Like grant proposals through the hands of USAID, these are the projects of my life!

Peace Corps Response 2010-2011
University for Peace! 2008-2009
Supercross08! 2008
Peace Corps! 2005-2007

An obligatory disclaimer: Everything I have written, has been written by me. All of my own views, expressed hereinafter, are my own views. If you needed to read this disclaimer to know these things, you're a silly goose!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Me, Mysunburn & I

I've experienced some epiphanal moments this last week. It started with dining alone and finished with a sunburn. So, to inform folks back home on what a sunburn is, I thought I'd tell a little story about how I continue to develop as a magnificent person.

I went to a cafe for breakfast, alone, and sat there to read a book! Whaaaaat?! Obviously this is out of character for me. I don't like reading and I don't do things alone on account of my insecurities. I usually get uncomfortable when everyone around me is constantly watching every move I make. And, I'm acutely aware of everyone's stares, even when I turn my head to catch them and they pretend to not be intently studying me at that particular moment by acting like they're engaged in whatever conversation they've put on for show. They can't fool me, though. I know they're judging me. But, I'm exploring new territory south the equator, so I went to a bar to try it again, just to make sure. Had a beer, alone, and read my book! I felt invincible!

Two days later, I went to the most amazing place, Coogee beach! The sand paled in comparison to Oregon beaches. Paled in that it was much less impressive, not that it was whiter, cause it wasn't. Oregon is the best and whitest. In terms of its beaches, I mean. But the water at Coogee was the best water I've ever been in - anywhere! The temperature was perfect - warm enough that I could stay in and splash around for hours without getting cold, but cool enough that it was still refreshing to be in it, away from the hot, breezy air. It felt perfect! It also looked perfect.
The water was clear - like, super clear. I could see to the bottom everywhere I was, as if I was standing in air. I could see beautifully refracted light (from the sunny day) coming through each giant wave that pummeled me in the surf. The waves were big, bigger than Oregon's, and they were so much fun! It was like the perfect water you'd see on the travel channel, or a travel brochure, or written about in a book by a real writer - except this wasn't on a screen or in a book - it was on me! I was in it! I was splashing around and giggling so hard that I was getting weird looks from the other tourists who were there just to watch me. I know, they were playing around, too but that was just an act. I could tell by how much they sucked at catching waves. I bodysurfed the crap out of those waves and no one else could figure it out, even though they pretended to try. In fact, one little girl just stood there, "crying and screaming" for her parents, I mean, observing me. Amateurs. Anyway, I kept catching awesome waves, and splashing about, and giggling until I felt things start to hurt. I thought maybe it was a jellyfish sting on my scalp and shoulders but changed my mind after one of the other tourists said, "you're looking a little red there, chief." Well, I don't play in the waves with racists so I left.

When I had arrived to the beach, I took my shirt off, giving everyone a show. I rubbed on my 50 SPF sunscreen while smiling and staring back at everyone else. Not weird at all. But when I got home to wash the sea off my body and out of my still-crying eyes (it was really salty), I felt a terrible sting!

They say that direct sunshine-to-skin contact is a common way for a sunburn to occur. That logic seems sound, as I had been exposing my shoulders to the world for the entire day. And when I looked in the mirror, I was red like a tomato. Or a cooked lobster. Everyplace that wasn't covered seems to be in pain. It's a pain I would definitely associate with the word burning. When I touch myself, I feel hot, which is validating because I tell people I'm hot all the time. I've been applying aloe vera, which feels great - but then I'm sticky, which is not so great. I expect this will pass, but I'm bored while waiting. Bored and hidden because I don't feel like going back out into public. Really, I just don't want to put clothes on, but that means I probably shouldn't go outside. I'll not forget my newfound skills of dining and drinking alone, but I should wait till the pain stops before I continue with that adventure. And that's what a sunburn feels like. #ouch

End of the Month Update
I went back to Coogee beach for another sunburn today. 4th sunburn in 5 weeks. The water conditions weren't as magnificent as last time. Each wave was filled with seaweed. Well, there's never been a weed that's ever slowed me down (okay, one in particular slows me down a lot...) so I got right into that water, determined to have fun! And by "right into" I mean that I watched the lifeguards make three saves before I had the nerve to give it a try. Those waves were pounding people, and there were stinging jelly fish that were paralyzing people, and there was sooo much seaweed - but it was time for my date with fun.

I was complaining about the seaweed right out of the gate. It was like floaty sandpaper that wrapped itself around my legs and inhibited my fluidity in the water. I came in and out of the water several times throughout the day, trying to dodge the seaweed - and failing.

After I was significantly sunburned, I called it a day and headed out. Stopped at the public bathroom to take a leak. Posted up between two lads at opposite ends of the big, stainless steel, trough-style urinal and pulled out my package. Well, the whole damn thing was covered in bits of seaweed and sand! So, I start shaking it around to try to get everything off. To and fro and all about, but it was really stuck on there. Had to start rubbing it off with the other hand until I realized how I must have looked to the other guys. You know, really going at it - with two hands and all! Ugh. Oops. Did my thing while using my wishing skills to remove the bits and pieces instead of physics. But, my wishing skills suck ass. Shook a bit more, until my humility was at its max capacity, and before putting everything away, I noticed a big piece of something caught in the secret-underpants-lining of my swim-trunks. I pull the waist-band way out to get a better look. As I'm staring inquisitively at my crotchular area, I see a big ass piece of seaweed, hanging out in there like it owns the joint. So I reach in with the other hand and pull it out. Threw it into the urinal - right next to my modesty.

