Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Changing Perceptions- Summer 2002

As much as the actual practical work itself, cultural learning is what international volunteer projects have always been about. Part of that entails changing our own perceptions and challenging the stereotypes – be they positive or negative - that we too hold. Here, Emma Cowlard describes how a project working alongside Bulgarian Gypsies did that in more ways than one…

Two Bulgarian girls at a disco in their orphanage, Gutzal 2002.

What comes to mind when you think of Bulgaria? An ex Soviet-bloc with a fairly unstable economic and political climate, probably rather backward and little to offer? Well at least this was my perception before I spent two amazing weeks this summer taking part in a volunteer project in the small town of Rakitovo. Although Bulgaria is evidently not stuck in the Stone Age, equally it is not as developed as the more westernised countries of Europe. In small towns and villages the traditional horse and cart is a common sight, as are huge piles of logs outside people’s homes, since central heating has yet to reach most of the country. However, this all contributes to the Bulgarian charm; although it by no means escapes the glare of western commercialisation, with our favourite Coca Cola logo on almost every shop front, the country remains relatively untouched by tourism, maintaining an almost fairytale allure of untouched beauty.

Since this summer I decided to attempt something a little more adventurous and a lot less superficial than your typical beach holiday in Corfu, I decided to participate in a volunteer project. This meant that I could fuse an exploration of the breathtaking Rhodopi Mountains and forests with a deeply rewarding community project, working alongside Gypsies in the thick of real Bulgarian life. Like every town and city across the world, whether it is in the United States of America or West Africa there are always areas of poverty and where I was working was one such area. Imagine walking through a Gypsy quarter at eleven o’ clock at night, the roads are rubble and covered in mud, dogs run around barking, half built houses stand ominously in the unlit streets and then one by one people begin to line the roadside and fix their eyes upon you and the other volunteers as you walk past. What do you do? Panic? Squeeze tighter to your purse as your heart misses a beat? Certainly this was my initial reaction, but what I interpreted to be hostility, proved to be simply intrigue and enthusiasm. I found the gypsy quarter to be one of the warmest and most welcoming be simply intrigue and enthusiasm. I found the gypsy quarter to be one of the warmest and most welcoming places I have ever visited.

As a university student I am no stranger to night-clubs and bars, but no amount of hi-tech lighting, after shock and elaborate garage mixes can beat the Gypsy night-club. I may have exchanged the city lights for a square concrete room with a Ghetto Blaster in the corner, but it was one of the most amazing nights of my life. People could not do enough to please, one girl and her friends spent the entire evening attempting to teach me to dance and not ancient traditional steps, rather moves that could definitely teach Madonna a thing or two!

Yanko my group leader almost gave me his entire first aid when I sneezed,a girl from one of the Kindergartens we had been working on came and sang to us and an entire church congregation shook our hands whilst attending their Sunday service. Certainly, anyone who interacts with Bulgarian Gypsies will find themselves overwhelmed with generosity and hospitality.

Admittedly, a volunteer project in Bulgaria is not a typical holiday destination, but for me it was definitely a life time experience. Painting kindergartens with children running around with our home made paper hates on, long hikes in the mountains and dancing through the night are just some of the memories, which will stay with me forever!

Emma Cowlard

Click here for pictures of projects in Bulgaria

Click here for a country profile of Bulgaria

No comments: