Saturday, March 12, 2005

My last night in Romania

Well, it is 1pm Sunday and I have just finished having a lunch of salad and chicken parmesan at the hotel I'll be staying at tonight. It is in Bucharest, right across the street from the airport where I'll leave for home at 6:25am tomorrow. The nice thing is they have a lovely Compaq computer right here in the sunny, non-smoking lobby where I can sit in the sun and email and surf the web What a change from the dark smoky dungeons I usually have to visit to use the internet! The past few days have flown by, and I'm going to try to remember to highlights to update this blog.

My last update was on Tueday, right before heading to dinner at the Matrix hotel in Tecuci. We were shocked to see all the the people in the restaurant, because we are normally 1 of about 2 parties in the restaurant at any given time. Women and their families and co-workers packed the restaurant to celebrate Women's Day. We looked a little more out of place than normal in our sweatshirts, jeans and sneakers. We were apparently still interesting enough, being the only Americans in the place and all, for a guy at the next table over to decide to come over and practice his English with us. Despite being extremely inebriated (he must have been getting a headstart on the 40 traditional glasses of wine all men drink on Men's Day, the day following Women's Day), he was still able to tell us about his job as a physics teacher at a local highschool, and speak to us in both English and French. Everytime in leaned in and touched Christine's shoulder to emphasize a point he was making, his boss would run over and tell him “NO TOUCHING” We all got a kick out of him, but when he said “Let's talk physics” we decided to respond by listing off all the Romanian words we knew. This was apparently boring to him, and he suddenly stood up and left.

On Wednesday, Romana and I had a little change of pace and got to work with the mobiles and toddlers since the therapists from Texas come to work with the special needs children every Monday and Tuesday AM. In contrast to the special needs children who are very emotionally challenging, the mobiles and toddlers are extremely physically challenging, needing to be played with much more enthusiastically and constantly chased around the room. It was very fun to get to know all of their names and unique personalities. I won't be able to tell you about all of them, but will try to share a few of the really memorable ones.

The mobiles range from 1-2 years old. Most can crawl and stand on their own, but only a few can walk. Teodora, a little curly haired sweetie pie actually learned to walk while we were there! The first couple days, she would push her butt backwards up against the wall to stand up, and then rock back and forth between her feet while standing still. Then, one day, she started taking a few tentative steps. We all clapped and cheered “Bravo!” and she got a HUGE grin on her face. Florin is another adorable “mobile” kid who will sidle up to you from behind and then suddenly be cuddling with you in your lap. He loves pointing to all the pretty pictures on the murals (which have been painted on the walls by locals and volunteers) and gets very excited when you say the name of what he is pointing to. If you say “Sun” he will point both to the sun on the wall and the sun outside. Such a smart little boy!

The 4 toddlers are all under 2 as well, and can all walk. There is Ionut, who is our little Houdini who is the only one who has learned how to open the door, a trick he shows off often which means the aides are constantly yelling “IONUT!” down the hallway, chasing after him. Then there is Mihaela, a cute little girl with Gypsy blood who is an Ionut wannabe who will imitate whatever mischevious act he is up to, be it pulling up the carpet, standing on chairs or biting other kids fingers. What a handful these 2 are! Then there is Bianca, the one who always walks around with her hands in the air hoping someone will pick her up and wears a pink sleeper backwards since she learned how to unzip it. Finally there is Victoria, a sweet-natured by shy one who will reward you with a wonderful toothy dimpled grin once she gets to know you.

On Wednesday morning, one of the mothers of a little girl stopped by along with her godmother, telling the clinic they wanted to take the girl home, but the home conditions didn't allow it. They played with her in the lobby for about an hour, and we walked by smiling, but not getting a smile in return. We found out a little bit later why the women were so cagey and clinging to their coats... they stole one of the therapists purses from the hallway coat rack. Thank goodness Ramona had emphasized how important it was to keep our money belts on us at all times. The whole experience seemed odd, given how well dressed the women were. They certainly did not seem so desperate as to steal a purse from the very people caring for their daughter. Unfortunately, the experience created quite a bad taste in our mouths about the sincereness of the parents who leave their children at the clinic.

On Wednesday afternoon, Ramona brought in Christmas wrapping paper and red, blue and yellow ribbon (the Romanian colors) for us to make birthday party hats for the 4 kids turning 1 year old this week. Mihai and Ioan (twins), Ioana and Andreea looking super cute in their little hats and managed to get quite a bit of frosting on their faces. Since the rest of the kids were still napping, we were able to celebrate the birthdays with the staff of the clinic. They sang “Happy Birthday” in Romanian and we followed with the English version. Language was not a boundary (they don't speak English) for this occasion and a wonderful time was had by all.

