Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Eve

To celebrate Christmas this year I decided to prepare some traditional Romanian food, salata de boeuf and sarmale.  While chopping vegetables on Christmas eve I heard some loud noises coming from the street behind my block.  I quickly grabbed my camera and headed to my balcony to film the scene below.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Merry Christmas!


            It’s that time of the year again.  The city is lit up, the nighttime air is spiced with cinnamon and cloves as the steam rises out of the warm glasses of wine, venders all around town are pushing goods of all shapes and sizes into the faces of eager consumers, and in the thousands of small villages peppering the countryside of Romania, pigs are dying.  “Ignat” takes place on the 20th of December.  The word “Ignat” is actually the Romanian version of the name Ignatius and like most things Romanian, the 20th of December has religious significance.  Even though the 20th is the feast day of Saint Ignatius of Antioch the word is synonymous with the annual pig slaughter because of its convenient timing, 5 days before Christmas.  There’s just enough timing in between Ignat and Christmas to get the meat checked and ready to feast on after the long Christmas fast.  Due to the busy week schedule, the onrush of capitalism and the slow fading of tradition, the annual event of “Ignat” no longer actually takes place on the feast day of Ignatius, unless of course that day falls on the weekend.  This past weekend was the weekend before Ignat, and even though blood was spilled the courtyards of many country homes, good food and drink were offered in remembrance of the pig freshly slaughtered.

            It was about 9:30am on a Sunday morning in a small Romanian village that bears the name “Valley of the Monks” when three PCVs stumbled into Nico’s courtyard awaiting the feast day’s events.  The PCV’s were late and they had missed the actual killing of the pig.  They halted shortly after entering the gate with eyes fixed upon the scene.  There was an older man and a younger man each with torches in one hand and a knife in the other, burn scrape, burn scrape.  Despite their seemingly carelessness of where they set down their torches, it was clear that this wasn’t their first hot dance.  They were pros, and this was just one of their many pig slaughters of the season.  Soon after arriving, our host, busy with preparations of sorts, came out of the house with a large welcoming smile across his face.  In one hand he was holding a steaming pot and in the other he had a large tray with mugs.  After clearing off a spot on the nearby table he began to pour the not so clear liquid into the mugs and handed them out.  A morning cheers quickly followed and then we drank.  It had been two years since I had tasted tuica fierta and I had forgotten how much I had actually liked it.  My last taste of the drink took place at the same time of the year, while watching another pro clean a recently butchered pig, several hundred kilometers to the west.  Meanwhile, looking around the group I noticed that the one of the men working on the pig put his scraper down for his glass of tuica.  Tuica in one hand and a torch in the other, drink, burn, drink burn. 

Grandma cleaning out the intestines.

            After burning the hair off and cleaning and salting its skin, the men methodically began taking the pig apart starting with the head.  The first cut was the traditional cross cut in the head of the pig, reminding those present that they are thankful to God for the large healthy pig on the table.  The pig started as a 200+ kg mass on a table and in about a half hour all that was left on the table was one last flat slab of flesh.  I watched them pull the different parts of the pig off while standing next to my friend Jeremy who has a passion for food.  As they pulled off each part he explained what it was and what it is used for in the culinary world.  For him, knowing his way around food, it was obvious that seeing the slaughter was an interesting experience.  Meanwhile my other friend Aron was carefully documenting the activity by taking pictures, and our host Nico was lending a helpful hand to the professionals cutting the pig.  After all, it was all his meat.  Aside from the group, we were accompanied by some entertaining animals.  Between watching the butchers and chatting with Jeremy I was noticing the cats roaming around the scene slopping blood up off of the cold concrete.  Despite how domesticated an animal can be there are still instincts that kick in.

Pomana porcului was the culmination of the day’s activities.  Pomana porcului is the meal that the host offers those present who helped out with the slaughter.  Even though we didn’t help out very much we were guests and therefore we became direct beneficiaries of the delicious food served.  The meal consisted of some of the meat taken from the pig recently killed fried in fat from the pig.  There was also mamaliga, tuica and wine served, all products produced by the host.  Despite the cold, the meal was served at a table in the courtyard.  After enjoying the meal we continued to sit and enjoy the day and our great host Nico who brought out a pair gloves that he used to box with.  Back in the day Nico was one of Romania’s star boxers.  

For me, the event acted as a reminder of the beauty of the countryside.  After spending so much time in the city sometimes I forget how much I enjoy the fresh air, traditions, and hospitality that can be found not far beyond the limits of the city.  In some cases these traditions can also be found within city limits.  I remember walking to school on a cold morning before the winter break began last year and seeing torches lit in between city blocks at my old site.  Even though last weekend may have marked my final pomana porcului, it will not be the last time I make the trip to spend the day in the beautiful Romanian countryside.  In so many places in Romania the beauty of the countryside means incredible mountain scenery, rivers and lakes, but in so many more places in Romania the beauty of the countryside means much more than that.  It is the tradition, stories, and hospitality of the people who reside there.  

 Romania, te iubesc! 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Planting Season

 Planting season has come and gone!  Over the past several weeks I have been assisting in the planning and implementation of the fall series of tree planting projects that my host country organization puts on each year.  Before the tree plantings started, my host country organization MaiMultVerde (MMV) organized a course to train volunteer coordinators in planting projects.  The course gave its 40 participants the skills needed to plan and implement a tree planting on their own.  It also expanded the pool of coordinators that MMV utilizes to assist in their own plantings.  The planting projects offered by MMV give those coordinators some practical experience in conducting a tree planting activity.  The season started with a bang.  

Three tree plantings were scheduled for the last weekend of October.  There was a small one in Bucharest on Friday, a larger one in Ploiesti on Saturday, and the largest was held on Saturday in a small village called Lesmir in Bihor County.  

Panorama from the top of the hill at the planting in Lesmir
The Lesmir planting was set up on a bare hillside for the purpose of helping to prevent future landslides.  The MMV team along with the coordinators made the 10-12 hour trip by van to Marghita where they stayed and commuted to Lesmir.  It was a beautiful area of Romania, but as you looked out from atop the steep hill where the planting was to take place, you saw a number of towers in the distance poking up out of the foggy haze which had settled in the valley.  We were in oil country.  Those towers were oil drills and our tree planting activity was one of the many projects funded by “Tara lui Andrei” the CSR branch of Romania’s largest oil company, Petrom.  On Friday the Petrom coordinators set up the location to receive volunteers while the MMV team and coordinators set up the planting area so that when the volunteers arrived the next day it would be easy for them to know where and how to plant the “puieti” (young trees).  The hard work setting up the terrain and early morning wake-up time the following morning, put the MMV team and coordinators to bed at a decent hour, eagerly awaiting the next day’s events.  

