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Relying on the kindness of strangers

… or realities of riding a Rutiera in Moldova.

What is a rutiera?

Rutiera or mini-buses, are buses that seat between 16 and 20 people and are one of the primary ways to get around Moldova, within and between cities, villages, towns, ect. Often a rutiera may be your only way to get between places, but sometimes there may also be a bus or a train.

Rutieras in Chisinau

Rutieras in Chisinau

While these rutieras seat between 16 and 20 people, there are typically about 10-30 more people crammed onto these, standing or wedged into any free space in the bus, from the aisles, to the space by the door, ect.

As you might imagine, a ride on a packed rutiera, is somewhere between less than pleasant and quite frankly a version of hell. This scale depends on a lot of things:

  • How many people are in fact sardined into the particular rutiera – meaning how cramped are you, as you stand. This can range from a few others standing, meaning you more or less have your own space, to being literally squished into people on either side of you.
  • How good are the roads where you’re traveling – roads can range here from quite good, within some cities to an almost literal rollercoaster ride of potholes and/or swerving to avoid potholes.
  • How long the ride is. I’ve stood on rutiera rides that were anywhere from 20 minutes through a city (totally bearable) to a three hour ride between raions (rough).
  • What the weather is like. This may seem odd, but most of the rutieras do not have air conditioning and based on a belief here that current or wind causes sickness, all the windows will often remain closed.
  • And perhaps most importantly, your general tolerance for riding a rutiera. Does it bother you having strangers pressed against you for long period of time? Does heat or body odor really affect you? Do you get motion sickness? If you answered yes to any of these, riding a rutiera might be on the more difficult side of the scale for you.
The empty inside of a rutiera in Moldova. There can be up to 50 people on one of these.

The empty inside of a rutiera in Moldova. There can be up to 50 people on one of these.

Since being in Moldova, I’ve riden a lot of rutieras. I’m lucky in that most of these rides have been not bad and that I don’t have to take one regularly. I can walk to work, to the grocery store and often get a ride from my work-partner’s husband when I have to travel to Chisinau. To give you a better feel for riding a rutiera, I will include a few stories, pulled from personal experience, regarding riding on a rutiera in Moldova  – these include both some of the worst moments and some of the best.

The highlight reel of my rutiera rides thus far:

Riding from larga to balti. (The worst)

A while ago, on a Saturday, I took an eventful trip about two and a half hours north, attempting to get to Larga, to visit a friend of mine. I eventually reached Larga and enjoyed a lovely weekend there. Since there are only three rutieras out of Larga, one at 3a, one at 4a and one at 5a, the Monday following, I awoke at 4a to make it to the station and be on the 5a rutiera out.

I got on the nicest rutiera I have ever been on. It was new, clean, there was a flat screen television (playing fast and the furious 6) and I could tell by all the number of laptops that were out, that there was wi-fi. At first, I wasn’t concerned I was standing, since the rutiera was coming from the north and makes many stops, so I assumed I would eventually get a seat – after all, it was an almost three hour ride.

I assumed wrong. I stood on that rutiera, somewhat cramped, exhausted, nauseous and warm in the aisle of that rutiera for the entire ride. I truly believe that the only thing that kept me from throwing up on that ride, was having The Fast and Furious on to focus on. Impressively, even though the movie was in Russian, I was able to understand its complicated and unique plot line.

(This ride was made even more frustrating because there were about five boys around my age sitting, who did not offer to give me or the woman with the baby who was also standing their seat. This is especially surprising in Moldova, where men often give up their seats on rutieras for women, especially elderly or women with children.)

The Briceni bus station

The Briceni bus station

A man telling the driver where I need to get off. (Small gestures)

I got on a rutiera in Chisinau, the one my co-worker had directed me would take me to the Hotel, where she had told me to catch it. I was so glad to see it pull up, because after waiting for 20 minutes, I had begun to fear I was at the wrong place and naturally it was raining and my umbrella had decided not to open.

After about 10 minutes on the rutiera, I asked the girl sitting next to me if she knew where the Hospital, next to the hotel was. She said yes, its on this rutiera’s route, but going the opposite direction. Uhoh, I’m going to be late for sure, I thought.

Eventually, I hopped off the bus, after deciding not to ride it all the way through its route, in a part of the city I had never been to before. I waited and eventually another rutiera, going the other way on the same route arrived. This time, as soon as I got on, I asked the man next to me if this went to the Hospital. He said yes, and began speaking to me in Russian. (The ultimate compliment, because it means that he thought I was a Moldovan, capable of understanding both Romanian and Russian with equal ease.) I of course, do not understand Russian and when he repeated in Romanian, he said yes, it was about 25 minutes away on this route and I should just ask the driver to call out, when we were there.

I was going to ask the driver when the time approached, but about 10 minutes later when the man got off, he asked the driver for me. I know this moment may sound trivial, it may sound like a really small thing, but not having to ask the driver myself, and being at least slightly unsure that I had communicated my wish correctly, and that this stranger did this without my asking – was a touching gesture.

(This story is about an isolated incident that has actually occurred in slightly different forms, several times. )

Ride from Chisinau back to Balti. (An episode of cheers)

I got onto the last of the illegal (meaning unofficial and direct) rutieras back from Chisinau to Balti. I sat down and the two men sitting in front of me started chatting with me. The one man was very interested in almost everything I had to say and eventually moved back to sit next to me. He was especially interested to hear about my work with the primaria on the project Salut, Balti. After speaking to him for about 20 minutes, a girl I know Tanea got onto the rutiera and joined our conversation.

