Run the equator: January 2008

Thursday, January 31, 2008

India - sensory overload

It’s been already two weeks since we arrived in India. Moving at a steady pace, without staying more than three nights in one spot, we have seen almost all the places worth seeing in the south of Kerala and made forays into Tamil Nadu. It’s too much time and too many events to put into separate stories on the blog, so I will compress it all, dispense with the superfluous adjectives and go for elementary, condensed bullet points.

  • Save the cows
    Click photo to see slideshow
    or here for all Trivandrum pictures
    Culture shock, anyone? – India is different, strange and vaguely unsettling. Even after crossing three continents and becoming a battle-hardened world traveler, I still have room for the overloaded sensory experience that is India. There are so many little facets, quirks, nuts and bolts that come together to create its peculiar identity that it’s hard to even come up with a start to describe it. Is it the incredible number of people who swarm the streets, moving fast, guided by mysterious mundane purposes? Is it the chaos and jumble of the cities, the mountains of garbage that clog every back alley, or the odd absence of sidewalks? The multitude of language and scripts, none of them familiar? Or maybe the abundance of fragrances and foods, of which only a few are known to the western traveler from the scoped-down Indian restaurants from back home? And the list goes on...
  • Protector of gods
    Post office – we seem to always have to send parcels home, no matter where we go. On the first day of our arrival in Trivandrum, we ran to the post office right after checking in into our hotel. We had to get rid of a mountain of winter clothes which had become useless – there would be no cold weather for the rest of this trip. The post office clerk was very forthcoming when we explained that we wanted to send a package to America, but became puzzled when I asked where I could get a box. “No boxes accepted,” he said, “you have to wrap everything in cloth”. I had a vision of myself buying a couple of square meters of cotton fabric and sewing it painstakingly into an amorphous bundle, but there was no need for that – the clerk took us to a tailor nearby who pressed and folded the whole medley of clothes, shoes and accessories and hemmed a bag of just about the right size for it, then stitched it shut and sealed it with wax, exactly as the post office wanted it. We overpaid for this service, but what the hell! – Nothing beats getting rid of 20 pounds from your backpack.
  • Sunset in Varkala
    Click photo to see slideshow
    or here for all Varkala/Backwaters photos
    Go south, they say – a few of our Indian friends and coworkers told us to go to the south of India rather than the north; that the south is more relaxed and more beautiful. We followed their advice started with the south, but I haven’t been much impressed so far. The tropical scenery is less impressive than the one in Central and South America, the heat is about the same, the beaches are average, and the wildlife-watching opportunities are pitiful – the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is an overpriced racket; it shelters nothing but a clan of opportunistic, tourist-harassing monkeys. You may see a few elephants and deer in the woods along Lake Periyar, but spotting a tiger is as likely as winning the lottery. The renowned Kerala Backwaters, a network of shallow lagoons and brackish lakes that extend inland along the Arabian Sea coast, are good, relaxing places for a boat cruise, but they are not something to praise in awe. There’s little history to be seen here with the notable exception of the Padmanabhapuram palace, which houses one of the finest examples of Indian woodwork.
  • Do not feed the animals!
    Click photo to see slideshow
    or here for all Periyar pictures
    Why visit India? – I don’t understand the urge of some western travelers to come to India in search of spiritual fulfillment. A more profound or more troubled spirit than I am may be able to find a meaningful justification to this bewildering quest; barring this inscrutable aspect, I can easily find a few reasons to put the subcontinent (or a tiny part of it) on your next vacation’s map. Most important for any budget-conscious vacationer, India is dirt-cheap, if you don’t count the cost of the plane ticket to get you there (and even in that area, things are changing nowadays, as budget airlines open routes to cities in India). It’s no wonder that Indian tourist destinations are full of kids who just finished school and want to lazy out and travel for a few more months before getting a real, grinding, 9-to-5 job, and retired hippies drifting around on a three-pennies-a-day budget. Hotel, food and transportation costs are the three ferocious beasts gnawing at your wallet when you travel, but in India they are all tame puppies. A little money goes a long way here… What’s not cheap are sightseeing activities – the Indian government has established a two-tiered entrance fee system with separate prices for Indians and foreigners, for every museum or national park. Prices for foreigners are on the average ten times higher than those the locals pay, but that does not deter anybody – it comes down to only a few extra bucks. And another good reason to visit India, maybe the most compelling, would be the food...
  • Everybody can do it!
    Feeding frenzy – No doubt about it, everyone will agree that India has the best and most varied vegetarian food on earth. Masala dosa, vegetable biryani, Aloo gobi, palak paneer, mutter paneer masala, samosas, pakoras… I have to resist the urge to enumerate them all, but I would run out of space before I can exhaust the incredible variety of non-meat foods found in Indian eateries, from the tiny, three-table, suspicious-looking, crumbling street shack to the luxury, air-conditioned restaurants that cater mostly to tourists, the rich and the visiting Indian émigrés. Now I think I understand why most of my Indian acquaintances from back home are vegetarians, aside from the religious reasons which prohibit beef to people of Hindu faith – you can be a vegetarian here forever without getting bored. I haven’t ordered meat in two weeks, but I still dip my fork sometimes into Angela’s chicken tikka masala – old habits die hard...
Damn! He took the key!

