Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Back to my watery ways

The summer is well and truly over, isn't it? Well it is here in the Netherlands. I'm sitting here on my barge with the heater on and wearing full winter garb. Okay, it's not so very cold, but I've been spoilt these last months with large doses of wonderful, really hot weather. And I revelled in it. So now it's back to the flatlands and I'm having to get used to the damp chill from all the water that we are constantly surrounded by - even as landlubbers. And it's been raining. A lot. Constantly. Quite honestly, I think I'd rather be a duck if this is what we've got to put up with.

This is the view tonight from my hatch. Dark, isn't it?

The neighbour's foredeck

My foredeck. About the only light is what's reflected from the
wet  stuff
All the same, it's good to be here. I've got my feet up on the sofa and just noticed my socks are covered with sawdust. Hmm, probably not the best place to put them, but hey, it's me talking and I've just had the satisfaction of building a new storage chest thingy that I'm a bit pleased with. Proper pics will follow when it's trimmed, painted and finished properly, but it felt good to be attacking some wood again. Here's a preview:

New storage space for lots of…er…stuff?
Of course, I imagined it would take me about ten minutes. Four hours later, I'd run out of wood to finish the lid, found I had to cut bits out, lift bits up and adjust the height to fit the odd shape of the hull, and generally needed to do a lot of head scratching and puzzling to make it work. As always it's an evolution rather than a design, but even so, I'm pretty chuffed with it.

So there it is. Not a very exciting post, but a kind of coming home to my my watery ways. To finish, here are a few pics I took at the weekend when we had a brief spell of sunshine. A walk along the canal always does me good.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Our travels continued - Tiraspol, Transnistria

So, that was all the time we managed to have in wonderful, lively and friendly Chisinau, but I knew for sure we'd be back on our return journey, so it didn't feel quite so bad having to leave. Our next stop would be Tiraspol in Transnistria - a 'splinter' state that used to be part of Moldova, is still counted as part of Moldova, but is completely autonomous. In the early 90s, they fought a rather brutal war to gain their right to remain a 'Russian' state, much as the eastern Ukrainians are doing now. Transnistria has its own borders and currency, but it is not recognized internationally, not even by Russia, so I was very interested to go there and see what it's like.

We spent a good and quiet night in Chisinau and were up early to continue our travels. In the  morning, we were given breakfast in our room as the hostel had no dining room; it seemed odd, but rather nice. We then made our way to the bus station.

What an experience that was.

A quiet moment at the bus station as a boy pushes a barrow 

It felt just like being in Johannesburg again. The bus station was at the end of a crowded street market, so buses crawled between jostling people, traders pushed barrows heaped with goods, and would-be passengers peered at the bus numbers. It was noisy, colourful, a bit smelly but fun. I should add that buses in Moldova are more often of the minivan variety, and you can get a lot of these into one street, market or no. Fortunately, a driver spotted us and showed us to the stop for Tiraspol. We bought our tickets at the small kiosk and climbed aboard. It was another minibus, but this time the road was smoother. The traffic between Chisinau and Tiraspol must be more frequent as the road out of the city was even a dual carriageway. At the border with Transnistra, we had to get out and present ourselves at the immigration office. We'd been warned that this could be difficult and that they might try to bribe us. However, there was no trouble in getting our entry permits, but we were told we had to register properly in Tiraspol within twenty four hours, unless we left earlier. It seems they are pretty strict about that. Failure to obey the rules can result in a lot of time-wasting officialdom. The country is geared very much towards Russia and they feel a bit vulnerable sandwiched between Moldova and western Ukraine, so regulations must be strictly adhered to...or else.

About twenty minutes later, we arrived at the station in Tiraspol. I was surprised at how peaceful and quiet it was compared to Chisinau. Even though I know it is much smaller and has a tiny population by comparison, the feeling was of being in the provinces, rather than a metropolitan hub.

