Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Lets do it!

If I remember correctly. Corning, New York (my home town) is a clean place. People generally don't throw their trash in the river. If there is a garbage can you won't see kids, young adults, even old adults throwing their trash on the ground next to it. As a teen I spent a lot of time downtown rollerblading. Living in a clean place instilled decent values in me. During many of those long days downtown on 8 wheels I carried wrappers in my pocket or empty coke bottles until I found a trash can to unload in. It was normal and that made it easy. By taking care of my own trash I was not at all special. It was just something that everyone did. Petrosani is different than Corning.

For there being so many trash cans on the street I was seeing an awful lot of trash on the street. It wasn't something that really popped out at me at first. The more that my Romanian counterparts, friends, and acquaintances mentioned their "dirty country" the more I noticed dirty things. The only obviously trashy parts of the area are the streams and rivers where rainstorms displace the garbage of the freshly dog scrounged, overflowing dumpsters into the local waterway. The "problem" really hit me when I was walking behind one of my students on my back to my block after dropping a bag of my own garbage into my dumpster. He was only about two meters from the trash can when I spotted him dropping a wrapper of a candy bar on the ground. "Razvan, pick that up and put it in the trash can" I said. My limited Romanian, at the time, combined with some English and some useful body language to get the point across and Razvan obeyed. I have pondered and discussed that experience a lot since it happened and I have come to the conclusion that while in Corning it was normal to through trash in the can, here it just simply isn't. At least not yet. Razvan is not a bad kid at all. He's actually one of my better behaved students and a pleasure to have in class. His practice of throwing his trash on the ground was just something that he has always done, and has seen others doing.

So last fall, in my "don't turn down an invitation" part of service I was invited along on a trash pick-up. On a Saturday when I could have been lying in bed, watching a movie, and being lazy, instead I was pulling rubber gloves over my hands and grabbing hold of a trash bag. Did I mention there was a free t-shirt involved? A green t-shirt (my favorite color) that said Omaha Nebraska on it. Maybe I'll go there someday. If I go there I have a great shirt to wear showing my support for a town that I currently know nothing about. On trash pick-up day 2010 I pulled that same shirt over my head and headed for city hall. Trash pick-up day 2010 was special for a couple of reasons. Reason number one was that it wasn't just a small group of 30-some highschoolers and a couple of teachers, it was a nation-wide campaign to clean up all of Romania. Reason number two was that it wasn't just on any random day, it was on my 25th birthday. I made it to a quarter century!!! Reason number three was that I was with a really cool friend who, when I told her that our weekend activity was picking up trash, became just as excited as I was.

Lets do it Romania! as I understand it is modeled after a successful Estonian project several years ago; a project that cleaned up the entire country of Estonia in a single day. While last years trash pick-up consisted mostly of students with few teachers involved, Lets do it Romania! was more for the common citizen. Anybody could make a team, register that team, and finally that team would be responsible for cleaning up a certain part of Romania. As I approached city hall it already appeared that my town was ready to get to work. People packed into the meeting hall as a lady called out the team names and the area of the region that they would be responsible for cleaning up. On our way out of the hall I was handed a water and a small bag which included a piece of fruit and some sponge cake. From there we walked to the spot on the edge of town to begin our work.

My team was made up of half teachers and half students. We were responsible for cleaning up a creek and nearby road that was located just beyond Aeroport, the southern most neighborhood in my city. My friend and I seemed to hold up the rear. She was so determined to fish the potato-chip bag, or the shoe, or the shirt out of the middle of the creek. If there was a piece of debris that she couldn't manage to reach she would seem so bummed. I admire her determination. Anyway eventually we caught up to the rest. As we reached the bottom of the road we added our two heavy bags (full of water-logged trash, clothing) to the already huge pile of trash. We were already finished.

