April 09, 2006

DANUTZ IN ROMANIA

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This is Peleş Castle, nestled in the heart of the Transylvanian Alps (now called the Carpathians). I have more pictures below…

Now for the second half of my vacation. After Ukraine, I spent 10 days in Romania, starting in the city of Timişoara, driving through the mountains for some more snowboarding, and making my way south into Bucharest (click here to see the map).

By the way, the "ş" character is pronounced like "sh."

PART TWO: ROMANIA

I landed at Traian Vuia Airport, and met a good friend of a friend, who acted as my tour guide while I stayed in Timişoara.

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This is Timişoara’s Orthodox Cathedral, in the city center. Romania was a Communist state from the ‘40s until 1989, so religion was generally forbidden. Fortunately the buildings were not torn down.

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Walking around the square, you get a real sense of the different influences in architecture. Design elements from Austria and Hungary merge with the present day.

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Looks like the haunted mansion at Disneyland!

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Crossing the Bega River, this footbridge is rumored to have been built by Gustave Eiffel, though the more likely story is a company built the bridge using Mr. Eiffel’s design technique.

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Large sculptures from the Communist Era remain, as reminders of Ceauşescu’s regime. Nicolae Ceauşescu was the leader of Communist Romania from the mid sixties until the revolution in 1989 (which actually started in Timişoara).

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Speaking of Communism, old “town houses” like this are left as reminders of how things used to be. This was a typical communist estate; very utilitarian.

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(Click the picture for a larger one)
These buildings better reflect the nature of Romania. I love the different colors and design elements. You don’t see this attention to detail in modern construction.

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The focus in this picture is of a cannonball that has been lodged in the side of an old art institute. Supposedly it happened sometime around 1552, during the Turkish invasion. Apparently, this isn’t the real story.

The Turks did invade, but the ball was the result of a trend around the 1800s, when it was fashionable to “plant” cannonballs in the side of buildings and then create a fictitious story behind it.

In Timişoara, I also sampled some local treats. There are plenty of choices to eat, and everything is very tasty. And so are the drinks. I had a local recipe for Plum Whiskey, called Ţuica (pronounced more like Tsoika). It has a little kick but tastes great. A stronger version (like brandy) is called Palinca. You typically buy it from farmers out in the rural areas, usually providing your own bottling. And it is extremely cheap – I think it’s about $1 or so for a liter.

After a few days in town, I rented a car and headed east to Poiana Braşov, a village nestled in the Carpathian Mountains. Getting there takes about 6 hours, but there was plenty of interesting scenery along the way…

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On the drive, I saw this. Okay. Either this is really cool, or really creepy.

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At last, up into the mountains, I made it to the Hotel Ruia just as the snow started dumping.

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The first night, we must’ve had two feet of snow!

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The next morning, the snow was still coming down. Beautiful.

Last week, I was snowboarding this same mountain range in Ukraine, only on the other end. This cluster belongs to the Transylvanian Alps. I wonder if Dracula preferred skiing or snowboarding…

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Another day passed, the sun came out…and I enjoyed the best powder conditions I’ve ever ridden in. No bull. It was like floating on air.

If you want me to qualify this, I’ve been snowboarding for eight years straight, riding at various resorts around the US and Europe, and was a snow bum at one of the world’s best mountains, Mammoth. I know what’s up. :)

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After the fun, I climbed back into my car and drove south, to Bucharest. Only thing I didn’t like was the traffic. With a population of around 2 million, it seemed like there were twice as many cars!

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I got lost for a few hours, but finally found my hotel. Nice, eh?

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One thing I definitely noticed while driving around was the Casa Poporului, or House of the People. It is the third largest building in the world (going by space), and the heaviest building in the world (going by weight).

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The architecture is hard to classify, but it gives off a “Roman Empire meets Gotham” feel.

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I went inside and took a brief tour. Parts of the building now hold the Romanian Senate, while other parts hold other organizations, and some rooms are still unfinished to this day. The building has 12 floors above ground and eight floors underground, but only four of the sub-floors are functional. Yes, that meant it would have had 20 floors!

