Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Three Month Report Card

I realized last night that I've been "gainfully unemployed" for about 3 months now, a quarter of a year. An interesting quality of this period in my life is my sense of time. I feel like I've been much more present-focused recently. In some ways this is great. I like having and taking advantage of the freedom to just do whatever the heck I feel like at any given time (well, most given times). It has its downsides too, though, such as the fact that I couldn't focus at all on planning for my Romania trip. (Luckily it worked out anyway.)

But it's not completely a goldfish's life -- I still have goals and to-dos and things like that, and I still like to look back and see how I've been using my time. I had originally posted a list of stuff I wanted to do, so let's see how I've been doing on that:
  • Music. For a while I was practicing harmony singing a lot, which was really good. I should get that habit going again. I haven't been playing much, but I did at least write a couple tunes.
  • Art. Not much yet, though I have a few little things that need to be put up on the wall project.
  • Writing. Again, not much. I still have various blog posts that have been meaning to get written for a while. I started a story at one point, until my conscious mind realized where my subconscious had stolen the main idea from and called it quits.
  • Volunteering. I'm recording fairly regularly for Books Aloud now, and still giving a few hours to Project Read each week. Fewer HOBA events right now, but I'll keep an eye on them, too.
  • Travel. Romania wasn't quite the trip I'd imagined, but it was interesting in its own way. It did at least sooth the travel bug for the time being.
  • Meditation. The meditation retreat has to be one of the best things I've done in a long time, and it was a good time in my life for it. (Not that I don't wish I'd done it 5 years ago when Eric first told me about it.) I'm still managing the recommended two hours most days, which sounds like a lot at first, but is absolutely worth it.
  • Cooking. Haha.
  • Outdoorsiness. Some, though I'd still like to explore more state parks and maybe go camping or something.
  • Dancing. Plenty so far. Mostly the usual suspects, though I've been meaning to get out and learn some hustle at some point.
  • Reading. Interestingly, for a month or two I was hardly reading at all, which is weird for me, especially when I'm unemployed. It's picking up again, though, and I'm working on speed reading a bit, too.
  • Redesign my blog. Nah, haven't really felt the motivation for it yet.
In addition to all that, there have also been things that weren't on the original list:
  • Music editing. I've started learning to do some basic editing, since there's a lot of good music around that I want to dance to but is too long, or the wrong tempo, or whatever. It's kind of fun and can have some interesting challenges sometimes.
  • More blogging. Over on the Social Dance Music blog.
  • Exercising. The running and workout habits got a bit screwed up by my two trips, but are starting to come back together again.
  • Investing. Well, I do this anyway, just not super actively most of the time. Right now, though, CNBC is running their Million Dollar Portfolio Challenge (an investing contest with fake money), and I'm playing along with that, just for fun and education.
  • Love life. Um, yeah... there is one now. It's nice. :-)
And some new things to add to the "coming up" part of the list:
  • Stuff-purging. Not as drastically as Lacey, but she has been inspiring me to get rid of a bunch of possessions that I really don't need to keep around.
  • Mini road trip. In about a month I'm going up to Oregon to drive back down with Lacey. Small, as trips go, but sister-visits are good.
  • Stanford Dance Weekend. The web site doesn't say it's sold out yet, so sign up if you want to join me.
  • Family history projects. I still have a few boxes of various family artifacts (e.g. old photos, journals, letters, etc.) that need processing. I've been remiss in my role as junior family historian (apprentice to uncle Jim), but I've been meaning to work on it.
  • Another job? It'll happen eventually, I'm sure, I just don't know when or what. Part of me does kind of want to find something interesting for new "real" work, but it's still decidedly in the minority. I think unemployment suits me. :-)
So anyway, that's how things are now. Maybe in another three months I'll do another update and see where we are then.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Clean Up Your Energy Bill

Antonia recently gave me a $5 gift card from Renewable Choice Energy. What that modest amount of money lets you do is basically convert a month's worth of the energy you use to wind power. (Though for me, the 250 kilowatt hours is more like two average months.) You still pay the same amount on your same electric bill, but 250 KWH of wind power energy gets added to the national power grid, chipping away at the 98% of the energy that's coming from non-renewable sources like fossil fuels. They estimate the impact of that as equivalent to not driving 429 miles, or planting 4 trees, or not burning 187 pounds of coal. In addition to the gift cards, you can also sign up for subscription plans on their site.

