Romanians in the Dark

Dave Palmer
photos by the author, except as noted

all photos and text are ©1999,
and may not be used without permission

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Chapter 1: Hungary for Adventure

After nearly an hour of sitting at the border in the heat and humidity in an un-air-conditioned railway car, the border guard returned our passports to us (signaling, I suppose, we were not under arrest), our train suddenly lurched forward, and we crossed over the invisible but oh-so-important line from Hungary to Romania. I was back.

Back? What the hell was I doing back in Romania?

I mean, don't get me wrong, Romania has some great scenery, interesting history, friendly people and good food. But it's simply does one put this...a tourist country. For those of us accustomed to a certain lack of harsh conditions in our lives, it isn't exactly the ideal spot to go traipsing off to every few years. And anyway, there are a lot of other places still left to see in the world.

In any case, Romania is not a place I'd personally want to try and navigate without a native guide. At my job of a few years ago, we had several Romanian engineers, and eventually an office in Bucharest. Thus, I had Romanian colleagues willing to schlep an American tourist or two around the "old country."

Anyway, I was back, and this time it was physics that brought me. Specifically, the intricate dance of orbital mechanics that had decreed that central Romania would be the center point of the August 11, 1999 total solar eclipse. I'm a sucker for a total solar eclipse, and I'll travel great distances to strange lands to see one. Indeed, there is a whole sub-culture of people, called "shadow chasers" who do. Seeing just one total eclipse is frequently enough to metamorphose a perfectly rational individual into a globe-hopping eclipse chaser. A total solar eclipse is unlike any other experience in life, something that can never be adequately explained, only experienced.

The last time I was in Romania, it was with a bunch of outdoorsy types who actually liked sleeping on the ground outside with the bears. This time around, I was promised we'd be staying in actual cities, mainly in the homes of friends and relatives of our guides. Visions of huge, overstuffed European feather beds and indoor plumbing filled my head. Showers, flush toilets, the whole package. Jeez, you think I woulda learned the last time.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself here. It's a clever literary device, you see, intended to draw the reader into the story...but I digress (another literary device, actually...well, never mind).

The Great Romanian Eclipse Expedition left Los Angeles on Wednesday, August 4, 1999. Besides myself and huge bag of heavy camera gear, there was Pam Bloxham, who had become a convert when she went with me to the 1991 eclipse in Baja California, and Dave & Kathy Lindquist, who were neophytes. Another member of our merry band, Didina Cazacu, was flying in separately from Canada. Didina is a Romanian engineer I'd met through my job when she was at the Bucharest office, and has since moved to Canada. Our main guide would be Radu Chiculescu, a friend of Didina's who lives in Bucharest, and his daughter Lucy.

The plan was to fly into Hungary and spend a couple days looking around Budapest, then to take the train down to the northern Romanian city of Cluj, where we would meet up with Didina, Radu, and Lucy. From there, we'd head down to the town of Ramnicu Valcea, which was near the center point of the eclipse, and then spend a leisurely couple of weeks touring around Romania, followed by a train ride back to Budapest and the trip home. Yeah, a real simple it turns out, my new catchphrase on this trip became "this wasn't in the brochure."

I really don't care much for international airline travel. The seats are way too narrow for me and I simply lack the ability to sleep on a plane, no matter how tired I am. Thus, I always arrive achy and cranky. This flight wasn't too gruesome, the four of us had the center four seats to ourselves, and the airline screwed up and forgot to seat somebody with a screaming baby behind us.

Our first hint that the trip might be jinxed came somewhere over the Atlantic. Kathy wears a cheap pair of non-prescription magnifying glasses to read, the type of glasses you can pick up at any US drugstore for a couple of bucks. At one point, she took the glasses off and put them into the seat pocket in front of her. Later, when she went to retrieve them, they were gone. We looked under the seats. We took everything out of the seat pocket. We looked in every purse and bag. After the plane landed, we looked under all the seats for several rows in front and back of us. The glasses were just gone, vanished from a long closed metal tube at 12 km over the ocean. The cost of the glasses was trivial, but Kathy can't read without them.

