Sunday, January 23, 2011

My Other Car Is A BUS/VAN/TRAM!!! Busses and Vans

My Other Car Is A BUS/VAN/TRAM!!!
Buses and Vans
20 People on the Van

Time for the daily adventure – catching the bus or Van.  Let’s start by talking about the buses here in Plovdiv.  As I said earlier, there are five different companies.  Some of the companies have been purchasing new buses.  But most of them are still using very old vehicles.  Many of the buses I ride on should have been scrapped years ago.  Often their transmission systems are broken, and they cannot get out of second gear.  Or they have lost so much of their transmission torque; they do not have the power to go over the train track bridge (the only hill – if it can be called that – on the route).   The other day, I got on the buss, and was confused by the sounds it was making.  It sounded just like an old steam locomotive.  As it chugged along, there would be a loud pressure escaping sound every couple of seconds.  I was sure this bus was not going to make it over the train bridge, but it did.  Because I am on the bus for a long time, I often try to sit in the back row.  The problem with doing this is that the seats in the back can be broken or missing backs.  The busses are also used to transport the high school kids in the city.  So… when the schools are starting, or switching sessions, there will be hundreds of young riders scrambling on and off the buses.  The kids (and pensioners) do not pay the conductor.  They all have plastic passes with their pictures, and they just flash them to the conductor. 

The real joy of riding a bus is a summer time trip.  None of these old buses have air conditioning.  In fact, if you sit in the back, you will be on top of the engine, and that heat will rise into the bus.  The other thing about summer riding is that there are really no windows to open up.  And …even if there are windows to open, Bulgarian have a very strong superstition about drafts, and they will NOT open them.  We have friends and colleagues who will catch a cold, or have sore muscles, and they will claim it happened to them because they were sitting in a draft – two weeks ago!!  So…. Everyone will sit very quietly in the stifling bus – that has now turned into a natural sun-oven with temperatures climbing toward 100+ on very hot days. Also, everyone knows which side the sun shines into the bus, and everyone will try to sit on the other side.  (If the busses were boats, we would all capsize!)   The only good thing about hot summer days is that I can walk home – and not have to suffer another trip in the “oven on wheels”. 

But the real adventure of the Plovdiv transit system is the VAN.   All the vans are white, slightly bigger than a Dodge caravan, and have windows all around.  Inside, they all look the same.  There is a bench seat in the front where the driver, and two passengers can sit.  There is large sliding door on the right side where passengers get in and out.  There is a small seat which can fit two thin people behind the driver.  Then there is a space to stand, and then two short bench seats facing each other (with no room for your legs and feet on the floor between them), and then another short bench seat, and then the final row in the back.  On the same side as the door, there may be two very small seats facing forward.  Between the single seats and the small bench seats there is a very small “alleyway” to walk to the seats.  In total there are a possible 15 seats – if everyone was very small.  But realistically, there are only seats for about 12 people.  A van ride gets real interesting if you have 20 people in it (like I did this morning). 
Ok – now that you have picture of the van, let me explain how it works.  A van is part bus, and part taxi.  They all have numbers just like the bus, and specific routes to drive.  However, you can flag down a van anywhere along the route.  You do NOT have to get to a bus stop to get them to pick you up.  You can also get let off anywhere along their route.  Another important thing to remember about vans is that they ONLY take cash!  They do not allow students and pensioners who have those plastic pass cards.  This can be good during the school year when the kids have mobbed the regular buses.  It is also good because most of the old people could never get on and off the van - - but I am getting ahead of myself. 

There is one more important thing to know about the van.  There is NO conductor taking money on a van like there is on a bus or tram!  That means you have to pay the driver.  It also means he has to give you change - - and then he also has to give you that little lottery–like bus ticket!  The most important part of all this is that he does all this while driving.  This is a “jump on, and jump off” process. Vans are always in a hurry! You get on, slam that big door shut (these doors do not close at the “touch of a button”), give the driver his fare, and try to get to seat before he has shifted into third gear.  Yes – these vans are manual transmission.

Now – in case you are confused about the driver activity, let me try to clarify it.  The drivers see you flagging him down.   He puts his blinker on, and pulls to the side of the one lane street.  As you slam the door shut, he is checking the traffic, and shifting into first gear.  Between shifting, he will put his hand up, and you put the money in his hand.  Most often, he has the ticket already in the same hand you are putting the money, and you grab the ticket.  He will then slam into second gear, and you generally have to grab something to keep from being thrown toward the back of the van.  I always have exact change for Vans because I am trying to avoid injury, and get to a seat.  However some folks give them a 2Lv bill, and have to wait till the next gear shift when he has a few seconds to grab change from the dash board, and give it to you.  So… he drives, shifts, steers, takes fares, and gives tickets - - all at the same time.  I really get worried when they are talking on their cell phone, and smoking while doing all those other things.  And… I have seen them doing ALL of these things at once!  

