Cluj-Napoca to Baia Mare; Search for a cheap camp stove; Long hot walk to the train station; The poorly-named Accelerat train; Christina and a nameless old lady act as a thread-picking audience; Another long walk from the train station; Search for the hidden hostel; Further search for food

We found that it would be impossible to reach our planned destination (Sighetu Marmaţiei in Maramureş) in one day without getting up at 5am - the train connections just didn’t work. Maramureş is a very rural area and very awkward to get to by train. In fact, we found out later that it was impossible to get to by train at that time - flash floods had wiped out the tracks. There was a town along the way called Baia mare, though, that had a hostel. There didn’t seem to be any other reason for tourists to visit - the town boasted no attractions or anything of any particular interest. So we thought we’d get there early in the evening, have dinner and sleep, and move on the next day.

The only train we could take from Cluj didn’t leave until mid afternoon, so we used the morning to run some more errands. Sheryl needed a new daypack and I had finally decided to pick up a camping stove. I’d decided against bringing mine along on the trip, thinking its value would be outweighed by its bulk and weight, and I’d been kicking myself for it ever since. So we hunted down a camping supply place in town and bought the cheapest gas stove I could find (69 Romanian lei, about CAD$28) and the cheapest, lightest set of aluminum cooking post likewise (42RON). I resent the expense greatly, since I have a perfectly good stove and set of pots at home, in a box, completely useless to me. But… c’est la vie. I was one of my only two failures in equipment planning for the trip so far (the other being the computer and so probably debatable as a failure). At least we have a way of cooking hot food if we get stuck now, and doing some trekking is now more of an option.

Romanian banknotes, by the way, are quite impressive. Some years ago the currency was revalued and the old leu taken out of circulation. The ‘new leu’ which replaced it dropped three zeroes - 1 new leu is equivalent to 1,000 old lei) and all new bills were printed on untearable plastic with microprint, transparent windows, and the like. It’s quite attractive too - pastel shades and the historical figures featured on them are Romania’s great poets, artists and composers rather than the usual politicians. It must have represented quite an expense and I imagine as a result that it will be quite some time before Romania adopts the Euro, if it ever does.

Getting to the train was a long, hot slog - we were both soaked with sweat by the time we reached it. Following summer around the world seems like such a good idea in abstract, until your skin is melting off for the thousandth time. There are four classes of train in Romania - the modern, fast, comfortable InterCity trains; the slightly older and less comfortable Rapid or Express trains; the quite old and beaten-up Accelerat trains, which are on a level with the trains we rode in Hungary and the Czech Republic; and the Personal trains - achingly slow rustbuckets which stop at every flyspeck village. We were on an Accelerat train this time, and we were travelling second-class again - not because the train lacked a first-class car, but because the ticket agent didn’t know where to find the first-class designation on our passes and assumed from our scruffiness and backpacks that we’d be going second-class.

The train was delayed by half an hour, and we sat on the platform twiddling our thumbs and eating our lunch, beside a couple of gypsy women who were doing the same thing. I felt a certain affinity with them in that moment, and they may have felt the same, if the smiles they gave us were any indication. When the train finally came, though, they got on the first-class car and we got on our crappy second-class car, so so much for that particular bond.

The train trip was quite long and would have been boring except for the other two people in our compartment. One was an old lady who spoke no English but who found a lot of amusement in Sheryl picking out the stitches of the logo on her new daypack. We all did, really - after an hour she was covered in white fluff and there were bits floating all over the compartment. I also seized the opportunity of an audience I knew would be appreciative, and showed her pictures of Abigail. She had no English but she smiled hugely and made chipmunk-cheek gestures, which is the normal reaction of people when they see her.

The other occupant of the compartment was a woman named Christina (I hope I have the name and the spelling correct). She’d been away on vacation and was heading to her parents’ place to pick up her kids. She was really nice, and funny in a very self-deprecating Romanian way. In a lot of ways she confirmed and represented many things I’ve come to understand about the Romanian people - their black sense of humour, for one thing. Many Romanians seems to me to have a very dry and subtle sense of humour and the things they find amusing depress the hell out of anyone else. It’s the blackest sense of humour imaginable. The Irish have nothing on Romanians for black humour. If you don’t understand it and aren’t watching for it, it just seems like gloominess. Which isn’t to say that Romanians aren’t gloomy - far from it. They’re deeply unhappy as a people, it seems to me. Not the least cause of their unhappiness is Romania itself. Romanians don’t have much good to say about their country, citing its rural poverty, low general standard of living, institutional corruption, and the perceived fact that all the bright ambitious people have left Romania for better prospects abroad (I’m paraphrasing Christina as the source of this last). Coupled inseparably with this, though, is a fierce streak of nationalistic pride. “It’s not much”, they seem to think, “and we hate it, but it’s ours and nobody will ever take it away from us”. They seem to me to be, in the end, a people who are happy in their unhappiness - proud of it, even, as evidence of a certain stubborn, uncrushable perseverance.

Christina left the train before us, to be reunited with her daughters, while we continued to Baia Mare. This turned out to be a grotty mid-sized town full of crumbling Communist-era slabs of faceless grey concrete apartment buildings. We set off from the train station through a pedestrian tunnel reeking of piss that ran under the station, and walked a few kilometers through town to the hostel, collecting looks from the locals that ranged from friendly through baffled and mystified and all the way to offended. I think they see very few travellers in Baia Mare, and the inhabitants’ outraged reactions suggested that we were somehow catching them in their underwear, so to speak.

The train had been an hour late, and by the time we arrived at the street where the hostel should have been, it was almost getting dark. The hostel was supposedly at number 7A, and we looked up and down the street probably ten times without a glimpse of such a number. 5, 7 and 9, certainly - but no 7A. Logic dictated that it was beside or behind number 7, but no luck there either. I was beginning to question my sanity or consider the possibility that there were two towns named Baia Mare. Sheryl did all the legwork finding the hostel - she went off asking people and searching, while I stayed with the packs. She was gone long enough that I had begun to worry a bit, but finally returned successful. She’d found the hostel, but it was easily 20 meters away, through a parking lot, behind some dumpsters and down an entirely separate laneway lined with buildings. Unsurprisingly, the place was virtually deserted. I mean, really, is one little sign with an arrow too much to ask?

The hostel was staffed with one silly, jovial man who spoke only Romanian and Italian. Fortunately the conversation where you arrange for a room in a hostel follows a universal pattern and language is nearly irrelevant. This was an HI hostel, so bare-bones but clean and comfortable. We both have memberships, though I accidentally left my card at home. I thought that this was finally going to be the test of whether the photograph I took of it and have on the computer would be enough, but the manager didn’t even ask for our cards. Another guest explained that the HI branch in Romania has a policy of charging the same price to everyone, which is nice, but probably defeats the purpose of a membership system. I can only assume it’s some sort of subtle populist protest.

In any case, we got settled, and at this point being nearly ready to fall over with hunger, ventured out in search of food. At 10pm, everything was closed. We walked for an hour, and finally found one place that would sell us a slice of cold pizza and a corner shop that would sell us milk. Pizza and muesli is not the best late-night dinner combination, I can now confidently report.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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