Happy the man whose wish and care a few paternal acres bound,
content to breathe his native air in his own ground.
Alexander Pope

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30th December 2004 – 27th January 2005
Romania – Life in the Freezer

  Based on a comprehensive study, using a carefully selected sample of two locations, I’ve reached the conclusion that the amount of litter on road verges increases exponentially as an international frontier is approached. On the final few hundred metres to the Hungary/Romania border at Naglak, the broken glass beside the road became so bad we had to ride down the “Tir” lane with the 40 tonne trucks, it was the lesser of the two evils.

  At the check point we were waved straight through. We couldn’t believe it, all the effort we’d gone to to get the health certificates. But as the horses tucked into their first mouthful of Romanian grass, a man in uniform ran up and beckoned me to follow him to the office of the “Veterinar”. She was built like ten bears and her first cheery words of greeting were: “This is big problem for you. You cannot go there!” Luckily, all our papers were in order and she soon softened up. “Why you come to Romania? For New Year party ?” After an hour of form filling, photocopying and payment of a special “tax” it was all over and we were free to go.

  Our first night in Romania was spent with friendly Slovakians and we drank too much palinka. On our second night, John the Ferryman let us camp on his land on the bank of the River Mures, a safe distance from the New Year’s Eve fireworks in nearby Igris. Serbian families looked after us on the third night, bringing to our tent a huge plate of cakes, the best since the patisseries of France.

  Many houses had a plaque on the wall bearing the family name and date of construction. In Cheverescu Mare we saw “Jonescu 1938”. With a name like that these people had to be Welsh exiles we thought. It was the right time for stopping so we knocked on the door and ended up staying a couple of nights. They denied any connection with Welsh Joneses but we weren’t convinced – nicer people would be hard to find.

  We were working our way from village to village around the city of Timisoara, heading for the mountains we could see in the East but still on the plain. At Bucavat, fading light forced us to stop on some common land on the edge of the village. We were quite pleased to have found a place away from the ubiquitous seas of rubbish and dead dogs, but as we went in search of horse food everyone kept telling us to be careful. It was the first time we heard the dreaded word “Hots” (thieves). The basic message was that there were a lot of them about and they were very fond of stealing horses. Two cows had recently been stolen from a courtyard in the village and their butchered remains found the next day near our camp stop. The chilling thought of waking up in the morning to find our three friends gone was enough to convince us to stay awake. It was a long cold night. In the morning a shepherd disguised as a large sheep drove his flock in our direction and came over for a chat.

  Having established where we were from and where we were going, he just looked bemused. “Haven’t you got a car? “ He asked “Not even a cart ?” In Hungary more people had started to ask why we were doing this trip, but the Romanians just wanted to know why we didn’t go by car. If we had, it would have stood out a mile from all the Dacia 1310s. No need for What Car magazine here, no agonising choices to be made. It seems that you can have a Dacia 1310 and that is it.

  As we climbed into the foothills of the Carpathians, there were more and more flocks of sheep, it was just like home except here they still have shepherds…. and dogs. The shepherds made no attempt to stop these dogs from barking and biting at our heels and hooves. We tried to explain that a flick from one of Hannah’s hinds could leave their dog with a nasty headache, but to no avail. Still, at least the live dogs didn’t smell as bad as the dead ones.

  After what had seemed like for ever on the plain, we were now finally back in the mountains. The higher Transylvanian peaks to the East were plastered in snow, a beautiful sight but one that left us wondering how we’d get through. How were we to know which tracks would be passable, which would we be buried in snow? There were big road routes, but, as always, we wanted to keep off the asphalt.

  As it turned out, we were in luck, there’d been very little snow this winter. We were able to follow quiet dirt roads from village to village, other traffic being wooden carts drawn either by horses with bells and red tassels on their bridles or slowly plodding oxen. Where we could, we also took paths up and over the ridges between neighbouring valleys. Above the silver birch, beech and pine trees, sheep were grazing the gaps between patches of snow and their shepherds, surprised to see us, guided us onto the right routes back down to the next village. In the sunshine we were reluctant to descend from these idyllic high pastures with their stunning backdrop of vast forests and shining summits.

