Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Adventure Ends

After being away from America for more than two years and after having traveled through 8 other countries during that time I have finally arrived back in the United States of America. Interestingly because I visited my friend in Japan on the way home I ended up going back the other way around which means that I have officially circumvented the globe...and even though I took a two year break in Moldova before continuing my journey I still was able to do it quicker than the Magellan voyage which is said to be the first and took more than three years by boat.

I had a whirlwind schedule of flights to get back traveling from Osaka, Japan to Seoul, South Korea to Guangzhou, China to Los Angeles before finally landing at Dulles airport. Miraculously my luggage made it all the way to Dulles with me and the jet lag from my 13 hour flight from China to LAX didn't leave me as fatigued as I thought it would. However, all of my excitement about returning to America was quickly drained away as LAX turned out to be the worst place in the world in every respect you can think of. The old, dirty, unimpressive airport with impolite, rude, and unhelpful workers really made it hard to appreciate the fact that I had made it back to America. In addition to the fact that the airport was poorly designed and the United Airlines flight I was taking not only required that I check in using a electronic system that takes twice as long to do as it would if it would have been operated by an actual United employee but the airline also required that I pay 25 dollars for me to check a bag which no other airline has ever asked for me to pay for just one checked bag. I couldn't even pay the machine with paper money so I had to leave the line and go to another machine to get a prepaid card and then start over in order to get my baggage checked. The airline also didn't serve any food or drinks other than water which I was aware of ahead of time so I decided to use the money left over on the prepaid card I was required to get in order to buy myself a lunch. In case you were looking to buy food at LAX I would recommend you just don't since a ham and cheese sandwich and an apple juice cost me 17 dollars. Welcome home.

As bitter as I might have been from such an awful homecoming in LA, when I finally did make it to Dulles everything brightened up... well everything but the weather. I met my family and drove myself straight to Ihop which happened to be the last meal I had with my family before I left to go to Moldova so it was fitting that it was my first meal when I came home. Surprisingly not having slept in a bed in over 36 hours and not having driven in over 2 years I made it all the way home without a single incident.

Now that I made it home I don't really know what to do with myself. I have started putting things in motion as far as setting up interviews but until I have a job I don't really know where to begin with the long list of things I have to do. But at least being back in America isn't as disorienting as many people told me it would be, in fact it was almost like Moldova was only a dream since nothing seemed to have changed while I was gone. It's like I only left yesterday or even like I never really left at all. I haven't decided if that is a good thing or a bad thing yet.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Do I have to leave?

Tomorrow is my last day in Japan and we are planning on visiting our third city, Kyoto. Everything has been going perfectly so far. We haven't missed any trains or buses and we have been able to find our way around and buying food without knowing any Japanese has never been a problem...plus the fact that it is all way less expensive than I thought it would be which is always really nice. I made a video of our first day in Japan that I already uploaded and I am working on editing some more that I will post when they are ready. I also uploaded a lot of photos to my facebook that you can view if you click here.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Excuse me...How do I find "real" Japan?

My second day in Japan and other then the fact that it is definitely Japan in a lot of ways I am actually confused by how much it isn't like Japan. Or at least the Japan that is seen in media portrayals or on the internet. For instance while Japanese TV may be a little different from American TV it doesn't have any of the ridiculous shows that I have seen on Youtube, at least that I've seen so far. And while there are vending machines everywhere that sell green tea and cold black coffee they don't seem to sell anything unusual like seaweed water or liquid sushi or something like that. Granted I don't understand Japanese so mostly I have to go by what images I can see on the packaging or the occasional English translation so its possible I just don't know enough or seen enough of Japan.

In any case I was able to see a shinto shrine and see some more of the interesting districts of Japan. And I've also done a great job eating only Japanese food...including Japanese drinks...well other than the Wendy's I had for dinner but that was my friends choice instead of mine so I don't think it should count against me. Speaking about food I have to say that the food I have had is super cheap...in fact mostly everything is cheaper than I thought. That's not to say that everything is cheap, there are expensive places available but if you are hungry and want to grab a bowl of rice and chicken from the kitchen down the street it only cost 4 dollars and even after paying for subway rides, train tickets, food, souvenirs, and more drinks than I can count from vending machines I still haven't spent even the 100 dollars I exchanged at the airport when I arrived though I'm now down to my last thousand yen. (The airport exchange was operated by a bank and didn't charge commission so it actually made sense to exchange it there).

