Friday, April 8, 2011

March Wrap-up and my Great Trek North! aka, Site Visits (slideshow at end)

Well, March was certainly an action packed month!  At site, school had a week of spring break, my nurse partner and I held our second public health education activity for the community, my work with the soup kitchen has been going full speed ahead as we finished off a grant application, I planned my first seminar for the teachers at my school, and I facilitated a raft of needs assessments with partners.

A lot of these projects were long on the to do list, so spring break came at a welcome time to do some catch up.  Break it was not, and come to think of it, neither was it spring (though the latter was finally making some progress this past week, with the exception of last Monday’s rather unfortunate snow…)

Both for better and for worse, action packed also meant a month when I was away from my site far more than normal – a full third of the month by my tally. Previous posts have already covered the exciting 50th Anniversary Kickoff  and even more exciting visit by Vice President Biden.  Aside from that, other travels that pulled me away from my non-routine routine at site included facilitating two GLOW seminars (Girls Leading Our World, a global Peace Corps girls empowerment program) and an extended trek through the north of Moldova to 5 other volunteers’ sites during the final week of the month.

“Site visits” are a practice heavily encouraged by Peace Corps.  There are a number of reasons for site visits, but they generally involve some combination of work, learning through observation of fellow volunteers, and cultural curiosity/travel. I’ve hosted a number of volunteers on visits at my site.  Melissa came to facilitate a Schimb de Experienta for my youth club – twice, in fact, as the you may recall the first one was snowed out.  Craig came out of a general curiosity in the HESC program, and another time just to keep me company when my host family was away.  Most recently, Lindsay (my BFF here in Moldova) spent the night after we co-facilitated a GLOW seminar in a neighboring village.  Yet despite all my own hosting and Peace Corps’ encouragement, I had yet to pay visit to other volunteers.

My own trek north was an odyssey of long-overdue social visits, youth programs, and classroom observations.  It was my first time north of Chişinău, and in the space of a week I doubled the number of raions (districts) I’ve visited, from four to eight.

I left on a Saturday from Chişinău’s north bus station (another first), and my first stop was with Melissa in Sîngerei, the district “center” (capital) of the raion of… Sîngerei.  Just about all of Moldova’s 37 raions are named for their center, leading to a confusing situation of always having to clarify whether one is referring to the district seat or the district more generally.  Since Moldova is only slightly larger than Maryland, raions are effectively large counties.

Melissa lives with three women in an apartment overlooking the “city.”  At around 12,000 people on paper, I use the word city contextually.  Even here, Melissa’s family has the old home out in the country, where they spend much of their time engaged in traditional manual agricultural labor.  Still, with their single bus line, a few restaurants, and youth with time for extracurricular activities and parents with salaried jobs, Sîngerei has the veneer of a life that more resembles a European town than my village, which wholly rotates around the agricultural calendar.  Of course, with this veneer comes a very real set of different problems as well, the problems that typically come from youth who lack healthy and stimulating opportunities.

I was in Sîngerei for an open house hosted by Melissa’s youth council.  Her full description of the event can be found here.

After a night with Melissa, my remaining four stops were all with health volunteers: Lindsay W. (the BFF), Mackenzie, Lindsay T., and Amanda in the raions of Teleneşti, Floreşti, and Edineţ.  All live in villages, and consequently, the rest of my week involved an ever shifting combination of hiking, hitchhiking, and busses headed in the right direction.  Public transportation in Moldova is fairly decent if one is headed to the capital or a raion center.  Going from one village to another is more of an adventure.  And so it was that I found myself walking along gravel roads, balanced next to a swishing tub of field spray, exploring new bus stations, and negotiating with bus drivers to drop me at locations I had very little understanding of.  The good thing about Moldova is that since this is how many Moldovans get from one place to another, none of it is very out of the ordinary.

