Saturday, March 6, 2010

"Dangers and Annoyances"

Travelers to foreign countries must learn to distinguish between potential friends and con artists. I sincerely believe that in Romania for every one person with ill-intent towards outsiders there are at least a hundred people who would be delighted to be a real friend to you (and another hundred who would never want to be your friend, but only for the same reasons you don't have a lot of friends in your own country).

Friendships with people who live in the places you visit are the most precious currency any traveler can have. Friends allow you to see the world you are visiting with greater clarity. An hour of conversation with a Romanian will reveal more truths about their country than 20 hours of reading about it. Unfortunately, the potential friends and well-wishers are often as shy as I am, and so in the coffee houses and bars you visit their potential camaraderie often goes undetected. But those who wish ill are often out in the open, loudly working their poison. They are an unpleasantly high-profile minority who can greatly and unfairly spoil an impression of a place.

The time I spent at the autogara (intercity bus depot) in Cluj Napoca a few days ago was the most nerve-racking of my trip. I was driven there by a taxi driver who spent the entire time talking on his cell phone. As he pulled away from me I felt more abandoned than "dropped off." I surveyed a dozen or so buses parked on dusty asphalt, then wheeled my suitcase in the direction I presumed the ticket office was located.

When I arrived at the dilapidated station I saw that the number of gypsies there outnumbered the number of people awaiting the bus. Unfortunately, in this setting and context, the presence of gypsies is interchangeable with the presence of crime. That's how it is. I wish it were not so, but it is.

Train and bus stations throughout Europe are traditionally high-crime areas, but in recent years the Romanian ones, most impressively the Gara de Nord in Bucharest, have been cleaned up of most of their seedier elements. The Cluj autogare was therefore an unpleasant step backwards in time.

The first person to identify me as a potential source of income was a small girl who rushed up to me and began her rambling speech. The rambling speech is the traditional tactic of the beggar child. It sounds more like a chant or magical incantation than it does normal speech, no doubt on account of it being so thoroughly rehearsed. It is delivered in a monotone without an ounce of feeling. Usually it goes on until you interrupt it. If you pretend to ignore the child for five minutes the child will drone on for five minutes. It's creepy.

I told her "Nu" and walked away from her, but sensing I was a hot commodity she followed me around. In Romania, particularly in "captive audience" environments like bus or train stations, the pan-handlers do not usually take "Nu" for an answer, nor "Stop," nor the Romanian for "Go away."

I sought a place to buy tickets. Seeing that I was on the hunt for something, the girl pointed to various rooms and opened doors for me in order to (ostensibly) assist. She likely expected a hand-out for her efforts, but I did not pay her anything because I did not request her help, and her presence was making me more nervous, not less.

One might laugh here, since I am describing an adorable gypsy girl. But the reality was she was working for the adult gypsies also in the area, and her goal was to extract money from me. One way to extract money is to pick a pocket, something children are at an ideal height to do, and when you are traveling from one city to the next you must carry everything pick-pocketable along, including passport and credit cards. So, the presence of several small gypsy children running around, following you, reciting their rambling speeches, and so on forces you to occupy your brain with the question: "Is my wallet still there?" You ask yourself this repeatedly. You'd rather not have your attention divided like that. In fact, in my confusion I asked a woman at the information window when the bus to Sighisoara was leaving, and was alarmed to hear that it did not leave until the evening (online I had seen it was leaving at 12:30 PM), only to realize after I had walked over to the adjoining Autogara B (which promised an earlier departure) that I had meant to ask about Timisoara, not Sighisoara. That's the sort of mistake you make when you are nervous.

Why be nervous? Because I discovered while in Kiev and later Romania that losing your debit card can be a disaster. Without it I had no easy means of accessing cash in cities where cash is still the primary method of payment. Most banks refused to give me cash on my other credit card because there is an expectation that one have a pin number whenever one uses a credit card, and I either do not have one for my credit card (since pins on credit cards are not requested in the United States, and using a "regular" credit card at an ATM invites steep fees); or I do have one, but Bank of America won't tell it to me for security reasons.* Thanks to Bank of America's many failures, I had to limp along for a month before I received a replacement card.

That was how life was without a debit card, but at least I had another card to fall back on, plus one (and only one) bank in Romania that was willing, after a complicated 15 minute process, to give me cash from it. But imagine losing all your cards. I promise you this: if you lose your wallet in a foreign country, do not believe the television ads that show the stranded traveling couple being rescued by their bank. The fact is, you will be well and truly fucked.