Tiraspol station - a bit quiet after Chisinau
Luckily, we were met by Roman, a Facebook friend, who lives there and kindly let us stay in his flat there. What a nice guy he proved to be - polite, well spoken, interested and very sweet. I was impressed. In fact, far from being the dangerous place so many people had warned us of, Tiraspol and its people seemed very mild, friendly and open.

I can't really say much about the city itself. It doesn't really have any features that distinguish it and make it either appealing or otherwise. It's just clean, fairly modern, pleasant and to be honest, architecturally uninspiring. It's a long and narrow urban sprawl positioned along, or across (as in trans) the river Niestr (hence Transnistria). All the buildings appear to be post war although there are plenty of lovely old trees in the side streets and a couple of beautiful parks. Everything in the centre was freshly, if not very carefully, painted as in a couple of days, the city would be celebrating 25 years since the end of the Soviet Union, and there were big parades planned. It all looked slightly unnatural and polished, especially all the golden gates, of which there were dozens. We giggled at the idea of the council having a massive job lot of gold paint on hand and deciding it all had to be used up.

A modern building in Tiraspol
Spot the gold paint on the fence!

There is also the river.

On our first afternoon there, we went to the riverside where Koos (who's been to Tiraspol three times already) knew there was a passenger vessel. He'd never managed to get a boat trip before, so he was determined that this time we'd do it. We sat and waited. There was no sign with departure times (not that we'd have understood it anyway as although Koos can read some Russian, it's still a bit limited), but every now and then the crewman on board would stop the mind-numbing eighties pop music (the worst the decade produced) and shout something unintelligible to the crowds on the beach opposite.

Sitting on the boat, waiting to see if anything would happen
Eventually, our ears couldn't take it anymore and we went for a walk, meeting up with Roman and two Australian visitors by the Cuas stall. While drinking (see previous post - it's very nice!) and chatting, we noticed the music on the boat had stopped, so we dashed back and were thrilled to see preparations being made for casting off. Lots of people were on board, so whatever the messages were, it seemed to draw the trippers in.

We had a lovely cruise upstream and back for about an hour. The only thing to mar it was the awful music again. They just played the same tape over and over. Still, the river was beautiful and I took plenty of photos.

A wonderful old river boat, now sadly decaying

The following day, we had intended to go to Odessa, but we left it too late. As a result, we had to go and register at immigration earlier than we'd planned. We arrived at the offices and were helped by an incredibly nice young man called Yuri who went to almost exhausting lengths to explain that the owner of the apartment we were staying at (Roman's mother) should have been with us. He tried to encourage us to go to a hotel instead which would make life much easier, but what he didn't seem to get was that Roman's mother was on her way. When at last she arrived, we were all talked out, but Yuri was delighted to see her. He smiled with genuine pleasure as he obviously knew her. After that everything went smoothly, and we all breathed a massive sigh of relief. Far from being intimidating, these officials seemed determined to help us. We even learned that Yuri had a five month old baby called Valerie, so after that we really were best friends.

From the immigration office, we decided to go and see the monastery at Kitskani, so we took a marshrutka (a passenger minibus on a standard route) out of town. Somehow we managed to overshoot the stop by quite a distance, but the kind driver just pointed to another marshrutka which took us back to the right place at no extra charge. It was terribly hot (high thirties), so maybe he took pity on us.

The monastery was just beautiful.
The nuns never stop cleaning

Even a monk has to have a change of habit sometimes

Beautiful wedding cake towers

Everything is so well cared for and maintained

The maintenance monk pedalling off to another mission
But beautiful monastery apart, I think the best thing about our visit was the contact with people on the marshrutkas and the lovely old trolleybuses. In fact, we travelled everywhere by bus from Roman's apartment. This was in a rather old and not so well maintained block out of town (no need to be seen on Independence Day, so no paint),  The marshrutkas have a great system for paying the fare, which incidentally is absurdly cheap. Passengers generally get on and give their money to the driver straightaway, before moving down the bus; their change is then passed back to them wherever they are. However, if it's busy, everyone sits (or stands) where they can and their fare is passed forward from wherever they are sitting (or standing) to the driver. Then if there's change to be given, the driver passes it back. It goes from person to person until it reaches the right passenger. What's amazing is that there never seems to be any mistake.

