The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

Spiritual Kaizen

Two weeks ago, I went to a hotel in a mountain resort town to attend my Mid-Service Conference (MSC), which effectively marks the “one year left” point of my Peace Corps service. It had happy moments–early breakfasts with DP, re-connecting talks with Capsuno and Ben Fren, and arm in arm in arms walking and giggling with Natters.

However, I wasn’t feeling quite right, and the not-right persisted past that MSC weekend and affected me so deeply that I quick-canceled a trip to a tiny Monastery town, Horezu, with Ledy and Dan. Ledy was saddened, but accepted. I felt bad that I couldn’t really give her reason, other than ‘feeling off.’

My reason was true, but the off was much more disorienting that I made it sound. In reality, a bit of me felt like I was slow-drowning. Where a breadth of confidence and happiness had been the last six months (since some down-time in February) I suddenly felt panic and anxiety. I felt like I had forgotten something about myself or the world which desperately needed to be remembered. I was awkwardly and abruptly wakened from dream.

I really can only explain by saying that I felt like my actions and outlooks needed to be harshly reevaluated. I kept my head down, and worked through the uncertainty feelings until great and needed epiphanies came. Now that I’m out of the mirk, I can look back from a vantage point and see the thing as a whole. And what I see is this:

I think that for those who seek spiritual kaizen, something internal occasionally resets and feels a need to challenge them. I don’t know what runs the seasons of this, but I know that I have no say in it.  In honesty, I’ve felt amazing the last few months–as if I could do little to no to negative wrong. Suddenly that sense of complete was stripped away, and I felt  need to re-evaluate all aspects of my life and it was overwhelming as I could no longer find my ‘surface.’ It was a pretty difficult thing, but now on the outer edge of it I’m thankful that it occurred.

It’s strange because, while you seem the same on the outside (it may be easy to hide the internal conflict), inside you are wildfires scorching the heart down to re-grow. You are being shaken to foundation by spiritual evolution. You are ripped apart internally by the big bang beginnings of a fresh, one-person universe.

So, to the others that seek a recurring cycle of spiritual progression, my current advice on spiritual kaizen has been trimmed to become these three things:

  • Expect the transitions to occur, if possible. That will frame their coming as one of a learning period, rather than something of sadness. For me, I’ve learned that these times occur almost every six months, and usually in February and August. If unpatterned, try to recognize the specific feeling of the thing (that sense of being internally disoriented).
  • Go to close friends, for love, but not for easy answers. The answers have to come from yourself. I’ve realized that if I try and ‘take’ answers, they never fit right, and eventually rip apart and force me to find them again, in correct fashion.
  • Take extra helpings of quiet time, and meditate to sort things through. Start each morning by expounding on things that you’re grateful for–and include the ache of suddenly not knowing as something you’re happy to be experiencing, as eventually it will make you stronger.

The Great Coal Caper
August 19, 2009, 10:16 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In the warm afternoons, I like to take walks through town with VM. VM is a local high school girl whom I tutored last winter and spring for an national, oral English examination. This fall, VM is headed to the big city for university. She is shy, and soft-spoken, and always encouraging. I will miss her much, and our walks, when she moves away.

VM and I were wandering by the Jiu river, where it pours past my site. There is a dirt lane there, and it hobbles from the mine apparatus east up into the Parang mountains. As VM and I stood in the gravel and the sunshine, a train with a blue engine and a half dozen coal cars bleated and rolled around a bend in the hillside. The rail line is used only by coal mines in the valley–all passenger trains run only through Petrosani.

Suddenly, VM and I saw that there were eight men scrambling over the tops of the coal cars, with white burlap sacks. They were hurriedly stuffing the sacks with the coal, before tying and dropping the full bags onto the couplings between cars.

“They’re stealing the coal?!” I asked VM. I was surprised that these men were pulling their coal caper in the middle of the afternoon.

“Yes. The train stops a little farther down, and then they will climb down and steal the coal, and use it to heat their houses in the winter” VM responded.

“But, where are the police?”

VM laughed gently, and said “they don’t exist for this. In fact, everyone does this here. Sometimes even children steal the coal, and then sell it at door for a reduced price.”

VM and I watched until the train moved behind a hill, and some houses. VM walked on, and I soon followed, my emotions briefly upset by the men buzzing about the coal cars, brazenly robbing the mine in bright daylight.

Then I thought of VM’s words–that “everyone does this here.” I accepted it as part of the backdrop of this place I call home–where survival can seem a daily thing, in one way or another. And the great cliche of moral dilemma shifted a little in its sleep and muttered: ‘is it wrong to steal a bag of coal to feed your starving family?’
And I know what my answer was.

