Tuesday, August 18, 2009
The days leading up to the camp involved a lot of running around and coordinating different organizations to help out with the activities we had planned. At the same time, the camp was being changed from 5 days to 7 days to 4 days, back to 7 days, and then to 5 days again, before we finally settled on 4 days of activities and then a sort of free day. This system worked out pretty well, not only because the kids from Dren would be able to get back easier, but because it would allow us to plan fuller days of activities.
Day 1: Museum Day and the Scavenger Hunt – We got all the kids together for the first time outside of the orphanage and played some games like the human knot and duck-duck-goose. We then walked up to the museum where we got a talk from one of the archeologists in residence there, as well as a tour of all the exhibits (including one housed in a vault behind a foot thick metal door). After looking around a bit, we started the day’s main activity, the museum scavenger hunt, in which the kids were to look through the exhibits for certain things and the team with the highest amount of points wins. The kids got really into it, and we actually went over our planned allotted time. The museum actually asked to have copies of the scavenger hunt for future visitors, so I would say it was an all around success. While we were sitting around counting points at the end, everyone was kind of bummed that nobody found one of the clues on the list – a pony. Just as everyone was almost done counting, guess what pulls up… that’s right a pony and mother horse pulling a cart together. Everyone went crazy, and it was the perfect cap to a hugely successful activity. After that, the kids had a picnic in the park and we spent the rest of the day playing sports and doing arts and crafts and things with the other kids.
Day 2: Ruins and the dig site – We walked to the ruins of the citadel of Preslav just outside of town where there was a huge team of archaeologists digging for artifacts. The archaeology major in our group (the volunteer who coordinated the camp with me) was freaking out because of the haphazard digging methods at the site. One of the methods was to throw a whole bunch of dirt from the site into a pile and run a metal detector over it. Another involved chipping away fragile wall-looking areas with a pick axe. Good job, guys… Anyway, the kids were able to ask the archaeologists questions, and we even got the head professor to come out and talk to the kids about what was going on at the site. From there we walked up to another section of ruins where they actually let people climb up into a reconstructed area of the old fortress. The kids really got a kick out of that and played around for a bit. We then reached the last part of the ruins, the golden church of Tsar Simeon, where we rested for a bit and played some good old American football.
Day 3: The hike to Patleyna…. Sort of – We had planned to have everyone in the camp come hiking with us up to Patleyna (which I wrote about in a previous entry). However, several of the older children and the 2 supervisors refused to come with us because they thought it was too long. So we left without them. Apparently the activity the orphanage people thought up for them was to clean the building, so the people who went on the hike were pretty happy. The kids seemed to really enjoy the old 10th century monastery up there, and we even got to poke around at the newer monastery, where we found a bit of old Communist propaganda (“The party of Lenin is our vanguard!”). The kids that came with us also had a great time at the miniature zoo they have up there which featured doves and peacocks. I think some of the kids were actually kind of scared of the peacock since they hadn’t really seen anything like it before. Tired after a couple of hours walking round-trip, we finished out the day with some group games, baseball and volleyball. Baseball was especially interesting, as the kids were really getting into the home-run derby setup we started. After a couple hours of playing, the man who runs the stadium comes in shouting at us and telling us we have to leave. Confused, since we were being very good, and the kids were having a great time, we asked him why we had to leave. His answer was that we were making holes in the ground with the bats. Bewildered, we decided not to argue and left…
Day 4: Capture the flag and Time Capsule – We started off the day by going up to the stadium to play some relay games. We played a game featuring spoons and ping pong balls (which they weren’t that into) and did the dizzy-bat relay (which they were into, but we ended a bit prematurely as a lot of kids were falling all over the place). We then went to the park and introduced capture the flag, a game that the kids had never heard of before. They really enjoyed it, and the kids were actually filling their roles on the team quite well (i.e. prison guards acting like actual prison guards). It seemed that the game had reached a standstill, when one of the teams tried for a huge push and ended up getting a lot of their team captured, allowing the other to go in and take the flag pretty easily after about 10 minutes. I think this game was one of the most successful things we did and definitely one of the highlights. The kids from my orphanage are already asking when we’re going to play it again. During the afternoon, we made a time capsule, in which the kids wrote down their favorite memories from the camp and what they envision for themselves 20 years in the future. We then took pictures in front of the monument in the center of town, effectively putting a cap on the main portion of the camp.