The team was up and out the door into the cold morning by 6:30am.  The sun had not yet risen and the sharp sting of the cold northern air was enough to wake up each member of the team as they all piled into the vans.  The warm air circulating through the vans discouraged them from exiting once at the planting site.  Minor morning preparations had to be made in order to be ready for the four hundred volunteers who were about to show up ready to work.  The volunteers consisted of children from the local schools with their teachers, nearby community leaders, and Petrom employees with their families.  They were split into four teams with two of MMV’s coordinators helping each team.  As with all of the season’s plantings, the first several minutes are the most hectic and crucial.  Volunteers come ready to start and tend to rush into things rather than patiently and attentively listening to directions.  In the first half hour of planting the coordinators must make sure that the volunteers are doing it correctly and in an organized fashion.  After that first hour things seem to go rather smoothly.  

Unfortunately, for the coordinators of the two blue teams, things didn’t go so swimmingly that day.  The day before, we identified one of the yellow sections to be the most difficult because if it’s steep grade and tricky terrain, but the blue section ended up being by far the most difficult because of its hard soil.  The soil in the yellow teams’ section was much more sandy and easy to dig, but the soil in the blue teams’ section was difficult to break and volunteers lost their patients.  After giving some instruction, handing out some water, and getting dirty a bit, the blue team coordinators got through the lengthened first half of the day which ended in an awards ceremony for the hard working volunteers.  The second half of the day consisted of cleaning up the planting terrain after the volunteers left and then heading down to the small village of Lesmir to eat and drink with the locals.  Certainly that evening the volunteers and some of the coordinators continued celebrating back at the old hotel in their host city of Marghita.  The next day came early but much less taxing as the group only had to pile back into the vans to embark on another 12 our trip back to the capital.  

The Lesmir trip was only the start of the planting season and it created a team that would come back together as a whole for the final planting in Marsani.  Many of the Lesmir coordinators were involved in the plantings in between the first and the last as well.  All in all, MMV organized seven tree planting activities in the fall of 2011 addressing one of their goals of the reforesting Romania.  At the final and largest planting of the season an impressive 37,000+ trees were planted in an area that you could play beach volleyball on.  We were not planting in soil, it was sand.  Riding the bus away from the planting site you could see large plots of trees planted in the same ground a few years earlier taking nicely to the soil.  Plus, the trees planted were one of my favorites found in Romania, the acacia tree.  Seeing the before and after, and the realization that a forest was just planted was a very rewarding aspect of the project, but certainly not the most rewarding aspect.  Meeting, working with, and getting to know the coordinators was by far the most valuable reward that I gained in this project.  For that I thank MaiMultVerde.  For the coordinators themselves, maybe it was the trees and realizing the positive impact that they can make, maybe it was the smiling faces and the interesting stories of the volunteers they coordinated, or maybe it was getting to know the other coordinators a bit better.  If one of the coordinators happens to read this I kindly ask them to leave their perspectives in the comment section below.  

If you wish to donate to future tree plantings you can donate here.  Ten RON ($3) plants 1 small tree. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Capturing Fall

The above video was prodused by Totoran Bogdan, a student in the the school where I worked in Petrosani, Colegiul Tehnic "Dimitrie Leonida"The pictures used in the film were taken by a former colleague and great friend Ioan Ilea Ernest. 

It used to be done by raking leaves into a big pile next to a tree, climbing up in the tree, letting yourself go and enjoying that feeling of being in a cloud.  Evidently we grow and that pile will no longer support our weight but we still manage to capture the magnificence of fall.  Whether it be the bright colors popping out in the landscape, the crumbling of leaves under your feet (or rake), the taste in the air when the first cold separates the seasons, or one of the early games of the highly anticipated football season, fall is a season highly anticipated by many and at times seems all too short. 

The Romanian fall of 2011 came like a slap in the face.  Rain had totally held off in the two months leading up to the abrupt changing of the seasons, making a difficult living for the buretar (mushroom picker).  Suddenly the weather changed from t-shirt to hoodie and beanie, and a couple days later clouds rolled and the rain began to fall.  Unfortunately for the runners of Bucharest, the Bucharest International Marathon was scheduled for that first day of cold rain.  Despite the gloomy weather I had to leave the apartment early that morning to catch the start of the race as it took place in the closest square, a two minute walk away.  Seeing the runners warming up in their spandex get-ups and their skimpy shorts took me back to that one year, in eighth grade, when I captured the fall by running cross-country.  The air in Bucharest had the same bite to it, the same taste as those cross-country meets.  I remembered the warm-up exercises, the black Lifa beanie handed down from my older brother, and the skimpy shorts that we had to wear.  Since those first few days of the 2011 fall I’ve been taking any chance that I can to appreciate the season, knowing that the leaves fall in the blink of an eye and that a cold, dark, but beautiful winter will soon descend on Romania. 

In the past three years capturing fall for me has taken place through a camera lens.  I’m no pro at taking pictures but I like to do it and it gives me one more excuse to get out and appreciate my surroundings regardless of the season.  I was recently looking through the only pictures that were ever on my ipod, which consisted of pictures taken during my last fall in the states.  They include some pretty rockin Halloween pictures of Jay and Silent Bob but also some fall shots of the finger-lakes region of New York.  The colors on the surrounding hills created a scene that I thought I might have to give up for a couple of years while I’m abroad.  It turns out that those beautiful fall colors were very present and even more vibrant in the region of Romania where I was placed.  Walking through the Jiet Canyon or the Jiu Gorge the bright colors of fall surround you on all sides and at times seem to cover you.  The best time to take shots is when you see those great colors with the perfect blue background of the sky on a clear sunny day.  As that cool wind blows by your cheek you’re reminded of the beauty in the changing of the seasons, a feeling that can’t be captured by even the greatest camera lenses. 

