A chronicle of my experiences as a Peace Corps Community Organizational Development volunteer in Bulgaria.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

On Hiking and Related Activities

Last week offered a break in the routine of four or five hours a day of language lessons. On Wednesday we were taken to a bigger city, Pazardjik, for a day of technical training and an opportunity to reunite with the whole group of 59 trainees for a day. Then we were split into smaller groups of 4-6 trainees and given travel instructions to get us to various current Volunteers serving in cities and towns all over the country. I travelled south into the Rhodopi Mountains with four other people and we met with the local volunteer and spent two and a half days shadowing him as he did his job. He works for the Municipality of Chepelare and is based in the town of Chepelare. It's one of the prettiest towns in the country and is located in the heart of the Rhodopi Montains just north of the Greek border. The main industry in the town is tourism and Nick is busy constructing a website to catalog every single hotel, guest house, restaurant and tourist site in the municipality. We were given a two day tour of the mountains and saw quite a bit from a minivan and then some more remote areas from a Land Cruiser. It was also necessary to hike into some gorges to see some caves and natural marble bridges. I've taken photos but still have no way to upload them. I'll keep them until I can get them online. From the bottom of the gorge, it was an hour hike straight up to get back to the Land Cruiser. The PC really needs to think about buying a helicopter for just such occasions. In the evenings we went to a local Mehana or tavern to unwind. The four recent college grads I was with unwind by putting a serious dent in the local beer supply and singing "You've Lost That Loving Feeling". Unfortunately, I happen to know the words to that tune and now there's just one more place I can never go back to.

Hiking is a pretty serious tourist activity in the area, at least until the snow starts and the ski resorts open. The trails run for miles through some pretty spectacular scenery and offer very little in the way of amenities. Still, there are a lot of hard core hikers huffing & puffing their way up and down the mountain sides. I suspect that they are all marginally deranged and should be avoided. This opinion was confirmed by the sight of a large bearlike man hiking down the road wearing his hiking boots, his large heavy backpack and his red and white striped speedo. Oh, he had a floppy white tennis hat on too.

We stayed in a beautiful small hotel owned by a man who comes from an Omani family but was born and raised in Zanzibar and then moved to London. He's a great guy and quite a character. Everyone in Chepelare knows Nasser and he cannot drive a block down the street without someone stopping him to discuss one project or another. He's a perfect example of the PC philosophy of integrating into the community and he's been a lot of help to Nick by putting him in touch with people who can help with his projects. We've come away with the hopes of locating Nassers in our own sites, where ever they may be. He's set up a bar in his hotel that is used by many of the local young people. They come in to shoot pool and drink coffee or beer. They like to grab Nasser and shout "Taliban!!" at him. He just pulls back and tells them that he saved them from the Communists and that they are, "goddamned ungrateful bastards". The man's a natural born diplomat.

A couple of things seem to be clearer now. One is that it seems to be preferable to be in a small town site than in one of the big cities because the jobs and living conditions seem to be better in the small towns. Two is that the actual jobs seem to be very unstructured. It's something of a status symbol for municipalities and NGO's to have their very own tame PCV, a bit like the Mayor's Mercedes. So some people end up in places that don't really have a need for them. In those cases the successful Volunteers create their own projects and flourish and the unsuccessful Volunteers wander around, get frustrated and go home. Our group should know in a couple of weeks what jobs and sites they have in mind for us. Based on what I learned this past week, I suppose I'd prefer being a a smaller city or town in the mountains. That, however, can change in a heartbeat.

In the next week or so we go to Sofia - big cities, yeah that's the ticket. It's the only way to spend your tour.?!

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Learning the Language

Our little group has been in concentrated language lessons for an entire week and we've made some progress. We're in class for four hours a day and then have an assignment of one sort or another to complete. We've walked through the community and found the hospital, post office, police station, etc. We've found strangers to try to talk to and interviewed our poor host families until they've taken to drink. Tomorrow (Sunday) I have to make a map of the town with landmarks and street names. This is all part of our training for integrating into our permanent communities. The training program is very thorough and next week we'll be sent off on a visit to a current Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) for a couple of days. Every experience helps and we're moving toward sites of our own very quickly. We find out where we'll be stationed in two or three weeks and then begin receiving more specific training toward the jobs we'll be given. I spent the day in Plovdiv and wouldn't mind being there for the next couple of years. It's the second largest city in Bulgaria and has a great open public square.

