My Hero

It was about to get dark and I was heading out of the last village when a woman stopped me on the street. She asked but one question. It was not “what’s your name” or “where are you from”. It was simply: “Where do you sleep tonight?”

As I got closer to the borders of Romania in the Hungarian countryside the atmosphere changed. Every time I stepped aside to make space for the tractors or trucks on the road, the farmers and truck-drivers would thank me from their window rather than taking it for granted. Any time I went into the supermarket to buy groceries, the people before me in line would let me go ahead since I usually had so little stuff. Sure, that might happen anywhere every now and then – but here it was “always” rather than exception. Everybody on the street greeted me, and many stopped to talk despite the lack of a common language. And this would continue throughout my whole crossing of Romania.

By the time I had been given a tour of the house and a pair of slippers to wear indoors and another pair to wear outdoors I still didn’t know the woman’s name. It turned out to be Liliana, and she had two daughters; Elena, 13 years old, and Marina, 8 years old.  “Me”, I pointed at myself, “20.” Marina and Elena looked at me with big eyes, as if they were thinking I was so very old – and  I felt strange about it since I’m used to be that young one;  being the little sister of my own family.

Both of the girls looked like their mother, and they had the loveliest, friendliest smiles. Whilst Liliana was preparing dinner in the kitchen, Elena showed me how the shower worked and was quick to assist me with the hair dryer once I was clean.


In the villages, the kids were eager to show me they spoke English, too; “Hi hi hi!! How are you how are youu!” They’d yell after me, their faces shining up as they later got to reply: “I’m fine too thank youuu!” The crooked old women and men sitting next to the roadside on rugged old benches wouldn’t necessarily greet me at first, but if I greeted them – their faces would shine up too and they enthusiastically waved back. Once I passed a goatherd with the most beautiful goats I’ve ever seen – they looked like the goat-equivalent of Gandalf’s horse! And as I greeted the herd, he graciously bowed and took his hat off for me.

I wish I could tell you the names of these three boys in the photo – but their names were so strange for me they slipped out of my mind directly. The youngest one to the left spoke English the best but yet he kept telling me: “I don’t speak English”, and I told him back: “But you do, you’re speaking to me now!” The boy to the right kept speaking to me in Romanian and the boy in the middle snapped at him as if he were saying: “Idiot! Don’t you understand she doesn’t speak Romanian!” They were so nice 🙂

When I had dried my hair Elena showed me to the kitchen in another building and we all sat down to have chicken soup and salad and just chat. Marina didn’t seem to be a food-enthusiast however, and her mom kept telling her to finish off her plate. Even though I obviously didn’t speak a word Romanian, Marina would keep whispering into her mother’s ear whenever she wanted to ask her something such as if she could be excused from the table. Whenever we didn’t understand each other, Elena used google translate on her phone. 

From Arad I was headed to Sibiu, and rather than taking the bigger National road, I decided to go with the dirt roads. The shepherd’s roads…


Now to you this might just look like a herd of sheep. As for me however… I knew it meant I was about to get in trouble.

(“You are not yourself when you are hungry, Elvira! Have a Snickers!” So do you think Snickers will sponsor me now…? I know, I know, I’ve told you so many times I don’t want any sponsors… but seriously I’ve made some calculations and if I keep consuming chocolate like this I will go BANKRUPT unless I get a chocolate sponsor!!)

The struggle began once I entered the herd. They came at me from all directions. “How many this time?” I asked myself as I started counting them. Five.

Now these were no five family dogs excited to see you, wagging their tails and all. These were the shepherd’s dogs, trained to protect their sheep. And in their eyes, I was a potential thief.

This bunch was harder to get rid of than the one I had had just a few minutes before. Imagine, having aggressive dogs after you that won’t listen to their own human – the shepherd – trying to hold them back, but you will have to make them listen. I decided to go with the “ignoring them strategy” to tire them off. They didn’t tire off though. With gritted teeth they were snatching at my feet so close that I felt the draft from their jaws. I didn’t think they would actually bite me – these were trained dogs after all, not some relentless stray dogs – but they did however make sure to tell me that “we are dangerous and we will bite if need be“.

