Monday, November 01, 2010

The Usefulness Of Maps

From my recent posts it looks as if my time here in Romania has been a constant search for ever more obscure minorities. It may have looked like I had gone as far as I could with the Saxons, but I managed to dig out (almost literally) one more ethnic group despite having to travel quite far (almost 2000 years) to find them.

The name Romania comes from the Romans, which seems obvious enough. It is, however, strange when you stop to think about it. The Roman legions were only in what is now Romania for a mere century and a half before getting kicked out by the Goths. They did leave their language though, which has remained to this day, making Romania an island of Latin language surrounded by Slavic and Hungarian. But the Romans didn't stroll into an empty country. The land was home to the Dacian tribes who were not, by any means, simple cave-dwellers. Though in the end they still got steamrollered by Trajan and the Roman war machine. What I find quite amusing is the pride that Romanians have for being the descendants and cultural inheritors of both the Dacians and their Roman conquerors. For example the unassuming, regional town of Deva has both a statue to the Dacian king Decebalus as well as to his nemesis Trajan, just 200m further down the road (I'm not sure what either would have made of the juxtaposition).

The evocative ruins of Sarmizegetusa.

The Dacian capital of Sarmizegetusa Regia (try saying that one fast) was located tucked away above a tight little valley in the southern Carpathians. It's 40km from the nearest bus stop in Orastie and half of that is dirt track. No problem I thought, and indeed managed to hitch all the way up to the ruins without too much hassle, even the last few kilometres where the ordinary Volkswagen Passat of my ride was struggling in first gear. The ruins occupy a small plateau over 1000m up, surrounded by beech forests, which were evocatively shrouded in mist when I was there. And, although the remains are scarce, it is clear to see that there was some know-how in their construction.

The friendly brothers from Bucharest who had given me the lift up offered to take me back down to Orastie but I refused, saying that it would violate Erik's 1st Rule of Travelling: Never go back the same way you came. Instead I had seen that the distance from the ruins to the road on the other side of the mountains was only some 15-20km ... as the crow flies. It can't be that difficult to get there I said to myself, only to discover that I am not uncommonly wrong. The first difficulty was finding a map. I found several sources, none of which were any good or detailed and all of which showed slightly differing paths and routes. From these I picked the best (i.e. least worst) and took some photos (a good way of saving money, and weight, is to take a digital photo of a map - that way you have it with you whilst not having to carry or buy it; just pray that you don't run out of batteries!). Map in hand I proceeded to set off from the ruins down the steep hill to the valley below ... and then turned back as the path petered out. I backtracked, consulted with my maps, recalibrated my route and tried another way ... only to run out of path again (though, to be honest, it wasn't much of one to begin with). This happened once more that day which meant that by the end I had covered a grand distance of only 8km and all of that westwards rather than south as I wanted. Not a good omen, but I was damned if I was going to let some bloody mountains beat me and insisted on persevering the next day. The next morning I asked some people in a small village how to get up onto the ridge to the south, from where I was sure I would be able to find a decent path. And so with a bit of luck I managed to get onto a partially marked trail and I wound my way along some ridges and a few valleys for the whole day, until I was spat out the other side as dusk was fast approaching. I wasn't exactly where I had planned to be, but at least I had crossed the range and was on the right road, which made me very happy. It wasn't just accomplishing the goal I had set out that made it worth it though, but the walk itself and landscapes that I saw along the way. The weather was perfect - refreshingly cool with azure skies and a sun that enhanced the colours of the forested hillsides. The colours were almost unreal, so bright were they - it was like swimming in a sea of paint. And every now and again an isolated farmstead with a few sheep or cows and wizened herdsmen who had probably never heard of the word transhumance, but were certainly living it. I was too tired to look too far for a camp site and pitched my tent some 20m from a railway line, so tired that I was completely oblivious to the sound and vibrations of the passing trains in the night.
I wish I was a better photographer so that I could fully convey the vivid, crisp colours of the Carpathian countryside.

I had a decent night's sleep but did learn two very important lessons for camping in cold conditions. Firstly, that when the temperature is likely to drop below zero overnight it is best to set up your tent under some sort of shelter so as to prevent, or at least reduce, the amount of dew forming, and then freezing, to the canvas. And secondly, if the tent has become covered in frost, when you pack it up in the morning to not put it inside your rucksack. I like the fact that whilst travelling I am not also learning academic facts about history and culture, but also some useful practical skills. Now I just hope I remember them next time I decide to pitch my tent...


John Morley said...

Maybe we should get you a SAT NAV Erik :)

Erik said...

Is that an offer? Feel free to get me one.

H said...

I liked your comment that she shepherds never heard the word transhumance :-)))

More academic stuff:

The Romanian history, the one taught in schools and present in media is tributary to the nationalistic discourse of Romantic XIXth century, the creation of Great Romania during WW1 and the dictatorial period of nationalist Ceausescu.

It is an oversimplified model that states Romanians are the result of two cultural genes - the local Dacian and the alien Romans. While its true that anthropologically they are present in one way or another, migratories, that is Slavs, Magyars, Asians, Ottomans are largely ignored by the general perception, although they participated in equal ways to the creation of cultural profile of Romanians.

The Latin heritage became a political tool in late XVIIIth early XIXth century, in Transylvania, as a mean to emphasise the rights of Romanians culturally valid, as brothers of Italians, French and as continuators of Roman empire. The Dacian heritage has been included in the political and nationalistic discourse after the development of archaeology and at the same time with the appearance of national states in Europe (Romania of today roughly corresponds to ancient Dacia at its largest expansion, during Emperor Burebista 1st century BC).

An interesting detail though is that the ethnonym "Romanian" (in Ro. "roman", "ruman") is not an invention of the nationalists and has been preserved all over Balkans and Carpathians in Latinophone areas. In Northern Greece you will find the Aromanians, in Croatia the Istroromanians and so on. They speak some kind of ancient Romanian, post-Latin, stuck in time around Xth-XIVth centuries and filled with Slavic and Greek loans.

H said...

...while modern literary Romanian is filled with French loans from XIXth century which some ignorant locals imagine are a direct link with the Latin heritage.

However, the real Latin linguistic heritage is often hidden behind words with Slavic shape.

As far as the present mentality goes, Persian-Turkish "bakshish" is the most important lexical loan.