An Appeal for Volunteerism

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Most of you know that and are familiar with the ups and downs and twists and turns in my life journey that deposited me here, halfway across the world, 6,000 miles distant from family and friends and my dog and my ‘stuff’ – all the ingredients that I thought completed me and defined me for fifty years.  It has been a challenging, ego-deflating, doubt-laced, confusing, but ultimately totally worthwhile adventure.

Because, you see, I feel like I am finally acting in a manner that aligns with my oft-spouted beliefs.  I am attempting to do good in the world in a way that does not accrue benefits specifically for myself or my immediate circle (i.e. “volunteering”) because I believe that the impact I can have will ultimately afford me a bigger reward – personally and in my relationship to the world.  I believe in community.  I believe that human beings are intrinsically and indissolubly connected.  And, by the end of my tour here in Moldova, I will know it in my soul because I will have lived out this experience.

The second goal of the Peace Corps (we have three) is to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served. And one thing that I truly appreciate about my fellow citizens is their unbridled willingness to jump in and help.  According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations are registered in the U.S. This number includes public charities, private foundations, and other types of nonprofit organizations, including chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations and civic leagues.  I worked for one of them for 20 years.  And it never failed to inspire me how many Americans give of their time, money, labor, and heart to support causes and people which ask for their help.

Unfortunately, the idea of “volunteering” has a negative connotation in Moldova that is just now beginning to shift.  You see, many men were conscripted as “volunteer” soldiers for the border skirmishes  that have beset this tiny nation for a goodly portion of their existence.  The good news is that there are many people here – from the European Union, America, and Moldova itself – who are making great efforts to change this perception.  Non-profits are proliferating and youth, especially, are becoming increasingly invested in their own nation and its well-being.  But they still need help.  And they profit immensely by meeting volunteers and becoming more familiar with the personal goals, commitments, and philosophies that drive their efforts

To celebrate the 20 year anniversary of Peace Corps Moldova, a group of us are setting out, on foot, to visit 31 towns and villages along two 150 km routes winding through the countryside.  At the end of two weeks, we will meet in the capital for a big, public celebration.  We want to share our stories and encourage the people we meet to engage with their communities, to assist their neighbors and others in need, through the selfless – but hugely gratifying – act of volunteering.  We hope to lead by example and make a small difference here by fostering the spirit of giving that brought all of us to this country.  We want to illustrate the benefits that accrue to both the giver and the receiver in the volunteering experience.

SO.  And here is what I am truly after – can you help?  We have applied for a Peace Corps Partnership Program grant that matches money donated by Americans with funds raised in Moldovan communities in order to make this walk a reality.  The beautiful thing is that American dollars go a lot further in Moldova – even $5 would make a big difference.

If you believe in community and in the efforts of volunteers to build and sustain them – in your own neighborhood and throughout the world – please consider supporting this project.  I will be posting pictures and stories from the walk, so you will be able to join with us virtually and cheer us on.

Click here to go to the Peace Corps page where you can donate securely and read more about the project.  Your contribution is, of course, tax deductible.

Thank you, so much, not just for the money you might give but for reading and encouraging me during this amazing journey.  You sustain me.

A Certain Slant of Light

There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Despite being an English major, I was never adept at memorizing or effortlessly espousing appropriate verse at opportune moments to charm or impress a casual audience. Yet that one line remains embedded in my brain, surfacing at unexpected moments to perfectly contain the feeling that a certain slant of light so exquisitely conveys.

Unlike the inimitable Emily Dickenson, however, the poetic rapture that assails me is not confined to a particular season; today it surprised me during a mundane commute between Chișinău and my village as I sat wedged into a too-small seat (why am I so much larger than the average Moldovan?) listening to a genius mix of Toni Childs while balancing two bags on my origami-ed knees.

Had I not seen this same 20 km stretch of Moldovan countryside at least 30 times in the last two months?  Why – suddenly – did the view seem choreographed for pleasure, softly speckled with shoots of infant grass below waving wands of wheat?  Lake Ghidici – iridescent blue!  Glimpses of moldering concrete blocks and weather-worn factories, transformed into marbled reliefs.  Liquid gold melding fragile, newly sprung leaves into pulsing halos around the stark white trunks of birch trees. Rays of sun, frosting, plating,  caressing, everything in their path.  Sky, sky, sky – freckled with cottony adornments – spreading luxuriously over rolling hills of plowed, darkly fecund earth.

SPRING!  This is spring, I think.  Never before have I encountered her subtle, enchanting beauty, full force. Southern California, where I’ve lived most of my life, is a study in variations on a theme: sun, sun, wind, a sprinkle of drops, sun, sun, a few paltry clouds, sun, sun, fog, a pathetic mist.  Sun, sun, sun.  Always, boldly up above, overhead, in charge.  Never surreptitious.  Hardly ever slanting.

But this was a flirtatious light beckoning me.  A hint of warmth to come.  A feathering brush of shimmering paint, coating the landscape. Coy. Suggestive. Enticing.

And in that moment, revelation. I had made it, survived the cycle: Summer – stumbling trainee, dazzled with vertigo, wilting in the humidity and overwhelmed by the sheer unexpectedness of where I’d landed; Autumn – falling into routine, struggling with language and a new home, job, roommate, friends; Winter – the loss of all I had tentatively constructed, parsimonious sun begrudgingly meting out fewer and fewer hours of daylight, hibernation, confusion, doubt.

And now Spring.  A new beginning, at last, sure and clear.  Moldova, clothed in a gown of green and gold, had finally extended a warm welcome, basking in a certain slight of light.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

 

I give this to you as a great example of that certain slant of light in the countryside and a perfect four-minute container of what life is like in Moldova.  I have been to many of these places, met these same kinds of people, danced these dances, sang these songs.  Moldova is beginning to grow on me…

Ode to Toilet

In response to a reader’s request for more explicit information regarding my allusive reference to the toilet in Odessa, I offer the following bit of education on one of the grittier aspects of Peace Corps service.  Those of you with toileting issues might want to refrain from reading…. 

One of the first social mores to be dumped during Peace Corps service is the general prohibition – assuming one is not working as a plumber, parenting a toddler, or sliding down the backside of 70 – against discussing bowel movements in excruciating, aurally augmented detail in public.  What is quickly discovered during the initial weeks of training is that when input changes, output follows suit. When diet changes, colons have been known to protest. Ergo, the physical condition of one’s toilet grows in importance as one spends increasingly more time hanging out in there.

I have been incredibly lucky in my site placements: all three have been furnished with indoor toilets complete with 24 hour running water. Not so for many of my compatriots, who have to time their flushes to coincide with the daily water schedule – if they are fortunate enough to have an indoor bathroom – or become adept at the “poop and scoop” method, shall we say, if they are using one of the village’s anachronistic outdoor veceu’s which typically (inexplicably) lack any sort of seat.  But even when they do have seats, problems abound. Take, for example, a recent (anonymous) posting in the “Moldovan Moments” section of our Peace Corps weekly newsletter:

“Even though my host family has a really nice porcelain toilet in their outhouse, I don’t like to sit on it. No particular reason why, I’ve just always been a hover-er. With that in mind, one really cold morning in January I went outside to take care of business but my aim was a little off.  I didn’t completely miss the hole but the poop pile got stuck on the side of the toilet….and then it froze. There was no water in the outhouse so I took the toilet brush outside, used it like a shovel to scoop up some snow and then put the snow on the turd until it softened enough for me to push it off into the hole.”

