The 91 year old woman

I climbed a volcano, admired some fantastic views of Granada, Lake Nicaragua, and Las Isletas (through which we had taken a boat tour the day before), caught a glimpse of a volcano crater, rode in a chicken bus twice, rode in a tuk tuk twice (and simultaneously was in amazement that I wasn’t in India!), had an amazing dinner, and all with the enjoyable company of Derek from Ireland, Bernard from Holland, and Gui from Brazil. And none of these was the highlight of my day. Undoubtedly and unequivocally, my encounter with the 91-year old woman is what I’ll remember most about day 5 of my Nicaraguan trip.

We were well on our descent down Mombacho volcano, walking down the road built for trucks to transport tourists up to the Biological Station (the base for which you can explore the top of the volcano through guided or self-guided hikes of varying lengths), when Bernard and I were stopped by this old woman at the entrance to her property. I’m writing this over two weeks after this happened and I can’t describe the physical setting too well, only that it was typical of rural Nicaragua – her home was a modest shack comprised of concrete and sheet metal, surrounded by dusty brown dirt and the lush shades of green effortlessly produced in the Tropics. This woman looked like she had been standing there awhile, and was eager to greet us and I’d say even a bit desperate to stop us for a few minutes of light conversation. I may no longer be able to recall my surroundings there very well, but I can certainly remember her tan, wrinkled face framed by her silver hair, the contradictory excitement and sadness in her eyes, and her smile simultaneously expressing gratitude and melancholy.

Above all, I remember her words. She fervently told us her age, and I had trouble believing that she was older than 60. She described to us how she used to work up at the Biological Station up until a few years ago, but one day they told her that she was too old and that she basically stayed home since then. With sorrow, she expressed how it was almost a curse that God allowed her to be so old, because she lived in this lonely, solitary environment without her children and grandchildren (although one of her grandsons was visiting her that day), and life was tough being alone and unable to work. And then she brought her hands together and praised God, thanking Him for the blessing of our company this day. She claimed that meeting us and talking with us was the highlight of her day, and I believed her. The sincerity in her eyes and the honesty in her voice were only genuine.

Throughout this encounter, and certainly the further along it went, I was always a bit wary of this woman, thinking that she might want something in return for sharing her very personal stories. Some money, some food – that’s typical of what people usually asked for, right? It turned out, she had wanted nothing more from us that what we gave her – a few minutes of our time to enliven her day and break the seemingly endless monotony that dominated her life. It really was just a few minutes of conversation with this lady, and then we said goodbye and continued our walk down the volcano. But this encounter had me feeling guilty and ashamed for thinking the worse in a fellow human being. How jaded, untrusting, and skeptical had I become? Thankfully, my actions didn’t reflect my thoughts, but indeed, this meeting gave me a lot to think about.

This 91-year old woman was the highlight of my day. Perhaps what I love most about travel are these strange, unforseeable encounters and surprises that you can never imagine taking place, but which unquestionably end up having a lasting impact on you…

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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