Sunday, August 14, 2016


 St Lucia is my next stop, I decide. Not on the original itinerary, but recommended as a place where hippopotamuses roam the streets and you better get out of their way, as they kill more people than lions and sharks combined do. One small issue to get there? Nobody has any information, as everyone seems to drive around in their own car, so simply have no idea. Finally someone seems to know something. "Tuba Tuba" he says. I guess he must mean the name of a bus. When I get to the taxi rank in Durban, I say 'St Lucia'. Only when I say Tuba Tuba, the guy gets what I am saying and puts me in the right taxi. When I say taxi, I mean a van that sits sixteen passengers and leaves when it is full. I am always the only white person on it. Actually, white people don't know about it, or will ask me if I am safe, telling me I am brave. The passengers are just people who have no car and are going to wherever they need to go to for a cheap price. It is one of those situations where I ask myself whether that is a racist question or not. The rich are overwhelmingly white. The poor are overwhelmingly black. Some poor people use crime to make a living and most people in big cities have had some experience (people of any colour), so people, especially whites have become extra careful, as the colour of the skin might create expectations on how much there is to gain.
When we arrive, I see dusty roads, people trying to sell things everywhere, a bit of chaos. I am a little surprised, as I see no tourists or hotels. The lady that sat next to me on the bus helps me out. I have arrived in the town of Mtubatuba. St Lucia is another taxi ride away. In fact, I enter another world: a long street full of hotels, restaurants, bookings agents... Too much of this kind, in truth. I check in at the cheapest place, which is a hostel that is falling apart, smelly and a bit spooky and the receptionist cannot give me any information on anything. I sign up for a game drive (you know the kind, you drive around and get out of the car to play scrabble, snakes and ladders, drafts etc. Just kidding. Animals!). The vegetation is different, as it used to be wetlands. Most animals I have spotted before: zebras, kudus, steenbok, buffaloes... It is just me and a couple, so a very chilled day. I, however do not spot hippos. Apparently, they walk the streets in summer, not in winter (which we are having here now), as that is too cold. Funny, if you think about it. They live in the water, because their skin is too sensitive for the sun and need cooling off all the time. They cannot swim though. I heard that about 800 hippos have died in Kruger park, due to the drought (in fact saw a dead one there). It is fine, as seen many hippos elsewhere.
Always on the go, I want to go to Coffee Bay on the Wild Coast, but as usual, nobody can tell me if there is a connection, including the hostel in Coffee Bay. Convinced that I can do it, I leave at 6AM looking for a local taxi to take me back to Mtubatuba. A car stops, thinking I am hitchhiking. The driver tells me to be careful, as I cannot trust those blacks. "Why not?" "they'd rape you" "white men don't?" (I know, not a great response). The minivan in Mtubatuba fills up after two hours. I chat a bit with other passengers and learn a few Zulu words, as in this region most people are Zulu. In Durban I am referred to one shared taxi, then another and I finally find my shared taxi to Mthata. Six hours of loud South African gospel music does not turn me religious, I learn. People always help me at arrival; someone will grab my backpack and walk it to the next shared taxi I need to take. As strange as it sounds, it has never worried me when they do, as they are just trying to make sure I get into the right direction. A woman helps me here and if I can please visit her at work, so that her colleagues can see her new friend. There is still some status to be had to have a white friend, or even better: a white girlfriend. Regularly, when I just ask for information, or just have a chat. people  (esp. men) will ask for my phonenumber. It doesn't matter that I am abroad they just "want to chat". I suspect there is a bit of surprise in my approach-ability.
Coffee Bay is not easy to reach, but has developed itself in some backpacker paradise. The hostels have a cosy atmosphere with bonfires, a bar etc. I meet people here that have been traveling for years (with rasta hair and a joint in their hand). Coffee Bay allegedly got its name when in 1893 a ship full of coffee beans shipwrecked here. Some of the beans did take root and grow, but the salty soil was not suitable for them.I get a warm welcome at the hostel, as they knew I had been trying to get there all day, and they upgrade me so I can get a good night sleep. This evening thee boys, aged 8-11 are dancing, moving their hips and behinds in a way that makes me jealous, I wish I had those moves! We are now in an area where the majority is Xhosa (please, the x is a click sound) and these boys are getting ready to go into the mountains for a month to undergo a circumcision ceremony. After that month they cannot dance like that anymore. I am told (by an outsider) they are collecting money, as they need to buy cows and goats for slaughter as part of the sacrifice, pay the circumciser etc. They will live in grass huts in seclusion and only eat certain things in that month. My narrator tells me they will eat their foreskin. I have however not found any other source for this (and he has never witnessed it). I did however found that boys have died or ended up in hospital, due to complications.
The hostel trains locals so they cam eventually manage the place themselves.
I meet a Scottish guy and we undertake a hike the next day to the 'whole in the wall'. As often, the destination is just an excuse to go on a long hike. The arrival point is a massive rock in the sea with a natural gate in the middle. The sea is far too cold and has strong currents, so swimming is not an option.
Early evening we cross the river and find a different Coffee Bay. An unpaved square with lots of male youngsters ready to get drunk. The shop is small and you cannot see anything from closeby, as the products are at a distance, behind bars.
I enjoy an evening with a few drinks, turn down the hostelmanager and get ready for another ridiculously early rise the next morning.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Slaying Dragons

