Preparing for trips

Last week I wrote about why I chose to do a package holiday to go horse riding in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and this week I want to go into a little more depth as to why it was so great.

Well, for one, I didn’t have to organise anything. It’s weird because I usually really enjoy the process of looking up things to do, finding obscure museums, streets, or cafes, and narrowing down what I want to do when I’m away. I usually keep my options open with a few things I want to do (always more than I actually have time for) so I can decide spontaneously on the day what I feel like doing.

Going on a package holiday is very different. I didn’t have to organise anything. Still, I bought my trusty Bradt guidebooks to prepare for the trip (reading that history and culture section a few times). The only thing I had to organise was book a flight, sort out my visas, and book the trip itself. It was really weird. But in a sort of liberating way.

Not having to plan anything freed up much of my time before the trip to do more work. yay?
No, I’m joking…a little bit.

Something that was weird about not preparing my own trip was that I should have had more time and energy spent on preparing for it mentally and physically, or even for just making myself extra excited about going. None of that happened though. It was weird. Because I didn’t have to figure out where I was going to sleep, how I was going to get from point A to point B, and because I didn’t really have to find obscure museums and places to eat, I somehow didn’t really prepare for the trip. I let it surprise me…which again, is something I don’t usually do.

It was lovely. It’s not how I want to spend every single holiday or trip I go on (I really really enjoy the process of figuring out what I want to do when I’m away), but it’s definitely something I want to do again the next time I go on a horse trek (let’s be honest, I can’t do this once and never do it again…).

Not having to worry about where you’re going to sleep at night is oddly liberating, and not having to figure out how to get there is just really nice. I will never forget my trip from Skodër, Albania to Kotor, Montenegro and then trying to figure out where to sleep that night (it was easter Sunday and I had forgotten what day it was because I’d been on the road for two months…) – I’ve got a little post about it here, but I think that entire day/evening deserves it’s own in-depth post at some point in the future…

Anyway, not having to think about how to get from Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Murgab in Tajikistan was great, particularly because there isn’t, as far as I could find, any public transport that drives across the border. Acording to the internet that particular border crossing isn’t a great place for hitch hiking (though the rest of the countries seem to be okay-ish?), so I’d have to get a shared taxi – which is fine, but is basically what we did and had organised for us anyway.

Since this was the first proper holiday I’d had in a long long time, I also didn’t really want to have to worry about where I was going to sleep at night and how to get there. There’s a time and place for backpacking and hitch hiking (and I love both), but this wasn’t it. This was a time to not have to worry about things, to relax, and to sit on horseback riding through the jailoos of Tajikistan. And that’s what going on a package holiday let me do without having to worry about it.

So, when I started writing this post, I actually wanted to write about something completely different, namely my trip itself (Osh – Gulcha – Border crossing to Murghab – horse trek – Horse Festival in Murghab – Sari Kul – Osh), but oh well. This was an interesting exploration of what my head and heart does to prepare for trips.

Riding at high altitudes

I’ve been back in Newcastle for just over a week now and am slowly starting to process my holiday. I did something I’ve never done before, but something I’ll hopefully do again: I booked a package holiday.

Okay now before all the travel snobs get mad at me, hear me out.

It has been my dream for years, I’d say more than a decade, to go on a multi-day horse trek. Growing up, I went horse back riding and I’ve had a few short holidays with my mum (and sometimes my brother too) where we would drive into the countryside either while living in Romania or while on holiday back home in Austria (though there we’d drive to the Czech Republic – Znojmo, to be precise. If you’re in the area you need to go visit this lovely little town! It’s just an hour away from Vienna!). While in the countryside we’d usually stay in a little guesthouse or Bed and Breakfast type place that had horses. We’d then go riding for a couple of days having breakfast and dinner at the guesthouse and sleeping in a room there too.

I loved these trips. I loved the feeling of freedom and companionship I got from galloping through fields and forests. The serenity of walking through high grass on horseback and the excitement that overcame the horses and us riders when we had to wade our way through a particularly big river. Since having done the first of these trips when I was a little teenager I’ve wanted to do a horse-trek; but a real one. One where you have a pack horse and you carry your luggage in saddle bags. Where you go camping and ride through mountains, forests, rivers, or fields in what seems like the middle of nowhere.

I’ve done a fair bit of travelling, and almost everywhere I’ve been I’ve tried to find a place I can go horse riding. The thing with horse riding though is that stables are usually not in cities (and that’s a good thing – let horses run around. The need space, and grass, and fresh air!), but stables are also usually not in small towns. From where I’ve looked they’re somewhere in the countryside that is really hard to get to without having a car. Now, I can drive, but I’ve never really had teh organisational prowess, money, and time (all at the same time) to be able to rent a car for myself, find out where these stables are, somehow manage to find them, to then go on a short ride.

