Sunday, August 31, 2008

My Friend, Murphy

I've been having a good weekend, and I'm sorry to see this week come. This week is going to be... heavy. I don't know how else to describe it. My colleagues get back to the office tomorrow. (I was liking the whole, just Apryl and Yanko = work gets done, it's quiet, we go home early dynamic.) It's going to be chaos. Yanko is leaving tomorrow for Dupnitsa with Peace Corps-related work. He meets the new volunteer on Tuesday. He brings her back for us to meet her on Wednesday. She will be with us until Friday. My microcosm will be changed irrevocably. (sigh) That's part of the reason why I want it to still be Sunday.
On Friday evening, I went to a colleague's wedding. Silvia and Yanko (not my boss) have been "married" for quite sometime. They just never went through the whole "sha-bang" that goes along with a wedding. I bought a gift and went up to the mahala. I ate, I danced horo, I talked with people. It was great. I also saw a tradition which I had heard about, but never stayed late enough to witness. The bride's mother and her mother-in-law paint her hands and wrap them in cotton. Then, people place money in her hands. The money is wrapped in cotton, and the bride looks like a boxer. She's supposed to sleep like that all night, but I don't know if anyone does anymore.
The next day, I went and helped clean the grounds of a historical chapel here in Rakitovo. I think the original ruins are from the seventh century sometime. There's also a modern sanctuary on the site. Unfortunately, no one in town has taken the responsibility to care for this church, so the grounds have fallen into disrepair. A group of people took it on themselves to clean it up so that it can be open on a daily, or at least weekly basis. Wow. Awesome. Loving it. Best idea ever. So, I said I would help.
I spent the morning clearing brush and raking debris. We got a lot done with the good team that we had. I was just loving the idea that a group of Bulgarians in Rakitovo had gotten together and said, "This is important. It's up to us to do this - even if no one else takes notice." Wow. Awesome. Loving it. Best idea ever. What was interesting was trying to explain that to others. I saw some of my baseball boys, and they tried to get me to ditch out and play baseball. "Why do you have to do this? Who's making you?" "No one." "Huh? Then why are you doing it?" I mentioned to some other people what I had done, and I got the same questions, "Why did you do that? Who was making you?" They thought I was crazy for doing it voluntarily. Bulgaria has a lot to learn in the field of volunteerism.
I met some really great people yesterday. We just lamented how it's too bad we're just now getting to know each other - when I'm leaving so soon. Ah well, that's life somtimes. We already have plans to take a couple trips later in September to visit some landmarks in the region, so we'll get to hang out. Plus, I can introduce them to the new volunteer, and maybe they can all work on some projects together. Good stuff. These things happen for a reason. Or, maybe it's just Murphy's Law.
Yesterday was a busy day. After the church clean-up, I went for the next round of Silvia and Yanko's wedding. The first day of festivities takes place at the bride's house. The next day is symbolic of the groom taking the bride to his house. He comes and gets her, and they go to his parent's house with truckloads of gifts. There was a bit of free-time, so I hung out with my friend, Fanka, and her boyfriend. I had a good time talking a bit with them at a cafe. Once the bride was at the groom's house, we took pictures. Then, we decided to ditch out on the later festivities because there was a concert in Velingrad.
Slavi Trifonov is Bulgarian's showman extraordinaire. I would compare him to David Letterman because he has his own late night show where he has comedy routines and hosts guests, but he also sings and participates in the role of judge in various reality contests. Last night, he was in Velingrad with his "Ku-Ku Band." It was a lot of fun. I have always admired Slavi for sometime because he's a multi-talented man. I admire him more now because he's adept at surrounding himself with people who make him look good. He also showcases a variety of talent and knows how to share the spotlight with others. This is what I admire about him. He knows how to make himself look good and, in turn, make everyone else around him look good as well.... Well, except for the half-naked women, but they can dance. This is talent. I also saw a lot of people from Rakitovo there.
Today, I spent most of the time hanging out at home. I really enjoy taking a day just to myself - staying inside in the morning. I've gotten into a habit: I'll eat a late breakfast (seasoned potatoes and eggs with tomatoes, leutenitsa, and ketchup, and Kona coffee with chocolate powder mixed in), and just hang out in my pajamas. Can life get any better than that? It's my time. So, that's what I did today. I went out later this evening because there was a "Gorski Ball," which consisted of music and various girls competing for the title of "Miss Rakitovo Municipality." I also had the opportunity to meet a couple American missionaries who recently moved to Velingrad and found me through a contact who actually reads this blog. Crazy, huh? They're a great, young couple who have a three-month-old daughter. They're looking to work with the Roma and Bulgarian-Muslim populations here in Rakitovo. I had them meet my boss, and then I went back to Velingrad with them to chat a bit. They'll be coming out on Tuesday because the guy would like to play some baseball.
It's so crazy to be meeting such great people so late in my service. It makes me sad to being going back to the states. Meeting super people makes me excited and gets me idealistic again. Oh well. More people to introduce to the next volunteer.
The weather has taken a turn this past week. It's getting cooler in the evenings, and night comes on earlier. It's starting to get dark when I get back from baseball. Dusk descends on us as we're walking back to the mahala. It's sad. Dusk is falling on everything I'm doing here. Well, dusk brings a new dawn. It's just a matter of living through the night.
