From Peace Corps Wiki
For the official Welcome Book for Bulgaria see here
PEACE CORPS / BULGARIA HISTORY AND PROGRAMS
History of the Peace Corps in Bulgaria
In 1991, a year after peaceful public protest led to changes in Bulgaria’s political structure and direction, the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in Bulgaria to teach English at secondary schools and universities. The first group of economic development Volunteers arrived the following year. Environmental Volunteers started assignments throughout the country in September 1995, and in 2003, the youth development program (YD) was initiated. In 2004, the community and economic development (CED) and environmental programs were merged to create a community and organizational development program (COD), with the goal of providing a comprehensive approach to assisting with community development at the local level.
As of November 2006, almost 800 Volunteers have served in Bulgaria. Currently, 165 Volunteers are in-country; approximately half of them teach English as a foreign language (TEFL) in primary and secondary schools, the other half are in the COD and YD programs.
History and Future of Peace Corps Programming in Bulgaria
Since the late 1990s, Bulgaria has made exceptional progress in its transition to a decentralized, market-oriented economic system. Peace Corps has continually adapted and modified its programs to best serve the rapidly evolving needs of the people of Bulgaria and the communities it serves. As Bulgaria joins the EU, Peace Corps/Bulgaria is proud to be one of the first two Peace Corps programs to operate in an EU country. Bulgaria’s rapid development has exacerbated a host of socioeconomic problems, including a quickly growing development gap between cities and rural areas, high unemployment and poverty (particularly in more remote areas and among the elderly), youth disenfranchisement, degradation of educational institutions that have not adapted to the changing realities, separation of minority groups from mainstream society, and a limited understanding of a market economy and entrepreneurial skills. There is considerable opportunity for ongoing development work in Bulgaria, and Peace Corps/Bulgaria remains dedicated to best serving the needs of Bulgaria as an EU country.
TEFL Volunteers currently teach approximately 6,000 students. The need and desire for English language fluency has increased significantly, as Bulgaria joins the global community. English fluency can open a host of opportunities for Bulgarian youth. Volunteers also conduct extracurricular conversation courses and organize English language clubs. Bulgarian educators have reported extensive improvements in the English language fluency of students and a significant enhancement of Bulgarian English language teachers’ capabilities and teaching techniques as a result of their partnerships with TEFL Volunteers. Volunteers have taught computer literacy and Internet use to secondary school students, helped their schools obtain computers, and trained staff how to use them most effectively. Outreach projects help provide children from minority groups with an alternative atmosphere for learning and social development, and help raise these children’s confidence and self-esteem.
COD Volunteers assist in strengthening the organizational capacity of partner organizations at the local level. These Volunteers work with local and regional governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), economic development organizations, museums, and schools. They may help their organizations develop skills in community needs assessment and response, project initiation and implementation, grant writing, business administration and management, fundraising, environmental education and protection, and information and communication technology (ICT). COD Volunteers help regional and local governments foster transparency and public involvement in municipal affairs, address minority and NGO-sector issues, and promote community partnerships. Volunteers also work with local communities to enhance public knowledge of the environment and related issues, and to strengthen the public role in local decision-making. Volunteers may conduct environmental education courses and organize outdoor activities and field trips for students. Volunteers also help teach Junior Achievement, applied economics and business English courses, and organize business and community development training events.
Youth development Volunteers are assigned to youth NGOs, municipal children’s centers, youth clubs, schools, and orphanages/institutions for children who are homeless, at-risk, or have special needs. While Bulgarian youth are bright and curious about the rest of the world, many youth, particularly those in underserved and minority communities and institutions, lack the guidance and support to help them become contributing, responsible community members. Gangs of youth and use of illegal drugs are becoming more common, and HIV/AIDS is a growing problem. Volunteers work with their local partners and communities to help develop program and community support networks to support these youth, help them learn life-skills, and help them achieve their potential. Many YD Volunteers are particularly involved in summer camps that focus on leadership skills and appreciation for diversity.
All Peace Corps Volunteers in all programs in Bulgaria serve as community development workers, and get involved in a multitude of projects in their communities. Many Volunteers in all programs are involved with youth and with local sports. Most Volunteers not focused on English language education still take a very active role in helping community members improve their English language skills.
Almost all Bulgaria Peace Corps Volunteers are involved in helping youth learn decision-making skills and educating them about the risks of human trafficking. Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, robbing people all over the globe of their right to self-determination and legitimate work, as traffickers manipulate the innate desire for a better life into personal gain by luring people with limited opportunities into the sex trade and forced labor. Human trafficking is a growing problem in Bulgaria and in the region, and helping prevent it is a priority of the Bulgarian government. Peace Corps Volunteers are in a unique position to partner with and help strengthen local anti-trafficking organizations and to reach some of Bulgaria's most vulnerable citizens in their communities to help them understand that the right to choose their our own future is entirely within their grasp.
Many Volunteers in all programs are also involved in minority community development and tolerance-building activities, particularly with youth. There are significant Roma (gypsy), Turkish, and Bulgarian Muslim minorities in Bulgaria, and efforts towards integrating minorities into mainstream Bulgarian society are particularly important to Bulgaria’s agenda as she joins the EU. Many Volunteers work with Roma organizations and help them through activities such as summer camps, life-skills sessions, leadership classes, and the creation of integrated community centers.
Bulgaria is at a stage in her rapid development where Peace Corps Volunteers can have significant and rewarding impact, as many local organizations and youth are eager for new ideas and Peace Corps Volunteers can be excellent role models for Bulgarian youth and catalysts for change. Peace Corps Volunteers become members of the communities in which they live. Volunteers have an opportunity to touch the lives of those around them and to contribute to their community’s development, often in ways that may initially seem small, but have the potential to positively impact the direction of someone’s life. With Bulgaria's accession to the EU, Peace Corps/Bulgaria breaks new ground and continues to evolve and respond to Bulgaria’s rapid social and economic change.
COUNTRY OVERVIEW: BULGARIA AT A GLANCE
Bulgaria has a long and fascinating history that reaches back into antiquity. Slavic tribes settled in the Balkan Peninsula in the 6th and 7th centuries, followed a century later by the Proto-Bulgars, who conquered the Slavic tribes and founded the first Bulgarian kingdom in 681. The kingdom reached the height of its power in the 9th century and included most of the Balkan Peninsula. The royal capital at Turnovo was seized by the Turks in 1393, beginning nearly 500 years of Ottoman domination. During this period, Bulgaria’s indigenous customs and values were preserved in monasteries and isolated mountain villages. In the 19th century, a strong national revival occurred, and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 resulted in the restoration of self-government to Bulgaria.
Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha became Bulgaria’s first monarch in 1887. He was forced to abdicate after World War I, and the throne passed to his son, Boris III. With the support of the army, Boris III imposed a dictatorship on the country in 1934. His death in 1943 left the country without a strong leader. In September 1944, the Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria and quickly occupied its territory. In the aftermath of that war, Bulgarian communists seized power and abolished the monarchy, establishing the People’s Republic of Bulgaria in 1946.
The communists initiated a planned economy based on the Soviet model, which collectivized agriculture and permitted rapid industrialization. Popular unrest and political turmoil culminated in the collapse of communism in 1990. Since then, Bulgaria’s transition to a democratic government and market economy has not been without difficulties. Following weeks of popular protest and strikes after hyperinflation and the collapse of the banking system in 1996 and 1997, the ruling Socialist Party stepped down, and unprecedented general elections were held. A new, progressive government formed that initiated difficult but necessary reforms to achieve economic and political stability.
In 2004, Bulgaria became a member state of the NATO alliance. From 2001 until 2005, the Simeon II National Movement was the leading political party. It was led by the son of King Boris III, who grew up in Spain and was a successful businessman. The movement formed a government that continued the commitment to political and economic integration with the European Union, but was not able to deliver on all of the promises it made. The subsequent elections on June 25, 2005, sent seven different parties to Parliament, none winning enough majority seats to form a government. During the past several years, there has been a rising right-wing nationalist anti-minority movement in Bulgaria, with a small, but vocal and growing support base. In October 2006, Georgi Parvanov of the relatively moderate Socialist Party was reelected as president for a second term. This broad coalition government continued to support accession to the EU in January 2007. The government has committed to continuing to work toward advancing on the “development roadmap” on which the EU and Bulgaria have agreed.