And it kept going. And going. And I lost my patience.

“ENOUGH.” I said with the most dominant voice I could muster as I turned to face them, “BACK TO YOUR SHEEP. BACK. TO. YOUR. SHEEP!” And it… worked. They stopped, turned around, and went back to their sheep. The same procedure every time. Over and over, repeat on repeat. (The dogs on the photos were really nice, I even wrote about the bottom one on my facebook-page, you can read it here.)

Liliana was a well-educated chemist with her own laboraty – but despite working 12 hours a day monday to friday she had to have an extra job in the weekends to provide for herself and her family. Not only did she take care of her two daughters alone, she also had the responsibility for her uncle, gravely sick in cancer and also staying in the house.

Let me make things clear to you. Liliana had a fulltime job, an extra job in the weekends, two daughers and a cancer-sick uncle to take care of.  It was late evening and she still hadn’t have time to shower or cook for herself and her family and yet she invited me – a complete stranger from the street, into her house.

“I have seen people traveling by bike like you on the tv”, she explained, “when I saw you on the street I simply asked my girls: Should we invite her to stay with us?”

Who doesn’t love mud anyway? It got worse in Turkey though, I had a real mud party with the frogs you could say, which I will tell you more about later on…

After a while, the dirt road disappeared into a blockade of woods. What now? I thought to myself. I dragged my bike throughout the woods constantly getting twigs and branches stuck into my wheels, and eventually I found another path used by peacefully ruminating cows rather than sheep and their protectors.

The path led me right into a village, different from most other villages in Romania. I had only been to one like it before, and you would know you were about to enter it even before you saw it.. Due to the noise. It’s not like any sound I’ve ever heard before – it’s like a buzzing, broken old radio. Everything mixed together, the children’s cries, the chattering, the instruments playing, the animals; you can barely make out one noise from the other. The only thing I can possibly imagine matching it is the noise from the, err… “Lustiga Huset” in a theme park. And the kids were everywhere, doing whatever unsupervised – even the two year olds.

One of the poorer villages I passed through in Romania.

And they surrounded me like a herd of sheep, big in number like a school class – I had to hop off my bike simply not to hit them. They stretched out their hands and yelled what I guess would be translated into: Money, money! Give me money! As I started biking again, they came running after me. I could only smilingly think to myself that, “luckily having kids running after you isn’t quite the same as having the shepherd’s dogs running after you.”

My head was buzzing with thoughts that night and I had troubles falling asleep, twisting my body back and forth in the bed. Elena had generously given me her room to sleep in as she slept with her sister and there had been no point in protesting. I felt so ashamed and privileged, as I thought of Liliana’s hard work; of those a lot poorer than Liliana in the villages where the kids begged me for money. Yet I knew the poverty I had seen was nothing compared to the one I would face later on. And that left me thinking: When that time comes, how will I cope? How can I walk without shame in those villages in Central Asia with my system camera and brand new laptop? With enough money on my bank account to provide for myself for a full year without working. How do we cope, we people of the West?

We close our eyes, I told myself. And I fell asleep.

Later in the evening, I reached Sibiu in which I stayed at a Warmshower host’s place (like a couchsurfing community but only for cyclists) – Stefan. A Taiwanese backpacker was staying there too, taking a break from his job as a nurse to explore Europe. Stefan had hitchhiked around Europe and was a truly helpful host, and he told me something that really stuck to my mind. “So you’re gonna be out for what, like 250 days more? Then you will need more than 250 helps more.” I guess I might already have received that number of helps.