It is because of these prior experiences that I booked a package holiday. I knew my next destination had to be Central Asia (again, I’d been wanting to go for ages. Pretty much since I was studying Eastern European and USSR history back when I was doing my IB History course in High School), and I knew I wanted to go horse riding. Since I haven’t really had a proper holiday since I finished my Bachelor’s degree, since I didn’t take any time off last summer, and since I was pretty upset about not having travelled very much last year, I went looking for an adequate destination and stable in Central Asia in November last year. In the end, I realised that all my previous troubles were true here as well, so I started to have a look at holiday packages that are completely organised. In the end, I went through Unicorn Trails and booked their Pamir Mountain Explorer holiday.

It was absolutely amazing. The holiday had everything I was looking for: there was a lot of horse riding, a lot of different terrains to ride through, beautiful nature, camping, we had pack horses (!), and everyone in the team got along nicely. It was the perfect way for me to have a proper break from my PhD, and when I came back I was ready to get on with my work. I looked forward to it, and really wanted to get back to writing. It took me a couple of days to get back into the swing of things, but this trip was not only a perfect break, it was also a way of really acknowledging that I love what I do. That I want to continue to do what I am doing, and that I really missed it whileI was away.

I think I need to write another post about the trip as a whole, but overall I did the thing I never wanted to do (book a package holiday) but absolutely loved it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m already trying to figure out what kind of horse trek I want to go on next!

Getting (re)organised

The last couple of weeks have been ridiculous. I’ve been in and out of Newcastle, in and out of the country, and in and out of my academic frame of mind.

It all started with going down to London for a workshop (that you can read about here) followed by the trans-atlantic flight to Denver for CHI. I was in the US for a week and a half, travelled back to Newcastle only to be absolutely jet lagged. I’m not used to travelling across so many time zones. What was nice about that trip however, was that I had the chance to unwind for a few days. I stayed in a lovely lodge a few miles outside Boulder and just walked around for a few days. I met up with Chris Bopp, whom I had been in contact with previously about a(n unaccepted) CHI workshop around working with Third Sector Organisations and had a lovely chat with him at the University of Colorado, Boulder Campus. During our chat, Chris showed me around the stunning campus and showed me the ATLAS institute, which is a pretty amazing interdisciplinary research space (it felt somewhat similar to Open Lab, though they did have different offices for different people and research groups).

After that lovely walk and chat I headed down University Hill and into town via Central Park and the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse (but that’s for another post!) before finding a way to get to my lodging (which, I only realised later really isn’t that far away from Boulder). So I took a bus there, checked in, and had a rest. I was shattered at this point. The conference (and associated parties) really wore me out, and I wasn’t sure whether I was actually over my jet lag yet at this point, or whether it was just starting to set in. Anyway, over the next couple of days I didn’t do much. I did some reading, I did a lot of eating, and walking around Boulder. I also walked in the FlatIrons and  on the Chautauqua trails, as well as the Boulder Creek path; both of which were absolutely amazing.

After this trip to Colorado I came back to Newcastle on a Tuesday afternoon. That week I was tired all the time. Jet lag really hit me quite hard, and I don’t remember much of what I actually did that week. I do remember however, that the sprint I was supposed to go on to get a start on developing the NUM website was pushed back by a week (and lordy was I happy that was moved!).

So the following week I stayed up late every night preparing for the sprint. I drew out mock-ups by hand, had conversations around requirements documents, had lots of conversations with NUM staff about the aforementioned mock-ups and documents and at the same time tried to organise all the materials we needed to go, have meetings with Ed, Rob A., and Tom N. about the trip, and tried to get everything sorted.

The week after that was the sprint. And oh my goodness. We worked all day every day for seven days. After what seemed to be a 90h week, I stayed in Manchester for one more day to present what we had done to the NUM board. We had completed the main functionality of the site, a 40pg brand identity guidelines document and a 95pg (and counting) justification document.

So, while I wanted to write about something slightly different, I’m happy I wrote out everything I’ve done in the last couple of weeks. It’s not an excuse for not blogging and generally feeling unorganised about my life and dissertation at the moment, but it’s a nice way of seeing that, while I feel like I’ve been running around like a headless chicken, I’ve actually been doing a lot of work alongside some other really great people. I’ve been getting stuff done, and just need to find a way of reflecting on this and moving forward.

