Friday, August 22, 2008

Odessa Nights

A couple of days poking around Odessa . . . is enough for us. We picked up some great history about Odessa's Jews from a personal tour of the Migdal Museum, and from a walking tour of Moldovanka, the Jewish neighborhood where my grandmother's family likely lived. (There are still 25,000 to 40,000 Jews in Odessa.

As illustrated in the stories of Shalom Aleichem and Isaac Babel, Moldovanka was a colorful place, founded by Moldovan farmers outside the city limits of Odessa but quickly transformed into a tax haven for smugglers. The Jewish Hospital there, where my great-grandfather probably worked as a nurse, covers many acres and is still in use, though quite decrepit. It's scheduled to be knocked down next year in favor of a new facility, which no doubt is much needed. It does not look like a good place to be sick in now.

In late August, though, Odessa is mostly a beach town, with lots of explosed flesh, much of it singed by the sun. The weather's been very warm, but the beer's been cold. We are ready for the U.S. of A.

See you all soon.
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Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Finish Line

We made it! Our last day, from Chisinau to Odesa, took 13 hours and 114 miles across three hilly countries. There was absolutely nothing between Chisinau and Odesa -- a couple of gas stations and a couple of borders. We hit the one restaurant in between for lunch. Finally, after 70 km of hilly and hot Ukraine, we powered into beautiful, leafy Odesa. Above, our final destination: atop the famous Potemkin Stairs with the Black Sea in the background.

Our day started at 5 am in Chisinau, Moldova, a country best described by the following license plate:
After a room inspector checked our room for cleanliness - at a hotel! - we were fined three dollars for dirty towels. It was a cool, crisp ride through the ongoing Moldovan hills, until we hit a settlement of temporary buildings: the infamous Transnistria border.

Transnistria is a ridiculous pseudo-country which declared independence in 1992 from Moldova but isn't recognized by any other country. It holds a strategic position, being very skinny but very long, which makes it hard to travel east-west in the region without passing through. This basically boils down to a silly border experience powered by bribery.

Fortunately, one of the big assets to being on a bike is you get to skip the long lines at the border. We rolled in, were interrogated by a likable army officer who asked us if we had porno mags, then were encouraged to give him some beer money. We did so; he refused some of our smaller Moldovan denominations. From there, the immigration officer took me into the back room where he requested a tax for the "office." I showed him the eight dollars I had on my person; he insisted on $80/person. We found middle ground by dumping off some old Romanian lei on him.

From there, we hauled ass through the country. Dusty, hot, lots of military, nothing much to see. Witness me beside a glorious Transistrian tank!

The border with Ukraine was also pretty silly - after skipping the line, I was taken to the back room again, where a Transistrian border official drew a map explaining that it was impossible to go from Moldova, through Transinstria, to Ukraine, and that we were missing some critical passport stamps: "big problem!". I said I was willing to give it a go; they requested a "present," so I gave them a torn $5 bill (which the previous border agent wouldn't accept). The Ukrainian guys let us through in five minutes.

After refueling on the Ukrainian side of the border, which featured some adventures in ordering food off a Cyrillic menu, it was a hot, hilly ride to Odesa. However, the Ukrainians plied us with charm and free fruit. The watermelon man here kept trying to give us more slices.

A few more hills, and we were there. Nothing beats the last five miles pedaling into a major city -- the energy grows, the adrenaline fires, the miles melt away.
Odesa - not bust!

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Off the Grid in Transylvania and Moldova

Lots to catch up on. We spent most of three days with the indefatigable Albert Kozma (in Hungarian, Kozma Albert), the minister of the Unitarian Church in Magyarsaros with whom Matt made contact through means too tortuous to recount. That's Albert and Matt bracing the maple-leaf flag sent by Magyarsoros' partner church in Victoria, BC, as we honor all things Canadian. The Magyarsaros Church dates back to the 13th century (yup, you read that right, though it was RC for a few centuries), and today has a bell tower from 1600.

The first day with Albert was a combination of Unitarian history and an introduction to Romanian roads from the inside of a car driven by a true Romanian driver. Albert is definitely in the top decile of drivers in this land; he makes the impossible seem commonplace on the roads. We viewed the church in Turdu (unfortunate name) where King John Sigismund proclaimed Unitarianism in 1568, as well as his crypt in Alba Iulia. We picked up some perspective on the king's conversion process. Instinctively, I have thought of the event as a victory for enlightenment and wisdom, which is certainly part of the story. But the king also managed to pick up all of the land previously controlled by the Catholic church, as well as the lands owned by nobles who declined to convert to Unitarianism. Think Henry VIII of England and the Anglican Church. Also, when the Unitarians took over all the churches they tore out the artworks, which is still somewhat resented as a form of vandalism. Interesting to look at things from another perspective.

