December 30, 2009

La Revedere, Moldova!

Well the end just went too fast for me! I have been home for over a month already, and I never managed to write my last entry. I don’t think anyone even reads this anymore, but I am someone obsessive compulsive and need closure, so I’m writing it now.

My last month was a whirlwind of visiting friends, packing (complicated by acquiring things to bring home and giving things away), tying up loose ends, and cooking food for parties that I hosted at work, school, the club, and home. I spent as much time as possible with the people in my village, especially my host family, ate as much food as I could, and danced and sang whenever I could find the company, which was often! I also reflected on my last two years.

As one would expect, this experience has been life-changing. It was full of successes and failures, joy and despair, understanding and confusion. I was the only American in a small village where no one speaks English. I had a vague job description, few resources, and little understanding of the complex political, social, and economic forces at work in the community that I was supposed to ‘develop.’ This meant I had to adapt, to strive to understand the culture of the people who offended me on more than one occasion. I had to be a self-starter, to create my own job, figure out what needed to be done and a way to do it. I had to learn on the fly about things like project design, sustainability, measuring impact, and participatory planning. I had to learn a new language! I had to constantly ask questions, read things, and seek out information. By the end of my two years I was integrated into my community: the villagers bragged to others about how I had made myself a ‘Moldovanca’. I had worked with over 200 adults and youth on business development topics. I had inspired over 150 women to become leaders in their communities. I became fluent in Romanian, and picked up a fair amount of Russian. I gained a tremendous amount of information (and generated an equal amount of questions), leading to a decision to go to grad school for international development in the hopes of going back to make an even bigger difference.

Most importantly, I became a meaningful part of people’s lives. The night before I left my village, I finished packing up my bags and went into the two girls’ room, where I had been sleeping the last few weeks because it was attached to the fireplace (my room was not, and therefore not warm enough to sleep in once the cold set in.). My breath was taken away when I saw their wall: it was completely covered with sheets of computer paper, on which they had written: ‘Katie is the most loving, generous, talented, smart...’ and so on, until the whole wall was covered with adjectives. At the bottom they said they loved me and signed their names in a heart. I looked over at the two girls and saw tears sliding down their cheeks. I don’t think I can accurately describe the emotions I felt that night, nor can I justly sum up my experiences, so I will just stop here and say,

THANK YOU MOLDOVA!!! I will miss you and never forget you!

October 13, 2009

Fall Fun

These last few months have been flying! After a lot of work and tracking down receipts all over the country, I successfully finished reporting for the three project funders. I also finished all of my documents and reporting for Peace Corps, and did a final evaluation with the bee kids, so basically my work here is finished. I’ll be having a few more English classes and putting together some information for the economic planning center, but that is all! Now I’m concentrating on saying goodbye and doing as many ‘Moldovan’ activities as possible. A few days after writing about the sunflower beatings, I had the opportunity to partake in it myself. I went over to my counterpart’s house with my two host sisters, and together with her and her son and husband spent about three hours hacking away at 20 huge sacks of sunflower heads. This year was really dry, so the flowers were all crunchy and kept picking my hands. But it was a fun experience, and of course afterward we were served with lots of food and drink!

A few weeks ago was hram, the village day celebration, and I was fortunate to have several guests of my own this year. Two volunteers came, and randomly, two American women (Peace Corps Malawi volunteers in the 90s) who were traveling through Moldova on bicycles and just happened to be passing through my village on the big day. So it was a great opportunity for cultural sharing. After eating and drinking a lot, we put on some tunes and taught them the hora, and then we were off to some village friends’ house for more eating and drinking. After some singing and dancing in the house, we headed off to the dance in the center of the village, and had a grand old time. I think I was a little tipsy though, and I got all sad about that being my last opportunity for a good hora, and I didn’t want to leave, and the others were all tired.... not such a good host I guess.

I finally finished the blanket that I had been knitting since March, and I went with my handicrafts teacher to give it to Enesia, the social worker who had her baby back in April. (The idea was to have the blanket finished by then...ooops). Although not perfect, it turned out pretty dang cool, and we shared a few tears when I gave it to her. Then it was fun just hanging out with her and my teacher for the afternoon and laughing and gossiping. Unfortunately I had to rush out a little bit early to go to choir practice. It was raining, and the electricians were working on the side of the road near Enesia’s house. They offered to give me a ride to practice, at the other end of the village. Their truck, however, is HUGE, and there are no steps to get up, just the tire, so I looked absolutely ridiculous, and the young workers had a good laugh at my struggles. But I got to practice on time, and dry.

