mark jackson. serving time in bulgaria. letting you know about it.
"Not all those who wander are lost." [J.R. Tolkien]

Friday, September 16, 2005


I finished my last bit of work for the Peace Corps today. With a click on a ‘send’ button I thanked the last of the extrodinarily generous people I have worked with.

And now? Good question. And now, I will take a few days to travel around Eastern Europe. Burn down the last wanderlust candle to its base – for awhile – and attempt to wrap my head around the fact that it is all over.

Once I am home, I am expecting to be surprised. Surprised at the little things that I have missed - events and material items. Surprised that the world has been carrying on business-as-usual with out me. Surprised at how quickly it will all feel normal. And most of all, surprised at just how much has happened since August 2003.

Like the end of anything, my week has been a series of ‘lasts.’
  • The last breakfast bread roll from the breakfast-bread-roll-lady.
  • The last wave good morning to my co-worker’s Dad who is always having his first coffee and a cigarette of the day when I am getting to work.
  • The last lunch at the little restaurant I have been eating at 5 days a week for my whole time here. And goodbye to the ladies who work there and give me bigger portions because I am too skinny.
  • The last bit of small talk with the happiest cleaning lady I have ever met.
  • The last everything.

    The last goodbyes.

    The past few days have been spent walking around town saying good-bye to everyone I have worked with. And every time I am shocked at just how permanent a good-bye can be. The geographical distance between America and Bulgaria seems to seep in after the last handshake. ‘Goodbye, good luck’ and a half hearted ‘we will come to Chicago to see you;’ no one will be able to afford to come to the US for a long, long time.

    Without question the orphans are the hardest. They are far too young to understand what is really going on. We just played together for a bit and when I left they were under the assumption I will drop in again any day now. ‘Ciao bratko (brother) Mark’ they said. ‘Ciao friends, Ciao’ I replied.

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  • Monday, August 29, 2005

    Hungary [Part Duex].

    We got on the bus and I knew I was in trouble; my knees were already rubbing against the seat in front of me.

    Fast-forward 26 hours.

    We arrived in a small town on Lake Balaton – the largest lake in Europe – and got settled. Our accommodations were a mix between Scout camp and a Holiday Inn provided by the Municipality of Debrecen. With hot water and a bed, I was happy as a clam.

    Our breakfasts and dinners for the 4 days at Lake Balaton were served buffet style – a Peace Corps volunteers dream. We were stuffed with Goulash, paprika chicken, dumpling-type noodles, and plenty of fruit for desert. The breakfast was the typical European breakfast, sliced meats and cheeses with strong, strong coffee. They had scrambled eggs a couple of times which was fantastic.

    The Mansion.

    Our days were left free for us to relax / explore the town. One day, we went to a former (reclaimed by the state during communism) aristocratic Austro-Hungarian mansion. Its grandeur really spoke of the wealth these families wielded. Its library was astounding – complete with a secret door, opened by pulling a fake book.

    The café's view.
    After a few days of doing nothing in particular, we headed to Budapest. We only had three hours in town and most of it was spent touring around the city in the bus. Luckily, we had a hour to wander on the Buda (hilly) side. I found a great café with an amazing view of the Parliament building. Since I had been in Budapest just a few months ago, I just got some coffee and cake and enjoyed the view.

    The reason for our trip was Debrecen’s - our ‘sister’ city - Flower Festival. It was a three day affair and culminated in a parade of performers and floats covered in fresh flowers.

    Painstaking Detail.

    And as quickly as it had begun (after the 24 hour bus ride home), it was over.

    As if 50 hours of travel in a week and a half wasn’t enough, we got in to Shoumen at 6 am and I had to take a 6 hour train ride to Sofia at 9 am. Ouch.

    Oh well, I am alive and better for it. Hope all is well,

    Fireworks on the last night.

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    Wednesday, August 10, 2005


    Things have changed.
    Through the miracle of high speed internet – and no small aid from my brother – when you call a certain number with a ‘312’ area code (ie Chicago), you will make the phone sitting on my desk 8 times zones away ring. Strange, strange world. [Email me for the number – I am not going to post it on the website.]

    On a completely unrelated point, I am leaving for Hungary this Sunday. 10 days spent mostly in small towns with 40 Bulgarian colleagues - 48+ hours of it on a bus. I was instructed to be sure to bring my bathing suit, food for the bus, and under no circumstances to bring 'dressy' clothes. I really don't have any idea what to expect out of the whole thing but, at worst it should be worth a couple pictures and a tale or two.

    Hope all is well,
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    Wednesday, August 03, 2005

    A Field Trip, Three Random Acts of Kindness and the Chili that wouldn’t end…

    Yesterday (Tuesday) was my 2nd annual field trip with the local orphanage. We took 10 kids (and will be taking another 10 next week) to a larger, nearby city to see the local zoo and Dolphin Show. It was good fun.

    We started the day with a minivan ride to the Zoo. Unfortunately it was a hot morning and one of the little guys spent most of the 45 minutes throwing up on a nurse. Aside from that, the kids were angels – they always are shockingly well behaved for a pack of 3-4 year olds.

    We got to the zoo and it was fun to watch the kids run up to an exhibit (aka chain link fence ‘habitat’) and launch into questions.
    Them: ‘What is that?’
    Me: ‘A camel.’
    Them: ‘Is it a horse?’
    Me: ‘No, it is a camel.’
    Them: ‘What is wrong with that horse’s back?’
    Me: ‘It is a camel that’s how camels are.’
    Them: ‘Hey, what’s that? [pointing to a peacock and running off].’