The Pepsi Challenge

Raw milk is very easy to find, here in Romania. Bunici (grandmas) typically stand on the busy before-noon street corners, and lean against brick walls or warped garden rails. Placed before them are a few ‘recycled’ 2-liter soda bottles filled with warm, raw milk, so white that it glows. If you want the milk, all you have to do is identify a spot where one of these old women typically stands and sells each morning, and go early before all of her bottles are gone.

I wanted raw milk, as MB has been expounding its goodness. I also wanted to try making my own yogurt, and I figured it would taste best with milk drawn from an animal only a few hours before. Krzyczk came to visit, and we were walking along the piata lane outside of my bloc late one morning. There’s a bunica that peddles milk at the end of the road, but she typically disappears after 10:30.

This morning, however, she still had two bottles of milk to sell– each was stored in an old, 2 liter ‘Pepsi Twist,’ bottle. She was leaning back, giggling to another woman (this one completely toothless) standing alongside her. I pulled out my wallet and asked her “Ma’am, how much does a bottle cost?”

The bunica leaned forward, and tried to see how much money I had in my wallet. Her lack of tact made me laugh a little, and I coolly put my wallet back into my pocket. “Well,” she replied, “One is cow milk, and the other is goat milk, but I forget which. Can you taste them and see?”

“Uh–I don’t know the difference.”

“Let the girl taste,” the bunica said as she pointed at Krzyczk. “The girl should be able to know.”

“No, no, no. We don’t know.”

“Then, taste both, and see which you like more.”

I hesitated, and looked at Krzyczk, but she looked as confused as I felt. Something in me felt ready for adventure, so I unscrewed bottle one, and sipped. It tasted like milk, but it was very pungent. It tickled my tongue a little. I sipped the next bottle. It was also pungent, but there was a faint sweetness to it, which may or may not have been a bit of Pepsi Twist still coating the insides of the bottle. I told her I’d take the second–the Pepsi flavored milk.

“Ah that bottle,” the woman said. “Well, it has more fat, so it’s more expensive–it’s seven lei.”

I laughed that the woman remembered which bottle had more fat, although she couldn’t remember which animal they had come from. I suddenly experienced that weird moment in consumer interaction, in which I almost felt obligated to pay the woman. She was a good salesman–she had shamed me into feeling like I had to buy something, since I had tasted out of both bottles.

I handed her a ten lei note, which she looked at dismally. “Go to that kiosk on the corner and get change–I don’t have any.” On the corner was a small bread stand, and as I walked to it to break my bill, a part of me thought “I could just walk away right now and this would be over and I wouldn’t have to buy the milk.” I looked back at Krzyczk, cornered by both older women laughing full mouthed and pointing at her–I knew that I couldn’t abandon her.

In the middle of the street was a man who had parked his car to watch this interaction between me and the bunici. He was hunched over his steering wheel, laughing uncontrollably. “How was the milk?” he called to me as I walked back from the bread stand with smaller bills.

“Good enough,” I called back.

I swore to myself, in that moment, that I would only be buying my raw milk from credible bunicas, in the future.


These five ‘city posts’ concern a trip I took through central Europe, beginning on July 2nd and ending late in the evening of July 14th
(Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Salzburg, Vienna):

My brief stay in Vienna felt like my brief stay I once made in San Francisco, when I drove there by myself from Denver. San Francisco was the first time I ever succumbed to the real depth of my madness. I look on it fondly as a lonely, exhausting adventure where I first ever saw and embraced my true self. I walked miles through twilight city streets and sat down for hours at cafes to savor every single bite of things and stood motionless cold and achy on beaches for full hours watching sunsets tortuously extinguishing themselves into ocean. And my life has been more of the same stuff, ever since.

Hence, Vienna was more of that same stuff.

Kwondo and I stayed at the Wombat Lounge, just down the street from the main train station. If my favorite hostels are like Lolli’s, or the amazing little ‘on-top-of-the-mountain’ YHA places buried in the wild and wet of the English Lake District, then the Wombat Lounge is their antithesis. The Wombat is crowded, it smells funny, and it’s commercialized. To its benefit, it has a fun bar in its basement, but that hardly compensates for the sheer plastic feel of the whole thing. Any hostel that has hundreds of beds, and few native staff from Vienna (or even all of Austria) smacks of something corporate, to me.

But there was a whole big city to be mad in, so the hostel didn’t matter much.