The backpacking trail is very well laid out here. Every hostel has a small free book in which tips and hostels are mentioned; superhandy, as I can then call them on my way there. The Bazbus picks up tourists at hostels and delivers them at hostels in other towns. It runs at certain days and times, so one needs to book it a day ahead. I immediately decide to try to avoid this bus as much as possible, as it is almost as if we are not supposed to mix with locals. Also, it is more costly. Drakensberg is hard to reach on public transport, I have little choice. The pick up point is only a 15 mins walk from my host in a quiet neighbourhood in Johannesburg, but he insists I take an uber nonetheless. Safety above everything.
Two daytrips are undertaken here. Daytrip one is an all day hike into the mountains to the 'amphitheater' (natural shape of the mountain range). I can keep up, but struggle, like I always do with having to jump over certain gaps etc. The higher we get, the more snow there is and half the group (4) decides to turn back, because it is getting too dangerous on the slippery path along the steep slope. Four of us continue. The front man literally has to make footsteps in the snow in which we then step. It feels like a very long hike and when I think we are finally there, we still have to cross a snowy plateau, where with every step you don't know how deep your foot will fall. Half the time at least knee deep. I somehow manage to make it to the end, but now we still have to walk all the way back. I tell the guide sternly to stay with me. He and I arrive a good hour after the rest, which gives us time to chat a long time about life etc. and I receive an invitation to hang out together. Still a little naive, it takes me a while to realise it is the 'all night' type of hanging out (He was a lot directer with another girl in the group, he just asks her for a one night stand- so subtle to ask two women simultaneously). The hike was clearly too much for me, as I get sick on he drive back, but my stubbornness is stronger than my fitness!

The next day I take a trip to Lesotho, which is a lot more chilled. A quick visit to an elementary school, drinking locally brewed corn beer (disgusting), staring at vague rock paintings of the San people (first civilisation here), lunch on the top of a mountain, a visit to a traditional healer (sangoma-she does not heal me, but talks about her job and calling). 
Lesotho is poor. Not much electricity (a few solar panels), mostly self sufficient (a relative term) farmers, unpaved roads, high percentages of AIDS/HIV and only a third of the kids will be able to afford secondary school, keeping in mind that this daytrip was only slightly cheaper than one semester of schooling.
Lesotho has stayed independent and not suffered the apartheid regime. However, all the resources (the dam, diamond mine) belong to South Africans and the biggest export product are men who go and work in South Africa.
I would like to stay on in Drakensberg, but the connections are not great, and there is a lot more to see, so moving on. 

Durban is my next stop, but only for the night, last minute, I find a local host.