Living in the big city now, I knew that I would experience a different kind of fall season.  Rather than beautiful rolling hills surrounding me every day, I have concrete blocks, streets, cars, and too many people to appreciate.  Luckily for me I live in a pretty green city.  There are still trees in between the blocks, beautiful parks, nice architecture and opportunities to get out and see the countryside.  For a couple nice sunny weeks October and November the wind would blow leaves into my path while riding my bike to work in the morning.  The major highlight of this fall was having the opportunity to join a dedicated group of environmental volunteers in planting more trees so that future generations can experience the joys that I have experienced in the past and will continue to experience in years to come.  

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

November Riding

 After one of my later days spent at the office I headed home to find a number of hazards on my way.  

  • Hazard number 1, my confidence:  During the past couple of rides home I have chosen to pick up my cell phone and return calls that were missed earlier in the day.  Not the safest thing to do while cruising down somewhat busy streets with parked cars lining both sides at night.  
  • Hazard number 2, the door opening:  This evening was my first experience of this but I have heard some horror stories.  You’re riding down the street, following the rules, maybe going a little fast when… the driver’s side door of the car on your right opens, you hit it, and you go flying.  
  • Hazard number 3, pedestrians:  We’re all just trying to get where we need to go and with the hap-hazard parking of the wonderful drivers of Bucharest we just have to come out of nowhere at times skirting our way between vehicles.  
  • Hazard number 4 and by far the most dangerous in my mind, dogs:  Night has fallen and that normally peaceful street with the school on the corner turns into a hunting ground with packs of dogs searching for food or maybe just some excitement to pass the time, something to chase before it gets so late that they have to chase themselves. 

Well soon after successfully dodging hazards number 2 and 3 as they came within seconds of each other, I chose to give up on talking on the phone, putting a temporary end to hazard number 1.  Since I tend to ride rather slowly around town it was easy enough to dodge 2 and 3, but being my first “opening door” experience I was a bit shocked.  

The slow riding ends when approached with hazard number 4.  Ever since bike riding began in Bucharest hazard number 4 has haunted nearly anyone who dares to take to the small streets on two wheels.  There came a point when I finally found my perfect route to work.  The route took a relatively straight path, it stuck to the small streets, and it kept me out of high traffic areas, both foot and vehicle traffic.  The one thing that caused me to change that perfect course was that one dog, near that one block, always waiting there to chase me down the street.  Luckily I found a decent detour that allows me to avoid the dog without significantly changing my course.  
A lesson learned almost two years ago in Petrosani was that at night time in Romania those peaceful streets can turn ugly with the barking beasts hot on your trail.  After slowly passing the general school I began to hear barking that I thought was safely contained behind a fence.  From 5 to 7 angry barking dogs ran out from under the barrier and come after me nearly surrounding my bike as I began to speed up down the street.  Such moments are the most dangerous on a bike here because when you are thinking about the angry barking dogs inching closer and closer to your ankles you’re not thinking about cars pulling out or the intersection up ahead.  I guess you don’t really have to worry about dodging other pedestrians though.  I got away. 
After getting through a ride home like the one I had this evening, many cyclist would be proud of themselves.  They just managed to skirt disaster coming at them from a number of angles without really even trying.  No sweat, “floare la ureche” as the Romanians say.  For me it was quite a humbling experience.  My slow cruising of the small streets method has been reinforced as well as the need to have a heightened sense of awareness after darkness falls.  Now that the clocks have changed, these new lessons will come in handy on a daily (nightly) basis either until springtime comes or until the snow drives me off the roads.  

Friday, October 7, 2011


My return to the mountains has come.  Remembering late last winter, there had been a three week period away from the mountain and I was itching to get back up for a hike in Parang.  Last Friday it had already been almost two months since my last mountain excursion.  It had to happen and it seemed to be my last chance before the cold moves in.  So I made my return Petrosani but not really.  I was in Petrosani to drop my bags off and sleep.  The rest of the time I spent like many of the weekends I spent when I lived in Petrosani, outside of Petrosani.  Excited to here about the weekend's activities, I committed to making the trip on Friday afternoon when the plan was to hike to cabana Buta.  I had only been there once and though I reluctantly dragged myself out of bed one year before to do the hike there were no regrets.  It was a great hike and it ended in a delicious meal made primarily of wild mushrooms.  Knowing what kind of scenery was in store I psyched myself up for the hike, but we never made it to Buta.

On one hour of dirty train sleep the night before, I found myself yet again struggling to fully doze off on public transportation next to my hiking buddies and a group of young mountain enthusiasts heading uphill.  We exited the minibus but only for a minute as we discovered that on demand of the large group of student customers it was heading even further up Basescu's road.  Suddenly plans changed from Buta to Scorota, from familiar and exciting to unfamiliar and even more exciting.  What is more exciting, adrenaline-pumping, fearful, extreme, than the unknown?  To me it was unknown; to my hiking buddies it was a bit more familiar.  I was in good hands. 

We quickly left the group, so we thought.  Thirty minutes of hiking and we were out of woods with cliffs rising up on our left.  Thinking it was a good time for a first break we allowed the students to catch up to us and we ended up even with them until the early snack break at Stana Scorota.  It was there that we split, my group to the right and straight up the wall while the students took their time snacking.  By the time we reached the top of the first climb (not even close to our highest altitude) the group of students was still packed together at the table outside of the stana.  They looked smaller than a group of ants crowded around a small piece of lollipop.  We continued on, finding bright fall colors surrounded in evergreen, endangered wild-flowers (edelweiss), more climbing, and more students.  A large group of students were coming down as we were heading up.  They were students from the same Petrosani high school as the students we met on the way up.  Imagine having monthly mountain trips in a high school club.  Do these kids have a clue how lucky they are?  Does anybody?

Eventually we reached the highest point of the day at Varful Puiule but not until we saw an amazing view of the Retezat high peaks.  The descent consisted first of beautiful views of a lake in the distance, vibrant clouds, and steep rocks rising on our right.  Unfortunately the trail was poorly marked and there was a section where the attentiveness of three hikers was necessary to keep it, until it was lost.  After it was lost we bushwhacked down a steep, fairly dangerous slope through the woods to some water and eventually a forestry road.  The bushwhack descent at the end of the hike sucked.  Mental note... don't expect people to "leave no trace" if you can't manage to mark a trail.  The wonders of the hike as a whole farley outweighed that last miserable hour.

