In the U.S. we have many words for camping, right? Instead of camping you can also say tenting, RVing, glamping, backpacking, etc. All have slightly different connotations for the various levels of outdoor intensity. Here in Moldova, there is no such surplus of words to describe this summer activity. Moldovans say “tabară” and “școală de vară.” And in fact, I explained myself for quite a while before my Romanian profesor understood that when I said “tabară” I meant “American style camping.” We finally settled on the phrase “tabară naturală.”
“Tabară” is something many Moldovans enjoy doing over the summer, but it’s definitely not camping as we understand it. Think instead of going to a campground in the woods where you stay in a cabin and go to a dining hall for meals. Moldovans also call it “școală de vara” if it’s put on by some organized group – say missionaries, or boy scouts, or universities – and has some kind of educational or training purpose.
So what does it matter if there isn’t a word for camping? I promise this blog post is not just a lesson in Romanian vocabulary. I give you this background because it actually affects the camping experience in this country. Because it’s obvious, isn’t it, that if a country doesn’t have a word for camping then they also probably don’t have the infrastructure in place for campsites? If it existed then they would have a word to describe it.
A little background on our camping experience
I imagine you asking, and rightfully so, why then would we choose to go camping in Moldova? Well, the simple answer for Daniel and myself is that we went to support the American missionaries who were planning the trip. The more complicated answer is multi-faceted. One reason is that Moldovans are very attracted to “American” experiences. They like to interact with the culture and the language, and we have found higher attendance at events that are specifically “American.” The other answer is that camping generally equates to relationship building. It’s a great way to get to know people on a deeper level outside of the daily context. The final answer is that the American missionaries who organized the event are outdoorsmen themselves, and this kind of event was right up their alley.
So the camping plan was this: three cars + one trailer + six people leave Chișinau in the morning and drive the hour or so to the natural area outside of Orhei Vechi (remember Orhei Vechi??). We would set up the campsite and wait for two more people (one of them being Daniel) to join us by microbus (public transportation) over the next day.
Why people don’t camp (and therefore don’t need a word for it) in Moldova
Let me start by saying that Moldovans are super tough people. And honestly, their daily life in the village is not so different from camping. Yesterday, for example, we rode for over an hour on a packed microbus (with people standing in the aisles) without air-conditioning on a 90 degree day. We made it to the house we were visiting only to find our hostess cooking in an outdoor kitchen because their house also doesn’t have AC. She worked for hours to make a gourmet meal from food procured directly from within her village. Fresh bread, placinte, sarmale, roasted chicken and vegetables, a tomato and cucumber salad… It was truly a feast. And it was cooked outside, over an open fire, on a 90 degree day, with flies buzzing around. Sounds a bit like camping, doesn’t it?
I suppose the difference, then, between camping and village life is mostly infrastructure and expectations. Except remember, I’m not Moldovan. So I found this particular camping experience challenging in quite a few ways.
The issue of the roads
The roads here are something that Daniel and I are still aren’t accustomed to. A smooth stretch of road is a rarity. The norm is road littered with potholes, making every ride VERY bumpy or VERY swervy. Either way, whenever we are passengers we often find ourselves nauseous. We’ve actually started travelling with dramamine regularly just in case.
On this particular camping excursion, the last 15 minutes of the drive were along a single lane, gravel road. On one side the hill rose steeply, and on the other side a short drop-off ended in a brown river. And oh the ups and downs of the road. They were short but steep – meaning that you couldn’t see the next stretch of road until you were at the top of the next hill. It was fine for an SUV, but pulling the trailer was a different story. Thankfully there was only one episode of pushing involved.
The issue of infrastructure
Okay, so honestly, the quality of the roads are weak sauce for camping adventure. Roads are one of those facts of life that Moldovans have adjusted to. It is only because I am American that I consider them an obstacle on a camping excursion.
The real problem? That would be the infrastructure. Let me explain. When you pay for a spot in a maintained camping site, what does that get you? 1) A flat place to pitch your tent. 2) Public restrooms. 3) Maybe even public showers. 4) Access to a water spigot with potable water. 5) Garbage receptacles. Obviously when backpacking you don’t have all those amenities. But remember, this was advertised as a camping trip and not as a backpacking trip (expectations people!!)
So how does it work in Moldova? You may realize when you arrive at your campsite that the flat place to pitch your tent is covered in cow patties because this field is used by shepherds for cow and sheep and goat herds to graze in. You therefore spend the next hour shoveling poop away from your campsite.
You thankfully would have planned appropriately and brought plywood and a plastic tarp to create a bathroom tent. This field had no public restroom (obviously) but it also had very limited tree cover, making toileting in the open air a bit complicated. Not to mention that the shepherds were going to and fro around the campsite, as well as various villagers on their way to gather stones or fish.
And the problem of water? Normally there is a natural spring that people get water from, but the river level was too high and had covered the outlet of the spring. So we did make an emergency trip back into the closest village to buy some additional water. A group of 8 people goes through a lot of water when it’s 85-90 degrees outside.