Ten years ago if you told me that I would one day go and pick up trash for fun I would call you crazy. There I was on a cloudy, somewhat rainy Saturday morning, on my birthday none-the-less, with friends and students having a blast picking up trash. I don't know actually how effective these trash pick-ups actually are. I hear from a lot doubters that if I walk by that same spot two weeks from the time of the clean-up, it'll be yet again covered in trash. Maybe they're right, maybe there really isn't way to clean up Romania. For me it wasn't all that much about the cleaning anyway. It was more about the conversations that I had on the walk with my students. It was about the determination of my friends and my students to get that shirt out of the middle of the stream. It was about getting your feet wet and your hands dirty just to get the cup that was half buried in the sand under the water. It was about the smiles, the good pictures taken and the working together. Razvan was there. He was the only student from his class that was present. Maybe next time I'm walking behind him I won't have to remind him to put the trash in the trash can.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010



Suddenly I felt the soft forest floor of thick moss over large rocks. My concentration was broken by the change in the forest floor as the sound of the crunching of last seasons fallen leaves turned into the silent compacting of moss. Eyes lifted from their careful scanning the forest floor around my feet to to the distant rise in the landscape through the trees and past the bright green covered rocks. As the morning sun dotted the landscape in front of me I could not imagine a place that I would have rather been at that moment. Sure it was hard to pull myself out of bed that morning after a long night of Romanian pop music in the streets of Petrosani, but when I saw the morning sun rise high enough to cast a yellow light on my bedroom wall I realized that if I were to stay in bed that morning then I would regret the decision. I rose out of bed, started the coffee on the stove, and watched the news as I waited for Morison's call.

You know that it is going to be a good day when it starts off with a slow cruise up a winding road periodically catching the bright morning sun after rounding the bend. Loaded with potholes, it took us about 45 min to reach Groapa Seaca after passing through Jiet Canyon. On a cleaned up version of the road I would estimate the trip to last 15 minutes. Nobody was in a hurry. It was early yet and expectations for a big find were low. It was a hike, but if we managed to find what we went looking for, great. And so went the start of my first morning, wandering through the forest in search of edible fungi. On the previous hike I became somewhat oriented with mushrooms. We spotted several, and my guides quickly identified which were edible and which were toxic, giving me somewhat of an idea of what to look for. My first couple of finds I took over to Morison for verification and with each one he confirmed an edible find. I was collecting strictly on the principle that if something else had previously munched on it, it must not be toxic. The mushrooms that I picked up were second-hand mushrooms.

Wandering through the forest that morning my two guides were within site most of the time and within shouting distance all of the time. They had a much better eye for what they were looking for. For the most part I just picked out the more prevalent and easier to spot yellow caps while my partners spotted the more desired maroon capped mushrooms as well. At one point Morison found a mushroom that did not at all resemble the traditional shape of a mushroom. Instead it looked like a mini dirty-maroon forest of fungus growing in an opening in the forest. He handed me some to put in my bag but later that evening he called me warning that it was rather bitter, so I tossed it. There were times in my wandering when I was completely focused at the ground around my feet. My nearsightedness was a limitation in the forest as my sharp vision was limited to a mere 2-2.5 meters in front of me. There were other times in my wandering where my concentration had been broken and I simply moved my feet in awe of the environment surrounding me. It could not have been a nicer morning to be in the forest. The sun popped in where it could and I was wearing just enough layers to protect me from the bite of the cool early fall temperatures.

Before letting me off at my apartment just as the sun reached its peak position in the sky, Morison insisted on taking a look through my bag to make sure that what I took from the forest would not kill me if I ate it. He verified that all of the mushrooms that I picked where good and gave me some instructions for initial preparation. I was happy to have his confirmation but I was still leery about what was in my bag. Picking mushrooms can be a very dangerous activity but I went on with preparation anyway. I prepared a nice stew after boiling the mushrooms and adding them to a pot full of vegetables. After dishing out a tiny portion for myself I sat and stared at the plate for a minute. It looked good, it smelled good, but was it safe to eat? There was only one way to find out. I ate the tiny, delicious portion of mushroom stew and laid down for a nap. If I woke up feeling alright then I could finally consider my first mushroom hunt a success and I would dig in on a much larger serving. It ended well. Pofta buna!


Just before Cabana Lunca Florii we spotted a Dacia kicking up dirt on its way up the road. How could we miss it? By that point we had made it up through the canyon to a stretch of road rarely used at that time in the season. Summer had ended and the cooler days of fall had descended upon the Jiu Valley. The cabana was already closed up for the season at the beginning of September and there were no longer signs of people grilling, a sight that would have packed the banks of the creak just 2 weeks earlier. Ernest flagged down the Dacia and I jumped in the back with our backpacks. The two of them chatted as we hurried up the dirt road in the old car. Less than 10 minutes later we reached our drop off point and as I climbed out of the backseat I heard Ernest say "am economisit o ora si jumate". Thanks to the Dacia we had saved an hour and a half of walking. We still had more to go. The short road took us to a spring where we filled up with fresh water and from there we took a hard left on a path leading straight up the hill.