Tomorrow we are going to get out of Tokyo for a day trip so maybe I will notice some more of the eccentricities of Japanese culture there.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Start of a New Adventure

I left Moldova yesterday on a noon flight and had short layover in Istanbul before my overnight flight to Tokyo, Japan. It was very awkward for me to lose my ability to speak the language of the country I was in and there were so many times that I was walking through the Istanbul airport and apologized to someone in Romanian or answered no to someone's question in Russian. Just out of reflex and then it was especially weird if that person later found out I was American. I ended up actually sitting next to a Ukrainian man on the plane and we got to chat with each other in a mix of Russian and English. Though even the novelty of that wore off pretty quickly on our ten hour flight. I can't say that it was really that hard to get through though. I didn't get much sleep but I still don't feel that tired. Well no, that's really a lie. I'm exhausted but not sleepy tired just sore muscle carrying bags all day and walking tired.

When I finally did make it to Tokyo I found that the Japanese love their forms as much as Americans do and I had to fill out an entry form, a customs form, even a form to convert money some money to the local currency. I didn't factor all of the forms into my initial travel schedule so I was starting to run a little late meeting my friend at the hotel and I didn't really have a way to contact him since my phone doesn't work at all in Japan and I didn't really like my chances at finding a pay phone in the modern age of cell phones. I needn't have worried though because fate shined down upon me and as I waited for the train to take me to the center of Tokyo a man who had sat nearby to me on the plane approached me and introduced himself as Ion. I'm pretty sure my jaw hit the floor because the name Ion is one of the most popular names in Moldova and come to find out he was actually from Romania and was now living in Japan as a student. We proceeded to spend the next hour on the train talking in Romanian and he was kind enough to let me use his iphone to call my friend and let him know I would be running a little late. To top it all off though my bag handle broke on my bag so it was no longer possible for me to pull it along by it's wheels and since I am carrying my life of two years with me my bags are quite heavy and my new found friend Ion was incredibly helpful taking turns with me pulling his bag and him carrying my bag as we switched from the train to the metro. We had to separate not long after we got on the metro but we have already made plans to catch up with each other tomorrow.

Because of my unique situation of finding someone that spoke Romanian I had a hard time accepting the fact that I was in Japan. Yes there were pagodas dotting the landscape and yes there were rice fields and signs in Japanese but really everything isn't that much different and in a way I guess you could say I was a little disappointed by just how it easy it was to acclimate to Japan. I had thought that of all places japan would be a place that would finally follow through and provide me with a little culture shock but as of yet I'm still feeling pretty at home, even though I wish I knew more Japanese.

Speaking of Japanese. Not being able to understand the symbols not even in the slightest has been a little frustrating but also a bit exciting because when I order food even though I can usually see a picture of the food before I buy it you can never quite tell what you are getting until you get it but the past two meals I have had so far were amazing. All of the people are so incredibly helpful as well. They are very respectful and helpful and are very patient with me even though I have no clue of anything to say in Japanese though they are very appreciative when I try and use any of the three or four words of Japanese I do know.

I didn't have anytime today for any real sightseeing. We simply walked around a nearby district that had lots of shops and high rises and called it an early night. Though tomorrow I anticipate a busy schedule and if I am lucky I will have more Romanian and more delicious food to eat.

PS My MacBook cord exploded again in a puff of smoke. I smear these things are the biggest fire hazard...Anyway it happened the night before I left Moldova and so I wasn't able to connect to the internet in transit but now that I have arrived in Tokyo the center of all things electronics I was able to repair it...or at least temporarily so that I can keep in contact with everyone, and post updates during my trip.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Never Let Your Guard Down

Today is my last full day in Moldova and I tried to spend it this afternoon taking a very relaxing walk through the city. I took lots of pictures, picked up a few last minute souvenirs and stopped at a park next to the cathedral to drink an ice coffee. I was feeling really great about how the day was going and even though I was so sad to be leaving I also felt like today was the perfect last day. I took a picture of me sitting on the park bench and laid my camera down next to me. I looked away to grab something on the other side of the bench and a man came up behind me and grabbed my camera without me noticing and started to walk away with it. Luckily for me another man came up and told me what he had done. I had to literally chase the man down three city blocks and physically remove the camera from his hands...but I got it back.

