Saturday, March 11, 2006

Reflections on the final day in Mereseni and Moldova

It's our last morning in Moldova. The night was warmer than the past have been (don't know the exact temperature, but it did not get below freezing... my guess would be the mid to upper 30's F).

I started this trip with two reading assignments:

  1. The World is Flat
  2. The End of Poverty

The topics of these two books seemed fitting to the trip. My work at Adobe has gone global. I can remember 12 years ago when we considered a Japanese version of FrameMaker as an external process that would be done 12-24 months after the primary languages, and was done by a partner. We internalized Japanese development into the product cycle, and started directly engaging with the sales force in Japan. Fast forward 10 years, and 50% of the engineering groups that I deal with are in Noida, India, project managers are in Ottawa, Canada, and we strive to assure that conference calls will be at a time of day for equally shared pain. If you need a definition of shared schedule pain, here is an example: a meeting scheduled from 10:00-11:30PM on a Tuesday night, and then a regular weekly status meeting at 6:00 AM Wednesday morning (that's six hours sleep).

I see the flat world in the experience with the Peace Corps. All the PCV (Peace Corps Volunteers) have mobile phones, and SMS-messages are sent multiple times a day to other volunteers. Most of them have digital cameras, and post weblogs. When you talk to original PCV from the 60's, they relate how happy they were to get their one letter a week from home in postal mail. In fact, Peter related that the Peace Corps would be a much more difficult experience without his ability to stay in communication through the computer (he figures that 90% of the Moldova PCV have laptops).

One of Peter's hotshot 7th graders, Maria, took pictures of us on her mobile phone at school Friday. It's good to see that phones are becoming the kind of problem in schools that they are in the US.

Internet access (except through phone system) does not exist in village. I asked Peter, who told me that DSL was barely deployed in the regional capitals, let alone the small villages. And the thought of learning internet access in the schools was greeted with chuckles.

Another part of my experience was a quick trip to the principals office to help with a printer problem. The immediate issue was that their multifunction printer/fax machine from Xerox was making black-streaked output. The problem was actually worse than I had expected... There was basically a one inch-wide streak of output, and everything else was black splotches. I opened the printer, toner went flying, and the belt of the cartridge was fully carbonized except for a one inch wide strip. I asked how many times the cartridge had been refilled and the only answer that came back was "we just put a new cartridge in last week." My estimate was that it had been refilled at least a half dozen times. The solution for the moment was to go back to their old toner cartridge, which only had a 7.5 inches of good area and one inch of black.

The computer, which was reputed to be "good" was far from it. The office administrative computer was a 32MB Pentium Pro (probably 150Mhz) system running windows 95. The modem was an external US Robotics X2 modem. I felt like I had entered a time warp. Then I thought back to the old computers that we send to recycling at Adobe. 800mhz Pentium 3 machines with 512MB memory are routinely sent for recycling. These would be hot machines in a school in Moldova. One can get a better idea of the issues of computers in poor countries in an IEEE article on Peace Corps Computers in Belize and this study about peace corps computer programs. The next time that someone from the European Commision describes the old computers in Eastern Europe, this computer will always come to mind.

My hope is that, somehow, Moldova can develop some industry or information economy. It's made difficult by the fact the languages that are chosen in Moldova are Romanian (or the Moldova dialect of Romanian) and Russian. As opposed to Sweden or the Netherlands, where one can have useful discussions virtually anywhere in English, that is beyond the realm of possibility in Moldova today.

I also read "The End of Poverty." Simply stated, this (and the chapter describing how officials during the first Bush administration made sure that the states of the former USSR accrued their share of Russian debt. I thought that this was a set of simple issues (debt should be forgiven, inflation needs to be under control, farms should be more efficient and consolidated under private hands). Then I started reading some of the links that follow. My conclusion was that I shouldn't dabble in economics. But, if you'd like to read more about this struggling young country, take a look for youself at some overall IMF papers and an overview from The World Bank.