When I woke up the next morning Liliana had already left for work and Marina for school. Elena didn’t start school until 12 however, and would leave home at 11 – it took her nearly one hour to walk to school every day, single way. Our conversation was limited to pretty simple English, but I enjoyed it a lot. I found out she liked to sing and draw – although she didn’t want to show me any of her artwork, and like many 13-year olds she loved Justin Bieber. Most often when she didn’t understand me, she’d just go with a “yes yes” anyway and I found it funny since that’s what I did too whenever I didn’t understand Romanian; Kept saying “Da da” not knowing at all what I was yes-ing.

When I asked her if she liked to travel, she shook her head – she preferred staying at home. I knew Liliana liked to travel for sure though. When I had told her my final destination was China the evening before her mouth had formed a big ‘O’ as she replied: “Well that demands a lot of motivation! I’d like to do something similar though.” When I had asked her if she thought she’d ever do it she’d laughed sarcastically: “No, I can’t – too many duties. Not in this life, in my next one maybe.”

Brasov goes Hollywood. The bike shop there, Pro bike, gave me a new mirror for free (since my old one broke) and installed it for me 🙂 And then Brasov kindly gave me a 20 degree uphill, yaay

Caught in heavy rain the next afternoon, I pitched my tent early. The rain kept pattering on my tent the whole night, and as morning approached I kept snoozing thinking that “I will get up once the rain stops”. But the rain didn’t stop, and in the end I just had to accept the fact that I were to put on those soaking wet clothes and bike those 110 km to Brasov.

I was shit scared that day  –  riding one of the busiest roads in Romania. Sure, I had a shoulder to keep myself onto but… how does a shoulder help when the cars keep driving off the road due to the terrible weather conditions? I don’t know how many cars I saw in the dike that day. In one vehicle, I couldn’t make out whether the family in it was moving or not. So I parked my bike and rushed across the road to see that they were ok. Luckily, they were all fine – just waiting for the towing truck to pick them up. The last 30 km into Brasov, my body was so cold and shaking uncontrollably and damn was I happy to take that hot shower once I checked into a hostel.

I asked Elena if she’d like me to help her out with her English homework, but I guess that – like any kid and not the least myself – she preferred procrastinating them a little bit further. Being “unsupervised” I took the opportunity to finish off the dishes before I left – Liliana had forbidden me to help out in the kitchen, strictly telling me I was a guest. Before saying goodbye to Elena she handed me a package with food; eggs from their own fowl, fruit, bread, and more. I tried to tell her they really didn’t need to give me anything – they had already given me so much – but there was no point. “No no, it’s for you. Take it.”

After Brasov it was time to head south; to head for Bulgaria – my last European country. It rained heavily again that afternoon when I reached a city called Pitesti (still Romania), and I was on the edge of checking into another hostel. But then the clouds were dispersed by penetrating rays of sun and I decided to keep going, to set camp a few km south of the city. But I didn’t camp that night.

It was about to get dark and I was heading out of the last village when a woman stopped me on the street. I thought but one thing.

“There goes my hero, watch her as she goes. She is no football star, no celebrity.

She is an ordinary person.

My hero.”

Don’t talk to strangers

“And what happened to those without mothers?”

     “Bam! Shot dead.”


     “For mothers fight for their kids, they will do anything for them. Those with no mothers –  useless.”

The remaining kids were told to call their mothers and tell them they needed money. They got about one month to collect it.

      “You got the money, they take you on the boat to Italy. No money? Bam! Shot dead. “

Needless to say I was excited to cross borders to Romania. Until now, I hadn’t really felt as if I had crossed any borders at all. The only thing letting me know I was no longer in Germany but Czech Republic was a sign simply saying “Czech Republic”; when crossing borders to Hungary from Slovakia later on there wasn’t even a sign. No doubt, when I eventually cross borders to Iran and the Stan-countries I will curse the bureaucracy and strict, time-craving controls, but for now I just wanted to enjoy my first “real border crossing” with a proper passport control. To sense that feeling of achievement, when I was handed back my passport from the border guards, free to pass through.

