Tuesday, July 31, 2012


From day one the words were whispered through the training site halls.  Those volunteers who had been here some time, who had traveled the country, who knew most of the other volunteers, were uttering the phrase.  It could have either been the making of plans or the envious gossip but for a trainee just entering the country the words "Vama Veche" held a mystery and excitement in those first weeks of summer 2009.  The mystery remained as so until last weekends long awaited jaunt to the seaside.

Over the past three years I've heard many mixed feelings about the beach-town Vama Veche but the opinions started flying from the very first week in the country when some group 25 volunteers were planning a repeat trip to the southern most village in Romania.  "O Vama's crazy" they would say as I began asking about it.  "What happens in Vama stays in Vama," they said as they continued to tell me their stories that probably should have been forgotten on their long road out of the sea-side village.  Either way I had to find out more and after asking several people about it I continued to receive conflicting reports:  "It's a rocker beach", "It's a hippie beach", "It's a nudist beach"; "It's too commercial now", "It's not commercial yet"; "you must go there", "you don't want to go there".  It wasn't until recently that I realized the main deference between those reports that I was hearing: 100% of the positive opinions about vama veche came from people who had been there while nearly 100% of the not so positive comments were spoken by people who had only heard about the beach town.  Those that had the experience were promoting it while those that hadn't had the experience somehow had it in their heads that its not a good place to go.

Situated at the south-eastern corner of Romania, Vama Veche is a small Black Sea beach village bordering Bulgaria.  Its location on the border saved it from the communist sea-side resort developments of Ceausescu's time that its planet named neighbors to the north went through (Neptune, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn).  As the village gained notoriety throughout the 90's, partially for its nude beach, a campaign arose to keep it as it is.  The Save Vama Veche campaign addressed tourist developments seen in the late 90s-early 2000's by hosting a protest concert, Stufstock, in 2003.  The campaign has proved effective as local laws were passed halting any new major developments including the repairing of roads, and to this day Vama Veche remains free of large resort-style hotels blocking the view of the sea from the fields beyond the town.

Vama was all that I was hoping for and more.  Its a true beach town with its vendors lined up pushing a bunch of all the same, walk-in fast food joints on the main strip, beach-side bars of all sorts, and beach chairs lined up at certain parts.  The couple of the things that set it apart from typical beach towns are the reasons why people go to Vama.  These include the lack of high-rise hotels, the numerous tents situated on the sand, the naked people down at the end, and the wide variety of people roaming up and down the main strip.  Vama isn't a place for rockers like some say it is, its a place for anybody.  At Vama you'll find rockers, nudists, normal families, people relaxing, people partying, music festival goers, early-risers, and all-night partiers.  We found a nice spot to lay the tent, way up at the northern corner of the beach just beyond the nudists section.  It was there where we could get just a bit of privacy.  It was far enough from the town that we didn't hear any of the noisy beach-side bars when we were trying to sleep but it was still a pleasantly short walk in to the sandier part of the beach, restaurants, and the music festival.  It was there that we made our home for a couple of nice cool nights on the seaside. 

A festival is what we were after but it was only a small part of what we got there.  Music is a great reason to get down to Vama as there are all kinds of music festivals there throughout the summer.  We managed to catch the Jazz festival.  Though I have seen jazz from time to time I have never been to a jazz festival.  We saw some really great acts but the ones that impressed me the most were the Romanian acts that closed out the nights.  The Romanian music wasn't so much jazz as it was jam.  The sounds of the rapid pounding tambal mixed with the legendary drums of Ovidiu Liviu Tandarica to produce some "wake-up" music as it followed some soothing jazz that nearly put me out.  Despite the great music my old age got the better of me and I decided to call it a night at 2ish rather than to stay for the entire show.  Walking past the tent we passed "The Stuff" a club on the sand pumping out loud music and good times for some.  As for me the loud music fainted as I slowly approached the tent and my bed for the evening.