Probably not the fare you’re used to finding in your casual perusal of commercial media, but life is a bit off kilter in the Peace Corps.  Different voyeuristic interests assert themselves and begin to take precedence over politics, sports, and entertainment.  This piece elicited actual fan mail.

Not only have I struck gold with my site placements, I have actually been able to completely avoid pooping in a hole since I set foot in Moldova.  (This is a stroke of luck so far out of statistical range that I should be calling up the Guinness Book of World Records to establish my claim.)  Through a series of fortuitous circumstances indoor flushing toilets have been available at all the places I’ve worked, visited, or stayed.

To further clarify how atypical my experience has been vis-à-vis bathroom conditions here in Moldova, I must divulge that I have an on-going bet with another volunteer who – when she learned about my track record – vociferously argued that I COULD NOT go for 27 months of service without  popping a squat in a veceu.  In fact, she was willing to spring for dinner at the most expensive restaurant in Monterrey (we both are from California) if I returned in 2014 having never entered into intimate relations with an outhouse.  I stood her bet.

This commitment to completing my service without having to subject myself to some of the more distasteful aspects of living in a developing country has become increasingly steadfast over time.  It has precluded me visiting some of my very dearest friends here – sorry, you don’t have an indoor toilet and I’m going to win this bet!  It has narrowed my options for outdoor activities: afraid I’ll have to pass on camping in Orhei Veche next weekend – no bathrooms! And entertainment: sure the festival looks fun, but there won’t be indoor plumbing…

Well, Odessa did me in, folks.  Never did I think that the third biggest city in Ukraine – granted, a Peace Corps country, but still a travel destination –would be the first place that I suffered the indignity of lowering my drawers in fetid squalor.

[Fair warning: turn back now if you are possessed of a weak stomach or delicate sensibilities!]

Throughout the whole nighttime bus ride I gamely declined from debarking to wander off into the pitch dark night to relieve myself in one of the fields abutting the border stations where we waited for hours to have our passports examined and processed.  I am one of those regular souls whose elimination occurs precisely within a two hour window every morning as the dawn breaks.  I figured I could make it to Odessa with no problem.  Besides, while I didn’t think peeing on the grass really counted the same as pooping in a hole, I wasn’t going to take any chances with my winning streak.

What I didn’t count on was our bus driver detouring into a stadium-sized parking lot and killing the engine just as the sun was surfacing over the horizon.  What????   My bowels had been rumbling into life, excited by the first peeking rays.  But this was not our destination (was it?)  Where were the buildings, the restaurants, the shops, the markets- the BATHROOMS????

Oh my.  This was not good.  My fellow (Moldovan) passengers were blithely gathering tissues in apparent preparation for relieving themselves in whatever accommodations they could find in this vast desert landscaped in asphalt.  Apparently we were going to be here awhile.  Past my two hour window. My bowels immediately froze, attentive.  We Peace Corps volunteers exchange meaningful looks: dare we dream of an actual building? Or do you think it’s a veceu? Perhaps with no seat?

Not only was there no seat, there was no roof or doors, either.  A cement slab with oval cutouts above an open sewer with waist high walls.  People had been missing the holes for years.  Urine and feces literally lapped in waves.  Cardboard boxes containing weeks’ – if not months’ – worth of used tissue paper overflowed, creating paper mache floats that bobbed at your feet.  Used tampons? Check? Dirty diapers? Check.  Condoms?  I don’t know, I didn’t get close enough to verify.

I should’ve peed on the grass.

My bowels were so unsettled by this experience that they refused to void until I arrived back at site more than 24 hours later.  Unfortunately, I could not hold my bladder, however.  One of my friends was so traumatized that she boarded the bus, pale as death, trembling, cheeks moistened with  tears, to lie with eyes closed for a full 10 minutes before she could speak again.  (She is possessed of delicate sensibilities.)

Lesson learned.

What we attempt most to avoid is going to hunt us down and assail us when we least expect it.

You can bet on it.

April Fool

Potemkin Staircase
Costea on the Potemkin Staircase, Chris, Julia, Patty, and Georgie up ahead

Last Sunday night found me and five of my friends waiting curbside for a ride on the magic bus that would transport us across Moldova’s northeastern border into Odesa, Ukraine.  We were going to join the celebrations for the Festival of Humor, or “Umorina” and it is known here.

Humorina (Russian: Юморина) is an annual festival held since 1973 on and around the April Fools’ Day. (It was invented in 1972 by the Odessa KVN team after the KVN contests and the corresponding TV show were discontinued. For more background on KVN, click here.) 

Pictures from past festivals online portrayed an atmosphere and antics similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans – people wearing masks and feathers, with painted faces and outlandish costumes. Carnival rides and games.  Artisan crafts. Music.  Food.  Laughter.  With Moldova fiercely clinging to the last vestiges of winter, this seemed just the antidote I needed.

My partner, Tania, who had arranged the trip with a tour agency and was accompanying us with some of her friends, had told us to be there promptly at 8:30pm.  Thought somewhat surprised at the notion of anything Moldovan adhering to a timetable, we are, after all, compliant Americans trained to adhere to schedules and so showed up 10 minutes early, just to be safe.  We could’ve trusted our instinct, though.

Peacock
Peacock

Around 9:15, earnest young girls conferring over clipboards directed clumps of passengers on, then, mysteriously, off, three Greyhound-sized tour buses that had been waiting, empty, since 8:45 or so. As there was no immediately detectable order or reason to the activity, we decided to wait for direction from Tania.  Around 9:30, we told to board one of the buses and take the first four pairs of seats.

This was a happy boon, as one of the pairs of seats sported a sort of table that one could conceivably lay one’s head on to catch a little nap during the hours-long journey. Two of my friends chortled merrily at their luck, failing to remember the machinations of the clipboard wielding young women.  All too soon, they were being asked to relocate themselves to the nether regions of the bus, in order to accommodate the driver’s friends, with whom he wished to be able to talk during the trip.

100_2156 Well, neither one of these particular friends of mine are easily disabused of their booty if lady luck should happen to dump in their direction: a lively debate ensued which approached the outside boundaries of “peace & friendship,” the go-to mantra of all PCVs who find themselves in tense circumstances in foreign lands.  Thankfully, after a strident seven minute articulation of  their perception of the general unfairness of the situation, said friends gathered their belongings and stomped off to the back of the bus.

Of course, the clipboards weren’t finished with us just yet.

