Tag Archives: Peace Corps

Meeting at the Primăria

“This is what democracy looks like!”

For protesters around the world, that’s become a popular chant at rallies. Here in Ialoveni, it’s what I saw Thursday evening at a community meeting, one of whose livelier moments is captured in this brief video clip:

Nearly 50 citizens gathered to discuss a proposed high-rise building project in the center of town that would add residential and commercial space but affect traffic, municipal services and and the environment. It also would disrupt a neighboring park and church. Some residents are concerned about the project’s impact on their own homes and property.

I didn’t understand everything people were saying, and sometimes shouting, in Romanian. I may have missed something essential, not to mention whatever people were saying privately. But the meeting was both impressive and fascinating nonetheless.

Both men and women participated. Everyone was dressed comfortably for the late-summer heat, including the mayor, Sergiu Armașu, who presided at the end of the table in a short-sleeved red shirt.

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People took turns standing to speak around a long table in the meeting room on the second floor of Ialoveni’s Primăria, or town hall. Some held up documents. Some tended to children. Some listened quietly, sipped water or tapped on smart phones. A city expert pointed to one of several maps on the wall, explaining the project in detail. A local journalist recorded everything. A woman from the Primăria’s newspaper snapped photos and took notes.

The meeting began at 5 p.m. and broke up shortly before 7 p.m. The mayor shook hands with citizens as they exited. Several people remained behind to argue about the project. As best I could tell, the situation remained unresolved, with a decision about the project still pending. On this one night in Ialoveni, Moldova, it’s what democracy looked like.

 

Painting the Playground

These “Before” and “After” photos tell the story of what Peace Corps can accomplish with a local community, sometimes within a couple of hours.

All three photos above show a playground in central Ialoveni. The left photo, which I shot on Tuesday morning, shows how faded and dingy the equipment looked. The middle and right photos show some of the same equipment on Tuesday evening after a Peace Corps group joined with local residents to give the playground a paint job and makeover. (“Vopsit” means “painted.” The sign on the left says: Help us put the “love” in Ialoveni.)IMG_6873

Nine Peace Corps trainees who’ve been living in Ialoveni for the past two months organized the event, which included ice cream and games for children. They’ve been staying with host families and studying every day at Liceul Teoretic “Petre Ştefănucă,” a school near the library where I work. IMG_6852

Next week they will swear in as volunteers and begin serving in the community and organizational development (COD) program for Peace Corps Moldova. They’ll serve with a companion COD group of trainees who’ve been living and taking language classes in the nearby village of Sociteni.IMG_6849 Those trainees held their community service event last week, a clean-up of Sociteni’s main street.

Both groups of COD trainees are looking forward to finally finishing their preparation and moving to their permanent posts to begin assisting local governments, libraries, nongovernmental organizations and others across Moldova. IMG_6847Two other groups of trainees— in English education and health education — will also swear in next week. IMG_6858Altogether, more than 50 trainees are expected to join Peace Corps Moldova’s current volunteers, most of whom swore in a year ago and will continue serving until next summer, Champa and me among them.

You can see the Ialoveni trainees posing here at the end of Tuesday’s event with Mayor Sergiu Armașu and a couple of local girls, Champa and me. We participated along with two other current volunteers (Reggie and Beth) and an impressive number of community members.

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For both of us, it was gratifying to watch our two communities — Peace Corps and Ialoveni — come together for such a worthwhile cause. Ialovei is our home for another year and this playground next to the main piața, or shopping area, looks so much better now. If the kids loved it before, they’re going to love it even more after the makeover.

Dollars, Euros and Lei

These three photos show what’s happened to the U.S. dollar during the past several months.

 

I shot all of the photos here in Ialoveni, Moldova: the left one on October 26, the middle one on April 3 and the right one this past Wednesday, August 2. As you can see, a dollar sold here for 19.98 Moldovan lei on October 26, before briefly climbing above 20. Now it sells for only 17.89 lei, a decline of more than 10 percent.

That’s consistent with what’s been happening to the dollar around the world, as the New York Times reported on Tuesday, juxtaposing the dollar’s decline with a rise in the U.S. stock market.