Most of the volunteers left on Friday morning, but the supervisors took all the kids out to the fortress in Shumen to continue the archaeology theme. I saw the kids from the other place as they were leaving and may had made new friends and didn’t want to leave. So all in all, after all the hard work and stress, the camp was pretty successful, and we’re planning on doing something similar again next year. The supervisor from Dren actually invited our kids out there for next year, so we’ll see what we can get together. I know I learned a lot about how to run a successful camp, what works, and what fails miserably. I think that next time we’ll skew for a bit of a younger group as well. All in all, it was a great time, and while I’m glad it’s over, I’m also glad we were able to put together a successful camp (without many resources) that created new friendships for the kids and gave them some great experiences.
Until next time…
PS... Andrea took these pictures. My camera is once again out of commission... Thanks~
Monday, August 17, 2009
On one hand, Nessebur is a beautiful museum town – an ancient city built by Romans on an island in the Black Sea. UNESCO declared the old town on the island a World Heritage Site, or a masterpiece of human accomplishment vital to the history and cultural fabric of Bulgaria.
Connected to the mainland by a small strip of sand and a road, Nessebur seems like it would have been the ideal location in which to place a town, taking into consideration its natural strategic advantages. Due to its great natural defensive capabilities, the town is home to several amazingly well preserved churches (some dating back to the 10th century), as well as a good amount of Bulgarian revival architecture from the 1800s.
On the other hand, Nessebur is a big and gaudy beach town sharing the same strip of sand as Sunny Beach (at times blending into, or being absorbed by, its neighbor). The road into the old town is lined with water parks and casinos, and the distinction between historical areas and modern development is becoming increasingly ambiguous. Indeed, scattered amongst the ruins of Roman fortifications and the historical buildings are located giant neon signs advertising English breakfasts. The old cobblestone streets are now lined with tacky souvenir stands selling everything from shock-factor t-shirts to plastic beach toys.
At some points it’s somewhat difficult to tell what heritage exactly UNESCO is preserving here. The buildings are being preserved, but the meaning is left behind, the actual culture being lost in the shuffle. At the same time, it’s hard to tell if one thing is possible without the other – if the authentic structures would still be in tact without the support from the artificial. It is often the same case for any place of historical or cultural significance. And so, just like any other place one has to dig to find a bit of true meaning of the place and to capture at least a piece of the character that made it so great to begin with.
Just like the rest of Bulgaria, it will be the beautiful things that I choose to bring with me, not the junk that is currently covering it up.
Until next time...
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Sunny Beach has a strange effect on people.
Looking out of my balcony, I see a stretch of miles of pure white sand and luxury hotels. This is a scene more likely found in Florida or California – a small strip of America cut away, airlifted, and tossed down haphazardly at the edge of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. The streets are clean, the buildings are all new (and actually completed). Sunny Beach offers, at first glance, a vision of Bulgaria’s potential as a tourist destination.
Scratch a bit beneath the surface, and you can come to find small bits of the Bulgaria I’ve come to love. Directly below the balcony, hidden away from the main road and in the middle of two swimming pools was a garden in which an old baba was picking tomatoes, just as she probably has in that same spot her whole life. Yet soon, this place too will be uprooted and the land subdivided and cleared for another hotel – its ground floor serving English breakfasts to German tourists.
