The darkness of the Transylvanian night is almost complete, except for the rich starscape that can be picked out through cracks in the clouds. Shepherds' dogs are baying, far off in the mountains, and the faces around me are barely visible in the glow of gas lamps. There is no electricity at this mountain cabana, a collection of tiny huts for travellers.
``Just like in the days of Ceaucescu," says Gaby, getting a chuckle from the proprietor. Gaby is twenty-two, a policeman from the Black Sea city of Constansa. For his vacation, he and his wife Monica are driving through Transylvania. On a salary of $100 per month, they don't have many other choices.
Romania is a poor country, but not desperate. The land is lush and beautiful, and the brown-skinned peasants carting hay in their horse-drawn carts are muscular and well-fed. I stop in street markets to buy my lunches, and gorge to the point of illness on watermelons and the most wonderful breads, for less than 50 cents a bellyfull.
It's easy to lose your sense of value in Romania. Having spent the previous two months in Western Europe, where so much as gazing wistfully through a baker's window can cause your wallet to spontaneously combust, I now found myself eating daily in fine restaurants, where a 3-course dinner with half a litre of beer adds up to $3.50. Gaby asks me as tactfully as he can with his poor English if I agree that the restaurants are overpriced. I try to explain that back home I could barely purchase the beer in a restaurant for that amount.
This initiates a discussion of prices. They want to know how much I paid for the Suzuki motorcycle that has managed to transport me here from Amsterdam. The ten-year old heap is leaking oil, the chain is stretched to the breaking point, the tires are bald, and the lights stopped working back in Germany. Still, it gets more attention than a Ferrari in these parts. The proprietor's young son is agog with the novelty of it. ``'Cicletta!" he keeps saying (as in bicicletta---bicycle), and I keep misunderstanding his two-year-old mind's intent. ``Chocolata?" I ask, miming the eating of bonbons, and the boy laughs and makes motor noises and bounces on his seat. ``'Cicletta! 'Cicletta!"
Four and a half million Romanian lei is what the Suzuki cost, and everyone sits back, stunned by the figure. It's a third of what it would cost to bring electricity to this cabana, and that's an impossibly large sum. I try to point out the flaws of the machine, eager to prove that I'm no Aristotle Onassis, but perhaps I unintentionally awe them even more. Imagine the price of a new Suzuki...
The roads here are full of rattling, smoking East German Trabants, and comparatively luxurious Romanian Dacias. Although few can muster enough firing cylinders to pass the transport trucks on mountain ascents, the drivers will leave no rule of the road unbroken in their efforts to pass in the flats.
Almost as common as the cars are the horse and donkey-drawn carts, full of farmworkers, gypsies, and swaddled children. The motorized traffic races around them, and then brakes for the strolling bulls and nervous flocks of sheep around the next bend in the road.
Such unspoiled scenes abound amongst the haystacks, chimney-top storks' nests, and silver church domes of rural Transylvania. Commercialism is still largely unknown to the Romanians. Yes, you can buy Coca Cola, but it is still served in slim glass bottles, and the billboards and neon hype of Budapest in neighbouring Hungary are mercifully absent.
Even what is one of the bigger tourist attractions in Transylvania---the castle of Count Vlad Tepes (ostensibly the inspiration for Dracula) in Bran---is remarkably low-key, with a small crafts market and some pensions scattered around. I turned up just as a thunderstorm descended on the village and shook the surrounding hills for an hour. In spite of its reputation and the monster-movie atmosphere, Vlad's little fortress with its whitewashed walls and red-tile roofs looked rather homey and inviting.
Warmth and charm defy a reputation of crime and corruption throughout Romania. I brought no small amount of trepidation with me, including a sackload of rumours about gas queues, gypsy thieves, and bent cops, none of which materialized. The gas stations were clean and efficient, staffed by skirted gas jockettes with fistsful of lei who pump the cheapest fuel in Europe. The gypsies I came across were characterized by the horse-drawn caravans on the roads, and by Mariana, a young beggar girl in the stunningly authentic medieval town of Sighisoara. Although I only gave her 100 lei (seven cents), she took my picture, and was happy to let me take hers, after which she shyly requested a copy. Unfortunately, the address she gave me (``74") was somewhat unspecific, but I lacked the Romanian to communicate this sad fact.
The police were nothing less than helpful, guiding me to inexpensive hotels in their unmarked Dacias full of assault rifles when I was lost, and never complaining about my less-than- fully-functional motorcycle. Gaby insists that there is little incentive for police to indulge in corruption. ``I have a good job," he explains, shrugging as if that is all one can ask for in the modern Romania. ``Why should I risk that?" There are some surprising perks for him, too. In the days of Ceaucescu, he explains, policemen could face severe punishment for firing their guns inappropriately. ``Now," he jokes, ``you make trouble---pow!"