"Before we go anywhere, I need to stop by a flat to collect rent. Do you mind witnessing it?" asks my hostess. We go into a dump of an apartment block where I then watch her bark and point at a man for not having paid part of the rent. He naturally raises his voice to defend the accusations, to which she sharply comments that he shouldn't disrespect her and she will kick him out.
I don't know the backstory, but I do know this is a very uncomfortable situation. I don't see a landlord and a tenant. I see a white woman putting down a black man because she has power over him.
"Black men don't respect women" she explains in the car, when I say she screamed at him.
She obviously is no racist "but the country is going downhill, blacks think differently, we need to teach them how to deal with things" The phrase " I am no racist, BUT..." is one that I hear more often. Always convincing.
Well, she buys half a loaf of white bread and gives it to a black beggar. When another beggar comes along, she yells he needs to share his bread. He is clearly very hungry and I suspect mentally not together. He doesn't react. She grabs the bread out of his hands and divides it in two and gives both half. Of course, she is doing more than I do, but this is patronising of the worst kind.
Her whole way of talking and approaching things is abrupt, loud, blunt with an attitude as if she cannot be wrong.
E.g. "do you like walking and running?" Me: " I am not into running". "I SAID running AND walking."
"You want to see downtown?" "Sure". "No, you have to say: yes please that would be great, I am doing you a great favour, you are lucky, you know"
This is her nice side. At the house she orders the (obviously black) cleaner, Theresa and handyman Alex around in a way that is too much for me. She criticises Alex for not having worked for her on Tuesday. "You are working for someone else, aren't you?" He went to the hospital with his brother. "that does not take all day." Theresa explains the hospital is far away and waiting for a doctor takes hours. "I did not ask you, I need to hear it from him. And why are you sitting in the front?" She quiets down when I say that I had wanted her to sit in the front of the car.
I burst into tears when I am alone with the cleaner, as I have never experienced anyone talking to their staff like that. She tells most whites are like that- something which is confirmed by other blacks I randomly ask.
I am ashamed of my crying, as I am only witnessing this for a number of hours, these people have to live it.

I know there is no point going against my hostess as this is how she grew up here (I remark occasionally that one cannot generalise) and she won't accept any disagreement. I hate every minute of her, but
don't entirely regret this experience, as this is the face of South Africa that is still very much in existence. I have been able to avoid it, by finding black hosts and overall open-minded people. 
That is also a subjective term, as this lady would certainly count herself as one, as look how good she is to other people.

She is a bit worried about me.
"Do you realise you have a hearing problem? You don't always react when I talk to you."
" I don't think I do", I respond. I suspect that my senses are trying to protect me.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

my way

Back to me

The group has been left behind, time for exploring South Africa my way.

Johannesburg is not pretty. I never quite get a feel for it, as it is stretched out and I move around by car or taxi. I stay for four days with three different people and enjoy my regained freedom. Busi picks me up and within ten minutes in the car we have a more enticing conversation than I have had with 24 people over eleven days. She tells me that about 25 years ago, me sitting next to her in the car could only have meant she was driving me around in my car. I notice straight away that everyone is being labeled immediately; white of British descent, white of Afrikaner descent, Jewish, Xhosa, Zulu, low status, high status. .. Busi wearing a headcloth (a doek) would make people approach her differently than when she does not.
At night she takes me to Freedom Station, a squat-like place where people from all backgrounds come together. I listen in to a fascinating discussion of the bookclub (did not know the book) and the excellent jazzband that performs. This is in Sofia town, a neighbourhood from which blacks have been removed during apartheid.
Most of my time in Jo'burg is spent thinking and learning about apartheid.
I take a four hours cycle tour in Soweto (South-Western Township), a neighbourhood to which the black population has been moved since 1904. I have read about apartheid and such over the years, but being in the actual place does bring up emotions. We see 'houses', which are basically a room made out of corrugated iron, but there are also bigger, more beautiful houses- often people don't want to move out, once they have made money. We were told there are about three million people living there, google claims about half of that. The saddest part is when we get to 400 newly built apartments, in which 400 families were supposed to be moved into, as part of a project to help the poorest, post-apartheid. At the last minute the council decided to rent them out, which was not affordable and therefore these flats have been empty for six years. Anyone who does try to rent a place, won't be safe and some broken windows are visible.