I had only done about 55 km when I reached Arad, but not knowing which route to take across this rather big European country, I decided to find the cheapest accommodation in the city to give myself some time to figure out. I was googling “hostels in Arad” using McDonald’s free wifi when an adorably cute little girl spoke to me in Romanian. I tried to tell her in my softest voice possible that “I’m sorry but I don’t speak Romanian, do you speak English?” and was just about to ask for her name when a man sitting behind me turned to me: “Är du svensk? (Are you Swedish)”

“Yes, I am”, I replied, caught by surprise being spoken to in my own language, “do you speak Swedish?”

“Only a little. My grandparents are from Sweden.” It turned out he and his wife were from California in the US  – thus explaining the perfect American English. Their intention had only been to visit Romania, but they had remained there… for the past 25 years (!) teaching English and Theology. We had a chat for a while and they gave me advice regarding routes to take and what was worth seeing, and as we later told each other goodbye I curiously asked myself: “What could be so interesting about Romania it made this couple stay for 25 years?” I had to find out.

After checking in to what seemed to be the only hostel in Arad, I yet had to find myself a map and new tent pegs, since I had forgotten mine in the woods a few nights earlier. It turned out not to be the easiest task.

I got an app on my phone (no longer working though) on which you could get directions to gas stations, supermarkets, different kinds of shops etc. This time I wanted to find a sports shop, hoping that maybe they would sell tent pegs. The app led me right into an alley and a dead-end, and I stood wondering what to do next. There were two guys my age in there however, and one of them turned out to speak English really well.

“I could take you to a sports shop I know of”, he said and pointed to a bike parked in the corner, “I got my mountain bike over there.” He was one year younger than me, still in high school, and he got but one thing to say when I told him I was from Sweden: “I hate your language.” I couldn’t help but ask, “how come?”

“It just sounds so odd to me. You got the weirdest pronunciation!!” I just laughed, telling him that to me Romanian was just the same; impossible words to pronounce. I still hadn’t learnt the one word I try to learn first when I enter a new country; thank you. The sweet, kind mother of the daughter who owned the hostel I was staying at had done her best to teach me. And this guy would too repeat it to me over and over. “Mulțumesc”, and then he’d sigh, “no no, mulț-u-mesc“. In the end, I think he just gave up on me.

It turned out the sports shop had just closed for the day, and we diverged paths. He to see his girlfriend, I to have pizza with my girlfrie… err, bike. I had some good dark beer, too.

It was all dark when I headed back to the hostel, and the dogs in the garden would once again intensively bark at me as I entered. “Calm down now”, I told them, “you know me, I’m no stranger.” As far as I knew I was the only none-Romanian there and body language was all the common language there was. But then a man spoke to me in English, sitting on a lawn chair in a dusk corner of the garden. You could tell he was obviously not Romanian.

At first sight he struck me as the man I met two years ago in a region close to Milan, who had repeatedly begged me to bring him to Sweden and I had had troubles to get rid of him. “Please, please… you gotta take me with you!” He pleaded over and over.

But Dennis turned out to be quite different from that man. He was about my parents’ age, and in a sense just like any other person in their 50s.  He was born in the Caribbean, but moved to London when he was “this high” he had told me as he gestured with his hand about one meter above the ground. He spoke passionately about his garden in London in which he grew vegetables such as tomatoes and carrots, and he loved fishing in the river Thames although he’d always release the fish instead of killing it.

In another sense however, he was that kind of person in their 50s who smoked pot every now and then -“although not as much as in my youth” – and traveled all over the world. In the Bulgarian countryside, the kids had run up to him and asked him for a photo since they had never seen a black man in real life before. In Turkey just a few months ago, he’d been to the Syrian border trying to get across it. “It wasn’t my idea, but my travel companion’s!” He’d defensively explained when I asked him why he wanted to enter Syria. “He even brought that stray dog he’d adopted!” The dog had been called Alexander the Great and his travel companion had smuggled it into every hotel. “We failed crossing the border though”, he continued, in a relieved tone.

