Songs of Innocence and of Experience

People waiting for relief supplies, Bagong Silang, Caloocan City, September 2009

It is nearly impossible to fathom -- let alone put into words -- the weight of all that has happened here in the Philippines since my last post in early September. Time and again, I'd find myself sitting down to collect my thoughts, ready to write. And, time and again, I wasn't ready to. Apparently I'm not so good at attaching words to overwhelming, traumatic experiences. It amazes me that many writers (including some of my favorite journalists) spend their entire careers doing just that: diving head-first into war, genocide, disaster, disease and other unthinkable human experiences, and writing about them...on a deadline. My own puny fumblings leave me in awe of these people (and remind me why I chose another profession). Indeed the past few weeks have often seemed like a demonstration of the modern Filipino experience, equal parts heart-wrenching and triumphant.

At the end of September, Manila and much of the northern Philippines received the full force mauling of Ondoy, the worst storm to hit this area in at least a half century (typically, most storms would roll through further to the South).  Water rose, dams burst, storm drains and canals were quickly overwhelmed, the vast sections of Metro Manila that sit below sea-level (and, in that sense, lend it a surprising similarity to New Orleans) found themselves under several meters of water -- water that would remain in those low-lying communities for literally weeks, having nowhere to go.  Most here call Ondoy a "typhoon" though, in reality, it never advanced beyond "tropical depression" status.  It's devastating impact came from the sheer volume of water it let loose, and the slowness of its track over land.  Add to all this the fact that local water levels were already high due to previous rains, and "perfect storm" conditions began to align.  Manila is a metropolitan area with a population somewhere far in excess of 11-million people.  No one will ever really know the true figure, due to the enormous communities of undocumented squatters and otherwise poor that comprise its expansive edges.  Communities that are constantly fed by an influx of people from the provinces, and who have nowhere to settle down but on the margins, huddling in cracks between buildings, living atop refuse heaps and marshes of human waste, balancing on neighbors' roofs, subsisting quite literally "on the brink".  Such unmentionable places generally happen to sit in the lowest-lying areas, in flood-plains, hard by rivers and canals, available simply by virtue of their undesirability to anyone with a choice.  As in NoLa, likewise in Manila.  To make a long story very short, but no less painful, it was Manila's poorest who found themselves suddenly without a home or any possessions, fighting for their lives against raging currents and toxic conditions.  Children and elderly relatives sometimes swept away.

Amidst this litany of human suffering, all of us in my NGO (Gawad Kalinga) found ourselves deep into post-disaster relief efforts, 24-hours a day, for over 2 weeks -- delivering desperately-needed food, clothing, medical supplies, shelters and emotional support (what little we could offer) to disaster victims.  During that time, I was always either helping to make supply drop-offs or helping to set up disaster-preparedness systems for future such storms (Typhoon Pepeng arrived the following weekend).  As physically and emotionally draining as that type of work is, it's naturally difficult to forget how much worse the recipients of your work have it than yourself.   Indeed even now, 2-plus months later, many thousands are still without homes, and with no real hope in sight.  As I had written in my previous post, Filipinos waste little time with grief or complaints.  This is life, they tell you.  You move on.

In mid-October, exhausted by relief work and the emotional roller-coaster of Ondoy, I found myself in very different circumstances: sitting on a mountain-top in the city of Baguio, on property owned by the family of my good friend Steve from PC Romania.  I remember sitting there as the sun set, gazing at a gigantic bank of fog that ebbed and flowed over the ridge-line on which I was sitting.   The fog seemed very much a living organism, breathing in and out, eddying and flowing in random but precise geometries, alternately revealing and obscuring the next, distant mountain-top.  Weaving the last rays of dying sunlight in beautiful, curvilinear tendrils.  Then, suddenly, extinguishing them, severing the limb from the body.  Soupy darkness.

I wrote in Romania about my recurring sense that the world we live in -- or at least the world I live in -- is often revealed in such brief, intense bursts of color and feeling.  As though suddenly and without presage, the curtain is pulled back, and in that instant we see the workings of the universe, and our own lives within it.  Maybe there is beauty in that moment, maybe something far less palatable -- but there is always truth, and always purpose.  In that glimpse, we can see where we stand and where we are (perhaps) going...before the curtain drops once again.  I have felt this way at various times in my life, and as unbearable as the relief work so often was for me and for everyone else involved, I knew I needed to be there, at that moment, doing that work.  I knew the ground my feet stood upon, and I knew the task at hand.  How strange it is that we can have two so vastly different responses to the same event.  As both are so utterly inexpressible, I'll give up.

And the titanic ups and downs of life in the Philippines continued unabated in November: The ecstasy of seeing a native son, Manny Pacquiao, win his 7th world boxing title (a record not likely to be broken any time soon...and, in Manny, a public hero of whom Filipinos admit this country is desperately in need at the moment); And the barbarity of politically-motivated mass killings in Mindanao.  As predictable as we may find such contrasts to be in our modern world, it needn't stop us from imagining that things could be different, better.  Neither should it stop us from doing what we can to make it so.