During my visit to Sunny Beach, I felt (for the first time) like a visitor to the country in which I now live. I felt it was a place in which Bulgaria was being pushed out, hidden away, and erased, the only useful thing salvaged being the obligatory Shopska Salad on every menu. Sunny Beach felt to me like a bus stop to which tourists flock for cheap booze and (relatively) more lenient laws. It felt like the Cancun of Europe. The Daytona of the Balkans. I’m reminded of a Monty Python sketch from the Meaning of Life in which a waiter asks a couple of American tourists, “Have you ever wondered just why you’re here?” Their response is that of the stereotypical tourist: “Well we went to Miami last year, and Philadelphia the year before that, and this seemed like a nice enough place to go.” A trip to Sunny Beach is just that – another place to go without having to confront the bigger issues present around it.
It occurred to me as I watched the hordes of people milling around the center that Sunny Beach is really just one spot of debauchery on the beach that exploits the country’s status as a developing nation – a place that provides the perfect combination of lax laws and lower prices. Just like its Mexican counterpart (Cancun) Sunny Beach doesn’t try to entice visitors inland (or if they do, on packaged tours) or encourage them to contribute in any way to the local population.
For example, just a couple of kilometers away from Sunny Beach are some typical Bulgarian villages, just scraping to get by, its youth inevitably leaving for the promise that a job in Sunny Beach provides. By bypassing the country’s challenges on their beeline trek to the beach, the people who come here also miss out on the real Bulgaria. Sure, they don’t have to see the poverty, or confront the corruption. The biggest problem they face is which novelty t-shirt to buy at the souvenir store. But the downside is that they don’t get to see anything uniquely Bulgarian. Worse, they don’t even support the country to which they have come, their money going instead to English and German developers who skip town during the low season, leaving the locals scrounging for cash during the brutal winter.
Driving down here from Preslav, we must have passed through 20 little villages. We passed through winding mountain roads that opened up into fields of sunflowers. We stopped at a lake lined with beautiful rock formations. Our driver pointed out to us the house in which her grandmother was born. The two hour drive to Sunny Beach held more character and liveliness than the entire two day stay in Sunny Beach itself. The change in scenery alone was enough to make a person forget all about life in the rest of Bulgaria.
I hope I never do.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
The village of Kirkovo, only 2 kilometers distant from Preslav is separated from town by another vast sunflower field and very little else, giving the impression that the field actually serves to somehow both connect and separate the two places. If it weren’t for this field, I am sure that the towns would run together. In fact residents of Preslav refer to the village as “kvartal Kirkovo,” suggesting that they regard Kirkovo as a part of Preslav, despite the fact that they have little in common (other than the apparent proximity).
It’s a quiet little place with little of interest, save for an exceptionally picturesque church in the center. I sat by for a bit, just enjoying watching the laid back life in the village, disturbed only by the occasional clatter of donkey hooves or a tractor revving its engine somewhere in the distance. It was easy to appreciate the seemingly total change of pace evident in a town that lies so close to my own before heading on to tackle the greater part of my journey that day, which would eventually top 20 kilometers (or roughly half a marathon).
5 kilometers later, past another wide sunflower field and a small patch of forest that opened into a valley filled with wildflowers, I reached the train tracks that mark the boundary of the village of Kochovo. I had passed through Kochovo several times, as it lies on the bus route between Shumen and Veliki Preslav, but I had never really given any thought to the place while passing through. Walking slowly in the streets of the village I was able to notice many things I had never seen before – notably the center, which lies outside of the main bus route but contains a nice clock tower and monuments to fallen soldiers of past wars.
The most striking characteristic of Kochovo to me, however, was the complete lack of activity. Often when I go to a village there are people milling around getting things done, but during my time in Kochovo, I saw almost no people. Stopping in a small shop off the center for water, I asked the shopkeeper if there was a café or restaurant in town. The surprising response was that she didn’t know. I was alarmed by the response because it is a small and pretty compact town, but I later realized that this is the case in many places in a country such as Bulgaria, in which the small towns are getting smaller every day. This leaves the people who stay behind saddled with more work and fewer options to think about much else.
