A slow train through ‘sacred land’ with a mysterious stranger

Travel Writer: Shannon Kelly’s journey to Cluj in Romania in the company of a bushy-bearded wise man

At the train station in Sighisoara, I drink a foamy, over-sweetened cappuccino that spews out of a machine for about 60 cents. Three thin girls with sleek raven hair chortle while a drunk man belches, overcome by the bright sun overhead.

The town behind me is dusty, steepled; I woke there to roosters and the smell of tobacco and clay, watched a lean young man help his younger brother swing a sack of potatoes over his shoulder, an old woman in a faded floral headscarf hobbling past them with her gnarled cane, gnarled hands.

The train does not wait long in a place so small as Sighisoara. Anxious not to miss it, I toss the cappuccino and hop on to the train via the nearest door. The tired guard is busy chasing a family of Roma while chatty women wait for wiry men to unload their heavy packs from the racks above. I take the emptiest cart and turn toward the window, hoping to go unnoticed.

“It’s fine, everything is fine!” An elderly, grinning gentleman approaches me, his arms outstretched, his blue eyes peering out from his suntanned skin and bushy white beard.

“Vorbiti Româneste?” He asks, second-guessing himself.

“No, no, I speak English. Hello.” He spreads himself in the doorway of the train car as the guard walks by, hiding me, and chuckles.

“You’re not in the right seat.” As I begin to explain myself, he interrupts.

“There was a girl on this train before you, sitting in that exact spot. She looked just like you, but she got off the train when you got on. The guard will never know.”

I pause; another girl with my wild curly white hair has found herself on this day passing through Sighisoara in this same seat.

“That’s funny.”

“Of course it’s funny!” The main exclaims. “Everything is funny!”

The man’s name is Ilia. He sits across from me, gesturing out the window at the rows of soybeans, the Roma palaces with glittering silver roofs amidst the dilapidated orange structures, the men in the fields with their donkey carts brushing midday sun off their foreheads. “It’s like watching a movie,” he says.

He hands me a book of Romanian poetry, conjugates verbs inside it in boxy letters: sunt, esti, este, suntem. He tells me of Iulia Hasdeu, the writer who instructed her father from the afterlife to build a castle for her, of pokol, magic, of the holy hills and a shaman who will read your fortune from the lines in your forehead.

“Romanian land is sacred,” he tells me. “If only people would remember.”

The towns we pass are resilient, crooked wooden churches poking out above; in the larger cities, run-down Soviet apartment blocks stand beside tall cement buildings boasting Coca Cola ads.

When the train finally reaches Cluj, the sun is low in the sky. Ilia bids me goodbye and walks away, still laughing. “Everything is funny,” he repeats under his breath.

He disappears; the word “sacred” springs to mind.

Entries to The Irish Times Travel Writer competition, in association with Travel Department, are now closed. The winning writer will be announced on October 29th. See irishtimes.com/travelwriter

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