Thursday, April 10, 2003

Romania: Rebuffed at the Border

I am surprised at how much the culture and personality of European nations change as you cross borders. Hungarians tend to be very reserved, unlikely to talk conversationally with a stranger, although they are exceedingly polite and helpful. Their neighbours in Croatia, however, tend to be gregarious. I discovered this myself when travelling from Hungary to Croatia. Despite spending two weeks in Hungary I only once engaged a Hungarian in general conversation. At the Hungarian-Croatian border I got off the Hungarian train, and got on the Croatian train. Before I even sat down, a Croatian guy in his early 20's started talking to me. We spent the train journey comparing Australian life to Croatian life, and discussing the 1990's warring between the Balkan states. He pointed out sites where battles had taken place and where villages had been destroyed, then walked me around the city of Osijek showing me how every street still had at least one building with pock marks from gunfire and grenades. Finally he helped me find a place to stay and we went to a pub for some pizza.

I am currently in Romania, the land of Dracula and Transylvania, and of horse-drawn carts that share the highways with communist-era cars and modern Mercedes. Getting here proved to be difficult, as I will explain.

I caught a train from Budapest to Romania, under the impression that with my New Zealand passport I could buy a visa at the border. What gave me that impression? My Lonely Planet travel guide, the official Romanian tourism web site, and an independent web site that specialises in visa information. However the law was changed last July, so that now Kiwis and Australians need visas purchased in advance from an embassy or consulate. The Romanians neglected to tell the New Zealand and Australian governments about this rather important change of law.

After travelling for four and a half hours I reached the border, only to be escorted off the train by gun-toting border guards. At the border I had to wait on the side of the train tracks until a train passed that could return me to Budapest, on another four and a half hour journey. Strangely enough I didn't mind too much. You see, I was sharing my train compartment with two travellers, an American man and his Ukrainian wife, who I was about ready to throw out the train window. They talked non-stop; when I tried to read, they still talked to me, about the weather, Hungarians, the Iraq war, American politics, and how beautiful East Slovakia is (they repeated this about 738 times on the train journey). They also insisted on talking to Hungarians who didn't understand English, in very loud pidgin English. So it was sweet relief to have to leave the train. Otherwise I would have had no choice but to do very bad things to them.

The border guards were not hostile - in fact, like most Romanians, they were quite friendly. As I am travelling on my New Zealand passport, one of the guards started asking me about Jonah Lomu, the star NZ rugby player. Another noted my surname is the same as the main character from the Highlander movies, and started miming sword fights, resulting in the pretend sword being driven into my stomach. Strangely this Highlander connection happens to me often in Europe. I introduce myself as Steve McLeod and get the immediate response, "of the clan McLeod", especially from border guards.

I had a frustrating few days back in Budapest trying to obtain a Romanian visa. At the Romanian consulate in Budapest bureaucracy is very much alive. I needed all sorts of documents, some of which involved painful international phone calls, and wandering all over Budapest. I will spare you the details, but frustratingly, when I went to the consulate to pick up my visa, I handed over all the required documents, to find that the consulate official didn't even glance at the documents - he simply put the visa in my passport based on me claiming they were the right documents. Fortunately I met some laid-back Americans and an English girl who helped me pass the time while going through this charade.

I almost gave up on Romania with the visa troubles, but I am glad I didn't. It has already become a highlight of the trip, as I describe elsewhere.

Finally a quick run down on where I have been lately:
  • Croatia, where I visited Osijek and Zagreb, and went hiking in the mountains where the last of the winter snow is melting away. In Zagred I was told that having an Australian passport meant I could charge a willing Croatian girl US$10,000 for a marriage of convenience.
  • Slovenia, where rollerblading is the national religion. In Ljubljana, the capital city, most streets have a lane reserved for cyclists and rollerbladers. I also travelled through kilometres of underground caves here.
  • Czech Republic, where I visited Prague, Kutna Hora, Cesky Krumlov, and Brno. Through a chance encounter on a bus I found myself invited to stay at the home of Czechs in Brno. I also explored old silver mines underneath Kutna Hora.
  • Slovakia, where I climbed a wind-swept hill where a ruined castle looks across the Danube to Austria. This castle stood for hundreds of years and helped repel the Turks in medieval times as they fought for central Europe. Finally Napolean came along and blew it up because it was a symbol of Slovakian nationalism.

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