100_2160In the end, all of us, together with Tania and her friends (and a couple no one knew who remained lip-locked and limb-entwined through the bus ride) landed in a 20-seat microbus with a kick ass stereo, fluorescent lights and reclining seats, all of which would come to be the bane of our collective existence by the time the bus arrived in Odesa at 4:30am the next morning.  But initially, we were happy to be out of the swirling minuet of seat changes that continued up until the moment of our departure in a swirl of liberating exhaust – we were off!

One of the best qualities I am gaining – I believe – from my Peace Corps service is the ability to just let go and allow circumstance to deposit me where they will.  I have been accused, in the past, of having some ‘control’ issues.  And to all my accusers (you know who you are,) let me assure you that Moldova has met those issues of mine in all their various permutations head on and absolutely trumped them.  There is nothing like taking a seat on a bus, driven madly by stranger down  a pot-holed, bone-shaking highway into the black chasm of night toward a destination you’ve never been where people will speak a language you won’t understand, to rid yourself of all pompous notions of having the least bit of control over anything.

100_2168
Metal Man

Affording myself liberal swigs of the cognac being passed around, I determined not to look out the front windshield and focus, instead, on the heavy bass threatening to burst my eardrums.

Predawn: we pull into an Angel-stadium sized parking lot that we can see is steadily filling up with caravans of other cars and buses.  For an hour or so we labor under the misapprehension that this is our destination – and confer in hushed tones about how to hail a taxi, with no Ukranian money and no notion of where we are – before Tania explains to us that we are just waiting for the last bus in our entourage to join us.

Did I mention that the border check filled exactly half the time of our six hour trip?  And we paid a 10 lei ‘fee’ apiece to speed up the process?  Well, apparently our fellow tour participants were not afforded this same opportunity for a ‘speed-pass,’  so all of us ended up waiting the extra 3 hours for them in the huge asphalt parking lot that hosts Odesa’s piața, or marketplace.

I am not even going to talk about the bathrooms.

Some things are better left to the imagination.  Or better yet, not imagined at all.

But oh – Odesa!    Once we finally arrived, every exhausted, uncontrolled, bass, thumping moment was swept away in the stunning beauty of the streets, the blue sky, the beating sun, the distant horizon over the steel grey sea.  Even the harbor, punctuated by the steel arms of cranes and over-sized boat lifts, cement piers, and smokestacks, was gorgeous to my vista-starved eyes.

Carnival
Carnival

More and more buses, filled with more and more people, continued pulling up before the Potemkin stairway that leads up to the heart of old town.  Perhaps the most famous site in the city, the 192 steps of the famous staircase were built in the mid 1800’s and were made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s film ‘Battleship Potemkin’. Vendors lined its edges,  selling their wares, along with a perplexing preponderance of bird handlers – doves, hawks, eagles, falcons, even a peacock.  I made the mistake of taking a picture (aiming at a statue behind him) which included one and had the angry owner following me for 100 feet demanding a fee.  Everything is for sale in Odesa.

Ode to bacon, spinach, and egg croissant
Ode to bacon, spinach, and egg croissant – you don’t get this kind of food in Moldova…

After spending an hour and half in the one bank that was changing money, we headed out to find food.  And oh – the food!   We stopped in an adorable little restaurant Kompot, which I’ve since learned is a  favorite spot for Moldovan PCVs – everyone recommends it for its generous portions, cozy atmosphere and friendly wait staff.

100_2171
Goergie – happy to be at Kompot!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then on to wander about the city, exploring the parks and bridges, the proscenium overlooking the harbor and the numerous side streets.  Odesa’s buildings are a mixture of different architectural influences; some are built in the Art Nouveau Style, which was in vogue at the turn of the 20th century, while Renaissance and Classicist styles are also widely present.  It feels very cosmopolitan and is quite picturesque.

After doing a little bit of shopping, and watching Costea try his arms at a carnival game, we got to eat sushi – one of my happiest gustatory moments in recent memory.  There is nothing like the way sushi glides down the throat, to nestle softly and happily in one’s tummy.  I LOVE sushi and its one of the foods I have missed the most.

100_2199

Then we found a table at the edge of a park facing on the street procession and spent the next four hours soaking in the sun and slowly sipping beverages, wanting the day to last.  We meandered from subject to subject in that lazy manner that is only attained on holiday, when words become diamond sparklers lobbed between you, making the very air glitter with untold possibilities.  We could have stretched those hours into days and been perfectly content.

Of course, the scene only became livelier as dark descended. A ska band was playing at the top of the Potemkin staircase and dancers were out in force, swaying and singing, arms flung around shoulders, laughter and merriment wafting through the crowd on the ocean breeze and we vowed next year to come back and stay the entire night.

Deposited back in Chișinău at 2:30am, we were forced to wait in an all night pizza joint for the buses to start running at 6:30am.  Having not slept in almost 72 hours (we had a bad night in the hostel from hell Friday night in Chișinău) it was an exercise in fierce determination to keep our heads off the table and our eyes from crossing.

But the memory of our beautiful day in Odesa was still fresh – it sustained us.    

International Day of Women – Moldovan style

100_1990

Friday, March 8, was International Women’s Day.  In the United States, I can’t remember this holiday making much of a bang. (Perhaps it was noted on my desk calendar, but with the advent of Outlook, smart phones, and virtual reminders, who looks at those anymore?)

As Americans, we tend toward holidays that commemorate war, politicians (or other male figureheads,) or successful conquest.  We cede women Mother’s Day (isn’t every woman a mother?) and Valentine’s – neither of which are days of rest from work, I should point out (Mother’s Day being officially confined to a Sunday in the US.)  Both these holidays have a very specific focus and audience – thanks mom for bearing/raising/putting up with me and come on honey, give me give me some love…

100_1995
Forest light

In Moldova, conversely, International Women’s Day is a BIG deal with a wide open vista of possibilities.  Everyone gets the day off – women, men, children, politicians and bankers.  Women are feted, toasted, and gifted, by their husbands, their co-workers, their neighbors, and each other.  Coming just a week after Marțișor – the beginning of spring – there is a general feeling of sunshine and fecundity impregnating the air.  It not just women in particular but the female principle in general – the yin, if you will – Hera, Athena, Hestia, and Artemis all rolled into one.  So what better way to  celebrate than spending the day in the forest dancing midst the trees with wine, women, and song?

All week long the mayor’s office had been abuzz with preparations for the pending  party.  My partner kept assuring me that I was in for a genuine cultural experience, Moldovan style.  And the weather itself toed the line, dawning clear and brilliant, topaz sun ablaze in sapphire skies.

Arriving at work at a leisurely 10am, I found out I had missed the morning champagne toast (?!!) and the 100_2066presentation of flowers to all the women. But never fear! Within minutes, I was ushered into the mayor’s office and presented with a flowering plant, decorative salad dishes, and a genuine crystal vase made in the Czech Republic. These were accompanied by ornate speeches from two of my male co-workers, who then repeatedly kissed me on alternating cheeks so Doamna Valentina could properly capture the moment on camera for the historic record.  (Apparently, as both an American and a mature female, I am accorded an inordinate degree of respect.  American males – take note!)

