It began with a rude awakening: piercing bleets surrounded me, dragging me from a dead sleep. Unzipping my tent flap, I was presented with a shambolically frolicking mob on all sides. I was stranded in a sea of sheep that was tripping on my guy ropes and trampling my bicycle. Not a pretty, cloud-white Disney-style flock with soft, melodic baas; but a scruffy, mud-browned southern Romanian one emitting pained and throaty yelps. Nearby, two swarthy shepherds eyed me keenly.
Once the ovine jostle had passed, the men approached and began pawing through my kit and jibbering excitedly to each other. They largely ignored me while I closely watched that their hands weren’t landing anything of mine in their deep coat pockets.
An orange, late-summer sun was just igniting above a hill to the east. I was keen to get on my bike and hit the road before southern Romania’s promised mid-morning heat set in and before something was removed from my saddle bags which were now being thoroughly riffled through despite my meek English protestations.
They started asking me questions in Romanian. I understood none of their words but the clear miming of a gun with one hand was enough for me to calmly but quickly pack up and slip my camping knife into my pocket just in case. The shorter and grubbier of the two produced a phone from his tattered trousers and made a curt call which included the word ‘turista’ several times.
Bike loaded, I began to wheel it down towards the road. The taller man, who had remarkably deep-set eyes, grabbed my arm and I was frog-marched in silence along a dusty track away from the road. I thought it best to submit and we soon reached a group of five men loading large crates of plums into a truck. No one waved or shook my hand and I found myself in the centre of an intimidating circle with the apparent boss.
A stocky man with bulging beads of sweat on his forehead, he wore dark trousers and a once-white vest. His matted hair framed a cold, menacing face as he stepped over to a crate on the floor. He stooped and picked up a plum. I swallowed involuntarily as he produced a small pocket knife and, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on mine, deftly sliced the fruit and removed the stone in one swift motion. He proceeded to cram the fruit's amber flesh into his face and chomp it in a triumphant gesture of challenge; drops of juice ran down his thickly-stubbled chin.
I didn’t know the reason for this strange action or exactly what was at stake but it seemed clear that I had little choice but to also eat a plum and to try to do so in a manner cooler than him. I picked a plum and felt like Crocodile Dundee as I produced my larger knife, flicked it open with a theatrical flourish and replicated his action. There was a tense pause and I'm fairly certain I heard a gasp before I stuffed the too large fruit into my too small mouth. My jubilant grin as I chomped in turn was so wide that I couldn't chew properly and a fleck of fruit breached my windpipe. The tension dissolved into laughter instantly as I turned plum-purple and, with a spluttering cough, re-decorated the dusty ground.
A few minutes later, after we had all wiped away the tears, I was sent on my way with a 2kg bag of plums. I rode on wondering if things might have turned out differently had I not choked but, as I contentedly plucked the fresh fruit from my basket, it was hard to care.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who is a quarter of the way through a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore
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