Daily Journal from trip to Romania, 2003

These were originally hand-written on paper with OCD-looking tiny pencil script, then my girlfriend Deb typed them in, and i added pictures.  It was not originally meant to be read by anyone but myself, so it may not make much sense in parts...

Tuesday, August 26

Announcers voice in airplane, in both languages.  This is the first time i have heard English with a thick Romanian accent – and it sounds comical, like a bad vampire parody, i have to restrain laughter.  Really soon into the flight, there is Food – surprisingly good. Roll, cheese, 2 salads – green & rice-based, plus chicken stuffed & breaded with potatoes & corn. The info display cheerfully informs me the temperature outside is negative 45°, coincidentally the same in Celsius and Fahrenheit.  I read / scan the Blue Guide from start to end, to avoid watching the lousy romantic comedy (which lacks Romanian subtitles). The Blue Guide rambles endlessly on historical trivia, and omits decent-sized towns like Zărneşti. while including tiny specks (i know from hours of peering at LandSat) around it. I try eating euro-style like the Romanian man next to me, with fork in left hand. This works fine while cutting and stabbing, but i had more trouble when try to scoop -- little corn kernels must be scooped, a skill which i, as an American, have not learned to do with my left hand. Only 5 hours into flight, all around me are asleep in the dark, i have my light on, to read and write this – wondering if the people around me are too polite (or unsure what language i speak) to ask me to turn off the light. Then (south of Iceland) we hit some heavy turbulence that wakes everyone up anyway. We are all perspiring heavily & i worry about showing up as a soggy, smelly guy when i am picked up tomorrow morning, which will apparently be around 4AM “my time.”

Staring at the “real-time map” of the flight path, i can’t stop thinking about a hundred ways it could be improved – even with going 3D. For starters, it’s using some awful projection that maps latitude / longitude onto the size of TV screen (4:3) which uselessly preserves the equator while showing our extremely Northern path and surrounding land masses wildly distorted. Actually, it doesn't even preserve the equator - the entire surface of the earth is wrong.  If they would at flip occasionally to a projection based on the flight path, that would help... i suspect we are going quite far to the right (South) of the shortest path, though o’course the bizarre projection they’re using still shows us curving strongly to the left (North).  English-speakers are definitely a small minority on this flight, and everyone is old.  I am the only (relatively! :-) young man i see on the plane. The only young woman is college-aged and American.  I chatted with her at the boarding gate and learned she’s actually on her way to Moldova, and not for the first time. She hasn’t picked up any Romanian, but a fair amount of Russian. Turbulence still very high, can barely write.

It is a red-eye flight, so i am picked up Wednesday morning in Romania.


[Wednesday is missing from my journal, here's what i remember.]  Bogdan meets me at the airport.  He speaks English well, has a friendly and soft-spoken personality, and has the same long hair i do, which i later learn is rare in Romania.  We drive south into the city and into the neighborhood of Drumul Taberei, to the office of Bogdan's company.  Here i meet his staff, including a woman whom i infer is the cook of the office, she makes me a delicious lunch of ciorbă, cucumber-tomato salad, pork and potatoes.  Bogdan shows me his spare apartment in which i'll be staying, currently housing only some happy-looking plants, and the sofa on which i can sleep.

At night, i meet Vasile & Ştefan at “Shogun” for drinks & long good talk. We plan the next days visit.


8AM: met Vasile at his bloc, we take bus + tram+ tram to the Institute of Meteorology & Hydrology.  A clean modern office, a tour of very impressive computer rooms. Lots of new-looking Sun (!) workstations. After having a little visit with each “VIP” at the center Vasile & i geek out for four hours.


Finally around 5 we take tram to heart of downtown, University buildings, large stone steps, lots of renovation mess. Up on top floor, down dark hallway with messy plaster, duck into “lab,” meet Ionuţ & Ştefan is there.