The Constitution of Bulgaria, adopted on July 12, 1991, established the Republic of Bulgaria as a parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage at 18 years of age. The executive branch is composed primarily of the president, vice president, prime minister, and Council of Ministers. The president and vice president are elected by popular vote for five-year terms.
The prime minister chairs the Council of Ministers and is nominated by the president for confirmation by the National Assembly. The prime minister is normally proposed by the majority party or coalition in the National Assembly. Deputy prime ministers are nominated by the prime minister. The legislative branch is composed of a unicameral National Assembly, or Narodno Sobranie, of 240 seats. Members are elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms. The judicial branch is composed of the Supreme Administrative Court and the Supreme Court of Cassation, whose chairmen are appointed for seven-year terms by the president; and a constitutional court made up of 12 justices appointed or elected for nine-year terms. The legal system of civil and criminal law is based on Roman law.
Under the communist system, Bulgaria had a centrally planned economy in which the government set economic goals and directed production. Although this system worked effectively during the early stages of industrialization, it was inadequate for a more complex economy. With the fall of communism in 1990, Bulgaria began moving toward a free-market economic system.
The post-communist Bulgarian economy has encountered significant challenges. Former Soviet and Warsaw Pact markets, important for both imports and exports, disappeared.
Embargoes on Iraq and Yugoslavia further reduced sources of fuel and foreign currency. Inflation and unemployment rose sharply, and food and fuel shortages became widespread. In an effort at revitalization, the government declared its support for a transition to a market-oriented system and began a far-reaching program of denationalization and privatization. Until recently, complex internal politics delayed privatization and structural reform.
The reform agenda was similar to that of other EU nations, but successive Bulgarian governments were not able to implement it. Between 1993 and 1996, privatization virtually stopped and elements of central planning (i.e., price controls, transfer of enterprises to state control, and political control over the central bank’s policies) were restored. By late 1996, Bulgaria entered a period of catastrophic currency depreciation, runaway inflation, and economic collapse. In 1996, the Bulgarian economy endured its severest crisis since 1990: GDP declined by 10 percent, followed by a further 9.8 percent drop in the first half of 1997.
The year 1997 was one of profound economic and political changes. The establishment of the new democratic government in February brought stability and confidence to the country. Positive economic developments, such as growth in economic activities, increased foreign investment, stabilization of the financial sector, and strengthened inflation control, were reinforced with the introduction of the Currency Board in July 1997. By September, inflation was 3.6 percent, compared with 561.8 percent during the first three quarters of the year. Foreign reserves also grew substantially. The government adopted a long-term economic development program to achieve sustainable private sector and competition-led growth.
Hopes for continued economic progress, however, were derailed by events in Kosovo in 1998. Real GDP growth dropped to 0.5 percent in 1999. While exports were seriously curtailed, foreign direct investment managed to hold level with the amount of the previous year. In July 1999, the lev was revalued at 1:1 with the German mark. President Clinton’s November 1999 visit reinforced investor confidence, and in December 1999, Bulgaria was invited to participate in EU accession talks. The country began chapter negotiations in January 2000. These negotiations on the 31 chapters were closed on June 15, 2004, and Bulgaria signed the Accession Treaty on April 25, 2005. Bulgaria joined the EU on January 2, 2007, and will continue to work to master the radical reforms required to eliminate corruption, reduce crime, tighten border control, improve government administration, strengthen the rule of law, and increase the efficiency of their judicial systems. Even with EU accession, many Bulgarians still struggle to make ends meet as they cope with the impact of economic reform. While most Bulgarians are proud that they have become EU members, many are apprehensive about the possibility of inflation and increased regulation.
People and Culture
Ethnic Bulgarians are descendants of the Slavs who settled in the region in the 6th century. The country’s name comes from the Bulgars, a nomadic people from Central Asia who arrived a century later. Although they conquered the Slavs and created the first Bulgarian kingdom, they were gradually absorbed by the larger Slavic population. The largest minority today is the ethnic Turks (approximately 9 percent of the population), descendants of Turks who settled in Bulgaria during the 500 years of Ottoman rule. Other minorities include Romany, Armenians, Greeks, Russians, and Jews. Ethnic Bulgarians who have converted to Islam are recognized as a separate group. The government’s efforts to forcibly assimilate ethnic Turks in the late 1980s caused many to flee the country.
Bulgaria’s cultural life was rich during the Middle Ages. The Orthodox Church struggled to keep Bulgarian culture and tradition alive during the years of Ottoman rule. In the 19th century, Bulgaria’s cultural life was influenced by both foreign models and native traditions. Bulgaria has developed particularly strong traditions in literature, music, and the arts, and has produced some world-famous opera singers.
The Danube River plateau produces wheat, corn, sugar beets, and sunflowers; while the Maritsa Valley produces tobacco and attar of roses, a key ingredient in perfume. Bulgaria’s mountainous areas contain valuable forests, about three-quarters of which are broadleaf and the rest coniferous. Bears, wolves, foxes, squirrels, elk, and wildcats still exist in these forests. In addition, several rare and endangered species of birds can be found in Bulgaria, particularly during the fall migrations.
Like much of Eastern Europe, Bulgaria has suffered for many years from heavy industrialization and poor pollution controls. There have been some positive changes since the transition to a democratic government and market economy, though much of the reduction in pollution is due to the shutdown of factories. The poor condition of many cars, the lack of emission controls, and the use of soft coal for heating contribute to the current level of air pollution.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Following is a list of websites for additional information about the Peace Corps and Bulgaria and to connect you to returned Volunteers and other invitees. Please keep in mind that although we try to make sure all these links are active and current, we cannot guarantee it.
A note of caution: As you surf the Internet, be aware that you may find personal websites, blogs, bulletin boards, and chat rooms in which people are free to express opinions about the Peace Corps based on their own experiences. You will find statements by Volunteers and former Volunteers who write glowingly of their Peace Corps experience and comments by those who were unhappy with their choice to serve in the Peace Corps. These opinions are not those of the Peace Corps or the U.S. government. No two people experience their service in the same way.
General Information About Bulgaria
Wikipedia’s entry on Bulgaria covers its history, culture, politics, and much more. It also serves as a starting point to browse through much more information on more specific Bulgarian topics.
This online world atlas includes maps and geographical information, and each country page contains links to other sites, such as the Library of Congress, that contain comprehensive historical, social, and political background.
A thorough reader’s guide to Bulgaria, though over a decade old.
Visit this site for general travel advice about almost any country in the world.
Provides cultural highlights; restaurant, club, and bar guides; movie, concert, and theatre listings; and more for Bulgaria’s major cities.
The U.S. State Department’s website issues background notes periodically about countries around the world. Find Bulgaria and learn more about its social and political history.
Provides lots of statistical information on the countries of the world.
This United Nations site allows you to search for statistical information for member states of the U.N.
This site provides an additional source of current and historical information about countries around the world.
On this site, you can learn anything from what time it is in Sofia to how to convert from the dollar to the lev. Though you can access general information about Bulgaria, you must pay a fee and log on to access regular country updates.
This site includes links to all the official sites for governments worldwide, although not all the information is in English.
Connect With Returned Volunteers and Other Invitees
A bulletin board for Volunteers, invitees, RPCVs, and staff from Peace Corps/Bulgaria. Here you can ask any questions you have for other members of the Peace Corps/Bulgaria community.
A news forum serving returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
This is the site of the National Peace Corps Association, composed of returned Volunteers. On this site you can find links to all the Web pages of the “friends of” groups for most countries of service, made up of former Volunteers who served in those countries. There are also regional groups who frequently get together for social events and local volunteer activities.
This site is known as the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Web Ring. Browse the Web ring and see what former Volunteers are saying about their service.
This site is hosted by a group of returned Volunteer writers. It is an online publication of essays and Volunteer accounts from countries around the world.
Online Articles/Current News Sites About Bulgaria
The site of the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington, DC.
A travel site with information on Bulgarian history and culture.
The online version of Bulgaria’s English language newspaper.
Sofia News Agency site with news in English.
International Development Sites About Bulgaria
The United Nations Development Programme in Bulgaria.
