Wednesday, June 27, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A walk through the village of Perast

The switchback leading up the mountain and out of Kotor

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

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


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

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

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

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

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