When I moved to Romania, I knew that it had produced one of the greatest adventurer of all times. This is the story of how I was both wrong and right at the same time. (Scroll down to the 5th paragraph if you want to jump the introduction.)
Any other foreigner coming to Romania, particularly to Transylvania, annoys the locals with questions about Dracula. I am not into vampire stories, but I guess I equally annoyed a number of Romanians by asking them if they had heard of Dumitru Dan, the Romanian globetrotter. I had stumbled across his name when, for a very short time, I had toyed with the idea of circumventing the world on foot, because Dumitru Dan was heralded as the first person to have done so, between 1910 and 1923. To me, this was a heroic feat.
But, except for a short entry on Wikipedia, there was no literature about him in English or in German. So I began to look for articles in Romanian (I found a few) and for attractive female translators (I found a few) who would want to help (“I am too busy,” they all said, refusing to be bribed even by offers of chocolate cake). Trying to translate them for myself, I got a gist of the story of Dumitru Dan and his three colleagues, their walk around the world, interrupted by World War I, the dramatic death of the three co-walkers in India, China and after crossing Alaska, respectively. I found out that the museum in Buzau had a collection of souvenirs and recordings and was just about to plan my visit there, when I stumbled across another article which would change it all.
It was on the blog of Timotei Rad, a Romanian cartographer and traveler, that I found the only article which doubted the veracity of Dumitru Dan’s story. “This must be one of those people who also doubt the landing on the moon,” I thought, imagining a guy sitting in front of his computer in his pyjamas while dreaming up conspiracies. But when I read on, I noticed that Timotei Rad had been looking for documents (and found no evidence for the alleged walk through Asia and Africa), done serious calculations and discovered major inconsistencies in the stories told by Dumitru Dan. Even I had to admit that it was weird that the story of the circumnavigation of the world allegedly completed in 1923 first appeared in a Romanian newspaper in 1962, at a time when communist Romania was happy for every national hero it could produce. A geography teacher who was fond of telling crazy stories to his pupils was as good as anyone.
I was shocked and disappointed, but that didn’t last long, for I began to read about Timotei’s own journeys. He is on a mission to hitchhike around the world. When he first set out to leave Europe, towards Siberia, he had only 70 € and would eventually run out of money completely. I got sucked into his stories about Siberia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, South America and many other places, particularly because of his humorous writing which is a reflection of an open and mostly optimistic mind.
So I was happy when Timo, as he prefers to be called, informed me that he is back in Romania for a few months and suggested that we meet. I am ashamed to say I didn’t even hitchhike from Târgu Mureș to Florești, a suburb of Cluj, spending a few hours on the bus instead. Timo would have hitchhiked the 118 km in no time. I am someone who loves to give hitchhikers a ride whenever I have a car, but I am a bit too shy or inflexible to do it myself, except in emergencies like earlier-than-expected nightfall (a huge thank-you to the Latvian family who picked me up on my walk back from Mount Gaiziņkalns, rescuing me from packs of aggressive dogs, and to Milivoje, who gave me a lift in Montenegro and took me to his home where we had tea and rakija) or sudden torrential rain.
As soon as I step into his spacious and underfurnished and uncluttered apartment – the typical dwelling of people for whom home is just a temporary base between travels – I notice the rows of books: atlases, collected volumes of National Geographic, the works of Jules Verne, Jack London and many other travel and adventure novels. The backpack is still on the couch in the corridor, as if Timo was ready to leave for Spitzbergen any minute.
How does he feel, back in Romania, stationary instead of moving? “I really needed that break. I had become restless and agitated. I needed to calm down, the mind needs time to recover. In South America, I lost 10 kg, my body was exhausted. Now that I am home, I sleep a lot more.” Timo does indeed look relaxed, but he still talks so fast that I have to interrupt him from time to time to catch up with taking notes. And even then, he only stops for a few seconds. The stories are flowing out of him, and again he is more excited than relaxed, excited about the world, its diversity, the people who helped him on his journey, the adventures and the long way he has come from a boy who herded his parents’ sheep in Valea lui Mihai. Back then he got a first taste of the world through adventure novels – similar to my experience while growing up in a small village in Bavaria – , and now, just having turned 30, he has already seen more of our planet than the authors of most of the books that inspired him.
Like on his blog, Timo has a talent for telling stories in person, too. The right mix of information, openness about emotional ups and downs and humor make it sound like his journeys have been the greatest adventure imaginable and a completely natural thing to do at the same time. As a listener, you have the strange sensation of complete awe combined with a feeling of “maybe I could do something like this as well”.
Timo doesn’t pretend that he has always been some hot-shot tough guy destined to hitchhike around the world, bracing all sorts of threats and dangers. “I wouldn’t travel like this if I had money. It would be hypocrisy to claim otherwise. But I am lucky that I didn’t have money, because this way I learnt so much that I never would have learnt otherwise.” Asked how he has changed after 223,230 km on the road, he says: “I built a personality, an attitude. This experience has made me tougher.”
He talks about Siberia now, when he went without food for 40 hours. “Were you ever really afraid or worried?” I ask. “When you are on the road, if you worry, you will die,” he answers, explaining that on average, of five drivers that give you a lift, one will give you food, often without asking. “Some people will notice that you haven’t eaten and they will offer it. I don’t like asking for food myself, so I would only ask when I am really desperate.” Particularly in Russia, people invited him to stay in their homes. Sometimes, when Timo noticed that a driver was of similar size and figure, he asked for a T-shirt.