The result was we had lots of chats with people on these buses. They helped us willingly and were genuinely interested in us and where we'd come from. There also seemed to be quite a hierarchy system for sitting when the buses are full. Women come first, no doubt: older women have the greatest priority (lucky me), then women with children, then younger women. Only then do men get to keep their seats. Very little English is spoken in Transnistria, but we all managed. By the time we 'd been there two days, we were so used to Russian that we were completely startled when an Italian woman started chatting to us on the trolleybus to Bender. She was great fun and full of life...and at least we could understand some of what she was saying!

One precious incident, though, was when two Jehovahs Witnesses sitting next to Koos at a bus stop started talking to him in Russian and showing him their version of the Watchtower. He smiled and made motions of 'no Russian' thinking that they would give up and find someone else to convert, but no, they eagerly asked where he was from. When he told them, they delightedly showed him their Dutch version of the magazine, so he read a long section aloud for them in his best dark brown, sonorous voice. It was just so charming to watch. The two old dears were wreathed in smiles and clearly tickled pink that he was reading in Dutch to them. When we got on our trolleybus, we left them beaming on the bench, only to then watch as a kindly orthodox priest gave the hot and harrassed conductress a big mug of water from his own bottle. All told, these incidents gave a very heartwarming tone to the day.

On our last day in Tiraspol, we watched some of the festivities of the Independence day we'd come specially to see, but in the end, they weren't half as interesting as the experiences we'd already had, so we packed up early and made our way to the station to get a bus back to Chisinau. In our three days, we did a lot, but nothing really touristy unless the boat trip counts as that. We'd tried to do another one at another spot in the suburban town of Bender, but in the end, it didn't leave (same mystifying messages between dreadful music as the one in Tiraspol), so our evening was spent sitting by the river in the twilight. Not very newsworthy, but lovely all the same.

I cannot say the city of Tiraspol captured me; nor do I really feel any need to go there again. However, the people were really very nice and the place is interesting as a kind of soviet time capsule (thanks to Lonely Planet for that phrase). It's atmosphere, despite the heat, is of the cool, calm northern countries rather than the vivid southern vibrancy of Moldova and Romania. I hesitate to say it, but it lacks the energy of places that really appeal to me. But dangerous? Not at all. Any need to bribe people? Not once. It might well be an oligarchical state, and the security probably is very strict, including regulation KGB agents, but I wasn't there for long enough to be aware of any of that other than what the locals suggested.

All I could think on leaving was that it was a really pleasant place with very kindly people and some fascinating cultural customs, and yes, it's well worth a visit to anyone interested in travelling through eastern Europe. As for Odessa, that will have to be another time, but probably not when it's so hot.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Our journey east - to Moldova

Last week, Koos and I made the second of our summer explorations to south eastern Europe. This time the final destination was the intriguing, unrecognised state of Transnistria, a long narrow strip of land across the Niestr river (hence its name), and now sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. Koos had been there three times before, and now I could go too and I wanted to see it. So, courtesy of some bargain flights from Wizzair, we arrived back in Cluj Napoca, Romania on the 27th August. The trip had to start in Cluj as any other route would have been just as time consuming and three times the price, but I didn't mind as I'd already fallen in love with Transylvania (see previous posts) and was happy to return.

Morning traffic in Cluj

We spent the night at the same hotel we'd been to before. Located in a rather run-down, former industrial area, it is a surprise to the visitor as it's really quite classy, but very reasonably priced. I've spent more on nights at youth hostels in Ireland and Finland and those were several years ago! We were met by a male, Spanish-speaking receptionist, who didn't smile much but gave us coffee on the house - which made up for the lack of warmth. It felt good to be back and good to be familiar with Cluj.