Typhoons and Pedicabs

As I write this, an enormous typhoon is sweeping through the northern Philippines and the South China Sea, unloading torrential rains, hurricane winds, heavy seas, mudflows, flooding, uprooting trees, destroying homes, washing away livelihoods (and in some cases, lives) and making an all-around mess for those unfortunate enough to be in its path. This is the rainy season in Southeast Asia. This is par for the course between roughly June and October of every year. And for people with seemingly so little control over a world that visits these biblical tempests upon them with vicious regularity, Filipinos themselves are almost supernaturally resilient, positive people. This storm may flood the low-lying village where my fellow volunteer Drew lives (as happens almost weekly), it may peel the roofs off of the plywood squatter shanties surrounding my own house -- it may ultimately change thousands, or millions, of Filipino lives forever. And yet Filipinos themselves will simply seek protection under a nearby eave, shrug, share a joke and a cigarette with their neighbors, and wait for the rain to pass. Tomorrow, the mirthful gleam in their eyes masking a steely resolve, they will go about the task of rebuilding and moving forward. Even now, with the deluge beating against my windows, I can see children doing cartwheels in the street. Tricycle-taxi drivers are firing up their engines and heading off for a fare. Somewhere in this tightly-packed "barangay" (barrio, or borough), someone is crooning a Julio Iglesias tune on karaoke. Based on the tell-tale aromas, someone else is cooking fish and rice for lunch. Indeed, most of my neighbors here in Bagong Silang (extreme northeastern Metro Manila) are abjectly poor. No health or home insurance. No running water. And for most, no public or private agencies (FEMA or otherwise) will be swooping in with aid, should the flood-waters rise, should the levy burst, should the winds rest from them their homes and few possessions. For them, this is life. You move forward.

To simply say, however, that Filipinos "move forward" is to wildly understate the reality: these are some of the happiest, most gregarious, most naturally optimistic people I have ever met (and I've met a lot of people)! They are poor, they have withstood centuries of foreign occupation, they live in a climate that is either Eden-esque or a divine science-experiment (Searing heat? Typhoons? Active volcanoes? Rising sea-levels? Sure, try it out!) Yet Pinoys are always quick with a song, or a joke, or a smile, or a San Miguel (local beer) and wonderful food. They are fiercely proud of their country and heritage, they are out-going and ebullient with foreigners and guests, they believe in the prosperity and growth that the future will bring...and heck, even if it doesn't, the current situation isn't all that bad, no? We Americans typically like to believe we are extroverted and positive. Trust me, we have nothing on these people!

Perhaps I should qualify what I'm telling you here: I live in a squatter settlement on the far outer-periphery of what is known as "Metro Manila" (a collection of large cities). The high-density urban environment that I experience every day is, I might guess, no more (and no less) a representative view of "The Philippines" than New York City is of the US. I have volunteer friends who literally live in grass "nipa" huts off the beach in the outer island provinces. I live in a neighborhood -- yes, neighborhood -- of 1-million people, the vast majority of whom are squatters living in shanties, and who were relocated from central Manila by the government in past decades to clear land for peanut farms. I know volunteers who go weeks without getting in a motorized vehicle or seeing a building taller than a single-story.

On the other hand, I and my fellow Peace Corps Response volunteers in Manila -- Charlie, Drew and Sharon (with two more arriving this week) -- spend every day immersed in the heady, intoxicating soup of sights, sounds, tastes, smells and experiences, big and little, that make up life in this city. We are anomalies here, not just because we are foreigners, but because typically Peace Corps does not place volunteers within Metro Manila -- opting rather to place them in rural areas and provincial towns and small cities around the Philippine islands. The fact that we are all PC "Response" volunteers, and here on shorter-term, more technically-focused projects, puts us in a somewhat different category of PC rules and procedures. Three of us work with a Filipino community development NGO called Gawad-Kalinga (roughly "Care-giving" in Tagalog), in many ways comparable to Habitat for Humanity. Our backgrounds are in architecture, engineering and construction management, and until late January, we are going to be helping them codify a Business Plan and Standard Operating Procedures, as well as developing standardized manuals that guide the entire Site Development and Construction process for any given project. We'll be busy, but it should be a fun and illuminating process for everyone.

I'll go into more depth in future posts about individual elements of my new life here, and as in Romania, I'm always open to fielding questions and topic requests from my loyal readers! But let me just give you a few short strokes of the experiential paintbrush to get this canvas started:

  • Sitting in horrendous (and non-stop) Manila traffic, packed into a Jeepney with 20 other passengers, in the sweltering heat of the mid-day sun. No mad-dogs or Englishmen about -- just a highway jammed with hapless commuters. You're breathing in nothing but exhaust fumes and human body-odor. You're shoe-horned between an old lady and her groceries and a guy with a TV, and can't move. And if you're over 5'6" you're also crouched over, since Jeepney passenger-cabins have criminally low rooflines. The seats have no padding, the Jeepney has no shocks, and the Jeepney-driver has no subtlety when it comes to accelerating or braking. Or turning. Oh, and then it starts raining torrentially, so the driver's assistant gets out and unfurls clear plastic window coverings -- so now you have no air-movement either, and are sitting in a moving human crockpot. Why is it I love Jeepneys so much?
  • Walking through the farmers' market up the street from my house. As in Eastern Europe (and probably everywhere else in the developing world), you can find everything from fresh meat to construction tools to car batteries here. Unlike much of Eastern Europe, the sheer variety of local produce you can find at any market-stand in the Philippines is astonishing. This is a country where bananas, coconuts, pineapples, mangoes, guavas, papayas, giant grapefruits, oranges, lemons, limes, mini-limes (calamansi fruits) and a host of other wonderful exotic fruits literally grow wild on the trees (or other plants), to say nothing of the vegetables and other produce. Even for those of us who live in the city, fresh produce is always readily available from the nearby farms and groves. I am not used to this. My brain isn't wired this way. I grew up in the American Northeast, where garden plants have to be coaxed and prodded and coddled from the rocky soil like shy children, in those short months of warmth. The guardedness and resentment the plants feel towards us is palpable. Here, it's a different relationship altogether. Fruit springs from the earth with abandon, with enthusiasm, gleefully entrusting itself to your outstretched hand. In this Garden of Eden, only the apple itself has to be imported from China.
Ok, that's it for now. I trust everyone is healthy and fulfilled and skipping down the road. Check out my PHOTOS, please drop me a note sometime, and COME VISIT! I'm only here until January.

Camp is very entertaining
And they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining...


La început din nou... (At the beginning once again...)

Rocky Mountain Nat'l Park, Colorado, October 2008

One year ago, almost to the day, I was planting trees and laying new paving stones in a small town park in western Romania. Not long after that, I wrote what would prove to be my last blog post for almost a year -- before seemingly dropping off the face of the earth. There are myriad reasons for this, or so I tell myself. Most don't hold much water, I admit. After all, there has been no shortage of things going on in my life in the past 9 months or so. But in summation, I'm back in cyberspace, and my postings will (theoretically) resume. And for those who haven't been updated recently, here's a brief, crib-notes version of my life since Romania. My apologies for the brevity. As you read, I encourage you to browse the PHOTOS as well:

My Peace Corps service officially ended at the end of last July, and after signing some final documents and annoying everyone in the head office one last time, I boarded my first flight in over 2 years and headed to Vienna. There I spent a few days with my Romanian host-mom's brother and his wife, who have lived and worked there for years. Then it was off into the rolling Bohemian countryside for a short tour of various famous Czech beer-brewing towns (Plzen, home of Pilsener Urquell; Cesky Budejovice, home of Budvar, the "original Budweiser"). After preparing my system with wonderful Bohemian suds, I took the train west to Munich, where I met up with my old friends Eric and Will from grad school. The three of us would ultimately visit 6 countries together and taste much beer, European street-food, wine, and otherwise: South to Genoa (with a sleepless night in Milan's train-station), then to Paris, Brugge, Amsterdam and finally London, where we spent a few last days together before they flew out. I stayed on a few more days in the UK, revisiting Oxford for the first time since my junior year abroad, and then spending one last, wonderful weekend with some Scottish friends in Edinburgh right in the middle of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. What a terrific way to say goodbye to Europe!

At the very end of August I flew back to the US, and my father and I then took another flight down to Florida to visit my grandfather -- wherein I was greeted with the first of many surprises over the following months: my grandfather, in a wild bit of downsizing, gave me his Chrysler convertible. I think his (very sound) reasoning was that having a car would help me in my upcoming job-search. My reasoning was a little different...and a lot less sound: My return to the US + beautiful Fall weather + convertible = ROADTRIP!!! I wasted no time getting going. From late September to the November presidential election, I covered something like 9,500 miles, visited 30 states, and reconnected with at least as many friends (I won't even tell you how many gallons of gas and dollars of gas-money I burned through).: Virginia, DC, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticutt, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia. Whew! Gorgeous weather. The top down. Open road. Old friends. I can't think of a better way to reacquaint myself with my country.

Well, voting for the next president. That's another way. In early November, I found myself back in Virginia and deep into a job-search in the worst economy in several generations. After returning from Romania, my focus had shifted to architecture firms doing work in community development, low-cost housing, disaster relief, mixed-development, etc., and my geographical focus was firmly on places like the upper Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic and the Gulf Coast. As I would continue to find out over the next several months, the industry (like every other) was contracting, hiring was slowing down, and I was forced to deal -- essentially for the first time in my life -- with the physical and emotional challenges of being without a full-time job, which are manifold. Anxiety, self-doubt, depression, aimlessness, loss of motivation -- It's difficult to appreciate how immediate, and how overwhelming, the effects of unemployment generally are until one is right smack in the middle of it. Even after two years of struggle, improvisation and confidence-building in the Peace Corps, I found myself battling what was, in some ways, an even more difficult situation at home. There is always more that we can learn about ourselves, I suppose, and the world we inhabit. I have learned much in the past few months. And it certainly hasn't been all negatives either. For instance, during my search I've been working part-time at a coffee-shop in Charlottesville with some terrific people, learning how to make quad-shot mochas, extra-dry cappuccinos and chai lattes. Valuable skills, all. And I've continued to interview with a variety of interesting and exciting architecture firms: I was passed-over by several, I was offered a job by one, and several have asked for follow-up interviews over the coming weeks. All of which leads me to the next predictably risky decision...