Why I travel alone

There are two answers to this…a short and practical one, and a long one with more substance to it.

The short and practical answer is very simple: I don’t have any close friends tat want to travel to the places I want to travel to whose schedules are similar to mine.

Having said that, this does not bother me one bit. In fact, I prefer travelling by myself anyway.

I’m going to give you a few reasons as to why travelling alone is great, and why I keep doing it.

FREEDOM

I do not have to consult with anyone about the when, where and hows of travelling. At the chance of sounding extremely selfish, I am going to say that I travel alone so I don’t have to compromise the strange things that I find important.

FLEXIBILITY

Although I sometimes play my trips in quite a bit of detail (even though the plan never seems to work out anyway), and with months (or in the case of Nepal years) of research and preparation, some of my trips are very unplanned and can be decided upon on a hunch at very short notice. If I’m alone I don’t have to try to fit everything into hte schedules of other people.

Mine is complicated enough as it is anyway.

Travelling alone also gives me flexibility in where I go, what route I take, the speed of the trip and what I focus on.

SILENCE

I very much enjoy human company, conversation and listening to stories, but one thing I need in my life is time to be alone; time of silence. I like to lay in my bed and read, I like to let my thoughts wander and I like to have stretches of quiet. This is a lot easier to achieve when you don’t have a friend with you when travelling.

Now you might think that these times happen very often when you travel alone, or that I am just writing this to sound like I enjoy being alone because I have to travel alone because I have no friends and am ultimately just a sad and lonely person…but I am not. And this brings my to my next point.

COMPANIONSHIP

Although I just wrote about how much I enjoy travelling alone, I really do enjoy travel company at times. You meet such interesting, diverse and friendly people in hostels. A good conversation, or a bus companion is usually not far away if you are looking for one.

If I am travelling alone, this new friend doesn’t have to be approved of by my companions, the changes in the itinerary that may happen because I want to adjust my journey to spend more time with the new companion don’t have to be discussed with anyone else…this goes back to the freedom and flexibility points.

PERSONAL INTERESTS

I have a very strange way of travelling to new places. I like to get lost in new places…without a map. I like to walk quickly, and I like street food. I take pictures of the graffiti next to the amazing landmark before I even see the church, mosque or statue.

I want to take this opportunity to openly apologize to anyone I might have annoyed with my silly little habits when traveling. I would also like to take this opportunity to say thank you to anyone and everyone who has spent time with me, who has helped me find hostels or certain places, who told me their stories or just gave me a smile.

hitch hiking

I particularly remember talking to a friend of mine back in Newcastle about an upcoming trip he was going to do. He was going to join a hitch gathering and hitch his way down to Spain with a group of people. My response was somewhere along the lines of: wow that sounds great! Aren’t you scared? I would be too scared to go hitch hiking!

Yet here I am a few weeks later…

I have been talking to people who hitch hike, and have talked particularly much to a lad from Sweden who has been hitching for 6 months straight. I became more and more intrigued and even started thinking about hitching my way from Vienna to Newcastle in the summer to get back to Uni.

The only experiences I had of this were on this trip so far…both of which were accidental. 1) a friendly person I had asked directions from in Corfu at the beginning of my trip took me to where I went to meet my Couchsurfing host, and 2) a lovely man in Bitola, Albania took me from the National Park back to the city.

Maybe it was those two accidental, yet positive experiences that stopped me from freaking out when all the things that happened today happened…

I took a bus from Tirana, Albania to Shkodre, Albania in the hopes of catching the 3pm bus to Ulcinj, Montenegro from where I will take one of the many regular buses to my destination of Kotor, Montenegro. Sounds easy enough, but don’t forget, I’m in the Balkans.

I didn’t think much of it being sunday, or easter for that matter, because Albania is a mainly muslim country that doesn’t celebrate easter and everything works as normal on sundays…

So I get to Shkodre and ask where the 3pm bus would leave from…

First shock: There is no 3pm bus, but there might be one at 4pm…but nobody’s sure. I should go check if the bus is parked in the station by the stadium. If it’s there it will go, if it’s not there, it won’t be going today. I walk to the bus station by the stadium and ask around for the Ulcinj bus. Nope, not happening today, but I can take a Taxi (for twice the price) I leave the place, thinking about it..but not really wanting to take a Taxi…maybe I’ll spend the night here?

I head back to the place my Bus dropped me off where a man asks me if I want to go to Tirana…no thank you. Another man asks me about Ulcinj. YES! Thank you. The bus leaves at 2pm from across the road.

