Saturday, July 21, 2007

A Cornucopia of Awesomeness

It’s been ages since I’ve updated, so you know what that means: this is going to be an epic post. I mentioned in my last post that I would be super busy, and I certainly would not disappoint you. First of all, let’s say that I’ve been having a blast recently, and it feels so gooood. I guess the first thing that happened was our town’s “praznik.” Rakitovo has been a “grad” (city) for 38 years, so we had our share of boiled corn, cotton candy, carnival games and rides, and chalga singers. I hung around long enough on Friday night to see a bunch of chaos and have some juice with a guy who likes to speak to me in broken Spanish.
The next day, my friend Andy came for a visit. He spent Saturday with me before we traveled to the Close of Service (COS) Conference together. We mostly spent time walking around the fair, walking around Rakitovo, and stayed up late talking. This would be the start of many successive nights with little sleep. That evening, I convinced him to cook a fabulous dinner, and he charmed my acquaintances in town as we went shopping for food. The ladies at the market that I frequent have now asked me if I invite guests just to have them cook for me. “Yes,” I said, “I invite people over so I don’t die of starvation.”
On Sunday, we traveled to the COS Conference. It was great to see everyone (who’s left) from the B-18 group. We came into the country together, and now we’re all planning our exit (some a year from now), so it was a lot of fun to come together for one last hoorah. Peace Corps put us up in a fabulous hotel. The first evening, I hung out on a balcony and had a couple drinks with some friends. Afterward, we went and got some dinner and then played pool. It was another late night.
The next morning, we went to sessions in the morning. They were interesting and, of course useful, but only really applicable to volunteers who are closing their service in the next few months. In case you haven’t been paying attention, I’m extending my service for a third year. I couldn’t help but think, “Okay, great, but this doesn’t apply in my case. How will I remember this a year from now?” I know Peace Corps will be great about helping me out when I actually do COS. Fortunately, we didn’t get too emotional in the sessions. For me, it felt like another conference. The fact that people from my group are leaving soon hasn’t really hit me. So, I made it through the sessions. I went and worked out in the fitness center of the hotel. I sat by the pool. I bowled horribly in their bowling alley. I went to dinner. And I stayed up late again.

What's left of the B-18 PCVs

I had arranged that I would leave the second day of the conference to go to Future Foundation’s 10th-Anniversary Extravaganza. Early that morning, I couldn’t sleep. Dogs were barking by my balcony, the sun was already streaming in and stifling the room, and I was worrying about my colleagues – who were worrying about me and called me to make sure I would get back at an appropriate time. I decided to just get up (I think it was about quarter to six) and just go. After a four hour trip, I found myself in Rakitovo. I met up with my colleagues and our other partners (from around the country) and downed an iced coffee. “I don’t know where I am,” I told them. I caught a ride up to the park in Rakitovo and helped our friends find their hotel. Then, I went and tested out the presentation I had made on a projector someone had graciously let us borrow. Afterwards, we had a healthy lunch. I say this because many of our guests/partners decided to call that day and inform us that they would not be able to make it. We were livid and disappointed. Here we had already booked the hotel and meals. My colleagues were kind enough to let me skip their meeting on some important, but over-my-head topic, and I went back to my apartment. On my way back, I met an acquaintance and let him “cherpa” a Pepsi. The caffeine consumption continues….
That evening, I got dressed and had Enyo drive me back up to the outskirts of town. Our shindig was held in a restaurant called “Svetlograd,” and the location is gorgeous. Trees everywhere. Stars twinkling. You can’t decide whether you want to be inside with the party or outside with nature. The party was SO much fun. The food was excellent, and the company was awesome. I had a great time dancing with new acquaintances and doing the “horo” (for I’m sure the hundredth time) with old friends. I met a Roma girl studying in Nebraska (inspiring!) and a woman who had lived in Argentina for 10 years (we spoke in Spanish!) The PowerPoint presentation I had designed went very well, and I received several compliments. I looked around, and I missed my fellow PCVs at the conference. I knew, however, that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and it felt good. We ate, we laughed, we danced, and we stayed up late. Good times.

