Sunday, 17 March 2013

Guest Post

In the summer of 2003 I was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria, having finished my
first school year of teaching English. For one of my summer projects I got
involved in setting up and working at a summer camp for boys in Balchik, on the
Black Sea coast. Tough duty, but someone had to do it. This story is excerpted and
condensed from my book, A Breeze in Bulgaria.

My arrival in Balchik, after a long bus ride, was inauspicious. I had written down some
directions on finding my starting point, the "Fisherman's Plaza." A
plaza, or ploshtat, was usually an attractive open area with a monument
or two, with trees and benches. I stood in an abandoned, crumbling parking lot,
wondering how I had misread my notes. The parking lot, it turned out, was in
fact the ploshtat. At the far end down by the water there were a few
fishermen under the shade of some trees, slowly waving branches over the day's
catch to keep the flies away. So it was a fisherman's plaza after all.

The camp was held at the Hotel Supersnob. Really. We
called it Camp TO BE. The Peace Corps
had already established a recurring summer camp for girls, Camp GLOW. The acronym meant "Girls Leading Our World"
and it was a model educational project teaching girls about peer pressure, boy
pressure, self-confidence and leadership. Being a woman of power in a changing
world. Maturity, responsibility, independence. In addition to centering on
those concepts of character it was an English-learning experience, teaching the
language with the approval of the Bulgarian Ministry of Education. During the
previous year a small group of volunteers decided to do something along the
same lines for boys. "Boys Leading Our World?" No, that wouldn't
work. Not at all.

OK, say it would be about how TO BE a man, how TO BE responsible, all that. So it was "Teaching
Our Boys to Excel." We had T-shirts made up with the logo. One of the
Junior Counselors asked me the meaning of the word "Excel."

For breakfast the first morning in the hotel we shared the dining room with a camp
load of young Russians. They were cute little kids, but deadly competition in the
rush for protein and sugar. We called them the piranhas. Small as they were,
they could overwhelm our troops with sheer numbers in getting to the food
supply at the self-serve table. In the succeeding days the hotel staff started
separating the meal times, and the method of serving was changed from banquet
style to individual servings. When the little Russian kids were replaced by
slightly older Ukrainian girls, it was not the food allocation that seemed to
be the danger. Fortunately for us in our chaperone and referee roles, most of the
girls were a little too young to be of interest to our boys. Borderline, but

We started each day with a game of some kind. For example, everybody stand in a circle and
toss a ball to someone, say the name of the person who tossed it to you and
then the name of the person you toss it to next. Then go back through the same
cycle in reverse to the beginning. We always had announcements about the day's
activities, and a Q&A free-for-all.

Each day was broken up into sessions of about one and a half hours, usually alternating
sit-down-and-discuss with games and activities. Each afternoon after lunch we
all had free time, which usually meant beach time. The boys would tell us if
they were going to the beach or to the Center, and we would make a note of it.
They had a great deal of freedom during this period each day, and I think they
appreciated it. They were good about satisfying our easy requirement of telling
us in those general terms where they were going.

The hotel had a pool and that was a popular spot too. Two of our counselors started giving swim
lessons to two of the boys who reluctantly admitted they were afraid to go in. The
next day there were ten who wanted lessons. That might have been the best thing
that ever happened to some of those boys.

In our daily seminars, topics included communication, sex and AIDS prevention, democracy,
Bulgarian history and culture, alcohol and drugs, advertising and the media,
music, stereotypes and diversity. The session on democracy was a nod to the
Democracy Foundation, which provided a sizable grant covering a portion of the
expenses of the camp. A session on sexual harassment and date rape was a real
eye-opener and it was rewarding to have our boys participating with such
maturity and sincerity. We also conducted all kinds of "team building"
exercises such as trust falls, problem solving in a group, and games like
getting everyone in a circle to take the hand of someone else and then untangle
the resulting "human knot."

We had day trips to local attractions, including Cape Kaliakra where we saw centuries-old
fortifications and, from the cliffs overlooking the sea, dolphins. We went to a
forest nearby, where one of the counselors, a forest ranger, told us all about the
forestry situation in Bulgaria, the life cycles and the disease problems of
some of the trees, and conservation. Then we went to a section of highway and
picked up litter, gathering 30 or so big bags full in a stretch of a few
hundred meters. Not everybody got the message, though; on the way home I saw
one of our boys toss a wrapper from lunch out the bus window.

We also went to Balchik's biggest local attraction, the "Summer
Palace" of Queen Marie of Romania (Princess Marie of Edinburgh,
granddaughter of Queen Victoria), dating back to when the region was part of
that country between 1913 and 1940. The gardens overlooking the sea were a
tourist attraction, and everyone I had told about going to Balchik said I must
see them, especially the cactus garden. The cacti did not particularly excite
me, but the interesting buildings and formal gardens, alternating with lush
areas kept in a more natural state, with the views of the sea were spectacular.

The next evening we attended an opera recital. Several of the boys were chosen to
present bouquets to the singers. For some of the boys it was the first time
they ever listened to serious live music. Most enjoyed it, some very

After the banquet on the last night everyone was allowed to go to "The Disco," an
enormous bar with an open-air dance floor overlooking the sea. It had laser
lights piercing the sky and music reverberating off the hillsides along the
beach walkway. It was exotic and it had been forbidden to the boys during the week
of the camp. Some of the boys had gotten into trouble by sneaking out to the
disco, and were sent home for it. That special night, the last night, they
could stay there until two. They loved it. I left around one, and I heard the
music for the entire way back to the hotel, a nice long walk. When I got in bed
I could still hear it, at least for the 10 seconds it took me to fall asleep.

When we were
done with closing up the camp, I took the bus to Varna and then took the train home to Pazardjik, arriving in the late afternoon. I was supposed to go to a planning
meeting for the following week's activity, but instead I went back to my
apartment to decompress.

I was still
hearing the music from that disco.

Bruce McDonald is the
author of A Breeze in Bulgaria, which
is published in paperback and as an eBook. It is available from his website bulgariastories.com and from Amazon,
B&N, Apple iBooks and Kobo.