Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Kukeri, Take II

Last weekend I headed down to Razlog once again. Here are some snapshots from the weekend. Enjoy!

Grandma, people just keep giving me money.

International Kukeri Festival.
Razlog, Bulgaria.

Babas. The hardest working and
most awesome people in Bulgaria.

Catching a breather. I think those masks and costumes can be heavy.

More babas. 

Entering the parade ground (the city center).

A huge Kukeri mask.

I see you.

Some of the cooler Kukeri masks.

This guy was part of the Macedonia Kukeri troupe.
Theirs was more like carnivale, but really great nonetheless.
Hopefully I am headed to Macedonia with some volunteers in mid-March.

The award for most intricate and most colorful costumes goes to Yambol.

гайда (gaida): bagpipe

More from Yambol.
Every Kukeri member wears bells. When they jump together it sounds great, like a chorus.
When they jump independent of one another it sounds like the cacophony
of cow bells at a cyclocross race.

That night we went out and happened upon a men's volleyball match between
Plovdiv (guests) and Pirin (home). Pirin won in comeback fashion three games to two.
I think it is safe to say that we got the best seats in the house. What a view.
Go Pirin!

Monday, January 14, 2013

"The truth is that everyone is bored..." -Albert Camus

At the risk of sounding cynical I want to write briefly about boredom. But first, is it permissible to attribute this quote to one person? I suspect many people said it before him--it's not some eye-opening, earth-shattering statement--but what he had above others is the social position to disperse the statement to an audience respected and valued his word. Plus, he was right, and the statement is still true today: "The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits."

In the December 24 & 31, 2012, issue of The New Yorker, there are three really great articles: "Recall of the Wild," about engineering wide swaths of land in Europe to mimic a Paleolithic ecosystem, "Utopian for Beginners," about inventing language and the way language affects the way we perceive the world, and "Polar Express," about a merchant ship journeying through the Arctic from Murmansk, Russia, to various Chinese ports. It was in this final article, "Polar Express," that I identified with a particular passage:
"The crew experience boredom. What is boredom? Boredom is staring for hours at the smooth, mirror-like water, hoping to catch a glimpse of something, anything. Boredom is deciding to create a tea strainer from a soda can, going down to the galley, cutting a can in half, poking holes in the bottom with a knife, and then cutting one's finger, pretty badly, on the aluminum. Boredom is not just showing up exactly on time for the nightly Ping-Pong tournament but holding a clandestine practice session during the afternoon. Less productively, boredom is playing Spider Solitaire on the computer in the rec room. Boredom is watching other people play Spider Solitaire in the rec room. The ship's champion was Vadim. He played on the third, most difficult level, and he won a quarter of his games. But he took no joy in it. "Motherfucker," he could be heard muttering at the computer. "Motherfucker."
I have never been trapped on a merchant ship sailing through the Arctic and so I cannot categorically identify with such boredom as this writer describes. But boredom happens to us all, regardless of how exciting our lives may be. Soldiers in combat experience boredom in between moments of combat. (I also am not a solider, and that sentence is based on Sebastian Junger's War in which he chronicles life with Army soldiers in the Korengal Valley.) In another instance, perhaps we have a hobby such as skydiving which others see as exciting or thrilling. And maybe we do this activity so often that our senses are dulled and the weekly skydive just doesn't do it for us anymore. That's boredom, too, or maybe it is banality and the dulling of one's senses. In such cases we crave to go bigger, faster, higher, longer (and any other suitable comparative), in order to keep the boredom at bay.

No, I have not experienced such prodigious boredom as that crew. I suspect that the isolation of the ship compounded on the boredom they experienced. But I do think that boredom must be experienced so that one can value and appreciate the greater moments of life. As cynical as it sounds, boredom (and listlessness) is a part of life and the faster we accept and come to terms with this fact, the easier it will become to bounce out of these spells. If everything was happy all the time, if everything was exciting all the time, would you know it? Could you appreciate it? For the same reason that we want darkness to appreciate light, that we want the winter to appreciate the summer, that we have to lose to appreciate victory, that we need Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Kanye to appreciate how infinitely better the following bands/musicians are: AC/DC, The Allman Brother Band, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Guns N' Roses, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Boston, The Clash, Dire Straits, The Eagles, Pearl Jam, Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton, The Grateful Dead, Hendrix, John Lee Hooker, Johnny Cash, Keb' Mo', Metallica, Neil Young, CSNY, Muddy Waters, Peter Frampton, Pink Floyd.... I rest my case. One thing that has really been driven home for me over the past two years is to value the greatness in life, the good things, the things that make you happy. Even if it is a wave from a neighbor or a hello in the morning, it's something. A few days ago I was walking home from school for the ten-thousandth time, not really thinking anymore on my walks, as it seems my feet know where they want me to go. This time the banality ended when I received a wave and a smile from a neighbor driving past. It was enough to lift my spirits and appreciate the rest of the walk.

