Trip Start Sep 02, 2005
32Trip End Dec 10, 2005
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24th September 05
Overnight train - Budapest to Bucharest
"Brad! Where's my bag?!"
I awake to Mel's immediate sense of panic.
"Wha? It must be here somewhere", I mutter as I stretch open my eyes and look around our 6-seater train compartment-come-bed for the night. The door is open. We look at each other and leap out of our sleeping bags and into the compartments either side of us. Both empty. Back into our compartment - it's true, Mel's daypack is nowhere to be seen.
I'm still in disbelief. We COULDN'T have been robbed. It HAS to be here. I look at the clock - 3am. We were only asleep for about an hour. I look down at my daypack, which I had wrapped around my arms before I feel asleep.
"My wallet was in there!" cries Mel. I can't respond as I'm too busy pawing through my own bag. CD player case - no CD player. Camera case - no camera. My heart sinks.
I immediately turn my attention back to Mel, who is frantically adding up the contents of her missing bag.
10 rolls of film from the first 3 weeks of the trip
1 photo album containing photos of both our families
1 mobile phone
1 bra (!)
We share a brief moment of breakdown and comfort each other, reminding ourselves that our travel insurance will cover the financial losses. But the photos are gone. We'll never see them. But they are just photos - we still have each other - we weren't hurt. And we still have our...PASSPORTS?!?!
I tap my waist and realise I'm not wearing the money belt that I keep them in. No way! The ONE night I forget to put it on. I scramble through my daypack once again and pull out an empty money belt. That's it. Where's the conductor!!
Seconds later I'm legging it up and down through the carriages, thoughts of Russian, Mongolian and Chinese visas running through my head. Months of bureaucratic paperwork and hundreds of dollars - potentially wasted. And WHERE is the conductor?! I'm asking anyone who'll listen -
"Have you seen the conductor? We've been robbed! Passports, money, camera - it's all gone!".
Suddenly those Romanians who pretended not to speak English earlier in the night know what I'm talking about. I get to the very front of the train and knock rapidly on the driver's door. No response. I knock again until my knuckles can't take anymore. It's at this moment that I realise I'm standing in nothing more than my boxer shorts (freshly ironed mind you :).
I return to our compartment to find Mel explaining our plight to some sympathetic Romanian girls who are taking it upon themselves to apologise on behalf of their country. They also think they may have some clues for us.
"We see suspicious man. Compartment next to us. Tall. Unshaven. Look like PRISONER! Couldn't pay ticket - conductor throw him off!".
While Mel writes down the account of our impromptu Romanian detective team, I go looking through my daypack, clutching to a desperate hope of pulling something out of the bag - so to speak. I dig deep and push my way past an empty camera case, empty money belt to pull out...
"Mel! I found our PASSPORTS!!"
Thank God. Suddenly our situation feels a million times better. The trip has been saved. Thank you thief for having the 'conscience' to spare our most important documents.
As we calm down over the next couple of hours we come to accept our comparatively minor loses and try to block out all the pointless 'what ifs' that could have prevented it all. Instead we try to focus on how much worse it could have been and how lucky we are.
Most importantly, we have our passports.
I still have my wallet - we're okay for cash.
Mel still has her trusty ol' analogue camera - we're okay for photos.
For some reason Mel's diary was in my daypack instead of hers - one year of memories and musings intact.
We were asleep while it happened - they didn't harm us.
Which brings us to the overwhelming emotion we are now left with - VIOLATION. The creepy thought of the thief's light hands unhooking my daypack from my grasp as I slept and then proceeding to meticulously empty it of everything of value. And a thorough job he did too. He even went through my diary and took the small denomination Croatian, Slovenian and Bosnian money I'd been saving for my little brother Jarryd. He even took the 15 Aussie dollars I'd been carrying around for the last two and a half years.