The crowning event to all this is the news that I will be heading to the Philippines in mid-June for a 6-month assignment with Peace Corps Response (the shorter-term, technical wing of the Peace Corps, typically for returned volunteers). The word so far is that I'll be among a small group helping a local non-profit to design low-cost housing for residents of Manila's vast slums. And though it means another few months of relative poverty, I couldn't be more excited! Going against all better judgment, I am turning down job offers here in the States (in a bad economy) to pursue this opportunity, so only time will tell whether my decision was a good one. I've learned to trust my instincts, and I'm feeling pretty good about this one.

Well, in a nutshell, that's my life over the past 10 months. I have no overarching words of wisdom, no lessons to be gleaned -- other than the constant reality that life is unpredictable. I would love to hear from anyone I haven't talked to in a while, and I promise to keep everyone abreast of life and work in the Philippines (and after). I feel like my writing skills aren't where they should be -- perhaps I'm out of practice. I'll get over it, as I hope you will.

Keep putting one foot in front of the other...


La final (At the end)

Well, anyone who's been keeping tally of the frequency of my posts (and, I mean, why would you?) over the past 2 years will note a definite drop-off in recent months -- and maybe earlier. When I first arrived in Romania, I could hardly contain myself: the words and images seemed to flow out of their own accord, desperate to be committed to paper (or at least to computer screen), desperate for the light of day. Probably much to the chagrin of my readers, I positively fell over myself trying to document every road-sign, every pothole, every dog, cloud, apartment bloc, train, man, woman, boy, girl, chicken, doorway, gathering of more than 1 person...positively every twitch of a finger, be it someone else's or my own. And I suppose this is a natural response. I think many would agree that much of the documenting (words, images, etc.) we do of the world around us in our lifetimes isn't so much for others as it is for ourselves -- as though we need continually to reaffirm to ourselves that we were here, doing this, in this moment. After all, perception and memory are fickle, delicate creatures, products of evolution whose purpose may well have been simply to keep us alive ("don't eat those leaves", "don't enter that forest at night", "hitting yourself repeatedly on the head with a hammer. Bad"). Yes, we're all generally good at remembering the good and shedding the bad from past experiences -- even as we realize that these "memories" quickly (perhaps immediately) morph themselves to our own little editorial tweakings and revisions. Is this why we journalize, why we snap that photo, as some sort of stark, incontrovertible truth? This really happened...in this way?

What ever the reasons for why we do or don't document, I think it's true for myself and for many of my finished and almost-finished fellow Peace Corps Volunteers that we have, in many ways, stopped trying to explain the intricacies of our experiences -- at least with the same fervor we once had. There's the sense that the specific, substantive reality of the experience (good or bad) will never really be captured again, in any form. And you just become more and more aware of this as time goes by. Don't get me wrong: I've truly enjoyed trying to describe for all of you how and in what forms my life has taken shape while in Romania. But I've also begun to realize that, in some ways, it's a futile enterprise. For that matter, how could I ever hope to understand the lives even of other Peace Corps volunteers around the world -- Mali, El Salvador, Tajikistan, Vietnam. Each circumstance is so fundamentally, almost painfully specific to that place and time. Yes, it is a thing of beauty, maybe one of the most beautiful experiences of my life: living with and sharing myself with people from somewhere else in the world. And naturally it is an exchange that I hope will continue to bare fruit in coming decades (and centuries?) for myself, my Romanian friends, and for my fellow volunteers and their communities around the globe. But there is also something about that beauty that lives within that moment alone -- sharing a meal, a walk, a handshake and a glance -- a beauty that will shimmer for a brief instant, and then fade. Endlessly fragile. Indescribably brief. Our lives are all populated by these moments.

My Peace Corps service officially ends at the end of July and then, like so many other volunteers (and travelers and expats) over the years, I'll presumably find myself in that odd, "fish-out-of-water" stage of trying to reintegrate into the culture of my birth, and yet that I may not be entirely equipped for. 2 years is no time at all...and it's an eternity. Returned volunteer friends of mine tell me their stories, which are alarming and funny all at the same time: of the expansiveness and variety of an American grocery store driving someone to seek terrified refuge in her family car; of hometown friends' eyes glazing over after gamely making it through the first 5-minutes of a Peace Corps story; of a volunteer hording plastic bags, toilet paper and small-change for months after getting home (items perennially lacking during the PC years). The family of one returned volunteer once described him as wearing a permanent "deer in the headlights" look for a solid year after getting back. Hmm, maybe I should stay here a while longer.