Even more amazing than the party itself was what transpired the next morning when the twin's mother and older brother came by to visit the twins to let them know they were thinking of them on their special day. The woman was 37 but looked like she was in her mid-50's. She was not well dressed, was pretty dirty and clearly had led a hard life. She was hoping to be able to pass a home inspection in 2 months to be able to take the twins home. Though I normally don't have my laptop with me at the clinic, I did that day and was able to show her pictures of the boys celebrating their birthday. The tears of joy and smile on her face clearly showed how much she loved these little boys, and I was so happy to be able to share the photos with her. I was extremely proud to work for a company which produced the technology that allowed me to have that experience. Not to mention remind us after our experiece with the last mother, that some of the babies here really do have families that care for them.

The rest of Thursday was fairly non-eventful with Julie, Romana and myself working with the special needs children and Christine and Nora taking care of their little non-mobile charges. I think Christine and Nora were getting a little slaphappy with the lack of adult interaction, as they starting making grand plans of dressing up all the kids in costumes ranging from the Jackson 5 to french fries to princesses. Christine learned how to call Nora “crazy” in Romanian which the staff all seemed to find quite funny. All of the staff seemed to be more relaxed and comfortable with us, joking in Romanian and us joking right back in English. They were even spinning us in chairs in the hallway.

After work on Thursday, we headed to School Number 5 in Barlad to be treated to special performances by the school children there. The show included Enlgish skits, poems, songs and dancing and each one wonderful. Each class had about 10-20 children involved in the show. An especially touching moment was when two little girls were linking their pinkies in nervousness. Christine got a picture of this, I think. The most amazing part of this for me was when I got to share the slideshow of the picture the kids took around school on Friday. The themesong was “Hey Ya!” and I held my PowerBook above my head while 40 little Romanian faces looked up, smiling, laughing and overall just enjoying the photos. Another proud Apple moment ;)

Thurday dinner was our last team dinner and consisted of a wonderful chicken stroganoff dish and a yummy cream cake ordered by Ramona (who always goes above and beyond her duty as a team leader to create special experiences for us). We all laughed, and some cried, as our time together was drawing to a close. We couldn't have asked for a better group of women or more meaningful experiences. While Romana and Christine will stay for one last week at the clinic, it will definitely be a different experience with 2 instead of our original 5.

Friday was bittersweet day, with all of us rushing around to spend those last few precious moments with our favorites. Laughter from both child and adult filled the hallways of the clinic. I spent time with Ana Maria, Andrei, Liliana, Alexandra and Teodora. These and others will always have a special place in my heart. Even Julie who said she would NOT get attached to any one child had tears streaming down her face at the prospect of leaving 4 month old Denisa. Let's just say that if international adoption of Romanian children evr opened up, that little girl would have 2 older brothers and a family to live with in Minnesota!

After lunch, we had our final celebration with the staff in the clinic. Lots of sweets (have I told you how amazing Romanian chocolate is?) and laughter to share, with Ramona translating comments from us to the staff and vice-versa. Another proud Apple moment as we shared a slideshow with all the pictures of the babies, and the themesong “Baby Love”. Everyone oohed and aahed over all the progress made by each child in such a short period of time.

After seeing Romana and Christine off to the painted monastaries for the weekend, the rest of us set out to pack up our suitcases for the long journey home. We found that without all of the donations, we had a bit of extra space, so headed out for one last raid of the nearby supermarket. Chocolate, candy and beer were the biggest items. Interestingly enough, we ran into a few of the girls we had met at the internet cafe and they told us it was moving again! It must be some sort of underground business, since they never seem to stay in one place for more than a week. Nice to think we were contributing to that portion of the Romanian economy during our stay ;) Also, can you believe it, on the way back we ran into the physics professor from Women's Day! After running into so many people we knew, it appears the people of Tecuci are really getting to know these crazy Americans who have invaded their small little town.

After a quiet dinner with just 3 of us, Nora watched some TV and Julie and I worked on the “Flat Christian” book for her to take home to Christian's class to tell them about her trip. It turned out quite well, if I do say so myself. Yes, you guessed it, another proud Apple moment. I sure am glad I brought my computer on this trip! Not much sleep Friday night with the disco going strong from 9:30pm-3:30am right underneath my room. No bother though, as I'm not going to be on exactly the most regular sleep schedule for the next 48 hours.

