TNCH #4 — Nothing much Sinister about Transnistria

Country #4 of the North Cape Hypothesis and #17 on a bicycle — which country is it though? — my passport now has an exit stamp from Ukraine, but no entry stamp — what does any of that even mean?

Transnistria might have been the first place i’ve ever visited just a couple of weeks after first hearing about it.

When i was still in Bucharest, preparing to leave on my bicycle towards Odessa and beginning to think about my route back to Ukraine through Moldova afterward, my host Paul warned me, pointing to a map on their wall, “there has been some tension around this area.” A couple of days later, in Galați, i learned from my host Dan, who had been to Transnistria about ten years before, that the issues i might face had a somewhat different nature — i was not so much to expect the danger from an ongoing civil war as the unwritten rules of a breakaway state in an administrative limbo. It was another couple of days until my next host Yuriy, in Izmail sent even those concerns largely away — “What, Transnistria? No problem! — I have some friends there and visit often myself.”

In Odessa, i then met Nastasia — “where are you from?” — “Tiraspol” — “Transnistria!?” — “oh, you know about it!” — “i’m going there in a couple of days!!” My initial reservation about what and how much to ask her wound up being totally uncalled for — she was delighted to share her experience growing up in Transnistria, and i was fascinated by her astute observations.

Still a bit apprehensive, but as prepared for what may develop as one could possibly be (and now also rightfully excited) i left Odessa loving my life like few times before.

Very first impressions

On the border, they first offered me only a 10-hour transit visa, as expected. But then i told them that i would like to stay longer — “do you have a hotel reservation?” — “i’m going to stay with a friend” — i gave them the address of my host in Tiraspol, and i now had a 24-hour visa, which i thought would be more than enough for me to figure out what to do next. The customs officer was friendly and polite, and it went just like it does most of the time, with all the standard questions about my overarching objective and what they might find in my luggage — “personal items and camping gear” — “OK, safe travels.”

The first thing i noticed upon entering Transnistria were the roads, which were impeccable — quite a blessing after about a month in Romania and Ukraine, where road quality oscillates between bad and worse. It was the first place where i noticed the three-lane system, which i thought to be a rather clever concept — drivers in either direction use their respective right lanes, and the middle one is just for overtaking.

Traffic was very mild throughout the whole of Transnistria in general and Tiraspol in particular, which certainly helps a lot to keep the roads in good condition. Either way, i was grateful for the blessing — Tiraspol was by far the most pleasant city arrival of my entire cycle touring career to date — it felt much like arriving in a typical countryside village, except perhaps for the buildings and underlying infrastructure.

My host was in the other end of town, and it was close to dawn, so i slowed down but didn’t stop — we’ll do more sightseeing before leaving tomorrow. Two guys in a car paired up with me, slowing me further down — it gets harder and harder to keep my balance while talking to them, so we eventually all stop. It takes a little while until another car stops behind them and becomes impatient enough to start honking their horn. They start moving again and pull into a small lot further down the road. I don’t remember whether or not it was clear that they did so with the expectation that i would stop also and resume our conversation, but so i did — i needed help contacting my host anyways, and hadn’t yet been able to find an open Wi-Fi connection. They lent me their phone, then offered to lead the way to my host’s place, and i agreed to follow.

A rather warm welcome so far — diligent border officers, good roads, and friendly locals!

The most interesting boring place on Earth

My host Vitaly in Tiraspol was a rather chilled guy, and we seemed to have quite a lot in common despite our diametrically opposed political leanings. I believe the best way to summarize it is that we seem to share a strong desire for the most uneventful possible existence — if i understand it correctly, he grew up in the capital of his home country (like me), was educated in the US (like me), set up a reasonable source of passive income and retirement security (working on that), then wound up in Tiraspol, where he figured he would be able to live a good enough life without too much of a hassle (precisely what i believe i found in L’viv). We parted ways on his apparent nostalgic feelings for Soviet times — though i’ll acknowledge our conversations have at least made me revisit some questions for which i had thought i already had the best answers — what is/should be the role of government in our self-actualization? — to what extent do conducive circumstances for that hinge upon the underlying political context? — might Western democracies have simply created the illusion of freedom for their citizens at the expense of the reality of limitation for those outside their borders? — it doesn’t seem like many people under even the best-functioning representative democracies around the world have fully bought into such illusion anyways.

Vitaly helped me register so i could stay longer in Tiraspol, an opportunity i gladly welcomed. The procedure takes a bit of time from you and your host, but it’s otherwise quite straightforward — there were no lines, and i don’t believe the clerk ever even looked at me — she just seemed a bit irked from having to fill out (by hand) yet another handful of forms with the relevant pieces of information from our respective passports. They didn’t seem to care about how long i stayed, so long as that amounted to a number of days smaller than or equal to 45 — i asked for three days, they gave me a week — word has it that one could in principle keep re-registering for rows of 45 days indefinitely, and the only institution that could potentially have a problem with that is the government of Moldova — i heard in turn they rarely make a big deal out of it anymore.

That was a great opportunity to experience more of the place — meet more chilled, friendly people, and engage with them in innocent activities ranging from having a weekday picnic in the park to attending a screening of Latvian cartoons,

venturing (by bicycle) out of Tiraspol, sampling the first layer of villages away from the city, only to experience the same flavor of countryside hospitality as anywhere else i’d been, and also across the Dniester River and into the nearby city of Bendery,

play with my recently acquired action camera,

and drink a fair amount of kvas, to which i got hopelessly hooked, and hoped i’d be able to continue finding throughout the former Soviet world.

They have their own money (Transnistrian Rubles), which at present can only be bought and sold in Transnistria. It has some of the most interesting features of any currency i’d ever seen — this includes but is not limited to plastic coins (in different geometric shapes, not just the round one shown in the picture), and an actual photograph (not a drawing) of a random denizen on the back of their 5 Transnistrian Rubles bill!

I’m surprised nobody has found the person on the photo and made them a celebrity-for-15-minutes yet.

No red flags at all?

Sure — you’ll find notable symbols of Soviet pride in Transnistria, such as well kept statues of Lenin and Gagarin.

