Romania, the final leg of our trip

And some highlights from Romania

We have been back from our trip for about a month, and I realize I never posted about the last bit — Romania! So here goes—

Our boat trip ended in Giurgiu, Romania. From there, we bussed up to Bucharest. Our package included two Bucharest tours — a walking tour and a tour of Ceaușescu’s palace.

On the walking tour, we visited Revolution Square and learned something about the 1989 revolution. (Did you know all of it was televised worldwide? I don’t remember that!). We also ate delicious pastries. I chose one filled with salty cheese. We went through a lovely park, toured the Athenaum (concert hall) and generally got the lay of the land in downtown Bucharest.

Ceauşescu’s palace was something else. While his people lacked heat, food, and electricity, he was living quite nicely. Indoor pool. Sauna. Big closets. Gold bathroom. Fancy furnishings, rugs, and paintings. Peacocks.

We had some good food in Bucharest but came to the conclusion that customer service isn’t usually a priority. In fact, one night, we felt the waiter was quite rude to us and the other customer.

(Hey, give that kid a cigarette…)

After our official tour ended, we spent time with my husband’s brother and his wife, a Bucharest native. We got to do things that locals do, such as go to Ikea! (I miss Ikea; it’s supposed to arrive in Guadalajara soon….).

We had dinner and drinks in a huge beer garden in one of Bucharest’s parks. A band was playing Romanian classic rock (80s, we were told). I had a vegetarian plate which featured a bean spread, an eggplant salad/dip and a very red salad/spread made from roasted peppers and tomatoes. Perfect food, perfect evening.

After, we went to Nuba Cafe and ate the best dessert, which my sister in law called bezea: a big piece of meringue covered with vanilla pastry cream, fruits, and (I think) a mango syrup.

The following day, we took off for Brasov, a town of about 200,000. We stopped for lunch on the way where I had an Ursus beer and a dish of polenta served with sour cream and cheese. (It looked kind of like boobs.) We found Brasov’s center to be charming. We toured the Black Church and I ate a pastry called kurtos — which I can describe as dough wrapped around a stick and cooked and then somehow burned with sugar. After that, they cover it in a variety of crunchy things (mine had walnuts).

While in Brasov, we toured the nearby Bran Castle (the alleged Dracula castle) and the castle/fortress of Rasnov. We also took a cable car up to the large hill where the BRASOV sign is located.

We also went to the Rasnov castle/fortress, a lovely view!

On our way back to Bucharest, we were lucky enough to get a break in the weather so we could take the cable car up to the Bábele rock formation. Adjacent, is the Sphinx formation. There is supposed to be a special energy there. We certainly felt the energy of the approaching thunderstorm so we hurried back to the cable car after our walk to the rocks.

In Bucharest, we had a nice visit with my sister-in-law’s mom, who graciously hosted us in her apartment. After, a traditional dinner at Caru’ Cu Bere, a famous old beer hall. I had a bean stew and we shared a big plate of Romanian cheeses.

The following day, we left Bucharest for our 24-hour trip back to Guadalajara.

The emotional highs and lows of a river cruise

Going on a big trip is an emotional experience for me. The looking-forward-to part is always great. And in the case of a river cruise, there is the sharp excitement of boarding the boat for the first time. The welcoming crew, the perfect stateroom, the prospect of sights and tours and fine foods and fine wines. I felt that when we stepped onto the Uniworld SS Beatrice. Everyone was so nice as we checked in at the desk next to the glittery cases of the gift shop. We had some sparkling water in the lounge and used the wifi, and then headed out for some tourism in Budapest as our room was not yet ready.

We caught up with some friends on the ship, who we hadn’t seen in a while. And we met some new folks, many of them interesting and fun. Each night, we’d gather for cocktails in the lounge — sparkling wine, Aperol or Campari spritzes. We’d listen to our cruise manager, Gabriel, give the briefing the next day and perhaps to a short talk by the captain (who was hilarious). Laura, the eloquent and professional sommelier, would describe the evening’s wine for us and then we’d head to dinner where delights awaited us.

As a non meat-eater, I was particularly happy with the menus on Uniworld. There were always several things I could eat — green tomato salad with fried cheese, fried tofu, asparagus soup, rolled zucchini slices stuffed with veggies and cheese, tuna rillettes, tiny whole calamari, something delicious with quinoa. Every night, I passed on the tarts and cakes and ice cream and I had the cheese plate for dessert.