Not having found a place to get something to eat, I pressed on 5 more kilometers to the village of Osmar, which despite being similar in size to Kochovo seemed infinitely more alive. I ate a short lunch of Shopska Salat and kyuftes at the one restaurant in town in the center before heading away from town, following a sign I noticed that pointed the way to “Rock Monasteries,” something I never knew existed in this area. 3 kilometers into the hills outside of the village (Shumen lies on the other side of the same hills), I reached a sheer rock face. At the top of the cliffs were some holes leading into the mountain, and these were only accessible by a wooden ladder. Climbing the ladder into the holes revealed a complex of tiny rooms in the rocks, carved several meters into the mountain, and containing everything a religious hermit could ever need to live his life in peace. A small altar, candle stands, several icons, and places set aside for meditation were scattered around in the cave.
However, the real treasure was found by looking out from the monastery, revealing an amazing panorama over the hills onto the valley beyond. From this point I could see not only Osmar, but also Preslav, Kirkovo and the sunflower fields, all ringed by a chain of mountains in the distance. It is understandable that people would have sought this place out for meditation and reflection, and I couldn’t help but feeling relaxed myself during my time up there, looking down at the world, and having uncovered my own hidden treasure in the hills.
These beautiful and long summer days have left me with the itch to get outdoors and just enjoy the warm weather and the great scenery around my town. The past few weekends, I’ve been able to get out of town and do some exploring in the many villages that comprise the Preslav municipality and that lie within walking distance.
One of the great things about the villages in Bulgaria is that, even though they lie within mere kilometers of each other, each offers something unique. When I first arrived here, I was amazed at the sense of isolation apparent in villages that are seemingly so close. In America, these places might be considered suburbs of another bigger city. Here, the villages enjoy a certain independence from each other and all have their own identity and traditions, completely separated from nearby towns, even though they are often within easy walking distance from each other.
My first such excursion was to nearby Patleyna, a place in the hills outside of Preslav, actually visible from many spots here in town. After a short 5 kilometer walk past the familiar ruins and up into the hills, I was greeted by a quirky inn and an old man tending to his horses in a nearby stable, somewhat confused as to what I was doing there. The quietness was incredible, and even separated by a mere 5 kilometers from my town, the difference was noticeable – the air a bit cooler, the area covered by more greenery, the pace of life a bit slower.
After walking around a bit, I would a set of stairs leading up into the forest and somewhat overgrown by nearby trees and decided to investigate. After a couple of minutes of climbing, I came upon the ruins of an old monastery from the 10th century, incredibly more intact than the bigger and more famous ruins in Preslav. Apparently it was at this monastery that one of the national treasures of Bulgaria was found – the ceramic icon of St. Theodore, currently housed in the national museum in Sofia.
Walking further up the hill, the stairs led to an old abandoned building (a more recent monastery, built in the last century but now apparently closed) with an amazing view of the valley below and of Veliki Preslav.
Having seen a significant amount, I turned back for the day, taking a different road back into town and taking the opportunity to pass by vast stretches of sunflower fields. The past month, the countryside of Bulgaria has blossomed with entire fields all across the nation erupting into a vibrant yellow. I had seen pictures of Bulgaria’s sunflowers, being one of the things that the country uses to promote tourism, and seen in several books (including the language book I purchased before coming out here), but passing by these endless landscapes is an entirely different experience.
There are small patches nestled in between hills and mixed in with different crops, creating little picturesque farms in little unexpected places. There are vast valleys blanketed with sunflowers as far as the eye can see, stretching on and on, hill over rolling hill, until the hills blend together in the distance, creating the impression that the entire expanse is composed of just one giant hill, impossibly covered in zigzagging patterns from top to bottom. I could sit for hours just enjoying the view and just walking by offers a peaceful feeling unparalleled so far in this country.
Friday, August 7, 2009
My days were spent relaxing on the surprisingly respectable stretch of sand just outside of town, working on transforming my skin to any color other than pure, pasty white. I eventually succeeded in getting a nice layer of freckles, but it was during the nights in Kavarna that the real excitement came. Walking the road to the local stadium was a journey into a completely different world – a world covered in leather and long, greasy hair, a world in which the blast of motorcycle engines continuously interrupted any attempt for conversation, and where the food pyramid is completely comprised of sausage and French fries.
