by Albert Englehardt
It isn’t your typical tourist destination.
I pulled over to the side of the highway, hoping that when the policeman saw that he had caught two hapless tourists, he would let us go. But from what I had heard of the Moldovan police, we were in trouble. As he lumbered over to our car, the policeman’s black uniform and Soviet-style cap did nothing to help me feel better.
We were spending two weeks in Moldova. Having attended a friend’s wedding there, we wanted to see the sights. Our guidebook offered a spare selection. Three cave monasteries perched on cliffs overlooking the Dniester River and its tributaries seemed to illustrate best the country’s history over the centuries, so we would go there first. If we had time we would see some of the big wineries, noted for their underground storage in tunnels cut through the rock.
Our host in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, had offered to drive us around, but on the day that we planned to begin, he returned from an errand later than expected and visibly shaken. “My car’s been stolen,” he said. After commiserating with him, we considered our situation. We had lost our guide and means of transportation: What would we do now? Happily, I had already developed Plan B.
Early the next day we went to the Hotel National on Chisinau’s main avenue, where we found Moldova Tur, the national tourist agency, in a smallish office at the back of the lobby. “Yes, we do offer private tours—you hire the car with driver and tour guide,” the single employee on duty told us. The prices for the various packages were not bad, but we began to think that renting a car and driving ourselves would be both cheaper and less restrictive, especially considering our reasonable proficiency in Russian, the country’s second language. “No problem,” she said, “we have a car rental company right here in the hotel.” She seemed a little incredulous, though, that we would want to do our own driving.
She made a call and in a few minutes, the manager of the car rental company appeared and brought us up to his office. He and his partner led us out onto the balcony overlooking the hotel’s parking lot. “See, those are our cars out there,” he said, pointing to a row halfway out in the parking lot. “You can have a BMW, Mercedes, Volvo…. You can have a driver if you want; then you won’t have to worry about anything.” Their rates were moderate by U. S. standards, but something about this situation made me wary. Maybe it was the tough looking young men running the business. Or the big scar on the face of one of them.
We decided to see what Hertz had to offer, so we walked down to their office in the Hotel Cosmos, a little farther along the street. Prices were higher there and the models of the cars were more modest, but we decided to go with the firm’s reputation.
We wanted a car with automatic transmission, but they had only two of those. The Opel was our first choice, but its odometer read well over 100,000 kilometers. We decided on the Ford with 65,000. I filled out the usual paperwork, plus a form telling us what security measures to take to avoid theft. After the usual inspection, the mechanic handed us the keys. Moldova was ours.
Well, not just yet. I started the car, put it into drive, and we were off, sort of. The car crept up the parking lot to the exit. I pulled out onto the street and got no acceleration, just a sputtering creep. Amid honking from cars and buses, I pulled over to the curb. Then, when all was clear, I did a U-turn and headed back to the hotel. When I told the mechanic our problem, he explained as to a child that the car has a first gear, a second gear, and then a drive gear, and I needed to use them in that order. Ah, of course. We had passed up a row of almost new stick shifts to be stuck with an automatic that had to be driven like a stick shift. Oh, and those red lights on the dashboard? They’re normal, don’t worry. So off we went again. First, then second, then drive.
The main highway out of Chisinau was wide and well paved, with lots of gas stations along the road. Not bad, I thought. What was all that stuff in the guidebooks about bad roads?
Our first destination was the cave monastery of Saharna, about 60 miles northeast of Chisinau. After about 30 miles on the main highway we turned off onto a secondary road and headed for the town of Rezina, 30 miles away.
On this road, as on many paved roads in Moldova, the wheels of the heavy truck traffic has squished the soft asphalt into ruts. The raised areas in between get so high in some places that they often pose a threat to the undercarriages of passenger cars, making drivers swerve from side to side to avoid damage. Now I began to understand what the guidebooks were talking about.
In Rezina, a small town on the Dniester near Saharna, we checked into the town’s only available lodging, the Hotel Anastasia, an excellent hotel with balconies overlooking the Dniester, but almost impossible to find, hidden down a cobblestone lane near the end of a residential street.
Up bright and early the next morning, we got into our car, turned the key and…nothing. No whining, no coughing, nothing. Some hotel employees helped with the usual fixes. Nothing worked.
We took out the owner’s manual. It was all in Dutch.
Finally I called the number the rental agency had given me for English-language help. A young woman named Corina said, “Yes, this car sometimes has a problem with starting. You should unscrew the gas cap and screw it back in. Then the car should start.” Not knowing quite what to make of this but nearing desperation, I followed her advice. It worked. We were off again down the mean roads of Moldova.