I kind of made myself sound too awesome at beginning of this post, so I decided to add this update to the story. You know, to balance things out a bit.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Walk Into The Pageant Like, What Up? I Gotta A Big Thought!

I went through a phase of being a pretty awesome straight edge punk rocker. Blue mohawk, pyramid studs on my leather belt, and a 'fuck you' attitude. I enjoyed my moral superiority of thought. I condemned things like alcohol, smoking, and fun. I condemned people for conforming, for operating within the system, for supporting "the man". I was a judgemental jerk and I hated "perfect people". I didn't really have major goals of my own, but I criticized people who made goals that I thought were dumb.
The epitome of the perfect people I hated were highlighted in beauty pageants. I was a hater way before it became trendy to spotlight beauty pageant fails.
We laugh at how stupid they must be, as if we would never make a mistake, or succumb to nerves during an elite competition, in the spotlight, in front of thousands of judging eyes. Their intelligence failures reinforce our ignorance that the contest is purely for gawking, when the hosting organizations clearly give a criteria for judging that is beyond just physical appearance. There's no doubt that these organizations are corrupt and terrible, but why criticize the competitors?
While most people may not understand the criteria for judging a beauty pageant, they most certainly are goals that these competitors set for themselves, work extremely hard towards with ferocious tenacity, and then present their accomplishments in front of thousands-strong audiences to be judged.

Judging is not criticizing; and reiterating our ignorance that these pageants are only about physical appearance is not accurate. If you want to criticize, be accurate. In fact, only two-thirds of the competition is based on physical appearance.

I know another competition that is 100% based on physical appearance, but it doesn't receive the same social outcry of condemnation. Fitness and bodybuilding competitions.
Be that as it may, I think what is forgotten in these competitions that incorporate physical beauty is the training involved to be a competitor. These are wonderful examples of people setting goals, working toward them with a capacity that most people can't understand. Most people have no idea what kind of training and dedication it takes to compete in one of these competitions. It takes more mental fortitude to achieve that physical appearance you see on stage than any critic displays in presenting their shallow opinions.
Yet, to someone who doesn't understand the criteria of the competition, or the dedication necessary to compete, a pageant still looks like an outdated contest about looks. How do most people miss the countless hours and sacrifices that were made in order to master one's own body? And why isn't the mastery of one's body not more impressive?

In my eyes, this is all about setting goals, working hard toward them, and conquering them. However, naysayers will maintain that beauty pageants objectify women and some might add that bodybuilding competitions objectify men. But, these participants aren't competing to objectify themselves. And if you objectify them: the problem is with you! Someone recently told me that when she was just 16, an older coworker (30s male) told her that she was the reason guys do bad things (rape). You can't blame a woman for being raped because of how she looks. Anyone can wear whatever the fuck they want - it's the person raping that is at fault for raping! If we're objectifying beauty pageant competitors, we're at fault - not the women competing! So why are we harshing on them? Aren't they simply examples of people setting extreme physical and mental goals for themselves - and then conquering them?! We should be praising their success! We should be inspired by them! We should respect them!

There are other examples of physical success that we do praise that came from the same extreme, laborious training and dedication. Gymnasts, for example, make the same sacrifices in order to master their own body. We all watch that and say, "Holy crap, that's awesome" without the objectification!
Or, going back to corrupt facilitating organizations, we can look at FIFA. Soccer players are equally, unimaginably amazing athletes but there's no condemnation of them for trying to achieve their goals (pun intended). In the case of FIFA, they're berated for what they are, as they should be, but the competitors escape this deluge of criticisms, as they should - and so too should beauty pageant competitors.
I've explored several phases since my straight-edge punk rocker days. With New Year's Resolutions upon us, I'm currently exploring a phase of appreciating peoples' goals, no matter what they might be. I am inspired by their dedication to whatever, and am not lost in superficial judgements. I am in awe at their accomplishments, and not belittling of their motivations. I am humbled by their sacrifices to achieve what is important to them, and not critical of what I think should be important to someone else.
I may not understand the world of physical appearance competitions, and I certainly never thought in a million years that I would be defending beauty pageants. I do understand goals and hard work, though. If a little girl (or anyone) sets her sights on a goal, and is willing to work toward it, who are any of us to denounce her passion? Get it, girl!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bottle of Wine, Fruit of the Vine! Bulgaria won't let me be Sober!

Well, February was just wonderful! Ian came to visit for my favorite holiday! Wine Day! I filled our schedule way too full for his time here, but that has kind of been my experience, too. We went to see monasteries and churches, we hiked in the mountains and over Roman ruins, and we ate and drank till we were crazy! It was awesome!

My Varna friends postponed their annual wine tasting until Ian could be here. Every year, they bring wines that they've made or their friends have made. On this one night, they gather and do a wine tasting and rating. The idea is to try them all (a glass of each) and then continue into the night with the one you like the best, but I think I remember there being 10 or so different types of wine. After I had tried them all, I needed to pass out!

The very next day was Wine Day. Ian and I headed out to a small town for a festival and then opted to head out to meet Kuncho at his villa! He walked us through the Bulgarian tradition. We took a sip of wine, cut the vine, poured out a sip of wine on the plant, and then made an awkward necklace from the vine we'd just cut. And then we feasted for hours!

The food and wine were great. Everyone got a kick out of seeing Ian afraid of partying with communists. They made unending jokes about who was the dirtiest communist, and who was a fascist. They also got a kick out of Ian's reaction to old people dancing. But the biggest kick was Ian's story about needing a rabies vaccine in Bulgaria. It's a typical Bulgarian story, but funny for them because it was happening to a foreigner.