By 1:00 all the women from the office were piling into a hired rutiera for the ride up into the forest just outside the city limits.  Up, up, up (past the city dump, deserving of its own blog post at some point in the future) to a 10-12 acre plot of trees on a secluded hill.  And there were all the men, fires burning under huge metal discs sprouting spindly legs, skewers of meat and buckets of potatoes, onions and carrots readied for the flames. 100_2041 Jugs of wine squat and mellow lined up on wooden tables. Vagabond dogs, still sporting the bristling, dense coats of winter, lingering at the periphery, anticipating the feast to come.  Air clear and mild, the sun a thin blanket of warmth over the crisp chill of glittering frost.  It was almost medieval in its raw, unadorned simplicity.

100_1999The first order of business began with the photographs –meticulously posed group and individual shots that are de rigueur for Moldovans whenever they gather for celebrations.  No matter how old, wrinkled, tired, messy, fat, windblown, or unattractive one might be feeling, there is no reason a Moldovan could fathom for not wanting your portrait captured in any given circumstance where someone is wielding a camera.   I am generally considered a slightly daft anomaly in these situations – not only for my unwillingness to continually stand and smile for up to 35 pictures in a row, but even more so for my propensity to wander about snapping unlikely shots of buildings, trees, food and fire with no apparent concern for lining up people in my cross hairs.  What in the world could that be about?  I have quit trying to offer any explanation beyond an inexplicable infatuation with the captivating Moldovan countryside.  That seems to mollify them a bit.

After that, the games.  All those not actively involved in the preparation of the food enthusiastically joined100_2062 rousing games of badminton or volleyball.  And I mean everybody.  A few women, arms linked, drifted off to pick violets and craft cunning little bouquets of tender new greenery, but there was none of that cracking open a beer and parking your butt in a lawn chair that Americans have perfected to an art form.  Apparently, enough sitting on one’s behind is accomplished at the office; picnics are about shaking things loose and getting one’s blood pumping again.

And when it came time to dine, there was no thought of sequestering off into little cliques of age-, gender- or interest-mates:  the women were set at one long table, jugs of wine, buckets of meat and platters of fire-roasted root veggies set before us, while the men stood in a ring behind eating on their feet, ready to replenish the fixings should any particular dish get low.

100_2003
Chicken stomachs – they taste fine but have the consistency of rubber

Of course, after one eats until the stomach is ready to burst, it is them time to dance the hora to combat the stultifying effects of all that food.  And dance the hora we did – old, young, male, female, mayor, driver, attorney, secretary, janitor, and volunteer.  There was no acceptable reason beyond keeling over and dying right there in the fallen leaves to not dance the hora.

100_2002
Cartofi și markovi

 

 

 

It is quite refreshing to see that there is no inhibition on anyone’s part to get up and dance.  Some of the males in this video are barely 20 years old….an age cohort that would most likely not know the first step of a waltz in the USA, much less being caught on the dance floor partaking.  And they all dance well – it must be the natural result of being included in every dance on every occasion since you could walk.

And this is one particular cultural quirk of Moldovans to which it has been most challenging for me to acquiesce – the impermissibility of playing wallflower.  One cannot float on the periphery and merely observe; there is no motive they can comprehend for not participating – fully, joyfully, and energetically – with all forms of active celebration.  If you are there, you participate; “no” is not heard, accepted, or tolerated.  They will wear you down.  You will dance.  And dance. And dance. And dance. (And actually end up enjoying it in spite of yourself.)

And if you get tired of dancing, if your feet are about to trip over themselves in a stupor and your knees are weak and cracking with the effort of propelling your leaden legs into the air, then you are permitted a wee break to embrace a tree and re-energize.  What?  Yeah, that’s what I said.100_2009

As the evening sun began to slip into the naked branches proffered arms, bathing them in a golden glow, I caught glimpses of shadowy forms engaged in locked embrace with some of the more substantial members of our little forest.  Arms and legs wrapped around trunks, leaning in with head lying flat against bark, it seemed as if they were listening carefully for the thrum of a heartbeat, or perhaps the pulsing of sap coursing up through the roots to bring sunlight and energy to the higher branches, and the human partner so lovingly appended.

There was nothing “weird” about this – neither drugs nor excessive alcohol was to blame.  Tree hugging, apparently, is not so much an environmental catch phrase here as it is a reverent commentary on the relationship that Moldovans still actively hold with nature and the land, especially after hours of dancing leaves one spent and limp and in need of jolt of energy.  I was charmed, and humbled.  And  I refrained from taking pictures, as it was a too solemn, personal and seemingly sacred activity to demean by turning it into a voyeuristic photo opportunity.  (If Moldovans aren’t taken pictures, you know it must be anathema…)

My first celebration with my new partners was definitely a mind-expanding journey, though.  I was welcomed and integrated into the proceedings with no hesitancy or awkwardness.  After so many weeks of solitary confinement in a small bedroom, it felt good to be dancing.

100_2020
New violets and a quirky fungi
100_2000
Me – posed Moldovan style

Strașeni mă salută cu brațele deschis

100_1921
Priimarie (mayor’s office) Strașeni

Strașeni welcomes me with open arms!

The first day of spring (Moldovan style,) my new partner’s birthday, a commemoration of war heroes (Transnistria and Afghanistan,) and my first day of work all coincided to welcome me to my new home today.  What a day!

100_1919
Lots of trees in Strașeni

Marțișor is traditionally celebrated on the first day of March in Moldova – never mind when the actual equinox occurs.  Today was a perfect showcase for the celebration – brilliantly sunny with a bright blue sky ornamented with wispy clouds and framed by the bare, supplicating limbs of surrounding trees.  The chill nip of the morning was offset by the warmth of the sun blanketing my shoulders as I donned a sweater (no down parka needed) and set off down the road for my first day at the office.

100_1918
The road into town

When I arrived, Doamna Valentina presented me with a small bouquet for my lapel comprised of a red and white flower.  This is a tradition here; both women and men wear these for the whole month of March and on the last day one is supposed to place it in the boughs of a tree and make a wish.  True to Doamna Valentina’s reputation for thoroughness and efficiency, she presented me with three variations and a duplicate so I have sufficient resources to make it through the month’s end.

Marțișor lapel ornaments
Marțișor lapel ornaments

My Peace Corps Program Manager wisely insisted that the Doamna Valentina assign me a partner in her office with whom to work other than herself.  There are two reasons for this:

1) Peace Corps does not want to be perceived as providing “personal assistants” to political figures, which could be misinterpreted as favoring one particular party over the other, and 2) Mayors are way too busy to devote time to training and explaining tasks to a novice – especially one whose command of Românian is barely breaching middle-intermediate at best.

Poftim, enter Tatiana, my lovely, just-turned 23 partner who is the building and construction specialist for the mayor’s office.   And who speaks wonderful American English as a result of two summers recently spent in North Carolina in a work-and-learn program.   Tatiana – or Tania, for short – has a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering and is currently attending university in Chișinău to earn her Masterat (as they call it) in Real Estate.  Not sure how that translates to an American degree, but there you go.