GREAT. I go to walk around the old part of town and the pedestrian area.

Second shock: At around 1:30pm I go to where the bus is supposed to be to be told that there is no bus at 2pm, but that there was one at 1pm and another one at 4pm.

I walk around a little when the man that told me about the 1pm bus comes to get me. He knows a guy who’s driving to the border. He can take me for E7. After a little hesitation I agree.

Once we get to the car the man was very eager to show me his passport with all the stamps for Croatia and Bosnia and Montenegro as if he was making sure that I knew that he does this often and that he’s not going to kidnap me.

Thanks man, I appreciated that.

Third shock: He leaves me at the border, telling me a bus will be at the other side. Of course, there isn’t. So I am standing on the Montenegrin side of the border with my backpacks. Not knowing the language or anybody. Only that I want to get to Ulcinj and then Kotor. After some waiting and contemplating hitch hiking I see a bus crossing the border. I ask where they’re going and if they’ll take me. Ulcinj, and yes.

Thank you.

Fourth shock: After finally having reached Ulcinj comes my next shock. Although the buses are supposedly frequently travelling between the Montenegrin coastal cities, the next one will leave at 19:35. It was somewhere around 14:00…

I was told to walk to the traffic lights to maybe get a lift from there.

So off I go, still not really realizing that I am actually going to hitch hike…by myself.

After standing and walking along the road awkwardly a car actually stops. The elderly man asks me if I wanted a lift for a couple of kilometres. He seemed friendly, so I got in the car. After being offered sex, I politely ask to get out of the car…which was absolutely no problem. Somehow the man still seemed friendly, I don’t know how to explain it, but it seemed like he was just asking to see if it was possible, without really meaning to be rude or creepy. He was a little creepy after that though. So I got out at a restaurant that was along the way.

I ask there whether there will be a bus to Budva or Bar any time soon, but nobody seems to know. They tell me to stand by the road and to wave if I see a bus, it’ll stop and take me.

After waving at some cars and getting some waves in return from drivers and passengers in cars a car does actually pull over after 10 mins. or so..maybe not even that long. A young man gets out and asks me where I want to go. Remembering the tips my new swedish friend had given me in Kosovo a couple of days before I answered with the same question. He and his friend were going to Budva. PERFECT. I asked if they’ll take me. A couple of seconds later I was in the car shaking hands with Dorian and Florin. Two friends on their way to Budva to have a coffee.

This is actually the longest leg of my journey, so I am very happy to have found them. This was seriously a great hitch hiking experience. After the initial minutes of feeling awkward, the rest of the journey was very natural. I even wasn’t really scared when Florin thought that he had to drive off the road because this bay looked too beautiful. He wanted to take pictures. We spent a couple of minutes looking for a path among the cliffs, but went back into the car when it started to rain.

Once we reached Budva they wanted to have coffee with me, but I said I wanted to know when the buses left first, so we went off to find the bus station…none of us knew where it was. We stop to ask a woman walking on the street who promptly gets in the back seat with me, because she was also heading there. So the four of us are driving towards the Budva bus station; the two girls in the back terribly squished, because I had my big backpack by my side (another one of those tips my new friend, and all the forums, seem to be quite persistent about).

Dorian is even nice enough to escort me to the ticket counter to ask when the next bus will leave, because I don’t speak Serbian.

I was a little sad to hear that the bus will leave in 5 minutes, since that meant I wouldn’t be having coffee with my new friends. After saying thank you and shaking hands to say bye I was on the bus heading to Kotor.

I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to the two guys for taking me with them and for making my first proper hitch hiking experience a great one, and to say I am sorry to my mum for having done the one thing you told me never to do…

3 things you MUST bring with you when you travel

Besides the obvious passport, visa, hard currency, camera, and curiosity and patience…

  1. A large shawl

I don’t care if you’re a guy or a gal, you need one of these! My large pashmina a Pakistani friend gave me has saved me on several occasions. The weather can turn without much announcement in many parts of the world. This large shawl can keep you from getting completely soaked, keep your ears and neck warm or even work instead of a jacket sometimes. On top of this, it can double up as a blanket on bus or airplane trips or as a towel if need be. You can turn it into a picnic blanket and a head/shoulder covering when entering churches, mosques or other religious places.

  1. An unlocked phone

This might seem obvious, but make sure you have an unlocked phone on hand when you go to travel. Save all the important numbers on the phone, not the sim card and make sure you have numbers of hostels/couch surfers, embassies and whatnot saved. This phone can be as shabby as anything, as long as it can call and sms you’ll be fine. Getting local sim cards is cheap and easy.