Running through the forest in Portland, Ian got hit in the face by a bat. The mammal kind. His thought he must have rabies and was to receive the fourth shot while in Bulgaria. His doctors told him it would be okay in Bulgaria but I tried to get things lined up anyway.

Iliyan called his friend, a doctor, to ask about administering the final shot. His friend said that Bulgaria stopped carrying the proper vaccine two years ago and that Ian needed to bring it with him. Of course that wasn't going to happen so we called the same doctor again who then said he could order the vaccine.

Now that we had a plan, everything was okay. Ian came, we traveled a bit, and two days before he was to receive said shot, the doctor called and said he needed 10 days for the shot to be shipped to him. Hhhh... We were in Sofia at the time and changed our plans to find another option in Sofia.

The hostel folks called the local infectious diseases place which said they had the vaccine. What they meant was, they had a vaccine. Another typical experience of someone not listening to the whole question - this stems from a genuine disinterest in anything.

When we arrived and presented the problem, the got really angry, really quickly and told us to go away. They had a different vaccine and didn't want to mix vaccines. I thought this would be our only option so I used my tricks and convinced them that Ian's doctor had approved the Bulgarian version. Once we got passed that, they saw that he was one day early according to his schedule.

They again got angry and told us to leave. We said we had to be in Varna and that Varna didn't have an option for vaccines. They said he could get the vaccine in Varna. I asked where. They said somewhere. And then they kicked us out. Fail.

In Varna we played the same game at one hospital reception. The gal sent us to another reception in a different part of the hospital. That gal sent us to the third floor, room 304! Woo hoo! Got to the door at 13:30 and saw a sign that said the working hours are 7:00 - 13:00... I knocked anyway and a nurse came to the door. I went through my spiel and she told me to come back tomorrow morning. They were closed. I really emphasized that he had to receive his shot today and they were the only place. She said go find somewhere else.

Back to the first reception for more arguing. Found a doctor that was sympathetic to our situation and told us another place in the hospital where we could ask. Went there to find another angry nurse. She listened to our spiel and asked us why we didn't get to the right place before 13:00... Hhhhh... She said there was one doctor that gives these shots and if she's not here, then tough luck. She left and came back 5 minutes later with a doctor!!!

The doctor wanted to know all of my information (?) because I had been translating the whole time, but eventually she just nodded her head and left. Then the angry nurse gave Ian a shot! Woo hoo! Didn't matter that she had said there was only one doctor that gave these shots. We were happy to have accomplished a rather difficult mission.

I asked her for a receipt to know how much he owed. She asked why. I told her has to pay, right? Then she berated us for being late to room 304, and said that we were supposed to pay there, but since we didn't, we couldn't pay. She said that if we wanted, we could leave a tip if it was from our hearts. Ha ha. Okay. Ian left her 20 levs and she said she'd have coffee with the doctor.

Pretty odd situation for us to experience, but it's so absolutely normal in Bulgaria. This is why our party friends thought it was so funny.

Anyway, fun stories and jokes, great food and wine! It was the perfect way to celebrate for hours. And it finished in a beautiful fashion with the dirtiest communist of them all singing a beautiful song! What a voice! This video doesn't do it justice. In the moment, it was really incredible!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

So Tired Of Working, But I'm Out, I'm On The Road Again!

Aside from my long, dirty days of collecting waste paper and late nights in the office planning a community resource center, I actually got to do a quick bit of backpacking this year.

Went to Berlin for New Year's Eve and met some friends for an amazing celebration! I think Germans take a lot of canned heat for suppressed emotions, but a party of 1.5 million people tends to open up a can of excitement! German sausages and beer booths for as far as your eyes could see! Which actually wasn't too far on account of said beer. But trust me, it was an incredible display of festivity!

There were three or four stages along a 2-kilometer strip. In between each stage were all the opportunities for food and refreshments. We tried listening to the bands and really getting into the music - but the bands were awful! We weren't in their moment - because we were laughing too hard in ours. I think our favorite band sang a rap song with the following chorus: "If you don't want to party, then you should go home." Those lyrics were the bulk of their song, repeated over and over again. And people loved them. Ha!

In any case, after midnight, I seemed to have lost my friends, but was having a ton of fun with one Russian guy and a German girl. We danced and danced, and drank, and then the Russian guy stole my hat. The German girl gave me hers cause it was pretty cold. And now I have a very cute hat.

After Berlin, I trekked a bit and saw some beautiful European cities, with all their glorious art and architecture. Wearing my life on my back was a feeling I'd not had in a while, and I really, really enjoyed the thrill!
I think my favorite experience was at one of the public baths in Budapest. There were many different pools, each with different temperatures. We started in the giant outdoor pool that was loaded with lots of people. It wasn't very hot, though so we went to explore the indoor pools. Inside, I also found a sauna! I love saunas so I was hanging out in there a lot.

At one moment, it was just me and a crazy looking little old man. He asked in very broken English where I was from. I proudly told him, USA! And we had a very rough conversation about his time in Portland. He was from Romania but living in Hungary for his construction business. I told him that I'm living in Bulgaria at the moment and he switched to speaking to me in Russian. In Bulgarian I told him that the two languages are pretty close and he waved off any differences and told me they were absolutely the same. =)

I couldn't completely understand our conversation because his English was not very good and I don't speak Russian. We made do, though, between the three languages. He told me to follow him out of the sauna to a small pool and we went in. It was freezing! He told me it's important to go in the cold after the hot, but didn't explain why. Just that it's good. In the freezing pool, his fat friend joined us. He was like an old bull in Budapest bath! The original guy told his buddy that I spoke Bulgarian, and the fat one proceeded to tell me that he speaks Italian, Hungarian, Romanian, and Gypsy - but he stressed that he wasn't himself a Gypsy. Just that he could speak the language. And he's telling me all this in German. Ughh.
We all went back into the sauna together and talked about life. I was getting a pretty strange vibe from them, but I was loving the situation. The little crazy one asked me about my religion. He couldn't understand my answer of not having a religion. He asked if I was an Atheist, and I tried to explain that I was agnostic. He showed me his confused look, and then directly asked me if I drink alcohol! There we go - the bottom line of any conversation with old men in any country!