Information about the U.S. Agency for International Development’s work in Bulgaria.
Human Rights Watch report on Bulgaria.
- Crampton, R.J. A Short History of Modern Bulgaria. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
- Fonseca, Isabel. Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey. New York: Knopf, 1995.
- Kaplan, Robert D. Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
- Karklins, Rasma. The System Made Me Do It: Corruption in Post-Communist Societies, Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2005.
- Kostich, Dragos D. The Land and People of the Balkans: Albania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1962, 1973.
- MacDermott, Mercia. The Apostle of Freedom: A Portrait of Vasil Levsky. London: Allen & Unwin, 1967.
- Sanders, Irwin T. Balkan Village. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1949.
- Townson, Annabelle. We Wait for You: Unheard Voices from Post-Communist Romania. Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Books, 2005 (paperback).
Books About the History of the Peace Corps
- Hoffman, Elizabeth Cobbs. All You Need is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960’s. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.
- Rice, Gerald T. The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corps. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.
- Stossel, Scott. Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2004.
Books on the Volunteer Experience
- Dirlam, Sharon. Beyond Siberia: Two Years in a Forgotten Place. Santa Barbara, Calif.: McSeas Books, 2004.
- Erdman, Sarah. Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village. New York, N.Y.: Picador, 2003.
- Hessler, Peter. River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. New York, N.Y.: Perennial, 2001.
- Kennedy, Geraldine ed. From the Center of the Earth: Stories out of the Peace Corps. Clover Park Press, 1991. 5. Thompsen, Moritz. Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1997 (reprint).
LIVING CONDITIONS AND VOLUNTEER LIFESTYLE
Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service considered normal in the United States. If you expect U.S. standards for mail service, you will be in for some frustration. Mail sent via airmail takes three to four weeks, and packages sent by surface mail take from two to six months. Some mail may simply not arrive (fortunately, this is not a frequent occurrence, but it does happen). Packages and letters arriving in Bulgaria are often checked by officials for dangerous items and sometimes for money or expensive items as well. The inspectors usually reseal the packages and letters and send them on, but some may never arrive at their destination. Advise your family and friends to number their letters and include “Airmail” on their envelopes. (For letters, we recommend global airmail, available at U.S. post offices.)
It is also advisable to have your mail addressed to you in both Cyrillic and Latin script. While this is not necessary, it does make Bulgarian postal handlers less suspicious of incoming mail. We don’t recommend that your friends and family declare large values for packages sent or insure them, as you may need to pay a tax to release packages of considerable value from customs.
Despite these challenges, we encourage you to write to your family regularly (snail mail or email) and to number your own written letters. It is a good idea to advise family members that mail is sporadic and that they should not worry if they do not receive your letters regularly. Also advise them that in the case of a family emergency, they should contact the Peace Corps’ Office of Special Services in Washington, D.C.
After pre-service training, you will become a Volunteer and move to your site. Mail should then be addressed directly to you at your new residence. You can provide this information to family and friends toward the end of training prior to moving to your site. If your residence does not provide for a secure or private mailbox, it may be better to have your personal mail sent to you at your work address.
Bulgarian postal and customs regulations for packages make it very impractical and expensive to receive anything except letter mail during training. Tell family and friends that they should NOT send packages until after you have completed training and are at your assigned site. At that time, you will be better able to assess what things from home you really need and how best to have them sent.
Your apartment may or may not have a landline telephone— many don’t. For in-country calling, most Volunteers use mobile phones, which they purchase themselves. However, fees associated with mobile phones are high and most Volunteers find that talking for long periods of time on the phone is out of their budget. Instead, Volunteers (and most Bulgarians) generally rely heavily on text messaging from cellphones for a small fee. All of the major Bulgarian cellular service providers also offer free text messaging from the Internet, allowing Volunteers to send quick messages free of charge.
Standard long-distance telephone service is available but expensive. If you are calling on a landline from outside the capital, it may take longer to get a connection. Some calling cards from the United States (e.g., those issued by AT&T, MCI, and Sprint) can be used to call the United States. However, these cards will not give you access to other countries because of a phone block in Bulgaria.
Many Volunteers feel that the best method of calling the
U.S. is to do so at an Internet club. Internet clubs often have phone booths where you can call internationally for mere cents per minute. Another cheap option is to use voice-over Internet protocol programs such as Skype or VOIPStunt from a computer. Even if you do not have a computer or a home Internet connection, most towns have Internet clubs where you can use these programs.
If these options are not available in your town, you can make international calls from a local public telephone or post office. The country code for Bulgaria is 359 for family and friends calling from the U.S.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Some, but not all, Volunteers have access to computers at their work sites, which may or may not have Internet and e-mail capabilities. Work site equipment is intended to be used primarily for work-related activities, and you should not assume that it can be used for personal purposes. Internet and e-mail access is becoming more widely available throughout Bulgaria, and Internet cafes can be found in most towns, although they are generally not found in the rural villages. While it is likely you will have Internet access not far from your site, you should not assume that you will have constant email access.
If you bring a laptop computer, the Peace Corps does not provide e-mail accounts or technical and repair support. While many Volunteers find computers extremely useful, the Peace Corps does not consider them to be essential and cannot replace them in the case of loss or theft. If you do bring computer equipment, insurance is highly recommended.
Housing and Site Location
Housing is generally provided by a Volunteer’s sponsoring organization. Most Volunteers live in a modest studio or one-bedroom apartment with plumbing, heating, and electricity. The range of available housing may vary greatly between Volunteers and sites. If you live in a town or city, you will likely live in an apartment in a communist-style housing “block,” that, from the exterior, resembles the high-rises in public housing projects in U.S. cities.
Volunteers assigned to smaller communities should be prepared for the possibility that they may live in a private room in the home of a Bulgarian family. This can offer huge advantages in terms of being accepted into a local family and being “taken care of.” Note that Bulgarian standards of privacy differ from those in the U.S. It is also common that landlords may leave some of their personal items in an apartment that they are renting out.
Your heat source could be either one or more portable heaters, central heat, or wood-burning stoves in some rural areas. Heat and electricity are very expensive, and Bulgarians usually only heat the room they are currently in. They usually only turn on their hot water boiler when they are planning to take a shower. Expect for it to be cold inside during the winter, and for it to be very hot during the summer. Indoor climate control concepts differ from what you are likely used to in the U.S.
The Peace Corps staff uses an involved and thorough process to identify Volunteers’ host organizations and towns. Potential host organizations fill out an in-depth application in which they state their reasons for wanting to work with a Volunteer, their organizational goals, how they see a Volunteer fitting into their organization, what specific work the Volunteer will assist with, desired skills, and available resources. Staff visits each site and discusses these items with the potential hosts, and ultimately uses a methodical system of evaluating potential sites based on their strengths and the potential for a Volunteer to be successful at those sites.
Toward the middle of your 11-week pre-service training (PST), the Peace Corps office and training staff match trainees and sites, and trainees learn where they will live and work for the next two years. Education, professional experience, and level of Bulgarian language ability are considered in matching individual Volunteers’ skills with the needs of each site. Volunteers should be prepared to serve in any region of Bulgaria.
Living Allowance and Money Management
You will receive a monthly living allowance that will enable you to maintain a modest lifestyle similar to that of your host community counterpart. This allowance will be deposited in your bank account every month by Peace Corps/Bulgaria. It is intended to cover food, household supplies, local transportation, recreation, entertainment, and incidental expenses such as postage, film, reading material, stationery, and toiletries. In most cases, rent and utilities are paid by the sponsoring organization, but the Peace Corps assists with these expenses in some circumstances.
Most Volunteers in Bulgaria find their living allowance to be sufficient for their needs, as long as they live a frugal lifestyle. The lifestyle you adopt while serving in Bulgaria will determine how far your living allowance goes. These days in Bulgaria, there are many things to spend money on, and if you choose to eat daily in restaurants, travel a significant portion of your weekends, and buy imported food and toiletries, your living allowance likely will not last through each month. You may also have a harder time becoming a part of your community if you live at a higher level than the average Bulgarian. If you adopt a more typical Bulgarian lifestyle, cook frequently, and choose primarily from the ample selections of local goods, your living allowance should be more than adequate. It is important to live at the same economic level as your Bulgarian counterparts.