While I was thinking about that, I went to PG&E's website to check out my actual energy consumption, and I noticed a program they have called ClimateSmart. If you sign up for this, a small amount gets added to each electric bill, calculated to offset your energy usage by investing in projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Their estimate for me, based on my last bill of $15.27, was $0.33 or about 2%. At four bucks a year, I think that's worth doing.

So that's two easy things most of us can afford to do to improve our energy usage and our environment. Anybody have other good suggestions?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Triple Triple Big Dance

Big Dance 2008 All-Nighters This last weekend was the 15th annual Big Dance, and my own personal 9th year in a row making it all the way to 6 AM, which makes it my "Triple Triple Crown" year. (Now that I think about it, that puts Richard at his Quintuple Triple, for being there all 15 years. Wow.) The dance felt a bit smaller than usual, though we still had 144 people make it all night.

The performances were all really good this year; I even enjoyed Los Salseros quite a bit (nothing against them in general, but salsa's not usually my thing). Danse Libre did a great job kicking off the 1920's theme early on, though the guys must have been dying in their tuxes with that heat. Decadance rocked, as usual, and I especially liked their new country piece to "All Things Considered." Swingtime didn't have a very clean performance, but they did have some of the most entertaining Cat's Corner solos I've seen in a long time. Good stuff.

The competitions were mostly okay, though I think I would have designed some of them differently. I also think it's time to retire Swing-with-Props and Tacky Tango, at least for a few years. (I know, I know, don't complain if I don't want to be on the committee.) Bob and I were all set to completely trounce everyone on the schottische race when we found out it was a three-legged schottische race. Since they used wimpy little streamers to tie our legs together, everyone was hobbling around like geriatrics trying not to tear them. Oh well. And here's a tip if you ever find yourself in a cross-step waltz freeze-tag competition: pretend to be frozen until the very end, then start dancing again just in time to not get tagged for real. Credit to Rowyn for that bit of brilliance, though unfortunately it came too late to save us.

6:15 AM I was very happy to not only get a good set for the Dawn Mazurka but to remember all the figures, even at 5:20 in the morning. Thanks to Jeff for explaining the Tiroirs figure on Thursday -- I had been confused about that. And thanks to many other people for all the other good dances, especially Rowyn for the lullaby gauntlet, the last waltz, and many others.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

My Romanian Tunes

Okay, one more post from the trip. Since I had my mandolin with me and a fair bit of downtime at the orphanage, I ended up writing a couple tunes. The Rowan Tree and The Carpathian Foothills, both in F# minor, a key I've been wanting to do something with for a while. Here they are, if you're interested.

The Rowan Tree
The Carpathian Foothills

I also made a quick recording of them (MP3, 3.2 MB). After messing around for way too long trying to get my computer to record nicely from my microphone, I didn't feel like doing a ton of takes. But it does the job.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Romania Trip, 2008

Now that I've got everything posted, here it all is:


I only spent a little under two days in Bucharest, but I think that was about enough time there for me. It was certainly a major change from village life.

Hotel Carpati
My Hotel Room 1 I stayed at the Hotel Carpati, which is conveniently in the middle of Bucharest. The first interesting feature of the hotel that I encountered was the elevator. You have to pull open a door from the hallway and then push open the door in the elevator itself before you can squeeze into the small space, which can be tricky if you have a couple bags (especially since the doors swing inwards, rather than sliding sideways). Once you've managed to get the door closed you get taken to your floor, but then you have to guess which of the two identical doors you're supposed to go out of. If you open one, you see a bare concrete wall. If you open the other, you see what looks like a bare concrete wall, but it has a place to push on it, after which you realize it's actually the door to the hallway.

The other curious feature was the arrangement of the bathroom facilities. Apparently there was no room large enough to fit all the usual components of a bathroom, so things were spread across three different rooms. My bedroom contained a sink and a mirror. Going down one hall and around a corner leads to the gents' toilet. Going down the other hall in the other direction leads to the shower. There was no overlap in functionality between any of these rooms. Additionally, the shower room had a small square shower (no tub) with a hand-held shower head and no shower curtain. That meant you had to be very careful with your aim, since your clothes and towel are hanging very much within range.

Palatul Parlamentului
IMG_2166.JPG On my first (partial) day in the city I mostly just strolled around getting oriented, then went downBulevardul Unirii to see the second largest building in the world. Ceauşescu had entire neighborhoods bulldozed to create this, destroying thousands of homes and historical buildings (he had them classified as "slums" or something like that, to get away with it). It's so big that if you go to the wrong entrance at first (like I did) you have a considerable walk to get around the building to the right place.

