an interview with Marian Chiseliţe, photojournalist Marian Chiseliţe, 31, has a degree in law but he never went into practice, although he very much wanted to. He had all sorts of jobs, even working as a “transport coordinator dispatcher” for a truck company, but eventually he decided that “it simply did not work anymore”. At the beginning of last year, without knowing anyone there, he walked into the office of National Geographic Romania to present a project as daring—even utopian for a “beginner”— as it was costly: a one-year ride on horseback along the Carpathian mountains, starting from Caransebeş and going all the way up to Suceava. Thus, one of his previous hobbies, and the one that he now decided to live off, materialized into a travel album.
The people from National Geographic Romania did not refuse your proposal entirely, so to speak; even if they refused to sponsor your project, they made another proposal to you, which was just as tempting: they asked you to follow the trail of Calistrat Hogaş and publish the story and photos of this trip in the magazine. What did you think of their idea?
At the beginning, it didn’t sound tempting at all! My first impulse was to say “no” because I only remembered Hogaş from what I had learned in school, and had a very boring image of him. For me, he was a very dull landscape writer and, since I’m not too much of a landscape photographer myself— for example I’d never go up the mountain at five in the morning to take a picture of nature—I was rather skeptical about their proposal. I left the office with some doubts, telling myself that if I accepted, it might not come out the way I wanted, but after rereading On Mountain Trails I completely changed my mind. I rediscovered Hogaş, a remarkable man of the mountain, a writer full of humor, a good storyteller and observer, a real person. So I started my journey on August 5, 2008.
Other than realizing that landscape was only part of what Hogaş was all about, what else convinced you to start on this trip? I think it was the idea of publishing the story and the pictures in Natgeo, but also that of equestrian tourism—an activity that is intensely practiced in other countries, but totally ignored here. In France, for example, summer vacation is also called “horseback holiday”—thousands of people get on their horses and go on trips in the mountains. But we no longer have the “culture of the horse” and it’s a shame because it continues to draw attention. Nowadays, Alba-Iulia, the town where I live, is going through a restoration phase—and among many other activities to attract tourists, they also brought six beautiful Frisian horses that have turned into the main tourist attraction. They should do this more often—the horse should no longer be kept only at the periphery, so that people could form another image of it, besides that of a working animal. Before going on my journey, I spent more than two weeks at the Lucina stud farm, where there are almost 300 “hutuli” (huculs, or Carpathian ponies) which give the local community a real chance to grow both from an economic and tourist point of view. They have the know-how, there’s passion, the scenery is wonderful, the people are welcoming, but there is no interest. Last but not least, I was motivated by the idea of coming close to people, despite the fact that I am a loner. As I was saying, I don’t like to take pictures of landscapes, I like to photograph people, and I needed the keys to open the gates and be able to approach them. From this point of view, I owe very much to Furnica (literally, the Ant), the mare I rode on my trip, because she helped me get inside the world of people I didn’t know and who, obviously, (and quite reasonably, would have had every right to refuse to have anything to do with a stranger appearing out of nowhere. But people look at you differently when you’re riding a horse; at first they are surprised, maybe a little reticent, but out of curiosity, they start talking to you and eventually welcome you into their universe. Furnica, therefore, was my “passe-partout” in the mountains.
“If you find yourselves on an unknown road, trust your horse’s instinct” How long before the trip did you meet Furnica? I met her the afternoon before leaving, and this wasn’t even her name! The first horse the staff from Romsilva chose for me was a mare whose name really was Furnica, she was a cross-breed between a large horse and a pony. You can imagine the outcome: a mare with a large head and short legs! I knew from the very beginning that I was not going to get the best horse in the stud farm, given the high risk of my journey. I had met this hybrid mare a long time before the beginning of my trip; I had ridden her for two weeks and she had got used to me, but she had an accident the day before the trip. The staff from Romsilva then gave me a larger and stronger mare, which I also called Furnica, since she didn’t have any other name except the code inscribed on her skin, P124L. Did she have some of the features that derive from her name? I think she did—her steps were small, she was hard-working and, after we became friends, she was very obedient. On the last day of our journey, we should have reached Poiana Vitioanei by going through Tarcăului Mountains, but we got lost while going straight up the mountain. After a hard day’s climb that never seemed to end, with no food or patience left, and feeling exhausted, I decided to end my journey. Well, that day, Furnica behaved admirably: she never let her exhaustion show, not even for a moment; she climbed beside me with her little steps, through the ferns, crossing slippery riverbeds, climbing slopes so steep that I could barely handle them myself. She really behaved like an ant then, and I trusted her instincts 100%, and I was not wrong to do that. After all, except that certain something that was uniquely hers, she was a hucul, or Carpathian pony, and this horse breed is very good out on the mountain. If you find yourselves on an unknown road and, especially, if you’re riding a hucul, loosen up the reins a little bit and trust your horse’s instinct. He’ll take whatever route he wants, but you can be sure that that’s the right way. He will always know how to avoid the places where he might sink and will choose the more stable ground.
How long did it take you to become friends? Three days, at the most; if there were two horses, it would have probably been easier, they would have encouraged each other, and benefited from each other’s presence. But Furnica had no one around except me, a stranger, and she probably didn’t understand why she had to go on such a long trip, and why she couldn’t stop whenever she wanted to; she didn’t actually answer my commands and didn’t want to enter people’s yards. Yet, starting from the fourth day, every time I stopped to talk to someone, she knew I would want to get down, and this meant that she was free to graze. And from the fifth day, she would already pass through the gates before me, and waited patiently for me to take off her saddle and equipment and let her mind her own business; or, if I dismounted and walked away to take some pictures, she would follow me.
