I’m writing this article on the train to Tulcea, the stop off point for Romania’s Danube Delta – a vast bird sanctuary where the Danube River spills into the Black Sea. I’m going to the coastal village of Sfintul Gheorghe to stay in a charming guest house, enjoy the vast, unspoilt (and virtually empty) beach and go into the wetlands to look at birds.
Most tourists who come to the Danube Delta probably don’t know that it is one of the poorest areas of Romania. Wikipedia says “the acute isolation and the harsh conditions of living, based mainly on subsistence, made the Danube Delta a place of emigration.”
The most interesting places I have seen are poor. Wherever you go in the world people are friendlier when they have less, and they are also more likely to be more connected to their indigenous culture. The beautiful image on this post is from a poor place (the Danube Delta); where else in the EU would horses be allowed to roam free like this?
I have found this to be as true in the UK – where Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow are perhaps the friendliest cities in the realm – as in Europe where Romania is surely the most welcoming place on the continent. When I went to Asia, Tibet and India were the friendliest but also the poorest.
But how do you visit a poor place without being exploitative? Without being another tourist who’s spending money but not contributing to the local economy, or getting sucked into the smog of despair and negativity that many people in places like Romania live in.
The way I do it is as follows: I accept that I will never be one of them so I avoid being over-familiar; I am open, friendly, listening and trusting and quickly work out who’s worth dealing with. I observe without being judgemental. I also look out for drunks, scammers, bores and don’t hesitate to ignore them.
The train I am on just passed the Romanian station of Fetesti. It looks like a fly-blown dive from the window: a crumbling concrete station; alcoholic looking people wandering aimlessly and stray dogs sleeping in the shade. And yet if I took the time to get to know the locals I am sure I would come across some fascinating people in Fetesti.
A key factor for me is realising that my visit will be appreciated, if I do the right thing and follow my golden rules: listen, observe and be respectful. One of the many problems of living in a poor place is that people assume it is ugly, dangerous, unhygienic and best avoided. Therefore, by simply turning up and being open you can challenge these prejudices and show those decent local people that not all of us are dismissive bigots.
The other thing you can do is pay for things. When staying in a hotel or eating in a restaurant the chances of your payment reaching a local family are almost zero. The money goes to the business owner, and the local government, while your disgruntled waiter will be paid a pittance.
If you stay with a local family not only would you make them proud that you chose to stay with them, any money you leave behind will be really appreciated both as a gesture and as a contribution towards their running costs. If you leave them even half of what you would normally pay for a night in a hotel it would have a big impact on their household budget.
Problem is, how do you stay with locals? Sometimes it seems impossible and when you’re being looked at with hostility the idea of staying with these people can seem frightening. Outsiders might have told you “nobody stays there! It’s unthinkable! You’ll be robbed!”
But you would be amazed how even the poorest household can make space for a guest. One of the most memorable nights I spent in the Nepalese Himalayas was in a mud hut with a grass roof and just enough space for me and the family to sleep on the earth floor. It was perfect. For these people it can be an honour to host a foreign guest and that’s why it’s so important to treat them with the utmost respect.
Eion Gibbs walked across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor (you can read about his encounters with Roma people here). I asked him how he got accommodation in Romania and this is what he said:
“I would go to the village bar and ask where the local hotel was, even though I knew perfectly well that there was no hotel. The locals would talk among themselves and eventually somebody would lead me off to a comfortable bed and a good meal.”
Sometimes it can be hard to pay for this kind of hospitality. Often they are so glad to have had you to stay that the idea of paying for it can be offensive, and you can’t then say “you need the money because you’re poor”. What I used to do in these situations was hide money under my pillow or somewhere in the room I had slept in.
A final observation about poor places is that they can be really interesting. I’m finishing this article in the Romanian town of Medgidia, where I have to wait 40 minutes for the connecting train. The station looks run-down and depressing but I wandered out, past the grim-looking taxi drivers to see what I could find.
A few hundred yards down the road I found peace and quiet by the Danube Canal – a vast Communist-era project where Romanian intellectuals were sent to die. I am surrounded by curious concrete structures, all abandoned, and plenty of insects going about their business. I open my ears and hear a chorus of frogs, a dog barking, a distant horn blast (factory, ship or train?), a cockerel and a crowd of small birds engaged in a furious debate.
I didn’t notice any of these sounds when I sat down to write but I switched on my ears and made a conscious effort to observe what was going on around me. In this way you can transform the poorest and most desperate-looking dive into a fascinating experience.
Photo of wild horse in Danube Delta by George Pop