Romania had one hell of a way to welcome us. We had dragged ourselves out of the flight after 20 hours in transit, when 3 burly ashen-faced men stopped us the moment we stepped into the airport. Passport, they demanded. Confused and intimidated by these casually-dressed men, we dug around in our bags. A little police badge on their belt was our only solace. They examined us well, comparing our passport photos with our faces for what felt like an eternity, and finally let us enter a country that would stop us from judging people by their stern expressions and lack of smiles.
Fifteen minutes later, while figuring out how to get into Bucharest city, we saw the same men again. They were off work for the day, drinking beer, chilling. Want a ride? one of them asked! Still a bit shaken, we nodded no and headed towards the tourism information desk, where we found ourselves face to face with two people sitting in a completely dark cubicle. I mumbled a question, and was almost surprised to get an enthusiastic response.
When the bus finally dropped us in the city, we got into a cab to find the neighborhood we had booked ourselves into, but the dilapidated house at which the driver stopped looked nothing like our BnB. He quickly took our backpacks out of the boot and got back into the car, leaving us on a dark isolated street. A glance at us in his rearview mirror must have changed his mind. He returned and called the accommodation, sorted the directions, gave us a ride and charged nothing extra.
We gradually got used to people not smiling back at us. One of our Romanian hosts recalled that things had been different before the country fell prey to communism, because you were looked upon with suspicion if you were outwardly happy in those days. In fact, I distinctly remember one of my first conversations with Elena, who ran our BnB in Bucharest. When I told her that we had transited through Turkey, she sighed. Turkey is amazing, she told me. Romania was too, but then communism happened. People are different now. I smiled at her honesty then, but 20 days in Romania later, I want to write to her and tell her that she’s wrong. People in Romania are pretty darn amazing too.
We were rather unprepared for our first tryst with the Romanian countryside in Magura (Also See: Snapshots from Romania); we didn’t expect to see people work so hard on their farms, using scythe and pitchforks to gather hay, rearing sheep and chicken, living in a village with unpaved roads within a national park. We didn’t expect there to be no ATMs in the vicinity either. When time to came to pay at our homestay with a village family, we were short of lei (the Romanian currency) and asked if we could pay the balance in USD, of which we had enough. Some of our explanation got lost in translation, and our hosts, assuming we didn’t have enough money for the taxi ride and the rescued bears sanctuary we planned to visit enroute, stuffed my pocket with fifty lei. Just like that!
But it was the northern region of Maramures that absolutely blew us away.
In Sighet, the gateway into Maramures, we alighted from the bus on a rainy evening. There were no cabs in sight (cabs in Romania are really cheap, so we took them everywhere), so we asked the first local we saw on the sidewalk where to get one. He told us in broken French to follow him, and pulled out his own vintage car to ferry us and our backpacks to our hotel for the night.
In the traditional wooden home of a little village on the outskirts of Sighet, we were the first guests of our Romanian hosts to not have a car (thanks to a crazy rule for Indians driving in Romania). Adela and Teo went far out of their way to ferry us to bus stops and intersections we could hitch rides from, but more touchingly, they welcomed us into their lives with a love and honesty that we hadn’t yet experienced in the country. If it wasn’t for Teo’s passion for Maramures, a region that little has been written about, we would never have ditched the touristy steam train in Viseus de Sus and instead, journeyed on a rickety logging train with loggers, shepherds, sheep, axes and a lot of palinka, into remote settlements high up in the Carpathian mountains.
On the countryside of Maramures, we spent our days hitchhiking across villages with locals, in their ancient cars, trucks, even tractors, and though the norm is to leave them some gas money for a ride, they mostly refused ours, always saying cu plăcere, you’re welcome.
One Sunday morning, we found ourselves in the cemetery of a 14th century wooden church, attending prayers alongside the locals of Harnicest village. By the time we reached Sat Şugatag, women in their traditional dresses and headscarfs were out and about, catching up on the village gossip, while the men sat around drinking beer and playing folk music. One elderly lady came and sat next to me at the ornamental gate of the bus stop we waited at. I was too tired, so I tried to resist her attempt to small talk in Romanian by explaining that I spoke none. She flashed a rare smile, and didn’t stop talking. In broken French, Italian, Spanish, English, Romanian, sign language and laughter, we chatted for an hour!
On our last day in Maramures, we hurriedly made it to the bus stop in Sighet in time to catch a bus for our flight later that evening. As we waited anxiously, someone asked where we were headed. Satu Mare, we confidently answered. It turned out there were six bus stops in the little town of Sighet (phew!), and there were no buses coming to this one that day. The kind (burly) man made a few calls, found out where the next bus was to come, hailed a taxi to ferry us and told him not to charge us anything. Just like that.
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