The Light at the End of the Tunnel

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

The Peace Corps has three goals:

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

I took care of goals two and three superbly. I maintained a blog, shared photos and answered many many questions when I went back to the States on leave. I lived the second goal every day, especially during the election. One of my friends would come into my office everyday to talk about the primaries and related news. It’s hard enough to explain the US electoral process in English, let alone in Bulgarian! My colleagues were wowed at my ballots; that I would actually a) vote in the primary, b)am able to vote on judges, initiatives, referendums, amendments, etc and c) actually vote!. The parliamentary elections for Bulgaria were in July and I took every opportunity to ask my friends for their opinions; if they believed anything would change and what would happen. Only one person told me he would vote (with pride he said he has voted in every election he’s been eligible). Everyone said nothing would change and one person observed that the only thing that would change would be who steals the money. As expected, Boiko Borisov was elected prime minister.

So now it comes down to the first goal: teaching sustainable skills and abilities. I joined the Peace Corps straight out of college and didn’t have many skills to offer compared to some of my colleagues who will are in the middle of their careers or entering retirement when the return. I was assigned to the municipality of Chirpan in their Department of External Resources. I was pumped and very eager to start. There was a lot aid out there and I was determined to use it to help my co-workers transform our city.

Alas, reality has a way of transforming plans. Shortly after being sworn in, the European Union halted all aid in response to rampant corruption. Other aid organizations followed suit and I found myself out of a job.

My counterpart and I

I rebounded and started to teach computer literacy, English, Ecology, American history, culture and holiday traditions as well as dental hygiene.

Teaching dental hygiene

Teaching dental hygiene to my kindergartners with donated materials from the US

Teaching my kindergarten class

Teaching my kindergartner class "Old McDonald's Farm"

My Roma students

My students in the mahala

My most rewarding work has been in the Roma Mahala (Gypsy ghetto) teaching English. They have been my most enthusiastic students and their progress has been astounding.

This wasn’t the job I assigned up to do. But I had been told over and over again: Don’t have any expectations. But if you do, make them really low. In training, I was told that “[My] work is to go out and find work.” I believe I did that and keeping that objective in mind keep my frustration in check.

Despite the ambiguity of our work here, it seems everyone has a “I wish I could have done more…”. But as pointed out by the Peace Corps staff at our last gathering, that is a typical reflection of Peace Corps Volunteers on their way out: they believe their job is never done. Which I suppose is true to some degree. Being a development volunteer it can be difficult to see the results of our work and sometimes creates the feeling of “what am I doing here!?” And everyone in my group has had this feeling. Alot. Long cold winters, ambiguous working conditions and cultural differences can make it challenging. But I’ve made it through and I’m happy with the work I’ve done.

A brief recap of some of my highlights (minus the ones mentioned above):

  • I helped the local At-Risk Children’s Center (now renamed “The Center for Municipal Support”) organize an annual charity football (soccer) tournament to raise money for their projects. These projects have included purchasing rehabilitation and multimedia equipment. They are in the process of preparing next year’s tournament.
  • Created an update-able Bulgarian-English Phrasebook for the local police department at one of Bulgaria’s most visited cultural landmarks (the Rila Monastery)
  • Taught proper dental hygiene to local children and distributed free toothbrushes and toothpaste.

My biggest success is still in the works but it’s pretty much “a sure thing”. A few weeks ago I had a meeting in Sofia with a rep from Colgate-Palmolive Oil company and he has agreed to give my town as many dental supplies they need to continue my lesson. This means Chirpan, a city of about 13,000, will be receiving enough dental supplies for every student enrolled (and I’m sure plenty for the children not in school in to Roma ghetto outside of town)! AND my meeting has spurred talks for a partnership between the Peace Corps and Colgate (legal details still have to be hammered out) so that every volunteer in Bulgaria will have access to these materials for similar projects!

I can’t believe it’s all coming to an end. Two years have flown by faster than I could have possibly imagined. I have enjoyed (almost) every minute and have no regrets serving. In the process I have learned a tremendous amount about the world and myself, met some truly wonderful people both American and Bulgarian, made lifelong friendships and fallen in love with Bulgaria and the Balkans as a whole. It will be incredibly difficult leaving. But two years is long enough and I’m ready to come home!


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6 Responses to “The Light at the End of the Tunnel”

  1. thomas Says:

    bravo, djim. bravo.

  2. My Lentils bring all the boys to the yard Says:

    Jimmy, what a great job you’ve done! I love all of the pictures…they will all miss you so much, and will never forget you! So proud to be your friend right now 🙂

  3. Stacy Says:

    Jimmy, I can’t even begin to fathom what you’ve experienced these past couple of years, but I can’t WAIT for your random stories to come out in everyday conversation… you’re so talented at that!

  4. Trevor Says:

    Bravo Zjimmy,

    congrats on making it to the other side!


  5. Megan Louise Says:

    You are wonderful. I remember scoping out your blog at the beginning of your service and now it’s fitting to once again see it at the beginning of MY service. Thanks for inspring me to fulfillmy own dreams too Jimmy.

    Can you pinch me if/when you visit? This still feels surreal. I’m still dreaming.

    P.S. During PST we were told about a PCV who bridged Colgate and PC, and we were encouraged to utilize Colgate as a source. Who would’ve thunk it was you they were talkin’ about?!?

  6. CosumpNom Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article, keep on creating such interesting stuff!

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