Akasha and I rose early the next morning and headed off to catch our bus into the mountains. The others had most of the day to fill before catching their own buses home. Jesse had helped us check bus times with an official when we’d arrived 2 days earlier, but the woman at the ticket office assured us that there was no bus to Sibiu or Alba Iuliu. The trains, despite being a fraction of the cost of anywhere else I’d been in Europe, were too expensive for Akasha, so we were left with the option of the microbuses that act as shuttles. We found the right one, then after some quick negotiations with the other passengers, even managed to get 2 adjacent seats. We both wanted to start fresh, but it wasn’t easy to put the past week behind us.
“I’m broken,” Akasha said. “I feel like a single mother who’s lost her freedom.” The observation was the perfect compliment to my own feelings of being the child in the back seat. “I can’t support both of us.”
She told me that they’d been trying to reach me and that I’d been in dreamland. Perhaps they had. There were a number of times that I’d been shocked to find them speaking English to me. It wasn’t beyond belief that I’d missed some. And the previous night may have been better simply because I was less stressed and therefore more open, though I think they were making a real effort for the first time that week.
Our conversation was interrupted by an old woman behind us, who wanted to introduce her grandson, Robert. The boy of about 8 spoke a number of English words and helped to translate some of the conversation. Either he had an identity crisis or we still had a communication gap. Somehow he managed to have a German father, Romanian mother and Spanish grandparents. Still, I’ve found that anything’s possible in Europe. Like many boys of that age, he wanted to be an astronaut, which would make him the first Romanian in space – unless they start offering a passenger shuttle service to the moon.
They were very friendly and a great distraction from our previous conversation. Best of all, they helped us find the right shuttle on to Alba Iuliu when we changed at Sibiu. One more bus took us to Arieşeni, a town nestled in the Apuseni Mountains. Our destination was actually Pătraăhăiţeşti, about an hour into the mountains, the locals told us. “Just follow the trail. It’s all marked.” And so we set out just after 8, confident we’d make it before dark.
It wasn’t clearly marked and I wondered how Akasha could confidently choose from among the options at each intersection we passed, whether in the forest or villages. During the first half hour we’d found a number of locals to ask, but by the time we reached a large intersection in a clearing, we’d been walking for well over an hour and it was dark.
“There’s a sign on that road over there. Maybe that’s it.”
“We’ve been following a red dot until now.” So that had been her trick. “I don’t see any more red dots, so I say we keep going straight ahead.” It made sense, so we did. The name on the sign didn’t mean anything to us anyway.
Another half an hour later, I was getting really worried. We could barely see the road at our feet. As we approached a bend, we heard a cow moo, and both it and a man appeared out of the dark. We didn’t understand exactly what he said, but the shock in his tone made it clear. “What the hell are you doing up here?” After we said we don’t understand, he pointed up the road and said ‘only television.’ It was the maintenance trail for a TV tower.
We walked with him for a while, trying to chat with our basic Romanian and Akasha, who likes cows, tried to befriend the animal. It tolerated her but made it clear it just wanted to get home. When the man stopped to draw us a map in the dirt, the cow turned around and mooed loudly at him. “I need milking,” it said clearly.
It seemed the road I’d spotted was the correct one, but neither of us had the energy to keep going, so when we got to the intersection, we put up the tent and fell asleep. We woke with the sun the next morning, but lay there listening to the cows being herded within metres of the tent. Finally we got up and washed ourselves and our clothes in the icy stream below the clearing, and I was delighted to find Akasha smiling and laughing with me again. This was the girl I’d come away to be with. The sky was clear and the air warm, so we left our clothes on rocks to dry and walked back down into town to the tourist office. We had to remake our plans so that we could spend some time at Pătraăhăiţeşti and still get up onto the Plateau Padiş.
We decided we could afford to spend that evening in Pătraăhăiţeşti, but we loved it so much that we spent a second night and later returned for a third. We got back to the tent just in time to pull it down and pack our clothes before the rain started again. Then, just as the cow herder had promised, it was a short walk along the road to our destination. The village lay draped on a gently curving hillside and surrounded by dense forest. Each property was bounded by wooden railings so that we were walking along a series of railed paths. Our destination was a wood carver’s house at the bottom of the village. He’d opened his house to tourists and it had been recommended in the French guide.
