by evelyn madison
Romania! Home of Vlad the Impaler and of . . . Count Dracula!
We did not get to meet Count Dracula. I believe he may have been otherwise occupied. Of course, it was in the middle of the day, and I understand he was more partial to nightime visits.
Vlad Tepes, more commonly known as Vlad the Impaler is known for the exceedingly cruel punishments he imposed as ruler of Wallachia, however, the people of Romania refer to Vlad as a savior to their nation and continue to justify his method of torture as not uncommon for that period in history. Impalement was Tepes's preferred method of torture and execution, however, the exact number of enemies executed cannot be relied on for they are documented by Vlad's rivals, therefore, are most likely exaggerated to an extent.
(They were actually one and the same person. In the English-speaking world, Vlad III is perhaps most commonly known for inspiring the name of the vampire in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula.)
For several years I have had in the back of my mind that I wanted to go to Romania. And now I was here . . . in this land of mystery . . . of history . . . the land of the gypsies!
Ah, the gypsies! Those colorful people who some claim are simply traveling thieves, with a talent for music, and dancing, and skullduggery. We would see evidence of their lifestyle, but it was much more advanced than the classical image of gypsies. They’ve come a long way, baby!
I would get to see many interesting sights, some of which tore at your heart and begged you to embrace the people, their children, their culture. These, I hope to share with you and give you some idea of the joy as well as heartbreak we felt while on our visit.
We had journeyed to Romania as part of a humanitarian team consisting of seven other Kiwanians and two guests for this trip. It is a very long trip. We left San Diego at 12:30pm on a Saturday and, with two stops, arrived in Bucharest Sunday afternoon at 4:30pm. There is a 10-hour difference in time.
My interest had been piqued by stories of the many accomplishments Kiwanians had already made in Romania, and how there were still even more challenges that we would meet with folks from “Heart2Heart” International Ministries. Our adventure had begun, and even with the long flight, we managed to have a lot of fun en route.
All this humanitarian work began in the year 2000 when "our team" from Kiwanis International learned of a serious iodine deficiency within Romania. Adults were getting painful and unsightly goiters due to lack of iodine; children were having a high a risk of mental retardation, pregnant mothers were at great risk that their child would not be born healthy and their growth characteristics were not encouraging. Cretinism was all to common in newly born children. And all we, as Kiwanians, had to do was to get them iodized salt to help reverse these conditions.
The Governor and 45 Lieutenant Governors of California-Nevada-Hawaii District of Kiwanis International adopted Romania as a country. We wanted to support Romania in the Iodine Deficiency Disorder (IDD) project. Kiwanis adopted this project as an international effort. That project was successfully completed within a couple of years.
The Heart2Heart International Ministries had contacted the Ramona Kiwanis Club for help in Romania. They have been working with the orphanages and "baby hospitals" in Romania for a number of years. They were asking Kiwanis for assistance to build a training center for young men at a cost of $25,000. Joe Heard, of the Escondido Kiwanis Club, took the lead. He started with a trip to Romania to find our what we could do; then another Kiwanian, Dave Imper, of the Rancho Bernardo Kiwanis Club, joined him. They made several trips and things really started to happen with our partnership with Heart2Heart.
Having become familiar with Romania, Division 37, made up of 18 Kiwanis Clubs all across north San Diego County, decided they wanted to continue to support Romania. Over the next couple of years the money was raised for the trade school, and it was completed and dedicated in 2003. The director of an orphanage for girls asked if we could build a transition home for them. We immediately responded and raised $45,000 over the next year to build a transition home for girls where they would be schooled and trained in the skills of their country and would afford them the opportunity to become productive citizens.
And now I had an opportunity of participating and I eagerly accepted it.
The reasons for our trip were varied; 1. We were going to work with Heart2Heart on their visits to the ‘baby hospitals’ and orphanages; 2. We were going to visit and support some of the Kiwanis Clubs, particularly the ones sponsored by clubs from our own division; and 3. We were going to do some sightseeing. We accomplished all those goals.
Upon arrival we were met by the Heart2Heart team, including Jim and Jodi Sorrels, the owners of Heart2Heart, headquartered in Ramona, California, and their staff of 14 who live in Romania; people from all over, one young woman was from Scotland, the manager was from Kansas, and others. In addition, they have a number of Romanian people who work with them but are not on staff. We met them all over the next several days - and they are all wonderful people.
Heart2Heart has what is called a "team" house in Romania that they bought a couple of years ago. And that’s where we stayed and where we ate most of our meals. Teams from all over the United States and Canada go on humanitarian trips there to work with Heart2Heart at the ‘baby hospitals’ and orphanages.
Patti Ryder, of Poway, cuddles a Romanian baby
On Monday morning, we went sightseeing throughout Bucharest (pronounced Bucharesh; if a word ends in ‘st’ it takes on the sound of ‘sh’). It was amazing to me to see all the beautiful buildings; old buildings, many of them built in the 1600, 1700 and 1800's; old churches still being used, and contrast that with some of the newer buildings built in the last few years and being built as we speak. One building that I could hardly believe the size - had I not seen it for myself - was the Communist dictator Ceausecu’s office building, now known as the Palace of the Parlieament. In fact, it is the second largest building in the world, after the Pentagon.
