So, I went to Romania. Weird, huh? I think so. I was sitting in the airport in Bucharest waiting for my flight out of the country, and I was sipping coffee with Maggie, one of the other volunteers who happened to be leaving at the same time. I took a quick scan of the events of the previous two weeks and said, "this was a weird thing we just did." It was also amazing and eye opening and occasionally unsettling and wonderful.
Here's how it went, and hang on because this could take a while. It could actually take a few blog posts to get the story out.
Eustacia and I left Cleveland on June 20 and flew to Newark. Then we flew to Zurich and then on to Bucharest where we landed on June 21. After we got through customs, we went out to the arrivals area and looked for a driver waving a United Planet sign. It took a few minutes, but we finally found Ionut (pronounced E-O-NOOTS) who was our driver. We waited for two other volunteers arriving that same afternoon, and when we were all together, Ionut led us to a little pickup truck that would be our ride for 2 1/2 hours into the mountains. We dumped all of our luggage in the truck bed, the three young skinny girls piled into the back seat, and I sat in front with the driver.
We wound and wound up narrow roads into an increasingly rustic and rural setting, and we turned onto a dirt roadway with huge rock chunks to make the ride more interesting, and there we were—the Pro Vita compound between Valea Screzii and Valea Plopului.
We were told it was an orphanage, but it was so much more. It was a commune, set up to accept anyone of any age who needed help. Each category of people was given a house of its own—mothers with small children, elderly and disabled adults, school girls, school boys, babies and toddlers, high school boys, adults with issues and volunteers (below, Casa Tyrol—our room was off of the top balcony).
The commune ran the length of the road for about half a mile, I'd say, with the farthest buildings being referred to as Up Top, as in up the road a little ways. There were ten inhabited houses, several half-built houses, a community building with a dining room, another community building with a small kitchen, and an Orthodox church. On the other side of the narrow Tyrol River were farm buildings with cows, pigs, chickens and a mule. And there was a wood shop where the carpenters made all the finishing pieces for the construction of more houses. There was also a monster metal scrap heap they hoped to sell to a scrap dealer some day.
On the other side of the road was a big hill that served as a cow pasture, a processing station for logs that were turned into planks and a soccer field that also sometimes served as a cow pasture.
We were moved into Casa Tyrol where there were other volunteers, and once everyone arrived, there were 11 of us total. I was the oldest (not one person called me Kiddo!), Maggie in her 30s, and all the rest between the ages of 16 and 22. Maggie and I quickly joined forced against the younger set, and they began calling us The Team.
I won't spell out every single day for you, as much as I'd love to. I kept a daily journal, so I could actually tell you what we did on any given day. I'll give you the general schedule instead. The house was coordinated by Chrissy, a British woman who worked for Pro Vita. She organized our days loosely by starting breakfast at 9:00. There were several other people living in the house, which I'll talk about later, and we all shared one small kitchen and one dining room. Breakfast was whatever—cereal, Zweiback toasts with spreadable cheese, jams, pate, butter, coffee, tea. We served ourselves, but sometimes Nicoletta, a Romanian teacher who works for Pro Vita would make traditional coffee—boil water on the stove, stir in coffee grounds, boil again and strain. It was wonderful.
At 10:30, we set out for our morning activities, which varied from day to day and from person to person. One day, Maggie and I went to the house of a woman who was raising 11 children, and she had ironing to do in the form of mountains. We helped with the ironing, and then I combed the hair of some of the little girls and pealed potatoes. On other days, we did crafts with kids in different houses, and we tended to the tiny kittens that had been dumped on the side of the road.
Lunch was at 1:00, so we all met back at the house to eat together. A few of us would take turns going Up Top to the outdoor kitchen for our share of the communal food, carrying pots and bowls and a bag for bread. Lunch was a hot meal, never just a sandwich, and followed Orthodox guidelines. The Orthodox church fasts from time to time (at times, it seemed like always), and we arrived in the middle of a multi-week fast in honor of saints Peter and Paul, which meant no meat. A typical meal consisted of something like rice, potatoes or pasta; a salad of slaw or cucumbers depending on what was on hand, soup with beans and bread. Sometimes we were given fish, and sometimes we were given tofu chicken—tofu that was formed to look like boneless chicken breasts and fried. Not bad, actually.
Two or three women stand under a shelter and cook in large kettles over open flames, and they prepare lunch and dinner for 100 people every single day. Someone had donated grain to a local baker who bakes bread for the compound and delivers 200 loaves a week. About half-way through my stay, the fast was broken, and we were served real chicken with some meals after that. We each got one small piece with each meal, like a leg or thigh, but they still fasted every Wednesday and Friday year round.
After lunch, we would head out to our afternoon assignments. Sometimes that meant working with kids on crafts for an art show we had decided to create, or we spent time creating games we had devised for a carnival. On other days, we would do hard labor—nasty, dusty, dirty work. On one afternoon, we planted a flower garden—turned the soil, hauled and spread manure, planted. It's a fledgling thing now, but if they'll keep the cows and kids out, it might be nice.
Once a truck delivered a load of wood planks and dumped the load at the end of the bridge. Our job was to haul the big planks down the path past the farm to the wood shop, carrying as much as we could carry. We were so proud when we cleared the pile (in the rain!), but then found we had to fill the now empty truck with sacks of cement mix that were being stored in a nearby half-built house. I nearly had an aneurysm but found a place in line and did the best I could.
I came to think of that half-built house as The House from Hell. It was three stories of stored crap mixed with spider webs and rat poop, and we rarely entered it without wearing some sort of mask. We went to the top with instructions from Ciprian, our Boss of Moving Things who wanted us to remove ruined insulation. We refused because of the fiberglass and lack of protective gear, so he took us to the "library" instead. It was a room piled high with donated books—five feet high at least—and we had to organize the books, stack the usable ones and throw out the ruined ones. This is what it looked like before:
and this is what it looked like after:
Dinner was at 7:00, and we made the run Up Top again with our cleaned pots and bag for bread, took the haul back to Casa Tyrol, and ate together in the communal dining room on the first floor of our house. We would sometimes play the One Thing game—everyone tells one thing on the given subject, like one thing about your town or your family or what makes you happy. We took turns washing the dishes and clearing the table, and then we'd spend the evening either playing with the little kids or being amused by the teenage boys who inevitably found their way to the dining room, the one common room besides the kitchen, to spend time with the younger volunteers. The house was always lively and noisy and full of people coming and going. All the residents were back in their respective houses by 10:30 or so, and we would stay up and laugh and talk or collapse in our beds from a long day.
Here are some of the volunteers—Ram, Lea and Sammi—sitting and talking around the table:
Near the end of my two weeks there, we put on a little carnival for all the kids with four games we each built and operated along with face painting and prizes for everyone who played. I can't show you pictures of kids because of privacy laws, but here is the general atmosphere—those are Belgian boyscouts in the background who sang camp songs as the carnival kicked off:
We also created an art show featuring all the crafts the kids had made during the previous two weeks. These are just a few:
I have plenty more stories to tell, but I'll stop here for now. Volunteers come and go and stay for different lengths of time, but we were 11 for two weeks until Maggie and I left. Emily chose to stay for another three weeks and won't return until the end of July. Here is a group photo of all of us—the adorable woman with her head on my shoulder is Chrissy.