Eventually the girl gave up. A boy took her place. He began his incantation. I told him "Nu" as well, and eventually he left me in order to drone to the woman beside me instead.

The main tactic of the bus station panhandlers is to parade every type of pathetic person in front of you in order to earn sympathy money. Once the children give up, women approach you, some carrying babies in their arms. Watery-eyed old men then totter up, emphasizing their frailness with each wobbly step. Somebody on crutches inevitably comes along after that, taking two hops before extending a hand for cash, followed by two more hops to the next person and another arm extension.

If you aren't moved by pity, perhaps capitalism will convince you to part with your cash. In this vein you are offered flowers and cheap plastic knick-knacks (the red/yellow/blue Romanian flag color-scheme ballpoint pens have been a staple for several years now). If you want something a bit more exciting than a key chain, perhaps you will be tempted by a stolen cell phone. Who was the cell phone stolen from? Someone like yourself, no doubt.

If you don't worship material things, perhaps you are a person of God and will be moved by religion. Panhandlers come by selling icons of saints printed like baseball cards, and little crosses. They carry fake identification claiming they are official representatives of such and such a monastery, but as one man explained on a train trip I took from Iasi to Baia Mare, if I am moved to buy religious artifacts, wouldn't I just get thee to one of Romania's many monasteries in person in order to ensure that my cash winds up in the right hands?

The overall effect of all this is to wear down the traveler who awaits his or her bus or train. I suspect at some point many people break down and hand out money out of sheer exhaustion. Perhaps they hope they might buy some peace and quiet this way. That would be a mistake; from my observations people who hand out cash are generally identified as open ATM machines, and so they get hit again.

But worse than all of these circus-like distractions is the omnipresent worst-case scenario: that somebody will simply pick your pocket. It is emotionally exhausting--even physically exhausting as your heart pounds in double-time--keeping track of each and every person around you and their proximity to your pocketbook. The Cluj autogara has no visible police presence, so it is up to you to be your own officer. As if you don't already have enough on your mind while you travel.

After everything I described above had occurred, a gypsy guy in a track outfit and carrying a sports bag walked up to me and immediately addressed me in English.

"Hey, there! Where are you going?" he asked me.

The fact is, nobody who walks right up to you in a bus or train station speaking English is going to be your friend in any country. I am reminded of the exquisitely menacing scene in the Hurt Locker where an Iraqi guy with dubious intentions strolls up to an American soldier and says, "Hey, you American? You surf?" (Or maybe it was, "You play basketball?" I don't have the movie at my fingertips to reference right now, but the point is the same.)

"Where are you going?" I asked him. I wanted to be sure his design was not to follow me to my destination.

"Why do you ask me that?" he said, illogically, since he felt it was perfectly OK to ask me that.

I stared at him blankly.

"Are you afraid here?" he asked me.

I did not tell him I was, because that would be a stupid thing to admit. So I grunted a "Nu" and wheeled my luggage away from him.

He looked very unhappy after that, in the same way that two gypsies who physically grappled with a friend of mine in Constanta many years ago in order, they said, to--I am not making this up--test the durability of American fabrics fired dark parting glances at me after I yelled at them to get the hell away.

It turned out the track suit guy was a paying bus rider. For all I know he was a completely sincere, nice person. For a while I even felt a little bit guilty. But then the following things occurred to me:

1) Bus and train stations everywhere are often populated with criminals and pickpockets.

2) If I lose my credit cards I am fucked. And losing my computer would be like losing everything in my apartment and my cell phone at once; no more easy Skype conversations with my girlfriend in the U.S. In short, if you are a traveler in a foreign country, you have much more to lose than a native does.

3) People who walk up to you speaking English right away and fishing for information about you are, 99% of the time, up to no good. The other 1% are stupid idiots.

4) Gypsies in train stations who begin speaking English to you have racially profiled you just as much as--you might fear in your too-sensitive heart--you have racially profiled them, only their objective is to extract money from you, either by guilting you, exhausting you, or even physically stealing it from you, whereas your objective is merely to be left alone.

But before you become a completely withdrawn asshole (which would defeat the purpose of travel), remember what I said in opening: most people out there want to be your friend, and friends are the best things life can offer you. Go out and make some. But if your spidey-sense tells you "Danger," there's probably a good, deep-seated evolutionary reason for that to be the case. You owe it to your ancestors who survived to procreate before you to listen to that gift.

*This is a very long story that would require a multi-page digression. The short version is, Bank of America shot down about ten different methods of solving my problem, each time for security reasons they said were in place to protect me. And VISA-911 was useless; for example, they refused to send me emergency cash because I had changed my address in the previous three months.

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