A Travellerspoint blog

September 2016

Bears

I woke up without my alarm in the morning, but it was late enough that the restaurants that weren't open for breakfast yesterday at 7 should be open. I packed my stuff, and headed out for a real breakfast. Except that it's Saturday, when they apparently don't open restaurants until 10. After a small loop around the university area to realize that nothing was open, I gave up and metroed to the train station. I ended up buying a grocery store breakfast of bread, cheese, and cherry jam. I hadn't realized that one of the cheeses I had purchased was horseradish cheese, but you'd be surprised at how well horseradish goes with cherry. The difference between a first and second class ticket was $5. Given my recent experiences in Sri Lanka, I splurged for the first class. I ended up in a spacious cabin with 4 other people. The seats were staggered so that everybody could stretch their legs out straight without interfering with anybody else. It also had a little table that made it convenient to eat my breakfast. At first, I was questioning whether it was worth the fiver, despite the pleasance because I didn't know what second class looked like. And then people ended up standing, making me feel good about my investment. The scenery started out pretty flat, with lots of farmland, but then changed into forested mountains. They were steep and gorgeous, and the type of scenery that makes it fun to take the train. I arrived in Brasov and taxied to as close to the hostel as he could get. The hostel is on a pedestrian-only street, right in the heart of old town. It is clean and cozy, and the guy at the front was friendly and helpful. I got settled, then headed out to check out old town for a bit before I had to meet for my tour. It's quaint and pretty, and there are several impressive large buildings. In the main square, I saw a farmer's market with all sorts of goodies. I saw the biggest carrots I've ever seen in my whole life. They had plenty of pumpkins and other fall veggies. Plenty of pickled veggies called from their briny jars. And the cheese! I saw my first glimpse of the famous local cheese that is packaged in tree bark. But I was surprisingly unhungry. I got a local sparkly juice out of a big barrel and figured I'd come back when I was hungrier. I walked around the park near the bus stop, and enjoyed the lushness and the beauty. Then it was time for me to grab a bus to the meeting point across town. It was quite easy and gave me a good view of the rest of Brasov- the part not for tourists, where real people live. I had made sure to be early, and was early enough to stop in the gigantic grocery store by the meeting point. I wandered the aisles to see if there was anything interesting, but I wasn't very hungry and I didn't see anything particularly different. I met the other 2 people on the tour and the driver in the designated meeting spot-a gas station- and we were on our way. At the edge of the forest, we picked up one other person, and then entered. We drove on a one-lane path through the forest, right through a creek. Later, I asked about that, and it turns out that when the water level is too high to drive through, they have to walk. Even with us parking closer, we still had a short, pleasant hike to the lookout point. The path was mostly a goat trail, unmarked and not wide, but there were a few bridges or handrails to let me know it was for humans. The lookout point is a tiny wooden room with very clean glass windows all along one side. They face a small clearing. The park ranger had placed two cattle carcasses in the clearing, and tied them to posts. The scenery was beautiful and serene. I was enjoying the calm, and then the ranger came into the lookout with us and started whispering with the guide. Their conversation really detracted from the whole experience. It drowned out the babbling brook, the bird song, and any chance we had of hearing the bears coming. But the bears hadn't appeared yet. We sat and waited and sat and waited, and I guess they ran out of things to whisper about, because the silence returned. The quiet became soporific, so I pulled out my book and read. Much, much, much later, somebody pointed out our first bear. It was a very large male, the guide informed us. The reason we hadn't seen other bears before was that he was around to scare them off. They weren't likely to come eat until he had. He walked around a bit, but didn't touch the food. He then returned to the woods. The guide explained that he might not be eating because it was still light out and it can be somewhat dangerous for a bear to be out in the light in a clearing, exposed. But another bear, this one a female, finally ventured out for the bait. While they see different bears each day based on who is in the area, how good the eats are elsewhere, and who is in the mood for a snack, this female is apparently a regular. She took a few bites, but then ran back into the woods. Apparently she also was nervous about the light. This reminded me a lot of the beginning part of the Penguin Parade in Melbourne- some would get brave for a bit and then run back to safety, while others hung out in safety, just observing. Then, as it got darker, they got braver and more and more emerged. At one point, we saw 4 different bears. Because this is real nature and not a zoo or safari park, you never know what you'll get. These bears aren't trained or used to people, so to see 4 wild bears was pretty special. However, we did have to get back to our vehicle safely. We left just before the sun fully set, with just barely enough light to see where we were going- mostly. The ranger lit a cigarette to warn the beads that we were there so that none of us got mauled on the way out. The smoke was right in our path in our faces ans made me cough, so the bears also had auditory warning that we were coming through. We made it back to the vehicle without any mauling incidents, and drove back to town. Despite the fact that it had been over 11 hours since I had last eaten, I was not hungry at all. As I was walking old town, the hunger hit and I decided to find a place to eat. I entered a few restaurants and was told that there were no tables. In a few, the staff didn't even greet me or were nowhere to be found. Apparently you need a reservation to eat Saturday night in Brasov. After being rejected or ignored at every single restaurant for several blocks in a row, I found a Chinese restaurant with some tables open. I felt bad about having been in Romania for 2 days and not having eaten in a Romanian restaurant, but I didn't have a lot of choice and it wasn't for lack of trying. The food was surprisingly good. On the way back to the hostel, I checked out the music coming from the main square. They had set up a stage, and hundreds of people were gathered round to see the live music. I watched for a bit, and then headed back to the hostel. Unlike yesterday's hostel, this was not a party hostel. This was a calm place for people to save money on a bed. A couple of people cooked dinner in the kitchen. Others sat and read. Everybody was polite, quiet, and friendly. The hostel was warm and clean. This is basically the epitome of what a (non-party) hostel should be, at least in my mind.