We took breaks from the sauna to take shots of their homemade plum brandy. It was impressively smooth and deceptively strong. I loved every second of the experience! So unplanned, so unexpected, so pure and fun! They were good guys just out doing their weekly public bath routine, and for whatever reason, they decided to include me in their fun! It was perfect!

I spent the rest of my very little time on the road by visiting friends in different places. Friends I'd not seen in many years. Friends from my travels, with whom at one time we were on the same page in life. My, how time and experiences change that page.

They're still beautiful people, and I'm very happy to call them my friends, but finding other common ground was a bit more difficult than it had been when we met. But, as I learned from the drunk old men in Budapest, you don't really need too much common ground to have a great time with someone.

Two of the friends I visited lived in very small, super cute villages. Far away from pretty much everything. It was incredible! Just like the Bulgarian villages - but clean!

I kept bragging about the benches I've been building out of waste pallets and how I've started gifting them to schools. Well, my German buddy called me out, and pulled out an old pallet he had covered behind a shed. So, we spent a couple days making it into a bench. This one had a German-inspired innovative addition: two beer bottle holders!

In the last month, I've gotten food poisoning twice, and have been twice otherwise sick with normal winter bugs. I'm hoping my remaining days are nice to me as I try to get through all the projects I started!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Jump In The Village And Stay Drunk All The Time!

People love teaching me slang. One of the words they throw around as a goofy insult is 'galosh'. It's the same word in Bulgarian and English, but with a Bulgarian accent, and people have been asking me if I knew what it meant. The literal meaning is the same, but the slang, obviously, is different. Something close to 'idiot'. I like to take this opportunity to tell them that that's our word, and that they stole it for their language. Inevitably someone will tell me I'm wrong, and that it's probably a Turkish word. Then we stare at each other for a moment till someone raises a glass, or changes the subject. During one evening gathering, I decided to pull out my trusty iPhone that I found in the trash, and ask Google. I proudly read aloud Google's unquestionable knowledge: It says Late Latin, Old French, and Middle English. I didn't understand what that means, but I considered it a victory. However, in a world where everyone has a smartphone, someone else had an opinion. One of the guys across the table also asked Google, in Bulgarian, of course. When I finished, he laughed and read what Google told him: A Galosh is a Russian rocket!

Far from the current iCulture, is the village life in Bulgaria. I recently read an article that spoke of the silence in the village, and I recognized what the author was talking about right away. It's an incredible thing. The real, absolute absence of any kind of sound. Eerily peaceful. Until 4am when that damn rooster thinks it's his job to wake up the entire village... I don't know how they survive when everyday they break this beautiful, pristine silence.

Iliyan and I spent one weekend in Ezerets, a small village in north eastern Bulgaria, with our old colleague, a French gal named Helene. Helene and I both volunteered for the Public Environmental Center for Sustainable Development for all of 2006. We became pretty good friends, and to this day, I believe she's the most beautiful person I know. She's fun, insightful, wonderful, and has an unbreakable moral foundation that sets an incredible example for all the people in her life. She inspires me every time we interact. Iliyan's father, Ivan, used the term 'manly' to describe her a week later. He meant it as a huge compliment, as in, she can do anything a man can, and more. Bulgarian gender barriers and dialogue are not what they are in other countries. Nevertheless, he meant well.
In any case, Helene lives with her husband, Krasimir, in a home they built with the help of their friends. She's nine months pregnant, and has to be told to stop working so hard and relax. But there's a lot to do. Krasi and Helene keep bees for their main income. They supplement with odd jobs here and there, but I think they get by mostly on cultivating all their own food from their garden and their livestock. Krasi is an artist and reminds me of The Ruler of the Universe in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He's the real deal version of a good person.
Iliyan and I arrived to a lunch that was almost ready to go. My main observation is that most everything done in the village is done for food. I don't know how long they prepared our lunch, but we spent a few hours consuming it, along with some of Krasi's delicious homemade wine. Put mine to shame! The act of preparing and consuming a meal with friends in the village is such a beautiful thing. It's exactly the Slow Food Movement. I love experiencing this because it's so distant from my life in Portland. Back home, I put a very high priority on my nutrition, but almost no priority on how I obtain it, prepare it, and consume it. I consistently keep myself too busy with "other things" to truly enjoy the beauty of something so simple. I'm not saying this village life is better or worse - it's just something I find to be so wonderful and amazing, and I love experiencing it!
We went on a walk through the village just to get some air and some movement after being around a table for a few hours. It was a simple walk that felt really nice. I was reminded again that I was a city boy when I thought to complain about my hiking boots getting muddy. I'm glad I kept my mouth shut, but I was embarrassed for thinking it anyway.
The following week, Iliyan and I headed to his parents' home in Kaspichan to celebrate Christmas. Iliyan's father, Ivan, met us in the street as we parked. His face was cleanly shaved, his arms were so stretched out for a hug that he looked like he was going to take off, and he had a smile on his face that translated into so much pride that I was there! It was incredible! He looked at me as if I were his son, returning from years away, successfully completing a PhD, and getting elected President at the same time. He was immeasurably happy to see me, and I felt it - and it was great!

