A Recollection from Trinidad
It has been a hectic few weeks since our on the spot decision to divert from Dubrovnik and except a work opportunity in Trinidad & Tobago and we have been flat out since we arrived, thus, we have yet to get out and explore (unlike us!).
First impressions are not as colourful or exotic as the pictures painted on the tourist board or as gratifying as our previous experiences in the Caribbean which hold very fond and special memories for us. Our ride between the airport in the country's capital Port of Spain and along the north-west coast road to Chaguaramas is intriguing but not that appealing. The reels and reels of razor wire that line the garden walls and fences is also a little disconcerting. It seems that the development of Trinidad has been significantly influenced by their number one asset; natural oil and gas. In fact, more than one third of the GDP comes from the energy sector. And, as I look out to the horizon, the falling sun illuminates a graveyard of discarded tankers that float silently in a neglected raft. I glance along the que of still active ships, awaiting supplies (I assume) from Point Lisas Industrial Estate and wonder where they are bound for next. The water on this side of the island is contaminated and the onshore winds push rubbish onto the shoreline, the locals say it belongs to Venezuela, just 11 km south of Trinidad. I am curious as to whom the endless flow of litter that decorates the rivers running out to sea belongs to.
For now, we still have some very touching experiences from Romania, Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia to share that have been far from forgotten about. In fact, it is quite remarkable what an impact the people and the places in the following stories have made on us. Sitting on a boat in Trinidad, it seems like I'm telling someone else's story, only the details are all there; the sights, sounds, smells and feelings . All too vivid to belong to anyone else..
This post is written with our thanks and utter admiration for two wonderful people, Dalia Petcu and
Sorin Suciu, of whom invited us to their home in the city of Timisoara and showed us unfeigned kindness and friendship.
We crossed the border from Hungary after visiting the spa town of Gyula. As with many border crossings, the area either side often feels like 'no mans land'. And yet, no matter how many times I do this, it always gets me, as though I'm expecting some huge Disney like display depicting the culture of the forthcoming country to serenade us on our arrival.
Your sensors start going into over drive, trying to spot the first signs of variance. The new language becomes immediately visible on the welcome signs, the authorities and police patrol will be sporting their national uniform, the number plates have got a new registration code and being two vulnerable cyclists keeping up with the flow of trucks and vehicles exiting border control, we'll be quick to analyse the new driving habits and road conditions. Keeping our wits about us as we cycled fast along the narrow hard shoulder of the long, straight road heading for the first Romanian town more than 20 km's away, we were both surprised to still be riding within the great Pannonian Basin, i.e totally flat! We could see a few mountains beyond our destination, but certainly nothing too intimidating and it didn't look like there would be anything challenging the way we were going, in fact, we could see arable farmland for miles. Along the road we passed a few casinos, gentlemen's clubs, nightclubs and tax free bottle shops. The heat was intense. David cursed at the sight of some horses exposed with no shade. The trucks kept coming, some beeping aggressively, sucking us into their slip stream as they hurtled past with only inches to spare. The pace picked up effortlessly. We pull up at a fuel station outside of Chisineu-Chris. Inside, it's air-conditioned, clean, modern and all the usual array of drinks, snacks and other products. Again, I don't know what I was expecting, but I admit to being pleasantly surprised.
On the city side of the banks, walkways and cycle tracks take you through a leafy green park which on this afternoon was bustling with school kids and families taking advantage of the evening sun. We smiled as we weaved our way amongst them, taking it all in. And as we floated through the park, catching little glimpses of peoples lives, something struck us both. The look of the Romanian people is incredibly striking, beautiful indeed. We were only just over the border, but yet the unique appearance of the local people, we thought, reflected a fascinating past and suggested to us, that our journey was finally beginning to progress east.
There were no other campsites mentioned anywhere, night had fallen upon us and we were eager to get off the bikes and take a walk. We found a superb 2* hotel in the very centre and we were able to lock our bikes inside too. They must have very high standards in Romania, because this was more like double those stars!! Hotel Arad is the name and we also recommend the hotel restaurant on the terrace, it was here that we realised we were to be in for a treat with Romanian cuisine. Extremely settled into our luxury pad, the morning hours passed one by one and before we knew it, we had wasted the best part of the day. Feeling guilty that we hadn't spent the day sight seeing, we jumped on the social networking to see if there were any locals that would be up for meeting up or hosting us for another evening. It was 17.00 hours when the first reply came through. Our host was available to meet us that evening and would be delighted to have us for the next few days, the only problem, he and his wife were in Timisoara nearly 60 km away!
