Getting to RoaMania

Piata UniriiWhen I was trying to book my ticket, I essentially considered two options: British Airways and Tarom Romanian Air Transport which are priced comparably. Partly because British Airways has pissed me off by consistently losing my luggage, and partly to begin my Romanian experience even before reaching the country, I booked my flight on Tarom.

As an aside, I also checked out Blue Air, which was offering rock-bottom airfares but not the dates I was looking for. So if your dates are flexible, you may be able to fly to Romania at a small fraction of what BA or Tarom charge. Don’t be concerned by the fact that Blue flies to Băneasa airport (Aurel Vlaicu International Airport) as it is even closer to the city than than Otopeni airport (Henry Coandă International Airport), and the two airports are pretty close to each other anyway. Also, I hear that the low-cost carrier EasyJet has plans underfoot to start a London-Bucureşti service from mid-October or thereabouts.

My flight is due to take off from Heathrow at 12.30pm on Friday, and I reach the check-in desk at around 11.20am. The tall, wiry gentleman asks if I have any luggage to check in, and I tell him I don’t. He wants to check the weight of the backpack which I am taking as cabin baggage, so I place it on the scale. He shakes his head, “13kg is too much. Maximum allowed 6.5kg. You’ll have to check it.”

But I am not about to check in my new laptop, and definitely not at Heathrow, “Listen, I could just take a few things out and put in my jacket pockets and carry this thing into the cabin. Won’t make any difference.”

I don’t know it if is my words that get him or my disposition, but he doesn’t say anything, and hands me my boarding pass.

Next stop security screening. Of course they have to find something that they want to examine. This time it is my laptop. Since I have the laptop screen covered with the white unspun-fabric dust-cover that it came in, it is a suspicious object and warrants a chemical screening. I don’t mind – all this keeps things at least a little interesting before the flight time.

And as it turns out, the flight is late anyway. In fact, even the gate number hasn’t been announced by 12.20pm. Oh, well, some people may be in a hurry to get to wherever it is that they are going, but for me not really knowing where exactly I am going is almost liberating. It liberates me from the shackles of timeliness worries in any case.

On board, I find a relatively old but clean plane with dated upholstery and entertainment system. The service is efficient and provided with a smile, and the nice middle-aged hostess comes back offering extra bread, minutes after she has distributed the food trays. There is some wine available, though I can’t vouch for it, not having tried it. While my neigbor grunts and groans about not getting the vodka that he could really have used, I am impressed with the warmth of the service. Heck, they even put a large piece of roasted chicken in one of the containers of my “raw vegetarian” food.

We land in the Henry Coandă airport around 5.30pm local time. I guess that ours is the only international flight that has landed in this part of the airport as the queues at passport control aren’t too long. I reckon that I can beat the queues completely if I take a quick bathroom break. This turns out to be exactly right as when I get back in a couple of minutes, there are just 3-4 people in queue at each window.

Just as I am walking to one of them, a nice, young lady waves me over to the counter that she has just gotten behind. She looks at me closely, trying to match my face to the picture on the visa. She asks me to hold my hair back, which is funny because I think I have some hair falling on my forehead in the visa picture. But I do follow her instructions; she is finally satisfied and starts jotting down the details.

Then she asks me for my address in Romania, and realizing that I don’t have a clue, I am at a loss for words for a few seconds. She tries to help me, “Do you have a letter of invitation?” (Indians need a letter of invitation from a Romanian citizen to be granted a visa). I start telling her, “I do have a letter of invitation, but…”, and as I am thinking about how to complete that sentence, she chimes in with, “..but it’s in the luggage.” and a smile.

I nod vigorously, notwithstanding the fact that I have no checked-in luggage and the hardcopy of the letter under question is in fact safely resting in my room in London.

Next, she asks if I remember the address where I’d be staying, which of course I don’t because I don’t even know it yet. So she asks if it is in Bucureşti, and I add that subtle touch of authenticity to my story by saying, “No, Sighişoara”.