Another interesting thing about the vans are those sliding doors to get in and out of the van.  They really are an oxymoron.  They almost never slide!  It is generally easier to get in, than to get out.  You have to realize these doors are opened and closed about 40-50 times each run.  There is a real art to getting out of van.  Each door has a handle with a button on the top.  You push down on the button to release the door latch and push back.  But often the latch will stick, or the door will have been slammed shut so that it cannot be moved back.  To open the door, you have to get yourself in a slightly crouched position.  It is best to use both hands.  With one hand push down hard on the button. Then with the other hand pull back hard on the handle. And-  (this is where the real trick is) - at the same time you begin to pull back on the handle, you slam your shoulder (like you were a football lineman) into the side of the door.  This will generally push the door out slightly, and allow it to actually move backward.  And always remember that speed is important – jump on and jump off !   
She Needed Help to get out!!!
The door is where much of the drama on a van happens.  If you were living in Bulgaria you would know about the fashion-culture and way women dress.  They always wear stiletto shoes, short skirts, (or tight pants), have enormous handbags slung off their shoulder, and are often carrying another large plastic bag.  In addition to all this, they are generally small and very thin, and can sometimes be talking on their cell phones. OK – now think about the process to get the door open on a van, and try to picture how someone with two bags, stiletto shoes, and talking on a cell phone can open the door.  They CAN’T! But it is amusing to watch them try.  Eventually, someone standing near the door will move to help them, and they bounce out, and go on their merry way.    

The other thing about Vans is that they are the fastest transport vehicles in the system.  I’m convinced all of the drivers have previous experience as race car drivers some place in Europe.  Many of the seats have been pulled up from their anchor bolts because riders have grabbed a seat handle during a lurch forward, or screeching stop, and pull the seats up from the floor.  Most often there is one floor to ceiling pole near the back of the sliding door for the people standing to grab hold of.  However, I have noticed that some vans are missing this pole, and only have the post holder showing where it once was.  It is amazing to watch these vans weave in and out of the other bus and car traffic.  But if you want to get some place quickly using public transport, this is the way to go. 

So.. that is a small part of our life here in Bulgaria.  Like most other things, we really don’t think about it much.  It is just part of the daily pattern.   But the next time, you pull your car with the heated seat, out of the heated garage that is less than 50 feet from your kitchen table where you have breakfast and coffee, please remember how very lucky you are to live in America, and have what you have – even if you don’t realize it!     
Thanks for reading

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Well looks like my weekly school blog has turned into a monthly one, but here is installment two.

There has been a lot going on since returning from the holiday break. First my energy went into getting the final approval for a large project to be implemented during this last semester of school. Petya and I have been working on it since last summer, but parts of it were slow in coming together. The review committee had a number of questions and the holidays slowed us down, but we got word today it has been approved and is in Washington DC waiting funding.  We will be purchasing 13 computers, Bulgarian Educational software, a printer and retraining teachers on the use of computers with a focus on how to integrate technology into daily lessons.  We will then introduce the kids to the computers. Skills will be varied for both teachers and kids as some use home computers and others have never touched one. Right now we have a couple of old computers in the library and the kids immediately run to them and start clicking away. It will be a MAJOR challenge to teach them to use the computers appropriately and to set up systems for usage, with consequences for undirected use. Getting all the teachers on the same page will be equally difficult, but my optimism and the positive impact keep me hopeful that it can be done. EXPECTATIONS: one of my favorite words and one rarely used here is the key!

Tuesday of this week we had our second International Art Exchange Award program. Twenty two students had their art work sent first to the states and then to participating schools around the world. We will receive pictures from students’ world wide in return. Once again we invited the parents, and they were excited to see their children recognized as participants in this exchange. On display were pictures from last year’s exchange. A slide show of others and a Google Earth trip to some of these locations were all a part of the program. So much more could be done with this exchange program, but the resources are in English, making it difficult for most of our teachers to take advantage of them. Just opening the eyes of the kids to a world outside their neighborhood is rewarding.
Analiya 4th grader had two entries in the exchange.
Gulishen a 3rd grader is quiet in class but scrappy with the boys during breaks!
Kuzman a 4th grader and all around good kid.

Roberto a 4th grader, a bright kid but one who has a lot to prove and someone you are always conscious of in the classroom.

Moving on: next week I want to start a special small class for the best third and fourth grade English students. Those that love the language, are in school everyday and in general show an enthusiasm for learning. We’ll only meet once a week but I hope to build their speaking confidence, strengthen their base and introduce reading. I know this is a lot for just under 20 hours. It will be fun though working with kids excited about learning and without the discipline problems. Without any support the challenge will be communicating effectively with them, but somehow we will get it done.Here are some of the kids being invited to participate for their love of learning and who will be my joy for the next few months.

Raiyna 3rd grade. Bright, delightful young lady in every way.
                                                 Lilly 3rd grade: every class has a "junior" teacher and she is it. One of the best in English!
Boris, 3rd grade. He always has that smile and somehow is able to stay out of the fray of wrestling with the other boys.
Nacko, 4th grade. An average student, but thoughtful and a hard worker. Was very excited when asked to join the class
Kraci, 4th grade: Excels at everything he does.
Ramzie 4th grade: A quiet, caring young lady who works hard always doing her best. I like to watch her think!