I had an interesting experience at baseball last time. A crotchety old woman chased us off, so we went to some nearby fields and played a bunch of other games. Later, the keeper of the stadium came and asked why I wasn't playing in the stadium. It was the first time he came and tried to make sure I was okay. "Why aren't you in the stadium? You should be playing there." I told him that the meanest women in Rakitovo had run me off. No, I didn't say that. I should have, though. This lady looks like she was born to hate everything and everyone. She goes around cursing kids all day long. It's almost to the point of comedy. I've never seen anyone so crotchety. I almost feel sorry for her. How does someone survive with so much bitterness? Anyway, the stadium keeper was engaging me 'cause he wanted to know if I was still offering computer classes. I've been getting a lot of questions about computer classes lately. It's times like this when I'm glad to smile, shrug my shoulders and say, "Sorry. I'm leaving in two months."
There were a few other things that I wanted to share, but they'll have to wait for another time. I'm tired, and I'm going to have to go to bed. As for this week, I'm just going to have to suck it up and face it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

If You Do It, They Will Come... Once

I'm back with another post on the same day. I wanted to dedicate an entire post to my surprise about having another volunteer come - how I initially reacted to it - and what I was thinking those moments after I was informed. Now, that I've processed it a little, I can evaluate a bit how I feel and why. I'll talk about that more at the end of this post.
This weekend, I went to visit a volunteer in a village near the Greek border. I love my Rhodope mountains. They say they're the most beautiful mountains in Bulgaria, and I believe 'em. Not that I'm biased or anything. However, they sure are difficult to get around. You may look like you're fairly close to someone on a map, but it might take several hours to get to them 'cause the Rhodopes are tough to navigate. Anyway, I went on a lovely drive through the Rhodopes to visit a fellow volunteer. It's always nice to speak English, eat good food, and just hang out with someone who shares your situation.
I mentioned in a previous post that two girls here were trying to get people together to have a meeting about HIV/AIDS. They passed out fliers the other day and were able to attract 22 participants. Wow. It was absolutely awesome. I think the kids had a good time playing different role-playing games, and the girls did a fantastic job facilitating. I am intensely proud of them. Once, when asked to model what boys do in their free time, one of the boys looked at me and mimicked hitting a ball with a bat. He plays baseball with me. I loved it! There were only two things that bothered me. The first was that, in one of the games, they were bluntly honest about how they feel regarding Roma. Yikes. The second is that, even though they obviously liked the gathering, they were wishy-washy about getting together again.
This is what I've come to expect from people in Rakitovo. Getting someone to do something once is difficult as it is. Getting them to do it twice, thrice, etc. is even more of a challenge. "C'mon! You liked it! You know you had fun! You even said you had fun! I saw the smiles on your faces!" "Yeah, I know, but... meh." I can't count the number of times this has happened to me. Do it once, they might come. It's a novelty. Do it twice (even though you've varied it up with different games), and it'll be like pulling teeth to bring them back - no matter how fun it was. Anyway, it was all sorts of "fabulousness" even if it only happens once. The girls gave valuable information about AIDS/HIV, and at least half the kids now know that you can't get it from a mosquito bite. A good number thought that you could.
I hope that I'm wrong this time about what I've said above regarding people's attitudes to getting together again. I feel like I've brought these girls over to the dark side. They're idealistic now. They want to see an initiative like this continue and even do projects with the kids; continue to go to trainings like this with the Peace Corps. Idealism. Watch out! It'll get you! I'm glad that Peace Corps was able to "infect" them as well, but I'd really hate to see them disappointed. I hope with all my heart that I'm wrong about this one. Nothing would make me happier. If the youth kept coming and really put their hearts into it, they could turn this town around. Rakitovo would never see it coming.
So, I've had more time to process this whole... transition thing. I think my fear honestly stems from selfish motivations. In fact, I'm sure of it. I'm so ready to move on. It's time to go back from whence I came. It's still not easy. Watching someone come and fill my role isn't going to make it any easier. I'm used to being "the American" in town. I certainly haven't been the only one, but I've enjoyed a sort of novelty status - which I don't always appreciate and often complain about on my blog, but I've gotten used to it. All of the sudden, I felt like I was losing it - like I was watching myself become obselete. That's a scary feeling. I know it's not true, but I've been letting myself think that people don't necessarily value Apryl as a person... they value Apryl as an American. I don't know why I've become so neurotic to think this, but I realized what was bothering me. Somehow I've stopped thinking of myself as Apryl - a multifaceted girl with a unique personality - and started thinking of myself as "the American." So I got it in my head that the sting of my farewell will be tempered by the replacement of another volunteer. This is nonsense, and I need to snap out of it. I joke with the people here that all us American girls are the same, but they look at me like I'm nuts. I'm grateful that they don't laugh at my joke. They're going to miss Apryl. They're going to love and appreciate the new volunteer, but they're going to miss Apryl. I know this because both my "baba" and my landlady cooked for me today, I was treated twice at cafes, and I was invited another couple times. I know this because I saw the looks on people's faces when I told them I was leaving November 10th. I know this because I will miss them wholeheartedly as well.
The song "Safe to Land" by Jars of Clay has been helping me through the day. It's not an exact parallel to how I feel, but it's close. Transitions... good, but terrifying.


I just found out that Future Foundation will be getting another volunteer in October. Yanko told me this morning, and I actually started tearing up. I'm happy for them. I'm also completely taken by surprise. I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me. I wasn't expecting them to get a volunteer until next May (when the next group comes in), and I figured that I would never even meet this person. Now, the replacement (I feel weird referring to her like that, and she probably wouldn't like it, so I won't from hereon out.) comes next week for site visit. I feel like a rug has been pulled out from under me. This all happened between Friday and now. We hadn't even heard from the Peace Corps, and... yeah. It's sudden is all. I don't want to go on too much because one day she might read this, and I don't want her to get the impression that I'm disappointed or that I don't want her here. It's far from the truth. I'm not thinking about her, necessarily. I'm thinking about me at the moment.
