Friday, March 16, 2007

"Q" - Under Construction

How many countries have you been to that start with the letter “q?” I’ve been to one. It’s called Qatar. Now I’m trying to think of any other possible countries that start with that letter. Anyway, let me tell you about my trip.
I went to the east coast of Bulgaria to meet up with the friends (Amy, David, and Greg) I would travel with. We had a nice time walking on the beach and eating out at restaurants. The next morning, we took about a 7 hour bus ride to get to Istanbul, Turkey. There were fairly frequent stops, and they kept pouring lemon water on our hands, so it wasn’t that bad. They were also amused by the fact that they had some Americans traveling with them. They just had to tell the border guards, and, in turn, the border patrol would ask, “Where are the Americans?” in that half-amused, half-accusatory tone. Then they would talk to us for a bit in English. The nice thing about stopping across the border is that you get to stop at these Duty Free shops and buy things in bulk! We got a huge bag of peanut M&Ms, and Amy and I ate most of them.
When we finally got to Istanbul that evening, we checked into our pension and met up with some of Greg’s friends for dinner. After some yummy, Turkish food, we went up to Taksim – a happening part of town with tons of people and row after row of shops and restaurants. We turned down an alley with a bunch of bars, and we finally found a place up on a tiny balcony to get a drink. Amy and I both got “raki” – a strong, local drink that’s milky white and tastes like licorice. We stopped at one and soon left the bar.
As soon as we were outside, we could hear people shouting. I didn’t catch much of it, for soon I felt my weight being pushed backwards into David. Amy fell back into me, and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man shaking an iron fence at another man who was running away. Then, the first man sprayed a liquid that looked a lot like the “raki” we had just drunk. I didn’t think much of it until my lungs started to burn and my eyes began to sting a little. Pretty soon, we were all coughing. We high-tailed it back up the alley. Wherever we walked, people started coughing around us. We had been in the vicinity of pepper spray, and now it was latching onto us and moving up the alley.
We stumbled back out onto the main strip and continued to cough and rub our eyes. We were soon laughing. I had never been around pepper-spray before, and it was an interesting experience. I hope I never get it straight in the face.
The next day, we went to one of the “newer” palaces in Istanbul and took a tour. It was a beautiful palace, but I suppose the most interesting thing about it was that Ataturk died there. I don’t know much about Ataturk. He was a revered statesman who brought quite a lot of western-influenced development to Turkey. You can find his picture everywhere. After a tour of the palace and the harem, we went back up to Taksim to get something to eat. David and Greg decided to follow that with a Turkish bath while Amy and I walked around the Blue Mosque. Afterwards, we went to get some tea from a very nice man who kept calling us “neighbor.”
The next day, we went out to the Grand Bazaar (this place is so huge, you can get lost here) to find some gifts for our hosts in Qatar and some souvenirs for ourselves. Amy stopped to get some tiles from a very nice vendor, and I waited with her. The vendor kept asking me why I looked so sad. I just told him that I had “sad eyes.” At the end of their transaction, he asked me if I’d like him to do something for me to make me happy. I was trepidatious. Greg was laughing, “Yes, she does.” He said, “Come, follow me,” and walked into his shop. I waited outside. He soon came out with a small, hand-painted bowl. Sweet! I got something free for looking down.
After our adventures at the bazaar, we got a “duner.” It’s basically a wrap with meat, fries, and vegetables inside. While we were eating our duners, we came across El Torito’s. Yeah. For those of you who know El Torito’s, they have one in Turkey. I had been looking for it the last time I was in Istanbul, and I hadn’t found it. Here it was… so close to the center of everything. You can’t imagine my joy. Even though we had already eaten, we decided to go inside and eat again. Our appetites had been spurred by the thought of Mexican food. We ate some delicious food and flipped out over real jalapeños and sour cream. After a yummy, second lunch, we went back to the Blue Mosque and ogled at the architecture inside, and then we packed up our bags and headed for the airport.
We caught a late flight out and arrived in Qatar four hours later – at 1 a.m. The flight was interesting when we got to the Middle East. It’s debated what route we took – whether we flew over Iraq or Iran. On the screen, it looked as though we had flown over Baghdad, but I doubt that. Also, we saw a bunch of fires burning down in the waters. Oil refineries? It was eerie and beautiful at the same time.