That should be enough for a first installment. I have at least ten other subjects that beg for a place in the list but they will have to wait. There’s too much to say about this country and too little time...

To be continued...

Posted from Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, India

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

India Times

We have been in India for more than a week now, but the schedule has been quite intense and I haven't had the time for stories and pictures yet. Unfortunately my writing cannot keep the pace with our itinerary, and the blog has slipped at least a week behind the events.

In short, we are in Ernakulam (aka Kochin) in the Indian state of Kerala. So far we have passed through Trivandrum, Kanyakumari, Varkala, Kollam, Allepy, Kottayam, and Kumily, and we took boats, buses and trains to get between these towns. Tomorrow we'll take an overnight train to Chennai. Very busy!

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Friday, January 25, 2008

City of Empires

The Galata Tower
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for all Istanbul pictures

In Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, Bucharest and Budapest we tried to walk the streets and discover the city attractions but we always suffered early defeats caused by the unfavorable temperatures of the European winter. There is only so much time you can spend in an under-budgeted, under-heated archaeology museum before you start dreaming of a cozy, warm room and a bed covered with lots of blankets. But despite the fact that we knew it wouldn’t be much fun to visit another big city in January we still went to Istanbul. Part of the reason to visit was that the cheapest flight to India that we found was leaving from Istanbul and the connection from Romania to Turkey came at a reasonable price as well. And once you made it to one of the great cities of the world because you had to, it would be a waste not to spend more time there to enjoy it.

Inside Aya Sofia

Istanbul is the edge of the continent, where Europe meets Asia, a city where the coils of history unfurl in every street and back alley, like charging armies scampering through the scattered stones of long-gone magnificent royal palaces. Istanbul’s fate is unique among the histories of the great cities of the world: once the radiant capital of a glorious Christian empire, which slowly declined to comprise just the city itself, Constantinople fell to its attackers after one final battle of historic proportions, only to become the center of a new world power, a Muslim city that in time surpassed the leftover glory of its Byzantine heritage and reinvented itself. I’ve always considered the fall of Constantinople in 1453 as one of the most harrowing moments in history, sad for the simple yet unsettling fact that its conquest completely erased something that existed and replaced it with something new almost overnight. The newly beginning city rested on the pillars of its inheritance; it adopted some of its forms (best seen in the shape of its mosques, which all look like its older Greek-orthodox churches) but it was apparent that nothing would be the same again...

A stack of pretty boxes
at a stand in the Bazaar

At a glance, Istanbul is a gigantic city rolling on roof-covered hills over the horizon, but its main attractions (the places a travel guide book would recommend you to visit) are all within the old city and across the Golden Horn in Pera (the modern Kadikoy) and Galata. Most of those sites are accessible by a simple yet clever network of tram, metro and underground funiculars (in fact we didn’t have to take the taxi once during the 6 days we spent in town). The best places to stay are the Sultanahmet area at the south-eastern edge of the old town, and Taksim Square in Galatasaray. If you stay in Sultanahmet you’re within walking distance of the historic attractions (Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi palace, the Byzantine mosaic museum, the underground Basilica cistern and the incredible Grand Bazaar).

Shopping on Istiklal Caddesi

In Taksim square you are close to the glitzy, modern avenues lined up with designer boutiques and coffee shops (including Starbucks, yes!), and to good but more pricey restaurants. We stayed at the Istanbul Hostel in Sultanahmet and had an easy time getting to the historic sites, but we couldn’t resist taking a couple of trips across the water to walk on Istiklal Caddesi for a mini shopping-spree, sprinkled with stops at Starbucks to buy good but overpriced coffee. Speaking of prices, Turkey may still be cheaper compared to Western Europe but not by much. At 1.15 lira to a dollar the prices seemed vaguely familiar and not at all comforting to the wallet. Museum entrance fees are usually around 10 Lira, coffee is 4 or 5 (coffee!), a cheap dinner for two costs around 20 Lira and an expensive one may beat a hundred. Just like home, don’t you think?

