Thursday, September 29, 2005

Traveling on Peace Corps' dime

I honestly don't know how to start this entry. There's tons I want to share, but I'm not sure of the appropriate order nor of the way to do it. Well, let me start out by thanking all of you (my readers) who have left comments or e-mailed me to say that you enjoy reading my blog. I think it's an atrocious assortment of random nonsense, but I'm so glad that you continue to strive to make sense of my ramblings. To know that there are people out there who are interested in my experience is honestly pretty humbling. I hope that I can give you some insight into this amazing country and maybe open your eyes a little bit to the world in general. Plus, I may hit you all up for money one day to fund one of my projects, so be on the look-out for that. You have about a year and a half or so to save... if I take that route.
We had our mid-training LPIs (Language Proficiency Interviews) this last week. They don't really count. It's just a mock exam to kind of let us know where we're at in the language. I did pretty well. The interviewer criticized me quite a bit, but she wasn't there to be our cheerleader. She later came up and told me that I could go really far in the language and she'd like to give me extra materials. My teacher has said the same. I've come to the conclusion that I have a natural aptitude (at least thus far) for languages. Many Bulgarians have told me that I speak well. I just speak Bulgarian with a Spanish accent and thereby make it sound as foreign as possible. It works pretty well 'cause they roll their "R's" here too. I definitely can't brag about it in the sense of taking credit. That's a gift from God. I've done nothing to deserve it. And I'm not the only one.... Our whole group rocked that test. I'm with a very intelligent group of trainees.
This Saturday we had a Minority Cultural Day in Pazardjik. All of the Youth Development Trainees (and some Community/Organizational Development Trainees) went over to the city to play games and interact with the Roma Youth in the area. I had a blast. I played basketball and Ultimate Frisbee. Okay, here I'm going to brag a bit, so bear with me. You have to take these ego-boosts when you can get them, and I'm not ashamed to share them with you because, as many of you know, I'm fairly insecure anyway. I've received quite a few compliments since that day regarding my athleticism. I suppose no one ever suspected that I could actually play some sports with any sort of skill, so they've been gracious with their words. Someone told me that I was probably the best role model the Roma girls had ever seen. This was when I was out playing basketball with a bunch of boys. Pretty sweet, huh? While throwing a football around later, he called me the "Best Athlete in B-18." B-18 consists of our entire training group. Of course, this is not true, but it's still nice to hear. Tales have been told and exaggerations have been shared, but it's comforting to hear that your fellow trainees are saying nice things about you. There are so many other times when I think that's probably not the case. So that's that. After the sporting events on Saturday, the Roma Youth put on a concert for us. There was traditional dancing, Indian dancing, singing, and acting. It was a fun day. I need to post pictures.
We had another HUB session in Pazardjik earlier this week. Highlight: Playing scrabble in Bulgarian. A fellow trainee had bought the game somewhere and he invited me to play. We cheated by making up a few words and searching in the dictionary, but it was still fun. Lowlight: Getting shots. I had to get three shots - including a flu shot which left me feeling as though someone had sucker-punched me in the arm. By the end of the evening, my whole body was achy. I was cranky and not the best of company.
Now I am in a town called "Dupnitza." Toni (another trainee) and I are here visiting Jenn (a currently serving volunteer). We're here to see the town and get a taste of what volunteer-life is like for someone working with a Roma organization. This is what Toni and I will be doing in our permanent sites, so it's a good opportunity to wander around on the Peace Corps' dime. Last night we went to a restaurant specifically to meet one of the servers. She had been living in an orphanage, but she was recently booted when she turned 18. With the help of volunteers in the area, she was able to find this job and get an apartment. Volunteerism in action... actually making someone's life better... it's cool to see, you know? I'm sure that there are two stories of disappointment for every positive one, but it's a volunteer's job to remain optomistic.
This morning we went to a youth house in the Roma neighborhood. Toni and I teamed up with a couple of cute girls to play some games and learn some English. Of course, we also improved our Bulgarian. These girls are so competitive!!! My goodness!! Games are a serious matter here. Later today, Jenn is going to take us to a place where she teaches Tae-Bo. I've never done Tae-Bo before, so I'm excited to learn about what I've only seen on TV. She's also fed us home-made cookies, so she gets an A+ in my book.
I'll be here until either tomorrow morning or afternoon, then I'll go back to Trud - which is about 4 hours away. I'm planning on going up to Banya this weekend. It's another satellite site, and I'm excited about seeing the town and visiting another group of trainees. Should be good times.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Flooding basements and other good times...

