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At the Moment

I’m designing the new website that a very generous friend of the village has offered to code while listening to 90’s music I didn’t know I had on my computer.

Designing New Site

The thing hanging by a telephone cord in the window is my satellite modem. The house I live in is made of concrete and so the reception is best if it’s by the window which is above my bed so there’s no place to set it down. It’s funnier if it’s hanging from the curtain rod anyway.

Life continues to be totally random.

“Put on your party faces,” says Dio. “Join in the hit parade.”

Okay, sounds good.

A more serious and comprehensive update is to come shortly.

Yes We Will – 50th Anniversary of PC

to members @ Eatwell Farm

Peace Corps – Yes We Will

Peace Corps is meant to be difficult, something personally trying and a way to do good in the world.

Thousands of Americans world-wide work to improve the circumstances of the people with whom they’ve opted to live for a two-year period of time in some of the most remote and most trying locales and circumstances.

We don’t just sample a different way of life. We swim in it, in all its glory, strangeness and frustration. During this time we work to support people in learning English, repairing vital community structures, developing skills and bringing about much needed development at the most local level. We might have the opportunity to bring clean water to populations without such access, or to fix a road, reconnecting a community with the region.

In all the Peace Corps does we are reminded to not focus on “building monuments,” large physical installations of one kind or another, but rather on “building people.”

It is a credo one of my bosses passed on to us and that a number of my colleagues here in Bulgaria have taken to heart — begrudgingly so — because of the tremendously sobering perspective it brings forth.

It is infinitely easier to build things than it is to build people.

Indeed we cannot build people at all. We can sometimes indulge in the illusion that such a thing is possible, but it is no more possible to build people than it is to build the spinach you’ll enjoy this week, nor the tomatoes and strawberries we all look forward to in summer.

The growth of our friends, our family, neighbors and co-workers, of ourselves, is an organic process not unlike farming. It is one we cannot do so much as participate in, as we provide the circumstances for it to occur in the most wondrous, enriching, and empowering way.

And that is why we begrudge it, for it is a categorically more difficult and more ambiguous task. A task all people, in all places must commit to.

Not to build ourselves, but to foster our growth and the success and happiness of those around us, through our relationships and the sharing of our joys, abilities, interests and insights.

Through the sharing of ourselves.

Often this comes in the form of something as simple and yet as profound as the word, “Yes.” Before anything in life can change, the people involved first have to decide that it is possible and that they are the ones to do it. This fundamentally begins with the change from “No,” to “Yes.” Helping someone come to this new conclusion is a crucial step in fostering their growth as well as our own, because to take part in and witness such a transformation changes everyone involved.

A “Yes” where there was once a “No” can change the world, and indeed will change yours.

So about what have you been telling yourself “no,” where you truly wish there was a “yes?” Give yourself permission to say, “Yes” to the very next thing you must do to benefit your community, your world, and I will do the same.

And by the end of this letter we will have already changed the world in a crucial way. We will have set the snowball down the hill on its path toward a future more glorious and just as dependent upon our participation – a future that is our life’s work.

I thank you for that work.

Cameron Ottens, COD-PCV, Bulgaria-26

Cheers

The Kindness of Strangers

Living  here I get told a lot of cautionary tales about being robbed or pick-pocketed  typical things to look out for in any foreign country when the awe of novel experience overloads our senses and we lapse on basic security habits.

Far from being a hostile place however, my experience here in Bulgaria, has been beyond outstanding.

(A nice day in Smolyan on the way home)

Nice Day in Smolyan

(On the walk home from the road)

Hike home from the road.

(visiting the family I lived with during training before x-mas)

Момичетата

Нас

I visited a friend in the capital and when I went to leave there was an issue with my bags. They got lost: computer+ just about every other thing of worth that I brought to BG. They had been left in the trunk of the taxi by friends of friends in a somewhat complicated story. That all said, Peace Corps and the in-house inspector at the taxi company did the best they could and the next day the cab driver returned with the goods, intact and untouched. This guy I never met and could never thank made sure to bring everything back the next day and while the items were insured the amount of trouble he saved me is beyond thanks. All this in a post-soviet (whatever that means) city of near 2 million people, where minimum wage is roughly equivalent to $150 per month.

