This last Sunday I arose with some little trepidation (I’ll admit it) and put the last stray items into my luggage in readiness to move to my final destination. It has been a long journey that brought me to this point, all the way from my sallying cry in the dark so many years ago. It was not registering completely that this trip in Terry’s van would probably be my last ride in a personal vehicle with all my luggage in tow while I’m in Moldova. (When you leave the country at the end of your service, for some reason you have to find your own way back to the Peace Corps offices and the airport. Hence, most people leave most of their things here, only taking back the REALLY important stuff….)
When they arrived – Ana, my work partner, and Eduard, her husband, and Terry, the driver – we had to haul my luggage out from the apartment all the way around the building to the front to the car, because of course I couldn’t manage to open the gate into the parking lot. (This was the beginning of the end of my ‘healed’ knee.) On the way to Hîncești we stopped at a store called Metro, which I heard about but didn’t quite believe existed. I was wrong. Costco has married WalMart and moved to Moldova. Here is a huge warehouse store with everything from dish soap, to washing machines, to socks, to watermelon and cheese. All under one tin roof. For a nation of bus riders. That’s right. You know how much you buy when you visit a warehouse store….well imagine transporting all of that home on a jam-packed rutiera. I don’t get how this works. But Moldovans are diligent and proficient at getting done what needs to get done, with very little technology most times. It makes me yet again realize how much consumption we take for granted in the USA. Ana and I have hesitant conversations, comparing the price of laundry detergent. We find a bag for 20 lei cheaper and send her husband to put back the more expensive versions we had just picked up. Terry careens madly through the store, flirting with every woman he sees. (More on Terry at later time – he really deserves his own post.) I am feeling vaguely comfortable with Moldovans, not an American in site. We stuff all our purchases in the van with all my bags and climg aboard for the wild toad ride to Hîncesti. Terry pilots the van somewhat like a flying carpet. We seem to be zipping a couple of inches over the actual road. Is this better than a rutiera? I think.
I had barely set my bags down and hadn’t even unzipped a suitcase before Nina, my new host sister (I have to call her that as she is my own age – it feels too weird to call her my “host mom”) tells me that we are going to a masa in the small village of Boghaceni in celebration of a four month old baby boy born to a couple for whom she is the “Nona.”
Culture break: A Nona is sort of like a godparent for married couples. It is a non-relative whom a couple asks to serve as a guide and mentor for them during their married life. It can be a couple or a single man or woman. Generally, the person or couple is quite a bit older with some life experience under their belt. They will help the new couple make big decisions, teach them about parenting, offer advice and comfort during difficult times, etc. I find this especially perceptive in NOT having it be a relative, as many times married couples can encounter difficulties with parents and in-laws that require some sound guidance to help them through so they don’t make a mess of things.
So we cross the street in front of our apartment building and begin waiting for a ride to this village. Now ruteiras come by every ten-fifteen minutes or so, but most folks are impatient and try to flag down passing cars that are going the same way. Of course, Peace Corps advises volunteers against this practice, but everyone does it anyway. It is a good way to meet Moldovans and practice your language, I guess, but I haven’t tried it on my own. Now that I’m with Nina, I guess I’m ready to hitch hike (I actually don’t have a choice. She’s madly flagging down every car that whizzes by.) A couple of cars stop but they’re either going a different way or they can only fit one person. We end up in a rutiera just as it starts to rain.
And then it’s pouring. (Luckily at this point I had not learned of the horrible accident that just claimed the lives of ten people in a 17-seat rutiera that was carrying fifty persons. It’s brakes failed on a curve and the mayor of a town and his wife were among the fatalities.) I am not looking forward to the walk from the rutiera to this masa, as I left in such a hurry I didn’t grab an umbrella and hadn’t changed out of my sandals. After about an hour, I hear Nina yell for the driver to stop. We’re out in the middle of nowhere. I am confused. After we disembark, a young man comes up to greet us. His car is parked right there where the bus stopped. Oh thank the lord, I don’t have to walk. We get in his car and proceed down a dirt road that is quickly melting into mud. He is driving fast, trying to beat the disintegration of traction. A couple of times I find myself wondering if walking would’ve been better, but the road turns out to be miles long. The house that we’re going to comes into view ahead – it’s way up on a hill to the right of us and as we slowly drive by it is apparent that the car is not going to make it up the slippery slope of mud flowing down that is probably a road in dryer times. We exit the vehicle and ponder the slope. Nina is in high heels, I am in sandals. The young man grins, grabs my arm, and says: Sos! (UP!) Here we go.
