Tag Archives: Balkan

Journal of a Peace Corps Volunteer

As I’m was combing through my picture collection deciding which ones make the cut to be scanned, I came across my library of 5 or 6 journals I compiled during my two year stint in Bulgaria.  I thought it would be fun and possibly interesting to others if I shared some entries from them.  I combed through, and while many of the pages were just filled with tracings of my hand, all the known digits of pi, and in-depth descriptions of completely mundane daily happenings, I was able to find a few entries that give a good snapshot of what it is/was like being a Peace Corps Volunteer in the middle of their service.  The middle part of the two-year stint was remarkable for me because nothing was new and exciting about living in the village, and the time to start planning to go home / reflecting on my service had not arrived yet.  I only flipped through one journal which had its first entry on January 11, 2005, and last on March 27, 2005.  I hope these are interesting to you all.  Enjoy.

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Sunday, January 27, 2005 3:18 a.m.

Using the dial-up connection in my apartment, I am watching the ESPN GameCast constantly update the Patriots AFC Championship game against the Steelers.  Of course I blared Aerosmith, had a couple beers, and cooked tubed meat before the game started.

24-3 at the half!! Woo Hoo!! Things are looking pretty gosh darn good for the Pats right now.  The two biggest plays are the one play drive with a 60-yard touchdown pass Brady to Branch, and Marvin Harrison’s 87-yard TD interception return.  Pats football, baby, don’t turn the ball over and big players making big plays when needed.*  So needless to say I am psyched right now.  Looks like it’s Sofia in 2 weeks, woo!  I’ve also decided I’m not going hunting next weekend and I’ll just tell those guys that I’m not allowed to use firearms or I’m gone.  It will make my life ssooo much easier for next weekend.  Scratch needless to say I’m getting pretty tuckered out right now.  The way the first half went, this game isn’t gonna get over until like 5 o’clock.  I think I’ll set my alarm for 10am just so my sleep’s not totally screwed.  I’m glad no one from town is here.  I would much rather sit here and look up from my book when I hear the clicking of the update instead of having to talk to people.  2nd half about to start.  GO PATS!!

 *After re-reading that line, I can’t believe how corny that sounds.

Tuesday, February 16, 2005, 2:31 pm

This is not the highpoint of my service.  I am in my office, the rest is self explanatory.

Alright, today is just a straight-up DOWN day, on the bright side, it’s almost over, but I’m not feeling great so I’m going to vent:  Starting things off, I slept like shit last night. Didn’t fall asleep until around 2, then woke up like 20 times.  So I’m beat, I spend all morning reading Newsweek, listening to my coworkers sneeze and bitch about being sick.  I can’t believe how many people complain about being sick around here, even when they’re on the phone talking business with someone, what is going on here.  And as I’m writing this right now I can hear someone in the next room complaining about how sick they were last night.  Also, it’s like 50 degrees out and the windows are shut and it’s like friggin 80 and stuffy in this room and every time someone opens a window, someone else comes along and closes it, god forbid a little breeze gets in here and makes you more sick.  So I went home, couldn’t nap, came back here, got my Bulgarian corrected, so I decided not to speak.  I started reading about all the great projects that got funding in 2004.  That really got me down for three reasons 1) it shows how hard it is to get money (FAR projects – 150 applications, 27 accepted)  2)  these were all programs I tries talking up in my office to no avail, just a reminder of the banging my head against a wall feeling I have sometimes, and 3) most of the places that got funding are these nicely developed resort-type places that have had Volunteers for years.  I really don’t want to be here right now.  Maybe I should leave the office, but where the hell would I go, to another place in this town where no one wants to do a freakin project with me.  Shit, now I’m starting to get on my own nerves.  I guess this points to the Nietsche quote, “When we’re tired, we’re haunted by demons we conquered long ago.”  Oh no, it looks like a meeting is about to start, do I have time to…..  NNOOO I’m stuck here.  I should have bounced but I was writing.  Damn, guess it’s back to Newsweek.