Saturday (today) started out with a mad 100 yard dash with all 3 of my suitcases down a gravel road because we were accidently standing at line 2 at the train station and needed to be standing at line 1. Ramona was frantically waving to us and managed to keep the train there long enough for us to board, very winded and laughing hysterically! The train was far nicer than I expected, very fast and very quiet, though probably a lot more expensive than the other trains (the fee for Global Volunteers includes transportation so I didn't really have visibility into how much things like that cost).

I now have about another hour at the hotel before I head to downtown Bucharest to try to spend the rest of my lei and then have dinner tonight with Ramona and her husband before trying to get a little rest before my flight tomorrow.

Hugs and kisses to all of you, and I'll see you next week. I should have pictures up early next week, so check back to see them!

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Happy "Woman's Day"

Happy "Woman's Day"! Yes, that's right, we are here for all the best holidays. "Woman's Day" is something like "Mother's Day" except it applies to all women. Everyone gets flowers and goes out to dinner (a rare thing to do here in Romania).

Sorry for the long delay in upating this blog. Getting on the internet has proven a bit hard lately. The first internet cafe we were using in Tecuci is now closed (all the computers are gone and everything) and the second one we found is always very busy (except yesterday when the internet was down). Because of all the difficulty getting on, this will probably be my last update while in Romania. I return to the US on Sunday and will add pictures from my trip to the blog next week. If you want me to email you when the pictures are up, send me an email to costa@mac.com and I'll be sure to let you know.

So I guess I should start all the way back on Friday. Instead of going to the clinic, I switched places with Julie that morning and went to the primary school (grades 1-8th) in Barlad instead. Actually, there are a lot of schools in Barlad, the one I went to is "Scoala Numero Cinci" or "School Number 5". There I spent the morning with half a dozen students who belong to the English conversational club. I brought my computer and showed them pictures of my friends, family, home and various vacations. They really seemed to enjoy the pictures and asked a lot of questions. After we were done with that, I told them that I had brought a digital camera and they had the choice of doing 3 different projects - a book, a movie or a website. OVERWHELMINGLY, they chose to do a website (which I'll post when I return home). They decided to make it a website about their school and their lives in Barlad. Each student chose 2 or 3 pictures to take, and we paraded through the school, interupting classes and taking pictures of various people and things. It was a lot of fun, and they all seemed quite proud of their school. Back in the principal's office (yes, can you believe it, I had to hold the class in the principal's office!) we downloaded the pictures from the camera onto the computer and they added captions in English to each photo. As soon as the website is up, I'll add a link to it here.

After the morning at School #5, it was back to the clinic for a quick lunch, and then an early end to the day so we could return to Tecuci to load the bus for our weekend adventure to Transylvania. We were all excited to have our original driver (Nicu) back with us after a week with other various drivers (none of whom smiled or seemed very interested in us, and one who even picked up other fares once!) We also had the pleasure of meeting up with Alex, a local 20-year old college student, who was to be our English speaking guide for the weekend. The ride to Transylvania took approximately 3-4 hours, with a stop in Onesti (Nadia Comenici's hometown) along the way. The landscape in Tecuci and Brasov is very similar to the flat plains of the midwest, but Transylvania is in the heart of the Carpathian mountain range, so it was fun to see the change in scenery during our drive. To kill some time, Christine and I decided we needed to try to get some pictures of road signs from the bus. Hilarity ensued and about 45 minutes later, we had about 1 good picture and 44 blured pictures with absolutely no signs in them.

We arrived in the town of Brasov around dinner time, and after checking in at the Capitol Hotel, we headed off to dinner at a restaurant called "New York, New York". Buffalo wings were on the menu, but I opted for grilled pork and mashed potatoes instead. Christine, Nora and Romana discovered a Romanian beer called Ciuc which they have all decided is the best, not to mention is cheaper than soda or a bottle of water! We also got to enjoy gypsy music, which is very good, but apparently the lyrics leave a bit to be desired (they are mainly about how much money they have and all the things they can buy with it).

After dinner, I found the first indoor phone that I could call home from using my pre-paid phone card that I got from nobel.com. The connection was pretty good, and hearing Paul's voice was very nice. My $20 phone card should have gotten me about 40 minutes or so, but for some reason, it tells me I have 10 hours left! Very odd, and I'm not sure I'll have another opportunity to use it, so maybe I'll leave it here for our team leader to use when she calls the Global Volunteer's office in the US.

