Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Brilliant, Breathtaking, amazing life-changing experience - Summer 2003

It seemed almost compulsory for the kids quoted on the publicity material for the likes of “Operation Raleigh” or “BUNAC” to write long, breathless sentences full of superlatives to describe their experiences. However, the small print brought only disappointment for the studious 20-year-old I was four years ago. As the eldest of a family reared on (generally successful) holidays to Britain’s extremities and the occasional horrendous misadventure in the near continent, I’d always suspected I’d enjoy travelling abroad on my own steam. Unfortunately, for a student of my means then, a “suspicion” could no way justify raising a couple of grand for a “working holiday”.

That’s why it was a godsend when my sister thrust a Concordia programme at me. Suddenly, hundreds of work-camps in just as many fascinating locations were within my reach. The atlas came out and I eventually decided on an environmental project in Bulgaria as I was aiming for somewhere that was really culturally alien to everything I was used to.

The first night was horrific! An aging craft of different coloured bits of metal under the now-defunct banner of “Balkan and Bulgarian Airlines” touched down (to the customary applause) in Sofia a full 4 hours late, giving me the night-time arrival I’d tried to avoid. Wide-eyed as I was, I jumped into the taxi of the first greasy scheister to greet me at the airport and was driven in circles to the Novotel Europa, the Sheraton and every other over-priced western hotel that didn’t bear the address of the Lonely Planet-recommended hovel I’d shown the driver. Eventually deposited in a dark street full of stray dogs and a wad of Monopoly money lighter in the pocket, I walked up and down until I found “Hotel Bolid” myself. I wouldn’t recommend it!

Okay, so that’s where the nightmare ends. The following day, on the railway platform to my designated arrival point of Sliven, I made a bee-line for the only non-Bulgarian face I could see. Mikiko, who was also destined for the camp, became my girlfriend for the next two and a half years, including one wonderful year I spent teaching English in her native Japan.

It’s fair to say that that work-camp - set in the isolation of the largely-unspoilt Bulgarian countryside – involved a greater degree of interaction amongst the volunteers than with the locals as many of us have spent the intervening years jetting across the globe to see each other (I’ve met up with no fewer than 8 of the original 15 myself and the emails keep coming). I now know that the Bulgarians (bureaucrats and Sofian taxi drivers aside) are an honest and sociable lot, whose lifestyle affords a good deal more time for coffee and spirit-drinking than our own. It suits me so well that I spent last year teaching English there and I’m due to return to Plovdiv in September for another year.

At the end of that first work-camp, it was my turn to abandon my reserve and spout trails of superlatives in the evaluation form. In just two weeks, I was transformed from a curious but inexperienced student to the wanderer I am today. “A brilliant, life-changing experience” it certainly was.

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