Trip dist: 115 kms. Trip time: 7 hrs, 40 mins. Tot dist: 6,774 kms.
Uurgh. I spoke too soon. The Carpathians, are, in fact, not quite over. I had to catch the tail end of them in what appeared to be one approximately 500 meter pass and two or three other minor ones for the first 60 kilometers up to Piteşti. Which took up most of the day.
A rather fateful day, as it turns out.
I knew things going to be a bit amiss soon after I started riding, not only because of the unexpected mountains that suddenly appeared where they weren't supposed to be, but also due to some rather...unpleasant encounters with some very...charming...dogs, who on this road, and this road only, would immediately start chasing me as soon as I approached. I didn't think much of it the first time this occurred, for as it happens that time I was riding downhill and the dog (a very small one), didn't stand a chance of catching me, and even if it had, the instinctual lifting of one's feet off the pedals and raising them almost to handlebar level to avoid any possible sudden appearance of teeth marks on one's calves, with the purported pain that would cause, plus its potential associated problems (i.e. having to explain, in Romanian, that you need to find a way to get some very pleasing rabies shots), produced no detrimental effects on the speed of the bike on the downhill.
After it happened 4 or 5 times, in fact, I started even getting used to it, even when the dogs, this time, had grown to medium size.
By the 10th time or so, I had even gotten used to it happening when I was pedalling uphill and the dogs could catch up to me, foaming at the mouth, no problem. It really does take this long to figure out that the dreaded loud, furious barks are a good sign: when the dog is busy barking and running at the same time, it hardly has the means to think about how to bite you, so your moving agonizingly slowly up the uphills in spite of your frantic, panic-fueled pedalling doesn't matter too much.
But no matter how many stupid dogs you've successfully passed by without incident up or down the hill, nothing prepares you for when three of them decide to chase you at the same time.
Two on my right side, one on my left side, made it impossible to move the bike towards the center of the highway like one usually instinctually does to try to give the dogs coming from the right side a wide berth. Lifting your calf to avoid a possible bite doesn't work anymore because your downhill just ended, the dogs are now catching up, and you need to lift both feet up, because the dogs surround the bike on both sides. This of course, slows the bike precariously. So no hope but keep pedalling.
Freaked me out, that one.
Luckily, no bites. But I swear, I had at least 15 stupid dogs chasing me on this part of the ride all the way to Piteşti. I had not been chased by dogs in the whole 5 months prior to today.
Anyway, as if that weren't a sign indicating unmistakenly that I was drawing the attention of the fates today, there was another event that showed, that today, at least, I also had one or two of the friends of dea Fortuna on my side.
I started the morning ride without breakfast, I don't remember why, leaving late, probably, and without having had previously stocked up on water and provisions for the trip (I was expecting flat or downhill terrain, and there was sure to be a gas station within the next 30 kms or so, so I would have had plenty of time and ways to find snacks and drinks along the way), but as it happens, there weren't all that many places to stop to pick up things to eat on the road, in the end, and the climbs were draining most of my energy, combined, no doubt, with another cold I seem to have caught in the cold nights of Cluj or Alba Iulia.
I was going up one minor hill, in fact, stomach growling in mild pangs of hunger, when almost three quarters of the way up I started feeling a little woozy, you know, like you feel incredibly sleepy all of the sudden, as if all your blood drained out of your head and fell down to your feet, kind of thing, similar to what you feel when you're hypoglycemic. Just as I looked up thinking: "Uh oh, I better get off the bike here and stop immediately, something's going wrong...", I spotted, no less, a little old lady selling apples not 30 meters ahead of me.
Dea Fortuna is kind, and Mother Nature is wise. The perfect solution to my quandry: sugar, and water, all in one little fist-sized package. I got off the bike, walked the 30 meters required, and pointed to the apples with a huge sheepish grin and lifted up the index finger to indicate "one".
"Un kilo?" said the little old lady.
I couldn't help but laugh. "No," I shook my head. I took 1 apple and lifted my index finger again, to indicate one, and proffered the lady a 1 lei banknote (about 30 cents of an Euro).
She took the note, and then gave me another, tiny apple. I laughed, and took it, too.
She offered me another little apple (the little apples were about half the size of the original I had chosen).
I smiled broadly and shook my head: "No, just one."
She again made gestures indicating: "Take it!"
So I did.
She then asked me to choose yet another little apple.
I did, at which point she gave me a little plastic bag for the apples, and sat back down smiling under an unbrella by her little stand mid-uphill in the middle of nowhere Romanian highway.
The apples happily tied me over for a few more dog chases until the next real stop: a snack bar by a gas station at the bottom of one of the hills.