Mornings, we grazed the breakfast buffet, which had warming trays filled with scrambled eggs, roasted tomatoes, beans, meats (not for me!), pancakes, French toast. The cold bar had yogurts with many toppings, juices, chia puddings, parfaits, cheeses, croissants, breads, salads. A friendly cook was on hand to whip up omelets and waffles. We had Brazilian coffee and proper English Breakfast tea served in a teapot.

After, the adventures would begin — walking tours (in the rain!) or bus trips to archaeological sites or monasteries or fortresses or palaces. Each day was more fun and interesting than the last, often with some scenic cruising in addition to the tours. We sent our laundry out. We had massages. We talked to people. We dined. We attended wine tastings. We danced. We watched folk dancers and listened to musicians and lectures.

The last day of the cruise, I started to feel empty and sad. No more four-course dinners with fun people and unlimited wine. No more gorgeous scenery going by outside the window. No more pampering. No more camaraderie. We boarded buses for Bucharest where our cruise included two nights at a hotel and some tours. There, it seemed, we were unceremoniously dumped and the cruise let-down set in. Alas, we were on our own, no one to cater to our needs, no group of friendly faces to share (included and unlimited!) drinks or meals. Instead we had an impersonal hotel with indifferent service, and we rolled the dice at restaurants. I felt a bit down.

The emotional ups and downs of the river cruise…

Of course we rallied and enjoyed our stay in Bucharest….. more on that to come….

My uneducated thoughts about the countries we’ve visited

….and summary of our two days in Bulgaria….

Visiting former Communist countries has been eye-opening and different from most prior travels. Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania are all part of the European Union now, although none are using the Euro currency. However, their citizens are free to legally work in other EU countries and many are doing so. We heard from guides in several countries that a lot of folks are working abroad — leaving their children back home to raised by grandparents or friends. It seems like there will be lost connections and lost generations as people work abroad to support their families. I wonder how this can be sustainable? Of course, the same thing goes on in Mexico, where we live now — folks (mostly men) working in the US and Canada and rarely, if ever, seeing their children or other family members. It can’t be a good or sustainable practice.

My more worldly friends already know a lot about these countries (Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania). Me, not so much. As history- and geography-deficient Americans, we heard a lot of things that were interesting, shocking, and/or sad, such as:

⁃ Bulgaria used to have a big industry in raising lamb for Muslim countries. Now, they don’t even grow their own lamb and have to buy it from New Zealand (somehow part of an EU agreement?). Same for apples and other foods. We have heard that local food production in other countries has been disrupted or stopped due to EU membership as well, although I don’t know the history or rules around it.

⁃ Serbia says they are fine without joining the EU. Other countries say that Serbia was denied admission due to their refusal to turn over war criminals to the international war crimes tribunal. They say that folks responsible for horrible atrocities are still walking around free.

⁃ Non-Serbians can buy property in Serbia now, making Belgrade too expensive for locals. They live in multi-generational households to save money.

⁃ Some think that these Eastern European countries were admitted to the EU only to allow the richer countries to exploit cheap labor and to push their environmentally toxic industries to these poorer counties.

⁃ In Romania, the dictator lived in a nice palace (we saw it) and other Communist cronies lived in big houses they confiscated from rich families when they took over. Meanwhile, they exported all the goods and locals often had no electricity, no heat (gets very cold there), and very little food. Shops were mostly empty and meat could only be obtained through black market connections with people in the countryside. Peasants were not permitted to buy bread (they had to make their own).

⁃ In Bulgaria, those who were able to obtain any Western goods such as nice soap or Nivea skin cream would save those products for ages and when finally used, they would display the empty packaging in their living rooms for friends to see and envy.

⁃ We met a man who was at the square in Bucharest when the Romanian revolution took place in 1989. He and his work colleagues had been bused to the square to provide an audience for the dictator’s speech. He ran from shooting and saw a colleague get shot. Evidently, the revolution was broadcast live on TV but I don’t remember it. I guess I wasn’t too interested in 1989!

As someone raised in the sheltered and isolated United States, it’s hard for me to imagine these experiences. I so appreciate the guides who shared their often difficult personal stories with us (and we were lucky enough to have guides who were old enough to have experienced life under the dictatorships).

Now, on to sights…..

Our first stop in Bulgaria was Vidin. There, we went on a tour of the red rocks area and a fortress. The little town hear the fortress and rocks was very charming and we had a nice walk to the rocks area (without rain, hooray).

The next day, we were in Rousse where we had a walking tour of town and then a visit to an ancient cave church (Orthodox) and a cave monastery. The cave church reminded of us similar places we had visited near Goreme, Turkey, with colorful frescoes on the ceiling and walls. A thunderstorm cut our visit a bit short.