Food and Diet
It is possible to eat a very healthy and natural diet in Bulgaria, if you prepare many of your own meals and use local foods. Larger towns and cities offer many of the same basic staples that you can find in the United States, with the exception of pre-prepared and instant foods. Volunteers in smaller towns sometimes experience shortages of certain items, especially in the winter, but there is typically an ample food supply if you are flexible about cooking with what is currently available. If you live in a small village, you may choose to occasionally shop in larger towns in your region, to fill in your food supplies and get items unavailable at your site.
Grilled meat and potatoes or salads best capture the essence of Bulgarian cuisine. Meals served in a family setting are heavy, oily, filling, and take hours to finish (after a big Bulgarian meal, you may have to lie down and rest a while!). Many dishes are overly salty by American standards and Bulgarians cook with lots of sunflower oil. Pork and chicken are the most popular meats—served roasted, breaded and fried, or grilled. The selection of seafood is limited, and it is advisable to refrain from eating it unless you know its origin. Seafood from the Danube or the Black Sea should generally not be eaten, while trout from mountain streams and fish raised on farms is generally safe to eat.
Vegetarians may get weary of eating breaded cheese, fried potatoes, or salad every time they go out for a meal or visit Bulgarian friends, but the abundance and low prices of wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables in season make it possible to prepare delicious meals at home. Prices of produce fluctuate greatly according to the season. Peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, cabbages, eggplants, zucchinis, and carrots are almost always available. However, in the winter, depending on your community, you may have to rely mostly on potatoes, cabbages, carrots, dried beans, and canned items. Locally-grown fruits are available from late spring to late fall. During the winter, you may have to make do with canned fruits and fruit juice and imported fruits such as bananas, apples, and oranges.
Cereal and grains are available, although breakfast cereals can be expensive, as Bulgarians typically do not eat cereal for breakfast. The typical Bulgarian breakfast is “banitza” a delicious pastry made from filo dough and cheese—which is made fresh daily in most towns and villages and costs around 35 cents. Bulgarians eat bread with every meal, and even the smallest town has a place where you can buy freshly-baked bread on a daily basis. Rice, pasta, and all-purpose white flour can also be purchased easily, but you will have to search extensively for whole-wheat flour. Various types of beans are widely available, and lentils are widely used. Dried soybean product was used in the past as a cheaper substitute for meat, and is available in specialty stores in the larger towns and cities. Boxed, long-life pasteurized milk is readily available. Milk packaged in plastic bags is not pasteurized and should be boiled before drinking. The two types of local cheese are delicious and always available. Imported cheese is also available but expensive. Bulgarian yogurt, made primarily from cow and sheep milk, is a staple of the Bulgarian, and is well-known world wide.
A cookbook of recipes to help you make the most of products available in Bulgaria will be given to you during training. You will be making a lot of things from scratch here, and if you do not already know how to cook, you will learn. Don’t worry, before long you will be sharing your favorite recipes with other Volunteers.
Bulgaria has a large network of bus and train routes, which makes it possible to travel to practically all destinations by public transportation. Many Volunteers have experienced thefts while traveling, however, so you must be vigilant in protecting your valuables while using public transportation. Traveling on trams in Sofia requires extra vigilance.
When traveling on trains, it is best to travel in a compartment with a baba (grandmother) as a protection against crime. If possible, put your heavier baggage on the shelf above your head (not above someone else’s) so that you will notice if someone tries to take it down. Put smaller luggage underneath your feet. Although people may warn you against this (a Bulgarian superstition says you will lose money), it is a relatively safe option.
Geography and Climate
Bulgaria is located in the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe. The country is bordered by the Black Sea in the east, Turkey and Greece in the south, Macedonia and Serbia in the west, and Romania in the north. Although slightly larger than Tennessee, Bulgaria stands out as a land of great geographic and environmental diversity. The average elevation is 480 meters (1,584 feet) above sea level.
The country has four major geographic regions. The most northerly is the Danube plateau, which rises from the shores of the Danube River to the foothills in the east. Its climate is continental, with hot summers and cold winters. The second region is the Balkan Mountains (or “Old Mountains” to the Bulgarians), which extends across the center of the country and blocks cold winds from the plains of Russia. The third region, the valley drained by the Maritsa River in the south, has a Mediterranean climate with mild, rainy winters and warm, dry summers. South of the Maritsa Valley is the fourth region, the Rhodope Mountains, which forms the border between Bulgaria and Greece.
Bulgaria has a Mediterranean climate with four distinct seasons. As in the United States, weather patterns have been changing in recent years, so it is difficult to describe a “typical” year. Spring generally brings frequent rain. Spring and fall are temperate and feature beautiful flora. Summer temperatures average about 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius); but in July and August, they can reach the 90- to 100-degree Fahrenheit range for a two-week period or longer. The highlands in the northeast are cooler than the more Mediterranean climate of the southwest. Bulgaria can get cold and gray in the winter, with temperatures averaging around 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius).
There will be times when you get bored and lonely. Available activities sometimes will seem uninteresting or “cheesy.”
There are a multitude of activities you can explore, however, if you are open to trying new activities that you may have not previously thought of as social/recreational activities. You may find out that you enjoy hanging out with the local babas (grandmothers) and learning to can food, that you get used to spending hours on end at a local coffee shop (this is likely to be the most popular social activity in your town!), and that you are not comfortable spending much time at the local disco, as it may be full of your high school students. The trick is to find things that give you satisfaction and enjoyment. It is up to you to make the most of your leisure time, and there is plenty to do if you just go out and look for it.
Bulgaria has museums, concerts, town festivals, theaters, athletic events, hot springs, outdoor markets, historical and ethnographic centers, coffee shops, bars, discos, and cinemas (in bigger towns and cities) for you to enjoy. The most recently released American films are shown in English with Bulgarian subtitles but are usually dubbed by the time they make it to the video rental shops.
Bulgaria boasts some of the most magnificent natural areas in Eastern Europe, with a great diversity of flora and fauna. Opportunities for outdoor recreation include hiking, camping, rock climbing, and birdwatching. Many of the towns in mountain regions have local hiking clubs. During the winter, Bulgarian ski resorts attract skiers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, and the Nordic countries.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
One of the difficulties of finding your place as a Peace Corps Volunteer is fitting into the local culture while maintaining your own cultural identity and acting like a professional all at the same time. It is not an easy thing to do successfully, and we can only provide you with guidelines. As a representative of a Bulgarian organization, you will be expected to dress and behave accordingly. “Business casual” is the catchall term for appropriate professional attire as a Volunteer in Bulgaria.
Bulgarians dress very stylishly and take great pride in their appearance. They commonly, however, only have a few outfits that they wear repeatedly. While there is no hard-and-fast rule, a foreigner who wears ragged or dirty clothing is likely to be considered disrespectful and possibly unreliable. Improper attire creates difficulties in gaining the respect and acceptance of your Bulgarian colleagues. At the same time, Volunteers who outdress the Bulgarians they work with may find they have difficulty fitting in. In general, Volunteers should dress to match their colleagues. Sometimes this can mean nice jeans and a casual, button-up shirt; other times this can mean wearing a tie daily. In an ethnic Bulgarian community, colorful and stylish attire is likely very appropriate, while in some minority communities, more modest dress is important. Keep in mind that you can purchase most clothing you would want for day-to-day use for reasonable prices throughout Bulgaria, so you may want to bring minimal clothing from the U.S.
You will also have semi-regular occasions to dress up for weddings and other special events, so bring some more formal attire in addition to professional clothes for everyday wear in the office or classroom. Casual clothes like jeans, shorts, T-shirts, and tank tops are also appropriate in some situations, but almost always outside of the professional environment.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon; Volunteers may be at the highest risk for pickpocketing when they are in cities with other Volunteers and are speaking English on the street. It is obvious then that they are foreigners, and they are less attentive because they are distracted by conversation. Incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Bulgaria Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Bulgaria. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Volunteers in Bulgaria must demonstrate a great deal of flexibility, patience, and maturity. Counterparts may sometimes feel threatened by your different methods, your energy, and your drive to work. When you first arrive at your site, you will need to focus on building relationships and gaining the trust of your colleagues and community. Then, you will be in a much stronger position to get things done. Many Volunteers find that once they are accepted by a community, they are “in” and are both embraced the their communities and are well-respected. It takes considerable time and effort to get to this point. Although earlier groups of Volunteers in Bulgaria have made the Peace Corps known to many in the community, you may have to explain your role as a development worker. The concept of volunteerism is a bit odd to most Bulgarians. In spite of your modest stipend, you may be perceived as a rich foreigner. You should expect frequent and lengthy delays in almost everything you are engaged in.