I had my last appearance as a Moldovan folklore star this past Sunday. It was the annual wine festival, and folklore choirs from all of the region were invited to perform in Soroca. So we sang songs about wine and young men, including my favorite ‘badisor de pe tractor’ – the cute guy on the tractor. The host of the local cultural tv show greeted me enthusiastically as always. I’m seriously a local celebrity. ;-) Anyways, it was sad to have my last concert. I’ll be having a little party with all the ladies before I leave.

I somehow managed to make friends in the last few months. Three guys (all named Andrei) who had been working or studying elsewhere until now, moved back to the village, and they have taken care to show me a good time before I leave. Most of the time is spent drinking coffee or hot chocolate from the automatic coffee machine at the 24-hr gas station at the edge of the village, but they’ve also taken me to the candle monument in Soroca in the middle of the night, gone for a middle of the night row on a lake, ran 5k in the middle of the night to the neighboring village, danced in the park in the middle of the night, and had a middle of the night bbq. So my sleep cycle is a bit messed up, but I have really appreciated their company.

I enjoyed a visit from a former college friend and rowing teammate at the end of September. I showed her around chisinau before heading up to the village, where I gave her the village and Soroca tours. She got a traditional mamaliga dinner with my host family, and met the ‘bee lady’ when I went to get some honey at the school. She also got a taste of the three Andreis for a couple of interesting nights. It was fun to catch up with her and share my Moldovan experiences. After all, that is part of my job! My fellow volunteers have given me the prize for the most visitors over the course of our service...four family members, four friends (separately), and three random couch-surfers. I’m glad I’ve had so many opportunities to see people that I love and to show them Moldova!

This past weekend I made my last fun trip to Chisinau. I took care of some business, and went to order copies of the book that I wrote as a present for my village. I spent the night with a friend from the village, who is studying in Chisinau to be a chef. She made me an incredible dinner and I got the chance to meet her roommates and hang out, which was a blast. But the biggest reason for my going to Chisinau was to gather with my fellow volunteers one last time as a group before we leave. The 21 of us M21s who remained put together a dessert bar for the Peace Corps staff, and used the time to say thank yous and goodbyes. We wandered all over Chisinau for the evening and in general enjoyed each other’s company. It is strange to think that I will probably never see over half of them again. We have been each other’s support over the past two years, and many of us have grown quite close. The first volunteers leave on October 21st and the rest of us trickle out after that up until Christmas. Ahhhh!!! 27 days for me.....

September 18, 2009

The End is Coming...

Last Saturday, Sept 12, 15 of the 21 of us who remain celebrated two years since the day we arrived in Moldova. Craaazy! We met up in a town where two volunteers live, and we just hung out together. We ate a lot, drank a little, and had tons of fun. We watched a slideshow of pictures from the past two years, and man was that a riot. There were pictures of the 19 volunteers who left early, there were pictures of things we don’t remember happening, there were pictures of great accomplishments, pictures of goofiness, and pictures that made us want to cry. It’s been a good two years.

A couple of weeks ago we had our Close of Service Conference, at which Peace Corps told us a list of ten bajillion things that we have to do before we can leave. Medical examinations, forms, reports, more forms, more reports, returning things, interviews, good bye parties, and oh, forms and reports. Plus they made us start thinking about – GASP – the future! Resumes, job applications, grad schools, etc. So anyways, I have 50 days to do all of that, plus I am planning a 19-day, 5 country trip on my way home, plus I’ve got regular work to do, and there are the usual Moldovan fall activities – village days, festivals, weddings, harvests, wine-making, etc. And I have a LOT of goodbyes to say. I carry my camera and a ‘master to-do list’ with me at all times. My official last day of service is November 6, and I’ll be home on November 25, just in time for Thanksgiving, my birthday, and the wedding of a dear friend. Up until now, I haven’t really been really thinking about the End. But now a part of me is screaming at time to slam on the breaks, and a part of me has what the Moldovans are calling ‘suitcase syndrome’ – I’ve got my ticket home, and all I can think about is leaving.