In hindsight, i honestly have no idea what to make out of that.

A friend of mine reacted, seemingly upset, that they still use the hammer and sickle on their flag when i shared a photo of my arrival in Tiraspol on my FB wall — it turns out she’s from Denmark, which is ironically one of the many countries to still have a cross on their flag!

Apparently, symbols can be quite robust. Ideologies, on the other hand, i’m not so sure anymore — while the church in Denmark has gradually become a cultural relic, with their buildings hosting an ever increasing proportion of avant-garde jazz recitals over religious services, Transnistria seemed to be, for better or worse, a free market society where it would not be difficult for a foreigner to come in and start their own business, as my host in Tiraspol had just done.

I don’t travel to discuss politics.

Very first expressions

Incidentally, Tiraspol was where i started feeling an urge to stay longer than just a few days at the same place. Was it their quiet that i needed? Perhaps that urge was a reaction to the initial institutional restriction on how long i could stay? Or did the restriction simply draw my attention to something that in practice had already been the case all along?

I travel following and relying largely on the hospitality of locals. So, at least practically, my stay just about anywhere has also been constrained to the few nights my hosts have agreed to have me in their home — with a few notable exceptions, longer stays usually come with the expectation that you’ll work for them in return — may we call that a working visa? There’s no free will in this Universe — just manifolds of conservation laws — we’re all stuck in a metaphorical elevator.

Walking down the street with my host Vitaly and his friend Ol’a, i noticed a language center — what if i found a place to teach English for a few months somewhere in the world? I figured walking in to ask wouldn’t hurt, and was encouraged by their openness to having someone from outside teaching English there — they heard my English, found my story interesting, and it seems like it would have been mostly a matter of working out the underlying paperwork — to my surprise, the possibility of just doing it as a visitor and getting paid under the table was never implied.

It was the cordial Natal’ja, from the Tourist Information Center in Tiraspol, who connected me with the folks at the language center.

I don’t remember whether i understood them to be connected with each other, or if i simply first walked into the tourist information center by mistake. I told Natal’ja that i’d stop by when i came back for my appointment at the language center, and we ended up talking for quite a while. I was impressed with their resourcefulness, especially after hearing that they had only opened one week before. There was a variety of pamphlets and brochures describing suggested activities in and outside of Tiraspol, about most of which Natal’ja was prepared to talk at length. Their postcards and fridge magnets were simple and tasteful. They clearly want people from outside to visit.

Go for it!

The gist of this is that my time in Tiraspol was about as uneventful as it could have possibly been — whether or not you consider that to be a good thing, nothing much happened there. To be sure, i have not tried dancing naked in front of the statue of Suvorov, or else tested the boundaries of Transnistrian authorities’ agreability in any other stupid way — i minded my own, sincere business, and they minded theirs — whatever it may be.

In contrast, just before the beginning of this cycle tour, i was briefly stopped and interviewed by the police right in front of the house where i’d lived for the previous two years in Copenhagen, Denmark — presumably for walking back from the train station at a leisurely pace while checking my phone? This goes to show that authorities may feel threatened and react accordingly just about anywhere in the world.

So, are you nearby and considering whether or not to visit Transnistria? My only regret is not staying longer and exploring more of their countryside — next time!

Read the previous article in the series: But Would That still Work in Ukraine?
Start from the first article: The North Cape Hypothesis

The North Cape Hypothesis: cycle touring, solo travel; Eastern Europe, Transnistria

TNCH #3 — Would That Still Work in Ukraine?

Unless you want to count the fifteen minutes or so i spent in Moldova crossing from Galați (Romania) to Reni (Рені, Ukraine) through the Giurgiulești checkpoint, Ukraine was the third country i visited during the North Cape Hypothesis. There were no direct crossings between Romania and the Odessa Region along the Danube Delta.

I spent nine days riding along the Ukrainian side of the Danube River and the Black Sea until reaching Odessa, then northwest towards Tiraspol.

When i first entered Ukraine, i had already spent a total of 100+ largely heartwarming and energizing cycle touring days throughout much of the European Union (both inside and outside Schengen), Serbia and Turkey. But i had somehow put the former Soviet world in a whole different compartment. My excitement about the coming few months in Ukraine, Transnistria, Moldova, Belarus, and Russia was mixed with a fair amount of apprehension about how different it might be from the world i knew so far — would what i’d been doing still work there?

This is the third in a series of articles on how my prejudices and expectations about each country i visited during the North Cape Hypothesis were challenged by my actual experience in them. It is especially difficult to write clearly about my first prejudices and expectations about Ukraine, the country where i’m now living (in L’viv) and falling in love with. But let’s try a few words: corruption? suspicion? reservedness? melancholy?

Difficult omissions

Once again, i won’t say much about the unbelievable support and friendship i got through hospitality networks, particularly in cities.

I’ll have to write at greater length about that aspect of the cycle touring experience and logistics on another occasion. As with the previous articles in this series, this one is concerned with the question of what Ukraine might look and feel like where you’re not quite expecting to meet each other.

Entering Ukraine

There are a few joint checkpoints between Moldova and Ukraine, and Giurgiulești/Reni is one of them. You still need to deal separately with authorities from each country. They just share the same building and hang out together.

When the Moldovan authorities were about to send me over to the Ukrainian officials, they asked me a question that prompted me to divulge the existence of a pepper spray bottle in my luggage — “oh, you might want to surrender it to us — the Ukrainian side is not going to like it if they find it.” Following their direct instructions, i moved my rig behind the Moldovan checkpoint booth, retrieved the pepper spray from it, and handed it over to the officer.

The maneuver caused the Ukrainian officer who was waiting to deal with me further down the assembly line to teleport from his position to the scene — “what’s going on here!?” — “everything is OK,” said the measured and polite Moldovan officer — “what did he just give you?” — “he doesn’t have it anymore” — “are you done with him?” — “yes” — “come with me, kid.”

Shiiit . . .

He guided me inside the customs room, where my bags would then be thoroughly searched.

