Our big project this week for Pre-service Training was paying a visit to an NGO in Chisinau called MilliniuM – the significance of the two “M”s representing “2000,” the year in which the organization was established, or registered, in Moldova. We interviewed its founding director and a Peace Corps volunteer who has been placed with the agency since last summer. Both the director and – of course – the PCV spoke English, so again we were relieved from having to draw on our mish mash of Roman-Engleza to communicate. (I’m still keenly aware of the future looming ahead, when I will be dropped off in a distant village on my own with no fellow Americans buffering the crushing linguistic tidal wave, keeping me afloat within their lifeboat of common conceptual experience.)
We spent an entire afternoon carefully crafting a series of multi-part, syntactically dense questions that I just had an inkling were not going to fit the situation we would find ourselves in. The interview we imagined ourselves conducting could’ve been written off on the expense account of any family foundation CEO or the Board Chair of a third generation non-profit sitting pretty on a diversified endowment. Instead, we found ourselves perched in a ring of hastily assembled mismatched chairs surrounding a pasteboard desk in the Soviet-era office of Vitalie Cirhana, a mathematics professor at Moldova State University. Conrad, (the PCV) was in shorts and flip flops; Vitalie was valiantly attempting to keep some air of authority amidst a battle with a motley crew of oblivious teen volunteers who invaded the office and commandeered all the computers in the midst of our session.
This is one of the beautiful realities – at least in my opinion – of the Peace Corps. Your placement will inevitably be ad hoc and entirely of your own making and nothing like anything you might have done before in the States. Conrad is an attorney who used to be the in-house counsel for a condominium association in Florida (though if you saw him, I swear you’d think he was a musician/hipster straight out of Echo Park. He doesn’t look a day over 25 and I’m sure he rides a fixed gear bike with no brakes into work.) Conrad openly admitted he knew nothing about running an NGO and that it had taken him the better part of a year to figure out what MilleniuM’s mission and goals actually were and how Vitalie envisioned it continuing to be viable and effective into the future. This gives me great hope for the comparative value I can bring to my future placement site, but also causes me to wonder if my executive level experience will really be of any practical use in this environment. I foresee myself coaching some well-intentioned mayor who holds down a full-time job in the city and farms his outlying plot on the weekends how to create a balance sheet for the village’s expenses.
One of the stark realities of this place that I was faced with today is the general dilapidation of the infrastructure here. Because I was overwhelmed and fascinated by the newness of my environment, I wasn’t making any evaluative judgments about it. Now that I’ve been here for a couple of weeks, the crumbling buildings, worn sidewalks, eroding pavements, and boarded up windows are becoming more prevalent in my consciousness. You can see that everything must once have looked quite grand – there are elaborately carved stone edifices and elegantly designed buildings that have not seen any maintenance in a couple of decades. Beautifully landscaped central parks are overgrown with weeds and tangled bushes; it is obvious that no one has mown the grass or trimmed the trees in recent memory. Though litter and refuse are not prevalent, there is no sense of overall care and husbandry of the environment. It almost feels like some sort of spontaneous recovery after a nuclear accident – a makeshift metropolis patched together from the relics of a once proud civilization. You can see the potential hovering like a kaleidoscopic watercolor painting just below the gritty surface sketch. If only. I mean, this is the first place I’ve been in the world – including Guatemala for effin sake – that does not have a Starbucks. Nowhere. In the whole country. (Is my shock quotient coming through?) Did you know there was a country in the world without a Starbucks??? What the bleep?
There is vast potential here – that is what is so exciting. A representative from the US Embassy came yesterday to speak to us about the socio-political environment in Moldova. Though most of the younger PCT’s couldn’t really stay focused, I was fascinated by the information. They have been through so much and come so far in just two decades. I mean, here we find a former Soviet state grinding the gears of representative democracy into motion. Even though the going is episodic and halting, it is moving. And I get to participate – at least at the sidelines – for a couple of incredible years. I do feel lucky and really excited to be here at just this moment in time.
On a more somber note: we had our first casualty this week. A member of the 50+ group decided that the experience is not a good fit and he returned to the States today. We all liked him a great deal – he was a fun-loving, gregarious chap. Not the person I would’ve picked to throw in the towel. But another great aspect of Peace Corps is their absolute commitment to our well-being; if we decide that we want to go home, they book our plane ticket ASAP, no questions or criticisms. And I do admire the courage needed to admit that this isn’t the place one wants to be, after all the excitement and hoopla and bravado that most of us have displayed in coming here. Sometimes the reality just doesn’t match up to the ideal and that’s life. The statistic is actually close to 30% of every incoming group who don’t make it for the whole two years, for whatever reason. So we have about 22-23 more people who will head home sooner rather than later.
I am pretty determined at this point not to be one of them.