  Entering some of these villages was like going back in time, all the way to Black Adder Series 1: Hay and maize stalks piled up in stooks, horse carts and bullock carts, wells, women weaving carpets in the streets, trotting pigs, barking dogs and gangs of turkeys, chickens, geese and ducks. Only the TV aerials on poles, and the very occasional Dacia 1310, reminded us that we hadn’t undergone a time-warp. There were pastel painted houses with vine covered verandas, intricate patterns on doors, even the guttering was decorated with metalwork flowers and animals.

  With so many horses around, there were no problems finding plenty of food for Audin, Hannah and Sealeah. If we stopped outside a village shop, hay, water and corn would often appear – like a service station for horses. We were never asked for anything in return except for Audin to cover some mares. A “scissors” hand signal was sufficient to explain that this was unfortunately no longer an option.

  We didn’t do too badly ourselves, it was a time of gifts – sausages, feta cheese, jam, milk, bread, wine and of course tuica (plum brandy). We were given so many two litre bottles of tuica we wished we’d had a stove that burned alcohol rather than kerosene. All these things were produced at home and every family seemed to have a couple of cows, a pig or two, some poultry, maybe some sheep and goats. We talked to lots of people about what may happen in 2007 when Romania joins the EU. Many here fear that their way of life is going to be changed for the worse. One man showed us an extension he’d built on his house with money raised by selling four cows. Only the big farms are likely to be able to afford to invest sufficiently to meet new EU regulations and standards, so how will the people in these mountain villages generate cash ? There was a feeling that we were perhaps witnessing the end of an era.

  In Ciresu we stopped for a few days to give the horses a mini break. In the village shop I asked for “laptea” (milk). “Nu Nu Nu” went the shouts accompanied by wagging fingers from the men assembled inside drinking beer, “Natural natural natural !” who on earth would spend cash on something you just get from your cow? Half an hour later, a girl brought a plastic bottle of milk up to our tent on some communal land high above the village. Later on, others came with cheese, eggs, jam and onions. We wondered how Romanians would be treated, camped on a common outside a British village?

  Inadvertently, we’d found ourselves copying this habit of repeating words. Maybe it helps to reduce the length of gaps in conversation when your language skills are as limited as ours. Luckily Romanian is quite similar to Italian and we were grateful for the words we’d picked up back in the Autumn. We were surprised to find quite a few French speakers too. It seems that French along with Russian used to be taught in some schools. We used French with a man in Poiana who said he hadn’t spoken it since he left school 20 years ago. He was a real star, offering us our first bath for you-don’t-want-to-know-how-long. Later on, Lisa went to the village dance with his lovely daughters, Maria and Nicoletta.

My grandmother took a bath every year, whether she needed it or not
Brendan Behan

  After the long spell of perfect sunny weather in the mountains, we hit a run of bitterly cold days, still dry but biting, penetrating cold. The drink in our water bottles stayed frozen solid all day. Riding was colder than walking so we’d alternate, riding for as long as we could until hands and feet had had enough. Some times it felt as though our feet would snap in two when we jumped down from Sealeah and Audin.

  After the three most commonly asked questions in Romania (Where are you from? Where are you going? Do you want to sell your horses?), the next most popular was simply “freeg? “ (cold?). Some evenings when it was minus 10 degrees C outside, it was great to have to struggle out of your sleeping bag, pull on boots, climb out of the tent through a shower of frost to be greeted by an inquisitive visitor and the inevitable question “freeg?” To which of course, we’d always answer “Nu, nu, nu, cald(hot), cald, cald!” rather than “well yes I am a bit chilly, now I have had to get out of my down sleeping bag”.

  With their New Zealand rugs and fleece blankets, the cold dry weather didn’t seem to bother the horses in the least, although if windy we always managed to find them shelter, usually squeezed into a barn with cows, sheep and chickens. They know when the day's work is done and happily tuck into whatever is put in front of them, unconcerned by even the most bizarre surroundings. For forage we often found very good hay especially in the mountains – the best we’d ever seen – like freeze dried grass, the meadow flowers still bright colours. Sometimes the only thing we could find was oat straw but this was still munched happily. Maize was readily available and often oats too. We had been worried about keeping the horses in good condition during winter, but they’ve stayed nice and fat.