After that I wasn't really in the mood for anymore sightseeing, and I've been on edge all day afterward but on a bright note it does make leaving Moldova a little easier and will definitely serve as a lesson for me to be much more attentive to things in the future. Next time I let my guard down I might not be as lucky as I was today.

I catch my flight tomorrow morning to Istanbul for a three hour layover before my ridiculously long overnight flight to Japan.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

This Is It

I have finally finished the sizeable amount of paperwork and loops I have to jump through for Peace Corps in order to leave. So at least on paper I am officially no longer a PCV. I look forward to ringing the COS (close of service) bell with a group of people tomorrow to mark the occassion ceremonially and then wait with impatience until I can finally take my flight on Friday to Istanbul and onward to Tokyo.

There are so many reasons these past few days have been hard. With the addition of the stress of preparing to leave such as the paper work I already mentioned it is just so draining saying good bye to everyone as they leave the Peace Corps for the last time and thinking about how everything I do I might be doing for the last time. "This is my last time leaving my site...This is my last time eating at my favorite restaurant...This is my last time riding a minibus." I feel like I miss so much about Moldova even though I haven't even left yet.

Saying goodbye is a lot harder than I thought it would be but like it or not I am getting on a plane in less then 48 hours.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Goodbye Scumpia

I have called Scumpia, Moldova my home for the last two years but as of today I have left it for the last time.

I will now be taking up residence in Chisinau until Friday and then I am leaving Moldova altogether.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Reaching the End

I have been so busy counting down the days and writing about Moldova in general that I haven’t really written anything about how my life has been going recently. Not that I have much to say. After school ended I tried to stay busy by going to Chișinău as much as I could. Using the opportunity to start the arduous task of taking a load of things I don’t need with me as I went and meeting up with friends while I was there to make the last days with all the volunteers I’ve known here really count. I was also lucky enough to visit another town and a winery for a wine tasting. But in general my mind has been stuck on two things. Finding a job and meeting the new volunteer moving into my village.

As far as finding a job goes I really can’t feel too excited about coming back to America when coming back means I will lose all of the stability I have had in Moldova. It will be great to finally see everyone again and experience American culture and food but I feel like the novelty of that will wear off soon once I spend through the readjustment allowance Peace Corps gives me and I am left without a job and without any money to indulge in the American lifestyle I’ve been waiting to get immersed back in for two years. I feel like being in Moldova was made easier because it was Moldova. All the things that I was missing were out of sight and out of mind. If I had passed an Ihop everyday but wasn’t allowed to go in then I think my service would have been a lot harder but that’s exactly what I think it will be in America. I will be perfectly willing and able to go and do anything but now I won’t be able to strictly based on money. Which is a lot harder to deal with I think then just not having the opportunity based on where I am.
Otherwise, I got to meet the new volunteer last week and this weekend she made her site visit to my village and got to spend two nights and I was very excited to show her around all the village and tell her all the things she needs to know. It was especially uplifting to me remembering what it was like for me my first time coming to site and how I couldn’t understand anything or speak Romanian at all and to see just how far I had come and how much I had learned in the past two years. Just how easy it was for me to translate back and forth, even throwing in a little Russian since my host mother’s grandchildren are visiting and don’t speak anything but Russian.
I am also finding it hard to really imagine that I am leaving Moldova in 10 days. It feels the same way it did when I was leaving America. I wanted to try and grab as much of it as I could and remember everything but at the same time the days are passing just like any other day so it’s hard to really feel like I will be leaving. When I left Chișinău last week I was reminded on my way back that this would be my last time going back to my site and when I leave my village next week it will be for the last time. It’s just hard to really process that in my mind.
Besides taking a few loads of things to the capital to get rid of and going through my things and picking out a load of stuff that I didn’t want and thought would be useful to the new volunteer I really haven’t started packing yet either. I’m a little worried that I wasn’t as productive taking my unwanted things to the capital since every time I look through my stuff I keep seeing things that I don’t really need and will just take up room in my bags if I take them with me, for instance a lot of male clothes that have seen better days and won’t be much good to the new female volunteer. Worst-case scenario I can leave them to my host mother who I’m sure could find a use for all of it somewhere, if only to just give them away to others.