I had considered going for a photo-walk around Mereseni earlier, but the sight of a stream of water coming down the muddy road convinced me of my folly. I stayed in Peter's room and talked to him in dry mudless warmth until our departure. We had many good discussions about Adam Sandler, Skype (which we will soon all be using... Peter, Claire, Ann, and me.. either direct or with SkypeOut) and the state of computers in Moldova.

We packed up and left for the airport around 1:00. Peter's host brother, Sergiu, came to Mereseni to pick us up. Packing to leave was much easier than our arrival. We had 5 less bottles of wine, less art supplies for Costesti host family children, less a suitcase of clothes and various items for Peter, and one less computer and leather case. The two books I had read were also left with Peter, along with magazines. So, we packed up and left Mereseni, slipping and sliding up one very muddy road (Peter had taken pictures before).

Peter's host father, Dumitru, worked Saturday (he works a 24 hour shift every three days for the gas company). We saw him on our way out of town, as his truck was stopped at the side of the road in Hincesti. It seems that he went out on a call in the morning, and the truck ran out of gas (an interesting social item is that people seem to run cars and cabs on the verge of empty as opposed to the verge of full... undoubtedly this is a function of the high price of gasoline). We stopped and said our second goodbyes to him.

We then continued our trip to Chisinau (40km) and the airport. The trip was as bone-jarring as ever, but Sergiu was skilled at avoiding the potholes. We needed to go through Chisinau to drop Peter off near the PC office (so he could get a shower and talk to people) and then Sergiu would take us to the airport.

Our goodbye to Peter was a scene that would fit in a depressing Soviet-era movie. [I almost took a picture of this, but decided to be a father more than a photographer, so you'll have to use your imagination.] Sergio pulled off to the side of the 4-lane road. It was a grey and rainy day in the low 40s. The rain melted the snow, leaving a blanket of brown grit (from the sand that is used to treat the snow-covered roads). This would be a depressing day in Chicago or New York. But add to this the main passenger rail yard, a tall red/white striped power plant smokestack in the background, grey soviet apartment buildings, approximately 15 stories tall on the right (complete with wash hanging outside), and you have the correct depressing scene. Ann and Peter had a long hug (we'll see you in July 2007), and I had a good hug. Peter went off to the Peace Corps office and we went, teary-eyed on our way to the airport.

We arrived at the airport with lots of time to spare. The day became even more grey as rain set in, and we couldn't even see across the valley. One high spot was that the airline departure (all international) area was quite nice. It had a few duty-free shops and Moldovan wine shops, and was a new upbeat facility. Quite impressive. Visibility is limited enough (and Europe obscured by clouds) that there is little to visually report for this part of the trip.

The final part of the story is that we did arrive in Vienna, and checked into a hotel at the airport. A shower has never felt so good. Heck, even just the concept of a real bathroom and a kingsize bed (which was a decimal order of magnitude larger than Mereseni) was exciting. My other bit of amazement was with water and was threefold:

  1. Water (both hot and cold) came out of a faucet
  2. I could drink it and enjoy it
  3. I would not get sick later

So, we are back in civilization, and appreciating it much more than even before. And tommorrow we fly to Frankfurt and on to San Francisco.


At 6:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I was a PCV stationed in Meriseni during my 10 week language and cultural training in the summer of 2003. The summers there are beautiful, the winters, they are tough, just like the people. During my two years in Moldova I lived in Chisinau and taught at the Institutul International de Management in Botanica (a neighborhood near the airport). I wonder if you ever met a young lady named Irina, approx 12 now. She inspired me to write a short story for the PC recruiting book and it was published in 2005. She was an orphan and I was told not to talk to her - "A bastard child" - how profound (more of a statement about our species than anything else), I did anyway. She helped me practice Romanian, I taught her English and she taught me about life. I got the better end of the bargain. I left her with a world map and a plea for her to chase her dreams. I hope she smiled at the man that talked funny.

Thank you for your posting.

I wish you all the best,



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