The combination of a sleepless night followed by a 10 hour hike led to a great nights sleep only to lead into yet another amazing day of hiking in the Parang Mountains. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Festival Balkanik

From what people have told me, living in Bucharest has its positives and its negatives.  They told me that it would seem really crowded, and it does.  They told me that it would be harder to get to know people, and it is.  They told me that it’s much hotter in the summer time, and so it is.  They also told me that there are fun things to do, and I found that one out this past weekend.  As a PCV in a new and strange place I try to keep my eye out for any possible sign that could lead to something positive.  One of those signs in my first week here happened to be advertising a Balkan music festival.

Ever since hearing Shatel in Zeynep’s car during my first trip to Turkey I’ve been a fan of the style.  Since then I have gotten into a couple other bands including the Hungarian band Ternipe.  When I saw them on the band list for Saturday I had to tell Courtney who is also a big fan.  From then on there was no question of whether we would go or not, just when we would get there.

The festival opened at two and the music began at six.  Various cultural elements were promoted on the festivals website so we decided that arriving at two and getting the full feel of the atmosphere before the music started would be the best idea.  Ternipe’s day on stage happened to be the same day of “Let's do it Romania” another activity that was a must do for the 24th of September.  The plan was to get to the clean-up activity in the morning and finish it with enough time to make it to the festival by 2.  Of course rarely do things ever go exactly as planned.  Dragging ourselves out of the house late in the morning and the unexpectedly long transportation process left us with a re-worked plan to get picked up at the cleaning at 2.  This meant that we (Aran and I) wouldn’t end up getting back to the house to get ready for the show until 4.  Yes, I guess it takes that long to get into the center of Bucharest by two buses and walking.  Aran and I ended up arriving at the festival to meet Courtney, Dave, and Veronica with minimal time to check out the venders before the music started.  I did finally find out how much one of those awesome Roma skirts cost, 400 lei, yikes. 

Festival Highlights:

Ternipe with their quick footed dancing man, charismatic style, and background: “hop hop” “diggi do diggi diggi do” throughout many of their songs. 

The long haired dancing man in the crowd that we swore was American by the 1960’s hippy style dance he was showing off but ended up being Romanian. 

Getting spotted by a TV camera while holding a cup in my mouth so I could take my own video of the performance. 

Mahala Rai Banda with their 14 band members packed on the stage, large horn section, and feet-moving music.  By that time the crowed had swelled to the perfect amount of people, packing the venue but you were still able to move around easily.  

Finding Nick there and hanging out with him and his gazda from Targoviste. 
Aran’s continuous come and go as he met a group of fun people up in the front of the crowd. 

Baba Zula the mysterious headliner of the festival wearing a beanie, aviators, and a cape while playing the saz.  This music probably could have put me into a hypnotic trans if  I was paying better attention to it.  

"Lets do it Romania!" Round II

The second annual “Lets do it Romania!” popped off this weekend engaging thousands of volunteers all around Romania.  "Let’s do it" started out as a national clean-up project in Estonia and it has spread to several other countries in the world including the United States.  The need to clean up a country is a simple one to identify.  Estonia saw its forest more and more covered in trash as some people there believed the forest to be an acceptable location for waste disposal.  In Romania you may go on beautiful hikes in the forest, a pleasant drive on the Transfagarasan, or out to a nice quiet spot in nature to have a barbeque, and you'll probably see some trash.

Some people are the type of people that throw that trash on the ground but all people are the type of people that don't like to see it.  Whether you’re one that picks it up or one that throws it down, one thing you can agree on is that it’s not pretty.  Critics of "Lets do it" will ask you why anyone would go pick up trash in nature, "go back in a month and it will be covered in trash again", they'll say.  This mentality discourages the idea of cleaning up, claiming that it won't make a lasting impact.  Many may also use this mentality to justify throwing their own trash down.  "It's not a big deal if I just put a couple more plastic bags down on this huge pile of trash."  Interestingly the critics I've met tend to be older people (over 40) while the volunteers I've seen and worked with cleaning up Romania tend to be younger (under 30).  Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the people out there organizing teams and participating in this activity are older experienced volunteers.

Let’s talk about impact.  Those critics may be right when they say that there will just be trash there next year anyway.  Some people are going to continue throwing trash down regardless but others may not.  Those volunteer who were out picking up other peoples garbage are probably less likely to throw their own down, or at least they'll think twice about it.  The fact that the volunteers are typically younger makes that impact stretch into the future.  This year, being the second annual “Let’s do it Romania!” proved that the project isn’t just a one time event, but it will continue each with increased participation and increased impact until the need is met.  The corps of young volunteers in Romania is growing as well as the awareness to keep your environment free from trash.  The more immediate impact is easier to see being that it was a well promoted national campaign.  On Saturday September 24th people driving to the next town over, going to the mall, or watching TV in their living rooms knew about the project whether they were involved or not.  Those involved worked in teams seeing actually how much garbage can be cleaned up over the course of 2 hours by a team of 15 people.  They saw their impact both in the before-and-after shots of the area, as well as in the heap of garbage bags piled up on the side of the road waiting to be picked up.  Finally statistics will come out about the total number of bags collected in how many counties by how many volunteers and those numbers, blowing people away, will be used to support and promote the project next year.

Last year I was invited into a team by one of my colleagues, this year I tried last minute to make a team.  That attempt failed as it was last minute, and I didn't really know how the system of gathering people and choosing a location worked.  Plus, having just moved to Bucharest, I don't know enough people to gather into a large enough team to take on any of the trash piles.  The evening before the event the team consisted of two colleagues at MaiMultVerde, two colleagues from the Peace Corps and myself, which was not enough according to the “Let’s do it” site.  Just because we couldn't choose a trash pile from the site didn't mean that we couldn't try joining another team and go with them to a pile.  The night before the cleanup Courtney, Aran and I found the list of registration points and decided to head out to the IKEA spot to see if we could sign up to go pick up trash with whoever else was there at the time.  Part of my support in going to the IKEA spot was that I thought that if we couldn't get into a group at least we could check out IKEA.  When I was home I heard so much about it from my cousins in NC, plus I needed towels.

