On first appearances, the community hall, an abandoned galvanised iron shed, seemed like the last place where anything significant might be found. But our guide, a 93 year old man, knew its story and he was keen to tell it to strangers, conscious of the fact that he and the hall were living on borrowed time.
As he talked, I sometimes felt that he was talking to himself, to the darkness….
It was late afternoon and we had been riding our bikes over unsealed roads into a powerful headwind for most of the day. The wind was far stronger than the weather report had indicated. Along with the wind, we also had to battle the dust. We knew we weren’t going to reach our destination, a town where we had planned to stay the night at a caravan park.
We desperately needed to stop. But we were surrounded by undulating crop land as far as the eye could see. It was autumn and everything was barren and dry. There was nowhere we could pitch our tent and our water was low.
I was in a bad mood. The grievances piled up.
When we had arrived in Australia that January, our plan was to leave in March/April, fly to Beijing, and then take the train to North Korea. Now thanks to Covid-19, international travel was impossible and who knew when – and if – the world would ever return to what it once was. I had this uncomfortable feeling that a viral Frankenstein was on the rampage. Former irritations – e.g., crowded airports, endless cues and long flights – were now reasons for nostalgia.
So here we were, plan B, making the best of our situation by …riding our bikes into a vortex of dust and wind with no water, no prospect of stopping for the night, surrounded on all sides by a great nothingness.
Then it appeared in the distance, like a mirage…..
When night fell, along with the rain and the cold, we had a long day behind us.
We had ventured into a wilderness and got so lost that it was a miracle that we had managed, by great good luck more than anything else, to have found our way back to civilisation. And whilst that word ‘civilisation’ might be open to debate, on that night it was so disarmingly simple: survival.
It loomed up before us, like a mirage: a small railway station in the midst of the mountains of central Romania.