He cautions me to steer clear of the black market money changers, who seem to mill about in the streets of every Eastern European city. In Romania they brazenly defy the law and mob you as you squirm your way into the exchange bureaus, flashing their calculators, sometimes offering a few percent higher than the official rate, sometimes misplacing a decimal point to their own benefit. It never seems to be worth the hassle or risk.
Besides, many western currencies will be accepted in leiu of Romanian cash, and prices are typically given in your choice of (US) dollars, marks, or lei. These prices don't always agree. In my first night in Romania, I was offered a four-room suite with Persian rugs and luxurious wooden furnishings for DM20, but it was only the equivalent of DM15 if I paid in Romanian currency. (Stupidly I passed, reasoning that I should be able to find a single room for much less still. Sundown forced me into a much less stylish hotel, for more money.)
But that was all several nights ago. Tonight my hut, nestled in the Carpathian mountains southeast of Brasov, is setting me back the princely sum of $4.50. There may be no electricity, but there are also no diesel fumes, nor the endless faceless apartment blocks of communist-era urbanity.
The proprietor of the cabana offers me a cupful of sugared wild berries that he picked earlier in the day. For making wine, he mimes. Gaby and Monica jump up and fetch a watermelon from their hut, and we noisily slurp up the sweet fruits and drink Cuicas beer until the deep Transylvanian mists chase us into our beds.
It wasn't long before I realized that my shortcut was going to be anything but. The road was twistier than a noodle, winding its way along the wall of a yawning canyon. Half of each lane was broken away, and the occasional vehicle straddled the center line as it careered haphazardly along to the next village.
Paralyzed with conflicting urges, I wanted to admire the vista and to keep intently focussed on what remained of the road. I wanted to stop and take pictures, and to keep moving to avoid getting punted off the cliff by the next rattling truck to come racing around the bend. I wanted to slow down and absorb the spectacle, and to race ahead to reach the next town before sundown. After all, the sun was getting very low in the sky, and my headlight (all of the lights, in fact) hadn't been working since Germany.
Germany was a long way away from here, the mountains of southern Turkey, both geographically and figuratively. I might have had a chance of getting the lights fixed in Western Europe, if I'd had the patience for the shops to order the parts for my leaky, squeaky 10-year-old Suzuki dirt bike, purchased in Amsterdam for way too much money. But I was eager to keep moving, and kept telling myself that I'd find a shop in the next city I stayed in. No time in Vienna. No luck in Budapest. Not a chance in Romania or Bulgaria.
It wasn't until the Suzuki creaked into Istanbul, held together with pieces of string and scotch tape (literally), that I forced myself to locate a shop to replace the bald rear tire and seriously overstretched chain. They couldn't manage the lights, however, so the Suzuki was still flying blind.
And this mountain road was getting steadily hairier. Soon the pavement petered out altogether, and I found myself lurching along a rocky track, dodging potholes and goat herds. I congratulated myself on having the foresight to buy a dirt bike (although it was really just a lack of cash for anything else), all the while cursing the lack of lights in the approaching dusk.
Not all Turkish roads are like this. An hour after arriving in the country, I found myself on the most perfect piece of pavement on Earth, the Autobahn leading east into Istanbul. Six glassy smooth lanes with a 130 km/h (81 mph) speed limit arcing past mathematically perfect rolling farmlands and the occasional nuclear cooling tower. It was simply too much for my battered Suzuki, and I turned off for the pitted, chaotic secondary roads first chance I got. But that's Turkey for you, an ever-shifting balance between the 20th Century and the 14th.
At the moment I was rolling headlong towards the latter. Thumping through mountain villages, I passed peasant farmers in donkey-drawn carts, brown-skinned children playing soccer on the road, puny roadside cantinas constructed of sticks and hay, and the occasional fellow motorcyclist, buzzing along on a two-stroke MZ or Jawa, with three and sometimes four people aboard.
How do you get four Turks on a 250cc motorcycle? Dad drives, junior sits on the tank, and Mom in her skirts and scarves rides side-saddle on the back, cradling the baby in her arms. Not a helmet in the bunch, of course. One enterprising motorcyclist I passed figured out how to get five people on his bike, by the simple expedient of adding a sidecar. Everybody rides.
On the previous day, a toothless old man with a cane came up to me as I was stopped at the side of the road taking pictures. He managed to communicate that he was looking for a ride to the next town, where I happened to be going, thirty kilometers away. I looked at him, bent and frail, like he was a madman. ``No helmet," I said, pointing at my own brain bucket, trying to find a reason to turn him down. That's not a good excuse in Turkey, and he persisted, so I acquiesced. I had him place his cane across my stomach and hold on to both ends, and we blasted off through canyons and desert for the next town. He would shout cheerfully at me from the back, and I would shout something back, and neither of us had a clue what the other was saying.
Most Turks drive cars, however, although it is rumoured that Turkish vehicles only have two controls, accelerator and horn. An acquaintance in Budapest warned me of this when I informed him of my plans to tour as far as Turkey. ``Craziest drivers in the world," he said, recommending that I park as soon as I arrive and take the bus.