We geek out with data for the Delta. I am kinda hoping we go out for dinner together, but no luck – after a brief visit to an unfortunately meager bookstore, we go back to Drumul Taberi, Ştefan separately, Vasile & i to “supermarket” – all i can find to eat is a iaurt (yogurt ) with some language i don’t recognize (Hungarian?) that seems to be promising big chunks of fruit, and the Romanian label has the same promise. I take it home to eat it. There are strange small lumps in it (soggy granola?) and other small unrecognizable things.  One thing it unambiguously doesn’t have is Large Chunks of Fruit.


Woke up on sofa & went to Bogdan’s office. He was out, but Emil was super friendly & insisted i eat their office lunch – ciorbă again, then sarmale & mămăligă.  I call Liviu and plan to meet 4-5 PM Sat., then call Marius, who says that the train to Giurgiu leaves 3 PM from South Station.  I set out on bus – the wrong one, but close enough that i only have to transfer once to fine Tram #12. It is fiery hot & dry, crowded in tram, every sweating, me even more. Finally it ends near train station, scramble down an unobvious road, and buy ticket.  I hear her say 270,000 Lei / USD$9, figure “that’s reasonable,” but she hands me back the bills — it turns out it's only 27,000 Lei / USD$0.90 for a “personal” train to Giurgiu.  I sit across from an older guy and a younger, quiet guy. Older guy strikes up “conversation” with me, but unfortunately, what with the language barrier, his thick mumbling way of speaking, and the frequent changes in topic, i can barely understand a word - something about depleted uranium & the U.S. bombing of Serbia changing the climate, blowing up bridges & the drought which caused the Danube to shrink to a trickle (??). Outside is hot, dry, dusty farmland, plastic greenhouses and stunted corn, some patched of forest which look dark green & healthy, much better than the farmland. The young man turns out to be an engineer in “control systems” whose name is Ştefan Gheorghe, Bucureşti:

I give him a copy of VTP! Marius meets me at station and we walk to his house through the dusty unpaved roads.

[6 hours later]  Wow. Awesome hospitality, fresh vişinată, amazing garden, long great bilingual talk with Marius’s brother about everything, salate de vinete (eggplant salad, smoky & w/ mayo), fresh roşii, brânza, walnut from shell, green walnuts (!) from tree, some strange jam, pumpkin seeds, all amazing and delicious.


I am surprised, given that the house and people seem modern in all other ways, that the water is from a well, and a squat toilet - that is to say, there is no plumbing.  Long wonderful discussions of geology & geometry & botany.


Another incredible day… awaken to sound of chicken & horse carts on the dirt road. Wandered outside to munch grapes off the vine. Awesome breakfast: poached eggs, bread, boiled milk & coffee. Another tour of the garden, this time in full sunlight and lots of munching on fruit. Met their tuşă (aunt), harvesting okra. Corcoduş is a small plum without translation, much like vişina from which is made vişinată which i've been drinking since i arrived, strange that i haven’t felt drunk. There are several acres adjacent they would like to buy, but it costs $3,000, which is apparently what land typically costs here. The heat is intense, even more so as i walk into town with Marius & Ştefan. We walk for hours, looping around seeing the entire city. A museum with archeology from the judeţ (County) from prehistoric to medieval, a canal with ruins of a castle of Mihai cel Bătrân (Michael the Old), a church with every surface adorned with colorful saints, a stop in Flamingo to buy 256 MB SDRAM (only $50!) for Marius’ machine, an enormous & crowded cemetery, one part of it with Russian graves from WWI, the unkempt Jewish cemetery next to it with defaced graves. Funny that Lonely Planet says only "the town of Giurgiu is ugly and there is nothing to see or do."  Ştefan helps me buy a telefon card, and ice cream on the walk home, fluffy with air, melting in the intense heat faster that i can eat it.  I use the GPS to record the path so i can find my way into town tomorrow. Shower consists of removing my shirt and leaning over basin as Ştefan pours large plastic container of really hot water on me. I guzzle water like a fish and sweat buckets in the hear.  Lunch is the awesome salate de vinete, bread, tomatoes & garlic in sunflower oil, and another 2 poached eggs.  I geek with Marius for a while, then nice long nap. Call people, Liviu to reschedule tomorrow, Eugen to tell him my plans. In the evening, many more hours with Ştefan, an incredible language lesson, we play backgammon and another game, with black and white pieces on a grid.  He tells me it was originally played with porumb şi fasole (corn and beans) by ţarani (peasants). Then we talk about sustainability (!) and i lead up to explaining what i am doing here in relation to VTP, greenmaps, etc. all in (assisted) Romanian (!) Then links to Russian (he can read Cyrillic), more food discussions & i am brought a bowl of ciorbă: turkey heart, parsley, potato, rice, rich broth. Yet more vişinată, he goes through a couple beers, talking into the night.