Most of the world is starting to have wifi-hotspots, so I would also recommend taking your smartphone with you so you can keep in contact with your loved ones at home via whatsapp, skype and your blog.

  1. Flip flops

Make sure you travel light and bring as little clothing as possible, but don’t forget these babies. In the summer heat of some places these can keep your feet nice and airy and are a good alternative to your sneakers or hiking boots every now and again. They will also save you from attempting to get rid of fungus on your feet that you might catch from showers in hostels. They are also a comfortable alternative to walking barefoot into springs, fountains, lakes or rivers.

EXTRA!

Personally, I always take a diary with me when I travel. Bus journeys are always a good time to reflect on thoughts, feelings and experiences that have occurred in the last couple of hours or days. I have so many pages filled with messy, squiggly writing and sketches. Even if I don’t look back into the journals regularly writing things down by hand is my way of working through things. I get my thoughts and feelings in order like that. It’s very different to writing on the computer…which I do a lot for this blog now too.

What’s your travel style?

Recently I read the following on a travel forum:

trees are made with roots, people with legs.
we are meant to wander!
and wonder, with both senses of the word!

Immediately, I was inspired to write a post about this coupled with the daily prompt from a couple of days ago: The happy wanderer.

What’s your travel style? Are you itinerary and schedule driven, needing to have every step mapped out in advance or are you content to arrive without a plan and let happenstance be your guide?

 

This is strange to write about, because I feel like my style is always changing…I seem to have two different kinds of travel.

  1. Work and travel

What I have done all my summers since 10th grade is work and travel. I would pick a country/region I wanted to see and then figure out what I was going to do there. It was important for my mum, and for me, that I didn’t just do ‘nothing’, that I was gaining work experience. I made sure to do jobs that I enjoyed (I am very proud to say that I have never had a job that I have not enjoyed doing!) Since this time I knew I wanted to help countries develop, and I thought that education would be the best way to do this. So I made sure to find programmes that would get me into this field of work.

So far, I’ve done the following:

  • I lived in a rural Romanian village for two months planning and running a summer school for the children. I was able to do this through the Austrian Embassy in Bucharest who run several programmes in this village.
  • Some kids and I worked together to create a play (pretty much from scratch) within the SOS-Childrens Village of Bucharest, Romania
  • I worked in a public school and a learning centre in Rural Nepal
  • I went to Oslo, Norway as part of the Summer University to take a course in Development and Globalization
  • I worked in an orphanage in a small town in Moldova for two months the summer after I graduated high school and was able to travel to areas of the Ukraine I hadn’t seen before either.
  • As part of my research for University, I was able to come back to Romania to get to know Bucharest from a very different angle.

What I have to say about the work I have done is that I was very, very lucky to have the opportunities I had. Many of them were due to the contacts my parents had with the embassy and certain people in high positions in certain companies…but also, I didn’t earn any money for any of these jobs. Mostly I was paid in smiles, food and lodging, and work experience.

Something I would never do is pay those $2000 prices to work in an NGO in Nepal for 2 weeks. There really is no need to pay that much. Life in Nepal is incredibly cheap. When I was looking for a place to work in Nepal that was EXACTLY what I wanted to avoid. I had been looking at places to work at for years in Nepal. Only when I found FACE Nepal did I feel like the price I paid was appropriate for what I was getting. And it really was. Nobody’s really making a profit there, except the people who benefit from the NGO. The programmes are incredibly volunteer driven, and I would recommend it to anyone.

  1. Going back to the same places

Some people might not understand why I like to do this, but I tend to go back to the places I have visited (several times). From what I have experienced, it is different every single time. The place changes, but I also change a lot. Over the last couple of years I have changed so much; my world views, my education, my political standpoint, my clothing style and the number of piercings I have. All of these things shape me as the person I am becoming. And I hope I will never stop changing. It is incredibly interesting to go back to the same place for different reasons. You get to know so many different faces of the same place; you get to see new things that you didn’t know existed. Because of this, I am very glad I went back to Romania for my research. The week before I left I had quite a negative episode, because I felt so silly for going back to Romania. My university colleagues were going off to India or Ghana, places they’d never been to before, and I went back to Bucharest…bleh. But boy am I happy I did. I got to know this place in SUCH a different light. It was truly an enriching experience. And it is not an experience I could have had in a place I had not seen from the point of view of someone who knows the beautiful side of the place. Had I gone to a city I had never been to, to do my research I would probably have a very different image of the place than I have of Bucharest.

