A Gypsy Sleepover in Valeni, Romania

So-caress SHABL?

Thought I’d stop with the layover talk for a while and tell you another one of my strange travel tales.

This one happened last October while I was traveling around Romania for a couple of weeks. It was my last day in Transylvania and I was just getting ready to leave my hostel in Brasov to go check out Sighisoara which is about two hours away. Ten minutes before I was supposed to leave, I get this message:

 Hi Larissa

How are you? – or “so-caress”, say the Gypsies. I hope Romania is treating you well. It’s a beautiful country.

I truly hope I’m not disturbing you with this message but I noticed you are in the “area” – also noticed your interesting moniker (blonde Gypsy) and thought to reach out and introduce our non-profit community development organization (ngo). It’s something that I think might interest you; we invite open minded travelers into the segregated “Tzigania” (Gypsy part of town) and experience the true GYPSY “carpe diem” lifestyle. It’s another world. We offer the chance for people to SAFELY come into the segregated communities and see for yourself. It’s not only about culture but the history, traditions, music and dance; plus it’s a lot of FUN.

We are a small org trying to build something positive against so much negatively.

Thanks for your understanding..

Friend

Chuck

PS Our location is in restful Transylvania, after Brasov, not far from the “must-see” Citadel Sighisoara: Mures county…

Gypsy tourism? Was this guy for real? The way he was selling it kind of made it seem like one of those slum tours in Rio or Mumbai that I’ve read a lot about but have never been interested in doing. They seem so sad and exploitative to me. At the same time, I’d be lying if I said that going to have FUN with a bunch of gypsies didn’t intrigue me. The fact that he said it was a non-profit community development organization also made me a little more open to the idea. I totally understand why an organization would want to build something positive because to say the Roma have a bad reputation, especially in Romania, would be a huge understatement.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this proposition during the entire ride out to Sighisoara. What are the chances I get this offer on my last day in the region and on the day that I am going in that direction anyway? It seemed too serendipitous to pass up so as soon as I arrived I sent a message back to this guy Chuck. I told him I was interested in dropping by to check it out for dinner but I wanted more details. How would I get there? Who else would be there? How would I get back to Brasov in the evening?

Chuck responded that just stopping by for dinner was not going to be possible if I was getting to and from there via public transportation, so he suggested that I stay the night. It would be me and one other visitor from Switzerland. Hmmmm…

I still wasn’t entirely sure this was a legit organization so of course this kind of made me a little uneasy. This place was out in the middle of nowhere and I definitely wouldn’t be able to just bounce if I decided I didn’t want to be there anymore. Also, if this turns out to be something completely bogus, who is going to know?

Well, Rob would, I decided. I rarely take this kind of security measure while traveling solo but thought it would be a good idea for this occasion to email my new pen pal and ask him to contact Interpol if he didn’t hear from me within 24 hours. True story. I really didn’t feel like worrying family or friends back home and I knew he’d be totally cool with that request. Plus, if something did happen, at least he’d have some interesting material for a new blog post, right?

 

Luckily, this turned out to be unnecessary. I found the bus minibus I was supposed to take and thankfully got off at the correct stop. Chuck was there waiting there for me like he said he would and took me straight over to meet “the gypsies”.

It is here where I wish I could tell you that I walked into a full-blown gypsy party with gypsies dancing and singing around a huge fire. Maybe post some photos of me learning some traditional Roma dance moves from the best dancer in the tribe or taking shots of homemade brandy with their leader. That, however, would be far from the truth.

No, actually I walked straight into a pretty nice two-story home with cable TV blaring from the kitchen and pictures of Hilary Duff and Hannah Montana stuck on the wall. Before I even had time to say “WTF?”, I was greeted by the hospitable residents of this slick countryside pad, the Gabor family.

After we had dinner and walked around the village for a bit, I spent a couple of hours just chatting with Chuck. He is an American journalist who has been living in gypsy communities for the past six years and has written quite a bit on Roma culture and issues. Regardless of how he came off in his message and how overly touristic some of the activities he offers are, I could tell he deeply cared that people came away from this experience better informed and with a more positive view of the Roma.

While there were some elements of my stay that bordered on cheesy (like them wanting to dress me up in Roma attire), I came back feeling like I had done something meaningful and that I actually learned a lot. People can argue that doing something like this is an example of irresponsible tourism, but I think that irresponsible tourism has almost everything to do with irresponsible tourists. As long as the organizations providing these tours are reliable, they actually involve the people living in the communities in a positive manner, and any profits made are put in the right hands, then it is up to the tourists to turn it into a learning experience and not something exploitative.

I truly hope Chuck and the Gabor Family are on the right track with this project. It’s always hard to tell from the outside, but it seemed like their hearts were in it and they were making progress as best they could given their circumstances – circumstances being that at the Romanian tourism board wants absolutely nothing to do with a program like this so funding and publicity is limited.