All Volunteers are expected to be highly motivated and proactive, flexible, professional, and committed to the Peace Corps’ ideals and goals. The Peace Corps staff and current Volunteers take their commitment to serve the people of Bulgaria seriously. We invite you to join us in this effort, but only if you are confident that you can commit yourself to completing your two-year assignment.
Because of the many economic and political difficulties and changes Bulgaria faces, the atmosphere in the country is one of uncertainty. The changes occurring in Bulgaria today are some of the most significant in its history, and Bulgarians from all walks of life are sacrificing time and comfort to make a new Bulgaria, that is part of the global world. Being a part of this historic moment in Europe should be both fascinating and immensely satisfying to any Volunteer who is willing to work hard and give generously of his or her time.
PEACE CORPS TRAINING
Overview of Pre-Service Training
Prior to being sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, you will participate in an intensive 11-week training program. The training is conducted in Bulgaria and is based on adult learning principles. The training focuses on Bulgarian language study, cross-cultural adjustment and adaptation, health and personal safety, and development of technical skills.
Training will take place in a small community, where you will live with a host family and study the Bulgarian language with four or five other trainees. This community-based training involves a lot of experiential learning in which community members are called upon to cooperate in the training process. Periodically, you will join other trainees from your group at a hub site, where you will receive training in administrative, technical, medical, and safety matters.
Technical training will prepare you to work in Bulgaria by building on the skills you already have and by helping you develop new skills in a manner appropriate to the needs of the country. The Peace Corps staff, Bulgarian experts, and current Volunteers will conduct the training program. Training places great emphasis on learning how to help communities help themselves and how to share your special skills.
Technical training will include sessions on the economic and political environment in Bulgaria and strategies for working within such a framework. You will review your technical sector’s goals and will meet with the Bulgarian agencies and organizations that invited the Peace Corps to assist them. You will be supported and evaluated throughout the training to build the confidence and skills you need to undertake your project activities and be a productive member of your community.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you will find that language skills are the key to personal and professional satisfaction during your service. These skills are critical to your job performance; they help you integrate into your community, and they can ease your personal adaptation to the new surroundings. Therefore, language training is the heart of the training program, and you must successfully meet minimum language requirements to complete training and become a Volunteer. Experienced Bulgarian language instructors teach formal language classes five days a week in small groups of four to five people. Peace Corps/Bulgaria has developed an extensive collection of language training resources designed specifically for Volunteers and their language learning needs. Your language training follows a community-based approach. You and about five fellow trainees will stay in a small community to learn Bulgarian with the help of the language instructor assigned to your group and with the support of your host family. This method immerses you in the language and allows you to acquire hands-on experience in the Bulgarian environment. The goal is to get you to a point of basic social communication skills so that you can practice and develop language skills further once you are at your site. Prior to being sworn in as a Volunteer, you will work on strategies to continue language studies during your service.
If you accept the invitation to serve in Bulgaria, you will receive a URL address to access introductory Bulgarian language materials in the “My Toolkit” section found on the Peace Corps website. Peace Corps/Bulgaria recommends that you listen to the language materials in order to get acquainted with the sounds of the language and the Cyrillic alphabet before you arrive in Bulgaria.
As part of your pre-service training, you will live with a Bulgarian host family. This experience is designed to ease your transition to life at your site. Families go through an orientation conducted by Peace Corps staff to explain the purpose of pre-service training and to assist them in helping you to adapt to living in Bulgaria and learning to integrate into a Bulgarian community. Many Volunteers form strong and lasting friendships with their host families.
Cross-cultural and community development training will help you improve your communication skills and understand your role as a facilitator of development. You will be exposed to topics such as community mobilization, conflict resolution, gender and development, nonformal and adult education strategies, and political structures.
During pre-service training, you will be given basic medical training and information. You will be expected to practice preventive health care and to take responsibility for your own health by adhering to all medical policies. Trainees are required to attend all medical sessions. The topics include preventive health measures and minor and major medical issues that you might encounter while in Bulgaria. Nutrition, mental health, responsible alcohol use, and how to avoid HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are also covered.
During the safety training sessions, you will learn how to adopt a lifestyle that reduces your risks at home, at work, and during your travels. You will also learn appropriate, effective strategies for coping with unwanted attention and about your individual responsibility for promoting safety throughout your service.
Additional Trainings During Volunteer Service
In its commitment to institutionalize quality training, Peace Corps worldwide has implemented a training system that provides Volunteers with continual opportunities to examine their commitment to Peace Corps service while increasing their technical and cross-cultural skills. During service, there are usually three training events. The titles and objectives for those trainings are as follows:
- In-service trainings: Provide an opportunity for Volunteers to upgrade their technical, language, and project development skills while sharing their experiences and reaffirming their commitment after having served for three to six months.
- Midterm conference (done in conjunction with technical sector in-service): Assists Volunteers in reviewing their first year, reassessing their personal and project objectives, and planning for their second year of service.
- Close-of-service conference: Prepares Volunteers for the future after Peace Corps service and reviews their respective projects and personal experiences.
The number, length, and design of these trainings are adapted to country-specific needs and conditions. The key to the training system is that training events are integrated and interrelated, from the pre-departure orientation through the end of your service, and are planned, implemented, and evaluated cooperatively by the training staff, Peace Corps staff, and Volunteers.
YOUR HEALTH CARE AND SAFETY IN BULGARIA
The Peace Corps’ highest priority is maintaining the good health and safety of every Volunteer. Peace Corps medical programs emphasize the preventive, rather than the curative, approach to disease. The Peace Corps in Bulgaria maintains a health unit with three full-time medical officers (Bulgarian physicians), a medical assistant, and a medical secretary. The medical staff takes care of Volunteers’ primary healthcare needs as a team.
Additional medical services, such as laboratory testing, imaging diagnostics, and evaluation by specialists are also available in Bulgaria at local facilities. Usually the complete medical evaluation and treatment is done in country by the medical officers. If you become seriously ill or injured, you will be transported either to the closest regional medical facility or to the capital for emergency care and treatment. If your condition requires further evaluation or treatment that is unavailable in Bulgaria, then the Office of Medical Services (OMS), Peace Corps, Washington, D.C., approves medevac to a country with better medical standards in the Europe, Mediterranean, and Asia (EMA) region (regional medevac) or to the United States (most frequently to your home of record). If your condition requires more than 45 days for complete resolution or has a long-term effect on your health, OMS will determine whether you are able to complete your Peace Corps service.
Health Issues in Bulgaria
Bulgaria’s history of heavy industrialization with poor pollution controls has left a legacy, particularly in air pollution. Although greater attention is being given to reducing industrial emissions, this is occurring gradually, and many of the reductions in pollution so far are due to shutdowns or slowdowns of factories. Much of the air pollution in urban areas comes from auto emissions and the use of soft coal for heating. Volunteers assigned to urban areas may experience moderate to severe air pollution comparable to pollution levels in Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago. Although most Volunteers do not suffer health effects from Bulgaria’s air pollution, those with severe allergies or asthma will not be placed in heavily polluted areas.
Additionally, Bulgaria has an older-style nuclear power plant. This plant, which is vital to the country’s electric power supply, is monitored regularly by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and some of its systems and controls have recently been upgraded. No Volunteers are placed at sites close to the plant.
Heavy cigarette smoking takes place in most homes, cafes, and workplaces. Those who are very sensitive to cigarette smoke, or to air pollution in general, should carefully consider whether to accept an assignment in Bulgaria.
Helping You Stay Healthy
The Peace Corps medical staff will provide you with all the necessary immunizations, medications, and information to stay healthy. Upon your arrival in Bulgaria, you will receive a health manual. Before you go to your host family, you will receive a medical kit with over-the-counter medications and supplies to take care of mild illnesses and first-aid needs. The contents of the kit are listed later in this chapter.