This can all be summed up much better by the comedian Louis C.K.
'I'm bored,' is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you've seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you're alive is amazing, so you don't get to say, 'I'm bored.'
But, then again, I'm pretty sure he hasn't been stuck on a boat for a month either.

And now for some pictures:
An abandoned building in a village.

At Kukeri in Razlog. Traditional Bulgarian dress.

She wanted to give her Dad the apple.

A happy child.

Have you even seen a chimney sweeper?

Abandoned truck in Gorna Dryanovo, a village in the Rhodopi Mountains.
Home to PCV-extraordinaire Tracy Minard.
The truck isn't her home, the village is her home.
Tracy, if you're reading this I think people will understand what I'm saying,
but if they don't then everyone will think you live in this truck.
But I think my readers are smarter than that.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Chestita nova godina i Kukeri

честита нова година!! за много години!!
Chestita nova godina!! Za mnogo godini!!
Happy New Year!! For many years!!

On New Year's Day I was in Razlog, Bulgaria. Razlog is situated in southwestern Bulgaria valley from which you have a panoramic view the Pirin, Rila and Rhodope mountains. Basically, it's gorgeous. On New Year's Day, the Municipality of Razlog hosts its annual Kukeri Festival in the town square. Each quarter (neighborhood) assembles its Kukeri dancers and, in one sense, it is a competition to see which quarter is the best.

But what is Kukeri?  According to the most trusted site on the Internet (read: Wikipedia), Kukeri is

a traditional Bulgarian ritual to scare away evil spirits, with costumed men performing the ritual. The costumes cover most of the body and include decorated wooden masks of animals (sometimes double-faced) and large bells attached to the belt. Around New Year and before Lent, the kukeri walk and dance through the village to scare evil spirits away with the costumes and the sound of the bells, as well as to provide a good harvest, health, and happiness to the village during the year.

Thanks, Wikipedia, for that expert analysis!

In any case I had a lot of fun and took a boatload of pictures and a few video clips. I hope you all enjoy these.

Zhiv i zdrav (Life and life).

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Pick Me Up

During those moments when you feel weak and despondent, drifting perilously toward a seemingly tragic end, the pick me up is a miracle, a god-send, a savior, a resuscitation of the soul.

The school year thus far has undoubtedly passed quickly. On September 17 I blinked; when my eyes opened again the winter had arrived and the calendar read "December 21." In fact there were many days which seemed to pass more like a desert tortoise crossing the road, creeping drowsily by. On those days I became convinced that before the school day my students gathered to deliberate the best ways to bother, pester, annoy, agitate, aggravate, and irritate me. But those days are long behind me now. Though I remember the troubling moments, those times I felt helpless, I cherish the breakthroughs, the glimmers of hope, the students whose actions, unbeknownst to them, motivated me to keep moving forward. 

Winter vacation came as a great respite. Fortunately I was invited for Christmas Eve and Christmas to another volunteer's village. Byala is a beautiful village nestled in a village high in the Stara Planina mountain range. It lies a few kilometers of the city of Sliven. To get there you follow a narrow mountain up, and up, and up, twisting and winding your way through the beautiful snow-covered mountains. After a time you crest a ridge and in the valley below you can find your destination. It is sublime. 

Truth be told Byala faces a major challenge, one that many small villages throughout Bulgaria face: a dwindling population. There are many reasons for this but the main one is quite simple: opportunities are not in the villages but in the cities. Major holidays are different. On major holidays Byala's population "explodes" from 500 to (more or less) 1500 people. Families escape the hustle and bustle of the cities--Sliven, Varna, Plovdiv, Stara Zagora, Veliko Tarnovo, Sofia--and return to the quiet, calm, and subdued villages where grandma and grandpa live. I think many Americans have the same traditions. New Yorkers escape the island and maybe head upstate; San Franciscans flee the City to the smaller towns in the Bay Area or to Lake Tahoe. 

What I really want to express here is my gratitude toward the people in Byala whom I met and with whom celebrated these holidays. You all gave me an "authentic" Bulgaria Christmas and you will forever have a special place in my heart and in my memories of Bulgaria. Thank you so much. You were my pick me up this holiday season; it was the best gift I could have ever received.

This is Byala

An old building in Byala.

Some time ago Seth and I trekked up Vihren Peak. 

A picture from the trek.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Before you judge...

At the bidding of my father I am writing again. I am unsure for how long I will continue this blog. Lately some people have encouraged me to write more; for me this alone is reason enough to put pen to paper.

I remember hearing once from an English teacher that it is best to write one's title last after one cuts, snips, trims, and squeezes every loose end from one's writing and the heart of the writing beats stronger, louder. I suppose this is logical if you are undecided about which direction your writing will go. In this instance I know what I want to write.

The maxim is paraphrased like this: Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes.