Anyway, in spite of all these vicissitudes I finally arrived to Piteşti, a rather sizeable town, at only 4 p.m., and therefore with at least 2 or 3 more hours of some good cycling possible. Since Bucharest was still a good day's journey away, I figured it would be good to press on a bit closer today, even though my map showed only some rather minor towns for the next 120 kilometers to Bucharest, and Piteşti was large enough to hold at least 10 of them, plus a multitude of internet cafes (always a plus, as you know).
Two towns, however, appeared sizeable enough to contain at least one or two hotels, Topoloveni and Gaesti, in particular, the most promising ones.
I passed by Topoloveni not 1 hour later (20 kms away, all perfectly flat land, easy to pedal over 20 kms an hour): there was 1 hotel in city center. Topoloveni is about half the size of Gaesti (or so says my map), so I figured I'd press onwards: Gaesti was only 20 more kilometers ahead, and that would leave some very pleasant, short 80 kms to Bucharest tomorrow.
I arrived in Gaesti at around 5:30 p.m., plenty of light, plenty of life in the town. I passed by one Motel. It looked o.k., it advertised a bar, a disco, a swimming pool, looked pleasant enough, but it was at the edge of town, and I preferred something closer to the center.
There were no hotels in the center.
Apparently that Motel at the edge of town was the only one here. So back there I went.
I walk inside the Motel. Owner doesn't speak English. I ask for a single room. They don't have any. I ask for a double. "Who is with you?" asks the owner. "Just me". "No double", says he. "Only single."
O.K., so they do have singles after all then. Weird.
"How much?" say I.
The price is acceptable.
"Well, do you have a room or not?" I ask.
He tells me to wait.
He goes behind the bar area, calls me inside.
Remember, what I told you, back in Budapest, about sensing a vague feeling of dislike? Why does the hotel manager need me to go with him anywhere to answer a simple question that requires only a "Yes" or "No"?
Still, there were two young people about in the bar, a boy and his girlfriend, both in their late teens, playing pool nearby. I would be within sight of them. I followed the hotel manager to behind the bar counter, but without crossing the threshold, without passing the door to the back of the building, which was unlighted, and where he was standing. "Do you have a single room yes or no?" I repeated, feet firmly planted on the threshold.
"Yes," he finally said when he saw I wouldn't go inside.
I walked back to the bar area. "O.K. then, do you need my passport?"
"No need it." said he.
Again, a vague feeling of dislike. Most hotels demand to see your passport. Why not this one?
"O.K. then, can you give me the key?"
"Yes?" said I.
"Come back later," said he.
Oh no, I start to suspect what kind of motel this place is, even though it does have a swimming pool and it seems teenager friendly.
"Come back when?" ask I.
"One hour," says he, and goes to the deck outside the front door to have a smoke.
I mull about the pool table area for a while. I don't like this. This cannot be the only hotel. I ask the kids at the pool table if there's another hotel nearby. Apparently not.
Let's think rationally. I arrive at the hotel at 5:30 p.m. It is a tiny town, of no interest to tourists. A normal hotel typically has at least 5-10 rooms for guests, yet this one has none available. The only single available is only free in one hour. It is 5:30 p.m. In a normal hotel, checkout time would've been a long time ago.
You see where I'm getting at?
I go outside, ask the manager point blank: "Why can't I get the room now?"
I repeat the question.
"It is occupied."
Aha. This is not good, not good at all. I need to find another hotel, quickly. But as I'm trying to sort this out, the manager asks questions, which I answer hastily and without thinking: "Are you alone?"
Me: "Er, no, I'm waiting for a friend."
But as I answer the default answer for the single travelling woman, I already know my answer doesn't sound believable: I already inquired for a single room.
"Are you married?"
"Where is your husband?"
and so on and so forth. This hotel one won't do, I think as I remember the Budapest mantra: trust your instincts. I have also already exposed my vulnerable situation with my hesistant and confused answers. It is imperative I find another hotel now, I can no longer stay here, who knows who has duplicate keys to my room, and the hotel manager, though good looking, chuckles too much at the wrong places, smiles too much, I don't know. Soon, instincts are confirmed, it must've registered subconciously the first time I passed on the bike, caused me to seek another hotel in city center, but it only becomes rationally clear as I walk outside the gates of the motel: on the reverse, on the sign you'd see if you were travelling back from Gaesti to Piteşti, is the silhuette of a naked woman pulling off the underpants of another.
I stupidly ask this hotel manager if there's another hotel nearby. He gives me the name of a place, that as it turns out, upon asking a woman at a bakery shop in city center, is a town 3 kms north of here.
By now it is quarter past 6 p.m. I bike to this next town. There is no hotel. Dusk is starting to fall. I really do not want to stay at the other hotel. I slowly ride back, in spite of the approaching darkness, thinking....
