Post Peace Corps Road Trip: Balkan Blitzkrieg

15 September, 2009

After I finish my service in the Peace Corps in the next two weeks, I will be heading out on a Balkan Road trip. To where? you ask. Here’s a handy map!

Sept 24: Anita and I pickup our rental car and we hit the road to Ohrid, Macedonia (via Skopje).

Sept 25 Spending the night in Ohird, we head to Gjirokaster, Albania where we’ll spend the night and hang out with some Albanian PCVs. I have been told that there will be a once-every-five-year Albanian folklore festival. I’m really looking forward to seeing this and meeting up with several other PCVs.

Sept 26 The next day we’ll drive up the Albania coast and spend the night somewhere along the way.

Sept 27,28 The following two days, we’ll spend the night in Kotor, Montenegro. Kotor is home to the deepest fjord in Europe and is considered Dubrovnik’s little sister.

Sept 29 The next day, we’ll drive to Dubrovnik, Croatia for a short day trip. As you may remember, I have already been to Dubrovnik but it’s in the neighborhood.

Sept 29, Oct 1, 2 After spending time in Dubrovnik, we head on to Mostar, Bosnia for a day or two. After this, we head on to Sarajevo for the night. (I have three days alloted for Mostar and Sarajevo however we want to divvy them up)

Oct 3rd start heading back to Bulgaria, route to be determined! We’ll most likely spend the night in a national park in Montenegro.

Oct 4th return to Bulgaria.

Oct 6th RETURN HOME!

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

13 September, 2009

My Peace Corps adventure is coming to a close.

It is hard to believe that two years can fly by so fast, and yet, crawl so slowly. In the past few weeks, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect over what I have done and my decision to join the Peace Corps and how that decision has impacted my life. Clearly, I am no longer the same person- I now consider a country that I previously only had an idea where it was located on a map as my second home.

I came with only one goal in mind (despite being told to have have no goals or expectations)–to make a difference. Have I achieved this goal? In ways I never suspected I could.  Have I changed? Irreversibly. I now see the world in a much different light, I’ve seen how so many can do with so little, what true oppression and hardship look like and most of all, the influence the allure the United States really has on the world. I was so impressed with how closely my Bulgarian friends followed the US Presidential elections. On female teacher told me that Hillary Clinton was her greatest inspiration because she showed what women can achieve.

But before I learned all of this, I had to go through training.  As part of my 11 weeks of training, I lived with a family of Bulgarians. When I first meet this kind family, I could only tell tell them that I loved cucumbers (which isn’t true) and could ask if there was hot water.

My host family, the Kamzholivis

My host family in Rila

Extreme cultural sensitivity on both sides bridged the language barrier and I quickly found myself a part of their family; traveling six to seven hours to spend Christmases and Easter with them.

Christmas Dinner

Christmas Dinner

This acceptance wasn’t limited to a single family who took care of me during my training. There were many many people and families that helped this hapless American in the first frightening months of service (and it should be noted, those months fall on one of the coldest winters in recent memory). Their kindness and generosity were gave me the strength I needed to get through the winter and gave me confidence that I can to it.

My dance team and I

Me with my kindergarten class, Christmas 2008

Me with my kindergarten class, Christmas 2008

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Buzludzha

12 July, 2009

It was one of the coolest places I’ve been to in Bulgaria. Last weekend I went to the old communist party headquarters. The building was located on top of a mountain overlooking the rose valley.  It would be hard to reach it without a car.

A perfect location for all the head hanchos to meet and lead the country, right? In the distance you can (sort of) make out a little “rook” like building. That is the site where the Bulgarian and Russian armies turned back the Ottomans in 1877-78. It was Bulgaria’s Saratoga.

Given this history of the area, it’s too bad the building they built to rule the country looked like a UFO…

I’m not really sure what they were going for there but it’s interesting nonetheless. A flying saucer with a smoke stack.
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Veliko Turnovo

11 July, 2009

I know it’s been a long time since my last post. There hasn’t been too much to write about and we’ve been having frequent rain showers in Chirpan. This has taken out my internet. I went about two weeks with out it.

Last weekend I went to Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria’s second capital. It was stunningly gorgeous and I regret waiting so long to visit. I took several photos and I’ll let them do the talking. The full album is linked below.


Tsarevets, the fortress in VT


Tsarevets by day


Veliko Turnovo from Tsarevets

Veliko Turnavo

Seven Bulgarian Scandals

30 June, 2009

June 30 (Reuters) – Bulgaria’s Socialist-led government has been plagued by high-level corruption scandals during its four years in power, prompting the European Union to freeze millions of euros in aid for the bloc’s poorest member.

Brussels criticised Sofia for failing to cut links between virtually all political parties and “rings of companies”, a phrase used by Ahmed Dogan — the kingmaker in the ruling coalition and leader of the ethnic Turkish MRF — to explain how parties are funded.

Last year, Transparency International rated Bulgaria the most corrupt EU nation. Despite numerous pledges, Sofia has not convicted a single senior official of graft and has sent to jail only one crime boss since the end of communism in 1989.