About an hour later into the ride, when I was having trouble understanding a particularly long and complex question my new friend, who it turns out is a Professor at the University in Balti was asking, the two boys sitting in front of me turned around and started translating for me.

I then spoke with them, both of whom had worked in the US , with a work abroad program. And by the end of the two hour ride, I had given out four business cards and knew four new people in Balti.

(I titled this an episode of Cheers, because Cheers was a television show about a bar where everyone knows your name.)

Fainting on a rutiera.  (The best and worst)

I had come into Chisinau for an early afternoon meeting, but since my ride was leaving at 7a that morning I had gotten little sleep the night before. I spent the day running around, attending an unexpected meeting and seeing a friend.

I had planned to spend the night at another volunteer’s house, about 30 minutes from Chisinau, that evening, since I had a conference early the next morning in Chisinau. I called the other volunteer and got directions to her house and then went to the grocery store to purchase some food for dinner, since there isn’t a grocery store in her village.

I got on the rutiera, with my backpack, large purse and groceries and it was packed. We were sardine into the rutiera and somehow people kept getting on. They closed the roof vent and the side window, complaining of the current.

I started feeling like I was going to vomit. This is not an unusual feeling for me on a rutiera, and I told myself the usual things – just breathe through it and do NOT be that American who throws-up on a rutiera. As I was standing there, focusing on my breathing, I realized my legs weren’t steady and I was loosing my vision. As my peripheral vision faded into light and I leaned against the side, a woman next to me noticed and asked if I was ok – all I could say was – Opritz (stop in Romanian).

I don’t remember actually passing out, but what seemed like the next second, I was standing, being supported by two of the men from the rutiera on the side of the road, with a crowd around me and having water thrown in my face.

Someone handed me a water bottle and told me to drink. I did and realized that my back pack was still on the rutiera and just started saying the word for it in Romanian, I couldn’t think of forming full sentences at this point. I was concerned that the rutiera would drive off leaving me here and that my backpack would be on it.

They kept telling me to call my friend. (I had managed to communicate that I was visiting another volunteer in their village.) Of course my friend wasn’t answering her phone.

Once I had my backpack, I told them they could go and I would walk. I figured I would wait until I felt ok, keep calling my friend and then call Peace Corps if she didn’t answer. At that moment I was so thankful that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and was at that moment quite close to Chisinau because I knew if I called Peace Corps Medical they would come and get me.

The people around me – it was at least ten, as I sat on the grass on the side of the road- said no, we’ll wait. So finally, I felt ok to get back onto the rutiera, it was maybe ten minutes, maybe five, its hard to say. I got back on and as I got on, all I could say was Imi pare rau (I’m sorry in Romanian), slightly embarrassed. One boy, about my age, came up to me and asked if I was ok, in English.

I stood almost the rest of the ride, for about 20 more minutes, until about five minutes before my stop someone gave me their seat. The woman I sat down next to was the mother-in-law of the host-family of my friend, the other Peace Corps volunteer in town. She got off the rutiera at the same stop as me and was already telling my friend about me fainting by the time I got off.

I am sure that most of that village knew about the American girl who had fainted on the rutiera that evening and I made sure that I drank a lot more water, for the rest of that week.

(As I said, this story is the best and worst. I have never fainted before and hope to never again, but the people could not have been kinder helping me and making sure I was ok, even though I had a few minutes where I was not able to communicate well.)

You should never ride those things. (Out of touch advice.)

As a funny ending to this highlight reel, I want to share a story that is not about an actual rutiera ride, but a moment from PST (pre-service training). During our second week in Moldova, we had a PST session with the American Embassy’s Safety and Security Officer, who discussed the things we needed to be careful for in Moldova. He was a younger guy, maybe late 30s and as he neared the end of his overview, he mentioned travel.

At this point, we had been taking rutieras, every other day into Chisinau for PST sessions, with our LTIs (Language Teachers); so, you can imagine our surprise, as new PCVs to Moldova, who had been told until that point that riding rutieras was a necessary part of life in Moldova and something we needed to adjust to – when the Safety and Security Officer mentioned rutieras as one of the top safety risks in Moldova.

The room erupted in questions – How are we supposed to travel if we can’t use the rutieras? What do you suggest we do? Seriously?

Well, take a cab or a private car, it’s about the same cost, was his response. Oh, ok, well what does a cab cost? Depending where you are going around Chisinau – only about 50 lei. Well a rutiera anywhere in the city is 3 lei. Oh well then I guess it is a little more he said.

I was laughing at this point and Peace Corps staff rushed up to him to ask him to whisper quickly to him. He clarified saying that if we had to take them, then make sure we got a seat and used a seat belt. This of course caused the room to erupt in another series of questions – Have you ever seen a seat belt? How do we get a seat?

At this point, I think he and the Peace Corps staff realized that he had stepped on a beehive with the new, nervous and impressionable volunteers. He ended saying we just should be especially careful in winter traveling and he left.

(This is one example of many, during which I’ve wonder if some of the other ex-pats in Moldova live in the same country I do and I am reminded of just how different Chisinau is than the rest of the country.)

Rutieras in winter.

Rutieras in winter.


About I think about that every day

I guess this blog will be a really long answer to the generic 'about me' question.


3 thoughts on “Relying on the kindness of strangers

  1. Sounds like my trips in Peru with the exception you had no chickens on your ride. Good Luck, we miss you. Your mom is anxious to see you.

    Posted by Juanita | July 26, 2014, 5:42 pm
  2. yikes! didn’t know you fainted! those rides sound rough. glad you had some acts of kindness and support

    Posted by megan | November 14, 2014, 6:13 am

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