My colleagues and me at Future Foundation's Tenth Anniversary. From left to right: Tsetska, Apryl, Ani, Yanko, Valia, Fatme

I caught a ride back home in the wee hours of the morning, and caught a shower before crashing into bed and getting up a few hours later to go back to the conference. It was another four hour trip, and I was back in Bankya by ten. I learned from my fellow PCVs that I had missed a rockin’ karaoke party. I’ve seen the pictures, and it truly does look like I missed out on a bonding time full of laughter and fun, but again, I was right where I was supposed to be. When they invent cloning, I’ll have fewer excuses.
So again, I went to the sessions. I tried to find some way to make them applicable. I took an LPI (Language Proficiency Interview), and I have yet to hear my score. I think the tester was a little easy on me. She was effervescent about my skills and threw in the word “superior” a few times. If not now, then sometime soon in my service, I could have a level that you can’t (at least on paper) improve from. I really don’t agree with that. Bulgarian is the toughest language I have ever come across (like I’m SO experienced), and I really think “superior” should mean more that just a fluency with the few thousand words you’re comfortable with. Then again, I’m not going to debate it if they decide to assign me that level or a level near it.
That evening, we were honored with a formal dinner with attendees from various Bulgarian ministries and the U.S. Embassy. I was asked to sit at the formal Youth Development table with some of these guests, and I was actually pretty grateful to have been asked. Peace Corps rarely asks me to do such things that include hobnobbing or showcasing myself. I took it as a compliment. We received certificates and accolades for our completion of service, and I received another certificate for having participated in the Volunteer Support Network (VSN).
Previously, we had voted on a PCV to give a speech on our behalf at the dinner. I was nominated, and, though I was appreciative of the nomination, I had to decline. I didn’t really think I would win. Plus, I’m not COSing. It wouldn’t be right for me to speak at a COS dinner. Thomas was chosen for the honor, and I was proud of him. Of everyone in our group, I honestly believe he speaks the best Bulgarian. He’s certainly worked at it the hardest. He gave a great speech.
After dinner, we were treated to clever “superlative” certificates that some of our fellow volunteers had created. I received a certificate for “Most Athletic,” but one girl confided in me that she wanted to give me the title of “Most Masochistic” for wanting to stay a third year. I laughed and told her she should have gone with that one. Later, another PCV asked me why I had received the award for “Most Athletic” saying, “I mean, I hear you play basketball pretty well, but you suck at pool!” I had to laugh. After dinner, we had another evening of drinking and dancing. I love to dance, so…. It was another late night.
The next morning, I got up and shoveled down some breakfast before I left for a meeting at Peace Corps headquarters. The weird thing about that morning was just that not everyone was at breakfast at the same time. And we kind of looked at each other wondering if we were seeing each other for the last time. Here we’re going so soon, but we still have another two months or so together. It was this awkward feeling of, “Should I say good-bye? Is this all so anti-climactic?” And we gave vague promises of open invitations and possibilities of meeting up again before we, well, they all trickle out of Bulgaria. I didn’t want to think about it, so I probably rather rudely just waved to people and kept my good-byes short, sweet, and practically non-existent.
I went to the Peace Corps office to get together with a few other B-18s, B-20s, and our program managers to discuss new strategies and sessions for the upcoming B-22 PST (Pre-Service Training). The wheel keeps on turning. The B-18 COD (Community and Organizational Development) and YD (Youth Development) Volunteers are phasing out, and a whole new crop is coming in. Training can always be improved. We discussed these strategies and all took on responsibilities to make the training more comprehensible. I’ve also been asked to be a Resource Volunteer for the new group. Basically, I would have to go to their sites, debrief some assignments with them, and do some bonding. I was invited last year, but I turned it down. This year, I think I just might try it out. It depends on what my organization has to say about it.
