I'm officially no longer a Peace Corps volunteer.

I'm on my way home and I'm eating scrambled eggs and bacon in the Frankfurt International Airport. The eggs aren't that great, but man, I missed bacon. And the coffee is great.

And I'm tired.

A woman just ran past yelling "I am Florida. I AM Florida."

OK. That's all for now.


Blowin' This Other Popsicle Stand

It's been quite a while since I've blogged. In my second full year, Moldova has become fairly "normal." Things that I saw before that I thought were worth blogging about have become just routine life. Well, for better or worse, I now have something to blog about. I'll be leaving for the states next Wednesday. It seems that all the squatting I've been doing out in the outhouse and the mountain climbing-like walks to and from work have taken a toll on my knees. I visited the doctor and she took me in for an ultrasound. They found that I've got torn cartilage, a swollen tendon, and bone spurs - an annoying trifecta. I went to physical therapy for two weeks which light on the therapy and the physical part was non-existent. First, they'd hook me up to a small machine that delivered pulses of electricity to my knee from two black rubber pads which are about the size of a credit card. I'm pretty sure they were supposed to put a sort of gel or something on the pads to conduct the pulses across the entire surface, but they didn't, so I just laid there for 10 minutes while a receiving a very localized shock on either side of my knee. Sometimes the machine worked and sometimes it didn't. When it didn't, the woman administering my shock therapy would just click buttons and ask me what was happening. The one day I peered over and saw that all the controls on the machine were in Chinese. Outside of turning the machine on, making the shocks more powerful and making them less powerful, I don't think she knew what the other 20 or so buttons were for. After the shock therapy, I would be moved over to some sort of machine that I think was supposed to send ultra sonic waves into my knee to do something, uh, ultrasonic. They would squirt an overly ample amount of anti-inflamatory gel onto my knee and then I'd move this thing that looked like an antique desktop-type microphone around my knee through the gel for 10 minutes. That was it. They always asked me if I felt a difference after the treatment and I'd kind of shrug. The best I could honestly tell them would be that my knee now felt sticky against my pants, but I don't think that was what they were looking for. While this was going on, the PC doctor was talking with Washington and the powers that be decided that it would be best if I went home and got some proper treatment. So, I'll be leaving Moldova next Wednesday or Thursday. In the meantime, I'm wrapping things up, saying goodbye and filling out all the necessary paper work.

Maria is taking it all pretty well, and I think right now, we're both a little anxious for me to leave because we've been in a state of flux for the past three or four weeks, not knowing if I was going or staying. Know that we know and we know when, I think we're ready to get it over with and start the wait for all her visa paperwork to get processed.

That's all I've got time for right now because I've got lots of stuff to do. I'm sure I'll write all kinds of new blog posts when I get home detailing my re-introduction to life in the US. OK, see you soon.



Yesterday, Maria, who is a graduating university student, had a review session for one of her finals. In the course of the review, her professor announced that those who wanted to receive a grade of 9 or 10 for the semester, they would have to give her 100 euro. Maria explained that even if she had 100 euro for the bribe, she wouldn't do it. That's great, but what is really upsetting is that regarless of how well she does on the final, she won't receive any higher than an 8.5 because the professor needs to spreadthe grades out. This a practice that is common here - ingrained really, even in the high schools.

It's not possible to turn a professor in because nearly all of them do it, and the deans and administrators know and condone the practice. One of the main causes of this problem is that they professors are payed a paltry salary and they depend on the bribes to supplement their incomes. I don't know the percentage of students that end up paying the bribes, but it is a significant number. In a perfect world, if so many students are able to pay off all their professors, the school should just raise the tuition, which is only a few hundred dollars a year, and use that money to pay the teachers salaries and abolish the practice of bribing. A student that has three or four classes and pays a 100 euro bribe for each class could easily double what is payed in tuition. Perhaps a way to force the change would be for students to organize a group that refuses to pay the bribes and "outs" students and professors who do, but I don't really think there are enough students who care to do such a thing. Too many are happy to just pay the bribe and get good grades. The ones that can't pay and want to continue their education just hope that all their 8.5s are enough to get them into a graduate program.