We went inside and they poured us some of Ivan's homemade wine - some of the best I've ever had. I sat down next to Kuncho, Iliyan's uncle, who asked if I was afraid to be sitting next to a communist. I asked him if he was afraid to be sitting next to a capitalist, and we both laughed and raised our glasses. We spent the next few hours eating, drinking, and being merry!

After that meal finished, we "rested" for a bit and then the preparation for the next meal began. A couple hours later, we were all around the table again for several hours of the same. Sitting around a table of good people, having endless conversations over bottomless carafes of wine is a really, really great time!

That whole first day was based around food, just like at Helene's place. There were small distractions to check on the three wood stoves that were heating three rooms, but otherwise, there were hours spent preparing, and hours spent enjoying. Incredible! Incidentally, by the time dinner rolled around, it was 85 degrees in that room!

Our time in Kaspichan was a four-day affair in which we slaughtered and butchered two pigs, a sheep, and a rabbit. There was a lot of work to be done, and I tried to help as I could, but I really didn't know what I was doing. The main "slaughterer" was the same age as I, and was very, very skilled. I can't explain how inadequate I felt. This guy, Vlado, is a police officer by day, and a hunter/farmer/butcher by day off. The guy could do anything - and do it well. Well, anything important. I'm not sure he can compete with my mastery of Google. My city boy roots were apparent to all, but even if I could have contributed like I wanted, they wouldn't have let me. I was a guest, and as such, the hard work was not available to me. I did manage to learn a fun new phrase, though!

Folks are quick to cuss here. It appears as a shared short temper or not much self control, but I think it's closer to not holding in stress that bothers you because they seem to move passed their frustrations very quickly. So, the phrase I learned, Без майка ти, работата не върви!, is roughly translated to: Without 'Shit!' or 'Fuck!', the job will not get done. It makes me laugh on its own, but within the context it was extra funny, and I needed a laugh at the time.

Although I've been to many of these events before, the slaughters hit me particularly hard this year. Watching the animals get their throats slit and bleed out very quickly reminded me of last year when my neck got slit and I very narrowly avoided the bleeding out part. It made me sick to my stomach - more so than seeing my food being processed, though I figured they thought I was queasy from all the guts, sounds and smells. It really messed with my head. A week later, as I write this, I'm not as queasy anymore, but it's still in my head and is still making a pretty negative impact.
After the killings, we sat around the table and feasted and drank for a solid six hours! You have to go slow if you're going to make it all the way through, but you're allowed to take small breaks in consumption if you need them. The conversation, however, roars on no matter what. 

Ivan told me on the third morning that he was "very satisfied with me last night". Ha! He meant that he was impressed that I ate and drank the whole time with everyone else. But my internal translation made it sound funny. I laughed and told him I was satisfied with him, too.

Two years ago, in the middle of one of our long-hour feasts, Ivan had asked me for an ice cream maker and told me he'd pay whatever it costed. I told him I would send him one as a gift if he promised to teach me how to make wine. His smile disappeared and he got supper serious - even took away my glass and started instructing! It was an intense lesson, and in the fall of 2012, I made my first batch. And, it was drinkable! I ran through the process again with a batch of plums in the summer of 2013, and as far as I can tell, they taste the same. I brought a bottle of each to Bulgaria to share with my instructor.

He tasted the first with an open mind and told me it was good. Then he reiterated that he wasn't lying, and that he can't point out any mistakes, but he really emphasized that I needed to find good grapes. Not grapes for dessert, but grapes for wine. Good grapes! I took multiple pictures of Ivan and his wife, Snejana, and they all came out same. Ivan never stopping to explain something with a passion that is way out of context, and Snejana seemingly rolling her eyes at everything he says.
The plum wine did not go over well. I think they couldn't get passed the fact that it was not made from grapes. But, he is the expert, maybe it's not the same flavor I think it is.

At the end of four days in paradise - more food and drink than a person could handle, but one tries anyway - it was time to head back to Varna and prepare for my favorite holiday. Ivan walked me to the train station. We got there a few minutes early and he bragged to someone he knew that I had been his guest for Christmas. As the train arrived, he told me that they thought of me like their own son and welcomed me back any time. I told him that I couldn't think of a better place to spend my Christmas, than at a table with him and his family. I told him that I thought of him as my Bulgarian father, and as I did his eyes filled with water. Ivan is a hard man. Like Vlado, he's a man well equipped with important skills. He can do anything he needs to do to have food and shelter - even at 68! He's quick to lose his temper with anyone, and is a my way or the highway type of guy. But, he's a softie. He cut me off and asked if I had remembered my keys and told me to get on the train before it left without me. =)

Back to my iCulture, and building a resume of skills and accomplishments that don't really matter. I guess they might matter in my Google World, but it's so far away from real living. I will really miss spending full days of eating and drinking, where taking a break means a break from indulging - rather than 30 minutes to use the bathroom and have a quick meal. Back to living like a galosh.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Let Me Go On... Like Bulgaria In The Sun!