“What did you just give them?” — “i don’t have it anymore” — “but what was it?” Trying as best as i could to keep my calm and choosing very carefully words that  were true but nevertheless revealed as little information as possible, i replied — “what are you looking for?” — “was it something like this,” he asked pointing to the pepper spray bottle attached to his Batman belt? — “i’m not carrying pepper spray” — “but did you have it before, is that what you gave them?” — “i have traveled with pepper spray in the past” — “where?” — “in Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey” — “how about Moldova?” — tricky question, i wonder whether it counts if i’ve only been in the country for fifteen minutes — “hm . . ., i guess” — “will i find pepper spray in your bags?” — that one is easy — “no” — “what else do you have in your bags that might be like that?” While beginning to worry about whether the transnational repertoire of over-the-counter medicine and supplements i’ve gathered along my travels might be yet another potential source of trouble, i tried to remain focused on his question and the only issue he seemed concerned about — “i have two knives, that i use as tools for cooking and repairs” — “show them to me” — that’s yet another difficult one — is answering to such a request from an immigration officer legitimate grounds for holding a knife at an international border crossing customs room? — i parsimoniously retrieved them from my luggage and placed them on the table, hoping not to sneeze or have any other involuntary spasms along the way — “anything else?” — nothing else that could potentially be used as a weapon, if that’s what he meant — “no” —  and then the search began — “please place all your bags on the table, and open them for me.”

Traveling is still a privilege

By that time there was a typically entitled American hitchhiker being thoroughly searched as well, and i’ve been looking for a good opportunity to judge that guy ever since. Although being searched like that was certainly unpleasant, i was grateful the officer didn’t do anything beyond his duty — once he realized the problem he was worried about didn’t exist, he let me through without looking any further. This guy, on the other hand, seemed almost insulted about the extent to which he was being searched — “i’ve never been searched like that!” I felt like saying, “well, i guess you’ve never tried to hitchhike into the US with a Ukrainian passport” — or simply entering the country by plane with a Brazilian one, for that matter — i lived in the US for six years on a student visa, and had my bags thoroughly searched like that every second or third time on the border, a couple of times all the way through Granny’s cheese rolls.

But i digress.

I’m in Ukraine now. So far, so and so — hopefully i’ll only need to deal with ordinary civilians from now on, at least until i leave.

More countryside hospitality

My Couchsurfing host Yuriy in Izmail had found me a backyard to camp the night after at his friend Gennadiy’s pension. That was my goal for the day i left Izmail.

The sun, encounters and sincerely bad roads slowed me down considerably. If i were to reach Gennadiy’s before dark, i’d have to bypass Vylkove, which i had been told would be a pity — “it’s our Venice!”

This brought me to Sasha, Rita, and their adorable kids Elia and David.

Between Kilija and Vylkove, the Danube bank seemed quite difficult to access, and it was otherwise endless farm fields ahead and before me — where am i going to pitch my tent? — oh, wait, here comes a small village — let’s ask them how to get closer to the river!

A small girl played on a swing while what looked like her dad fixed a wheelbarrow. She saw me far before her dad noticed me, even though i’d been standing there for what must have been at least a couple of minutes already. I was convinced he’d just shamelessly ignored me when he finally turned around and greeted me with one of the sweetest smiles in the whole spectrum — “hi, how may i help you”?

Sasha told me i could pitch my tent anywhere in the premises, and then continued making incrementally better suggestions — there were a couple of houses under construction further in the back, and he offered me space in either of them — it was quite dusty inside though, so i asked him if i could borrow a broom — he responded by taking me back to what looked like a guest room/house, probably for seasonal workers.

Sasha and Rita were a bit shy in the beginning, compared to what i’d gotten used to from countless other such invitations. They slowly warmed up to me though, and by the time i left next morning, Rita was proudly showing me some of her sketches, one of which she gave me. We exchanged a warm goodbye hug, and i was invited to return.

Road magic or life magic?

I had no phone or Internet that night and was, therefore, unable to tell Yuriy or Gennadiy that i was doing very well despite not having reached his pension. In hindsight, i realize i could have likely asked Sasha and Rita to borrow their phone — i guess i figured that next day i’d just swing by Gennadiy’s along my way and say hi.

The road magic once again took care of that for me — as i’m pulling out of a secondary dirt road back into the main road, a red van driving by stops, while the driver steps out of it shouting, “Brazilia, Brazilia!” — what the fuck? — could he see the tiny flag sown to my handlebar bag from all the way out there? — probably not — it was Gennadiy!!

That’s just how much fun cycle touring can be!

And what if i wanted to sleep in my tent?

Between Romania and Ukraine, it’s now been 17 nights in a row in someone’s home, and i really feel like having a night by myself, alone inside my tent. Apparently, the Universe felt otherwise — as i’m making my way out of a village towards the suggestion from the gentleman who had just filled up my water bottles, i get a roadside call from Goge.

At first he just wanted to share a shot of whatever that was — “i’d love to, but it’s not a good idea for me to drink right now, it’s getting dark and i need to keep riding to find a place to pitch my tent” — that’s roughly what i typed into my translator and showed him — “oh, you’re looking for a place to spend the night! — follow me” — he asked me if their guest room would work — “should i pour you that shot now?” — “i guess so!”

Another joyful evening eating, looking at pictures and overcoming language limitations with Goge, Luda, and their daughter Ira — another invitation to return.

Institutional hospitality

It’s now been 18 evenings in a row in someone’s hospitable home.

Anticipating other inevitable several nights like that between Odessa, Tiraspol, and Chișinău starting the next day upon my arrival in Odessa, i was desperately looking for that quiet time alone in my tent — preferably with a skinny dip in the Black Sea.

What seemed like the perfect opportunity presented itself when i was between Mykolaivka and Kurortne. I pulled into an auto service shop to ask for water and the locals’ blessing to pitch my tent on the shore and take a bath — “well, sure, you can do that — it’s a 20m high drop to the water though” — i don’t care — let’s just go check what that really looks like before anyone invites us to stay in their home!

Are those fisherman? — what are those guys doing?

It might be too late for me to just turn around now — one of them started walking towards me while the other two continued posing for pictures with their guns — it was the Ukraininian military.

