Everyone says that it’s pretty quick to get from Odessa to Chisinau; that it can take at least three hours to bridge the distance, or utmost five if immigration decides to give you grief.
We are in a mini-van; hurtling up and down valleys, flying past green and sometimes yellowing fields. It is sans air-condition, and we are sweltering like pigs in our tiny shared space, a motley mix of 15 people from different countries; mostly dark haired, light or olive-skinned and from around the region except for two guys whom I gather from their rapid-fire Flemish and emphasis on the r’s, to be from Belgium.
Our passports have been collected once again as they were collected exiting Ukraine and we are waiting patiently in the steamy van for them to be stamped and returned, then we’re officially in Moldova. I’m fanning myself with a paper, thinking of nothing in particular other than ice-cold drinks, swimming pools and why on earth this van doesn’t have air-con.
Suddenly, the red-faced portly driver with a hat tilted to one side pops his head into the van and points at me.
Me? I signal just to make sure.
He nods, and signals for me to get down from the van. Something to do with the border police wanting to question me further. I think in my heart that it could be that my passport picture shows me with cropped hair, while the artificial hair I have on is longer. Black girl hair problems! I leave the camera I’m holding with my child in the van and he urgently says “Bebe! Bebe!” signaling that my daughter has to come down with me.
My daughter follows me to the back of the mini-van where a Moldovan border policeman is waiting. We are the only blacks there.
Our bags are placed on the dusty ground.
“English?” he asks.
“Yes I speak English.”
“Where are you from?”
“Kenyans, living in the Netherlands,” I quickly reply.
“So, what are you going to do in Moldova?”
A loud gasp escapes my lips. The kind that Kenyan mamas are familiar with; the gasps I heard growing up, the ones that came short of a loud tongue-click, from people older than myself, when dumb actions were carried out, the kind that suggested people should use their heads and figure out what is obvious..”Aiiii….”
I can’t believe I have been pulled off the bus to be interrogated; more so because we are traveling on sparkly new burgundy booklets; dutch passports that grant us access to every European country; that means being pulled off trains, buses, ships or lines at border posts by police for questioning and second-guessing is a thing of the past.
Without skipping a beat I reply with an affirming glance at my daughter, “We are tourists..on vacation,” even though I have always wanted to be viewed as a traveler, or better still; travel blogger. Tourists have money to burn, I am on a tight-almost-running-out-of-cash-budget.
He squints at me like I am from a far away planet; I see a glint of suspicion and surprise in his sky blue eyes; that interestingly match his stiff uniform.
“Do you have anything in your bags?” he asks, as his colleague, taller than him and looming like Goliath saunters over to us, his hands on his waist in a no-nonsense pose.
“Just clothes,” I casually reply.
He glances at the bags, a longing look like he would want to pry them open, and sift through our belongings.
My nonchalant look urges him, *Yeah, go ahead, ruffle through our dirty clothes.*
Instead another question, “How long will you be in Moldova?”
“A couple of days, then we’re off to Bucharest,” I respond while handing over my iPad to show them show the hotel booking. Goliath takes a look at the iPad and mutters something in Romanian.
The English-speaking border policeman heaves his shoulders seeming to breathe a sigh of relief, “Oh, you are on transit.”
“Are you Christian or Muslim?” he prods further, still looking at me suspiciously, like I should go through X-ray to reveal that every bone has nothing to hide.
“I am Christian..”
“Okay, you are free to go.”
“Was there a problem?” I nervously ask.
“No, no, you are free to go..”
Our bags are placed back on the bus, and we climb back.
I sit doubled over with my head on my lap, shaking like a leaf and wiping off excess beads of sweat while I normalize my breathing.
My daughter whispers in my ear, “I thought he was taking us to the judge.”
Though my heart is pounding, I reply, “We haven’t done any wrong.”
Welcome to Moldova.
The thing about Moldova is that you hear more negative things about the tiny former Soviet-state than positive; you hear that there’s hardly anything to see, that the buildings are dull and grey; that if you’re half-lucky you can go to nearby Cricova and take a wine-tour, and after you’ve had a couple of glasses of wine and are sufficiently inebriated, maybe the country will appear colorful and interesting to you.
I am of the view that this is hog-wash. Go to Moldova like you’d go to any other country, interact with the locals, get lost riding buses to no particular destination, take lots of pictures. You’ll have a blast.
Despite the little inconvenience I had at the border, I loved my stay. Mostly it was because Chisinau is so small, we had no trouble walking around. The staff at the hotel were pleasant despite the language barrier, as I could speak no Ruski; we actually developed a neat way of communication..google translate was our friend. The waiters and waitresses at the nearby restaurant were super friendly; then there was this bus driver whom when we hopped into his bus just to go round the city and came to the last stop, shrugged off my extra payment for the journey back. The stares were sometimes accompanied by smiles, at other times requests for selfies.
There was quite abit of construction going on; rehabilitation of roads and buildings. I loved the statues, and spent sometime admiring the manicured lawns of the parliament building. My only regret about Chisinau is that I didn’t stay longer, for it was time to go on to Bucharest.
For some strange reason, I had booked the night bus. It was slated to leave at 23:59 hours, so we had a long wait after hotel check out at noon; we wandered around the city to pass time, and came back by 7pm to collect our bags from storage. We bought cool drinks and waited outside the bus station in the open air. When the crowds had lessened and it was getting dark, we entered the waiting room.
That was when I noticed two guys, one a little bit pudgy, the other one athletic, with casual clothes following us. I thought nothing of it, but they kept pacing up and down, sometimes throwing us glances. It became obvious they were watching us.
Someone else was watching. She rushed into the bus station where I sat with my child. She stopped in her tracks when she saw us, and I looked at her and smiled. She seemed to be upset, and muttered aloud, almost shouting. She made circular motions like she was washing her face and pointed at us, rubbing her skin and motioning that we should go. When she begun to walk towards us, I told my daughter to look away, and prayed silently. It was clear that she was of unsound mind, and perhaps had difficulties with black people being there.
There was a smattering of people in the station, but no one bothered, except this young blond guy sitting on a bench close by. He got up and stopped the lady from approaching us, and said something to her in Moldavian about the police; they had a brief argument but he stood his ground, and the toothless tramp of a lady walked out lamenting loudly. My daughter burst into tears..what an experience! I rocked her in my arms and comforted her. I told her that the lady probably had mental problems, and likely had never seen people of a different shade than herself, but in a few hours we’d be gone.
The young man let us know he was going into his bus, but if the lady disturbed us, we should ask the military milling outside to intervene. There was no need for that as she didn’t return.
At 10:30 pm, we got up, and begun to roll our suitcase and carry our bags towards the bus. I noticed the two guys again, keenly watching. They were doing so, not so discreetly, poor actors these guys were. I took a shot of them, hoping they’ll see how ridiculous they looked..wanna-be sleuths.
We clambered onto the bus, and they probably felt less weighted by our presence, as they vanished. I will never know what they thought of us being there; a rare demographic. Our journey to Bucharest begun.