This week I got home from class to find Veneta, Stoil & Baba Veltchka hard at work bottling tomato juice. I got plugged into the assembly line and we put up three or four dozen bottles of juice for the winter. Stoil washed the bottles, Baba Veletchka peeled and cut the tomatoes into chunks, Veneta put them through the grinder and I poured the juice from a large plastic pan into the bottles. Stoil recapped the bottles and put them into boiling water for 15 minutes to completely seal them. I enjoyed the opportunity to lend a hand. I was also allowed to cook dinner on Wednesday. This was quite a generous gesture on Veneta's part because it has been made exceptionally clear to me that she will do the cooking and cleaning and I will not!! So I made eggplant parmigiana (sp?)or the next thing to it when you don't have mozzarella cheese or an oven. We did, however, round up some delicious homemade tomato sauce, a couple of eggs, sliced eggplants, breadcrumbs and feta cheese. We (there was no way I was going to be allowed to do this myself) dragged the eggplant through the egg, the breadcrumbs and then the tomato sauce and fried them on one side, we flipped them, covered them with feta cheese and let them cook for a minute or two before removing them. When they were served at dinner Veneta, Stoil & Baba Veletchka oooh'd and aaaah'd, they each held up a piece for the others to admire and all exclaimed that this was the finest food to ever grace a Bulgarian plate. They smelled the dish and glowed with pleasure just being near it. They, in fact, did everything but actually eat the stuff. On a positive note, I won't be required to make dinner any time again soon.

Stoil and I have reached an understanding on the subject of his Rakia. We understand that if I refuse to have a glass of the Rakia he makes himself, I will be insulting him beyond tolerance. In the beginning of the week I had a "mnogo malko" or "very small" Rakia before dinner. The stuff grows on you and by Wednesday I had advanced to a "malko" and last night I became a man and had a "normal" Rakia. Later that evening I discovered that our pig speaks english. Rakia is a wonderful drink, and can be taken in modest quantities for its medicinal value.

The people of Saedeninie are very friendly and our tour of the police station was enlightening. We were supposed to find out what the dangers were in town and which parts of town to avoid. We were told that the danger was 'possible' pickpockets in the Sunday market and that we had the run of the whole town, day or night. It's a small town with a Midwestern flavor. We're in the valley and it's hot. Today was over 100 degrees and you could have cooked an egg on the sidewalk except as they say here, "the egg is missing and the sidewalk is broken!" I will upload photos of all and sundry when I get my own internet connection, but that probably won't be until November.

So until next week, "Ciao"

Friday, August 13, 2004

Hello from Saedinenie!

This will have to be brief, but I'm in Bulgaria and have been sent off to live with a Homestay family for the next couple of months. My family is Veneta & Stoil and they're a retired couple who live in a farm town in the valley. I won't be able to post pictures for a while yet, but I'm taking them and I'll get them online asap. I don't have much time now but I wanted to update a little bit. This is an amazing experience!! We began with a week in Strelcha with some orientation and a crash course in the language. They fed us magnificently and we were very comfortable in an older hotel/retreat. Some of us went for hikes into the mountains while others chose to locate the local bars and establish roots in the community. Our group (BG16) consists of 59 hardy souls of whom 29 are men and about 10 are in my age group. So far the group is intact, no one has quit early. We're all in good health and high spirits. On Friday Aug. 13th we were given brief introductions to our Host families and turned over to them. We've been split into small groups of four or five volunteers per town and scattered into villages surrounding Pazardjik. I can't name any of the people I'm with for security reasons but they are all very nice. I haven't seen them since we got to town but I'll find them sooner or later, it's a very small town. I have a floor of my own in the house here in Saedinenie and a color tv with cable. The phone situation is still something of a mystery to me, but I'll work on it next week. We have a pig in the backyard and I'm trying not to become too attached to him because the poor fellow is destined for a bad end I'm afraid. There's a grape arbor in the courtyard with a table and chairs and I find it very comfortable to take my morning coffee there, thank you very much. Language training is coming down the track like a Euro fast train. My Host Mom Veneta takes her mission to heart to have me speaking fluently within a week or so. She begins every sentence by shouting at me, "LARI" and then teaches me all about whatever is happening. It's great!! They are warm and generous people who've taken me in and made me feel like family. As you might imagine Veneta keeps the house spotlessly clean so I'm the dirtiest thing in it. I have to work on my picking things up skills. My Bulgarian seems to work just fine when I ask for food but not so well when I explain that I really can't eat another bite. "Da, da, da" and then another plate is filled and shoved in front of me. Last night Stoil poured some scotch from a bottle he keeps under the table into our glasses. Okay, a toast. Here I know what to do, clink glasses, maintain eye contact, shout "Nazdravay!!" and down the hatch. On the way 'down the hatch' I realized that it wasn't actually scotch after all. Imagine my surprise. Eventually, I'm told, they revived me. Actually, I'm not certain what it is that I drank. I know it's made right there in our very own shed, next to the pig and that Stoil keeps the cap on the bottle to preserve the safety of the paint in the room. Isn't it funny that he keeps it in a scotch bottle, the little old rascal?

I have to register with the police in Plovdiv on Monday and then I'll come back to my town to begin formal training on Tuesday. Our language trainer is a young woman who speaks several languages and has a masters degree in language teaching. Between her and Veneta & Stoil I'll do just fine. I've been told that I'll probably end up being assigned to a government business center to help small businesses. I mentioned to the local PC staff that it sounded like our SCORE (service corps of retired execs) and they just laughed. "We haven't had a free market long enough for us to have any retired execs," they explained. So, here I am, the first bona fide retired exec in town. I wonder if it gives them any sense of confidence that I can't even find the toilet by myself?

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