It was my second time hiking in the Sureanu Mountains. We had hiked the exact same trail, almost exactly a year earlier, in search of the exact same thing, blackberries. It was a steep trail leading us into a dark forest and then out to the edge where we walked up a ridge. From the ridge I looked straight ahead and to the left to see a tree on the side of the hill. That tree was our destination. A year earlier we sat our bags down next to that tree and started wandering the area finding some delicious blackberries, not enough to gather but definitely enough to munch on until full. The tree is the only tree situated on that particular steep slope but it is surrounded by bushes that yield an incredible amount of fruit if you happen to be wandering by at the right time.

Once again we had not arrived at the right time. The previous year we were late, this year we were early. After enjoying some zacusca over bread we began to forage. I quickly learned the trick to finding a good berry. First of all it must be the right color. In the berry's development it starts out green, then changes to red, and finally to black. When spotting a good sized black one you hold it and start to pull. If it is ripe, you barely have to pull before it breaks off into your hand. If you have to give it a good tug in order to break it off, once you pop it in your mouth you quickly realize that you pulled too hard. In learning the right amount of pull to get a good tasting berry I had to spit out several. Trial and error.

This time we wandered further up the hill to the ridge were we found many berry bushes. I ate until I had had enough and then we continued on the trail. As we passed over the ridge we could see a sheepfold on an adjacent hill with some people near it collecting berries. Ernest told me that Priest's Valley, the area that we were in, has a high frequency of lightning strikes and therefore the sheepfold was vacant. A few years earlier several sheep had died there from a lightning strike. We decided to sit down there for a while and eat. We ate, we napped, and we chatted, preparing ourselves for the descent ahead of us.

Our walk back to Petrila was long. The descent was nice and easy bringing us through a dark forest and by a couple of old secluded sheepfolds. After reaching the road we walked all 10 kilometers back to Petrila which took a toll on my feet. We took a small detour on a road leading from the canyon to Leonia passing by small country houses with fruit-filled trees in their front yards. Even though we did not return home that day with a bag full of berries we filled our bellies. After such a long walk neither of us were ready to stand by the stove and cook up jam anyway. It was a good day of escape from the city.

Lessons learned:
First lesson is, if you have the chance, take it. This is a lesson that has proved to be helpful in integrating throughout my service. So many mornings I have woken up to an alarm with my body begging me to stay in. Soon after that early morning coffee I end up realizing that getting up and getting outside was by far the best option.
Second lesson is, if you want to do something, ask. I've been wanting to go mushroom hunting. During my last hiking trip I realized that there are a couple people I know that go mushroom hunting from time to time, so I asked if I could come along next time. They were happy to bring me along and show me how its done.
Third lesson is, have a guide. People in the area know the spots and in my experiences, they're happy to show them to you. Maybe it is because you're foreign, and your stay is temporary so they are a little more at ease with sharing their secret spots. Maybe they are just hospitable and they enjoy the company. Without someone who knows, you could be walking around in the forest "degeaba" and not find a thing. Also, when it comes to mushroom hunting, without a guide it can be much more dangerous and you could end up munching on something that you'll regret.
The forth lesson is to be inquisitive. Getting out in the forest and in the mountains with someone who knows what they are doing is a great chance to learn some things. Asking questions can help you to not only learn about your partner, but also learn a lot about the environment. Plus, you get to practice your Romanian.
The fifth and final lesson is don't rush. Take the time to enjoy and fully appreciate the day, the sunshine, the fresh air, and the unusual environment. I used to see how many high peaks I could pass by in a day and now I can't even remember the view from the top of Basin. Stay, rest, relax, and take it all in.

"Isn't it curious how in so many of our pastimes and hobbies we play at supplying one or another of our fundamental creaturely needs--for food, shelter, even clothing? So some people knit, others build things or chop wood, and a great many of us "work" at feeding ourselves--by gardening or hunting, fishing or foraging.....we like to think of ourselves as self-reliant, even if only for a few hours on the weekend, even when growing the stuff yourself winds up costing twice as much as it would to buy it at the store." Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Peninsula 2010

A week ago today I arrived at Peninsula music festival in Targu Mures. I got the idea of attending from a group 27er a week earlier but I had a week long English camp to attend which ran into festival time. I figured that my chances of going were slim until I ran it by Justin and Jerod a couple nights into the camp. I figured that if they were down then I was down. Justin was in.