Suspected criminals have received temporary immunity from prosecution after registering to run for parliament.

The agriculture and environment ministries, both controlled by the MRF, and the construction and the economy ministries, controlled by the Socialists, have been allegedly involved in some of the most notorious schemes in the past few years.

Here are the main scandals:
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Pics

30 May, 2009

Here are a few pictures Trevor posted on Facebook. I’ll post more once I take some.


Walking down the main street in the Roma Mahala (Gypsy slum) with (lt-rt) Trevor, Mustafa and me.


(lt-rt) Mustafa, Toby (Trevor’s brother), Tommy. Mustafa and Tommy are fantastic football players and eager students


My class at the church in the mahala.


Trevor and I at the entrance of the mahala

That’s it for pictures I’m going to steal. I’ll post more late

Last! Day! of School!

29 May, 2009

Yesterday was my last day teaching my kindergarten class. I’ve been teaching them since the beginning of the school year, four days a week for an hour a day. With this much English, my students can now speak very well. In fact, I believe they can speak much better than the average sixth grader! I was talking with my Bulgarian tutor, who is an English teacher, and she was telling me how depressing it is as they can hardly speak at all. This is despite four or more continuous years of studying. I hope my students will keep up with their interest in learning English. If they do, they will be my gift to my tutor…three years from now.

As it was our last day, we were really light on the “teaching part” and focused more on the “let’s have fun part”. I ran through the commands I’ve taught them (stand up, sit down, run, walk, etc), played Red Light, Green Light and a rousing game of Duck Duck Goose (I swear, that game is like crack for Bulgarian six year olds). Then I asked them all to draw me a picture so I could take it home with me. They were really eager to do this. Here are a few of their drawings:

However, once they finished their pictures and discovered that I had a picture of Pluto for them to color, they became much less interested in completing their picture for me!

I had a blast teaching them and I will sorely miss them. I wish them all the best in the first grade.

Last day of school

My New Friends

22 May, 2009

Since I’ve been back I’ve been pretty busy. I’ve been hosting the PCV before me in Chirpan as well has his brother. It’s been great hanging out with his since he’s introduced me to his old friends.  But the big news is we went to the Mahala (the Roma slums). I’m going to have a lot of free time this summer so I’ve been looking for another project. What better way to finish off my service than helping the most underprivileged? Here’s how it happened:

The Roma people have historically been kicked around. During communism in Bulgaria, they were rounded up and put in separate communities only allowing them to enter town on market days. However, most Roma people are suspicious of outsiders and intentionally separate themselves. This is the biggest obstacle trying to enter the mahala-they don’t really want you there. Given this, you usually have to be invited in by someone. I didn’t have any Roma friends so this was a problem.

We walked to the edge of mahala and sat on some steps overlooking the slum, hoping to get noticed by a group of guys asking us what we were doing. We could see being out and about, some obviously wondering what those white dudes were doing looking into their neighborhood. No one came up to us to see what we wanted. We then decided to take a leap of faith and walk straight into the mahala, uninvited. We decided not to walk down the main street but a side street instead saying “hello” or “good afternoon” to everyone that made eye contact with us. We hadn’t been in the slum for more than two minutes when one of the many people eying us suspiciously asked us what we were doing in their neighborhood. We smiled, introduced ourselves, shook their hands and explained ourselves. Straight off the bat, they asked us if we were missionaries (I’ve been asked this before having been to mahalas in the past so I was prepared to dispel this quickly) As soon as I told them that I was an American looking to teach English for free, their skepticism vanished. It turns out, there is already an English group taught by the pastor of their church. We were, in fact, standing in front of their church (Adventist) and they invited us in to see their place of worship. We stressed that we were not religious and that our English lessons would be open to anyone who wanted to attend.

After our tour of their modest yet lovely church, they said their group would be meeting at six that evening. We were amazed how quickly everything went- in literally five minutes from entering the mahala, we offered a room, class and time to teach English. They then took us out to a cafe; one of the nicest I’ve been to in this country. It was on the second story, outdoors and offered a nice view of Chirpan in the not-so-far distance and the bustling street below. I wrote down my name and number for one of my new friends and he let the pastor know that an American would be joining their class that evening.

That evening we returned. I made copies of the first twenty pages or so of the text book I usually use. It’s the same book the Peace Corps provided for us to learn Bulgarian but translated for Bulgarians to learn English by a PCV. There were about eight students and the lesson went very smoothly;everyone was eager to learn. They had their second lesson the next day (Wednesday) and at the end of that class, they wanted us to return for a third day! My new friends, are quite simply, awesome.

Back

22 May, 2009

Sorry for the lack of posts; I was in the US for 17 days due to a family emergency and my brother’s graduation.

Internet

22 April, 2009

We’re been having a few thunderstroms recently in Chirpan and they’ve knocked out the internet in my apartment. This, of course, is nothing new. My LAN cable goes out through a drilled hole in my window frame and up to the roof. Yep. Just a regular old cable. Exposed. On the roof. As soon as I get the internet back at home, I’ll post about my expirences at Rila over the Bulgarian Orthodox Easter last Sunday. Do skoro!