Brașov, Romania – July 2010
Rather than take the cable car that lifts tourists to the top of Tampa Mountain, I choose to walk the trail through the forest. In spite of the bears. They sleep during the day, I remind myself. But I look over my shoulder just the same. My sister Penelope is at an adventure park. After being stuck in a car together for days, we took the day off from each other. We have finished our Vlad Dracula tour from Sighișoara to Poenari Fortress to Bran Castle. Our visit to Bran Castle was half-hearted. It’s marketed as “Dracula’s Castle”, but has almost no connection to Vlad. Unlike Sighișoara and Poenari Fortress, it was mobbed with tourists.
When I get to the top, I pause to take some photos and then walk back down into the city. I deserve a reward for the climb, so I stop into a gourmet ice cream shop and order a lavender ice cream. The girl hands me a golf ball-sized scoop in a tiny cone. It costs the equivalent of three euros. Insulted, I eat it in three bites and then walk back to the guesthouse. That’s what I get for ordering lavender ice cream.
Penelope is back. She shows me the insides of her thighs. Huge welts are blackening to bruises. “I overdid it. I chose the black track, the hardest one.” But her mood has lifted. We go into the common living room and have some drinks with the other guests. Some have been to Bran Castle, others went to Peleș Castle. None of them have been to the bear sanctuary. Penelope and I want to go, but they don’t guarantee that you’ll see bears. It would be disappointing to waste an evening for nothing.
Penelope goes outside to have a cigarette. A few seconds later, she calls my name. I step outside. A guy, one of the local friends of the guesthouse owner, stands in the shadows. “You want to see bears? I know someone who will take you to see bears.” He goes on to say that the bears come down to forage in the garbage bins behind the apartment buildings at the edge of the city. It’s illegal to bear watch in Brașov, but his friend will do it for a price.
While he calls the bear watching guide, Penelope and I go inside and ask the others if they want to come along. Two Swedish women, both lawyers, enthusiastically accept. A Danish woman confers with her husband about taking their young daughter. The guy informs us that the guide will be here within minutes. Everyone heads to their rooms to get cameras. We pass the Danish woman on our way back downstairs.
“Are you going?” I ask
She pouts. “He won’t let me take our daughter,” She puts her hands on her hips and imitates his pompous tone of voice. “You can’t do that! It’s illegal!” She brightens a little when she tells us about the tattoo she’s getting tomorrow. She gets a souvenir tattoo from every place she visits. For Transylvania, she’s decided on fangs and a drop of blood on the side of her neck.
A honk outside beckons us away.
Her husband is sitting in the living room, staring at the television with a brooding expression.
Penelope pops her head into the room. “Are you getting a fangs tattoo?”
Petulant sigh. “I don’t know.”
“You should get one on your balls!” she bellows.
A listless guffaw escapes him.
We step into the night. “Penelope.” I giggle.
“Oh, so what. What a stick in the mud.”
A car idles by the side of the road. The two Swedish ladies are already inside. The guide walks over to us and shakes our hands. He’s wearing an immaculate white track suit emblazoned with blue and red stars and stripes and USA logos. The owner comes out and speaks to him for a few seconds. He gives his friend a hard look, shakes his head, and then goes back inside.
Penelope snickers. “I’ve always wondered who wears those.”
The guide gets into the car and off we go. A rosary hangs from the rearview mirror and Orthodox icons are affixed above it. Every time we pass a church, he crosses himself three times. Without pausing his speech. What we’re doing is illegal. If he tells us to put our cameras away, we need to put them away immediately. We should not get out of the car at any time. People sometimes get killed by the bears. He can get out of the car. He can even feed the bears, if he wants. He has photos of himself feeding the bears. But we should never get out of the car.
He pulls up next to a sign and turns around to look at us. “It says we have to pay a lot of money if they catch us. So if I tell you to hide the cameras, you hide them. Okay?” He waits for each of us to nod before he turns back around.
He drives to the end of a road, parks across from some dumpsters, and shuts off the lights. We wait. Minutes pass. I think back to the time when my grandparents took us to a huge garbage dump to look for bears. We were camping in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and Grandma said it was a fun thing to do. She popped popcorn over the portable stove. We piled into her van and drove to the outskirts of Marquette. We sat for hours. Not so much as a shadow appeared. You kids need to learn to be patient, she chided us when we complained that we were bored.
I won’t be upset if we see nothing. We had nothing else to do tonight anyway. The guide is entertainment enough.
His phone rings. He answers it, says a few words, and then steps on the gas. A car speeds towards us. They flash their lights at each other. “We work together,” the guide explains. “We have two spots.” If the other guy spots bears at the other building, he calls. While we’re at one, he’s at the other.
We arrive at the other spot just as a huge black mass lumbers off into the darkness, leaving behind an overturned dumpster. The phone rings again. He steps on the gas. The rosary smacks against the windshield. He crosses himself three times. He grins at us when we laugh.
The dumpster back at the original spot is overturned. A bear has come and gone. The car idles with lights on. A bear struts into the spotlight. We roll down our windows halfway and snap photos. The bear shoots us an amused look and then gets down to work. A smaller bear waits patiently for it to finish and then moves in. The phone rings. He picks up, speaks a few words, and then steps on the gas. “We’re going to another spot.”
Another car full of tourists is there when we arrive. There are other guides in the city, our guide explains, but none of them are as organized as he and his partner. They only take you to one spot!
A bear lurches out of the forest. He has the comically arrogant swagger of a circus midget. He swings himself up on the dumpster and leans inside, spreading his butt cheeks wide open. “I think he’s trying to tell us something,” I say. We laugh until our sides hurt. He jumps down, snorts at us, and wanders off. The phone rings. Off we go.
A flurry of flashes lights up the end of the street. “Paparazzi!” Penelope and one of the Swedish ladies say in unison. Several cars full of tourists crowd the corner. If the police really wanted to bust people, it wouldn’t be difficult. A trio of beasts digs through the detritus, and then two of them stalk away. The straggler lifts his head and bares his teeth in a practiced smile.
**I had to leave out a few other amusing details about the guide, because they might have given away his identity, and I don’t want him to have problems.**