My Hero

It was about to get dark and I was heading out of the last village when a woman stopped me on the street. She asked but one question. It was not “what’s your name” or “where are you from”. It was simply: “Where do you sleep tonight?”

As I got closer to the borders of Romania in the Hungarian countryside the atmosphere changed. Every time I stepped aside to make space for the tractors or trucks on the road, the farmers and truck-drivers would thank me from their window rather than taking it for granted. Any time I went into the supermarket to buy groceries, the people before me in line would let me go ahead since I usually had so little stuff. Sure, that might happen anywhere every now and then – but here it was “always” rather than exception. Everybody on the street greeted me, and many stopped to talk despite the lack of a common language. And this would continue throughout my whole crossing of Romania.

By the time I had been given a tour of the house and a pair of slippers to wear indoors and another pair to wear outdoors I still didn’t know the woman’s name. It turned out to be Liliana, and she had two daughters; Elena, 13 years old, and Marina, 8 years old.  “Me”, I pointed at myself, “20.” Marina and Elena looked at me with big eyes, as if they were thinking I was so very old – and  I felt strange about it since I’m used to be that young one;  being the little sister of my own family.

Both of the girls looked like their mother, and they had the loveliest, friendliest smiles. Whilst Liliana was preparing dinner in the kitchen, Elena showed me how the shower worked and was quick to assist me with the hair dryer once I was clean.

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In the villages, the kids were eager to show me they spoke English, too; “Hi hi hi!! How are you how are youu!” They’d yell after me, their faces shining up as they later got to reply: “I’m fine too thank youuu!” The crooked old women and men sitting next to the roadside on rugged old benches wouldn’t necessarily greet me at first, but if I greeted them – their faces would shine up too and they enthusiastically waved back. Once I passed a goatherd with the most beautiful goats I’ve ever seen – they looked like the goat-equivalent of Gandalf’s horse! And as I greeted the herd, he graciously bowed and took his hat off for me.

I wish I could tell you the names of these three boys in the photo – but their names were so strange for me they slipped out of my mind directly. The youngest one to the left spoke English the best but yet he kept telling me: “I don’t speak English”, and I told him back: “But you do, you’re speaking to me now!” The boy to the right kept speaking to me in Romanian and the boy in the middle snapped at him as if he were saying: “Idiot! Don’t you understand she doesn’t speak Romanian!” They were so nice 🙂

When I had dried my hair Elena showed me to the kitchen in another building and we all sat down to have chicken soup and salad and just chat. Marina didn’t seem to be a food-enthusiast however, and her mom kept telling her to finish off her plate. Even though I obviously didn’t speak a word Romanian, Marina would keep whispering into her mother’s ear whenever she wanted to ask her something such as if she could be excused from the table. Whenever we didn’t understand each other, Elena used google translate on her phone. 

From Arad I was headed to Sibiu, and rather than taking the bigger National road, I decided to go with the dirt roads. The shepherd’s roads…

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Now to you this might just look like a herd of sheep. As for me however… I knew it meant I was about to get in trouble.

(“You are not yourself when you are hungry, Elvira! Have a Snickers!” So do you think Snickers will sponsor me now…? I know, I know, I’ve told you so many times I don’t want any sponsors… but seriously I’ve made some calculations and if I keep consuming chocolate like this I will go BANKRUPT unless I get a chocolate sponsor!!)

The struggle began once I entered the herd. They came at me from all directions. “How many this time?” I asked myself as I started counting them. Five.

Now these were no five family dogs excited to see you, wagging their tails and all. These were the shepherd’s dogs, trained to protect their sheep. And in their eyes, I was a potential thief.

This bunch was harder to get rid of than the one I had had just a few minutes before. Imagine, having aggressive dogs after you that won’t listen to their own human – the shepherd – trying to hold them back, but you will have to make them listen. I decided to go with the “ignoring them strategy” to tire them off. They didn’t tire off though. With gritted teeth they were snatching at my feet so close that I felt the draft from their jaws. I didn’t think they would actually bite me – these were trained dogs after all, not some relentless stray dogs – but they did however make sure to tell me that “we are dangerous and we will bite if need be“.

And it kept going. And going. And I lost my patience.

“ENOUGH.” I said with the most dominant voice I could muster as I turned to face them, “BACK TO YOUR SHEEP. BACK. TO. YOUR. SHEEP!” And it… worked. They stopped, turned around, and went back to their sheep. The same procedure every time. Over and over, repeat on repeat. (The dogs on the photos were really nice, I even wrote about the bottom one on my facebook-page, you can read it here.)

Liliana was a well-educated chemist with her own laboraty – but despite working 12 hours a day monday to friday she had to have an extra job in the weekends to provide for herself and her family. Not only did she take care of her two daughters alone, she also had the responsibility for her uncle, gravely sick in cancer and also staying in the house.

Let me make things clear to you. Liliana had a fulltime job, an extra job in the weekends, two daughers and a cancer-sick uncle to take care of.  It was late evening and she still hadn’t have time to shower or cook for herself and her family and yet she invited me – a complete stranger from the street, into her house.

“I have seen people traveling by bike like you on the tv”, she explained, “when I saw you on the street I simply asked my girls: Should we invite her to stay with us?”