I meet a lot of travelers and many of them are reluctant to talk about how they finance their travels. (I am not.) I hate that, because it’s easy to travel the world if you have a high-paying job or just sold a house you inherited. Nothing against people using their savings to travel, but then they shouldn’t present themselves as savvy travelers. Timo is refreshingly open about this, too: On his website, he asks for donations. And they come trickling in, everything from 5 $ to a one-time whopping 500 $. (“Why don’t I have readers like this?” I wonder, but then I realize that I would have to write more regularly, more funnily – and maybe risk my ass by going to Afghanistan – to warrant such a fan club.)
But this kind of income is unpredictable, of course. “What was the longest time you went without any money?” “61 days,” he replies, precise as always when it comes to numbers. “Sixty-one days without money??” I get worried, scared even, just from imagining this situation. “Where did it happen?” “In Siberia,” Timo answers matter-of-factly like someone else would say that they didn’t have money for a bus ticket and had to walk through Central Park to get home after work. “Actually, when I say that I had no money, I should mention that I had 4 € left. That was my emergency money and I kept it for a special purpose. After one month of living without money, I bought a 2-liter bottle of beer to celebrate. Also, Barcelona had won an important match on that day.”
Russia is one of Timo’s favorite countries. Other countries that he is enthusiastic about are Ireland (“completely different than the rest of Europe”), Colombia and Iran. Having been to Iran twice myself, I share his enthusiasm and even as a less adventurous traveler, I can support what Timo says about Iran: “In one month in Iran, I spent no penny. Not because I didn’t have any money, but because nobody let me pay for anything. I was invited so often that I put on 3-4 kg. There were times when I had to decline invitations because I just couldn’t eat any more.”
But there were also more destitute times. In the desert in Mongolia, he once waited 31 hours for a ride. Not because no car stopped, but because the first car came after only 31 hours. The driver took him to a yurt, again in the middle of the desert, far away from the road to which he needed to walk. In Azerbaijan, he had to shit into his shirt because ferocious dogs prevented him from leaving the tent all night. Timo sleeps outside most of the time, only rarely reverting to hostels or using Couchsurfing.
The longest time he couldn’t shower was 16 days, in Argentina. “When I go without a shower for several days, I worry about smelling. The last thing you want to do when someone gives you a ride, is to smell horribly. Sometimes, when I get along with a driver, I ask them to be honest and to tell me if I smell.” But no problems so far. I imagine that Timo generally doesn’t have problems getting picked up. He is the total opposite of the dubious, smelly, long-haired, unkempt hitchhiker image that many people have in their mind, the opposite of the guy who will take off his shoes in your car, start rolling a joint and hit on your daughter. Looking younger than his 30 years and with his nerdy glasses, Timo looks like the guy who missed the last bus after choir practice and needs a ride to his grandmother’s house to help her with dinner preparations. Who wouldn’t stop for him?
The nerdy look may not be quite off the mark. Timo does not only have degrees in international relations and cartography, he has a computer or at least a calculator in his brain. When he speaks about his hitchhiking adventures, he rattles off numbers like a track and field athlete: “The longest distance I ever went with the same car war 3,300 km.” “My record for longest distance covered in 24 h was 1,955 km in Argentina.” “I have done 80,050 km in one year.” “61 days without money”, “40 hours without food”, “16 days without a shower” and so on. Even when we talk about girls: “I have loved 3 women in my life.”
“Yes, there is a sportive aspect to it,” he readily admits. “There are only two people in the world who have hitchhiked more than me.” On his website he has a ranking (who knew that such things existed?), and I don’t think he will stop before he has the top spot. “It is something that motivates me.”
But the speed at which he travels is not (only) motivated by a desire to set a record, it seems to me. Timo really is restless like that. “I need to move. Like a shark that needs to move in order to breathe.” And, he says, “it’s cheaper if you are on the move.” I am more of a slow traveler who likes to stay in one place for longer, even for several months. “I couldn’t do that,” he exclaims. “It has to be fucking Paris or London for me to stay 3 days.” He toured all of South America in 4 months; for me, 4 years won’t be enough. Timo is always on the run, like the Jason Bourne of traveling.
The action-movie comparison isn’t off the mark either: When hitchhiking in Afghanistan (!), Timo asked the police in Kabul for the road to Tajikistan. They found this suspicious enough to take him in and to call the Romanian ambassador, who sent a military escort. After spending a night in the Green Village, the Romanian embassy basically forced him to leave the country by air. Thus his last attempt to travel to all countries in Asia was aborted. But he’ll be back, I am sure.
“So, what’s next?” I ask, knowing that he won’t be able to sit still in Romania for much longer. “I would like to find a boat that takes me to Färöer, Iceland, Greenland, Canada and hitchhike through North America.” But first, he wants to get his travel journal (“1,300 pages”) translated into English and Spanish. I have read hundreds of travel books and I usually say that the world doesn’t need more of them, but this is an exception. It would be a waste if Timo’s stories and his contagious energy and vibrancy weren’t shared with a wider audience.
It has gotten dark by now, we have been speaking for more than 6 hours, yet I feel we could talk for a few more days without getting bored. In true Couchsurfer spirit, Timo offers that I can stay for the night. But I need to return to Cluj to meet a girl for dinner. If she will be just half as interesting, it will be a great evening.
“I am really amazed,” I compliment Timo as we say good-bye at the bus stop. “Sometimes, I am amazed too,” he replies, before telling me one last story of how two gangsters tried to rob him in Venezuela, but he scared them off by shouting at them in Romanian. Dumitru Dan may have been a fraud, but I did indeed find a great Romanian adventurer. – If you ever see him sticking out his thumb next to the road, please give him a lift!
Some links in case you became curious (all in Romanian):