  1. Long haul bus journeys-local style

It is only recently that I started visiting places without a real purpose other than seeing the place. I used to always have a purpose in the places I visited. A reason to be there other than the city itself. Yes, I would go sight-seeing, but the purpose of my visit would be a sports tournament, my job, visiting friends, etc.

I am still not sure how much I like going to places simply for the sake of going to them. It’s what I have ahead of me now though. 4 weeks of travel, for the purpose of travel. I hope I meet lots of interesting people, and that I get to live somewhat like a local. It’s what I love about the type of travelling I have done so far…living with locals, being able to truly feel what the culture felt like. I don’t know how much I’ll like jetting (in slow buses…) across city and country borders to see as much as I can in as little time as possible. Who knows, maybe I’ll find a place I like and I’ll stay there for 3 weeks working with an NGO or something. Probably not, but we’ll see what the next month brings for me.

I love to hear about the way different people travel. What’s your style?

Transnistria and its money…

The only money that you can change in Transnistria are US$, Euros, Russian Rubles, Ukrainian Rubles, Moldovan Lei and sometimes British Pounds.

So if you’re stupid like me, and you only brought what you thought you were going to spend in Moldovan Lei, and the rest in Romanian Lei, you need to go looking for an ATM. Finding them isn’t actually that hard, but finding one that (a) has money in it, and (b) doesn’t have technical difficulties at the time is a little more difficult. In the end I resorted to going into a bank. The first one didn’t recognize my card, but the second one did.

If you decide to get money out of a bank in this country, make sure you are patient, have a lot of time and don’t get worried too quickly. Have your passport, registration card and your bank card at the ready.

It took around 30 mins. To get some money, because the woman behind the counter had never seen an Austrian passport before. She had to check it out several times, ask her colleague and then make some phone calls before she could continue with the tedious data entry process.

The funny thing was that she couldn’t actually hand me any Transnistrian Rubles. She could only take out US dollars from my account, and then would have to change the dollars into Transnistrian Rubles. This really is a strange country.

Moldova’s independent regions: Transnistria and Gagauzia

Moldova in itself is a tiny landlocked country squeezed between the Ukraine and Romania and has played a role as a buffer between Europe and Russia. The country is incredibly split in this aspect of its politics…should they go towards a future with hopes of entering the EU, or should they start to make closer ties with Russia again?

Two areas where this debate is no longer necessary are Transnistria and Gagauzia. These areas have made their decision to join forces with Russia.

Transnistria

Transnistria is often called a de-facto state, but I am going to just call it a country. It has been working independently since 1990, a year after the fall of the Soviet Union in Moldova. It has its own parliament, government, judicious system, currency, university, flag, culture, and border patrols. Every Transnistrian resident has a Transnistrian passport as well as either a Moldovan, Ukrainian or Russian one.

Mostly Russian in heritage, the people feel a strong connection to Russia and thus are eagerly awaiting the recognition of the sovereignty of their state. From talking to Transnistrian teenagers I heard that many in their country are angry that they haven’t been recognized by the world because so many other states have. The example they gave me was Czechoslovakia and the creation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia when the country decided to split up. Transnistria has been an independent country for over 20 years now, and is still not recognized. In their point of view this was because of it’s strategic position as the border between the EU and Russia.

Having said this, within the country there seem to be two different views on independence. Due to the poverty in the country (with an income of around $US 150 per month and 2-bedroom-apartment prices between $US 80 and $US 150) some Transnistrians believe that their lives would improve if they were to become part of the Russian Federation again. The other part of the population wants to be a sovereign, independent state that can make its own decisions.

If it were to be its own country though, one thing they would need to focus on is options for youths, because one of the questions I asked the teenagers I talked to was whether they enjoyed living in Tiraspol and whether they wanted to continue to live here when they were done with school. As a response, I got that they did enjoy living here for now, but that they wanted to leave this country when they finished school. The most common answer was that they wanted to go to Russia.

Tiraspol is the capital and with its 200,000 inhabitants it is also the largest city of Transnistria.

As I walked out of the front door of the bloc I stayed in for the night and the cold, crisp air hit my face, I felt like I was sent back a couple of years to the time of the Soviet State. My new friend and guide, and I walked past trolley busses and huge, disproportionately large, empty boulevards to see the city centre of Tiraspol where statues and monuments overlooked the Sunday morning shoppers and market vendors. Past a Lenin statue and bust towards the University and the theatre until we reached Vadivostok park; half of which consisted of concrete roads that went through grass and patches of trees, while the other half consisted of old theme park rides and two gated playgrounds: one in Soviet style and the other in European style…this immediately made me think of the split of opinion of the nation…ironically the European playground was completely empty, while there was a small number of families in the Soviet playground. Foreshadowing?