“Excuse me, hi, hm, i’m looking for a place to pitch my tent, and i’m wondering whether i could do that somewhere around here.” His answer was terse — “passport” — i don’t think he even said “please.”

Relax, Mika — it doesn’t feel like you’re in trouble yet — there was a small boat in the water a couple of hundred meters away from the shore, towards which they’d occasionally point their binoculars — i guessed there was some sort of military exercise going on in the area, and i assumed they just wanted to establish that my grounds for being there were legitimate, and not in conflict with Ukrainian national interests.

A quick flashback

I’d met and interacted with a soldier before in my cycle touring career.

Goran and i became friends when i passed through his home village in Croatian countryside, some 1,400 km up the Danube. That happened in my Copenhagen–Istanbul tour in Fall ’16. He was off duty having dinner with his girlfriend when i walked into the village bar asking for help with a place to pitch my tent. He mediated my becoming a guest of the village for the night, much of which Goran and i spent talking about the commonalities and differences between cycle touring and military service.

When i was leaving next day in the morning, he asked me that, if i ever write about my time with them, that i acknowledge the help from the Croatian Army — i suppose this is a good opportunity to do that?

Although i remain a much bigger fan of diplomats, i learned that night that, so long as nation states exist, protecting their visitors is at least in principle part of the duty of their military — whether or not Ukraine was a place where that duty might be taken as seriously, we were about to experience.

Back in Ukraine

I gave the Ukrainian soldier my passport and pointed to the stamp showing i’d entered the country a few days before through Reni. He made a phone call, presumably to his superior or whatever, presumably explaining the circumstances, and then finally replied, “можна.” Does that mean, “yes”? — “OK, dobre?” — “можна.”

How about we assume this does mean yes then ask about the skinny dip — despite his disengaged interest demeanor, it was clear that they didn’t want me to leave, at least not immediately — “можна.”

Great. We’ve now established that i can either both camp there and take a skinny dip, or do neither. I thanked him and started very slowly moving towards what looked like a good place to camp, like a child slowly walking towards something they’re not supposed to touch to test how close to it they can get before their parent’s intervention.

He went back to his post while i used all my attention and cognitive apparatus to spell that noise in Ukrainian Cyrillic before it dissipated — thank goodness it’s a phonetic alphabet, much of which is the same as Serbian Cyrillic, with which i had become vaguely familiar — “one can,” returned my phone.

A little later they came by to take a selfie with me, and also show me how to get to the water without committing suicide.

Habemus skinny dip!

Cycle touring camaraderie

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this stretch of the Danube Delta and the Black Sea shore on the Ukrainian side turned out to be a rather popular week-long cycle touring route along which i bumped into several other travelers.

Most of those travelers were, unfortunately, riding in the opposite direction, so our encounters were quite brief — they were nevertheless eager to share information about the roads, where to sleep and what to see further along my way. A large group from Kyiv even gave me the suitably annotated paper map they would soon no longer need!

I did meet one person going in the same direction as me though — riding the remaining 60Km from Zatoka to Odessa with Zhenya was rejuvenating — there’s no other way i could have kept up with his 25Km/h average speed, even with the tail winds we’d been blessed that day. The fact that he spoke no more English than i spoke Ukrainian or Russian was not a problem at all.

In summary

Adding all of that up, the Odessa Region was not just fine — it was amazing!

I was surprised not to meet anybody from outside Ukraine riding along the gorgeous Ukrainian side of the Danube Delta and the Black Sea shore. Granted, the Odessa region is not particularly easy to reach from outside Ukraine, and that’s a great pity — this part of Eastern Europe unfortunately remains a largely underrated cycle touring destination.

I won’t hide that some roads in Ukraine can be catastrophically bad. That might be the only bad impression about the country that has endured my tenure in it.

Besides the fact that it’s not always the case, the only thing bad roads will do is slow you down a bit — and why would you want to rush on a cycle tour in Ukraine anyways?

Read the next article in the series: Nothing much Sinister about Transnistria
Previous article: But Won’t the Gypsies Steal My Clothes?
First article: The North Cape Hypothesis

The North Cape Hypothesis: cycle touring, solo travel; Eastern Europe, Ukraine

TNCH #2 — But Won’t the Gypsies Steal My Clothes?

I know, right? But that’s exactly what i asked one of my hosts in Bucharest half-jokingly when she pointed to the clotheslines outside the living room window of their ground floor apartment.

I say half-jokingly because i must admit i still carried some of the prejudice i had entered Romania with a couple of weeks before — a prejudice that compounded itself an order of magnitude over through the exonym for the Romani people, and another one for conflating them with the Romanian nationality. I’m aware that publicly acknowledging prejudice can come across as patronizing and still be hurtful to its target. I see no better way to internalize personal progress on the front — kindly let me know if you do 🙂

This is the second in a series of articles on how my prejudices and expectations about each country i visited during my latest cycle touring journey (the North Cape Hypothesis) were challenged by my actual experience in them. I hope that this reading will encourage you to reflect upon and challenge whatever prejudice might be alive inside you right now, regardless of whom they target. I would also love to hear your reactions to this piece, so please feel invited to comment at the bottom or write me an email!

The negative spiral of hearsay

Romania was the second country i visited in the North Cape Hypothesis. I spent a total of 21 days in the country riding between Drobeta-Turnu Severin, where i’d entered from Serbia, and Galați, where i left to Moldova. This included a 10-day layover in the capital and largest city, Bucharest.

By this point you might have correctly guessed that nobody stole my clothes or anything else in Romania. It might have actually been the country (at least among the 12 i visited during that tour) where i was given the most from locals — in particular, it is where i was offered money (cash!) the most — that must be the exact opposite of being robbed!

Nevertheless, i’d been very apprehensive about cycle touring in Romania — this might be where it will finally happen to me on a cycle tour, isn’t it?

How the hell did this develop?