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Sunday, March 27, 2005, 2:08pm

I’m sitting on my decks (I had one in the back and the front of my house) enjoying the explosion of life that is spring in Bulgaria.

This year I have to look into getting something to deal with these bugs back here, because once the sun goes to the other side of the house, the bugs just go crazy.  I think when I’m in Rousse this week I will look into this. Damn, I’m going to the other side……. Well just moving to the other deck seemed to have helped a bit.  The view out here is actually a lot nicer than in back.  Right now I am really appreciating the village life.  It’s so quiet and peaceful, it’s great.  Now a little local conversation between babas going on right now.  And the neighbors are taking the baby out of a little walk.  This view is just so cool, seeing the whole town’s rolling hills and everything.  Someone’s cutting wood in the background.  A group of kids are talking down the street.  Pencho’s rooster just cackled.  Someone down the street it banging 2 metal things together.  Something that sounds like wagon wheels just went down the street…….

(This description goes on for almost an entire page, but I think you all get the picture.)

So there’s a little slice of the good the bad and the ugly during February and March of 2005.  I hope you enjoyed it.

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Keep on rockin’ in the free world everyone!

 

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#1 Sarajevo

This week concludes the list of my favorite former / hopefully future travel destination.  It was great taking a walk down memory lane, I hope you all enjoyed the stroll with me.  So without further ado:

#1:  Sarajevo
Reason: captivating

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There is an indescribable quality to the air in the city holding the #1 spot for the “Top Places I Would Go Back to in a Heartbeat.” The mix of communist / Soviet-style architecture, huge Turkish quarter and reminders  everywhere of the war in the mid-1990s combine to create the most mesmerizing atmosphere I have ever seen. Being American and all, it’s sometimes hard to wrap my mind around the amount of history that exists in other countries. One afternoon I walked by a Mosque that’s 500-600 years old on the way to the street where World War I was started.  Another day I went on a tour and saw “the Tunnel” where Bosnians would smuggle goods underneath the watch Serbian army and end up in this family’s basement.

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There are a million stories and sites like the aforementioned, but what stays with me most is just the overall feel of the whole place. Even though I stayed in the worst hostel I’ve ever been in, got bedbug bites all over my torso, and had no way to do my laundry, I spent over a week there just walking the same two or three routes but seeing something new and/or interesting every day.  Walking by the old bombed out Olympic Arena (Winter 1984) and seeing groups of old men playing on giant chess boards painted on the sidewalk could never get old. Being repeatedly amazed at the brightness of the yellow and brown Holiday Inn where all the foreign journalists stayed during the Bosnian/ Serbian War could never get old. Seeing cutting edge architecture right next to burned out to government offices never gets old.
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Knowing your in a place that has seen unspeakable shit, but still thrives with friendliness, art, and diversity gives Sarajevo a place in my heart that just can’t be touched. It is really hard to describe exactly what spoke to me when I was there, but all of the extreme joys and pains that have occurred throughout its long history are all very present the moment you begin your visit. I was lucky enough to feel it once, and would do just about anything to experience it again.

Honorable mention / places I LOVE but will definitely make it back to

5) Amherst / Northampton area – Fond memories, natural beauty, and great food collide in Western Mass!!
4) Kingston Ontario – This hip, cobble-stoned Canadian College town on the shores Lake Ontario provide a peak into the history of the Loyalist side of things back when
3) Barton, VT – I have in-law family roots in this close-to-the-border town. I strangely feel a connection to it even though my family blood does not run through there.                                                                                                                                                                                            2) San Diego, CA – I heard the Sea World there is to die for, oh yeah and I would like to see my bro, too.
1) Galilee, RI – It’s just a part of the family.

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The Devil’s Throat

While searching for an idea to write about, I came across Quora.com.  Here there are community discussions and questions like, “What was the #1 book you wish you read earlier in life?” or “Who’s the greatest coward in history and why?” and community members answer accordingly.  I saw one that would be perfect for this week’s post:

Where is the most amazing place you’ve visited, of which most people have probably never heard?