During the summer, Vienna sets up a large projection screen in front of Rathausplatz (the city hall) and showcases a film each evening as part of a free summer film festival. There are scores of booths from local restaurants and bars where good, fresh-cooked food can be found for 6-10 Euros. The movies are an ecclectic mix, so I recommend checking out the night’s schedule before you go.

I also enjoyed the Belvedere Museums (there are two), which house numerous works by big names like Rodin, Munch, and Moser. The collection is most renowned, however, for its pieces by Gustav Klimt. Thus, the crown jewel of the Belvedere is Klimt’s Der Kuss (The Kiss) which draws big crowds. It’s beautiful and big and glittery, but my madness drew me to the hard-lined and earth-toned works by Egon Schiele. But my absolute favorite was a small, off-to-the-side work by Monet:

The Cook by Claude Monet 1872

'The Cook' by Claude Monet 1872

It’s difficult to see over the internets, but the work is filled with long, swooshing strokes. They are not linear, or uniform, but are completed through a sort of wild, waving inspiration. I got the distinct impression (ha) that there was a FEELING inside of Monet that guided the work. His motions were not caclulated, but were spontaneous. That was a touching thing, for me to see and perceive.

When my legs were tired, I did one of two things: I either went to Stadtpark, took off my shirt, and snoozed in the grass with other lazy locals for an hour, or I would cruise into any quiet, little cafe I could find and order a coffee and an apfelstrudel.

Naps and coffee and pastries fueled me for my greatest moment in Vienna, which was also my most-maddest one. On my final full-day of this Eurotrip, I found my way to one of the most anticipated spots: the Schonbrunn Palace. Friends recommended that I not pay for a guided tour, but rather make my way (for free) straight to the garden and simply ‘wander.’

The gardens are immense and amazing. I came ready to spend an hour or so, and I stayed for almost four. I had recurring moments of zen body rushes here, so hard I would completely lose my breath.

I happened to have my ipod, so I rotated it to Beethoven’s Sixth, the Pastoral Symphony. You’ve probably heard it before: in the original FANTASIA it’s the one with Greek gods & creatures playing & partying in spring sun & storms. It was ridiculously appropriate, and I may have lauged out loud with how right it was.
And I may have danced a little and drawn attention to myself, but humiliation does not exist when the spirit of the world is coming to you that clear. The world says dance like nobody is watching.

The next day, my Eurotrip ended gently. I had a long lunch at a small Japanese sushi bar I had found in an alley the evening before. There I was, eating alone, eyes closed so I could concentrate on each bite of my favorite food. The high, white stone walls of the city outside reflected the warm July light, as well as the good intentions of the mostly enlightened passerby. The city let me be, chewing slowly and humming to myself, as mad as I’ve ever been, and more happy with it than ever.


The Hundertwasserhaus: Famous and hard to find, the Hundertwasserhaus is tucked away into back-side streets in the east side of Vienna. The Hundertwasserhaus is all kinds of quirky, but I also adore it as its an example of the sort of grace that can grow when art and life are allowed to come together for the sake of themselves, rather than to profit from one another. Everything in this world is connected through symbiosis, and Hundertwasserhaus exemplfies this in a way that’s hard to ignore.

The Schonbrunn Palace: It goes without saying. I doubt many visit Vienna and don’t see the Schonbrunn. What I recommend, however, is spending as much time as possible in the gardens. Take the walk up to the Great Gallery, wander past the fake roman ruins and the innumerable statues scattered about, and sit and sip in the scene by the massive fountain at the far end of the main courtyard. And, if you can, bring some classical music to listen to.

Why Peace Corps Makes Sense to Me

I have identified only a single, sort-of-consistent correlation amongst the happy and productive volunteers that I know. This common characteristic is a sense of ‘community’ at site, with host-country colleagues and friends.

Volunteers that feel well integrated are typically the ones that can smile and speak of their service with words like, “love,” “friends,” “happy,” and, “here.” I acquiesce that a volunteer doesn’t necessarily need to be well integrated into their community to enjoy their service. I have not met a single well-integrated volunteer, however, who has struck me as cynical, or pessimistic. Hence, I think that community may be the ‘magic word,’ for Peace Corps service, as it extends through all aspects of the Peace Corps’ mission.

The first goal of Peace Corps is to help “the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.” I think this is an admirable thing, but the beauty of Peace Corps is that the cultural immersion almost necessitates that service be more than just a ‘job.’