Then there was the day honoring Albert's father, also Albert (actually, he is Albert IX, our Albert is Albert X, and his son is Albert XI; the Kozmas are serious about the name Albert). His father was retiring as minister of the Bullon Unitarian church (spelling?), so we caught the ceremony, the party, and the after-party party. The second photo is of Kozmas, in addition to us -- Rosie (Albert X's sister), Albert IX, and Ericka, wife of Albert X. We had a great Sunday morning breakfast with the Kozmas listening for the different calls to worship in the town: the Unistarian bells, the Reformed church bells, then the Orthodox drum (!), and bells. The Kozmas were amazingly hospitable and warm -- and are now friends.

Next day we were off for more sightseeing and a train ride to Iasi ("yash") on the Moldovan border. The Romanian train stacks up well against anything Amtrak has to offer.

Yesterday was a long day in the saddle. We rode for 85 miles from Iasi -- 55 of them were in the correct direction! We crossed the border into Moldova and swiftly discovered a serious flaw in our guidebook from Lonely Planet, which describes Moldova as "flat as a board." WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. We scaled two giant hills, one paved and the other, well, let's just say that there was a team meeting halfway through a "shortcut" as to whether to turn back because of the wind, rain, mud, and general uncertainty as to where the hell we were. The power line, the team noted, ended right there. The team, however, followed the message of the Pete Seeger song ("Waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the Big Fool said to push on"). We passed through two towns that I would swear were in the Borat movie, and finally found pavement again.

Because of some misinformation that led to our erroneous travel, we had to stop for the night in Calerasi. This was, it must be said, a new low in hygiene and food opportunities. I will go light on details, since today we checked into the finest hostelry in Chisinau, washed our clothes, and had a major lunch.

Tomorrow is the Big One. We go from here to Odessa . . . or bust. Hold us in your thoughts.
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Thursday, August 14, 2008

1 AM Snapshot from Transylvania

Cold kicking it in the Rev. Nagys car (in his driveway) as he blasts and sings along with the Hungarian band Omega, which sounds like a cross between Pink Floyd and The Who. This pic was taken after a substantial helping of homemade wine, which the good reverend makes in the cellar.

Today, obviously, is a day off the bikes.
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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

In the Heartof Transylvania

We set off from Cluj-Napoca yesterday, and (amazingly) it felt good to be back in the saddle. For about ten minutes. Then we hit the 3-plus mile hill out of Cluj, which involved major traffic. It was a long pull up, then a terrifying run down the other side, on a major four-lane road. It was a pleasure to get to Turdu, which is otherwise a pretty grim industrial town, because the road shrank to two lanes and the traffic slowed enough to allow jumpy cyclists (e.g., moi) some peace of mind, even on a very warm day.

We have found the hills of Transylvania -- three more after the pull out of Cluj. Somewhat contrary to expectations (that whole "sylvan" thing in the name), the area is not heavily forested. It reminded me a bit of the Scottish highlands, with hills that looked a bit scalped. The agriculture also does not seem as intensive as we saw in Poland and Hungary, though my eye for that is not particularly learned. One of our current hosts suggested that the Austrians and the Russians (most recent occupiers) made off with the timber.

We turned off the main highway after about 50 miles, and made our way to Dicsoszentmarton (Tirnameni on your Romanian map), to the partner church of our home Unitarian Church, Cedar Lane in Bethesda, MD. We were greeted by the minister, Endre Nagy (in Hungarian, they put the surname first, but I have flipped the names for our Western readers) and his wife Dodi, pictured above. Daughter Szilla (sp?) and her recent fiancee, Gerard, provide the dazzling English language skills that keep the conversation going. She's an aspiring lawyer and he teaches history -- a pretty good match for me. We just missed son Endre, who flew yesterday morning to California for a year at the Starr King Seminary in Berkeley.
The family has put us up with wonderful grace and hospitality, which has included good Hungarian food and excellent wine made at home by the good minister. (Every seminary should have wine-making in its curriculum; best wine of the trip.) The talk, and the wine, lasted well into the night.
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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Day Off With Lingering Totalitarianism

The HelmetCam broke yesterday, so here's a teaser video - our bicycle entry to Budapest.

After five straight days on the road, we're taking a break day in Cluj Napoca, Romania, which for me has largely involved napping and minor Olympic swimming viewing. Romania is an interesting country, in that we know so little about it. Much has been made of the ultra-poor Romanian village which was the scene for Borat's hometown; so far, though, Romania has proven to be less poor than expected. Wi-fi is available in hotels and cafes; mobile phones are everywhere; the rumored terrible potholes don't exist. Though the drivers has proven to be far more idiotic in other countries we've visited, the police know that, and there are dozens of speed traps, rumble strips, and cautions to get people to slow down.

