Monday, April 30, 2007

Dodging Donkeys and Wild Goats: The First Two Weeks in Bulgaria

So as most should know by now, I joined the Peace Corps as an Education Volunteer in Bulgaria and will be here for 27 months. As a day job, I am a primary school English teacher. Secondarily, I am embarking on a personal leadership mission to help my Bulgarian town or village with whatever youth and community development needs they might have.

This will be my blog.

It’s been a little over 2 weeks so far and it has definitely been an adventure. After hectically leaving Los Angeles and spending 2 weeks traveling my way east, I ended up in Philadelphia for initial orientation where I met the 40 other brave souls that will be my constant companions for the next 27 months. Upon arriving in Sofia after what seemed like both forever and only a few hours (and whatever it was, it was experienced through a Dramamine induced daze/coma), we were bussed up into the Rila Mountains to a secluded mountain resort for a week of initial in country orientation. We were all so out of it on the way there that we determined the landscape looked similar to Colorado and then passed out. These mountains are huge, but unfortunately, the beautiful landscape is covered with litter – Bulgarians have no sense of ecology or being environmentally friendly.

It did not really feel as though we were in Bulgaria being up there by ourselves – the entire hotel was full of us Peace Corps kids and it really was a constant party with the 40 of us getting to know each other and such. I felt like I was at leadership camp – part of me still feels like that. Regardless, I am continually pleasantly surprised by how efficient and effective this organization really is. Nothing is left untouched - we are supported by this deeply integrated network of people that truly support us as individuals. There is no competition here. There is simply constant support. I don't think I have ever truly experienced that freedom in life. Everyone wants the same thing - to help the Bulgarian people. Although constantly bombarded with an overload of information and being continually scared out of our minds with the onslaught of Bulgarian words and phrases (that when spoken do indeed make us sound like cats with hair balls), those 4 days were fabulous.

After 4 days we prepared to meet with our host families that we would be living with for 3 months. Training it set up like this – the 40 of us are separated into 8 groups and live in 8 different cities/villages training in those small groups. We meet together every 2 weeks at a hub city for larger training sessions and after 3 months, we will each go to different sites where we will be alone. My training site has 3 other girls – they are fabulous (Day, Sarah and Janel). My fears about this host family were many: would I throw up in the little euro vehicle on my way to my new home? Would my mountains of luggage actually fit into that little vehicle? Would I be able to say a single word to any of them? Would I be fed peppers? Would I be greeted with an overly friendly dog (which really is my worst nightmare)?

After a tumultuous bus ride to Dupnitsa (the hub city), I was concentrating on figuring out if falling asleep on Dramamine would be better than ralphing in the car instead of than meeting the people who would be my family for the next 3 months. However, I quickly found my host mom - MamaVanya - who smothered me with kisses, hugs, pets and pinches. Not a single word of English. I certainly was greeted in true Bulgarian fashion. She and her son-in-law drove me to my new village firing Bulgarian at me when the only thing at that point I was capable of saying was “I don’t like peppers” and “My name is Amy. I am from America. I am a volunteer. I am a teacher.” I was experiencing my world changing so quickly. Nothing more surreal, I was looking a country that is SO unlike anything I have ever seen before, driving into a village that I am not sure I truly imagined one of such type existed. Thinking, “Where the HELL am I? How did I get here?,” I was excitedly bewildered. My town is Boboshevo – technically population 1000 but it’s a village meaning that people live in the towns during the winter so it probably more like population 500, if that. It has 2 cafes, a stadium, no internet, and communist regalia and paraphernalia everywhere. There are also lots of donkeys, goats, chickens, stray dogs, pigs, roosters and sheep roaming around. It is a little impossible to describe this town – everyone knows everyone and the babas (gramas) bring out their benches in the evening to just sit – they look like the stereotypical poor villager. It is real.

We pulled up to my new kushta (house), which appears to have once been a restaurant. There are tables all over. I feel like I am staying in some cabin at camp – it’s really with the elements. Every night when I walk up the outdoor stairs to the second floor where my bedroom is and hear the crickets, goats and see the bright moon and solitary darkness, I think I am camping. Anyway, I live alone with MamaVanya whose daughter Nelly and her husband and 2 kids, Kiko, Deni and Kiko live down the street. They are my new family. Aside from Nelly who speaks a bit of English, we can’t communicate well. This means that my Bulgarian learning curve is exponential – it has to be. Unfortunately, when saying no they nod their head up and down – this has proven to be a problem. However, 9-year-old Deni is the best teacher anyone could have.