I just talked to Angel, and I gave him this analogy, "It's like I'm pregnant. (Oh, the poor volunteer, but just go with me on this....) I know I'm having a girl, but I don't know who she is yet. I don't know her name or anything about her, but she's going to come into the place where I have loved, hated, laughed, cried - basically had the best and worst experiences of my life. I want so badly for her to like it. I want so badly for her to be okay here - for her to be successful. I'm also scared - to relinquish "my turf," to hand over my experiences - as if I've been some gatekeeper for Rakitovo or something. Well, for the past year or so, I've been the "resident American" in town.
I remember how it felt, years ago, coming into all this whirlwind-chaos and wondering how it would be. I remember. Now I have to shift my attention to feeling this whirlwhind-chaos that is leaving. I honestly haven't given it much thought. I know I'm going back to the states in three months, but I'm not mentally prepared for it. I'm terrified. Having her here will make that even more real. It's not her fault. I hope, one day, if she reads this, she'll understand that it has very little to do with her. It's my own issues. I can't even convey clearly what I'm trying to convey. I feel a bunch of emotions at once, but mostly I feel fear.
Maybe she's scared, too. It's not easy coming in after another volunteer. It's not easy regardless - coming into a new, foreign world and realizing that you'll be living there for the next two years. It's not easy coming into a place that has already had a volunteer. One would think it'd be easier, and it probably is in some ways. That person has already given the organization an idea about what it's like to work with a PCV. However, I'm grateful that I did not follow another volunteer. It would have set my organization up with expectations.
Anyway, this poor girl. I hope she never reads this. Like I said, I don't even know her yet. None of us here do. She doesn't even know yet that she's coming here. This is about me. I'm going to meet her next week, and I'm going to look at her and see trepidatious Apryl from three years ago. Maybe she'll be stronger. Maybe she'll be smarter. I just hope we like each other. Isn't that nuts? I just really hope that we like each other - as if I'm the one who's going to have to be here with her for the next two years. I should be hoping that she and the people at my organization like each other, and I do. I'm sure they will. I have been told that she is perfect for Rakitovo. I have no doubts that she is.
Whew! Flood of emotions... brutal honestly... I want to go crawl into bed.
P.S. I just found out that my official Close of Service (COS) date is November 10. Reality is hitting me hard today.
P.S.S. My boss and I went to the hotel in town today to check out prices for when the new volunteer comes to visit Rakitovo. Yanko told the girl at the hotel that an American was coming. "Oh, nice," said the girl. "And this is the other American," Yanko said, gesturing to me. "Oh, I get it," I said, "from here on out, I'm the 'other American.'" Yanko came and put his arms around me, laughing. "No, no, that's not what I meant."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Пари нeма - действайте!

I saw a kitten die today. I turned the corner of the street, and there it was - lying in the road, blood pooling out of its ear. It was twitching, and there were vermin crawling on it. Its mouth was open in pain, but its eyes were blank. It was a horrendous scene. Otherwise, it was just a sweet, little kitten. I cried out when I saw it. I covered my mouth - which remained open in a silent scream. I didn't know what to do. It continued to twitch, and I just prayed it would die 'cause I knew that I would never be able to bring myself to put it out of its misery. Once it stopped moving, I ended up picking it up and putting its lifeless body on the side of the road.
I just told my counterpart about it, and he said, "Gibson, people are dying today." It's so true. In fact, a bunch of people around the world have died today, and I can only imagine that there are others standing with their hands over their mouths in silent screams. Still, I felt belittled and stupid. I'm not going to be able to get that scene out of my mind soon, but it could be worse, I suppose.
Is it wrong to need a certain reaction from someone and then be upset with them when they fail to deliver? This is a question I've pondered quite a bit over the past few years. When you open yourself up or share something with someone and they respond with less sympathy than you had expected, do you have the right to be upset?
Anyway, we sent our project to Hungary. It's an awesome project. It won't get funded. When the guy with the money insists he's looking to fund a beautiful, stained-glass building, you're not going to win him over by expounding the glories of steel and concrete as architectural materials - no matter how wrong/right you are. The guy with the money makes the rules. Your only hope is that you got the right mix, and there's enough glass in the plans for him. Anyway, it's not going to get funded. I've stopped being optomistic about the projects I write. I think I was cursed by a former APCD (Associate Peace Corps Director) when she said I was a good project writer, and I'd be getting a lot of funding for my organization. Whatever.
The past few days have been rather quiet. Another two of my colleagues have taken time off, so now it's just Yanko and me in the office. We get stuff done, but it's not enough to fill up the whole day. I like the peace, though. No fights in the office. No arguments. No gossip. I'm honestly going to be sorry to see my colleagues come back to work in a little over a week just because of the chaos factor. I have always liked working alone.
