Sunday, January 22, 2012

Another Weekend Getaway

My package from America finally made it to Moldova which meant I had to undergo yet another 4 hour train ride into the capital to pick it up. However, this time I ended up spending the night in Chisinau instead of hopping back on the train again which meant I was able to take it a lot easier than I normally do on my Chisinau trips where everything is planned out and nothing can go wrong.

Spending the night in Chisinau was a pleasant experience but it came about because of a very startling event, Margaret, the vice director of Peace Corps Moldova passed away from a brain aneurysm while she was vacationing with her family in America.  Her children came from America to Moldova and we had a memorial service for her on Sunday in the morning. As volunteers who had just undergone training we had spent a lot of time with Margaret this summer during our training as she was very much involved and was always around trying to get to know everyone. The Peace Corps office will never be the same without her there.

Because of the memorial service there were very many Americans wondering around Peace Corps and like always it was nice to just soak up the little bit of America we could from each other while we could. My package made the trip worth it on its own by finding a way to utilize every available space inside the box and was remarkable filled with things that I would have never known to ask for but was very glad to receive. My favorite being the cow tales which I havent had in so long even before I came to Moldova and also real American coffee. I cant wait to finally get some authentic caffeine in my system tomorrow even though my wake up time is a little later than usual on Mondays so the caffeine wont be as necessary.

Instead of staying at the hostel like I did the last time, this time I ended up spending the night with a group of friends in an apartment that we rented for the night that was located inside one soviet era block buildings that are infamously renowned. Apparently it is quite common for some of the apartments in the block buildings to be vacant and instead of letting them stay vacant the landlord or landladies decide to rent them off for the night to make a little extra money until they find a steady tenant. For comparison for us to stay at the hostel it is about 10 dollars for each person but to rent an apartment, because there were 5 of us, we were able to split the cost and it only cost about 7 dollars for each of us for the night. It was a very interesting experience because from the outside the building is very old, and in need of a lot of exterior work. Once you step inside nothing really changes and the building looks almost abandoned. As if no one has done repairs since the building was built. Bare concrete walls, flimsy handrails, and very dangerous looking electrical wirings...But once you go to the actual apartment everything changes. It was fully furnished with a bathroom, a bedroom, a kitchen that came complete with kitchen utensils, it even had very fashionable wallpaper and artsy paintings on the walls. The lady we rented from was a real character and spent the better part of 5 minutes showing us around and making our bed for us. After a while she gave me a quizzical look and asked me how old I was. When I told her I was 22 she laughed and told me she thought I was 18. Then she proceeded to say something in Romanian that none of us understood until she tried again with charades. Basically she offered to wrap me up in a blanket like a new born baby but I politely refused the offer.

 Later in the night a very hardworking and selfless volunteer made all of us brownies with ice cream smothered with chocolate sauce served with hot cocoa. At that moment we achieved perfection. And to keep the perfection lasting as long as possible we all quickly found our antacid/pepto bismal medicines to counteract any funny business that might occur from our ridiculous over indulgence of chocolate.

I think that is most of the important things to say. Other than to point out that it is now officially winter in Moldova. We have snow on the ground and it has been on the ground for a week and we are constantly getting more. I am happy to report, however, that my center of balance in Moldova is remarkably improved from America and not only can I walk down unsalted side walk streets covered in ice/freezing rain/snow mixtures and not fall, I can even do a running sprint and slide a good 15 feet without causing any physical harm to befall myself. But of course I say that with my fingers crossed.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


It was about this time last year that I finally received my long awaited invite to serve in the Peace Corps and Ive been having trouble coming to terms with the fact that it has almost been a year since then.

Other than the incredibly stressful student teaching I was doing the only other thing that weighs heavy on my memory from that time period is reading other people's Peace Corps blogs especially from those who were already serving in Moldova.