With Lindsay W., I got to observe some excellent classes and see the house she’s about to move into to go it alone.  Until now, she has lived with the “Martha Stewart of her village,” a gift with obvious tradeoffs.  With Mackenzie, I saw the definition of the rustic idyllic, a village set between two hills over a stream that cuts a deep path through the middle, all overlooked by a monastery and bordered by a forested lake.  His host mother, more of a host grandmother, is a similar caricature of the hardworking and kindly Moldovan grandmother everyone wants as a host.  Lindsay T. lives at the edge of a large wood, a former stop on the way to a summer retreat in the Soviet times.  And finally, there is Amanda, who has the best of all worlds, a beautiful village surrounded by rocky hills.  Just 15 minutes from the raion center where her best friend Miranda teaches English, she even has a site-mate from my group, Alex, another awesome English teacher.  Both joined us for an incredible “masa” (feast) her host uncle and aunt put on for us, the perfect topping for a week of good food and cultural exchange.

Of the four health volunteers I visited, the two Lindsays are from my group, and Mackenzie and Amanda are both in their second year.  Amanda was my mentor during PST (Pre-Service Training) last summer, and Mackenzie taught many of our tech sessions.  All four are good friends and great teachers, so it was a wonderful learning opportunity that generated a lot of good ideas.

It would be disingenuous, however, to neglect the significant travel/cultural appeal of the trip as well.  I’ve been in Moldova almost 10 months now, and still seen little of the country outside my raion and Chişinău.  Then there was also the fact that I’ve felt myself burning out at work in general and at school in particular much quicker this semester.  I think that’s not so unusual in education more broadly, and it’s especially something a lot of volunteers here face during the winter.  So, while I’ve long wanted to do a series of classroom observations, it was the combination of burnout and the lure of cultural excursion that really brought me to the willingness to take a week away and let my partners teach alone.

And indeed, the cultural impressions proved revealing and well worth the travel.  One often hears Moldovans say that though they are a small country, the traditions vary widely even between neighboring villages.  The cliché is definitely grounded in truth.  After a week of repeatedly being asked by my hosts to remark on the differences, it’s clear that most of them deny easy generalization.  I imagine this vast difference between villages wouldn’t have been so alien 100 years ago in the U.S. either, before the age of mass communication.  And it’s certainly true of other European regions, steeped in history as they are.

Still, there are a couple notable differences that I fell back on when describing my impressions of the north for Moldovans.  Most of these idiosyncrasies are best seen in the slideshow below, so I’ll limit the explanation here.  From my admittedly limited glimpse, it all starts with the geography.

Ştefan Voda, my raion in the southeast, is flat, rural, and consequently characterized by large scale agriculture.  The weather is heavily influenced by the Black Sea, which is just 60 km away over the border with Ukraine.  We’re more sparsely populated, stuck out on a peninsula of Moldova, surrounded on three sides by Ukraine and the breakaway region of Transnistria.

The north, on the other hand, is hilly, at times even rocky, resulting in smaller parcels of land.  It is wetter, with forests and many more streams and rivers.  It also has a slightly shorter summer, which combined with the hills means many more orchards and many fewer vineyards.  As a result, they drink a lot less wine and a lot more rachiu, a brandy-like spirit made from fruits, beets, and just about anything else at hand.  (Also, the house wine is of noticeably lesser quality, an observation I offered less frequently to my hosts.)

The dialects are expectedly different, and in the far north, the cultural makeup includes many more Russians and Ukrainians.  (My raion is heavily predominated by Romanian speaking Moldovans, surprising give our proximity to Ukraine.)

One thing that is certainly not different, however, is the Moldovan feed-you-till-you-burst hospitality, which makes even Iowa’s farm tables look puritanical in their modesty.  Thus, along the way, I was repeatedly greeted warmly.  In Peace Corps Moldova, a friend of a volunteer is a friend of the family, and a friend of the family is often not so far away from family itself.  There was nowhere I was able to leave before repeated promises to come back, even in families where the volunteer will soon be closing their service and departing Moldova.  Clearly, my first trek north will not be my last.

Slideshow of the trip
Click to enlarge

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