I mentioned in my last post that a couple girls in town were at a Peace Corps workshop recently and are inspired to do an HIV/AIDS initiative here in Rakitovo. We had our first meeting on Tuesday. Three people showed up (including me), and we brainstormed on how to get more people to come. I mean, the topic should be interesting enough. It's just a matter of getting people there. They still did a fabulous job that day. It's just... Rakitovo. Angel and I were talking about it last night. Young people here talk about how boring the town is - as though all there is to do here is go to a cafe. In the end, it turns out, people act as though that's all they really want to do. It's frustrating, and it drags you down. There's hope. You just wonder how long it will last. Youth are so powerful. It's just that you wish they'd use their power for something other than smoking, drinking, flirting, etc. It makes me wonder when I turned so old? Somewhere during my time here, I turned from a kid myself into some crotchety old woman who shakes her fist and says, "Damn kids!" There are still some that give me hope. It's a powerful generation. They need to learn, however, that only in making others' lives better will their own circumstances improve. It's another one of those invaluable lessons that I've learned here. I live like a queen in Rakitovo, but something's missing 'cause I'm unable to find others who feel like royalty here. Does this make sense? Basically, I'm not doing well 'cause those around me aren't doing well - or at least they don't think they are. You want to get out of the mud? First try and help the person next to you to get out of the mud. At least then you'll (hopefully) have someone in a better position to turn around and help you. The worst is when that person goes off and leaves you in the mud. Ummm... am I getting too philosophical and preachy tonight? I think so. Yes.
So yesterday, I was walking around trying to find kids to come to another meeting. It was sweltering out, and every living thing was hiding from the heat on the streets. I ended up at a friend's house by chance. Her mom gave me tea and sweets. She had seen me from the window, and she knew it was me from the way I was walking. Good gravy. My gait gives away the fact that I'm not from around here. The meeting was cancelled, and I learned about it after I had already convinced this girl to come with me. When her mother learned that the meeting was about AIDS/HIV, she offered to give me literature expounding the sins of homosexuality. I just responded that the discussion would be focused more on the illness itself as opposed to such relationships. If people think that AIDS is a "gay disease," and it could never happen to them, then they are exactly the people that need to attend such an informational session.
We have thought up a new strategy for attracting people. We're going to pass out fliers that say things like, "Can you get HIV from a mosquito bite? How about a kiss? If you want answers to these questions (and free food), come to the meeting today." We're hoping natural curiosity will get the best of them. If not, there's the free food. Most people will show up to any event for free food. Hopefully, it will work. Otherwise, it will just have to wait until the school year - when they're forced to listen to it in a classroom.
My English classes are going along. They call this time the "dead season," and it's true. Someone is always on vacation. When they come back, someone else leaves. One of my groups wanted to take a break for a while. I talked them out of it by reminding them that I'm only here 'til November, and I advised them to use me while they can. I don't plan on taking vacation at this point. Neither does Yanko, but I think he just does it so he can wear it like a badge. "In ten years, I haven't taken a vacation." I've tried to convey to him that only he's to blame, and it makes him stupid - not cool. There are no martyrs here... says the girl who whines all the time.
Recently, when people realize that I have so little time left here, I get questions like, "What are we going to do without you? What's the foundation going to do without you? What's Rakitovo going to do without you?" I can't say questions like that don't flatter me, but they're kind of strange. Are you trying to flatter me - with empty flattery? I usually just answer, "Um... what you've/they've/it's always done - even before I got here?" This is followed up by a debate about how much I've done of value in Rakitovo - and how much of it is sustainable. Then they say, "Well, we're really going to be sad when you go." I can accept such comments from people I see regularly. It's those that I only talk to casually on the street that I find a little odd. You can say, "I'm going to miss seeing you around - bumping into you every so often," but to express actual sadness? Maybe I'm too much of a cynic. No, I am too much of a cynic. I also need more patience and understanding for the human race. It's when you leave that people realize just how much you mean to them. Chalk it up to human nature.
Today I helped my landlady hand some pieces of heavy wood to a guy who'd brought along a portable saw. There was no one else to help her, and I insisted she let me. We only lasted for about half an hour before she told the guy he needed to get someone else. It was sweltering, and my landlady is in no condition for that kind of work. She insisted he go and find some young, strapping young lad to help him. I could have kept going for a bit longer. Sometimes you need a bit of manual labor in your life to remind you that you are still vigorous. I was kind of glad it ended though. I scared myself when I almost fell into the motor, but there's nothing else to tell there.
My landlady brought me some peppers in a homemade tomato sauce - probably in "compensation." I also had some "kiselo mlyako" (sour yogurt) with some peaches tonight, and something is not agreeing with me. Еven earlier in the night, I wasn't feeling well. I cancelled baseball 'cause I just wasn't up for it tonight. I actually received a phone call, "Are you coming to baseball tonight?" The problem is, when I decide I can't make it to baseball, there's no way to inform those who have already gone to the stadium. This is the first time someone tracked down my number to call and ask what was going on. So strange, and yet cool.
Krum, my perpetual admirer, is back on the scene. He's turned a bit more aggressive recently. He keeps demanding that I give him money. Then he talks to others in front of me about how much he loves me and how I'm going to take him back to the states. To try and get him to leave me alone, Ani tried to tell him that I have a boyfriend in the states who's HUGE and will come beat him up. He's not deterred. After using various methods to try and get him to wander off, he turned on me. The next day, he was in the center saying, "I hate Americans. I hate Apryl." Then he came up to our table at a cafe and said, "Either you take me to America, Apryl, or you die where you stand." Then he wandered off. He came back to the cafe and sat at a table behind us. After a bit, he threw a matchbox at me. Yanko said, "I'm going to beat you. Watch it. Why are you throwing things?" He answered, "Because Apryl's not paying attention to me." Then he grabbed his beer (this was 9 o'clock in the morning) and wandered around the center with it in its glass mug. He then tried to attach himself to another girl. I did my best to ignore him, but I caught him looking at me in smug satisfaction like, "Are you jealous now?" He was just wandering around in circles - kind of like a bird who was looking for ways to dive-bomb our table. I later saw him run up to a kid with a wild look in his eyes. The kid and the mother he was with ran off in very real fear.