We awoke Saturday to a fresh layer of snow covering the streets of Brasov. It changed to slush in the morning sun, so walking was a bit of a trick on the beautiful cobblestone street behind the hotel. The architecture in Brasov was strikingly different from what we've seen in the other places we've visited. The buildings almost look like something right out of Vienna. It is quite the picturesque town and many of the pictures we took look like postcards! After an hour or so of shopping (Transylvania t-shirts were a hit), we were able to take a tour of the Black Church, so named for an enormous fire in 1689 which blackened the walls terribly, but did not destroy the structure. The church was larger than any I've ever seen before and terribly cold inside (much colder than outside). Especially touching is the painting of the Black Madonna which was a bright blue until the fire. The organ has almost 4,000 pipes and is played during concerts in the summer months.

After the tour of the church and a bit more shopping, it was lunch at McDonalds. A Royal cheese for me. Yummy. An hour bus ride and we arrived at Bran Castle, fabled home of "Count Dracula" according to Bram Stoker's book. In actuality, the castle was built by the Hungarian residents of Bran between 1377 and 1382 to guard against the supposedly imminent invasion of the Turks. While "Count Dracula" (who was modeled after Vlad the Impaler) probably was imprisoned there for 2 months, that is his only definitive link to the castle, despite the legend. Outside the castle were a large open air market which we walked through for about 2 hours. I only ended up buying 2 wooden flutes for my niece and nephew, but some of the other volunteers bought some handknit sweaters and handmade knick-knacks. I also ran across the cutest black cat who loved to stand up on her hind feet to be pet, and 3 little puppies who were sleeping on some socks on the bottom shelf of a shop, much to the shop owner's dismay. Dinner was at the Alexandros Hotel, our hotel for the night. A beautiful resort settled in the hills of Sinaia, we all felt like we were in Lake Tahoe, not in Romania!

Sunday began with a tram ride up the mountain in Sinaia. It truly was a winter wonderland, and the tram took us right up in the middle of all the very very tall evergreens which were laden with fresh snow. The tram was full of skiers and snowboards, and we were probably the only ones just going up to see the mountain. At top the of the mountain, Christine phoned her friend (it was about midnight in SF) to let her know she had conquered her fear of heights. It was very snowy and very cold, so we quickly took a few pictures and then all hopped back into the tram. To our amazement, halfway back down the mountain, we learned there were 2 men on top of our tram who were de-icing the cables so that the tram could still run. What a job that must be!

Next, we were off to Peles Castle. A wonderful and extremely ornately decorated castle, with each room uniquely decorated based on a different country. There was a Japanese sitting room, a Turkish smoking room, and all sorts of other European influenced architecture and decorations. We had a bit of fun taking pictures of "Flat Christian" outside the castle, a little paper man who Julie's son sent with us for school... we think the pictures with "Flat Christian" are going to be much cooler than his classmate's "Flat Tommy" and "Flat Joe" ;) On the ride down the mountain from Peles Castle, the roads were very skinny and at one point, there was only one open lane. We got into a game of chicken with about 5 or so cars on their way up the mountain, but after a lot of loud yelling by our normally jovial driver, we won and the other cars backed out of the way and let us pass. Whew.

The last stop on our way home was the Metro store, a Sam's Club-like store where prices are good, and bulk purchases are plentiful. We used a lot of the money sent by friends and family to stock up on the clinic's highest priorities such as detergent, pots and pans, buckets, batteries, diapers and wipes. We also bought a few "extras" such as toys and a rocking chair. Personal purchases ranged from purses (there is a cool designer here named Daniel Ray that Christine and I like) to shoes to wine and beer. We returned to our hotel in Tecuci tired but happy, and eager to return to our babies at the clinic on Monday.

Monday was fun because we brought our cameras to the clinic for the first time. The babies seemed to enjoy their time in front of the cameras. They've clearly done this before ;) Nothing too notable from Monday (or maybe it is just that I'm too tired to remember). Oh - I did find some nice big colorful blocks in various shapes for Ana Maria which she loves and is learning to manipulate very well. Also, in other good news, I did my last "load" of laundry in my hotel sink... my next load will be at home in California in my nice big washing machine. Yea!

Today (Tuesday) was a hard day for me at the clinic. In the morning, my heart broke in sadness as I was unable to keep Ana Maria from putting her thumbs in her mouth after her morning meal... so I asked for help in putting the socks back on her hand and she was just so frustrated with them that she was crying and crying. I asked the nurse whether it would be better to take them off, and she told me "no" because Ana Maria would gag herself with them off. Something in my heart just broke and I couldn't imagine how hard life must be for this little girl. I couldn't contain my tears and had to excuse myself to the restroom to cry for a little bit. I'm still pretty emotional about it, I guess. Things were heartbreaking in the opposite direction in the afternoon. I took Alexandra from her crib a little early after lunch because she was the only one awake and was crying pretty loudly. She is the little tiny tiny (maybe 14 pounds) 2.5 year old with dwarfism/brittle bone disease. She is very smart and loves walking around and looking at all the painted murals, but can't play with the other kids because she is so fragile. So, I took her into the babies room which is covered with pillows and quilts and talked and sang to her. Then I decided to unzip her sleeper to see if I might be able to tickle her through her onesie. SHE LAUGHED SO HARD. It was amazing. The most precious giggles I've ever heard. All of the volunteers were amazed. We did this for about 30 minutes, and she even started talking "tickie tickie tickie". Then she conked out for the rest of the afternoon. What a workout for that little girl!