The 2009 TARE Development Course (aka, women’s empowerment camp) went pretty well. We had 62 women ages 17 to 24 over 5 days, who participated in 12 seminars on various topics relating to health, personal development, and gender roles, 3 discussions with ‘Women of Success,’ a vigil for victims of domestic violence, and a presentations by the International Organization for Migration about human trafficking and Catholic Relief Services about their work here. We also had fun activities like group games, pinatas, bracelet making, tie-dye, a bonfire with s’mores, and a talent show. The women came from all over Moldova, and when they return to their homes, they will be putting on seminars in order to share their experience and knowledge gained with the young women in their local communities. As with last year, it was a very rewarding experience because it was so tangible. We could see the young womens’ enjoyment and their change in attitude from the beginning of the week to the end of the week. The week was not without gliches. There was a sudden epidemic of getting their period and not wanting to go to lessons. The daily hot water that was promised us failed to materialize because the water pump mysteriously broke the day before we came. The camp was invaded by village boys (I was bad-cop on that one). Our main Woman of Success speaker cancelled at the last minute. And one night a key got stuck in one of the cabin doors (the upstairs level) and no one could get the door open, and the camp director didn’t want to help. So we called the DJ from the disco to come, and he climbed up a latter into the open back window and after trying in vain for an hour, he broke the front window, and the girls went in and out through the window for the remainder of the camp. But of course we handled all of these setbacks with speed, intelligence, and grace, and the camp went on wonderfully. I can’t believe it’s over. Now only the not-as-fun stuff is left – grant reports to funders, transferring the leadership to our Moldovan counterparts, and monitoring the results.

And now for a few random words on sunflower seeds. Moldovans love sunflower seeds and joke that eating them is a national sport. They have a handful in their pockets at all times. The other day I was waiting at the bus stop for a ride into Soroca, when a gas station worker from across the street walked over and into the field behind the bus stop. I thought perhaps he was going to the bathroom, but that would be weird because there is an outhouse by the gas station. A few minutes later he reappears carrying a huge sunflower head and returns to the gas station and begins eating the seeds. I guess his pocket stash ran out. The other day while running I stopped to witness a family doing a mass harvest of their sunflower seed crop. There were five of them crouched around a plastic tarp at their gate, each of them with a good-sized stick which they were using to beat the sunflower heads. The seeds fall out onto the tarp. So there was a huge pile of de-capitated sunflowers on one side of the tarp, and another pile of de-seeded heads on the other side. Interesting. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me while running.

Alrighty, I suppose that’s enough for now! Poka, poka! (bye bye!)

August 13, 2009

Getting down to business

The summer once again flew by. After all of my visitors left, I spent a couple weeks studying for the GRE. It was hard to explain to the Moldovans why I was studying English vocabulary, but they understood that the test was important so they kept wishing me luck and telling me not to come to work but to stay home and study. At the end of July I went to Istanbul to take the test. (It is not offered in Moldova, and since I had to take it out of the country, I thought I ought to at least pick a destination to which I haven’t been yet.) I arrived at night and took the test first thing the next morning (man I’m glad to be done with that!), and then spent the next three and a half days taking in the sights. Istanbul is beautiful! I traveled around with my friend from home, Mary Linda, and we had a wonderful time. It was my first time in a Muslim country, which was interesting. We went into a few mosques, checked out the palace and the harem, smoked a water pipe (no tobacco! as I have never smoked before, that was a little tricky), and took a boat up the Bosphorus Strait to the Black Sea, where we stopped in a little fishing village on the Asian side to have lunch and hike up to the ruins of an old fortress. There is so much to see in Istanbul, and I would have loved another day or two!!

Now that all of my traveling is over, work has started to pile up. The rabbit project is going less than smoothly. My relationship with my old host family has been less than pleasant since I moved out, and now it is very difficult to continue the project as planned, since my old host mom was one of the two primary beneficiaries. Some of the rabbits died, which really stinks, since one of the main points of the project was to teach them how to raise them to not be susceptable to diseases. None of the 6 other beneficiaries have received their rabbits yet, and I’m have a hell of a time trying to track down receipts from all of the purchases to use for project reporting. Needless to say, it will be a headache trying to wrap this up before I leave. And I don’t want to just wrap it up so that I can report to the funder that we did everything we said we would, but to actually leave the project feeling like something was learned, and that these women are better off.

The bee project is going along fairly smoothly. The kids have been coming once a week all summer to take care of the hives, and the first harvest was last month. We had XX liters of honey from 3 families of bees. Before I leave, we will wrap up the business classes and make a plan for carrying on the business next year. It’s been a lot of fun to see how some of the youth have really taken responsibility and get really excited about the project.

Back in May I worked with two young entrepreneurs on putting together business plans, which were then entered in a regional competition. I helped them think about all of the things that enter into an income statement and a cash flow statement, as well as to better predict what their incomes will be. We also did a lot of research on where the best place to buy their supplies would be, as well as the marketing. Last week I was pleasantly surprised when one young girl told me that she and the other young man whom I had helped took first and second place in the regional competition! Their business plans have now been sent on to the national level, and if they place their, they will receive partial funding for their businesses.

English classes continued through the summer. Five girls showed up twice a week, and with all of my guests the past few months, they got a lot of practice speaking. I’m really quite pleased with how much they have been able to accomplish with so little time and resources.