Inside the stadium, the crowds gathered for three nights of pure, unadulterated rock. The first night brought us the sweet serenades of Vince Neil and his Motley Crue singing such unforgettable classics as “Girls Girls Girls” and “Dr. Feelgood” (and didn’t they do that one song “Shout at the Devil?” Oh yeah there it goes…). It also brought us a drunk Tommy Lee attempting to tell the entire population of Bulgaria that he loves them, with hilarious consequences. The self-titled “Saints of Los Angeles” cranked up the volume right from the start and didn’t let up, save for one lighter-raising (cellphone raising?) power ballad. Nice Job.
The second night brought legendary group The Scorpions, whose concert, I must say, has entered my pantheon of favorite ever. Even though I had previously only known one of their songs (the incredible “Rock You Like a Hurricane”), the sheer energy present in the crowd made it worth it. This was one of those times in which the adage “They’re huge in Europe” is certainly true. Bulgarian flags waved, people chanted and sang along to songs we Americans had never heard, and we were informed by the band that they singlehandedly ended the Cold War with one of their songs (“Winds of Change”). This is to say nothing about the opening band, Blind Guardian, whose songs recounted epic Viking battles and the fight for Middle Earth. The whole experience added up to a night I will never forget.
Dream Theater – incredibly pretentious but nonetheless talented prog-rockers – brought in the 4th of July weekend with a bang. Even though it was a pretty rainy day, we were able to enjoy some appropriately American KFC and Subway, a homemade cherry pie, and a cake in the shape of an American flag. The presence of good food and good friends came together perfectly (as they so often do) to cap a weekend that will live on in my memory as one of the best and most memorable (if not at times incredibly bizarre) experiences of my time here in Bulgaria.
Until next time...
In the thick of the election campaign for the Bulgarian Parliament, some volunteers and I had a free night in Vratsa, with which we took the rare opportunity to eat some delicious Chinese food. After that, we happened upon an outdoor concert being thrown by GERB (The Bulgarian Party for European Integration) including all the finalists of this year’s Music Idol (the Bulgarian equivalent of American Idol). It is fascinating for me to witness the many political parties in Bulgaria (it is said that there are hundreds) fight for votes using any means necessary. GERB’s campaign was particularly blatant in its vote-fishing, using its resources and star power to throw extravagant concerts, between whose acts politicians came out and yelled things such as, “Like what you hear? Vote GERB!” There are billboards around everywhere with not so subtle reminders. “Remember who built the new children’s complex for you?” says one... “Vote for us.” Still another, for ATAKA, simply reads, “The people love him,” and showing the party’s leader accepting a kiss on the hand from an old baba.
Anyway, the next day I headed out to the tiny village of Dren to help out another volunteer teach kids baseball at her orphanage for a couple of days. We started right away on the first afternoon, pitching and catching, and the kids picked it up really quickly. Even after several hours, the kids were clamoring for more. The next day we introduced batting and even attempted to play a little game. The kids seemed to do great and had a good time. Our final game got rained out, but I think the weekend was a success and a good foundation on which to build a team. Besides, it was a good excuse to cook up some Mexican food – a very rare treat, as it is extremely difficult to find in Bulgaria.
The camp also gave me an opportunity to try out some methods for teaching baseball at my own orphanage here in Preslav. Similarly, we started out just pitching and catching (even though we don’t have many gloves). Once again, the kids picked it up almost immediately, and they even started practicing catching fly balls by bouncing balls off the high concrete walls of the gigantic block building.
We’ve started batting, and progress has been a bit slower on that, but there are already a couple of superstars in the making who continually get hits. Currently, the kids aren’t quite getting the concept of a catcher, but we’re getting there. At the end of the day, the kids don’t want to stop playing, and that’s a great feeling. My sitemate is getting in on the action as well, so it’s a good time for all in town. We were even in the regional newspaper, as baseball is apparently a significantly novel activity for the locals. We constantly get curious passers-by wondering what the heck is going on and asking questions.
