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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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Budapest: Big Boots to Fill

Budapest, I predict, will be the gem of our tour. It's cosmopolitan, it's beautiful, it's a little dirty, it's inhabited by Hungarians - who are witty and interesting and classy and cool. They are world experts in the art of finessing - witness how they stalled both the Nazis and the Commies from taking total control immediately as they did elsewhere. It's an admirable skill.

The photo above was taken at Memento Park, where the Hungarian government has assembled an assortment of ridiculous statues from the Communist era. I am standing (victoriously!) by the famed boots from the Stalin statue in Budapest. The rest of the statue was torn down in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. NOTE: these are not the actual boots (which were also looted) but instead "an authentic replica of the original" according to the guidebook.

Here's a less-famous statue: "Pool attendant speedily returning lost towel."

We also visited St. Stephen's Basilica, which, overall, is just another big church. However, inside they have enshrined the Holy Dexter, or the right hand of King (and later Saint) Stephen, who is a major figure in Hungarian history. Look closely - his actual hand is the shriveled black thing in the house. You had to pay 100 forints, or 60 cents, to turn on the house light (as above), and there was a funny episode in which two ditsy Italian girls made extended gestures to dig out the coin from their various purses, unzipping and unclasping and digging through assorted change, then giggling and repeating, as a big crowd looked on. They were obviously used to being pampered by pathetic Italian, but in spite of those connotations I cut my losses and handed over the money, for which I was rewarded with premier standing position and a halting explanation in Hungarian describing how the entire arm was carved up between various countries over the year. I think. Anyhow, the Holy Dexter is in full force on St. Stephen's Day - August 20! - when they actually parade the dead man's right hand all over town. I gotta say, the strangeness surrounding relics is one of my favorite aspects of Christianity.

That's all for Budapest folks. Keep your fingers crossed for sunny skies and clear roads as we head inland across Hungary and off into Romania.
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Monday, August 4, 2008

The End of Atrocity Tourism, Sleeping Through Slovakia, and the Beginning of Budapest

The photos are out of order, and the last one shouldn't be there at all so please ignore it, but this post is coming from the low-tech member of the team, so I'm taking pride in getting four photos up that I intended to, even if they're out of order. All while struggling with a Hungarian keyboard that has all the symbols in the wrong places.

So, Saturday we got to Auschwitz-Birkenau -- see photo of Matt before notorious *work makes you free" sign atthe entrance. We've all been so bombarded with the Auschwitz story and the images that I will include only two of the points that struck me.
  • 70 percent of the Jewish prisoners who arrived at the camp -- really at Birkenau, which was the mass-production facility, with Auschwitz as the initial "beta" site -- were dead within two hours of arrival. So for most of the Jews, it wasn't really a camp, just a place to die. Four SS men could kill 1500 Jews in 20 minutes in the gas chambers. Teutonic efficiency.
  • The head of the camp, Rudolf Hoss, who was not the guy who flew to Scotland to try to end the war in 1940, lived with his wife and five children in a house a few hundred yards from a gas chamber and a crematorium.
Then it was back to Krakow for a final rainbow on the main square, and off to the night train to Budapest. We had decided to take a pass on biking through Slovakia. Too many mountains for this old body, and not enough places we wanted to see. After some anxiety about whether we would be allowed on the train with our bikes, we were allowed to cram them into a two-person sleeping compartment with two sweaty Americans . . . us. The photo only begins to tell the tale.

But we slept and hopped off the train at the stop before Budapest, Vac, in order to ride in along the bend of the Danube. I do mean that we hopped, since our train was too long for the platform in Vac, so we jumped down with our equipment while the Budapest-bound commuters looked on in boredom.

The ride along the river was gorgeous, then into this cosmopolitan city for a tour of the second largest synagogue in the world. The Hungarians get some credit since, after the Nazis killed 75 percent of the Jews here, enough felt comfortable coming back here that there are now more than 50 active Jewish congregations in Hungary. A contrast with Poland.

We finished at the thermal baths, a Hungarian passion. The chess game continued for the two hours we were there. With apologies to Damon Runyon, might you call it a permanent floating chess game?
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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Krakow's Krazy Kool (Relatively Speaking)

God it's good to be in a city. Once I snatched that first glimpse of Krakow from the road music rose in my chest. I sang (well, rapped profanely), I darted, I shot over tram rails, I pedaled the hardest I've pedaled yet. Finally, a destination, a glittering goal. Culture, music, energy, the English language. We roared into town in decidedly terrific moods.

