Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Romania: Day 1 (FINALLY)

Otopeni's modern terminal 
December 4, 2013: mark the date. I jumped off the plane in Bucharest today … ok wait, I stumbled bleary-eyed off the plane, not having caught more than ten minute snoozes in a total of 13 hours of flight from South Africa.

Who cares about that, though? Y’all want to see the photos! It was a priority for me to take a few right at Otopeni Airport, because I’ve personally never seen any online, and after taking them I can understand why: I was immediately approached by a security guard packing a sub-machine gun who demanded to see all the photos I’d taken. Apparently they weren’t deemed too sensitive, because after showing him he wandered off happily.

Funnily enough this is in Otopeni's departures hall - a lot nicer than arrivals

I’ll admit that things didn’t start off well for me. Have you ever had that moment while waiting for your bags at the conveyor belt where your bags don’t turn up, and everybody around you keeps on grabbing their bags? Finally when you’re down to the last few people standing around desperately eyeing each suitcase, you start making jokes about your bags having been lost.

For my wife and I the joke was increasingly unfunny. We waited right up until when they turned off the conveyor belt before trudging through to lost baggage claims, where it was confirmed that our cases weren’t lost – they were just in Dubai, after not having being transferred correctly to our connecting flight (despite having been assured TWICE in Dubai that this had been done). *sigh* Hello Romania, with the clothes on our backs! Best part is Fly Dubai isn’t flying here again until Friday, so we’re going to have to go on an impromptu clothes shopping spree tomorrow.

Road infrastructure pretty good

So, first impressions … I like it! Traffic is hectic - dare I say worse than Johannesburg? - and I notice that lane markings like solid white lines are ignored with impunity. Also, the man who picked us up from the airport drove with the death-wish I’ve heard that all Romanians drive with, and I couldn’t quite get used to the steering while being on the left-hand side while sitting as a passenger in the front. Top tip here: maybe don’t try renting a car if it’s your first day in Bucharest. The roads are a warren of rather unclear traffic junctions - at least to me as an outsider.

One thing my research from outside Romania did prepare me for, however, was the number of old buildings. I haven’t had a chance to visit the modern side of Bucharest yet, but the photos I’ve included here capture the old-style blocks you see everywhere.

Vertical development: hope you don't mind small lifts
Other fleeting impressions: the paper lei bank notes have a really distinctive silky feeling and intricate patterns; there are some huge modern vending machines filled with a wide array of really tasty snacks; you drive past a picturesque forest between Otopeni airport and Bucharest proper; and almost everything is exclusively available in Romanian.

This last point is something I’ve commented on before on my blog, but it’s really in-your-face in Romania. Take, for example, that I needed to buy a sim card for my cellphone when I arrived at the airport, and I opted for a starter pack by Orange. Imagine my surprise when I opened the starter pack, and noticed that every bit of instructional text in it is in Romanian. When I finally figured it out with my wife's help, all the automatic smses the network sent to me were also in Romanian. Problem. At least the ATM I used gave me an option to select English up-front!

Not much to look at from the outside, but a lot nicer inside!
As a closing thought, it is COLD. No snow in the streets (although there was some last week), but it was quite a shock leaving the warm airport and stepping into a wind so biting cold that my breath immediately started steaming. Good thing I’d carried a jacket as carry-on luggage, and not stashed it in my suitcase! On the flip side I have to note that the radiators and insulation in the apartment blocks are really effective, so the temperature isn’t a debilitating issue.

Err, this has turned out longer than I intended, but it’s exactly what I expected: as a journalist I’m a content generator, and now that I’m finally in Romania I’m surrounded by nothing but content. I feel a bit like that robot in that movie that becomes self-aware, and runs around the city crying out ‘Input, input!’ If you’re in Romania this is obviously all old hat, but I’ll share all these early impressions and non-touristy photos to help other people like me, keen to get a ‘real’ insight into Romania.

That’s enough for Day 1. Romanian cellphone number, check. Card for use on public transport, check. First experience of soup with borscht, (tasty) check! Day 2 will bring some shopping and more hands-on experiences. Until then, signing out from Bucharest. Good night, and good luck.

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