We had the worst storm thus far (referencing Apryl's history in Bulgaria) here in Trud last night. Again, please see my earlier caveat about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. Nothing can compare....
So we had this huge storm - beautiful lightning and probably the loudest claps of thunder I have ever heard. My oochitelka (teacher) was in her house when it was struck by lightning. Crazy, huh? I've learned a new word: Gradoozhka = hail. We had some of that last night, too. Apparently many farm animals in the village drowned, but from what I can gather in my limited Bulgarian, none of ours had an unfortunate demise. I think my "father" was up all night trying to make sure everything was taken care of. He was pumping water out of the basement when I came home for lunch. It was waist-deep and half full of water. Tim and I were talking about the madness of it all. I mean, don't Bulgarians prepare for this? Why do they build houses (many here are not that old) that can flood so easily? Many people were pumping water out of their homes. Madness. I feel badly for them. Now, it's beautiful and sunny. I think the place has pretty much recovered.
I went to a place called Hissar this weekend. It's another satellite site for PC trainees, and it has beautiful, ancient walls, tombs, and mineral springs. There are also mountains not far away. It was absolutely breathtaking. Greg, a trainee who lives in Hissar, and I walked all over the place. He showed me the town and took me up into the mountains to see the gorgeous hills and valleys down below. We had a great time, and I got to see some more of beautiful Bulgaria. I will show you all pictures... someday when I get my act together.
I was also able to speak Spanish this weekend!! I've spoken Spanish a few times here in Bulgaria, and it's always a pleasure. I feel like I'm losing my ability to speak Spanish. I can't remember random words off the top of my head, and that frustrates me. When I try to speak it, the Bulgarian words I know come out. Sometimes, when I try to speak Bulgarian, Spanish words I know come out. Ugh! Anyway, back to bragging about how I got to speak Spanish this weekend.... Ben, another Hissar trainee, had his girlfriend Ivana visit for a few days. Ivana is from Bosnia and speaks about 5.5 languages. I aspire to be like her. Anyway, one of the languages is Spanish, so we were able to talk to each other while Greg and Ben just shook their heads. We all had a lot of fun together - well, at least I can speak for myself. It was good to get away and see some place new in Bulgaria. I've been spending a lot of time away from "home" recently though, so it's also good to get back and get into the language lessons again here in Trud. My "family" takes my traveling in stride, so I'm very appreciative of that. They're still great. Nothing new there.
Yesterday, we had a debrief session in Krichim. Two other satellite groups were there, so 11 of us trainees got together and talked about our permanent sites. We also talked about project planning. Back in Plovdiv, Tim, Holly, Jennifer, and I went to this amazing Mediterranean-type restaurant. It's definitely worth a return visit. Plovdiv will be much further away when I move to Rakitovo.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Check it out

Tim did an interview for the village's website. I don't know what the article says, but you can see a pretty terrible picture of all of us...
Oh, and look here for a lot of pictures that I would love to show you but haven't been able to on my own blog. Jennifer is a trainee here in Trud as well.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Rakitovo!!!

