In Sebeş, a dreary city of abandoned industry and loitering groups of men, we were due to be reunited with Magalie, and all of us – Maria in particular – were looking forward to the prospect immensely.
Needing somewhere to stay overnight while we waited for her arrival, and having found that the town’s sole hotel was obscenely overpriced, Andy happened to get talking to a middle-aged man in a tatty leather jacket who was filling his car in nearby petrol-station. This gruff little man seemed to jump at the chance to have three desperate explorers stay the night in his home: another fantastic display of the great outpouring of hospitality that seemed to await the bicycle traveller.
Simon’s wife fed us chicken risotto and prepared a makeshift bed on the floor of the living-room. A mangy dog trailed around behind her, looking forlorn. Simon was very accommodating, but – unusually – made no enquiries about our journey; neither where we’d come from nor where we were heading, which were by far the two most frequently asked questions. He seemed more interested in how much our collection of cameras and bicycles was worth. And the following morning, after his wife had taken Maria to meet Magalie at the station, Simon sat Andy and I down at the kitchen table and began to lay out his demands.
Now, an average Romanian’s salary, explained Simon in a mixture of English and German and scribbles, was about one hundred and twenty euros a month. And a night in the hotel up the road, he repeated with solemnity, was a hundred euros. My heart was already sinking. I kept my mouth shut, my eyes on the scrap of paper and my face as blank as possibly as Simon billed us the equivalent of two hundred euros in Romanian lei for the night we’d already stayed and for the second night that he had suggested we also spend in his home. This, after all, was the same as what we would have paid for the hotel.
I looked at Andy. ‘What exactly are we supposed to do now?’
‘I dunno, mate.’
‘Well, we can’t pay him two hundred euros. That’s ridiculous. We don’t even have two hundred euros.’
Which was true. I reached into my pocket, as the one responsible for food this week and thus the only one with any cash, and withdrew a bunch of fluff containing about sixteen euros’ worth of lei. It was enough to feed the four of us for another couple of days.
‘He’s basically blackmailing us.’
Simon sat in silence, not understanding our deliberately colloquial English and looking intently at the bright pink of the wall across the room, elbows resting on the table, fingers interlocked and rocking gently back and forth in front of his mouth. Anger began to rise inside me. How dare this little man abuse our trust? How dare he take such extreme examples of cost and use them to justify landing us with this ludicrous bill? And how dare he destroy the trust I’d learnt to invest in strangers to help me on my way?!?
I picked up the pen and paper and tried to explain that my daily budget was less than five euros per day, and that two hundred euros should last me several weeks, not two days; all the while drawing ridiculous scribbled pictures of globes and bicycles and calendars and annotating them incomprehensibly with calculations and sums of cash. When he stared blankly at me, I lost my patience and told him outright in English what I thought. The meaning was lost, but the tone said it all. I rose from my seat, followed by Andy, and we began packing our panniers as quickly as we could. I thrust the last handful of lei into Simon’s hand – a modest amount, but still far more than our presence had cost him – carted my baggage outside into the muddy yard, and stood expectantly by the tall wooden gate, waiting for Maria and Magalie to return, to tell them the bad news: that we’d been conned, that we were getting the hell out of this dump right now. Softly, rain began to fall. Simon came down the little steps to the yard to plead with us to come back inside, was brushed off and so went inside himself and closed the door, came out again and resumed standing in the open doorway, looking out across the tangled sprawl of mud roads and yards and houses. The rain set in. And we all waited in this uncomfortable stalemate.
Poor Magalie: she’d been so enthusiastic about continuing her spontaneous bicycle adventure that she’d ridden trains all the way from France to Romania, somehow convincing guard after guard to let her on board with a bicycle in tow. She and Maria arrived back at our ex-host’s house, opened the gate to find our sorry little huddle of ponchos and bikes sitting in the yard, expressions of doom written across our faces, and were suddenly given instructions to look sharp and get packing, half-washed laundry and all. The truth was that we hadn’t had a day of rest since our stay in Budapest, which by now seemed to have taken place on another planet entirely.
Riding south from Sebeş and into the foothills of the Fagaras range of the Transylvanian Alps, it became clear that we were entering a region of very sparse habitation, and ‘real’ wild camping – for the first time – began to look like our only option. We’d spied a network of tracks on a map of the country, and it had looked as though we’d be able to piece together an off-road route through the mountains, rather than rejoining the busy main road. This back-country route had looked remote and daunting, little evidence of settlements along the way, but we’d decided to make it the basis of a scenic detour. Now, kicked out into the rain, I could think of little but finding a spot within the alpine peaks to lay low for a couple of nights and get some much-needed rest, because the events of our first days in Romania – a new world for all of us – had been fraught and exhausting.
The sun reappeared from behind the rainclouds, only to disappear again as the valley sides rose high and steep above the little road. Traffic dried up, save for an occasional grumble from ahead and the appearance of a logging truck loaded with huge pine trunks for a timber mill back down the valley. These same pines clung to the higher reaches of the steep slopes all around us. In the well of this winding valley, our route traced the path of a narrow, fast-flowing river, and it became clear that we were gaining altitude. The air was clear, moist and deliciously cool as the climb began to make itself felt. I passed through a little hive of activity: a group of road-workers who were building the very road on which we had been riding for the last couple of hours. Amid the reek of hot tar and the surprised looks of the labourers, my front tyre rolled off the tarmac and onto the uneven gravel track that continued into the invisible depths of the mountains. A thrill passed through me; surely this was the kind of detour worth taking!