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  • Ilinca Stroe

Dumitru Dan, the Romanian Globetrotter

Dumitru Dan had little in common with the world’s most famous (fictitious) globetrotter, Phileas Fogg. Jules Verne’s English gentleman was an accommodated traveller who went around the world in eighty days using whatever means of transport he could to win a wager with members of the Reform Club, while the Romanian walked 100,000 kilometres around the world for six years, dressed in folk costumes and wearing peasant sandals, putting up folk music and dance performances to earn his bread along the way.

It was 1908 when Touring Club de France initiated a special competition to promote tourism: groups of travellers from around the world were invited to sign up, and the selection was quite rigorous. Four Romanians who were already in Paris as undergraduates became interested and decided to participate: Dumitru Dan and Pavel Pârvu, both students of the Faculty of Geography, along with Gheorghe Negreanu and Alexandru Pascu, at the time enrolled in the National Conservatoire of Dramatic Arts. Their proposed itinerary, set according to the change of seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres, so they could travel mostly during summertime, was found interesting. And their plan to keep walking, pedometers strapped to their feet, on board the ships that took them across oceans between continents* was considered very clever. In the end, those two innovative ideas got them selected among the 200 finalists. [1] There was a prize, too: one French franc per kilometre – in total, 100,000 francs.

* on one occasion, they marched 1,400 kilometres round and round the upper deck of ship Rangoon, for 10-12 hours a day

The Romanian team of four spent the next two years preparing themselves for the great adventure: they learned conversational German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, English, Russian, Flemish, Turkish, Greek, Hungarian, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Polish, Bulgarian, Serbian and Croatian. And they trained walking in areas with various geographical features, in all seasons and different kinds of weather. They also kept practising the musical instruments with which they were to earn their living while promoting Romanian folk art worldwide: Pascu played the harmonica and bagpipes, Pârvu – the flute, while Negreanu and Dan were vocalists, and all of them were skilled folk dancers.

On 1 April 1910 they set off from Bucharest, the four of them and a dog called Harap. Over the following six years, their journey, carefully recorded by Dan in his journal and certified by the local authorities of the places they visited, took them first up north via Hungary, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, then south-east to Iran, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Madagascar, where they boarded a ship to Sydney, landed and walked around the sunburnt country, reached New Zealand, then headed up north again to Singapore, Sri Lanka, India, South Africa, Africa’s west coast, the Canary Islands, once more by ship to Brazil, around South America (Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador), up along North America’s west coast, then from San Francisco to Japan, Hong Kong, China and Siberia, crossed to Alaska, went down to San Francisco again, did Mexico’s east coast, then travelled to North Africa, around Europe (Italy, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom), back to Canada, along America’s east coast, then down south to Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and across the ocean to Portugal, Spain, Malta, Athens, Sofia, Belgrade.

When the team reached Romania at the end of March 2016, it was the only one that, out of the initial 200 participants, had stayed in the competition, but then again its only member left was Dumitru Dan. Alexandru Pascu had died in July 1911 of an opium overdose at the court of a rajah in Bombay; Negreanu had fallen into a precipice in the Nanling mountains in China and, with broken arms and legs, serious head injuries and internal lesions, didn’t make it; and Pârvu had foot gangrene and had to stop, in January 1915, in Florida, keeping Harap with him but encouraging Dan to continue. Meanwhile, a terrible war had also started and the world was no place to travel. 4,000 kilometres were still left to walk, out of the 100,000, so Dan resumed the contest after the war, this time round following a route set by the Touring Club de France: from Bucharest to Zagreb, then across Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, and France. On 20 July 1923 he attended a ceremony in Paris where he was declared a world champion and picked up the prize for completing the mind-blowing voyage. (Much later, in 1985, he was included in the Guinness Book of World Records.) [2]

Dumitru Dan and Romanian peasant sandals

Adventures? Quite a few. Some of which almost cost them their life. Travelling to Brisbane through the Australian bush, they fell into an animal trap, a five-metre hole where they were smoked to unconsciousness, captured by Aborigines and taken to a camp from which they luckily managed to escape. Watching a wedding procession pass in China, Dumitru Dan, unbearably amused by the participants’ appearance, burst into laughter, was arrested and put at the pillory for 12 hours, to be publicly shamed (spit, hit, verbally and physically abused by the subjects of the Celestial Empire). The war also caused some mishaps: the ship that was taking Dan from Marseille to Thessaloniki was torpedoed by a German submarine and shipwrecked near Malta; and the British commander of the Allies’ general command in Thessaloniki, having found magazines with anti-Allies articles in Dan’s luggage, charged him with espionage and sent him to London to be trialled and sentenced to death (it took the intercession of Romanian ministry Ghica and of the Touring Club de France to clear the charges).

At the end, this extraordinary feat’s figures speak volumes: with or without his team, Dumitru Dan visited 1,500 big cities in 74 countries and 30 colonies on five continents around the world. He crossed the equator six times, the Atlantic four times, the Indian Ocean twice and the Pacific once. Last but not least, during the whole of his voyage he used 28 folk costumes and wore out 497 pairs of peasant sandals. [3] And he remained fond of records, since after his voyage around the world he delivered no fewer than 2,000 talks popularising it, with its fantastic ethnic, geographical, cultural and historical richness, around Romania.

In the Heroes’ Cemetery in Buzău, near a trash barrel which is always full, there’s a piece of land marked off with a rusty fence and an iron cross which says, no frills, “Dumitru Dan 14 July 1890 – 4 December 1978”. But the many memorabilia evidencing the hard, challenging and successful voyage he undertook await their inquisitive visitors at the Buzău County Museum, the “Iulian Antonescu” Museum Compound in Bacău, and the Sports Museum in Bucharest. That’s the way it goes: museums are sometimes silent homes to the great, vibrant after-lives of eminent adventurers.

Notes & Sources

[3] Ibidem

Picture credit

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