Monday, January 30, 2006

Project Development and Bankiya

In the past several weeks I have been trying to get a clear idea of the types of projects that the Children's Parliament is hoping for and/or willing to execute. The Association for Health and Morality in Stara Zagora, another NGO I'm working with, is slowly developing programming that might become sustainable without foreign assistence. The Children's Parliament is on course to do so as well, especially with the active and enthusiastic core of individuals (both youth and adult) that the group maintains. One important part of their developing programming is international outreach. We are learning together how to access the European Union / European Comission funding that supports such efforts throughout Europe, with the intention of hosting and attending exchanges. They are also interested in similar exchange programs with American institutions, though American programs are commonly more expensive and require greater efforts in planning and language-learning.

I attended a training conference in Bankiya last week that focused on NGO/NPO development in Bulgaria. Some of the interesting lectures involved grant writing for the European Union/European Commision funding programs, youth education in leadership and teambuilding, teaching English as a foreign language and encouraging networking and cooperation in the NGO and private sector. All of the lectures were informative and helped me understand how I can direct my service here to become more efficient and helpful. I still don't really know how best to include friends and family back home besides writing and maintaining contact.

The trip to Bankiya was also social, and reunited many friends. I went to dinner nightly with Peace Corps Volunteers and talked about service. Knowing that the difficulties and frustrations I have faced daily happen to others makes service in foreign lands less frustrating and stressful, especially when I can laugh at those problems with my friends, uninhibited by language or social barriers. We decided as a group to run the Marathon/Athens marathon in November, and use it as a fundraiser for the Scouts of Bulgaria. We hope to raise enough money to send a group of Bulgarian Scouts to the World Jamboree and 100th anneversary of Scouting next year in England. (Scouting Bulgaria includes both boys and girls) My training program for the Marathon begins at the beginning of March, though I am exercising now in anticipation of the 8-month training.

I traveled alone on Saturday to Sofia, where I wandered the streets ducking in and out of bookshops, fruit and nut bazaars, Kafes and churches before heading to Chirpan. I stayed in Chirpan with my friend Trevor on Saturday. We ate dinner and went to the discoteka with Mitch (from Gurkovo) and Melody (also Chirpan), and danced until 4 in the morning. Once in a while, it's good and fun. I arrived home yesterday and slept until work today.

That's life here in Bulgaria right now. Tune in next time to hear about the weather, comatose flies, laundry freezing on the line and mountain climbing. Ciao, do postle!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Birds and Representatives

One of my closest friends over here works for Green Balkans (Zeleni Balkani), an environmental NGO with offices in Stara Zagora. I attend their volunteer meetings every Tuesday evening. I was invited on Sunday to help feed their birds at their bird rehabilitation facility, the only one in Bulgaria. Let me reassure everyone that I was very careful to keep clean, I wore gloves for everything, and I took multivitamins and vitamin C before and after the experience to bolster my immune system. No avian flu for me, thank you!

The rehab facility sustains over 50 birds that include buzzards, hawks, harriers, owls, pelicans, storks, gulls, a plover, eagles, herons and more. Most of the birds are injured wild birds, but some have been injured so badly that they are unable to return to the wild. Perhaps the most impressive bird at the facility is a very wild griffon vulture that has a wingspan of 8-9 feet. When passing his meat through the chain-link fence, he aggressively snapped through the wires and dragged the chunks through with a primeval vigor. The pelicans we fed ate several pounds of fish each, and went after the buckets with comical enthusiasm. It was fascinating to feed and watch the birds eat in such close proximity. And yes, several days later I feel fine.