How does this affect Peace Corps volunteers in Moldova? Actually, not much. We are paid in Moldovan lei, buy things in lei and have little reason to track exchange rates. Champa and I have lived comfortably within our Peace Corps budget, so have never sold U.S. dollars for lei except when we first arrived and exchanged a small amount. We rarely use our credit cards since Moldova is largely a cash economy. We also don’t buy much online, transactions generally calculated in dollars anyway.

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Many Moldovans work abroad and send money home, so exchange rates matter to them. IMG_6681However, they generally pay more attention to the Euro than the dollar; indeed, prices for some goods and services here are quoted in Euros rather than lei, as we learned when we considered renting an apartment. The Euro has not fluctuated as much as the dollar recently. IMG_6679

Banks and money exchange centers here also focus on the Romanian leu, the Russian ruble and the Ukrainian hryvnia — not so different from Americans paying attention to neighboring currencies such as the Mexican peso or the Canadian dollar.

Peace Corps Moldova calculates its budget annually, so it’s not affected immediately by currency shifts except in a few ways. For example, a small percentage of volunteer paychecks is designated for personal travel and pegged to exchange rates. The overall impact is so small, though, that many volunteers probably didn’t notice the recent dip. IMG_6680(That included me until I started writing this post.)

Moldova faces serious economic challenges but currency fluctuations here have been far less dramatic than in some Peace Corps countries. The agency’s financial planners elsewhere sometimes have to scramble in response to big swings, as do the State Department and other parts of the U.S. government, along with  international companies, travelers and others.

A few months before we arrived here in June 2016, the dollar was even lower than it is now, so the rise above 20 may have been outside the usual range. I’m told it was a response to Brexit, the U.S. presidential election, Federal Reserve policy and other things I cannot claim to fully understand, much less explain here.

Nor do I really care. For me, a person who enjoys math and numbers, it’s just been something to notice occasionally as I walk to work.

One doesn’t become a Peace Corps volunteer to get rich. For all of us serving in more than 60 countries around the world, our mission is to serve our local communities and promote friendship between Americans and other people. Ultimately, that’s the currency that matters, not the ones shown on the ever-changing bank signs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Way to Rent a Car

We rented a car during our recent trip home but not through a conventional car-rental company like Hertz, Avis or Budget.

IMG_5857Instead, we rented our blue Toyota Camry through a new online company called Turo, which is like an Airbnb for car rentals. It cost us about half of what we would have spent otherwise, including the cost of the insurance. We interacted mainly with the car’s owner — Kim Dinh, shown here — instead of waiting in line at a rental car counter for an overworked agent to upsell me and ask me to write my initials on forms.

I’d planned to rent a car the usual way and was looking forward to it since we are not allowed to drive “in country” while serving as Peace Corps volunteers. Months before we left for our vacation back home, I began checking prices on travel websites and with the rental car companies. We wanted a mid-sized car since we would have several suitcases. We’d begin and end our trip at Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., where we flew from Moldova on Turkish Airlines.

The sites didn’t vary much in their offerings and prices. They also were consistent in failing to provide clear information about what it would cost to buy complete insurance coverage, including liability. Champa and I no longer have a personal auto insurance policy to cover our car rentals, since we got rid of our cars when we joined the Peace Corps.
IMG_5852The car rental companies were generally opaque about what they’d charge for different kinds of insurance at Dulles, and what the policies covered. It seemed like they wanted me to make this decision at the counter, when I was hurrying to get my car and unlikely to read the fine print, especially if people were waiting behind me.

As I studied this online, I came across an article describing new companies trying to bring the “sharing economy” to the rental car market. Just as Uber and Lyft have emerged to challenge the traditional taxi industry, so are companies such as Turo, GetAround and FlightCar providing peer-to-peer options for car rentals.

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I might have considered this approach too risky or exotic. However, our experience with Airbnb made us comfortable with it. For instance, we stayed in the lovely Airbnb apartment shown above in the historic city of Sibiu during our trip to Transylvania this past April. It had two bedrooms — one for us, one for our guide — and cost less than a single hotel room. We also used a ride-sharing service, Bla Bla Car, to travel from Ialoveni to Transylvania, and had a great experience with that, too.