The "Lets do it Romania!" volunteers standing outside of IKEA were young, high-energy, and insisting that they could find us a team to go with.  Sure enough, within 20 minutes Courtney, Aran, and I were on a bus with eight other individuals.  With "Lets do it Romania!" across the screen in the front of the bus we were dropped off at a garbage-filled ditch sandwiched between the road and a corn field.  It was there that we spent the next couple of hours filling bags with everything from broken tiles to plastic bottles, to diapers... yuck.  During that time other volunteers stopped to help and several passing cars slowed down to see what we were doing.  My colleagues at MaiMultVerde kept in contact with me and were able to come out and continue the clean-up, showing up right as we were about to leave.  One of them told me later that as he went further down the road most of the garbage consisted of McDonald's bags that had probably been thrown out of car windows as people finished their quick meal.  It was a hot and pretty exhausting clean-up without much shade to rest under but seeing the pile of bags by the side of the road as we pulled off in the bus was a good indication of our success.

Since the activity I have seen some pictures of the event and how it turned out at my old site in Petrosani.
"Let's do it Romania! Colegiul Tehnic "Dimitie Leonida"
The above link will take you to Ernest's pictures from the event in Petrosani that he attended.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Floral Calendar

Spring was welcomed with open arms in the Jiu Valley this year. Months of cold darkness had taken their toll, dragging out much longer than the year before. Though it came late, the spring’s beauty was anticipated. It was only one year earlier when I had “stopped to smell the flowers” rather, “stopped to know the flowers”. All those weekends spent outside of my close quarters helped me realize just how beautiful spring is. At this point, if someone was to ask me what my favorite season is it would be an easy answer.

The late coming of spring didn’t throw off its regularity. Nature doesn’t follow a calendar of days but rather a climate calendar and even though the warmer weather may come a couple weeks later it still comes in the same way it came last year. You can observe this phenomenon by watching the flowers. I am a beginner but even my second year into it I could see the constants. My hiking partner has been observing this area year after year since the seventies when he first set foot in the Jiu Valley. This weekend you’ll see flower “A” and next weekend flower “B”, he would say. For the most part he was right.

The first to pop its head up out of the soil is the ghiocei (snow drops). Ghiocei are used as a symbol of the coming of spring and given to ladies on March 1st. The second flower to appear is the brandusa (crocus) and in my experiences it is found at higher elevations. A couple weeks after the brandusi first appear a trip to Oltenia is in session to find a flower native to few places in the world, lalele pastrite (dotted tulip). Lalele Pastrite is a tulip which droops its heavy purple head down toward the swampy land that it grows on. The narcise (narcissus) are next to appear. Fortunately in Petrosani we have access to narcise both in the low lands of Oltenia and also narcise in the Vulcan mountains which appear a couple weeks later. This allows us to enjoy the beauty of the flower in both sight and scent, for a prolonged period of time. It seems like the salcam (acacia) appears at around the same time as the narcise but sticks around longer. If you’re walking on the side of a country road and the flower hangs down within reaching distance I advise you to break off some of the flowers to give their sweet pedals a taste. The large dark blue/purple flowers of the liliac (lilac) bloom out of the country yards for a couple of weeks in mid-spring gracing travelers on the other side of the gate with their soothing scent. Finally as spring turns to summer the large white soc (elder) flowers bloom. You can’t get within 15 feet of these plants without knowing they are there. Socata (elder juice) is a popular drink in the area and it is made from the flowers of the soc, lemon, and sugar. Last year I brewed up about 5 liters of this delicious juice and for a first try I’d say it was a success.

The flowers found in the Jiu Valley are not limited to those I have mentioned. Those that I have mentioned are the flowers most sought out, but on any given day you can enter the beautiful mountain massifs of Parang, Retezat and Vulcan to find a rich variety of flowers and other plants. If you enter some of the high peak regions of the Carpathians in the summer time you may even see the protected floare de colt (edelweiss) growing on the side of the steep rock faces.

The lowlands offer some beauties as well in the summertime. Last year outside of Timisoara I remember seeing large fields of sunflowers. That explains the towers of shells that you will see from time to time on the personel trains. Last but not least the mac (poppy) is definitely worth mentioning. Cruising from Targoviste to Bucharest you see the red gem’s lining the roads and dotting the fields. Their pedals look like smooth silk being blown by the hard flat plane winds.

Wherever you are in Romania the springtime is sure to brighten your life. The sights, scents, and even tastes will abruptly break you out of that winter depression. Just be careful not to miss it. Many of these small beauties only stick around for a couple of weeks before going to sleep until next year. As springtime rolls around next year don’t waste a moment in that small living room apartment watching TV, or checking email and surfing the net. A field of narcise is just kilometers away waiting for you to breath in its miracle.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A proper send-off

A little over two years ago I landed in Romania with a group of 37 other Americans. Eleven weeks of training later I officially became a Peace Corps volunteer(PCV) and traveled with two great PCV friends to my site. That site has since become a home away from home. Seeing the seasons change in the Jiu Valley over the past two years has been an experience like no other. Every day has its beauties and an evening rarely passes that I don't look back on the day realizing how lucky I am to have been sent here. It's been 664 days since my arrival here and this past weekend it all came around full circle to make for a slightly early but very sweet goodbye.

Day two of site visit and Parang hike #1 was a great indicator of how I would be spending my free time in the Jiu Valley. Back then, communication between Ernest and I was slow going. We both had dictionaries in hand and by the time I returned to Targoviste after the visit only one word really stuck... stana (meaning sheepfold). At that point in the language learning experience so much information was trying to enter my head all at once, therefore not much actually stayed. It was however, my first full day of communicating verbally only in Romanian. That specific hike was to Lacul Mija, a place that I have returned to several times during my stay here. This past weekend was my last weekend in the area before moving out. With a guest coming to visit on Sunday I knew that Saturday would be the last major hike as a resident of Petrosani. I found it fitting when the text message appeared on my phone suggesting Saturday's hike be Lacul Mija, ending where I started.