The lovely Tania at the military memorial
The lovely Tania at the military memorial

She’s an intelligent, ambitious young woman who was not afraid to stand up to those male professors who didn’t believe a female had any business in their classrooms.  Her father is an engineer with his own construction business; apparently he is very successful and has engineered and built buildings throughout Moldova.  She is intent on joining his business and carrying on the family trade.

Afghan and Transnistria war plaques
Afghan and Transnistria war plaques

Almost immediately, Tania and I joined the entire office in a parade through the middle of town that ended in a gathering in a park to commemorate the “heroes” of the Afghan (1979-89) and Transnistrian (1992) wars.  There was much singing and awarding and speechifying and more singing, and then some fireworks exploding (literally) five feet to my right and it was finally over after about an hour of standing in the still chill air.

Returning to the office we began to prepare for Tania’s birthday masa.  In Moldova, birthdays are a bit more formal and serious in the manner in which a gift is presented to the celebrant.  One stands and receives with grace both the gift and a stream of felicitous wishes and declarations to health, happiness, long life, success, money, and love, after which kisses on both cheeks are exchanged.  Tania was receiving phone calls, bouquets of tulips (her favorite flower) and speeches from troops of co-workers entering her office for an hour before the meal began.

Tania’s father brought in a bucket load of food prepared by her mother; though neither attended the 100_1941celebration her brother and his girlfriend stopped by.  We fit about 15 people around the table to eat and drink homemade wine and cognac.  It was a lovely way for me to meet everyone.

Everyone in Moldova is bi- or tri- (and sometimes more, what is that – quatro?) lingual – I feel quite provincial in their midst, but they laugh and tell me “If you know English, you know all you need to know.”  They are quite excited to have a native speaker among them and are already clamoring for English lessons (the bane of PCVs everywhere….)

100_1942

There are actually quite a number of young people in the office who speak passable English, either because they have traveled to America or have lived in Europe at one point or another or learned it in school.  While it will be easy to drop back into English when the going gets tough, Doamna Valentina does not speak English and I must remember that it would be bad form to exclude her from conversations when she is present.

By the time the food was finished and the dishes cleaned and the furniture returned to proper placement, it was time for Tatiana to leave.  Her birthday was just beginning and there was much to do at home to prepare.

I returned back to Neoumanist, the NGO that is allowing me to stay in the volunteer quarters until I find my own apartment.  The apartment is actually in the building that serves as the senior day center, and I just taken off my sweater and set down my purse when a lovely melody arose from the front hallway.  I opened my door to find four babushkas, complete with head scarves and wooden canes sitting on the bench outside my room harmonizing an old folk song together.  (I tried to upload the video I made but my internet connection is too slow.)

I feel so fortunate that all the weeks of waiting have paid off – the people here at Neoumanist are all cheerful and upbeat and welcoming (and many of them also speak English!) The mayor’s office is a beehive of activity and everyone seems to get along well and enjoy each other’s company.  I am living alone (!!!) and cooking for myself in a kitchen where I don’t have to worry about infringing on someone else’s domain.  And I am 15 minutes from Chișinău, to boot.

Spring – and new beginnings – in the air……

A Moroccan Perspective (ad-libbing The Newsroom)

Peace Corps is not the Greatest International Development Organization in the World

I spent my winter vacation in Morocco – a lovely and exotic destination made more compelling by the fact that it is a Peace Corps country.  As we enjoyed the sun on the beach, the flavorful food, the architectural splendor, the artfully placed tiles, my traveling companions and I had to continually resist comparing our PC experience with what we imagined a PCV’s in Morocco would be.

This particular blog posting from a Moroccan PCV is one of those that seems to have taken on a viral life of its own, I think because the truth she voices resonates so deeply with so many of us, both current PCVs and RCPVs, as well Peace Corps agency staff.  (Be sure to read the comments below – they are a lesson in themselves and have continued on long past the original blog post date.)

As I reflected in my own comment on the blog, the grass may seem greener elsewhere when gazed upon from afar, but then again we may not realize why the grass is so green (when desert surrounds it) and whose playing ball on that particular field….

Here I am…

Having returned (and survived) six days of training, intensive language study, and meetings in Chișinău, I thought I would catch up those of you who care here instead of writing emails explaining my protracted online absence (sorry Mom!)

PDM – Project Design Management

(or, how to get your partner to finally believe what you’ve been saying all along)

Though many PCVs will complain about having to sit through trainings, in the end this one proved to be one of the more helpful ones we’ve endured.  Although I am currently without a partner, I did attend and sat in on discussions between a couple of my friends and their partners.  All of the volunteers I spoke with commented on experiencing that hit-yourself-on-the-head moment when they witnessed their Moldovan counterpart nodding in sage agreement to something that the trainer had said, usually a basic bit of standard accounting  practice or how to properly state objectives or putting outcome measurements in place that were just not accepted or valued when articulated by the volunteer at site.  (Of course, most of us have trouble articulating anything more profound than inquiring after someone’s family or refusing a third cup of wine, so perhaps it was all lost in translation.)

PC Moldova staff seems to understand and appreciate the basic cultural chasms that threaten to engulf all one’s good intentions and resolute cheer and hence schedule training at strategic points throughout one’s service in anticipation. This one definitely hit the mark.  While it was somewhat disappointing to be there stag, it was good to be part of the general positivity and energy in the room for the two and half days of the training.

The nights are another matter altogether….

Because our times together as a group are dwindling, volunteers took full advantage of the opportunity to “be American” and hang out together in the big city. My preference for smaller groups and more intimate gatherings kept me generally out of the loop; the one night I did join in – Friday – I suffered the casualty of discovering my iPhone swimming in a puddle of red wine on a table where I had left it unattended for a span of minutes.  The screen is now obstinately silver gray and I can only see the icons by holding it to a bright light and tilting it at an angle. Sigh.

Language Training

(or, stepping up to the broader conversation topics just beyond a third grader’s reach)

Although I am fortunate to have the services of a superior language teacher at site, many volunteers live so far out that they have no access to regular, quality language instruction.  So Peace Corps provides this last little bit of help to launch us beyond subject-verb clauses into more meaty discussions containing direct/indirect objects, subjunctive phrases and maybe an adverb or two.  Poftim.

What I enjoyed most about this two day session was the opportunity to speak at length with the instructor without having to remain on a third grade level.  She helped us formulate our thoughts and clarify our responses to queries ranging from family dynamics (“Who should be responsible for finances in a family, husband or wife?”) to personal goals and objectives (“Is it important to strive for a good professional position?”) to  the political arena (“Do you think Moldova would benefit from joining the European Union?”)  It is wicked good to be able to converse with a host country national in their native language on topics beyond daily schedules and sustenance. Because I often times have trouble following the rapid speaking styles of most people here, I just can’t maintain my end of the conversation in these areas in most instances.

