At the End of the World

by vpundir | September 30th, 2008

The morning starts when the bright rays of sun penetrate through the windows and tickle me into getting up. I set out after quickly getting rid of the daily chores.

I’ve been told that hitchhiking is pretty common in Maramureș (this region), so on the road towards Sighetu Marmației I try to thumb down cars, but they keep driving on. Well, at least they extend their hands and point downwards with their index fingers, which I take to mean that they are travelling within the village itself.

Finally, about 1.5km and 30-odd cars later, a navy-blue BMW stops. Two young guys are on their way to Sighet. We get chatting and they ask me how to say a few words in English. And when they find out that I am Indian, they ask me to teach them a few words in Hindi! (Well, to be 100% honest, like most „we know so much more about the world than the ignorant Americans” Europeans, they ask me to teach them a few words in „Indian”, but even so…)

While they do not understand any languages except Romanian, they are big fans of Indian actress and former Miss World, Aishwarya Rai. Evidently beauty and music do transcend borders.

BUNTY AUR BABLI Kajrare (Ochi negri)
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As we get closer to the town, the question of where I want to be dropped arises. I tell them that I am going to Săpânța, but before that I want to buy a train ticket from the gara. They offer to drop me at the gara, but need to stop by at a place for 4-5 minutes on the way, if that’s okay with me. That’s okay with me.

The place they need to get to is on Ștefan cel Mare street and once inside town, we ask literally dozens of people for directions. Nobody has the faintest idea of where the Ștefan cel Mare street might be or, for that matter, which street we are on.

Finally, by sheer dumb luck I see the road marker and get onto the correct street. We stop at a café with orange walls. Getting out of the car, we see some steps leading up to the, well, nowhere really. They seem to have been built for any ghosts that might be passing by and decide to enter the shop through the wall.

At the café bar, we have some ceai, which I am not allowed to pay for because I am a guest in their country. Thereafter we go to the auto-parts counter right outside where they need to get a quotation on some components. While the shopkeeper telephones his contact to get the required details and my two friends laugh inexplicably. Back outside they tell me they were laughing as the shopkeeper was talking in Hungarian on the phone.

At the station, I thank the guys and go to the ticket counter to buy a ticket for tonight’s train to București. There are 2 options for the sleeping couchette – I can choose a berth in a 6-berth cabin or one in a 4-berth version. The 6-berth cabin option sets me by back by RON 96.

Outside, I find the guys waiting for me. They asked around and nobody seems to have any idea as to where a bus going to Săpânța can be found. So they have taken it upon themselves to find me the bus stop, which they reckon, sensibly, should be somewhere towards the road going to Săpânța.

In a couple of minutes we stop by a bus stop to ask where the one for Săpânța-bound buses is and, as it turns out, this is it. I take leave of my kind friends, and as I am waiting for a bus, I figure that now time is at a premium. So I quickly buy an Africana Cocos and a Primola Lapte from the concessions stand and head across the street to the taxi stand.

I ask a driver whether he’d take me to Săpânța and bring me back, and what he’d charge for it. Asks where I want to go to in Săpânța. And before I can answer, he follows it up with „Cimitir vesel?”

Well, that’s right, my good man. The next question is about how long I am likely to stay there. About an hour, I think. I am offered a price of RON50, which I think is a fair price considering that Săpânța is about 20km away.

At the cemetery, one is greeted by a grim reaper, who is not that grim and, in fact, displays remarkable levity. It is while buying the entrance ticket that I realize that my greeting has changed yet again, this time to „Servus”.

I half-expect the cemetary to be packed with people chatting and roaring with laughter. But it looks deserted, which is par for the course for Monday morning. In fact, the „merry” part of the cemetery’s popular name comes from the 2-3 night wake wherein the „mourners” eat, drink, and make merry to celebrate the life of the deceased friend or relative.

The scaffoldings suggest that the church is undergoing restoration work. Right in front of the entrance to the church is the grave of Stan-Ioan Patras, wood-carver and the creator of the merry cemetery. It is said that Patras began carving the epitaphs on the oak crosses in 1934.

The „headstones” in the cemetery are made of wooden planks typically carved into stylized crosses and painted „Voroneț blue”. They usually also have floral motif and geometrican patterns painted in red, green, white and gold.

Additionally, they have painted on them, their subjects, mostly describing their occupation, but sometimes referring to their passions, salient qualities, or mode of death. The cemetery is almost like a collective memory or an open-field history-record of the little commune.

Another fascinating aspect of the cemetery is that instead of the typical third-person inscription „Here lies < Name>”, the headstones here speak in the first person „Aici eu mă odihnesc… (Here rest/lie I < Name>…)”

A few of these crosses also have photographs of the deceased, in line with mid-twentieth century graves from around the world. Also, while a few of the graves are covered with concrete slabs, most have little green patches growing flowers (and even berry bushes).