As soon as we stepped off the plane, we saw a smartly-dressed woman holding a sign with all our names on it. She followed us to the terminal, and we met with some others who asked us to give them our passports and have a seat in the lounge. We waited while they took care of the visa information and escorted us through immigration. They then waited with us until we found all our bags and our hostess. Ellen was a very nice lady who picked us up after midnight and gave us a driven tour of downtown Doha. She then took us to her elegant house and let us crash. Here’s the connection in case you were curious: Ellen is the step-mother of one of Amy’s friends. Her husband is there on a three-year contract with a gas company. So, we took the opportunity to visit. When would one ever have an opportunity to go to Qatar and get free lodging?
The next day, we went out to get some lunch before going off on a desert safari. We met up with our tour guide and a Canadian on his way to Nepal, and we all set off on our adventure. We started out by getting out of Doha and leaving the paved roads for the desert in an 8-person jeep. We passed a chemical refinery and saw more fires burning out in the desert.
Where the road ended, and the sand began, there were men there with their camels – smiling and willing to take our money. We climbed out on the jeep and hopped up on the camels. We were pulled around for about a minute while others took pictures. It’s one of those things you willingly do even though you know you’re getting ripped off. In fact, someone came up in their fancy jeep, asked if they could speak English to us a bit, and then proceeded to tell us not to pay for such things. It turns out he had been in a random town in Bulgaria many years before. Small world.
All of the sudden, we found ourselves out in the dunes with a bunch of people on 4-wheelers. We almost collided with one of them as they came up over the edge of a dune. We also saw someone parasailing in the distance. Meanwhile, we climbed up and slid down steep dunes. It was like the “Indiana Jones” ride at Disneyland – for those of you who have been. We stopped at checked out the Persian Gulf and looked over across the way at Saudi Arabia. Greg climbed in the driver’s seat, and we took off. Our guide was pretty laid-back, but he got nervous as Greg tried to crash us into a dune. Then I got into the driver’s seat, and I took us across the desert as fast as I could. Amy climbed in after me. It was great to drive – after going so long without being behind the wheel. David had to remind me which was the gas and which was the brake. Sad, huh?
We arrived at our camp in the late afternoon. It was a nice base right next to the gulf. We were the only customers there – in fact, the workers outnumbered us. Amy and I picked out a Bedouin tent to sleep in that night. It’s illegal for men and women to sleep in the same space if they’re not married.
Greg, Amy, and I started a volleyball game with the workers at the camp. We had a good time diving and rolling in the sand. I hadn’t played beach volleyball in forever. Afterward, we went back out to bash some dunes while watching some questionable rap videos. It was surreal. We then took a break for dinner around the fire. There was a debate on where they could have obtained the wood and how much it must have cost them. After dinner, we learned a new card game from the workers at the camp. Later, we hung out on the beach, went dune bashing again, and then sat around the fire. David revealed that he was leaving PC Bulgaria to return to the states. There was a quiet mood around the campfire that night. We were all sad to see him go. It’s a strange feeling every time a volunteer goes home. It’s as if a family is being broken.
The next day, I woke up before sunrise. I got up to try and catch it coming up over the water, but it was soon clear that I wouldn’t be able to see anything. The fires of the oil refineries and chemical plants had been burning all night, and all one could see in the distance was haze. I took a walk down the beach and watched the sun break through the haze. It was anti-climactic. But I talked to God, and I enjoyed my alone time on the beach. It’s been so long since I’ve been alone with the sand and the waves.
After breakfast, we headed back to Doha. We arrived early in the morning and were dropped off at a mall. We wandered around looking for public phones from which to call Ellen. It turned out, there was a phone store there that sold cards to use at public phones, but there weren’t any public phones in the mall. Seems dumb, but yet it almost makes sense. Everyone has a cell. The two things I noticed about the men in their stainless white robes and scarves: how everyone had a wire to their ear, and how they all smelled of strong cologne. I’ll get into that in a bit – my (possibly misguided) perceptions of the country.