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The country really did feel like the last part that was left of the USSR. It is a very strange place to be. It feels like its own country, but then again, I didn’t get a stamp in my passport on my way in. In some ways it feels like a normal small eastern European town, while in other ways it seems very Russian…that might be because everything is in Cyrillic and no one seems to speak anything but Russian.

Gagauzia

This region in the south of Moldova is not quite as independent as Transnistria. There are no border controls, they use the same currency as Moldova and the people have Moldovan passports. However, the region has some political autonomy and has made it known that if Moldova were to enter the EU, they would become an independent state…backed by Russia.

Although this city is a lot more welcoming than Tiraspol was, people still seem to only speak Russian. There are some signs written in the Latin script (mostly road signs), but most of the shops and advertisements are written in Cyrillic. As I go on my search for an ATM..because obviously all exchange places are closed on a Sunday afternoon…and since I had to give 100Lei to the border guard at the Transnistrian border (a separate post on my border experience is coming soon) I didn’t have enough to get me back to Chisinau. Anyway, as I go on my search for an ATM I find out that everyone assumes you speak Russian, and only a very, very, very small minority of the people actually speak Romanian or Moldovan. Anyway, at least I get to see a small part of Comrat, the capital city of the region, before I get on another bus to go back to Chisinau.

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Europe’s most Illuminated Gutter (Part 1: The Canal)

On my last day at the social centre a man came up to me and asked if I would like to talk to him. Wow. This was a first.

Of course, I accepted. I got the key for my usual room went to look for the man and then conducted my interview. This man talked a LOT. A lot, lot. Mostly not about the questions I asked him, but he gave me a lot of background information on life in the Gutter, or the canal, as they call it here.

He told me a lot about his life and about the hierarchy in the canal. He told me how there was a chef who took care of him when he arrived, and who made sure everyone was doing well in the canal. He was the one that sold the drugs to everyone, but also the man who took care of his flatmates and made sure they had food, water, electricity and medicine if they needed it.

On top of all of this, he taught me how not to get robbed by people like him. He told me all about his escapades in Germany, Italy, Austria, France, etc. and how he made his living as a thief. (Blog entry about this topic coming soon. Keep coming back to find out what you can do to not get robbed, the Bucharest street edition-24.04.2014)

Back to the canal.

Today was the day that the street worker, another volunteer and I would go to the canal at Gara de Nord, or according to one of the inhabitants: Europe’s most illuminated Gutter.

I am not exactly sure what he meant by this statement. Did he mean that they had the brightest people living there? The gutter with the most electricity? The most light? Or maybe, and most likely, he meant that it was the most well-known gutter in Europe. When you talk to Romanians, or Expats living in Romania and you ask them where you can find people who are homeless, they will not hesitate to tell you: in the canal at Gara de Nord. This inhabitant of the gutter also told us that many journalists had come to take pictures of the place. Journalists from all over Europe have come to take a look at their home to take pictures, to show the world what horrible state they live in.

I want to give a different perspective on this. Yes, it is a stuffy, crowded, hot, probably flea and other bug infested place to live, but it is also an alternative to living in the cold. It is an alternative to death, and it is an example of freedom.

If I have learnt anything from talking to many people who have spent years, if not almost their whole lives, living on the streets it’s that many enjoy the lifestyle. Yes, it is dangerous and violent, but for many it is also a life where they can enjoy liberty. Liberty from the state, laws, abusive homes and orphanages.

Although I made sure I looked and sounded tough when THE STREETWORKER asked me if I wanted to join him, I really wasn’t. To be honest, I was terrified to go down there today. I had some trouble sleeping and was worried that similar feelings of fear of the dark, the depth, the unknown would overcome me like it did in the bat cave in Nepal.

I made sure nobody knew.

After all, this isn’t an opportunity you get thrown at you every day. It’s not usual to be able to go see a place that so many ignore, that so many people don’t know exists.

First I saw the other volunteer climb down. As soon as she reached the bottom, I began my climb. Once I reached the bottom I no longer saw her. In fact, I no longer saw anything. I started to feel all those feelings come up. The fear of being left behind in a deep, dark and dirty hole. I was beginning to fear the worst, all logic had left me. It’s kind of sad to think back now, in the privacy of my room, to think that that’s all it takes for me to get so scared…after all the places I’ve been to and all the things I’ve seen…something like this still scares me.

