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*Disclaimer* There is a small paragraph in this post that is not intended for children so if you have kids looking over your shoulder or are reading it to them, I have indicated the non-child friendly section just before the paragraph comes up. Otherwise, the post is entirely family friendly.

So we all know I went drinking, partying and met lots of random people from Europe and America. But what did I intend on doing that never  eventuated for various reasons?

I am just going to put it out there that it was INSANELY hot, even for me. I live for days when the temperature is 30-35 degrees Celcius. Once it hits about 35 though, it’s a bit warm even for me. I can deal with it for a while until it hits about 40. It was well around and above the 40 mark during the day and the 35 mark at night. There was also not a breeze to be had. I had originally planned to go to Orheiul Vechi (still can’t pronounce it even after I was told how) and a small monastery near the area. If you are not familiar with the transport system in Moldova (which you very likely aren’t) it makes the Sydney train system look easy and uncomplicated. Finding a mashrutka to anywhere is a task that is not for the faint of heart. If you ask a local where the bus station is, not a single one of them can tell you.

I digress. So a guy staying at my hostel apparently went to Orheiul Vechi and it took ages to get there and ages to get back and was really just a wretch in general to visit in the heat. I could have taken a tour through my hostel but it was 45 euro, which is insanely expensive, even outside of Moldova. I read the same thing on a couple of blogs as well so made the executive decision not to go. Orheiul Vechi, for those of you who are interested is an ‘open air museum’ with a cave monastery that was occupied by monks for some 500 years I think until about the 1800’s when it was abandoned. About 20 years ago some monks moved in and began to restore the place. I would have loved to go if it hadn’t been SO RIDICULOUSLY HOT, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Next time I am in Moldova I will make the trip, though I will probably rent a car to do it to make things easier for myself.

I also fully intended on going to TransD. However, the first day we were going to go we couldn’t find the guy we were going with because I got us lost (how I got so lost in a city as small as Chişinau is beyond me). From what I hear about TransD I personally did not miss out on much as I have been to Belarus and it appears to be a more noticeably poor version of Belarus. I actually got this impression as the train was going through it, but it was confirmed by the people who went. On top of that, they have a currency that can be used and exchanged nowhere but TransD, to send mail you have to use TransD stamps and it is not uncommon for solo travellers who don’t speak Russian to be hassled by ‘border patrol’ to pay ridiculous and made up fines. No one in the world recognises TransD as anything other than a break away territory except for Russia who for some stupid reason recognises them as a country. I don’t get it, but whatever.

That night was when I met my new Romanian friends, Andrei, Clara and Adina. I am still unclear as to the reason they were in Moldova, but I gathered after chatting with them that they were going to a punk concert that evening with one of the employees from the hostel. We all decided to make it a group trip after a few rounds of drinking game Jenga, in which I refused to take shots, (see Mum and Dad, your daughter isn’t the partier that you think she is) so was told by Andrei that he was betting I would be the first one home. Turns out I was the last, but that’s beside the point. Their plan was to go to a winery the next day (the second largest in Moldova I think) so I was going to join them, but last minute they changed their mind and decided to go to TransD instead so the entire hostel decided to go as a group trip. I ended up missing out on this due to not waking up on time (I was out until 4-5 in the morning dancing after all). We never did make it to a winery.

So we go to this underground (literally) club that is apparently playing punk music and the band on stage was actually doing wonderful renditions of old 60’s music that I grew up on. After paying a whopping 40 lei cover charge (less than $4) and buying numerous drinks (I thought I’d spent a fortune that night, when I ended up working it out I’d spent a total of about $10) the main act came on and started playing Black Eyed Peas “Let’s Get It Started”. Bit of an odd choice for a punk band, but okay. I turned around to the other American who was with me to comment on it and that’s when I saw the confederate flag hanging from the ceiling. As I said in a previous post, really shouldn’t have surprised me. Eastern Europe is full of racism and in general most of the countries are extremely homogenous. Now that I’m in Spain I’ve had to get used to seeing a lot of diversity and anti-Nazi signs and stickers everywhere (including seeing same-sex couples open in public). In Australia or the US, seeing someone of a different race or a same sex couple holding hands doesn’t make you bat an eye, but after 4 months in Eastern Europe you think to yourself “Well, I’m definitely back in the west.”

This was confirmed by a girl I met in Barcelona who was learning Spanish at the same school I was going to. She’s a black American girl from Virginia and she said she was travelling around and she kept going East, but the further East she went the weirder it got because she kept getting hassled by people. She ended up going back to Western Europe after trying Romania. I told her it’s because she’s black and she just looked at me funny. Fact of the matter is that it’s true. The further East you go the more likely you are to be hassled if you don’t look like everyone else in their society. Issues with the gypsy’s, who are generally much darker than the rest of the population does not help matters any and it’s not uncommon for the police to hassle darker skinned foreigners which means they have to keep their documents on them at all times.