Passport control taken care of, I go through to the rental cars area in the “marketplace” between the two buildings of the airport.

Europcar, with whom I had made an online reservation, do not have a car for me. The person at the desk is polite but can’t really help me, though he does try to contact the “headquarters” to see how the money I paid online for the reservation would be returned to me.

I am easily able to get an Opel Corsa from the Dollar/ Thrifty counter next door. Though my driving license is asked for and copied for records, it raises no suspicion that some letters on it seem extra dark. This makes me happy as these letters are actually a result of my printing over the original expiry date of the license issued in Florida.

You see, my license expired on 31 May along with my US visa, and therefore to rent a car I had to change the year in the expiration date. Anyway, as they say, it is forgery only if you get caught. In this particular case, I like to think I just used a little bit of poetic license (no pun intended).

So, I take the car issued on a non-forged, poetically-creative driving license, park it in the rental car return parking and go hunting for local currency since my car-rental clerk told me that as I had guessed, most places in town would accept cash only. Since I want to use my Barclays Bank card to pay, the currency exchange places want to convert my money from GBP to USD and then USD to EUR, and then would only pay me in EUR. “Bollocks!”, I say, and just use my card to withdraw some cash in RON/Lei from an ATM.

Car and cash taken care of, I drive down to the town. As I get into the busy city roads, the complete lack of road signs makes me ponder over the irony of the fact that Europcar, which did not have a car available for me had some spare GPS’s, but Dollar/ Thrify, which was able to rent me a car did not have any GPS devices available.

As one drives down from the “aeroport” into Bucureşti, the first thing one notices is the tram line bifurcating the street. The rails are very pronounced and surrounded by iron fencing at first, but as one gets get closer to the city, these gradually sink into the road till they become almost subtle.

Like the quintessential wanderer that I am, I drive around town, passing interesting buildings like Bucureşti Mall on the way. The night has fallen by the time I get to the Unirii Square (of course I don’t know it is Unirii Square at the time) in the Centrul Civic area (city center).

Unirii Square is abuzz with activity. Like a central market in any large city, it is packed with huge billboards and electronic signs. The dancing fountains with their floral designs and mosaic patterns, however, prevent it from being tastelessly commercial. I park the car on the footpath by a fountain, and get out for some fresh air. And the cool breeze makes me want to lie down and sleep right there.

A text message from a friend reminds me that I need to find a place to spend the night. Oh, well, that shouldn’t be much trouble in a capital city, I think. I spend a little more time wandering around the square, before setting off to find a place to hang my hat for the night. Easier said than done. It takes a few false starts, some getting lost into small lanes with charming houses that I swear I’d come back and shoot in the morning, and some driving around to find a little hotel arcross the road from Piata Progresso.

The receptionist calls the owner so that we may speak in English. While the single rooms are listed at 40 Lei a night, the owner tell me that none are available, of course, and that I’ll have to get a double room for 100 Lei (typical bait and switch). That’s not too bad a price, I think, and ask if they have Internet available in the rooms. The answer is “no”, and that is a deal breaker.

So I take directions from some kids playing chess outside a florist shop, a couple of policemen, and a taxi driver, and combine them to navigate to Ibiz at Gara de Nord recommended by my friend. Ibiz is neat and modern, and at EUR 55 a night definitely more expensive than the crumbly, decreipt little place at Piata Progresso. Oh, and they charge you extra for parking (2 Lei an hour) and breakfast (15 Lei, I think). They have Internet available in rooms, but only via ethernet cables. If you don’t have one, they’ll happily sell one to you at the princely rate of EUR 7!

So be it, I think, and settle down for the night, but not before replacing my T-Mobile UK SIM with an Orange Romania SIM that I bought at a petrol pump/ gas station outside the airport. Tomorrow, as they say, is another day.

Click here to check out my pictures from Bucureşti of 21 Sept 2007.

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