Lunch

Lunch


Brasov

Brasov


Park

Park


Waiting for bears

Waiting for bears


Bear eating

Bear eating

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Romania Comments (0)

Long walk around Bucharest

The plane landed a bit after 3am. I got my bus ticket just in time to see the bus leave. I waited another half hour, and took the bus to town. Despite the fact the it was cold, dark, and 5am, there were a surprising number of people in the streets. Couples walked the park, college students were finishing their night out, and workers were starting to emerge for their jobs. The streets were well lit and I felt perfectly safe. I eventually found my way to the hostel, but they don't make it easy. Some streets had typical "American-style" signs on poles. Others were marked on the sides of buildings, like in much of Europe. But mostly, I couldn't find any street signs at all. Thank goodness for GPS. I dropped my bags and asked about a place to get food. Yes, I was tired from only getting 3 hours of plane sleep last night (short flight), but I was hungrier than I was tired. The guy at the front desk desperately tried to think of a place open at that hour, and finally decided that all of the bars had breakfast, but this one place had a better one. I ventured off to find it. It may have had a great breakfast, but it wasn't open. While there were plenty of bars in the area, none of them were really open either. The bakeries were closed. Even the non-liquor type of convenience stores were closed. No 24-hour diner for the college students pulling all-nighters, not even a gas station store. I just wanted anything. I wandered a bit, sat in a park to read the map I got at the hotel (incredibly unuseful), and then got up again to find something to eat. The hotel guy said things would start opening at 7, so surely there would be some bakery open earlier. I eventually found a convenience store with prepackaged stuffed croissants. It wasn't my first choice, but since it was my only choice, I managed. Having satisfied the immediate hunger, I now had higher standards though. I no longer was looking for just anyplace that sold any food, I now wanted a place I could sit down to plan my day. I got a good look at old town. People were starting to sell anything and everything from tiny tables they set up in the streets, or even just a basket on the ground. Underwear, books, bananas, tablecloths, you name it, somebody had a dozen they were hawking. I passed several of the important buildings in town. I even figured out when services are tonight. I just didn't find anywhere to sit and eat. Close to 8, after I'd been walking hours on a single croissant and 3 hours of sleep, I finally found a place with drinks, ice cream, and waffles. I entered and asked where to order a waffle, at the table or counter. The server informed me that they didn't have waffles, but I could order drinks at the counter and ice cream from the table. Yes, there are three things on the menu and they didn't have one of them. I moved on. I hate eating at American chains while on vacation, but if the local places can't get their acts together, I don't have much choice. I can say that the Subway here has astonishingly clean bathrooms and more or less the same food as everywhere else in the world. I knew I couldn't keep this walking up all day, so I got a bus pass. For 8 leu, I could ride all the busses all day. I had downloaded a bus map while on Subway's wifi, but the map is crap. There are a lot of overlapping routes that aren't marked at splits, not all the busses that were running were on the map. The map didn't make it clear what to do at one way streets if you wanted a bus in the other direction. And it doesn't help that the busses here take odd routes that twist and turn all over town. I rode the bus for a while, just to ride it though. It was a good way to see the city outside of the center. I'd get on the first bus that came by my stop, take it to the end, and take a different bus back toward the city. I saw some nice parks that I wouldn't otherwise have seen. Despite having just eaten twice, I was a bit peckish. The locals were all lined up at this one bakery, so I stopped by to peek in. A bunch of bakers were hand twisting dough into some sort of shapes, throwing them on a tray, and then the pastries went onto a moving oven, like the kind they use at pizza places. They came out hot and fresh, and everybody wanted one. The best way I can describe it is a cherry pie bagel. The dough was shaped into a thin large ring, and the ring was filled with cherries and cherry goop. It was amazingly delicious. I have no idea how they got it filled that way, but I bet the internet can tell me so that I can make it at home. I wandered town a little more and saw the Potato and other things in that area. I figured that was a bit far for the tour to cover, and I was right. The Potato is a huge statue of a blob speared on a thin pyramid. I'm not sure why it's there or what it means, but it's certainly interesting. At 10ish, after having walked almost 4 hours already, I walked back to Unrii park to take the free walking tour of the city. We started in the park, looking at the Parliament building. They both were built by the last communist dictator, Ceausescu. He had done ok for his country for a while- improving the quality of life- but then he decided that he was more concerned with having the biggest things than taking care of his people. He had an entire neighborhood leveled so that he could build the biggest building in the world. It's also the heaviest, and even today, it's not 100% done. He also wanted the biggest boulevard built, so there is a boulevard 1m wider and 20 m longer than Champs Elyses in Paris. However much he was into big things, he didn't get to live his dream of addressing the big crowd from his building. He died before that could happen. He might be happy to know that the first person to do so was the biggest pop star in the world though (Michael Jackson).