The guy is fairly hard-working and stable most of the time. He leaves me alone for the most-part, and I can deal with him when he doesn't. Every once in a while, he loses it. I think it's a combination of a few things and drinking. He goes off his rocker. Krum is rather harmless in general, but he's honestly scary when he's not. I'm glad he no longer knows where I live.
And finally, I'm going to explain the title of this blog post. Well, there's really not much point to it as far as this post is concerned. It says, "Pari nema (nyama) - deystvayte!" which roughly translates to, "There's no money - get to work!" I like it. We say it a lot in the office. It's true of many things in my life here in Bulgaria. So yeah, I've given it a place in my blog. There's also a catchy song, but it's a bit risque for a link.

Monday, August 18, 2008

My Bad Orthodoxy

So, in my last post, I mentioned that I needed to make a phone call to Hungary about a project. Well, I did, and they said that they would respond to an e-mail that I sent. To make a long story short, we wrote a project for something these donors don't plan on supporting. I feel absolutely awful because I was the one who insisted I knew what I was talking about and put us all on the wrong track. We're still writing e-mails to these donors - hoping that, for some reason, they'll change their minds and make some kind of exception for our project. Meh. In short, they are looking for desegregation projects, and we wrote a project for a segregated school in our community. Super. Duper. I feel like an idiot. We wrote a damn good project, though. Hopefully there is a future for it with some re-working.
Other than that dim spot, I've been doing pretty well. Last Wednesday, I sat in on a meeting with some representives from a PHARE program who will be coordinating a project with a local school. It turns out that two of them are close, former colleagues of our foundation. One I'd met before, the other I'd only heard about. At first, I felt a little awkward in the meeting. I didn't know how to contribute (this is the way I feel in most meetings I sit in on), and I wasn't sure how to be of any use. I'm used to playing the role of wallflower, but I hate that about myself. It turns out that I was able to make a few comments and provide some insight to the discussion. So, I was proud of myself.
After the meeting, I went to coffee with one of the representatives while the other went to the municipality to prepare for a meeting with community members. In this time, I mentioned about my future goals for learning French. One of the guys informed me that he has a friend who lives in the French-speaking part of Belgium. Who knows? Maybe there's an opportunity there.
Pretty soon, a bunch of us crammed on a bench and had coffee. There was a lot of catching up to be done between some of my colleagues and these two project representatives. I was just sitting there - smooshed between the two reps and enjoying listening to the discussion about old times before I even came to Bulgaria.
After the presentation at the municipality, Yanko, the two reps, and I went to eat. I was just enjoying being around such enlightened people. It probably sounds a little elitest, but I feel like I have more in common now with people who have traveled the world a bit (even lived abroad for extended periods of time) than with someone who hasn't spent time doing these things. This isn't to say that I can't relate with someone who hasn't. It's just easier for me to jump into a conversation with a new acquaintance if they have. Otherwise I'm fighting to find something to say... especially with Bulgarians.
We spent all day with these representatives, and later that evening I went out with some high school friends of mine. One of them has a pair of twin cousins that live in the San Francisco area. They come to Bulgaria every summer, and I had never really taken the time to talk to them. This year, they came to baseball a few times with another friend of theirs to play with the kids, and I've really appreciated them. They bring up the level of skill and maturity on the field. We went out to a cafe with them for one of their last evenings here, and it was fascinating talking to them about world politics, what Bulgarians think about Americans, what Americans think about Bulgarians and Eastern Europe, and anything else we could think of to talk about. These are the times when you think, "Why didn't I take the opportunity to get to know this person earlier?"
This last session of baseball was a lot of crazy fun. Only Reneta came with me from the Roma mahala, but we ran into the soccer team on our way in. They were all excited to learn how to play baseball. Plus, there were a lot of kids who have played with us in the past. In the end, I didn't have enough gloves for everyone. It was a bit of chaos, but we had a lot of fun. One by two by three, the kids dwindled away, and we were able to get a good game going. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you have the most fun.
This Friday, some of my colleagues, a few people from the Roma mahala, and I went to a place called Krustova Gora. There's a monastery there, and we wanted to take an excursion to see it and see the celebration for "Bogoroditsa," or "The Mother of God." August 15th is the name day for Maria, or Mary, and many gather from all over Buglaria to visit such religious places. The area of the monastery was pretty isolated, and it was beautiful.
As mentioned in the article that I've provided a link to, there is a lot of religous symbolism associated with the region. There are twelve small churches (Does the word "paraclese" exist in English? I feel like I've heard it before, but I can't find it.) which are named after the twelve apostles. There is also a larger church in the name of the Mother of God. At the top of a hill, after all the little chapels, there is a golden cross which is said to mark the place where a piece of Christ's cross is buried. People gather to pray in front of that cross and leave or wipe clothing on it as the cross is said to have a spiritual power that can cure ailments.
In addition, there are several rocks scattered on the ground in the area. It is said that these are in the shape of the cross, but really, if you are looking hard enough, one can see cross shapes etched into the rock. Honestly, this takes faith, but I did see a few rocks that had a pretty clear representation of a cross (or an "X") in them.
Besides this, it is said that there are healing waters in the region. Also, one can go into the church and pick up some holy water - whether you decide to put it in a Coke bottle or a specialty bottle you buy from the church is up to you. We went into the church, and I lit a candle in the Orthodox tradition.
In the evening, we found a tree where it is said that only "good" people (meaning without sin - or maybe very little) can pass through. Basically, it took climbing up on a branch and then hanging onto another branch while you fell to the ground again on the other side. That tree is no joke. A woman told us that several people have broken limbs trying to pass through this tree. I believe it. As to whether it means these people were "sinful" or not, I'm not sure.