Not all the headstones are bright and chipper, of course. The chipped paint on many shows the many storms they have weathered. Even the flowers seem to be sun-burnt.

As I turn left by the twin candle-chambers, I discover the only human presence on the lot in the form of two girls, in their early twenties, brandishing cameras. I ask them „E frumos, nu?”


„It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Turns out that they are visiting from Bratislava. Their next stop? The painted monasteries of Bucovina!

On the way back to Sighetu Marmației, there is a Roman Catholic church in Sarasău. It is an interesting, modern-looking building with a thin, tall bell-tower.

Click here to check out my pictures from Săpânța of 29 Sept 2008.

The cab drops me off at Memorialul Victimelor Comunismului și al Rezistenței (The Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance) as requested.

The entry fee is RON 2.50 payable at the reception desk. There is also a RON 3 photography fee, but the gentleman at the desk suggests that I should go around the museum, and if I decide to take pictures, I can buy the ticket on my way out.

The memorial has been created in the Sighet prison building, and is spread over 3 floors. Before you start going around the memorial, you may want to take the 4mts introduction, available in English or Romanian, at the entrance. You may also want to borrow a copy of the detailed museum write-up in either English or Romanian.

As you go past the timeline boards, and enter the prison, you will encounter John 8:32 „Then, you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” in several languages. On the board, I am delighted to see the Hindi version: „तुम सत्य को पहचान जा ओगे और सत्य तुम्हें स्वतन्त्र बना देगा”, in spite of the small errors. For one, they probably made an error converting it from a printed copy to the brass moulds – the 5th and 6th words on the wall should actually be one word. In other words, the space between the two is erroneous. The other two errors are not so much errors as lack of sophistication in the understanding of the nuances of language – the current version says „You will recognize the truth and the truth will make you free”. In my opinion, John 8:32 should read „तब तुम सत्य को जान जाओगे और सत्य तुम्हें स्वतन्त्र कर देगा”

There are cells upon cells that used to house political prisoners, but have been converted into showcases of historical record. While some cells have granular themes in terms of people (e.g. – Iuliu Maniu, the Bratianu family), location (e.g. – the one about the Pitești prison, the home of „brainwashing”) or event specificity (e.g. – the one about the formation of Solidarnosc), most are thematically wider in scope (e.g. – Art behind bars, Poetry in prison, Intellectual life in prison, Women in prison, Persecution of church and culture, Torture methods, etc.). Also marked are the respective cells where Iuliu Maniu and Gheorghe I. Bratianu died. There is even a monument in the memory of the victims in the little green patch in the backyard.

However, the most poignant and provocative, from my perspective, are the gallery of victims (wall upon wall plastered with names of people fallen) and the cell dedicated to life in the communist era. When I walk out of the memorial museum, I have improved my understanding of the era a little bit, and this understanding feeds into to formation of my thoughts and opinions.

I need to mail something, so I buy an envelope from a bookshop and finish the packing and mailing at the post office. The young lady who collects the packet saw me use my laptop when I was checking the address, and she tells me that if I want to access the Internet, I could go to Café Moka on the other side of the park, which has a bust statue of Liviu Rebreanu smack bang in the middle of it (interesting for me as I am reading his „Pădurea Spînzuraților”).

The café is being cleaned. A young guy is trying to give me some complicated directions to another café when the landlady tells him to let me come in and use the Internet. They find me a place in a private room while the floor of the bar and restaurant area is being scrubbed and washed.

As I enjoy my lemon ceai with honey, I try to connect my laptop to the supposed wireless connection, but am unable to. Not only can the laptop not recognize any wireless networks, but the Windows wireless service isn’t running at all.

On the train from Suceava to Piatra Neamț, the computer had shut off in the midst of installing an update due to insufficient battery. Could that have messed up the system files? I am able to find a „Restore point”, but restoring my system configuration doesn’t help either. This is frustrating. Maybe I should find an Internet café that has its own computers.

So thinking, I set out towards the far side of the park. A couple of cab drivers chilling by their respective taxis can’t seem to agree with each other on where an Internet café might be, so I keep going. I ask a youth standing in a doorway, and he too pleads ignorance.

As I am turning the corner around Curtea Veche, the young man comes running to tell me that he just remembered that there is an Internet café on the back side of the building. Great, thanks!

A tween, presumably going home from school, invites my attention to a dead rat; he wants me to take its picture. So I ask him to pose with it, which he does to the charging of his more coy companion.

Right in front of me is an interesting church. I decide to check it out before looking for the Internet café. The church is rectangular and the building architecture doesn’t conform to the byzantine pattern most common in these parts. The inside, though, is beautiful in the more traditional way.

Suddenly, I have a feeling that I need to check the time and that I’m probably cutting it too close to the train’s time. I ask someone on the street and, indeed, I need to make haste. Asking for directions a couple of times, and looking around for apparently non-existent cabs, I hurry down the roads.

