All day I travelled through a wasteland: once fertile agricultural lands destroyed by decades of foolishness, now just empty fields filled with weeds and drift sand.
The beaten up bus I travelled in was forced to stop for a few hours.
´Mechanical problems´. Wouldn’t have been the first time.
At one stop, an area of asphalt, there were the remains of a bus which had been burnt out – or bombed.
I missed my connection to a distant place well known for its historic ruins and had to spend the night in a slum city – another very different kind of ruin.
A monstrous place, an urban nightmare: rows and rows of flaking, decrepit apartment blocks. Old run down factories filling the air with thick black smoke. Crowded streets pot holed, littered with plastic bags and gaudy foil wrappings. Trucks and old motor cars leaving behind them clouds of dense fumes.
People walking passed like zombies, grim faced, dour.
Accommodation was hard to find especially for a foreigner. I walked into a dingy excuse for a hotel only to be dismissed with a wave of a hand. Then another, then another.
Eventually I found a soulless, run down room. A dungeon.
What did I do to deserve this?
As the sun neared the horizon and darkness enclosed the city, I walked the streets in search of a meal.
And walked, followed by furtive stares, derisive laughter.
One of them.
On my part, one thought occupied my mind as I ate a greasy excuse for a meal:
What it would it be like to live here?
The country I had come to in search of difference, diversity, had never had a free and fair election. It produced nothing. Beyond its borders, its currency was worthless. Corruption riddled it at every level. Its human rights record was scandalous. It’s prisons crammed with those suspected of not being totally loyal to a brutal dictatorship. Minority groups were living a precarious existence. The role of women was to bear children, cook and submit. LGBT’s didn’t exist. Whilst gladly accepting foreign aid, the same regime blamed the rest of the world for its poverty. There was only one source of information, the state controlled media.
The people were told that they were blessed, never had it so good.
Did they believe it?
Did they have any choice?
The truth was: this place was hell on earth.
Then again, who was I to judge?
Me, a foreigner, with my ideals of freedom of speech, social justice and human rights?
When I went traveling, I wanted to see another way of life, to experience strange sights, to be disorientated, culture shocked. To escape the feeling of being one of ‘us’.
Well, here it was. I was amongst ‘them’ and the view was ugly.
What the hell was I doing here?
On the following morning I got a bus out to the ruins of an ancient empire. Stone walls, columns, statues chipped and pitted, lines of script which had only recently been deciphered. All of it unearthed and given importance and meaning by foreigners. Now a handy cash cow for the government.
It was incredible. I walked around as if in a dream. I was suddenly transported miraculously, as if on a magic carpet, to a time long ago, when a civilization, an empire, rose out of the earth like a vigorous plant, bloomed, and then died.
Yesterday I´d wondered what the hell I was doing here, in this hell on earth, and today, that question was far from mind.
Overwhelmed by the sheer wonder of being alive, I knew why I was here.
Walking amidst stone relics, some of them bearing the symbols of a strange script, Percey Shelley’s famous poem echoed in the desert:
‘I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…..Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
I followed the trail up through a pine forest towards a peak, when it began to snow.
The snow became so heavy that I was forced to descend.
Battling wind and cold rain, I came to the outskirts of a village.
On an unsealed road, wet and muddy, I saw water flooding down channels between the houses; the sound filled the air and voices seemed to come from nowhere.
Rounding a bend, I passed a small shop.
Opposite was a blunt looking concrete hall, communist- era heritage. The door was open and the air filled with the sound of men singing. I peered through a window and saw 20, 30 men sitting either side of a long wooden table, tankards of beer in front of them.
They seemed to know the words and tune to the song by heart – they sang in near perfect harmony.
A little later, I was brought to a halt by another kind of singing: a loud clacking and honking.
Spanning the road was a large flock of geese. They were white geese, with orange beaks. They looked elegant in the grey and the rain.
They seemed strangely excited.
There was no one around. No one seemed to be leading them or herding them (herders are a common sight in Romania). But they must have been domesticated geese. Wild geese would never choose a village backstreet to land in.
Had these geese escaped from their compound?
Irresistibly lured outside by the rain and the sound of the swelling waters in the nearby creeks?
I stood there and watched them, engulfed in their music.
I edged around them.
They stayed where they were, in no mood to go anywhere.