Tuesday, September 25, 2012

La revedere Romania



It’s been a long three years and from day one it was clear that Peace Corps wasn’t going to be one of those experiences that would just “fly by”.  Days are long when you’re struggling to find out what is going on around you, days are long when you roam around a large city with a 50 pound backpack, days are long when you’re standing in front of 15 kids who think and know they can do whatever they want and you can’t do anything about it, days are long when you see what you think is the top but when you reach it you realize that there is much more climbing to do.  The experience over these past three was surely a long one and it did not fly by, instead I would say that it kind of dragged.  They say that time flies when you’re having fun but I no longer agree with that statement 100%.  Through the good times and the bad, the challenges and the accomplishments, the experience was surely a fun one, but it did not fly by. 

Chapter 1: PST

This blog was started shortly after my first chapter in Romania ended, Pre-service Training (PST).  PST was 11 weeks of intense technical and language training that took place in Targoviste, the old Romanian capital just 1.5 hours north of the current one.  PST is a time of training but it is also a time when a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) gets to know fellow group members, members of other groups already in-country, and Peace Corps staff.  It is also a time to begin working on integration into a new Romanian community.  All trainees live with hosts during PST where they must address both communication challenges as well as challenges adapting to a new place.  The most nerve racking experience of my life was the morning when I met my host and I’ll never forget it.  Once my host came and sat down in the seat across from me my emotions were eased as she was a young student speaking English, leading her brother and her mother through the experience of hosting a volunteer.  Her brother, taller than her but younger, stood next to her wearing corn-rows and a hip hop t-shirt added some comedic relief to the situation. 

Those three, led by my host sister Denisa, took my hand and helped me through my first integration experience in Romania.  They taught me so much about life in Romania in such a short time and I’ll never forget our experiences hiking through the field behind the house, visiting grandma in the next village down the road, or sitting on the terasa eating dinner, a snack, or just chatting. 

PST Thank yous: 
Thanks to my host family, Ofelia, Denisa, Iulian senior and Iulian junior.  Thank you to my fellow volunteers who I kicked it with at the old man bar after sessions, to language staff for making lessons fun and engaging, to training staff for all of the planning and understanding when we fell asleep during sessions, to the PCVLs and other PCV trainers for sharing their experiences and helping us through our first weeks, and to the CD for his inspiring words. 


Chapter 2: Petrosani

The stars aligned and I arrived in Petrosani.  I couldn’t have conceived of a more fitting location for me.  The small mining hub in the west of Romania welcomed me in to its valley surrounded by beautiful mountains following an exciting cruise through a winding gorge.  The Jiu valley is known throughout Romania as being a pretty depressed region but it is known throughout Peace Corps Romania as being an especially hospitable region.  Even though school was difficult at times I always had things to look forward to in Petrosani, whether it be my English club on Tuesday or a nice hike in Parang on Saturday.  I got to know the region well by kicking around it with my community member and maybe even a few students or friends loyal to the idea of getting up kind of early to have a good time on a Saturday.  While teaching English to students of Dimitrie Leonida those same students where teaching me how things work in an industrial school in Romania, life in the Jiu Valley, and how to motivate students in the classroom.  Petrosani is my second home and I will always be looking forward to my next visit back.  

Petrosani Thank yous: 
Thanks to Ester for bringing me there, Anca and Zina for the first welcome, and the rest of my colleagues for having me in their cancelaria, chatting with me and having patients.  Thanks to Joel for being like an older, wiser brother showing me the ropes and introducing me to some great people.  Thanks to Leddy and Dan for making me a part of their family.  The Damians for all of the great conversation and practice, during and after the tutor sessions.  Sanda for the Romanian help.  Alin, Arpi, and Amanda for carrying our English club activities into friendships.  Last but most certainly not least, thanks to Ernest for guiding me through life in Petrosani from start to finish, all of the help, the daily coffees, good conversation, and for making this an unforgettable experience. 


Chapter 3: Bucharest

After such a great time in Petrosani and progress with the language, a one year extension was in order.  The desire for something new led me to a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader (PCVL) position at the Peace Corps office in Bucharest.  This position gave me the opportunity to work in an office, train fellow volunteers, work with a local NGO (MaiMultVerde), and so much more.  In just one year I feel like I accomplished much.  My position as a volunteer coordinator at MaiMultVerde allowed me the opportunity to meet volunteers, young and old, get to know them, and develop relationships with them.  Even if I was only there for just one year, those relationships made leaving Bucharest difficult.  The Peace Corps office was a great place for me to sit around and chat.  I got to know the staff so well, see how things run at that level and also have time for some volunteer support.  Even though so much hanging around and chatting goes on at the Peace Corps office, I felt that I was working with an extremely professional group of people who are the best, and do the best job that they can in the office.  I learned so much about work relationships at the Peace Corps office. 

Bucharest Thank yous: 
PCV’s for your good conversations and telling me stories about what’s happening at your sites.  The program team for always being there to help me with things that I’m doing, questions that I have.  Manuela for the sweet sounds soothing me into an afternoon work jam.  Thanks to Courtney for sharing the experience with me and being a great friend. Thanks to Sheila and Erin for the chatting and guidance.  Finally to all other PCRo staff for doing what you do so well and welcoming me into the office.  All MMV staff for making me feel like part of the team and for working so hard on projects that get Romanians out, lending a helping hand for their environment.  To MMV volunteers for taking time out of your week to work a bit for a better Romania.  You are all very special people.  Finally thanks to Mihaela, Flori, Tataia and Mamaia for welcoming to their family and making my Bucharest a much brighter place for me. 