Once inside, you can pay a bit too much for a ticket, considerably more for photographing privileges (though they don't enforce that, so you can get away without it), then wait for a long time while they confuse you about how to get in the English or Romanian tour groups. You don't end up getting a tour of the whole thing, of course, but you get to see about a dozen rooms so you get a good sense of it. If you like vast expanses of marble and enormous chandeliers, this is the place for you. Otherwise, most of it looks kinda the same after the first couple rooms.

Arcul de Triumf The Bulevardul Unirii, leading away from the palace, is modeled on the Champs Elysees, though deliberately made a few meters wider and longer. Still trying to out-do the French, Ceauşescu also built Bucharest's own Arcul de Triumf, though it appeared to be getting defeated by scaffolding when I saw it.

IMG_2258.JPG I made it through several museums on my one full day there. I think my favorite was the GeorgeEnescu music museum, in a smaller, converted palace. Enescu is Romania's main famous classical musician/composer, and I hadn't ever heard of him but I'm interested in tracking down and listening to more of his music now. Most of the museum was various historical/biographical artifacts from his life. The video they show was quite good and informative, too, with lots of famous musicians and conductors talking aboutEnescu and his compositions.

IMG_2321.JPG The other best museum, in my opinion, was the Village Museum inHerăstrău Park. It contains actual cottages, churches, and other buildings collected from villages around Romania. They're all assembled into their own motley little village, and a lot are even set up inside so you can see what the interiors would have looked like as well. Very nicely done, I thought.

Natural History Museum The Museum of the Romanian Peasant is another famous one, but after the Village Museum I mostly just skimmed through here. The Natural History Museum has a ton of specimens, but not all terribly good quality, and with very little actual information to go along with them (even less in English). They do have several dinosaur skeletons from Argentina in a temporary exhibit right now, though, and dinosaurs are always fun. I didn't get to go to the art museum, as it was closed the days I was there.

Herăstrău Park In contrast to the rest of the city, the parks in Bucharest in May are beautifully lush and green. The ones I went to all had numerous playgrounds, lakes with boats to rent, plenty of nice walking paths and benches, flower gardens, various statues and memorials, and snogging couples of all ages. All the right things parks should have. My hotel was quite near Parcul Cişmigiu, so that was a nice place to relax after a day of tromping around the city. I also spent a while at the much larger Parcul Herăstrău in the north part of the city. It contained a garden full of sculptures of almost identical giant heads, but also a lot more interesting sculptures, too.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Excursions in Prahova County

The volunteer program I was on includes the occasional day trip out to other touristy sites in the area. For my last Friday there, Gabriel had offered to drive me out to Bran Castle (billed nowadays as "Dracula's Castle," though the only connection with Vlad Ţepeş [the supposed "historical" Dracula] is that he once laid siege to it). However, Robin was going to be working that day and taking Sunday off, and I wanted to help him with the construction project as much as I could while I was still around. So I passed on that and figured we could take a trip together on Sunday. Once Friday rolled around, though, we found out it was a saint's day of some sort and we weren't allowed to work, so we had two days off. By that time, though, Gabriel had disappeared with the jeep and the only vehicle we had available was Robin's RV. We didn't want to go all the way to Bran in that, so no castles for us, but we found a couple other nice places to go visit and hike around.

IMG_2059.JPG On Friday we went to Cheia and had lunch at a fairly nice looking restaurant where most of the items on the menu were not available and most of the desserts involved "pancakes" (which turned out to be crepes -- I got the ones wrapped around scoops of chocolate ice cream). From there we went to a mountainous national park, which I unfortunately did not get the name of. We left the RV at the bottom of the non-RV-friendly road and hiked extremely uphill for a while, cutting across the loops in the road via paths that mostly went where we expected them to. At more or less the top, it flattens out a bit and there's a parking lot, a cafe and some other buildings.

