The trip was Vienna to Istanbul in 1985. In Romania, Ceausescu had been in power since 1965 and was a ruthless a dictator. No one would speak about the government. A cyclist we met out on the road would not even venture a comment about the government. In 1985, it was similar to the 1800’s. Pitchforks and shovels were the farm instruments. Carts and horses were the transportation. The stores were bare, people formed long lines to get bread in the morning.
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We just flat out couldn’t spend all our money in 1985. It was a combination of nothing to buy and an oversupply of local Romanian currency. Before getting to Romania, while we were in Vienna, where we legally exchanged $200 US for a shopping bag of Lei. “Can you give us bigger bills? I asked. “These are the largest denominations they have.” This exchange made the cost of things in Romania absurdly low. The approximate official exchange rate in the country was $1 equals 17 Leis. The approximate rate in Vienna on the open market was $1 equals 300 Leis.
When we entered Romania from Hungary, we had to hide the currency. Currency controls would not allow anyone to bring in or take out Romanian cash. Sally and I stuffed cash in our shirts, pants and biking shoes. We looked lumpy, taller and couldn’t even tie our shoelaces. The police looked through our bicycle panniers carefully and confiscated a paperback but let us keep our guidebook.
Past the border we redistributed our loot into our front packs. We never worried carrying this cash because the country was a police state and there were military everywhere. Even when we met another cyclist in the middle of nowhere he would not say one word against the government for fear of retaliation. In 1989, when, the so-called President, Nicolae Ceausescu was deposed and put before a firing squad these silent people fought amongst themselves for the honor to kill him.
Our last attempt to spend money was in the only department store in the country. We found beautiful handmade needlework. We kept asking the clerks if they had work that was smaller and more expensive.
Ten days later we were approaching the border to leave Romania and our pockets were still full of Romanian Lei. This currency would be virtually worthless outside the country Rather than have the police confiscate the money at the border, we scattered the cash into the wind and gleefully pictured the field workers, with their wooden pitch forks, discovering this bounty from heaven.