From June 1 to June 14, I went to the Transylvania region of Romania to volunteer on a farm that does almost everything the old way — no tractor, no fertilizer, no pesticides. I headed out via train from Budapest to Huedin, which is a town of about 9000 about an hour from Cluj. From there, I went to Rachitele, a small village about 30km south of Huedin. That’s where I start my two-week adventure…
Rather than write it out chronologically, I wrote down titles for certain stories that I’ll tell in bits and pieces. The trip was incredibly fun — I got to help do some hard labor (moving lots of dirt), cook food for everyone, and plan and execute a project to bring electric power to the old barn, which is being converted into a workshop and living area. I learned a lot about reducing, reusing, and recycling, which are essential skills in this fairly remote region, as well as some things about cooking and other various things. I highly suggest doing something like this!
In this area (and Eastern Europe in general), hitchhiking is an accepted practice. That said, to get to Rachitele from Huedin, I hitchhiked with an old man who did not speak a word of English and listened to folk accordion music on the way, with the old man pointing out all of the mountains, valleys, and rivers excitedly with a huge grin, trying to tell me in Romanian about how beautiful it was. I tried responding in Hungarian but he just looked at me blankly, so I just smiled and responded “Da! Da!”. I saw him a few more times throughout my trip around Huedin, so I assume he lived there and was headed out that direction that day anyway.
Hiking up the mountain
When I arrived in Rachitele, I was told to ask for the “casa Mexicano” — the Mexican’s house — and tried to do so at the town store/bar. They explained to me how to get there in a smattering of hand gestures and slow Romanian. After 2 or 3 minutes of explanation, I gave up and just pointed in a direction and said “Da?” They fixed my orientation a little bit and I headed down the road uphill. After 10 or 15 minutes of walking mostly uphill, I saw a farmer out in a field and asked the same question. He made a grand gesture that said to me “keep going straight up”, so I did. After another 30 minutes of walking up the mountain, I saw a couple tending to their garden, and asked the same question. This time, they said “no, no, no” and had me go back downhill about 20 minutes and told me to take a different path. This pattern kept going for a couple of hours until, exhausted, I arrived at the farm. The paths were half footpaths and half dirt roads, and I figured that in the worst case, I could just sleep somewhere off the path, hope it didn’t rain, and try again in the morning. Luckily I found it around 5pm or so.
One of the days, my job was to cut out a hole in the side of the barn to put a window that had been recycled from somewhere in Germany and brought to Romania. Once I cut the hole, I was to build a windowframe to put the glass in, with a slot routed on the edges for the piece of glass to fit snugly inside. How do you cut a hole in the side of a barn? With a chainsaw of course! What kind of chainsaw might you have in Romania? One from West Germany! Not as in, a city in the western part of Germany, but it was made before the end of the Cold War, and said in bold letters “Made in West Germany”. I thought it was pretty cool. The gear for the pullstring to start it stripped after using it for a while, but otherwise it worked fine, despite the lack of any safety features. After a couple of days, I had the windowframe built and the hole cut, and it fit securely inside. Project well done!
Digging and Pálinka
Part of the first week’s work was to dig 6 cubic meters of red dirt from one place and bring it to another to eventually make plaster with. The owner of the farm, another two volunteers, and myself dug 4 cubic meters in the morning and loaded it onto the neighbor’s tractor, and he moved it next to the barn after each load. After lunch, one of the volunteers, myself, and the owner all came back to dig more, but 4 men were standing around a car in the neighbors yard all holding shotglasses, with one of them holding a 2.5L bottle of Coca-Cola with a clear liquid in it. We came up to them and the owner asked in Romanian about more digging, but instead they said “no, no, no” and handed us glasses and filled them with pálinka, or ţuică in Romanian, which is a strong fruit brandy made by people in the countryside and in Eastern Europe. I, speaking absolutely no Romanian, stood in a circle holding my shovel with one hand and my shotglass of pálinka with the other, listening intently to the joking conversation between the 6 other men in Romanian. One of them was fake fighting and slapping around the owner of the farm and I think the old man was arguing with the other volunteer. I mostly just laughed when everyone else laughed or when I could understand rare words that were similar to Spanish. The best and most Eastern European part was when it would get mostly silent — everyone would be looking off in some direction, and someone would just sigh heavily and say “Bine…” (pronounced BEE-nay), and everyone would slowly nod and respond with “da”. Needless to say after about an hour of conversing in Romanian drinking some probably-flammable fruit brandy, the rest of the day’s digging went a little slower than the morning. We had to return another day to get the last 2 cubic meters of dirt, but we finished making a fence around the dirt to keep it from eroding in the rain. All in all we actually got a lot done despite the long midday break. I think we all slept well that night!
Visit to Town
This is a combination of two stories, but occasionally I would walk 30 minutes downhill to Rachitele either to go to Huedin or to get something from the bar or store, and several things happened there. On the last week, a German volunteer and I went down with large backpacks to buy several bottles of beer for all of the volunteers, as the next night was my going-away campfire. We walked into the town bar around 3pm, when it looked like most of the town must have been sitting down having a midday drink, and as soon as we walked in, it was something like a movie. Everyone went silent and started staring at us, saying nothing and examining us. I guess we looked that out-of-place, but the lady who ran the store and bar eventually did come help us and eventually everyone started acting normally again, so it worked out. On the way back, the German girl went to put a postcard in the mailbox, so I sat on the edge of a bridge with all of our things. Almost as soon as I sat down, I was targeted by, who the owner of the farm called her, the town drunk. She was a thin, weathered, elderly lady at least in her 60s, and she came up to me yelling something in Romanian and waving her hands back and forth trying to get her point across. Unfortunately by this time, I had not learned much of any Romanian, so I had no clue what she was saying. I just shrugged my shoulders and ignored her, but she came up to me even closer and said the same thing, just much louder, and made a pushing motion about a half meter from my face as if she was going to push me off of the bridge. I got up and said loudly, shrugging my shoulders with my hands in the air “I DON’T KNOW”, and she finally backed off and said some angry-sounding remark in Romanian. I escaped that time, but I was convinced that I was going to end up pushed off of a bridge by an old Romanian woman and have to explain the bruises to everyone later. Disaster averted!
Woman seeing Internet for the first time
The last story I’ll tell is that of a woman seeing the Internet for the first time. One day when I came inside after working on some different projects on the farm, the owner had someone sitting down next to him working on his laptop. She turned around and smiled at me and motioned to take some of the food that she brought, so I happily obliged and exchanged pleasantries in my (broken) newly learned Romanian. After cleaning up a bit, the owner explained that she had never seen the Internet before, and that he was helping her learn how to use it to get the Romanian equivalent of a high school diploma. He set her up with an e-mail address and showed her how to do several different things, and it was quite amazing to see her face light up and the excitement in her voice upon hearing all of the things she could do. This was so cool to me, as someone who grew up with this knowledge. I can’t imagine how exciting that was for her, and I hope that it goes really well!
Maybe I’ll post more stories later, but these were some of the more comical and interesting highlights of the last two weeks. I highly encourage you to try volunteering on a farm somewhere, especially if you’ve never done such work or always lived in a city or in the suburbs. The pace of life and the quiet beauty of it are unparalleled, and I think it really gives you some time to think about whatever you need to think about in life. Not only that, with different organizations like WWOOF, you can visit a place that you may otherwise never get to go. Maybe I’ll do it again someday somewhere even crazier, like Siberia, or somewhere in Africa!