Click here to check out my pictures from Sighetu Marmației of 29 Sept 2008.

As I run to the gara, Explorish’s words echo in my mind „This is the only train from Sighetu Marmației to București.” Knowing me, what he was actually trying to say was „Don’t miss it!”

I miss it! I reach the station at 5:44, a good 3mts after the train’s scheduled departure time, and „the trains do run on time.”

A haggard man in a worn-out suit approaches me and tells me that I could still catch the train from Petrova, and that I can take a taxi there for RON 50. I have been warned against swindlers, but I think this guy lives in Petrova (or in its vicinity) and is merely trying to make an extra buck on his trip home.

„Well, RON 50 is too much, I tell him, how about RON 30?”

„Maybe 40”, says he.

„But I don’t have 40”, I tell him. I have a vague feeling that I have RON 40 in my inside right jacket pocket, and I take them out to see that my recollection was accurate.

„This is all I have, and I need to have 10, don’t I?”

Into his battered and well-weathered car, and off we go. He explains, using as few words as possible and well-aided by hand gestures, that the train goes down to Valea Viseului, where it has a scheduled 15mts stop, and only then gets to Petrova (scheduled arrival – just before 7pm), while we will drive straight through the high road, which is why we will beat the train to Petrova.

Some places in the countryside give me a feeling as if I have crossed over into Ukraine. Even the names of places like Crăciunești and Rona de Jos etc. are written in Cyrillic in addition to Roman script. And the name of my destination, Petrova, sounds very much like an Ukrainian name. Not surprising, considering that Sighet is closer to the Romania-Ukraine border than the nearest Ukrainian town, Rakhiv.

Petrova is about 30km from Sighet and the drive affords pleasant views of the valley from positions of vantage. The station in the village doesn’t feel like a station at all – there are no buildings in sight, no benches or covered platforms – none of the usual signs of a rail station. This effect is further enhanced by the fact that in Romania, the platforms are hardly elevated and are almost level with the rails themselves. But some people are waiting there with luggage, which reassures me.

Looking at a couple of gypsy families waiting here, I realize that in his movie Crna mačka, beli mačor, while using caricatures and stereotypes for comic effect, Emir Kusturica actually hasn’t exaggerated too much, as far as the attire, looks and mannerisms are concerned.

Somehow, it reminds me that while Moldova and Transilvania have amazing natural beauty, it is the people that have really moved me. They have been very nice and generous to me, and I am grateful. And I don’t, at all, subscribe to the famous half-joking expression, „The only problem with Romania is that it has too many Romanians.”

Also, in many parts of the world, the people from the mountains (did I hear „hillbillies”) are considered „slow” or just plain stupid.

I don’t like generalizations, but even otherwise I think this is a ridiculous idea. Some of the smartest people I have had the good fortune to know are from the hills. I think what is usually referred to as their „stupidity” is a certain gullibility owing to an inherent trust in people, which I think is actually a very endearing quality. But of course I might be biased – That people are trustworthy unless proven otherwise is also my own approach.

Waiting at the Petrova station, I try, for the first time, the old movie-cliché of pushing one’s ear against the rail to hear the sound of an approaching train. While one knows that sound travels faster through metal than through air, it is very interesting to actually conduct this little experiment and see that one actually does hear the train through the rail quite a good time before it can be heard through the atmosphere, and long before it is visible.

I have waited for about 20mts when the train arrives at the station. The bogie-attendant gives me a 0.5L bottle of water, and keeping my ticket, also issues me sheets, a blanket and a pillow for the night. The journey to București is uneventful, most of it spent sleeping.

Back in București, I can’t find my eticket and only have a vague sense of the time of my flight, so it is right away 133 to Piața Romană and 783 from there. At the airport, I have to wait a while before the Swiss counter opens, thereafter I get my boarding pass for the 12:55 flight rather quickly. The return flight is to the London City (not Heathrow) airport through Geneva.

The Geneva airport has several “plug in” points, little pairs of cubicles with all different kinds of electric sockets, in most lounges and waiting areas, which is a very smart move for any city that aspires to be a global business destination.

The London City airport is small, but it is great in how close it is to the central London. And since the City is where London’s financial institutions are concentrated, it must be very convenient for the Swiss bankers to be able to fly here directly.

So there you have it folks – I have been to Romanian Moldova but not to Iași, to Transilvania but not to Brășov, to France but not to Paris, to Switzerland but not to Geneva, to Germany (though admittedly it was only a flight stopover) but not to Berlin, to Tanzania but not to Zanzibar…

Click here to check out my pictures from the journey home of 30 Sept 2008.

One Response to “At the End of the World”

  1. as a transylvanian would put it – “there’s time for everything, my friend.”

    thanks a lot for sharing all this!

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