Most of my work over the last month has been for the women’s development course. We ended up winning a grant from the Global Fund for Women, which is allowing us to do the camp as we had planned. We’ve been busy with training the counselors/instructors, signing contracts for logistical things, recruiting participants, developing activities and materials, and improving our methods of evaluation. The 5-day course starts next week, and I am so excited. We’ve got a great group of instructors this year – 10 Moldovans and 5 other peace corps volunteers. Four of the Moldovans are former participants in the TARE course, and it makes me so excited to see what TARE has done for them – the impact that they are having in their communities and the self-confidence and motivation they demonstrate in their daily lives. I can’t wait to give another 75 women this experience! Camp starts on Monday!

June 27, 2009

Travel Time

I went to Russia. It was awesome. My sister Anne came to Chisinau a couple of days early, and after touring around there and hanging out with other volunteers for a bit, we hopped on a plane to Moscow. My brother John arrived an hour later, from Chicago. We met up with a former Peace Corps Moldova volunteer who is now working in Russia, and he got us into the center, showed us how to get cards for the metro, took us to the apartment, helped me buy a phone card, and then took us to Red Square. Without him, all of that would have probably taken the entire four days that we had available to us!

We spent our days in Moscow mostly around the Red Square area, shopping and hiding from the rain. St. Basil’s Cathedral (the multi-colored, multi-onion-domed church that you always see in pictures) is really quite impressive, and Lenin’s masoleum is a hoot. It’s all dark in there, and he’s just laying there illuminated and stuffed, and if you pause for even a split-second while encircling his body, the Russia guards grunt at you to move along. The Kremlin is also quite impressive. I didn’t realize that it is actually a large fortress – a government compound encircled by huge red walls. We’re pretty sure we saw Medvedev or Putin race into the Kremlin in one of their sleek black cars with police escort and blocked-off roads. Inside the Kremlin walls is the world’s largest cannon that’s never been shot and the world’s largest bell that’s never been rung. Hmmm. That’s about all we saw before the skies opened up and we were forced to seek shelter.

During our walks throughout the city, I taught Anne how to read ‘the Code,’ aka, Cyrillic. It seems really complicated when you look at it, but once you know what sounds the letters make, you can sound out anything. So I would scan the buildings for words that are the same or similar in English and Russian, such as ‘Internet’ ‘Bancomat’ ‘Cosmetica’ ‘Baskin Robbins’ ‘Pizza Hut’ ‘Stop’ and ‘Sport.’ She said that once she figured it out, she didn’t feel so lost, and it is kind of like a game. After getting over his jet-lag from the first few days, John caught on too.

While we were there, Moscow was hosting the hugely popular ‘Eurovision’ song-contest, which meant there were extra tourists and Eurovision-related stuff all over. 25 European countries send an entry to the contest, which is a huge spectacle, somewhat akin to American idol. Russia won last year, so they hosted this year. This year Norway won, with some guy playing a fiddle and singing about a fairytale. While we were out and about in Moscow, we came across the entry from Denmark singing in the park outside the Kremlin. We thought they were pretty good, and happened to seem them compete in the finals on tv later in the week. They took 13th place. Moldova took 14th.

After wandering about Moscow, we took a night-train to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg is a city like none I have ever seen before! It has canals somewhat like those in Venice or Amsterdam, and huge palace-like buildings that you might see in Paris or Vienna. It is a relatively young city, being founded by Peter I in the early 1700s. We visited the fortress out on an island which was the built to defend the land from the Swedes. (St. Petersburg is located in the western most part of Russia, across the bay from Finland). Their main street is ginormous, and lined with huge buildings and multiple cathedrals. One of the palaces belonged to the Stroganovs, where beef stroganoff was ‘invented.’ There is also the world-famous Hermitage art museum, housed in the former palace of Catherine the Great. It is truly magnificent. We also went to see a Russian ballet – the Nutcracker. The best part of the trip was probably the last evening, when we took a boat ride through the canals and out to the river. By evening, I mean night. We started out at 1:00 am (about two hours after sunset – it is on the same latitutde as Anchorage, so the long days were starting already!). Around 1:30 the four bridges across the river open up to let the tall-masted ships through. For about a mile all of the buildings along the river are illuminated, and there are crazy flashing lights on the bridges, making it a truly an incredible sight.