We spent the day visiting the monastery at Saharna and enjoying the hospitality of the monks there. When the time came to go back to the hotel, we got into the car and turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. I went back and unscrewed the gas cap and screwed it back in. Nothing. The red lights on the dashboard just blinked at me.
Luckily one of the monks we had met had a cell phone. I called Corina and told her of our predicament. She told me to hit the dashboard once or twice. I did, and the car started. She had hung up before I could ask her if she had a third trick, just in case.
Next morning we went to see Tipova Monastery, whose thousand-year old ruins sit high on the cliffs overlooking the Dniester as it sweeps down from the north, and the 500-year-old cave monastery at Orheiul Vechi, a nature and cultural preserve containing ruins from the succession of cultures that have dominated the area over the past three millennia.
Moldova hosts less than 20,000 tourists a year, which together with a perilous economy may explain the country’s minimal tourist and transportation infrastructure. Roads leading to such national treasures as Saharna and Tipova were as bad as any of the other dirt roads we had driven on. And that was pretty bad. The big potholes in almost all of the asphalt and dirt roads force drivers to zigzag swiftly or drive on the opposite side to avoid the worst ones.
Our Ford balked a couple of times during the rest of our trip, but a few firm slaps on the dashboard reminded it who was boss. A loose circuit in the security system was the culprit, immobilizing the car and turning on one of those red lights on the dashboard.
We had finished our tour, and with a feeling of accomplishment and relief we headed back to Chisinau. I now felt pretty confident about driving Moldovan roads.
Suddenly the cars ahead of us began to slow down. I went to pass them, although I did notice a change in the paint pattern on the road. As I pulled up next to the front car in the line, my wife said, “That cop’s pulling us over.”
“Oh, come on,” I said. But sure enough, a policeman at the side of the road was gesturing to me with his baton to pull over into the parking lot beside the highway checkpoint tower, which trees had hidden from us.
The policeman asked me in Moldovan for (I presumed) my driver’s license and registration. I couldn’t tell for sure. He might just as easily have been saying, “Son, you in a whole heap of trouble.” As he checked the registration against the sticker on the right side of the windshield, my mind flashed back to the prison we had passed earlier that afternoon. Its uneven walls of concrete slabs and rubble and the dilapidated buildings inside them smacked of the Gulag Archipelago. No cable TV or lifting weights here, except the kind at the end of a sledgehammer.
Returning to my side of the car, he told me, now in Russian, to get out of the car and go with him. At this point, I was kind of glad we had not spent the day on a tasting tour at the wineries.
He led me to a booth in the base of the checkpoint tower and pointed out a place for me to sit. Then he reached for a booklet and pointed out my three violations:
1) crossing a solid white line
2) not obeying the sign to form a single line, and
3) I don’t remember, but it was closely related to the others.
He had me dead to rights. I was guilty and I knew it.
In a bored voice, he said, “Well, then, shall we write up a protocol?” nodding towards a book of forms that looked complicated and long, not just your ordinary traffic tickets. This did not look good, but I sensed something tentative in his manner. I asked him what would happen if he did. He looked at me with his green-hazel eyes set in a bureaucrat’s face and said in a languid voice, “We’ll take your license and send it to the embassy and they’ll call you in to pick it up.” This was not what I wanted—my wife hadn’t brought her license, so who would drive the car away? But his hesitation made the filling out of the protocol seem voluntary.
The solution to our problem began to dawn on me. But wait: no, I thought, I’m a foreigner. He doesn’t expect…or maybe he does. I said I was leaving the country in two days and wondered what else could be done. Could I pay the fine here on the spot? He said, “You can.”
“That’s up to your conscience.”
Holy smokes! All pretense of propriety now abandoned, my conscience went to work on what size bribe I should give him. Too little might be insulting, and I didn’t want to make him mad.
“Well, how about…100 lei?” A hundred lei is worth roughly eight dollars, a good sum in Moldova.
Still with a deadpan expression, he put his hand down by his thigh and showed two fingers. I was relieved that negotiations had come to a head so quickly and that we had reached an understanding.
I went to take out the money. He cautioned me, “Don’t let my partner see.” As I slipped it over, he again cautioned, “We don’t want everyone in Chisinau to find out.”
As I stumbled out of the booth, he urged me to drive safely.
Oddly, I didn’t feel soiled by this transaction, only sorry for a man who had to supplement his living by going through all this rigmarole for 16 bucks. I mean, in the U.S., officials would never think of selling themselves for 16 lousy bucks…and besides, he had given us a taste of Moldovan life that no winery tour could ever give.
Albert Englehardt writes from Vienna, Virginia. Before his September 2005 trip to Moldova, he thought having driven the still- unpaved Alcan Highway would be the most challenging drive of his life. “Piece of cake,” he says now.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.