The days were spent on the beach in all meaning of the phrase.  Laying out, reading, swimming through waves and against currents, and of course putting down some cold refreshing beers were all main activities of the day.  I remembered when I was little and I went to the beach with my family.  Knowing that it would be the only couple of days that year that I would see the ocean, I took in all of the wonderful sights, sounds, and especially feelings of the beach.  Feeling the wind against your bare chest, the sand through your tows, and the waves crash into you.  The waves of the Atlantic always seemed much larger than these at the Black Sea.  Is it the difference in size of the body of water or the person standing in it?  Just like those times when I was at the beach as a kid I had to leave eventually even though I didn't want to.

The trip back to Bucharest was a tough one.  Sunday evening is not a good time to leave the beach mainly because it is the time that everyone wants to leave the beach.  After spending a couple of hours on a hot mini-bus in traffic we switched to a hot, overcrowded train to add another 3 hours to our trip.  Factoring in the travel time there and back I wouldn't go to Vama without staying at least two nights, which makes it necessary to take off either a Monday or a Friday.  I wonder if I'll be able to get back down there one more time before I leave Romania.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

In direct

Its not a Peace Corps volunteer's job to be in the spotlight.  If anything it's a PCV's job to not be in the spotlight, to sit back behind the scenes and work with host country nationals at host organizations to empower others to make positive changes in their communities which, at times attracts some spotlight to the organization.  That spotlight is seen as a good thing.  If you've ever seen the Michael Moore documentary "Bowling for Columbine" then you realize that its much better for NGO's, school teachers, religious organizations and even large corporations to be shown in the media doing good things in their communities than the constant violence and scandal that we see so often view in news, shows and movies today.  The good deeds represent a breath of fresh air and a small 30 second break from the much larger advertizing breaks convincing you to consume, and news program filled with negativity.  I knew that moving to the capital city would get me a bit closer to the media hoopla but I never imagined that people would one day be coming up to me telling me that they saw me on tv. 

In previous posts I have spoken of the reoccurring instances of a volunteers having to step out of their comfort zones where they end up learning more about themselves and potentially contributing to positive change in the process.  Often times volunteers end up in news clips speaking both about Peace Corps and about their individual projects.  I believe for the most part that the awareness and consciousness that the media provides in this case is good, if not only to give the viewer a sense that there are good things happening aside from the violence and scandal that they would normally be viewing. 

Despite the occasional PCV making their way in front of a camera I never really saw myself managing well in such a position and during my first two years of service in Petrosani I managed to avoid it for the most part.  Working for a pretty high-profile NGO in the capital hasn't afforded me the same level of comfort.  Since being in Bucharest I can count a few instances where I could have been seen by the masses.  A couple of Fridays ago I found myself speaking in front of a camera twice in a day.  The first instance was an unexpected interview at a recycling event where I explained some of the goals and projects of the non-profit that I work for.  The second instance was a nerve-racking spot on a nationally televised tv program entitled "Trezeste Romania" which translates to "Wake-up Romania".  The goal of the program is to show Romanians that make a positive difference in their communities.  Though I'm not a Romanian making a positive difference in my community I was there to support my host organization in promoting volunteerism for the environment, their mission statement. 

I went to the program in a van filled with some of our most active volunteers, people who give up their weekends to help my host organization, MaiMultVerde, effectively conduct large scale tree-planting activies or help us raise funds for such actions.  Just minutes before the program began I was notified by the host that I would only have to answer a couple of questions easing my nerves just a bit.  Regardless, the setting of bright lights pointing in every direction, numerous cameras moving around the room, and the thought of speaking Romanian to a national audience boosted my anxiety as the moment approached. 

The experience was one that I won't forget but one that I despise watching.  I was once before on a different program and I couldn't bring myself to watch it.  This time I did take some minutes to watch the program the following day and I realized that it was the first time I have ever heard myself speaking Romanian.  Now I realize why so many people make fun of my accent, which is something that I can laugh about.

The MaiMultVerde team with the host of Trezeste Romania

You can see the program in the link below but keep in mind that the program is in Romanian and I only say a couple of phrases.  Aside from speaking to MaiMultVerde, the host presented a Romanian peace-worker and a rugby player who lost the use of his legs in a tragic accident on the field.  The rugby player's story of perseverance in working to regain as much mobility as possible inspired a stranger to present a pretty meaningful gift on the show.