In December I saw a newspaper clipping about a conference on "Agro-Tourism" sponsored by a Moldovan foundation. I had met the director of the foundation so I called Igor and asked if they had any materials on the conference or if they knew of any opportunities for being an agro-tourist. He said that they didn't have materials but that they would let me know when some trips were organized.
So on Friday, January 5, Igor called and said that their first trip would be a week later to celebrate the Moldovan New Year. (By the Orthodox calendar Jan 14 is New Years.) He delivered a letter which promised:
Igor left it to me to find at least two others. I sent notices to all the foreigners in Chisinau whose email addresses had found there way to my computer and a week later there were five of us, two other Barents advisors (Larry and Bob), an Englishman working on foster care (Hugh) and a Scottish woman doing volunteer physical therapy work with young children (Shauna).
We met outside a hotel for our ride to Sarata Noua. Igor was there with a colleague but the farmer had not arrived in his big jeep to pick us up. We happily went inside and had a drink while we waited. Then Igor told us that the farmer still had not arrived so he would drive us there. Maybe we should have been concerned that the farmer had not shown up but we had Igor to take care of us so we didn't worry.
By 8:00 we arrived in the village and found the farmer's house, right on the main street. We met the farmer's sons, Alexi and Sergei, aged 24 and 19. They offered us wine and built a fire to prepare the sauna. Soon we went to the restaurant next door for dinner. The restaurant was in the wine cellar so we were pleased to be sitting close to the fire place. There was no menu but they brought us plenty of food and home-made wine. The next morning in daylight we learned that the rest of the building is under construction and will be a small hotel.
Back at the house Alexi and Sergei realized that Hugh and Shauna were not a couple and would not share the double bed so they found one more bed. Neither of our hosts spoke much English or Romanian, but Hugh knew enough Russian for basic communication. We all seemed more interested in relaxing and going to bed than having a sauna, but Alexi and Sergei were so enthusiastic that most of us decided to join them. I enjoyed the moderate heat from the middle shelf (everyone else was on top where it is hotter). Then Alexi threw some water on the rocks and it was very hot. The sauna was relaxing and I fell asleep quickly.
After a hearty breakfast in the same restaurant we piled into the taxi (see picture below) for a slow ride around a big lake. Soon we got to a steep hill into the woods that was too much for the horse. We walked up a steep hill through a walnut grove. I think Alexi said that there had been a big fire and that the trees had all been replanted.
At the top of the hill we admired the view and a wilder forest that also looked young. The forests are still publicly owned and maintained even though the farm land has almost all been privatized.
Alexi explained with great enthusiasm (which the interprter very calmly translated) that this had been a summer sporting school directed in communist times by his uncle. He demonstrated that he can still do some gymnastics on the old jungle-gym. Now the school has been closed for several years. Most of the buildings are empty though a monastery was keeping animals in the barn.
We got back in our taxi and returned to the lake. We walked along the shore then through some yards back to our hosts' house. After lunch Igor came to me and apologized that the farmer had not organized any of the special events. Apparently he had gone into the hospital for an ulcer the previous day but had neither scheduled the activities nor delegated the task. Igor said that we should go back to Chisinau and that there would be no charge for the trip. We all agreed that we were having a fine time and that we did not want to return to Chisinau. Igor reluctantly agreed to wait until Sunday to take us home.
We enjoyed a relaxed afternoon. We watched the boys across the street play a variation of "kick the can" that used long sticks which could be thrown at the cans. The can guarder could use his stick to prevent others from retrieving sticks which had missed. We never figured out the rules or how one became "it" even though Moldovans told us that they had played when they were children.
Before dinner we went to an Orthodox Church service. The church had a room in the town hall that was appropriately decorated. Everyone stood throughout the service -- there were no seats. There was chanting by two women and a priest with incense. Most of the participants seemed to know when they were supposed to cross themselves. A six year old boy had the job of putting out candles before they burned to the bottom. He knew that he shouldn't walk between the priest and the altar, that he had to go around to get from one side to the other. People came and went periodically during the service so after a while we decided that we had seen enough.
During dinner several groups of children came to sing traditional New Years songs and to dance in exchange for candy and maybe a bit of money. Some were dressed in anmimal costumes and many rang bells. One had an accordian.
Sergio and Alexi had the sauna ready. This time they said we would have a real Russian sauna. They had collected some small birch branches (I don't know how they still had leaves) and soaked them in water. Alexi would take a large handful of the wet branches, splash some hot water on our backs and then use the branches for a sort of massage. It was very relaxing.
After breakfast the next morning Sergei showed Larry and me around town. There wasn't really much to see: the plant that used to produce heat and hot water for the houses, muddy streets that had frozen solid, a school with its playground and lots of houses sitting out of sight behind their metal gates and fences. Then four of us walked a few miles around the lake. We weren't sure how we would cross the small river flowing into the lake, but we found a man-made beaver dam that seemed to have been built as a bridge.
Then Igor took us back to Chisinau for a big lunch/dinner at a restaurant specializing in game. He still wouldn't take our money even though we all agreed that we had enjoyed an interesting weekend in a village far from Chisinau. (I had a driver deliver the money to his office the next day.) He promised that next time there would be no experiments that he would ensure that everything was arranged. We said that we would be happy to come again even without all the advertised events.