The Devil’s Throat (Dyavolsko Garlo)

Located in the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria, the largest cave on the Balkan Peninsula has a river running through it.  There is a waterfall deep in the cave where it is believed Orpheus descended into the Underworld to rescue his love.  With the local legends surrounding it, and its proximity to Greece, one can hardly argue.

There is no evidence of anything man made entering one side of the cave and leaving the other.  Locals and researchers have sent unmanned boats, giant logs, even red dye down the underground river, only to have it disappear.  There is a memorial plaque in honor of the two scuba divers who attempted to see first-hand what is actually going on down there.  I had the chance to see this mysterious cave before I left the country.  I was so there.

I was lucky enough to be with a friend who had done the tour about fifteen times, so he knew all the points of interest, cool rock formations, and the difference between a stalagmite and a malagmite, which helped make our descent interesting.  After ten minutes-ish, we came to the large opening of the cave.  I forget how high the ceiling was (well I guess it still is whatever height it was 8 years ago) but being there I had one of those moments when you think, “Wow, I really am small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.   The echo was deafening and the light was by no means ample, but some rays of the sun made visibility a possibility.  I saw where Orpheus began his trip, and just had to play the imaginary game of “What if took off down the river?”  What was down there?  Why does nothing come out?  Water goes in one side and out the other.  What is preventing anything, even dye, from making it through?!  I could find out.  It would be the last thing I ever learn, but it would…. Oh I guess that’s just silly.

After taking it all in for some amount of time that was just right, we began our ascent.  As we started to climb the hundreds of stairs, the sun seemed to hit the sweet spot on the cave.  We walked up stairs for about 10-15 minutes just listening to running water and looking at this.*

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It was a moment when I was in awe at what I was seeing.  It really was the beauty of nature at its best.  The rays of sun hit the opening in the cave just right, reflecting off the spray to provide a glow that is indescribable.  “A picture is worth a thousand words” is a very apt saying right now.  My friend who had been there so many times told me he had never seen anything like that before, which made the experience even more special.

If you watch the youtube clips posted below, you’ll see the road leading up to the cave’s entrance is not exactly ready for big-time tour buses and heavy traffic.  The remoteness of the site added to the amazingness and rareness every traveler yearns for as they hit the road.   I am lucky to have had this picture come out, because without it, I would not have been able to share as accurately as possible my trip down to Hades’ doorstep.

Here are the links of two random people’s home movies of the cave.  The first one is just a few still shots.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tu-uatOEtTE

This one is kind of lame, someone trying to be funny and stuff, but there are a few good shots to give you an idea of the steepness of the steps we climbed and the aforementioned road.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uzo7I2RD4cA

*Sorry for the weird quality of the picture.  I had to take a picture of the picture because I still have yet to convert all my film to digital files.  I have got to get on that.

Here’s a note of curiosity:  I want to know how people from other countries are reading this blog.  When I look at the stats, it shows from which countries each view comes from. I can figure out France, Bulgaria, Germany, and Thailand.  Russia?  Bolivia?  Iceland?  Netherlands?  How did you find us?  Feel free to leave a comment explaining how you did.  Inquiring minds want to know.

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The Train from Sarievo to Mostar

The train from Sarajevo to Mostar has views and scenery that rival the Alps.  With the echoes of recent history lurking in the back of your head, your mind can literally explode if too much time is spent thinking about the juxtaposition of the beauties of nature and the horrors of war.  As I shared some random thoughts with my three travel companions whose faces I’ll never forget, but names I never knew, we are interrupted kindly by a traveler in the next compartment.

This man was dressed as if he was ready to work in the mine; camouflage pants that look like they’ve been to hell and back, giant sandpaper hands, hard hat on the seat, and a general vibe that this dude is the essence of tough.  He was delighted to speak English because he hadn’t spoken in some time.  He was overjoyed that we liked his country and vacillated between telling us how great and beautiful it was, and how horrible and “shit” it was.  Having spent plenty of time in the Balkans, I was used to this line of conversation, knew exactly how to navigate it.  I was the only American in my group, the others were Canadian, Hungarian, and Australian, and our new travel buddy cornered me and the Canadian dude.  When we told him where we were from, his face lit up, and using my Balkan senses, I could tell he had been to the US and I prepared for the usual back and forth about how great the cars, buildings, women, supermarkets, and television were.  Life is full of surprises, and what came next in our convo was certainly one of them.