And don’t even get me started on keeping food cold. Bags of ice are not a thing in this country. Let me just say that we ate a lot of meat Saturday night before it spoiled in the heat.
The issue of expectations
Expectations: both a blessing and a curse. High expectations can make for a better experience, or they can mean a lower low when the expectations come crashing down. I think one of our greatest challenges was mitigating “camping” expectations in a country that is better suited to backpacking.
For example, there were almost tears from a couple of the young adults when they realized we were pitching our tents among the cow patties. And then again, there was a lot of exasperation when they realized we didn’t have air mattresses. (It turns out that they brought a generator along on the camping trip last year to fill air mattresses.)
What is more, in addition to the toilet tent there was a shower tent. “Showering” involved driving back to the closest village – yet again – to fill 6L bottles with well water. Back at the campsite they heated the water and then took full showers – hair washing and all. Daniel and I never showered because…well…our expectation for camping includes being dirty until you make it home.
I must admit that although the Moldovan youth oscillated between excited and devastated, it was fleeting. Only momentarily did they let their expectations get the best of them, after which they hunkered down to the work of making the weekend a success. (They are tough Moldovans after all.)
The issue of heat
To be fair, heat is just one of those things when it comes to camping. I only add it here because being too hot is like being hangry. You can have an incredible experience, but being hangry is like a dark cloud over it. We had an added layer of difficulty in this camping experience simply because we were super hot all day long.
Why fix what ain’t broke?
You can argue that it is unnecessarily painful to try expose Moldovans to American camping culture. Why experience so many difficulties when we could have done team building at a hotel with a pool closer to the city? I must admit I asked myself these same questions many times at my sweatiest, hangriest moments.
At least part of the answer is that camping in Moldova means a lot of super cool experiences.
To experience the great outdoors
In general, life in Moldova is much more connected to the land than life in the US. Most people come from villages, and most villagers own animals and grow their own produce to eat. It makes sense, then, that our campsite was full of animals. From the dozens and dozens of frogs croaking away along the river shore to the herds of animals that moved in and out of the valley every day, it was lovely to experience nature while camping.
To explore without constraint
I’ve mentioned it before, but I still can’t get over the fluidity of public and private land in Europe in general. Seeing no fences on this camping trip, we explored the landscape as we chose. We scrambled up hills along routes of fallen rock, not trails per se. And then we ambled across hilltops, oblivious as to whether the owners of the house we saw nearby might in fact own the land we walked upon.
To interact with Moldovan village culture
There is undoubtedly a difference between city and village culture even in Moldova. We stay mostly in the city, so village culture impresses us that much more whenever we experience it. We had two lovely interactions with rural Moldovans while on this camping trip.
The first occurred when I was driving to go pick up Daniel from the bus stop in the closest village. Remember how I described the single lane road with a steep hill and a drop off on either side? Well I was about 1/4th of the way along this road when I saw a sedan jostling its way toward me. I parked the car and waited. The other car (packed with at least 5 people) stopped when they reached me and I started to speak with them in Romanian.
Thank goodness they spoke English! Because we spent the next 5 minutes with their driver directing me to reverse down a hill (totally blind because of the grade) and a little on to the shoulder so their car could pass. Honestly, I expected frustration from them, because this is the Moldova city way, but they were so nice and flexible. And at the end they gave me a handful of fresh strawberries. Can you imagine? Being delayed in your travels and responding with a gift of strawberries?
Not 20 minutes later I picked up Daniel in the village. On his bus had been a woman in her 60s to 70s carrying two bags filled with bricks. Literal bricks that she had purchased in Chișinău and needed to transport back to her village. She kindly asked us for a ride from the bus stop toward her house, and of course we said yes.
But get this: she directed us to drop her off along the side of the main road – meaning at the base of the hill leading up to her house. In what world does a woman of retirement age carry bags of bricks up a hill??? Remember when I said Moldovans are tough? Well that’s because they are. I hope you weren’t wondering, but YES we drove her all the way up to her house. And she heaped blessings of health upon us in return.
My big picture take-away
For me, camping means unplugging and connecting with nature, God, yourself, and your camping party. Now I’m not going to wax all poetic and say that this camping trip allowed me to connect ideally in all of those ways. In fact, I was super frustrated with Daniel the whole time. And the constant feeling of almost heat stroke made me less than excited to play games with the Moldovans. Side note: If you want to feel aware of an age gap then go camping with people 10 years younger than you.
In fact, camping highlighted some of the ways that I most definitely AM NOT a missionary. I was frustrated with Moldovan expectations, as well as with American expectations that this was supposed to a profound event.
But like all things in life – I need to remember that it simply WAS. It was fun, hard, and hot all at the same time. But it was mostly just us living our life….always trying to look for meaning in the things that we do without assigning too much importance to any of it.
The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.-Joseph Campbell