“Horses swear at you, but when they welcome you, they have a certain neigh” Your journey could also be considered as a way of testing your limits, your instincts and your reactions. Did your relationship and communication with Furnica constitute an exercise in itself? It certainly did. Huculs are stubborn horses, there are only a few verbal commands for them, and you, as a rider, have to be very firm. Even so, the horse has to get used to you and your voice, so he can pay attention to you. Of course, travelling with Furnica was a test for me—imagine you’re riding relaxed on the saddle, the reins loose. The horse can get scared at any time, he may jump to the side, and if you don’t react immediately, things may degenerate. A horse can help you realize whether you’re made, as they say, of the “right dough”. I don’t know how firm I was with her, but Furnica certainly was a special horse. There were many times when I realized how important she was for me, and I don’t mean helping me travel and having to carry 60 kilos of equipment, poor thing, and a man weighing an extra 63 kilos. For instance, I don’t know how or when, but one day Furnica got injured and one of her legs got swollen. I called a veterinarian immediately, he gave her a shot and assured me she was going to be alright, as long as I didn’t put too much strain on her. I didn’t think twice about going on foot for two days by myself just to let her rest with the nuns from Agapia Veche monastery. When I came back to her, she received me very gently—you know what they say, horses can swear at you, but when they welcome you, they have a certain neigh… She convinced me very quickly that I can trust her, which is why I would never tie her down. She ran away from me only once—I had dismounted to take some pictures, and suddenly, while grazing peacefully, she ran off from me. I had to choose between the horse and the photo equipment on the ground. Of course, I put my camera down and ran after Furnica.
Have you heard any news of her? No, unfortunately. I only passed by Lucina stud farm twice after our journey through the mountains, but Furnica was not around. I wanted to look for her, but the farm stretches over hundreds of hectares, the horses are not in their stables during the day, they roam the hills, and it would have been very difficult for me to find her. I would have made her mine if I could—I thought about it for a long time. But as we were coming back and getting nearer the stud farm, I heard her neigh in the back of the trailer, she neighed like I had never heard her neigh before. I guess she could sense then that she was home.
“We are too scared to do anything on our own” You followed Hogaş’s trail on your own, taking an unknown route, with not enough planning, and with a horse you had just met, armed with a pepper spray to protect you from… the unforeseen, and a 60-kilo load of equipment. Weren’t you afraid that you might commit imprudence? For all the reasons you just listed, yes, I thought about it like that. But you should know that I usually go on the mountain on my own, and the success of my journey was somewhat conditioned by my solitude. I can’t take pictures with other people around me. I find taking pictures such a personal and private activity that I like to decide on my own where to stand, when to leave, whom to meet, and/or whom to spend time with. Besides, loneliness is a state of fact; I have my own little universe and very few people are a part of it. I realize my lack of safety might have led to an accident, which could have proven to be fatal, since I was all alone. Yet I believe that we have become too scared from watching the 5 o’clock news and consequently no longer brave enough to do anything on our own. We may have the feeling that as long as there is someone beside us, nothing can go wrong, but it’s not like that. A bear can attack you with ten people around you. I wasn’t afraid of any wild animals either—remember I had brave Furnica by my side, which kept making noise with the bell tied by her ear. I think nothing would have been the same if I had been accompanied by someone else—neither the “Hogaş experience”, nor the connection to Furnica.
Thanks to Furnica, but it may have also been your luck, the animals stayed away. What about the people? You said you weren’t very sociable, but, paradoxically, you went on a socializing journey. This was the most interesting part of the journey! I left with so much equipment I simply couldn’t allow myself to take food or a big tent—I only carried a waterproof sheet as a tent. Furnica may have been a strong mare, but I wanted to spare her the extra effort. I needed to get in touch with people therefore I could eat, find a place to sleep and, most importantly, carry on with my project. I couldn’t have done anything without my Furnica. When I reached Agapia Veche, I met one of the local people—Vasile Anisea, also known as Lili—who, although he didn’t know me, only needed an hour to start crying while telling me the story of his life. Well, I owe it to Furnica that this man got so close to me. He saw me, he admired her, he took her for a ride on the pasture and then we started talking. People look at you differently when you’re riding a horse, but it’s not because of you, it’s because of the horse. Additionally, you can tell the difference between good and bad people by the way in which they react to the animal that accompanies you.
During the three weeks while you were away, were there any moments when you thought about giving up? From the very beginning, I knew that if I could make it through the first couple of days, I’d be able to finish it. Unfortunately, the first day was the hardest, I didn’t know Furnica, I couldn’t convince her to follow me, I didn’t know the place, and in Almaş, which was my first stop, I didn’t get a very warm welcome. I thought I had started it on the wrong foot, and that all days would probably be like that. It was my first assignment and I could see then what it meant to feel exhausted, dirty, hungry and thirsty and yet, despite all the hardship, to get back on the horse and continue your journey if you didn’t get any good shots that day, or if nothing interesting happened to you. Dilema veche, 23-29/7 2009 Translated by Daniela Oancea
by Ruxandra Tudor