So, we stopped into a jeweler’s shop and the nice man there let us use his phone. We walked around the mall and ended up running into a Baskin Robbins. You can’t imagine Amy’s and my excitement. I got a waffle cone with mint chocolate chip and chocolate chip cookie dough. How long has it been?!?!
We got lucky finding a cab. It was either: wait until a random taxi came along, or call a limo service. Once in the cab, we couldn’t make the driver understand where we wanted to go. Finally, he called a friend and had him talk to Amy. It must have all worked out, because he started driving us to the “souqs.” The “souqs” are row after row of small shops. We went to a group of “souqs” that looked more “Arabic” in nature. I don’t know any other way to describe it. We started walking through some wonderfully-smelling stalls. There were more spices there than you can shake a stick at. You like that saying? Anyway, we wandered around and looked for souvenirs.
At one point, I was following David into the shade. I crossed the path right in front of a man. He made this horrible sound of displeasure in his throat. I guess he didn’t like that I had taken the opportunity to cross his path right in front of him. Maybe I should have waited until he had gone by in order to take my feminine body on its way. I could do nothing but laugh.
Later, we people-watched while we waited for Ellen. We saw a father and his children throw bird seed at pigeons while we waited for Ellen. We saw many women covered in black from head to toe. One could tell that they were exquisitely-dressed underneath their robes. They had expensive shoes and expensive jewelry. There was a very relaxed atmosphere in their elegant movements.
We went to a nice restaurant and ate on floor couches. After getting up so early and filling my belly with such delicious food, all I wanted was to take a shower and sleep. We ate for a few minutes, and then we would relax to let our stomachs settle and get ready to eat again. I fell asleep at lunch; the couches were so comfortable.
I had such a headache when I got home. I immediately took a shower and crashed. I slept for a long time. When I awoke, it was dinner time, but none of us really had much desire to eat the wonderful meal Oliver, Ellen’s husband, had brought home.
Later that evening, Oliver took us out to the “Cornishe” – a nice walkway down by the bay. We walked, joked around, and looked at all the downtown lights. It was a nice, cool evening. Oliver was waiting for us on the other side of the bay, and we climbed in the car and stopped at another row of shops. Once we got home that night, we settled down to watch “A Walk to Remember.”
The next morning, we went out to a superstore for some souvenirs. It was interesting to be in a Wal-Mart type and to hear prayers being called out over a loudspeaker. We saw a version of an Islamic Barbie. There was everything your heart could desire – at low, low prices.
Afterwards, we went out to a mall to look for souvenirs and get some lunch. I found another Baskin Robbins and took advantage of getting a repeat of the day before. I know I lack imagination, but when you don’t get the things you love, you want to have them as often as you can in the short amount of time you have.
That night, before we hopped on a plane, Amy and I went to play pool at their “shagadelic” clubhouse. This place was insane. Neon pink chairs, yellow sofas, purple walls, and I swear I saw zebra print somewhere. I don’t know who decorated the place, but I’d like to shake their hand. Ellen and Oliver took us out to Chili’s for dinner that night. Yes, Chili’s. They have Baskin Robbins, Dunkin’ Donuts, Hardee’s, Dairy Queen, Applebee’s, Fuddruckers…. I’ll get into all that in a minute. So, we ate at Chili’s. Oh, it was so good. Then, they dropped us off at the airport.
Our plane was at 2 a.m., and it was full. Our plane over had been fairly empty, but this one back to Istanbul was full. I had a really hard time sleeping. I don’t sleep much on planes anyway. We got to Istanbul at 5:30 a.m., and we went straight to our pension to sleep. We got up for lunch, and I decided to go back to the pension. They were planning on going to an archaeological museum and back to the bazaar. I was feeling tired and run-down. I just wanted some alone time. I ended up reading my Bible and sleeping a lot. I was glad to see them when they came back, and I tried not to be jealous when they showed me all the souvenirs they had bought.