We threw the panniers onto our bikes, then zig-zagged our way along some side streets to get a look at a few more things before exiting the city and jumping on the old highway to Timisoara.
Union Square was just beautiful. The historical buildings have recently been restored and were of varying fresh pastel colors and elegant architecture, originally built by the Austrians during the Habsburg era. The centre of the square was a display of symmetrical lawns with paths, walls and stone benches, very romantic.
Talking of which, any preconceptions that we may of had about Romania, Timisoara at the least, blew these out the window. This city seemed to have a bit of everything and I sensed that there was a real drive to restore, preserve and progress in every devision. There were no fewer than 7 universities in town, apparently of which some compete with the best in the world, this of course attracts a large and diverse student population. Music, art and festivals seem to be a way of life here, but with an eclectic mix on offer. I'll mention style too.. how does everyone manage to look so casually stylish?! Just thought I would throw it in there. Timisoara, quite frankly, is a cosmopolitan metropolis.
We ambled across to Victory Square, which is the main square of the city, recognised by the distinguishable Romanian Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral at one end and the Romanian National Opera House at the other. It was here, looking up to the balcony of the opera house, that Dalia described the events of December 1989, the beginning of the Romanian revolution that ultimately led to the assassination of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on December 25th. The uprising began on December 16 and by december 20, over 100,000 protesters had congregated within this square, formerly known as
Piata Operei (Opera Square), chanting anti-government protests. Within that week, 162 people were killed in the violent protests in Timisoara and as the revolution spread across other parts of Romania, a further 942 people were killed in riots, 3,352 were wounded. In the photo on the right, you can still see the bullet wounds from the guns that were fired during that week. Dalia and Sorin were students at the time.
So it was the weekend of The Summit Foundation 26th Annual Great Rubber Duck Races, "I beg your pardon?" I hear you say. Every year a charity called The Summit Foundation host a rubber duck race. The idea is that individuals and businesses sponsor or adopt a duck and race them down Blue River. There are three races in total, all with a different slant, the grand finale sees nearly 10,000 rubber ducks floating down stream!! Over the course of the weekend the charity has stands along the river with arts & crafts for children and prizes for the best decorated ducklings. There is local food to try and of course there is music. We went to check out some of the action in the afternoon and then went back in the evening to watch some of the bands perform. As we stood on the bridge over the river, we caught a beautiful sight. Hundreds of Chinese lanterns were being sent into the air from across the city, each of the lanterns had been lit in commemoration of people lost to cancer.
Dalia and Sorin insisted we stay another day as they were eager to show us the Cramele Recas vineyards and winery outside Timisoara, we were not going to refuse that! Legend has it that the god of wine, Bacchus, actually spent his childhood in this region, Recas wines have indeed won multiple awards. We tried the red and it was very nice, we'll be keeping our eye out for the Romanian label from now on!
Our short time in Romania had opened our eyes. Was it what we expected? Definitely not!
Timisoara turned out to be one of our favourite cities on our journey so far and the most fascinating too. We are now intrigued about the rest of Romania!
However, something very saddening happened at the end of an awesome few days. I was not sure whether to mention it after such an upbeat post, but I feel it is important. We were sharing a glass of wine with Dalia and Sorin when Dalia received a phone call from a friend who had recently moved to London to study. The friend, along with others had gone into London for the evening, only, when they arrived at the club they had wanted to go to, they were turned away at the door. They were not turned away for inappropriate behaviour, they were not turned away for adorning the wrong dress code, they were turned away because they were Romanian. As Dalia spoke with her friend, she explained to us what had happened. I gulped. There we were receiving true hospitality and kindness I can not begin to describe and in turn I felt a sick sense of responsibility. I know that Dalia and Sorin would not have seen it this way, but it was humiliating for me, I can only imagine how it must have felt to be one of the friends. Apparently this is not a one off situation. It emerged at the start of the year that the government were planning a campaign to deter Romanians from coming to the UK. I am not sure that the advertisements ever materialised but it led the way for a very ingenious and amusing retaliation from Romania. A Romanian newspaper went on to launch its own campaign to 'bring Brits to Romania". Here are an example of some of the campaigns. I have linked the images to an article by Channel 4 News explaining the fiasco..