    So, I am not sure how much education they got out of the whole deal, but at least they saw something new and were asking questions. I was able to deem the Zoo trip a success when we had covered the required zoo checklist (you know - lions, tiger, and bears).

    On our way out, one of the trinket venders stopped us and asked if the children were from a home; we said yes and he gave each of them a small blowup beach ball. As we walked out of the park, he started singing a famous children’s song and like out of a movie, the kids took the queue. We sang our way to lunch, which was a hunk of cheese, two slices of bread, and a cucumber. They seemed to like it and we were all happy to get in some shade and get some water.

    Lunch time gave way to the Dolphin show. The kids seemed sufficiently dazzled and clapped like mad when the dolphins made the hoop jumps. I don’t know if they will remember it, but it was fun to see them so excited.

    Outside the show, a family of German tourists came over to the kids and started giving them little bits of candy. The mother had that look of ‘I wish I could do more’ on her face and we chatted about the home and what kind of work we have been doing for the children. I recognized her reaction from my first experience with the kids – pity, anger, etc… A reaction you have to get over if you really want to do any good at all.

    The last bit of kindness was the most interesting. Our walk back to the car took us past a row of junk venders. And our time was mostly spent keeping the kids from grabbing the key chains, refrigerator magnets and cheap stuffed animals off the tables. Just as we got past it all, a baba (grandmother type figure) came and told us that she was an orphan too. She made sure each of the kids got a souvenir and sent us on our way.

    All in all, a very good day.

    The never ending Chili…

    I made a giant batch of chili on Sunday. I guess an attempt at some ‘comfort’ food for the week – strange since I never liked chili until I got here.

    I have now eaten chili four times in the last three days. Believe me, this is too much chili. I predict the batch to be finished by Friday and that I will never cook that much of anything again.

    Hope all is well, full of kindness from strangers, and chili free,


    PS: Looks like I have a place to live in Chicago – a big hurdle down and one step closer to the land of the free.

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    Friday, July 22, 2005

    4th of July. Birthday. Graduation.

    The Beach

    I again find myself scrambling to keep these entries up-to-date. A lose-lose situation since I now realize that this journal will probably the best souvenir I will have of my two years of growing up in Bulgaria. But, I digress…

    4th of July.

    Our group, the same people that I said would be my ‘family’ almost two years ago, met up in a small beach town near the Turkish border.

    It should be mentioned that this is a pretty amazing feat since this was entirely voluntary and the only motivation for anyone to travel that far (over 6 hours for me and the longest trip was 16 – yikes!) was to hangout. We had everyone but 4 people show up and just relaxed on the beach and ate. It was a chance to talk to the folks you only see at mandatory meetings and get a feel for what people will be doing afterwards.

    It was also an excuse for me to use my whiffleball set. We played 3 on 3 tackle whiffleball – much to the confusion of the other beach-goers. There is nothing like blind siding a base runner in the sand to keep the ghost-runner from snagging an extra base.

    The last night we had a dinner for the entire group and ended the evening at a tiny bar that sat on a cliff. It was all blues and jazz all night. Very, very cool.

    My Solo. (Yes, that is a pink shirt.)

    Packed. A Birds eye view.

    The band.


    Per tradition, my birthday seemed to drag out for days. The first party was mostly a 4th of July thing – but, I have always been half way convinced that the 4th is just millions of people getting ready for the real deal on the 5th. A good buddy of mine and I rented out a place and hired a band for us and 70 of our closest friends. The band absolutely tore down the house and the party went well past 5ish.

    On the actual 5th, I was drained and just met with some volunteers for a couple hours at one of our local Shoumen haunts. Aside from that (and the phone calls / emails), the day was just like any other. I was at work from 8.30 – 5.00 – having to work on your birthday is defiantly a sign you are not a kid anymore. After work, I made myself a tuna sandwich and tried to cool off. The surrounding events were cool, but the day of was pretty boring. Anyways…

    That Thursday we had a giant 15 person Mexican fiesta for the Volunteers in my town and my colleagues. I spent the night before making an insane amount of salsa and the day of rolling and cooking 40+ tortillas. I think they really liked it, and in the end, it was well worth the effort.


    Just this past week was our ‘graduation’ (a.k.a. COS conference) – the last conference of the Volunteers. It was four days of form-filling and chit-chatting. And was capped off with a formal(ish) dinner – how dressed up do you really think a bunch of Peace Corps folks would get?

    I guess the biggest purpose the conference served – aside from tons of administrative tasks – was to cement the idea that this is all going to end soon in our minds. Very soon. There were far less tears than I expected, but I think that is due to the fact that we are still a couple months away from leaving and we all entertained the illusion that we would see these people again. Lots of ‘I will come visit your town, for sure, man.’ Oh well, no matter how improbable, if it kept the soppy goodbyes at bay, I am all for it.

    And, that leaves us with the last week in July.
    Which – as far as I can tell – will be fairly chill. No major plans and since I have been train-setting for almost a month straight, I have no inclination to make any.
    There just isn’t that much time left to enjoy Shouman.

    So, with a strange mix of excitement (for coming home), anxiousness (for starting something new all over again), and sadness (for preparing to leave a place that has been good to me) I am determined to get as much as I can out of the next 8 weeks.

    Hope all is well, best,

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