In the Spice Bazaar

You can get döner kebab at the bazaar for just 1 Lira, but who wants to survive on kebabs only, in a city renowned for its luscious foods? Moreover, with the cold and all, your best bet is to find a good and reasonably-priced restaurant near the hotel and stick with it in case you’re too lazy to take a trip across town through the chilly night. And that’s exactly what we did, and ended up eating soup, pide (Turkish pizza) and kebab at this place called Karadeniz (translated: The Black Sea) almost every day, either for lunch or dinner, until the owner called me his friend (presumably because I was the one he was giving the bill too). And I should not forget the divine baklava and sahlep sold at the nearby pastry shop...

Eating food on the street will challenge you with a little detail: there is no trash bin in this city, I swear, no place to throw an empty Starbucks cup. And still, it looks clean. Somewhere, the mayor must be proud.

And so for us, Istanbul was the end of one part of our trip, the last of our wanderings in Europe, and the beginning of a new path: Asia.

Posted from Kumaly - Kerala, India.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

A traveler's worst nightmare

We had taken more than 20 flights on this trip before leaving Romania for Istanbul. We almost got used to things being always smooth: you get out of the airplane, you go through the immigration booth, you pick up your bags, then you get out and look for transportation... And yet, as we arrived in Istanbul, for the first time, things were different: Angela's backpack didn't come rolling on the carousel. What do we do now?

Of course, we went to the lost baggage office; all they could tell us was that they would send a missing luggage report to the airline and call us later at the hotel. Not much to placate a desperate backpacker who saw all her underwear missing... They weren't very helpful telling us what they will do to get the bag, but they were prompt to announce the one thing they wont: they will not deliver the bag to our hotel because Tarom, the Romanian airline which flew us from Cluj to Istanbul via Bucharest does not authorise home delivery (presumably because they do not want to pay the airport carrier for the service). There wasn't much else we could do, so we went to our hotel.

The next day the airport - of course - didn't call, so we did. Then things got confusing. First they said they found the bag. Later, as we called again, they realized that they had found a different bag. They told us to come to the airport and contact Tarom. We went to the airport, not necessarily to contact Tarom but rather to talk face to face to the girls from the lost luggage office, because nothing seemed to work over the phone. There was no permanent Tarom office at the Ataturk international airport - they only show up at check-in time. We somehow managed to get back inside the baggage claim area under escort, after I left my passport hostage to the security desk and pleaded with the girl at the office which by now, after so many phone calls, knew me by name. The bag was finally found in Bucharest. Luckily an international electronic lost baggage system exists, which is accessible via computer like the Sabre reservation network, to all airports. It really helps to know the brand of your bag in case the tag has been lost, which was exactly what had happened to ours.

Finding the bag was a little victory. Having it delivered to Istanbul was a different story. Of course, nobody knew or bothered telling us when this bag would make it to Turkey. Their attitude drove Angela crazy. Americans are used to answers like "I don't know, but I'm going to make a few phone calls and find out right now", but in most of the rest of the world you get just "We made a request in the system, we'll call you when we know more" (which of course they don't, so you have to keep calling and pestering them to achieve anything). We met a Dutch guy who was at the airport to get his luggage, two days after his arrival in Istanbul. He was wearing flip-flops and sweatpants, obviously his choice of clothing for a more comfortable plane ride. At least Angela had her boots to cope with the chilling weather.

Another day later, when I was already considering lending half of my underwear to Angela, the backpack finally arrived, and as a final consolation prize, it was even delivered to our hotel. Unfortunately, as we had feared, some things were missing: our magnetic travel-size games of chess and backgammon were nowhere to be found. We can't really know who stole them along this chain of weaknesses, but I will take pleasure in blaming it on Tarom, the Romanian airlines. I didn't expect anything else from them.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008


Yes, it was that cold!
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for the Budapest set

If we thought Romania was being hit by extreme winter temperatures, once we got to Hungary we realized that it could get much worse. It was so cold you wish you wore underpants. You wouldn’t want to let your dog out of the house for a leak. But since we were already there – after the uneventful 6 hour bus ride from Cluj – we tried to make the best out of it. Sure, the plan had been to walk the beautiful imperial streets of downtown Pest, to hike up to the Buda castle, to visit a museum or two and to try some of the famous goulash. But…