Communists in many countries banned and persecuted church leaders. In Romania, they were more tolerant. As long as the church was quiet, the government was fine just building tall buildings around churches so that people couldn't see them, and letting the church be. We saw one of these churches, which is also the oldest Romanian church. In one case though, the church stood on land that the government was taking over in order to tear everything down and replace with the biggest something else. A priest worked with an engineer to devise a system of pneumatics that lifted the church onto train tracks to move the church to safety. Thus, they saved an old church built in the Greek Orthodox style. They eventually went on to use this technology to move people's homes- once even with the people still inside. We also learned a bit of more ancient history as we looked at a statue so ugly it has its own facebook page. It's a statue of the Roman emperor who conquered the Dacians and brought the "Roman" to Romania. He's buck naked, balls hanging low, and for some reason, and holding the wolf who suckled Romulus and Remmus, her tits hanging very low to indicate this. But there's more- the tail of a snake is also sticking out of the back of her head, to represent the Dacians who intermixed with the Romans to become Romanians. He's holding the wolf with his arms, not hands, so people regularly place items there, such as fruits. They also periodically dress him up so he's not as cold. Good thing the Romanians have a sense of humor. Their humor also shows through in their palaces. They really admire French culture, so they hired some French architects to build government buildings in "old French palace style." The Romanians may be the only ones with a post office palace. I also learned a lot about Vlad. He was the first person to write about doing something with Bucharest, so they have a statue of him. Apparently all 4th graders in Romania learn about his gruesome tale. His father fought in the crusades and was awarded some sort of "order of the Dragon" award. Since there were no dragons in Romanian folklore, the people thought it looked like a devil. Also, dracul sounds both like the Latin for dragon and the Romanian for devil. So, Vlad's dad already had a reputation for dealing with the devil. Vlad was born Dracula, or son of Dracul. At that time, the kings of Wallachia were paying tribute to the Ottoman empire. They had to send their sons to Turkey or someplace to be educated and to become loyal to the empire. But when Vlad got back and was in charge, he decided that Wallachia was done paying tribute. The Ottomans sent a small army, which Vlad captured. When they sent a larger army, he took each prisoner that he had previously captured, shoved a sharp stick up their tush, and hung them all along the road the Ottomans were using to advance. Those who had vital organs impaled and died instantly were lucky, others lived impaled for up to 2 days. The advancing soldiers decided that they didn't really sign up for impalement, and so the Wallachians were free, at least for a while. Vlad, meanwhile, got the nickname Tepes, or impaler. He did some other cruel things, but was never thought to have been a vampire until Bram Stoker heard folk tales from a Hungarian friend, and wrote the story Dracula, having never set foot in Romania. On our last stop of the tour, we discussed communism and the revolution in more detail. Ceausescu, the dictator who previously took good care of his people now used all of his country's money to pay off 100% of all foreign debts (good) and to build the previously mentioned palace for himself (expensive). As a result, there was no longer enough food to go around. People didn't have heat in the harsh Romanian winters. People got upset, and a few took action. They were massacred. The government tried to hush that up, but it didn't work. Ceausescu tried to give a big speech to calm people down, but they rioted at him instead. He escaped into a helicopter, but the pilot wasn't a big fan, so he claimed he ran out of fuel and left them in the middle of nowhere. Ceausescu and his wife were captured as they tried hitchhiking, tried within a few days, and executed by firing squad on live tv Christmas morning. The revolutionaries declared a democracy and then everyone elected a guy who was pretty high up in the old government