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The halls and chandeliers reminded me of Saddam’s Palaces – lots of marble and crystal.

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The sheer volume of marble alone – 1,000,000 cubic meters - easily qualifies the win as world’s heaviest building. That doesn’t even include the 700,000 metric tons of steel.

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Just walking around downtown Bucharest (not to be confused with Budapest!).

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After a while, I wanted to look at some of the shops and local stops. This is Casa Vinului Dr. Puşca, a winery on the main stretch of Unirii Boulevard. They sell bottled wines in the front, but have their own “stash” of vats in the back. Good stuff. If you want to learn more about the shop, click here.

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And this is an antique shop – I think it’s called Calu Balan (White Horse). There are tons of cool things to dig through, including old navigators’ maps and weird clocks from the Communist Era.

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This is Stavropoleos Church, built in 1724 and designed by a Wallachian prince. The architecture is just timeless – taking influences from several periods.

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I also went to the Village Museum, an outdoor park showcasing different Romanian houses from various parts of the country.

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I really liked this house, although I don’t have any more information on it.

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See…I do smile sometimes. :)

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Buying a few hand-made souvenirs…

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This is the Arcul de Triumf, built in 1936 to honor Romania’s independence in 1878. Several versions existed prior to this one, but this will remain the final monument.

I also visited my friend, Petru, whom I met out in Baghdad (of all places). He is a Captain in the Romanian Army, and worked as a Liaison Officer on the reconstruction effort. He lives in Bucharest with his wife and son, whom I met as well. I enjoyed an evening in their home, eating a large traditional dinner. One dish I remember well is called Sarmale; chopped meat rolled in cabbage and cooked. It’s awesome! Especially with Ţuica. :-)

You might be interested to know that Danutz is a way of saying “Little Daniel” – like the way you would talk to a younger brother. In Iraq, Petru always called me Danutz.

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I saw this the last night in Bucharest. Some of the most creatively weird graffiti I’ve ever seen.

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On the way back to Timişoara, I stopped in Sinaia, a small town in the mountains. This is the home of Peleş Castle, a true Romantic design, and one of the more modernized European Castles.

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Constructed in the late 1800s, the castle has electrical wiring and even a built-in vacuum cleaning system, but the architecture was influenced by many older designs, giving it a classic appearance. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside.

I have so many more photos from this trip, but not enough time to share. Romania is an amazing country, and I plan to visit again. I met some wonderful people, and learned some fantastic stories. Oh, and the snowboarding was okay too. Haha. :)

If you want more information on Romania, GO THERE! It’s a great country, and the people are very friendly.

As for me, I’m back in Baghdad. I wanted to post this sooner (like say, a month ago!), but have been so busy with work…Yeah, I need to stop saying that.

I have already come and gone, and drove down to Diwaniyah for a week, but am back in the Green Zone again. I have a queue of pictures, waiting for another day, so check back soon!

Cheers.

Posted by Dan at 01:01 AM | Comments (6)

April 16, 2006

On the Road Again...

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I actually took this picture a few weeks ago, from my trip to Diwaniyah. I love the simple contrast between the grey concrete blast walls and the clouds in the bright blue skies.

If the title of this post wasn't obvious enough, I'm on the road again. In fact, I've already made a few runs out, including several trips back and forth across Baghdad, and I finally made it to Diwaniyah and Kalsu (in south-central Iraq).

Yesterday, I arrived at Camp Fallujah, in western Iraq. I will only be here a few days, but work is work. After this, I will head to the town of Ramadi, before finally returning to Baghdad.

This morning, I was shaken out of bed by a loud incoming round (must have been close to my room). It's about 4:30 in the morning, so I tried to shrug it off and go back to sleep. I finally fell asleep but then another one came in - not even 10 minutes later. Wham! This one was pretty damn loud too. So I'm thinking "OK, Happy Easter, I guess," and try to sleep again. But then another one comes in...and then another. Those punks just don't want to be polite out here.

