luni, august 25, 2008

Gareth in Cluj

Gareth, un amic pe care il cunosc din India -- dupa ce a petrecut ceva timp in Mumbai si apoi inca ceva timp in Australia -- a decis sa vina in ...CLUJ!!!

Asadar, mai jos -- fara prea multe introduceri -- iata ce spune Gareth pe blogul lui despre Romania si despre Cluj.


Another Hemisphere
25th August 2008

Well, it's official - I have returned to the northern half of the globe. After two years back home underneath the equator, I have traded the southern cross for a sky full of unfamiliar stars once more. I'm happy to report it's the same old world out here, just as I left it; which is to say, mostly water and clouds. At least, that's my only lasting impression of the place from 39,000 feet, for the first 30 hours of long haul flights.

The last 6 hours were different. Cruising over Europe, we began our long slow descent into Bucharest, the capital of Romania. From there I would take a domestic flight to Cluj-Napoca, the seat of Cluj County, and capital of historical Transylvania; then by car to the quiet suburb of Grigorescu, where I now sit at my kitchen table writing this. A sound plan, to be sure, but I had all afternoon to wait for my next flight, and after a day and a half of non-stop travelling that's harder than you think.

My ears began to pop and I watched the fields growing larger outside my window. No hills, no ocean, for the first time in my life just flat land as far as the eye could see. Strips of crops everywhere, like a giant sheet of paper covered in bar-codes, stretching off into the distance. It felt a bit depressing actually, such a flat and empty looking landscape. I immediately began to hope Cluj would be different.

My impression of Bucharest didn't change much when we touched down. After so many international airports, with their shiny floors, crazy security, and expensive food, I'd just begun to expect more of the same. Zurich was nestled amongst beautiful hills, Sydney was as good as home, Christchurch was home, and Hong Kong was very crowded but at least it had free WiFi. Bucharest was... deserted. The whole place felt as empty as the landscape that surrounded it.

I only saw a couple of other planes on the runway, if you don't count all the ominous looking dark grey military ones parked at one side. The domestic check-in was the same - all counters closed, not a soul in sight. According to the TV screen my flight in 6 hours was the next one. I began to wonder if I was really in the Romanian capital; perhaps the wikipedia entry I read in Hong Kong was inaccurate!

Never mind, nothing for it. I settled in to wait, and made a number of important discoveries.

* My pack was damaged, as usual; more needle work required, nothing it can't survive.
* Something had spilt everywhere, as usual; this time it was the toothpaste. Why can't I be smarter about these things?
* There are vending machines containing beer, for the measly price of 10 LEI. My god, what a country!
* 10 LEI is 5x the real price of a beer, and the machines seem to be just for tourists. I took photos anyway, but not the beer.
* Vending machine coffee sucks, just like everywhere else on the planet.
* What Romanians call mineral water, "apă minerală naturală", is actually fizzy. Carbonated. Soda water. They all claim it comes out of the spring that way, but I have my suspicions. I'll believe it when I see it.
* When you're really thirsty, aforementioned soda water is still drinkable, if you shake the bottle vigorously to knock the gas out of it.
* Despite 50 LEI being a relatively small amount of money (~AUD$25) nobody seems to be able to change it.
* Nobody over the age of 30 speaks any English (educated youth do, on the other hand).
* For conversations extending beyond "hello", my Romanian holds up about as well as a drunken one-legged man in a hurricane. Flipping through a vocab book on the flight does not mean you can pronounce anything.

One thing I really liked was the security and processing. When I went to board my flight to Cluj, the security was very laid back. Nobody asking me to open my laptop bag, or take off my shoes, no queues, just a quick step through the metal detector. That was a really nice change. Much like passport control and customs. I showed up with a bunch of documents I'd been told were required to enter the country, but the man at the desk just took a quick flip through my passport and waived me through. Customs was even easier... non existant. No queues, no metal detectors, no sniffer dogs, not so much as a declaration card... I literally just walked out the door without being asked anything. Sweet.

So... Cluj-Napoca. Cluj as the locals call it. Whatever my initial impressions of Romania, they quickly evaporated as we cruised above the Transylvanian countryside toward Cluj. Small villages dotted amongst rolling green hills slid past my window. Old cathedrals, small flocks of sheep. We passed low over a children's playground with a very uniquely shaped tree. The very next week, to my great amazement, I would stumble across the same playground and tree in Adrian's home town of Alba Iulia, but nobody would believe me that I had seen it before!