The forecast said rain all day in Parang. I was there and I can tell you that it didn't rain at all. Sometimes the forecast can scare people off the mountain. A colleague of mine insisted that she wanted to come but she didn't want to spend all day in the rain. Admittedly I was a bit worried about the rain, but rain alone is no good reason to stay off the mountain. It ended up being a somewhat cloudy but mostly sunny day. The best part of the Lacul Mija hike is when you round the corner to the back side of Carja peak. In that small valley the city, the pollution, the people, and the ski area all disappear. Nature’s stereo pumps the greatest hits of the spring below whose rushing waters come from nowhere it seems. Mija peak forms a bowl with just a bit of water in its center. That bowl can be seen when looking at Parang from Petrila. What can't be seen from that part of the hike are the Dacias, the maxi-taxi's, and the train, the second-hand stores, the restaurants, and the blocks, the buna ziua, ceau, and la revedere. These are all things that I've come to love in Romania but an occasional escape is a necessary part of any relationship. Like the first time on that open trail between peaks, Ernest was the guide. Unlike the first time I decided not to enter the near freezing temperatures of the lake.

The day continued. Peace Corps has been an incredible exercise in meeting people and even though I will be leaving the area soon I am still meeting new people. I recently met some great Moldovan students in town with whom I attended Petrosani Days after hanging in their dorm for a bit. Dragos came out with us for the concert and there we were, one American, one Romanian, and a bunch of Moldavians eagerly awaiting the evening’s musical entertainment. That entertainment consisted of a lot of dj, dancing, lip sinking music before the headliner Zdob si Zdub came on. I first saw Zdob si Zdub at Peninsula in August and the music instantly took me back to my punk rock fan days. The high energy rock mixed with cultural music reminded me of the ska and irish punk rock bands that I used to catch at the Vans Warped Tour. Most people I know in Petrosani are more into the dj kind of music so it was nice to be there jumping up and down to some good rock music with the Moldavians who were appreciating one of their own bands far from home. Like the students I was hanging with, Zdob si Zdub are from the Republic of Moldova.
Zdob si Zdub in Petrosani, 04 June 2011

Finally at almost one in the morning I left the concert during the encore to meet a friend at the train station who was coming in on an hour late train from Bucharest. There on the catwalk above the train tracks I watched the final fireworks show as the exploding lights rose above the largest of Petrosani's blocks in front of me. Standing there admiring the fireworks I noted how the days activities and current situation acted as a fitting send-off. So much of this experience has been an individual discovery of who I am, what is possible, and there I was alone watching the fireworks. It has been an experience in travel, seeing the world, becoming part of a new place, and there I was yet again with the tracks below me waiting for the next train to come in. It has been an experience of developing new friendships, and there I was waiting for one of my best Romanian friends to arrive. There I was with city blocks in front of me, the fireworks above, and a million memories of the past two years to smile upon.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Lacul Burtan

Ernest: "You're not going to find it; it could be on the other side of that ridge up there."
Dom Pecut: "It must be close. Look how the mountain is shaped right here. We have to be close."
Ernest: "Let it go. We've got a good place to rest, eat, and then we'll turn back."

It was late in the day to finally stop and eat lunch. It was almost 4:00pm when usually lunch time is at 1:00ish. The group had threatened to turn back a few times already but there was always one person that persisted. I was never that person. Those who know me know that I'm not really a decision maker when I'm in a group. When Doamna G or Domn P persisted I quietly followed thinking that we would not end up finding what we were looking for.

What were we looking for? Hours earlier after an easy 45 minute hike on a gently sloping forestry road the veteran hikers of the group (everyone except myself) opened up the map. We could continue following the road to the shelter where we would break and push on up the mountain until we reached Tomato Lake. I had been to Tomato Lake only once on my way down from Parangul Mare. The other option was to turn up the hill to the right following a dry stream a few kilometers where we would hopefully find a lake. It was a new hike for all of those involved and Ernest went first blazing the trail up the steep slope.

It didn't take long to arrive at a small dam. Where there's a damn there must be a trail that transported all of the equipment. We didn't find that trail but continued on up the hill. The next major find was a large waterfall. Domnul P called it the Niagara Falls of the Jiu Valley because it was the largest waterfall that he had yet seen in the area. The beauty in both the sight and sound of the waterfall was reason enough to take a long break. On my right there was a multi-level waterfall with large rock walls on its right side, and the view to my left was a ridge across the valley that climbed up to a saddle eventually leading to Romania's fifth highest peak. You could look across and see where the pine forests ended opening up to an alpine meadow. Lying back on that grassy wall I could feel the warm morning sun on my face. There aren’t many better places to be at 11:00am on a Saturday morning.

Soon after reaching the top of the waterfall the forest opened up to meadow. The view took me back to the first day in Retezat on our way to Lacul Gales exiting the forest and looking up to see high mountain peaks ahead in the distance. Up ahead in the distance we saw a waterfall surrounded by dark green. The dark green was the color of a thick juniper forest and after a half hour of following the stream it stopped us dead in our tracks. We entered the juniper and after about 15 minutes of walking branch to branch pulling ourselves through the thick forest I had already had enough. Looking up over the trees I could see only the dark green forest surrounding the waterfall and no sign of a lake. Looking up at the mountains I thought that the lake could be up above that waterfall, but it could also be much higher. There was no guarantee that crawling through the mess of thick branches would result in reaching our destination, plus I was getting hungry. I wasn't the only one who wanted to turn back. Both Domnul E and Domnul P were showing signs of doubt but Domna G decided for the group to keep going. She wanted to get up above that waterfall to see what was there.

Another 20 minutes of hard hiking and we exited the juniper on the right of the waterfall in a small open spot in the forest. Doamna G went ahead and we witnessed her from far away as she searched for a trail and eventually climbed up a rock face disappearing back into the Juniper forest above the waterfall. We decided to follow. The rock face was fun to climb. Even though the juniper was hard to climb through even the smallest of branches will bend without breaking. You can count on them to resist as you pull up through them at the top of a steep rock wall. Unfortunately the rock led straight into an even thicker section of juniper. Eventually we found an open spot were we could sit, rest, and declare defeat before turning back.

While the rest of us were resting in the sun Domnul P insisted that the lake must be close. The rest of us doubtfully watched as he left his bag behind and entered the thick woods continuing to search. Sure enough it wasn't 10 minutes later when we heard the next word from Domnul P. "I found the lake" he yelled. The voice didn't seem like it was too far away. I looked over at Domnul E and the statement hadn't fazed him. He didn't believe what he had heard but Doamna G and I were much more trusting of Domnul P. I was next to enter the woods in search for the lake in the direction of Domnul's voice and sure enough I arrived at it. After hours of hard, slow hiking, finally the lake abruptly opened out of the dark green juniper. Back at the lunch spot I asked Domnul P what made him so sure that the lake was there. "I noticed by the shape of the mountains here, the sound of the stream, the location of the waterfall, it had to be here." Maybe after years of doing what I love, wandering in the mountains, I too will be so sure about such things.