Multumesc pentru tot ceea ce ati facut pentru mine. 
O sa imi fie dor de voi.  
Mai vedem in curand.

La revedere. 


 
 The crowd at the Red Hot Chilli Peppers concert on my last night in Romania.  Thanks MMV for the tickets.  A special and unexpected ending to a special experience. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Festival Season


Ten years ago it was the warped tour, five years ago it was the Finger Lakes wine festival, and last weekend it was AdFel, a festival of unconventional advertising.  In between, some of my personal favorites included Bonnarroo, grassroots, and Jazz Freedom.  Summer time is festival time and since the warped tours of my teenage years, summer festivals have always proved to be unique experiences that produce some lasting memories.  Though my favorites always seem to be the music festivals (warped, bonnarroo, peninsula) there are other types of festivals that I have also enjoyed over the years (harvest festival, wine fest, beer fest, adfel). 

Whatever the reason for celebration, summer seems to be the time to do it.  Up until this year I never really noticed that summer time is the festival season.  From the time I moved to Bucharest in September 2011 I have been constantly keeping my ears and eyes open, searching for fun things to do.  Admittedly it was kind of slow at first.  I didn’t know where to look to find things that I would find interesting.  When summertime came suddenly there were always things going on and everything lasting more than one day was called a festival. 

Adding to the excitement of summer and upcoming festivities, a large part of my position as volunteer coordinator at MaiMultVerde (MMV) was to actually work at some of those festivals.  This perk to my job at MMV was a pleasant surprise when the warm weather started rolling around.  I remembered a desire I used to have to work for free festival tickets as a volunteer at Bonnarroo and here I was, doing just that, at festivals in and around Bucharest.  I was responsible for arranging and coordinating volunteers at a MMV stand at four festivals.  At the stand we gave away some of our annual reports, sold greeting cards to raise funds for a tree-planting activity, and at times we rented out bicycles.  Pulling from MaiMultVerde’s large community of volunteers I was able to schedule shifts at the stands so that not only did we sell stuff and promote MMV, but we all had opportunities to walk around the festival and enjoy what others were offering. 

View from our stand
Festival season began with Femei pe Matasari.  Matasari is a street in Bucharest known for its shady characters and prostitution.  As the story goes, a local photographer moved into a house on the street and wanted to bring attention to the situation there in a positive way.  By doing this he started the festival Femei pe Matasari which means “the women on Matasari street”.  The festival itself is a kind of an art festival bringing together local artist exhibiting and selling their goods, and NGO’s recruiting people and gaining support in the community.  A stage was located at the end of the street as each day’s activities culminated in a musical performance after the sun went down.  The MMV stand had prime location across the street from the festival house, under a wave of suspended umbrellas, and next to a large patch of grass brought in for relaxation purposes.  The cicloteque bikes were the hit of our stand but we did end up selling quite a bit with our prime locations in a high-traffic area. 

Recicloniada was a hot Friday afternoon under a small tent spraying cool mist over me.  Ok that wasn’t it.  Yet again we had our annual reports and greeting cards laid out next to our plastic collection container resembling a tree trunk.  I sat there with Elvy, an active MMV volunteer and good friend since my early days at the NGO and Cristina, a fresh new face on the MaiMultVerde volunteer team.  A chat about Zdob si Zdub commenced soon after I noticed her strong Moldovan accent.  We sat, awaiting customers that for the most part didn’t come, and of course a concert that I had to miss for previous engagements.  The evening replacements actually made for a fairly successful Friday.  The festival itself was put on by the organization leading Romania in its efforts to collect recyclable material, Eco-Rom Ambalaje.  A free, day-long festival in the middle of Bucharest featuring some pretty well known bands was there way of getting the word out.  Actually, I can’t say that the show was free.  Entrance fee was 10 recyclable items making for a clean old city center. 

B’Est Fest stands for Bucharest Fest and it is in its third or forth year at this point.  It could possibly be the largest music festival in Bucharest even though this year it wasn’t exactly in Bucharest.  Tunari, a small village just beyond the northern boundary of the city hosted the festival this year and a tent there hosted yours truly.  MaiMultVerde was located in Green Village at the festival, though few would know.  Green Village, within sight of the main stage, was not necessarily within sight of the spectators who strolled by without noticing the stands, bright colors, bikes, and green of the tent off to the side.  Organizers of Green Village attempted to attract attention to the area by setting up an autograph series there but the only musician to actually show up when they were supposed to was a friendly young singer named Millow who gained his fame from covering a Justin Timberlake tune.  The long festival hours over the course of several days allowed for much participation on the part of MMV volunteers and during the few-day festival I had a chance not only to work with some volunteers that I knew well from previous activities, but also some new faces that will hopefully continue to take part in MMV’s actions.  Despite the weak traffic at our stand the volunteers were determined to get the word out and they took materials out of our tent to the crowds of festival goers to make the weekend’s fundraising a success.  Music highlight of B’Est included Garbage (never-ever thought I’d see this band), Subcarpati, and Caro Emerald (great show). 