Things had changed a bit since the guide was written and it now seemed to be his son that was the wood carver, but the old man was still there and loved to talk to the tourists, even in our fractured Romanian. His daughter seemed to be running the place now and she quickly directed us to a large room in a lodge set aside for guests. She spoke some French and practised as she took us on a tour of the lodge, showing us the dining area just outside the rooms and the bathroom underneath. Her weaving loom was also on this floor of the lodge that required you to go outside before entering again. As soon as we’d agreed to stay, she sent us on our way down a path that ran through the forest just below the village. It turned out to be a small waterfall that seemed to be the final destination of the red dot walking route.
It was cool in the forest and the waterfall pretty, but we were keen to see how these people lived, so we walked back up and through the village itself. The wooden railings kept us firmly on paths and separate from the locals in a way that made me feel uncomfortably like we were watching animals at the zoo. Most of the locals we saw were piling the dry hay into massive stacks to store through the coming year. One person, usually a child would stand on the top of the pile, holding on to the wooden post that served as the centre for the pile, and step on each load as it was passed up. By draping the loads around the post and stepping on them, they ensured that the hay would stay in place and presumably the dense packing helped keep it dryer. Most looked up curiously when we passed, adding to the impression of a zoo, but they usually waved or called out in response to our greetings.
At the top of the hill, we saw a couple of people on motorbikes talking to a family of locals who were sawing wood in a shed by their house. They seemed friendly, so we decided to go up and have a look, but when we realised that the bikers were speaking Romanian, we began to worry we were intruding and turned to head back down. The whole family called out to us and gestured us back. In pidgin Romanian, they explained that the visitors were Romanian travellers and, although they weren’t a museum, they’d love to talk to us. We stayed, and the conversation progressed at snail’s pace until a pretty young girl sitting at the back admitted that she spoke English.
“My name’s Andrea. This is my grandmother and my aunt. It’s my grandmother’s house. The men are my uncles and cousins. I’m so sorry that my English is so bad.”
Her English was almost flawless and the accent natural – far better than even my Romanian colleagues in Brussels. “Your English is great. Where did you learn? How old are you?”
“No. I’m only 14. I just learnt a bit at school, but one of my friends speaks English well, so I talk to her sometimes. Everyone wants to know where you’re from.”
“France.” Nods all around showed that this was the expected answer, common for tourists to this area.
“Ha,” I said to Akasha – somewhat snidely, I have to admit. “I always get a better reaction than you.” I felt good that they knew where Australia was, but also that for once Akasha had to take a back seat. I wish I could say I was more mature than that, but we all have our dark days.
While we were talking, her grandmother brought out some extra glasses for us to join them for a glass of something sweet and fizzy, then demanded we eat some cake with them too. I wanted to help the men saw the wood – to try my hand at the life of a Romanian, but I knew that I’d make a mistake and that would cost them time to recut. It wasn’t my place to impede their livelihood.
Andrea took us up the hill to show us their horses – enormous animals bred to pull heavy carts – and Akasha helped lead them down to the cart which was being put together. I got my wish to help by loading some of the wood onto the cart. In a struggled conversation, one of the cousins told me that the wood was destined for a construction site where a new house was being built.
When we turned back from watching the horses taking the cart down the hill, our hosts offered us another glass of the sickly drink. “No. No, thank you. We’ve been too much of a burden already… If you insist, OK, but we’d actually rather tsuika.”
Their eyes lit up in delight that we knew the local alcohol and that we’d drink with them. Soon small cups were being passed around and we were all toasting each other. Finally, we had to leave and Andrea offered to walk us to the intersection.
“I’m so happy. I have new friends,” she said. “And my grandmother really likes you two. It’s unusual to find such friendly tourists.” We were delighted to have found such friendly locals, but then most of the people we met were extremely friendly.
Dinner that night, prepared over a wood fire stove in the barn, was a heavy affair of beef stew and an accompanying dish of eggs and potatoes. It was delicious, but we were glad to take a break when the cows brought themselves home, dragging a little old lady behind them. She followed them into the barn and began to milk them. Akasha broke off her meal to join her, firmly telling me that milking was her privilege and to stay out of the way. She looked so genuinely happy for the first time on the trip that I couldn’t intrude. But I didn’t need to. I was content to just enjoy her smile.
The next day, we had lunch at the top of the mountains by the TV tower and ran back down in a storm. It was short-lived and we were almost dry when we reached the lodge again. Akasha found a young French man whose Romanian was good enough to help get me an invitation to cut hay with a neighbour. The neighbour showed me how to use the scythe, which I found at once surprisingly efficient and astonishingly difficult to use. He had to redo every area that he let me try, covering 100m in 10 minutes, then giving me the blade to struggle through 5 meters in 3 minutes. After about five turns, I felt I was getting the hang of it – resting the blade on the folded grass and swinging it around my body – but the man had had enough and it was clear he wasn’t going to offer it to me again.