I visit the Apartheid museum, which displays the history of the nation. I need to leave after two hours, as I cannot take in more; I will never get my head round understanding why one group abuses another. I also visit the Voortrekkersmonument in Pretoria, which tells the history of the Boers that had settled in the Cape , but then moved to the interior of the country (1836), as they wanted to escape British rule. This is known as the Great Trek. This museum is interesting, as it tells the story of one particular group and just follows their narrative. It is not presented in an offensive way, but it is important to keep in mind that the history of the locals is ignored and these boers are the architects of apartheid.

It is strange we never learnt about this in school, as these first settlers are essentially the Dutch. They landed on the Cape in 1652 as a colony for the ships to refreshen. These people are known as Boers, which in Dutch means 'farmers'. They believed in slavery and used the bible to justify it. Descendants from these people are called Afrikaners, they still speak a form of Dutch called Afrikaans (which is very understandable for me-up until 1925 Dutch was an official language, then it became known as Afrikaans).There is no further relationship with the Netherlands or the Dutch, even though their religion for example is still Dutch reform. I have not gotten any negative press from anyone. Throughout history in South Africa, the Afrikaners fought the Zulu's and the British who had taken ownership of the great parts of the land. Eventually the Brits and Afrikaners came together to form the Union of South Africa and influenced by Nazi doctrine, apartheid became a fact. I realise this is a very poor summary, but the focus of the blog lies elsewhere.
I will however take an element of this to my classroom. In 1976 a serious student demonstration in which the black students demanded education in their own language, rather than that wretched language of the oppressor, was bloodily shot down. This was an important moment, ads more protests followed and the outside world realised something was seriously wrong when a child was killed by the police. Here you can see how language and identity play an important role. There are now eleven officially recognised languages. Nowadays some people are upset that Stellenbosch university is not 100% Afrikaans speaking, but that the government demanded that it teaches in English as well...

In the evenings I go to the theatre with Elliott. The plays are about post-apartheid South Africa, one is interesting, but somewhat boring with unconvincing characters, whike the other (mooi street) hits all the right notes-even if I dont get all the references.
Elliott is a theatre maker and a critical thinker and we speak for hours about politics and history. He states that apartheid might be over, there is still a strongly social economic apartheid. The rich are overwhelmingly white, the poor overwhelmingly black. It is harder to create new businesses or grow ideas, if you have no money to invest, while the ones that do have money can keep growing. A lot of people still hold on to the mentality that working for a white person is better.
The last person I stay with is an Afrikaner. I have noticed that a lot of Afrikners are blunt and at times unpleasant. Dwayne is the opposite of this; he is welcoming and generous. He works as a psychologist to bridge cultural differences at work. Unfortunately we dont spend enough time chatting, but he believes in a brighter future.  His friend ttells me that due to positive discrimination he cannot find a job as a white male in his field of geology,  so will have to lesve the country. Dwayne sees it in perspective "it is a negative on a personal level, but hopefully helps to reset the balance."
We hit the pubs and we bump into the Elliottt and co. Small world after all.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Help! I am in a group

Botswana is hard to travel through without a car and every activity is expensive. I find an overland tour that takes me to the places I want to see and seems a bit less expensive than doing it by myself. I am a bit nervous about it, as I am very used to travel by myself and at times let myself be taken to places by locals, while here I will be stuck in a group for eleven days. It might however be nice not to have to arrange everything and I might meet some cool people. Unfortunately all my worries come more than true. The group consists mainly of Australians (and kiwi's) who have come mostly in two's and click together- at times I feel like I am in highschool again, but not in a good sense-. They have no interest in me and barely evoke any interest from me, with hardly any chances to talk to locals. We have to put up (and down) our tent every day and the big drop in temperature, for which I am not prepared (so so cold!!) means that I feel unwell from day two onwards, but hardly anybody seems to care. In short: I am not quite myself and from day one I am counting down towards the end of this part of the trip.

