Steering wheel death grips and driving in Romania

Written by on May 12, 2010 in Blog, Romania, Travel - 24 Comments

Remember, 10 and 2, D. 10 and 2. And, go slowly. Very, very slowly.

Car packed with the three Aussies, I pulled out into Brasov’s traffic.

Oh. My. God. I hope we don’t die. I hope I don’t kill anyone. I hope I don’t hurt this car because I really, really cannot afford to lose the 400 Euro deposit.

My shoulders were tight and nearly touching my ears. My arms were locked straight out. And my hands kept tight on the steering wheel as nearly six weeks of not driving paralyzed me. That, and never having driven in another country.

How did I get roped into being the driver?

Something about being able to drive on the same side (not necessarily the “right” side, you’re welcome) had made me the likely (and only) candidate amongst the others — Chris, Tommy and Benjamin — in the group.

And, so it was.

Packed into the powder blue Ford Focus, we embarked on our day trip Benjamin had planned out. First, a two-and-a-half hour drive to Tragoviste to see the ruins of Vlad’s castle, then a drive up to a lake, then a scenic drive back to Brasov, getting Benjamin and Tommy back in time to catch their 10 p.m. train to Budapest.

Ahhh … the best laid plans.

“What do I do? What do I do?” I asked, panic soaking my voice, as I headed through my first roundabout in Brasov. Yes, I have driven in roundabouts. A lot. But not Romanian roundabouts.

These were completely different.

Cars from the far left lane would careen in front of me, exiting off the circle. Cars to the right of me would cross over to the left in an instant, leaving my foot scrambling for the break.

The three passengers talked me through it.

“Stay straight.”

“Put your blinker on.”

“OK, D, exit here.”

I listened as if my life (and theirs) depended on it.

And then, there was the issue of lanes. In Romania, like many other places in Europe, the lines on the road are merely suggestions.

Oh. My. God.

Each time a car or bus or TRUCK was headed towards me and in MY lane, a wave of fear would wash over me, followed by laughter, because, really? People really drive like this, with utter abandon of any lane rules?

During the windy mountain road leg, I would simply squeeze my eyes shut as the oncoming traffic veered dangerously close to the driver’s side of my car … and to me.

Once we made it out onto the winding roads and switchbacks of the Carpathian Mountains, I had calmed down. A little.

The switchbacks scared me a bit, it was essentially U-turn, after U-turn, after U-turn. But, I drove about 30 KM and hour, so we were safe there. It was just the craters (AKA pot holes) stretching deep into the roads I had to worry about.

It wouldn’t look like anything and then BAM! Wheels straight into a massive hole in the middle of the road, that took up nearly the entire width of the road. I started to drive even slower.

Well into our journey, we began to see signs of life beyond just the smoldering ashes and  leftovers from gypsy camp fires and horses grazing.

After winding and winding, we hit beautiful high mountain scenery. Lush grass dotted with blooming fields of dandelions; trees with the first buds of spring; and potholes. Then, in the next moment, we arrived in what I can only describe as a shanty town and simply surreal.

Horses strapped to carts with old men at the grips, hauling hay or wood or whatever goods they needed.

Children playing in the street.

Women on the side of the “road” weaving.

Old ladies holding hens in their arms.

Old men sitting outside at little tables, drinking an afternoon beer.

Wild dogs weaving around people and cars.

Shacks with straw roofs, practically falling apart at the seams.

A few kilometers into this new territory, a police officer stood to the side of the road, waving.

“Oh my god, am I getting pulled over?” I asked, heart racing. What do they to do American drivers who have no business driving in Romania? In the middle of nowhere?

“No, D, you’re fine. Keep going,” Benjamin instructed.

The officer waved me on, and around the bend, we were greeted with the cause of the problem — a herd of cows meandering down the road. A herd.

This leg of the journey, I drove with one hand on the steering wheel and one covering my mouth, which was wide open, in complete shock at what I was seeing.

