Once described by In Your Pocket as “a dirty, smoky and polluted city of two million people and one and half million rabid dogs”, its safe to say Bucharest was not on my list of places to visit in any hurry. And it’s true that before you arrive in Romania, you read about stray dogs. A lot. A 2013 census suggested there were some 65,000 of them roaming the streets, whilst recent reports have the number down to 4,000 – still a little high for my liking. So where did all the dogs come from?
Seriously. They were the result of Nicholae Ceausescu’s reign and his plan to industrialise Romania. Scores of people uprooted from the countryside eager to find a place in the city and that meant a huge demand was placed on apartments. Family upon family lived in an apartment, which meant sadly that there was no room for dogs. The dogs were abandoned in the streets and, like the population of Romania, the population began to explode. Many culling programs have taken place over the years though, and I’m here to say, that despite my concerns and the fact I have now been in Romania for a good week, I am yet to see any rabid dogs, and the dogs I have seen have been languishing in small towns, enjoying the streets as much as it’s citizens and tourists do. Dogs napping, dogs rolling over for a tummy scratch, dogs enjoying the sun. None of them seeming the least bit interested in me, let alone rabid.
But it does beg (haha) the question – who was this Nicholae Ceausescu?
Well, he was the leader of Romania from 1965 until 1989 when a coup removed him from power and sentenced him to death for crimes against the state, genocide and “undermining the national economy”. He was a small man and inflicted with a stammer and he suffered from an inferiority complex as a result. He was initially a popular political figure because of his independent foreign policy which challenged the supremacy of the Soviet Union in Romania, but that didn’t last long. His policies resulted wide spread shortages of food and basic necessities, an uncontrollable population of rabid dogs and most tragically of all, created a generation of neglected orphans (that became known as Ceausescu’s Children) and subsequently street kids.
Ceausescu outlawed contraception and abortion and actively encouraged childbirth to grow Romania’s workforce. There were tax breaks for families with children and fines for those without. And if you couldn’t support your children? No worries. You could leave them in one of the state run orphanages until your financial situation improved. But most times, the children were never collected and the state had no money to run these orphanages adequately, which resulted in hundreds of orphanages, each with hundreds and hundreds of children in the most terrible states imaginable. And it was these images that shocked the world in the early 1990’s, if you were old enough to remember them.
Both the Interesting Times Bureau and Urban Adventures run the Outcast Bucharest tour in conjunction with the Parada Foundation. The Parada Foundation is a non political, non profit, legally recognised NGO, set up with the goal of “supporting homeless children, young people and families through social, educative and social-professional integration services”. Their services include a day centre, home support for those in difficulty, reintegration services and night street intervention. And as Sergiu, my guide, will tell you, he is very grateful to them for where he is today. He is a Parada’s ‘walking success story’. Abandoned by his parents at an early age, this former drug addict and street child has cleaned up his act and is in the process of finishing high school. Things are still touch for Sergiu at times, but he has come a long way and is on track to achieve his ambition of becoming a social worker.
It was Parada’s social enterprise that allowed Sergiu to undergo a training program which allows him to show you his side of Bucharest. He is open and honest with his discussion, very generously sharing the details of his life and encouraging you to ask any questions.
We strolled from the Piata Universitatii (University Square) to Piata Unirii (Union Square) via Calea Victoriei (Victory Avenue) to visit some of Bucharest’s main sites.
This statue outside the National History Museum, is the most mocked statue in Romania. It shows the Roman Emperor Trajan, carrying a wolf. It was meant to represent the emergence of the Romanian people from the Romans and the Dacians, however the nudity of the statue, combined with the strange posturing and….well you can see for yourself…it’s just weird.
And of course it has its own Facebook page – Statuia Lui Traian – should you want to check out everyone’s funny photos.
Sergiu asks if I’ve heard of Bruce Lee. I’m assuming he doesn’t mean Hong Kong’s iconic kung fu legend and he isn’t. He is talking about Bruce Lee, self-proclaimed King of the Sewers. You see, in Romania, right underneath your feet, there is a network of tunnels and sewers which are occupied by hundreds of men, women and children (in fact hundreds may not be the right word – the last estimate was 6,000). Drug use and disease are rife. These sewers are where some of Romania’s neglected orphans ended up. It’s something from a nightmare.
Just last month, police raided the sewers and arrested Bruce, along with some others after a surveillance operation uncovered organised criminal gangs and child prostitution.
It’s a life Sergiu knows too well – the struggle to survive on the streets.