Other than that the trip was great:

 

As for my life here in the village and how impressive the hospitality is, well let’s say that when I moved into the neighborhood I got more than a fruit-basket from the guy and gal next door. People stop me in the street, ask me if I’m eating and sleeping alright and then hand me a sack of potatoes, a 2-liter of yogurt or some jars of preserved fruits or veggies (homegrown, of course). Some ladies even knit some of these thick wool socks (called, “choo-rah-pee”) meant to be worn over regular socks so my toes wouldn’t get cold. This isn’t even particularly special treatment because I’m an outsider or something.

Concern for the well-being of neighbors is generally the highest priority. It’s a significant change from the far more dispersed social groups I was used to back home, where friends lived 10’s of miles apart from each other, even if in the same town or city.

Being here, more than anything, is a tremendous exercise in perspective. Everything that I had, in my community back home, is here as well. The difference however is that it’s all mixed up and differently ordered, and because of that, it makes you see it rather than take it for granted, because for at least a moment you have to look for it.

Example: being so isolated I come to realize how important human connection is because I’m not overloaded with it as would be the norm back home. Another example would be how important tradition can be because it offers us a chance to step outside cynicism and questioning the purpose of things and just “do and be happy doing” whatever our shared ritual is. Happiness, I’m coming to realize in a lot of otherwise neutral moments, is an issue of making the choice to enjoy one’s self at that moment.

(Christmas celebration in the church)

http://picasaweb.google.com/s/c/bin/slideshow.swf 

I cannot thank enough the people who have taken me in here. Who have befriended me in an open, honest and immediate fashion. They are categorically patient, caring and excellent cooks as well. And you know what they say about the fastest way to a man’s heart – it doesn’t just apply to romance, friendship is built over meals as well. 

(Me and some of the guys at the pre-NYE party)

The question of why I’m here comes up every time I have a serious enough conversation with someone for the first time and they are always extremely pleased to hear that I’m here to work with their mayor to help develop tourism, business and the community (how it works together and self-organizes) in general. It’s almost a joke because the fact of the matter is that for them I am an extra one person making a small change in scenery for the 400 who live here. At the same time, for me they are 400 people who make up the entirety of the social life of one person in this village – me. To them I am something small and perhaps shiny, to me, they are everything there is in my day-to-day.

It’s a common conclusion of long conversations among PC volunteers and Staff that the volunteer gets more out of their experience than their community or their counterparts. We’re supposed to build “friendships rather than monuments,” which are often things that look nice at first but go un-used for various reasons. We’re here to change people by giving of ourselves, pushing whatever gifts we can manage through the language and cultural barriers between us.

Concretely this means teaching and training things like English, computer skills, organizational skills and habits as well as business concepts or even just questioning accepted pessimisms and helping to break them down and replace them with some of that American Can-Do-ism.

(The boss)

(The F’r’ner)

(The Office)

When it gets down to it, there is no amount of training, writing of grants or changing of attitudes that can be made as compensation for unconditional friendship and hospitality given from one stranger to another, at the drop of a hat. Some things simply cannot be repaid.

Had to go to the capital on a day when no one was leaving the village…looks like I’m walkin’.

“Hey walk with me, I gotta walk this cow that’s ready for milking down the North path to the main road. There’ll be a guy there with a truck and he can drive you to the next town where you can catch a bus.

“Cool.”

Leaving the school after giving the kids a test.

Thanks.

Yesterday I had my first experience in Benevolent Authoritarianism.

To explain, I was leaving work to go teach some English and noticed one of my students walking the other way with another girl from the village.

“You’re not coming to class?” I asked.

“Haha, no we’re going to the internet room.”

“Hmm, I said…” Then I walked into the internet room (downstairs in the mayoralty) and told the guy running it at that time that there were two girls outside and to not let them use the internet until 5pm, when my classes would be done. I then walked back outside to the students.

“You can’t use the internet until 5pm, I’ll open it for you, come to class.”

We all laughed and then they came to class, which was a pretty good session.

Good times.

Also, this morning was beautiful.

Winter has come. This is how I prepare for a late-night trip to the office to call the states, “по”-Internet.