There were only a couple shops on the grounds - church-approved, of course. People lined up to buy icons, snacks, and coffee. Of course, there are religious reasons as to why others cannot buy/sell on the holy place, but it also works out to make a wonderful monopoly on any possible competition. After all, religion is a business. The place looked well taken care of.
That night, we camped out on the ground near the church. At midnight, the priests came out and sang a variety of prayers. Honestly, it's a beautiful sound. Sometimes it sounds so mysterious and ominous. Other times, it's tiring on the ears. I would love to find a CD with some of these prayers on them. Apparently, the service went on until 2:00 a.m., but I fell asleep again around one o'clock.
The ground wasn't too bad, and I have an awesome sleeping bag, but I woke up several times throughout the night. Always, someone in the group was awake next to me and someone else was snoring. I probably slept the best out of the group, but I was still exhausted the next morning. We came back early the next day. I ate, I showered, I slept. It was glorious.
You know partly why it was so fascinating? I went with a mixed group of Muslims and Christians. (And a few people who possibly aren't sure whether they're one or the other.) The Muslims, however, were acting more like Christians in the traditional sense than I was. In any case, they believed in the power of the place. I felt no differently, and I'm not one to believe in the sacredness of places, icons, and other material items.
I got into a very brief discussion about my faith because a Muslim woman was telling some others that they should not "cross themselves" when they go into the church. She turned to me and told me that I could, since I'm a Christian. I informed her that it wasn't in my tradition to make the sign of the cross. "Oh, are you an atheist?" "No. I'm a Christian. I just don't do that." Later, it was suggested that I go and buy some icons. I refused. "Aren't you a Christian?" "Yeah, I just don't buy icons."
So, I would make a horrible Orthodox Christian. I didn't bring any rocks with crosses back. I didn't stop to touch any sacred objects. I didn't bring back any of the healing waters. I fell asleep during the litergy. (sigh) I'm inviting the evils of the world to befall me. I stopped only to light a candle in the church and climb up in the tree - just for the "daredevil" spirit in me. Such traditions and rites are just not in my blood.
A friend and I got into a discussion about the difference between the business my church engages in and the most-influential church in this part of the world. To him, it's all the same as "indulgences" that were passed out many years ago. I disagreed. I see a difference between buying icons and paying tithe. Maybe I'm wrong.
What it boils down to is that I'm not that great of a Christian according to any religion. I wish I loved God more than I do. I wish I listened to Him more and spent more time with Him. I wish I spent more time thinking about Him than I do thinking about the foolish things that bump around in my head. Wishing doesn't do it. I'm not sure what does. I wonder how disappointed in me He is. Picking up some rocks, filling up a bottle with water, or touching some icons may make others feel better, but it isn't going to improve my relationship with Him. He complained about this many times in the Old Testament. God wants a change in spirit. It's not about what He does for me. He spoils me every single day in which He gives me life. The question is, what can I do for Him? And am I willing to take that chance and do it? I think I suck in this regard.
Yesterday was a fairly lazy day. I didn't do much except cook some food for a couple guests. A couple of the English-speaking high schoolers that I get together with went to a workshop for training on AIDS/HIV with the Peace Corps this last week. They came back inspired. They loved the training and had a great time. Plus, they said that a bunch of people there knew me and absolutely everyone had a good opinion of me. Of course, that gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Now they're looking to work with other young people and pass along the knowledge. This morning, they met with my boss. He loved their spirit and their ideas. We then went to one of the schools to ask for the use of a room for a meeting with young people. The director, of course, gave it to them without a thought. She's very positive and is always willing to work to help students. She especially loves me. Just about every time I see her, she says, "I just know that, one day, you're going to be the American Ambassador to Bulgaria." Hopefully, the meeting with the young people will go well, and their activities can grow and become even more ambitious. Long have I wanted to do something of the same, but I must have been discouraged too easily. Plus, a workshop with hands-on training like this helps - where the young people are inspired to take matters into their own hands. It's never too late.
I wanted to share another interesting custom with you. Whenever a person has a snack or anything, it's expected that this person will share with those around them. It makes it easy if you have chips, pretzels, or pieces of candy, etc. It's a little bit harder with other goodies. I've had half-eaten/half-sucked ice cream bars shoved in my face, "Take a bite," they insist. "Um, no thank you." It's interesting 'cause it's not such a custom with us to share such things. I mean, usually we do, but we don't feel obligated to if we don't want to. Sometimes I feel rude that I'm not shoving my ice cream bars in others' faces.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Busy Boredom

I have a million and a half things I want to share here. The sad thing about being busy and not updating your blog regularly is that you're apt to forget something. It's not so much for you as it is for me to write down, process, and remember what has happened during my time here. I can't believe how quickly it's all going by. I can't believe it's been so long since I updated my blog. A good friend of mine is keeping a countdown on her website that's based on a tentative "close-of-service" (COS) date. Ninety days left. I still do not have an official COS date. I should probably start bugging PC about that. I just figured they'd bug me when they wanted to know when I'll be officially ending my Peace Corps service. Wow. What will it be like to no longer be a Peace Corps Volunteer? I think I'll have some sort of identity crisis.
The weekend before last I took a hike with some friends to a hija (lodge) half-way up Hristo Botev Peak in Kalofer. It was a long hike, and I was carrying a lot of baggage (my sleeping bag, someone else's sleeping bag, and the tent), but it was so awesome. There were four of us. Two got an earlier start, and another girl and I came up later in the afternoon. She helped a bit with the luggage. Just hiking, chatting, being out in the fresh air... it was awesome. I'm going to have to post pictures soon 'cause it was absolutely beautiful. I loved it. I felt alive.