All encounters with Romanian nationals i can recall before entering the country for the first time on April 11th, 2017 had been positive experiences: a peer during graduate school in the US — the jolly bunch who adopted me for an evening at a bar in Montréal, after i had been ditched by some Couchsurfers who never showed up — my high-spirited housemate for about a year in Copenhagen, and a couple other acquaintances from the boardgames meetup at around the same time — my friend Bogdan Budai, who also happens to be one of the greatest sources of inspiration for my transition into my current lifestyle — the panhandler in Malmö who attended to my suitcase while i figured out how to get to the airport to catch my flight to Serbia and hop on the touring rig that would soon bring me into her country — i can immediately think of at least another handful of such neutral-to-positive firsthand experiences, and not even a single negative one.

On the other hand, much of what i remember having heard about Romanians before going into Romania had not been very positive.

Research indicates that we might be wired to internalize negative impressions more saliently than positive ones. Thus, i won’t repeat what i’ve heard here, as just the title of this article and what has been implied so far might already be enough of a disservice to Romanians, Gypsies and our hopes for a flourishing global civilization — if you’ve heard bad things about them, you probably know what i’m talking about — and if you haven’t, i hope to convince you that you don’t need to.

Alright, how did it go?

My experience in Romania was overwhelmingly positive. I can’t say it was 100% positive, but it must have been close to that. To give you a better idea of what i mean, let me briefly share with you my most uncomfortable moment in the country.

I was passing through yet another small village along the Danube when it came the time to refill my water bottles and get something sweet to eat. Towards the end of the village, i pulled into a typical magazin mixt — a small shop for everyday staples outside of which you may also find locals having a drink. The shop proper was located inside a gated patio. There were two men drinking next to the gate, and another party of three young people at a table in the back.

As usual, i immediately had their attention. Contrary to what nearly always happens, this time they seemed suspicious rather than interested though. One of the men at the gate asked me if i was the police, and the young guy at the table in the back would not believe i was just a traveler from Brazil.

Inside the shop, circumstances were more neutral, but i was getting increasingly sensitive to any signals from the environment. When i realized nobody had offered to pay for my carbohydrates, my spider sense went off — let’s not linger here — i’ll refill my water bottles in the next village.

Back outside the shop, the harassment persisted. The young guy in the back, who still didn’t believe i was from Brazil and had started quizzing me about my home country, wanted me to come over. One of the women sitting with him then asked me for money — to me that’s a clear sign that you’re not being treated as a guest.

Whatever it was that was brewing there might have well turned out alright — i did not stay long enough to find out.

Are you serious!?

Yes — i was dead serious when i wrote the alarm went off when i noticed that nobody had offered to pay for my croissant — that’s simply how well i had been treated in the countryside along my way up to that point!!

When i pulled into another such magazin mixt to refill my water bottles for the night a few days before in Bistrița, i couldn’t leave without a chat, a bottle of soda and a cup of coffee with Sorin, Emi, Alin, Marius and Stan, who also offered me food. Later that same day, when i asked the shepherds one village over if i could pitch my tent somewhere in their field, they pointed me to where i’d be better protected from the wind.

Next day, i once again couldn’t clear the village of Botoșești-Paia without first following Cosme to the shop, where i was offered a place to sit, a cup of coffee, some sweets for the road, and even asked when i’d visit them again!

When i pulled into a little patch of forest just outside of Caracal to find a place to pitch my tent, i ran into this happy family having a barbecue.

Surprise, surprise — they didn’t let me go without first filling my belly with the proceeds from their grilling and a couple of beers. The sausages and cake they gave me for the road lasted for another couple of days, and the bottle of wine for another several. I asked Razvan if there was something i could do for them — “no — actually, yes — it would be nice if you told people about your experience in Romania.”

Here i am 🙂

Next day in the morning, on my out of the forest where i had set camp the night before, i pulled into another magazin mixt to ask if i could use their Internet for a few minutes. What developed has been one of my most heartwarming encounters to date on a cycle tour. The shop owner, Leonica, has remained one of my most diligent followers. She constantly responds to my social media dispatches with much-appreciated words of encouragement. They always remind me of the hospitality with which they treated me, making sure i had everything i needed before i got back on the road.

In many occasions such hospitality came completely unsolicited. The morning after meeting Leonica, i was merely 8km into my ride and had no reason whatsoever to stop when i heard a call from the roadside offering me a cup of coffee at Florin and Florina’s bar.

The longer i stayed inside, the more the prospect of braving the chilly and drizzly weather back outside seemed unappealing. The coffee had by then turned into Easter cake, then sarmale, then a drink — “what else do you need? — you can ask anything you want,” Florin kept repeating in Spanish every time he offered me something. He meant it — “would you be able to offer me a place to spend the night?” — “no problem — stay, we’ll eat, drink, chat, tomorrow morning we’ll give you a hearty breakfast and you’ll be back on the road feeling better than ever.” I ended up staying with their friend Marcel, who’s retired and lives alone — i wouldn’t refuse to keep an old man company for one night in exchange for so much hospitality!

And what did i do when a good place to wild camp or an invitation to stay inside didn’t happen? In Romania, gas stations continued to be the perfect place to pitch a tent for the night where someone hadn’t already offered me a room — just like i’d experienced in Serbia and Turkey, they’ll give you water, access to the toilet, and make sure you’re within the security camera’s range.

Campsite by night, hot spot by day — ironically, i don’t think i’d be able to cycle tour without the support from gas stations, which i probably visit more often than someone traveling by car!

On my way out of Florin and Florina’s towards Giurgiu, i eventually stopped by this one in Zimnicea to get some candy, refill my water bottles, and perhaps also use the Internet. Martin told me i could sit there for as long as i wanted, and actually suggested i stay for the night. Along the way, he and his brother Florin kept bringing me food, which was in turn supplemented by coffee and soda from random customers coming in and out. Martin had tears in his eyes as i left — “why are you sad?” — “because i just learned about who you are and what you’re doing, and now you’re leaving” — that put tears in mine.

I soon realized that taking pictures and writing down the names of every single person i had a nontrivial interaction with would be impractical. The ladies in the picture below, which some of you might recognize from my previous post in the Trelograms series, refilled my water bottles.

