Thursday, 2 January 2014

100th Post: Back in South Africa

It's official, friends: I'm back in Johannesburg, with my month-long holiday in Romania done. It's a surreal feeling ... yesterday at 14:00 I was in Bucharest, and today at 12:00 I was in Johannesburg. It's a five hour flight from Bucharest to Dubai with FlyDubai, then we had an eight-hour layover in Dubai (just wandering through the incredible mall-like Duty Free), and a eight-hour flight to Johannesburg with Emirates. Bushed? Already slept this afternoon, lol.

It's been an amazingly emotional journey for my wife and I ... for her, reconnecting to Romania after a ten year's absence; and for me, accompanying her and supporting her through that experience. I won't lie that it's a relief to be back in South Africa, but that's only because I feel like I'm in control of my life again and not just a victim of circumstance: here I understand the language on the TV news, I had my car I could jump into, and when I wanted to reconnect my television I knew the number I had to phone (living in a country is a million of small experiences).

When we left Bucharest it was another overcast winter morning, around 1 degree Celsius again, and even though we were anticipating the heat (30 degrees Celsius and car air-conditioner on maximum), we were really caught out by the bright golden sunshine and vibrant colours of summer. You really do end up squinting like a mole, as your brain tries to re-orientate itself to 'back-home'.

Five things I liked about Romania:
1: Cheap things: personal taxi rides costing 6 lei (R18) for short-distance hops to 25 lei (R75) for an airport transfer; a cross-country parcel couriered from Cluj-Napoca (in the north) to Bucharest (in the south) for only 25 lei (R75); a heavy-duty winter jacket imported from China for 80 lei (R240)
2: An efficient public transport system: I've previously used an Oyster Card to navigate London's public transport, but it was still fantastic to have access to the same thing in the form of a pre-paid RATB card in Bucharest to swipe for trains, trams and buses. Trips cost less than 2 lei (R6), and long-distance over-land trips by train are also affordable: we paid 19 lei (R57) for a three-hour trip on a regional train between Bucharest and Sinaia, and 100 lei (R300) for an express ten-hour trip between Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca.
3: The simple things in life: Being able to buy a pie for 3 lei (R9) was good. Walking out of the cold in Romania into buildings that are so warm thanks to omnipresent hot-water-powered radiators on the walls that you immediately strip off your jacket was great. Having access to a 20 MB/s unlimited internet connection and 50+ cable TV channels which is so cheap was brilliant.
4: Beautiful public parks: In Johannesburg you're lucky if you get a small patch of grass with two trees and one bench to sit on as a 'public space'. In Bucharest you have numerous MASSIVE parks with walk-ways lined with benches, complete with lakes (ducks pre-installed) and free exercise equipment.
5: Friendly people: this is going to seem completely in contradiction to point 2 below, but I had numerous amazing experiences with friendly people who my wife and I really got on with, and who treated us like family.

Five things I didn't like about Romania (more applicable in Bucharest than elsewhere):
1: Rude salespeople and customer service people: Yes, there were exceptions to this, but there were so many cases of people who are meant to serve customers being arrogant or dismissive that it was crazy.
2: Unhappy people with somewhere to get to in a hurry: Bucharest was very different primarily because in Johannesburg we live more isolated lifestyles. Everybody is in their cars, so it's rare that you're ever stuck in a moving stream of walking people (apart from heading towards a concert). I'm not saying that all South African people are cheerful all the time, but the number of silent and clearly depressed people cutting you off all the time while walking in the Bucharest Metro stations was truly overwhelming.
3: The cost of 'familiar' things to me: Whether we're talking about McDonalds medium meals costing 30 lei (R90!) or laptops for 2 000 lei (R6 000) without Windows pre-installed, there were plenty of times you'd get caught out as a visitor. Airports are always more expensive for food, but it amazes me that a 3 lei bottle of Nestea you could buy in the Metro vending machines cost 9 lei (R27) in the airport vending machines.
4: Being treated like a potential criminal everywhere: something you quickly get used to in Bucharest is constant surveillance. People will follow you in stores and even museums (!) to keep an eye on you. There will be more people at the check-out area scrutinising that you haven't hidden anything under your jacket in your trolley. I guess this is an indicator of high levels of petty theft, but understanding it doesn't make it fun.
5: Just how little English you find in Romania. It's like if you're a foreign tourist and want to find out about Dracula, you're covered in Romania. Nobody, however, has really contemplated that there might possibly be English-speakers in Romania needing to read warning signs ('Iesire' means 'Exit' didn't you know), magazines (even popular global brands are in Romanian), instructions (even on public transport - all tourists use taxis, not), labels, or understand even a single local TV news channel (they're all in Romanian).