Landing in Cluj, I realised I hadn't seen anything in Bucharest - this place was 10x smaller! There was nothing here at all. It makes New Plymouth airport look like Changi International in Singapore by comparison! My first thought was "where is the city?". Cluj domestic "airport" is actually a strip of tarmac out in the hills, next to a single building, containing a single room, containing a single baggage conveyor belt. Green hills and countryside in every direction. Wow. Not what I was expected at all, but I was quite taken with the beauty of the place. I decided right away that I liked it.

We all climbed down from the plane as two guys unloaded our baggage. I could see my bag sitting on the tarmac, and it occurred to me that it would be much faster for us all to go over and pick up our bags directly. But for the sake of procedure we all shuffled inside the "terminal", where the two guys proceeded to ferry bags across, one by one, and place them on the conveyor for us to pick up. It was quite frustrating, watching them walk toward my bag but then always pick up the one next to it :)

I walked out the opposite door, and there was my welcoming committee from AIESEC Cluj-Napoca, and my old friend Adrian, who couldn't recognise me at all! I guess I have changed a lot in the last 2 years. I block out significantly less sunlight nowadays for a start :)

Oh yes, AIESEC - I'm doing another traineeship :) I'm planning to live here for around 1 year, working at the same company as Adrian, with a small and friendly software development team. Looks pretty cool! The only problem is, due to a rather serious blunder on AIESEC's part, I don't have the correct visa - and I can't officially start work until I obtain one. Right now we're in the process of assembling all the paperwork required. Hopefully this week I will be able to cross the border into Hungary and lodge my application (for some silly reason you can't apply from within the country!).

I've already travelled to a few places since I arrived here. I've visited old fortifications and churches (one from the 13th century!); I've listened to an outdoor rock concern in Alba Iulia; I've eaten mici ("meech") at a barbecue in the mountains; I've seen traditional village houses in Sibiu; and I've been to the medieval festival in the ancient city of Sighişoara. All these would make far more interesting tales than aeroplanes and airports, I know, but I really wanted my first post from Romania to record my first impressions of the place. All the other stories can be told in pictures - just as soon as I sort them out :)

As for Cluj, well, it's beautiful. Surrounded by green hills on each side, and a river winds it's way through the centre. When we first drove though it, that day coming back from the airport, I thought it was a small town. I was really surprised when I saw the place from a hilltop one day - it's a city as big as Christchurch. It doesn't feel like it from on the ground, perhaps because it's not "built up"; there are no skyscrapers around, even in the centre. A lot of buildings have that very typical "Eastern European" feel. You can see the not-too-distant Russian influence on the country still reflected in the architecture; from the grand style of the national theatre to the rows of tiny windows on big wide apartment blocks, built as bulk housing in communist times. I'll have to put up some snaps soon to better illustrate what I mean.

Yet despite recent influences, you also get a sense of a much deeper history here. The age of many churches, especially, seems to be measured in centuries. There is a hole in the ground, somewhere in the centre of town, which is fenced off with a little bit of orange tape. Adrian explained to me that the old rubble lying inside the hole (pieces of broken pipe and I'm-not-sure-what) date back to Roman times. I was amazed. Apparently this sort of thing is quite common here... it makes any new developments quite difficult, because they're always discovering things as soon as they start to dig.

Right now we're in the middle of summer, and the weather here is nice & warm. The temperature often hits mid-30s. People sit at little cafes on the street, sipping their coffee and chatting. An old man climbs off the bus, wearing the wide-rimmed hat so typical of his generation, and carrying a fresh loaf of bread under one arm, round, unsliced and unwrapped. He greets an acquaintance he bumps into with a firm handshake. There is a relaxed pace of life here. The city itself feels quiet and safe, in a way that Christchurch did 10 or 15 years ago. Even at night, you can walk the streets without any problems. I know I'm going to like it here.. I already do :)

That's all from me for now. Until next time my friends,


Un comentariu:

PureBean spunea...

Thank you for the great descriptions of the move and you first impressions about your arrival to you destinations I really enjoyed the explanations. Cheers.