Adfel Festival is a festival of unconventional advertising.  The festival itself was quite unconventional as it took place at a restaurant/club.  MMV was located off to the side in the sandy kids play area.  Though at times it seemed like a location off to the side and out of sight, with a little help from the organizers and some determination on the part of our volunteers we ended up succeeding with raising some funds.  Our stand made a strong call against the desertification of Romania by calling on the public to help us plant trees in order to avoid the looming threat of water shortages and sandstorms.  In the process they could take a picture as a Bedouin with his camel to try and foreshadow the unfavorable conditions if we continue cutting down trees.  I found the whole bit to be quite nice and fun especially considering our location in the sand.  In addition to the conditions, a co-worker of mine invited his fire throwing friend by our stand to put on a pretty neat show.  Check it out below. 
video

And so went festival season 2012 until now.  From what I hear there is a strong possibility for some more festivals to pop up after my time here expires, namely NGO Fest.  Personally I am not an effective salesman, never was, and never felt comfortable doing it.  Maybe this is why my great volunteer colleagues and friends were more effective at selling greeting cards and trees than I.  What I could sell and actually enjoy selling are ideas that I believe it.  MaiMultVerde is one of those things that I believe in that I don’t mind selling at least a bit.  What do I mean by selling?  I saw my job at the stand as a promoter and recruiter of volunteers for the environment.  My line was usually something to the effect of “o and by the way, we’ll send you an invitation to come plant the tree that you donate”.  The rewarding experience for me is getting out and taking action, more so than dropping money into an envelope.  It is that rewarding experience that I think can make the lives of our supporters more rich and exciting, while creating more involved and dedicated volunteers for MaiMultVerde.  Plus, I had the opportunity to check out these cool summer festivals. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Vama

From day one the words were whispered through the training site halls.  Those volunteers who had been here some time, who had traveled the country, who knew most of the other volunteers, were uttering the phrase.  It could have either been the making of plans or the envious gossip but for a trainee just entering the country the words "Vama Veche" held a mystery and excitement in those first weeks of summer 2009.  The mystery remained as so until last weekends long awaited jaunt to the seaside.

Over the past three years I've heard many mixed feelings about the beach-town Vama Veche but the opinions started flying from the very first week in the country when some group 25 volunteers were planning a repeat trip to the southern most village in Romania.  "O Vama's crazy" they would say as I began asking about it.  "What happens in Vama stays in Vama," they said as they continued to tell me their stories that probably should have been forgotten on their long road out of the sea-side village.  Either way I had to find out more and after asking several people about it I continued to receive conflicting reports:  "It's a rocker beach", "It's a hippie beach", "It's a nudist beach"; "It's too commercial now", "It's not commercial yet"; "you must go there", "you don't want to go there".  It wasn't until recently that I realized the main deference between those reports that I was hearing: 100% of the positive opinions about vama veche came from people who had been there while nearly 100% of the not so positive comments were spoken by people who had only heard about the beach town.  Those that had the experience were promoting it while those that hadn't had the experience somehow had it in their heads that its not a good place to go.

Situated at the south-eastern corner of Romania, Vama Veche is a small Black Sea beach village bordering Bulgaria.  Its location on the border saved it from the communist sea-side resort developments of Ceausescu's time that its planet named neighbors to the north went through (Neptune, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn).  As the village gained notoriety throughout the 90's, partially for its nude beach, a campaign arose to keep it as it is.  The Save Vama Veche campaign addressed tourist developments seen in the late 90s-early 2000's by hosting a protest concert, Stufstock, in 2003.  The campaign has proved effective as local laws were passed halting any new major developments including the repairing of roads, and to this day Vama Veche remains free of large resort-style hotels blocking the view of the sea from the fields beyond the town.

Vama was all that I was hoping for and more.  Its a true beach town with its vendors lined up pushing a bunch of all the same, walk-in fast food joints on the main strip, beach-side bars of all sorts, and beach chairs lined up at certain parts.  The couple of the things that set it apart from typical beach towns are the reasons why people go to Vama.  These include the lack of high-rise hotels, the numerous tents situated on the sand, the naked people down at the end, and the wide variety of people roaming up and down the main strip.  Vama isn't a place for rockers like some say it is, its a place for anybody.  At Vama you'll find rockers, nudists, normal families, people relaxing, people partying, music festival goers, early-risers, and all-night partiers.  We found a nice spot to lay the tent, way up at the northern corner of the beach just beyond the nudists section.  It was there where we could get just a bit of privacy.  It was far enough from the town that we didn't hear any of the noisy beach-side bars when we were trying to sleep but it was still a pleasantly short walk in to the sandier part of the beach, restaurants, and the music festival.  It was there that we made our home for a couple of nice cool nights on the seaside. 

A festival is what we were after but it was only a small part of what we got there.  Music is a great reason to get down to Vama as there are all kinds of music festivals there throughout the summer.  We managed to catch the Jazz festival.  Though I have seen jazz from time to time I have never been to a jazz festival.  We saw some really great acts but the ones that impressed me the most were the Romanian acts that closed out the nights.  The Romanian music wasn't so much jazz as it was jam.  The sounds of the rapid pounding tambal mixed with the legendary drums of Ovidiu Liviu Tandarica to produce some "wake-up" music as it followed some soothing jazz that nearly put me out.  Despite the great music my old age got the better of me and I decided to call it a night at 2ish rather than to stay for the entire show.  Walking past the tent we passed "The Stuff" a club on the sand pumping out loud music and good times for some.  As for me the loud music fainted as I slowly approached the tent and my bed for the evening.