  In the village of Bobaita we camped on some common land that was a bit too open for comfort. About ten o’clock in the evening, Lisa heard the sound of a rope being coiled and looked out just in time to see someone running off down the road. We’d put up a length of rope to keep the horses back off some dodgy barbed wire and all that was left of it was a frayed end where a knife had hastily cut it. Thankfully the rope hadn’t been forming part of the horses' pen but it was still a wake up call for us; again we stayed up all night – a rope is replaceable, our horses aren’t.

  As we dropped down to the rolling countryside between the Carpathians and the Danube, we came across more and more Roma people. We’d planned to stop in the village of Plopi for a night but when we arrived, the horses were immediately surrounded by scores of people, their faces and language reminding us of previous trips to India. Eyes were popping, hands swarmed over tendons. “Will you sell, sell, sell ? What is your price? Tell me your price! You have three horses you only need two!” Strange as it may seem we hadn’t ridden three thousand miles just to sell our dearly beloveds to “Zinganu“ (gypsies) in South West Romania. It was as if we’d driven into Bonymaen in Swansea in a brand new Ferrari. We’d have loved to stay and talk a bit longer, the people were bright, smiling and friendly, but to stop here for the night would be like leaving the Ferrari unlocked with the keys in the ignition and the engine running. We’d been warned enough times that horse theft is an integral part of their culture. We don’t know how true this is, and sadly these people are subject to a great deal of prejudice, but we didn’t want to find out the hard way.

Gypsy gold does not glitter and spark.
It gleams in the sun and neighs in the dark.

  At places where we did stay, our hosts made a point of stressing how safe the horses were. “Only good people in this village” they’d say “But be careful in the next place, there are bad people there “. So many people asked us how much the horses were worth, how many euro? A question we always avoided answering. Money questions were a regular feature in Romania: “Are you sponsored?” “How much does the trip cost? ” “ What is your salary?” “What does a farm worker earn in your country?”

  In Segarcea, we stayed on a nine thousand hectare farm employing 200 people full time. They worked twelve hours a day, six days a week for about 100 euros (70 pounds) a month, an hourly rate of about 20 to 25 pence. It was almost embarrassing to have to tell them that the minimum wage at home was 20 times that amount.

  Our last stop in Romania was at the border town of Betchet on the River Danube, four times wider here than where we’d last crossed it in Hungary. Despite the need for vigilance and a few cold nights deprived of sleep, we were left with memories of the kindness and generosity of the Romanians. Every day we’d been sent on our way with a “Drum Bun !” (Bon voyage) and we knew they meant it.

  Thanks to Mr Caucescu, there was a distinct lack of nostalgia for Communism amongst the Romanians we met. But right at the end we did find one fan. It was 10 in the morning and the border vet in the “sanitary control” office was already half gone. On his desk were a bottle of Brandy, a jumble of papers and most of his beer belly, a TV was blaring in the corner. After telling him we were heading for Turkey, Syria and Jordan he wagged his finger a few millimetres from my nose and warned me about the “Musselmen” and his political views began to be revealed. “Bush, Blair – Superrrr !” He moved swiftly onto the ‘Zinganu" (gypsies) “Caucescu – superrrr !” At that point I tried to get him to focus on stamping our papers. I guided him to the right page on Audin’s passport and suggested he could stamp it. “Harry, Harry, Harry, stamp, stamp, stamp, nooooo promlema !” His stamping arm waved wildly, rose worryingly high above his head and came slamming down. In the nick of time I managed to move the passport to ensure that it, rather than his desk, was stamped. This team effort was repeated twice more and he came out to see the horses. He was still saying “Seleaah, Seleaaahh, Seleeaaaahhh! “ to himself as we led them onto the ferry and chugged slowly over the river to Bulgaria.