After the meeting, I made sure to eat well in Sofia. As I’ve mentioned before, the best perk about going to big cities is all the good food that’s available to you. That evening, Andy, Alex, and I shared a sleeping car on a night train to Varna. Again, with the motion of the train and the clacking of the rails, I had a hard time sleeping. Ear plugs don’t seem to work for me, thank you very much. Andy had invited me to Varna to hang out, and we agreed that I would present a topic for his English Environmental Discussion Group. I took the topic of birds vs. wind farms (a fascinating debate here in Bulgaria) and another volunteer was there to help me out. I think the discussion went fabulously, and we also got in some great beach time at a fairly-secluded location. That night, we went to a delicious Turkish restaurant, but I could barely keep my eyes open. I asked Andy if we could just go back to his apartment and crash. I finally got more than a few hours of sleep that night, and I slept well. The next day, Andy, another Varna-based volunteer, and I walked around. We made veggie pizza and chocolate chip cookies together in the evening (yummy!), and then I caught another overnight train back to Sofia. Unfortunately, I didn’t sleep quite so well that night (dammit!), but I got into Sofia and a good time and went to the bus station to wait for SaraBeth and catch a bus to Velingrad. Well, it’s tourist season, and all the spots on not only that bus, but the next bus four hours later, were sold out. SaraBeth and I decided to take the train. We ended up getting to Velingrad somewhere between four and five hours later than originally planned, but this is Bulgaria, and it was Sunday. You take these things in stride. After a meal in Velingrad, we went back and began to plan volleyball camp for the next week.
Well, volleyball camp was awesome. That’s the short of it. The long of it is fairly involved, but I will write it down anyway. First of all, SaraBeth was the perfect assistant. She doesn’t play volleyball, but she was there to help out with drills whenever I needed her. She kept score and refereed, she encouraged the girls, she kept me on track, she offered great ideas and helpful alternatives, and she stepped up and did whatever I asked of her.
The first day, I was honestly scared that no one would show up. I’d had sixteen girls sign up, and I sent out reminders, but this is Bulgaria. People conveniently “forget,” or something else comes up, or sometimes they never even intended on coming at all but thought you might like to *think* they are coming. I even had girls (who ended up not showing up) ask me on the street about the details of the camp and ask if they could come. Even when people go out of their way, I still don’t believe them. But, that’s the most infuriating of all. So, the first day, I was relieved when eight girls trickled in. We played a couple icebreaker games, then I got things started. It was obvious that all these girls had volleyball experience, but there’s always room for “improvement according to Apryl,” right? Every day had a theme. The first day was dedicated to passing. I showed them how to pass effectively, and then we did some passing drills. It wasn’t long before they were asking, “Can we play yet?” I knew that they had come mostly just to scrimmage, but I had set aside four hours every day to this, and they had agreed to this range of time when they signed on. There was plenty of time to do both what they wanted to do and what I wanted to do.
So, every day we had a volleyball theme and a discussion theme:
Monday – Passing & Gender Roles
Tuesday – Setting & Eating Disorders
Wednesday – Serving & Conflict Resolution
Thursday – Spiking & Human Trafficking
Friday – General Volleyball Playing/Wrap-up & Tolerance & Diversity
At first, the girls seemed weird about the discussions (what does this have to do with volleyball?), but they quickly warmed up to it and started giving their opinions and getting into some good discussions.
A few girls wandered in and out of the camp as they were available, so we had 10 girls overall, but we had a good core group of six girls. The others gave good reasoning and acted with the appropriate amount of disappointment when they had to explain why they couldn’t come a certain day/days.