I have five more days in my village to pack everything and then about four days in the capital to fill out paperwork, do interviews, and close my bank account and all that, before I head off on a jet plane to Istanbul. On most occasions I would be excited out of my mind but I can’t think of anything else but leaving Moldova at the moment. Luckily I’ve done all the planning for my trip already and the tickets have already been bought so I really don’t need to be stressing about that now anyway…or at least I hope.

Monday, July 8, 2013

11: Scumpia, Moldova

Scumpia, Moldova has been my home for the past two years and in a weeks time I will be leaving to finally head back to America. Taking my place is a new Peace Corps Volunteer who is still in training and will be moving to my village in August. She will be teaching Health classes instead of English and will also be teaching in Romanian. In order to get acquainted with her new site before she finishes training she came for a visit this weekend and took a lot of pictures. It was so much fun getting to show her around my village and getting to tell her all the ends and out that I had learned the hard way these last two years. It was also surreal to me remembering what my language skills in Romanian were like when I made the same site visit two years ago and how natural it was now to translate back and forth (even a little Russian thrown in for good measure).

I can't begin to put into words all the things I've been thinking as it is finally starting to hit me that I really will be leaving soon but I'll save that post for another day. Instead today I want to show you what my village looks like from the eyes of its newest volunteer.

Click the picture to head to the album.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

12: Sunflowers!

Fields of sunflowers everywhere you look in July.

Moldovans love their sunflowers. I'm not sure if they consider it the country's national flower but if they don't they should. They grow so many of them and then use them for everything. The sunflower seeds are consumed all year practically everywhere you go and what seeds they don't eat they use to make sunflower oil, which is really the only oil they use to cook with.

It's more common to buy them in the store throughout the year since they costs nothing at all but if they are in season you can eat them straight from the flower.

And my favorite thing they make with sunflowers is Kazenaki which is sunflower seeds covered in honey.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

13: The Orthodox Church

As far as religion goes, Moldova is very nearly a monoculture. Almost everyone within the country identifies as an Orthodox Christian with very few others identifying as jewish, catholic, baptist, and rarely anything else. This creates a situation in the culture where religious, national, and local holidays and traditions blend together.

There are actually two churches in my village. I was standing next to one church as I took this picture of the other church on the other side of the village.

Every village has its own church and a priest, although sometimes they may share a priest with a nearby village and the priest will visit one village on one sunday and the next village the next sunday.

This is the church in my district center, Falesti.
The priest is very involved with the community and you can often see him at the market or at different events such as the first day of school. He also comes to the school once a year with a bucket and douses everyone in the room with holy water as he says prayers. As soon as he comes in the room all the students know to throw their books (and other valuables) underneath them so they don't get wet in the process.

Also as I mentioned before there is usually an icon in every classroom and students are usually required to take religion classes as part of their curriculum.

Friday, July 5, 2013

14: Romanian Unification

Graffiti in Moldova tends to be very political. In this case it says, "Moldovans therefore Romanians."

Moldova has at different points in its history been an independent country, a part of Romania, and a part of the Soviet Union. And even though it has held its status as an independent state for the last 20 years there is still much discussion that continues even today as to whether it is best for Moldova to be independent or if it would be better for Moldova to rejoin Romania or form some sort of integration with Russia. 

For those who like being an independent state they would point out that while Moldovans may be ethnically tied to Romanians they are very different in their form of spoken language and regional culture and if they were join with Romania they would lose that sense of cultural identity. Also Moldova would become just a small part of Romania and it is thought that they would be less likely to be as responsive to their concerns as Moldovan elected officials.

Those who want unification usually point out that Moldova was a part of Romania before it was forcefully taken by Russia during WWII and turned into a Soviet Republic. Joining with Romania would mean becoming a part of the European Union, as Romania has already joined, and being a part of a country that has a larger population and larger prominence on the world stage.

