Monday, 17 May 2010

Conference in Romania (Part 1)

Sometimes I feel like am living in one enormous dream. Simply by creating and maintaining an online presence on a number of websites I have made contact with people who share similar interests to me spread all over the world. It was the beginning of May and I was uploading some photographs from a drive that Meg and I had taken the previous day to Ar Ruwais and Al Shamal in the north of Qatar onto a website called WAYN (Where Are You Now?) where people record their travel experiences. One of my contacts is the principal of a school in Romania and they were hosting an educational conference and asked if I wanted to present. I had never been to Romania so, not really expecting anything to come of it, I asked the Head of Qatar Academy Senior School if it would be ok for me to attend. Much to my amazement the response was positive. All I had to do was write and submit a paper to deliver at the conference (I had approximately 4 days to get this done) and organize for someone to take my lessons while I was away.

Fortunately, I am doing work toward a Masters Degree in Educational Technology through the State University of New York and the course co-coordinator was willing to let me kill two birds with one stone and submit the research I had been doing on podcasting both as the paper for the conference and the assessment for my course. With a couple of late nights I had my paper (and an accompanying power point) prepared and my wonderful wife agreed to look after my classes for me. The school organized my flights and accommodation and in the space of just over a week I was ready to fly.

Saturday night at 10pm and I say 'Goodbye' to Meg, Quinn and Stella and jump into the cab for the airport. That night the Emirs Cup (sort of a Qatari equivalent of the FA Cup in England) has been played and, much to everybody's amazement al-Rayyan (our local team and the team I have chosen to support) who have had a terrible year have caused yet another upset and won the cup. Consequently, the streets are full of lunatic al-Rayyan supporters driving around, honking their horns, and hanging themselves and their flags out of every available space on their vehicles (windows, sky lights etc.). While I am happy for the team I am concerned for the safety of the motorists and somewhat frustrated by the delay to my travel time to the airport.

However, I had left with an enormous amount of time to spare before the 2:15am flight (largely so that Meg and Quinn don't feel the need to wait up until I go) and there was more than enough to book in, check my luggage, go through the interminable lines at passport control, and still make the flight with much time to spare. In fact, I had to read for about half an hour before they would even let me check in to the flight and I spent an hour or so in the business lounge consuming some very nice tomato soup and reading some newspapers before I head down to the gate. Because Qatar Academy has the policy of flying business class if the trip is to be longer than 4 hours I was asked to wait at the gate and ended up being the last person on and sitting in seat 1A.

Possibly through nerves I had not slept much the night before and Meg had refused to allow me to nap during the day so that I would sleep on the flight. Exhaustion was really starting to be strongly felt as the plane took off and I took the toiletries bag from the flight attendant looking forward to slipping on the eye mask and snoozing. However, she mentioned that breakfast was going to be served immediately so my sleep was delayed until I had finished the fruit porridge, juice, omelette and bread roll. There was just enough time to hear that we would be flying over Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria on our way to Turkey, and to note that 'Sherlock Holmes' was available to watch as a movie before sleep descended and so I probably achieved about 3 hours before a flight announcement alerted me to the fact that we were making our descent.

My initial impression of Turkey was seen through a hazy light cloud as we began to make our descent into Istanbul. Coming from having lived in Qatar for the last 9 months I was struck by just how green it felt like flying over one of those giant train sets that people used to build when I was growing up. There were little groves of trees that looked like they could have been artificial, so regular was their growth pattern. Buildings, too, seemed to fit into sets, with large identical apartment blocks side by side followed by a group of factories then picturesque houses. Undulations in the ground looked like little creases in someone's papier mache but reminded me of what Orhan Pamuk had written about the earthquakes that impact upon this area in the world much as they do in California.