Overall it was a great trip, but we had a few ‘interesting’ moments. Anne was stopped by the police once for taking a picture of a street sign. She was forced to delete it. The address we were given for the place where we had to register our visas was wrong, and we were met with blank stares from non-english-speaking uniformed men. Luckily one of them recognized the name of the travel company, and explained to me how to get to the place. My limited Russian allowed me to understand ‘white door’ ’50 meters ahead’ and ‘second floor.’ I was actually quite impressed with how much I was able to get by on my Russian. I was able to buy us the ballet tickets, easily navigate the metro, negotiate with a few street vendors, ask directions for finding an atm, and chat with a random guy on the boat ride. However, my abilities didn’t do me any good with the angry babas (old women) at the hermitage museum. It was cold, so everyone had coats. But you aren’t allowed to enter with your coats, so you have to leave them at the coat check. But the coat check was full. Baba after baba just yelled ‘nyet’ and told me to go to someone else. The group check lady was empty but she wouldn’t take them because we weren’t a group. There were cupboards, but those are only for bags. Dozens of people were running around trying to find a place to leave their coats, and the babas just yelled and didn’t do anything to find a solution. After running around for 15 minutes, I started to get upset. We paid for our tickets, the musem was going to close in less then two hours, and these cranky babas wouldn’t take our dang coats. Well, John and Anne and I were standing in a tight circle, and I didn’t think anyone was paying attention to us, so I said ‘fine, I’ll leave our coats here!’ and threw them down in the middle of the floor. Well, a nice baba somehow saw it and came barging in the circle and picked them up and brushed them off and kept saying ‘nyet, nyet, nyet.’ Then she took them behind a counter and somehow found a free hook for them. Well, now I know that in Russia I just have to throw a tantrum to get something done. Later, when John went to get the jackets while Anne and I were in the bathroom, he didn’t recognize mine and Anne’s jackets and tried to tell her that these weren’t ours. But she insisted, and then re-enacted my tantrum, throwing the jackets down on the counter. Then John was like, oh, yup, those are ours.

So that was Russia. Anne and I said goodbye to John, and went our way back to Moldova, where she stayed with me for two weeks. She happened to pick two great weeks, for there was a lot of stuff going on in my village. She came with me to work most days, but it was more socializing and eating than working. There was a big party outside the town hall to celebrate 650 years since the state of Moldova was formed. There was also St. Nicholai day, so we went to a friend’s house for a dinner because her dad is named Nicholai. There were two big birthday parties, a welcome dinner for Anne, a big concert in the woods at which I sang, and a graduation/last day of school ceremony at the school. We also were invited over for dinner at a couple different places, and made a few trips to see the sights in Soroca. One day, the group that I sing with made some music videos. A crew came from the regional TV station to film us all over the village – while singing about a tractor, there was a big tractor in the back, while singing about sheep and shepherds we stood out on the hill where all the sheep are out to pasture, you get the idea. The transportation between these sites was done by one car, three trips each time. There were 24 of us, plus the driver. The car has 4 seats plus the driver. You do the math. (Ok, it’s 9 people per trip, including the driver.) We ended in the forest and had a picnic afterward. When the director/host of the show on which these videos are to air found out that I am an American, she had to have an interview, and asked me about how our folklore and their folklore differ. She was like my best friend after that. It was fun, and funny.

Everyone in my village really took to my sister. She loved the fact that no one ever thought that she looked her age (she’s quite a bit older than I). My new host family especially loved her, and we spent a lot of evenings teaching American card games to the two girls (Moldovan card games were too confusing for us). We made them a pancake breakfast one morning and a taco dinner the last evening. When the time came for her to leave, they joked about stealing her passport so that she couldn’t. The youngest girl even woke up at 5 am and came running out in her nightgown to say goodbye the morning the we left for Chisinau. I thought that two weeks was going to be a long time for her to stay in the village, but it ended up being not enough!

We spent some time with other volunteers in Chisinau before catching our bus to Brasov, Romania. Wow, I’ve been in a lot of crazy mini-bus rides, but this one takes the cake. This guy had some serious road rage, and even the Moldovans were telling him to drive a little more calmly. But fortunately we arrived in one piece nine hours later, and even managed to enjoy the scenery a bit. The border crossing was less than pleasant, since we kept getting yelled at for trying to go to the bathroom while they were checking passports and baggage and stuff. They wouldn’t let us go at all on the Moldovan side, and then on the Romanian side they were like, you should have gone in Moldova. What is this, the international no-pee zone? The bathrooms are just there to taunt us?

Anyways, we arrived in Brasov around 9pm and checked into the little guesthouse where I had stayed when I was there in September. I got to know the woman who runs it quite well, and we had been emailing each other, so I was looking forward to seeing her. We spent the next two days running all over Transylvania, hitting up all of the best Dracula/Vlad the Impaler sites. We went to a medieval walled city, Sighisoara, and saw the house where he was born. We hired a car and drove three hours into the foothills of the Fagaras mountains, where his fortress is and climbed up the 1500 steps to reach it. And we went to the tourist attraction castle at Bran, which is said to be where he lives but he actually didn’t. But it’s still a really cool castle and I would want to live there. In the evenings we explored Brasov, which I would have to say is my second-favorite city in Europe, after Vienna.