Lastly, are those that would push for unification with Russia as a means of improving Moldova's standard of living, over joining with Romania. In general those who push for Russian unification or partnership are usually ethnically not Moldova, either Russian, Ukrainian, or Gagauzian, and don't want to unify with Romania based mainly on the recognition of the use of their native language by the Moldovan government that they might not be granted if they were apart of Romania. In fact it was this fear of unification with Romania after Moldova declared its independence that the region of Transnistria which is mostly composed of Russian speakers broke away from Moldova and even to this day operates its own unrecognized government. 

Moldova has another region called Gagauzia that is slightly autonomous and operates its own government but with the recognition of the Moldovan Government. Gagauzia is located in the south of Moldova and the inhabitants of the region are most closely related to Turks than they are to Romanians and speak a language that is very similar to Turkish.

The red colored area is Gagauzia. Also the dotted line signifies the boundary of the breakaway region of Transnistria.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

15: Moldovaneste

According to the constitution of Moldova the official language of the country is Moldovan...but the language identified as Moldovan that is used on a day-to-day basis in the government is indiscernible from Romanian. Essentially it is as if the American constitution stated that the national language of the USA will be known as American. There are very distinct differences from the English spoken in other countries of the world but everyone agrees that it is the same language at its core.

In Moldova those differences in language usually manifest more often with spoken rather then literary language and especially for people living in the villages of Moldova rather than the cities where people would say that they speak "clean" Romanian rather then the Moldoveneste of the villages. Moldoveneste is essentially Romanian with a country accent and a lot of slang and also a fairly large vocabulary of Russian words used indiscriminately in conversation.

I have gotten so used to hearing the language spoken in my village that the times when I did happen to go to Romania or when I speak with people in the big city who speak very clean Romanian I have trouble trying to understand them, and the feeling is usually mutual.

Trying to learn Romanian was made a lot harder because any time I tried to look up a word I didn't understand I would have a hard time finding it in the dictionary...sometimes because the word is mispronounced, sometimes because the word is actually Russian, and sometimes because the word does not exist in any dictionary.

For example you have a pretty common phrase in any language  "How are you?" in Romanian you would say correctly, "Ce faci?" (Che fahtch)  and in Moldoveneste you would take away most of the more harsh sounds and the words would flow a little lighter over the tongue so it becomes "Șifași?" (shefahshi)

In addition to the ch- sounds being replaced with softer sh- sounds b- sounds are replaced with g- sounds. Such as the word the word for fine "bine" (bee-nay) becoming "gine" (gee-nay) and "vorbește" becoming "vorgește."

Also I should note that the language interview, which graded me as having an Advanced Low ability to speak Romanian, evaluated my ability to speak and understand clean Romanian, which is like only being tested in the dialect of a foreign language you had less experience with. Not bad I'd say.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

16: Russian or Romanian?

The train station in the capital with the Russian and Romanian spelling of  it's name.

One of the hardest parts about living in Moldova is not being able to communicate with everyone in my native language. To make matters worse Moldova is mostly a bilingual country where the majority of the populace speaks Romanian as their native language and Russian as the other national language. For those who speak Romanian at home Russian is not considered a foreign language or even their second language it is just their 'other' language.

Having said there are still many battles being fought on a day to day basis on the use of the two languages in the public sphere. Many ethnic Moldovans see Russian as the language of the Soviet Union that they were forced to learn and while knowing Russian is a valuable asset to them and something they might use often they still believe that Romanian should be the operating language of the government and schools and that all Moldovan citizens should learn and be able to speak Romanian. On the other end is the ethnic Russians or Ukrainians  (and sometimes Moldovans) who speak Russian at home and feel like they should have the same rights as others within the country to speak the language they grew up with, and feel like they are being treated the same way Moldovans were treated in the Soviet Union by being required to learn a language that they don't want to learn.

The fight over language can be as simple as someone refusing to speak Russian back to someone and instead only speaking Romanian, or vice versa. In my particular situation speaking Romanian I have been in many situations where people couldn't understand why I would learn Romanian instead of Russian since it is the more beautiful and more respectable language as they say, and conversely when a Moldovan learns that I only learned Romanian and I don't know Russian they are usually amazed and delighted, and of course they also tell me that it is the more beautiful and more respectable language. The inverse is also true for the volunteers who learned Russian.