There are many companies from America and other countries that are going into Romania as we speak; Starbucks, Mc Donalds; Nike and Adidas stores; a brand new large Ikea outlet, and a beautiful new shopping center with just about any American store you would want. Car dealers - most all car dealerships have smaller sized cars because that’s all you see there. Traffic is very heavy in Bucharest, most of the time. And downtown they park everywhere - even on the sidewalks if they can find room. They have many ‘roundabouts’ (circle in the intersections) and you have to know what you’re doing to drive there. Street repairs are being made constantly as traffic increases.
Much of what is happening there has been since the overthrow of the Communist dictator, Nicolai Ceausecu, and his wife who were assassinated on the streets of Bucharest in 1989. The country formed a constitution in 1991. That was the year that the first Kiwanis club was started in Romania. Today, there are 18 Kiwanis Clubs in the country.
Romania has now joined the European Union. Hopefully that will help them as well. It is a very poor country, but what they lack in wealth they make up for in nice people and friendliness.
After sightseeing that morning the group split up; some of us went to the ‘baby hospital’ and the others to one of the orphanages. The most meaningful time I spent in Romania was at one of the ‘baby hospitals.’ The babies are not ill, there is nothing wrong with them; it’s just that their parents can’t afford to take care of them so they have the option of dropping them off at the hospital where they are fed and have a place to live. There are not enough nurses/employees to spend time with the babies so they don’t get much interaction with anyone; their bottles are prepared and propped up for the babies to eat.
Here’s where the volunteers from Heart2Heart and other groups take over. They go in, hold, rock and play with the babies, feed them, change their diapers, clean them up and put on clean rompers. Within minutes of arriving, I got some of the most precious smiles you could ever imagine, and the enjoyment of talking to and playing with some of those little babies will never disappear from my mind! It was overwhelming to think those babies might spend the first two or three years of their lives in a crib in a ‘baby hospital.’ And we all know what happens when there is not much interaction with babies or young people -- for the most part, they have difficulty relating to people the rest of their lives.
Claudia Green, Escondido, at Romanian “baby hospital”
A Romanian baby - an orphan
Several years ago there was quite a bit of adoption activity from American parents with the Romania babies. However, the grovernment stopped that totally for a number of years they said because of the corruption that was going on. Couples were being charged $20,000 to $30,000 and then sometimes the babies that were chosen would not be delivered to the couple. As I understand it, they are now, on a very small scale, starting to open up again. There is a recommendation that people go through the government to adopt and the cost of that is somewhere around $2,000. One problem with that is that the parents many times will not let the babies be adopted because they get paid from the government for the first two years of the babies’ lives, and they don’t want that government subsidy to be taken away. Very sad situation.
We left early on Tuesday morning to visit an orphanage/school. The kids are so sweet; they hang onto your arm or put their arms around you, and you can tell they are starved for love and attention. The sad thing about this is when they turn 18 they are turned out of the school/orphanage back to the streets as there is no place for them to go, unless they go to the transition schools that Kiwanis helped raise money to build with Heart2Heart. These schools can only take a few students at a time, so it barely makes a dent in the need. We did see the green-house that we helped build for the kids to help learn about plants and how to take care of them.
From there we went to Turnu Magurele to meet with the Kiwanis Club. After seeing their facility and the American books they had requested, that we had sent to them, they told us we were going on a special trip to two schools they support. The first was an elementary school in Segarcea-Vale. The school had planned a program for us where the children, in native costumes, sang some Romanian songs and did some dances. This was nearing the end of their Easter season. After the songs and dance, they invited us to share lunch with them; a table was laden with several kinds of cheeses, colored eggs, specialty breads, and other goodies set out for us. As we departed, the students danced in the street in front of the school. And they sent a basket of colored eggs home with us.
On the way to the other school we drove through Islaz, a Gypsy village. You should have seen the homes -- they were all very large, fancy and fenced. The gypsies are about the only ones who can afford places like that in the country, away from the larger cities. Today about 40% of the Gypsies still speak Romany and many can still be seen travelling in lines of carts along the roads of Romania. The majority live in the towns and villages, some fully integrated into villages, some, such as we saw, in large ornate houses standing out from the Romanians, but others in small buildings on scraps of lands on the villages edges.
We arrived late in Moldoveni where the whole town was waiting for us in front of the school. It was hot, and they had been waiting for us for about two hours. (See photos, top). Even so, as we parked they cheered for us, then local police officials closed the road on each end. We all stood in the middle of the street and watched the young people dancing, in full traditional regalia, to beautiful music. In addition, the youngest children were standing in a line with bouquets of flowers that they handed to each of us as we filed into the building. Inside there was a long table full of traditional Romanian dishes that the teachers and families of the village had made for us. They treated us royally! The Mayor, Gearo Tonel, told one of our members, Joe Heard, "Fifty years ago during the war we were expecting the American's to come liberate us, and every time a plane flew over we would run outside to see if it was an American plane, and it never was." Joe told him "Well, we're late but we're here now!"