We first touched down in Germany, a two-hour layover in Frankfurt. It was oppressively hot and humid, a weather condition that would dog us for nearly half the trip. I suppose it's just as well I was tired and wiped out from the humidity, it kept me from making frankfurter jokes.

We finally made it to Budapest late Thursday afternoon. I don't know why it is, but airports all over the world seem to be situated so the cab ride to your hotel takes you past the least attractive parts of the entire city. Along the way, I began to look at the signs. I think you can tell a lot about a place by looking at their advertisements and billboards. This was my first exposure to the Hungarian language, and it was a real eye-opener, even as wiped out as I was. I've been around, and I've found that if I stare long enough at a foreign language that has even vaguely Indo-European roots, I can almost always pick up some of the context and meaning. The trouble is, Hungarian is unrelated to any other major living language on the planet...except (oddly enough) Finnish and Estonian, which I don't understand either. The words I was seeing were totally foreign.

We got to our hotel, the Astoria, a former grand hotel that had fallen onto bad times, but had been somewhat restored. If nothing else, it was convenient. There was a subway station right out the door, and it was just a few blocks up from the Danube. Pam and I shared a room, and Dave & Kathy had another. We got a room right on the front of the hotel, on a major street, so we couldn't even leave the windows open to fight the heat, there was too much noise. D&K got a nice quiet room in the back. The view from our room included McDonald's and Pizza Hut. Ah, nothing like travelling to strange foreign lands...

The next morning, everything seemed better...except for the humidity, which was a bad as ever. Since this was our first time to Budapest, and we didn't know anybody there, we'd decided to submit to the horrors of a bus tour through the city, to get an overview in the shortest time. This tour was part of a "deluxe package" that a travel-agent "friend" had booked us into. If I'm not entirely mistaken, that day was the first day I shook my head and muttered, "this was not in the brochure."

We'd signed up for the "English tour," but the tour guide kept switching between English and German on the bus' echoy PA system. It was a little difficult to tell when she was speaking which language.

Our first stop was in the historic Castle Hill section, where we zipped across the Fisherman's Bastion, a rather odd medieval-looking structure that was, in fact, built in 1905. Not much of a fishing spot, either, being some 300 meters inland and 170 meters above the Danube. You'd need a helluva cast to get your line out. We rushed through Mathias Church, which was a little older, by some 500 years. We marched around Old Town, back on the bus, schnell up to the Royal Palace, across the river, down innumerable streets, and a finally a photo op in Heroes Square. Whew! Quite a mad dash, considering it was over 35 degrees Celsius, with humidity to match.

One of the really striking things about Budapest is the distribution of graffiti. The city has as big a problem as any large US or European city, but for some reason, the older and historic buildings and statues seem to be relatively untouched by taggers. We never found out if this is because the government goes to exceptional lengths to keep certain buildings clean, or if Hungarian graffiti vandals are really that respectful of their history.

Fisherman's Bastion

I dunno, this just always reminds me of the "Knights of the Round Table" number from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

Matthias Church

Matthias Church

Fisherman's Bastion

After the bus tour, we had to take a detour for business, and go get our train tickets to Romania. At Nyugati Rail Station, we found an office that looked as though it might be the ticket office, and dutifully waited in line for some 20 minutes before we finally managed to grab somebody who spoke a little English and ask them. No, this wasn't the ticket office, that was across the station. We headed over there, and found a much bigger office, with much longer lines, but it definitely looked like a ticket office. We waited...and waited....when we go to the head of the line, we were informed that what we really wanted was the INTERNATIONAL ticket office...across the station. Right. So, off to yet another long line. This time we'd managed to stumble on the correct line, and eventually we had our rail tickets in hand. One of us then asked the clerk what I thought was a perfectly reasonable question: what platform will the train leave from? WELL, to get that question answered, it seems we were in the wrong office...we needed to go to this OTHER office across the station...ahhhhhhhh, fuggitaboutit.