All in all, a hard day. I've got a major headache and hope I can eat something before I head to bed for some much needed rest. Send your warm thoughts this way, the babies and I need it. If I don't write again before my return to the US, I'll talk to you all then.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Thursday March 3rd

Well,I can pretty much say the last 2 days have been a complete blur. Taking care of all the children is a wonderful, but certainly exhausting experience. Wednesday was our second full day at the clinic. We have the routine down fairly well by now. Nora and Christine take the 13 non-mobile babies from their cribs into their playroom and then rotate through picking each one up and playing with them. From the looks of Christine's shirts, she has all of the ones who spit up, whereas Nora luckily has none ;) Romana and I take the 6 children we are working with into another room, and find a few toys to bring in with them... balls, stuffed animals and anything musical are very popular with the special needs kids. Books for a few of them too.

Each child in our room seems to have made remarkable progress just in the 3 days we have spent with them. Even just reading what I wrote in my last entry, I am surprised to see how much I would modify in my description of each kid. I'm interested to see how much of it is real progress versus just learning how to be social again after a long weekend of no one-on-one attention. When we are not at the clinic (from 4pm to 9am on weekdays and all through the weekend), there is usually 1 nurse and 2 aides that are watching all 30+ children... so you can imagine they don't have much time to do anything other than feed the babies and change diapers. Since we will be gone visiting Transylvania this weekend, it will be interesting to see whether or not the children relapse much during the weekend.

All of the kids have become much more mobile... Romana and I will put toys on the little toddler beds just out of their reach, so they will pull themselves up and stand while playing (except little Alexandra who is confined to a little carseat walker where we can ensure her fragile bones won't get broken). Ionut, Constantin and Liliana all enjoy getting to go on walks up and down the hallway. They especially enjoy peeking into all the rooms to see what is going on. Their interest in things going on around them has markedly improved. They had nearly glassed over eyes when we first arrived, and it would take a lot to "break through" but just a few days later, they will look at us with prolonged eye contact when we call them, and some even play with each other. It is heartbreaking to see each smile, laugh and interaction. I only hope that they won't relapse when we are gone this weekend. Global Volunteers has teams lined up back-to-back, year round now, so if they can make it through the weekend... they should be able to grow so much.

You will all be happy to know that your toys, clothes, bibs, batteries, etc are going to very good use. Each time we bring a bag of donations, the staff puts all the new items out right away. Hopefully you will be able to recognize a few of the items in the pictures I plan on taking next week. The next item on their priority list is a water purification system which they need in order to stay open when Romania joins the European Union. It is $9000 US... whew.

Ana Maria is also doing well. She is the little 3 year old who has acid reflux and as a result has to stay upright in a walker a large portion of the day, and has splints around her elbows or socks on her hands to keep her from sucking on her poor little oversucked thumb. I found that while her leg strength is low, she can stand for short periods of time. So, we work on that often, talking walks and bike rides in the hallway. She really seems quite pleased with herself, turning to look up at me with those sweet little blue eyes. She even laughs, which is quite the feat for this normally sad little girl. Today we read the "Goodnight Moon" book that one of my co-workers gave me. She absolutely loved it, especially because her hands were free and were able to turn the pages. I am really trying to work with her on using her hands in appropriate ways (not sucking her thumbs). Because her hands have always been bound, she doesn't know how to grip anything. So I play with her fingers a lot and praise like crazy each time she squeezes. I also put a couple puzzle pieces with knobs on the table and she enjoys watching me pinch it up in my fingers and knock it on the table. She imitates the best she can, and clearly knows she is making progress.

All of the children have stories like this and I wish I had time to share them all. As it is, I need to get back to the hotel for dinner. Dinner every night has been an amazing experience, all thanks to our wonderful host Ramona. I likely will be unable to update this blog again until Monday night (your Monday morning) because we leave right after work tomorrow for a weekend trip to Transylvania. I'll tell you all about it when I get back. Until then, noapte buna (good night).

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Happy Martisor

Happy Martisor! (Mart-zi-shore) This is March 1 and is a holiday in Romania where everyone buys "signs of spring" such as flowers and little trinkets for everyone!

