A bus ride in New York City costs $2.75. In Philadelphia, it’s 2.25. Nationally, the average fare tops $2.
Here in Moldova, the bus fare in the capital city, Chisinau, is 10 cents. A minibus ride to Chisinau from our home town of Ialoveni is 20 cents. Champa and I can stuff our two backpacks with groceries for less than $20. It costs us two dollars for a bottle of local wine or, if we’re feeling thrifty, 75 cents to refill a bottle at the wine store.
It’s much cheaper to live here than in the United States, so long as we avoid products imported from outside the region. A pair of Nike running shoes costs about the same as back home. A pair of Levi’s costs more. So does an iPhone.
According to one popular website, consumer prices in Moldova are 62 percent lower than in the United States. Restaurant prices are 70 percent lower. The two of us are lucky to have some restaurants in our town — many volunteers don’t — and we have yet to spend ten dollars for the two of us, drinks and dessert included. Restaurants are somewhat pricier in Chisinau but still a bargain. Rents are also much lower; here in Ialoveni, as Champa and I discovered recently, apartments start at just over $100 per month.
Best of all are the local fruits and vegetables, which are fresh, delicious and cheap. A few days ago I bought a bag of apples from a street vendor for 75 cents — enough to make a big pie. Pears are in season, too. A few weeks ago, we had peaches, cherries, raspberries and strawberries. The local vegetables now include cauliflowers, eggplants, onions, potatoes and our current favorite, beets. Champa has begun making beet salads with buckwheat, carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers, sprinkled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Yes, you can buy those, too, although they’re imported and expensive by local standards. An imported jar of Barilla pasta sauce costs about $2, nearly twice the price of a larger jar of local tomato sauce. Some familiar brands — Snickers, Coca Cola, Colgate, Tide, Gilette — are produced regionally and sold everywhere. Peanut butter, on the other hand, is a delicacy. I bought my first and only jar a few weeks ago at an auction to raise money for an anti-trafficking campaign: $7 for a jar of Jif. Hey, it was for a good cause.
Occasional splurges like this are within our budget as Peace Corps volunteers. Before we came to Moldova, Champa and I had never gone to the opera. A few weeks ago, we bought orchestra seats for a wonderful performance of La Traviata in Chisinau’s national theater. They cost us $10 each. Dinner at the outdoor restaurant next door was $13. Transportation home was a dollar. I’ve never been to the Met in New York but I’m guessing it costs slightly more.
Sounds great, right? Well, yes, by American standards. But not for Moldovans, whose average monthly after-tax disposable salary is $214.52, nearly 93 percent lower than ours, according to the same website. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of its data, which appear to be based on only 107 Moldovan respondents, but they’re in the same ballpark as statistics from the World Bank and other sources. When your monthly paycheck is so small, these “low” prices appear much larger.
As Peace Corps volunteers, our monthly income is much closer to the Moldovan side of the scale. We receive enough to pay for our rent, food, transportation and miscellaneous expenses, and Peace Corps sets aside some money for a one-time “readjustment allowance” that we’ll receive after our service.
Our paychecks are far less than we spent every month back home on basic living expenses, not to mention on college tuitions and other major outlays. Yet they’ve been enough for us to live comfortably, albeit not luxuriously. So far, they’ve been just enough.
If we were still living in Durham, we’d have utility and cell phone bills, medical insurance premiums, car insurance, grocery bills and everything else. Here in Moldova, my only recurring monthly bills are for a New York Times online subscription and iCloud storage to back up our laptops. We hope to leave our retirement savings untouched and, if we’re lucky, for them to grow a bit while we’re gone, although they could move in the other direction, too. Whatever. This isn’t why we joined the Peace Corps and we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.
For now, I’m focused on the trip we’re planning to take from Ialoveni to Chisinau this weekend. As usual, we’ll ride the overcrowded local buses, for which we’ll need 60 cents each, roundtrip. I think we’ve got it covered.