I realize my blog posts recently haven't really fit the Peace Corps blog mold very well but if anyone out there is reading what I have been writing I hope it has been at least a little bit entertaining and hopefully informative. I also want to wish all of you luck on getting that invitation and can't wait to meet all you Newbies in June.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


Now its time to discuss the important part of the journey, Istanbul. When I was planning the vacation I sort of knew that Istanbul would be a bigger and better city compared to Sofia and Bucharest and we allowed more time there than the other cities but little did we know... 

My Passport after crossing over the Turkish border. Only halfway finished with my trip. I might need more pages for my passport after Moldova...
My exciting collection of money not including Turkish Lira. 

Istanbul is probably the most beautiful, modern (while also rich in history), friendly, clean, and interesting city I have ever visited. Oh and did I mention cheap? I am beginning to sound like a broken record even to myself because of how often I have been singing the praises of Istanbul to anyone who will listen but its true. If you have never been to Istanbul and plan on taking a vacation anytime soon I recommend you place Istanbul at the top of your wish list.

To start off the train to Istanbul from Sofia was the newest and most comfortable train we rode on so before we even left Bulgaria we were already excited for what we would find in Turkey. We were however brought down a level when we were rudely awakened at some ungodly hour in the middle of the night and forced to leave the train and walk in the cold to another building spend 20 US dollars to buy a visa so we could enter then country and then proceed to stay awake while everyone’s passports were stamped. Although that sounds horrible now that I am writing it, to us it wasn’t as bad because the night before we didn’t even have beds and spent the whole night in seats with the lights on being awakened every two hours. We found it hard to complain too much because we all went straight back to a beautiful sleep that lasted until we were about 20 minutes from Istanbul. From the window we could already see that Turkey was going to be different. Our trip so far had taken us through two other countries outside of Moldova but all three countries were once on the other side of the iron curtain and the effects of this are still clearly seen almost everywhere you look, especially in the architecture. But as soon as we crossed over to Turkey everything changed…
The second row bunks fold up so the bottom bunks can function as a couch of sorts. Six itty bitty train compartment.
Life on the top bunk would have been perfect with just a tad bit more head room.

My main love affair with Istanbul started when we first saw the Ayasofya (aka Hagia Sofia) and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) both of which from the outside are so beautiful and blend in so well with their surrounding that it really is breathtaking. Not to mention the fact that they are both so close to each other you can literally turn your head from one to the other. After we saw the view we were even more satisfied with our living arrangements because our hostel was between both of them and now our walk home everyday would mean passing by both of those buildings.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Another difference between Turkey and Romania/Bulgaria is that we don’t speak the language. When we were in Romania all of us could interact with the locals no matter if they spoke English or not and we all understood the signs/maps/instructions etc. In Bulgaria we had one member of our group who had learned Russian instead of Romanian and she was able to mostly understand what was going on in Bulgaria and in the very least was able to read better than most of us in the Cyrillic alphabet. But now that we were in Turkey we lost that language edge. It was as if we suddenly had stopped being travellers and really started to feel like tourists. To help with the transition we were lucky that my host brother that I had met a couple times in Moldova lives in Turkey and volunteered to give us the grand Istanbul tour. He spent the better part of two days leading us around and giving us the insider’s tour to Istanbul. On the first day alone we visited:

Sultan Ahmed Mosque, 

Basilica Cistern,

Topkapi Palace, 

Galata Tower 

Istanbul Mall

and the Istanbul version of Times Square. 

The second day we traveled to the Grand Bazaar and Asia and had a Turkish fast food lunch.

It was pretty awesome to get most of the touristy things out of the way because that left us with the next three days to explore whatever we wanted and that way we didn’t feel any amount of stress that we wouldn’t have time to see everything. Personally high on my list of things to do was to visit as many American fast food restaurants as possible. To maximize the effect I sometimes at two meals while I was there so that I could thoroughly enjoy the experience as much as possible and savor as much American comfort food as I could stuff in my belly. In case anyone is wondering, I was able to find a Burger King, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Carl’s Jr, KFC, Popeyes, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, Krispy Kreme, and Dominos. But don’t worry I didn’t have time to visit all of them, I tried to keep it half and half, Turkish and America.