Well, after an unsuccessful attempt to visit the internet cafe last night (it was closed, which we only found out after the taxi left!) we have found a new internet cafe tonight that is open! A lot has happened since I last wrote, so I'll try to do my best to catch you up.

The first internet cafe I wrote at was interesting in many ways. It was full of a lot of young people, who were especially interested in finding out why in the world 5 Americans were in the little Romanian town of Tecuci (pronounced Teh-kooch). Volunteering is a foreign concept to Romanians. They don't really understand what it is, much less why anyone would do it. Once we kind of got it across to them why we were here, they really wanted to talk to us and read what we were writing. They said the reason for this was that they wanted to practice their English. Most adults here do not speak English, but all young kids do, because it is now taught in school. Everything around here, including the internet cafe, is very very smoky. I think this is because cigarettes are so very cheap. Ramona tells us the price of cigarettes will double next month, and education is just starting about how bad they are for your health. After paying for our hour of internet for 10,000 lei or about 32 cents, we took a taxi ride home to the hotel (about 1 mile drive) which cost 14,725 lei or about 45 cents.

Monday was our orientation day. It started a bit rough because it was so cold on Sunday night that the water heater froze and there was no hot water. The howling wind was SO loud the previous night that we have all decided that Tecuci, not Chicago, is the real “Windy City”. Luckily, by the time we finished breakfast (a meal of sliced tomatoes, ham, and paine cascaval or cheese bread) the water was fixed and we could all take a hot shower. After that, we took a walk around town to familiarize ourselves with the area (post office, bank, etc), but it was so freezing that we didn't stay out for long. I'm not sure I've ever been quite so cold. We all decided to contribute to the Romanian economy and buy ourselves some more scarfs, mittens and hats!

After orientation, it was back to Nico's van for the 30 minute ride to Barlad (pronounced Bir-laad) to visit the school where Julie will be teaching English to elementary school children. The country side we saw was similar to the first day's ride from Bucharest to Tecuci. There were many dormant farms and small villages. This part of the country is one of the poorest, according to Ramona, and it was evident by some of the very run down houses which were covered by mud for insulation. We arrived at the school a little before lunch and were able to visit with some of the students. They ranged from 9-14 and all spoke English very well. They all knew where California was and were very up-to-speed on US music (as one girl matter-of-factly said “Who doesn't like Britney Spears?”). When I asked where they went for summer vacation, they said “Never out of the country” but did express interest in Transylvania which is in the center of the country amidst mountains and Count Dracula. When I asked what they wanted to be when they grow up, the answers ranged from “I don't know” to “Engineer” to “Doctor” and “Teacher”. The school did not have central heat, but there was a wood burning stove in the classroom which kept us warm.

Lunch was at a local restaurant in Barlad... in a NON-SMOKING room. Thank the lord, a meal without smoke ;) We had pizza, chicken wings and coke, so it was a bit of a Western meal all around, I guess. After lunch, it was off to the Failure to Thrive clinic where the rest of us will be working. We got to meet Dr. Delia, the director of the hospital who cracked us up because she insisted on having Ramona translate what she was saying, even though she speaks wonderful English! The hospital was very outdated by US standards, the operating room perhaps looks like one from a couple of decades ago. However, what they were lacking in equipment, they certainly made up for in love and devotion to their work and their patients. We were able to say hi “Buna Ziua” (boonah zi-waah) to many of the adult patients, and they were all smiling at us in return.

Our entrance into the Failure to Thrive clinic of the hospital greeted us with half a dozen very very happy and interested toddlers. They were all laughing and trying to touch our fingers through the glass door. We put on our slippers and were off on our tour. The groups of kids are divided into 4 groups - special needs, non mobiles, mobiles and toddlers. The oldest child is 3 years old, the youngest is 3 months old. There are about 30 kids overall. The clinic is kept very very clean, due to frequent inspections which the staff absolutely fears will shut the clinic down. The kids diapers are changed every four hours and they get a bottle in the AM and PM, plus a few snacks. We had about 30 minutes after the tour to socialize with the kids before heading back to the hotel, and I went to the special needs room where the 5 kids inside totally stole my heart.