So basically, every day started out with some team-building game. We had them pass over obstacles, fit into tiny spaces, unravel themselves from human knots, anything we thought could get them working together to accomplish a goal. After that, we stretched and warmed-up for volleyball. I explained the theme of the day and then showed them how to properly execute a fundamental. As the week went on, I think the girls decided that I knew what I was talking about and began to trust me. I was asking them to use methods different from ones they had taught (or just filled in themselves), and they gained confidence and improved their game… in my ever-so-humble opinion. I’m not going to say they listened to me every time and perform every fundamental perfectly, but there are definitely those with marked improvement in their approaches and strategies to the game.
After I demonstrated these techniques, we would do a couple drills to highlight the theme for the day. Oh, the internet is a wonderful resource. There was a host of drills that I stole from
Usually, we would then play a couple games. If there was a tie, we would have a tiebreaker. Then, we would come together for more drills or the discussion topic for the day. Afterwards, we would either wrap-up and say good-bye for the day, or we would play another game.
I had a great time hanging out with those girls. We’re all pretty quiet by nature, and I don’t think I’ll be best buds with them anytime soon, but at least now they know to call on me if they need an extra person for volleyball. It was also nice for me to remember back to the (oh-so-long-ago) days of high school when I used to play on the varsity team. I taught them one of the (ACE!) chants that we used to do and a few warm-up methods we employed. The thing that was so weird to me, however, was how quiet they were on the court. Our games were constantly filled with chatter. We were talking about ball movement, calling plays, shouting out what the other team was doing. These girls played with a lot of silence on the court. I could barely take it, and I was constantly trying to find a reason to stomp, clap, high-five, or talk on the court. My Bulgarian slang only goes so far, however, I couldn’t find appropriate translations for custom phrases like “shake it off!” “free ball!” or “setter out!”
The first two days were great. The girls were coming together and feeling good. By the third day, we slowly petered out. We were sore, exhausted, and the weather was so hot, it wasn’t quite conducive to doing anything productive. The girls, however, continued to give what they could. They listened to me and didn’t complain when I made them run drills. To make it fair to them, I tried to include myself whenever possible. I always played if I could even up the teams and help them out, and sometimes they still wanted me to play even when the teams were already fair. They even ended up really liking some drills I thought they would absolutely hate me for. Oh, and I forgot how great it is to own kneepads. I have the bruises to prove it.
The last day, SaraBeth and I had made shirts for the most “regular” attendees. We gave them certificates and a chocolate bar to the most loyal attendee. (Only one girl had been there for every single drill, game, and conversation of the week.) We had them color puzzle pieces, and they came together and made a beautiful creation. Everything we did symbolized something bigger, and I only hope they came away from the experience not only learning about volleyball, but learning something about themselves and life as well. I know it’s grand, but I’m still an idealistic Peace Corps Volunteer.
We laughed, we joked, we played volleyball, but most importantly we inhabited the same space and shared the same air for a week. We had them make these envelopes where people could write notes to each other throughout the week. I got some really great comments like, “Thank you for organizing the camp.” “Your Bulgarian is great.” “You play volleyball really well.” “You’re a radiant person, and I like talking to you.” How can you not feel good after reading notes like that? I had started telling the girls that any mistakes in the Bulgarian for the discussion topics weren’t my fault. One day, when I omitted that caveat, a girl jumped in and said it for me. I had to laugh.
At the end, I told the girls that I would like to keep in contact with them. “If I can help you out with anything, please let me know. Maybe I have hidden talents you haven’t discovered yet.” I also told them I’d be willing to get together and play volleyball with them on a weekly basis as long as they arranged that with the school director. I also told them we could do the same sort of camp the following year, but they would have to be in charge. They seemed keen to those ideas.