Doin' it for the Money

The other day I was talking to my 10 year-old host brother Marin about what he wants to be when he grows up. This is an interesting question for me because job prospects here are quite different than what the are in the U.S. In the U.S. many people I know struggle with whether or not their occupation is what they really want and enjoy doing while here the struggle is more about only having or not having an occupation. Marin stated that he wanted to be a priest. This was not surprising to me as a few years earlier, Marin had been in a car accident and his mother firmly believes that he survived due to the fact that the priests here in the village prayed over him and were able to save him. She also believes that the accident as God punishing her for doing laundry on holy days and not going to church as often as she could. This being the case, Marin is a point of pride with the church and in the family, so his wanting to be a priest logically makes sense. But I decided to ask him why he wants to be a priest anyway, and what he told me came as a surprise. Marin wants to be a priest because “priests get as much money as they want when they ask for it.” While it surprised me, it also has a basis in logic. The church here is in the process of building a new monastery. It is over halfway completed with the dorm and two of the three eventual churches completed. The smallest of the three churches is exquisitely decorated on the inside with walls covered in gold leaf and beautifully painted. The priests, one of whom I like greatly, drive about the village in a newer Toyota car and generally seem to live better than many in the village. They do good work here in the village, but I question the necessity of building such a grand monastery in a village without running water, plumbing, garbage collection, paved roads and other sanitary and infrastructural necessities. Clearly this isn’t lost on Marin either as he plans on getting into the priesthood for the money.

Hit the brakes, I'm getting a call

Recently, Maria and I visited her friend Diana. The bus ride took about 2 hours and cost 30 lei (about $2.40). Upon arrival, we immediately met Diana and her mother on the road and walked back to her house, where we were then immediately met by Diana’s boyfriend Ion. It was decided that I was to accompany Ion on an unnamed mission while the girls chatted and prepared food. I causally strolled through the gate when Ion told me to hurry up – he left the car running, but was low on fuel. I picked up my pace, got in the car and we made it about 3 feet before the car stalled and refused to restart due to said lack of fuel. Fortunately, we were heading in a downhill direction and were able to coast to the main street whereby Ion would find a container to get some gas and then hitch a ride to a gas station within sight. I was instructed to wait in the car to watch over it – I guess in the infinitesimally small chance that a fuel totting car thief were to happen upon the vehicle unsupervised. Fortunately, my supervising skills proved to be unnecessary and Ion returned quickly with enough fuel to carry us to the gas station to add some more. On the ride to the gas station, Ion made me privy to some information that I would have liked to have known before starting off on this adventure – the car had no brakes. The method he employed to slow and stop the car consisted of not ever going very fast, making use of inclines when possibly, down shifting, and throwing on the emergency brake when it was necessary to come to a complete stop. Fortunately it turned out the mission was just to get some gas, so it didn’t last long.
The rest of the night consisted of going to two other houses and then back to Diana – each of which served food and drinks. Unfortunately, my ability to apply the brakes to the dizzying array of shots of cognac, raciu, and wine were only marginally better than the brakes of Ion’s car. Though I was able to miss out on the last three or four rounds, which would have proved disastrous.
Waiting for the bus to go home, we saw and interesting site. A funeral procession was coming down the street. The processions typically consist of a few children in the front carrying a wreath and banner of some sort. A few people carrying crosses follow them. Then there is the majority of family members and friends usually joined by a priest or two. The deceased, being carried by pallbearers, follows them and then usually a few people trailing behind. The procession stops periodically, the deceased is set down, the priest starts a chant or a song of some sort and a round loaf of bread with a candle in it is set on the ground. This procession was odd in two ways. The first is that the deceased wasn’t being carried, but was getting a ride on the back of a huge, industrial-type flatbed truck. The second being that when the stopped in front of us, the singing/chanted was delayed as the priest answered his cell phone and chatted for a bit. After the phone conversation, it looked like he then checked some messages and then when satisfied with his phone business, he then started his singing and chanting. It was pretty awesome.


In Comparison, Human Babies Are Lame

Originally uploaded by caric.
Two days ago, our goat had three babies and, man, are they cute. There's a white one, a black one and to even things out a grey one. I was looking at them with my host mother and she said, "aw, that little black on is sooo cute." I agreed and then asked if we were going to sell them as there's not enough room for three goats here. She said "No, Easter is in a few weeks. We're going to fatten them up and eat them." My Easter dinner is sooo cute.

They popped out and then immediately popped up. They can walk immediately. Well, they can stumble about on four legs immediately. Three days latter and their running little circles around in the pen and still stumbling, but now with a little more grace. They've also learned how to scratch their face with one of their hind legs which is pretty funny as their balance is great on three wheels.

But watching these little guys motor around, it got me to thinking that human babies are lame. These little guys would literally be running around their human peers. What can a three day old baby do? Sean, if your reading this, what is Ryan doing? I can answer for him. Nothing. They just cry, go the bathroom, eat and sleep. They can't scratch their face with their leg. They can't walk up to their mom's boob and feed themselves. They can walk anywhere. They have to cry if they want to go anywhere and that's lame.

All you three day old babies out there, suck it up and learn to walk - goat babies are doing it.


"Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Give him ramen noodles, and you don’t have to teach him anything."