The Princes' islands in the middle of the sea off the Istanbul coast looked like someone had paid signal attention to detail with the buildings all in elegant rows circling around the hills that projected up from the blue sea. It struck me that these were all fairly new buildings given that the 1999 Earthquake had devastated those islands which might go some way toward explaining the absence of haphazard building plans. Passing over them, at about 6:30am, it was easy to imagine people just waking up ready to make the commute into Istanbul by ferry. However, given that this was a Sunday morning and Turkey had been westernized under Ataturk so that Sunday had replaced Friday as their day of rest back in 1923, it was more likely that the people below me were getting a well earned sleep in.

Comparisons with a giant train set were somewhat affected by the three enormous mosques visible from the plane as we crossed the coastline, which probably wouldn't have appeared on any of the train sets I saw during my childhood in Australia, but the huge red Turkish flag looked glorious as it waved in what appeared to be a significant breeze. One can only speculate that flight paths are deliberately chosen to maximize the appeal of the city as we appeared to circle the entirety of Istanbul before leveling out and making a relatively smooth touchdown at Istanbul Ataturk Airport.

Having been last on the aircraft, and sitting in seat 1A, I was first off and walked up the boarding path feeling like I was the only person present. It must have been that our gate was at one end of a long area that wasn't busy because, after a short walk, I came across a small group of airport staff and was directed up a flight of stairs which opened into a bustling shopping and dining area reminiscent of every other major airport we had been in around the world. My departure gate for the next leg was quite a distance and down a flight of stairs because we were going to be bussed out to our plane so that, by the time I found a seat among the passengers heading to Madrid, Milan, Frankfurt and Stuttgart (as well as those travelling with me to Bucharest) there was only a short wait until boarding was called.

One of the benefits of regular travel is that it reminds you that impatience and arrogance are not confined to one cultural group. In this case it was an older Romanian (from her passport) woman who walked straight past the queue and was openly outraged that people would not just let her continue straight through. It did not take long before we were all out on our Turkish Airways flight (for some reason they are major sponsors of both Barcelona and Manchester United football clubs) and ready for the second leg of the journey. It was a beautiful sunny day in Istanbul and because the airport runway leads off over the sea we were soon up in the air and able to spy the enormous number of ships waiting offshore before we turned north and headed back over the city on our way to Romania.

It is only a short flight to Bucharest from Istanbul and I spent the majority of the time looking at the wonderful scenery below. By the time we crossed back over the coast we were just in Bulgaria and from there to Bucharest it was patchwork farms, beautiful rivers that looked almost purple in colour, patches of forest where you could see the division in tree types by the variant shades of green, and then the tall buildings of the city in the distance. Touchdown was again very smooth and I soon found myself on the ground of Aeroport Henri Coanda. Because Oradea is in the west of the country, near the border with Hungary, I was going to have to transfer to an internal flight and this wasn't going to be leaving for nearly 12 hours. Sadly, the airport has neither a business lounge nor a luggage storage facility so I had to reclaim my baggage and then work out how to fill the next few hours.

The obvious solution was to take a trip around Bucharest and see what I could see of the city. It is about 20 klm into the city centre so it was downstairs and onto the 783 bus heading for Piata Unirii via Piata Victoriei. I had tried to learn a little Romanian before I left but only two phrases had really stuck. 'Sorry, I don't understand' was one of them and this came in useful more than once on the way in as people mistakenly assumed that I knew all sorts of things from where (exactly) we were going to how to use the ticketing machines. When the confused looks came with me explaining in Romanian that I didn't understand the language I was at least able to make use of my one other phrase, 'I have a little [signify with fingers for emphasis] Romanian'. Not one of the people that I met was unable to speak substantially more English than I could Romanian but their excitement that I had made some effort to acquire their language meant that everyone I spoke to was very helpful and friendly.

There are a number of things about Bucharest that struck me on the drive into town. The first was that Romanians seem to be very attached to their parks and gardens. There are a number of enormous parks on the route from the airport and at the very centre of the city is yet another one, Cismigiu Garden. Unlike some other cities that we have visited these parks aren't done up as formally landscaped places with every flower and hedge in its place. Indeed, in most of the parks the grass had not been mowed for a while (understandably, because there was every indication that they had had quite a bit of rain recently even though the weather was very sunny) and the placement of trees resembled a real forest rather than a carefully planted grove. Each of the parks also incorporated water, whether in the form of rivers or in elaborate fountains.