Permanent site: Rakitovo. I would provide a link to some website about the area, but I'm having a hard time doing that here, so please "google" it... or keep reading and listen to me drone on and on about what I've learned over the past couple of days. First of all, I'm going to freeze. Rakitovo is up in the Rhadope Mountains in the southwestern part of the country, and it's already a bit chilly here. They tell me there will be snow up to my thighs, but Angel (my counterpart) says that it's no problem. It's amazing the radical difference in climate though. Pazardjik (my HUB site) is only an hour away, and I was sweltering there on Monday and Tuesday.
So, on Sunday I went to Krichim to help clean up their eco-trails with some of the kids and other trainees in the area. That was fun. It's nice to interact with other trainees and kids in their own environment. Krichim is about an hour away from Trud. I met up with them, hiked up the mountain, and picked up trash. "And this is fun?" you ask. "Yes."
On Monday, I found out that I will live in Rakitovo. The way they tell trainees is pretty fun. They take us to a large gymnasium where they've outlined a map of Bulgaria. Within this map are colored pieces of paper with the names of towns that will be taking volunteers. They draw your name from a hat and tell you where you're going. You go and stand on your "city" and they give you an informational packet. This way you can see where everyone is going, plus you can see where you are in relation to the rest of the country and the other trainees. The rest of the day was filled with questions about sites and future plans for visitation - a fun day to say the least. On Tuesday, we met our counterparts. Counterparts are responsible for introducing us to other colleagues, the organization, and the community as a whole. They're also there to get you a language tutor once you get to site and to help you with any problems that come up. Think of a counterpart as a sidekick who's more connected than you are, and you will have an idea. They can be vital to a volunteer's success in town. My counterpart, as I mentioned above, is named Angel. He's 20 years old, and he's the youth coordinator for the organization I'll be working with: "Fundazia Budiste" (Future Foundation). It's a small NGO that is concerned with the education of Roma and the integration of Bulgarian and Roma youth. If you are interested in the history of Roma peoples in the area, please search the internet. I am neither versed in the subject nor do I have experience. I can only tell you that there is a huge problem with discrimination. I visited the Roma part of town today, and it's basically a shanty town - completely separate from the rest of Rakitovo and totally rundown. I could go on and on. You can't even imagine. Well, you probably could. But I don't think I even know the half of it. I wish I could tell you everything I've experienced so far, but this blog would turn into a novel that only I would read.
My role in this organization is pretty vague. There is a huge interest in my teaching English - with a possibility of teaching Spanish and salsa dancing on the side (but first I have to remember how to salsa). Again, my apologies to conservative Adventists. As I said before, the organization is largely concerned with the education of Roma youth. Many Roma go to school for a while but then marry at the age of 14. They'll have kids by the time they're 15. Angel is a Roma who wants to give back to his community. He's extremely intelligent, thoughtful, and has a good heart. He wants to learn and see everything. I know he's dying to ask me tons of questions, but there is a language barrier and I think he's worried about annoying me. He says his colleagues call him "Mr. Why." He's also funny, cute, and quick to laugh. Obviously, I'm quite happy with my counterpart. I already feel like an older sister in a way. He never leaves my side. He's here even now - waiting for me while I take five hours at the internet cafe.
Yesterday I met with my colleagues. They're all very sweet, and I enjoy being with them. My supervisor and his wife (who also works at the foundation) have two young girls (Maria and Reneta) who speak phenomenal English. They're the best. They eagerly take the role of translator and switch off well between the two of them. They also know how to hold their own and give attitude in both languages. They're so awesome. I wish you all could meet them.
School starts all over Bulgaria on September 15th. Today we went to a couple schools to hand out supplies to the first grade class. First graders get special attention because it's their first year in school, and probably just because they're so adorable. The kids didn't actually have "class" though. They get together at the school, meet their teachers, bring flowers for their teachers, see their classroom, and then they go home. School will actually start next week I believe. I was the designated photographer today. Hopefully, I will get copies because I'm an idiot and didn't bring my digital camera. I don't know what's wrong with me. I need to start taking pictures. We went to the "Bulgarian" school in the morning to hand out supplies. After that, we went to the Roma neighborhood and handed out supplies in their school. I met a LOT of people today - including the mayor. Afterwards, I went to Yanko's house (supervisor of the organization) and talked a bit with Ani (his wife), Angel, Maria, and Reneta.
After lunch, Angel continued giving me a tour of the town. I feel like I know the place pretty well now. We played pool (I won), and then we met up with Brandy and went back to the Roma school. Brandy is a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Volunteer here in Rakitovo. She's with the Peace Corps as well. She seems very nice, and I think we'll bond out here in isolation. She has a house. I don't know where I'll be living yet, but it probably won't be a house. Therefore, I will probably be spending a lot of time at Brandy's. Anyway, Brandy and I went back to the Roma school to meet with the youth at their club there. It was a good meeting. Some of them came out with us afterward to get some coffee and interact a bit more. Brandy, Angel, and I went to dinner this evening, (I've eaten at the same restaurant three times - there's not much vegetarian fare here in Rakitovo) and now I've caught you up to speed. I apologize about the length of this post. In short, I am happy. I know my permanent site. I think I can manage two years here as long as people keep treating me they way they have been the past couple of days. Tomorrow, I will go to Valingrad (twenty minutes from my site and also the largest spa resort in the country. If anyone would like to come by and bathe in some hot springs or something, let me know.) and look around. Then, it's back home to Trud. I am so blessed here. You cannot believe my good fortune and how happy I am. I couldn't ask for better, and this is "Posh Core" to say the least.
P.S. Please forgive me for complaining last time about the lack of e-mail. The format of the website was changed last week and I didn't realize how to check for new e-mail. I'm an idiot. My apologies. I knew something was wrong, and I'm just glad I figured out what it was.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Meetings, meetings, and more meetings.