Towards the end of that same day, i asked another such group of lovely ladies chatting by the bench outside if they knew where i could sleep in my tent for one night. They gave me a lead three villages over, and when i was about to thank them and get back on my way one of them said, “wait!” and ran inside — she came back with enough food for another couple of days — “drum bun!

Truly honorable mentions

What if i told you that the above is barely scratching the surface of my positive experience in Romania? In fact, all of the above is merely the countryside highlights of what happened within my first few days in the country up to that uncomfortable incident.

I’m deliberately leaving out of this story all the support and friendship i could so effortlessly find in the cities of Craiova, Bucharest and Galați from Alex, Raz, Alex, Dana, Nico, Anca, Paul, Lulu, Mihai, Robin, Dan and Giorgiana through Couchsurfing and Warmshowers. Can i at least share my experience touching Ioana’s bathroom tiles?

I’m also leaving out the tremendous amount of support and friendship i continued to find in the countryside after leaving Bucharest, most notably from Liviu, Margareta, Viorica and all other folks at Viorica’s magazin mixt, where a request for a safe place to pitch my tent for one night turned into an invitation to stay for the whole weekend and return more leisurely in the future.

In summary

To be clear, i never felt entitled to any of this hospitality — i’d simply gotten used to it, and probably reacted a lot more defensively than i need have when confronted with suspicion. This is one of the main reasons i want to speak better the language of my hosts in my next cycle touring project, which will likely involve a larger amount of time in a smaller number of countries. I wonder how the situation would have developed had i been able to interject, “why are you asking me these questions? — what do you expect from me?”

Does Romania deserve the reputation they have at least through much of Western Europe? I invite you to go check it out and see for yourself.

If your experience turns out anything like mine though, i must warn you Romanians might indeed steal something from you — a big piece of your heart!

Read the next article in the series: But Would That still Work in Ukraine?
Previous article: But Why Serbia!?
First article: The North Cape Hypothesis

The North Cape Hypothesis: cycle touring, solo travel; Eastern Europe, Romania

ps. Anyways, were these the clothes i was worried anybody else might be interested in!?

TNCH #1 — But Why Serbia!?

If i already got that question a lot when i told people i was going through Serbia on my cycle tour from Copenhagen to Istanbul in Fall 2016, imagine when i decided to stay in Niš after finishing the journey!

I’ve now crossed Serbia twice on my bicycle, and have spent another month or so living in Niš in between those two rides. What’s so special about that place?

This will be the first in a series of articles on how my expectations and prejudices about each country i’ve visited during my current cycle tour (The North Cape Hypothesis) have been challenged. As such, i’m actually not sure the extent to which it will answer the question of what is particularly special about Serbia — my goal is that, by reading about what struck me the most my second time cycle touring the country, you will feel invited to travel to Serbia yourself not for a specific place you must absolutely visit, or a specific person you must absolutely meet — but for the overwhelmingly positive experience it may award you with.

The context and notation

The North Cape Hypothesis started in Niš, Serbia. My first 150 km or so, between Niš and Velika Plana, pretty much backtracked my path in the opposite direction from Velika Plana to Niš in my Copenhagen–Istanbul tour a few months before. For simplicity, i’ll refer to those as the NC Hypothesis, the VPN stretch, and the CPH–IST tour — it seems like there’s still a mathematician living somewhere inside my head after all!

But i digress . . .

I’ve been offered a tremendous amount of hospitality in my travels — especially in the countryside — and especially in Eastern Europe, where asking someone for help with finding a safe place to pitch your tent for the night will often result in an invitation for dinner, a hot shower, and a warm bed in their home.

Along the VPN stretch, during the CPH–IST tour, the latter is precisely what happened at the Stoianović’s, where i spent one of my most energizing cycle touring evenings to date. They didn’t speak a word of English, and i didn’t speak a word of Serbian — and that was apparently not a problem. We didn’t even need much of our respective phrasebooks, which were not used for a lot more than the outlining utterances of, “I am pleased to meet you,” or, “Zahvalan sam!”

The day after that, none of the people i asked for help on my way through a village towards the end of the day were as available as the Stojanović’s. As i was about to clear the village, the gentleman at the food market suggested i tried the gas station a couple of kilometers down the road. That led me to my first of many gas station camping experiences, an insightful conversation about human nature with Nikola, the observant employee on his shift when i arrived, and another evening overcoming language barriers with Jovan, the employee on the night shift. They made sure my tent was under a roof and visible to their cameras, and offered me access to their toilet and kitchen.

How would those same people treat me a second time around? — in particular, what would that look like just five short months after the first time?

The second cup of tea

To be very honest, my expectations were low. A few days before leaving Niš for the NC Hypothesis, i wrote to both Nikola and the Stojanović’s, telling them i’d be traveling through the area again, and was wondering if i could stop by to say hi. Neither of them ever replied.

Is hospitality towards a traveler a one-off deal? Had their interest hinged mostly upon the novelty the first time around? Did they treat me that well simply because the prospect that i’d ever come back asking for more was so slim? Was two times already too much?

I was not fully discouraged by the lack of a reply though. Perhaps staying there for the night once again would have been a bit too much to ask. Perhaps there was another reason they didn’t reply. I made alternate sleeping arrangements through Warmshowers for my first couple of nights on the road just in case. But they would surely be happy to see me again and share a cup of coffee, wouldn’t they?

I was wrong!!

When i pulled into the gas station, Jovan not only immediately recognized me, but also greeted me with a big smile on his face. Although i still spoke no Serbian, and he still spoke no English, it was nevertheless clear that we were both delighted to see each other. He then called Nikola, who was home the next village over and would be joining us in about 15 minutes.

We caught up with the rest of my journey to Istanbul, what they’d both been up to, and what more we’d learned about people while cycle touring, interacting with customers at a gas station, or driving a truck. Because i had a place to stay in Jagodina just another 30 km or so further down the road, i didn’t ask if i could pitch my tent with them again this time. Nikola then told me, “You’re welcome to stay here whenever you want, or even come to my home, if you prefer, you’re my hero” — he hadn’t replied to my message a few days before simply because his smartphone was broken, and he had not checked his Instagram in a while.