I decided to come back to Bulgaria for my winter break this year. The Peace Corps made its exit over the summer so I'm here on my own dime, but it's worth it to me. I really like this place! I'm volunteering for my original Peace Corps hosting organization, Public Environmental Center for Sustainable Development. We run a waste paper recycling campaign and my main assignment is to help with that, but I'll also be presenting various environmental topics to local schools. I thought I'd also be helping design a materials recovery facility, but that seems to have gotten lost in translation... Instead, I will explore my network here to set up something similar to Portland's Master Recycler Program.
That'll all be fine and dandy, and my resume will look great, but I'm really here cause I love the adventure! I love the interactions, and the Bulgarian way of life, and the Bulgarian style, and all the new concepts I discover, and developing (remembering) my language skills! Plus, I have super wonderful friends here! Not that I don't have super wonderful friends elsewhere, too. Two years have passed since I departed to tears and wishes of return. Well, here I am!
It's crazy to see Varna after a two year absence. There are many new businesses - and many businesses have simply changed locations (?). The seven to twelve malls I wrote about two years ago have been reduced to two. One has been repurposed as an office building, two are completely empty and closed up, one was built but never even opened, and I'm not sure about the others. Bulgaria has changed sooo much! But Bulgarians haven't!

I've been trying hard to maintain my workouts, but I'm failing at maintaining my nutrition. I'm living in Iliyan's attic for free, in return for my help with his organization. He thinks I'm nuts for how I want to eat, and since we share most meals together, I usually end up eating what he wants to eat. Not really a big deal... But, I've already tightened my belt one notch after being here for only 10 days. I was expecting to lose a little weight, but not so fast.
Entrance to my new gym. Wasn't hard to find, and the pictures inside are very motivational.
On our first day of collecting paper, we went to one of Varna's universities. We stopped by a new office to deliver a cardboard box so that they too could start collecting their waste paper for recycling. As we folded the box to tape it together it made a hole in the bottom of the box and the two ladies watching us work had the following conversation:

Bulgarka1: "Hey, look at that hole! It's big!"
Bulgarka2: "Yeah, it looks like your hole!"
Bulgarka1: "Ha! Yeah, mine is big, but not that big!"

I wasn't sure I was understanding them correctly, but Iliyan confirmed their chatter once we got back to the truck. We had a good laugh as he explained that this is how women always speak to each other, and we just happened to get lucky in the moment cause they don't usually talk like that in front of men! Haha!
Most people I encounter have a pretty good sense of humor, and seem to easily make light of many heavy situations. It could be a Bulgarian thing, but it's probably more likely just a thing with the people I hang around. They're relentless, though.

I tore a ligament in my right wrist over the summer so I've been wearing a brace on my hand for the last month or so. I have two months left to go. Back in Portland, the guys at work ribbed me by saying my injury was due to Chronic Masturbation Syndrome, or CMS. When I arrived, Iliyan immediately asked me what happened to my hand. I told him I had CMS, cause that's how guys talk to each other. =) He thought that was the funniest thing ever and has been introducing the joke to everyone I meet... It's almost always followed by what seems like an off the cuff joke. "Three guys were talking about their weekend. The first said, 'Man, I had the best sex. We did it this way and that way, and it was scary good!' The second one said, 'Hey man, I had a threesome with two of the most beautiful girls you've ever seen!' And the third one said, 'I masturbated so hard, I fell to my knees and cried!'" I laugh because these jokes are so ridiculous! And they never stop. "I'm gonna have a threesome tonight! Myself, my right hand, and my left hand!"

These questionably inappropriate jokes are told among all kinds of company, despite Iliyan's explanation of gender-limiting circumstances. Of course, what's appropriate has new rules in this seemingly unfiltered society.
Sweet for the ladies. Strong for the gents. This place is good to the last drop, and I'm definitely filled to the rim with excitement! It's the best part of waking up!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Our Savier House, Is A Very, Very, Very Fine House

For those who don't know, I have found a particularly amazing house in northwest Portland that I call home. The house was built way back when and has immeasurable character, but the true value of the house is in the people that live here.

I have never before experienced such camaraderie, such brotherhood, such fraternal bonding - it's simply been amazing! Everybody in the house does their own thing, but we tend to spend the majority of our time together. Drinking, watching movies, gossiping, sharing lessons learned, exploring local bars, advising on crazy women, telling goofball stories, etc. The five of us became super tight from the beginning, in the summer of 2011. Since then it's become like a happy, five-brother family. We call each other "Bro" and even say that we each love the other.
Two in particular, were Todd Waldron and Shiloh Hoisington. The rest of us were pretty much squares, while Todd and Shiloh were the guys who had learned lots of life-lessons from unfortunate/fortunate life experiences. They each had their own best friend outside of the house, but if you didn't know that, you would think they were each other's best friend. They were really tight - and spent so much time together. Todd and Shiloh were known for living life to the fullest - they played hard - and I like to think they had no regrets.
I always loved hearing their stories. They had so much to share, to teach, and to entertain. One story that they loved to tell was about a weekday adventure to Sauvie Island. Neither of them drove, but there was a bus that went directly to the beach on Sauvie Island from our house, and one summer day, they intended to spend the day at the beach.

They were most likely drunk, or otherwise intoxicated, when they boarded the bus to the beach.
"Is this the bus to Sauvie Island?" they asked, as the bus was clearly labeled, 'Sauvie Island'.
Usually Todd would start the story, but this is the point where Shiloh inevitably took over.
"And, the bus driver looked at us, and said, 'Next bus'."
"Next bus?!" They chimed in together, laughing so much it nearly detracted from their story.
"The bus said 'Sauvie Island' but the bus driver just said 'Next bus'!"
"That's it. Next bus."

They got off the bus and walked back home. They never made it the beach that day, but they had acquired a new mantra: Next bus! For whenever things weren't in their favor; for whenever things didn't go according to plan; for whenever things needed to be adjusted: Next bus!

Todd was such a loving person - one of the most compassionate souls I've ever met. One day, he met two unfortunate souls at the bar, and brought them home because they didn't have a place to stay. They brought with them some bad heroin, and on June 14, 2012, Todd made a very stupid mistake that ended his short life on this planet at 35 years of age. Todd was a recovering addict, and had been doing so great for nearly a year in his sobriety from heroin, but was taken away from us due to an accidental overdose.