We visit the Chobe National Park, where we drive around in jeeps, trying to spot the wildlife (game drive) and I see giraffes, elephants, zebra's... Actually more enjoyable than that is a boat tour we take early evening, from which you can see buffalo's, hippo's and other animals feed themselves on the waterfront. This lies at a meeting point of Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe and they have fought each other for it, as it is such an attractive tourist destination.

The highpoint of Botswana is the Okavango Delta, wetlands with a lot of wildlife. We are transported in mokoro's, canoe type of boats in which you sit with a second person and a so called 'poler' moves the boat forward by standing in the back and pushing a pole through the water. It is pleasant and beautiful, we camp on an island and in the evening the polers come together and sing traditional songs and dance humorously to it. This is the highpoint, as we don't see that many animals on our three hours hike through the dry savannah, but we admire the hippo's from the water. I spend a significant amount of time talking to Dreamer, one of the polers (both here and in Zimbabwe names as Always, Rejoice, Comfort seem to be the norm).                                                                               It is amazing how we have brought our tents, our own food and have each paid a whopping $160, but the polers still have to live of tips and use their own boats. Dreamer tells me about his life. He had a girlfriend with whom he had a baby, but the baby died after five months. I tell him that we have few baby deaths and it is very tragic. He says it was sad, but that it happens to others as well, so that made it easier. His girlfriend also suddenly died, leaving him with another child, that is now being raised by his mother and one of his sisters. He has never been to school, but his daughter does go to school and if she does well on her exam when she turns twelve, she will probably go to secondary school.

We then carry the trip on to South Africa, where we make a few panoramic stops (but it is incredibly misty) to then arrive at the famous Kruger park. We engage in a full day safari, spotting four out of the so called big five (lions, rhinoceros, elephant, buffalo - we miss out on the leopard, but we also see impalas, hyenas, zebras, wildebeests, kudus, baboons....). I enjoy this, but with an old crappy camera, my pictures are quite disappointing, but well, life should not be lived through a lense!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Zimbabwe Falls

Victoria Falls is an odd village. It purely exists to process the many tourists that come through to admire the Victoria Falls, one of the seven worldwonders. Consequence is that it mainly consists of hotels, hostels, lodges, restaurants, souvenir shops and a supermarket where the locals do not shop. Everybody tries to sell you something, but once you get passed that point, people are actually friendly and happy to have a chat.
 The economy of Zimbabwe was in such dire straits that they had to print notes with numbers going into the trillions, so they switched to American dollars. This means that tourist prices are inflated and it makes a visit not cheap at all. Obviously this is acceptable for a few days, for the locals it is still a fight to stay above the poverty line.
Oscar, one of the guides I get talking to on several occasions, tells me he has to find clients to go on bungy jumps, to take helicopter rides or to go on zip lines. He gets paid a commission, based on a contract of two months. This means he never knows when he will or won't have a job and in low tourist season he barely earns anything. Five days a month he gets time off, so he can spend this with his family who live elsewhere (this story came with pictures). I ask another lady in a store how come she has a South African accent. She tells me she went to a private school and this is the accent of people who go to private schools. She sees no future in Zimbabwe and would love to send her children to an English boarding school, if possible. An old man at the market tells me life is no good, because the Shona have killed so many Ndebele (different tribes, most people seem to speak both languages however) and he wishes that more white men would come to open businesses. In fact, when walking around the next day to a restaurant that offers traditional dancing and singing (very touristy, but tastefully done) I get a lift from a middleaged white man, Zimbabwean, so I ask him if he owns the lodges, 'Yes, I am the general manager'. My buddy asks me how I know. White local people have got the capital to invest and run businesses and can employ the locals for a minimal wage, who just cannot close the gap between them. Zimbabwe has a longer history of tensions between white landowners/farmers and other locals demanding their land (back). I won't go into that here, but Britain played a key role into that and you would be familiar with the name Mugabe.