The days were spent on the beach in all meaning of the phrase.  Laying out, reading, swimming through waves and against currents, and of course putting down some cold refreshing beers were all main activities of the day.  I remembered when I was little and I went to the beach with my family.  Knowing that it would be the only couple of days that year that I would see the ocean, I took in all of the wonderful sights, sounds, and especially feelings of the beach.  Feeling the wind against your bare chest, the sand through your tows, and the waves crash into you.  The waves of the Atlantic always seemed much larger than these at the Black Sea.  Is it the difference in size of the body of water or the person standing in it?  Just like those times when I was at the beach as a kid I had to leave eventually even though I didn't want to.

The trip back to Bucharest was a tough one.  Sunday evening is not a good time to leave the beach mainly because it is the time that everyone wants to leave the beach.  After spending a couple of hours on a hot mini-bus in traffic we switched to a hot, overcrowded train to add another 3 hours to our trip.  Factoring in the travel time there and back I wouldn't go to Vama without staying at least two nights, which makes it necessary to take off either a Monday or a Friday.  I wonder if I'll be able to get back down there one more time before I leave Romania.



Wednesday, July 11, 2012

In direct

Its not a Peace Corps volunteer's job to be in the spotlight.  If anything it's a PCV's job to not be in the spotlight, to sit back behind the scenes and work with host country nationals at host organizations to empower others to make positive changes in their communities which, at times attracts some spotlight to the organization.  That spotlight is seen as a good thing.  If you've ever seen the Michael Moore documentary "Bowling for Columbine" then you realize that its much better for NGO's, school teachers, religious organizations and even large corporations to be shown in the media doing good things in their communities than the constant violence and scandal that we see so often view in news, shows and movies today.  The good deeds represent a breath of fresh air and a small 30 second break from the much larger advertizing breaks convincing you to consume, and news program filled with negativity.  I knew that moving to the capital city would get me a bit closer to the media hoopla but I never imagined that people would one day be coming up to me telling me that they saw me on tv. 

In previous posts I have spoken of the reoccurring instances of a volunteers having to step out of their comfort zones where they end up learning more about themselves and potentially contributing to positive change in the process.  Often times volunteers end up in news clips speaking both about Peace Corps and about their individual projects.  I believe for the most part that the awareness and consciousness that the media provides in this case is good, if not only to give the viewer a sense that there are good things happening aside from the violence and scandal that they would normally be viewing. 

Despite the occasional PCV making their way in front of a camera I never really saw myself managing well in such a position and during my first two years of service in Petrosani I managed to avoid it for the most part.  Working for a pretty high-profile NGO in the capital hasn't afforded me the same level of comfort.  Since being in Bucharest I can count a few instances where I could have been seen by the masses.  A couple of Fridays ago I found myself speaking in front of a camera twice in a day.  The first instance was an unexpected interview at a recycling event where I explained some of the goals and projects of the non-profit that I work for.  The second instance was a nerve-racking spot on a nationally televised tv program entitled "Trezeste Romania" which translates to "Wake-up Romania".  The goal of the program is to show Romanians that make a positive difference in their communities.  Though I'm not a Romanian making a positive difference in my community I was there to support my host organization in promoting volunteerism for the environment, their mission statement. 

I went to the program in a van filled with some of our most active volunteers, people who give up their weekends to help my host organization, MaiMultVerde, effectively conduct large scale tree-planting activies or help us raise funds for such actions.  Just minutes before the program began I was notified by the host that I would only have to answer a couple of questions easing my nerves just a bit.  Regardless, the setting of bright lights pointing in every direction, numerous cameras moving around the room, and the thought of speaking Romanian to a national audience boosted my anxiety as the moment approached. 

The experience was one that I won't forget but one that I despise watching.  I was once before on a different program and I couldn't bring myself to watch it.  This time I did take some minutes to watch the program the following day and I realized that it was the first time I have ever heard myself speaking Romanian.  Now I realize why so many people make fun of my accent, which is something that I can laugh about.

The MaiMultVerde team with the host of Trezeste Romania

You can see the program in the link below but keep in mind that the program is in Romanian and I only say a couple of phrases.  Aside from speaking to MaiMultVerde, the host presented a Romanian peace-worker and a rugby player who lost the use of his legs in a tragic accident on the field.  The rugby player's story of perseverance in working to regain as much mobility as possible inspired a stranger to present a pretty meaningful gift on the show. 

http://www.realitatea.net/emisiuni/trezesteromania.html#emisiune29Iunie2012-2100

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Kotor

Descending from the clouds at a forty-five degree angle, first white rock, then green grasses until the landmass, one of the many ridges, disappeared into the gray waters of the Bay of Kotor.  Following the closest ridge up from small city uncommon structures appear in the hillside.  Uncommon only in shape next to the craggy rock landscape, the first church appears up on the mountain.  Yes that's right, a church, "we're in Christian country" I thought, when aren't we in Christian country. 

First built by the Romans and later governed by Serbia, the Republic of Ragusa and Venice the small medieval city is now a part of one of the newest countries of Europe, Montenegro.  The language once spoken in this hidden town on the Adriatic coast was Dalmatian, the romance language that at one point most closely resembled Romanian but now it is a dead language.  Nowadays you hear mostly Serbian echoing through the narrow streets but English, Italian and German are also common tones.  The Vrmac tunnel completed in 2007 gave the town access to the Adriatic coastal route making it easy to ship foreigners in by bus, at least the ones that can't afford the Adriatic cruise liner.  Despite the easier access, Kotor is a breath of fresh air next to Dubrovnik.  Tour groups stroll the streets in the morning but on a May evening the terasas are filled with empty seats, giving the wandering backpacker a romantic sense that they found the gem they had been looking for after much time on the road.