During pre-service training, you will have access to over-the-counter medications and medical supplies through the medical officers. However, you will be responsible for your own supply of prescription drugs and any other specific medical supplies you require, as the Peace Corps will not order these items during training. Please bring a three-month supply of any prescription drugs you use, since they may not be available here and it may take several months for shipments to arrive.
You will have physicals at mid-service and at the end of your service. If you develop a serious medical problem during your service, one of the medical officers in Bulgaria will consult with the Office of Medical Services in Washington, D.C. If it is determined that your condition cannot be treated in Bulgaria, you may be sent out of the country for further evaluation and care (medevac).
Maintaining Your Health
As a Volunteer, you must accept considerable responsibility for your own health. Proper precautions will significantly reduce your risk of serious illness or injury. The adage, “An ounce of prevention...,” becomes extremely important in areas where diagnostic and treatment facilities are not up to the standards of the United States.
Smoking, alcohol consumption, and an unhealthy diet are all serious health issues in Bulgaria. As in most European countries, smoking is common in public and in the workplace.
Volunteers must be prepared to be in situations in which a staunch nonsmoker might be uncomfortable. Alcohol consumption is commonplace during meals and social occasions so you should be prepared to be offered alcohol at such times, (even in the workplace). Although you might consider the amount people drink somewhat high, public drunkenness is not socially acceptable in any circumstance. Finally, maintaining a heart-healthy diet may be difficult because of the high levels of salt and fat in many Bulgarian dishes.
Many diseases that afflict Volunteers worldwide are entirely preventable if proper food and water precautions are taken. These diseases include food poisoning, parasitic infections, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever. Your medical officer will discuss specific standards for water and food preparation in Bulgaria during pre-service training.
Abstinence is the only certain choice for prevention of HIV/ AIDS and other STDs. You are taking risks if you choose to be sexually active. To lessen risk, use a condom every time you have sex. Whether your partner is a host country citizen, a fellow Volunteer, or anyone else, do not assume this person is free of HIV/AIDS or other STDs. AIDS (SPIN in Bulgarian) is a serious issue in the country, and though condoms are readily available, they are not widely used by Bulgarians. You will receive more information from the medical officer about this important issue.
Volunteers are expected to adhere to an effective means of birth control to prevent an unplanned pregnancy. Your medical officer can help you decide on the most appropriate method to suit your individual needs. Contraceptive methods are available without charge from the health unit.
It is critical to your health that you promptly report to the medical office for scheduled immunizations, and that you let your medical officer know immediately of significant illnesses and injuries.
Women’s Health Information
Pregnancy is treated in the same manner as other Volunteer health conditions that require medical attention but also have programmatic ramifications. The Peace Corps is responsible for determining the medical risk and the availability of appropriate medical care if the Volunteer remains in country. Given the circumstances under which Volunteers live and work in Peace Corps countries, it is extremely rare that the Peace Corps’ medical and programmatic standards for continued service during pregnancy can be met.
The Peace Corps medical officer in Bulgaria stocks regular Tampax tampons, and some feminine hygiene products (mostly “OB”-style tampons without applicators) are available for purchase on the local market. If you require special feminine hygiene products, please bring them with you.
Your Peace Corps Medical Kit
The Peace Corps medical officer provides Volunteers with a medical kit that contains basic items necessary to prevent and treat illnesses that may occur during service. (Kit items can be periodically restocked at the medical office in Sofia.) In addition to the items listed below, multivitamins, calcium, aspirin, and antifungal powder are available as needed from the medical office.
Medical Kit Contents
Acetaminophen 500 mg (Tylenol)
Antiseptic antimicrobial skin cleaner (Hibiclens)
Band-Aids (assorted sizes)
Clotrimazole (antifungal cream)
Cough suppressant and sore throat lozenges
Diphenhydramine HCL 25 mg (Benadryl)
Electrolyte replacement tablets
Emergency First Aid Pocket Guide
Hydrocortisone anti-itch cream
Pseudoephedrine HCL 30 mg (Sudafed)
Sterile gauze pads
Sunscreen (SPF 30)
Thermometer (oral disposable)
Before You Leave: A Medical Checklist
If there has been any change in your health—physical, mental, or dental—since you submitted your examination reports to the Peace Corps, you must immediately notify the Office of Medical Services. Failure to disclose new illnesses, injuries, allergies, or pregnancy can endanger your health and may jeopardize your eligibility to serve.
If you have screening tests done after you have received your medical clearance from the Peace Corps, you must bring copies of the results with you (which involves signing a form for release of records at your health care facility). If any of the results are abnormal, you must contact the Office of Medical Services.
If your dental exam was done more than a year ago, or if your physical exam is more than two years old, contact the Office of Medical Services to find out whether you need to update your records. If your dentist or Peace Corps dental consultant has recommended that you undergo dental treatment or repair, you must complete that work and make sure your dentist sends requested confirmation reports or X-rays to the Office of Medical Services.
If you wish to avoid having duplicate vaccinations, contact your physician’s office, obtain a copy of your immunization record, and bring it to your pre-departure orientation. If you have any immunizations prior to Peace Corps service, the Peace Corps cannot reimburse you for the cost. The Peace Corps will provide all the immunizations necessary for your overseas assignment shortly after you arrive in Bulgaria.
Bring a three-month supply of any prescription or over-thecounter medication you use on a regular basis, including birth control pills. Although the Peace Corps cannot reimburse you for this three-month supply, it will order refills during your service. While awaiting shipment—which can take several months—you will be dependent on your own medication supply. The Peace Corps will not pay for herbal or nonprescription medications, such as St. John’s wort, glucosamine, selenium, or antioxidant supplements.
You should bring copies of medical prescriptions signed by your physician since they will be handy if you are questioned in transit about carrying a three-month supply of prescription drugs.
If you wear eyeglasses, bring two pairs with you—a pair and a spare. If a pair breaks, the Peace Corps will replace it, using the information your doctor in the United States provided on the eyeglasses form during your examination. The Peace Corps discourages you from using contact lenses during your service to reduce your risk of developing a serious infection or other eye disease. Most Peace Corps countries do not have appropriate water and sanitation to support eye care with the use of contact lenses. The Peace Corps will not supply or replace contact lenses or consumables for them.
If you are eligible for Medicare, are over 50 years of age, or have a health condition that may restrict your future participation in healthcare plans, you may wish to consult an insurance specialist about unique coverage needs before your departure. The Peace Corps will provide all necessary healthcare from the time you leave for your pre-departure orientation until you complete your service. When you finish, you will be entitled to the post-service healthcare benefits described in the Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook. You may wish to consider keeping an existing health plan in effect during your service if you think age and/or preexisting conditions might prevent you from reenrolling in your current plan when you return home.
Safety and Security—Our Partnership
Serving as a Volunteer overseas entails certain safety and security risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment, a limited understanding of the local language and culture, and the perception of being a wealthy American are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Property thefts and burglaries are not uncommon. Incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although almost all Volunteers complete their two years of service without serious personal safety problems. In addition, more than 84 percent of Volunteers surveyed in the 2004 Peace Corps Volunteer Survey say they would join the Peace Corps again.
The Peace Corps approaches safety and security as a partnership with you. This Welcome Book contains sections on: Living Conditions and Volunteer Lifestyle; Peace Corps Training; and Your Health Care and Safety. All of these sections include important safety and security information.
The Peace Corps makes every effort to give Volunteers the tools they need to function in the safest and most secure way possible, because working to maximize the safety and security of Volunteers is our highest priority. Not only do we provide you with training and tools to prepare for the unexpected, but we teach you to identify and manage the risks you may encounter.
Factors that Contribute to Volunteer Risk
There are several factors that can heighten a Volunteer’s risk, many of which are within the Volunteer’s control.
Based on information gathered from incident reports worldwide in 2004, the following factors stand out as risk characteristics for assaults. Assaults consist of personal crimes committed against Volunteers, and do not include property crimes (such as vandalism or theft).
- Location: Most crimes occurred when Volunteers were in public areas (e.g., street, park, beach, public buildings). Specifically, 43 percent of assaults took place when Volunteers were away from their sites.
- Time of day: Assaults usually took place on the weekend during the evening between 5:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m.— with most assaults occurring around 1:00 a.m.