In hindsight, i regret not having tried to reschedule my arrival in Jagodina with my Warmshowers host for the day after, and taken that opportunity to spend more time with Nikola. I regret not having taken better notes of Nikola’s insightful remarks — a man in peace, no doubt — i don’t experience any cynicism or even disappointment in his speech — but he has surely noticed much of the complexity of what’s wrong with this world — Nikola has this look when he speaks, often not looking into your eyes, but focused half a meter or so to their side, as if there was something standing there only he could see.

I want to create another opportunity to interact with this guy in this life.

How about the Sojanović’s?

Their village is just some 30 km or so north of Jagodina, so i arrived there quite early this time. There was nobody outside, so i clapped my hands and shouted, “Dobar dan!?” Shortly after, Grandma Snezana came out of the house, smiling and drying up her hands in her apron, “Miko!!”

Half of the family was out working and, at first, i saw only her, Dragica, the boy Andrija, and a few rare sights of the shy girl Ana. They joyfully showed me the postcard i had sent them from Istanbul, and we shared some of the waffles my hosts in Niš had given me over the coffee they invited me for. Because of the language barrier, the conversation was not as deep as with Nikola, but the energy was still there — i want to see all of them again — Ivica, Nenad, and Grandpa Dušan — i especially don’t want to make the same mistake as the day before with Nikola.

When they asked me where i was going to sleep that night i asked them, shaking as if about to ask a woman out, “Well, i was actually wondering whether i could stay here tonight?” This particular question was typed into my phone and handed over to Dragica, who took a few seconds to parse the awkward machine translation while i anxiously watched — “of course!” — my shoulders dropped, my handlebar bag was moved from my lap to my side on the bench, the reflective vest and ankle straps placed with the gloves inside my helmet, now hanging on the bicycle — “is the bicycle OK where it is?” — “OK!” — then another cup of coffee . . .

The rest of the family started slowly showing up. Ivica went straight for the hug — “you’re staying for the night, right? good!” Uncle Jovan pulled in with a car — “come, Mika! take your notebook and your phrasebook” — we were now on our way to pick up Nenad, and then heading over to Velika Plana, where we met Aunt Divna and Cousins Bojan and Milica — another cup of coffee, more sweets, peanuts, and next thing i notice i’m helping them unload a truck of mushroom spores!

I only internalized what that, in particular, meant with my hosts Dragan and Vera at a farm a few days later — i’m no longer merely a guest, but slowly becoming part of the house!! Interestingly, it all felt as natural to me as it seems to have felt to them. Back in the village, the process continued — Ivica took me to meet one of this co-workers and friend, showed me a bit of the town center, and introduced me to the ladies at the groceries. Back in the house, over dinner, i understood that they expect not only another postcard from North Cape, but another visit in the near future.

And that’s roughly why

The above is leaving out the tremendous amount of help i got from Miloš and his parents Lola and Dragan, my hosts in Niš in each of the four times i’ ve been in the city, and the dutiful keepers of my touring rig during the time i was away in between the CPH–IST tour and the NC Hypothesis.

I’m not telling you about the warm and patient welcome from Gejo, Vesna, Miso, Milica, Alex, Luka, Petar, and all the other folks at the climbing wall, who kindly allowed me to climb with them, teaching me a fair amount along the way — apologies for trying to push the whole tree-climbing deal so much into you, folks, i’m still learning to be a guest!

I’m not mentioning Rajko, who besides lending me a Serbian SIM card and much of his time and pleasant company playing pool and chess, connected me with Ana and Marko, all of whom guided me through practice rides to the beautiful gorges around Niš, helped me clean and tune up my bicycle — or should i just simply say, did it for me? — rode with me for about half of the way to Jagodina on my very first day, giving me waffles, jam, rakija, and friendship — moments before we departed, Rajko apologized once again for not being able to ride with me for the first few days, as he had originally promised, calling me his “little brother,” and telling me he “would ride with me to the end of the world” — words that took tears out of my eyes then, and once again as i write them now.

I’m not telling you about how much fun i had with Jelena dancing in the sunset to Rage Against the Machine in Bubanj Park, and how touching it was to hear from her that i spread joy around the world.

And those are mere highlights pertaining to my five days in Niš before the NC Hypothesis. To even begin giving you a better sense of what my experience in Serbia has really been like, i’d also have to tell you about . . .

Cycle touring diplomacy

More and more, i’ve been experiencing and humbly framing my cycle touring as the diligent work of a diplomat. I surely have a long way to go, there’s no question about that. What i mean is that this is definitely not merely a gap year of sorts, an absorbed self-discovery journey, or a metaphysically motivated pilgrimage. Of course, much of that inevitably arise along the way. What i am trying to say is that i don’t want to think of any of my encounters as mere moments in my life and the lives of my counterparts, but as the seeds for long-lasting connections.

I genuinely want to meet Nikola again, and also honor my promise to the Sojanović’s that i’ll be back. I want to return to Niš as a reputable tree climber, actually having something of substance to offer the folks at the wall who might be interested. I want to ride again with Rajko, as far towards the end of the world as his family obligations might allow. I want to dance in another park with Jelena. I want to greet Lola with a hug and ask for her blessing getting back on the road much like i would do with my own Grandmother.

Conversely, i also want to be equally available to everybody i’ve met in Niš and elsewhere in Serbia for a second, a third, or n-th time — if there’s anything — i mean, anything i can help them with, back in Brazil or anywhere else i’ve made connections.

That’s why!

Read the next article in the series: But Won’t the Gypsies Steal My Clothes?
Previous article: The North Cape Hypothesis

The North Cape Hypothesis: cycle touring, solo travel; Eastern Europe, Serbia

The North Cape Hypothesis

UPDATED February 23rd, 2019 — after 154 days on the road, this project “concluded” with my temporary relocation to Lviv, Ukraine. Follow the links to read the chronicles of my experience in Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Transnistria, Moldova, back in Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Russia (Kaliningrad), Poland, Sweden, Norway, back in Sweden, Denmark, one last time through Sweden, back in Poland, then finally home in Ukraine — more to come as i process it — sign up for my weekly newsletter to stay in the loop!