Our visit ended with a stop at Parada’s day centre, where Sergiu and I chatted about what it is exactly that they do. Part of which is run a circus. On a tour through Romania some years ago, French clown Miloud Oukili was confronted by the misery of Bucharest’s street children. He noticed they kept returning to his performances, so he learnt their language, began to talk to them about taking drugs and taught them circus tricks. Today, the Parada circus tours France and Italy with their performances, giving a life to these street children who don’t formally exist. Parada has reintegrated over 300 street children through its work.
If you are interested in doing the Outcast Bucharest tour, you can book through http://www.urbanadventures.com/Bucharest-tour-outcast-bucharest or www.interestingtimes.ro.
The days heat and the heart-wrenching topic have me in a ponderous mood. This is the thing that I love most about travel – it’s that it re-grounds you, redefines your beliefs and reinforces what’s important to you, makes you more tolerant and more thankful for your own circumstances and above all – it opens your eyes. As the quote goes, travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.
After a brief stop to freshen up at the hotel, I decide I’m going to head straight to Cismigiu Park and enjoy the rest of the day. I run into Marg at the hotel and she has the same idea. Cismigiu is the most central of Bucharest’s public gardens. It was first designed in 1845, but not completed until 1860 when more than 30,000 trees and plants were bought in from the Romanian mountains. The centrepiece is a gorgeous lake where you can hire a row boat or a paddle boat and enjoy the afternoon sunshine, but there are many beautiful areas of the park, both hidden and obvious where you can enjoy your day.
At one end of the lake is an Italian restaurant and pizzeria and that’s where Marg and I decide to park ourselves for a bite of lunch and a bit of reflection on our mornings, before taking our time to check out the rest of what the park has to offer.
Strolling past the playground on our way to the paddle boats, we check out the freaky kids play equipment along the way. I’m glad I hadn’t noticed these freaky swings last night as it would have scared the wits of our me – not that they are much less scary in the daylight.
Our request for a ticket to ride the paddleboats is met with ‘you might get wet’. Marg and I look at each other, shrug and say ‘yep, that’s fine’. We are reluctantly given a ticket and told to head over to the boarding pad where someone else will get us our boat. ‘You might get wet’, says the guy at the boarding pad. ‘Yep, we still don’t care’. It seems a strange amount of concern for the possibility of our getting wet and it has me wondering whether there’s another reason, but we step aboard out boat and off we peddle.
We don’t get wet.
Not one little bit.
Tonight we get to meet the newbies that are joining us for the next leg of the tour. We are losing three of our companions for the last week (including my room mate Hedy) and gaining another five and we can’t wait to see who they will be. We begin to appear haphazardly in the lobby at the agreed time, anxiously pondering – is that one of the new people, or just another hotel guest? But finally we have all arrived and get to meet a wonderful Japanese couple, two bubbly girls from Sydney and another US guest.
Marco leads us through the park once more, but in a different direction, for our first group dinner, with the addition of a couple of those who have stayed around today from the last tour, Hedy and Steve.
I noted before travelling to Romania that Stuffed Cabbage Leaves and Polenta are what would be most identified as Romania’s national dish. Traditionally served at weddings, Christmas dinners and big celebrations, it’s a staple on restaurant menus around the country. The cabbage leaves are typically filled with spiced pork, sometimes lamb or veal, and served with a side servicing of polenta to soak up the juices, topped with a dollop of sour cream. So in the realisation that I’ve come to my last night in Romania without trying it, it’s the only logical choice on the menu, which is littered with funny translations. A good choice it was too – though I’d like to have seen how those beaten and tormented pork ribs tasted!
Romania has been a wonderful country, surprisingly so. Although I had no idea what to expect, I have to admit that the pictures in my head were a little grey and uncomplimentary given the news that had filtered through from the country over the last twenty years. But what I found, was a place of fascinating culture with traditions still being held tight – something I feel we have let go of in Australia. It’s reinforced to me that I need to make a bigger effort to return to my roots and take up the traditions my Polish grandmother provided for me growing up, so I can pass them on to my niece and the new baby our family is due to welcome shortly.
I’ve delighted in the simplicity of exploring local markets and indulging in bloodthirsty fairy tales. The beauty of the scenic Carpathian Mountains is a must to be experienced and the joy of picking fruits from the trees as you walk down the street brings back childhood memories of annual holidays to a country town back home in Western Australia.
The people we have met have been incredibly welcoming and have taken kindly to showing and sharing with us their lives, especially Ramona who opened her wonderful home to us and Sergiu who was so open to sharing his story with a stranger in the hopes that it will make a difference.
Thank you Romania for the trip I never expected and will never forget.