- Absence of others: Assaults usually occurred when the Volunteer was unaccompanied. In 82 percent of the sexual assaults the Volunteer was unaccompanied and in 55 percent of physical assaults the Volunteer was unaccompanied.
- Relationship to assailant: In most assaults, the Volunteer did not know the assailant.
- Consumption of alcohol: Forty percent of all assaults involved alcohol consumption by Volunteers and/or assailants.
Summary Strategies to Reduce Risk
Before and during service, your training will address these areas of concern so that you can reduce the risks you face.
For example, here are some strategies Volunteers employ:
Strategies to reduce the risk/impact of theft:
- Know the environment and choose safe routes/times for travel
- Avoid high-crime areas per Peace Corps guidance
- Know the vocabulary to get help in an emergency
- Carry valuables in different pockets/places
- Carry a "dummy" wallet as a decoy Strategies to reduce the risk/impact of burglary:
- Live with a local family or on a family compound
- Put strong locks on doors and keep valuables in a lock box or trunk
- Leave irreplaceable objects at home in the U.S.
- Follow Peace Corps guidelines on maintaining home security Strategies to reduce the risk/impact of assault:
- Make local friends
- Make sure your appearance is respectful of local customs; don’t draw negative attention to yourself by wearing inappropriate clothing
- Get to know local officials, police, and neighbors
- Travel with someone whenever possible
- Avoid known high crime areas
- Limit alcohol consumption
Support from Staff
In March 2003, the Peace Corps created the Office of Safety and Security with its mission to “foster improved communication, coordination, oversight, and accountability of all Peace Corps’ safety and security efforts.” The new office is led by an Associate Director for Safety and Security who reports to the Peace Corps Director and includes the following divisions: Volunteer Safety and Overseas Security; Information and Personnel Security; Emergency Preparedness, Plans, Training and Exercise; and Crime Statistics and Analysis.
The major responsibilities of the Volunteer Safety and Overseas Security Division are to coordinate the office’s overseas operations and direct the Peace Corps’ safety and security officers who are located in various regions around the world that have Peace Corps programs. The safety and security officers conduct security assessments; review safety trainings; train trainers and managers; train Volunteer safety wardens, local guards, and staff; develop security incident response procedures; and provide crisis management support.
If a trainee or Volunteer is the victim of a safety incident, Peace Corps staff is prepared to provide support. All Peace Corps posts have procedures in place to respond to incidents of crime committed against Volunteers. The first priority for all posts in the aftermath of an incident is to ensure that the Volunteer is safe and receiving medical treatment as needed.
After assuring the safety of the Volunteer, Peace Corps staff provides support by reassessing the Volunteer’s work site and housing arrangements and making any adjustments, as needed. In some cases, the nature of the incident may necessitate a site or housing transfer. Peace Corps staff will also assist Volunteers with preserving their rights to pursue legal sanctions against the perpetrators of the crime. It is very important that Volunteers report incidents as they occur, not only to protect their peer Volunteers, but also to preserve the future right to prosecute. Should Volunteers decide later in the process that they want to proceed with the prosecution of their assailant, this option may no longer exist if the evidence of the event has not been preserved at the time of the incident.
The country-specific data chart below shows the incidence rates and the average number of incidents of the major types of safety incidents reported by Peace Corps Volunteers/trainees in Bulgaria as compared to all other Europe, Mediterranean and Asia (EMA) region programs as a whole, from 2001–2005. It is presented to you in a somewhat technical manner for statistical accuracy.
To fully appreciate the collected data below, an explanation of the graph is provided as follows:
The incidence rate for each type of crime is the number of crime events relative to the Volunteer/trainee population. It is expressed on the chart as a ratio of crime to Volunteer and trainee years (or V/T years, which is a measure of 12 full months of V/T service) to allow for a statistically valid way to compare crime data across countries. An “incident” is a specific offense, per Peace Corps' classification of offenses, and may involve one or more Volunteer/trainee victims. For example, if two Volunteers are robbed at the same time and place, this is classified as one robbery incident.
The chart is separated into eight crime categories. These include vandalism (malicious defacement or damage of property); theft (taking without force or illegal entry); burglary (forcible entry of a residence); robbery (taking something by force); minor physical assault (attacking without a weapon with minor injuries); minor sexual assault (fondling, groping, etc.); aggravated assault (attacking with a weapon, and/or without a weapon when serious injury results); and rape (sexual intercourse without consent).
When anticipating Peace Corps Volunteer service, you should review all of the safety and security information provided to you, including the strategies to reduce risk. Throughout your training and Volunteer service, you will be expected to successfully complete all training competencies in a variety of areas including safety and security. Once in-country, use the tools and information shared with you to remain as safe and secure as possible.
What if you become a victim of a violent crime?
Few Peace Corps Volunteers are victims of violent crimes. The Peace Corps will give you information and training in how to be safe. But, just as in the U.S., crime happens, and Volunteers can become victims. When this happens, the investigative team of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) is charged with helping pursue prosecution of those who perpetrate a violent crime against a Volunteer. If you become a victim of a violent crime, the decision to prosecute or not to prosecute is entirely yours, and one of the tasks of the OIG is to make sure that you are fully informed of your options and help you through the process and procedures involved in going forward with prosecution should you wish to do so. If you decide to prosecute, we are here to assist you in every way we can.
Crimes that occur overseas, of course, are investigated and prosecuted by local authorities in local courts. Our role is to coordinate the investigation and evidence collection with the regional security officers (RSOs) at the U.S. embassy, local police, and local prosecutors and others to ensure that your rights are protected to the fullest extent possible under the laws of the country. OIG investigative staff has extensive experience in criminal investigation, in working sensitively with victims, and as advocates for victims. We also, may, in certain limited circumstances, arrange for the retention of a local lawyer to assist the local public prosecutor in making the case against the individual who perpetrated the violent crime.
If you do become a victim of a violent crime, first, make sure you are in a safe place and with people you trust and second, contact the country director or the Peace Corps medical officer. Immediate reporting is important to the preservation of evidence and the chances of apprehending the suspect. Country directors and medical officers are required to report all violent crimes to the Inspector General and the RSO. This information is protected from unauthorized further disclosure by the Privacy Act. Reporting the crime also helps prevent your further victimization and protects your fellow Volunteers.
In conjunction with the RSO, the OIG does a preliminary investigation of all violent crimes against Volunteers regardless of whether the crime has been reported to local authorities or of the decision you may ultimately make to prosecute. If you are a victim of a crime, our staff will work with you through final disposition of the case. OIG staff is available 24 hours-aday, 7 days-a-week. We may be contacted through our 24-hour
violent crime hotline via telephone at 202.692.2911, or by e-mail at [email protected]
Security Issues in Bulgaria
When it comes to your safety and security in the Peace Corps, you have to be willing to adapt your behavior and lifestyle to minimize the potential for being a target of crime. As with anywhere in the world, crime does exist in Bulgaria. You can reduce your risk by avoiding situations that make you feel uncomfortable and by taking precautions. Crime at the village or town level is less frequent than in the large cities; people know each other and generally will not steal from their neighbors. But because you are a foreigner and will probably be considered rich, your home may be more prone to break-ins than those of your neighbors. Fortunately, violent crime is rare.
Although Bulgaria is a relatively safe place to live, it is not without petty crimes and assaults. Pick pocketing occurs on some forms of public transportation, especially in Sofia. If you follow a few simple guidelines, you will reduce most risks.
Carry valuables close to your body or under your clothing. Do not keep money in outside pockets of backpacks, in coat pockets, or in fanny packs. Undergarment money pouches, the kind that hang around your neck and stay hidden under your shirt or inside your coat, are highly recommended. Never keep your backpack on your back while on public transportation; place your arm across the zippers of your backpack and hold it in front of you. Hold small bags tightly under your arm. While in restaurants, place your pack or bag in your lap or next to you, not on the floor.
Be wary of overly friendly strangers, particularly near bus and train stations. Do not accept food or drink from persons you do not know. If you choose to accept an offer to share refreshments, go with the person to purchase the food and drink. This will prevent someone from attempting to drug you and rob you (which has been known to happen on occasion) and avoid the danger of an adverse drug reaction.