About an hour from the hija we ran into the rest of our company. They had met some very nice men who had encouraged them to keep going to the hija. We finally made it just before nightfall. We had dinner and some drinks with our new acquaintances, but we were so exhausted and soon went to bed. Camping out under the stars was absolutely spectacular - even though we didn't sleep well. Plus, there was a beautiful waterfall in the distance that just made it all picturesque. Like I said, I'll have to post pictures.
There was no way that we were going to make it to the top of Botev, so we turned around the next morning and went down the mountain. We made good time - running over and over again into a huge group of Bulgarians and exchanging a few words. They were able to give a couple of us a ride back to Kalofer once we got down the mountain, and the other two hopped in another car. That saved us enough time for me to make it back to Rakitovo. I was exhausted, but it was a fabulous exhaustion.
All of last week, I was tired. I came down with a cold, but I was good about taking my vitamins, so the symptoms were practically non-existent.
Valia and Ani (two of my colleagues) have been on vacation these past weeks. They will be gone until the end of August. The office is very quiet without them. The hours go by pretty slowly. I miss them, but... at the same time it's kind of nice not to have the chaos in the office. We don't necessarily have a lot to do, but when we do, it gets done quickly, and we go home early. Last week, I was able to finish up a big project we've been working on. I was so proud of myself - English translation, matching budgets in the hundreds of thousands of Euros. Now there's a question again about whether or not they'll be willing to support our kind of project. Augh! I feel sick inside thinking about all our work. I need to make a phone call to Hungary, and I'm putting it off.
I finally confronted the guy who originally installed our heating system in the Educational Center. I think I've mentioned before about the tirade I've wanted to lay into him - about how I would go off the handle about how he put kids in danger, how I would yell at him that we had to install an entirely new system after his shoddy work... and he still thought we owed him 20 leva. I'm not the confrontational type, and I'm definitely not the yelling type. I almost wish I were a bit more like that. I knew I wouldn't yell at him when I confronted him, but my heart was pounding regardless. I grabbed my wallet and waited 'til he was alone and could talk. I told him that we re-installed the entire system and paid 400 leva for it. I told him that I didn't want to hear his stories around town that we owe him 20 leva. I kept pushing 20 leva on him. At first he refused to take it, "Why did you have to install the entire system again? I don't have a problem with you. I've only been talking to Yanko." I was trying to tell him that I wanted him to take the 20 leva and shut up. He tried to refuse, but we just kept going around in circles. Finally, I shoved the 20 leva in his pocket, and he didn't do much to protest. "I'm going to give it to Yanko," he said. Yeah right. "Do whatever you want," I told him and walked away. I just wanted to be done with it. I can move on and forget about it. I was shaking with anger when I got back to the cafe with my colleagues. I don't always agree with lawsuits, but a guy like that would be sued in the states. Here I gave him 20 leva. I'm stupid, I know. It doesn't change anything, but I feel better.
So, there's this girl at the copy place I regularly go to. She's fantastic. If no one else is around, I find myself talking to her at length about a number of topics. I've just learned that she and her husband have to go to Pakistan in a few months for an operation. Isn't that crazy? Apparently it's hundreds of thousands of Euros for that operation here in Europe. A hospital in Pakistan will do it for tens of thousands of dollars. She says that other Bulgarians have gone and returned alive and well. Pakistan? Can you imagine? I've heard of North Americans going to South America to save money on medical expenses. Apparently Europeans go to places like Pakistan if need be. Nuts. She really is a sweet woman, and I think she's fantastic. I hope it all goes well for them.
We've had some interesting weather over the weekend. I went to Batak, a nearby town on the other side of the reservoir near us. In spite of the fact that it's so close, I've only been once. I decided that I needed to go again and check out the famous church that was one of the last strongholds against the Ottoman Turks during the April Uprising. There are still skulls in the ground and bullet holes in the walls. It was a disturbing sight. Afterwards, I visited the historical museum. Then, I just walked around the town and read until I was able to catch a bus back to Rakitovo. The clouds were rumbling over the mountains all afternoon, but fortunately it didn't rain until late into the night when I was already safe in my house. There was thunder and lightning and rain all night long, but I was snug in my bed. I love summer storms!
In Batak, I ran into a woman who works at Peace Corps. She seemed surprised that I would travel around alone. It's not always great to be alone when you're traveling. I like it about 45% of the time. I would prefer to have company, but I've decided that if I want to see the places I really want to see, I have to get out and go see them alone. I want to travel after my COS, but chances are that I would be alone. There are people that can do it for months on end. I admire them. Many are extroverts who are able to make friends on the road. I'm not quite as confident. I think I would mostly keep to myself and become very lonely after a short amount of time. We'll see. Do I let the fact that I'm alone hold me back from the things I really want to see/do?
I went and saw Enyo and Milka (the former landlords) when I got back from Batak. Enyo had met a Russian and brought him home to drink some rakia. They spoke to him in halting Russian, and I spoke to him in English. I understood most of what they were saying to him because Russian is very similar to Bulgarian. Plus, Olympic Women's Volleyball was being shown on the television at the time, and we were cheering on the American team. It was a wonderful, cultural experience. He turned to me and said, "I think this is the first time I'm cheering for an American team." It turns out that he speaks Hindi 'cause he worked in India as a diplomat for many years. I told him that diplomacy is my dream. He said I should go to India if I get a chance. It's definitely on my list of places to go one day.