Changing the subject real quick...

I broke the two year mark last month! That's right; I have now been in Southwest Asia for over two years - Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Qatar. Wow, time does fly.

Most of you are probably thinking I've been out here too long. It's crazy. When you first get here, you are scared about this stuff...the mortars, IEDs, carbombs, random small arms fire, accidental friendly fire. But after a while, you just get used to it. You accept it as normal. It happens all around you, but never to you...

As time goes by, I'm starting to wonder if I'm just pushing my luck.

Anyhow, once I've completed my work in Fallujah and Ramadi, I'll be headed back to good 'ol Baghdad. It's strange how I'm starting to think of the IZ as my home. Kind of how I felt about Kuwait when I lived there for so long.

This is just a quick update to let everyone know where I am. There aren't many pictures I can take out here, but I'll try and get something.

Cheers.

Posted by Dan at 09:06 PM | Comments (0)

April 18, 2006

PRACTICE

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Getting ready to head out into the red zone (sounds scary...it really just means anything not considered green). Actually I guess that is a little scary.

These pictures are from a mixture of several different runs over the past few weeks. I had to make a trip to Camp Victory, located next to Baghdad International Airport, to do some field work. I also had to visit Abu Ghraib Warehouse, a large storage site just north of the airport.

The name, Abu Ghraib, conjures up images of the prisoner abuse scandal. Abu Ghraib is actually the name of a city that spreads from western Baghdad towards Fallujah. So when I say I went to Abu Ghraib Warehouse, it has nothing to do with the military prison down the street.

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Leaving the green zone, we drove west down Route Irish. I've said this before, Rte. Irish used to be considered the world's most dangerous highway. Now, Irish isn't so bad...the violence has only been moved to other parts of Baghdad.

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As you can see, there is a large gap between the road and the neighborhood. One thing we do get a lot of is Small Arms Fire (SAF). This is usually nothing more than a bunch of guys "hanging out" on their balcony, waiting for an interesting target to drive down the street. They take a couple of shots with their AK-47s, but that's about it.

After a short drive (not even 20 minutes), we make it to the warehouse and I take care of my work. Afterwards, I got the chance to practice shooting out on the compound range.

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This is a Nickel-plated AK-47, one of many issued to Saddam's Republican Guards. The Palace Guards had gold-plated AKs, though a bullet is a bullet, no matter what gun it comes out of.

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Got it all lined up for a shot.

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This Chinese-made AK-47 doesn't have the folding stock, so it is more accurate, but weighs a little more. If you look in the corner, you can see a round flying off to the right.

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These are MP5 SMGs - you often see these in action movies, like the Matrix or whatever. The one on the left is the MP5K (K is for Kurz, meaning "short").

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For such a small gun, the MP5K is hardly accurate. It was designed for close range combat, not distance engagements. In fully automatic, I had a hard time keeping it from firing over the sand berms.

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After a tough day of shooting, there's nothing better than stopping at Camp Victory for ... Cinnabons and a Latte?! Jeeze, we have it bad, eh?

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On the way back, you get a great view of another of Baghdad's most beautiful mosques. Unfortunately, I won't ever have the opportunity to visit these things. Just too dangerous.

That concludes one trip. Other times, we had more interesting drives, like getting shot at, having IEDs down the road (meaning, we had to turn around or drive on the other lane). Whatever you gotta do to get where you need to go.

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This time, the median was flooded, but we had to turn around anyway, so we trekked through a small pond.

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The signs on the back of these trucks say "Stay back or you will be shot." Not very nice, but with the threat of car bombs running into the back of a convoy, we have no choice - do we?

That's all for today, kids. I'm still in Fallujah, but I'll soon be headed for Ramadi, even further west. I'll post pictures soon, but I still haven't gotten to my Diwaniyah-Kalsu pics yet. Stay tuned, or whatever.

Posted by Dan at 03:19 PM | Comments (2)