Enveloped by the salt of the Earth....

Trip Start Oct 15, 2007
Trip End Dec 20, 2007

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Another delightful day in Romania...I really like this country...and the people smile at you...greet you warmly...even strangers on the road.    Although I'm getting a bit of a one-sided view so far...that being the Hungarian perspective.  As I believe I've said, Transylvania is a region that has gone back and forth between Hungary and Romania a few times...it's got a significant number of Hungarians within its boundaries that still strongly identify with that nationality, even though they technically are Romanian cause that's where they live.  But their numbers have declined through the years...in Cluj, from a population of about 80%, they have diminished to about 20%.   But there are Hungarian bars, restaurants, newspapers, and then of course the churches, with the Catholic Church being Hungarian and owning a surprising large amount of real estate in the city (the Romanians go to the Orthodox church).  The other group here, and in Hungary, is the gypsies.
 Now what is it with the Gypsies?  You see these very colorful people gathered on the street, dressed in beautiful outfits, the men with these wide brimmed hats and long dark mustaches, the women brightly clothed and with long dark hair.  Always with LOTS  of little gypsy children.  But every single person we speak with warns us about the gypsies.  We're repeatedly told that they will steal stuff from you, that you should never take their picture because they'll surround you and harass you until you give them money, they refuse to work, they just drink and party all the time, their women are simply baby makers and they have WAAYYYY too many babies..  Now I know this is harsh and I'd like to think of this perspective as coming from a racist minority?  But there is not one person that has spoken otherwise about the gypsies....even among what seem to me to be liberal, tolerant people...as though their identity is simply accepted as described.  I keep prodding people to say something that sounds better to me...but clearly, the gypsies are the disenfranchised group here...and that goes for Hungary too.    I was told that there are two types of gypsies, rich gypsies and poor gypsies.  And the rich gypsies, who are believed to have money thru some illegal ventures, build these incredibly flashy houses, gypsy palaces.  I've included a photo of one... you can't miss one when you see it.  They have lots of glittering things, and a mega-ornateness about them...and are huge and generally unfinished.  They're pretty cool...but as I've been told,   they're usually built on land without title and the construction is not trustworthy.  But they are very beautiful if you like that sort of thing.   And although their community is tight and exclusive (it seems you can't just decide to go enter the circle of gypsies), it's supposed to be lacking in any structure.   I guess that there are these two families that have been vying for power... one rich gypsy who wanted to be the "boss" called himself the Gypsy King....but then another rich gypsy in town wanted to be the real boss so he called himself the Gypsy Emperor...I must admit they are intriguing me...except that as a woman, I don't think I'd stand a chance.  By the way, the King has a daughter who calls herself Princess Lumenitcza and she writes story books for children..love that name...means little light....she might be worth googling...
So the Carpathian Basin, as I believe I've mentioned, which contains Transylvania, is an old ocean basin, the mountains blocking the drainage of water to the Black Sea.   Which means that Syracuse might have some competition in the world of salt mining...this place has salt deposits all over.  There's been lots of open pit mining historically....we go to Turda, where there are underground bell-shaped mines...larger than imaginable.  After walking through underground tunnels - all sided by salt - we get to some serious caverns.  I think this trip has been designed to challenge my issue with heights.  Because once again I'm faced with having to go beyond my comfort zone to fully experience.  We stand in pits that have been mined since the 800s/900s...which is a very long time ago.  I have never seen pure salt crystal deposit...when you shine a light on the wall, the light goes right through it's transparency.  Anyway, we stand on ledges and hear our echoes...we count 14-15-16 repeats...this cavern is huge...you can't see to the top or bottom...we turn the lights out to experience the pitch blackness...and I suppose to give ourselves a bit of an adrenaline rush...
Then comes the true rush...a walkway along the sides of the biggest cavern....it's been there for centuries (no exaggeration) - they have just dug deeper and deeper into the salt thru time and it's now about 10 stories from the floor of the mine to this walkway.   It's  pretty much suspended from out of the side wall of the salt....not too much light either.  We decide we will walk from one side to the other and then go down the stairs on the other side.
I'm trying to act as though it's all very matter of fact...that of course I will take the walkway...not even thinking of backing out.  Because I've found that if you show one shred of panic, people respond in predictable ways.  You have the prodder who teases you and tries to get you to go deeper into that precipice of panic...you have the condescender who tries to coddle you through it...and I can't deal with that...and you have those that act like they're ignoring you in your anxiety but secretly they're watching you to see if you show signs of freaking out.  You stand your best chance if you pretend to be cool about the whole thing...there's just no benefit in showing your true colors in situations like this. 
Anyway I walk from one end to the other...acting very cool...not looking down, just straight ahead...I'm one of the first to get to the other side cause I just want to get it over with....BUT when we get there the stairway on that side is closed!!!  We have to do the full loop back to the original stairs...kind of a cruel joke...takes just about everything I've got but, of course, I do it...
This place is quite surreal...here you are in salt pits in the earth and there's a flock of children playing down there....ping pong tables, picnics going on, card games and all...Apparently parents bring their kids down here to treat respiratory illnesses....breathing in the heavy salt air is good for their lungs...some families come down here once a week for the day....can't imagine bringing my kid down here weekly...certainly it's very cool but it's also dark, damp, and claustrophobic.  Seems like one might just put their kid's face over some steamy salt water in a bowl and tell them to inhale in the kitchen at home...
Well the salt mine is hardly the end of our day....or my challenges.  We go to this famous gorge....a deep cut in the sedimentation that apparently God created to stop the Turks when they were chasing some Hungarians while invading the country.  A very pretty place...steep bedrock walls....a very slippery hike along the river, especially in the drizzling rain.  The Palinka comes with us - it goes everywhere with us - but I'm completely focused on keeping myself from falling off the ledge and into the river.  Once again, I find I'm slightly uncomfortable yet awed by the scenery and thrilled to be here....

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