The Turkish food I ate was all delicious and was a significant departure from the foods I have been eating for the past 7 months. Most of it had a lot more spice, a lot less bread, and in general quite satisfying. For instance my first lunch in Istanbul was a doner, which to me look suspiciously like a gyro…complete with the rotating slab of meat on a skewer. But seeing as how Greece is a neighbor I don’t see how the resemblance would be surprising. 

My fast food lunch in Asia I described earlier consisted of a flat bread covered in a spicy sauce and then turned over to form a semi circle. It is served with a drink called Ayran that is sort of a watery version of sour cream, which helps to cool down the spice. They also gave packets of red pepper to help turn up the heat if that’s what your into.

When I wasn’t eating at meal times I was eating in between meal times at street vendors. They were everywhere and common fare included roasted chestnuts, corn on the cob, and warm sugary bread. Also there were a lot of street vendors that made fresh pomegranate or orange juice right on the spot with a pretty cool manual juicer. However, if you have never had straight pomegranate juice before I don’t recommend it. Luckily I had only tried someone else’s and didn’t buy one myself. One sip was enough to know how terrible it is. But my above and beyond favorite drink is Saleb. It is made in big copper contraptions that vent out steam and at night in the winter time you can see one from a mile away which made them super convenient. Basically saleb is milk, sugar, and an extract from the root of a orchid. Absolutely delicious. The vendors usually sell it for about 1.50 for one small cup full but if you look unimpressed with the price you can usually get it for only .50 cents. I went on the search while I was in Istanbul and found some instant saleb mix in one of the Turkish convenience stores that I am pretty sure usually only caters to only Turks because the person working the register gave me awkward stares and didn’t speak any English. Didn’t matter to me because I was able to get a whole package of saleb for 2 dollars. Enough to make at least 10 large cups back here in Moldova. (Sidenote: Can anyone do a little searching in stores in America and see if you can locate some Saleb? I might decide to move to Turkey after Moldova if not. lol)

As I mentioned with the saleb bartering with the seller is a big part of every transaction in Istanbul. Even at restaurants and some brick-and-mortar stores. For me bartering wasn’t something I was opposed to but I didn’t really feel the need most of the time because the price that the seller usually started off with already seemed reasonable based on the size of the city, being in a tourist area, and from my background knowledge of what a comparable item would cost in America. But like everyone else I played the game. I didn’t initially plan on spending too much money at the grand bazaar but everything inside the grand bazaar is so beautiful, unique and moderately priced that by the time I left I had bought gifts for my whole family and for everyone in Moldova and I still didn’t feel like I had really spent that much money especially when I went back to the hostel and actually looked at how much I was able to buy on my very limited Peace Corps budget. It was a really fun experience aside from getting a good deal because all of the Turkish people I met were exceptionally nice. Now I know most people will say that they were nice only because they want to sell things. But Ive been in a lot of places where people wanted to sell me things and none of them had people who were as nice as everyone I met in Turkey. It was so much fun playing the bartering game with every vendor because each one was different.

Approach…look around unimpressed with the selection.
“HELLO My friend! Howareyou?! Where are you from?”
“America! I love America. You guys are the best! What are you looking for?! A gift for your family or yourself?”
“Im not sure yet. Depends on what I find.”
“Oh well I like you. I will give you a really good deal. I don’t normally do this but everything on this shelf you can have for 5 dollars.”
Picking something up…not looking very impressed. “That’s not a bad price I guess. Do you have this in blue perhaps?”
“Yes of course! Here you can have three!”
“Five dollars you said? Hmm…that’s alright. I don’t really think I need it right now…”
“WAIT!!!! Did I say 5 dollars?” Grabbing your arm and pulling you closer. “My friend for you I can give an even better deal. But we have to keep it a secret. And only because I can see that you have real good taste in gifts. And my gifts are of the best quality. The other stores will lie to you and their quality is bad. How about you can have it for 3 dollars.”
“3 dollars sounds reasonable. How about I take 3 of them and a keychain for 12. That’s all I seem to have left in my wallet.“
“Would you like them in a bag?”