Krakow's the first place I've visited on this trip that feels like Europe. The city is jammed with delightful cafes, the old town is charming and quaint, the city is ringed with luscious, aromatic parks. There are even a few sites of (minor) historical importance which we visited yesterday, including the Wawel complex and the Wieliczka salt mine (say that five times fast), a UNESCO site. There are street musicians and hustlers and huge Gothic churches. Cafes are open late; all sorts of languages are spoken. Despite what I consider to be a limited range of attractions - what are YOU dying to see in Krakow? - the tourists are out in force.

The picture above is of Polish army forces (no pun intended) celebrating the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, when the Poles of Warsaw fought back against the Germans under the false assumption that the Soviets on the outskirts of town would rush in to save the day. Instead, wise old Uncle Joe let the Poles and Germans kill each other for a few months, then moved in to take the depleted city for Mother Russia. It's a sad story of an uprising, but overall I've not been impressed with the Polish approach to fighting the Germans. There was no guerilla warfare; there was no steady disruption of German forces; instead they waited until they thought victory was assured. The Vietcong and Iraqis have wreaked havoc with ongoing insurgencies; something like that in Poland (and other occupied nations - hello France!) could have have a real impact on the war. Though it's easy enough to say that when you're not lodging German soldiers in your home.

Our most classically Polish experience was getting to the salt mine, which was on the outskirts of town and required a minibus ride. As we left the city, it began raining in huge gushing sheets - the spray along the side of the minibus covered all the windows. Through the melee, we couldn't read the signs, and an hour later, when we asked where we were, the driver told us he forgot our stop. We wound up going to the end of the line out in podunkville and circling back - the whole shebang took about two hours. What bothered me the most was being back on those nutty Polish country roads - I'll take my urban days when I can get them, thanks.

Here's a whipcrack accordion trio performing in the Rynek Glowny -- they were incredible, but shamefully outdrawn by the neighboring puppeteer performing Elvis songs.

And a shot of dad punishing the Polish countryside for daring to get in his way:

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Friday, August 1, 2008

We made it to Krakow!!!

After three days on the Polish roads (which were quite good, on the whole), we cruised into Krakow this afternoon, a bit sore and weary, but gratified to have made it. (We left the photo card in our room, so photos will be posted tomorrow.) We've had fabulous weather, and the countryside has been very pretty -- lots of farmers working in rich-looking fields. As for those people who insist that Poland is flat: they're not cyclists. Sure, there are plenty of flat parts, but there's also some terrain. We took a shortcut today, which actually got us where we wanted to get, but at the expense of some hills that reminded me of Western Maryland.

We've had a pretty strict division of responsibilities for the ride. Matt's in charge of navigation, repairs, and reminding me to drink more water. (I'm trying.) I'm in charge of trying to survive. It's not a fair division, but (as the Communists used to say, but never meant) to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities.

The first day was 92 miles -- a bit ambitious. The last two have been shorter and easier to manage. Today, for short stretches, I actually felt healthy and exhilirated. It was foreseeable, of course, all this cycling on a cycling trip. I'll be a better person.

The people in Poland have been friendly, and have indulged our lack of language skills. I can consistently say in Polish "hello," "thank you," "please," and "rest room." Everything else is pantomime and slow speaking, as though that helps. I experience a bit of schizophrenia over the place. The people are gracious, but we've seen some traces of lingering anti-Semitism, which our Warsaw guide described in unhappy terms. It's hard to reconcile the two, especially since there are so few Jews around. Occasionally I ask myself after an interaction with a Pole, "What would she think if she knew I was part Jewish?"

I have been experiencing the shrinking time horizon of the cycling trip. You get up in the morning and think about where you want to get to that day. You're on the road, and think about how far it is to the next place you may want to stop, or the stork that just flew by (we've only seen two sets of storks, so far; a bit subpar). You think about whether it's time to drink some more water (like I said, I'm trying). You admire the view. You wonder about the home you just rode by, or the two little girls carrying a bucket from a berry patch (blueberries?), or the bus stop in the middle of a state forest which has about a dozen vodka models lined up, very orderly. You marvel at the truck that just whizzed by -- pretty close -- without really making you anxious. The road sign announces a new village with one more incredible arrangement of consonants and vowels -- yesterday we passed one that started "Zdz." Maybe it's time to eat something?

The roads are mostly two-laners, without a real shoulder, so you just ride in your lane and hope the drivers will be courteous, which they have uniformly been. On a few bad stretches, I have drifted towards the middle of the road, in search of smoother pavement, which is not a good habit. The drivers can deal with you so long as you just plow straight ahead. That drifty stuff can get you in trouble.

But we're off the road for a few days. We'll be here in Krakow for at least two days. We've got a room on the ring road around the Old Town, which is surrounded by a park that was created when Krakowers (?) filled in the moat. Tomorrow we're tourists again -- no longer bicycle athletes -- and Sunday to Auschwitz/Birkenau.

And photos tomorrow!
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