Tuesday, September 20, 2005


A view of Cluj Napoca, the main city in the region known as Transilvania in the West, but called Ardeal by Romanians. The region complex cultural heritage responds to the presence of a Saxon (German), Hungarian and Romanian community, each with its language still spoken.

After Cluj Napoca I directed my steps towards Maramures, the hilly region in the northern border with Ukraine. There I sojourned in different tiny villages. While hitch-hiking, I stopped a bus full of men and women in folcloric dresses.
As I didn`t have a destination, I just jumped in. When I asked the driver, he cheerfully said they were all going to a wedding in Breb, a near by village, and that I was invited. It was that kind of wedding, where the bachelor knocks at the bride`s door sorrounded by his orchestra of sax, violins and drums, before ging together to the church. At church there were few poeple. Most waited outside and showed more interest in the bottles of ziuca being passed around than in the wedding. Even inside the church a woman could hardly do the sign of the cross while holding a bottle under her arm...

So there I was... in a wedding in Transilvania. Those people didn`t stop drinking before the following morning, so I just slipped into my tent around 3 a.m.

Some images of rural life, in a place where the concept of economic efficency is eclipsed by reality: women of all ages working hard, ploughing and dragging their karts.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


I had hitched from Gdansk, in Poland, to Amsterdam, with the only duty of collecting my italian passport. Three days of road just to arrive to the Consulate, scribble down a couple of signatures, and hit the road back, direction Romania. My Dutch friend Stephen, to ease my soul, presented me a mate, a bombilla, and 200 grams of yerba (Argentinian national drink). So brutally distracted from my itinerary by a burocracy, proportionally brutal had to be the reincorporation, with Holland, Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary to be crossed before reaching Rumania. And a 5 euro note in the pocket as dedicated budget. This is also the story of that banknote’s karma.
After a first ride of 40 kms, my coordinates met Arkadius’ ones. Arkadius was Polish, had bought his Hyundai van second hand in Belgium, and was heading home. Home was in Lublin, in the East of Poland, 1600 kms away from the petrol station where I approached him. So togheter we left behind the Netherlands and slept in the van in a Rastplatz in Braunscweig, Germany. Next morning we headed for Lublin. The seat of the Hyundai was uncomfortable, but we were so sleepy that instead of entertaining my driver, as ecpected, I entered the sublime realm of Dream rather quick.

On Friday in Lublin I changed my 5 euro note for local zlotys, I used the equivalent of 1 euro in an internet café, and reconverted the rest into slovakian money. The woman in the exchange office handed me politely half a dozen of multicolor poets, whose mission would be to resist the trip trough Slovakia and Hungary, as asteroids dodging atmospheres. Slovakia delayed me a day (Icamped in a footbal pitch near a small village).
A car on Sunday drove straight from that village to Budapest, so there I changed the slovakian poets for two solemn magyar kings, whit nominal value of 700 florints. An old Trabant stopped for me after that. I was so happy (it was my first Trabbie) that I jumped in regardless destination. The guy was carrying a box with two dogs over the roof, and was in fact going 10 kms from the Romanian border. Just that he deviated me from the E60 that goes straight to Oradea. So I was left in a tiny road that also crossed to Romania, but into a real backwater. Excelent! In the road I even saw a kind of carriage, also moving slowly towards the border!

With the last light of Sunday I made it to the border. I walked respectfully that no man land between the two countries customs, and received my stamp in the passport. I was in Romania, the country of Nadia Comaneci and Emil Cioran. On the spot I changed the magyar kings for Romanian money. I had done it: from Amsterdam to Romania with one euro. Can EasyJet top that up? The Romanian poets and polititians on the banknotes fought for space with the zeros in the banknotes: the smaller one was of 10,000. The first local I speak to is a street vendor who sell regional products in the gas station. We understand each other, no need to translate. Romanian os a latin tongue, which is even closer to classical latin than italian. The language took root here with the Roman conquest. Romania was incorporated in the Roman empire under the name of Dacia. In the 50s, in an attempt to deny the latin roots of th country, the communist government modified the ortography, slavazing some words. Only with the 1989 Revolution did the language recovered its integrity.