Like I said no two vendors were the same but this is about how it went. Somewhere in the middle if the vendor has made his quota for the day or just doesn’t feel like you are being reasonable he will simply turn around and ignore you if you pick a price too far below his starting price. At which point it really isn’t a big loss because you simply go next door to the other vendor and try again and just add a dollar to your last unsatisfactory bid. The grand bazaar is also so immense that you really could spend the entire day inside of it (I did) and still never visit all of the little shops or peruse all of the curious knickknacks inside that you really can’t find anywhere else.

There is also the Spice Bazaar which is really the same as the grand bazaar but instead of knickknacks and souvenirs it sells spices, tea, and turkish delights.

So as I have mentioned Istanbul has the sites, the people, the food, and the cheap prices what I have neglected to mention is the fact that it also has an amazing transportation network. It has a train station, airport, boats, trams, subway, funicular, cable cars, buses, and an aerial tramway. It even has a very impressive bridge that crosses over the Bosphorus Strait and connects the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side for automobile traffic. When I crossed over to the Asian side we used a commuter boat on the way to Asia for 1 dollar and used the bus crossing over the bridge on the way back, also 1 dollar. The only argument I would have is that if you plan on switching between transit methods multiple times it can be costly. Everything cost 1 dollar per ride but if you switch, from the subway to the bus for instance, you have to pay another 1 dollar. For example to go to the mall from our hostel we had to ride the tram, the funicular, and the subway. Three switches so it cost 3 dollars. Plus the return journey. In comparison to the Washington metro it is a lot less expensive as long as you can get there using only the same method of travel.

The commuter boat that crosses the strait.

These trams were awesome!

Anyway, enough about Istanbul.

Now that I have crossed off three more countries and visited Asia I am now starting to feel like a real worldwide traveler especially because for every city we visited we ran into people we knew completely randomly. Its such an odd sensation to be in a place you have never visited before hundreds of miles from home and to have someone you know call out your name… Granted everyone we meet was also Peace Corps Volunteers and our options for vacations are limited if we choose not to fly to Western Europe but the coolness factor remains.

Finding friends in Bucharest
Finding friends in Sofia

Finding friends in Istanbul

Oh I almost forgot to mention. You cant have a perfect vacation without a little bit of sacrifice. In order to get home from Istanbul we had to ride the train for 20 hours to Bucharest and then jump off the train and literally run to the ticket window and buy tickets to Chisinau and run to catch the train. We then were on that train for another 13 hours! 33 hours on a train with only a 10 minute respite of solid ground. When we finally got to Chisinau in order to get home I had to ride yet another train for 4 hours. Anyway. I made it back and the trains didnt kill me but Im thinking Im gonna have to switch it up for the next trip. Ive had enough trains.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Winter Vacation

My winter vacation turned out so amazingly that Im not sure I can do it justice in a blog post…even with a couple blog posts, but I will do my best. Everything did not always go according to plan but the trip actually turned out to be more fun and interesting because we did hit a few bumps along the way. Also because it was a long trip and each place we visited was so different Im pretty sure this blog post is going to lack cohesion and wonder aimlessly from one topic to the next. I apologize for that.

My travel group: 
From left to right: James, ME, Cassie, Anton, Maggie, Courtney, and Dahnika. (Dahnika followed us for the first train ride and half of the day in Bucharest until she had to catch a plane from Bucharest to Ireland.)
My trip itinerary: 
Dec 26 Chisinau – Overnight train to Bucharest
Dec 27 Bucharest – Overnight train to Sofia
Dec 28 Sofia – Overnight train to Istanbul
Dec 29 – Jan 2 Istanbul – Overnight train to Bucharest
Jan 3 Bucharest – Overnight train to Chisinau

First off after looking at my trip itinerary the most obvious detail is the fact that we choose to use trains as our method of travel. Many reasons for this but mostly it came down to the fact that trains, while slower than planes are also a lot less expensive, and while they are not as cheap as buses they allow for you to have more room to move and sleep on a horizontal bed (at least most of the time).