to rule them. After having walked all over town with the tour, I decided that I'd eat at the first sit-down restaurant I saw, regardless of what it was. What I found happened to be an Italian restaurant with homemade pasta. It was also the first time my rule about always ordering homemade pasta failed me. Half of the raviolis were pleasantly aldente, bu half were badly undercooked. The sauce was unexciting, the filling was unflavorful, and it all was undersalted. But at least I was off my feet for a bit. Next, I grabbed a bus to Herastrau park, where the Village Museum is located. Here, they collected old houses from across the Romanian countryside and plopped them down into a little historical village. If you're into 1700-1900s village architecture, or decorating, this is your heaven. If not, it's a quiet walk through a pleasant park with some very unique scenery. At first, I peeked inside of every house, but after the first dozen they all looked the same- embroidered cloths on the wall, a painted wedding chest, some kitchen pots. I did particularly enjoy the machinery they had though. It was all wooden, no iron or stone. The signs explained how it was used to make felt blankets, press oils, or make grape must. As I was walking the village, a wave of exhaustion washed over me. My feet were almost dead from almost 10 hours of constant walking on hard paving stones and concrete. I could feel the lack of sleep. And I was a bit dehydrated too. I realized that any hopes I had of powering through the rest of the day were dashed, and so I headed back to the hostel. Refreshed from my shower and nap, even though it was short, I changed clothes and headed to the Choral Temple for Friday night services. I was a bit disappointed that the women and men sat on opposite sides of the room, but the curtain was sheer, seemed mostly symbolic of history, and both genders were socializing on both sides of it before and after the service, so I didn't feel as second-class as I sometimes feel when women are separated out. Services were unique- they had a group that reminded me of a barbershop quartet singing in place of a cantor. Services were short and sweet and as I turned to go, they invited me for food afterward. They don't just do a little oneg with some snacks, they had a full dinner- soup, chicken, rice, cabbage, plenty of drinks, and dessert. It was so kind of them to welcome me into their community for the evening. Everybody was friendly and full of helpful suggestions as to what I could do on my trip. I really appreciate the kind hospitality of this community. While there, I met a woman who was there for a "discover your roots" trip. She was born in Bucharest, but since her dad was in the army, they weren't allowed to be Jewish. She always knew her family's background, but never got to openly practice until she moved to the states as a little girl. She was back to see the city and community they left behind. I thought I'd grab a snack at one of the tons of old town options, but old town is horrible at night. Every street had become outdoor seating for every bar and restaurant, making it very narrow and difficult to walk through, but also making it impossible to breathe there, even if you don't have asthma. The air was so thick with smoke, you felt like you were inside a smoking room. I have never even been in a nightclub that smoky and the air was worse by far than India or China. I moved through as quickly as possible to not pick up the reek on my clothes and arrived at the hostel. The hostel is very clean. The staff is friendly, if not too knowledgeable. The hot water was instant. There was good pressure in the tiny showers. The beds are comfy. But if sound bothers you when you're trying to sleep- go somewhere else. When started settling in, there was normal street noise coming in through the closed windows. When I woke up to go to the bathroom, I felt like I was in the club. Even I don't turn the music up that loud when I dance around the house or party in the car. It was loud enough that I considered seeing if earplugs were available for safety reasons. It didn't stop me from sleeping, but I've literally fallen asleep in a night club before, so that doesn't say anything. Also, the smoke from the street had wafted up into the halls. It was a good thing our door and window were closed, or the room may have been affected as well.

