Written & Photographed By Laura Wrede
Passport to Freedom
Four in the morning came early on the farm in Banat, Romania as Mama Ana quietly rose to make a breakfast of fresh-baked bread, milk, homemade sausages and still warm eggs collected from the hens. Tapping on the door to waken her granddaughter Ana — her namesake—who was already up and ready for the day, Ana would quickly make her way down to the kitchen where her family would gather to start the work day. This was how Ana Lelescu began many of her childhood days. While it seemed like an idyllic life, in communist Romania, it was anything but unspoiled for most.
Ana’s family was more fortunate, however. They owned three acres of land, including an apple orchard. It was here they raised cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and two horses. “I felt privileged,” Ana said. “We did not worry about food although we all worked hard to get it. A lot of people living in the cities were staying in long lines to get their rationed food in those times. I had a happy childhood with long walks with my sister to our land up in the hills to work alongside my grandparents. My favorite was hay harvest during summer. I remember collecting wild flowers and the smell of fresh cut grass.”
Life during the mid century was an unrelenting strain for many. Romania was under the rule of President Nicolae Ceausescu who was known for his iron-fisted rule. Ceausescu was a defender of Socialism and rejected the reforms adopted by other Eastern European states. He formed a secret police organization known as the Securitate which encouraged residents to inform on each other. It created a strong element of distrust. This instilled fear in Ana and her family.
“I was told not to talk about our land and good fortune with anyone as ‘the Communists’ may take it away, or even worse, arrest my parents. I was very secluded and had no outside friends. I trusted no one. It was a must,” Ana said. “I grew up trusting none outside my family, like in a cocoon…Communism was hated by everyone, but life seemed to go on. I was very scared that we would lose our farm and my parents would be arrested.”
School and education were very important to Ana’s parents. They eventually moved from the farm house to the “City” in Timisoara. Both her parents were teachers. “We lived in an apartment in Timisoara during all my school years, and drove to our farm on the weekends and when work was needed.” As much as she loved her family, however, she had the urge to seek a better life.
Ana wanted to travel and be free from the tyranny of Communism. From her youth she had the urge to leave Romania, but there was no way to get out. Travel out of the country was impossible as no one was allowed to have a passport. One of Ana’s favorite quotes is, “How does one become a butterfly? You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.” Ana saw her current life as a caterpillar and knew one day she would do whatever it took to fly away.
Many were arrested in those days and murdered for the slightest indiscretions against the state. On December 16, 1989, the people had had enough. Thousands took to the streets of Timisoara where Ana lived. They protested the food shortages and the dictatorship of Nicholai Ceausescu. Many were teenagers and students just like Ana. Scores of protesters were killed that day. This marked the start of the fall of the Ceausescu regime. A few days after the protest in Timisoara, Ceausescu tried to escape the country. He and his wife Elena were captured. They were tried by a Military Council for crimes against the Romanian people and in December 1989 they faced a firing squad.
Ana was married just a few years later. She and her new husband, Dan, began to share dreams of leaving Romania. They had been intrigued by the United States and the freedoms that it promised. In 1992 they both applied for a passport but only one was allowed to go. Dan told Ana to find freedom and he would follow. It was time for the caterpillar to find her wings.
Ana arrived as a tourist on a three-month visa in Chicago, staying with a Romanian woman named Auriela. “God was watching and listening. When I met Aurelia I told her that I don’t want to go back but I want Dan to come be with me as soon as possible. She said, ‘I will help you’. It is what I needed to hear. God was there for sure,” Ana said.
She spent her twenty-fifth birthday on the phone talking to her husband and family in Romania. “It was the hardest time I ever recall. The road ahead was dark and full of steep curves. The good thing? A cake Aurelia baked for me that I will never forget,” Ana said. “Dan joined me after seven months, in December of 1992. Our journey together started. We both worked and went back to school to earn advanced degrees. I graduated from the University of Illinois with a master’s degree in Computer Science.
“My road crossed with a great mentor and professor who introduced me to the area of data mining and information retrieval. The degree allowed us to move from Chicago to the Silicon Valley. I found a job with IBM Almaden Research Center that was the answer to all my dreams at that time. I worked there with the most accomplished and smart people. Our projects were about discovering insights into data, extracting nuggets of gold from information to help cure cancer.”
Ana would not be able to go back to Romania for many years missing her beloved Mama Ana’s passing and her sister’s wedding. She knew if she went back her passport might not be renewed during the uncertain political times. Her freedom in the U.S. had become too valuable. Fortunately her family was able to come to the U.S. and visit over the years that followed.
As they came one by one she began taking them on tours of farms and wineries in California. “My parents, sister and relatives from all over the world came over to visit us on an annual basis. I loved to take them around on small trips and show them the area. Our outings were always different and very happy,” Ana said. From these family outings Ana birthed a new business idea: California Passport Tours in Morgan Hill. The name grew out of the significance of Ana and Dan’s desire to have a “passport to freedom” and to start a new journey together in the the U.S.
Describing California Passport Tours, Ana said, “we take small groups of people and families on a journey of discovery of new places and people. The places we visit are farms and wineries in a countryside setting with rolling hills that remind me of my childhood.”
Unlike the days of her youth when she had to keep quiet about her farm, today Ana has the opportunity to share with strangers and friends alike the beauty of the area without restriction. “In an era where people are on a constant move, connected to their electronics at all times, we are providing the ultimate luxury: a slow paced journey to the wonders of good times.”
Ana’s family still owns the family farm in Romania. It is her desire to never sell it. She hopes to one day donate it to the church. Today, the Lelescu’s let anyone work the land for free. Ana and Dan fly to Romania periodically and her parents live there six months out of the year. Some of her greatest pleasures are seeing her parents welcoming them and watching her son play in the gardens unrestricted knowing that no one can take away the happiness of being there now. Today the caterpillar has truly become a butterfly and has found her passport to freedom.