Friday, with the help of some great Romanians we made it to the festival before that day's music had started. Our wonderful host at the camp gave us a ride to Alba, took us around to a couple locations so we could find a tent, and even took us for some mici before dropping us off at the proper hitching spot. By then it wasn't a surprise that she would be so helpful to us. All week long she had been available to provide us with anything we needed weather it be materials/assistance for our English lessons or wine from the crama. We stayed at the hitching spot only 15 minutes before Paul stopped. Paul had a very little Daewoo and we had a lot of baggage. There we were, 3 of us and a lot of baggage and we still had to pick up one more. Now that's Romanian hospitality. Just and I were packed into the back seat next to my baggage while Mihai and Paul were in the front, the four of us bound for Targu Mures.

Paul seemed to be quite knowledgeable about the music that would be offered to us upon entering the festival. I, on the other had, was not at all knowledgeable about the music and that is what I liked so much about it. I was entering the gates to a musical world of discovery and I would leave with a list of newly found treasure. Unfortunately they wouldn't let us take the wine in so we left it in the car. Paul and Mihai went to watch Parov Stellar while Just and I continued on to the campground to set up. After stopping by the 27er tents Just and I were lucky enough to make it back to Parov Stellar and catch a few great songs, the first band on my treasure list of music. Asher showed up and we oriented him with the campground before making our way back to the Fest for some food and The Rasmus. After about 5 songs it was time to ditch The Rasmus and move on to the Ciuc commercial that was Dan Helciug si spitalul de urgenta. The entire time Dan was holding his Ciuc hand high. That show led us to the nights climax performance that was Gorillaz Sound System. I dig the Gorillaz but they're animated. I had no clue what to expect. It turned out being some great Gorillaz music with some interesting animations projected onto a large screen hanging from the stage. It was cool, unexpected, and it earned a great response from the crowd.

The night continued. Gorillaz Sound System was followed by some hanging out, and raising our glasses to the night before making our way to Freedom Music Arena(FMA). The Arena is where the djs go and where the party lasts until 5 in morning every night. We walked in to Fedde le Grand of the Netherlands spinning. After dancing until 3 am the music stopped. I was shocked when I realized that this guy was up there playing with his equipment, non-stop, from well before I arrived. A new-found respect for djs. The next addition to my treasure-list of music walked onto the stage and began playing not 10min after Fedde exited. One benefit of dj music is minimal setup time required. The Romanian group Suie Parparude commanded the crowd and packed the FMA. I will not try to describe the music but I will recommend checking it out. Time for bed.

Saturday pre-music highlights include a walk around Tg. Mures, pulling a painful metal splinter from my foot, waking up on the grass next to a swimming pool shocked and a bit scared having no clue where I was (not drunk, just really tired), and a nice phone chat with my parents. Music highlights started with Phoenix, a band from the 70's that fled communism and returned to Romania decades later to rock out. I hung out with Paul and Mihai at that show. Next to go on was Europe. We all knew just one song by Europe and patiently waited for it to come, "The Final Countdown". Following Europe we wandered to see part of Tricky and then headed for the FMA when it began to rain. Returning to our tents after another late night dance session we found our stuff a bit wet from the hole in the top of the tent(no rain fly). I through my rain coat up over the hole and climbed into my bag to pass out.

Sunday was cloudy, rainy, and cold most of the day. While many people were packing up there tents and leaving there was quite the influx of rockers sporting Korn shirts, the big act to go on that evening. When the music finally came the group of volunteers made it to the main stage after eating to catch most of what I would call the best act at the fest. Zdob si Zdub of Moldova mix traditional Moldovan and Roma music into their hardcore ska style of rock, added to my list. The Korn show that night brought back some memories of middle-school and high-school. Finally before leaving the fest to catch our 3:30am personal back to Alba we caught most of the one man show named DubFX, the final addition to my list concluding my first Romanian festival experience.

Cool things to mention:
Fire dancers, collecting our beer cups to recycle and earn bracelits and a "t-shirt", awesome group of 27ers and 26ers mixed, huge pool, hanging with the group plus Romanian friends drinking down our wine by the lake, hamsii, nothing got stolen.