Couldn’t sleep last night, probably because of that long nap i took. At 2-3AM the neighborhood dogs are still all making a racket. Wake up really late, 10:40. Their mom (never did catch her name) shows me family photos, including their dad. Her voice cracks as she explains (completely in Romanian as she speaks no English) that their dad was a kind and smart man who died 15 years ago, when Marius was 5.  [Other family stuff here is personal so i've left it out of the online version of this journal.]  She says Marius had long hair like me when he was a kid and shows me a picture to prove it. I explain how i too had long hair at 10, cut it due to peer pressure, then let it return as an adult.  Yummy ciorbă, then i give Stefan the VTP demo. As a geology student, he tells me stuff i didn’t know - like when flying over Laupahoehoe, he says that pahoehoe is smooth because of not enough SiO2. They walk me into town to the shuttle bus station, it is insanely hot. I am cursing my camera’s dead battery. Shuttle to southern Bucureşti, then took the subway (Metro) to visit Liviu, 5PM, who turns out to be 17. He asks a ton of questions about working / living in USA. We have cookies & some sort of prune drink on his deck in house full of prize cats, Egyptian blue.  His mom is a teacher, which pays basically nothing in Romania, so the cats are a side business.  The deck has a wonderful if intensely urban view, from the highest story, far east and west along the enormous avenue.


[Monday is missing from my journal, here's what i remember 2 weeks later.]  Up at 5 AM in order to take a long, long trip across the country with Ştefan and Vasile.  A shuttle bus 5 hours to Tulcea, crazy narrow highway with way too many vehicles, including countless horse-drawn carts, and our bus driving insanely agressively around them.  Endless plains with corn, pasture and sunflower seeds.  The idea of putting fences along the roads does not exist here, so everywhere is "open range" with cattle and sheep free to wander across the highways.  In Tulcea, we scramble to buy some food and an adaptor so i can plug in my camera (successful!) then it is a s-l-o-w 5 hour boat trip down the river to Sfântu Gheorghe, a small town built on sand, where there is a research station at which we'll be staying.


Finally the camera is working so pictures tell the story of this day.  "The Beast" is one of the few vehicles in town, an antique East German (?) car called a "Trabant".  It has a 2-stroke engine - yes, you mix your oil and gas together.  Most locals use far more practical transport, e.g. a horse.

A morning walk to the beach with Vasile & Luminiţa, the purple vegetation, the shells, the story of locals taking the sand.

Lunch is the same fish, bread, ciorbă & dangerous garlic as yesterday. (plus placinte cu brânza! Yum.)

Walking back to the beach, there is strange architecture being constructed by some wealthy guy who wants to put some kind of Arts center here.

The beach is covered with shells.  I see a dead dolphin, lots of cormorants (60% of the world’s cormorants are found here in the Delta), then we are wading past waist deep to the boat, and way the hell out in the Black Sea.  The boat is small and we are 6 people, gathering bathymetric tracks with a Garmin Fishfinder.

Finally back to base (and more of the same fish & bread). Grapes with all 3 meals. I look at data on computer and listen to Romanian hiphop (!) while the others throw darts & drink vodka. Good night!


Not such an eventful day. Ştefan went out to GPS the shoreline by walking 15 km (!) It is overcast, not good weather for taking plant pictures, which is what i wanted to do.  I take a long walk with Vasile around the town in the morning.