Anyway, at this bar we met 2 guys from Vienna who were visiting for the weekend (for no particular reason other than they hadn’t been to Moldova before I think) and just happened to end up at the same bar as ourselves. Eventually we decided to hit up a different club and after driving around the city in circles and discovering the club that they wanted to go to was either non-existent or defunct we ended up going to one of the more ‘upscale and popular’ clubs in Moldova. The entry fee, was a ridiculous 60 lei, which to you and I is about $5, but to a Moldovan is half their daily wage! That’s like going to a club in Sydney and paying $50-80 entry into a club! It was actually a really nice venue for a club with a large bar, lots of dance space, a stage and lots of dark corners for canoodling (or passing out if you’ve had too much to drink). I think the club was called “Time” but I can’t quite recall. Anyway, there is a marked difference between clubs in Moldova and clubs everywhere else. First of all, despite the exorbitant prices at this club (which my dance companion for the evening was kind enough to pay for cover and my drinks, such a gentleman J) the female toilets were squat toilets. SQUAT TOILETS! I hate squat toilets and I have decided that there should be a class in school teaching you how to use them correctly without worrying about losing your balance for people who want to travel. Lucky for me I was wearing flats, but squat toilets are disgusting and I find it difficult to balance while worrying about falling onto someone’s excrement at the best of times so I have no idea how these girls manage in the 4-5 inch heels they were wearing after drinking. Talk about impressive.

Squat Toilet in Moldova

*Following paragraph is parental guidance required, skip if you have children looking over your shoulder*

On top of all this, dancing on the stage were women (and the occasional man) who were nearly naked. I have been to strip clubs where the dancers wear more than what those girls were wearing. Granted, most of the women in the club weren’t wearing much more than the dancers and I felt extremely out of place in my boardies, singlet and flats, but dancing the night away you tend to forget about it at the time. All in all the night was great fun. I’d do it all over again.

*Back to family friendly writing*

So I mentioned wineries as something you can do in Moldova. Moldova has excellent wines. They have some of the largest wineries in Europe, if not the world and the wine is both cheap and delicious. I have no idea why they don’t export it more, but my first taste of Moldovan wine was in Belarus (shocking considering their ties to Russia) for a grand total of $2.50 for a bottle and it was actually a very delicious bottle of wine. Definitely better than most $15 bottles you can get in Australia.

Their most famous and largest winery is Milestii Mici. There are over 200 km worth of roads (complete with street names) in the underground cellars and at last report by lonely planet over 1.5 million bottles. I wouldn’t doubt that by now they have hit the 2 million mark. It is not uncommon for Eastern European leaders and diplomants to visit and celebrate milestones at Milestii Mici. You can pay (very expensive prices for Moldova) for varying levels of wine tours, some are just a basic cellar door, short tour and tasting, others are a longer tour complete with tasting and lunch in their underground cellar restaurant. Next time I’m in Romania (and a heat wave isn’t on and I have more money) I will definitely be back to Moldova and visiting the wineries. Preferably with someone who appreciates wineries as much as I do *cough* Ivo, Shaun, Mum, Dad *cough*. There are 2 other wineries that are not quite as famous (but still very large) and one of them is apparently only about 15 kilometres out of Chişinau. You can arrange tours directly with the wineries or you can also probably arrange them with the hostel or hotel you are staying at. Our hostel arranges tours with Cricova winery, including transportation (at a very hefty price) for guests which would have been very convenient had we ended up going on the wine tour.

A couple last notes about Moldova and the hostel. The staff at the hostel were great. They were wonderful and amazing and fun people and I thought the staff there was exceptional. The owner of the hostel while we were there was in America for some reason or other so her mother was managing the affairs while she was away and she was a horrible, horrible woman. Moldovans speak a dialect of Romanian (similar to the differences between American English and British English) so the Romanians could understand everything she was saying. Even though I don’t understand the language, I still got the gist of it. She was insulting to the staff, she was rude and she treated the employees like crap. While I would prefer not to support this woman and I don’t know what her daughter is like, I would stay at the hostel again in order to support the excellent staff that they keep on the books.

Moldova is a country that obviously has a lot of problems. It’s very poor, there are not natural resources and the people appear to be pretty defeated in general. However, it is a country that I would go back to in a heartbeat. It’s cheap, the food is excellent, the wine is excellent and I still want to go to those wineries. You really don’t need more than 4 or 5 days (if even) in Moldova to see the country but don’t be stingy with your money while you are there. You could go out for every meal and go out drinking every night and if you stay in a hostel you won’t pay more than $30 a day. Even a luxury 2 bedroom apartment will only set you back about $55. As I said in a previous post, if you feel like donating to a cause that doesn’t involve Africa or your home country, please consider donating to the charity mentioned in my previous post about Moldova, a charity to help orphaned or abandoned Moldovan children.