In the gas station, a hungarian woman was so shocked that I was trying to hitch hike in Romania that she offered herself to take me to Romania and put me up in a hotel. Everybody seemed to be sure that I was gonna be robbed in the fisrt town, and they succeed in sharing their fear a bit. When I find a truck that forwards me, it’s already night. As I don’t want to arriv to a big city bi night, I request to be dropped off in any village. He acceeds, warning first that a gang of gypses will eat me alive.In the village there are no lights by the road. Its seems to be composed of barking dogs and Dacias. Only light comes from a small restaurant. I order some food and when I say I come from Argentina the owner brings a couple of beers to the table and takes seat to drink with me. In that moment a Border police to whom I had previously asked where to camp “al naturale” comes in. He says something to the owner. As a consequence of this cconversation the owner invites me to his house.

When the following day I hitted the road towards Oradea, I still didn’t know what to expect. The rule in Romania is to pay for the rides a part of the oil expenses. 1o0 minutes later I was sitted in Alin’s car, he is a sales manager who takes me to Oradea an finds a free hotel room for me in a hotel that he frequents.

Before leaving he gives me 400,000 Lei (12 euros), and commends me to Christian. Christian is a student of architecture who works In a café outside the hotel. He offeres me beer and food. I cant believe his hospitality. He is a student and works 15 hours every other day, and still feels like taking care of me. I will personaly knock down the next person that tells me that Romania is dangerous.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

From Gdansk to Amsterdam just to pick up a passport. The people at Pniewo (PL) declares me a waiza. Guildehaus (D): “Excuse me, do you need help? We have an Englishman here!”