Sunday was a lazy day that I needed. I eventually got bored and demanded that a friend of mine come over and visit me while I cooked dinner. We had a great conversation and I gave her a few of my recipes. Having company and being in my home cured the boredom. I hang out with people here, but I find myself enjoying it more when I can do it in the comfort of my own home. Otherwise, even when I'm out with people and enjoying myself, I find myself wishing I could just go home and be alone. It doesn't make much sense to me. Maybe I need my head examined.
Baseball has been going well. The crowd changes pretty regularly. I mean, I have some consistent regulars, but there's also a big portion of people who come and play once - seem to really enjoy themselves - and then they don't come back. I'm getting tired of getting stopped by people who ask when I'm going to be playing baseball 'cause a majority of these people honestly have no intention of coming. I feel like I'm wasting my breath. Why stop and ask me when you have no intention of coming to play? I see myself doing it in other situations, and I hate that I've taken on that quality as well. Ah well. The crowd always changes, but we always have fun. Maybe it's good. That way a larger number of kids get exposed to "America's Favorite Past Time." It's still a shame I wasn't able to work harder on finding funding to develop a team and play some serious games. It would have been a great, unforgettable experience for these kids, but I can't do everything. Maybe someone else can do everything. Hehe. On a side note together with baseball, I swear my name never gets said so much as it does in that stadium. "Apryl! Apryl! Apryl!" Everyone's demanding my attention all the time. Meh.
I wanted to share something a friend of mine wrote me, 'cause I thought it was really great:
What I meant to say was: I admire your tenacity, your willingness (even need) to help others, and I'm personally overwhelmed by your many accomplishments. Your mom was telling me that your recent posts (My link stopped working for some reason, and I have to admit using the busy excuse to prevent trying harder) seem to bemoan the partially completed projects and missed opportunities that have been left behind. Trust me, I know how easy it is to belittle the worth of things we have done, especially when we dig through our past searching for something to validate our life spent/left behind. I just wanted to let you know that (especially in a world where most people never venture far from the path between the fridge and the couch) you're a super-cool travelin' hero!
It's wonderful when you get pick-me-ups like that. I have a lot of people in my life that tell me I'm doing great things and that they're proud of me. Who can ever say how much impact we have on the lives of those around us? By the grace of God, let it be for the good. It only takes a second to drop a bomb and ruin someone's life forever. I find doing sustainable good is actually more difficult. I don't know if others would agree with that statement, but I find it saddening.
Onto another random topic: You know what else is interesting here in the Bulg? Change. No one ever seems to have enough of it. Sometimes, when you present a 20-leva bill at a cafe where your check was only a few leva, the waitress will look at you as if you've lost your mind. "Don't you have anything smaller?" Here in Rakitovo, I get the comment without the look - probably because they know me. I try to look apologetic. Sometimes I'm told to come and pay another time if they honestly can't break my bill, and I only owe a little. I make sure I do 'cause I think that's an awesome tradition here, and I don't want to ruin that trust. The other thing is when you're in the grocery store, and they're supposed to give you five or ten cents. Sometimes they'll ask if they can just stick a piece of gum or a small candy in with your groceries to compensate for the fact that they can't give you the change. I get irritated when it's for bigger things. Last week, when we were at that isolated hija in the mountains, I first got cut off in line by some guy who wanted a free refill on his pitcher of tea. (Like because you've already paid for it and the refills are free - you can just cut in a whole line of people.) Then, the lady didn't have change when I paid for my coffee, so she made me buy a sweet cake for another 50+ stotinki (cents). The previous night, one of my friends just left her change with her 'cause she didn't want anything else. Sheesh. It's so rare in the states not to have change at such establishments. I'm probably going to apologize there for paying for gum with a 20, and they'll probably look at me like I've lost my mind.
Here's a sad topic, but I wanted to talk about funerals in Bulgaria. I think I mentioned before that I went to the funeral of the grandmother of a colleague of mine. Fortunately, that's the only funeral that I've attended, and I haven't actually known anyone who has died. I don't think I described it in detail. We always know when a Bulgarian Christian dies because the bell at the church tolls a sad, lonely clang. It happens more often than I'd like to hear, but those are the breaks of living in a small town. At the funeral that I went to, we laid flowers in the coffin of the woman before she was covered. Usually, the dead are kept at home and prepared for burial the day after they die. Visitors come and pay their respects. Then, we walked behind the coffin as it was led by horse to the cemetery. Once at the grave, those who have loved ones who have died (nearly everyone) brings some kind of snack and passes it out to people there in honor of those who've died. In a sense they're "feeding" and taking care of those who have passed on. They will also bring some water and pour it on the grave of their loved one - even if they've passed away many years before. This also shows that they are taking care of this person. Afterwards, the men take turns pitching shovels of dirt on the grave of the person who has recently died. This is the last show of "good" or respect that they give to this person.
In the Orthodox tradition here, the spirit of the dead remain in their house forty days after their actual death. There is a ceremony to mark the fortieth day, when the spirit is finally free to continue to the world beyond. Some people talk about being visited in dreams by that person until they finally "leave." It's fascinating to me. My beliefs are quite different, but it makes me wonder where such ideas come from. Many would say that it's in the Bible, but I've never read anything to lead me to believe that the spirit hangs around on the earth for forty days. Of course, the Bible isn't the easiest book to interpret. Now I'm rambling....
I'm sure that there's more that I wanted to share, but it's getting time for me to suck it up and call Hungary, then teach a Spanish class, then go and play some baseball with whoever decides to show up.