Sunday, through several hours of unhurried conversation, I discovered our instructor to be thoughtful, sensitive, hopeful, and a huge fan of Americans.  She commented at length on how becoming a Language Teaching Instructor (LTI) for Peace Corps Moldova has changed her way of being in the world.  When she was first hired, she went through a series of trainings that taught her about how Americans typically behave and perceive others, and it made her consider the manner in which she usually reciprocated – not only to Americans but even relative to other Moldovans.  Now she understands and appreciates the value of exchanging smiles with people walking on the street, or cultivating relationships with the checker at the market, or being more empathetic with the fifth-level students at her school who chafe at rules and recitations.  The Second Goal of the Peace Corps – helping to promote a better understanding of Americans in the people served – has an impact even within the context of Moldovan’s relationships with each other and not just for those who might conceivably travel or live in the United States at some point. This intelligent and inquisitive woman has gained a broader perspective of what it means to be human and I was very proud realizing that America had a piece in her learning.

Turul Moldovei 2013

(Or, the announcement you’ve all been waiting for…)

I am aware that every time I’ve happened to mention Turul Moldovei in this blog I’ve followed it with “more about that later.”  Well, ‘later’ has arrived as I think it’s just now hit home to me and my fellow organizers that June is going to be on us in the blink of an eye.  (Which is very strange to acknowledge as June will mean I’ve hit the half way mark of my service.)

One of my very good friends here, Sue, was sitting at the bar with all of us during PST – way back in July or August, so very long ago – and tossed out the observation that since this country was so very small compared to others where we could’ve been placed, we should just get together and walk through the damn thing, border to border – just for the heck of it!  Because we’re Americans and that’s what we American’s do!

Well, we all thought this was a jolly good idea (beers having been consumed, after all) but instead of just letting it die in the puddles on the table, we’ve nudged it along through the ensuing months and actually gave it some legs during our last training in September, when we held an interest group session to communicate the idea to the other volunteers, until now it has suddenly become bold enough to star as one of two main events recognizing the 20th Anniversary of Peace Corps Moldova.  Whew!

In a nutshell, two groups of volunteers – and, hopefully, lots of Moldovans – will be walking either a northern or southern route from June 15 – 30, meeting in Chisinau on the final day.  We will be holding events at each stop along the way to highlight the accomplishments of Peace Corps Moldova, to create visibility and excitement for volunteering in general, and to celebrate an active and healthy lifestyle. We will be sleeping under trees, on school room floors, in community centers (or with the pigs, cows, and chickens, for all we know,) as we are relying on the villages to put us up at night and provide us food after the day’s event.  It is in an excellent opportunity to broaden America’s visibility to those Moldovans who might not ever leave the intimate world of their small town and for us to get to know those who have been so hospitable and kind to Americans throughout our service here.  I am really excited about this (though I am not sure my diva knee will let me walk the entire 200-260 kilometers!)

I am collaborating with Sue and a Health Education PCV to steer the work on this project and have just volunteered to write the proposal for a PCPP grant.  Peace Corps Partnership Proposals allow volunteers to seek funding from organizations and individuals in America, on a tax-deductible basis, for projects that build capacity or transfer skills to host country nationals. Though I am not yet entirely sure if our project will meet the strict guidelines, I do hope that if it comes through many of you will consider making even a token contribution.  It is a way to create and sustain a bridge between my two lives and for all of you to collaborate with me in making a lasting impact here that will resonate long after I am gone…

More on this later!

I’d like you to meet Patience, the humble virtue

Fair warning: Not entirely unlike my others, but certainly to a greater degree, this blog is entirely self-involved and navel-focused.  If you generally read my postings while half asleep, this one will put you there in no time.  If you’re in a really good mood, you should probably put off reading it for another day.  If your bored already, it just might do you in.  There are no beautiful pictures or entertaining anecdotes to amuse you.  How’s that for putting off any potential readers?  But  of course, I’d appreciate the audience anyways….

_________________________________________________________________________________

You know how it is when someone (usually a parent or spouse or sibling) tells you something that you feel like you already know and you kind of nod your head and simper, trying to look attentive and appreciative, but inside you’re saying:

Got it covered. I’m capable!

Okay, come on now, we both know I’ve been alive for more than two decades, for pete’s sake!

I know this already. I know this already. I know this already.

Really?  Do you imagine I’m that stupid?

I grew the ef’’n turnips this bloody truck is sending to market, give me a break!

or some other such permutation of narcissistic arrogance?  Such is the case with most of us potential PCVs who scan the provided literature, nod our heads sagely, and then proceed to jump up and down with enthusiasm and glee before eagerly putting pen to the dotted line.  Of course there will be frustrations and the need to adapt and periods of ambiguity and challenge, but it is all part and parcel of the grand adventure and the mind-altering journey and the uplifting opportunity to be of service and the blessing of subsuming humbly to a greater good….of course I can handle it!  I am Ghandi and Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King and Albert Schweitzer and Sargent Shriver all bundled up in one tidy little package, ready to be shipped overseas!

Yeah.  Let’s talk about that.

See, this the thing that I’ve come to believe about us Peace Corps Volunteers.  If you look real close, I bet you might find many of us (not all mind you, one can never generalize to that extent) to be hyper-inflated, self-engrossed, experience-greedy, over-achievers masquerading as retro-liberal, greater-good-minded, altruistic missionaries spreading peace and friendship. The Peace Corps is a relatively difficult organization to join, given the lack of motivational pay and impoverished living conditions that must be endured.  The big prize you get is the untarnished badge of courage. You immediately and effortlessly earn the gaping admiration of all of those back home who sing a chorus of wonder at your bravery and selflessness.  How can you do it, they ask? Leave friends and family and the comforts of home to strike out for the great (unwashed) unknown?  What a saintly soul you harbor in your humble breast!

And soon, you imagine, you will be in the position to gratify their approbation by sharing swashbuckling tales of humanitarian magnitude: how you single-handedly  assisted the overworked midwife delivering  a baby in the fly-specked hut; constructed stout sewers to port away disease-mongering  filth; funded innovative treatment plants to make the village water safe; plaited purses from gum wrappers to help domestic violence victims achieve economic independence; built schools out of mud and straw to educate the next generation and hospitals to treat the discarded and greenhouses to feed the hungry and windmills to power it all, and oh, by the way, taught English to would-be social entrepreneurs in your spare time, all the while knowing you were icing your resume and weaving a global network of potential partners and acquiring powerful contacts in embassies and international NGOs to assist your ultimate goal to travel the world and live in exotic locations on someone else’s dime.

Except when you can’t.  Because you haven’t done anything to merit even the smallest bragging rights that you assumed as your entitlement once you debarked the plane.

Ok, I probably sound cynical.  But you’d be surprised.  Or maybe you wouldn’t   Maybe it’s an unaccountable naivete that has heretofore blinded me to the self-aggrandizing ends that serve to motivate some of the best work done in this world.  Poftim.