More than all of the above, the desperate state of buildings really worries me (even Government buildings like railway stations). Yes, in Bucharest some apartment blocks are being re-painted, but for every one of those you can spot buildings which haven't been touched since the 1970s. It's not just one or two buildings ... it's so many that I think that Romania has already lost the battle. The required investment now is just too huge. What's it all going to look like in another 20 years? I've already remarked that people have clearly given up trying to paint over the graffiti on the buildings' exteriors, but it goes so much further than that and it's so damn sad because you can see the greatness lying underneath.

There's amazing natural beauty in Romania. There's a great infrastructure for keeping the average person fed, warm and at work on-time. There's also a huge amount of economic pressure and everybody has a tale about unscrupulous employers willing to fire you at the drop of a hat ... I realise that given the low average salaries many of the things I found affordable were actually relatively average, and the things which were expensive really are exorbitant.

So would I go back to Romania again? Without a doubt: I've got new friends there, and a vast country to still explore. Would I ever pretend that it's a tourist's dream? Not yet, not by a long way - at the very least, not unless you as a foreigner first put in a significant amount of work to learn Romanian (not the formal kind you get out of books, but the informal rapid-fire spoken form with all of its contractions).

Thank you Romania for memories of a lifetime (e.g. skiing down Azuga's bumpy and icy 'snow' out-of-control to wrap myself around the only signboard pole on the slope). Here's to next time.


  1. Thank you for the nice words about the country, Leon.

    Nevertheless, given the places you have been, I could say that you didn't start to make an idea about the country, is very few, unrepresentative and uninteresting, compared with the really beautiful regions.

    Prahova Valley is the number one touristic area only because is the closest to Bucharest mountain region, but for the very same reason is the least genuine and attractive, I would say (especially after passing recently by there) and Cluj too is situated in the so called Transylvanian Plain (actually a hilly area), which is dull compared with other zones where the combination between forests, blossomed pastures, river meadows etc creates a mirific environment. I know is hard to convince you, but is a completely different thing

    If you'll come again (and I wish this much), I hope you'll have more time and the possibility to drive through the really scenic and atmospheric places of the country, to see the archaic rural life, the untouched nature of the national parks etc.


    1. I hear you Andrei, but for a country to be a tourist hotspot it needs more than just exceptional modern beauty ... it needs somebody in power to re-think tourists' entire journey from arrival at Otopeni airport, right through their navigation of the various transport options - I'm thinking of unfriendly staff at the CFR and RATB kiosks here - and their understanding of their arrival without the automatic assumption that they'll all have a local tour guide to hold their hand every step of the way. Some people might want to rent a car, other people might want to buy some books at the airport about Romania's hotspots (funny thing - next time you're at the airport, go into the bookshop and count the number of tourist books available in English), and who knows what the heck other tourists will do? I stand by my contention that without a good understanding of Romanian the average foreign tourist is going to be very lost, and that point was proven just as I was leaving Romania ... my wife was approached by a group of Italian tourists who couldn't understand how the RATB pre-paid transport card worked, using only their broken English. In a way, these are all simple problems to solve: it's a matter of signage, tour guides in multiple languages, and improved customer service at key touch-points for tourists (still sorely lacking based on what I saw). Once those basics are sorted, THAT is when tourists can actually get to Romania's beauty and be able to enjoy it for what it is. Here's to hoping somebody does something about it!

  2. I completely agree with you, Romania isn't prepared to have mass international tourism and myself, I'm not sure I wish this mass tourism, given the way the places become as they turn touristy. That doesn't mean that I don't want an efficient and friendly tourism system in Romania and perhaps in some years such thing will be more and more present (at the moment Romanians lack the big picture in many of their enterprises). The politeness and friendliness of people is higher than some years ago, so apparently things go in the right direction.

    With the previous comment I just wanted to tell you that you haven't reached the really enchanting areas of Romania, except few along the railway, but they can't be well appreciated from train because in Romania along the railways are often disposed industrial stuff or other eye-hurting things.

    Romania is a land of contrasts, there are regions with bad administration and others that things are going well, like many cities in Transylvania or Moldavia. The grafitti is not a problem in other cities like it is in Bucharest. Is true also that there are some (not many) places worse than Bucharest, like Constanța, or some rural areas.

    So the contrasts between regions is big, not only in culture and nature but also in the richness / poverty, or good maintance and administration versus abandonment and decay.