is studying to be a doctor. Lots and lots of medical books around. He even has a balcony I can smoke on. I've got to say, it's a really nice experience for my first time using the 'Couch Surfing' website.

I borrowed Sams call for several 'What the fuck is going on with my card' calls to the states. Apparently, Romania is automatically blocked as a potential scam country. The nice lady I eventually got through to couldn't provide me with a list of the 'automatically blocked scam countries' but assured me that if I could give her the names of any countries I might be visiting, those countries would not be automatically blocked. Hopefully. I then gave her a list of about thirty countries - everyone I thought might conceivably be visited any time soon. She noted down these. Hopefully, that will keep me from being fucked again.


"Expect the unexpected."

"The impossible is nothing."

More later, I'm off to eat lunch with Sam!


  1. romanian; Cluj-Napoca, short form; Cluj
    german: Klausenburg
    hungarian: Koloszvár

    One of the most common ways to move around the country is hitchhiking. Really useful indeed.


  2. Cool - I will probably try hitchhiking at some point soon.

    Greetings to you as well!



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