We were only going to be there a night, though, and the next day we left early to go to the railway station by bus. Before leaving, we had to buy Euros to change to Transnistrian rubles later on...dumb of us as we should have taken them with us from Holland. This was not the recommended way of doing it.

In any event, the train left on time. We found our compartment easily and it was great to be travelling on a Romanian train again. This time a young woman joined us with her handicapped son. I was very touched by her caring concern for him. I say she was young because she must have been, but she carried the care and responsibility in her face. As with our last visit, it was very hot - well over thirty degrees - but we couldn't open the window in the compartment. Several people joined us along the way. They all tried to open it, but it wouldn't budge and we became increasingly damp and probably not very savoury to sit near. Mother and son absconded to another carriage where it seemed to be cooler. Better for him, so better for her.

Passengers cross the tracks to get off the train

Leaning out of the carriage is the norm

Hay stacks for winter feed

I have to say the scenery was some of the most beautiful I have ever seen from a train. We meandered our way through the Carpathian mountains and looked out on scenes from another world and an earlier time. Old fashioned farming was very much in evidence with horses, carts, and people lifting hay with forks and loading it into the farm's trailers. Many fields had fence-like constructions that acted as hay driers and then there were the charming haystacks built like small huts. According to one of our fellow passengers, these provide food for the smallholders' horses/goats/cows in winter. There was also fruit galore: trees heavy with apples, pears and peaches. It all looked so rich - and romantically charming too.

The start of lovely scenery

Every station we passed had its own uniformed attendant standing out front. Men and women getting off the train had to walk over the tracks to the station, which seems to be the norm. I just loved the whole experience. But the heat. It didn't let up. And no one, not even the conductor, could open the window. Eventually, two strong and very determined young men managed to force it open. We were all very relieved, but even so, the carriage doors were left ajar. Passengers smoked at stops and then as the train moved on hung out of the doorways as they'd done on our trip to Timisoara. I know, I know. It was totally unsafe, but somehow, it added to the feeling of adventure.

A smartly dressed station master standing to attention
A family transports their pickings from the forest

At one stop, a family of six climbed aboard with several huge buckets full of berries, both blueberries and red currants. One of the sons who could speak a little English told me they'd picked them in the forests and were taking them home to make jams and other preserves. At another stop, a man boarded carrying a huge bag full of mushrooms. He told us he'd picked them in the woods and was taking them to sell at the market. We figured that these people may have had free train passes as the distances were great and if they'd had to pay, it wouldn't have been worth it for them.

Leaving the door ajar even while the train is moving

Our very friendly conductor on both trips!

Eventually, the mountains gave way to flat lands. We arrived in Iasi, a large town in Romania's far east nine and a half hours after leaving Cluj, but feeling once again that we'd had a very special experience. We'd booked a youth hostel room as there wasn't anything else available in our price range. However, the owner was very kind. Seeing us and our collective advancing years, he gave us a room with our own bathroom as a free extra. It was clean but very basic. The only problem was the shower. It had no wall mount and the curtain rail was too big, so there was no way of avoiding a flood on the bathroom floor. Needless to say, our ablutions were necessary after our steamy journey, but they were very short. No luxuriating under streams of lovely water this time.

Iasi down town

The very fine station at Iasi - I loved it!

A host of golden daffodils - oh no, big yellow taxis...

We spent the evening people watching in the town square. Iasi is no Cluj or Timisoara, but its atmosphere is lively and very pleasant. There was a young couple playing with their dog and lots of children running around having fun. The kids seemed very free and uncomplicated. Fun meant playing hide and seek or just chasing each other, not having toys and mobile or electronic devices. Young people sat on benches talking, content with each other rather than their phones.