This tragedy was of epic proportions to us. We all went to Todd's funeral, we cursed him for making his final mistake, and we laughed at the multitude of fond Todd-memories that we still keep with us. Including "Next bus!" The tragedy brought us closer together. I don't think any of us had ever lost someone so close, and our solidarity formed a bond that we thought was impenetrable. But... As time went on, that proved to be not so.
On any given day, you could pretty much count on Shiloh entertaining whoever was around him. He had an amazing affinity for fun, and was blessed with the ability to bring the people around him into his fun. He made people smile and laugh when a normal person would think such things weren't possible. I mean, Shiloh truly shined like a light!
Sadly, Shiloh hit some rough patches in life, and without the reliability of his main companion, he did not fare well. One tragedy after another left Shiloh hurting, and very far from his standard energetic and outgoing character. His unfortunate coping mechanism was alcohol. He had always drank hard - even admitting that he was an alcoholic - but his important outlet of a person who really understood him was gone.

He drifted further and further away from the rest of the housemates. We certainly tried to bring him back into our circle, one invite after another, but he preferred to be by himself. He came home late at night, he played music and movies at incredibly inappropriate volumes, and inappropriate times. After six months of requests, and talks to live more considerately, we ended up having to ask him to leave.

This burden somehow fell on my shoulders, and it turned Shiloh against me. I love him like a brother, and always will, but the magnitude of me asking him to find another place to live - a place away from where he and Todd spent so much time - was so great that he took it personally and held it against me.

I don't blame him. I get it. I would be pissed, too. At the beginning of April, shit hit the fan, and he yelled so hard at me - saying such nasty things to me. We didn't speak to each other for a couple weeks, but by the second half of April, we had begun to bridge the gap in our friendship. Short conversations began. He expressed his positive outlook on getting his own place - this was characteristic of Shiloh, always having a positive outlook. However, I could tell, the majority of the conversation was superficial and he was putting on a face for me. It really ate at the core of my being. My dear friend, my brother, hated me.

I prepared a whole speech for after he moved out. A speech about how I still loved him like a brother, and how he would have my eternal friendship if he decided he wanted it. I didn't dislike the guy - I loved him, and dearly wanted to remain friends - but we became incompatible housemates. I decided to wait some more time while he cooled down. I decided to wait until he had moved into his new place that he was elated to have found. I had decided to wait to express my feelings toward him until it was too late. On Monday night, April 22nd, 2013, Shiloh had a heart attack and died on his way home from work at 34 years of age.

I'll never get to tell him how much he inspired me. I'll never get to tell him how much he made me smile and laugh. I'll never get to tell him how much I loved him. I'll never get to pledge my eternal friendship despite the issues that had developed. This burns me in a way that I can't describe. It's a stinging memory I will have until I die - to not be able to let someone very close to me know how I feel about them.

I found a family in this Savier House, and it hurts so much to lose some of them so early in life. I feel like the cosmos is telling me, "Next bus" except I can't walk back home and keep drinking with my brothers. The only consolation I've found to a tragic end of two very wonderful friendships is that maybe the cosmos is also telling Todd and Shiloh, "Next bus." They both had an epic adventure with life, and just because they can't go to the beach may not mean the fun stops. I hope, with the entirety of my grieving heart, that the next bus takes them to unending laughs and good times.

My time with both Shiloh and Todd is so cherished - memories that will live as long as I do. As my own adventure continues, I will endeavor to honor these beautiful people by having a more compassionate and open heart, like Todd; and by spreading joy and fun whenever I can, like Shiloh. And, from a very, very painful lesson, I will also make a strong point of telling the people I love exactly what they mean to me.

Next bus.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Heeey, Sexy Guatemala!

What a wonderful whirlwind of adventure! I had the opportunity to meet up with my great friend, Alex, in Guatemala for a week. He had some work to do for his position with Cross Cultural Solutions, but was able to come early to spend time with me. It was such a pleasure to see my old friend, and a wonderful thing to reconnect with him as if we had never been out of touch. For the entire week, barely a word was mentioned in terms of “catching up”. Instead, we jumped right into normal conversations, as if we saw each other daily. This is a mark of a very true friend.
Alex and I met in line to get our passports stamped and then headed into the chaos of taxi drivers and loved ones searching for family members. Among the endless offers for a taxi, we found Alex's colleague, Virginia, a wonderful woman with a sense of humor and personality that won't let anyone stop smiling. We headed back to the home base in Guatemala City for lunch and jokes and then Alex and I jumped on a bus to Coban, only 5 hours away.
I found myself slipping right back into the backpacker lifestyle – a lifestyle that is not nearly the same as tourism, or traveling – a lifestyle that I dearly love. We got off the bus in the dark and had very rough directions to our hostel. We got lost. We got found. And, we ended up chatting with other travelers and making friends from around the world. It was awesome!

We slept for a few hours and then hired a guide to take us to Semuc Champey, 3 hours and 2 buses away. When we arrived, we found one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.
A raging mountain river tunneled under about 200 meters of land, on top of which, tiny streams filled the most gorgeous mountain pools, ever.
The water was slightly tinted blue and was as clear as any fairytale lake. Beyond that, the perfect mountain air was complimented by the perfect water temperature, in which we swam and explored! It was absolutely perfect!
Unfortunately, we only had a couple hours there. This will be a regret until I return. Back on our buses, all the way to Coban. Met another wonderful backpacker, and then went to sleep for our early bus to Flores. This bus was only for tourists so we took the opportunity to meet some wonderful new people and share some great stories from the road.

