Thursday, July 07, 2011

Travel Log: 36 Hours in Moldova

I live 20 kilometers from Moldova, the tiny country east of Romania that is about the same size as Maryland. Yes, I am THAT FAR EAST. I thought it would be quite a shame to leave Romania having never visited Moldova. I have intended to go several times, but for one reason or another it always fell through. But at long last I made it, just weeks before leaving Romania. I went with my darling roommate Anna, and we had quite an adventure in our 36 hours there. We mostly ate lots of food and saw lots of old communist buildings. It was great.

So first of all, the country IS as poor as everyone says it is. The roads are the worst I've ever seen. And yet people still drive 60mph or faster on them. The buildings are mostly in shambles. The villages look poor poor poor. And it kind of feels like time stopped in 1992. The cars, the clothing, the decor, it all just kind of froze in 1992. It's truly a forgotten country. Chisinau (the capital) is nicer and there you certainly are blasted in the face with the sharp dichotomy of rich and poor. There is so so so much poverty, but there are also so so so many black Mercedes on the road. I'm not even joking, probably 1 in 10 cars was a black Mercedes or BMW. I have some thoughts and know some of the reasons for this, but alas, I will save that for another day. 

We took a rutiera ('maxi taxi' if you are from Romania, or basically a small bus) from Iasi over to Balti, the second largest city in the country (pop. 148,000). Crossing the border was pretty funny. Because I would bet it's among the first times they saw an American cross the border in a ghetto rutiera. I try to keep a low profile, and I am usually able to do so since I don't look foreign, but alas, not possible to do so when you all have to get out of the bus and show your passports and go through the stamping process. I received plenty of curious looks. Our driver smoked pretty much the entire time. And while he at first played traditional folk ("populara"... I don't know a good way to translate it) music, he then switched to American Classic Rock. Like straight up Eagles and Springsteen. I wonder if it was because of me? Hm. 

Once we arrived in Balti our friend Raluca met us, and we saw the church where she works, and then headed off on our road trip south to Chisinau. With a random Christian German dude in tow who had come to visit Moldova and see if it was really like what people say it is, and who was in need of a ride to a place along our way. As ya do. About 10 minutes into our trip we got pulled over by the police. As ya do. Ralu had indeed been speeding (as everyone does), but once he realized she was foreign (she's been a missionary there for several years and speaks fluently, but of course with an accent) he was trying to find all kinds of other things to add to the fine, and just generally was being a jerkface. As he was doing so another car went FLYING by and he didn't bother to stop it. Ralu was happy to pay the fine she owed, but not happy to be taken advantage of as a foreigner or to see other people passing freely who were speeding. So she asked him why he didn't pull THAT guy over, maybe cause it was one of his friends? To which the police officer responded, "Do you talk to policemen in America like this?" And she said, "Yes, because we have LAWS and RIGHTS and JUSTICE." Go Ralu!! After that he didn't make her pay. Here is a picture of her in his police car (soooo gangsta!) because he wanted to show her Just How Fast she was going. 

We arrived in Chisinau safe and sound, without any tickets or accidents. So- Food. We went to a place called La Placinte for lunch. Which does not mean placenta. Placinte are filled pastries, that can either be doughy or flakey, and they're filled with potatoes or cabbage, and (as in the photo below) cheese and dill, among other things. They're one of the most common foods in Moldova, and this place has loads of them:
We ate so much food. So much. Just endless amounts of Moldovan goodies. Potatoes, meat, heavy, hearty food. Mmmm. We were joined by one of Anna and Ralu's friends. Great place. Check out the wall!!

I also tried Cvas, a non-alcoholic fermented wheat drink that they sell everywhere on the streets. You can tell by my face that I wasn't quite sure what I thought about it:

And RASPBERRIES!! Oh how I miss raspberries! And while you can occasionally find them here, they are expensive. But in Moldova (oddly enough, as it's RIGHT NEXT DOOR) they have raspberries in abundance. So excited.