The next morning was very hot again. Well up in the mid thirties. We found our way to the bus station and on the way, I looked at daytime Iasi. It is not beautiful but it has a certain appeal. The centre is a bit modern and bland, but being hilly with plenty of trees, it looks attractive. At the bus station, we asked about transport to Chisinau in Moldova, our next stop. A driver told us it would be in an hour, so we went to sit in the large, cool waiting room. But then ten minutes later, he came to find us again. There was apparently another bus leaving shortly. We marvelled at the kindness of his gesture.

The bus was a minibus and the ride to Chisinau was crazy. The road was absolutely awful - full of potholes and ridges and the driver seemed determined not to miss one of them. We spent half an hour at the border with Moldova. There were two posts, so two inspections, but it all went smoothly and we didn't even have to get off the bus. The officials collected our passports, took them inside for inspection and then brought them back. A passenger at the front distributed them all to us, and we noted he seemed to know whose was whose without question. Then the road got even worse. I don't think I have ever had such a bumpy ride in my life, not even on the dirt roads in South Africa.  Luckily, it was only a three hour journey and we arrived safe but sore in Chisinau in the middle of the afternoon.

People enjoying life on the streets
Now this is a beautiful, elegant city. I loved it at first sight. Not only beautiful though: it is chaotic, messy, vibrant and noisy, but it buzzes with life. Africa meets Paris. Our hotel was out of town. It was a bit far, but very nice all the same with a sweet receptionist and an air conditioned room - bliss. Once we'd settled in, we got the bus back into the centre.

City of Trees

Locals relaxing in the afternoon sun
 I have dubbed Chisinau the City of Trees. They are just gorgeous - tall, arching and forming tunnels through the classical architecture of the buildings. The streets were full of people enjoying festivities that marked the end of soviet rule in 1989. We spent time walking with them. Then we tried to find out where the buses went. A young man helped us. In faltering English, he tried to explain and was so keen to make us happy, he even ran after us to tell us exactly where we should really go.

Many trees are painted at the bottom. I liked these stripy ones!
 At a street stall, we hoped to buy some Cuas, a local drink that Koos said was worth testing. But the stall holder had finished for day. He was so sorry to disappoint us he gave us a bunch of grapes instead with a big grin and a 'welcome to Moldova'. This was yet another example of how kind the people are. We walked on taking more photos in the side streets until it got dark. Eventually, realising we couldn't find the bus anymore, we asked some young people talking on a cafe terrace if they knew. Two of the girls told us they would take us - not just to the bus, but all the way back to the hotel. We were amazed at their generosity, and their trust. One of the girls only spoke Russian (one of the two main languages in Moldova) and no English at all, but the other was studying to be an English teacher, so she was very keen to talk. We told her we were going to won't like it there, she said, but then no one in Moldova likes Transnistria since it chose to fight and break away from Moldova in 1992. All the same, Chisinau would be hard to beat, I thought.

And indeed, the following days, while interesting and vivid with great encounters, would prove me right. And maybe her too, but for different reasons!

To be continued...

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Romania Part 3

It's been a while since I wrote the last part of my Romanian travel blog, but I want to finish it before I move on to Moldova and Transnistria where I've just been. The main reason is that for me, our next stop after Timisoara, was probably the one that will remain in my memory the longest as it was both a wonderful surprise and a place of sadness too.

We arrived in Orastie by bus after finding our way to the bus station in Timisoara the circuitous route, meaning we got  lost. Luckily we just managed to get a seat and the bus was air conditioned. Unluckily, I didn't have any travel sickness pills, so by the time we got there some four and a half hours after a long climb through the mountains via the bendy route, I was feeling green.