I believe that Peace Corps volunteers begin to feel most successful when they break from the ‘tourist realm.’ The tourist realm is that place where each of your interactions is at face value, and success is assumed for the most minor of exchanges and purchases. There is an inherent distance between you and the culture surrounding–a bubble that holds you in place as an outsider. There is no deep sense of ‘sharing,’ except in the most spectacular of interactions and coincidences. For me, I began to break out of the tourist realm after six months in Romania. I’m sure for others it can be more, or less.

Hence, the Peace Corps immersion for two years (or longer) forcibly pushes the volunteer out of that place. No person really wants to be a tourist for 24 months, as a sense of belonging and home is incredibly difficult to attain. Instead, volunteers learn the language, and develop a routine. They get ‘adopted’ by caring and concerned families, and become sensitive, and even accustomed, to cultural differences that all but confounded them, at first. A Peace Corps volunteer may arrive as a tourist, but, in the best cases, they leave as a member of their community.

And while the technical exchange of a community integrated volunteer is more potent than that of an outsider, I think this really reveals the most important thing that Peace Corps does, as emphasized by the second and third goals: “Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served,” and “Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”

The most important part of Peace Corps, for me, is again that magic word: community. A volunteer willingly removes themselves from the familiarity of home, and suddenly their little life bangs up against an entire community which, in most cases, is chosen for them. In the states, a PCV has the benefit of common language and culture for cultivating relationships with strangers. But in the scope of the Peace Corps, none of these similarities may exist. I think that my tried and true attempt at integration into a foreign culture with a new language is one of the most difficult things I have ever done as all comfort zones and senses of “this is familiar” security were ground down.

What’s left? Where can a volunteer and their community develop a relationship if environmental similarities are few?

What Peace Corps may teach you, is to build relationships with your community from no more than your common humanity to one another. This is how a volunteer truly begins to become a community member. Peace Corps can show you that environmental similarities are comfortable and easy, but not all that necessary. It is possible to become a better human being because, through the Peace Corps experience, a volunteer becomes assured that friendship and goodwill are universal characteristics found in every single small corner of the world.

Not to say that Peace Corps is right for everyone, or the only way to become a ‘good person.’ I know this isn’t true. The same brilliant development of empathy can be achieved in any number of ways, but Peace Corps happens to be a pretty fantastic and well developed opportunity to do so. I believe fully in the Peace Corps, and thus it makes sense to me. It is extremely solid in its mission to bestow technical skills and willing hands to those that request it. However, I think that the true transfer of humanity between two different cultures (under the pretense of a skill exchange) is where the Love is really at.


These five ‘city posts’ concern a trip I took through central Europe, beginning on July 2nd and ending late in the evening of July 14th
(Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Salzburg, Vienna):

Before this trip, I was talking with one of my new favorites, AMAC, about her experiences in Salzburg. “Salzburg is like a fairy-tale,” she said, and so, I rolled into Salzburg ready for some stuff of fantasy. This is what I got:




Similes aside; Salzburg IS fairy-tale, no?

Kwondo and I only had one long afternoon and an early morning to spend in Salzburg, so we moved fast.

First, we took a quick walk through the Salzburg old town, before tracking back to the Mirabell Gardens. It’s important to note here that Kwondo is a SOUND OF MUSIC fanatic. Hence, she was bound and determined to make the Frauelein Maria Bike Tour that early evening. I, on the other hand, don’t think I’ve ever seen the movie in its entirety. So, Kwondo and I parted ways, and I did what I always do best: I walked.

I found my way to a little sidewalk style piata, and drank a green tea and bought a half kilogram of apples (three big ones) from the two older women there. I tip-toed through the rhythmic tourist tides and found a statue of Mozart in a courtyard. I sat and washed my apples with a little bit of my bottled water as the sun smiled down onto me and made me groggy and content.

I looked back over my shoulder where the Hohensalzburg Castle hung to the cliffs behind me. I awkwardly unfolded my hotel map, and followed a green dash from my park bench up to the castle. The dash was a walking tour, and it teetered along the rise that overlooks the entire edge of the city.

“That will be good,” I thought. And so, I ate apple number one, and did what I do (which is to walk, remember?).

I walked hard and high up to the castle gates, found that it cost about 10 Euros simply to enter the courtyard, and turned around. I rejoined my dashes, and they led me away from the castle,  over single lane paved streets into an unbelievable neighborhood somehow tucked away onto that hill. There are hostels and hotels back there, and a modern art museum with a long patio all blue-umbrella’d and beautiful.