I am constantly paraded around by MamaVanya – people just stare, obviously talking about me bc every once and a while I hear Amerikanka. I wonder if they are laughing at my stupidity of marveling at my bright clothes. Lots of pets and pats. I constantly hear “Spokoino”, which means relax, no problem, take it easy! I have no idea what context it is actually used in, but every once in a while in a whirlwind of Bulgarian I will hear that and I think oh lord, I must be a mess. We go on walks where I walk slower than I ever have in my life, but then I think, where do I actually have to go? I need to work on slowing down. We end up at the cafĂ© where babaDonka (Kiko’s mom) mans the center corner. She always gives me weird gifts like soap, cell phone holders, or cheap Chinese fans. I am also constantly fed – I don’t think I will make it out of here without 10 extra pound friends hanging out with me. MamaVanya and I hang out at night attempting to communicate our lives to each other with pictures, miming or torrents of languages both of us don’t understand. It seems to work though. She takes good care of me – she doesn’t let me go to the bathroom by myself at night. I certainly get babied and not treated like an adult. She has to help me with my homework every night or clothe me (the Bulgarians DO NOT like to be cold. Its 80 degrees here during the day and she will constantly sweater, coat and scarf me up. And heaven forbid I don’t wear socks). At first I was just glad to be taken care of, but I have a feeling the babying will get old very quickly and I will have to assert my independence.

Whereas I have no indolence, the kids do. We go to school everyday where we train to become teachers. The entire primary school from 1-8 grade totals about 100 kids. The same 15 kids in each class are together for 8 years. That has to be insane. But these kids take care of themselves and live lives I don’t think any American can truly imagine. It’s actually quite nice. This school was so outdated - I am not sure I have anything adequate to compare it to - like 1940s? It amazes me everyday to see such timelessness and modernity meet. These modernly dressed kids who know all about American pop culture live in these houses that might as well be built in the 1200s for all I know with goats, donkeys and chickens in the backyard. In Boboshevo its a lot more free than America - kids are given independence to do as they please and just laugh and live. It is simple here and family is a lot more important. People seem to know how to get along a lot better than in America - that is nice to see. The kids are also really well behaved and want to learn.

Descriptions aside, this last week has been the finale of Big Brother, which we have been watching NONSTOP. It was INSANE how into that show MamaVanya is. The finale was a few days ago and right before they announced the winner and power in the town went off (this is normal – power for the whole town goes of for periods of time, as does the water). However, I thought the world was ending because Big Brother was unable to be watched. Luckily this power outtage was quick and electricity resumed in time for her to scream and plant her face literally 2 inches from the TV. Aside from the modernity of Big Brother, sometimes I genuinely feel I am living in 1920 in this town, but us girls were discussing how quickly you adapt and it just becomes your life. This is our life, and we love it.

After a long week of school and language training, us girls took a trip to the nearest city called Blagoevgrad on Saturday to get some internet and meet civilization. Because we cannot function properly in Bulgaria, we called some trusty friends – the Mormon missionaries. No matter where you go, those men in suits and nametags will help you out. The other 3 girls didn’t seem to mind that our tour kids were missionaries – in fact they loved it. They showed us around the city and helped us communicate – we bought them a big lunch and treated them with the presence of American girls. They loved this. Blagoevgrad is like the other side of the world compared to Boboshevo. It has people and stores and telephones and internet. Wow.

After the trip into the town, we arrived back in Boboshevo for the Mini Miss Boboshevo pageant, which Deni was competing in. It was most bizarre thing I have ever seen. How did pageantry make its way to Bulgaria let alone Boboshevo? All the kids did their little pageant walks in this tiny room in the downstairs of our training center, which I swear, hasn’t been cleaned or changed since 1930. Some girls were wearing prom dresses made for 10 year olds; others awkwardly dressed in jeans who you knew couldn’t afford the dress, and most impressively (in a bad way) 6th graders in some seriously skanky-ass outfits. Once girl was wearing a piece of cloth tied at her non-existent chest and she got the most cheers – Where was her mothers? Since when was that something EVER considered appropriate in public (if at all) for an 11 year old? This pageant was one of the most ridiculous things I have ever seen - they would catwalk, dance, catwalk more, dance more, and then get asked questions. Deni got second and was really excited and was then told that she would have gotten 1st if she wore her hair up. I am not quite sure what the judging criteria was and who decided that it was considered okay. Drawbacks aside, the entire town came out for this function.

Looking back on the 2 weeks, America is a world away. Bulgaria, or at least Boboshevo, possesses a sense of timelessness – certainly old world. I can’t describe it. It is poor – that’s no lie. MamaVanya grows all of her own food and lives off a pension of 100 lev a month (that’s about 70 dollars). Nelly who has a master’s degree and works at the municipality as a social worker makes 300 lev a month (this is about 200 dollars). Sometimes I forget I live here and am comforted by being American, but then I remember what I am here to do. It still feels like I am camping – that I am on vacation that I haven’t yet come home from. The novelty of the newness will wear off and I will truly be able to realize that this is my new home. I am excited. I am scared. I miss home frequently. Yet regardless, I was sent to Bulgaria to become someone that could do something amazing for these people – and I am excited for that. Stripping away the nationality, the race, the socio-economic status, the haves and have nots, everyone is really just the same. This is an amazing opportunity for me to see the greatest parts of life that I think being American and living that life continually mask.NOTE: This blog does not reflect the view of the Peace Corps of the United States Government