Early morning park

Early morning park


Sunrise

Sunrise


Bakery

Bakery


The Potato

The Potato


Architecture combining old and new

Architecture combining old and new


Tour start

Tour start


Church ceiling

Church ceiling


Village museum home

Village museum home


Village museum

Village museum


Inside the synagogue

Inside the synagogue


Ugly statue

Ugly statue

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Romania Comments (0)

Lucy in the Museum with Glass?

I landed in Addis Ababa with a long layover. I went to go get my visa on arrival, and was rejected. Apparently, you can't get visa on arrival ($50) for a stay of under 12 hours, you have to get a voucher from the airline that entitles you to a hotel room and a meal. I went back upstairs, got that, and then made it through immigration. Upon exiting that area, guys working for the various hotels spotted my voucher, and immediately tried to attract me to come to their hotel. But I didn't want to go sleep in a hotel, I had pre-booked a tour. Again, I had some issues drawing cash here. In this case, the ATMs (at the airport) seemed to just be out of cash- it wasn't only me. Finally, I found one with enough to pay my guide, and I was on my way. We started the tour at a history museum in the university. The building used to be Hailee Selassie's home, and they have since turned it into a museum. The Museum contains interesting items related to his life, as well as Ethiopia as a country. One interesting thing I learned is that while there are many in the Caribbean who worship him, pretty much nobody in Ethiopia does. There was a famine in Jamaica due to drought, and Ethiopia donated grain to help people eat. At one point, Hailee Selassie went to Jamaica in order to see where his donations were going. When he stepped off the plane, the rain started. Some Jamaicans took that as a sign that he was godly and should be worshipped. They started a new religion based on this. Back at home, he was still "just" a man. I say "just" as he did some amazing things for his country. He decided that they needed to modernize, and brought cars to the country in order to move them forward. He kept their independence at a time when many African countries were being colonized. And people respect him as a great leader of whom they are proud. I also learned a bit about Ethiopian art. they depict people either with one eye (in profile) or two, depending on whether that person was a believer or not. They frequently depict St. George, because he was a favorite saint of one of the guys who was in power. So the guy prayed to St. George before a big battle, won, and everybody suddenly became a big St. George fan.