The best part is the forest there. It is surrounded by streets below, but it’s raised enough and dense so that no sound or smell of city life can possibly penetrate. It feels wild and hidden, and it is ripe for dwelling deep into the mind and spinning wild stories of make-believe. The second-apple bites were amazing, seasoned by the sunlight flashes glinting over me as they tumbled like goldfish through the leaves.

After two hours of idle wandering, the make-believe ended, and I was suddenly spat from the forest. I found myself on an acute-angle curved road above a closed monastery. I walked without plan a little while, certain that the Salzach river was close by. Then, as I stepped through a parking lot, with the empty monastery on one side, and a long swathe of unsheltered road on the other, the sky opened and devoured the sun. The darkness began to spew rain onto the city in droves.

I huddled against a pine tree on the side-walk, and ate my last apple. Then, in madness, I decided to run down the sidewalk in the rain. I vaulted from each patch of dry cement under over-arching trees, and spidermanned alongside kiosk walls to try and stay dry under their short roofs. Finally, I found a tunnel with a pedestrian sidewalk underneath. A dozen chilled faces with pink cheeks stared at me from the dark, and I entered and  stood among them, until the rain stopped.

I had run about 10 minutes through the storm, but I had gotten so severly disoriented that, when I finally found the Salzach, I was three bridges north of where I had originally intended to be. But my fairy-tale felt undiminished: after all, what hero’s quest occurs without a little bit of adventure, resulting in hardships buffed into glory? My madness was the stuff of blue centerlight pops that make everybody go “Awww.” It was a time of hero building.

The Brave Joem battled the Salzburg storm with little more than a hotel map and a half kilogram of apples.
And, once dry, he would live happily ever after.


Walk: Head up towards the Hohensalzburg Castle. There’s a turn up the  final ‘stretch,’ of dirt lane that will take you to the gate/ticket office. Don’t go that way. Instead stay on the road walking away from the gate (it goes under the tram). It’s free, and it’s gorgeous out there. Be sure to check the weather, beforehand.

Indigo Cafe: Beautiful, sweet and sort-of-shy Austrian girls serving Asian/Indian food and great wine? Done. Stop in to Indigo and get a spicy, vegetarian rice bowl with curry, or some sushi bites. Two glasses of wine and a full meal cost me less than 10 Euros (ridiculous cheap, in comparison to other eateries in Salzburg). It’ll warm you up well.


These five ‘city posts’ concern a trip I took through central Europe, beginning on July 2nd and ending late in the evening of July 14th
(Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Salzburg, Vienna):

I celebrated Prague by enveloping myself in a ridiculous amount of ‘down-time.’

My days were spent dallying, wandering through the tall rafters of English second-hand-book stores. I spent a few hours per afternoon in quiet cafes recommended by the young women that worked our hostel, The Czech Inn. I sat on park benches by Kafka statues and ate sandwiches, slowly. I sat on park benches by black churches and watched suns set, gradually.

And wonderful Prague was accepting of this–even encouraged it. It’s a city with a large heart that buzzes and beats hard with so much history and so many things to see and do. But the city was also completely content to let me have my own way: eating strawberries by the kilogram as I watched people queue for trams on the cobble stone curbs, or dancing and hopping my way across the Charles Bridge while filling my head with the sweet and sexy sounds of Muse.

Fortunately for me, there was a Sandeman’s New Europe tour that covered all of Prague’s tasty stuff: The Old Town Square, The Powder Tower, and the Jewish Quarter. Again, I applaud the New Europe tours for presenting tons of historical information in a way that’s accessible and interesting (and doing it for nothing more than tips).

I really enjoyed Prague, and found it fantastic that, in such a large and reknowned world city, a little lazy-pants like me could drink in the town and feel full and satisfied without ever exerting myself.


Jan Palach’s Memorial: In 1968, Czechoslovakia began to initiate massive reforms under the new president, Alexander Dubcek. This worried the Soviet government, and they invaded Czechoslovakia in the fall of that year to try and stop the liberal policies. On January 16th, 1969, a Czech student named Jan Palach went to the Wenceslas Square, in the busy center of Prague’s business district. In protest, Palach stood alongside the road, in front of the National Museum, and burned himself alive.

Palach became a symbol for the anti-communist movement, and it is said that the 20 year anniversary of his act was a catalyst for the eventual overthrow of communism in 1989. There is touching posthumous recognition of Palach’s act, including a warped cross set into the bricks where Palach immolated himself. It’s a haunting thing to see the monument embedded into the ground there–to know what happened, and what it would eventually mean for Prague’s people.

Palach's Cross