Speaking of that, going out with other volunteers can be quite a circus when some people speak only Romanian or only Russian so unless we are lucky enough to find a Moldovan who speaks English it can be quite confusing for them to take our order at a restaurant for instance, or heading to the market together. In particular I went out with one friend who is a Russian speaker and as we stood in front of a stall overlooking some shoes I asked the woman a question and then my friend asked a question in Russian...after which we played a fun game of telephone where the woman would ask me a question in Russian and I would stare blankly trying to understand until I realize it was Russian then my friend would translate it for me and I would reply in Romanian. At which point the woman caught on that I didn't understand Russian and started to speak to us in Romanian and then I had to translate what she was saying to my friend, which confused the woman until we explained. After all the confusion from living in a mixed language country I can imagine it is going to be pretty boring coming home to just boring old English.

17: Piata

Shopping in Moldova is something that takes a little getting used to. For one thing in the capital of Moldova there are shops and supermarkets that are very similar to anything you might run into in America but then at the same time there is the piata, which is a bazaar or open air market, and the closest thing I can think of to compare it to is a flea market.

Off in the distance you can see the entrance to the piata centrala and directly in front is the central bus station.

The piata is very loosely separated into different categories of goods. With produce and meat products having well delineated sections, while the rest of the market is made up of stalls where you will mostly see clothing grouped together and house hold goods grouped together and et cetera. Although with the stalls you could really have a stall devoted to anything anywhere in the piata so while you might have a good idea where to look if you want to find a new teapot you might be surprised to find a cheaper one at a stall hidden among stalls mostly devoted to cosmetics. Sometimes it can be a bit maddening trying to fight your way through the crowds and never knowing where to find something and most of the time it really is just luck of the draw if you happen to stumble on exactly what you are looking for.

But again, why spend time bumbling around in the piata when everything would be just as easily collected from one of the ever growing number of supermarkets? And really the answer is I don't know.  I think the major reason I end up at the piata as much as I do is because it is very close to Peace Corps HQ and even though it might be hard to find what you are looking for you are also probably more likely to find a larger selection than you might at a supermarket (and haggle for a better price). Also shopping at the piata is such a unique shopping experience, that it kind of grows on you the more you get used to it, and while it can be hectic it also has a lot more character  and a lot more opportunities to start up a conversation than the calm, well ordered supermarket that can seem a lot more impersonal and    maybe even a little unwelcoming in comparison.

The pork room, not for the squimish. You can buy any part of the pig you want and I mean any part.

People get very upset whenever I pull my camera out to take pictures in the piata...but luckily someone has uploaded a great video on youtube of them walking through it. I think this says it better than I ever could.

Monday, July 1, 2013

18: Baccalaureate Exams

In Moldova in order to actually graduate high school and recieve your diploma you have to take a set of exams which are known as the Baccalaureate exams, or simply the Bac. Because the exams can affect whether or not you get your diploma they are taken very seriously though like most tests in Moldova cheating is rampant. Whether it be through using your cell phone or copying off of a friend or even worse bribing the official who is grading your exam the tests results are usually not very accurate to your actual knowledge of the material. So even though the test are generally very difficult and seen as hard to pass, last year 89% of Moldovan students were given passing grades.

This year Moldova promised a multitude of reforms to the test taking procedures and everyone was very surprised by the result. 42% of Moldovan students failed the exams this year which is a dramatic change from the 11% percent that failed last year. Of the 28,000 students who took the exam 6,400 didn't pass a single part of the exam, and only 14 recieved what you can think of as straight A+s.

Students have the right to challenge the grades they were given and have also been generously given the opportunity to retake the tests in July.

The major differences that lead to the "catastrophic" grades this year being that all of the tests were graded in Chisinau and there were much stricter regulations at the testing centers. In the past the person in charge of the testing center could be charged with corruption and would not be allowed to run the center for 5 years, this year however, anyone charged with corruption would not be allowed to run the testing center or head any educational institution for five years, which means if they are the director of a school they would lose their job. The regulations seemed to have had the desired effect.

Some news articles that discuss the grades:
Bac procedure more correct this year
Last day to challenge grades
Catastrophy at the Bac (Romanian) If you have google translate installed on your web browser I recommend this one. The comment section has some very good thought provoking responses that are well formed and spelled correctly. Which I'm not sure I can say the same for really any comment section I've seen anywhere else on the internet.