If you don't want to spend tons of money on the activities, there is actually little to do, once you have done your two hours visit to the magnificent waterfalls. I meet another solo-travellers, Shasa, who happens to be a fellow Dutch (Flemish) speaker and he has been here a good few days, so knows his way around. We take walks through a surrounding village (where the poverty is visible) and briefly step over to the Zambian side. He is great company and a real gentleman. This is in contrast to the people I meet in the second part of my adventure. The dreaded travelgroup...

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Bulgaria (Part II -Easter holiday)
To go from Bucharest to Veliko Tournovo is less than 200 km. However, the journey is taken on a rusty train, which has about five people in it (all tourists) and takes over seven hours, including long waits at the border and waiting for a locomotive to arrive from Bulgaria-you’d think they know about it by now, as this train passes every day.
It is not an unpleasant ride, however. On arrival I feel like I have landed in the middle of nowhere. Worried that I get ripped off, I ask a Bulgarian to get me a cab. The worry is baseless. This country has not been spoiled by tourists and the attitude to do so is not there. A long taxi ride often does not cost more than a few Pounds/Euros.

I am welcomed into a comfortable, modern apartment by a local young couple. They met as he, fresh from university, was teaching her at school. The next day I get my bearings, mostly thanks to another excellent free tour (obviously tipped well) and discover how quaint this small town is. This is not so much the classical town with a square and a church. This former medieval capital has been built on three hills, with a river running through it. It has a rather romantic feel to it. 

The stop after this is Plovdiv, which should just be mentioned for its name, I guess! It has a nice car free centre and the place has been cleaned up and renovated and boasts both a Roman amphitheatre and a big Mosque. I meet an elderly Israeli artist and spend some time in her studio and decide the next day to stay with her in a village outside town. There I read my book in a tree and walk to a nearby monastery in the heat, while greeting the local goats on the way. I feel rather passive and I am not used to having the option of ‘nothing to do’, but it is not that bad…

The next stop is the capital. I reconnect with someone I had met seven years ago and we spend every dinner together. It is nice to get some insights on local life. I don’t just do a local tour of the city, I also catch a ‘free food tour’, which is equally as interesting. We are taken to various stalls and restaurants where we hear about local foods and markets, and get to have tastes of various dishes. We also learn interesting facts, such as how during communism tomatoes were exchanged for ABBA records (good deal, I’d say).
Sofia feels more pleasant than Bucharest, even so, it does not quite reach the beauty of many other European cities. As a day trip I go to the Rila monastery. This is a rather long ride into the mountains to visit this splendid monastery and for a short hike in the forest.

Romania and Bulgaria might be next to each other, but both countries feel they don’t have much in common; language, alphabet, history, religion- it is all different. People look different as well. The one thing they have in common and I ask many questions about this, is that both countries were subjected to a communist regime for decades - roughly from just after WWII up to 1989/90. In both countries the overall feeling of the younger generation, born after the fall of communism, was that they have no reason to want it back. How its influence is still living on in this generation, I wonder. A lack of trust in others, I often hear, even though they open their doors to a stranger like me, they would not easily invite local strangers into their lives. Not surprising; their parents grew up in a time in which a neighbour, a friend, even a family member could have been part of the secret police and would find a reason to turn them in. I am also told that often there is a lack of communal responsibility; ‘the state should take care of it’, but this has for long not been the case any more. I could notice a difference between the younger and older generation; the younger generation wanting to find more modern comfort, while a lot of older people hold on to their old houses that once, during communism might have been assigned to them, and never changing anything to it- not moving to another place. What both countries also have in common, is that most city centres looked well taken care of, but you only need to turn a corner to find worn down, dilapidated buildings. Where both countries are going and whether it is in a positive or negative direction, depends on who I speak to. The software designing industry seems strong here. Poverty is definitely still present, but nicely kept away from tourists, with one big advantage: everything is very cheap when coming from the west. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


(Part I Easter Holiday)

I had my eyes wander over the map of Europe, looking for a country I had not been to. Romania and Bulgaria were the answer.


