Geoff spoke Romanian and I spoke Russian.
“In the past,” Bridgette warned, “we’ve had problems with male counselors.”
Geoff and I assured her we’d act like perfect gentlemen; we’d provide the girls with positive male role models, and help push the campers into a lifetime of self-respect.
“All well and good,” said Bridgette. “But seriously, watch it. These girls are direct. In part they’re here to learn what’s socially acceptable in the real world. So…” She paused to put down a packet of papers so that she could count the don’ts on her fingers. “Don’t accept their phone numbers. Don’t give them your phone numbers. Don’t hug. Don’t flirt. Tell them to step back when they stand too close. Don’t share water bottles. Don’t compliment their clothes, especially when they ask your opinion. No walking alone through the woods. No whispering secrets into your ears.”
She stopped counting on her fingers.
“In general, guys, don’t be douche bags.”
We tried to put Bridgette’s mind at ease. We told her not to worry—that we were both teachers who knew how the Moldovan girls acted, especially “direct”
“These girls are different,” she insisted.
“Gentlemen we are,” Geoff insisted back.
The campers arrived. They’d been instructed to leave their high heels behind, but no one had thought to ban tiny dresses. Some had traveled long distances, from as far away as Soroca, and wore tight jeans instead of tight dresses. All wore makeup. These girls were fifteen to eighteen years of age. A girl slowed as she walked by on her way to the registration tent, turning her head, never breaking eye contact with me. She blew a kiss before turning away.
Bridgette’s warnings no longer appeared harsh.
Geoff and I circulated, helped with bags, sent girls toward their cabins. “You’re the Russian man,” said a girl, winking. “You are my counselor.” Her nametag said Natalia. She pretended to naturally lose her balance, as if she were shifting in her normal high heels, and touched my arm for support. She leaned forward and tried to whisper a secret in my ear. I leaned back and she told her secret in a full voice. “We all know about you.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“In my sixteenth year. How old are you?”
“Twenty five. Very old.”
She nodded. I was indeed very old. “A pity,” she said. “If you were only a couple years younger we could have some fun.”
I found Geoff. He’d been cornered by a group of Romanian girls. I didn’t follow the language of the conversation, but it seemed they were grilling him about his lack of a wife. The girls turned to me. “I only speak Russian,” I said in Russian, my palms in the air. The girls turned back to Geoff. I took him away by the arm. He thanked me for the rescue and we went to a field to play Frisbee while the girls unpacked. But instead of unpacking the girls followed us and crept closer, closer and closer until we let the brave girls at the head of the encroaching pack try to throw the disc. The first girl wanted Geoff to demonstratecorrect technique by wrapping his body around her and throwing the Frisbee from her hand in the proper manner. “Just throw the damn thing,” he instructed. The disc flew five feet before crashing to the ground. All the girls giggled. “Go unpack,” I said, shooing them away. After a minute, they left.
In my own cabin I read literature from Bridgette.
The American State Department monitors international human trafficking and releases a Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report each year, which addresses trafficking on a country-by-country basis. I read these highlights about Moldova:
U.S. Government Reports on Moldova
Trafficking in Persons Report 2007
MOLDOVA (Tier 2 Watch List)
Moldova is a major source, and to a lesser extent, a transit country for women and girls trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation.
Moldovan women are trafficked to Turkey, Israel, the U.A.E., Ukraine, Russia, Cyprus, Greece, Albania, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Italy, France, Portugal, and Austria. Girls and young women are trafficked internally from rural areas to Chisinau.
The Government of Moldova does not fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.
Trafficking corruption at all levels throughout the government continued unchecked during most of the reporting period.
Moldova’s efforts to prevent trafficking remained weak in 2006. The government continued to rely on NGOs and international organizations to provide the majority of public awareness and education campaigns.
These girls of GLOW were approaching the age when they’d get offers, enticements, promises—all too good to be true.
The 20 Russian campers slept in the same cabin. They came from all over Moldova, from north to south, but several already knew each other, as they had come to camp from the same orphanage. So already there was a sense of camaraderie when I entered the cabin to meet them. They’d all finished unpacking—stuffing their bags under their cots—and were lying on top of the blankets on the cots. “Hi, pretty boy,” one said.
“Careful,” said Natalia, the girl I’d talked to before. “He’s too old.”
All the girls agreed this was a great problem. “If only he was a couple years
younger,” said another girl, talking as if I weren’t in front of her.
“Careful,” I said in Russian. “I understand everything.”
The girls “oooed” and “aaaaghed” at my speaking voice—it was nothing, they claimed, like the harsh Russian voices of other men.
“Just remember,” I explained. “You’re all just girls. Don’t pretend to be anything else. Act like yourself. Do want you want, but not what you think others think you should do. Don’t pretend to know what others think. Be yourself.” My extemporaneous pep talk didn’t translate well into Russian. The words I wanted to tell them were clear in my head, but I couldn’t get them out in English or Russian. I thought about translating the TIP report for them. “Just have fun,” I concluded. “And don’t flirt with me.”
A girl raised her hand. “Will you be with us the whole time?”
“I will be, yes.”
The girl smiled. “Very, very good,” she said in English.
