Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Something Special

When I first arrived at my permanent site almost twenty one months ago, I had no idea what to expect in terms of my teaching assignment. Nearly everyone I encountered referred sarcastically to the kids I’d be teaching as “special” and “interesting,” and I knew things wouldn’t be easy. And while it hasn’t been easy, it has been extremely rewarding.

Last Wednesday and Thursday, I was in Golden Sands, Bulgaria’s second largest resort on the Black Sea coast and arguably its finest. As far as I could tell, I was the lone foreigner among scores of Bulgarians who were there for a series of national competitions to determine the best of Bulgaria’s professional school students. Unlike in America, kids here have the option of attending a high school that trains them for a specific profession. Upon graduation, they are theoretically qualified to begin working right away in that field. By way of example, there were competitions to determine the best young bartender, chef, baker, server, stylist, and builder, among other competitions. I was attending because a team of our students qualified for and competed in the competition to determine Bulgaria’s best young mechanic.

The entire competition was rather impressive. There are some extremely talented Bulgarian kids who are learning a lot at the various professional schools. It’s amazing how much kids can learn, how creative they can be, how much fun they can have, and how much their talent shines through when they study things they want to learn instead of things they’re forced to learn.

Most of the kids I teach have lived and continue to live tough lives. A lifetime of disappointment has caused many of them to become apathetic and lethargic. To see three of them genuinely care about something and go through the whirlwind of emotions of competing for a national championship was pretty damn cool. First, there was the pride of simply being one of the teams competing. Then, upon seeing the other competitors, there was the self-doubt. Next, as the time for the practical portion of the competition drew near, there was the nervousness – hands were trembling, mouths dry. Then, after they competed, there was relief, followed once again by tension, nervousness, and self-doubt, as we waited for the results.

Having finished the theoretical portion of the competition in fifth place, our kids faced long odds entering the practical component. In truth, they were the underdogs entering the competition in the first place. The other schools were from far larger cities – Sofia (~1.2 million), Varna (~330,000), Ruse (~150,000), Stara Zagora (~135,000), Lovech (~36,000), and Karlovo (~28,000) – and us competing for the national title was a bit like Hickory competing for the Indiana state championship in Hoosiers.

Once the results had been tallied, all the schools lined up and waited for the officials to announce the final standings. When seventh place was announced, and it wasn’t our school, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Same thing when sixth place was announced. When fifth place was announced, and it again wasn’t our school, relief was replaced by pride. But when another school was announced in fourth place and we knew our kids had placed in the top three, pride morphed into happiness. Then the school from Sofia was announced as the third place team, putting us in the top two and bringing out feelings of unadulterated joy. The team from Varna won, with their kids taking the top three individual spots as well, but that didn’t matter. Our kids and my colleagues were elated being the runner-up, and seeing people I’ve come to care about so happy had me choking back tears.

Think about it. A school of 150 kids (my school) from a small town (my town) finished second in the 2011 competition to determine the best young mechanic in Bulgaria. Those kids surprised a lot of people with their performance, but not me. I’ve known since I got here that the kids I teach are interesting and special.

This was a big deal. The opening events brought out entertainers, politicians, and other dignitaries.

A few shots of the team.

Before the competition started, each of the teams inspected the cars and equipment and was given instructions from the judges.

A little last minute encouragement from the "coach."

The kids each had to perform three tasks. Given my lack of knowledge concerning cars, I could be wrong, but it looked like the tasks involved the following: an engine diagnostic task involving a computer; an issue with headlight realignment; and repairing and replacing a tire. Ivo started on the computer, Ilian on the headlights, and Milen on the tire.

Then it was Milen on the computer, Ivo on the headlights, and Ilian on the tire. 

Finally, it was Ilian on the computer, Milen on the headlights, and Ivo on the tire.

Waiting for the results to be announced.

Accepting the 2nd Place Cup.

A few shots from some of the other competitions.

Golden Sands.

Black Sea sunrise.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Saving Tortoises

Among other things, the Balkani Wildlife Society is working to save the local population of Hermann’s Tortoises in the area around Dragoman. To that end, a tortoise breeding center is being established near the Dragoman marsh. A couple weekends ago, I joined some other volunteers in Dragoman to work on the breeding center and build shelters for the tortoises. It was really just a typical day in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer, but it made me think about something all of us who do volunteer work should remember.

The direct beneficiaries of our work, the tortoises, will never recognize or thank us. The indirect beneficiaries of our work, the local people who hopefully will be able to enjoy tortoises again in the future, are unlikely to recognize or thank us. And that’s fine. In my opinion, volunteers should work without any expectation of recognition or thanks. The real reward is the peace of mind that comes from knowing you are doing the right thing, and that should be enough.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Things That Make You Go Hmmm...

I just returned from spring break. I spent five days in Romania and six in Moldova. When I get some time, I’ll sort through my photos and do a brief write-up for each country. In the meantime, this story is just too good not to share.

My vacation began in Romania with a couple friends. After a whirlwind tour, we went our separate ways. They headed to Istanbul, and I headed to Moldova.

To get to Moldova, I took a night train from Bucharest to Chisinau. Romanians speak Romanian. Moldovans speak Romanian and/or Russian. The conductors operating the train, which had a final destination of Moscow, spoke Russian. I don’t speak Romanian or Russian.

Despite my illiteracy, I could tell that my ticket was for Wagon 2, Cabin 5, Bed 55. So, I boarded Wagon 2 and looked for Cabin 5. Easily enough, I found it. But the door outside Cabin 5 showed it contained Beds 56, 57, 58, and 59. There was no Bed 55. From the outside, none of the cabins seemed to have a Bed 55. I decided to go into Cabin 5 anyway. Inside, the four beds were marked 46, 47, 48, and 49. I wondered if perhaps my bed was in a different cabin. I checked a few nearby cabins, but, alas, no Bed 55. So, I returned to Cabin 5 and waited for the conductor. When I heard him in the hallway dealing with another passenger who seemed to be similarly perplexed, I went outside and showed him my ticket. He looked at the ticket, looked at the doors, poked his head into Cabin 5 and pointed to the bed on which I had been sitting.

Another passenger had entered the cabin and was now sitting on one of the other beds. I pointed at myself and then to the bed just to make sure we were on the same page. After he nodded to signify “yes, that’s your bed” I went in and sat down. Upon learning that the other passenger spoke some English, I explained to him my issue with the ticket. He just laughed and said, “Moldovan numbering system. Only in Moldova. You have to be Moldovan to understand it.”

Having ridden on enough Bulgarian trains, I knew this type of numbering system was hardly unique to Moldova. Just to prove it, I took a photo of the cabin I rode in on the way back from Bucharest to Sofia. Although not quite the same, it’s close enough. The cabin contained Seats 21-28. The odd numbered seats were on one side of the cabin, and the even numbered ones were on the other. You can see how the even numbered seats were labeled. The odd numbered ones were similarly arranged without any logical sequencing. Maybe I’m wrong, but either the guy who did this was hammered on rakia or he’s a complete wiseass who just wanted to have some fun with unsuspecting passengers. It can’t be that people actually think this type of numbering is logical, can it?