I don't know much about history, or biology...but certain facts stand on their own, resolute, unwavering. They read as follows: a) I have spent almost 27 months in the Peace Corps in Romania; b) It has been an extraordinary and foundational experience, and I would recommend it to anyone; c) Romania is a country filled with kind, wonderful people who generally want simply to claim the prosperity and global respect they have long deserved. There. If I get nothing else across about my experience -- at least you have that. Enjoy.

I also know that, after I get back to the US in early September, I plan on hitting the good ol' American road (assuming gas doesn't surpass gold in per-ounce price). I finally have, uhh, let's just say a little opening in my datebook, and a little money saved up. Not to mention all those belated wedding-gifts I'm going to have to hand-deliver. SO: Anyone who is just dying to get a visit from me and have your ear talked-off about things you don't know or care about...let me know! Maybe my Grand Tour will make a stop in your town. And being a Peace Corps volunteer, I'll be happy to sleep in your tub, eat the green, malevolent goo on the bottom of your fridge -- and I won't even use your shower! It's a win-win situation here.

Just let me know, and maybe I'll start putting a rough itinerary together for what I may call the Post-Corps Moore Tour. Until then, don't expect any last greeting card from Romania. I mean, I never sent you anything else...so why should I start now? Check out my new photos. And keep smiling. To borrow a friend's normal mass email sign-off:

"You've always been my favorite."


Saplings and Minarets

Life recently has had a tendency to operate something like a bicycle that lost its middle gears: either the pace of life and work is extremely relaxed [read "slow"], with much looking ahead to future milestones and goals...or suddenly everything seems to happen at once, and all of those once-distant milestones and goals have come rushing at me together -- leaving me exhilarated, but also fighting maniacally to keep the bicycle upright!

As I've written before, the process of adapting to a new culture and a new understanding of time and scheduling generally means learning to relax, and breath, and appreciate the process as it evolves. It often means letting go of one's own expectations about how things should get done, and by when, and charting future "goals" more as focus areas than as fixed points. I have most definitely come to appreciate this flexible approach, even when it means calling up more patience than we think ourselves capable of. And so after a year and a half of preparing for our park renovation, and with the sidewalks and benches already replaced, we suddenly found ourselves with cash-in-hand, ready to buy and plant our trees and shrubs. And in the blink of an eye, it was all done (see photos) and, in my opinion, looking fantastic! Standing there, gazing around at this beautiful revived park of ours -- the young saplings stretching skyward, townspeople chatting quietly on the benches, flowers and birds set against the blue sky -- it occurred to me that these are the moments we strive for. These often too-short, too-transient instances in which everything seems to coalesce, and imbue itself with logic and meaning, and our labors are validated. These are the moments we live for, as rare and fleeting as they are. And I was (and am) supremely happy that I could be a part of it.

Of course, following this "all-at-once" theme, I had to leave right in the middle of tree-planting to attend my Peace Corps Romania group's "Completion-of-Service" Conference, which traditionally takes place 3-months before our service officially ends (in late July). All of us in PCRO Group 21 arrived together way back in May 2006. And although there were plenty of post-Peace Corps topics to discuss at the conference (employment...gulp), most of us enjoyed the opportunity to get together one last time and simply reflect on our experiences. Out of our original group of around 75 volunteers, we have lost something like 13 (for various reasons) over the past 2 years. And it's important to note that 8 from our group are extending their service in Romania, anywhere from 6 months to a full year. Whenever we have all chosen to finish our Peace Corps service, I think it's clear none of us will be returning to our "other" lives as the same people -- if we return at all.

And then of course, immediately following our conference in Sinaia (in the southern Carpathians), I headed directly to Istanbul on the train, with a group of friends and fellow volunteers. As has been written about exhaustively in the past, Istanbul truly is an extraordinary city -- one that sits astride two continents as it straddles the Bosphorus. The city and its people represent a wonderful melding of Eastern and Western culture (dating back to the melding of Byzantine Christian and Ottoman Muslim culture). Not to mention the fact that they are unfailingly, perhaps even agressively, hospitable! Yes, store-owners and restaurateurs are very vocal in their sales tactics (traditions learned from the bazaar perhaps), but once they have your business, they outdo themselves in service, generosity and good-humor...even when serving miserly Peace Corps volunteers like ourselves! As in other cities of the world I've visited, my advice in Istanbul is to not get too caught up in the guidebook "checklists" scuttling you from one main attraction to another. Yes, Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace and the Basilica Cistern are all wonderful things to experience. On the other hand, I felt I had learned as much about Istanbul and its people -- more, in some ways -- by simply wandering its alleyways and neighborhoods. Sometimes I think it's easy to forget that these places we visit are not simply a collection of static monuments, but a living, breathing organism. And whether in the seething dynamism of the bazaar district, or afloat on the glistening Bosphorus, Istanbul is most definitely alive.