We went out to dinner and enjoyed our last evening in Istanbul. It was hard to come back to “Bulgaristan” (as it’s called in Turkish), honestly. But we came back. I got off the bus with Amy in her town, and the boys continued on the bus to their respective cities. It was nice to just hang out with Amy. I enjoyed having girl talk, and I liked seeing her town. We hiked up to a hija (lodge), and the ground was covered with autumn leaves and purple flowers. It was so beautiful.
The next day, I had to travel 11 hours to get back to site. It was a long day. On the train back to Velingrad, I sat next to some teenagers who were playing cards. They were nice enough, but they were also kind of punks. I told them not to smoke as I had sat on that car specifically so I wouldn’t have to deal with smoking. They paid no attention to me. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out the point of the game they were playing. I probably should have asked them to teach me, but there was never really a good moment.
Once I got back, I brought some Turkish Delight down to Enyo and Milka, and I told them all about my trip. I don’t spend enough time with my landlords, and they are one of the few people that I can tell about such trips without feeling that I’m making them feel badly ‘cause they’re jealous of me. They have also had some opportunity to travel, and they understand what I’m talking about much of the time.
So let me back up and tell you some of my impressions of Doha. I was only there four days, so my rambling is based only on this limited experience and what our hosts told us. It feels completely artificial. Seventy percent of the population is made up of ex-pats – meaning that they’ve been transplanted from somewhere else. I saw a bunch of Filipinos working alongside a Romanian. There were Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Indonisians, etc. It was smorgasbord of ethnicities. Eighty percent of the entire population (just over 600,000) lives in Doha. And I swear 75% of those are on the road at any given time. Good gravy. There is so much money flowing in, they don’t know what to do with it. So they build. It’s a city that’s under permanent construction. There are “diversion” or detour signs all over the place. Investments are pouring in, and so are the people trying to take advantage of it. Some become exorbitantly wealthy, while others scrape to put together something to send their families back home. The neighborhood we stayed in felt fake somehow. All the houses were the same. Of course, it’s like tract homes in the states, but these were sparkling white on the outside. I saw several fair-skinned, blondies running around. They were playing with children of other ethnicities. That was great, but it still felt so closed in. And then there’s the fact that many of them are only there temporarily. You have a contract, and then you move back to where you came from. All these people with so many backgrounds and different stories – thrown together in a complex in a foreign land. It seemed so strange to me.
Ellen’s Bible Study group came over, and they were such nice women. One of them had been there nine years. Another had recently moved there, and had a one-month old. I looked at Amy and asked her, “Do you think you could ever be the wife of an ex-pat?” It’s just such an interesting role to take on. I really admire and respect these women. I don’t know if I could follow my husband and his job to a foreign land. There would have to be some pretty big stipulations. Of course I love living abroad, but…. Yeah.
What else? Oh yeah, I wanted to comment on the dress. The women there are free to dress how they please – within the guidelines of modesty. Amy wore capris, but we were told not to sport tank tops. Otherwise, we were fine in jeans in a tee-shirt, which was good ‘cause it was pretty warm there. There were women, however, who went around in full “burkas.” They were covered in black cloth from head to toe. Instead of looking restricting, these dresses looked pretty comfortable, actually. Some of them had exquisite embroidery around the sleeves and the bottom of the robes. They would then wear pretty scarves and veils around their heads. I thought they looked regal and beautiful. It was the ones with covered faces that tripped me out. There’s something about passing a person and being able to see their eyes. This “black ghost” image messed with my mind because it caught me off-kilter. I like being able to look someone in the eyes as I pass them. Whether or not I do it is a different story. At least the option is there.
Also, I have heard that these women wear glamorous lingerie underneath their robes. I don’t know how true that is, but I probably would. It’d be another way to express myself and do something just for me. Like I mentioned before, they had exquisite shoes and wore a lot of gold.
I asked about their freedoms, and Ellen told me that some of them are pretty free to go where they want – whether it be alone or with friends. Others are provided escorts by their husbands, which are pretty much bodyguards. I don’t really understand a man’s fear of women or other men. I really don’t know the situation, so I’m not going to go on a diatribe of this subject. All I will say is that I was surprised by the elegant beauty of a woman covered from head to toe in black. And the men looked pretty handsome in their white robes. I’ll have to share pictures with you all.