Like most hikes the way down seemed so much shorter than the way up. We decided to ride the hill a little further away from the stream before descending. It was a steep, fast descent and we passed a viper on the way down. We were able to get close to the viper and take pictures. Apparently they don't bite if it’s cold. Walking that last 45 minutes of an easy downward slope, the rubbery sensation of muscles used all day long kicked in. It wasn't so hard to fall asleep later that night.

The word of the day was the verb "a chinui" meaning, to torture. Before moving on to the rock wall Doamna G mentioned that she didn't want to end the hike without finding the lake after we tortured ourselves up until that point.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Walkin' in the Balkans

With some annual leave days left and the end of service nearing, an out-of-country excursion made perfect sense for the long Easter week off this year. Romania is the place to be for Easter celebrations so we had to be back in country by Holy Thursday. A six-day leave was in session starting on Friday with our early morning train departing from Timisoara into Serbia and ending with a leisurely walk across the border back into Romania the following Thursday.

Yes, I know that after my last venture into Serbia I swore never to return. I lied. Since the last trip there for NYE 2009 my curiosity in the region has been growing. My wonderful experiences in Turkey have helped to peak my interest in Sarajevo, another city where east meets west. Serbia was the necessary stopping point on the way to and from Sarajevo, and under much more ideal conditions my visit to the country that US and NATO planes bombed in the semi-recent past ended up shedding a positive light on the country. Successfully finding our hostel is just one of a few more positive conditions this time around.

Less than ideal was the transportation situation. Train connections left my travel buddy and me sitting in a gas station for hours missing some much needed sleep before even leaving Romania. If one was to look at the distance from Belgrade to Sarajevo on a map they would certainly not say that it takes 10 hours to get from one to the other by train. Unfortunately that is what the man selling the tickets says as you're handing over your money. At least it didn't cost much. Though a collective 20 hours of daylight lost in transportation leaves a sour taste in the mouth of just about any traveler, it didn't seem all that bad. The compartments were surprisingly spacious and the train was not at all crowded leaving us time and space to catch up on sleep and admire the passing countryside. There really wasn't all that much to see until we entered Bosnia-Herzegovina where hills began to rise up giving us a slightly more entertaining country-side to look at and exposing some small villages to our view. I noticed that the country houses in Bosnia were much larger than those in Romania but they didn't appear to be entirely finished. They were surely livable but the bricks and cement in-between were left uncovered. The poverty visible from the train while leaving Belgrade was unseen as we pulled into Sarajevo, though the destruction caused by the war was already visible.

Sarajevo is a small European capital made famous by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which helped to kick off the First World War. My original draw to the Bosnia-Herzegovina capital actually came after visiting Turkey. While talking up Istanbul I remember somebody mentioning that I can get a bit of that Ottoman feel in another European city where it mixes in with some other cultural elements. Originally built by the Ottomans, the oldest part of the city has that bazaar feel with the occasional Mosque. Moving west through the town's center you quickly find yourself surrounded by the architectural influences of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Finally as you continue on into newer parts of town you see the communist influences in the architecture. Though the city appears to be predominately Muslim the old center holds both Catholic and Serbian Orthodox cathedrals along with several smaller mosques and a large synagogue. Our apartment was about half a kilometer up the hill from the Latin Bridge, the sight were the Archduke was shot.

We spent most of our Sarajevo time wandering. The first morning we headed up the hill at the end of town where we found some great views, the city gate, some ruins of a fortress, and a large bombed out building. From that hill we could see in one direction roads pointing through a beautiful mountain pass and in the other direction, the city. The city was in a valley with houses crowding the hill-sides. I could picture Serbian artillery perched on the high ridges above the city. From 1992 to 1995 the city was under siege by Serb forces. Visible signs of the siege can be seen in the large bombed out building at the top of the hill, bullet holes peppering the sides of many of the downtown buildings, the memorial to the children who were killed, and the Sarajevo rose. After lunch our wanderings continued past the souvenir vendors into the crowded walking streets with the occasional terasa where Italian coffee was the drink of choice. We passed both the Catholic and the Serbian Orthodox cathedrals. There was a group of older men playing chess in the park just in front of the Serbian Orthodox church. The chess pieces had to be three feet tall. That evening we returned to the old Ottoman section of town where we entered a bar to get something light to eat and a drink. The owner of the bar insisted that we share a table with some others downstairs rather than stay alone on the second floor. It ended up being a great idea as some local musicians drinking at the end of the room picked up instruments and began playing and singing.

During one of the days we took a two and a half hour morning bus ride to Mostar. Mostar is the largest city in the region of Herzegovina and I had no clue it existed until about two months ago when I asked some fellow volunteers about their trip to Sarajevo. They told me that I had to check out Mostar. The bus ride took us past some mountain villages and into a long beautiful gorge where we followed a turquoise river under rocky walls and jagged peaks. It was significantly warmer in Mostar than in Sarajevo. The sun was shining as we strolled over old stone streets through a courtyard of a mosque and a bazaar. Finally the view opened up to show the famous bridge (stari most) in the center of the old city. It was a stunning sight connecting two rock fortresses hanging high above the fast flowing water of the Neretva River. In a couple of locations I found stones with the phrase "Don't Forget" painted on them referring to the 1993 destruction of the bridge by the Croatian Defense Counsel. I wonder why I only saw it painted in English and not say... Croatian, Bosnian, or Serbian. After some Cevapi for lunch we went down to the water where we found a rock to relax on, dip our feet in, and admire the bridge from below. After more roaming, a drink, and watching a man jump from the high bridge we made our way back to the bus station to conclude our day trip to Mostar.

The final evening in Sarajevo was my favorite. After a traditional coffee we grabbed a couple beers at a supermarket and headed up the hill to check out the sunset. Though it was quite chilly, the city looked really nice as night fell down over the minarets, church steeples, and skyscrapers in the distance. After descending back into town we entered a hookah bar where we sat and chatted with some Bosnians and Turks for the last couple of hours before concluding our final evening in Sarajevo.