The week started in the old city of Gdansk. There, Kinga was my host. Kinga and Chopin are a couple who traveled around the world by hitch hiking from 1999 to 2003. After that they wrote a book titled “Led by Destiny”, that you can find find an order in the internet. Naturaly, I was all ears, altough soon realized that their philosophy was, as mine, that of letting the road biuld itself, without caring to much for complications that haven’t yet arrived. In the outside, Gdansk. The city shares features with many other hanseatic cities, like Lubeck or Amsterdam, and likewise the luxurious buildings of the commercial guilds of the time can be seen, true brotherhoods of sinlge yuppies, alma matter of the “pizza and champagne” (Argentinian slogan to refer to the new rich). You can tell they were single, from the state of sexual alert of the stone lion that holds the city coat d’arms. As my hosts were going on a weekend trip (Chopin was taking a weekend off from the Center of Buddhist Studies he attends near Warsaw) I passed to Michal’s house, another member of Hospitality Club.
Michal is 30. Her is a programmer. He belongs to the new class of young professionals that stills holds memories of the communist times. The second night coincided with the birth of the son of one of his friends, and I saw myself invited to a traditional Polish event for the ocassion: while the mother of the new born child stays at home the father and his friends down vodka bottles… Michal friends found it scandalous, before the fall of the Wall, waiting for a month to receive a TV, after queuing a full morning to apply for it by presenting cupons. Everything has changed now: they are not asked for cupons, but for money. Half Poland still don’t know what is that about, some say the fruit of a tree that grows in London.
With my Italian passport waiting for me in Amsterdam, and my contact in Amsterdam traveling in Italy, I had to collect the passport myself. So I had to hitch some 1,000 kms. On the first day of the trip, a town called Pniewo, tempted me from the window of the car I was traveling to Szcezin, and decided to stay. (I didn’t want to arrive to Szcezin by night). Each of the houses of the town seemed to have a farm, either derelict or working, in the back. European towns bear a realism that western towns hae lost. Even the most rural bastion in the Netherlands is a display of Barbie houses, with a tidiness and a perfection that are beyond the toleration point. People water their gardens and hardly look their neighbors Seems more like 3D graphics than real world. In Pniewo it was different. I entered a store, 5 drunks monitored my movements, I pointed a piece of bread (I couldn’t name it, I don’t speak polish or russian) and showed the 20 cents coin I had left. The man laughed, obviously it wasn not enough, but he gave me the bread the same. (I had changed my last zlotys to euros already). I said thanks in Russian and exited.
In a near by house 4 men discuss inside a car about the best way of reaparing a stereo. In a small town like Pniewo, a broken stereo is a good excuse to socialize. The women talked in the front garden and drunk tea. It’s the right moment to unveil my magic tea cup. I was soon sitting under a tree whose fruits were falling irregularly as a chaotic clock. When the stereo ws fnally repaired, conversation started. “So you don’t work? What do your parents think about that?” In a country where surviving is the issue, the concept of wandering in a professional way doesn’t take grip. The declare me “waiza” (God knows what it means in Polish) and the let me go the following morning.
In the german border I was delayed around 10 minutes. The custom officer there had never seen a passport with fingerprints. He finally laughed and said: “So fat is your thumb?” and gave the document to me with a new stamp on it. Coming from the Polish roads, the meeting with the Autobahn was a shock, so, with the whole weekend to kill time before the Italian Consulate would open on Monday, I decided to take some minor road, with no specific detination. A car stops, from the mirror hangs a dreamcatcher. His name is Stephen and is a farmer. He invites to join his family for the night. In five minutes, after loading provisions from a Getrenkenmarkt we are enetering his lands, in the town of Schmolln. His house defers a lot from the that of the text books farmers. It is an old warehouse recicled into a 2 storeys loft. Super. His wife Inga prepeares the dinner while the two girls (Luna and Billie) paint in their very own tiny table. In TV I see for the first time images from the disaster in New Orleans: people is killing for a glass of water. You only need a storm and all the bases of civilizations are swept aside. Inga sugests that it is part of human nature. I disagree, I explain her a few years ago a similar thing happened in Santa Fe province in Argentina and nobody was killing their neighbors But I undesrtand that, when the consume-dam is removed, some citizens of big american cities will canalize its competence instincts through agression. We talk about happiness. What makes us happy? Our family? The last Mercedes? Stephen says that in times of the DDR people were more friendly, they would greet each other in the streets. I remember the young professionals at Gdansk, so worried about being able to buy a TV set in less than a month. This is the sund of a different bell. Stephen also says that due to the low prices of property in Uckermark area, many young people from Berlin are arriving to found communities, and he is happy about that fact.
The journey followed with a very lucky ride in a VW Passat whose driver was traveling from Berlin to the Dutch border. That was perfect! Eventough he drove at 90 km/s, my driver regularly checked the timing of the trip consulting his wristwatch, after which he would say:”Gut!”, as if he were the captain of a steamliner. To be honest, the Passat wasn’t much faster than the Titanic, but the nautic gestures of the driver gave charm to a journey that otherwise would have been plainly boring. In the town of Guildehaus, 5 kms from the Dutch border, I was looking for a place to pitch the tent where a woman comes out of a balcony overlooking me and screms: “Sorry, do you need help? We have an Englishman here?!”. The woman was referrig to his fiancee as a torch or a forst aid kit! The Englishman, Martin, climbed down the stairs and invited me to stay the night with them. He had been a soldier at a nearby English base, met her herfriend there, and stayed. They were extremely hospitable and had lots of tea and my first shephards pie since I left England!. The following day I made it to Amersfoort in Holland. It was Sunday, and with the Italian Embassy opening only on Monday I decided to camp. Looking for a place I found a mobile phone, with credit. So I didn’t hesitate to phone my friend Steven. To my surprise he was in Delft. The beers were in the fridge. On Monday I was succesfuly collecting my Italian passport in Amsterdam. End of the story.

Friday, September 02, 2005

The tea cup makes wonders in rural Lithuania...

Next morning I said goodbye to my Rasta friends in Uzupis and hit the road with Gdansk as a target, on the Baltic Coast, in Poland. I had to go around the border of Kaliningrad, a Russian province in the middle of the Baltic Coast, which is to Russia what French Guyana is to France. In Vilnius there were another four hitch-hikers. One of them emitted such desperate signals that he seemed to be trying to land dome invisible airplane. I walked two kilometers along the highway and asked directions in a gas station to a guy in a Yamaha YZF600. Nathaniel spoke perfect English because he lived in Dublin. The Irish experience linked us, and he acceded to take me some 100 kms to Kaunas. The work exile of Lithuanian population takes to this situations, almost all my drivers speak some foreign language, even Portuguese in an occasion.