Our first train to Bucharest was awesome because it reminded me of the Hogwarts train from Harry Potter. It had an age to it and was mostly made of what looked like polished wood. We also realized that one reason why the train takes so long to get to Bucharest is because it takes three hours to move a couple hundred yards when you get to the border because of passport/custom checks and because they have to switch the gauge of the train to match the tracks in Romania.  

Bucharest itself was especially interesting to all of us because it is a more developed city than Chisinau and the people speak mostly speak the same language and have the same ethnic background as people in Moldova. But besides all of this I found it difficult to find the similarities between the two countries. The language was vastly different and while Romanians tend to speak clearer their speech doesn’t seem to take on the rhythmic cadences like Moldovaneasca which to me sounds a lot like spoken Italian. Also the people bared almost no resemblance to Moldovans both in their look and their fashion. It was fairly disconcerting because I was kind of looking forward to being in a place that would be more like a more developed version of Moldova. But instead the city was not as developed as I thought it would be and the people did not remind me of Moldovans at all. 

But the city itself was interesting for a couple of sights that we stumbled upon. The biggest and most impressive being the Presidential Palace built by the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The building is the 2nd largest building in the world after the Pentagon and was only 70% complete when the revolution removed Nicolae from power. Another fun fact about the Palace is that all of the materials used to build it were from Romania. Everything, the stone, marble, curtains, gold, rugs, crystal chandeliers all were made in Romania with Romanian materials.

Bucharest is also lucky enough to have a metro system and it has to be one of the most interesting for two reasons. One, you can walk through the whole subway train as the cars are all connected. Two, there is a police office on every subway train and because all of the cars are connected he can easily see all of the cars and keep mischievous behavior to a minimum. 

After we had wondered the city all day we ended up in a park randomly and as we were walking through it in the dark we started to come upon more and more brightly lit areas and as we approached we found that it was a Christmas market. How perfect? There were Christmas trees, lights, decorations and a ton of vendors selling Christmassy things, winter apparel items, and lots of food such as corn and gingerbread and also hot wine. Our train left late in the evening and we were sort of worried that it would be hard to find something to do after the sun goes down but I don’t think we could have found anything better to fill our time with than that Christmas market. 

When we finally did make it back to the train station we all nearly had a heart attack when we realized that our train left at 10 AM and not 10 PM. We luckily were able to transfer our tickets to a 11 PM departure. Although the day was not completely saved by this new train because when we got on the train we found that it was not a sleeper. So we would be spending the whole night on uncomfortable seats trying to catch a few winks in between the border crossing nonsense and people asking to see our ticket every two hours. Needless to say we received little to no sleep on that train but who needs sleep anyway? It also gave us more time to enjoy the scenery, a lot more mountainous than Moldova.

Sofia showed its true colors immediately as we arrived at the train station. All around were very friendly Bulgarians who conveniently spoke English and had all the answers to your questions….for a small tip. It was incredibly frustrating to find out how to do anything in the Sofia train station such as buy our train tickets to Istanbul or find a place to lock up our bags without having at least five people approach us ask us if we were lost and offer to help us find our way. By this experience alone I figured that Sofia was a city that did not receive tourist too often but when it did it tried to make the most of them…which I would say applies pretty well to the whole city.

The soviet block buildings and architecture that is everywhere in Moldova was also everywhere in Romania and Bulgaria and other than being larger and a little more developed did not look too far removed from what we were used to seeing in Moldova so it was sort of a let down to us and our aspirations of escaping for a week. Sofia was not a city that I feel like I will return to. Mostly because it was the coldest city we visited and also because we had trouble finding things to do just for the several hours we were there in between train rides. However, it did have a Dunkin’ Doughnuts so it was not a complete waste of time.

Ok. My hand is starting to hurt from typing and my head hurts from trying to sort through all these pictures...Im going to end it here and add another blog post later about Istanbul.