Sunday, May 8, 2011

Getting Closer - - To Closure

Getting Closer - - To Closure
Friday – May 6, 2011.
I’m writing this while traveling on the train going back home after being on the road for the past nine days.  I’m riding through some of the most beautiful mountain canyons and gorges in Bulgaria.  I have my ear-buds in, and my ipod is blasting.  I’m tired - - and filled with emotions.  Emotions I never planned, dreamed, or expected to have two years ago when we boarded the plane for Bulgaria. 
You see - in the middle of these nine days, Lynn and I attended our COS (Close of Service) conference.  This happens when there are approximately 90 days before you leave your host country.  (Lynn and I are extending for two more months to finish a couple of important projects – so we will not leave till September 15.)  I have worked as a trainer at the COS conference for the two previous groups (B23 & B24) prior to this.     Even though I had done this conference twice before, I knew it would be different with my own group.  I thought I was ready for it - - but, alas, I was not! 
Our group is the B25s.  This is the 25th Peace Corps Volunteer group to serve in Bulgaria. We arrived with 62, and now have 52.  The average age is - - well young (about the age of Scott and Shawn).  Lynn and I are the “senior couple”.  Our COS meeting was a typical Peace Corps conference with lots of long, sometimes boring sessions. But this conference also has some very emotional (tear-filled) meetings and goodbyes, as well some fabulously funny and happy celebrations. 
The thing I never expected, planned, or considered when we left the US is the bond we would develop with all these young people.  The B25’s are incredibly tight for such a large group.   Prior to our arrival, most training groups were 25-30 volunteers.  It can take 12-plus hours for some volunteers to get out of their mountain villages and go across Bulgaria on trains and buses.  So, it is amazing that we could develop and maintain the connections, bonds, and relationships that we have.  What is even more amazing is how much a part of the B25 volunteer group Lynn and I feel.  We have never felt outside of this group of special young people.  Yes – I know Lynn and I are open, and want to have these relationships.  But – come on – achieving this is a dream that would rarely come true.  Let’s face facts – we are 35-plus years older than most of these volunteers.   They could easily call me “Dad”!  (Thankfully, that has never happened, although sometimes I have been called “boss”.)   Lynn and I genuinely admire, respect – and yes love – this motley group of eclectic people, and we also – somehow - fit right in.  We do stay up and dance and talk with them till 1:30AM.  We were very happy at this COS conference to find out that our room would be in the center of where all the informal parties would be.  We don’t want to be far away from the “noise”. 
A few rooms had LARGE patios - perfect for parties.
We wanted to reconnect with the volunteers who have spent the night on the air mattresses on our floor.  We wanted to hear the stories about how they coped with the 20 screaming kids who were trying to jump out the classroom windows, or about the mayor who only wanted the volunteer for project writing and getting money, or how they are doing surviving in a small dying village, or how they are emotionally dealing with watching a small child slowly die at the orphanage.  We could try to explain and describe some of these situations, but unless you have lived through them, it is impossible to fully understand them.  Every volunteer’s experience is the same and uniquely different at the same time.  The fact that each volunteer has to overcome their own adversity sometimes in a physically demanding environment is the basis of this special common bond.  It is the foundation of this thing they call “the Peace Corps experience”.  
An important way to cope with all these trials is to provide support for each other, and to have “celebrations”.  It is during those long nights spent talking, or during the parties with all the laughter, dancing and –yes – drinking, that the special bonds are further strengthened.  The B25s are especially unique with our celebrations.  We don’t split up into small cliques.  We want to stay together - - and we do!
One of the talent show leaders (with brace)
It started with our first conference two months into service.  This conference was with our Bulgarian counterparts (partners).  Our language was still not good, and it would have been normal for the volunteers and counterparts to go their separate ways during the evening.  But that did not happen.  Informal counterpart and volunteer leaders worked together to find something we could all do.  They found a karaoke bar.  It may seem strange, but singing the Bulgarian national anthem followed by American patriotic songs and mixing Bulgarian with American pop songs was fun, and helped start a bond.  Three months later at the next conference (which was here in Plovdiv), I found a bowling alley, and we took it over for the evening.  Almost all the volunteers were there, and we had a great time together.  Our one year anniversary conference was a turning point.  The group wanted to stay together, and they came up with an idea for a “talent show” and dance.  I have to admit, at first, I thought this would be “hokey” at best.  What I did not realize was how talented many of us are.  The show went for about 90 minutes, and it was great.  After that we stayed together talking and dancing.   For COS, the group decided to get dressed up (as best we can here when you really don’t have any good clothes) for a second talent show, and dance.  Staff wanted to participate, and they did two numbers.  Their hip-hop song was priceless. I wondered if we could top our first talent show at COS, but we did it even better the second time.  Our understanding of Bulgarian culture, habits, and life was shown in some very funny ways, and also in some very moving ways.   It is hard to explain all this without being there, and I am probably going on way too much about it.  But it seems to be more important to me (and others) than I ever really imagined. 
Two other small things happened the day after the talent show.  For me both of them seemed like scenes out of a movie.   It was time for all of us to head off to our Bulgarian homes and finish the final 85 days of service.  The bus and train stations in this small mountain town don’t have many departure times.  So… about 20 volunteers heading south through the mountains descended on the little train station to wait for the one afternoon train.  While we were waiting one of the volunteers pulled out his guitar, and starts strumming and softly singing.  Other volunteers are milling around listening and watching.  When the “two-passenger car” train finally arrived, we took over one of the cars looking for seats in the small 8-person compartments.  We were split up, but could visit in the other compartments during the two hour ride out of the mountains.  When we reached the flatlands, we got to a rail junction.  This is really just another small station with more tracks than usual.  Most of the volunteers jump off our train and start climbing onto the train next to us.  Lynn and I with one other volunteer stay on our train.  We pull our window down and hang out of it saying goodbye.  As the other volunteers got on their train to head west, they pulled down their windows and hung out also screaming goodbye.    
(Remember these are not modern trains like in the US.  They are old, dirty red colored graffiti covered trains.  The scene I am trying to describe is more like a 1940’s movie with everyone hanging out the windows saying their goodbyes.)  Our train pulled away first, and we continued waving as long as we could still see the others.  As I sat back in my seat, I was struck by the symbolism.  The group was starting to separate.  In a relatively short time, we would all be going our separate ways – for good!  This was just the first of many goodbyes.  I hope the bonds we have developed among our fellow volunteers and Bulgarian colleagues never leave us.  I know it will be hard to make this happen.  But I believe we will all try.  In the meantime, there is one thing that I am sure of - - We are definitely getting closer - - much closer - - to closure!  

Thanks for reading