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

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Man Down!

This much I know is true: YDs have more fun than the rest of us. There are three groups of volunteers, defined by the type of work they do, CODs or Community Organizational Development volunteers, TEFLs or Teachers of English as a Foreign Language and YDs or Youth Development volunteers. I was lucky enough to be invited to help out at Kate's YD Summer Camp in Plovdiv last week. This was a weeklong day camp held at a school in the Roma Mahala where Kate works. The kids were all fourth and fifth graders from the neighborhood and came armed with enough energy and high spirits to power an aircraft carrier for a day. Unless you happened to be Kate, it really wasn't much like work at all. The ten or so volunteers who came to help out got to run around and play just as much as the ten year old kids. Kate had already done all the planning and the rest of us just did what we were told. In case you're interested, there seem to be about one hundred variations to the game of Tag and we played them all.

Years ago, while legging out a triple in a highly competitive game of co-ed softball, I had the unfortunate experience of tearing my hamstring. With my completely unsympathetic teammates screaming at me to "crawl faster!", I dragged myself along the ground to third base and was immediately pulled from the game for a pinch runner. A torn hamstring hurts like the devil. It feels exactly like someone has snuck up behind you and cut through that large heavy muscle with a pair of dull scissors. At first the muscle just flops around under your skin like a snake in a bag but then the pain message reaches your brain and you really don't care much at all for people who want you to "crawl faster". Anyway, ever since that day I have taken great care to a) preferably not run at all or b) if running was to be absolutely required, to warm up my legs for at least a week before said running was to occur.

Have you ever tried to play any of the myriad variations of Tag without actually running? The kids screamed and yelled and charged around the schoolyard like inmates escaped from the asylum. The volunteers screamed and yelled and ran for their lives. We played Partner Tag, Blob Tag, and a game called Sharks & Minnows that sounds a lot cooler in Bulgarian - Akula!! It became quickly apparent that the true purpose of each and every one of those games was to cause Larry a serious injury. As one swift little bast.. child came up and tagged me from behind, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would be found lying in a pool of my own tears with a group of completely unsympathetic ten year olds hovering over me yelling "crawl faster!". Then I had a vision of the PC medically separating me with less than six months to go because I tore a hamstring playing Blob Tag!

I faked a limp and left the field of battle to take up a position behind the camera. Hiding behind the "they also serve who sit and do nothing" theory of participation, I filmed and photographed away for two days. The kids had a ball. The volunteers had a ball. Kate was exhausted from all the work she put into the camp as well as having two or three volunteers staying at her apartment the whole week and I finished the camp with both hamstrings intact. We're all winners in this game.

By the way, each of the two big bullies shown in the picture on the left tagged me really hard and then laughed at me. Actually, these were two of the younger kids and the older kids tried to be very careful not to hurt them. In Bulgaria, the girls seem to pair off at birth and you almost never see a girl without her mate. During a particularly competitive round of Steal The Bacon a girl and her best friend found themselves on opposite teams. Worse yet, they were the same number which meant that when their number was called they would have to go against each other. Their number was called and both of them charged out for the Bacon. One girl swooped it up and began running back to her line but her friend was hot on her heels and leveled her with a whacking strong tag. The tagged girl went down like a shot duck and stayed down. Her friend began to cry and both girls had to leave the field of play, arm in arm, to compose themselves. No one ever said Steal The Bacon was a game for softies. Eventually the two girls returned, but they declined further combat and restricted themselves to an afternoon of crafts.

The strain of the week proved to be too much for Kate and, in what can only be described as a moment of insanity, she actually gave the kids ammunition for a game of Egg Toss and then provided them with water balloons for a game of Soak the Volunteers! We filled several buckets with multi-colored water balloons and brought them down to the playground for the last outdoor activity of the camp. I carried one bucket out and tried to hold it up high enough so none of the kids could begin grabbing the balloons. Within seconds I resembled a tree decorated with colorful Roma children as ornaments. Ten seconds after I hit the playground, all my balloons were in the hands of the enemy and I was limping for cover. It took half a dozen volunteers the better part of an hour to fill the balloons, it took the kids twenty-eight seconds (by the clock) to fire them all at friends and foe alike.

In addition to the outdoor mayhem, there were indoor activities every day. The kids made necklaces, painted their faces, made masks, played bingo and had a discoteque on the last afternoon. The thing that impressed me the most was that none of the kids acted bored or decided that they were too cool to take part in any of the activities. Boys who acted like little thugs when they were playing the Tag games outside, became fully engrossed in decorating their masks when it was time for crafts.