The only comparison that comes to mind is “Borat” and the village he is from in the beginning of the film. Part of me really wanted to get out and take photos, to capture what I was seeing and to show other people how different life could be. And the other part of me knew better than to stop.

One thing is for certain, that afternoon, driving through that village (which eventually turned into a beautiful and seemingly well-off area), made me even more thankful for the life I live.

After nearly three hours (courtesy of my slow driving), we arrived to Tragoviste and promptly got “lost.”

Driving in Tragoviste was even scarier for me. The drivers here were more impulsive, more unpredictable than in Brasov or the lanes-optional mountain roads.

When we finally got out to see the ruins, they were closed.

Yes. Closed.

I could do nothing but laugh. At that moment, after the petrifying driving experience, I thought it was hilarious.

So, instead, we got some lunch, walked in a park that wound around the ruins, took some photos and then got back in the car.

Benjamin looked at the other points of interest we were to hit on this drive.

Chris looked at his GPS.

Six more hours of driving. And it was 4 p.m.

There wouldn’t be enough hours to make the trip unless Benjamin and Tommy missed their train, which wasn’t going to happen.

So, we turned around. Back through the gypsy town. Back around the mountain roads. Back through the beautiful ski village of Sinaia. Back through the bustling traffic of Brasov.

This time, Chris was treated to the front seat and my hysterics, which had pretty much subsided and only occurred when cars decided to head at me straight on.

Benjamin even commented how I was driving with much more confidence.

That’s only because I knew what to expect this time.

Except it has started to rain. And now, there was the itsy bitsy tiny problem of the crap windshield wipers I had to use. The first swipe of the blades over the windshield had me all 10 and 2 again because there was this one area directly in front of my eyes, that no matter how many times were wiped, a thin layer of grime stuck.

I did feel good enough with my driving to prolong it a bit, making stops twice at Romanian roadside stands (where I got my new favorite scarf) so we could all go for a bit of a shop.

When I parked the car on the curb across from Kismet Dao and we all got out of the car, I finally felt my shoulders relax a little bit.

But only a little. I still had a little more driving to do.

About the Author

Diana Edelman is a travel writer and expat currently residing in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In 2010 she quit her job in PR to go on a solo backpacking adventure and tackle her 30-Life-Crisis. After seven months abroad, journeying throughout Europe and Africa, she returned to America and relocated to Las Vegas. Following a year-long stint back in PR, she once again quit her job to follow her dreams; this time her journey took her to the elephants and Elephant Nature Park where she is involved with raising awareness about responsible elephant tourism. Recently, Diana was named a finalist in the Destinology Travel Bloggy Awards for travel writing. She has been a regular contributor to Viator and recently served as the Las Vegas contributor for OneTravel.com and CheapOair.com. Her work has appeared in print and online, including The Huffington Post, Matador Network, Travel + Escape, Vegas Seven, World Nomads and more.

24 Comments on "Steering wheel death grips and driving in Romania"

  1. cythe May 12, 2010 at 3:13 pm · Reply

    Wait til you get to drive in the Philippines. ;)

    • dtravelsround May 12, 2010 at 3:29 pm · Reply

      Oh goodness!! I am hardly looking forward to renting a car again this trip, although I am sure I will. :)

  2. cythe May 12, 2010 at 3:13 pm · Reply

    Wait til you get to drive in the Philippines. ;)

    • dtravelsround May 12, 2010 at 3:29 pm · Reply

      Oh goodness!! I am hardly looking forward to renting a car again this trip, although I am sure I will. :)

  3. Kathy aka mytimetotravel May 12, 2010 at 7:30 pm · Reply

    Many congratulations – no way I’d drive in Romania! (But if you have an air bag you should be holding the wheel at 40 to 4 or even 35 to 5 – otherwise your arms are likely to get whacked if the air bag goes.) Are you going to Maramures? Horse drawn traffic there… (See http://tinyurl.com/34umfzk and http://tinyurl.com/3423lgv )

    • dtravelsround May 13, 2010 at 10:39 am · Reply

      Yikes! Didn’t know that! I don’t know yet if I am going to Maramures. I plan to head back to Romania in the summer. But, I think I have had plenty of horse-drawn traffic experiences, don’t think I want more … at least if I am the one driving.