But I couldn't stay. I had to return to Timisoara for a friend's wedding, and after two straight days and nights on the train (and an amusing 3-hour layover in a tiny Bulgarian town), I made it. Of course 2 days after that, I found myself on the train again, heading back to Bucuresti for the Swear-in Ceremony of Peace Corps Romania's newest volunteers, Group24, whose training I had helped with back in February and early March. It's always a pleasure to see the energy and optimism that a new batch of Peace Corps volunteers bring with them. Indeed, after 2 years as one myself, I may be a more experienced and realistic volunteer -- but I would like to believe that my optimism and energy have not diminished.

All in all, these have been a hectic but invigorating past few weeks, filled with the sort of chaotic but somehow graceful experiences that have come to define my time in the Peace Corps: always learning, always improving (well, ideally), and always coming to a better understanding of yourself and the world you inhabit...even if just for a fraction of a moment.

I wish you all the best, and can't wait to see you again.


Vine vine Primăvara!... (Spring is coming!)

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins, "God's Grandeur" (1877)

As the third and final Romanian Spring that I have the pleasure of experiencing (at least with the Peace Corps) washes over the landscape here in the Central Balkan Peninsula, I'm constantly reminded of this indomitable force, this "dearest freshness" Hopkins refers to in the natural world, and likewise in humans themselves. After the desolation of Winter, life inevitably returns. Likewise, even after the "blear" and "smear" of history, and of looming forces that endlessly threaten to unhinge the world and its occupants -- a fear that has changed little since Hopkins' 19th-Century -- up rises life itself, irrepressible, resolute, to restake its claim. I suppose Spring is the ever-handy metaphor for all that we aspire to and hope for, as well as all that we hope to leave behind us. And ultimately, whether one believes that this unconquerable life-force comes from the Divine, as Hopkins does, or from somewhere else, there is little denying just how tenacious we humans are. We are somehow always able to move forward, to train our eyes on the horizon, even as we carry with us the wounds and memories of the past. I have written before about how lucky I consider myself to be living here in Eastern Europe at this moment in history -- one in which Romanians still live with the physical and mental ghosts of past decades, and yet are simultaneously able to enjoy the benefits of a rapidly-growing and liberalizing economy and society. And if the change that I have seen in just the last two years is any indication, this country has great things to look forward to in the coming years.

Realistitally, this is not a difficult argument to make these days: Romania is now part of NATO (and recently hosted the NATO summit), is now part of the EU, has one of the highest economic growth rates in the world, and is earning accolades the world over for its vibrant, resurgent film industry (anyone who hasn't seen "4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days" or "American Dreamin'" should get down to the video store). As with so many other post-totalitarian developing nations, Romania is in a process of self-examination and reawakening, digging deep into the bare, trod soil left by past abuses, and coaxing forth new sprouts. As my good Romanian friend Dorel Jurcovan puts it, "we [Romanians] just have to relearn what we already knew."

And of course continuity and regeneration are also part of how the Peace Corps has always operated. In late February and early March, I was back in my volunteer class's old first home in Romania, the southern city of Ploieşti, helping to train the newest group of PC volunteers (PCVs) to arrive. Comprising all PC sectors except English Teaching (i.e. Environment, Institutional Development and Community Economic Development), the new volunteers cover a diversity of fields, ages and backgrounds. I'm happy to see that, true to the PC's current goal of recruiting more 50+ volunteers, the newest group (PCRO Group 24) has a higher number of more mature recruits, coming with a wealth of previous professional experience. I must say though that, in contradiction to what was recently written in the "Too Many Innocents Abroad" Op-Ed piece in the NY Times, there will always be a vital role in today's Peace Corps for volunteers of every age, background and expertise. Yes, continual self re-evaluation and adaptation is a necessary (and healthy) process for the Peace Corps. But I firmly believe that the technical partnerships and personal connections the PC forges with other countries calls for every type of person and outlook, "expert" and "generalist" alike.

Many have lately been asking me about the time-frame for the remainder of my PC service, and what lies beyond. The first answer is relatively straight-forward, while the second...not so much: my service officially ends in late July, and after seeing a bit of Europe with old grad school friends, I'm thinking of heading eastward, perhaps toward India, perhaps the Caucasus, perhaps even as far as Southeast Asia. Combined with this, I'd love to do that long-overdue US road-trip I've never been able to do (despite the rising gas prices). Suffice to say, there may be a fair amount of traveling later this year, and since it's not often that I have the flexibility for extended travel, I'm going to make the most of it! On the professional front, it's amazing -- and would ordinarily be alarming -- how unconcerned I am by thoughts of that next career step, the job-hunt, etc. While many of my volunteer friends are already well into the post-PC job search, I've been making a conscious effort to lose myself in the little things -- knowing full well that these minute, endearing aspects of life in Romania won't be mine to savor for much longer. I suppose this has been one of the challenges of my time here ever since arrival: how do you properly memorialize a moment when you're still living in it? For beyond the collected trinkets, and photos, and physical cataloguing, all you can really do is live it like any other moment, and hope that memory will do the rest.