Something inside me has always impelled me to achieve, at times without a larger purpose or vision, but always to prove that whatever I undertook I could accomplish well.  I don’t know if it was the oldest child syndrome, or a sublimated competitive drive that didn’t get expressed through sports, or just a preference for directed action as an occluding buffer against the persistent whispering of samsara, but I’ve prided myself on my ability to perform above average in most professional and educational circumstances, thereby cementing my sense of self-worth and bolstering other’s opinion of me. (Of course, I didn’t go to Harvard or work for Apple, so my means of testing myself were pretty confined.)  I didn’t expect to be seven months into this endeavor with not a damn thing to show for the time but a remedial ability to speak a provincial language and a healthy case of psoriasis. Here I am, an unremarkable thumbnail (in the immortal words of Sue!) on the Peace Corps’ global screen of achievements. There are many, many other (most, much younger, I might add) PCVs who are succeeding in ways that I’m not even close to touching at this point.  My resume looks pretty bland and the address book painfully thin.

At the end of December, my partner left her position with the organization where I was placed in August after my Pre-Service Training.  Because Peace Corps assigns volunteers to a partnership rather than an organization and because, for a variety of reasons, there was no alternate partner for me there, I had to leave, tail between my legs, along with her.   The time preceding this ignominious, inconclusive end had been fraught with frustration and inaction. Our hands were tied on so many levels that we faced the impending train wreck like helpless maidens forsaken on the rails by a faceless agent of doom.  Fortunately, I had a two week vacation scheduled just about that time which provided a needed (and very pleasurable) measure of distraction, but since the second week of January I have been sitting in my room, trying not to dwell on my ineffectiveness by watching movies, reading books, snacking more than I should, and avoiding YouTube videos that could be teaching me how to knit.  (This last activity just seemed to be too sad, launching me into full-fledged spinsterhood WAY before my time.)

The experienced PCV will tell you that winter is a period of hibernation in Moldova: from the beginning of December through mid-January, there are a steady series of holidays that mandate a great deal of eating, drinking, and dancing, but after that most Moldovans hunker down to wait out the cold and the snow. In contrast to your typical Americans, who greet the New Year with to-do lists, grandiose resolutions, new cookbooks and expensive gym memberships, Moldovans seem to accept Mother Nature’s cyclical guidelines and slow down their activity levels during these frigid months.  Hence, it is not the best time of year to go foraging for a new partner.

I have received much good advice from those who have been here a year or two longer than me.  “Slow down, take it easy, appreciate this time of reflection.  Let go of the compulsion to be so American, the need to do, do, do.  Learn to follow gracefully the seasons’ lead and relinquish frenetic energy to these meditative months of withdrawal and inactivity.  And this is very good advice.  (Remember that head nodding and simpering?)  Advice that I imagine will be much easier to apply once I have another year under my belt and can reflect back on a spring, summer, and fall replete with a small successes, challenges overcome, and the fruits of my labors gleaming, plump and robust, in the storehouse of memory.

I find that I am not productively managing the acres of empty hours stretching before me.  While part of the incentive for joining the Peace Corps, believe it or not, was the thought of those empty acres that could be cultivated with writing and journaling and blogging and researching publishing avenues for the next generation Eat, Pray Love that I intended to compose during my time here, the tillage period has proved to be never ending and the seeds of experience are slipping through my fingers like sand.  I can’t grasp onto anything tangible to prove my mettle or worth, have produced nothing remarkable or noteworthy, haven’t had an iota of lasting impact, and the friends that I made have scattered in the aftermath of the events that blasted me from my site.

Perhaps it is more that I feel guilty.  As if, like the proverbial grasshopper versus the industrious ant, I have somehow neglected to provide for my own nourishment during these lean times.  I am restless and unsettled and have a perennial churning in my gut.  The future is uncertain and the recent past a wobbly structure not capable of supporting my current anxieties.  Like those fraught filled moments when you teeter at the apex of the roller coaster before heading down, I realize that I put myself on this ride but at this very moment I can’t quite recall why I imagined it would be fun.

This experience is altering me in ways I didn’t consider but probably need.  While I am not one to steer my ship by someone else’s stars, I realize now that, after I have plotted my course of action, I typically seek the comfort of external validation before proceeding .   This time, for the first time – at 51 years old, no less – I find myself on my own and surprisingly lost at sea.  I joined the Peace Corps, received my standing ovation, and now the lights have dimmed and the audience departed and am left in an echoing auditorium to contemplate how minor role my role in this drama could turn out to be.

No one else, not even another PCV, can comprehend my extant situation clearly or advise me on the best course of action or whether action is even possible or necessary. All further lines and plot developments are shrouded in mystery, author unknown as of now.  We come into service by ourselves (excluding the married couples) and will need to make decisions and move forward – or sideways or backwards or downwards or not at all – on our own.  So this characteristic of mine to think about a problem from every angle, but then perform back up analysis through another’s viewpoint in order to most thoroughly anticipate and manage possible  repercussions and outcomes, is completely thwarted here. Plus, I am not able to assuage my need for confirmation of my decisions by others who can be counted on for support and hoorahs.

Seemingly out of the blue, though (but perhaps not,) in response to an incoherent whine about my befuddled mindscape, my brilliant pen pal offered me a bit of sage commentary (completely circumventing my argument above that no one can offer me relevant advice):

Maybe you can’t know ahead of time about any of it. Maybe the best thing can’t be figured out by you with what you know. Sometimes something brilliant comes along that we couldn’t have figured out ourselves, and in fact we might have shunned as a lesser choice. And it turns out that the universe, or whoever, knows more than we do. Are you able to let go, relax, and just see what happens? 

I find myself mired in circumstances that I don’t have much control over, but maybe that’s the point: these are circumstances I don’t have much control over.  I am not able to consume myself with planning and strategizing and plotting and thinking and being brilliantly proactive in anticipating every nuanced outcome, then parading my analysis before my peers for applause and approbation.  At this point all I can pretty much do is throw my hands up in the air and yield to the organ-unfurling plunge.  Hopefully, the ride will turn out to be as amazingly mind-blowing as I once was so certain it would be.  Meanwhile, my mental furniture is being forcibly rearranged and refurbished by concepts that I would never imagined entertaining previously.  Like age and experience doesn’t always equate to an advantage in any given circumstance.  Or that logic and reason can effectively inoculate one against unexpected fall outs.  That the virtue that develops from patience is not one of one of spiritual calmness enveloping frustrations in a soothing blankness and calming worries to sleep, but the protective, hide-like callous born of constant friction, irritation, and sometimes pain that allows you to endure without seeking surcease from the torture.

So the one blessed thing for me right now, I’ve suddenly realized, is that I have created this megaphone to scream through when I need to, this outlet for stultified activity, this navel-gazing blog – my somewhat ironic tribute to the third goal of Peace Corps: Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans by complaining.  And through that process I have received so much unexpected support, encouragement, empathy, and love from people back home that I feel like I have a virtual bridge I can walk across online anytime to seek out a hug when needed.  I am so blessed.  Not by what I’ve done, but by what I’ve received.