The man who invented ramen noodles in 1954 has passed away. A moment of silence please.


Thank you. You can read about it here.

I have a few blog posts in the works, but we have been without power for a few days and I'm rushing to finish up a grant proposal. There should be a few new posts next week.


Happy New Year!

Happy New Year - 2007!
Or Happy New Year Heisei 18! (Using the Japanese calendar)
Or Happy New Year 96! (Using the Taiwanese calendar)
Or Happy New Year 123! (Using the Bahá'í calendar)
Or Happy New Year 1386 (starting in March)! (Using the Jalaali calendar (used in Iran))
Or Happy New Year 1427 and 1428! (Using the Islamic calendar)
Or Happy New Year 1935! (Using the Indian National calendar)
Or Happy New Year 2550! (Using the Buddhist calendar)
Or Happy New Year 2760! (Using the Roman calendar)
Or Happy New Year 4644, 4704, or 4705! (Depending on the Chinese calendar you choose to use)
Or Happy New Year 5109! (Using the Hindu calendar)
Or Happy New Year 5768! (Using the Hebrew calendar)

So, whatever year it is for you, Happy New Year!


Photographer of the Year

Recently, I've been doing more work in the community and less work directly with my mayor's office. I've got a great mayor because he is dedicated, smart and active. That also means that he's not around much because he's busy doing work he needs to do. And that suits me fine. I've found a group of kids that want to work on different projects here in the village and I'm working with another village to set up a small company that will employ trafficked or trafficking-vulnerable girls and women and will teach them how to repair donated computers and then sell those computers at a low cost to villages and schools in Moldova. My village will be one of the first customers and we'll set up an internet cafe with the computers we receive.

The problem I have now however is that the mayor's office only asks me for help of any sort when they want to use my camera or to show off the American. I've been trying to teach them how to use Excel on the computer USAID donated to them, but they'd rather use their abacuses (I wish I was exaggeration and joking). I try to help them with the internet and email, which kind of works, except they just use the internet to download their horoscopes. Baby steps. But typically, they just need me for my camera lately. I've been "contracted" to photograph a driving class, the blessing of bridges on two occasions, the opening of a road, a gas stove installed at the day care center, the main system of gas distribution, the heater at the school and other various events in the village. Recently I attended my village's Hram festival. Hram is celebrated every year in Moldovan villages and can generally be described as a harvest festival. There is song and dance, art, feats of strength, food and wine and vodka and cognac, and then an all night disco. I attended this year's festival for the first time and brought my camera so that I could take some pictures. One of the mayor's office employees saw me and said, "oh good, you brought your camera. Give it to me, I need to take some pictures." I told her that I brought it because I wanted to take some pictures for myself and I'll give them the pictures I take. She responded with "I have to take specific pictures, so give it to me because I need it more than you do." I responded with "uh, no. It's my camera." And really, I don't mind taking pictures for them, I just hate that I'm never asked to take pictures, I'm told. And when I'm at events taking pictures, one employee in particular always thinks I'm not taking the pictures I'm supposed to be taking and, quite literally, demands the camera from me. "Give it to me!" Man, I hate it when that happens. I kind of feel like a four year old who wouldn't share his toys, but at the same time, I'm not going to be bullied into sharing.

So, they called me Thursday night and said "Craig, there's a big meeting tomorrow and you need to be there. Make sure you bring your camera." Dammit. I wanted to tell them it was broken. Or another volunteer is borrowing it. Or that I'm not here as volunteer photographer, but I agreed to go. The thing is, I wasn't needed at the meeting, my camera was (and in the end it wasn't as there were two other people there with cameras). The meeting turned out to be for mayors and secretaries in villages in my state and they were going over new policies about how to fill out certain documents. It was three hours of "stamp the lower right-hand corner of document AF-34 twice, once in red with a round stamp and once in blue or black with a square, but not rectangle stamp. But do not stamp the back of the document in any way or it will be forfeit." (As a side note, this country LOVES stamps. They stamp EVERYTHING to make it "official.") My actual ability to participate in this meeting was nil except for photographic participation.

