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.
“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.
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.