The most disappointing discovery of Romania is a big one -- the people. Time and time again we've met people who want to do the least work possible, who automatically say no to simple and easily fulfillable requests and only change course when word comes from above. Case in point: at a hotel where we stayed two nights ago, we asked to store the bikes indoors. We don't expect premier accomodations for out bikes, but where they wanted us to leave the bikes - outside, in a highly trafficked and unsupervised area - was highly stupid. Four consecutive people said it was impossible to do anything else, including a mean old fat hag peeling potatoes who flung her finger into my face and screamed at me. After finally getting the boss to understand that a) we wouldn't capitulate and b) we were going to be really annoying about this, they gave in and found a place for the bikes in the locked vegetable cellar. Reggie sleeps with the carrots!

I talked to an American ex-pat in our hostel this moning who'd experienced the same thing. He'd recently asked for tea with milk, which he'd been assured was impossible. He asked a second waiter for tea; when that arrived, he asked for milk, and got it. The first waiter provided the re-fill. It's all indicative of a simple mindset: don't take chances, don't think creatively, your job is never on the line, and try to get away with the least possible work. All the countries we've visited have been ex-Communist; Romania is the only one where we've seen this pervasive mindset. Not that there aren't helpful Romanians - we've found a few - but the majority we've met don't care much about helping people get what they need if it's outside the playbook.

A couple more notes:
-Transylvania - where we are now - does not as of yet boast the drastic views one would expect from a lifetime of Dracula cartoons. So far it looks like a flatter version of the Northern California coast. The cycling has not been nearly as steep as anticipated.
-We saw Wanted last night at the local cinema. Plenty of Hollywood magic was involved, and it's hyperbloody, but overall it was entertaining and interesting with some pretty cool stunts. 10 Romanian lei well spent
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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Rumbling into Romania

As a devotee of flatland cycling, I have to report that it does not get better, or flatter, than eastern Hungary. We covered about 200 miles in three days. In that time we ascended a couple of highway and railroad overpasses. Otherwise, flat going and some excellent highlights!

The highlights included those Hungarian thermal baths, which turn up wherever a city is near a body of water. I was a late convert to the muddy water of the thermal bath, which must be around 115 degrees, but it is a great way to end a long day in the saddle. Hats off to Hungary on those.

We also were lucky to be guests in Szegelom (rhymes with "gitalong") at the Riolit Panzic, which had no other guests for the evening. After an unsuccessful negotiation with the proprietress over prices and terms, Matt found himself going face-to-face with her son-in-law, Janosz, who promptly called his wife Christina to translate and referee. Before they were done, Matt had talked on the cell phone to Janosz's brother in Toronto, visited Janosz's home, wangled an invitation to the family's St. Christina party that evening, and secured a ride for us to the thermal baths, which also happened to be the home of about a dozen storks who had built their nests atop the lampposts next to the baths.

The party was a lot of fun, exposing us to Hungarian hospitality and cuisine -- the cuisine was delicious but, yes, a little heavy.

Riolit Panzic. Write it down. Next time you're in Szegelom.

The cycling has gone extremely well. Matt's kept us mostly off the main roads and moving in the right direction. Thursday was a perfect day -- we covered 62 miles before breaking for lunch. Friday was hot, but we hung up another 60 before finding the Riolit. Today had threatening skies, which made it much cooler and easier to travel. We got to Oradea, the first city over the Romanian border, by 2 -- but since we had crossed a time zone, it was 3 p.m. (First time zone crossed on a bicycle!) Tomorrow we will head east from here, which will include more vertical stretches. The Carpathians loom. But we'll try to shorten up on the distances and chug along.

Cycling does change one's perspective on many things. Now, when I venture onto a road, my first concern is the quality of the pavement. Most vehicles in Hungary, where some roads are less than perfect, engage in the "road surface tango," which involves finding the smoothest possible surface -- and at least missing the holes -- while also evading oncoming and following traffic. It could be a rather dull video game, sort of like Pong or Frogger. A second change is my attitude when I enter a snack shop during a ride. I am interested in the finding the most efficient calorie-delivery product that tastes good. Fruit drinks, fruit, and candy are at the top fo the list. It's simple refueling.

Oradea looks a bit tired and less prosperous than Hungary did.

I suspect Romania is a step behind Hungary and Poland in the development scale. This part of the country also suffers from the two-name problem. This trip has persuaded me that if there are two alternative names for individual places, there's been trouble in the recent past. In Poland, many places have a Polish name, a German name, and/or a Russian name. Bad history. Too many foreign occupations. In this part of Romania, most places have a Hungarian name and a Romanian name, the legacy of border redrawing after World War I, which left an undigested Hungarian minority here.

A final word on language and keyboards. One excellent thing about being in Romania is the computer keyboard where, which tracks the American version. Hungarian has 44 letters in its alphabet, including 12 vowels. (Don't hold me to those numbers; that's what a Hungarian told me.) So that means that they need to crowd a lot of letters onto the Hungarian keyboard, which moves everything around to where it DOES NOT BELONG. Indeed, the @ symbol can be found almost anywhere on a Hungarian keyboard. A small inconvenience, but entirely unexpected.

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