Afterwards, a large lunch was held with delicious food. Also replete with wine and cognac. Moving on to my second pet peeve about live in Moldova - hostile hospitality. I recognize sharing a drink is a major part of the culture here and am prepared to drink a shot of vodka or cognac when it's called for. But I hate cognac and vodka. People don't popularly opt for mixed drinks or beer for reasons having to do with fashionability (typically), it's because sprits consumed on their own tastes like poison. But I really hate being guilted into drinking more that what I want. Sometimes, I might want another drink, but because it's being forced, I absolutely refuse, making my incredulous host angry. Here in Moldova, to refuse to an offer with no means yes. It's just polite to say no and then take what you offered. Unfortunately, there isn't a word that clearly conveys no. Which is fine unless you don't actually want what is offered, in which case you have to start employing a myriad of different tactics, often simultaneously: I'm taking medication, it's against my religion, I might be pregnant (never works!), I'm allergic, I just don't like it, I'm too drunk already, I'm genetically predisposed to alcoholism (that gets a confused look, but then further insistence), and I'm sick (the drink is then offered as a cure, typically with the addition of black pepper). I spent a lot of energy trying to dodge shots as co-workers reminisced about my past tactics in avoiding drinks. One man fondly told of the time that I responded to him with "pauză" - I'm taking a break, when he confronted me with a large glass of wine as it was my turn in the drinking circle.

In addition to having to refuse drinks on this occation, I also found myself refusing to make a toast. People love making toasts here. This meal had about 50 attendants and I would estimate that 41 of them made toasts. The first few toasts, all attendants are, well, reasonably attentive. After that, it's just someone standing up talking loudly while everyone else sits and talks loudly. I didn't want to make a toast for a few different reasons. One, I hate being the center of attention, which is pretty difficult here as I'm almost always the only American. Standing up, making a toast in a foreign language, completely lacking any sentiment or desire will only highten the sense of being the center of attention. Second, I have a particular distaste for public speaking. Third, I firmly believe in a rule that I've concocted since being here that there should never be any more than two toasts at any event. There are two reasons for this rule:

  1. People run out of original things to say after two toasts and they just become a rehashed version of the first two toasts glued together with clichés

  2. Everyone in the room knows that after two toasts, the toasts will be rehashed versions of the first two toasts glued together with clichés and they stop paying attention

And finally, I didn't want to make a toast because they were trying to force me into making a toast and I hate it when anyone tries to force me to do anything I don't' want to do. So I didn't make a toast. In hindsight, it probably would have been better if I just stood up and croaked a few words and sat back down. But I've got principals to uphold. Or something like that. In the end, they were a little t.o.'ed that I didn't give a toast, but still requested that I bring my camera to work on Monday. They want to take some group pictures of everyone at the mayor's office. Maybe I could get a job with National Geographic after all this experience I'm getting in photography.


Tryptophantastic Thanksgiving and I’ve Turned a Corner

Last week all the Peace Corps volunteers here in Moldova gathered in Chisinau to celebrate Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for a number of reasons. Firstly, above all other holidays, there is a very specific focus on food. Turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing are the specific focus, and are the foundation of any Thanksgiving-based food pyramid and also my favorite three-dish combination. Secondly, it’s a secular holiday so everyone can participate except vegetarians. They can eat Tofurky or whatever, but there’s really no substitution for the real thing. I don’t have anything against vegetarians and in practice, I am one almost half of the year here in Moldova because of the fasting my host family does with their Orthodox faith. If I was a vegetarian however, I think I’d take Thanksgiving off. Thirdly, you don’t have to do anything but prepare food. There aren’t any presents to worry about, you only have to shop for food, and if you do it right, you can celebrate it for the next two or three days with leftovers, which sometimes are better than the actual meal itself. Finally, it’s all about giving thanks and this year I was thankful that Moldova has turkeys. Oh, and for my health, and family, and friends and all that other stuff.

This Thanksgiving was a success. A few volunteers volunteered to labor in the kitchen while the rest of us played football or lounged about in the capital and then in the evening we convened in a hotel’s conference room to destroy the feast presented. I’d post some pictures, but I didn’t take any because I was too busy stuffing my face.

Thanksgiving also marks the turning point in my volunteering service. One year down, one to go. The first year of volunteering is filled with starts and stops and while you’re full of expectation to get things done, you don’t really get much done as you’re still getting comfortable with the language, your host village, your host family, and still don’t have a clear idea about what you can and should do. Going into my second year, I don’t really have a long list of accomplishments, but I do have projects started and they all have momentum to actually get completed. At this point a list of accomplishments would include things like eating exotic pig organs and cow brains, using outhouses, and standing for tortuously long periods of time on public transportation, but hopefully by the spring it will also include some real accomplishments.

That being said, I’m also starting to think about my post-Peace Corps plans. Right now, I’m thinking of going back to school for a joint Law/International Affairs degree. There are quite a few of these around the country, so I’m not sure where I’ll end up, but there is one program at Pitt, so that’s a possibility. Can anyone give me some advice on getting letters of recommendation from professors who probably don’t remember you? I need to do that.

So, in closing, I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and I wish I could have spent it with all of you. Unless your turkey was too dry and then I would have just been miserable and not very thankful. See you in a year.