At night, we had dinner at a local restaurant (pork chops, mashed potatoes and a lovely bottle of Romanian wine which we bought for about $4 US). Though tired, we tried to make it to the internet cafe, although we found it closed. Back at the hotel, I was able to read through the past 3 years of journal entries regarding each of the special needs children. There is Liliana who is an intensely shy 2 year old girl who can crawl, but not yet walk or talk. Then there is Alexandra who is 2.5 years old, but looks like she is about 5 months old due to brittle bone disease/dwarfism. She can not walk or talk, but is extremely intelligent and loves books. Andrei is a 2 year old boy who is fixated on his fingers and my mouth... but is a very sweet child who loves tickling and making silly sounds. Ionut is another 2 year old boy who is usually in his own world, but has wonderful dimples and plays well toys. He can sit up, but has to be encouraged to do so, as he prefers to lay while playing otherwise. Ana Maria is 3 years old and has severe reflux/digestion problems which keep her confined to an upright position in a walker whenever there are no Global Volunteers staff at the clinic. She has to eat extremely small portions (1 cup) very slowly (1 bite every 30 seconds) and will likely be my own personal project over these next 2 weeks. Her blue eyes are sad, but can be coaxed into a smile with singing and a LOT of one on one attention. Her right and left hands have to be in socks because she sucks on her thumbs out of hunger, which exacerbates her reflux problem,not to mention causes an awful fungal growth on the nail. Finally, there is Constantin who is a 2 year old boy who is often in his own world, but really loves mealtime and will make a lot of eye contact during this time.

Monday was wonderful, and provided a lot of insight into what a wonderful experience the rest of this trip will be! Today (Tuesday) started out with breakfast at 8, and then the ride back to Barlad to start work at 9:30. Julie went to the school, and then rest of us 4 girls went to the clinic. Julie's “thought for the day” was Mother Theresa's thought that “God does not ask us to succeed, only to try” which was a good perspective. 2 girls (Christine and Nora) took the 13 “non-mobiles” into the playroom and Romana and I took the 6 special needs children into another playroom. The rooms have cribs, but are covered with pillows and blankets during this time. Since Ionut, Constantin, Andrei and Liliana are fairly good at playing on their own, a lot of Romana's and my attention were focused on Alexandra and Ana Maria. Because Alexandra's bones are so brittle, we have to be very careful holding her. But she loves it so much, and likes to touch our hair and look around the room. Because Ana Maria spends so much time in a walker, her legs are very very scrawny and lack any strength whatsoever, despite being 3 years old. So, we are trying to keep her out of the walker the whole day, and encourage playing with the other kids and exercising her legs and arms. The day absolutely flew by, with the only break being for lunch (chicken dumpling soup... Yummy!). The day was taxing though, so although ending at 4 pm seemed like a waste of all the resources we could provide to the clinic, I now realize it is necessary so that we can come back tomorrow refreshed and ready to love on these kids again.

I hope everyone is enjoying reading about these experiences, if you have any questions you'd like me to answer in my updates, please send them to costa@mac.com. I will try to be consistent about checking this account while here in Romania (I am not checking my Apple account). I love and miss all of you!

Sunday, February 27, 2005

The first few days

Well, it is day 2 in Romania and we have finally made it to an internet cafe where I hope to successfully update this blog for the remainder of my trip. A lot happened in the first couple days, so I'll do my best to remember it all. Friday morning at the airport was a little crazy. At 6am, Paul dropped me off at the international terminal because that is where KLM told me to go, even though the first of my 3 flights was a domestic flight on American Airlines. However, when I finally managed to drag my 4 bags up to the check-in counter, I found the place entirely 100% deserted! So I found a very kind janitor who explained to me that I need to make my way to the domestic terminal. 2 escalator rides and a tram ride later, I finally made it. Thank goodness I had followed Global Volunteer's instructions on being able to carry your luggage alone for at least 100 yard! The rest of the 19 hour trip from SFO to JFK to Amsterdam and finally Bucharest's airport was fairly uneventful (thankfully) and the international leg of the trip was very nice, even though I was in economy. The plane I rode on had handsets for each seat, with video on demand and good food!

I arrived in Bucharest at about 1pm on Saturday, along with one other volunteer (I'll introduce you to the whole team in a bit). Unfortunately, only 1 of my 2 checked bags made it onto that flight. Fortunately, the nice people on KLM were able to track down the other one in Amsterdam and were able to deliver it to the hotel today (Sunday) at 8am. Yea!

Once we got through customs, we met Ramona (our native Romanian team leader), her husband Daniel (very very sweet guy to spend his Saturday with his wife waiting for us) and Nico (our very nice, and fast, driver). We waited approximately another hour for the next volunteer to show up and then were off to Hotel Caro where we were going to spend Saturday night before heading to our final destination, Tecuci, where we'll reside for the next 2 weeks. The ride to the hotel was interesting, because it was the first time I was able to get a look at the city up close and personal. Even in flying into Bucharest, I was surprised to find things a little more desolate looking than I expected. It might just be the time of the year... the snow has melted, but nothing green has started growing yet, so everything is very brown. Add to the mix a lot of high rise apartment complexes that were built under the Communist regime and you have a lot of beige and tan buildings in very poor repair, which doesn't help the bleakness. Stray dogs are rampant, and actually provide a bit of comic relief as they chase after cars together.