If I may offer only one piece of advice for the rest of my life it will be this. Respect your teachers, respect your children's teachers, respect all teachers, everywhere. And especially respect them if you yourself have never spent a single solitary moment in front of students.

Teaching is not easy and the problems teachers face extend beyond the classroom. Furthermore there are no easy, quick sutures to sew up the gaping wounds which some teachers face. Parents' complaints (or the lack of parents altogether) can be a greater issue than anything one meets with a student. Add on top of that the pressure to close the achievement gap, or the absolute and utter lack of support from a director, or the students themselves who are "bored" only because they have assimilated into a dullness and have never had anyone explain or champion or be a role model for the virtues that come from cultivating one's own consciousness and intellect. Have they never heard of Descartes? I think therefore I am!!!!

Before you accuse a teacher of giving up on his or her students or not trying "hard enough," before you speak falsely and prove yourself ignorant and say "those who can, do; and those who can't, teach," and before you suggest that you would be the best teacher, consider the scope and the scale of the profession. Consider what is asked of teachers everyday. Everyday we teachers are locked in a Sisyphean task. We teach, and we push and carry and roll the boulder to the top of the mountain every single day. But what follows when neither nobody nor nothing waits at the top to hold the boulder in place? I ask you: what follows when the student or the parents or guardians or the community cannot (will not? is/are unable to?) support the cultivation of its future generations?

Of course I never said or thought for moment that teaching would be easy. I have taught in other places to highly motivated students. That job is like training a dog to run or training a sea otter to swim. Motivated students love to learn and truly enjoy and value the process of challenging themselves and nurturing their minds. Yet again, be careful what you say about teachers and the profession. Let me put it in simpler terms. Do I go into your place of business and critique you? Absolutely not. Wouldn't that be arrogant and pretentious and ignorant? This logic can be affixed to anything. I don't know the first thing about what it takes to be a director of an organization. Consequently you can understand and you would cry out how presumptuous of me it would be to go into a CEO's office and seriously suggest that I can do a better job.

Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Oh, What's Up Winter?

On Monday I travelled to Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, for a meeting at the Peace Corps office. On my walk to the train station here in Kostenets it started to snow very lightly, though not enough for it to stick to the ground. As the train made its way to Sofia much of the landscape was snow-covered. It’s quite beautiful. As a California Bay Area resident, snow and cold weather are new fixtures in my life and an additional element of the Peace Corps Bulgaria experience that some other PCVs accept as normal. For them, winter means snow and cold. One component of wintertime that all Peace Corps Bulgaria Volunteers will deal with is not having central heating in their apartments. Instead, Bulgarians use a “petchka,” which is basically a wood-burning stove/furnace. The use of petchkas means that in the months leading up to winter Bulgarians order and store wood. Then in the weeks prior to the coming of cold weather the most common sight is a Bulgarian, axe in hand, chopping wood into smaller pieces, then storing these in (usually) a covered area to prevent them from becoming wet through the rains and snow flurries.
I do not have a petchka. Instead I will find a radiator and drink lots of tea or hot water or just live inside my sleeping bag (it’s tested to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, but I’ll be the judge of that). In speaking with other Volunteers and my Bulgarian colleagues, the last winter was “mild” by Bulgarian standards. Word on the street is that this winter will be the coldest in recent memory. This is what I was hoping for. I figure that if my first “real” winter is extremely difficult I won’t really know the difference because I have nothing with which to compare it.
That’s enough about winter! As I write this there are clear blue skies and 34 degrees Fahrenheit/1 degree Centigrade. This week is more like fall and I want to soak this sunlight up before winter settles into this valley.
On Sunday, October 23, Bulgaria will choose a new President. Moreover, each city, town, and village will elect a new mayor. All around Kostenets there are campaign posters for the candidates. Truth be told I don’t hear much talk about the elections or candidates. I did overhear one conversation between two dyados (grandpas) and their concerns revolved around economics and, consequently, jobs in Bulgaria. And so it seems that the concerns here are the same in America. The average person wants enough money to survive, a fair economy and a secure job. Is that so much to ask?
I, of course, cannot vote here but it’s exciting and interesting to watch the process unfold. There are posters around that invite the residents of Kostenets to attend a campaign speech or rally of respective candidates. For me, one new feature is to see many different political parties. I am used to two major political parties, two that really have any popular support. It seems reasonable to have more parties, more options, in order to hear different perspectives and ultimately choose that system or parts of systems which are best.
All in all I am enjoying everything here. I realized a few days ago that Halloween is around the corner which for me always marked the beginning of the holiday season. It means my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, is speeding up quickly. I plan to find some Volunteers to spend it with and hopefully we can get some Bulgarians in on the mix, too.
That’s all for now. Here are some pictures.
Election posters

Snow-capped Rila Mountains. It's beautiful and the picture doesn't do it justice.

Making the Bulgarian National Drink--Rakia
This is apple rakia--tasty!

Again, distilling Rakia

Fall colors in Bulgaria