Our Youth Meeting went pretty well. We put on a mock dating game, and Tim dressed up like a woman. The Bulgarians seemed to get a kick out of that, but I think the whole cross-dressing thing is funny in all cultures. There were a lot of teenagers there. Holly and I went off with a few of the younger kids and tried to glean ideas from them about what they were into and what they'd like to see here in Trud. Tim and Jennifer talked to the teenagers, and I think it was a bit harder to get them to talk. It went well overall though. Half the battle was just getting people to show up.
We have some new piglets at the house. The HUGE hog they have gave birth. There's probably about 14 of them. They're soo cute... wriggling around and squealing. I went out last night to have a look at them, and my mom insisted I go pick rasberries with her. They were good.
Yesterday we went to Plovdiv to meet with a couple NGOs. We first went to a place that was implementing a variety of programs with teenage volunteers. It was inspiring to see youth give back to their community. Next we went to an orphanage and listened to a director who liked to talk a lot, but it was interesting to learn about the social programs for abandoned children here in Bulgaria. Most of those stories are so heartbreaking, and you wish the country would do more for them.
Today we had a meeting that covered the structure of the European Union, and the dynamics Bulgaria will add once it joins in 2007. The woman was extremely knowledgable and an excellent speaker. Unfortunately, I just don't have the attention span for economics. I'm not business-minded, and I just zoned out a lot - which is horrible because I'm sure that stuff was pretty interesting had I been in the right place. Well, I have the slides from it if I'd ever want to go back and review.
Afterward, a few trainees and I walked around Plovdiv a bit. There's a beautiful garden in the center of the city, and it was nice just to be there, drink some juice, and chat. Unfortunately, there was a celebration here in Trud at the same time. I came back and caught the tail end of it - basically a bunch of people dancing the "Hora." I said hello to my "baba (grandmother)" and she took me to the "sledkarnitza (sweets shop)" to get some cake. I thought that was really nice of her, and the cake was delicious.
In other news, my mailbox is dry?!??!??!! What is this madness??? I haven't checked my e-mail in three days, people. Surely SOMEONE has dropped me a line in this span of time - even if it's junk mail. Good gravy. Do you know the longing with which I look forward to contact from you all? Please, if you have my e-mail, send me a message. If not, leave me a post here... for the love of strawberries. Props to Liz for posting comments. Love ya, girl. The only other comment was from a spammer, and I hope they're shot horribly in the teeth. Feel the love from the Peace Corps.
Okay, moving on.... This week is going to be busier than I thought. As I mentioned in the last post, I have HUB in Pazardjik Monday and Tuesday. On Monday I find out my permanent site!!! AKA "The place where I will live for the next two years." This is huge, people. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday I will be in my permanent site (wherever that may be) and then I'll finally come back to Trud on Friday. This is big. I'm meeting my counterpart, other people in the village, the places I'll be working at over the next couple years. Considering all this build-up, I'm actually numb to the whole thing. I'm not excited. I'm not scared. I'm not really feeling anything at all. This is strange, so please feel these emotions for me. It would be appreciated.
K. I think I'm done. How are you all? Drop me a line and send some love to your Peace Corps trainee over here.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Festivals, evaluations, and haircuts.