Girls Rock Volleyball. From Left to Right: Apryl, Desi, Zorni, Dobi, Petia, Tsveti, Ani, SaraBeth

On Tuesday, after volleyball, I met up with some boys and played baseball in the dead heat. SaraBeth got a great video of me hitting the ball, running to first base, and then yelling at the boy at second (in Bulgarian) “Run! Run! You have to run! What are you doing?” Oh man, I watch that, and it makes me laugh. I wish I could share it all with you, but I’m too lazy to figure out how. I was supposed to play with them on Thursday as well, but it’s too hot, I was too tired from volleyball, and we had too much work to do for the next day. As I’m going to be gone all next week, too, I really hope they don’t all bail on me.
So yeah, I’m really happy at the moment. I’m feeling fulfilled and I have this sense of “accomplishment” that is sometimes so elusive during Peace Corps service. I know the myriad of things I do here are helpful, and I know I’m having some effect, but the results come so slowly and are fairly invisible. I basically have to have faith that I’m making some sort of impact, and I don’t do much that makes me happy on a personal level. This camp filled that hole for me, and I thank God that it came together the way it did. I had fun, I saw results, and this helps me to feel fulfilled.
I’ve also gained a healthy dose of self-confidence. I just sat and thought of how many ways Peace Corps makes you grow. Here I’ve discovered all these things about myself. Living alone in a foreign country isn’t so bad, for example. I don’t so much enjoy being in charge of a computer class (it’s okay…), but I love being a coach and blowing a whistle. I’m a pretty good English teacher (though it’s not always my cup of tea), and I’m also still pretty athletic (even though I get sore pretty quickly, and it takes more to get me out and about than it used to). I don’t have the talent for always knowing what to say or making people warm up to me right from the get-go, but I can still earn people’s respect and their trust over the long-term. There are many more lessons, but these are things I’ll keep to myself for the time-being… at least until I learn how to form them more appropriately. I feel all these things lying right underneath the surface – waiting to be discovered. It’s an exciting time to be alive.
My colleagues have missed me. I haven’t been in the office much over the past couple weeks, but it’s good ‘cause it’s nice to be missed. SaraBeth and I had coffee with my colleagues, and they were so excited to meet her because she works with one of our sister organizations, and they know pretty much all her colleagues. Yanko’s birthday was the day after our tenth-anniversary celebration, but I wasn’t able to be there for it as I had to go back to our COS Conference. I saw him wearing a thin, gold chain on his wrist, and I recognized it as the gift we had all chipped in to get him. “Chestit Rozhden Den!” I told him and shook his hand. He relayed the story about how my colleagues scared/surprised him for a birthday dinner. “And,” he said, “we just had the feeling that someone was missing. It’s not the same when you’re gone.” The others agreed, and we all agreed that it’s just not the same when anyone from the team is gone. “We missed you,” Yanko said. “Good. I’m glad. You should miss me!” I countered. He laughed.
Next week, I’m going to the sea with my colleagues and a random assortment of kids. It should be interesting. I’m really hoping that I don’t have to play babysitter, but I’ll feel really guilty if my colleagues end up taking most of that responsibility on. Maybe there will be time to play “hookey.” I really want to get away and have some alone time in some of the more charming towns along the coast.
In other news, I’ve found a new place to live. It’s not as great as the place I’m living now, but it’s still pretty great, and I have made it clear that I need my privacy. I’m going to have to break the news to my landlords, which I do not relish, but maybe they’ll want my rent so badly, they’ll agree to my terms and ask me to stay. Basically, the place I’m living now is perfect. The one problem I have is coming home and finding other people’s guests in my apartment. I refuse to live in that kind of situation. And it strains my dealings with my landlords. We’ll see how it all works out. Please pray for me.
Anyway, you’re probably all relieved by a happier post. My posts aren’t really as negative as they come across. I’m just cynical by nature. I mean, I’m staying for a third year. It can’t be all that bad, can it? Anyway, as I well-know, feelings are fleeting. I’m going to hold onto this elation/fulfillment/sense-of-accomplishment for as long as I can, and I’m going to take it on vacation with me to the Black Sea!

1 comment:

Johnny said...

A peace corp blogger? So cool! Keep up these cool posts on your very interesting life. Cheers!