When I told people I was going to Moldova most either asked “Which country is that in?” or said “Oh, I love the Maldives!” Moldova is actually a very small country nestled between Ukraine and Romania, is one of the poorest countries in Europe and it shows. I made my way from Odesa to the capital, Chişinau, via Transdniestria (an autonomous breakaway region not recognised as a country by anyone except for Russia) on the train as it is a marginally more comfortable journey than mashrutka and I didn’t think I would get sick on it. The journey was hot and sticky, but scenic and I met a lovely English guy who ended up staying at the same hostel (the only one in the city) with me so we shared a beer and spoke English during the trip.

Chişinau left its first impression on us while walking the 1 ½ kilometres to the hostel from the station. Needless to say they don’t have properly paved roads, footpaths in general off the main road, street lights or street signs so it was an interesting walk in the nearly complete darkness. If this were a walk I had to take in the US I would have taken a taxi, but as it is Eastern Europe and I was with 2 guys the most dangerous part of the journey was tripping over cracks in the road or getting run over by a crazy driver. Heat exhaustion would have been an issue if the sun were still up, but it was still pretty dang hot as the entire region was struck by a heatwave with 40+ Celsius days and 32+ Celsius nights.

My first encounter with the natives was while waiting outside a supermarket for my travel companions when 2 guys came out and asked if I had a bottle opener (in very poor English). They asked where I was from and I told them Australia and they immediately started asking about white supremacy and if we had lots of white people. At least, that seemed to be what they were asking, their English was terrible as most Moldovans have very little reason to speak English. As they were leaving they also gave me a Nazi salute… It’s a pretty closed off country.

Because Moldova is so small you can easily stay in Chişinau, use it as a base of operations and just do a bunch of daytrips, which I had the best of intentions on doing and ended up not doing thanks to the ridiculous heatwave being too hot for even myself and certain other extenuating circumstances. Plus I like to go with the flow and it just didn’t work out. I’ll go through some of the things I intended on doing anyway later though.

My first day in Chişinau I just intended on exploring the city (something that can easily be done in about 3 hours). I did exactly as planned, stopped and had lunch, bought some groceries, went back to the hostel to have a nap and went out later in the evening with a guy staying at my hostel. We were walking to a beer house we had been told about and some guy ran up to us in the street because he heard us speaking English in American accents. Turns out the guy is from California and we invited him to join us for drinkies. What are the odds? We all had an enjoyable evening talking about anything and everything before heading back to sleep in our ridiculously hot soviet apartment room stuffed chockers full of beds.

The next day I fully intended on going out to the cave monastery that I had read about, but after talking to a guy who had gone the previous day and reading a few blogs about it it was apparently a wretch to get to and completely underwhelming. So instead I slept in, did laundry, got some work done, had a nap and wandered a bit more around Chişinau. That night we were joined at the hostel by a group of Romanians who were in Moldova for some bizarre reason and they were all heading out to a nightclub that apparently played some form of punk music so we decided to play Jenga and pre-drink before heading out to the club. Some things I have come to realise is that you can turn ANYTHING into a drinking game and if you are going to drink with Romanians, you had better be very good at holding your liquor.

So we went out to the club and it reminded me of an underground white supremacist punk club (unsurprising as Moldova is so homogenous and there are pretty much only white people here) complete with confederate flag hanging above the bar. Needless to say it made me feel fairly uncomfortable. The first band that was playing wasn’t playing punk music, much to my surprise. They were playing a sort of punkish cover version of old 60’s music. No complaints here! The second band that played was very punk looking and I fully expected some sort of Russian or Romanian or English punk music to come blasting out of the speakers when they started. Nope, it was their version of a song by the Black Eyed Peas who I would hardly classify as punk. They did end up singing a bunch of Russian punk music though.

At some point in the evening we met 2 Belgian guys (at least one was from Belgium) who were also at the club and when we all decided to leave I somehow ended up at a much more ‘upscale’ and ‘trendy’ nightclub playing pop and dance music instead where I felt insanely underdressed. I was wearing flats, board shorts and a singlet with my hair pulled back in a ponytail and every other girl there was wearing what I think were supposed to be dresses, but looked more like strips of cloth that had been ravaged by mountain lions. There were also mostly naked women men and women dancing on a stage. And can I just say, with how ‘expensive’ that place was for Moldova, they should have had western toilets and not squat toilets. What kind of person is capable of balancing over a squat toilet in 5 inch heels? After enough alcohol you can barely stand in them as it is!