Elena 4th grade: I noticed her on my very first day of school. Confident, intelligent and dynamic individual.

Head-shakers in the last few weeks. There are many. The things that angers and frustrates me more than anything else is how the education of the children is the last thing considered when making decisions. Last time I mentioned several canceled classes for inane reasons. It is a constant. Petya was instructed by the school principal to shorten one of her third grade classes. The principal’s 4th grade daughter was in school and needed help with HER English homework!!  There was another incident of a document needing to be delivered to the other building immediately, and although I did the running, the person who delivered the message told the teachers Petya had to go to the directors office… class canceled. Trying to set up desks in a way that makes teaching easier…..not allowed because it makes the cleaning ladies’ work more difficult. If we change the room arrangement (from straight rows) in any way it must be returned at the end of each class. The time taken to set up and break down out of a 40 minute session is precious.  My anti-littering competition with “cleanest rooms awards” never got off the ground. Again it was because the cleaning ladies who were an integral part of it could not be convinced that the small effort of putting a sticker on the door of the clean rooms everyday for a month would make a change. Some teachers and kids worked hard during the first few weeks cleaning their rooms ever day. When the promised awards did not come……the effort slacked. This is an example of the frustrations of limited language as I could not convey my passion and expectations clearly or easily. I could explain the how but not the why convincingly.

Tsveti, a big lady with a big heart!
Ending on the positive side, as I was talking with one of my favorite teachers yesterday, conversation turned to my departure, in part because the application for another volunteer was just submitted to Peace Corps.She is a large dynamic individual with a great sense of humor. She always has the staff laughing as she regales us with stories. Her long career has been here at Naiden Gerov working with the Roma kids. She knows how to interpret their mixed language phrases, incorporates music as a critical teaching tool and has been flexible enough to let me do whatever I want in her classroom (1st grade this year) . She "gets it" commenting after every lesson, about the interactive aspect of the lesson and how that is the way kids learn.  I let her know how much I enjoy working with her. She indicated she had not worked with the previous volunteers (youth workers here more than three years ago) and did not want to work with anyone else. She said we were connected because we teach from the heart. I was touched.  There are actually a number of teachers in my school who teach from the heart and although their ways of doing things are not what I am used to or consider “good practices”,  they need to be  recognized for what they do and why they do it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011



We just got back from Rome, and we are working on a long blog with lots of pictures.  However, there was also something we learned during this trip, which we did not expect.   Our visit to Rome gave us a little better perspective on our life here in Bulgaria. 
Lynn and I are often amazed at “fashions” in Bulgaria and some of the things being sold in the windows of the upscale stores popping up around Plovdiv.  Walking around Rome, we began to see why there are so many “imitator’s” here.   Rome was filled with small specialty stores selling very high-end “designer”  shoes, bags, clothes, etc.   We found Louis Vuittan,  Burberry, and other handbags selling for as much as 450 Euros.  (By the way 450 Euros is almost equal to our combined monthly salary here!)  Dress shirts for small boys were 75 Euros, and Lynn was sure the little boys would have the shirts “hanging over their pants” within 30 minutes of putting them on.   Shoes were prices anywhere from 200 to 500 Euros – and there were not any diamonds on them!   But in Bulgaria, we see many stores widows “hyping” Italian designs, or designer names.    We still don’t know anyone who can afford these items here in Bulgaria (at least none of the people we know can purchase them).  However, there are some folks here who seem to have the money to buy them.  We noticed that many of the Bulgarians on our plane back had shopping bags filled with expensive items (or they were already wearing them).    It almost seemed like Bulgaria is the “poor stepchild”, who is constantly striving to  try to be like their rich relatives. 
In addition to this, it was much easier to see (and experience) the real differences between Eastern and Western Europe.   Things worked in Rome!  There were signs, and it was easy to find your way around.  It was well lit, and walking was easy.  The busses and subways worked, and machines cleaned the streets daily.  In contrast, when we arrived back last Sunday night, we got onto an old “double decker” bus that did not have any working reading lights.  It also did not have very good springs, and rattled along during the 2 hour trip to Plovdiv.  The public toilets in the airport were not clean, and we had to “re-remember” to put the toilet paper in separate basket.  On the city bus home from the bus station in Plovdiv, we noticed the “call buttons”  telling the driver to stop at the next stop were NOT operational (which is normal).  And in the morning, there will be the Roma (Gypsy) street cleaners out “sprucing up” the roads with their twig and stick brooms instead of an army of mechanized street cleaners.  Finally, as we started the final 7 minute walk home from the bus stop, we were not able to walk on the sidewalks because those are for car parking.  We were walking in the back streets, and “sharing the road” with other cars. 
None of these are really big issues.  It is just the way it is.  It is not good or bad!  They are all small symbols of the differences between countries – even countries which are only a short 70 minute plane ride away - -  One hour-plus and a world apart. 
Thanks for Reading.