I took the bus from Chernivtsi to Suceava at an unpleasantly early time of morning, after standing at the tram stop for almost half an hour in the icy wind. A rotund older man smiled at me when I got to the bus station and rattled off something to me in Ukrainian – all I could make out was ‘Suceava’ so I nodded and followed him as he headed towards a ratty old bus and opened it up for me to toss my backpack in. The bus wasn’t due to leave for half an hour – as always, I was early.
The bus left spot on time and was full of children who looked around ten to twelve with a few adults looking after them – I assumed it was a school trip. They were ridiculously well behaved, most likely because they promptly fell asleep. The bus wasn’t a whole lot warmer than it was outside. It was ancient, apparently built before the days of heating, and not the most appropriate vehicle given that it was minus three and windy outside. We arrived at the Ukrainian border after about an hour or so and the driver collected passports and the kids’ ID cards. We remained on the bus and after about forty-five minutes we had our documents back and were moving on.
The Romanian border wasn’t quite so simple.
The driver didn’t collect our passports this time – a large and red-cheeked Romanian Customs officer boarded the bus and took each passport one by one, comparing the photo with the bearer. He smiled at me and said ‘Ah, Australia!’ when he took mine, which I hoped was a good sign.
Once he had everyone’s documents we all had to get off the bus, taking everything with us. We all grabbed our bags out from under the bus and waited for the bus to be searched. Apparently everyone smuggles cigarettes from Ukraine to Romania as they cost one-third of the price there – $1 compared to $3. They basically pulled the bus apart, pulling back covers from seats, checking the curtains, opening everything that could be opened including the fuel tank – because that’s a really logical place to hide cigarettes. They didn’t appear to find anything on the bus, and their search had taken an hour while we all waited outside with rapidly decreasing patience.
I wished I had worn my thermals. As it was, I had on a singlet, a long-sleeved shirt, a tshirt, a jumper, a big woolen jumper and raincoat and I was cold. I was absolutely freezing and shaking uncontrollably. My teeth chattered and my hands were just hunks of ice. Some of the older women from the bus were wearing calf-length skirts with just stockings under them, and their coats were not sufficient to keep them warm. I felt sorry for them for a while, but then figured that as they were locals [returning to Romania] they were more used to this kind of cold and should be better prepared.
About fifteen minutes after they finished searching the bus, they came over to search our bags. I was first up, and so I unzipped my bag for them to check through. What I’d forgotten was that I was in such a rush that morning to get to the bus that I’d just shoved everything in haphazardly, and the result of this was that on the very top of my bag upon opening was my bra. The Customs official seemed to be quite embarrassed by this and closed my bag immediately, telling me in Romanian what I assumed was along the lines of ‘No problem, no worries’. He quickly moved on to the next person, a little red in the face. It took almost half an hour to search everyone’s bags – and every other person on the bus had their bags searched properly, pulling everything out. So I learned that one way to avoid having your bag searched is to conveniently place lingerie on the top to embarrass the man whose job it is to search it. I could have smuggled all sorts of stuff into Romania!
After that was over question time began. Why was I coming to Romania, where was I going, where was I staying, for how long would I stay, do I have friends there, do I have family there, do I intend to work, am I a student and so on. I was coming to Romania for tourism. I didn’t really know where I was going after Suceava so just said Suceava – they wanted more information and I’d done very little research as to what I wanted to do in Romania so I just named every Romanian town or city I could think. I was staying at a hostel in Suceava and hadn’t booked accommodation after that. Why? I didn’t know where I would go next. I would stay for maybe three weeks, maybe five weeks, it depends how much I like the country. Australians don’t need a visa and we can stay for up to ninety days so I hoped that as long as I gave a figure shorter than this I’d be fine. I answered all their questions and as soon as they moved on I jumped back on the bus, hoping for some warmth.
I was bitterly disappointed. It was just as cold on the bus as outside, the only difference being the lack of wind. I curled up in my chair to conserve all the warmth I could, and cringed every time the door was opened and another person got on. Soon enough everyone was back on the bus and I hoped we’d soon be moving on.
I was to be disappointed. We had to wait another hour and a half for the Customs officer to return our passports and let us continue. It was frustrating. Everyone was shivering and shaking and silent and just wanted to move on. When we did, the driver turned on the heater – as it turned out, the bus did have heating albeit very poor and foul-smelling heating. Still, it was better than nothing and I found myself cursing him under my breath for not turning it on earlier.
We eventually arrived in Suceava, and I was very relieved to find that the hostel was right next to the bus station so I didn’t have to walk far.