Well, this is the second stage of total knee failure. I am slipping and sliding and clutching at the branches of bushes to my left with my free arm. Up ahead of me, Nina is slogging on galliantly alone with her umbrella held high and her wedgies sinking inches deep into the mud. Up and up and up. We finally attain the summit and walk for another few minutes through flat muddy soup and stop in front of a locked gate. The young man – his name is Sergio, I’ve learned during our little ambling duet – pulls out his cell phone and calls his parents, the people we’re visiting. Are they not here? Are they still miles away in a rutiera? If they’re home and they know we’re coming, why is the gate locked? We wait. And we wait. And we wait. Recall that it’s raining. Pretty hard. Me without umbrella. In sandals. In mud. After about 10 minutes, we hear the hearty hey ho of a man approaching the gate. He is laughing and chattering away in Romanian as he unlocks the gate. I learn soon enough why it took him so long. We have another half mile climb up yet another muddly slope to the house above.
We pass through orchards full of pear trees and grapes hanging off the vine. There are more tomatoes (roșii) and watermelon (harbuz) than we saw at Metro. Another orchard with plum trees, the fruit being the actual size of the prunes that they will become later upon drying in the sun (pruna.) Some corn that looks sere, droopy and tattered from the (former) lack of rain. Finally we pass what smells like the outhouse. Good, we must be getting close, I think.
Why am I here again, when I could be back at Nina’s place, dry and unpacking? Oh yes – the all important „integration” (I didn’t mess up on the quotation marks, btw, that’s how they do it in Romanian.) Not soon enough, we arrive at the front door where three older woman, all wearing kerchiefs and aprons, one with missing teeth and a wandering eye, one small, anxious boy, and one lithe young woman holding a forty pound baby (no kidding) stand waiting to welcome us. We remove our shoes and enter into safe harbor. Thank the lord, we’ve made it, I think. Now I just have to get down again. I guess I’ll worry about that later.
There is a mass of food – a masa – spread out on the table before us. We are given some bread and wine and salt, the traditional Moldovan welcoming gesture and invited to sit. Nina gives the married couple (Sergio turns out to be the husband) some money and a gift for the baby. We begin to eat. For the next two hours it continues to rain outside while we repast indoors. Wine, food, talk. More wine, more food, more talk. Many toasts to America and my health. The people comment on how well I speak Romanian. The old man says Barak Obama’s name several times, as it is the only English words he knows. Nina pulls out her Avon catalogues and goes into a protracted sales pitch which, suprisingly, holds both the men and the women rapt. Even the little boy is held captive. Perfume samples are passed out to all. She’s good. After about an hour, I note that Sergio is trying to refuse more wine as he reminds them he has to drive us back to the bus stop. Thank the lord, I think. He’s only successful about half the time in not having his glass filled. Oh well, I think.
When it’s finally time to go, Sergio runs out ahead of time and returns with a nice pair of galoshes for both Nina and I. Thank you god, I think. Though there may be no tread on the bottom of these, at least my toes will stay clean and the cuts on my feet will not be infected with typhoid. We wash our own shoes in a bucket of rain water kindly provided by the clouds overhead. And then we ski down the hill. That is the best term for our meandering sliding progress. The old man is holding Nina’s arm and Sergio has mine. I am clutching him in the hopes of avoiding an embarassing face plant. This is the penultimate stage of knee damage. (I still have to walk to work tomorrow carrying 20 pounds of books and computer on my back. That did it in completely…)
The ride back to the highway is a testament to German autobuiders (I think we’re in an old Audi.) The car weaves wildly on torrents of mud from one side of the road to the other. Sergio hunches with great concentration over the wheel, smearing his left hand against the inside of the windshield every minute or so to clear the condensation. One windshield wiper is working valiantly. A car passes us on the left. Seriously? I think. Nina pats my knee and smiles winningly. I wonder if she’s going to pull out the Avon catalogue.
When we get to the road, Sergio stops at the bus shelter and leads us inside. Then he runs back out to the highway. What a gentleman, I think, waiting to signal the passing rutiera for us. Within seconds he has flagged down a late model Taurus (compete with leather seats and Dolby sound) and he gestures us to climb in with the three burly, bald Russian occupants. Great. Everything the Peace Corps warned me about. Gangsters, I think. Note the gold chains and silence. Completely unconcerned, Nina pulls out her phone and checks her voice mails. The entire way no one talks. The driver dials a number but gets no answer. Apparently the human trafficer connection has taken the day off, I think. When we arrive at our apartment, Nina tries to give the driver 20 lei. He refuses gruffly. Well how about that, I think.
Later that night, I put brand new sheets on my bed. I unpack all my bags for the first time since I loaded them up in Fullerton so many eons ago. I find things I forgot I brought. I Skype with Rhiannon and Nicole back in the States. I take a shower and get into my jammies. It’s still raining outside. Nina is already sacked out, fast asleep. The winds whistles and a steady patter of rain drops is like a metronome tick-tocking right outside my window. A smile spreads slowly cross my face.
My first day in Hîncești, I think. This might turn out to be a bit of the adventure I’d hoped it would be…