So I came back to “Bulgaristan,” and it’s crazy here. We’re doing a new campaign to get people to sign up for English and computer education. At first, I was afraid there wouldn’t be much response. Now, I worry I may be overwhelmed. I try not to get my hopes up though. I remember what happened when we first opened up the center for English and computers. Tons of kids signed up, and then they never showed. Or they came for a few times, and then they mysteriously vanished. My colleagues are excited at the response, but I tell them that I don’t believe people anymore. I’ll wait to see what they do.
My Monday English class with my little kids was supposed to be fairly uneventful, but it turned out to be interesting. I told all of them that we wouldn’t have English unless they had paid up through the month of March. Several of the kids frowned at me and whined. They had waited all this time to have English. “My mom’s at work,” is the usual excuse, but I wasn’t listening to it this time. In the end, only one boy stayed with me to study English.
Halfway through the lesson, the mother of one of my students came in with a friend of hers. She looked highly displeased, and she said “Dober den” in that sarcastic tone of voice that lets you know she really doesn’t want you to have a good afternoon. She then went on a diatribe about how she wasn’t there because of the money, but she was there because her daughter had come home upset. She went off on me and spoke to me pretty disrespectfully. I tried to tell her my side of the story, but she just kept getting more and more worked up. She said things like, “May only one child study with you. Good job. You’ve done great work.” Her friend jumped in with “Who’s your boss?” I just calmly tried to tell them that all the children were upset, not just her daughter. I asked her if I could come after my class and talk with her and her daughter. At first she said, “Do whatever you want,” as she and her friend stormed out of the room. I said, “Wait a second. Let’s get this cleared up. Can I come after my class and talk with you?” She was a little more calm and said that was fine. I turned back to my student, who was sitting there like a block of ice, and we continued our lesson.
Afterwards, I had another one of my students show me where the woman lived. I came in, and she was a little more calm. Her daughter was happy to have me in the house, and we discussed things fairly maturely – like adults. I told her daughter, “You know how much your mother loves you? She came all the way down to the center to yell at me.” The mother tried to say that she hadn’t yelled at me, but there’s no other way to describe her frustration and tone of voice. So, I calmly explained that I didn’t have it on record that her daughter had paid for a previous month. She had tried in the center to say that I needed to keep better records. I said it’s possible for me to make a mistake, but according to my records, she hadn’t paid. That was the reason I had told her we weren’t going to study English. I told her that all the other kids were unhappy with me as well. In the end, we had a civil discussion. She said that her daughter would pay the next time around. She then offered me some juice, and then she asked me what I was doing here in Bulgaria. Do you get paid? Why don’t you make much money? Etc.
At the time, I thought it had turned out well because a parent had actually taken the time to come and talk to me. Other parents might just say, “Okay, well, you’re not going to study English, I guess,” and then leave it alone. I shared this with my colleagues (‘cause I gotta share my problems with them, right?), and they were none too pleased. “If she didn’t care about the money,” they said, “and she was so upset about her daughter not being able to study, why didn’t she just bring her daughter and a lev down to the center?” Good question. There’s a thing called tact, and there’s a way to approach problems. I asked her if, next time she wanted to talk to me, she could wait after my class. She tried to counter with the fact that she’s busy. Yes, she’s busy. I’m busy, too. I have class. Please talk to me at an appropriate time in an appropriate tone of voice.
Anyway, I’ve just been having my classes this week (or not having them when people don’t show up). I talked to some of my girls that were supposed to show up for class, but instead showed up to play when they saw that I was playing outside. “Look, I told them. You need to tell me whether or not we’re going to meet for English. I have new groups coming in, and I don’t want to hold aside times for you if you’re not going to show up. Even if you say you won’t study English, I don’t care. I just want you to tell me the truth.” They said they would come on a regular basis. We’ll see. I’m so tired of people looking me in the eyes and lying to me… especially these people I consider to be my friends. I ended up telling one of my English students that I wasn’t going to meet with him anymore. He was hanging around outside like he had nothing better to do. When I called him over, he shuffled his feet. “We’re not going to study English together anymore.” “Why?” “Because you don’t come.” “I forget.” “Yeah. You forget, and I have better things to do, so we’re not going to study together anymore.” He then followed that with a round of “pleases.” I just continued to say “no.” So silly.