Only small variations from the fish-based food (a hard-boiled egg and boiled milk added for breakfast, and the fish at lunch are fried.) Afternoon i nap, then walk the longest streets in the town with GPS along centerlines. Some housewives think i am a lost tourist holding a cell phone and try to direct me to the beach or back to the boat dock. I tell them something like "este un aparat pentru masura străzi", broken Romanian for "it’s a device for measuring the streets.” which seems to make sense to them.  Ştefan shows me how to extract the tracks and waypoints from my GPS with the MapSource software, and i play with all my old & new GPS data while they start analyzing the data we got on the boat yesterday. At night, there is a thump of loud music from the bar a block away in the center of town, where i think all the locals gather every night. I listen to the hiphop a lot more (the band is called “Paraziţii Irefutabil”, "the Irrefutable Parasites") and then go hang out and talk about music, culture & Mircea Eliade.


Mellow day. More walking the streets with GPS, Morning & evening.  I took some decent tree photos when light was good.  Middle of the day spent on the beach with the crew, kinda helping as they scientifically measure wind speed, direction & sand dispersal.

The wind is intensely strong and fairly cold, and sand gets in everything. Lots of incredulous stares from the locals as i prowl around with GPS & camera. Late evening, we receive the esteemed old professor who is the head of the department and founder of this research station. After day of eating fish, potatoes, bread & fish soup, we mark the professor’s arrival with a special dinner consisting of: fish, potatoes, bread & fish soup.


I’d rather forget today – awake at 5 AM, a long uncomfortable boat trip followed by a long uncomfortable shuttle bus trip – around 5 hours each. Finally now i am back in my Bucureşti apartment, with a real shower and clean clothes.  I got both Dragoş & Johan on the phone, in Braşov, where i will try to visit tomorrow. Let me take a moment to mention “Shokata,” a delicious if artificially-flavored Fanta drink i’ve never seen before. I love it. Supposed to have flavors of “soc” and lemon.

I’m told soc is a flower, and the dictionary translates it as “elder” (??) Elderberry blossoms perhaps? I miss the internet and i miss my girlfriend.  Dinner with Vasile at a nice local restaurant.  I am told to see: the other Kusturica films, esp. Underground, Arizona Dreams, Black Cat/White Cat.  Trenul Vieţii?  Dinner consists of: Cordon Bleu, another delicious chicken entrée, sides of tomatoes & carrot salad, 3 beers, a bottle of awesome wine & two desserts: papanaşi cu dulceaţă şi smântână, and clătite cu ciocolată.

The bill with tip, just over $14... total for both of us.


Leisurely morning waking up in my Bucuresti sofa, finding my way across town to the shuttle bus station, this bus is much nicer than yesterday's. I am well rested, there is leg room, and the scenery is interesting. Bus departs at 11. The first 1:15 is flat agricultural fields crisscrossed with giant electric transmission lines.  Suddenly foothills appear, lushly forested, we slip in a river valley and start climbing.

I am a busy picture-snapping tourist as stunning mountains appear, towering over us. It starts to get very touristy, too early for the ski season but already visibly gearing up.

The town of Predeal is at the crest of the pass, then we are descending into Braşov. The bus stops at the train station, and here it looks much like the ugly parts of Bucureşti – no trace of the “pretty medieval city” promised by the guidebooks. Dragoş picks me up, and we go to the house of his younger friend (also named Dragoş). Here we delicious feast of a meal, highlighted by the best sarmale i have had yet. These one are made with grape leaves instead of cabbage.  The younger Dragoş in this picture:

Next we drive to Bran, where we pick up Dragoş’s wife & daughter, drive around Bran a bit to sightsee (“Dracula’s castle”…) then stop at their home, a German-style villa high on a hill with a lovely orchard full of fruit.

Next the whole family piles into the car, and we race over to the east side of Piatra Crailui to catch a sight of it before the sun sets… and it is magnificent indeed.

In that picture the mountain get unfortunately lost in the sky, here is one where i locked the dynamic range:

Back at Dragoş's house, i finally get to unload my camera to a CDR, and we talk geostuff.  At this point i am thinking about sleep, but he is a real go-getter kind of guy. So we head back to Braşov, to walk around the old medieval part of town, which is indeed pretty.