I got sick the day we arrived and wasn’t able to eat or do anything else on that evening (except maybe, to argue with Angela about what to do when the owner of the guest house did not answer the door bell as we arrived – he did, a little later). As for the rest of the days, although I felt better, they weren’t much more charged with activity. The hotel room was too cold, despite the heating working full-time, so we spent a lot of time under the blankets that were provided abundantly. We woke up late every day (who would be eager to go outside when even the walk across the room and into the bathroom seems like an arctic adventure?) and on our only day of real city walking we spent most of the time shopping on Vaci Utca without buying anything, which for once I didn’t mind, since the stores were, at least, well heated.

Lunch at the "Menza"

All this reluctance to going out materialized into a bit of financial woe… our hotel was near the Oktogon, on the majestic Terez Korut boulevard, right around the corner from the famous Ferenc Liszt Ter (Franz Liszt square) where all the posh restaurants are located. We did not have the nerve to go look for the few cheap eateries left in Budapest, so we ended up eating in the square every night. Although the Hungarian Forint is floating at a ridiculous rate to the dollar, something like 1 to 170, once you do the math there’s nothing left to laugh about – almost every meal we had seemed more expensive than it would have been at home. Prices for mixed drinks were astronomic. It actually made you think that the US is a cheap place… and to think that this was once a communist country…

Parliament corner

As it has sadly become the norm in recent weeks, I did not take almost any pictures in Budapest, except on the last day, when after taking Angela to the airport (she was going home for a few days) I spent an hour in town alone and reluctantly pulled the camera out of the bag, only to have my fingers frozen on the shutter a quarter of an hour later. As for the museums, they had the same fate as the other beautiful things in town: we ignored them all, except for the Terror Haza, The House of Terror (Museum of the Horrors of Fascism and Communism) which was interesting but would look a little baffling to people who didn’t already know the context. And of course, it could use some explanations in English - not many of the visitors seemed to understand Hungarian…

After Romania and Budapest, Angela and I hit a rough patch and we almost stopped the trip. The stress of these months of travel had built up slowly, unnoticed, and blew up in my face. We worked things out and we’re on the road again. Strange as it may sound, it feels good to be in a hotel room again…

Published from Istanbul.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008


We're leaving for Istanbul tomorrow, January 10, and we'll stay there until the 17th when we leave for India. There will finally be warm weather! Maybe even too much of it...
I'm still trying to catch up with stories from Romania and Hungary.

Posted from Cluj, Romania.

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Monday, January 7, 2008

The good, the bad and the useless

It’s list-time today! For people like us who have their whole life packed up in plastic bags, there always comes a time of reckoning… Was it worth taking those fancy shoes? Did I really need that huge bottle of lotion? How about the electronic gizmo to chase mosquitoes away...? So here they are:

Most useful things we took with us on this trip:
  • Fujitsu Lifebook
    Laptop Computer - not much larger than a DVD case, the Fujitsu Lifebook 1510 is clearly at the top of my beloved possessions. Its compact size makes for easy storage in any day bag and in most safe boxes in hotel rooms. This blog is written on it – I sort and delete pictures and I write the text in advance; thus I am done with most of the heavy-lifting before I need to go to an Internet café where I ask for an Ethernet connection or wireless access, so I can upload all the content. Most I-cafes charge for service (ah, where is Argentina, the land of free wireless…), and in Africa and Europe, unlike in South America, Internet is very pricey (unless you are lucky enough to find a hostel that has “free” wireless access), so these preparations save me quite a bit of dough. Another advantage of having the computer is being able to do online banking and e-commerce without worrying about keyboard loggers and other malware.
  • Digital Rebel
    Canon Digital Rebel XT SLR Camera – I’m far from being an expert in photography, but I cringe when I see how sometimes the flashes of compact digital cameras go off around me in bright day. At least, having this complicated beast has forced me to learn how to use it properly. Who knew there were words like 'aperture', 'depth of field', 'shutter speed' and 'focal length' that I would, one day, understand?
  • Soft case
    Camera protective case – The camera and accessories came with a protective case from the seller (a swindler in New Jersey who overcharged me for batteries), but the thing fell apart to pieces within two weeks. Made in China of course. After getting weary of carrying my camera in plastic bags and my accessories in a clothes bag, I bought a padded square case for the accessories and a triangular padded case for the camera. They are also made in China but they lasted…
  • H&M trunks
    H&M men's underwear – it is no surprise to anyone who knows the special relationship a man enjoys with his underwear, that when you, after years of wearing the wrong cuts and brands, finally find underwear that fits well, you want to have as many pairs as you can carry. I have 10 pairs with me. And with this I have also answered the age-old question "boxers or briefs?"... Well, neither!
  • Steripen
    Steripen UV water purifier – We bought this device from Michael and Mor as they finished their trip in Buenos Aires and did not need it any further. Although, surprisingly, water in Southern Africa is safe to drink in many places (unlike in South America where not even the locals drink the tap water, here even most tourists drink it) we purify it with this tool and don’t have to always worry about having enough bottled water until the next trip to the grocery store.
  • Travel towel
    REI travel towels – thin, efficient, drying fast and completely synthetic, these towels are the perfect companion for the shower. The traditional cotton bathroom towels don’t belong in a traveler’s backpack – they are large, fluffy and will rot fast if they stay wet for too long. In contrast, these towels may not be as absorbent as cotton, but they weigh nothing, take only a fraction of a regular towel’s space, and can be packed wet, which is often the case when you’re on a trip. You have to wash them sometimes though, you know?
  • Prescription sunglasses – Not having to put on contact lenses (see below) to be able to use sunglasses – priceless!
  • Leatherman all purpose tool – a must-have backpacking tool (Swiss army knives are pretty toys compared to these manly utensils), but - sadly - it was stolen from my backpack somewhere in Guatemala. I hope the thief accidentally cuts one of his fingers with it! I had to make-do with a cheap replacement bought in Bolivia, whose corkscrew is now broken, because of too much use…
  • Silicone earplugs – you think I could sleep with the fan or A/C going full power in those sweltering rooms in Mexico? Or in our hotel room in Cairo, located on the main shopping street where taxi drivers, suffering from compulsive honking, drive up and down all night? You bet I can! There’s nothing like the comfort of silence given by ears stuffed with silicone...
  • Ultra-light battery-powered alarm clock – Being able to hit the snooze button a gazillion times when we have a plane to catch in two hours, just like we did when we had to go to work… is there anything better?!
  • iPod Nano G3 – sure, there are many other, cheaper digital music players out there, but there’s nothing quite like the real thing. We did not carry this one from home; we bought it in Spain instead. I don’t use it, but Angela has been longing for a music box for a very long time and she finally got the iPod as a Christmas present. She is very happy with it, especially now that I have taught her (against my common sense) how to use eMule…
Least useful things we took with us:
  • Walkie-talkies – these are great in some situations (as when you want to get a hold of your kids on the ski slopes) but what good do they do for husband and wife on a trip around the world? I can’t picture any use for them besides: “honey, I’m on the beach and I forgot the sun screen, can you bring it to me after you’re done reading the newspaper (which means now)?” So, after carrying them idly in my backpack for a couple of months we sent them home from Ecuador.
  • Rain coat – I love my Columbia sportswear sheer raincoat and windbreaker, and it has served me well in Seattle over the years, but although we have had our share of rain in South America and Africa, I didn't seem to be missing it and used my Marmot jacket instead, although it had no hood. It was just dead space in the backpack. I sent it home from South Africa. This is just one example to show that we had packed too many clothes. Some of you can now tell me “I told you so!”
  • Power transformer – my travel adapter kit came with a power transformer for electrical appliances which understand only the 110 volt standard of the United States (while most of the world runs on 220). However all my electrical tools - the laptop AC adapter, the camera battery charger and the regular battery charger for AA and AAA batteries – work with both voltages and only need plug adapters. The transformer is a small box, but weighs almost one pound. It had to go. I donated it to our hostel in Cape Town.
  • Contact lenses – I took them with me and I still have them, but I have only worn them twice. I’ll keep them, since they do not take much space, just in case I want to shed the intellectual look for once.
  • 98% DEET (Diethyl-m-toluamide) spray and insect-repellent to drench your clothes in – some smartass at REI convinced us that you cannot go into the infested swamps of Central America and Africa without those two inventions of modern chemistry. But it turned out that the mosquitoes in the places we travelled to were just another bearable nuisance, and lower-concentration (up to 20%) deet-based repellent worked well against them.
  • Lots of $1 bills – some idiot on the Lonely Planet ThornTree forum suggested taking many $1 notes to give as tips in Africa and South America, where they supposedly are much appreciated. Totally useless advice! We tipped people in local currency everywhere, I didn't have to bribe anyone, and I never give anything to the beggars. And in any case a one dollar bill is not worth much nowadays, not even in the third world. But it’s money anyway, so not to be thrown away.
Things we wish we had taken with us:
  • Compact digital Sony camera – I didn't have any inhibitions to walk around in South America dangling my gigantic Canon SLR around my neck, but in Africa things are different. South Africa is notoriously unsafe. The rest of Southern Africa is not that bad but a big camera still attracts great attention. Besides, I have to keep either around my neck or in a backpack. Sometimes I wish I could just pull out the small camera out of my pocket, take a fast shot unnoticed by anyone, and put it back out of sight. When we left Seattle, we didn't take the small Sony with us because we had so much stuff in our bags that we have to abandon anything that seemed redundant, and we had a camera already.
  • Underwater camera case – unfortunately we’ll have to look at pictures in National Geographic to remember those beautiful coral reefs from the Red Sea. The case would have worked with the Sony compact digital camera which we didn't take with us either...
  • More books – of course you can’t take as many books with you as you would read in one year but wouldn't it be nice not to have to rely on the dismal selection of romance and action thrillers at hostel book exchanges or not to have to spend large sums in the English-sections of bookstores in non English-speaking countries?
Anything else?