Who doesn’t love mud anyway? It got worse in Turkey though, I had a real mud party with the frogs you could say, which I will tell you more about later on…

After a while, the dirt road disappeared into a blockade of woods. What now? I thought to myself. I dragged my bike throughout the woods constantly getting twigs and branches stuck into my wheels, and eventually I found another path used by peacefully ruminating cows rather than sheep and their protectors.

The path led me right into a village, different from most other villages in Romania. I had only been to one like it before, and you would know you were about to enter it even before you saw it.. Due to the noise. It’s not like any sound I’ve ever heard before – it’s like a buzzing, broken old radio. Everything mixed together, the children’s cries, the chattering, the instruments playing, the animals; you can barely make out one noise from the other. The only thing I can possibly imagine matching it is the noise from the, err… “Lustiga Huset” in a theme park. And the kids were everywhere, doing whatever unsupervised – even the two year olds.

One of the poorer villages I passed through in Romania.

And they surrounded me like a herd of sheep, big in number like a school class – I had to hop off my bike simply not to hit them. They stretched out their hands and yelled what I guess would be translated into: Money, money! Give me money! As I started biking again, they came running after me. I could only smilingly think to myself that, “luckily having kids running after you isn’t quite the same as having the shepherd’s dogs running after you.”

My head was buzzing with thoughts that night and I had troubles falling asleep, twisting my body back and forth in the bed. Elena had generously given me her room to sleep in as she slept with her sister and there had been no point in protesting. I felt so ashamed and privileged, as I thought of Liliana’s hard work; of those a lot poorer than Liliana in the villages where the kids begged me for money. Yet I knew the poverty I had seen was nothing compared to the one I would face later on. And that left me thinking: When that time comes, how will I cope? How can I walk without shame in those villages in Central Asia with my system camera and brand new laptop? With enough money on my bank account to provide for myself for a full year without working. How do we cope, we people of the West?

We close our eyes, I told myself. And I fell asleep.

Later in the evening, I reached Sibiu in which I stayed at a Warmshower host’s place (like a couchsurfing community but only for cyclists) – Stefan. A Taiwanese backpacker was staying there too, taking a break from his job as a nurse to explore Europe. Stefan had hitchhiked around Europe and was a truly helpful host, and he told me something that really stuck to my mind. “So you’re gonna be out for what, like 250 days more? Then you will need more than 250 helps more.” I guess I might already have received that number of helps.

When I woke up the next morning Liliana had already left for work and Marina for school. Elena didn’t start school until 12 however, and would leave home at 11 – it took her nearly one hour to walk to school every day, single way. Our conversation was limited to pretty simple English, but I enjoyed it a lot. I found out she liked to sing and draw – although she didn’t want to show me any of her artwork, and like many 13-year olds she loved Justin Bieber. Most often when she didn’t understand me, she’d just go with a “yes yes” anyway and I found it funny since that’s what I did too whenever I didn’t understand Romanian; Kept saying “Da da” not knowing at all what I was yes-ing.

When I asked her if she liked to travel, she shook her head – she preferred staying at home. I knew Liliana liked to travel for sure though. When I had told her my final destination was China the evening before her mouth had formed a big ‘O’ as she replied: “Well that demands a lot of motivation! I’d like to do something similar though.” When I had asked her if she thought she’d ever do it she’d laughed sarcastically: “No, I can’t – too many duties. Not in this life, in my next one maybe.”

Brasov goes Hollywood. The bike shop there, Pro bike, gave me a new mirror for free (since my old one broke) and installed it for me 🙂 And then Brasov kindly gave me a 20 degree uphill, yaay

Caught in heavy rain the next afternoon, I pitched my tent early. The rain kept pattering on my tent the whole night, and as morning approached I kept snoozing thinking that “I will get up once the rain stops”. But the rain didn’t stop, and in the end I just had to accept the fact that I were to put on those soaking wet clothes and bike those 110 km to Brasov.

I was shit scared that day  –  riding one of the busiest roads in Romania. Sure, I had a shoulder to keep myself onto but… how does a shoulder help when the cars keep driving off the road due to the terrible weather conditions? I don’t know how many cars I saw in the dike that day. In one vehicle, I couldn’t make out whether the family in it was moving or not. So I parked my bike and rushed across the road to see that they were ok. Luckily, they were all fine – just waiting for the towing truck to pick them up. The last 30 km into Brasov, my body was so cold and shaking uncontrollably and damn was I happy to take that hot shower once I checked into a hostel.

I asked Elena if she’d like me to help her out with her English homework, but I guess that – like any kid and not the least myself – she preferred procrastinating them a little bit further. Being “unsupervised” I took the opportunity to finish off the dishes before I left – Liliana had forbidden me to help out in the kitchen, strictly telling me I was a guest. Before saying goodbye to Elena she handed me a package with food; eggs from their own fowl, fruit, bread, and more. I tried to tell her they really didn’t need to give me anything – they had already given me so much – but there was no point. “No no, it’s for you. Take it.”

After Brasov it was time to head south; to head for Bulgaria – my last European country. It rained heavily again that afternoon when I reached a city called Pitesti (still Romania), and I was on the edge of checking into another hostel. But then the clouds were dispersed by penetrating rays of sun and I decided to keep going, to set camp a few km south of the city. But I didn’t camp that night.

It was about to get dark and I was heading out of the last village when a woman stopped me on the street. I thought but one thing.

“There goes my hero, watch her as she goes. She is no football star, no celebrity.

She is an ordinary person.

My hero.”

2 thoughts on “My Hero

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