Years ago I saw a poster on a wall with an image of a place where the mountains met the sea.  The picture could have been taken in one of many locations throughout the world and though that particular place isn't something that stuck so well in my mind, the idea of it did and it became a dream of mine.  If given the choice between the mountains or the sea I would choose the mountains, but knowing that there are places where both wonders exist and mesh together so well I decided that someday I would be there, at least to see it.  Kotor was that place where I could both see and enjoy it.

Rising high above the barely coastal town is Lovcen, a national park of high mountain peaks where the poet and national hero Njegos peacefully rests.  A full day of hiking will probably get you to his burial place and back to Kotor before nightfall during peak summer hours.  The nicely, beaten down shepherd road will take you through a series of switchbacks rising quickly out of town until you reach a forest partly shielding you from the beating sun or unexpected storm.  Another hour of climbing and you arrive at the road winding along the mountainside as it connects the bay with the old capital city several kilometers inland.  The hike is intense and physically straining but you're reminded of its value each time you stop and take a look around you.

The bay is full of wonders from the steps of the fortress walls high above the city of Kotor to the steps of the island church Gospa od Skrpjela (Our Lady of the Rock).  Its an artificial island off the coast of the small fishing village of Perast.  They say that there used to be an annual tradition in the village to row out to a certain point in the bay and through a rock in.  Eventually the rocks piled up to make a small island where the church now stands.  Though the islands are the main attraction, an easy stroll through town is the unforeseen wonder of Perast.  Small boats line the water's edge with old stone buildings situated across the only drivable street in town.  Locals struggle to keep there boats from violently crashing against the concrete walkway after a cruise-ship out in the bay slowly crawls along trying to find its narrow exit.  The tiny town is starting to see some of the effects of tourism, both positive and negative. 

Its those places that you never heard of or thought of going that hold some of the greatest secrets.  I'm sure that the Bay of Kotor holds many secrets and three days is hardly enough time to uncover them.  Kotor itself appears to be a secret just recently uncovered.  Looking at Kotor from high above the bay you can see that it is tucked away in the bay's most secluded corner, hidden from the vastness of the sea.  After visiting such a quiet old city you're glad that the secret was uncovered just enough for you to discover it but hope that word doesn't reach the masses.  I didn't see a single highrise there, and I hope I never do. 

Perast and the two islands in the bay, the Island of St. George and Our Lady of the Rock

A walk through the village of Perast

The switchback leading up the mountain and out of Kotor

The view looking down on the bay
A small church on they way up to the fortress above Kotor



Tuesday, June 26, 2012

PIFF

At the beginning Peace Corps seems like one big step outside of your comfort zone.  You ship off with a bunch of new people to a place where you are injected into the local culture and you are supposed to adapt and get used to it, a thing they call integration.  The idea is that after you're integrated you can effectively function at your site and the pain of that step outside of your comfort zone wears off.  It turns out that it doesn't stop there.  In fact, that big jump out of your comfort zone is followed by a series of smaller yet similar steps out.  Maybe it is the desire for a PCV to keep things fresh or it could be the "Yes Man" philosophy to integration that pre-service training pushes.  Whatever it is, after over three years in Peace Corps this past weekend I found myself yet again stepping outside of my comfort zone to present selective collection workshop at an international film festival. 

The name of the festival is the Pelicam International Film Festival (PIFF).  The title combined the word "pelican", representing the festival's nature theme and its location at the entrance of the Danube Delta, and te work "camera", indicating its focus on film.  Weeks before I received a message from my colleague with the offer to go and present, as a MaiMultVerde (MMV) representative in Tulcea.  I jumped at the chance, knowing that Tulcea was on the edge of the Delta, a region that I have yet to visit.  As the event slowly approached my emotions gradually lifted and I spent the four days leading up to the event studying selective collection and MMV's stance on the issue.  Taking on this particular responsibility was a jump out of my comfort zone for a few reasons. - 1) I am no expert on the topic of collective selection but I will probably be seen somewhat as one. 2) I'm not a great public speaker and though I can usually handle myself in front of a crowd its a different story in another language(that being Romanian).  3) Though I found myself on a bus to Tulcea with a bunch of other "invitees" I did not know any of them.  4)  Finally, I prepared a nice presentation that included a short documentary produced by MMV in 2010 but it was supposed to be a "workshop", not necessarily a presentation, whatever that means.  Despite these measures that worked to raise my level of anxiety I knew one thing that I have realized more in PC than anywhere else which is that "what doesn't kill you will make you stronger" and I figured that the experience would be a valuable one that I would learn from.  

It was the first edition of PIFF and after arriving, getting settled in, visiting the venue and speaking with the organizers I had the sense they were quite nervous about how everything would come off.  Despite this sense of nervousness, from the beginning the festival seemed well organized.  There was a photo exhibit in the lobby, there was already information available about the festival and its program, there were posters all over town, I was able to get into the workshop room a day early to check out the room and test the equipment.  Already, after the first couple hours of being in Tulcea I felt more comfortable about presenting and I felt honored to have the chance to be a part of the festival.  That evening I attended the opening of the festival where a great movie about the Bolivian water wars, Tambien la lluvia, played to mark the start of a nice weekend of films highlighting environmental issues.