  4. Kathy aka mytimetotravel May 12, 2010 at 7:30 pm · Reply

    Many congratulations – no way I’d drive in Romania! (But if you have an air bag you should be holding the wheel at 40 to 4 or even 35 to 5 – otherwise your arms are likely to get whacked if the air bag goes.) Are you going to Maramures? Horse drawn traffic there… (See http://tinyurl.com/34umfzk and http://tinyurl.com/3423lgv )

    • dtravelsround May 13, 2010 at 10:39 am · Reply

      Yikes! Didn’t know that! I don’t know yet if I am going to Maramures. I plan to head back to Romania in the summer. But, I think I have had plenty of horse-drawn traffic experiences, don’t think I want more … at least if I am the one driving.

  5. vlad January 10, 2011 at 9:51 am · Reply

    I laughing a lot reading your funny driving story:)). Obviously you are gorgeus.
    Next time you come in Romania, send me an email. I will make for you a better route than you can find on the internet.
    P.S. The roundabouts rules are similar with any other in Europe. The rule is very simple. When you get in you should let the other cars move from the left. As long you are in the round…you have priority and you can drive in circle whenever you want…other will let you…:)

  6. Federico June 6, 2011 at 10:56 am · Reply

    Hahaha…funny story, but as other say it is even harder to drive in many other places around the world. It did provide for a great story though!

  7. Lindsay aka @_thetraveller_ June 6, 2011 at 2:08 pm · Reply

    Haha… too funny! I had a similar experience riding motor bikes in Laos

    • The Adventures of D June 6, 2011 at 8:46 pm · Reply

      Oooh!! Now, that’s a cool/horrifying experience. I did that in Spain! Although I had a death grip on the person who was driving!

  8. Margo June 6, 2011 at 2:20 pm · Reply

    Hilarious! I’ve always been the foreign designated driver, and it is definitely stressful in ways you don’t fully realize until it’s over ;)

    • The Adventures of D June 6, 2011 at 8:45 pm · Reply

      So. Stressful. The next day when I had to return the car, I made someone from the hostel go with me because I was so afraid to go through the roundabout by myself!!

  9. The Travel Chica June 6, 2011 at 2:27 pm · Reply

    When I was quite young, I rented a car with a friend in Greece and drove about 5 hours from Athens to Delphi. Crazy! I had the pedal to the floor, and we were still having cars zip by us and giving us angry looks on the highway.

    • The Adventures of D June 6, 2011 at 8:45 pm · Reply

      Now, that’s brave!!! Pedal to the floor?!?! No way could I have done that!!

  10. Abby June 6, 2011 at 3:42 pm · Reply

    You’re insane — I would NEVER agree to drive in Romania. I rarely agree to drive in the US. You’re so brave — and very funny.

    • The Adventures of D June 6, 2011 at 8:43 pm · Reply

      Me? Funny?? Thank you!!! And yes, I’m a little insane, too. Seriously, that was THE most nerve-wracking thing I have done. Except for attempting to paraglide,and we all know how wonderfully that turned out. ;) I really wanted to rent a car at some point in my trip, and there was no way I would have done it in a more populated country or area. I would have killed everyone! Don’t think I could drive on the opposite side of the road though!!

  11. Erica June 13, 2011 at 1:50 pm · Reply

    I think the first time that I drove in another country I nearly died. Caribbean drivers are absolutely crazy and there are always a plethora of friendly honks and people hanging out of their car asking you if you want to buy weed.

    Regardless, it always makes for a good story!

    • The Adventures of D June 13, 2011 at 10:46 pm · Reply

      It certainly does!! I can tell you one thing — I will NOT be driving or renting a car while in Thailand. :)

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