Monday, May 26, 2008

More on Romania

Buna (hello)!
Well, by now Dr. Rick and Nancy are home the 'Frisco Bay area, Cristina's back in Buzau with her mom; I'm the only one left of the "Romaniacs" here in Bucharest. Sorry I haven't written lately, but I've had literally no time, what with getting up early for a day of travel or spaying and going out to dinner afterwards to unwind and drink a well-earned beer or two. We all left for Sibiu, the walled town I spoke of last time, after a long day of driving in the van which held us and our supplies & luggage (luckily Nancy and Cristina arranged for a driver, a Bucharest taxi driver named Dan who spoke a little English and smoked too much! His motto: "Don't worry, be happy.). We had to pass over the Carpathian mountains and through part of Transylvania, so you can imagine some of the views were quite awesome! There are still lots of horse-drawn carts to be seen in the fields and along the highways; perhaps the last generation to use them. I tried to get some pictures, but didn't get much with my camera which only seems to focus when it's in the mood (I just bought a new one, so the next batch should be fine). Anyway, that evening we strolled the main pedestrianized avenue in the Old Town, a street that has been beautifully restored ever since the communists did their best to make everything ugly. For instance, Rick and I both noticed that some places that must have once been pretty riverside villages now had hulking abandoned factories straddling the streams. (They seem to have taken the "Saruman" approach to modernizing the country.)

But inside the walls, the town hasn't lost its Transylvanian charm, and for a few precious evenings we were able to roam the streets and stop by little wine bars and such inside old fortress-like buildings, or relax at tables outside the many cafes along the street or the expansive main square, the Piata (plaza) Mare. My photos probably don't do it justice.
It wasn't all fun and drinks, though. For three solid days we held spay clinics (dogs only-- cats are not really a problem here) to both teach local vets the new techniques and to spay as many dogs as possible. The local animal rescue people were the best we've met. A group of young twenty-something people (mostly girls) in the area have banded together to try to fix Sibiu's street dog problem by both founding their own shelter (very rudimentary now, but the best they can do on their own funds), and trying to change the outmoded animal welfare laws. One of them, Sanda, sued the local government when they tried to use barbaric killing methods on the dogs, and actually won! The rest were also fantastic, especially their young "leaders" Adreea Roseti (a distant relative, perhaps?) and Otilia Pana, who used their vacation days to take off work to bring the dogs to us and help in their preparation and recovery (even our driver Dan helped). They also made sure we were well taken care of too, by bringing food & drink to the clinics and taking us out afterwards. Of course, Nancy & Cristina, our sponsors, refused to let them pay for dinners, but you gotta give them credit for trying! The even sweetly gave Rick & I traditional wooden flasks full of a strong traditional drink reminiscent of moonshine as souvenirs.
We stayed in a cute little pensiunea (a sort of cross between bed & breakfast and little hotel) with a house "Mama" who let us use her washing machine for our laundry, hanging them up in the huge attic to dry. The rooms were nice and the staff friendly. We also visited a local shelter which was one of the best around, but still left a bit to be desired, as the photo may show.

Nancy fell in love with a puppy there (Just look at him: can you blame her?), and I suspect the feeling was mutual, but she is already taking seven home with her and couldn't take this one, so we can only hope that someone will adopt it (although not many people adopt shelter dogs here like back home-- they all want fancy breeds, mostly so they can make money from them.)
At another shelter we spotted a heartbreaking case of an old, thin, lame dog (pictured) just barely alive that we all agreed was beyond help and was euthanised. Blind in one eye and dangling a rear leg, it was amazing it had survived as long as it did. Fortunately most of the dogs looked pretty healthy and we hope that this was a rare exception.

On the way to the shelter we spotted a momma dog and her puppies on the side of the road, but a car was there with them so we kept going. On the way back we found only the pups, so we brought them back to Sibiu, where the rescue girls gladly took them in. They ate hungrily and slept during our afternoon clinic! It was a good thing for them we found them; it poured all afternoon and night, and much of the next day.
The clinics were interesting, to say the least. I learned some new things, like how to shave the dog's tummies with an old razor blade until Cristina came back with some electric clippers she bought (we donated them to the rescue people when we left). I also got pretty good at sedating dogs with xylazine and ketamine (older drugs in the U.S.), and figuring out doses myself by weight-- we managed to keep them asleep just long enough for the surgeries without the need for anesthetic gas, something nonexistant in vet clinics here. Other things they do without: autoclaves (they sterilize their instruments in solutions; we used a pressure cooker ingeniously adapted by Dr. Rick), X-ray machines (never mind ultrasound machines), or just about any modern diagnostic piece of equipment.taken for granted in the west. Surgery tables were sometimes made of glass (probably adapted kitchen tables) and usually stashed in the backs of tiny rooms with minimal lighting. Rick's surgical head lamp often came in handy! Even instrument tables had to usually be rigged from other things, and once the dogs had to be recovered outside-- until it started raining-- then they were crowded in the waiting room, which made things even more cozy!