We also splurged on Thai food for dinner. Yes. Thai food. There is a really cool fancy schmancy hotel/spa in an obscure location, and the food is THAI. It was really quite good, and though I assume it was expensive for Moldova, four of us ate an appetizer and main dish, plus a beverage for $50. Total. They had super cute individual huts outside where you could sit and enjoy dinner in peace and quite. 

Oh yes, but there's more. They have excellent ice cream in Moldova. And I definitely had 2 ice creams and a milkshake in my 36 hours there. Yum. 

When we weren't eating (and sometimes when we were), we walked around Chisinau a lot. And of course we drove from Balti to Chisinau (3 hours I think) and then from Chisinau back to the border via Ungheni (another 3 or 4 hours), so we got to see a fair amount of the country. We saw cool old communist buildings, went to a fun crafts market where they had amazing old communist pins and hats from the war, saw some parks, spent the night in a  Moldovan block apartment with some friends, and just generally looked around. Here are a few pictures:
Supposedly this is the President's house. But I don't really understand how it's a house and not say... a Mormon temple? 

One of the many amazing (and amazingly old) buses.


Me in front of some old Communist-era building. People may or may not have stopped and stared at me.

Anna and I being silly at the city sign for Ungheni. I intentionally left out the photos we took with the cows nearby. Right.

Crossing back into Romania was also an adventure. Ralu took us to the little town right before the border, and we hitched a ride back over (Mom, don't worry- this is super common, not scary or sketchy). The key is to find someone who is Romanian, since Romanians and Moldovans wait in separate lines, and of course since Romanians and Moldovans LOOOOVE each other, the Romanians take extra special care to look through the Moldovan's cars and possessions when coming into Romania. 

The first car that came by was an old Dacia. Like old old. I'd guess 20 years old. But it not only had a Romanian license plate but was from our county, increasingly the likelihood they would be going in the same direction. So Anna flagged them down. Inside was a couple about our age in the front and a grandma (bunica) in the back who had her arm in a cast and a bunica scarf connecting her arm to her neck. And lots of metal in her teeth. Awesome. They were happy to take us. So we squeezed our small bags in the trunk and squeezed ourselves in the back seat with the bunica. The back door could not be opened except by pulling the outside and inside handles at the same time. Awesome.

Again an interesting border crossing. Thankfully we came at a time when it wasn't so crowded and we didn't have to wait that long. It's two check points- leaving Moldova... and entering Romania. So it takes at least a half hour even if there aren't many people ahead of you. And again the customs guys were very curious as to why an American was riding in a 20 year old Dacia with a bunch of Romanians and Moldovans. He said, "Ah, so you went shopping in Chisinau in your Dacia eh?" Right. 

So the deal is as with any border crossing you can't bring certain items across, and with others you can only bring a certain amount. And it's not like on an airplane where you fill out your Customs form and it's an honor system to declare what you have. Oh no, they straight up look through all your stuff. I've never crossed a border with a car, but man, it was interesting. They checked the car and our possessions thoroughly. I mean, they pushed down all the seats to see if anything was hidden inside, knocked on various places in the car to search for potentially hollowed out places where we could be storing something illegal, opened the hood, looked underneath, made us take everything out of the trunk, searched all the bags by hand. Yea. Thankfully it wasn't so hot, and we just chilled while they did their thing. About 10 minutes after it was our turn, we were able to go.

Here's the funny part. With cigarettes you're allowed to bring 2 packs per person. And our hosts had 6 packs that they showed to the guards. All well and good. But once in Romania as we were driving towards Iasi, I looked over and watched as the bunica reached into her shirt and pulled out a pack of cigarettes from her bra strap. She smiled a copper-toothy grin and put the pack in her purse. Awesome. 

They took us to our neighborhood in Iasi, we each paid 10 RON ($3) and off we went. But not before I took a picture with the car....

A great end to a great 36 hours.

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