After we checked into the hotel, we had a couple hours before dinner and none of us wanted to sleep (so that we would hopefully be able to get a good night's rest Saturday night), so we decided to go for a little walk about Bucharest. We didn't see much in our walk, just a train and some business buildings mixed in with the large apartment buildings. Most of the apartment buildings had a lot of clothes hanging on lines on their balconies. Many people were walking about or waiting for a train or bus along the side of the road. It does not seem as if cars are not very popular form of transportation for most people. Although there are a decent number of cars on the road, most people seem to rely on trains and buses to get around. The cars on the road range from very small old cars, to newer BMWs, Volkswagons and Dacias. Everyone here is very bundled up... as you can imagine, it is pretty cold. Most people also seem to be carrying plastic bags as if they have been shopping and are on the way home.

Before dinner, we were able to meet the rest of the team. Julie is my sister-in-law who works for Global Volunteers and is here from Minnesota. Romana (not Ramona) is a retired woman from St. Louis. Nora works for her family company near Chicago, and Christine is a financial planner who works for Gymboree in San Francisco. Everyone is very nice, and we are really enjoying each other's company.

Dinner was in the hotel restaurant and was a yummy traditional Romanian dish of cabbage leaves stuffed with a mixture of meat, rice and vegetables called “sarmalute”. The ambiance of the restaurant was nice. Hip hop music (especially US hip hop) is VERY popular here, so it was a bit odd to hear this at the airport, in the car, and in the restaurant. A live band did play at the restaurant a little bit later in the evening. The midi version of “Hey Jude” was interesting ;) One kind of odd thing was the fact that the waiter used a dustbuster to clean up our placesetting at the end of the meal. It may have been the lack of sleep, but for some reason, I found it a little funny.

The hotel rooms in Bucharest were double occupancy, so Julie and I shared a room and slept straight from 8pm to 8am! This morning we all packed up (even my 2nd newly arrived suitcase) and headed via Nico's van to Tecuci. The roads were fairly nice (save the very pot hole infested “on ramps”). We saw a lot of little towns along the way. Most had water wells on the side of the road, and of course, many stray dogs. We saw a lot of horse and buggy vehicles. We stopped at McDonald's for a quick lunch (Ramona says it is a good place to stop because it has Western style restrooms, though I haven't seen anything except Western style restrooms in any of the places we've visited so far). The whole trip to Tecuci took about 4 hours, and once we got to the hotel we had another couple hours before dinner.

In our spare time before dinner, we decided to take a look around our new surroundings. We managed to find an ATM, where I withdrew 2 million lei, which is about $64 US. We also found a nice market/grocery store just a few blocks away from our hotel. I found a set AAA batteries which I purchased for about $1.20 US. Most things were very cheap when compared to US standards. For example, a 20 oz Coke was about 40 cents US.

Dinner was in our hotel, The Matrix, in Tecuci. We had a salad which was sliced cabbage with sour cream and kebobs with meat and vegetables, called frigarui. It was very good, and I ate it all.

It looks like our time is up here at this internet cafe so I'll have to continue this entry on another day. Tomorrow we get orientation at the clinic and I'll write more again later.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

About the clinic in Barlad

I leave February 25, 2005 for a 2 week trip to Barlad, Romania. Barlad is located near the Moldovan border in the county of Vaslui in eastern Romania. Population is approximately 80,000.




During my 2 week stay, I'll be caring for small children in a Failure-to-Thrive clinic. The children arrive when they are about 3 months old, and are either brought in by their families or a nearby hospital. They are usually underweight because of malnutrition, but can return to the families when they are healthy again. If the family can not afford to raise the children, they are either adopted or taken in by a foster family. At the moment, there are 38 children between birth and 3 years old at the clinic.

You can read about the program from another recent volunteer's perspective at http://www.performance-vision.com/gery-romania/index.htm

If you are curious about this trip and want to learn about other similar opportunities, my sister-in-law works for the non-profit which organizes these trips. You can read about their various programs by visiting http://www.globalvolunteers.org or contacting Julie directly at jfredricks@globalvolunteers.org

I'm getting very excited and am trying to learn a little bit more about the history of the country, as well as some of their language before I leave. My plan is to update this blog while I am in Romania, or if that is not possible, once I return home to the US.