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

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Meetings, Peace Corps Style

Our group, the B-16's, is the 16th group of volunteers to serve in Bulgaria. We come in two flavors, the COD's (Community Organizational Developers) and YD's (Youth Developers). Any of the even numbered groups (B-14's, B-18's, etc) are COD/YD groups and the odd numbered groups are all TEFL's (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). The TEFL's are also divided into two groups based on whether they will be assigned to teach in primary or secondary schools.

There are some advantages and disadvantages inherent in belonging to either group. The Teachers arrive in Bulgaria in April, complete training around the end of June and are at their sites a month or so before school begins. They spend the very pleasant Bulgarian summer integrating into their communities and adjusting to life in a new country. The Business volunteers (COD/YD) arrive in August, compete training around the end of October and arrive at their sites just as the local population is preparing to hibernate through the gruesome Bulgarian winter.

The Teachers have a very structured program and a clear understanding of their job description and responsibilities. The Business people often are left to their own devices to create a niche for themselves because the organizations that request us, often do not have a clear understanding of our skills or their own requirements. "Creating your job" is often the most frustrating part of being a Business Volunteer.

The Teachers tour of duty ends in June, which allows those volunteers hoping to go on to grad school ample time to finish their full two year service in the Peace Corps, return home to the States, find jobs, travel and still get set for school in September. The Business volunteers tour of duty ends in October which means, for those hoping to go on to grad school, they must either leave PC early or delay entering school for a semester or even another year. For many of my colleagues this is definitely choosing the lesser of two evils. They want to stay their full two years but they don't want to further delay entry into grad school.

Business volunteers, however, do have some advantages over Teachers. We can opt for vacation any time we like, as opposed to the 'summer only' rule for Teachers. We also have the ability to proactively search out niches for ourselves that are personally rewarding and fulfilling. If you don't like what you're doing, you have some flexibility to change it. If you find that you don't like teaching, however, you're pretty much stuck.

All in all the differences are small and the two sections mix and mingle into one large Peace Corps Bulgaria community. Teachers complain about the kids and the school administrations and Business people complain about almost everything under the sun. Just like back at home. The significant difference here is that we do a lot of this complaining in Bulgarian!

Beginning with Staging, the PC is really strong on group meetings. They gather us together in a US city to give us a bit of orientation before sending us, as a group, to our country. Upon arrival, we're kept together as a group for about a week before being split into smaller groups for three months of training. During training, however, we're often pulled back together for one or two day whole-group meetings. Then after training, we're gathered together for various trainings, conferences and seminars throughout our first year. Then it ends. Now the B-16's only have one last meeting on our schedule..the COS conference. Close Of Service. That takes place several months before we actually leave.

The meetings provide us with an opportunity to see people we haven't seen in awhile and to take a break from our jobs. The conference I just attended was called the MidService Conference and it is set up to coincide with the end of training for the incoming group. We are given some training too, but we're there primarily to pass our experiences on to the new guys. It seemed a little strange to be the people with the experience because it feels like we just got here. The new group is ready to be through with training and out in their sites and we tried to give them the same advice we were given, take it easy, sit back and observe, don't try to do too much too quickly. They won't listen any more than we did and some of them will quit when the frustration becomes overwhelming. Some of us are still quitting. My group has dwindled down to about 47 from the original 60 and one more went home last week.

By and large people leave for a variety of reasons, but very very few leave because of Bulgaria. They miss boyfriends and girlfriends, they get job offers, they have family commitments, or medical problems or they just decide that a PC life isn't for them. Of the many volunteers who have chosen to et (early termination), and I believe that figure will generally approach 30%, I haven't heard of any who left because they just didn't like Bulgaria or Bulgarians. We kid about the hardships here because the PC culture places a premium on how much you suffer. Living in unheated shacks without electricity or running water, having to take your malaria pills every day and being infested with hordes of parasites becomes a badge of honor among volunteers. Our complaints here in Bulgaria center around having our cable internet go out in our apartments or the elevator didn't work today. Sometimes I can't get avocados. In many PC countries we'd be digging pit latrines or working in impoverished native villages teaching basic sanitation. In Bulgaria we work in offices, schools and municipalities helping Bulgaria prepare for admittance to the European Union.

This is a vibrant modern country that is pressing enthusiastically ahead. There are still some hurdles to overcome but progress is being made everywhere. The biggest complaint about Bulgaria these days is the level of corruption that exists in every level of government. It is a cloud that affects the volunteers as well as their counterparts. I try to explain that Bulgaria didn't invent corruption (I think Chicago did and if it didn't then it certainly raised it to artform status) and throwing some light on the situation is the first step towards eradicating it. Today in Bulgaria, lights are shining everywhere and the corruption roaches are scurrying for cover. All in all Bulgaria may not be Paradise but it sure isn't Bangladesh either.

Until a visitor pointed it out to me recently, I didn't notice that there aren't any lightbulbs in my elevators (It turns out I'm not incredibly observant...who knew?). The only lightbulb is mounted outside on the roof of the car, but the ceiling is a two inch thick section of laminated wood which is as translucent as a coal seam. Someone's solution was to drill six holes about the diameter of quarters into the ceiling right over the panel with the floor buttons. Weak lines of light come down and if you peer very closely you can find the button for your floor. Apparently, years ago all the buttons fell off and some numbers-challenged soul put them back on. I doubt if there is one single button that corresponds correctly with the floor it serves. I live on the eighth floor and the button that sends the elevator to the eighth floor is marked 11, if you push the button marked 8 you end up on the sixth floor. Counting buttons doesn't really work either, because there are two or three that don't seem to have a floor attached to them at all. So the eighth floor button is the first button on the top row to the left. The lobby level is the second button on the bottom row also on the left. Come see me some time.
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