Tulcea is an old port city on the Danube dating back to 7th century BC.  It is the take-off point for anyone wanting to venture into the UNESCO world heritage site, the Danube Delta.  Tulcea is also quite a diverse city with Romanians, Turks, Russians, Roma and other minorities present.  Near our hotel in the center of the city I found a set of three statues including a Ukrainian, a Romanian, and Ataturk.  The walk along the water is not an extremely pretty walk but its usually nice to be by the water watching the boats and checking out the restaurant boats parked along the water's edge.  I used the word "usually" because I found out fast on my Friday evening stroll along the water that the place was swarming with mosquitoes, so much that I preferred to retire early to my hotel room. If you go to Tulcea in the summer, limit your nice water-side walks to early mornings when it is cool and there are not so many mosquitoes out to eat you up.  The following morning I walked up to Independence Monument which provided a nice panoramic view of the city.  The monument was erected for the soldiers who fought to free the country from Ottoman rule from 1877 to 1888.  Other highlights of Tulcea include an aquarium/museum, a nice center square which hosted a concert, a film viewing from PIFF and a farmers market where I bought some smoked cheeze, and a lake on one end of the city where fishermen gather along one side and swimmers gather along a beach on another side.  Surely I took advantage of most of what Tulcea had to offer.  Unfortunately it's main attraction, the Danube Delta, I had to put off until my next visit.

The films that I caught where both entertaining and relevant.  Aside from the opening film, I caught an Austrian documentary called "Plastic Planet", my second viewing of "Gassland", a film about the wild horses of the Delta called "Gone Wild", and a short film about the disappearing Aral Sea.  The documentary "Plastic Planet" nicely followed my presentation on selective collection and it comically showed the impact of plastic in our lives by having people take all of their plastic items from there homes and put them on their front lawns.  The image of a family sitting in plastic lawn chairs surrounded by everything from toys to clothes to household appliances remains in my thoughts a week later.  I guess that's the purpose of a documentary.  I chose to see "Gassland" a second time because a debate/discussion followed the viewing focusing on the status of fracking in Romania and Europe.  It was so interesting to me that such a heated topic in my home on the other side of the world has become the same here in Romania.  Finally "Gone Wild" was shown as the festival's closing film and it highlighted a phenomenon close to home in Tulcea with the wild horse population growing in the Danube Delta. 

Once again I find myself taking a step outside of my comfort zone and not only learning and growing from it but also experiencing a new place and new people.  My emotions subsided as I had some time to chat with the small audience before beginning my presentation.  A couple of guys in the audience were especially active with their comments which led to an overall constructive discussion regarding the status, opinions and education regarding recycling in Romania.  The festival organizers were especially friendly and they helped me to get to know and get along with the other invitees as we hung out and talked until early morning hours after the festival's closing celebration.  Looking back I realize that in order to have these nice, memorable experiences you not only have to accept those invitations to step outside of your sphere of comfort but you have to also invite those invitations.  If I never let it be known to my colleagues that I would like to get down to the Delta sometime I wouldn't have experienced PIFF.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

iRAF


As we strolled into the venue I was taken back to the first time I laid my eyes on such a scene.  It was a dusty gray yard surrounded by red brick buildings degrading in front of your eyes.  The level of activity on the ground was far less then the speakers would care to indicate as they were pumping out tunes from Romania's oldest DJ.  This was the opening scene of a festival much like one I attended at the very same venue months before.  Looking out from the stage the performer sees a medium sized field of grey dust, the remains of the degrading foundations surrounding the area.  One of those very foundations toward the back was where some other concert goers happened to be waiting, eating, drinking.  Atop the foundation to the right is a brick building with a much larger whole in it than what I remembered from my last visit.  The main permanent feature of the grounds is a large brick tower in the center whey they were serving beer in September but since then they must have realized the roof could come down at any moment because this time the beer was located under a tent next to the tower.   The grounds were dead but it was only the beginning and we knew it would pick up once the DJ exited stage right to allow some actual musical instruments to tune up and get the show started.  In the meantime I decided to look at a photo exhibit installed on some graffitied walls to the left of the stage.

The photo exhibit was enough to get me into the cultural event at hand, more so than the film it followed anyway.  The day began with a showing of a film about the Roma Holocaust.  The topic of the film was more interesting than the film itself and I blame that on the setting.  The viewing took place an hour late in an dark underground bar on a nice summer afternoon.  Subtitles in English didn't exist and the ones in Romanian I couldn't see anyway as the statues of my eyesight continues to degrade, especially in dark places.  The photo exhibit on the other hand was located out in the sun where I could actually read its good amount of text.  The photos depicted a group of nomadic Roma from Transylvania.  If you've ever seen Roma in movies, pictures, or listened to songs romanticizing their life then these are probably the ones you've heard of. 

Vojasa, pronounced voyasa, was the first band to go on and from the start they proved not to disappoint beginning the show with just two of there members on stages playing a unique percussion opening.  From start to finish the container playing musician spat beats into the microphone bringing back memories of Ternipe on the same stage in September.  The music, very similar to Ternipe, consisted of traditional Roma tunes with more of a rock feel supporting it from behind.  Suddenly the dust pile in front of the stage was being kicked around by a good sized crowd unable to stand still in the presence of such an energetic sound.  By the end of their show, a word unknown to much of the ex-pat crowd, "Vojasa" was being chanted loudly throughout the venue.

The energy was pushed up a notch by the nights headliner band out of Belgium, Antwerp Gypsy Ska Orchestra.  A couple of days earlier I listened to one or two of their tunes online and I wasn't all that impressed by the music but I could see the energy they brought to the stage and knowing a bit about ska music from my younger punk rock days I was confident that in the moment I would dig it.  Sure enough the music just intensified my own dancing and the entire group I was with moved right up to the stage to get the full effect.  The combination of the brass section, dancing onstage, and the charismatic front man made for a show that you want to last all night.  Unfortunately they were cut off shortly after 11. 