View from (almost) the top However, as you look around there, you see another ridge up above that seems to have a completely vertical black line painted on it (see this photo). While Robin took a break to get some coffee, I went to investigate and found that you could go up yet another thousand feet or so. It wasn't quite as vertical as it looked (though close to it) and there were rough steps pressed into the earth and steel cables strung alongside. (This was presumably for you to hold onto as you climbed, though there were sections where you had to choose either the cable or the steps. But mostly the steps were enough.) I climbed about 600-something steps and got probably 3/4 of the way up. The last section gets even steeper and more rugged, though, and since it was already quite vertiginous enough for me, I decided to let it go. I'm pretty sure the view couldn't have gotten much better anyway. Coming back down turned out to be more difficult than going up, actually, since you're not facing into the mountain. My legs were killing me by the time I got back down. Great climb, though.

IMG_2097.JPG On Sunday we pulled out the map again and found a lake called Siriu that looked like it would be a nice size to hike around in an afternoon, so we packed a picnic and drove out there. It was quite a nice lake, though it turned out to be man-made with a dam, and to not have anything remotely resembling a trail around it. We hiked along the hilly shore for a while then sat on a nice rocky outcropping to eat lunch. It was getting ready to rain at that point, though, and we could tell there was no way we'd be able to make it all around so we headed back to the RV and had a nice cup of tea inside during the afternoon shower.

Rural Romania is really lovely, so it's a shame that people don't take care of it very well. Everywhere we went there was trash just all over the ground, and of course no trash bins to put it in anyway. Bucharest was actually cleaner in that respect since the city and parks have places to actually throw away your stuff.

In and Around Valea Screzii

IMG_1982.JPG I mentioned before that I was going to be in a village called Valea Plopului. That's where Pro Vita was started, but they now have a lot of facilities in the neighboring village of Valea Screzii, a couple miles away, which is where I ended up spending all my time. Each village probably only has a few hundred people, and everything's strung out along a single dirt road. You know you've reached the end of the village when the road peters out and melts into the forest. A few other miscellaneous points to set the scene: The guy who picked me up at the airport is in his early 20's, and owns three cell phones and a cow. Also, his name is Gabriel and he has a sister named Gabriella (though luckily they found other names for the four other brothers). Between the two little villages, there are no stores or restaurants or anything like that, but there are 27 chapels and churches. You can make of all this what you like.

Church of the Third Wheel I found out shortly before I left that the Eastern Orthodox Easter was coming up in the middle of my trip. Since the vast majority of people there are Eastern Orthodox, there's a lot of time spent in church for several days. Melanie andMihail took me along to the first night of Easter services, which started at 11:30 PM Saturday night and went until 5 in the morning, including sections outside and in two different churches. I didn't understand much of what what going on (it being in Romanian and all), but I enjoyed the candle lighting and singing, though things got a bit repetitive after a while. I was invited to sit up in the area by the altar in both of the churches. I don't know if that was just a courtesy for a guest (the regular part of the church was standing-room only) or if there's some other significance, but it was it was interesting to have that viewpoint of the proceedings.

On Easter afternoon, after sleeping through the morning, I got to go along to an Easter dinner with Mihail's family (after a brief stop at another church to kiss some icons, light more candles, and have holy water flicked at us). Mihail's father is the head priest (there's probably a real term for that?) at Valea Plopului, so he had been the one leading all the services the night before. There were also 5 siblings and some in-laws there. It was a long, drawn-out, happy family sort of dinner, so it was nice to be included in it, though I was again sad that I didn't know any Romanian. It feels awkward to be welcomed in by the people but still excluded by the language.

For one week before Easter (or 8, I think, depending on how hardcore you are about it) everybody eats entirely vegan. That suited me just fine, though by the time I got there I think the natives were having dreams about sausages. Once Easter arrives they eat meat like it's their job. Aside from meat, there's lots of bread and potatoes, and very little in the way of fresh fruits and veggies. In spite of all that, most of what I ate was quite tasty (though the fish soup we had one day with mackerels tossed in practically whole was a bit much). My digestive system didn't even freak out too much, which surprised me since I've been semi-vegetarian recently.

Robin enjoys cooking, so once he arrived we had a few excellent non-Romanian dinners as well, cleverly improvised from whatever he could find around the house and stuff he'd brought with him (which included various spices and such, as well as 36 days worth of army rations he acquired in England somehow). On my last night there, most of the rest of the household was gone but Robin made me a fantastic four-course goodbye dinner, working entirely out of the mini-kitchen in his RV. It included the best moussaka I've ever had (a famous specialty of his, apparently), and even apple crumble for dessert (he'd heard I'm a fan of apple pie and similar things). Yum.