I was left alone, I couldn’t see THE OTHER VOLUNTEER or our friend from the social centre that wanted to show us the place he used to live in. Behind me I saw a wall with a little hole underneath it, so I decided to bend own and peer through the hole. Sure enough I saw some feet and legs, as well as some carpes. Ah. That’s where I’m supposed to go.

I was glad I am so small and climbed through the hole that wasn’t any taller than half a metre. There I was. Standing in the middle of a living room. As I looked up I saw a man with snot coming out his nose, spit coming out of his mouth and a bloated, dirty face. After swallowing all the spit I had in my mouth, and not taking a deep breath because of the stench, I smiled and said Buna ziua. I got a response and as I was searching the room for THE OTHER VOLUNTEER, I found her standing a couple of metres in front of me. I quickly walked towards her past other men, a woman and a child (approximately 20 people) who were either standing up or laying on their beds, but mostly sitting down. The place wasn’t crowded, but it was quite full. The small path between the two concrete tubes that are Bucharest’s sewage systems was kept pretty clean. There were only very few plastic bottles and cups on the floor. The tubes were covered in carpets and blankets. At first I didn’t see everything, it took some time for me to actually see where I was. As I walked towards the end of the room, I began to see where I was heading.

I was heading towards the social centre of the canal. The drug kitchen.

THE OTHER VOLUNTEER was talking to the man that had taught me so much about stealing, whom I have gotten quite fond of. He told me several times to be careful of the people in the canal, to be careful what I touch and to make sure I don’t touch any of the syringes that are there. He took care of me.

I meet up with THE OTHER VOLUNTEER before we are introduced to THE LEADER, the leader of the canal. I quickly shook hands with him and introduced myself. He knew I came with THE STREETWORKER, who goes to this canal every Friday to keep in touch with the people that might want some assistance from the NGO.

Another inhabitant tells me that he is so glad that THE LEADER is now here, because he made this place the place it is. Before it used to be really bad, but it was his sole doing. This place. THE LEADER heard this and retorted with a smile and a: no, it wasn’t my doing. It was God’s doing. As we turn around to leave, our guide from the centre tells me that it was all THE LEADER’s doing with the help of God that this place was now safer, had electricity and was this clean.

On our way out I made sure not to touch anything as I saw that syringes were not only neatly placed in cups on the counter that was separating THE LEADER and his closest friends from the rest of the inhabitants, but also in peoples arms, mouths and necks; as well as on the carpets and the floor.

THE OTHER VOLUNTEER made sure to quickly tell me to make sure I am careful where I place my hands because of all the syringes she also saw before we climbed back out of the hole.

In retrospect, I was imagining the place to be larger, but I hadn’t imagined it to be this bright or warm. The warmth coming from the concrete tubes made me sweat under my jacket and sweater. The light made it almost unnecessary for my eyes to adjust once I finally reached the room. The flat-screen T.V. was showing Romanian television and the ventilator made sure that there fresh air could always come into the canal. This, I was later told, was the biggest problem with living in the canal: fresh air.

Something else I learnt later from THE STREETWORKER, was that in this small space, that seemed to be quite full with the 20 or so people there when I visited, was the sleeping place for somewhere between 80 and 100 people. Where do they sleep? They have to be sleeping on top of one another for them all to fit. I was talking to THE OTHER VOLUNTEER about this a little, and she agreed with me in assuming that at night maybe 40 people or so would be sleeping in there. We both could not believe 80-100 people could even fit into that small space.

As we were back on the outside, in the cold, grey daylight that Bucharest had to offer today, our guide told us about the canal across the street. This one was supposedly very similar, but quite a bit larger. We were also told that they were planning on building a shower in the other canal.

This piece of information was very interesting for me, because it shows that this really is a home for these people. It is the place where they live and spend many, many years of their lives. Our guide himself had lived in this particular canal since 1989.

After walking around the large place and park in front of the train station and giving out tea to people who are homeless, I engaged in some more conversation with our guide. He told me something I had previously also heard in some of my interviews, one of the worst things of living on the street is not the hunger or thirst or need for drugs, it’s that everyone either ignores you or usually looks at you with a face of disgust, makes sure there is a big space around you or makes sure that you are nowhere near the actual train station because you might upset some people with your mere presence.

I am sure you have done the same, I am sure I have done the same…ignored beggars on the street. Yes they might be dirty and might not smell good. Yes they might be high and off the rocker, but the next time you walk past someone try to not change your path. Stay on the path you were on. I am not asking you to talk to everyone or to give them something, but just acknowledge their presence. Who knows, maybe you’ll make their day with a smile and a quick Hello or Good Morning.