My Moldovan adventures have now come and gone, and I’m gearing up to take off back to the States, my home and my team. Greg and I wound up hitching a ride from Galati, Romania to Giurgiulesti, Moldova with some older dude with one of the most awesome cars I’ve ever ridden in. Greg was really set on having a sign written on cardboard, and low-and-behold it wound up working. We got to Giurgiulesti no problem, got ourselves on a bus with wifi, and got to Cahul with about an hour to spare before my first seminar.
The training studio in Cahul was constructed in something of an L shape which was a little awkward to work with, but I rolled with it. There were maybe 15 people all together for the seminar, around ⅓ of them being kids. I taught an evolving series, starting out with some very basic, self-defense-specific techniques that I don’t think anyone had really seen before. Then I showed how these self-defense positions evolved into some of the more sporty guards we see in BJJ competitions today. I had to make some modifications for the kids who weren’t quite able to invert in lasso guard.
At the end of the session, Sandu handed out some promotions. He’s officially a black belt now, which of course means that he can finally promote his own students. He first handed out some stripes, then a couple of his kids received their yellow belts. Finally, he was able to award his first blue belts to some of his sandbaggers. I had a tough time with his future blue belts during our rolls after class, so it was pretty obvious that the blue belt was very well-deserved for all of them.
That evening, we went back to Burlacu for the night. Deep down, this was the leg of the trip that I was looking forward to the most. Burlacu is the village where I lived for a little over two years as a Peace Corps volunteer over ten years ago, and I started the first BJJ in Moldova. Sandu was just some little annoying punk kid at the time, so it’s pretty obvious as to the progress he’s made over the years. But I was also pleasantly surprised to see that there had also been a number of positive developments in the village and in the lives of people I had known years ago. Of course there were some sad things that had happened as well, but I’m going to spare everyone these stories as they’re honestly probably not that interesting to the average BJJ fighter.
I will say though, that it was a little disappointing to see that there was no more BJJ in Burlacu. The original mats I had gotten as one of my Peace Corps projects were long gone, and there was unfortunately not much desire on anyone’s part to train jiu-jitsu. I suppose this is only natural though. A friend of mine and former PC volunteer estimated that maybe 1 in 100 programs in Moldova actually reach any level of sustainability, and this is probably fairly accurate. I suppose that I can consider myself pretty lucky to have had the success that I did have. Furthermore, it helped to solidify and reinforce my path as an instructor, and I’m very thankful for my time spent in Burlacu.
After one full day of “doing the village thing”, we got the early-morning public transport to Chisinau. It was standing room only for about a solid hour before enough people got off and we got our own seats. We met up with Sandu at the bus station, and spent the day walking around the city. Not much had changed since I last visited Chisinau over 4 years ago, and this was comforting for me somehow.
My next seminar was set to be held at Sandu’s new gym location in the Botanica section of Chisinau. This team consisted mostly of unsmiling, Moldovan MMA mutant fighters with shaved heads. I’m pretty sure that if you calculated the collective total mass of their cauliflower ears it would be equal to about half of my body weight. I had planned to show a series from the cross sleeve grip from half guard, but I was lucky if half of the guys at the gym had gis on. This factor along with the Eastern European tendency to want to see only the most awesome moves at an unorganized, rapid-fire pace, didn’t make for a satisfying teaching session. Hopefully they were able to get something out of it, but in the end I felt a little discouraged overall.
We got some rolls in afterwards, and again there were promotions. Most of the guys had strong wrestling and/or sambo backgrounds, so on top of being physical specimens all around, these guys were very tough to roll with. I don’t remember being able to tap anybody on the mats that night. Of course I rolled with Sandu and of course he made sure to kick my ass nice and good. Can’t let some punk brown belt beat the black belt instructor, you know.
Overall, the pace of sparring/rolling in every country and gym I’ve been to out here has been very intense. Probably the least-intense gym I rolled at was the Chisinau gym. At the camp in Bulgaria pretty much every single person I rolled with was absolutely trying to murder me; leg locks, cranks, even smother submissions were all good and all applied as if my opponents were in the finals of the IBJJF Mundials. This definitely isn’t the type of pace I try to keep at my gym, but I have no judgements against others who want to train this way. In my opinion, you become far more adept at developing technique and finding creative solutions to bad spots if you just try and change directions when you reach roadblocks instead of blasting through them. But, hey, that’s just my opinion I suppose.
We did some no-gi training the next day, and thankfully I wasn’t the guy in charge. We went over some super fancy ashi garami leg lock transitions, and I got some good, fast-paced rolls in with everyone. We did some dynamic stretching and went over to one of the guy’s house and had a barbecue… if that’s what you want to call it. In reality it was just a fire made with wood from some old furniture with a grill grate set up on some rebar set on some concrete rubble. Easily one of the more bootleg grilling experiences I’ve ever had, which is saying a lot.
We did some weight training the next morning and then we set out to the train station for our 5pm train to Bucharest. We rode all night in our mobile sauna and got into Bucharest at 6 in the morning. It was a little sad to see the train in such a bad state; despite the fact that it was the weekend, probably less than half the cabins even had people in them, and one car was void of people altogether, and unlike the little village buses there was no wifi at all. The train trip over the border is easily one of my fondest memories of traveling back and forth from Romania to Moldova, but I’m not sure how much longer that rickety thing is going to be around.
Our whirlwind trip is almost over. We’ve got to get Greg to the airport tonight, and then I leave out at about 8pm tomorrow night. It’s been really great to be out here again and this is an experience I’ll never forget. I’ll write more on how things turned out later, but the feeling for me now is that this trip is definitely winding down.