Back to Belgrade we went, another day lost to a 10 hour train ride. Such a train ride isn't so bad with good company and a good book handy. I had started a book about environmental conservation given to me by a fellow volunteer. That evening in Belgrade we hung out at the hostel again. The first time through we had stayed there in the common room chatting with three Americans, a few Slovenians, and an Israeli. We were surprised to see that the Israeli was still there when we came back through. I stayed up late into the night with him and the hostel night guy discussing the region and its history.

The final day of our Balkan excursion was dedicated to getting back to Romania. We made a last day decision to try hitching back. Admittedly the highway ramp hitching point was a bit sketchy but with a destination sign and a few pointers from locals we picked up our first ride for about 12kms. The man was very kind. He attempted to communicate with us showing us a map with where we needed to go, and dropping us off at the right spot without accepting any money. From there we found a Romanian driver to the border, walked across the border, and caught another Romanian driver to Timisoara. It was kind of an adventure getting back but I am happy that we decided to come back by car if just to have a break from train travel.

This latest trip has helped peak my interest in the countries that once made up Yugoslavia. Last time leaving Serbia I vowed never to return and this time I left discussing the next trip to the region. Maybe next time we'll make it to Montenegro, Kosovo, or Croatia.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Remembering the Great Finger Lakes region of New York State

It has been almost 23 months since I left New York state bound for Romania. They say that you don't know what you have until it's gone. That idea brings back memories of sitting around the skate park, the lunch table, or the classroom during my high school years. "First chance I get, I'm out of here," so many of my friends would say. "What does Corning have to offer me? Its too small. Everybody knows your business. There's nothing to do here." There arguments were pretty convincing. Their dreams of bigger and better places would get to me at times, especially on those rainy days that we saw so much of in upstate. For me it didn't take leaving to realize what I had, just a bit of growing up. By the time I left for California in the fall of 2008, my first real move out of the region, I was fully aware of all the great things that my part of the world had to offer.

It was during the college years that I got out and learned to love the great Finger Lakes region of New York. In the summers I held various jobs. My last two summers in town were spent working in museums where I had the chance to speak with outsiders and promote the beauties of my small little town. Friends and I would eagerly await the weekend when we would go to some of the great bars on market street or take evening bike rides. Some of the best times were when we had a common day off to trip it to Ithaca where we would discover one of the state parks, sit by the lake, or walk slowly through the commons. I can't give enough credit to the grad student at Cortland that offered me my first backpacking trip to the Adirondacks nearby. My finger lakes places were Ithaca, Cortland, Watkins Glen, and Keuka College where I visited Colin on a number of occasions.

During my time in Romania memories of those beautiful state parks have come frequently to put a smile on my face. I live in a part of Romania that has much of its own natural beauty. When I moved in with my host in Targoviste I was prepared with a picture book of the Finger Lakes region to give to them as a gift. As my parents were putting together a box of things to send me and they mentioned giving something to Ernest, that Finger Lakes picture book was the first thing that popped into my head. He loves being in nature and taking pictures of nature. "Rain or shine it's a sin to stay in the house all day," claims Ernest from time to time. As the region I live in now sits at a higher elevation than the one I left in New York, my outdoor adventures typically yield different views and a different feel. This past weekend Ernest took me on a new hike. (After a year and a half of going on hikes whenever I get the chance, there are still new trails to discover here.) This latest hike reminded me most of those gorge trails that I saw so much of in my college years.

It started out like a lot of other hikes that we've done. Really the first half of the hike I've probably done 8 or 9 times. There was a bus to Lupeni, a quick spin through the piata (market) and a 3-4 hours of walking up hill to Straja. The hike up actually follows stations of the cross. The first station is right outside of Lupeni and the final one is at the small church up at the ski area. With a number of switch-backs along the way we would periodically enter in the woods to take a shortcut. Along the way we stopped at a spring that was covered in leaves from the previous fall. I brushed the knee-high pile of leaves out of the way to fill up my bottle. Like every other trip to Straja we entered the first cabana on the right where we sat, rested, and chatted over a drink. Up until that strawberry banana juice things had seemed just like they always had, aside from the strong wind gusts. This area of Romania is pretty well protected by the mountains and therefore we do not get a whole lot of wind. During this particular hike the wind was the strongest that I have seen it in the Jiu Vally.

After our drinks the adventure began for me. We entered the forest on a new trail, going in a new direction, and I was excited to see some new things. It wasn't long before I noticed that that particular trail was quite steep. Not many people know about that trail which it is evident, as it was not always easy to find our way even though it was marked quite well. It took about 45 minutes to get to our lunch spot. Just before the lunch area we climbed down a steep part of the trail where I was forced to use both arms and legs to ensure my stability. Those are the parts of the trail that I like the most. The lunch spot was marked by a wooden table and bench that, despite their weight, had both been blown over due to the strong wind gusts that day. We sat there bundled up, our plastic bags weighed down, eating our slanina, onion, and bread as the wind beat against our backs.

The couple of hours of hiking after lunch led us through the forest and back to Lupeni as we came out near the chair lift. During those couple of hours I was reminded of the Finger Lakes region more than I have been yet in Romania. There were no large lakes nearby but the trail ran along a steep slope parallel to the stream below. The steep rocky slopes running along-side the stream with its waters cutting through rocks and tumbling down into open pools all reminded me of the gorge trails of Rock stream, Truman, and Buttermilk. After our lunch break the trail continued down a steep slope and across a small bridge over a stream. A little further down the trail we stopped and looked back to view a waterfall. Looking back upstream there were two more waterfalls in the distance that we had already passed without realizing. Following that stream a little further we came upon a larger stream with an even larger waterfall standing at about five meters in height. The next resting stop was about 45 minutes of slow hiking away. The red point trail followed the stream but we were forced to move at a slow pace due to the leaf coverage on the trail. There were parts where the leaves were several feet deep with rocks and branches hidden underneath. Eventually we arrived at a spot where the red point trail turned uphill circling back to Straja.

After a short break of eating delicious kiwis we continued on as the trail followed along-side the stream high up on the slope. We climbed over rocks, under branches, along steep slopes and finally we passed through a tunnel to the finish. Periodically we looked back to see the stream with its pools and waterfalls each time taking me back to the great Finger Lakes region of New York State.