I could just sit around city center, bus station or something, waiting for morning...but I did not see a bus station, only bus schedules to Bucharest....
Of course! The bus from Piteşti to Bucharest passes by here at least every hour! I had just seen the schedules as I passed by city center--twice! If worst comes to worst, I could always just ride a bus to wherever all night. It would certainly be much safer than any questionable motel with a too charming hotel manager...
I happily step up the pace to city center, and after confirming there are two more busses to Bucharest I can catch (the next one leaves in half an hour), I stroll by the center, buy something to eat, find a restroom, and hang out before settling by a shop right under the bus stop.
A Romanian boy in his early twenties asks me, in perfect English, where I am from.
"Mexico," say I, a bit warily.
"Oh," says he pleasantly. "I knew you were a foreigner!"
"Oh?" say I, politely, though I fully know, of course, the answer to be quite obvious.
"Yeah," he continues, "I saw you pass by on your bicycle several times, I thought you were Chinese, maybe!"
I had to laugh at that one. For all the nationalities I've been confused with (British, French, German, Russian, ha ha, amazingly, Indian, and yes, even--can you believe it?--Dutch), I have, for rather...obvious reasons, never in my life been confused with an Asian. It put me in a good mood, that one, and made me continue the chat a lot more relaxedly.
"What were you doing, running around like that here in this little shit town?" he continued, "You should be careful, there are a lot of gypsies here, they will want to steal your bike. During the day it is o.k., but at night, no good hanging out here."
I smiled, a bit more sardonically, this time. I had heard of this great prejudice towards gypsies. "Oh, I'm just waiting for the bus to Bucharest," I shrugged.
"And you are going to put that--" (here he pointed at my bike) "on the bus?" said he.
"Sure," I shrugged. "Should be o.k., I think, right?"
He thought for a moment, discussed something with an older man standing next to him and following our conversation with curiosity and interest, and finally said: "Yeah, probably. You may have to pay extra, though. You know the bus is coming in 15 minutes, right?"
"Yes," said I.
"I'll talk to the driver for you. You don't know Romanian, right?"
"Nah," smiled I sheepishly. "Thanks."
"Say, this is my uncle, by the way," he introduced me to the other man, who was as friendly and kind and trustworthy as they come. We chit-chatted some more, about life in Romania, about "oh, you should've told me you were looking for a hotel, there's actually one only 2 kms from here near the highway, I would've shown you the way with my bike, but right now it is dark and I need to head home quickly, and by now you're going to Bucharest anyway...", about whether Mexico is a good place to visit, etc. etc. a very nice, pleasant, friendly chat, and the uncle with a smile that inspired in me a great sense of tenderness.
Shortly before the bus came, the uncle suggested the boy and I exchange email addresses in case he ever came to Mexico, perhaps he would give me a call.
I gladly assented, for it is common politeness protocol to invite people to visit one's home, back where I come from. Especially when you know that the people in question probably will never show up there anyway, so I was all for it and even produced pen and paper.
The boy, however, quickly said: "No, don't bother."
"Why?" said I together with the uncle, who was also a bit surprised at this.
"I will never go to Mexico anyway, what's the point?", said he.
"In case you ever do go," said I. "I would be glad to show you around." (This part, no longer courtesy, actually true).
"Nah," said he. "Nevermind, don't worry."
I found this very strange, and it left me with a mild bitter taste in my mouth.
The bus finally came. The boy helped me put my bags on the bus, loaded up the bike, and negotiated with the driver a good price for my bike: 5 lei (about 2 dollars) extra for it because it was "oversize luggage".
As I got on the bus, I shook hands with him, and thanked him for his help and a pleasant chat.
"Don't thank me," said he. "Give me 10 lei instead."
"What?" said I.
"Give me 10 lei. I helped you, now you help me."
The bitter taste I had felt just a few minutes before was now, again, rationally explained. This chat was not a friendly courtesy, it was a transaction. It should've been obvious to me when in spite of pen and paper already produced there was no interest in exchanging contact information, even as a polite, just a show, of courtesy.
I paid him, of course, but not without being able to restrain my naive, bitter muttering: "But I thought you and I were friends...."
I arrived in Bucharest, in the end, not two hours later, at around 9:30 p.m., with plenty of time to find a hotel near the Gara de Nord, a not particularly nice area, in a not particularly cheap nor wonderful hotel, with a turmoil of feelings (fear, exhaustion, wonder at having avoided a potentially very bad situation, and biterness at the interest-based friendliness of the Romanian boy) and with a bit of irascible regret at not having been able to bike the short 80 kms that remained to get here: having cheated, in other words.
But the most important part, the part that made things fine, and well, and good, was that for however strange and long the day had been today, I was, for now, at least, both healthy and safe.