The view from Castle Hill, looking out towards Margit Island
and the Parliament building

The other direction, Erzsebet bridge

That night, our "deluxe package" provided us with vouchers for an authentic Hungarian meal at a place called "The Owl's Castle" restaurant. The first problem we encountered is that it apparently did not exist. The clerks at the hotel, who were quite knowledgeable about the city, had never heard of it. After some dithering about, we finally discovered that the name of the place was "The Owl's NEST." OK, so off we fly to the Owl's Nest. When we get there, we found a waitress who spoke English, and showed her the vouchers. She went off to consult with her colleagues, then came back and told us that the vouchers did not have a value great enough to pay for the entire cost of any dinner on the menu, only part.

Well, after quickly jotting down a note of what we were going to say to our travel agent when we got back, we asked the next logical question: how much were the vouchers worth? "Sorry, I can't tell you," the waitress replied. Ummmmm...OK. What, you don't know, it's a State Secret, what? She explained to us that because the vouchers were a gift, they weren't allowed to tell us how much they were worth.

Now there are just two teensy problems with that. First off, the vouchers were definitely NOT a gift, we had purchased them as part of our "deluxe package" (from the Latin for "bend over"). The other rather obvious point was that we all knew how to subtract the final price we paid from the menu price. We explained to her that we had bought the vouchers, they were not a gift, and after she asked permission from her supervisor (Communism: the gift that keeps on giving...), she finally told us how much they were worth, and we ordered our perfectly mediocre meal. Of all the meals we had on this trip, this one was one of the most forgettable. Not actually bad,

And really, the whole voucher thing was a tempest in a teapot. One of the great things about Hungary is their prices for just about everything are extremely low compared to US prices. The difference we had to pay was just a few bucks.

After dinner, we strolled through Heroes Square again, which becomes a brilliantly-lit hangout for skaters and skateboarders at night, then spent a bit more time getting acquainted with Budapest's excellent subway system. The stations and cars are reasonably clean, there are routes all over the city, and the ticketing runs more or less on the honor system. You're "expected" to buy a ticket, but there are no gates or turnstiles where it's enforced. They do have roving guards who do random spot checks, but they are few and far between. If you're caught, all they do is make you buy the right ticket on the spot. We all had a "Budapest Card," a prepaid pass that was good for unlimited use on the subway and other public transit, and also was good for a discount in some places, museums and such.
Heroes Square at night

Saturday was a little cooler, but not by much. We got treated to the last piece of our "deluxe package," a cruise down the Danube. In between barely-comprehensible explanations of the building now on our right, the PA system played some of the cheesiest music I think I've ever heard.

Stonework on a bridge

Castle Hill

Parliament building

After the cruise, we headed down the Vati Utca, the famous shopping street near the east bank of the river. It was then we got our next surprise of the trip. Pam and I had been to the solar eclipse in Baja California back in 1991. Mexico, being a big tourist country, was all set for the event: anything you could print the word "eclipse" on was for sale. We wound up with all sorts of eclipse memorabilia, caps, coffee mugs, posters, t-shirts, the whole package. Even though the eclipse passed partially through Hungary, the amount of eclipse merchandise we found At least to a first approximation. We did finally run across a couple of postcards, some minor stuff like that, but it seems nobody in Hungary saw this one coming. We were to get an even bigger shock when we got to Romania, which was the center point of the entire eclipse.

For a slightly different view of Hungarian history, we headed out to Szobor Park. When communism fell, people all over eastern Europe started tearing down the statues and trappings of the former Soviet domination. However, the Hungarians noticed that some of these statues were actually fairly artistic, and of course they had significant historical value. But nobody wanted them lining the streets of Budapest. So they created Statue Park, way, waaaayyy outside of the city, where a selection of the old communist statues and monuments were exiled, a bronze and stone gulag.