At first sight, Orastie did not have much to recommend it. We were deposited on the main road that skirts the town and as chance would have it, our hostel was on the same road. It didn't look much and I muttered things to Koos about it being a one horse sort of town. The hostel was certainly justly so-named, but after waiting for the owner to turn up and unlock, we found it was at least very clean. The weather was very hot, so we had a bit of a rest and decided to go out in the early evening. We'd had a good lunch and food was not really needed as I was still feeling a bit woozy, so we walked down to the river.

It was peaceful and quiet despite the two or three gypsy encampments we saw in the nearby scrub land. On our walk we were adopted by a dog who had been accompanying a family of gypsies ahead of us. The little mutt was a sweetheart, but I don't know if it was feral or belonged to the gypsies as it just seemed to like being with people. It was tagged, which apparently means it had been neutered and vaccinated. This was the first of many dogs we saw roaming around in Orastie, and it broke my heart. Hence the sadness.

Our next stop was a supermarket to buy refreshments and then at a café for some coffee. While we sat on the terrace, we noticed a wedding party arriving rather noisily in the streets below. Our pretty waitress practised her English by telling us they'd come to fetch the bride, or rather the groom had and he was followed by all the guests. There was much music with a band playing, so we went down to watch. When the bride came out and got in the allotted car, a woman walked through the crowd of guests offering small pieces of cake. She also offered them to onlookers and we were included. I thought how lovely it was to embrace everyone around in the celebration in this way. Then she and the rest of the wedding party sped off amidst much hooting and cheering - I suppose to the church and reception.

The next pleasant surprise was the town itself. It was getting dark, but we wanted to see what Orastie was like, so we kept going and dipped down towards what we thought was the centre. The streets and houses became increasingly charming and every corner revealed a new and beautiful surprise. Firstly were the lit up 'twin towers' of two churches side by side within the town's ancient city walls. These looked wonderful against the darkening sky. Then after a few more corners and quaint streets, we came upon the central square with a huge domed orthodox church, again all lit up. Why we couldn’t see a sign of this from anywhere else, I don't know, but it was so unexpected, it was quite magical. The square itself was lively and lined with cafés. People were strolling the streets, sitting on steps or drinking at the bars. The atmosphere was of southern vibrancy but also quite peaceful. We found one place still serving coffee and joined the locals who were ready and very willing to chat to strangers from a foreign country. The friendliness was warm and genuine.

The following morning we took another walk around the town and were still not disappointed by its charm. A few buildings looked a little less romantic than they had done in the dark, but altogether, Orastie became the unexpected gem of the trip for me. As I’ve said the only sadness was the number of homeless dogs. Most of these did not look too skinny or unwell, but a few were and it was heart-wrenching to see them hunting for scraps of food.

We left Orastie at lunch time, catching the same bus that had deposited us the day before. We'd waited some time with our bags at the same café we'd had coffee at the day before, so we were happy to be on our way. Our last stop of the trip was at Alba Iulia.

Curiously, some of my favorite photos were taken at Alba, but I was generally disappointed in the town, vaunted as one of the 'must sees' in the area. It has a very fine set of fortifications that surround some impressive old state, university and religious buildings, but it was all restored beyond repair. The character and history felt  lost and it was a bit soulless. Outside the fortifications, the town is bland and featureless, but we were lucky to be staying at a hostel on top of a hill outside the city and it had stunning views. Here are a couple of the photos I took there.

We only stayed the one night and then it was back to Cluj. At the bus station, we met another charming Romanian girl who was planning to hitch out of town as there were no bus to where she wanted to go. I asked her if this was safe, and she assured me that it was, confirming what we'd been told earlier that Romania is very safe for unaccompanied women these days.

Our bus eventually arrived and a couple of hours later we were back in Cluj Napoca where we spent a very pleasant evening and night before flying back to Holland. All told, it was a fabulous trip, and one that will remain with me for a long time. Romania won a piece of my heart. If it just weren't for all the homeless dogs, the poverty of the elderly and the situation of the Roma, it would have been perfect. Hopefully, this will improve in time, but I fear it will be too late for many.