When I got back down to the lodge, Akasha had gone for a walk with the French man. That night during dinner, she spoke only to him and I was back in the isolated world of the previous week. Despair set in again – and perhaps a little jealousy – and I was glad when we left the following day to go hiking up to the Padiş Plateau, which is not flat at all. I’d been looking forward to this since we arrived. This hiking trip was the real reason I’d carried the tent all the way – not to save money on accommodation in towns – and it would be good to camp in a quiet place in the mountains. I would finally have Akasha to myself. But of course, this wouldn’t go to plan either.
Conversation was strained after the night before, so we settled into a silent trudge, speaking only to point out the coloured markers we were following – like a children’s orienteering course. The maps we had weren’t detailed enough to be helpful, so we had to rely on the red and yellow triangles painted on trees until we bumped into some other people. They told us that they were heading to the first cave and that we should join them rather than pitching out tents first. They were Romanian and one knew the area well, so I trusted him – against Akasha’s advice – and we ended up carrying our heavy packs down a steep, treacherous mountainside, wondering all the while how we’d get back up. Akasha was now complaining of a stomach cramp from all the heavy food, which also explained some of her unwillingness to talk. “I wish I could throw up,” she said, holding her stomach. “I’m sure I’d feel better afterwards, but I’ve never been able to.”
So we weren’t in a good state to enjoy the sight that awaited us at the bottom. A giant’s cave stood some 70m tall (at a guess) and seemed to keep that height as it cut right through to the other side of the ridge. A river ran right along the floor of the cave so we couldn’t walk the length and the other 40 people there made us keener to get to the designated camping area to get a place.
By the time we reached it, Akasha couldn’t stand up straight and we barely noticed the 500 tents filling the clearing. I ran to buy her a Coke – which she believed would help dissolve the knot in her stomach – from a little store in the centre of the clearing. When I came back, I found her bent over the ground. “I can throw up.” There was a hint of pride showing through the misery in her tone.
As awful as it sounds, I have to say I was happy that Akasha was sick. It may have been all that saved our relationship. The tables had now turned and she was totally dependent on me. The only thing she didn’t need my help for now was a toilet stop. When hiking in Romania, this isn’t a pleasant activity. A short walk into the forest by the tents showed a ground covered with toilet paper. No effort was made to cover up the refuse and – unsure if I was stepping on dirt or human waste – I was happy to leave her on her own for that task. I could wait until we got back to Pătraăhăiţeşti.
Our trip back was just as silent, but I no longer felt like a burden. Back at the lodge, Akasha made a much better effort to include me in the conversation with her French friend. The topic was gypsies, which brought our trip full circle.
“They’re not the villains that all the Romanians make them out to be,” said the French man, who’d been travelling in the country for many months. “They really don’t have a choice of lifestyle. Some go to university and study hard, but no one will give them a job. It’s expected that people put a photo on their resumes and as soon as the employer sees a photo of a gypsy, they’ll throw it away. The gypsies have no choice but to go begging and stealing to survive.” If everything he says is true, Romanians are very racist against their cohabitants, probably to the same extent that white people are to Aborigines in Australia. The gypsies are stuck in a similar cycle where their nomadic life doesn’t work in modern society and is rejected by the general population. But when some of them try to fit in, they’re ostracised. Akasha took a particular interest in their plight and has promised to do some research into what we heard that night. When I spoke of the beggars to my colleague, he told me that Romanians won’t give the beggars any money because they know it doesn’t end up helping the beggar. More often it goes to the pimp, or whatever the equivalent is in the world of beggars.
The next morning, we began our trip home feeling like a couple again. We didn’t experience much of consequence on the way out, except for the first bus. We’d been expecting a microbus like those we’d arrived in, but instead we were called onto a massive covered truck with bench seats lining each side of the tray. The old men inside were delighted to help us practise our Romanian – particularly Akasha, of course. They explained that this was actually a free truck but that it only went part way. We’d have to change for a real bus later on. From what I could work out, this was probably a service left over from the communist era. Just as some shop / restaurants were still owned by the government, this driver was acting as a public bus service, long after private buses had taken over.
It was a striking end to the trip, and it left me sad that I’d spent so much of it fighting for my sanity rather than exploring and understanding the people.