People tell me I am nuts, because for every trip I go online to find locals I have never met, in order to crash on their couch. I am told I will run into freaks and psychos. So let me tell you what weirdos I really meet and you can tell me what attitude I should take. My very first host in Sibiu, Romania picks me up from the airport, then takes me to his parents' place, where his mum feeds us dinner. An opportunity to see how an average middle-class family lives (small place, could have been refurbished 30 years ago, but clean and tidy, living room also serves as a bedroom, tiger print bedspread, mini plates and cups in display in a glass cupboard, some religious pictures, old television blasting). We then go to his apartment, where we talk current living conditions in Romania and he downloads a T.V.-series of my choice. Host number two in Shigisoara is a family of three, and I am offered my own bedroom. I play with the little boy and stay up far too late chatting to her about gypsies and Ceausescu. This couple makes traditional decorated wooden spoons for a living, so I get a whole look-in into that after the dinner we share. They give me the key, so I can come back any time. Host number three in Brasov is also a couple with a baby. Over the dinners we have together, they tell me the whole story of how they met and about their trips through Europe on a motorbike. All these hosts provide me with the tourist information needed and tips. This system of opening both your mind and house up to others has restored my faith in people and makes me want to be nice to other strangers. It gives me the opportunity to look differently at countries;
whilst before it was about the tourist points and perhaps how friendly the staff is somewhere, now it has become for a great deal about the people themselves. What do they tell me about growing up here? What ideas do they share? What do I learn about the culture through them?
Romania is a pleasant surprise. Transylvania offers small towns with cobblestone streets and colourful houses. The nature does not seem to differ much from what I am used to in northern Europe, except that there are a lot of bears that can be encountered in the wild. I only meet them in an enclosed sanctuary, where abused bears, prior used for performing, are held until their death and hopefully with laws being enforced this sanctuary will die a natural death.

I obviously cannot omit mentioning Dracula, whilst traveling through Transylvania. Dracula’s Castle (Bran) does not quite live up to its expectation (I circle around it until I have the right angle for a more impressive picture), but fiction always lives best in ones imagination. I read the book (from 1897!) on my trip and especially the beginning is filled with adventure. A real pageturner, which becomes more slowpaced once the wise men deliberate for hours in order to figure out what this phenomena is and what to do about it. This book must be even more exciting not knowing about vampires! What are those two mysterious red dots in her neck?

Bram Stoker based the name on Vlad Dracul, duke of Wallachia (and not of Transylvania), who had received the order of the Dragon from the king of Hungary. The word dragon found no translation in Romanian, but the word ‘dracul’, meaning Satan, sounded mostly like it, so that is what stuck. His cruel son was then called Draculea, but his other nickname was ‘the impaler’. I will let your imagination run with what that might mean. Neither Draculea, nor Stoker have probably spent time in that castle, so I consider this a very smart marketing ploy, as it has put Transylvania on the tourist map. Otherwise the story is completely made up and impressive just for that reason; today it has pretty much become a genre in itself. The first film, Nosferatu, dates back to 1922!

No such thing as coincidence?
My mother's best friend in Holland, living two blocks away from us, is Romanian. She fled the communist regime and would always speak bitterly about her country. I was therefore surprised to find so much hospitality (not just a bed, also food and long conversations- even though would not say 'affectionate' or 'warm' per se) and the towns in Transylvania are lovely. Bucharest less so. Large grey communist buildings alternate kitschy new build and most of it could have done with some restauration/paint at least 30 years ago. It does not make me feel safe at night, even if there is no reason for that sentiment.

The most shocking and surprising thing that happens, is bumping into my mum's friend, while crossing the street. She has come here, last minute, for a weekend, to look after her parents' grave. I have not seen her in seven years. We have a drink together and she points to different places, where she has met her husband, where she used to live. I ask her if her feelings have changed, she says: “they seem nice, but I know what they are really like.” Both of them being Romanian, but being part of minorities, meant their treatment was unpleasant at the best of times.

At night I go salsa dancing, but I am too tired to show off much skill. To me, everybody looks similar- whether thin, fat, tall, short- there was just no variety, no colour. Even though there is perhaps still more to see, I decide to leave the next day…..