It is also damned cold, so i must pull out jacket, scarf & socks (good thing i planned for this!) Next we pick up the younger Dragoş and go to the edge of town, where the apartment blocks meet the forest, to watch for the bears (large brown bears which are a close relative of the grizzly) which are known to appear most nights to eat from the dumpsters. After long waiting in the cold, no bears appear – so i take pictures of the small crowds which have appeared to watch for bears, but instead are staring at messy, smelly garbage dumpsters.

The situation is actually hysterically funny to me, and Dragoş and i have great time joking about it. “They must have gotten tired of the garbage on TV and decided to watch the real thing.” “The bears are probably sleeping somewhere warm on this freezing night?” “Yes, if they are smarter than us.”


Awake 8AM at Dragoş's.  I meet Johan at Piaţa Sfatului, we have a nice breakfast.

I thought perhaps Johan was German but it turns out he’s Dutch. He’s been here in Romania for 4 years but is more comfortable with English, so that’s what we speak. Next we visit his large, impressively modern office (Route 66 SRL) and talk maps & terrain for a few hours. (He has around 20 employees and English is the language used at the office)

Around 1PM Dragoş (the older) picks me up in his impressive Dacia (impressive that it actually runs, climbs hills, etc., which is a lot to ask of a Dacia.)  Again beautiful scenery as we drive through Râşnov and Zărneşti and into a canyon at the base of Piatra Crailui.

It is lightly raining as we get out and start walking up the road deeper into the canyon.

I try my GPS out, but it is useless here. Magnificent huge walls of stone rise above us, lush with green where they are not sheer rock. I take a lot of pictures. Dragoş and i talk about ecology, animals, the plants we see, forestry, geodata, the history of this park with which Dragoş was very involved, enforcement of protected areas, geology, and much more. The drizzle stops and the sun starts to appear as we walk back down the canyon.

Back in the car, we climb over a ridge through the village of Magura. The scenery is unbelievable picturesque. The most jarring modern sight is the large power lines which run everywhere. These rustic remote houses of largely self-sufficient people who meticulously tend their cattle / sheep, the hand-made wooden houses lack plumbing – but the Communist wired up every house with power which looks seriously over-engineered.

Down into the valley and village of Moeciu and Moeciu de Sus.

I buy a wheel of smoked cheese (caşcaval afumat) from a roadside vendor.

In Moeciu de Sus, the forests of almost entirely spruce, different from the diverse beech, spruce & birch forest in the wilder areas. The closeness to Bran means tourism money is here, people are building or renovating buildings almost everywhere – sometimes in the attractive traditional style, sometimes some ugly modern building.  Some are even built in styles from elsewhere in Romania, like this one:

We drive back to Braşov and i have dinner with the younger Dragoş and his girlfriend Laura. This is wonderful not just because we have an adventure finding a good restaurant late at night in the old part of town, but because neither speak much English so i am forced to really try speaking Romanian for several hours. After long and delicious dinner (my tochitura is incredibly delicious, and the wine is fabulous) we climb a hill overlooking the medieval part of town then walk along the ancient wall of the old city.

I am not home asleep until 2AM.


Up at 8 AM, my last day here, Shuttle back to Bucureşti puts me downtown in the early afternoon.  I spent a few hours shopping, mostly bookstores, then back to apartment in Drumul Taberei.  I call Bogdan, and he invites me to his mother’s house for a family meal / gathering (it is his mother’s Saint’s day).

This is in the large backyard of a suburban house in the sprawl west of Bucureşti.  I try my best to comprehend the conversation, and can usually tell what the subject is, and fragments of meaning, but details are lost as soon as someone speaks rapidly. Ah well, i have at least improved immensely on this trip, even though i am still far from joining in to a dinner conversation.

A random picture showing that Bucureşti's supposedly ugly communist apartment blocs are really not all that bad - they are often hidden by trees, which are plentiful!

Picture of the Olt river value, from out the plane window.