But after five minutes of getting acquainted with Istanbul's estimated 17 million residents in that city's perpetual rush hour, the sheer genius of the Turkish system of driving becomes apparent. First, you must ignore all lane and traffic control markings, since you can easily fit another two or three lanes of traffic into the available space if everybody just squeezes up a little. Second, you should honk more or less continuously so that everybody around is aware that you are currently executing a hazardous and paralegal manoever and they won't be caught by surprise.
And the system works! I was actually thankful for the incessant honking, which relieved much of the burden of constantly checking my blind spots (``toot, here I am in your blind spot", ``beep, here I go, leaving your blind spot") and let me focus more on the chaos directly in front of me. Unfortunately, my own horn had fallen off in Hungary, so I wasn't able to participate as fully as I might have.
On the more open highways, the drivers did't relax all that much, constantly trying to muscle past me and share my lane position, even when I was already directly behind someone else and there was nowhere for them to go. The thought of those few feet of unused lane on either side of my motorcycle just drove them crazy, and more than once I had to aggressively defend my position against encroaching cars.
But up here in the mountains there is little traffic, and fending off aggressive drivers is the least of my concerns. I'm starting to toy with the idea of pulling off to the roadside and unrolling my sleeping bag in one of the many caves that pock the rocks and cliffs in this part of Turkey.
After all, I wasn't too far from the region of Cappadocia, famous for the monasteries, palaces, and often entire cities that were tunneled into its mountains and badlands in the previous millennium. One gets the haunting feeling that the entire land is hollow, the ancient tunnels and chambers beneath your feet echoing with the bustle of the world above, their dark windows and doorways looking out at you from every rock face.
Only that morning, I had decided to stretch my legs at the Selime monastery, a subterranean maze of ancient churches, apartments, kitchens, and stables. Leaving the bike at the side of the road, I trudged up the worn rock paths towards some of the more sinister-looking openings into the ancient Christian underworld. Two young Turkish lads bounced along beside me, attracted by the motorcycle and eager to show me around. Ishmail, no more than 13, spoke reasonable English, and without any prompting, proceeded to give me the most throrough and professional tour of an ancient site I had yet had in Turkey. Diligently pointing out all the key chambers, rock carvings, and remains of ancient frescoes, he even led me on a perilous rock climb up a vertical shaft that rose to other rooms and lookouts hundreds of feet above. His younger sidekick followed us with a rolled-up bundle of cardboard that he picked up at the side of the road, and which he lit on fire to use as a torch when we came to particularly dark passages. Though they never asked for it, I tipped the lads 40,000 Turkish lira (about 80 cents), and turned down their persistent appeals for a ride on the Suzuki.
There are times the Turks can be almost pushy in their friendliness. Everyone wants to know where you are from, and it is always the most wonderful place, and if you are dealing with someone who has something to sell, he always has a friend from there. But once you escape the bazaars and kilim (carpet) sellers of Istanbul, Turkish hospitality becomes much more genuine.
Almost daily, I am invited to join the gas jockeys for tea at various filling stations, where they want to know about me and my wreck of a Suzuki (which was usually revered as an exotic and highly desirable machine). We rarely have a common language, but sign language can fill a lot of gaps, and a suprising amount of information gets communicated in the end.
One gas station owner invited me into his office over tea to tell me all about his time in Germany, where he worked for two years to save the money to buy his business, upon which he now sits pretty. He went on and on about a Suzuki GS1000 that he bought in Germany for 3000DM and sold in Turkey for 7000DM, and recommended that I do the same with mine. And yet he only spoke Turkish and German, and me only English and a bit of French.
Finally the mountain road started downwards, and I thought that I must be getting somewhere. Looking out from a viewpoint, I could see the neurotic road winding and winding and winding in every direction during its descent, except, it seems, for south, the direction I wanted to go. It appeared that it would take 30 miles of driving to cover the last 5 miles on the map.
The sun was gone, and I pressed doggedly on. A policeman driving the other way politely flashed his headlights at me, chiding me for my invisibility. And then, suddenly, I reached the Mediterranean coast---and the 20th century---just as darkness hit.
I parked beside the first hotel I saw, which had rooms for 200,000 Turkish lira (four U.S. dollars---it's easy to be a millionaire in this country), including an actual private toilet and shower. Perfect. The tavern next door was empty, and the teenage-looking bartenders were far too curious about my travels and motorcycle to let me make the day's notes in my journal. They were full of advice on places to visit along the south coast, places with good bars and discotheques, and perfect beaches full of tourists. What about history, I ask. I like ancient cultures, old towns, historic sites, and traditional lifestyles. You know, Turkey. They shrugged and shook their heads, obviously too jaded by the impossibly rich history of their own country to care. Instead they asked about American bands and poured me free beers for my troubles. And I had to remind myself that this was 1995, and this was Turkey, too.
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