As I sit above Clug, Romania, in a clean but basic hotel tower block, I am taking in the legacy of communism - the many high rise flats and wide spread poverty. But I am also reflecting on my first week. A week in which I have travelled over 1000 miles, made new friends and explored some of Europe's finest cities.
Having had little sleep I boarded my national express bus on Sunday May 18th which would take me to London. After 7 months in the planning, 10 jabs later, several visas and a ridiculously large rugsack the day had finally arrived.
"Getting there is more than half the fun" is the philosophy on which OzBus is founded, brainchild of Mark Creasey, who sought an alternative to flying, delivering people to there destination while showing the world en route. And over the next 100 days I would take in France, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey ... deep breath ... Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Oz.
Sitting on the coach to London I was gripped by the excitement of the adventure ahead. However this was coupled with the thought that the journey would not just be about where I would go, but the people I would be with.
And as I arrived bleary eyed at Embankment, it was time to meet my new home, a shiny white coach and meet the people I would spend the next 13 weeks with. On board we have quite an eclectic mix. There are people from Scotland, England and Ireland, Australians returning home, even a women from France and another from Spain. The youngest is an 18 year old gap year student and the eldest a retired civil servant who is a real trooper at 67. On board we have a vicar, a banker, a hairdresser, a basketball coach and even a ex-airline steward.
For many on the bus they are here purely for the adventure, for others it is a break from home, but to many it is the beginning of a new life. Some have left husbands, wives and children behind, others have left jobs and sold their homes. All on board however share the common desire to see the world and meet new people. The mixture of couples, classes and ages (spanning every decade) has proved refreshing. But undoubtably will lead to many problems ahead.
So as we lurched out of London, Viv our tour leader (the only constant on this mammoth trip) welcomed us on board. And as we rushed towards Dover to try and catch the early ferry, the initial awkwardness of introduction began. It brought me back to the first day of University. The same questions abound and the repetition of reply soon wore thin. But as the cool breeze of the English channel finally woke me up - I said good bye to Britain and hello to the unknown.
In the space of the first day (dates and days have now become irrelevant) we crossed northern France and around mid afternoon arrived in Bruge, Belgium. Having watched the Colin Farrell film, which protrayed the city in a rather dull light I didn't have high expectations but was rather taken aback by its beauty. After checking into our hostel, the cycling tour in the fantastic May sunshine allowed us to capture the splendour of the buildings, coupled with its continental atomsphere made it an ideal first stop. That night the hostel bar was besiged by OzBusers as we all plyed ourselves and others with drink to try and break the ice.
With many hangovers the 7am start the next morning came early as the bus was packed up again and we said goodbye to Belgium. Early starts and late nights are now the routine of our travels. Viv has also reminded us this is a group effort and thus we have all being given duties; whether it is cleaning the bus or cooking camp dinners we all must pull our weight.
And thus day two and another new country, Germany. Our destination was St. Goar, a delightful little village on the Rhine Valley. This was our first night of camping and trying to erect a tent was quite an experience. After taking in the castle and the locals we had dinner with 'Herman the German' a true character who supplied us with lots of wine from the Rhine valley. The next day we stopped for a flying visit to Heidelburg, home to the oldest university in Germany. As I wandered around the cobbled streets and red standstone buildings it reminded me how pleasant Germany is. But Heidelburg also reminded us of the risk in travelling as in the most unlikely of places two of our group were robbed in by con-artists.
That evening we arrived in Pargue, the weather was miserable and camping proved a nightmare. Though a few beers in the local bar worked wonders in cheering us all up. After a rather cold night the rain continued in the morning as we made our way to the historic city centre. The city has many beauiful sites but has lost most of its charms as it has become swamped by tourists during the day and the sex industry at night. I found it uninviting and dirty; a place I am unlikely to visit again. The highlight of the day though was Man Utd once again winning the Champions League in a nail biting final.
Another early start marked day four, but we all have adapted to the routine remarkedly quickly. The almost daily bus travel rather than proving an odourous, boring, uncomfortable chore has actually turned into a passive sanctuary in which you can find your own space, catch up on sleep or read a book. However I often do not want to keep my eye of the road for fear of missing something. The villages, mountains and dirt tracks we have passed along have enthralled and shown the advantages of overland travel.
But the zip through Europe must not stop as we have much ground to make up. So its on to Vienna; one of my favourite cities in Europe - with its white gleaming buildings, wealthy residents and amazing history. After a visit to the stunning gardens of the Summer Palace and much walking, a meal in a traditional Austrian beer hall was much appreciated.
A contrast in two close capital cities is no starker than Vienna and Budapest. Buda and Pest still hold on to the history and archeiture of the former Eastern European Block while struggling to move closer to a more western way of living. While it does not have the beauty of Vienna it has real character and a visit to the Torture Museum or Momento Park is a must. Our night in Budapest however was marked by alarm as earlier in the day our campsite had been broken into and while nothing of a value was stolen, tents were emptied and one was slashed.
Our campsite group meals and icebreakers have teetered into reality TV territory - maybe welcome abroad the Big Brother Bus. In the first week rumors have abounded, tensions have bubbled to the surface and relationships have begun. The group dynamics have kept people enterained as much as the sights and sounds of our travels. With definite groups forming the tensions of the past week will pale into insignficant as sleep deprivation kicks in, the temperature rises and relationships break down.
So bring on week two ...