Today, however, I am going to meet a person for whom exile has meant something different. It’s night already, and I have decided to camp in the first village I stumble upon, not far from a town caled Pilviskiai. I see people around a house, who are listening to some music. It seems a party is going on. So I try the “tea cup” contact method. I am soon invited to join Saulius birthday celebration. In the garden there is a BBQ, and a table with sandwiches and vodka bottles. But that family celebrated something else: Saulius is professional soldier, and three days ago he came back from Basora, Iraq, where he had stayed for six months. With a scratch after having completed infinity of demining missions along with the Danish Legion, his family has reasons to feel glad. But not everything is joy. Saulius shows me his tattoo, a dragon with 13 crests, one for each Danish friend who died in combat. Lithuanians didn’t suffer casualties. We toast, I am happy my expectations were again surprised: I was waiting to camp under a tree and I found a birthday party instead. For Sauliuis, an uninvited guest that comes straight out of the road speaking English, a language narrowly linked with his particular foreign experience, is also a meaningful event.

I crossed the Polish border without complications. I leave behind rural Lithuania with its monoblock villages. I need two rides to make it to Gdansk. The first is a man who earns his living from exporting fertilizers. The second is a trumpet player and his family, rushing to a presentation in occasion of the 25th anniversary of Solidarity, the movement founded by Lech Walesa. Gdansk has a pride past of autonomy and prosperity. It was in fact Free City with the background of colossal Prussia and Poland. It was hanseatic city, and it afforded the sad luxury of triggering WWII and the extravagance of cauterize its wounds, when Walesa organized the first free Trade Union. It was night when I got there, with a 2 zloty coin that was actually a pocket leftover from a friend's trip to the country. A train ticket to the meeting place with Kinga was 2,72. The woman in the ticket office was nice; I jumped on board, and met my new hosts.

Postacards from Uzupis

Uzupis at daylight.

Night walks.

Uzupis - Arts Incubator. Nice metaphor.

Lina and Pukala, my hosts. They appear out of the blue, on the very same night I happened to become homeless in Vilnius.

Interesting framing.

Natural composition.

Bridge-bound in Vilnius, saved by the great people of Uzupis...

I had already understood that travelling implies a constant dislocation of expectations when destiny proposed a memory exercise. Vladas, mi host and founder of Vilnius Hitch Hiking Club, let me know he expected me to leave the house as soon as possible as a result, presumably, of cultural differences. “You are behaving like in a hotel!” he had said. Well, I had taken two eggs from the fridge and have them boiled, and also a piece of cake, since there was nobody in the house and I was starving. I had assumed that the mentioned items did not constitute a hard financial setback for my hosts, but I could have been wrong. My host later explained in an e-mail that you are not supposed to use your host’s resources without permission. By resources, he was not referring to a credit card but apparently to the couple of eggs. In Latin America we don’t complete forms to receive or give hospitality, or phone people to their jobs to ask permission for such things. The host would feel humiliated. A pity, since I otherwise appreciate Vladas very much for his commitment with building a hitch-hiking community.

In that way I meet again with Vilnius in a new way: homeless, bridgebound. I will always ask myself why the bridge has become such an icon of homelessness. In Argentina one thinks first in a petrol station if you don’t have a place to sleep. In Vilnius, after double checking that my friend Sigita’s mobile had disappeared from the universe, I headed for the center. Under the cathedral tower, point of reference of all appointments, a lot of people awaited other their dates. The joy of those who found contrasted with the frustration of those who didn’t. In the same place where Sigita and I had met in our first date, nobody waited for me this time. So I walked to mythic Uzupis, the art district. If a miracle was to happen it had to happen there.

I think it’s clear that Rasta is my protective urbane tribe. In Vilnius they underlined their status. I was soon befriended by a nice bunch of new Rasta friends. They all smoked Russian cigarettes of 7 eurocents a pack. What a delicatessen. Lina and her boyfriend Pukala invited me home. Ona, a friend of Lina, formulated the most specific question about Argentinean culture I was ever asked: what is the chupacabras? I am so surprised I can hardly answer. From their place I explore the decadent glamour of Uzupis...