The last morning we said goodbye to the guesthouse woman, who is so awesome and gave us one night for free. She said that if I can take two years of my life to volunteer, the least she can do is give me a free night. I really appreciated that. At the train station we were hounded by a taxi driver who wanted to take us all the way to the airport in Bucuresti, which is about 80 miles away. At first we resisted, but then we added up the cost of the train tickets, and the taxi ride from the train station to the airport, and the inconvenience and wasted time, so we decided to go with him, on the conditions that he didn’t raise the price when we got to the airport, that he didn’t steal our bags, and that he didn’t drive like a maniac. He agreed to all conditions, and it ended up being awesome. We stopped in another mountain town, Sinaia, and visited the most magnificent palace I have ever seen, Peles. I liked it even better than, say, Versailles or Schonbrunn. Instead of expansive gardens, there are lush green mountains, and while it is lavish, it doesn’t go overboard. Absolutely loved it. And you can take a two-day hike over the mountains and the Bran Castle is on the other side! Anyways, our driver had special privileges and drove right up to the front, past where all the other cars had to stop. He knew everyone, and even got us into the bathroom at the restaurant that was only for customers, haha. Further along the way to the airport, he pulled over at an awesome restaurant so that Anne could eat ‘mici’ (meech), a traditional Romanian food made of meat. We chatted the whole time, and after he dropped us off at the airport, he gave us each a hug! So nice! He didn’t raise the price, but we did!

As if all this wasn’t enough, I had another visiter last week – one of my two American roommates from when I was studying in Vienna, Mandy. We went to Odessa, Ukraine, where we severely burned ourselves while laying on the beaches near the Black Sea. Odessa turned out to have a very beautiful center area, which we frequented in the evenings after having spent the days at the beach. After that Mandy spent a few days in my village as well. Needless to say, the past month and a half has absolutely flown by! I realize that I am so lucky and blessed to have the opportunity and ability to travel, to see and experience these things. I thank the Lord every day for it!

June 5, 2009

A Long Walk Home, and Other Things

I love good weather, because it means that people are out and about. I get out to run almost every day now, and I usually go the same route, about 8 km towards another village and back. It is not a main road, it simply links the main road to this other village. There are a few large farms along the way that belong to a company that makes juice and canned fruits and vegetables. This company buses in workers from all over the region to work in the fields. Well, the bus drives by at almost the same time every day while I’m running. So now the driver always taps the horn and waves, and some of the workers on the bus have even started waving. I also feel like I know the tractor drivers who also always drive by and wave, or give me a ‘thumbs up.’ Strange, I’ve never even talked to these people, and I see them (through a window) for 5 seconds each day, yet I feel like they are my friends. ‘Oh, there goes my friend the bus driver! Oh, and here comes my friend the blue tractor driver!’

The following is a story of my walk home one day. I really enjoy such days as this, when it seems like everyone is happy and glad to talk, when I don’t have to rush, and when I feel like just another member of the village:

I was waiting on the side of the road to try to get a ride home from Soroca. My village is only about 6 km away from the city, directly on the main road to Chisinau, but it can be impossible to get there sometimes! There are two mini-bus drivers who drive between Soroca and my village every day, but there is not a regular schedule. It is not uncommon to be riding with one of them when he decides make a detour to his house to pick up a snack or something. Also, they don’t go anywhere until the bus is full. So sometimes I could spend up to an hour just sitting in the bus waiting for more people to come. Sometimes hours go by and neither of the buses come. Then you just have to hitchhike. There is a parking lot at the edge of the city, across from the bus station, and everyone wanting to go to the surrounding villages waits there to hitch rides. If a car stops, it can be a mad dash for who gets the seats.

Anyhoo, I was waiting to get a ride, and it was a beautiful day, the mini-buses were nowhere in sight, and I was tired of fighting people to get to a car first, so I decided to walk home. It’s really quite a nice walk, the first kilometer is along the Nistru River (which marks the Ukrainian border), and then there is a huuuge hill. The road does a long switchback, but there is a path straight up through the woods, which I took. Then it is another 3 kilometers up on a hill, which overlooks the city, and endless farmland. Upon reaching the edge of my village, I decided to stop in and see my friend who just had her baby. I popped in, and we caught up on the events of the past two weeks, and I admired the baby. I then headed out, because I had to be at choir practice.

