Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Wacky Racers

 Ugg, jet lag, the scourge of trans Atlantic travel.

Our fully loaded Toronto to Paris Air France tired jumbo arrived on time with its surly crew of sky waitresses inflicting their mission statement on their 400 passengers: "We Are Not Happy Until The Customer is Not Happy".  Nonetheless the 747 is still a technological marvel considering it has been around for 42 years.

A quick transfer in the futuristic de Gaulle airport to the Tarom Air 2.5 hour Bucharest flight in a clean new aircraft with cheerful staff. Flying over the countryside of Romania as we approached, I immediately noted the large scale and variety of agricultural activity. This country is noted for its fresh organic produce and a strong agrarian history.

Through the reading I did and from talking to Romanian expats back in Canada, my preconceived notions of this former east block nation were to be shattered before the plane even touched down.
Speaking of expats, out of the four I spoke to about my trip, only one reacted favourably. The others either laughed manically or asked me in a solemn tone why I would ever want to vacation here.

Some quick Romania facts  (Canada's in italicized brackets):
  • 22,000,000 population  (32,000,000)
  • $12,000 per capita GDP  ($40,000)
  • 54% Urbanized population & still one of Europe's lowest  (81%)
  • 237,500 square kms.  (Labrador 294,000 sq. kms.) 
  • 69 of 148 on corruption index  (#6 of 148)
  • 25% living below poverty line  (4%)
  • 5.6% of GDP budget deficit  (6.5%)
  • 6.1% unemployment rate  (8.1%)
The Tarom jet approached the landing strip and around the airport are new hi tech and light manufacturing campus facilities emblazoned with corporate banners. Touching down on the tar mac, one cannot help but notice the many abandoned Soviet era aircraft strategically parked around the perimeter with long grass growing around them. The terminal is a sleek clean modern facility comparable to Ottawa's own airport. Ground crews had 2 stairs attached to the jet and everybody off within minutes. The female border guard greeted me with a smile, asked my country of origin and wished me a good vacation in perfect English. Hmm, maybe the Romanians can train the Canadian Border Guards in basic civility.

This is Not what the Bucharest Airport looks like.

My rental car agent awaited holding my name on a sign and within 20 minutes we were on the road toward the city core. To date we have not encountered any slow, inept, non nonchalant service that former communist nations have a bit of reputation for.

The guide books and western expats here at the hotel all describe driving in Bucharest as madness and I think that sums it up very succinctly. Due to our multi-country route and my co-traveler's difficulty walking any long distances, driving in the city is our default transportation method. Few visitors attempt it.

The streets here were virtually empty 25 years ago with just Dacia and Ladas, belonging to the lucky few, sputtering around. Fast forward to today and many of the old Dacias are laying abandoned taking up valuable parking spots while the streets are filled with every new and latest car and SUV. I have even come across a few Cadillac Escalades and Porsche Cayennes, remarkable considering gas costs about $2.10/ litre. Most of their fleet is diesel as is our rental.

The potholed streets are not marked with any lines and lanes merge together in intersections without warning, when the traffic actually moves. Roads arbitrarily become opposing one way streets without any signage and traffic lights at many major intersections are nothing more than a small low hanging pedestrian red/green light bulb and are merely a suggestion, Roundabouts are not quite round and have traffic lights incongruously placed all around the circle that can suddenly change. Street name signs are non existent or too small and rusty to read. No streets are aligned but all traverse at various angles. Double or sidewalk parking is encouraged. Aggressive driving is the default mode here and it all becomes a little "Mad Max" as buses, street cars, jay walkers, stray dogs, motorcycles, trucks and passenger cars jockey for space.

I still say India takes the prize for the wackiest drivers on the planet but the residents of Bucharest are a close second.

Dacia? Nu Multumesc.

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