On Monday, I traveled to the Embassy in Sofia to attend a short reception for a delegation from the House Agricultural Committee. I had a short conversation with Rep. Goodlatte of Virginia about agriculture and ground pollution/water contamination in Bulgaria. One of my friends had a good conversation with her home congresswoman, Rep. Herseth of South Dakota, about children's programs. I had wanted to talk more about Peace Corps programs and activities in Bulgaria, but it seems that it was not on the delegation's agenda. After pinballing through the reception, the delegation departed for a briefing. It was an enlightening experience.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

A friend's work:

Part of my job in this land is helping fellow volunteers on their projects. Sometimes that includes helping publicize their projects. One of my site-mates here in the great city of Stara Zagora works with a home for the disabled. I've met the ladies involved in the project and they are all very sweet and lively (they were with me). Their wares are hand-crafted, high quality, and authentic Bulgarian. Indeed they are somewhat trendy and some of the items are guaranteed to draw the attention of American men. If you're looking to support a worthy cause and/or sport Bulgarian style, this is your ticket! And you'll get into Heaven, too. What a deal; you can't go wrong! (Dudes out there, check it out!)

The following is a message from Larry, the super-Volunteer of whom I spoke:

For the past year I’ve been working with a group of disabled women living in the Home for the Handicapped in Stara Zagora (a city in central Bulgaria). The women are craft knitters and, as a part of a SPA Project (SPA = Small Project Assistance; this is a grant through the Peace Corps), we have created a web site to sell their products online.

Each woman’s short biography is posted along with our catalog of offered products. Our intent is to personalize the buying experience as much as possible. Upon receipt of an order, the customer will receive a confirmation letter (email) telling them which woman will knit their product and when it will be shipped. The customer can ask for modifications to the product and can correspond with the knitter by email. We accept all major credit cards.

Shipping to America is FREE via BulPost and we have an overnight service available, at the customer’s expense, with lower rates than DHL, UPS or FedEx.

Our web address is:

Larry Gemmell
Community and Organizational Development,
Peace Corps Volunteer
Stara Zagora

Monday, January 02, 2006

The New Year

Happy New Year to everyone, or "Chestito v Nova Goudina!"

I chose to stay in Stara Zagora to celebrate the New Year with my fabulous site mates. To mark the occasion, I decided to cook Indian food for the entire group. It has become very important to me to share life with my friends here. Larry, Jessie, Matt, Jennifer and I met in the early evening at Larry's apartment near the city center. I had spent time preparing potatoes, dressings, and chopping vegetables at may apartment to bring to Larry's to cook (so that the food would be fresh and hot when served). I made a sweet/spicy tomato chili mustard sauce (which worked well), chicken spiced rice (which worked), breaded chicken curry (which was pretty good), mint/green pepper/coriander sauce (which was too tart, but good on the rice), potatoes and yoghurt, and a coconut laurel steak (which didn't work - I forgot the laurel leaves), and my plans for Naan bread didn't work - I ran out of time. Still, I'm proud of the dinner, and my friends seemed happy.

The celebrations at midnight lasted for over an hour and included local neighborhood fireworks displays, gunshots, a municipality show from the Obshtinata (City hall) and sparklers from Larry's balcony. It was a very pleasant evening. Most of the rest of the time, the five of us played card games and Yahtzee, talked, drank wine and a little rakiya and danced. I'm truly thankful to have such friends.

On that note, I want to thank friends and family for all of the messages, emails, gifts, and general love and support that has come my way from the States. I should never feel alone with such a community of good, caring folk. As I continue work over here, I want everyone to realize that you, my friends and family, are an important part of this experience. I share what I can with pictures, American foods like Beef or Turkey Jerkey (which they LOVE), wheat crackers and cheese spread, cookies, and more. They mostly want to hear about you, so I share the tapestry of experiences, jobs, problems, and life that I have known through you. Don't worry, I keep these mostly general, anonymous and anecdotal, and discreet. For many of the children I work with, it seems that hearing about how similar people and lives are across the world is empowering. It may help them understand that they are part a very human global community and feel closer to its resources.

Ciao, all. I hope that in 2006 you will continue to learn, find meaning and purpose, be healthy and cheerful, love and be loved, and live a good life.