Trouble over bridged waters - Jimmy Carter thinks I'm a sinner - CycleBlaze

May 31, 2007

Trouble over bridged waters

I am trying to find a polite, tactful and friendly way of saying this, but it's hard. Maybe it's best to be blunt... we have been through a lot of villages with a high level of... well, I don't want to say it but, in like circumstances I'd have blamed inbreeding.

We have been through parts of Romania as remote as you're likely to get. We have been to villages which, as connection to the outside world, have 15km of unmade road in one direction and as many in the other. Many have had no apparent employment and those that have have relied on a single quarry. You can spend a long time riding on roads like that and it gives you time to conclude that few people go into those communities and few people leave.

Elsewhere, we have been the subject of interest. Cyclists aren't common in Romania beyond those riding to the fields or from one end of a village to the other. We have been waved to, we have been invited to join old ladies sitting in the shade, and we have been made welcome. Curiosity and surprise have been the strongest emotions. Never has a greeting been refused. Usually it has been offered and it is we who have responded.

But in these remote villages, we have been stared at with almost bovine lack of expression. It is not friendly, it is not unfriendly. It is just blank. At the same time, too many faces spell... look, I don't like saying this, but they spell stupidity.

I know it's not for me to criticise. It is I who have invaded their lives and not the other way round. Believe me, please, when I say I am trying to report and not criticise.

The lack of knowledge of what lies outside these villages is stunning. I don't speak other than the few words of Romanian that any traveller on a bike will pick up. I speak it with few verbs and I break grammatical rules I never knew existed. But I know people understand if I ask if a road is passable by bicycle or if I ask if there is a bridge across a river.

Bridges have been a constant worry. The Cartographia map shows they are there when they're not. On bad roads, that can mean half a day wasted or a whole new itinerary in a new direction. In bright areas, if I can put it that way, people will say 'da' or 'nu'; there is or isn't a bridge. Elsewhere, they say 'nu' regardless.

Sometimes there's a bridge, sometimes there isn't. And sometimes there's almost a bridge.
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Racos is one of these abandoned villages. Cartographia shows a brown road running in from an E-road a dozen kilometres away and then a bridge over the river for the road out again. The brown road, supposedly a secondary highway, is loose stones, potholes and compressed mud. When it gets to Racos, it runs to a quarry without crossing the water.

Asking directions in the village produced arms waved both ways. Someone said we would have to retrace to where we had started. A man who seemed brighter than the rest gestured to ride two kilometres back the way we had come and to cross the river there, even though the map showed no crossing. A policeman confirmed it. 'Halta', he said: ride back as far as the little railway station.

We rode back, found there was indeed a bridge, then turned left on a road far worse than the one into Racos. This was the supposed brown road on the map, except that it hadn't been on the map and there was no crossing in Racos. That there was no bridge wasn't a misunderstanding: beyond doubt, we were told by everyone, policeman included, that there was no bridge.

Except that after an hour retracing and then fighting along an unmade road to reach the river bank facing where we had started, there was a bridge. A pedestrian bridge, admittedly, but plenty good enough on a bike. So who was right? Not Cartographia, which showed a road bridge. Not the people in the village, who said there was no bridge at all. And not the policeman, who for some reason I expect to have been brighter than most.

All this wouldn't be so frustrating if it hadn't happened before and if it wasn't about to happen again. It took into the afternoon to get to the end of this broken road, by which time we had ridden more than 40km of rock, earth and stones. The track came out in Augustin. The map showed a bridge there but on the bank opposite Racos three friendly folk having a chat at the end of their gardens assured us there wasn't one. We would have to ride another few kilometres to the following village, which doesn't sound much but on a hilly, muddy, rocky road like that can mean another 40 minutes.

In Augustin, we stopped for a drink. I asked if there was a bridge... 'podul... apa... aici?' I made the gestures, explained what I wanted. I showed the map and the bridge that it showed.

Three people told us, separately, that there was no bridge. We would have to ride to the next village. And so off we went on what remained of the bitumen that must once have covered the village's single street.

And what did we see? Two hundred metres further on we saw a road sign pointing left and, in that direction, a brick and concrete bridge across not only the river but a railway line as well.

How can all that be explained? I'm blessed if I know.

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