I think that they all just enjoyed having people pay attention to them and that they appreciated the effort that Kate put into making their weeklong camp special. They live in a neighborhood where many of the things that happen are pretty negative so this camp gave them a week of safe, supervised activities where they could scream and yell and run around like crazy and no one would punish them for it. Apart from the very fine level of behavior shown by the kids, something else was equally apparent. The kids were very open in showing their affection for the Volunteers who worked at the camp. Volunteers were constantly being hugged by two or three small people whenever the opportunity presented itself. Lincoln, Jennifer, Jessica, Matt, Dave and Apryl generally had a couple of small admirers clinging to them whenever we were between games. The hugging was spontaneous and affectionate with each Volunteer having his or her own little fan club.The camp actually followed close on the heels of a few weeks of insanity of another stripe as I had visits from my sons and then my parents run end to end. Andy and Ian finally made it to Bulgaria after almost two years of promising to come. My foks made their second trip here in two years and would surely come again if I were staying. Both sons and parents made the pilgrimage to Saedinenie to visit my host family and both left laden with bottles of domashna (homemade) wine and rakiya.

The boys and I rented a car and Andy drove us down through the Rhodopi Mountains to Chepelare, Trigrad and Yagodina.
We hiked and climbed around and over the Miraculous Bridges and wandered around the mountain in the rain. Later we found a small hotel and the boys stayed up and drank beer with the owner in his bar while I got some sleep. While still in Chepelare, we went through the Cave Museum which is proudly billed as the finest of its kind in Europe. In small print it is noted that it is the 'only' cave museum in Europe. It's a couple of rooms on the ground floor of a hotel that have been painted black and decorated with pictures of stalactites and stalagmites. Oh, and it has the skull of a cave bear in a glass case. We did manage to visit some 'actual' caves and rode through some truly spectacular gorges. During our stay in Trigrad, the hotel owner broke open a bottle of rakiya and the boys felt obligated to drink to his health, then to their own health and finally to the general health of the world at large not excluding ficticious characters and possible visiting aliens. As Ian later explained, "It was really weak stuff, Dad. With Stoil's homemade rakiya you can't even breathe after you drink, with this stuff we could still talk!!" They have become true fans of Veneta and Stoil after spending one very pleasant afternoon and evening visiting with them.

I told Veneta that we'd get there after lunch and stay for dinner and overnight. I knew that we'd be having lunch with Brian in Plovdiv on the way to Saedinenie a
nd didn't want Veneta to make food we wouldn't eat. However, I warned the boys to eat lightly because Veneta would probably fix something anyway. She was standing on the curb watching for us as we pulled up and began handing us plates of food on our way into the house! Ten hours later we were all in food-induced comas and begging for mercy. It's good to go home!

My folks arrived during the boys' last three days and we all spent some time together in Sofia. We rented the hotel owner's car and Andy drove us down to Rila Monastery. Surprisingly, lightening didn't strike Andy or Ian down in that holy place. I guess the Saints weren't paying attention that day. On Friday morning the boys left for home and on Saturday The Visit: Chapter Two began with a bus ride with my folks to Stara Zagora.

Don is still recovering from his illness of a year ago and Mom is recovering from a brok
en pelvis so this visit was conducted at a more leisurely pace than their previous trip to Bulgaria. We still managed to see Sofia, the Rila Monastery, Varna, Saedinenie (required) and Assenovgrad. By the time they left for the States, they both seemed to be a lot stronger and were getting around much more easily. While neither of them are big rakiya fans, they do love Stoil's red wine and he gave them a ten liter bottle of it to take back home. Sadly, there was no way for them to transport such a large amount of vino on the plane and I am going to have to find a way to dispose of it myself. I'll have a few friends over and ask for suggestions.

So now for me it's back to the grind. I really have to do some work at the agency, if only to justify the use of my desk. I also have to begin preparing myself psychologically to re-enter a world where people don't sit over a cup of coffee for a couple of hours at the cafe or visit their friends for ten or twelve hours at a crack, a world where people move as efficiently as possible when going from A to B and rarely find the time to stop on the sidewalk to discuss matters of small importance. Of course, I have a plan. I've come to prefer the more leisurely pace and therefore, when I feel pressured to hurry or hustle along, I'll pull up with a brave limp and explain that I can't move any faster because, "when I was working with some kids at a summer camp, I was severly injured when a game of Egg Toss spiraled badly out of control. Let's stop here for a coffee and I'll tell you all about it."

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