And maybe the Peace Corps experience, in the end, will prove to be an exercise in developing and formulating better Americans, both those that go and those who witness and encourage them – despite all the setbacks and disappointments and early terminations and unrealized expectations and unattained goals – from home.  Maybe it’s good to know and to experience the fact that we – dare I call us a land of hyper-inflated, self-engrossed, materially-driven, over achievers masquerading as the world’s superhero? – cannot and therefore should not attempt to make over other countries and peoples in our own rather distorted image.  Maybe this journey is about humility after all, about NOT succeeding, about being at the mercy of forces outside of our control and still doing one’s humble best to influence them for the better and smile during the process.  Perhaps I need to take a back seat and just shut up and enjoy the ride.

I certainly hope that I am providing some measure of insight into this journey to others whose bravery and courage is not set on a global stage, but is attained through less visible but no less remarkable endeavors closer to home.  My own process of self-discovery is revealing how thoroughly and completely American I am, through and through. And that is neither a wholly positive nor irretrievably negative attribute.  But it does color what I choose to attend to, the depth and volume of that attention, and what effect it may have on its object. With half my life already lived I realize that there are aspects of myself that I have never met – unexamined expectations, assumptions, limitations, and aspirations that might be better served with a dose of patience.  Teach me, Moldova.  I think I’m finally ready to let you drive.

__________________________________________________________________________________

PS: And to all of you prospective volunteers out there reading this blog in hopes of getting an edge on what the future holds, let me just reiterate what you’ve already been told and probably passed over blithely a hundred times already (and will not absorb any better this time either, because you just can’t.) You won’t know what it’s like until you do it and you can’t prepare for it ahead of time because no one can describe the exact circumstances that are even now conspiring to thwart your thralldom to Peace Corps and undermine your determination to be THE best volunteer ever who never complains or sees anything but the positive and describes her 27 months of service as the nexus of all that she aspired to be and learn in this world during the press interview for her surprise, runaway bestseller.  But do it anyway.  And bookmark this posting, because after you have confronted and endured your own thousand foot drop I’d love to hear how scary/mind-altering/exhilarating/humbling/educational the ride proved to be.  Let’s compare notes and celebrate surviving the Peace Corps roller coaster!

 

Morocco – the Grand Bazaar

IMG_0889

One of the interesting things I’ve noted about many PCV blogs is how much time falls between a vacation and the recounting of its particulars in a post.  I used to attribute that to all the work that must have backed up in the person’s absence: she just needed time to play catch up.  Now, having taken my first out-of-country vacation since coming to Moldova last June, I think I understand the real reason for the elapsed time is the need to get a more objective perspective on the experience.  But you all know me better than that by now.  To hell with perspective.  I write it the way I feel it, fresh from the press. Though I did wait a week for at least a little cushion….

IMG_0986

The first thing I noticed was the air’s amiability, its willingness to billow lightly like a cotton sheath about my body and refrain from teething its way into the crevices of my garments.  I hadn’t quite prepared for it, having kept on the tights and the leggings under my sturdy canvas hiking pants, donned my jacket and wrapped my scarf about my head as if I were still gearing up for a bracing march through the hinterlands when we disembarked from our taxi to walk the 200 yards to our riad.  To say that I over-prepared is an understatement. All through the trip I was amused by the jackets and hats sported by other tourists: apparently they must have traveled from warmer climes or possess a much lower personal thermostat than mine.  The weather, usually in the low 60’s, felt balmy to me.

IMG_0831 IMG_0833 IMG_0834

The next thing to snag my attention was the juxtaposition of colors, textures and patterns: tiles, pottery, doorways, spices, lanterns, robes, scarves, vegetables, the damn paint on the buildings – everything was riotously colored and intricately detailed, formulated with an appreciative attention to beauty, artful in its mere placement.  After bland, non-descript Soviet architecture, mono-ethnicity, and the narrow range of winter food stuffs I left in Moldova, the richness of the Berber/Moroccan culture was a symphony of the senses.  (To give you an idea, I took over 500 pictures – only 10 or 12 of them have a human subject.  I was taking pictures of our dinner.  I know Mom, I’m sorry.)

But by the time we were lost in the souk – the meandering maze of ancient shops that comprise the heart of the medina – the small irritation that would soon bleed into almost every aspect of the trip had blossomed.  I had temporarily forgotten, sitting in my Moldovan bedroom dreaming of sunshine and spices, that yet again I was placing myself in the role of “tourist” in a foreign economy heavily dependent on consumer cash.  This experience had irretrievably affected me during my trip to South America and was compounded last spring when I traveled with a group to study poverty in Guatemala.  I did not exist in Marrakech as a unique individual arriving to engage with a new culture and people, ecstatically anticipating all the personal encounters and experiences that would litter my path, but rather as a walking wallet, bulging with money that enticed the vendors to the greatest heights (and lows) of fatuous flattery, witty double entendres, crafty cajolery, pitiful pleas, and – unfortunately outright resentment.  Everywhere we went we were trailed by a cacophony of calls, some of it with physical accompaniment – an arresting hand on the arm, a body blocking your egress, or a hovering shadow trailing you to the next stall.  Echoes of former trips returned to me and I think I was more immediately and negatively affected by it then my traveling companions.  Admittedly, I was a tourist. But I think I had wished to pay for an experience more than I wanted to accumulate talismans.  I did not do a good job of planning ahead to avert this. Next trip, I hope to remember this lesson and avoid the marketplaces whenever feasible.

IMG_0896But there were highlights:  a trip out into the desert to visit a Berber village with a pit stop at an argan tree co-op where various health and beauty concoctions were formulated on site.  (Thought the end result was a sales pitch, it was interesting to see how the seed was ground into oil and to learn about the miraculous benefits of this ancient oil.)  We hiked up to waterfall and had lunch at a quaint café while being serenaded by a local troupe of musicians.  We road camels on a beautiful stretch of largely empty beach.  We watched the sunset from the ramparts of the medina wall in Essaouira.  We met lovely people working in the various hostels and riads where we stayed.  We ate at Rick’s Café in Casablanca.IMG_0937

And the beauty of the place won out in the end.  All the colors and the history and the wealth of architectural detail coupled with the soft ocean breezes and the beautiful, warming sun – we couldn’t help but fantasize how different our PC experience might have been if we had been placed in Morocco, instead.  (And then I happened upon – completely serendipitously – this blog by a PCV Morocco today and my wonderings were assuaged: http://quinninmorocco.wordpress.com/2013/01/01/peace-corps-is-not-the-greatest-international-development-organization-in-the-world. The PC experience is essentially the same wherever you land.)

I returned last week and am currently in a (very frustrating) holding pattern.  My site closed at the end of the year and Peace Corps is assisting me in finding a new partner.  But it a long, slow process, fraught with many pitfalls and u-turns, so far.  It is hard to start off the New Year with no clear direction, no work in hand and none in my sights so far.  But this is Peace Corps….poftim!