Romania. It’s the land of traveling gypsies and vampires. (And tuberculosis, but no one thinks of that except public health people.) I love Eastern Europe, primarily because I think of it as this mysterious, mystical, mythical place of ethereal beauty where anything could happen. This is not helped by the fact that Lord Voldemort was in Albania, not too far from where we were. And although the Irish Travellers in Ireland and the UK are not “gypsies” as one would traditionally think of, watching their shows on TLC only made me think gypsies were even cooler.
I always thought of big forests and mountains… interspersed with Soviet-era stark grey buildings and Orthodox churches. The reality was pretty far from my vision. At least where I was.
I stayed for about three weeks in Targu Mures/Targu-Mures/Tirgu Mures, which is technically part of Transylvania (and all the more reason for it to look like my vision!). We took the cheapest flight possible. It left from London Luton at about 7:30am, and if it had been just me, I would have gotten there at maybe 6, but it wasn’t, and we had to get there at least two hours beforehand. This wouldn’t have been so bad if we didn’t live two hours away and weren’t taking a bus down that either left at 2 or 4am. Oh, and you have to be at least 15 minutes early to the bus, and we actually were a half hour from the bus stop.
We left at 1 in the morning when it was about 40 degrees. We got to Targu Mures at about 1 in the afternoon where it was about 90 degrees.
Not the most auspicious start to three weeks.
But after a nap, a shower, and a walk downtown where we discovered McDonalds, ATMs, and gelato? Well, life was looking up. (I always go to McDonalds in a foreign country, not because I won’t eat the country’s normal food but because I love looking at the different menu items and prices.)
Life in Romania for us was actually nicer than in the Isle of Man, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you consider the countries’ GDPs should mean the opposite. We had our own rooms with real beds and ensuite baths, which normally I hate but in this case, it was just Lisa and I, and we’re pretty bathroom-compatible. There was a washing machine and even wireless Internet! We were thrilled over that – and then got pretty addicted to the normalcy of being able to check Facebook or watch YouTube videos, stuff we had done splendid without in the Isle of Man, and ended up having to institute “game nights” so we wouldn’t spend every evening, all of us in the same room staring at a glowing screen.
I’m a sucker for history and historical things, and whilst the Soviet Union wasn’t (obviously) the best thing for the people under its rule, including in Romania, the indelible marks it’s made on the land and the people were interesting to figure out. One of the most remarkable actually was the topic of church. From what I was told, and this is anecdotal evidence, under the Soviet Union and Nicolae Ceaușescu, church was forbidden, so when Romania overthrew the government in 1989, what was left of the church had gone underground, and it’s never regained the prominence it had before the 1940s. It’s also really looked at just something cultural, not something that could be personal in any sense. That’s probably just interesting to me.
What also was interesting was what Targu-Mures was like. I’d been to Bulgaria before, but that was 15 years ago, and we were just in a small village, not an urban city. Targu-Mures was a weird mix of developing and developed, not quite like Kenya or Bangladesh but also not like the US. The informal settlements (slums/ghettos) we went to were a lot nicer than I had anticipated, which sounds awful, I know, but for the most part, there was electricity and running water and actual shelter. There were worse areas, but it was a lot nicer than anything I’d seen in Kenya when I did research in informal settlements. For people who’d never seen or lived in developing nations, I’m sure it’d still be a huge shock (As it was for the only one in our group who’d not traveled much). The conditions were still not good: there were still children running around, not in school, dirty, barefoot, naked, and there were still stray dogs (and randomly, horses) everywhere. And then five minutes away, there were nice houses with air conditioning. I’m not a socialist, but income inequality is a huge problem in too many places in the world, including the US.
Okay, so what we were there for was basically what’s termed “mercy ministry,” visiting hospitals and orphanages, playing with kids in informal settlements (slums, ghettos, etc.). We also spent time down in the town square, talking to people through a translator (when necessary; most young people spoke decent English), which is how I was told the above info about the church. Also interesting: one day that we went to town, we didn’t have a translator, but I was with Karen, who’s Italian, and every person we ran into spoke Italian or was with someone who spoke Italian. No one who lived in Targu-Mures had ever even run into someone who spoke Italian before.
Because of my aforementioned interest in tuberculosis, I was psyched that we were going to a TB hospital. Most other people were scared because I pretty stupidly talked about how quickly TB spreads: takes as few as ten bacteria to infect you, and one cough contains thousands, so…
We had to wear lab coats, and it was a children’s ward, and it was pretty heartbreaking to see a little six-month-old who’d been in the hospital for over a month without family visiting once. Often times, the children are left, only sometimes just until the six-month treatment is over. One of the three girls there, the oldest, was able to go home every weekend though, and her mother came to see her during the week. We obviously couldn’t take pictures of children in hospital, so there’s none of that, but we played with them, colored with them, played Uno, held and changed the baby. The group we stayed with goes once a week, so the children are at least used to seeing familiar faces every week! We also went to a cancer ward and talked to adult patients; that was a pretty spectacular time.
Most of the rest of the time, we played with kids. Now, if you know anything about me, you probably know I’m not a huge fan of kids; yes, I worked in a daycare, and of course I love my niece and nephew, but other than that, I just don’t know how to deal with kids. I’m not one of those people that can immediately be comfortable with a gaggle of kids. But we did dramas for kids. We sang songs with kids. We did dramatic songs for kids. We told them Bible stories.
We went to an orphanage and an informal settlement (ghetto/slum) and out in the countryside, and as you might know, kids are kids are kids, no matter where you are in the world.
We loved them. And on them. It was brilliant.
I didn’t have a radical change of heart regarding children, but somehow it just became easier. At least until we got back to England and met the worst-behaved children ever.
There was a day that I was sick and everyone else went out to visit homes in the gypsy villages and spent hours upon hours in busses to get there; they were hungry, thirsty, tired the whole way home… and came home to my undercooked*** curry and never complained. The next week, we had the same driver going somewhere much closer, and we mentioned something about being hungry on the way home. This guy stopped at his sister’s house and got us cookies. Which is an incredibly kind gesture in and of itself, but they were cookies made for his engagement party happening the next day. The next week, he translated for us because a lot of the kids only know Hungarian, and our translator only knew Romanian. The group of people we were with had never seen the driver (who they use a lot when groups come to town) be so open with other groups, and he had never translated for them before. It was amazing to be a part of people’s lives like that.
We didn’t do anything actually tourist-y at all, but I found Romania completely fascinating and would go back again in a heartbeat.
Random pictures, starting now!
I never actually put any Romania pictures on my personal blog. Whoops? Travel tips coming first Saturday in January, so if you’ve something you’ve always wanted to know about travel, public health, *NSYNC, tuberculosis, World of Warcraft, etc., but mostly travel, ask me/comment before then! Also, my birthday’s Monday! Wee!
*** undercooked, even though it was in the oven for over an hour on 200 degrees Celsius; this falls under the category of “things I don’t understand.”