I took the shortcut through the woods and met up with the main road. I ran into the friend’s 7-year-old, who was munching on some popcorn on his way home. He stopped me and made me eat some, and I promised him I would bring him candy from Russia when I went there the following week. I continued on, but soon realized the my jacket had fallen out of my bag. So I went to retrace my steps to try to find it. As I reached the entrance to the woods, I heard a friendly voice call out to me in Russian. Two young men were working on a car on the side of the road up ahead. Ah, one of them was one of the only people my age in the village. He had been working in St. Petersburg most of the time, but due to the ‘economic crisis,’ there isn’t much work there anymore, so he came home. He had given me his sim card to use while I was in Russia, and he wanted to know how my preparations for my trip were going. I struggled through a few minutes of conversing in Russian, but then switched back to Romanian and told him about my jacket. He wished me luck, and I went on through the woods. No sign of it. I couldn’t figure out where I lost it. I made it all the way back to my friend’s house, and found her, her husband, and the boy sitting in the back room. They all started laughing when I entered. ‘Looking for something?’ The asked. The boy had found it in the woods on his way home. ‘Be careful not to lose my candy on the way home from Russia!’ he told me. And I continued on my way home. As I exited from the woods, I held up my jacket to show the two guys working on the car down the road and they shouted a congratulations.

A bit further down the road I met up with a woman who was coming out of the field carrying a huge burlap sack on her back. She was wearing one of the bright, floral-patterned bathrobe-like things that all Moldovan women wear, and a bright, floral-pattered head scarf, which doesn’t at all match the bright floral-patterend bathrobe. I didn’t know her, but she seemed to know me, which isn’t uncommon, I guess. She asked me if I walked all the way from Soroca, and I said yes, it’s a nice day, why not? She replied with ‘yeah, nice to exercise a little!’

Then, on the other side of the road, going in the same direction, appeared a horse-drawn cart. It was extremely over-loading with twiggy branches sticking out in all directions, and the two watchmen from work were sitting atop the pile. ‘Katerina!’ the shouted to me. ‘Where are you coming from?’ We yelled across the road to each other for a bit, and they continued on. A bit later, they stopped to talk to someone else, and I passed them and made the turn into my part of the village. A few minutes later I heard the cart approaching from behind, so I move as far as possible to the side of the road for them to pass me. It got closer and closer, and I kept waiting for it to pass me, but it never did. Finally I turned around to see why they were going so slowly, and the horse’s head was about an inch from my shoulder! I yelped a bit and jumped into a bush, and the two watchmen were sitting atop their branches laughing their heads off. I laughed to, and then continued on.

As I walked on, I greeted people with the required ‘Christ is risen!’ (for 40 days after Easter, instead of hello). I got enthusiastic responses and smiles from all. I turned on to my old street, and the old man who lives on the corner waved from his garden. A bit further on I turned onto my new street, and another jokingly asked me if I hadn’t lost my way home. Finally, two and a half hours after setting out from the town, I arrived home, in a good mood and with just enough time to grab my notebook and make it to choir practice!

So I’m really liking my new home. My partner and the girls are very interested in my ‘gymnastics.’ That is, my body circuit exercises – jumping jacks, squats, sit-ups, push-ups, lunges, etc. I do a lot of the exercises with a large medicine ball, which they love. One evening they all came into my room and I tried to show them how to do some of the exercises. There was a lot of shrieking and stumbling and falling off of the medicine ball. In trade for the gymnastics instruction, I was instructed on how to hang up my laundry. I did a very large load the other day, and I hung them up on the clothesline in the order that they came out of the washing machine. But apparently, I have to put the pants by the pants, shirts by the shirts, etc, and in order by color. Otherwise people might walk by and think that I don’t know how to do things right. Hanging up my clothes that way never even occured to me, but now that I know, I have noticed throughout the village that everyone does it that way!

Awhile back I really got to put my language skills to use. There was a soccer game between Switzerland and Moldova (I don’t think I need to tell you the outcome) here in Chisinau. After the game a bunch of us were out at a bar where there is live music, and one of the Moldovans who works at Peace Corps plays the harmonica there. Some Swiss fans showed up, so we talked with them a bit. Lots of the Moldovans in the bar also wanted to talk with them, being so obviously foreign, dressed all in red with big swiss flags. But of course the Moldovans speak only Russian and Romanian, and the Swiss only German and English. But I speak all four! So I got to be translator. Man, that was a riot. My Russian is very poor, but I was able to facilitate a Russian-German ‘hi, how are you, where are you from, what are you doing here, how do you like Moldova, do you want a beer’ conversation! I don’t know if I’ll ever again find myself in a situation where those four languages all come into play. Crazy. Fun.

Stayed tuned for tales from my adventures with both of my siblings in Russia, and with my sister in Moldova and Romania!

May 4, 2009

Spring Finally!