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Home? What home?

Click on photo to see slideshow
or here for the Cluj-Napoca set

I was born in Cluj-Napoca and have grown up and gone to school and college there. I got beaten up and I fell in love for the first time in this town. I got my heart broken many times over and broke other hearts in turn. Most of my lifetime friends lived at one time or another in those drab apartment neighborhoods. When I kissed a girl for the first time, we were both so embarrassed to be seen kissing, that we hid in an elevator and took rides up and down for a few minutes. I used to smoke cheap cigarettes in the high-school's second-floor boys' bathroom, afraid that I would get caught by the vigilante professors. I had the first girlfriend-pregnancy scare sometime when I lived here. I certainly got drunk for the first time at a party in my hometown – although I can’t remember when. I broke my front teeth on a concrete sidewalk while playing football in my neighborhood. I took long walks through the park with girls to whom I did not dare confess that I liked them. I listened to loud heavy-metal music annoying my parents and the neighbors. As a kid, I beat up an old man who was trying to beat me up for playing in front of the apartment building during the afternoon "mandatory" quiet time. I walked the streets, I rode a bike, I sat on a bench and looked at the pigeons in the main square, day-dreaming.

Communist architecture

I have many memories, fond memories that tie me to Cluj. Yet now, each time when I visit my old town, once every few years, it looks smaller and more alien to me than before. There’s not much left to keep me here. Sure, I have a mother who still lives in the same big, old apartment, the smells of the streets are still familiar, and I still smile when I see the tiny hill in the neighboring church yard where we used to sled each winter when the snows came. But these are only places, and most of them have changed by now. The sad concrete boxes erected in communist times to house the workers who were supposed to build the golden future of the socialist republic are now covered with capitalist ad banners and all the ground-floor apartments have turned into little shops. Huge department stores have opened everywhere. Fancy bars and clubs have mushroomed all over downtown. The money is different. The people have changed. Or maybe I have changed...

Babes-Bolyai University

When I think of what I miss about my country it’s always places, smells and colors; an image of a grassy hillside dotted with hay stacks under a late summer azure sky, a memory of hiking on a muddy footpath through the woods on a rainy day. It’s never the people. Most of my friends from those times are somewhere else in the world; the few ones who still live in town make it easier for me to survive my stay. The eleven years I spent in other countries have taken their toll. Even the language distinction has begun to fade away. I no longer feel more comfortable speaking Romanian than when I use English. I no longer consider Romanian a privileged language among those I speak. I hardly even read in my mother tongue anymore and I never write, nothing besides short emails. I can't even talk about fixing cars and riding horses - the two hobbies I love most - in Romanian, for lack of appropriate vocabulary. It's just another language now, albeit one that I won't forget even if I lack the practice.

A trolley on the boulevard

I have never approved of the nostalgia of those immigrants who can’t wait to return “home” every vacation, at Christmas, Easter and in summer as well, and who make sure to tell to everybody who listens that if it weren't for the better money, they wouldn't live “there,” among the cold foreigners, for one single day. From where I stand now I couldn't imagine returning to this place for good, although living conditions have improved a lot, the money is good in Romania now, and I still have the name of the country written on my passport. My link to the spiritual depths of this land and people has been severely weakened. My home is elsewhere now. Without my intention I have become more American than apple pie (if you don't count the accent), and I can’t picture living anywhere else... except on the road.

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