By the time the sun rises and at last reveals the Romanian countryside to us (still recovering from this summer's record floods), we've almost forgotten all about our nightmarish night. We're befriended by a young Romanian girl named Ann-Maria, on her way to Bucharest to visit her boyfriend who has just returned from Iraq (where he has been working as a mechanic and earning himself the right to retire on a military pension at the age of 35). Within 10 minutes we know Ann Maria's entire life story. She tells us she hasn't had the chance to speak English for 7 years, and she's definitely making up for it now. She tells us of her memories of Romania in the 1980's, pre-revolution days under the dictatorship of Ceausescu.
"We had electricity only 1 hour each day. But EVERYONE had a TV. So everyone would watch between 8 and 9pm."
"What would you watch?", we enquire. "How many channels did you have?".
"Just one. News channel. News about Ceausescu. Then 10 minutes of Russian cartoons. I liked the cartoons. Very much."
She speaks to us about life as a university student in Romania.
"All the teachers - you must PAY to pass exams. 50 euros each exam. Or they fail you".
"What? They bribe you?! Can't you report them?".
"No. Very difficult. If you report them all, we have zero teachers!".
Turns out the average wage for a teacher in Romania is only around 150 US dollars a month. No wonder they feel the need to 'supplement' their incomes. No wonder theft is so rampant and us 'rich' western backpackers are such lucrative targets.
When we finally arrive in Bucharest we bid farewell to our new friend and exchange email addresses ("Romanians don't have much money but we all have email and all have cell phone!"), then we head to the nearest Police station.
Upon our arrival we are whisked into an office with Bahl, the only English speaking member of the police force.
"I learn English from TV, not in school", is his disclaimer.
And we believe him, as we walk past five other cops glued to some 70's B-grade American drama, feet up, scoffing donuts Chief Wiggum style.
"Tell me everything. Much detail," Bahl says as he lights up a cigarette.
We tell him our story and that we have the phone number of the kind Romanian girl who thought she had seen the suspicious 'prisoner'.
"Very good", he says. "Do you have a phone?".
We explain to him that we do not and ask why he cannot simply call on the office landline.
"Phone is...how do you say...blocked, for calls in other district. I will have to use my own cell phone - belongs to ME. You sure you don't have phone?".
Bahl finally lets out a long sigh and dials the number. While he investigates we look around the cold, smokey room and notice among other things a nudey calendar juxtaposed next to a portrait of Holy Mary and child.
Bahl finishes the call and looks intently at his phone.
"Seven minutes!" he gasps.
"Did you get all you the information she had?", Mel asks.
Bahl shakes his head - "Seven minutes!".
Before we begin writing down our statements Bahl informs us about the 'translators fee' that he must collect from us and babbles on about the need for this in Romania should the case come before a court of law.
"You must pay 300,000 lei per page. That is about 10 euros". Before we know it Bahl is escorting us to the nearest bank machine. As I come to grips with the Romanian punchpad Bahl is having a nice friendly chat with some extremely dodgy looking characters who are loitering around, as if they are old friends.
"Can we please have a receipt for the fee so we can claim it on our insurance?" we ask.
"It is not my money. I take to pay translator. You can come next week and collect receipt if you want. It is not my money".
"We won't BE here next week, so could you please just write down on our police report that we gave you the money?".
"It is not my money", he repeats. We go around in circles with this for a few minutes while Bahl tries to convince us he is doing us a 'favour' by giving us the police report, so in the end we decide to turn a blind eye to his 'corruption-in-cognito' as we just want to get the heck out of there and into a much needed hot shower in a safe hotel room.
A painfully long hour later we have finally finished our statements, rewritten twice to fit Bahl's strict requirements, though we suspect they will soon end up in the rubbish bin below the nudey calendar. At our request Bahl reluctantly photocopies a copy of the statements for us.
"We policemen at this office, we collected money to buy this photocopier for ourselves. Government not give us one", he adds as he reinserts the pages of our copy into the obsolete-looking photocopier in order to utilise both sides of the paper.
We thank Bahl for his time, secure our police reports, and finally greet the streets of Bucharest with a laugh, ready for whatever else she has is store for us.