This guy told me where he lived (I want to say Oklahoma, but I’m not sure), told me all about the wonderful people he met and stayed with.  He threw some names at me of people that were famous in his eyes, “Yes, this is great man.  Very very good man.  Real.  True.” Then he reached into his pocket and said, “Hey, you know these guys?” and whipped out a wallet with a swastika patch sewn onto it.  It had some words around the symbol, and looked more like a seal to an organization rather than something someone can pick up if they know the right/wrong store to go to, so I assumed this guy was serious, and I wasn’t about to examine the patch to verify its authenticity.

Now there was this tension in the air that maybe only I and the Canadian dude felt.  The guy headed to the mine was laughing away, looking at my companion saying, “I like you. You trouble. You are Canadian Mafia, yeah…. This guy, my friend, I like you….” Etc. etc.  The final piece of information to complete the awkward picture is that the Canadian guy’s Jewish.  So the Bosnian guy starts asking me a couple of direct questions, and my buddy slips away and joins our other two companions who wisely and slyly slipped into another compartment.

As I’m bombarded with questions of whether or not I know this guy or heard of that group, or been to this town, I have a moment when I step back and chuckle to myself that a) I am speaking with a real life Nazi, and b) I never thought people with so much to hate would be so jolly.  This guy is laughing about all this “training” he did (I didn’t have the guts to ask exactly what he was training for) and how he was in prison for five years and how “I say ‘fuck you’ to judge.”

I really wish I could have seen the look on my face during all this.  I had to laugh at all his jokes and maintain friendly eye contact, making sure my eyes were part of my smile, not just my mouth.  Something inside me knew if this guy got a hint of the weirdness I was feeling, things could go from awkward to scary real quickly.  The train ride went on, and we passed a field with rolling hills, the kind that gave us just enough of something to look at, and we shared a moment of soaking in this beautiful landscape, which was a nice way to end our time together.  The train began to slow, and he shook my hand, and said, “Good-bye my friend,” and looked into the Canadian guy’s compartment and gave him a friendly wag of the finger and said “You Canadian Mafia, yes you, good-bye my friend.”  His buddy / co-worker came out of their compartment with the guys hardhat, smiled at us and gave a friendly shake of the head followed with his thumb pointing loosely sideways in the Nazi’s direction, which means in any language, “Get a load of this guy, huh.”

Surprisingly all three of my travel companions magically appear in our compartment as soon as the train starts to move again.  We share a nervous laugh as I offer the Canadian guy five whole American dollars if he told everyone on the platform at the station exactly what his religious affiliation is.  He gives me a “Shut up,” under his breath and we wave to the our friend and, just like that, he is out of our lives forever.  We all rehashed what happened, laughed, and for the rest of the day, the Canadian guy’s nickname was “Canadian Mafia.”  I hope the Hungarian woman he was traveling with kept it going after they left town.

The conclusion we came to once our compartment was free of anyone who favored of one race over another was there was nothing we could have done in that situation other than smile, play nice, and hope nothing crazy happens.  There was nothing we could have done to change that man’s views on race and diversity.  Challenging him, asking why he thought the way he did, or acting in any way hostile would have been the wrong thing to do on many fronts.  First, from a personal safety sense, angering someone who could literally break one of us in half in an enclosed area with no chance of escaping, surrounded by an unknown number of his friends is just one of the worst decisions any of us could have made.  On a deeper level, one of the joys of traveling is meeting people who live in the place you travel to.  Leaving oneself open to experiencing everyone and everything a land has to offer may lead to situations just described.  If I were angry, condescending, or judgmental, it not only would have accentuated that I wasn’t truly open to everyone and everything Bosnia had to offer, it would have shown I did not do my homework (which is a must when traveling off the beaten path).  Being shocked and appalled that I ran into a person with “controversial” feelings on race, in a country with recent history of ethnic cleansing, would have been extremely naïve.