When I hesitated to share a bottle of wine with him there at the hostel’s backyard he’d just laughed. “You’re reluctant to drink wine with me but… you are willingly staying with these… people?” I don’t think he quite meant to put it that way – but according to him, this hostel was “obviously nothing but a place for the authorities to put homeless people.”

“So I grew up on a really small island where everybody knew everybody”, Dennis told me, “which meant you simply had to behave. If you didn’t, your parents would know within just a minute. Also the other adults had the right to discipline you.” Despite this I had a hard time believing Dennis really had been a behaved kid, but maybe I just got him all wrong – who knows.

He spoke with a British accent and when he didn’t agree with me he’d say “well I beg to differ”. When I asked him to give me the ice tea he’d correct me; “could you please hand me the ice tea” and I cursed his British manners in my head. He on the other hand, cursed my constant joking. I let him try my bike but not without blocking the way out from the yard “in case you’d try to steal it”. I let him type his email-address on my phone but not without setting myself into a running position “in case you’d try to run away with it.”

When we met in the corridor the next morning, he put his hands to his head as if I were giving him a real headache; “Please, it’s morning. You can’t just keep making jokes like that. Be serious for once… God, I need coffee.” Have you watched Brother Bear? Well imagine then, that I was Koda constantly chattering on and on and he was Kenai frequently making that oh-would-you-just-shut-up-face.

He seemed quite amazed although nevertheless concerned by the trip I was making, “but please, please don’t go to the middle east” he pleaded. I wasn’t sure what he’d count as the middle east, but the country he spoke of next was not included in my route. “One of my friends moved to Saudi Arabia. Whenever she enters a shop, they ask her: ‘How much? How much?’ And in the beginning she looked back at them saying ‘I’m the one who should ask you how much’ (for the groceries). ‘No no. How much. How much for your body.'” Every time, any time… all the time. I forgot to ask Dennis why on earth his friend and her husband would move to Saudi Arabia in the first place, but I guess I’ll just save that question for later, if our path ever crosses again.

There was one sentence spoken by Dennis that I liked more than the others; “We are nothing but little pieces of information to each other.”  On one hand, it might sound like such a cold, objectifying statement about the humankind. On the other hand, it’s indeed a beautiful and truthful fact – that really is all we are. And what I liked about Dennis was, that he’d share a lot of stories with me.

Such as when he told me about the kidnapped Somali kids.

Dennis was protesting loudly when I dived onto the ground; “no please, we can’t just sit in the dirt like that!” and he grabbed two chairs for us instead. Now, it wasn’t his story he was to tell me next. His co-worker, from Somalia, had told him and it had really stuck to him. He simply shared the story on.

“Somalia is pretty much two countries. There is Somaliland, where terrorism doesn’t exist and it’s all peaceful. And there is the north – that’s where the terrorists are. We don’t want our kids to go to Europe. But all our young hear is the success stories… they think of Europe as the paradise.

When they make it to Libya many will be kidnapped. They will be told to come up with a certain amount of money, and if they make it – they get on the boat to Italy. If they don’t…. they will be killed. They got about a month to get the money.”

‘And what happens to them during this month?’

‘They will be raped. – Oh, not just the girls. The boys too. All of them.

We’re telling our kids not to go to Europe. It’s just not worth it.”

A few hours later I knocked on Dennis’ door to tell him I was leaving. He got to try my bike once again – this time fully loaded. And this time, I didn’t make myself ready to run after in case he’d try to run off with it.

I knew he would not.

“So… Don’t talk to any weird strangers, ok?” He begged me.

I found those last goodbye words from Dennis quite amusing, and as I headed off on my bike, it brought back memories from Italy particularly. When I bike toured there two years ago, everybody would take so much care of me. They’d greet and talk to me, give me fresh fruit and water from their farms – some even invited me to their homes.

And they would all tell me the very same thing.

“Don’t talk to strangers.”