Once again Roma music at Gradina Uranus proved to be a great show and a great experience that I hope to catch at least once more before I leave this part of the world.  Last year's Balkan Fest was in September and in the September to come I just may be roaming back through the area to catch round two of that show.  Either way I am sure to be bringing this music along with me wherever I go as music by bands like Ternipe and Mahala Rai Banda never fail to put a smile on my face and a jump in my step. 


Thursday, May 31, 2012

“Lets do it” round 3


“Lets do it Romania” has become the national day of picking up trash.  Today, May 12th, was 2012’s “Lets do it Romania”.  Over the past two years the event has been held in September but the date, and even the season, was changed this year so that it would coincide with the same event in some of the other countries in the region.  In one day volunteers throughout Romania, the Republic of Moldova, Bulgaria, and Turkey picked up trash out of rivers, streams, forests, roadsides, fields, or wherever they saw large amounts of it. 

How does it work?

“Lets do it Romania” is registered as a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Romania but it is also affiliated with “Lets do it World”, organizing on an international level.  In the months leading up to the event anybody can contact the NGO and report a location that has a lot of garbage.  They report the coordinates, information about the terrain, and roughly how many bags of garbage that can be cleaned up in the respective zone.  The locations are registered on a map and in the weeks leading up to the event team leaders register their team and choose a location that they will be responsible for cleaning on the national clean-up day.  Team leaders are volunteers and they lead teams of volunteers to clean up the zone that they choose.  Also in the weeks leading up to the event a marketing campaign is launched which includes commercials, celebrities, posters, and other various marketing strategies both on-line and off in an effort to gather a large amount of volunteers for the event. 

On the national clean-up day teams gather, they either provide their own supplies or receive supplies (gloves and garbage bags) from the NGO or local authorities, and they set off for a few hours of picking up everything from old cloths to plastic bottles to spare bike parts.  After the even volunteers are urged to get online and officially state that they volunteered for the event, and to register the amount of trash bags that they filled.  The numbers are important in that they help to measure the impact of the action which in turn justify funds for future “Lets do it Romana” events. 

The Need:

After being involved in the activity 3 times now I have had a lot of opportunities to reflect on what we are actually doing when we pick up the trash, and why the need for a national clean-up day exists.  The trash that volunteers pick up each year is trash thrown down by other people.  Both last year and this year I found myself in an area with a lot of trash concentrated in one location, essentially someone’s personal dump.  I noticed that in areas outside of cities and towns, in villages and also at construction sites further from town you find piles of waste, weather it be single-use bottles or unused construction materials literally just thrown in a pile and left.  I suppose it is much easier for people to find a place close-by and somewhat hidden to dispose of their waste than to rent a dumpster, or somehow transport their garbage to a place where it can be collected and disposed of in a designated landfill. 

There are a couple of things that need to change in this situation and the local authorities are responsible for both of them.  There shouldn’t be a need to gather up people on a single day during the year to pick up after others.  First off, local governments need to provide a trash pick-up service to their citizens and to the citizens on the edge of town or even in nearby villages that don’t necessarily have the resources to be able to do the same.  Secondly, the local governments need to consider littering a police priority at least until the mentality about littering changes.  They need to target those people and companies doing the most littering and impose heavy fines that will in-turn fund the trash-pick up service and police salaries of course. 

The Impact:

“Lets do it Romania” activates thousands of volunteers in all regions of Romania and as a volunteer activity it does help to encourage civic responsibility.  The event also does much to actually clean up the country as thousands of bags and I don’t know how many tons of trash are collected from areas where the trash would have otherwise remained for years to come polluting both the view, and the ground water.  In my opinion the largest impact that “Lets do it” has is awareness.  Littering is a problem that everybody knows about but without “Lets do it” I’m not so sure that anybody would do anything about.  I’ve seen people complaining about their dirty town and then later on throwing their trash or cigarette butts on the ground, contributing to the problem.  Even though volunteers from all age groups volunteer for the event the event’s advertizing is certainly targeting a younger generation, mostly adolescents and college aged students.  Targeting this younger group and teaching them these values through volunteer activities helps to ensure a cleaner future for Romania. 

Over the past 3 years “Lets do it” has been growing in Romania.  It started off on the right foot with an aggressive marketing campaign in the first year.  The second year I saw more benefits for volunteers (t-shirts, materials) encouraging participation.  The third year I saw a “Lets do it” make a small push for selective collection, making the activity a bit more difficult for the volunteer but with an increased educational and environmental impact.  While the nature of the event is advocating for a cleaner future, the logical next step for “Lets do it” is to get involved and encourage its volunteers to get more involved in advocacy for a cleaner environment.  By this I mean putting pressure on local authorities to make better decisions so as to help eliminate the need for a national clean-up day.  At this point in Romania it is financially a better option for construction companies to leave all of their waste in one place rather than rent a dumpster for proper disposal.  It is financially a better option for individuals to throw their garbage in a nearby forest than to transport it to a place that will dispose of it properly.  The need for a national clean-up day won’t dissolve unless this is addressed.  Companies need economic benefits for proper disposal whether it is a tax break or avoidance of a fine.  Individuals need a better option, a garbage collection service.  If these changes aren’t made, a national day of some citizens cleaning up after others will turn into a sad tradition that will only frustrate the public rather than the hopeful volunteer action that it is today. 