Once in Flores, we found all the hotels to be booked because of some city holiday. Eventually, well after dark, with the help of the owner of the bus/tour company, we found places to sleep. Alex and I shared a hotel with Nick and Raha, a couple from NYC on holiday break from their studies. We decided to explore Tikal together the following morning and grabbed a couple hours of sleep before our bus picked us up at 4:30.

Tikal was fantastic! We arrived early enough that it wasn't saturated with tourists. We went directly for the tallest temple we could climb, and ascended to front row seats as we watched the awakening of a tropical forest.
We practically had the moment to ourselves. It was really special, and so I busted out a bottle of local booze made from hibiscus and thanked the Mayans for creating something so spectacular in such a spectacular environment.
The four of us spent the day exploring temple after complex after shrine after sacrificial altar! The structures weren't as profound as the pyramids in Egypt, but the magnitude of the site did manage to blow me away. It was so vast and complex! 
The heat of the day got to us so we returned to Flores where Nick and Raha found a better hotel with a pool and a warm-tub. Alex and I joined them for some soaking and conversations before we caught our overnight bus back to Guatemala City.
The first bus we got on was awesome! As good as any first class European bus! Plus, we sat next to a cute Argentinian gal and a cute Bulgarian gal who I had met at Tikal and got a chance to speak in Bulgarian! The bus was spacious, clean, and the Argentinian said we would get served food! It was so comfortable - for about 15 minutes - when we made our first stop and the bus driver kicked us off the bus... Evidently, the clown that sold us the tickets used a weird receipt from one bus company, but was actually for another. When “our” bus finally came, it was overcrowded, smelly, dirty, foodless, and an unintelligible movie blared loudly and kept me from sleeping... So it goes. This is just part of the backpacker lifestyle.

We arrived back to Guatemala City around 6 in the morning and slept for a couple hours before departing on another bus ride. Alex had to check out a school for their teen volunteer program that was in a village about two hours away, and Virginia said it was okay if I tagged along. It was really great to see what Alex does for work – and it appears that he's very good at it – but it was more impressive to see what his organization does. I encourage anyone looking for a short-term, international volunteer stint to check out Cross Cultural Solutions. After work was finished, we checked out another Mayan site and headed home through a very remote and bustling Guatemalan village.
In a very short time, we managed to spend hours upon hours on buses. It's certainly not comfortable travel, but it is so insightful to see the countryside and how people are living – especially in Guatemala. I was told to expect a very colorful culture here, but my expectations were far short of reality. From the window, I saw the most hardworking, laborious people I've seen in any country. All of their faces told a story, and the character of the rural population was incredibly beautiful. While we were on foot in some of these communities, I was also shocked to see quick, superficial scenes of the local life of the most conservative Latin American country. In other countries, kids will approach you and ask for money or food, without shame. Here, they just casually walked near to us and stood there, hoping that Alex would share some of his Japanese peanuts. Despite the heavy tourism, locals still look upon foreigners with intense curiosity. I like to think it's because I'm super pretty, but people were staring at Alex, too. Smiles were nearly always returned - as were my plentiful and corny Spanish greetings. All while working with great hardship. I've never seen older or younger people working with anywhere near the same intensity. Very impressive and humbling at the same time.
My final day was spent alone, as Alex had a project to work on. I decided to try my luck with the famous chicken buses and take a day trip to the old capital, Antigua. They told me the chicken bus wasn't going to be very full at the time of day I was departing, and I was the second person on the bus so I believed them. A few more people got on as we left the station, but not many at all. These chicken buses are incredible! Old school buses from the USA that have been mechanically renewed, and artistically improved. Each one is different, with heaps and heaps of style and character.
Lots of bright colors, shiny chrome and stainless steel, dedications to Jesus, and rockin music! As we pulled out of the station, our bus was rockin the Spanish version of YMCA – and as the driver negotiated traffic, he danced their version of YMCA! It was amazing! I want my own chicken bus, badly! We ended up driving quite slowly for 30 minutes, picking up person after person. It wasn't long until there were three people to every seat, and shoulder to shoulder folks in the aisle. Is this what not too full looks like?

By now, I'm used to being stared at, as people are very curious. I love this opportunity to say hello and practice my Spanish – and make them smile with my sexy accent. I nodded at one guy who was staring at me on the bus and he shyly said hello. When I got off the bus, he approached me to ask about my story – why I was there, where I lived, what I was doing, etc. It felt quite out of character and beyond the typical stares, but I indulged as I prefer to share experiences with other people.
Carlos asked if I would like some company for the day and he showed me around the city while telling me as much as I could understand. My Spanish is nowhere near as awesome as my Bulgarian, but I managed to survive four or more hours of very rough conversations.
He showed me some great places in the city and I eventually ended up inviting him to lunch. He asked what I liked and I told him that I like it all. I wanted to try what the locals eat so he took me to a hole in the wall for lunch. We got two big plates of delicious meats, beans, rice, and salad. I paid cause I'm super nice - $5 for the whole thing! I thought he had clung to me at the bus station to eventually rob me or for a free meal - but even after lunch, he hung out with me for another couple hours. There's also the possibility that he found me attractive and wanted my number. Whatever. Bottom line is, he was a super nice guy that I got the pleasure of spending time with because for a short time I got to slip back into the backpacker lifestyle - with an open and curious mind to explore anything that presents itself!

More of my pictures are here: Here! But my experience has been very touristy. If you're curious about the wonders of Guatemala, I encourage you to explore my dear friend, Rainbow's, blog about her work with the indigenous populations: Here!