My sister, Villi, cut my hair. I had watched her cut other people's hair before and had hinted that maybe she could cut mine. We were bored one day, so she did. There's probably not much of a noticible change to others, but she added some pretty drastic layers that I wasn't sure I liked at first, but now I'm happy with it. It was funny because she said she'd only cut a centimeter off, but she got carried away when I answered positively to the "Do you want layers like mine?" question. So that was an experience - letting someone you can't communicate with cut your hair.
We had our first self-evaluations with Peace Corps. At first, it was an uncomfortable experience. I felt like it was a "Now that you know a little about what it's like to live in Bulgaria, how are you going to succeed as a volunteer?" interview. That could just be my own impression, but I did feel very put-on-the-spot. It seemed to turn out well in the end though. I don't necessarily think that this is a deal-breaker or anything. I mean, I'm already in the country, and I think they'd like to keep me here. It was just slightly uncomfortable is all.
I was wrong about yesterday being Bulgarian Independence Day. I think it's more of a Bulgarian Unification Day. Apparently Bulgaria was in two separate pieces and reunited in 1885. We had a great time in Plovdiv - apparently where the actual unification took place. We joined a huge crowd at a gorgeous unification sculpture to watch the armed forces march around and play national hymns. We were waiting for a speaker, but decided to ditch out and find seats at the show that evening. We hiked up to Old Plovdiv and went to the old theater - think mini, Roman-type ampitheatre with beautiful columns overlooking the city. We had high seats, but could still see everything. The show consisted of "Riverdance"-type movements and a variety of gymnastics. It was amazing. Just the location was enough to make the experience great. Again, I wish I could share pictures. I apologize for my lameness.
The trainees are cooking dinner tonight at Holly's family's house. We debated on what to make for a long time yesterday and today, and we finally settled on pasta. We went to the outdoor market today to buy vegetables, and the people were anxious to give us extra food for free. Honestly, people are just that nice around here. We have more site placement interviews tomorrow, a meeting at the police station, and a coordinated youth meeting in the evening. Friday, we go to Plovdiv with the giant training group in order to visit some NGOs. On Saturday, we have a meeting in Plovdiv regarding EU funding. (As a side-note here, let me apologize to conservative Adventists who will be scandalized by the thought that I have to go to meetings on the Sabbath. I knew this was a likely possibility when I joined Peace Corps, and it does not bother me.) I don't think anything is going on Sunday, but we have to go to Pazardjik on Monday and Tuesday for HUB. It's going to be a busy few days. Not like it hasn't been busy all this time....

Saturday, September 03, 2005

And the weather suddenly changes...

First, a caveat: I have heard a little about Hurricane Katrina and the crisis in New Orleans. I must admit, however, that I am very much ignorant about the situation that is currently facing our country. My prayers are with those who have been affected, and I know that my comments on the weather here will be quite trivial in comparison.
The weather has suddenly changed here quite dramatically. A couple days ago, we had a really hot day in which it suddenly stormed and rained twice. I can't remember ever having been in such fickle weather. It's suddenly turned cold, cloudy, and a bit rainy. I'm not quite ready for this. I've been enjoying the beautiful weather here, and I don't want it to go away. A few of you have asked about the time difference. I am 10 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time (California).
As I mentioned in the last post, we were going to have a partner meeting with some of the people who work with the youth in Trud. It went really well. People talked for at least a couple hours and shared their various ideas about what might improve the lives of youth here. They seemed to be comfortable sharing with us, and they responded nicely to our input as well. Several contacts were made/strengthened, and that's definitely a good thing. We have another meeting like it next week - only with the youth. I'm interested to see how that goes.
Yesterday, after class, our Peace Corps Resource Volunteer (PCRV - and I thought First Health was obsessed with acronyms!!) showed up and we talked about our meeting. She brought her husband along. They're great people, and their story is a fascinating one because they met at Staging (what I was doing in Washington D.C.) It didn't take them long to fall in love and get married. They've only been in Bulgaria for a year. They're a lot of fun. We went out to eat last night in Plovdiv, and we enjoyed sharing crazy stories, getting a bit of insight about PC Bulgaria, and talking about political and spiritual philosophies. I have developed a strategy here for truly being heard when I want to say something. I just keep quiet until I really have something I want to share - that I think is of value. People think I speak so rarely, they'll actually take the time to listen to me. It's great. Also, I've learned it makes people think you're intelligent.
Today has been fairly quiet. I was out late last night, so it's mostly been a day of recovery. The family is really considerate of me, and I cannot complain. I almost wish I could just to make this blog more interesting. No, that's not true. Villi is talking about going out to Plovdiv tonight. Tomorrow she says she'll take me out shopping - after we finish all my chores, that is. I'll take this moment to inform you all how breathtakingly beautiful Villi is. She's got a great personality on top of it, so you can't hate her for it either. I wish I could share pictures, but I just haven't figured out how to do that yet. And I haven't actually taken any either, but I have some she gave me of the two of us. But anyway, she reminds me of Cinderella.
Well, I think I've run out of ramblings so, as they say here in Bulgaria, "Ciao, ciao!"
P.S. If I don't get back to this blog before the 6th, I'd like to send my love to my Daddio - whose birthday will be on that day. By the way, it's Bulgarian Independence Day too! Should be some interesting partying going on in the area.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Shaking your head in Bulgaria