Primavara in Petrosani


A travel opportunity arose as worker's day rolled around in Romania as well as probably all former communist states.  Worker’s day is the first of May and a national holiday.  This means that its an official day off in Romania and many people go to the seaside as it marks the opening of the season there.  It’s my understanding that if you’re Romanian and you don’t make it to the seaside on the first of May then you probably have a picnic or a barbeque if the weather is nice.  I decided that instead of descending to sea level like many people from Bucharest are doing I’d climb in elevation and head to the mountain.  Former Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders have taken time on a monthly basis to make it back to their Romanian homes where they lived and worked their first two years of service.  Unfortunately I have not followed the trend and finally I took the chance to make it back to Petrosani for the holiday. 

The decision to revisit Petro City seemed almost destined.  After visiting a few weeks ago with Wes in a depressing rain, my desire to hit the mountains only deepened.  The bitter-sweet event that is the COS conference took place in the days leading up the beautiful 1 May weekend in Petrosani and it happened in Cluj.  The location worked out perfectly as I could easily take a longer but still direct route back to Bucharest while stopping for a couple of days in Petrosani.  Monday being an extra day off leading up to the first of May and making for a 4 day weekend was the third major reason to return.  Finally the “cherry on top” was the weather, forecasting sun and warmth during the entire weekend.  It would have been a crime for me to sit around in Bucharest in such conditions. 

Cascada Lazar

The best days are the discovery days and this was one of them.  It was one of those days when you wake up in the morning knowing “x”, have had these “y” experiences until now and thinking “z” about what there is to come, and when you go to bed that evening all of those values have changed.  The destination was talked about a bit, documented a bit, little more than a rumor, certainly unplotted and it was the day’s goal to find it.  The last time this happened I found myself in a field of thick evergreens pulling myself along, struggling to find a way.  Eventually the way was found, the day was complete and it remains unforgettable.  See Lacul Burtan.  This time the destination was a waterfall and though it didn’t require the same amount of struggle as Lacul Burtan, the mere fact that it was unmarked added to the adventure, which might end up preparing me a bit for those unmarked high peaks in the ADK.  The waterfall is Lazar Falls and it is located in the mighty Retezat Mountains of Romania. 

Ernest, Doamna Grecu and myself were back at it again like we were during so many weekends when I was residing in the small miner/mountain region of Romania.  This time Doamna Grecu’s son who has a passion for photography joined.  It isn’t hard to find someone in the Jiu Valley that has a passion for photography as there are countless places and moments in nature there that you simply must immortalize in a digital file.  See the “stories in picture form” link list to the right.  The last major hike took place in the same region, the southern edge of the Retezat Mountains.  Though they are not the highest peaks in Romania or even in the region, some of the most beautiful sights that I have experienced have happened there.  The snow-covered peaks shined brightly in the morning sun but where soon forgotten when the road thinned out and we were following a stream up through thick forests. 

The central point of the hike was a grass covered bridge that somehow had a boulder fall down on it, taking a large chunk out of its far left side making it impassable by car and leaving the upper half of the road just for those on foot.  If only there were more bridges like this one that the mountain declared war on, leaving even more wild places for those willing to get out of their mobile rooms and feel the rocks under the soles of their shoes.  Throughout the day the bridge served as a resting spot, a water refill, a seat, a kitchen table, a bed and a crossroads.

First we crossed the bridge choosing the path that led us to our destination, Lazar Falls.  The waterfall was about 15 meters high and after a short struggle we found a good spot to take some photos from.  While the other guys where taking photos I decided to explore the area in search of an overhead view.  The view I didn’t really find but I did make it to the other side of the waterfall where the trail seemed to end.  We decided that there must be more but maybe in another direction so we returned to the grass covered bridge to eat lunch and consider another route. 

After lunch we headed up another stream by the bridge.  That stream took us over some rough terrain and before going too far we found a small waterfall to rest at.  The group decided to call it quits there, rest and head back but there was talk of a higher waterfall somewhere in the area.  In my experiences with waterfalls in the great finger lakes region of New York State, you might find a couple small ones here and there but if you keep heading up the river it is very possible to find a large impressive one.  I saw a curve in the river not far up and while the others were resting I decided instead to explore.  Just beyond the curve there was a series of 3 small waterfalls with a fourth large waterfall following.  After catching a closer look I noticed that the forth one, though hard to get to, was even higher than Cascada Lazar.  I think it is what others on forums called Cascada Maria. 
video

Following my discovery I returned to the group to report the findings but eventually we ended up descending down to the main road to end my first of three hikes this springtime in Petrosani. 

Cascada Lazar was on a Saturday.  Sunday and Monday I participated in hikes that I have done before but really enjoyed.  Sunday hiked in Parang on one of my favorite trails which took use to a ski area, a large rock where I took a nap and a descent past sheepfolds.  The views of Parangul Mic from Partia Slima on a sunny spring day are amazing when the top of the snow capped peak shines against the light blue sky.  Monday’s hike took us to up to Straja with a decent down Braita.  In a few locations along the trail downed trees presented an obstacle.  These trees along with the steep descent, uneven trail and heavy leaf coverage made for a slow, exhausting hike.  Despite our challenges it was a great day of hiking through the forest alongside waterfall after waterfall.  We exited the forest joining the number of groups of barbequers out to get a tan and spend some time in nature on their day off.  It was the Monday before May Day, a long weekend and a beautiful day when we stopped for a much appreciated beer at a small cafe just off the trail. 

Once again springtime in Petrosani doesn't fail to impress me making springtime my preferred season of the year.