Architecturally Bucharest is clearly European and, from the size of some of the mansions on the main boulevard, at times there has been considerable money spent. In some ways it was very reminiscent of Munich or Vienna with the grand formwork and statuery used to support beams. However, the substantial period of communist rule which ended with the collapse of the Ceaucescu regime had obviously taken a toll. Many of the buildings that I saw were very run down, paint was chipped or peeling off, gardens were overrun, windows were smashed or boarded up and roofs were in need of repair. Even some of the buildings where businesses had clearly taken over what had been formerly residential space were not doing well enough to provide the significant renovation necessary to restore them to their former glory.

It was late on a Sunday morning and the weather was lovely so many people were out on the street. There was going to be an open air AC/DC concert that evening and things were already being set up in preparation for that event. There were many men (predominantly) walking around wearing AC/DC t-shirts and it was very clear that this was going to be a big event. Unsurprisingly, while there were some teenagers dressed the part most of the fans were men in their 30's and over and I would have liked to have stayed to see what sort of final composition the crowd had but, alas, it was not to be. The other noticeable group were the significantly elderly sitting on stoops, steps, and sometimes directly upon the ground up and down the main streets. While it would be wrong to say they were begging (very few of them said anything or even indicated with gestures that they wanted help) it was fascinating to watch how many people, often coming out of church, stopped and put money into their hands. Perhaps the government does not look after the elderly but it seems like there is a feeling in the community.

I had intended to look for a tour bus to take me around so that I would get as many of the prominent sites as possible but none of the tourist offices that I came across were open and there were not many buses, other than the public ones, on the street. The number of churches (mainly orthodox) and the religious iconography made me suspect that this was one of the reasons why not very many businesses were open. Those that were obviously opened were the fast food restaurants (McDonalds and KFC are seemingly universal) and the sex shops. Given the aforementioned churches the latter were a bit of a surprise but I withstood any temptation to venture inside and see what sort of products they offered. In the end I walked around the main central part of the city and then back out for a couple of kilometers in the direction of the airport before my feet told me that it was time to catch the bus again. Fortunately Bucharest is almost completely flat so there were no hills to negotiate. Apart from this, and the absence of the sizeable Danube (the Dâmboviţa River is still impressive however), it is probably no surprise that the city that I was most reminded of was Budapest.

Back at the airport I was able to check my luggage and then it was determining how to kill the couple of hours before the Tarom (Transport Air ROMania) flight to Oradea. I met a friendly Austrian man and we were able to converse in a mixture of English and German about computer technology (that I was typing on my laptop probably prompted the conversation, and he wanted to loan me an adaptor even though I had one of my own in my bag). I managed to explore what must have been close to the entire airport and was somewhat surprised by how little in the way of souvenirs or other paraphernalia there was available at the limited range of shops. It seems that tourism has not yet had much of an impact upon the economy here.

Eventually I was able to pass through customs once more and on to the somewhat smaller propeller engined plane headed for Oradea. Although it had been beautifully sunny for the entire day until now, approximately half way through the flight we hit a bank of rain clouds that stayed with us for the remainder of the trip. Having left Doha where the previous day the temperature had been in the 40's it was somewhat of a culture shock to find rain and a temperature of 9°C. It was hard to tell whether it was the length of the day or the presence of the thick cloud but the final part of the trip seemed to take extraordinarily long to complete. Once on the ground I was met by a couple of members of the organizing committee for the conference who were very welcoming and rapidly conveyed me to the Continental Forum Hotel where I was to be staying for two nights. It overlooks the lovely Crişul Repede river that runs through Oradea so I spent some short time on the balcony enjoying the view before finally collapsing into bed after what felt like a very long day.