Did you know that shaking your head (the universal sign for "no") in fact means "yes" in Bulgaria. It has taken some time, but I've caught onto this. Now I have a hard time indicating "no" 'cause I shake my head for everything. Oh well. Backwards country that I already love....
It's been a while since I've posted, and I'm not sure what to tell you about. A lot has happened. I'm still scratching, but I'm having a hard time determining whether that might be fleas or if it's from mosquito bites. Ah well. Thank you all for the suggestions. I appreciate them.
This last weekend was pretty good. On Sunday I helped jar some tomatoes for the winter. I also observed the family making "rakia," which might be the national drink. A lot of people make it at home. My family was making it with sugar, water, plums, and giant barrels which sit in the sun. I haven't tried it yet, but I'm sure I will have a taste sometime in the near future. We also spent the day cleaning my room and washing my clothes. The weird thing about it was just the fact that it was a team effort. It's fine. It's just something else to get used to, you know? They're really good about respecting my privacy and listening to me when I say that "I" want to be the one to wash my clothes. I think they're just anxious to help me out. They're still really great though. Villi, her boyfriend, and I went to see "Million Dollar Baby" in Plovdiv on Sunday night. It's nice 'cause the movies are in English with subtitles. Nevermind that there's quite a lapse between the states and here... it won't be long until I haven't seen the movies that are showing. Villi rarely lets me pay for anything - which can actually be quite frustrating. It's not like it's my money anyway. Peace Corps pays me to live like this, and it feels more like an allowance than a salary.
I found out yesterday that my family spoils me beyond belief... more than I thought before. Apparently, the parents don't eat with me because the father has a big affection for meat. Knowing that I'm a vegetarian, they worry that they might offend me if meat were on the table with my food. I'm so grateful they respect my vegetarianism and serve me wonderful meatless food, but I wouldn't mind if meat were sharing the same space as my vegetables. My language teacher came to visit last night, and they loaded her down with bags of food. I've been weighed three times, and I know they think I'm pretty thin. I struggle trying to understand a culture that encourages girls to be super svelte and yet eat a lot as well. I kid you not... size 0 must be the national average for girls here. But anyway, my family is still awesome. It would take up too much time to count the ways....
We had HUB meetings in Pazardjik this last Monday and Tuesday. HUB is where all 50 (49 of us now - one of our group decided to go home) of us PC trainees get together and have meetings regarding safety, culture, and program training. It's not the most enjoyable thing to do, but it is nice to get together with the other trainees. We'll have these HUBs every couple of weeks. I had my first visit to a Chinese restaurant on Monday night. It was pretty excellent. I definitely did not have high expectations for such a place in Bulgaria due to my imperialistic tendencies, but it was awesome. Another thing that was great about this HUB was that we were able to see some site descriptions and get a taste of the environments we might be working in. They gave us copies so we could flip through and see what kinds of projects we might be interested in... or NGOs we might want to work with. Site assignment is getting closer, and the anticipation is growing. I can't believe we've only been here for a little over two weeks. It feels like much longer - so much has happened.
We have an assignment tonight. It's called a "Partner Meeting." We've invited local youth workers from Trud (I like this spelling better) to come and talk to us about the various programs their involved with. I'm a little nervous because I've taken on the task of welcoming them in Bulgarian. I shouldn't stress though. I'm sure it will go well. It's a very informal-type meeting. I just hope people show up. We have to have another one next week with the local youth.