On April 2nd, 2017, i reassembled my cycle touring rig and left behind the lovely city and people of Niš, Serbia. My idea is to eventually reach Nordkapp, Norway via Eastern Europe and Russia.

About 25 days and 916 km later, on April 27th, i find myself in Bucharest, Romania. This has been my longest break on a tour so far, which i’ve taken to apply for a visa to Moldova, do some maintenance on myself and the rig, catch up with my writing, and along the way make some friends before throwing myself back into open water tomorrow.

So far i’m very happy i chose this route. I’m also happy i’ve been pursuing it at such leisurely pace — although this expedition has indeed been loosely guided by this hypothetical destination all the way to the far north, it has in reality been fueled by my encounters along the way.

I expect that to remain the case for the five or six months i have left on the road.

In coming articles, i will further develop on those encounters, and how they have shattered my assumptions and prejudices — about the places i’ve visited in particular, as well as how people behave and the world works in general.

There are also a few other dimensions to this project, such as the Geocaching trackable i’m bringing with me as far north as i can, the trees i’ve been climbing along my way, my efforts to pick up some Romanian and Russian on the road, and how i’ve personally dealt with some of the challenges and practicalities of a long-term cycle tour. These will also be discussed in future articles.

For the remainder of this one, i will just briefly describe the process leading to this route to North Cape via Eastern Europe and Russia.

Waking up

On November 24th, 2016, i arrived in Istanbul by bicycle, after 62 fantastic days on the road all the way from Copenhagen, Denmark. That had been my greatest adventure so far, in a series of increasingly amazing adventures throughout the year.

It was clear what to do next — up the ante! So, i moved to Niš, Serbia, where i would brave the Winter tying up loose ends from my previous life in academia, setting up this website, and planning the next epic cycle tour.

The Silk Road Hypothesis

I’d wanted to ride to North Cape ever since my very first cycle tour, from Copenhagen to Oslo, back in Summer 2015.

But once i had reached Istanbul, the obvious follow-up was the Silk Road — in almost every regard, it would have made perfect sense to bring my bicycle back to Istanbul, spend a few more days hanging out with my Turkish friends living in the city, then resume my ride further East through Turkey, Iran, the Stans, China, hopefully my wet cycle touring dream of Mongolia, and neatly set myself up for what might eventually develop into a World tour. That prospect had a cost that i was not willing to pay at the moment though — its logistical challenges (basically, visa requirements and weather patterns) would put me on a tight schedule, and possibly cost me more money than i might have had to successfully fund the project.

According to my travel philosophy, i actually did Copenhagen–Istanbul in quite a rush already — i wanted to avoid the snow, and so had to be always on the move, declining several invitations to stay and hang out longer with my hosts along my way.

No. I wanted my next tour to be as unconstrained in that regard as it could possibly be — i wanted the freedom to stop for five nights at the same farm less than one week into the tour, as i did at Dragan and Vera’s while lending a hand to them and their workaway volunteers,

or to stay for ten days in the same city, making friends and being silly, as i did in Bucharest.

In what other direction could i ride starting from Istanbul? — or perhaps even Niš already?

From Cape Agulhas to North Cape

The next most obvious route would have been finding my way to Egypt, possibly on a boat across the Mediterranean, then riding down along the East Coast of Africa to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point in the continent — something along the lines of what my friend Zelda did. I wouldn’t have to worry as much about the weather, and the few visas i needed could probably be obtained more easily, would be more flexible than the visas for Central Asia, and also cost me less.

Scared (by my prejudices) to pursue that route solo, i came up with a really neat “excuse” not to do it — even if i eventually do feel ready to cross Africa alone on my bicycle, wouldn’t it be great to do that starting from Nordkapp, the northernmost point in Europe?


How the hell would i get all the way up there though? I would not have enough time to reach North Cape and come back down before my Schengen visa expired, and i just talked about how i really didn’t want to rush on this tour!

Would it be possible to reach North Cape from outside Schengen?

So, Belarus and Brazil have just signed a mutual visa-free travel agreement for tourists!

That’s when i remembered Russia and Norway have a border crossing i’ve wanted to cross since i first noticed it several years ago, and that Brazilian citizens don’t need a visa to visit Russia as a tourist — neither do they need one for Serbia, Romania or Bulgaria, Ukraine and, as of November last year, Belarus also!

Habemus cycle tour. Apparently, constraints can sometimes be blessings — privilege is not spanned along a single dimension like much of what we read and hear about it these days seems to imply.

I’m not deluded — of course crossing those borders when i get to them might still be a challenge, or perhaps even wind up not happening at all. But these are all bridges i can worry about crossing when i get to them — my point is, at least i’d be able to plan my tour without much preemptive bureaucracy.

Indeed, with the experience and gear i had from the Copenhagen–Istanbul tour, there was very little left to be done to prepare for this one. I just had to come up with rough estimates of the distances, to make sure i could reach North Cape some time in the middle of Summer without having to rush, do a quick inventory check to figure out what i could remove from my kit to make room for my tree-climbing gear and, finally, the most important part of preparation for any cycle tour — to leave!

Along for the ride?

If you find value in what i share in reaction to my experience on the road and would like to support me in this endeavor, there are a variety of ways you can do it.

The first and most obvious way to help me is to share some of my writing with your network, wherever you hang out with them. This will help me organically expand my reach.

You are personally invited to sign up for my weekly newsletter, where you’ll get manageable bits of long-term travel inspiration and advice. Since i’m not on social media, this is the best way to stay in touch and get updates on what’s new in the Not Mad Yet Universe. You may always reach me by simply replying to any of my emails — i read and respond to all of them!

If you find yourself in a position to contribute financially, you’re also invited to visit my membership tab. There you’ll learn more about how i fund this project and the perks of becoming an active member.

Thank you very much in advance for your support and interest, and see you on the road!!

Read the next article in the North Cape Hypothesis series: But Why Serbia!?

The North Cape Hypothesis: cycle touring, solo travel;
Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Transnistria, Ukraine, Denmark, Norway, Sweden