Magnificent gypsy homes, in a village near Bucharest
WOW! What a day! But it was not over. We then went to the Heart2Heart Training and Transition school for boys, located in the Nencelesti village. There we saw the facilities, the equipment including the welding equipment that had been sent to them, their classrooms, and living quarters. Dinner with them was a special treat; we then took pictures, and headed back to Bucharest, arriving late. Everyone was tired but so enthusiastic for all that we had seen and done that day.
On Thursday we left for a two-day trip to the mountains and sightseeing. We headed for Pitesti, northwest of Bucharest. Pitesti is an oil refinery town. We stopped at the Receptie Restaurant at the Valea Ursului hotel. I ordered Snitel Pane Din Carne Pui (chicken, 140 grams, and it cost 7,0 lei) and Baked Pot-Cartofi Taranesti (baked potato, 20 grams, cost 3,5 lei), and salad which is usually sliced tomatoes and cucumbers (they use very little lettuce). The food was very good; I ate every bit on my plate. The potatos were wonderful; don't know exactly how they cooked them but they were excellent. For 18 people at lunch that day it totaled 420 lei, and that included a tip. Exchange rate was 3.1 lei equaled $1.00 so the meal for all of us came to, essentially, $135, or $7.50 each.
Continuing on we headed up the Carpathian Mountains; en route we stopped at Calimanesti to tour the Cozia Monastery, built in 1386, the oldest monastery in Romania.
After going through many small villages, on our way to Sibiu, we arrived at the Ana Hotel at 7pm. Checked in, freshened up and left at 7:30 to meet for dinner with the Clubul Kiwanis Sibiu-Edu Club, an all-women's club of 21 members, most of which are teachers, chartered in December 2003 by the District of France-Monaco. After a very nice dinner, exchange of some gifts, and socializing, we bid them goodnight and headed back to the hotel for a good night's sleep.
Bran, Romania: the view from Vlad the Impaler’s Castle
Friday morning we ate breakfast at the hotel then headed downtown to the square where we visited churches and other important sites. We headed east then south and picked up the highway on the way back to Bucharest. Throughout the trip you pass through many, many small villages - one right after the other - Scoreiu, Vistea de Jos, Oltet, Sambata de Sus Jos, Voila, Dridif, Beclean, and Mandra, just to name a few. The road goes right through the middle of the villages with most of the homes a sidewalk away from the road.
We reached Bran and the Medieval Fortress known as "Dracula's Castle" which we toured. It was built by the inhabitants of Brasov in 1377 by order of King Ludovic I, according to the "Privilege." It started to rain as we ascended the hill to the castle. As it was a holiday weekend, there were many families having a picnic in the park, so we did too. Then we shopped at the many booths surrounding the park, our first chance to SHOP.
We left Bran, heading on to Rasnov, thru Christian, and arrived in Brasov where we visited the town square and saw what was called the "black church" - so called because the town has burned a couple of times and the church was covered with soot. It is a very large church, covering almost a block square, at the end of the town square. We toured the town square, saw lots of beautiful flowers and other items of interest, and since it was turning cold we decided we needed to leave. We went through Predeal which is close to the top of the mountain at 2505' elevation. We stopped for honey and some were able to buy Kalash-kolet, which I was told is a wonderful type of pastry made in a long roll, but, just my luck, they ran out as I got to the window, and they weren't making anymore for another half-hour.
Continuing on we drove through Azuga and Sinaia, where there were mountains all around with lots of snow. I was told they get 20 to 30 feet of snow each winter.
By this time I think we were all feeling pretty tired, and glad that we weren't doing the driving so we could relax a little as we passed through many other villages - Comarnic, Breaza, Campina, to name a few, on our way to Ploiesti, (Ploesti) a large petroleum area, which was significant during the war. It rained most of the way back to Bucharest and was still raining when, at 8:30 pm we stopped at the new, very large shopping center on the north edge of Bucharest, where most of us had a McDonald's dinner then went across the lobby to Starbucks - I had a Tazo Chai Tea Latte. Good! But kept me awake a good part of the night.
A feast with tables heavily laden with food. Kiwanian Walt Schuette anticipates the feast
Traditional Romanian Costumes
Time to leave Romania is drawing close so Saturday's choice of what to do was a very hard decision. Some went to another orphanage; some to the baby hospital, and some went shopping. As much as I wanted to visit with the babies again, I needed some souvenirs and that was my only chance, so I went shopping. Romania is known for its beautiful glassware so, of course, I had to have some. Saturday evening found us meeting with the Bucharest Kiwanis Club at a lovely restaurant downtown. After a visit and socializing, we excused ourselves to get back to the "team house" so we could pack and get ready for a very early morning, leaving for home.
We left Romania at 6:05am for just under a three-hour flight to Amsterdam. With a layover there of about 5 1/2 hours, some of us took a city tour of Amsterdam and returned in time to catch our flight. On the tour we visited a 'wooden shoe' factory, and had plenty of historic sites downtown to take pictures of, including Anne Frank's home, and went by a short block of the Red Light District on our way back to the airport. But then, that's another story!