When I say this place was expensive for Moldova, I mean the cover charge alone was about $5 and the average daily wage of a Moldovan (assuming they are lucky enough to be gainfully employed) is $10. I bitch and moan in Sydney if I have to pay a $10 cover which I make in less than an hour working an entry level job. The average Moldovan makes about $250-300 US per month and it is painfully obvious. So many people are trying to sell whatever they can get their hands on in the streets. I saw hundreds of people near the train station attempting to sell old clothes, music cassettes, video cassettes, the very occasional cd or dvd, old tool sets, bits and pieces of pretty much anything. There was a slightly nicer market in the centre of the city that sold A LOT of artwork, some souvenirs and a fair amount of jewelry. I found an excellent little stall selling tatted jewelry. I had a lovely attempted conversation with the woman selling who only spoke Romanian and Russian. I found a beautiful pair of earrings (lots of them, actually) and a bracelet that matched a necklace I bought from a random woman on a random walking path in Cappadocia, Turkey. I didn’t buy the earrings, but I did buy the bracelet for myself and something else as a gift for someone which shall remain a secret because it hasn’t been gifted yet. However, I HIGHLY recommend them as gifts. It’s Frivolite Tatting Bijutery and they can be found on facebook or at www.splendid-magazine.md/friolite.html. Oksana speaks English so if you want to order something you can speak to her.

Anyway, back to one of the most impoverished countries in Europe. The 2011 GDP per capita was about $3,400 US which means people live on about $8 per day. I have been to some pretty poor places (Belarus for example) but I have never seen people look so defeated. Most of them speak some Russian due to TransD being a Russian speaking region and they live next to Ukraine, and they all speak Moldovan, which is a dialect of Romanian, but most people don’t speak English. Some of the younger people speak a little bit of English, but the fact of the matter is that they usually have no one to practice it with (not many English speaking tourists) and there isn’t anything translated into English for the most part. Call me a stuck up imperialist American close-minded snob if you want, but the fact is that in most parts of the world, English is the standard lingua franca of business. It’s a language that students have the option of learning in almost every country in the world (and is actually standard now in most countries as required in the public school system) which makes it an extremely beneficial language to learn. The only country I have been to where speaking English was not to my benefit was Belarus. A little German would have come in handy though…

Anyway, the ridiculously low socio-economic status that Moldovans hold along with their general lack of English speaking abilities means that there is really not a lot of options for them to increase their position in life. They can’t get scholarships to study at other universities, they can’t afford university in Romania, I don’t even know if they are eligible as ERASMUS students and they really have very few options. Except for the wine industry (amazing wines and super cheap) they have limited amount of arable land (it’s a small country, most of their agriculture stays in country), they have no natural resources and most of their energy is imported, making things even more difficult for them as issues with Russia and TransD meant that for a while their gas pipeline was cut off and Russia doesn’t allow the import of Moldovan wines into the country. So if you ever see a red wine from Moldova, purchase it.

I look at my life, everything I had, all the opportunities I had and still have. I have been extremely lucky to have supportive family and friends who tell me like it is. I have a family who has been able to provide for me and to allow me to do pretty much every activity I wanted under the sun and was able to help me while I was at university in Australia. I’m happy to drop $200 on a pair of shoes regularly when Moldovans make barely more than that in a month. I look at what these people don’t have and feel absolutely horrible not giving money to that woman begging on the street who has obviously been crippled in some way. I feel horrible for feeling suspicious about those people in the street claiming to collect for an orphanage and automatically assuming it is some sort of scam to get money (not unheard of). I don’t actually know if those people were collecting or it was a scam, but I still feel fairly horrible after thinking like that.

I tend to spread my money around to different charities when I can but previously I have only donated to charities directly aiding those in the US or Australia as those are the places that have a direct effect on me in some way. We want to help those in our own backyard, which is understandable and we always hear about the impoverished in Africa due to war and famine, or the child workers in South America and Asia due to human rights violations, but we don’t hear about places like Belarus or Moldova. If you are interested in spreading your money around a little bit more (if you can) to a country that is largely ignored by the rest of the world please consider donating to Outreach Moldova at http://www.outreachmoldova.org

What I’m reading now: The Time of My Life by Cecilia Ahern, author of P.S. I Love You.

What I’m listening to: In honour of what it felt like going clubbing in Moldova… Summer in the city – Lovin’ Spoonful