Two days in Serbia…

This cruise has just flown by — much too short!

After our day in Croatia, we had two days in Serbia. The first day, we toured in Belgrade. We walked around the city’s fortress in the pouring rain. I imagine the views are better when it’s not raining. After we were all soaked (especially those passengers without rain jackets who only had umbrellas, and the one lady who wore flip flops….), we headed to the royal palace. It was very lovely. We heard how it was inhabited by the Serbia royal family,and then by the Yugoslavian dictator Tito, and again by the royals. I particularly liked the furniture and the paintings in the basement. The paintings reminded me very much of the McMenamin’s chain of pubs/hotels in Oregon and Washington. If you have been to McMenamin’s, let me know if you think these paintings seem similar. Evidently, Tito really liked to watch movies and smoke cigars in the basement.

On board, we had lectures by a professor. He was smart and a good speaker, but it seemed perhaps as if his view of the various Balkan wars was pro-Serbia. I really must do my own research when we return.

Our second day in Serbia, we went to a fortress/castle and then to an archaeological site. I love archaeology so I was happy with this agenda. This was the first day it didn’t rain!!!!

We had a bit of drizzle in the morning but then sun. After lunch, we cruised through a scenic area, the Iron Gates. Serbia on one side of the river and Romania on the others. Lovely rolling hills with small villages (many of which had been moved from a lower site due to the hydroelectric dam project in the 1970s.

Brief visit to Croatia

And on to Croatia…

Two of the highlights in Budapest included —wine tasting at Kadarka wine bar. The server was very knowledgeable and helpful. She handed us the giant list of wines and said, “Maybe I can help you — it will be easier.” Yep. Before we knew it, we were trying a slew of Kadarkas, Pinot Noirs, and Blaufrankish wines. We also demolished a giant cheese plate.

The second highlight was a visit to a local market (not the big market where most shoppers are tourists). I so enjoyed seeing all the local produce (strawberry and asparagus season here), pickles, cheeses, and even a tank of live fish. An older Hungarian man asked where we were all from. His English was very limited but still better than our Hungarian. Most people said they were from the US. “US,” he said. “Trump,” and made some negative hand motions. I expressed my agreement with him. He then told me, “I am Hungarian. But I am not hungry.” And he patted his impressive stomach and laughed!

The people in Hungary look like me and sometimes they talk to me in Hungarian!

My grandmother worked in Budapest as a maid to earn money for her passage to the US. Her sister did as well, and returned home pregnant by “the man of the house.” Luckily, that fate didn’t befall my grandmother. I have this old postcard that she received while she was working there. I was planning to see the house, but the address is now a modern apartment building.

From Budapest, we sailed to Croatia — not the Croatian coastline that everyone raves about, but the Eastern part of the country, along the Danube, that is not as touristed. Rolling hills, agriculture and small villages. We joined with our tour guide Igor — a tall young Croatian fellow, former basketball player and current professor. We heard a lot about the 1990s war, signs of which are everywhere. Our guide told us that he was 10 during the war and his parents put him a bus to a refugee camp in Germany, telling him he was going on a school trip. (Can you imagine?). He stayed there a year.

I don’t fully understand the causes of the war. We did tour the town of Vukovar where they held off the Yugoslavian/Serbian troops for months despite having only small arms and no tanks. We drove past the second biggest mass grave in Europe since WWII. About 1,000 civilians massacred, including babies and grandmas. Very tragic and so recent.

The weather has not cooperated very well on our trip — rain every day, sometimes quite heavy. However, you can take the girl out of Oregon, but you can’t take the Oregon out of the girl: I always travel with a rain jacket.

We like Budapest!

We left Mexico on a Sunday — Guadalajara to Atlanta to Amsterdam to Budapest — arriving on Monday. Long travel (24+ hours). In Budapest we were picked up by an airport transfer arranged by our AirBnB host. The driver looked a lot like a young Arnold Swarzenegger, complete with huge arms. Unfortunately, he dropped us off at the wrong place — Vaci Ut vs. Vaci Utca street. I showed him the address and the photo and told him I thought it was wrong — but he assured us it was correct. Google Maps said otherwise , that we were 3 miles from our real destination. Luckily, a call to the transfer company brought Arnold back and we were eventually brought to the right place.

Still, with all that traveling, that was a minor glitch. We were super tired when we arrived but dragged ourselves out for a drink and a dinner of Greek food.