After reading several favorable articles about Turo, I visited its website and found lots of cars we could rent at Dulles Airport, everything from a Chevy or a Honda Civic to a BMW or a Porsche. I could have even rented a Tesla, a Bentley or, for a mere $899 per day, a Lamborghini Gallardo. (I don’t think the latter includes a Peace Corps sticker.) There was also a clear description of the insurance options offered through Liberty Mutual.

We chose the Camry and the most extensive insurance coverage. Once we reserved this with our credit card, Turo put us in touch with Kim-Dinh, with whom we then worked directly. When we arrived at Dulles, I called Kim-Dinh after we picked up our bags, and he arrived at the terminal curbside a few minutes later. He drove us to a nearby gas station, topped off the tank and inspected the car with me, posting photos to the Turo site. He also lent me his EZPass so I could pay tolls automatically and a magnet to attach my iPhone to his dashboard, so I could see GPS directions more easily. I reimbursed him for the tolls later.

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When we returned at the end of our trip, Kim-Dinh was out of town, so his friend met us at a gas station near a Metro station, shown here. He inspected the car and then gave us a lift to the aiport.

I can’t speak about this service generally or how Turo compares with its competitiors, and I don’t intend this post as an endorsement. However, now that I am back in Moldova, I expect I will recall our experience fondly the next time I am riding a crowded minibus.

 

Back to America – II

There were at least a dozen reasons why we enjoyed returning to the States earlier this month on vacation from our service in Peace Corps Moldova. I posted six last time; here are six more:

American Food

We’ve eaten well in Moldova but missed American foods. We wasted no time back home in enjoying goodies like those shown above: North Carolina barbecue, New York breakfast treats and Vietnamese pho.

Shenandoahs

We rented a lodge in Virginia’s mountains with our sons and their families. Together we went river rafting, visited Luray Caverns, made S’mores and played games.

Friends

We’ve missed a year with our friends in Durham and Washington, D.C. This was our chance to catch up with them.

Our dog

We also had a joyful reunion with Bailey, our dog. She is doing great with the family taking care of her. Good dog, Bailey!

Sightseeing

In Washington, we visited the new National Museum of African American History and Culture and other sites.

Perspective

Finally, our time away gave us a chance to reflect on our Peace Corps service and then return to Moldova with a renewed sense of commitment.

Now we’re back and gearing up for our second year. I have two important meetings on Tuesday, Champa is starting a grant project and we’re looking forward to all of it. Before long, we’ll need another vacation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to America – I

We just returned to Moldova after visiting our family and friends in the States. It was a great vacation for at least a dozen reasons. Let’s start with six:

Grandchildren

We’ve been dreaming for more than a year about the hugs we’d receive from these six children. We weren’t disappointed.

Family

We saw other family members, too, especially at a big party organized by our son and daughter-in-law in Philadelphia.

Parade

We marched in Philadelphia’s annual Fourth of July parade with returned Peace Corps volunteers from the area. It was great to hear so many people cheering for the Peace Corps, as you can see in this video. (Don’t miss Champa’s flag!)

Nature

We were reminded of America’s natural beauty in places such as Luray Caverns and the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

Changes

America has changed since we left. We wanted to see it with our own eyes.

Peace Corps

We remained engaged with our jobs, giving two talks about the Peace Corps in Durham and meeting with the leaders of the National Peace Corps Association in Washington, D.C.

In my next post, I’ll share six more reasons why we treasured our vacation back home.

 

 

 

 

Two Talks in Durham

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Champa and I are coming home for a short vacation with our family. While we’re in Durham, we will be giving two presentations about our Peace Corps experience:

  • A private talk for Duke University friends at 4 p.m., July 10, Office of News and Communications. RSVP (required) to Sakiya Lockett.
  • A public talk  at 4 p.m. July 11 at the East Durham Regional Library, together with Chris Cardona, a returned volunteer (China) who is the local Peace Corps recruiter. See the poster below for details.

Earlier during our visit we will be joining returned volunteers from the Philadelphia area in marching in that city’s Fourth of July parade. If you’re watching in front of Independence Hall, check out who’s carrying the flags for Moldova and Nepal.

Please come join us if you are in the area!

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