Hiking in the Hills Valea Screzii is in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, and at this time of year everything is gloriously covered in lush green foliage. The woods up on the hills are some of the most picturesque I've ever seen, from a distance at least. For actually hiking around in, they're not that interesting. The trees are mostly identical and block your view of any landmarks, and there's no ground cover, or paths, or other stuff to change it up. Also, some of the hills are extremely steep, which can be difficult when you're sliding around in last Fall's leaf litter. But I found that if I climbed up and over the hill behind our house, I could get to a more open valley, and that was sort of nice to hike around the edges of, going in and out of the forest. Quena had reminded me that there are dragons in Romania (that's where Charlie Weasley works, after all) so I kept my eyes peeled for them. I think they're probably all farther up in the mountains, though.

Romanian driving can be a hair-raising experience. We were barely out of Bucharest when we started passing cows and horse-drawn carts on the roads. (The horse carts have their own license plates, which I found amusing.) Even on winding, narrow country roads, drivers will blithely zoom past these and other vehicles, often dodging out of the oncoming lane with just inches to spare before hitting someone else going the other direction. I got used to it a little bit, but not much. In a couple places I saw "Children Crossing" signs near schools, but the silhouetted figures were not calmly crossing the street but clearly leaping back in terror from near death experiences.

When we were hauling things up to the new sheep pastures in the hills, we usually took the tractor with a cart towed behind it, and I had some interesting rides there, too. On one trip, Gabriel and I perched on top of a stack of fence segments, trying not to sway too much or unbalance the load. We got off after we left the (relatively) smooth road for the horribly steep, muddy, rutted hillside, but trying to sit on the tractor wheel wells wasn't much better. Maybe I don't weigh enough, but I bounce around so much there that I had trouble holding on. On the way back I rode in the empty cart, but even there you still have to crouch down and hold on tight, not to mention dodging flying clods of mud from the tractor wheels once you hit the road and speed up.

On the last trip, we dropped the borrowed tractor off at its owner's house, and Melanie picked us up (me and three guys all much larger than me) in her basic little four-door sedan. The back seat was already full of groceries, so we pushed those aside and two guys sat on top of each other in the other seat. Then Mihail sat in front and I sat on his lap with my head twisted back around his shoulder, pressed against the roof of the car, one arm behind the seat and one arm out the window holding onto the roof. That was rough for a couple of miles, but thankfully Melanie let us out to walk the last segment of really bumpy dirt road.

I went for a couple drives with Robin in his RV, and that was certainly a monster on those little roads (though there were still trucks bigger than us out there, too). I was impressed with his handling of it, though, especially since it's English and has a right-side drive, which I expect makes the navigation/dodging even harder. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to do it.

On my ride back to Bucharest I was in a jeep with four other people, a bunch of luggage, and a large, farting puppy. That was a cramped two hours. I'd seen the jeep fuller than that, though, with, I think, the majority of the Tanase family in it. Also, Gabriel will answer whichever of his cell phones happen to ring while he's driving. I've seen him holding one phone up to each ear, alternating conversations and steering with his elbows.

On my first night there, Mihail asked me "Did you vote for Obama?" When I said yes, he replied "Good. We like you already."

Volunteering with Pro Vita

Since volunteering with the orphanage was the original motivation for my trip, I'll start with that. Unfortunately, this also happened to be one of the more frustrating things for me. The feeling a lot of the time was that the organization just didn't know (or care) what to do with a volunteer. To be fair, of course, the reality was probably a variety of things: the volunteer coordinators being busy with other projects, the fact that I was the only volunteer there at the time, Easter throwing a wrench in the schedule and activities, etc. My orientation basically consisted of being shown a few buildings, not getting introduced to anyone, and being told none of the other people who work there speak English. I didn't even know the kids' schedules or the rules or anything. At that point they sort of left me on my own to do whatever I wanted (I didn't even see the coordinators for a couple days), which isn't a terribly comfortable situation to be in when you're completely disoriented in a new country. Also, I was promised Romanian lessons several times but never got them, so I was stuck with the stuff I had managed to learn on my own. "Where's the hotel?" and "I'd like to buy some wine" don't get you very far in that context, though. Anyway, I did what I could, though I rarely felt very helpful or useful or anything. Some of that was my fault as well, of course, since I'm sure there are ways I could have been a better, more pro-active volunteer even without any guidance. But it wasn't the sort of situation I work well in, and getting frequently depressed about it didn't help at all. Anyway, on to what I did do....