I followed the girls to their classes and was asked to stand in the corridor while other Peace Corps volunteers taught them about dental health, resume writing, study skills and applying to universities. These volunteers were women, and the girls clearly respected them. I was hurt, wanted to join in, but the eyes of the presenters asked please and I continued waiting in the hallway. A Moldovan woman translated the volunteers’ words into Russian. I could hear the girls then begin contributing to conversation more now that the male presence had disappeared; they responded to questions, furthered ideas, shared life stories. I felt at once happy and useless. I continued waiting as a female doctor instructed the girls in reproductive health and condoms. I waited outside as they invented ideal futures—abroad and, more difficult to imagine, in Moldova. Many understood that being doctors and lawyers and secretaries would make them happy. They just didn’t know how to get there.
During a formal presentation I was allowed to reenter and sat to the side as the female director of an NGO called Winrock presented a PowerPoint diagramming the steps involved in human trafficking. I watched the girls’ faces. Some cried single tears and some mouthed the words: “No way.”
Women were having an impact on these girls’ futures, I could see it, and I could only feel useless and impotent in my purpose as a male observer. In a dark moment I extended this feeling to my entire existence as a volunteer in Moldova.
Was I helping? Was I even capable of helping? Or was I just meant to be an observable model of how others in the world acted? Had the value of my work, then, exhaust itself after my first day in country?
Later, finally called into direct action, I was the fictitious attacker in the self-defense workshop, and the victim during the first-aid course. The girls took turns kicking and reviving me with chest compressions.
I filled water bottles.
I gathered firewood.
I killed insects that wandered into the cabins.
When the classes finished each evening the girls played Frisbee with Geoff and me, danced to music on the camp boom box, and melted chocolates near the campfire. They didn’t flirt.
On the last day the girls received photo-copied “yearbooks” to commemorate their time in camp. I signed each copy. At first I refused to sign my email in Natalia’s yearbook. I thought she was flirting. “Part of the networking and résumé workshop,” she insisted. “We need contacts.”
“Do you have email?” I asked.
“No,” she admitted. “But I expect to any day now. Email helps to get a job, yes?”
Eventually I relented and signed my address into every book.
After the girls had packed their bags, cleaned their cabin, cried their goodbye tears, received their supportive hugs from their new sisters and high-fives from me, found their places on the bus, and had gone off on their separate ways, the counselors could finally celebrate.
The girls had completed before-camp and after-camp surveys on topics such as reproductive health, trafficking, condom effectiveness and education. Before the camp, most of the girls hadn’t believed in the effectiveness of condoms; now the majority did. Most hadn’t known the domestic dangers of human traffickers; now the majority was aware. The girls all had new toothbrushes and toothpaste and knew how frequently to use each. The girls all had a list of counselor emails, should they one day get Internet in their villages. In short, there were long-term and short-term reasons to celebrate.
The spirits of the group were extremely high, but I couldn’t help from qualifying the success in my mind because I’d contributed so little. Only a hundred girls, I thought. Not so many. I felt shame.
In summary of our performances, Bridgette declared that Geoff and I had comported as perfect gentlemen—completely the opposite of douche bags.
Once back in Chisinau, Geoff and I choose to take our celebration to McDonald’s. We hadn’t tasted food outside of camp rations in a week. We each finished two Big Macswithout speaking, and then in short time we were stacking empty beer cups on the table. We toasted to the success of GLOW camp and would have stayed in the courtyard of McDonald’s all afternoon, stacking cups, had a strange couple not taken up the table next to us.
A man had purchased a young girl a milkshake. The girl wore a short skirt and high heels. She wore a black bra under a see-through red fishnet blouse. We’d chastised our campers for wearing this wardrobe on the first day of camp. The man wasn’t Moldovan; Geoff and I were certain. He wore atypically rounded loafers. His khaki pants were loose. His dress shirt wasn’t tucked in. His hair went down past his ears, and he hadn’t shaved that morning.
Geoff noticed the couple first and motioned for me to turn around and look, but then said, “Don’t be obvious!”
“What,” I said. “The Italian and the hooker?”
“No,” said Geoff. “They’re speaking Romanian.” Geoff listened intently. He spoke English to me, keeping his voice at a normal conversational volume. “She’s not a hooker,” he said. “Not yet. But he wants her to be.”
“What’s he saying?”
Geoff paraphrased: “If you don’t like it, if you want to come home. You can return freely whenever you like. Think about this seriously. Don’t make your decision quickly with worry.”
Perhaps the don’t-be-a-hooker camp we’d just completed overly influenced us. To Geoff and me, this was clearly human trafficking.
“Your business is dirty!” said Geoff in Romanian. “You are dirty, Sir!”
The man turned toward our table and acted surprised. He swore under his breath. Geoff repeated his statement, again calling him Sir.
“Tell the girl not to whore herself,” I whispered to Geoff. I think that’s what he said next; the girl looked shocked and said, “No, no…” and then something else I didn’t understand. I heard her say bine, which I knew meant “fine.”
“Did you tell her?” I asked Geoff.
“This is totally a traffic deal,” he said.
The foreign man got up and walked away, ignoring the girl’s request for him to stay.
We offered to buy the girl a beer.
She asked us to leave.
Geoff and I stood on shaky legs and shook hands before parting, confident we’d accomplished something.
A. A. Weiss grew up in Maine and works as a foreign language teacher after having lived in Ecuador, Mexico and Moldova. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine, 1966 Journal, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and The Writing Disorder, among others, and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in New York City. Please visit www.aaweiss.com to read more.