If you are interested in seeing more photos and a short video from my time spent in Tzigania, you can also check out this post on my blog.

Te Bahktalo (may the luck be with you)

15 Comments

  1. The Time-Crunched Traveler (Ellen)

    May 16, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    This looks like such an incredible experience! One of my favorite aspects about travel is when locals invite your into their homes and share with you their culture. Good for you for taking the chance that Chuck was legit!

    • Larissa

      May 17, 2012 at 1:21 am

      It was for sure and yes, very happy Chuck turned out to be who he said he was! :)

  2. Rachel

    May 16, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    Wow what an interesting story! I have heard a lot about the “Roma” people but nothing from anyone who actually spent real time with them in their home. Thanks for sharing!

    • Larissa

      May 17, 2012 at 1:20 am

      Very interesting experience and something I never thought I’d do. Roma culture is pretty fascinating, especially their caste system that I never knew about. Thanks!

  3. Rob

    May 17, 2012 at 8:47 am

    Yes, I remember that email. True story.

    Cool write up and glad it worked out well. I’ve noticed that on any “organized tour” a lot of the things we cover are of very little interest to me, then again I’m not your *typical* organized tour client so I guess it makes sense.

    I really enjoyed Romania and didn’t find it 10% as scary as people made it out to be.

    Keep the random stories of your trip coming.

    • Larissa

      May 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm

      You like random stories, huh?

      I agree with the organized tour thing and that’s what was so nice about this visit – I didn’t go with one. I told him I was more interested in seeing what “gypsy tourism” was all about and learning the history of my adopted heritage (joke, kind of). I think we spent more time talking about his business model and plans for expansion than anything else. A big problem tours or programs like this face is keeping it authentic in light of having to cater to the mostly “super tourists” that come through just for the day.

      Now I am going off on a tangent.

      Bottom line: I met some really cool gypsies and Romania is not scary – totally cool for a solo female traveler.

      • Rob

        May 17, 2012 at 4:42 pm

        I love random stories, they are encouraged.

        I think the thing is that most people want to say they did this and that to answer to annoying friends or snobby tourists they meet. If you told them you just hung out with gypsies and chatted, they’d say that’s boring and start listing Gypsy related landmarks or something they found on wikipedia or a blog that took it from wikipedia lol.

  4. Chrissie

    May 17, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    Wow…. What an interesting experience. I hope that I can visit one day. Gypsy tourism is something I have to try!

    • Larissa

      May 17, 2012 at 4:36 pm

      You should! Romania is a lovely country.

  5. kim

    July 1, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    My sister was adopted from Transylvania, Romania 16 years ago. My dad and I traveled there to pick her up and finalize the adoption. I’m very interested in learning more about the culture there. I wonder if she could be a Gypsy?!?! I’m curious if you heard anything in regards to Gypsys or Romanians having rare kidney diseases. My sister, who is 18, developed PANCa vasculitis this past December and ultimately needs a kidney transplant now. Being adopted, there is no blood relative to donate. Please email me if you have any insight! Thanks, Kim

    • Larissa

      July 4, 2012 at 2:40 am

      Hi Kim, wow what a story. I wish I could help but I really have no idea about the frequency of kidney disease in Romania. As for your sister being a gypsy, anything is possible but I think it is more likely that she is Romanian. Ceaucescu’s forced child policy left Romania with an enormous orphan population that they are still battling to this day. Maybe there are some online resources or forums for families with adopted Romanian children? I guess it could be difficult to find. My thoughts are with your sister and family – really hope that even if you can’t find a relative some other donor could work out!

  6. Dani

    September 24, 2012 at 9:08 am

    Such an interesting article. I never would have thought about gipsy tourism. Going in one of their villages and eating and sleeping with them is such a great idea for us to understand them better.

    • Larissa

      September 26, 2012 at 4:28 pm

      Thank you and it really was an enlightening experience. Had not known about it either but so thankful they reached out!

  7. Ellen

    November 30, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    Do you have any suggestions for 2 adventurous women who want to see Romania ( with limited budget. ) for about a week
    .but not stay in hostels… because we are not that young …45 to 58 age range

    Very interested in gypsy lore and castles

    • Larissa

      December 12, 2012 at 2:04 am

      I would suggest basing yourself in Brasov as it is a nice town and in close proximity to quite a few castles to which you can make day trips (Rasnov, Bran, walled city of Sighisoara, Peles Castle in Sinaia). When I was there I stayed at Kismet Dao Hostel which was great but I understand if that’s not the scene you are going for). For gypsy lore you should most certainly look into participating in something like this http://tzigania.com/.

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