The past couple days have been interesting with my colleagues. Valia’s son, Sashko, has decided to go and live with his dad. It’s a really sad story. He’s one of those pre-teens who thinks his mom is being so unfair to him. With his dad, he doesn’t have to go to school. He can sit in the Mahala all day and play cards. He can go around and do whatever he wants. He can go with his father and make money. He has this freedom right now that he thinks is just amazing. Valia and a friend went to try and get him to come back. He mocked them and treated them horribly – as if they had never done anything for him but abuse him. Valia said that he was dirty, and he smelled. It’s awful. She doesn’t have parental rights for him because she never had a legalized marriage with his father. I can’t imagine her pain.
In spite of this, the mood in the office has been pretty upbeat. I don’t know if my colleagues are trying to mask and compensate, but we’ve been joking around and having a good time. We haven’t necessarily gotten much work done, but we don’t necessarily have to at this time of year. It’s a slow month in a lot of ways. We’re planning for the next round, and we’re waiting to hear what will happen with our budget. We’ve spent our lunch hours out on the benches in the center – just sitting in the sun and listening to the birds. Even though I should go eat or prepare for my classes, I find that I’d rather just sit there and hang out with them.
The school called me over yesterday because they didn’t get a grant they had applied for. I tried to pacify them a bit, but it’s disappointing when you don’t get a project you’ve worked on. While I was in the office, a woman who works for the welfare of children (at least that’s what I got when she went on a long “vocabulary specific” explanation on I stopped by Brandy’s classroom afterward. They were having a “green” party for St. Patrick’s day. I wasn’t wearing any green, but no one pinched me. I just partook in all the green food and talked with Brandy’s charming students.
Today, the upbeat mood in the office went out the window. My colleagues started fighting again, and I don’t know where it comes from. In the end, we all feel guilty for it. The previous days, I had felt that old, nagging desire to stay for a third year. It’s days like this when I think I just get in the way, and I’m not really helping anyone on my team.
I don’t know. I love my colleagues, but I sometimes wonder if my presence does them much of any good. I can’t help them out much with what they’re working on in the office.
I left the conversation to go and teach my computer class. I was standing, waiting for my students to finish some conversation. Finally, I went over to one of them and said, “We’re going to learn a new program today. Let’s go.” She said, “Let’s not have it today. We’re busy… unless you’re not going to be here next week.” I was livid. Um… what? I saw them standing outside later – when I went back out of the Mahala to do some other, pressing work. If they do it again, we’re done with those classes. I’ll have my plate full enough as it is. Or, if not, I’ll find something else to do.
I finally went to the classroom where Maria and Reneta study English in their free time. (Those girls are so busy. In fact, I couldn’t have Spanish with them this week ‘cause they had other classes going on.) An English couple gives workbooks and English lessons for free. Well, a Bulgarian teacher holds the classes, but the English couple funds it. The room was clean and simple, with three rows of desks, a television, and a DVD player. I sat in on the class for a while, and the teacher gave me some books she wasn’t using. I’ll try and use them for my adult classes.
My class with the kids went well today. Only girls showed up, and we sang songs and played games to have them learn the days of the week. I had a lot of fun with them today. I sure do love those little kids. They are my most serious students. And they actually get upset if we can’t have English for one reason or another.
Well, that’s the update. I’m on my way to Sofia tomorrow for a meeting with the Minority Committee in Peace Corps. We talk about tolerance and minority issues. It’s good people and good fun! It’s also St. Patty’s day. I’ll have to wear something green and go out to get a green beer or something to celebrate. Nevermind that I’ll only be able to drink a few sips. I don’t care much for the stuff. On Sunday, we’re going to have a language refresher! I’m so excited. The most demanding teacher of all will be holding the session. I can’t wait for him to kick our butts and tell us how rotten our Bulgarian is! Haha. Nah, he’ll probably be complimentary while finding a way to push our buttons. Good stuff!

1 comment:

Thomas said...

so you are actually coming to this refresher or are you going to find another lame excuse to bail?