The real Romania?

Yesterday (24 September 2012) was undoubtedly the most fulfilling day I’ve had in this beautiful country. I checked out of the hostel in Suceava in the morning, backpack and all, moved my way along to the neighbouring bus station, and took a bus southwest to the small town of Gura Humorului. From there I walked to the train station that looked as abandoned as some of the communist-era factories that one sees; fortunately there was a clerk and after combining my elementary Romanian with her elementary English, I was able to buy a ticket with a couchette reservation to Timișoara on the other side of the country to the west (a 661km overnight journey lasting 12 and a half hours). My fortune continued when she let me store my backpack in the station, freeing me of 15 kilos off my back.

Gura Humorului is a good base for exploring a couple of the famed monasteries in the region, namely Voroneț and Humor, each about 5 km away. While it’s possible to take a maxitaxi (essentially a shared cab the size of a large van) to these sites, me being me, I opted to walk and in retrospect, it’s a decision for which I’ll always be grateful. The road to Voroneț is a single winding lane and I feel like walking through it transports you back in time…

On road to Voronet Monastery

I could see up close and personal, without any filter, rural life in this country in which just over half the population lives in urban areas. And from what I experienced, it’s a country where horse-drawn carriages share the same road with cars and trucks; where the clean country air is cut by the powerful odour of manure; where cows, chickens, sheep, and goats roam and graze freely and outnumber the human population. It’s a Romania of endless cornfields, at this time already harvested (and hence, one can understand why mămăligă is so often found on the dinner table) and countryside of varying shades of green.

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The food post

So, what is Romanian food anyway? I’ve been in Romania for about a week, and while I don’t pretend to be an expert on this country’s cuisine, I definitely do have some impressions. The food here is rich in meat, cheese and dairy, and starches like polenta, potatoes, and bread; as such, it is quite hearty and filling. I’ve found that a good meal at lunch is more than enough to last me for the rest of the day, leaving me craving only a small snack to nibble on during the evening hours. Like in other Balkan countries, fresh fruit are found in abundance, even in small grocery stores, though the quality of which at times may leave something to be desired. While perusing a menu, there are two things that strike out: one is the use of all the parts of an animal – meat, liver, tripe, brains, tongue, testicles (yes, you read that right); the second is the presence of dishes normally associated with German and Hungarian cuisine, owing to the presence of these cultures in Transylvania – you’re just as likely to find goulash and schnitzel on the menu as you are sarmale, which is perhaps the country’s signature plate, consisting of minced meat and rice stuffed in cabbage leaves and most likely served with the ubiquitous mămăligă (polenta).

sarmale – minced meat and rice stuffed in cabbage leaves, served with polenta

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Moments like these

It’s this – coming back to the hostel after a long, tiring, but somehow energizing and an unmistakably satisfying day of exploring a foreign land with friends who were just strangers to me a day ago. It’s the accomplishment of climbing up a mountain for the second consecutive day and understanding the meaning of the word “breathtaking”. It’s that strange questioning of how a handful of people’s lives managed to converge at a common intersection in time and place to create such a memorable day. It’s knowing that moments like these, though no longer novel to someone who is no longer a novice traveller, are still exciting, still continue to feed the fire residing in the depths of my soul, still manage to make me say “wow” or conversely leave me speechless. Moments like these are my most cherished souvenirs; they’re moments I treasure and give more value to than money or gold…

Day of departure

For me, the beginning of a trip as a solo traveller is always a cocktail of emotions, one in which certain flavours initially dominate before others overpower and leave behind an energizing aftertaste. There’s bouts of nervousness, doubt, and apprehension circulating within me that never seem to go away completely. These lingering feelings come from thinking about all the uncertainty when travelling alone, by pondering too much about those “what if …?” situations where the worst could happen (but in all likelihood won’t). If these are the negative emotions, then I’m happy to say that they always surrender to the positive sensations of excitement, gratitude, eagerness, and something akin to euphoria. The same uncertainty that is the source of any reluctance and hesitation also has the power to make me go, see, and experience what is out there. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that discoveries are waiting to be made, surprises are (quite literally!) just around the corner, strangers will be my friends, and there will be sights that will take my breath away. And I can’t wait…