Adrian and Christina I spent a lot of time with the toddlers, of which there are currently three: Christina, Adrian, and Marion. (Some of these names may have Romanian spellings that I don't know.) The plus side to these kids was that I usually knew where to find them, they had no school or homework or chores to work around, and the language barrier feels less problematic when you're communicating at a 3-year-old level. Though there were still numerous times that one of them would be really earnestly trying to tell me something and I'd feel awful because I just had no clue what it was, and I'm not sure they really get the concept of me not knowing their language. Christina was the sweetie of the group. Marion was the quiet, shy one, who'd usually wait for the other kids to start things before joining in. Adrian was the troublemaker. I know conceptually that kids will "act out" just to get attention, but I'd never seen it so clearly demonstrated as with him. You could literally see him experimenting, gauging my reactions, making mental notes about it, and then deliberately doing it again later. Fascinating and maddening at the same time.

Vasile I spent less time with the school-age kids. It was harder to know what to do with them or where or when. Some of the older ones know some English, but the majority of them in the 6-10 age range or so don't. When you meet them on the playground and can only say things like "my name's Graham, I don't speak Romanian," you get a lot of blank or suspicious looks. I did bring my mandolin along on the trip, which I had hoped would be a good way to break the ice, but even that wasn't easy. One of the main buildings where the kids live was constantly blaring Romanian radio out to the playground and surrounding area, so you can't just kind of hang out and play. When I did get a chance, though, the mandolin was a fairly big hit. Not that they cared about listening to me play, of course, they all just wanted to do it themselves. But I'm happy to let them play around with the strumming as long as I held onto the instrument and fingered chords and stuff. Vasile, one of the six-year-olds, amused me by being the only one to start off strumming in jig time. Christina liked it a lot, too, and would insist on sitting on my lap and scooting under the mandolin strap with me so she could try to hold it properly (though it's as big as she is). I wish I'd gotten a picture of that.

Me and Alina Pro Vita also helps take care of several adults with various disabilities who are unable to live independently but all share a building next to mine and help out with various things around the organization and the farm. I hung out with them a bit, too, especially Alina who is the most outgoing and communicative of the lot. She's picked up fragments of various languages from other volunteers in the past, but even if she doesn't know many words she tries so energetically and enthusiastically to communicate that it seems like she speaks a lot more than she does. She also knows the words (mostly phonetically, I think) to lots of random songs, from Clementine to Hava Nagilah, so we had some fun butchering some vocal/mandolin renditions of them.

A somewhat more random job I helped with a bit was transferring sheep to their summer pasture up in the hills. Well, I didn't actually do anything with the sheep themselves, but I did help haul a lot of wood and fence segments around to set up the new sheep pens, and had some fairly harrowing tractor rides in the process. Luckily, though, I wasn't on the tractor when they were towing the van up to the hill. (The van doesn't run, but it holds a mattress, and that's where some of the shepherds will sleep while they're living out there.) Mihail was driving the tractor and getting a bit too rambunctious (I blame his cowboy hat) and he ran both it and the van off the road and snapped the tow bar. However, there was a construction crew just up the road from where we were, and he just pulled over and got one of them to weld it back together again.

Me in our Trench In the second week, Robin showed up and things changed a bit. Robin is an Englishman who speaks even less Romanian than I do and is trying to build a new school there. I say "trying" because it's barely started and it may potentially be a somewhat hopeless task. Pro Vita already has a good half-dozen buildings under construction but apparently not being worked on at all. So who knows how far the school will get, especially if they try to do most of it with volunteer labor (which last week consisted almost entirely of me and Robin). But we worked away at it nonetheless. I spent several days basically just ditch digging -- a drainage ditch and a foundation trench -- with occasional breaks to haul rocks around. It was much more sheer physical labor than I've done in a long while, but at that point in time I welcomed it. It felt really good to be completely clear on what I was supposed to be doing, and to have such quantifiable progress and effects. It was also just nice to spend time work and hanging out with Robin, speaking English unabashedly.

So overall, I kind of have trouble justifying my trip in terms of benefit to Pro Vita. I feel like if I wanted to be helpful, I could just as well have written them a check for the amount of my program fee + plane flights and had done with it. I wouldn't say it would necessarily be like that for any volunteer at any time, but that's the way it played out for me. Still, I did what I did, and it was positive even if small. And there were definitely other interesting, worthwhile aspects to the trip as well. More on that coming up.