Lenin lectures to an empty hall

Afterwards, we headed back to the Astoria, and then walked across the Erzsebet Bridge for drinks. The humidity was getting worse again, and I was faced with my perennial problem of drinking in Europe. Typically, about the only really tall, cold drinks you can be sure of finding in eastern Europe are beer and mineral water. I don't drink beer, and the variety of mineral water that's popular in the neck of the woods is usually the carbonated, Alka-Seltzer-tasting stuff that I will drink ONLY if the other option is death. You can get miniscule glasses of soft drinks or something, but it was nearly impossible for me to find something big and cold to just guzzle.

A statue of St Gellert looks out over the Danube

Later, we strolled along the bank of the Danube in search of dinner. A big tourist bus passed us that bore the logo "Sad Tourist." Either truth in advertising, or something lost in translation. We found a small corner restaurant, the "Danube Bank," or something original like that, and attempted to order food. The waiter, Churl Boy, actually seemed to resent our presence, and it seemed to be a contest as to just how long he could take before coming back to us with something. On the other hand, we'd apparently gotten lucky with the menu. The food was considerably better than the Owl's Nest, and they had an absolutely marvelous cold fruit soup that was one of the best dishes we had on the trip. It was just difficult to actually GET any of it.

That night, the humidity finally overflowed, and we got a brief but intense period of rain and thunder.

The next day, we headed back to the Castle Hill area to see some of the sights on our own, without being hustled through on a guided tour. To get to the top of the hill, we took the funicular, a sort of cable car affair, which takes you on a short but very steep and scenic trip. The heat and humidity seemed to be cooperating, and were down a bit.

Up in the old part of the city, we spent a little more leisurely time strolling around some of the landmarks there, a much more pleasant experience than being rushed through them with a memorized recitation of dates and names of kings.

We'd read in a guidebook of an ancient labyrinth under the old part of the city, and that sounded like it might be interesting to visit. Yow, how wrong can you be? This place was one of the worst tourist ripoffs we encountered. The underground passages were there all right, but instead of being set up with exhibits and artifacts detailing their history and their undoubted importance to the city, they were decked out with a cheesy, faux "history of civilization theme. In one room, there was a reproduction of ice-age cave paintings on the walls. In another room, a quasi-Roman setup. Finally, at the end, they had a bunch of silly "future fossils" scattered around, imprints of cel phones and laptop computers. Feh. We never DID learn anything about the labyrinth itself or its history. The Big Head in the mud was kinda cool, however, it had kind of an Ozymandius thing going.

Later, Pam went off on her own to the opera house, while D&K and I went on to the Budapest zoo. By this time, the humidity had broken a bit, and there was a fair amount of shade at the zoo. But by the time we all met up again later in the day, the heat and humidity were back, worse than ever. We went back to the Danube bank restaurant again for fruit soup. The same waiter was there, and he seemed positively ecstatic to see us again.

Looking up inside a dome at the zoo

A mooching hippo shows off

The dome again, outside

Monday was our travel day to Romania. We checked out of the Astoria, and took a cab to the train station, where we FINALLY discovered which platform our train was leaving from. It was still oppressively hot, but the station was covered, and there was the occasional breeze. Finally, our train pulled in, and we lugged all our bags onboard and waited. And waited. It was stiflingly hot in the train compartment, like sitting in a hot metal box...which, oddly enough, it was.

The one good piece of advice our travel agent had given us was to get a first-class compartment on the train. As dingy, hot and un-ventilated as our little box was, it beat the second-class section by a whole bunch.

Just after nine in the morning, the train creaked its way out of the station, and we could at least get a little air by opening the compartment window...or trying to, since it was held closed with springs, and closed on its own. We jammed some newspaper into the mechanism, and that kept it open for awhile.

About 4:30, we rolled to a stop at the Romanian border, and we waited. Soldiers with big guns came through and poked under the seats, looking for smugglers stupid enough to hide stuff under the seats. A guy in a uniform who spoke no English came around and took all our passports. And we waited. And waited. Finally, there was activity that suggested we were about to get underway again. But we were still without our passports. Conductors were getting aboard. Still no passports. At the very last minute, the uniform came around and returned the passports. He was not accompanied by men with guns, which we took to be a good sign. The train lurched forward, and I was BACK in Romania.

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All photos and text are ©1999, and may not be used without permission