Without getting any more preachy, the largest take-away is this:  I saw someone with admitted ties to a Nazi-related group with his arm around a Jewish man (remember, he didn’t know my friend was Jewish).  Traveling helps create experiences that to many would be unthinkable.  I saw one on a train between Sarajevo and Mostar, and I will never forget it.

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A Neighbor and His Stories

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One thing I’m really enjoying now that I’m finally on Facebook, I have reconnected with many of my old friends from Vetovo.  Using the “Find Friends” feature got me thinking of all the people back in Bulgaria I would like to send my regards to, unfortunately many do not have profiles.  One guy in particular sticks out in my mind as having the best insights into what life was like under the Steel Curtain, oh wait, I mean the Iron Curtain (I don’t think L. C. Greenwood ever made it back to the old country).  I never knew this guys name, but he lived a few doors down from me, worked at the limestone mine outside of town, and I could pick him easily out of a line-up.  His insights come to mind also because after the fucking painfully expensive ($1.6 BBBillion!!!) election, my mind started wandering onto other types of government and how they role.  So I thought I would just share a couple of conversations and situations a found interesting.

One of my last days in town, I was at the local restaurant and saw my neighbor.  He invited me to sit down for a drink and shortly after, the owner of the place sat down as well.   As happens from time to time over there, I started hearing about “the old days” and what life was like under Communism. I heard both sides of the argument at the same time.  Lemonade soda was 15 cents. Everyone had work and a good pension.  There was no Orange Fanta or Jack Daniels.  We had to wait for three hours for bananas on New Year’s Eve.  What was so notable about this discussion was that the restaurant owner was the one telling me how great communism was, and the guy that worked in the mine was telling me how terrible it was.  Where does an entrepreneur get the idea that redistribution of wealth is the way it should be? Or, why does someone who believes all people are entitled to cheap soda get into the restaurant business?  Shouldn’t the laborer think everyone should make the same amount of money?  Where rich and poor all drink from the same, Fanta-less refrigerator?  Where in their lives did these two (and I’m sure they’re not alone) get information helping them form ideas that sort of contradicted their actions / places in life?  These are the types of questions that made my two years over there both difficult and fascinating.

I saw my neighbor on the street once, and we got to talking about the Balkan Peninsula and its history (as ya do) and invariably the “problems” in the former Yugoslav republics.  While there have been many conflicts in the past century throughout the region, Bulgaria has remained relatively peaceful.  To this, he simply said, “I don’t know if we’re smarter or lazier than everyone else, but whichever one it is, at least we’re all still here.”

The third story from this guy (I really wish I knew his name, but I really didn’t ever know it, so I can’t say “I wish I could ‘remember’ it” because I heard it once when I barley understood the language, and never had the nerve to ask him again.) is something we’ve all definitely read about or heard or seen in movies, but it was just wild to here it told by someone who actually lived it.  Years and years ago, his mother used to work at the cafeteria of mine that he works in now.  He can remember every month, one case of Coca Cola would be delivered and she was in charge of setting it aside for the bosses.  No workers were allowed to have any, and she was not to mention the existence of this case.  Every once and a while, there would be a night where the bosses would have drinks in the office, and over indulge a bit.  This would open the door for this woman to swipe a bottle or two of Coke and literally smuggle it home.  She gave it to her son (the guy telling the story) and he would have to be super hush hush about it.  He said he would have to be very careful about who he invited over to share the booty with, but they would break out their best cognac, prepare a big dinner, and enjoy the sweet stolen beverage.  Like I said, we all have seen this type of scenario in movies, or read about it in history class, but to hear someone retelling their own personal experiences was something memorable…

I’m not sure why this guy and these stories jumped out at me when they did.  It’s not like I’m hoping we go Communist or anything.  I think mostly it’s this:  Our election process is painful and wasteful, but at least I can fill my tub with Coke or Orange Fanta, submerge myself in it, and eat 7 bunches of bananas… that is if I was into that sort of thing.

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