I was so impressed with the Sibiu rescue people that I plan to go back there soon and do some training and help them in any way I can with their shelter. I'd also like to work with a dog I heard about that was beaten so badly by its previous owner it can't be approached now. One of the girl's grandmothers has it now, where I've been told I could stay for free while there; I'd like to see if I can tame it.
But first I'd like to see some more of Romania while I'm here. On the way back to Bucharest we bought some farm cheeses from the locals on the roadside, and stopped by one of the Royal castles in a beautiful mountain setting reminiscent of Neushwanstein. (Too bad all the photos of the actual palace turned out blurry, but I got some great pics of some statues!) Unfortunately we arrived too late to go inside, but got a fast tour of the courtyard and outside of it, thanks to Cristina. She also arranged for all of us to get professional massages our last day in Sibiu, a nice reward after three days of hard work. I've been resting in a litle apartment arranged for us by Livia, another Romanian animal supporter, but I've also been doing some touring around town, including the huge Parliamentary Palace, the second largest building in the world (second to the Pentagon). Tomorrow I hope to head back to Sibiu, and when not working there I plan to use it as a base to check out some other places in the area. There's also another vet who I haven't met yet who wants me to work with him, and I have to be in London by mid-June to meet another friend. I also promised Nancy to write the text for a children's book about a Romanian street dog, and I've got to help Livia with editing some campaign letters and such. Rick has also promised me a job in the San Francisco area whenever I get back. So I've still got some things to do. I'd better get started!
A Few Notes on Romania: The language sounds like a cross between Italian, Russian and a little Greek. For instance, "yes" is the Russian "da", but other words come directly from latin or Greek. It's a fascinating language I wish I had time to learn.
Transylvania is not the exotic, dark, scary place they picture it to be in the movies. It's simply the pretty heart of Romania, with wooded mountains, streams and villages, some little changed since medieval times. Horses often work beside tractors in the fields.
And in spite of what the local politicians may say, street dogs ARE a problem; you see them roaming in public from Bucharest to the smallest village, and along every highway in between. They are usually friendly, sometimes shy, and almost always eager for affection even more than for food. It's sad to see them sleeping on sidewalks and limping across the streets, some with injuries or birth defects, drinking from puddles and begging for food. One wonders how they manage to survive. They've probably been such a common sight for so long the Romanians hardly notice them anymore. But if Nancy and the rest have anything to say about it, they will hopefully eventually be safe in homes or shelters and off the streets for good.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Wow, where do I start about Romania? So much has happened in the past few days I can barely remember it all. I arrived at the airport in Bucharest and was approached by several taxi drivers, whom I ignored. But one, who seemed like an honest guy, finally convinced me that to get into town required two train changes and a bus, and he told me a price up front to take me directly to a hotel. So I jumped in and we had an interesting conversation about the state of Romania. He boiled it all down like this: Since the revolution, they have freedom, and more material goods in the stores, but not much money to buy anything! Which I'm finding out is true-- most of them make way less than people in the U.S., but housing costs the same here. Most still seem to live in the old communist apartment blocks that are everywhere. And the guidebook mentions that many people park on the sidewalks; I soon found out it was true!

Anyway, the hotel I chose was a bit expensive for me (for Romania) at 66 euros, but was pretty shoddy inside, and a long walk down dark sidewalks from the train station (which turned out to be a good place for sneaking pictures of people). The street lighting, and in fact lighting in many public areas, is minimal. It can make walking at night sometimes creepy. And when I popped out of the hotel to see if I could catch a bite to eat, hopefully some local Romanian food, the only restaurant open was a Chinese place that smelled strange, aside from the smokey interior, so I skipped it and bought some cookies and crackers from a convenience shop. While looking for it, I was approached by some friendly young teens who, when I asked if they knew "someplace to eat" brought me a young prostitute! I thanked them but said I was only hungry for food.

Did I mention people smoke EVERYwhere here? I noticed it as soon as I landed at the airport. There is no such thing as a "No Smoking" area, as far as I've seen. My guidebook even mentions a youth hostel that gives out free cigarettes. Anyone want to guess which large American corporation is behind that little bit of charity? I'm betting it starts wth "Phillip".

But the next morning the area looked much better; an old church across the street was even quite pretty. I caught a train to the town of Buzau, and had a great talk with a nice young college student named Florin, which (sad to say) is a guy's name here. He was a bit nervous about making his first trip soon to the U.S. where he'll spend the summer at Rehobeth Beach, Delaware, working at a Cold Stone Creamery. He speaks great english and will probably be lonely, so any of you east-coast ladies interested can go there and look for him-- I've included his picture here for you!

In Buzau I met Nancy Janes of Romania Animal Rescue, and Dr. Rick Bachman, a veterinarian, both donating their time to help teach local vets modern spay and neutering surgical techniques. The Romanian vet schools are a bit behind the times (for instance, they don't use spay hooks, a basic tool of spaying in the U.S. for years). Nancy and her Romanian-American friend Christina aren't in the medical field, but are primary supporters of this trip, and are invaluable help. Nancy has been coming to Romania for years (see her website, and pretty much single-handedly founded the organization with her own time and money. When she's not crossing Romania working and meeting with people who can support her cause, she's raising funds back home in California. She also brings back lots of puppies and finds homes for them in the U.S. And Christina also donates her time and money, and is an invaluable translator and has many contacts in the country.