Hopefully at some point we can get a full team together and working soon so we can get in on the amazing volunteer league, in which kids from several towns in this region play, all coached by Peace Corps members. However, for now the kids are still just working on the basics, little by little. Many of the kids are still waiting and trying eagerly for their first hit…
Eons ago, the Balkan Peninsula was actually covered under a vast ocean, and the evidence of this has been left in a region covering northwestern Bulgaria and eastern Serbia in the form of some amazingly unique rock formations. Just outside of town, there are countless numbers of them, each named after something they resemble, and many of them with their own mythology regarding their formation. These include Adam and Eve, the Madonna, the Whirling Dervish, the Bear, the schoolgirl, the mushrooms, the rebel Valko… the list goes on as far as the rocks stretch across the valley.
The Rebel, "Valko"
The Horseman across the valley
Beyond the rocks into Serbia
Looking down into the Ottoman part of the fort
The future of these places is looking pretty good, and I hope that others will be able to experience the awe I felt during my visit to this truly unique corner of the country.
It’s been a while since my last real update due to some unexpected computer problems. Basically the screen would just randomly start going blank, forcing a restart. Eventually, when I turned it on one time about 2 months ago, I was greeted with a screen full of white lines rather than the friendly Windows logo. After a couple of minutes of trying to figure out what was going on, the computer started randomly turning on and off and on by itself. It was at this point that I know this wasn’t going to be a simple process.
Luckily the machine is still under warranty, but the service is only available in the States. So my laptop was packed up and entrusted to the Bulgarian postal service under the disguise of a package of Bibles being delivered to a church… the church of my mom’s house. (I still declared the computer on the customs form, but drew crosses all over the box).
Eventually it got there and a technician basically gutted the whole thing, replacing the motherboard, video card and a cooling fan. So yes, basically the problem was pretty major after all, but completely fixable. The process of picking it up when it got back here to Bulgaria, however, was not quite as easy… I got the usual notice in my mailbox alerting me that a package arrived. However, when I arrived at the post office, I was informed that I would have to pick it up in Shumen (the regional center) where it was being held in a customs office. Note to anyone sending anything to Bulgaria: Never declare that something you send has commercial value. The following process will ensue:
I arrived at the customs office in Shumen, where I was informed that I would have to pay a customs fee. Pretty standard procedure I thought, but then Bulgaria stepped in and wiped that thought right away. It wasn’t as simple as handing the customs officer the tax and him giving me the package. Instead, I had to go to a third party who would process the customs form, because strangely, the customs office doesn’t do it. After sitting for an hour in an office with another gentleman who processed the forms while talking to himself about bureaucracy and to me about Russia (“No people, no problems” he told me, a quote he attributed to Stalin), I took the form back down to the customs officers, who told me that I would now have to pay the customs fee. I should have been more surprised when they told me the customs office doesn’t accept money from people. Instead, I had to go to the bank, where they would take the money and wire a notice back to the customs office that the fee had been paid. But not just any bank… there’s apparently one bank in the whole city that can do this. It’s on the complete other side of town. I took a cab to this bank on the edge of town, where I was greeted by a friendly clerk who processed the fee. The bank’s motto was hilariously “Blizo do Vas!” ironically translated to “Close to you!” I laughed to myself the entire 10 minute cab ride back to the customs office, where the officers told me that everything was in order. I expected to receive my package, but was then informed that the package was not there, but back at the post office. On my way back to the post office (4 hours after I first arrived at customs), I wondered what exactly the customs officers do - they don’t process the customs forms, take the money, or handle the packages – other than make a simple exchange ridiculously difficult.
Anyway, the computer is back in my care, good as new, and I’m back on the grid (at least for the time being) just in time for some pretty exciting business. I’ve also had some pretty amazing experiences while the computer was out hurtling around the world. I’ll be getting around to posting about each of these, and hopefully including some nice photos and video (I have about 450 photos from the past couple months). I’ve seen ancient cave paintings and rock formations, trained some new volunteers, taught kids America’s pastime, hiked around in endless sunflower fields, and been rocked like a hurricane. So enjoy!
Until next time…