The next day, after breakfast at a cafe, we went to the Lukacs thermal baths. A perfect way to dispel jet lag and rejuvenate! We spent most of the day there, alternating between the large outdoor hot pool and the indoor ones. Sooo relaxing. I wish we had time to go again!

Then, on to our Uniworld river boat…. lovely. Unfortunately, you may have read about a boat accident on the Danube in Budapest. It happened the night we were there, cruising to see the lights. A smaller sight-seeing boat ran into a Viking cruise ship and capsized, most killed or missing. So sad.

However, we are enjoying great food, wine, friends and tours. More later…

Texas anniversary and extortion in Nuevo Laredo

When people say the border towns are dangerous and you should avoid them, listen.

We recently drove up to San Antonio, Texas to conduct some business at Lackland AIr Force Base. Careful planning on my husband’s part had us staying in The Emily Morgan Hotel exactly 16 years after we met at the hotel bar. The chance meeting was the unlikely start of our love and our wonderful life together. The bar has been remodeled and we found the bartenders a bit less than friendly, but we totally had our moment reliving our meeting. After a bit of happy hour there, we went down to the River Walk where we ate Tex-Mex at one of the oldest restaurants and we paid a mariachi group to play and sing “Guadalajara,” a song we really like. It turned out two of the musicians were from the Lake Chapala area so we felt right a home.

Sixteen years since we met, over 13 since we married. Who knew that chance meeting, which seemed focused on drinking and starting an exciting affair, would lead to an extremely full and wonderful life?

But I digress. After we left San Antonio, we went to our storage unit it Laredo where the remnants of our pre-Mexico life we’re waiting to be hauled down to Ajijic. We labeled and sorted and got things ready. We hired a man from Ajijic, Ricardo, to meet us in Laredo with his pick up truck and then we loaded up to caravan from Laredo to Ajijic.

We had never crossed the border at Laredo/Nuevo Laredo before and it was a bit intimidating. I had my lists of boxes ready, a list that showed, in Spanish, what was in each box. We decided to go through the self-declare line and declare our household goods and some cases of wine. A quick look and estimate by the Aduana workers (Customs) determined our tax to pay was 3,000 pesos, which we found acceptable and paid. They also said our car permit was expired, despite the fact that we had renewed it at the Guadalajara airport. I won’t go into the details, but it did take a good hour and various tasks and over $300 to get a new permit which we didn’t, in reality, actually need.

Once that was done, we headed out to find the highway to take us out of Neurvo Laredo. RIcardo in his Mazda truck was behind us, until he wasn’t. We pulled over after a bit to wait for him and were getting read to call him, when he phoned us.

“I’ve been pulled over, “ he said. I though perhaps by the police, as evidently the police tend to scrutinize trucks with Jalisco plates. “I’ve been forced off the road and they have guns and want some money for you to go through.” He sounded calm.

Guns? Money? “It we call the police, I think it would be worse. You should just pay them some money. They want to come to you to get paid. They’re with the cartel. Have some money ready.”

Three cars (no license plates) came along with Ricardo’s truck. The one young guy (16?) asked me if I spoke Spanish and I said, “Poquito. Qué pasó?” A heavier set guy of maybe 18, said, in English, that we needed to pay him $600 US, which we didn’t have. We made him aware we had just paid $300 for the car permit and pointed at it. He said, “You paid them, now you got to pay the cartel.” They surrounded our car, looking into the windows at our boxes. One guy had a green plastic back-scratcher thing he used to point at stuff. They pulled RIcardo out of his truck to translate. He told them we were moving and had paid a lot at customer and the car place.

“How much you got? Give me $500.” We didn’t have that either. We pulled out the bills we had, US and pesos, and gave it to them. The young kid counted it. It was probably about $80-100 in US dollars. When my husband said he needed money for gas, the kid threw him a US$20 back.

The heavy-set kid then gave us a Post-It note (see photo). He said to show to anyone who tried to stop us again. A receipt, as it were, for our extortion payment.

And we were on our way.

At one of the security check points later on, Ricardo was stopped. (Evidently, gringos don’t get stopped much.) He told us the officer said the extortion has been going on a few months and one family was shot who refused to give anything.

We’re lucky and we are back home safe and sound, with all our “stuff”— albeit tired and sick (both of us got a bug on the road trip).

When people say the border towns are dangerous and you should avoid them, listen. We have to drive our car back to the States in two years when our permit runs out, and sell it in the US. I’m not looking forward to it and I don’t want to go through Nuevo Laredo.