"Dr. Rick" is just incredible; while working with him I've watched him patiently and tirelessly teach local vets (with Christina's translation) in primitive conditions, and later over dinner talk with them about how it would benefit them to help with the stray dog problem, which many seem to either ignore or even think that stray dog overpopulation is good business for them. The Romanian government does next to nothing about it; their involvement is mostly periodic slaughters. Together Nancy, Rick and Christina do far more than the entire government of Romania! It's a real honor and a privilege to be able to travel and work with them. They've been supporting me as well, paying for my hotels and meals. In fact I haven't been able to spend a leu (Romanian currency worth about 30 cents) since I've hooked up with them! I took a picture from my hotel window of the town square next door with the odd but colorful blue and yellow building next to it-- a definite improvement over that hotel in Bucharest-- and no hookers outside the hotel!

When Nancy picked me up from the Buzau train station (where I had already made friends with a street dog in front of my bags), within a half hour I was helping with some spays at a local shelter run by a couple who use their entire back yard to house stray dogs (and one nervous cat!) The next day we drove to another town to train a couple of vets in Rick's techniques at their clinic. Then the third day we drove to a nearby city dog pound where the hospital supplies were almost nonexistant but with Rick's equipment and some fast scrambling, we managed to set up a fair surgical suite and recovery room. We only did five dogs that day, but trained two more vets, both of whom seemed very grateful. Every local vet who gets trained is one more who could be supporters of spay/neuter, instead of the government policy of ignoring the problem or periodic slaughter.
Tomorrow we drive to a much more distant town; it promises to be an interesting ride,over the Carpathians and across Transylvania. And I hear it's a walled city, which are always historic and beautiful. I'll write more from there!
P.S. Unfortunately, something's wrong with my camera and most of the pictures are slightly out of focus. I'll get some better ones from the others' cameras soon. And if anyone has any suggestions on how to fix my camera I'd love to hear from them!

Relaxing in Athens

Our final stop in the tour of Greece was Athens. After taking the airport train to downtown to save money, we still g0t ripped off by a cab driver who took us to our hotel by a very roundabout way and charged us 20 euros for it. But the hotel was in a great location, right in the heart of the "Plaka", the oldest part of Athens right at the very foot of the Acropolis. ln fact the room had a partial view of it, and from the hotel roof you could see the whole thing practically right in your lap.
We only had a day and a half, so the first day we explored the streets and ruins of the Plaka, which include-- besides the funky bars and gelato stands among the shops-- Greek and Roman foundations, the beautifully preserved Roman "Tower of the Winds", and a great museum inside a "Roman" agora building they actually rebuilt recently according to what they believe was the original design. We then wandered up to the Acropolis itself, which I never get tired of seeing, and Jen was amazed she was actually there. I still miss the old childhood days when we could stroll through the Parthenon, but I suppose it's for the best to keep tourists out now.
We are also interested to see several dogs roaming among the ruins. We spot a Parthenon employee feeding them and ask her about them. She explains that before the '04 Olympics, the Greek government rounded up the Athens street dogs, and the "nice" ones were sterilized and vaccinated, given collars, and after the Olympics, re-released to the streets. Fortunately, now the Greeks seem to like the dogs more now that they know they've been treated. They feed them more and the dogs seem to be tolerated better than on my earlier travels here.
I only hope the government continues the spay/neuter program now that the Olympics are over. Only time will tell.
The Plaka is also full of those great sidewalk cafes and tavernas I love (with the usual cats playing on the walls next to you, like in the picture) and of course we dined at one.
The next day we scrambled to meet Costas, an old Greek family friend, in Syntagma Square, the main plaza of Athens, but got started in the wrong direction. Luckily Costas is patient and was still there by the time we showed up, and we had coffee and a nice chat in one of the square's cafes. Then it was off to the National museum, where the country's greatest archeological treasures are kept, to get a glimpse of Greece's past glory. I'm still awed by some of the masterpieces produced by the early Greeks, who set the standards for classical art and sculpture.
After another sidewalk dinner, we watched the sun set on the Acropolis from our rooftop, and toasted a wonderful, wandering two weeks in grand old Greece.

Unfortunately Jen found out at the last minute that they changed her flight's departure time to 7:00 am (due to an airline strike), so she hardly got any sleep and had to take a taxi to the airport at 4 a.m. instead of the train later like we had planned. I later found out that she also got stuck in Frankfurt and had to spend the night there (courtesy of Lufthansa). And my flight to Romania was bumped to the afternoon, so my arrival there was late also.

But more on that in the next blog, "Roamin' in Romania", where a whole new chapter of my travels and animal exploits starts. See you soon!