What I’m reading now: Baby Proof by Emily Giffin. This is an excellent book that I can very much relate to. I have no desire to have kids, never really have and that desire is unlikely to change at any point in my life. The main character also has no desire to have children and at many points in the book it gives many different reasons as to why. I don’t expect people who love their kids, or want kids to understand it, but I can relate to it so it’s a refreshing read for myself.

What I’m listening to now: No Angle and White Flag by Dido

Pictures of Moldova can be seen here.

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I’m a little bit peeved about what I see when it comes to religion and travelling. I’m not going to bring up the topic of the riots going on across the world at the moment regarding that ridiculous and horrible video that apparently went up on youtube (which I have not seen and refuse to watch) because I’m not going to talk about tolerance and peace and blah blah blah in this post. I’m talking about visiting religious sites.

I like to consider myself a respectful traveller. I like to learn a bit about a place before I go. The history, the background the demographics, the culture to make sure that I don’t insult locals with my behaviour, dress or complete ignorance. I also am a big fan of visiting religious sites. I like to see the difference (or similarities) and what influence other cultures have had on what is considered some of the most important architecture and sites in religious countries. When you go into the Vatican, it is expected that your knees and shoulders will be covered. In many religions, women must cover their hair when entering a place of worship or shorts are not allowed. For this reason, when I know I will be visiting a church or cathedral or mosque I bring a long skirt and a pashmina.

A few examples for you:

In the Russian Orthodox church, women must wear skirts (foreign visitors can wear pants) and cover their heads. Many a Russian Orthodox church has numerous large signs posted on the door where you cannot miss them unless you are completely blind saying “no shorts, no tank tops, no pictures, women must wear skirts, men must wear pants” There are pictures to go with these words and they are pretty difficult to misinterpret. Despite all this, everyone is taking photos of the beauty and grandeur of these places. I have been into places of worship where pictures are allowed, which is awesome. I snap away in these places. But MANY of the places I have been on my travels prohibit photos. The Monastery I went to in Kiev had signs every 10 feet depicting “NO PHOTOS” and writing it in about 6 different languages. Despite this, pilgrims (the monastery is a pilgrimage site) were happy snapping all over the place, including in the churches and cathedral. Signs everywhere saying “this is a holy place of worship, please respect it through dressing appropriately, being silent and not taking photos”. I saw people right next to these signs taking photos.

When I was in Turkey last year they required women to be fully covered in the Blue Mosque. Understandable as it is a functioning mosque. Didn’t have something to cover your legs/arms/hair? They would provide scarves and what not for you. Despite this, I still saw girls in the mosque taking the scarves off their head the second they made it inside or sitting with the legs straight out, bottoms of the feet pointing to whomever walked by (a great insult in Islam as the bottom of the feet are considered dirty. I’m sure you all remember someone throwing a shoe at George Bush, Jr.). Talk about disrespectful. You are in a place of worship! You may not believe in a god or follow their religion, but if they came into your house and started disrespecting your stuff how would that make you feel? Do you want them to come into your home and start walking with their shoes on your table or jumping on your sofa?

More recently, I was visiting the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain and I was absolutely horrified. Signs everywhere near the entrance saying no photos, no shorts, no singlets/tank tops. “It is a functioning place of worship so please be respectful.” The inside was absolutely spectacular. I could have taken hundreds of photos inside. Out of respect, however, I didn’t take my camera out once. I was very tempted to take it out and take a photo of a girl wearing a tiny leopard print tube dress. The dress was tight, scant and barely covered her bum. It was horrific to see something like that in a church. I saw people snapping away, people wearing shorts, tube tops, singlets. With the hundreds to thousands of people that go through the Mezquita every day security can’t keep everyone from taking photos, I understand that. But it just really ticks me off that these people can be SO DISRESPECTFUL. I am an atheist and have zero reason to be respectful in any of these places. I don’t believe in any of their notion or ideas on God, I heartily disagree with many of the more conservative ideas on ethics and morals, yet I am often the most respectful person in the place. People, who claim to be of the very religion of the place they are disrespecting are not behaving properly and they are not being respectful and this just drives me up the wall.

So what is my solution? Because since I am ranting and raving about it I need to offer up a solution. In a place where photos (and mobile phones for that matter) aren’t allowed, they should be required to turn them in at security. They can get them back when they leave. Not dressed appropriately? Give them a shroud to wear, male or female. If they need a head covering, give them a scarf to put over their head. If they take it off, kick them out AND fine them. Require they turn in a card or ID with their camera’s and phones as collateral. It absolutely disgusts me to see people being so insanely disrespectful in a place that matters so deeply to their religion or to other people in the area of that religion. Perhaps this is why they don’t allow non-Muslims into most mosques or holy places in Morocco.

Moral of the rant? If you are visiting a holy place, treat it with respect, respect the rules and respect the requests of the institution. You want pictures? Look them up online and photoshop yourself in. You don’t need photos as proof you have been someplace.

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