30 November 2006

Current Events

Joel eating wasabiMmm, Polonium wasabi. Muy caliente! (много лютив)

Seriously, I wonder: does radioactive hot taste caliente, picante, or neither. Related story

21 November 2006

Back in the US of A

After staggered farewells, and a hectic last two days in Bulgaria, I boarded a plane on Monday morning in Sofia and arrive in Columbia, SC the same evening—a total of 24 hours in transit thanks to a 5-hour layover in Dallas-Fort Worth. In the short term, I am looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, and in the long term, excited and a little anxious about the next phase of my life—the next adventure, wherever that may take me!

16 November 2006

TPS report

As MBAEC volunteers, we were required to write quarterly reports about our assignments including evaluations of our organizations, quarterly goals, “personal developments,” etc. The final report was expanded to include some final thought, so—since I have spent considerable time on these reports, and only 2 people for sure have ever read them—I will now publish the following experts.

Knowledge gained

Professionally, the most obvious thing I have learned is how international development is done. I had only a vague, academic perspective of this sector before I came to orientation and training in July [2005.] While I still do not understand a lot, I have certainly gained a lot of knowledge in this area over the past 15 months. From little things, like the acronyms that are ubiquitous in this field, to how the grant writing process works (including practical experience in evaluating grant proposals.) I have learned how projects are proposed, designed, and implemented through a hierarchy starting at USAID, through various contractors (individuals, NGOs, and for-profit enterprises,) all the way down to the mix of volunteers, locals, an others who actually implement these programs. Much of this has not been learned by direct experience, but because I am now in contact with people who are involved in this sector such as my own MBAEC colleagues, Peace Corps volunteers, and contractors on other projects.

Living in Bulgaria for over a year, means I have also learned a lot about the Bulgarian language, culture, cuisine, history, etc. Not only Bulgaria, but now I also have a much greater understanding of the Balkans and Eastern Europe; I have read books and Internet articles about this part of the world, visited museums, and talked with locals. One of the most important lessons learned is that ethnicity, rather than citizenship, is more important to national identity here, and therefore political borders are a matter of so much contention. Every country in this region has had an empire that extended well past its current borders at some point in history. To a greater or lesser extent, the people of the nations represented by these countries (I say this rather than “citizen” or “inhabitants,” since they all have sizable ethnic minorities) would like to see these “lost territories” back under their control—obviously impossible as most land is under the claim of multiple nations. Previously I had thought that European integration would solve this thorny issue, but now I understand why that will not be as easy as I had thought due to this deeply ingrained nationalism.

Personal Impact

Being born to immigrant parents and having traveled internationally on numerous occasions since childhood, (including a total of 10 months during business school) I thought I had a very international perspective (at least compared to other Americans.) However, this experience—living alone a foreign country for 16 months, traveling to other countries from there, and making friends and acquaintances from all kinds of backgrounds—has certainly made me more cosmopolitan; I am now more aware of the greater international issues and of diverse viewpoints.

Above all, I have become aware of just how lucky I am to be born in a highly developed (economically) country. I will be eternally grateful for the opportunities granted me by this happenstance. Even among my colleagues in the 2005 Corps, I have recognized how fortunate I am to possess an American passport; I was able to travel easily to wherever I wanted—which was not the case with my Indian friends, for example. Also, I am grateful that my native language is the language of interchange when two parties don’t know each other’s language; I have witnessed individuals trying to converse in bad English both professionally and in my travels. However, this blessing is also a curse in that there is little incentive for native English speakers like me to learn another language,and—in fact—makes it difficult to find others with the patience listen to our mangled attempt to speak their language when their English is almost always much better.

This being said, I am not more proud of America or being American; in fact, I have become less nationalistic as I have made friends with people from all over the world and sometimes lamented with them about the policies and regulations of our governments that artificially divide us; when on a personal level, we have a much closer kinship.

In regards to international development, in some ways I am more sympathetic to our efforts (and those of other countries and organizations,) but I have also become more cynical when I see how resources are often wasted and the outcome of so many projects seem to be ineffectual. Partially due to these insights, I have decided that economic development, as a career, is not for me.

Environmental Factors

In a final, and broader assessment of the business, economic, and cultural environment of Bulgaria, I would say the greatest challenge is the low expectations of Bulgarians for themselves and others. For example, most Bulgarians own their apartments or houses (many young people have inherited the residence of a deceased grandparent); this is great, but since most don’t have a car payment either, and services & food are extremely inexpensive, much of their modest salary can be applied to discretionary spending. This means they are happy with salaries that are nearly one tenth of what similarly educated and experienced workers in the US and western Europe make. Similarly, there is a low expectation of government and civic leaders, so corruption continues to be a problem. I don’t what the solution is, as it requires a conscious change by a majority (or at least, as significant portion) of the population; I just find it frustrating to try to help a bright and capable people who are just held back by their collective fatalism.

14 November 2006

Not gonna tell

I am not going to tell you about last weekends trip to Bansko and Melnik although it was rather pleasant and interesting. Lately, this blog is sounding too much like a “what I did on summer vacation” report. Travel has to be experienced directly; there is no way that words, pictures, or even video can convey the serene yet surreal feeling of standing on a hill top near the Rozhen Monastery on a cold evening and looking out over the sandstone pyramids1 and—in the distance—the snow-capped peaks of the Pirin range bathed in faint light just after sunset. You would just have to be there; so get out there and travel!