Today though, it was St. Mary day, a day to celebrate somebody else. It is an important holiday for them. People were all going to or coming from church. One of the churches that is popular is at the top of a mountain. There is no public transportation to the top of this mountain, so people get up super-early in the morning to climb it. As we were driving up it, we saw people slowly descending, having completed their prayers at the church at the top. We also passed many women with large bundles of wood on their backs. My guide told me that while it was illegal to cut down anything in these woods, if a branch falls to the ground, you are allowed to take it. So, people come up here early in the day, gather fallen branches, and then schlep them down the mountain for sale at the market. Some of these pieces of wood are all around 10 feet long, and the women were carrying large bundles. For all the guys who think women can't do manual labor, forget what you think you know and look at these strong women. From the top of the hill, we had a great view of the city. I took it in, and then we descended. Next on the agenda was the National History Museum. This is the museum where Lucy is. Lucy, the skeleton of National Geographic fame, is in a little glass box here, surrounded by other old skeletons and a big display on evolution. The display covers both the human line, but also the evolution of other sorts of animals, like hippos. Additionally, the museum had some Ethiopian traditional art. One of the pieces was like a big comic book, telling the story of Solomon and Sheba block, by block. The Ethiopians are all very proud that they descend from Solomon, and that was a regular theme in the stories I was hearing from the guide.

Next, we went to a church and looked around. The Ethiopian traditional church is Orthodox, closely related to the Coptic Christians of Egypt. So they operate on the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian one. I'm not sure how that works with day-to-day logistics of international business, but it does mess up the days somehow. A priest opened up the church just for us so that I could take a look around inside. It was beautiful. In addition to the usual religious wall paintings (like of Solomon), there were some paintings about the history of Ethiopia. And Haile Selassie is buried inside. Outside, plenty of other famous people are buried. Mrs. Pankhurst (daughter of the "votes for women" Pankhurst, but also supposedly active) was buried here. And an Ethiopian artist was as well. I kept seeing interesting works of art- a mosaic outside the museum, a painting here or there, some stained glass. Everything I pointed to and said that it was interesting seemed to be something that he had made. The rest of the tour was mostly from the car. We passed squares dedicated to heroes who helped keep the country independent from Italy. I learned that the Italians and Ethiopians signed some sort of trade agreement. But, the translation in the two languages was different. The Italians thought that they were now the colonial owners of Ethiopia, but Ethiopia thought that they were still independent. This caused a war for a while, but ultimately, Ethiopia remained independent. There is a lot of evidence of the strong Italian influence, however. There is a lot of Italian-stle architecture built in that era. An Italian piazza where the Italians used to go shop stands near the Mercato, where Ethiopians shop. The mercato is supposedly the largest market in the world. From what I saw, it's some really congested streets with a lot of shops. Each street has a specific type of goods, and people can go from store to store there and make sure that they get what they need at the best price. There is an entire street just full of car parts stores. There is an entire street just with furniture stores. We passed a street that only had produce. I would have like to see that one, but the traffic was pretty bad. There was no way we would be able to get out and then get back in the car in a short period of time. Instead, I finished the tour at an Ethiopian restaurant run by a childhood friend of the guide. I got injera with some sort of chickpea mash. It was good, but there was no way I was going to finish it all because the waitress brought so much. I got back to the airport in time for my flight, and that was the end of another great vacation.

Ladies with big sticks

Ladies with big sticks


Solomon comic strip

Solomon comic strip


Church stained glass

Church stained glass


Church

Church


Streets of Addis

Streets of Addis

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)