I've also begun to think more about continuing on in development work, and lending my architectural skills to Peace Corps Response (formerly Crisis Corps), a special wing of the Peace Corps focusing on shorter-term (3-6 month), technically-specific disaster relief and reconstruction work around the world. Longer term, I'm considering Habitat for Humanity, USAID, the UN, the Red Cross, and a number of other aid/development organizations -- recommendations are always welcome! There are plenty of communities (inside and outside the US) very much in need of safe, healthy places to live -- and who could benefit, in fundamental ways, from good design. Largely though, I've been trying hard not to get too caught up in thinking about that next step. Fundamentally, I'm extremely content and happy with where I am -- specifically and generally -- and confident that the next step will get sorted out. I hope everyone is well, and I promise to post more photos soon (I have a trip to Istanbul coming up).

P.S.: Just as a final note, many people have been concerned about the developing situation in Serbia and Kosovo, following Kosovo's declaration of independence -- just as they've been concerned about my proximity to Serbia. Unquestionably, it's a difficult issue (Kosovar ethnic-Albanians believe in their right to autonomy, while Serbians view Kosovo as their cultural heartland), and its resolution is anything but certain. I remain hopeful though, even in the face of embassy burnings and riots. Serbia is a wonderful country, and I have truly enjoyed getting to know the Serbians themselves -- both in Serbia and here in western Romania. Let's hope that the situation gets resolved to everyone's satisfaction soon.


A trecut înca un an (Another year has passed)

This post is, predictably, a little late in coming, but I want to belatedly wish everyone a Happy Holidays (Sărbatori fericite), Happy Hannukah (Hannukah fericit), Merry Christmas (Crăciun fericit) and Happy New Year (La mulţi ani)!! Although decidedly lacking in snow, the holidays in western Romania were filled with the music, celebration, sights, smells, tastes, lights, and general reflection on life that are synonymous with the end of the year...not to mention the cold. And this year-end held extra significance for this grizzled old PC volunteer, as I celebrated my much-awaited, much-feared 30th birthday. I have to say, though, that despite all of the white-knuckle anxiety and dread normally associated with the arrival of that infamous 30th year, I utterly failed in finding things to be depressed about: I have been extraordinarily blessed (or lucky) in the first three decades of my life, accomplishing goals I've set for myself (well, except for becoming a rock star and a lobsterman...but there's time yet), seeing places I've wanted to see, getting to know a vast assortment of remarkable people, and becoming evermore awed and enamored of the world we live in. Quite simply, life has been getting better for me every year, and I look forward to each new birthday kind of like I used to look forward to opening the little doors on the advent calendar at Christmas. Perhaps by the time my 90th rolls around...I'll have actually figured out what the heck I'm doing! Eh, maybe not.

Once again, I spent a terrific Christmas here in Recaş with my host family, along with two other orphaned Peace Corps volunteers from this area. My host father's oldest sister Anişoara was also visiting from Bucureşti, a woman who, immediately upon crossing the threshold of our house, began to cook at a crazed, feverish pace. Suffice to say, it's amazing that we three Americans are still able to fit through standard door-frames, after being force-fed with great Romanian holiday food for several days.

(Photo courtesy of Yale University Library Online)

Two days after Christmas, I left on the train with another friend of mine for Krakow, Poland, where we planned to meet up with several other traveling PC volunteers. Warsaw may be the Polish center of state these days (and the one Polish city many Americans would be able to name), but Krakow is and always has been the cultural heart of the country, and the place where Polish kings and queens were crowned for centuries. In the 20th Century, it very well may have saved Krakow that it was not a more important governmental or industrial center, as the city made it through World War II without damage (like Prague) and now contains what is reportedly the largest surviving medieval town square in Europe. And let me tell you, Krakow's old town center is stunning, populated as it is by medieval and baroque buildings, and ringed by a greenbelt of parks. Pope John Paul II came from here, and it's easy to see why he held a special love for the city throughout his papacy in Rome. Polish people themselves are extremely generous and kind hosts (perhaps too generous, if you happen to be sitting next to them at the bar!), and -- even after Poland's long and chaotic history as the battleground for many wars -- the Poles continue to be a very proud and robust people. Not to mention beautiful, considering the masses of blue eyes, blond hair and high Slavic cheekbones you see on the street! We began our visit to Krakow in a smoky basement bar, listening to old Polish sailors from the Baltic Sea (in the north) sing sea shanties on their guitars. And we culminated our visit by ringing in the New Year with hordes of ecstatic Poles in the streets. And if I were Polish, I'd be ecstatic too: this is a country that clearly has much to look forward (and back) to.