The weather at last is nice! Trees are blooming, sun is shining, roads are dry, flowers are sprouting up, and there are baby rabbits, baby goats, baby sheep, baby geese, and baby people! Yes, baby people! One of my Moldovan friends, the social worker with whom I used to share an office, just had her second child, a healthy baby boy. I’ve been working (for a long time now) on knitting a blanket for him. I’ve been getting help from the home ec teacher, and I just have the border left. I hope to have it done in time for the baptism!

Work has been going along as usual – rabbits, bees, English, women’s empowerment camp, informal computer lessons, and random side projects. One of the random things I did lately was subbing for the civic education teacher for a day. She left the topic open to me, so I chose to talk about volunteersim, a relatively new concept here. The ninth-grade class was a bunch of brats, but the 7th-graders were really great. They decided that they wanted to get together a bunch of kids and clean up the cemetary before Easter of the Dead. (This is a holiday the week after regular Easter, in which families take elaborate picnics to their loved ones in the cemetary. They give gifts to the dead (usually a special round bread, a candle, and some candy), and the priest comes around and says blessings.) They asked me to help supervise, so one afternoon we met at the cemetary and picked up all the trash (sad, probably left from last year’s Easter of the Dead), trimmed hedges, hacked weeds, and fixed up benches. They worked for about 4 hours and didn’t get nearly as far as they wanted to. Well, some town council members saw what they were trying to do, and the town hall ended up paying some money to have it cleaned up for real. I was very proud of those kids for taking action and for leading others to take action!

Unfortunately, planning for the women’s empowerment camp is going less than smoothly. Peace Corps has issues with its ‘sustainability,’ and we had to spend a lot of time convincing them. Also, due to the less than wonderful state of the economy, our two major funders will not be funding us this year. Hmmmm. Well, part of our long-term strategic plan was to become as locally-financed as possible, so I guess we’ll have to switch that over to our short-term plan, haha. We are exploring different options for corporate sponsorship, as well as applying to other funder organizations. The biggest cost is of course the feeding and housing of the women during the camp. Through fellow volunteers, we may have found a campsite that we will be able to use for free and only pay a minimal price for food. We are keeping our fingers crossed that this will work out! We are also focusing a lot this year on working with our Moldovan counterparts (a young woman who was a previous counselor at the camp, and a youth development NGO in Soroca) to transfer more of the planning and implementation responsibilities over to them.

We (my local counterparts and I) also have been having problems with the local savings and loan. The new loan cycle was supposed to begin at the end of March, but because of the economy and the problems with the elections, the national bank didn’t distribute the money when it said it would. So 50 people in my village who were relying on around $1000 each in order to buy seeds to plant their crops, or to pay for weddings, or to buy animals, or what have you, have been left waiting. They were expecting the money at the end of March, and it is now the beginning of May, and they are just starting to receive it, but just a few people at a time. For those who wanted to buy seeds for planting, the time to plant has come and gone! What are they supposed to do now? People keep calling or stopping me in the road to ask when the money is going to come, and I don’t know what to tell them, since we ourselves don’t know when the bank is finally going to give it to us. I feel so bad, but I don’t know what I can do to help the situation, other than to sympathize with them and try to explain as best I can.

In other news, I recently switched host families. I decided it was time for a change, and with only 6 months left, I thought it would be good to see how another family lives. I’m now living with my counterpart and her family. The two girls (7th and 12th grade) learn English from me, and we get along great. My new host dad is one of the most talkative Moldovan men that I’ve met, and I appreciate that he’s always telling interesting facts and takes the time to translate the most important things when watching Russian television. And since I’m living with my counterpart, we’ll be able to work more often together. I’ll have to get used to new routines, new food, and different personalities again, but that’s what this adventure is all about. And it will be a lot easier this time around, since I already know the language and the family!

So next week I’ll be taking an 8-day trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and I can’t wait! I’ll finally get to see if all of my learning Russian efforts are going to pay off. I’ve been doing little lessons with the Russian teacher at the school, and many people in the village know that I’m going, so have been greeting me and making small talk in Russian to help me get ready. Also, these two cities are two of the main destinations for Moldovans trying to earn money abroad, so I was flooded with offers to meet up with husbands, wives, friends, neighbors, who are currently living there. I’m am armed with a cell phone sim card, and telephone numbers of these people, including a taxi driver. I also finally received my visa. I had to make two special trips into Chisinau and face the scary people at the Russian embassy in order to get it. And luckily I had help from a Moldovan friend, without whom I’m sure I would still be standing at the gate trying just to get in! Ooh, and the best part of all this is that my traveling companions will be my sister and brother!

Well, I suppose that is all for now, I wish I had an entertaining story or two, but I guess I have gotten so used to everything now, that nothing seems suprising or unusual anymore!