1 The “sand pyramids” are a natural formation that the Melnik area is famous for.

07 November 2006

Potato Man

potato manThis weekend I rented a car again, and on Saturday, we made a day trip out to some small towns east of Plovdiv. We came across a vegetable bazaar, and upon learning that potatoes were only 38 stotinki a kilo, Mirena bought a 20 kg bag—which I am carrying back to the car in this pic.2

After returning to Sofia that evening, we went to the first of three of Barbara’s farewell dinners (the final farewell is tonight.) Barbara is Italian and works for an Italian child-welfare NGO; she was asked to move from the Bulgarian office to Ukraine—we will all miss her, especially Mirena.

The same evening, we went to the Marine Ball, because Ryan had two extra tickets from people that couldn’t come. I found it rather boring, but if I get a nice picture of us all dolled up, I will post it here for you. That’s what I’m reduced to now that I don’t have a working camera—begging others to email me their pictures.

And then there were two

On Friday, I arranged for all current and former MBAEC volunteers living in Sofia to have dinner together before Ryan and I leave this month. Most were able to attend (including Tom, who was a volunteer here in 1993, and never left.) As Americans, we are always craving spicy food here, so we met at Taj Mahal—an Indian restaurant. Sunday afternoon, our smaller group of 2005 and 2006 Corps met at the Radisson for Sunday brunch as a send off for Ryan, who is leaving today.

Life of Joel

Many of you have been wondering what my life is like now that my assignment is over. Well, many times it involves sleeping til a noonish hour, getting up and having a cup of tea or coffee3, checking my email & surfing the WWW, and then thinking about lunch. I usually bum off for the rest of the afternoon—usually reading—until Mirena gets off work. We eat out just about every day, sometimes with friends or at some kind of party or other gathering, and that’s a day!


1 Homer Simpson uses the expression “potato man” to gain entrance to the U2 concert in episode 5F09.

2 Photo credit: Mirena.

3 After years of experimenting with the gateway drugs of cola (34mg of caffeine) and tea (60mg), and resisting the entireties of family and friends to try the hard stuff—coffee (100+ mg)—I have started to drink Nescafé “3 in 1.” This is an easy to prepare, single serving package of a precision mixture of instant coffee, powdered milk, and sugar that I now use to get my caffeine kick and/or treat headaches, since I don’t have any ibuprofen anymore.

02 November 2006


Opel CorsaSo, after not having driven a car for over a year (with the exception of a short trip in Germany last December) I finally rented a car on Saturday—a Opel Corsa like the one pictured, except it was kinda greenish with no wheel covers, and the antenna was snapped off; but what can you expect for 20 Euro a day.

Fall colorsOn Sunday, Mirena and I were in Dolna Banya—a small town about an hour away where a Peace Corps volunteer lives and had organized that weekend’s Hash. We rewarded for the effort by perfect weather, brilliant fall colors, and—afterwards—a delicious, 5-course Bulgarian meal of salad, chicken nettle soup, rice-stuffed peppers, tender pork fillets with mashed potatoes, and—for desert—pumkin banitsa. All very tasty and surprisingly inexpensive. At first, I thought this was a picture from Mirena’s new camera phone, but since you can see her clutching it, it obviously isn’t; and it can’t be Barbara’s either—as you can she is framing up a picture on her camera. Photo credit: Niltay (I think.) I love recursion!

On Monday morning, I drove Mirena to work—to this old, Dickensonian steel mill that has probably never seen better days under state control, and now looks even worse since being bought by an Indian concern that is obviously squeezing the last bit of profit out of it before it will undoubtedly have to be shut down for not even coming close to meeting any European environmental standards. Then I drove up to Svoge to visit another Peace Corps volunteer—Jennifer. We continued up (north, but actually downhill along the Iskar River)—an area with particularly interesting geography. Our goal was the “Seven Thrones Monastery,” which was disappointing—it was just a chapel with 7 rooms—but the scenery along the way made it worthwhile.

The rest of time before turning in the car on Tuesday afternoon, I used it to make preparations for my party that evening. It’s interesting how natural it felt to be back behind the wheel, cruising out to the mall and to big-box retailer at the edge of town (I went to Praktiker—the German answer to Lowes/Home Depot to buy a new fluorescent light for my bathroom.) However, I was glad to return it—traffic around Sofia is terrible most of the day, and—although I became a shameless sidewalk parker—it’s nearly impossible to find parking space anywhere downtown.

Mike's costumeThe party itself was fairly low-key, which is to be expected for a “school night.” Mike definitely walked away with the best costume prize—he came as a blog; specifically as The Persistent Itch! He stapled favorite posts from this blog to the front of his t-shirt and pages from Ryan’s blog, Blog-aria, to his back. He said that he thought of splattering the paper with fake blood, thus being a “blog stalker,” but decided that would be in poor taste. Photo credit: Mirena

Incidentally, as I write this on Thursday evening, it has begun to snow!

Also, you may notice the list of “friends’ blogs” to the right has become significantly shorter; I've eliminated anyone who hasn't written anything in the latest 2 months—which is being generous; no use sending you there if they haven't written anything new. Hopefully this may goad some them into writing again. ;-)