The second, and somewhat more rushed, leg of our trip took us to Prague, in the Czech Republic. And as anyone knows who is somewhat familiar with travel in Europe, this is a city that needs no introduction. Since the breakup of Czechoslovakia and the economic and political reforms of the early '90s, Prague has steadily grown into one of Europe's (and the world's) most visited tourist cities. And it's not difficult to see why when you arrived: the city's old center is awash in medieval churches, markets, cobbled streets, winding alleyways and tunnels, palaces, sculpture, excellent food, and quaint bars serving Czech beer (which many consider to be the world's best, though I might take issue with this). And it must be said: the city's also awash in tourists. Granted, we visited during the holidays. And granted, I have spent the last year and a half in far Eastern Europe, largely without the international crowds, bustle, bright lights and capitalism of Western Europe's or America's major cities. Yet I found it all a little overwhelming and off-putting. I'd like to believe that perhaps there's a quieter time of year in which to visit a city like Prague, but I'm just not sure that this is ever the case. And don't misunderstand me: Prague is a wonderful city. But as someone who has intimately experienced the developing world in Romania, I find myself torn. Improved commerce, infrastructure, and global "image" are things I wish for Romania's own cities. Yes, I would love to see more international travelers taking notice of cities like Timişoara, near me, perhaps because I'd like to believe such exposure could lead to increased cultural respect for Romania and its people internationally. And yet with increased exposure come those other less ideal elements: crowds, lines, tourists filling public spaces to snap photos, overpriced amenities -- in short, the partitioning of cultural "worth" into a series of trolley stops and photographs, just as one does in Prague, or New York. Lest I sound too fanatical about this subject, I'll stop here. But I suppose all that I'm saying is that we should always try to be mindful of all that is being gained through development, and equally all that is being lost. Both aspects of the equation are equally fundamental to the process.

The final "whistle stop" on our tour was Bratislava, Slovakia, a city that was for over two centuries the capitol of the Kingdom of Hungary under the Habsburgs. And until 1919, it was called by its German name, Pressburg (some still call it this). Slovakia makes up the eastern half of former Czechoslovakia, and although the Slovaks and the Czechs share much in common culturally and linguistically, the Slovaks are proud of their modern independence and uniqueness. Slovakia traditionally played the part of the poorer, less developed, more rural partner in the Czechoslovakian duo. But after joining the European Union in 2004 with the Czech Republic, Poland and several others, the country has made growth a priority, and seems (as far as my eyes can tell) to be doing extremely well. Bratislava, like Krakow, is a city that has managed to keep a lower profile on the global tourism circuits, perhaps due to it being situated that much further east. Consequently, although the city is every bit as clean, well-maintained and photogenic as any number of other main attractions, you don't get the sense that it is absolutely overrun by tourists...at least not yet. As in Prague, we were only able to spend about a day in Bratislava, but the city is truly a jewel: smaller and less bustling (and certainly cheaper) than Prague, but with much the same medieval beauty.

And now I'm back, reinvigorated, for what is incredibly my final 6 months of Peace Corps service (my service officially concludes at the end of July). I recently heard that my fund application for trees and shrubs for our local park has been approved, and so we will hopefully be receiving the money, purchasing the plants, and putting them in the ground by early Spring. My town hall has already begun to replace sidewalks and benches, and so I am hugely excited by the idea that we will have a reborn public park by the time this next Summer rolls around! In addition, my once-a-week advanced English classes for working professionals continue in nearby Timişoara, as does the publishing of our local newspaper -- which we're hoping to put out monthly now (rather than 3-4 times a year). And starting this week, I am holding Movie Night for students at the local highschool, with a movie in English followed by a conversation about it, also in English. I'll let you know how it all goes...as I usually do.

Again, I hope everyone is rested, energized, and looking forward enthusiastically to all that this coming year has to offer. As always, I love to hear from people, about matters big and small. It won't be long before I'm able to sit down with some of you in person to trade stories. And considering how many important events I've missed back home lately (at last count: 7 weddings and 4 births since I've been in Romania)...I suppose it will soon be high time for me to start thinking about those gifts/cards I haven't bought!

Peace in the New Year.


Romanian Music, Vol. 3: Fanfara

"Fanfara" music (based around a brass "fanfare" ensemble) is another genre springing from the rich traditions of Roma ("Gypsy") culture. The make-up of the ensemble is usually really simple: brass and drums. With an often blistering tempo, and enough vitality and syncopation to burn down small towns, "fanfara" bands are usually the life of the party. Just check out the onlooking German band's response! This band is titled "Fanfara Transilvania" in the video.

Romanian Music, Vol. 2: Muzica populara

Romanian "muzica populara" (lit. "popular music") is a really broad category that generally refers to the many styles that make up more traditional, acoustic Romanian music. Usually it's a celebration of the whole "village" experience -- with traditional music, dress, dance, and food. And the instrument section is often comprised of strings, brass, drum(s), accordion, and dulcimer. Here's Ancuţa Anghel's "O data pe septamana" ("Once A Week").

Romanian Music, Vol. 1: Manele

Here's a little taste of "manele", Romanian pop strongly influenced by Roma ("Gypsy") musical traditions. Maybe a little like "reggaeton" music in the US, manele is a highly contentious subject among Romanians -- either you love it or you hate it. Here's Sorin "Copilul de aur" ("The Golden Child") and his "Ca$h Ca$h Full Full" which, as you can see, goes all out! Good luck getting this out of your head...