Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Why do it?

"If you really don't want to go, don't go. But if you're not sure, go."
Harald, world traveller, on making travel decisions

In my last post, I described my trepidation at continuing on the Danube Bike Route to the Black Sea, and relayed the cautionary words of three well-meaning people. They specifically referred to travel through Romania, most damningly described as a "shithole" (John, Australia/Germany, who cycled there 20 years ago and worked in Transylvania last year). Concerns have also been expressed about the effect of my blonde hair, petty theft, and drunk driving. And the latest worry is, "Don't they kidnap people for their kidneys there?" I wrote that I had weighed these cautions, but I didn't say against what. Here's my attempt to redress the balance.

First, the following description of the Danube's route fires my imagination:

". . . wheeling round the ultimate headland of the Bakony Forest and heading due south for the first time on its journey, it strings itself through Budapest like a thread through a bead and drops across the map of Europe plumb for a hundred and eighty miles, cutting Hungary clean in half. Then, reinforced by the Drava, it turns east again, invades Yugoslavia, swallows up the Sava under the battlements of Belgrade, and sweeps on imperturbably to storm the Iron Gates" (Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts, 1977).

The Danube is also the thematic link across countries for so much of the history that I've learned in the last two months. I want to see it through to its logical end, the Black Sea and Turkey. (Early on in my journey, a Sunday rider in France asked me, "c'est quoi le thème de votre voyage?" I had a vague answer at the time, "to see what I see, be open." The focus has sharpened.) I didn't want to give up on completing this route because of other people's fears. I wouldn't have cycled across Canada, lived in Japan or Vietnam or China, and I wouldn't have got married if I had let other people's fears guide me. I wouldn't trade one of these experiences from my life's store. And here are some facts to inspire fear: last year in my Vancouver neighbourhood there was a shooting in a cafe and a woman was swarmed by a gang of girls in an unprovoked attack. My neighbour's houses have been broken into. A young Korean student was randomly attacked in Stanley Park and left severely handicapped for life. In West Vancouver in January 2002 I was abducted at knifepoint in a carjacking. Parts of Vancouver could even be described as a "shithole": Hastings Street either side of Main, for example. Most tourists still take away good memories.

It's possible that I'm perverse and that other people's doubts just serve as a red flag to the bull. But I'm actually a cautious person and I haven't disregarded what I've been told. I investigated other ways of getting to the Black Sea. The train didn't interest me as I would miss too much on the river itself. For awhile I was excited about the idea of floating downstream, and I had in mind passage on a plain old ship with sleeping cabins for which I would be willing to pay as much as $1000 CAD. Why not go in style, I thought. Well, I found out I'm out of touch with what it takes to go "in style": $4000 USD for seven days in the lowliest kind of cabin. The price was a blow, but then the image arose of me tottering on and off the ship with old people to be toured around the Iron Gates. The idea of the Captain's Ball was even more distressing. You can't show up for that in quick-dry travel pants. My bicycle started to glow in my imagination, dusty Saviour. I was flooded with grateful recognition: the bicycle is the way for me. I have the time to do this, and if it is less comfortable than a vacation should be, so be it. It may ultimately be more rewarding. It may be one of the worst memories of my life. Only in doing it will the outcome be known. I am more likely to regret what I don't do than what I do. At the very least, if I succeed, I will be able to put my pink line across unknown (to me) countries of central and Eastern Europe: Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Most Dreaded Romania.

Novi Sad, Serbia, 5000 km

1 comment:

Catherine said...

I read the following a day after making this post. It's from Between the Woods and the Water (1986), Patrick Leigh Fermor's sequel to A Time of Gifts, in which he continues the story of his walk across Europe in 1934. He's staying with a Hungarian count and countess. They've just asked him what his mother thinks of him tramping across Europe, and

"They showed concern, too about my crossing the frontier into Rumania. Neither of them had been there, but they were full of foreboding. "It's a terrible place!" they said. "They are all robbers and crooks! You can't trust them. They'll take everything you've got, and"-- voices sank collusively here--"whole valleys are riddled with VD, oh do beware!" I could see from their earnest looks that they really meant it and began to experience a touch of misgiving as well as excitement. . .

Suddenly my hostess ran upstairs and came down holding a neat leather container that looked just too big for a pack of cards. "You must take care of yourself, dear," she said. Grof Laszlo nodded gravely. I wondered what it could contain. The thought flitted through my mind, but only for a wild second, that it might be some counter-charm to the insidious medical threat of those valleys. . . . "This was given me years and years ago by an admirer of mine," she went on. "It's no use to me now so do please take it." When the leather flap came out of its slot, it revealed a minute automatic pistol that could be described as 'a lady's weapon'; the butt was plated with mother-of-pearl and there was a box of rounds of very small bore. It was the kind of thing women on stage whisk out of reticules when their honour is at stake. I was rather thrilled and very touched. But their anxiety, which had no foundation as it turned out, was very real."
pp. 76-77