Avoid dangerous places. Make inquiries before you wander off somewhere alone. Develop local friends and contacts; they are the best source of information. Try to stay out of underpasses, and do not linger in train stations. Do not carry any valuables or important documents in your backpack. Always secure your valuables while you are away from home: Lock your apartment and bicycle (if you have one). Use safety deposit boxes in hotels, and consider purchasing personal property insurance so you can replace valuable items if a theft does occur.
Women should not walk alone after dark. Suggestive comments to women from men in the streets are common. While annoying, this is, unfortunately, part of Bulgarian culture. You may have to adjust some recreational activities to daytime hours.
Staying Safe: Don’t Be a Target for Crime
You must be prepared to take on a large degree of responsibility for your own safety. Only you can make yourself less of a target, ensure that your house is secure, and develop relationships in your community that will make you an unlikely victim of crime. In coming to Bulgaria, do what you would do if you moved to a new city in the United States: Be cautious, check things out, ask questions, learn about your neighborhood, know where the more risky locations are, use common sense, and be aware. You can reduce your vulnerability to crime by integrating into your community, learning the local language, acting responsibly, and abiding by Peace Corps policies and procedures. Serving safely and effectively in Bulgaria may require that you accept some restrictions on your current lifestyle.
Volunteers attract a lot of attention both in large cities and at their sites, but they are likely to receive more negative attention in highly populated centers than at their sites, where “family,” friends, and colleagues look out for them. While whistles and exclamations are fairly common on the street, this behavior can be reduced if you dress conservatively, avoid eye contact, and do not respond to unwanted attention.
Preparing for the Unexpected: Safety Training and Volunteer Support in Bulgaria
The Peace Corps’ approach to safety is a five-pronged plan to help you stay safe during your two-year service and includes the following: information sharing, Volunteer training, site selection criteria, a detailed emergency action plan, and protocols for addressing safety and security incidents. Bulgaria’s in-country safety program is outlined below.
The Peace Corps/Bulgaria office will keep you informed of any issues that may impact Volunteer safety through information sharing. Regular updates will be provided in Volunteer newsletters and in memoranda from the country director. In the event of a critical situation or emergency, you will be contacted through the emergency communication network.
Volunteer training will include sessions to prepare you for specific safety and security issues in Bulgaria. This training will prepare you to adopt a culturally appropriate lifestyle and exercise judgment that promotes safety and reduces risk in your home, at work, and while traveling. Safety training is offered throughout service and is integrated into the language, cross-cultural, health, and other components of training.
Certain site selection criteria are used to determine safe housing for Volunteers before their arrival. The Peace Corps staff works closely with host communities and counterpart agencies to help prepare them for a Volunteer’s arrival and to establish expectations of their respective roles in supporting the Volunteer. Each site is inspected before the Volunteer’s arrival to ensure placement in appropriate, safe, and secure housing and work sites. Site selection is based in part on any relevant site history; reasonable access to medical, banking, postal, and other essential services per local standards; availability of communications, transportation, and markets (per local standards); housing options and living arrangements; and other Volunteer support needs.
You will also learn about Peace Corps/Bulgaria’s detailed emergency action plan, which is implemented in the event of natural or man-made emergency situations or to handle individual emergencies. When you arrive at your site, you will complete and submit a site locator form with your address, contact information, and a map to your house. If there is a threat to your safety, you will receive specific instructions through a Volunteer warden or will be asked to gather in small groups at predetermined locations until the situation is resolved or the Peace Corps decides to evacuate.
Finally, in order for the Peace Corps to be fully responsive to the needs of Volunteers, it is imperative that Volunteers immediately report any security incident to the Peace Corps medical officer. The Peace Corps has established protocols for addressing safety and security incidents in a timely and appropriate manner, and it collects and evaluates safety and security data to track trends and develop strategies to minimize risks to future Volunteers.
DIVERSITY AND CROSS-CULTURAL ISSUES
In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.
Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Bulgaria, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Bulgaria.
Outside of Bulgaria’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Bulgaria are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in Bulgaria, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
Overview of Diversity in Bulgaria
The Peace Corps staff in Bulgaria recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
What Might a Volunteer Face?
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Bulgaria has been working to align its laws with the requirements of the European Union, which it joined in January 2007. Yet legislation to protect women against sexual harassment and discrimination has only recently been introduced.
As with any other social matter, there is a large difference in attitudes toward gender between smaller communities and big cities and between the older and younger generations. Traditionally, especially in more rural areas, Bulgarian women are expected to cook and look after other needs of their husbands and children while they also hold jobs outside of the home. In turn, women often expect men to open doors for them, to give them their seats on public transportation, and to show them other signs of courtesy. Women also often expect men to help if they are performing a task that is considered difficult or demeaning, and men will offer to help women whom they believe are confused by minor mechanical or equipment-related problems. Female Volunteers may therefore feel that their skills are questioned in the typically male professional environment. Another common occurrence is for young women to be honked at by drivers or yelled at by groups of young men in the streets. If this happens to you, it is best to ignore the behavior and avoid making eye contact, as any response is likely to aggravate the situation.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
You may be the only minority trainee or Volunteer within a particular project. You may not receive, or be able to receive, the necessary personal support from other Volunteers. While staff and your fellow Volunteers will do their very best to support you, there may not be current Volunteers or staff role models who can personally relate to your experiences.
Once you move to your site, you are likely to live among people who have no experience or understanding of a non-Caucasian-American culture. Because of ignorance, stereotypes, cultural perceptions, or Bulgaria’s historical involvement with certain countries, you are likely to encounter varying degrees of harassment in your day-to-day life. You may not be perceived as being American, or you may be evaluated as less professionally competent than other Volunteers. In any community where you are not known, you need to be prepared for staring, pointing, and comments. Finally, you should be prepared to hear derogatory terms and racial comments that would be completely inappropriate in the United States. Such offensive terms usually are uttered because people are not aware of acceptable terms in English, although in some instances the intent is to harass or offend. Bulgarians as a whole tend to be very accepting, curious, and open to individuals once they get to know them on a personal level. Because of this, many Volunteers of color have been extremely well-accepted and well-liked in their communities, once their communities came to know them. Their time in these communities has had a significant and positive impact on how the community members understand and appreciate diversity.
Peace Corps/Bulgaria currently has African Americans, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and other members of minority groups among its Volunteer corps. They all manage these issues in their own way. Members of the Peace Corps staff will do everything they can to help you manage any difficulties.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Overall, senior Volunteers are highly valued for the wealth of experience they bring to their communities and counterparts. Yet you may sometimes feel isolated within the Peace Corps community because most Volunteers are in their 20s. They may have little understanding of, or respect for, the lives and experiences of senior Americans. You may also find that while younger Volunteers cannot always offer you support, they still look to you for advice and support. While some seniors find this a very enjoyable part of their Volunteer experience, others choose not to fill this role.
Training may present its own special challenges. Older trainees have sometimes found that the learning environment does not completely match the learning style and material they are most comfortable with in terms of timing, presentation of materials, comfort level, and health. You may need to be assertive in developing an effective individual approach to language learning. And, when possible, you may need to collaborate on identifying sites and assignments most appropriate for an older Volunteer. Peace Corps staff has much experience supporting and mentoring Volunteers of all ages and is here to work to support you.
Before leaving for Bulgaria, you should consider how you will deal with issues such as possible family emergencies, maintaining lifelong friendships, and deciding who will have power of attorney for attending to your financial matters.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
In general, Bulgarians view homosexuality as immoral. There are, of course, many Bulgarians with alternative lifestyles, but their lifestyle would not be well-accepted in Bulgaria if they chose to be open about it. Most Bulgarians choose to keep their personal lifestyles private, and there seems to be an attitude of acceptance when a community does not need to acknowledge a person’s sexual preference. You may discover that you cannot be open about your sexual preference in your assigned community. Dress and mannerisms considered normal in the United States, such as particular hairstyles or earrings on men, may be viewed with disdain in your community. In addition, your civil liberties may be ignored and you may be hassled in bars or on the street Relationships with host country nationals can happen, but as with all cross-cultural relationships, they may not be easy. Lesbians, like all American women, are likely to have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex. Wearing an “engagement ring” may help. Gay men may have to deal with machismo: Talk of sexual conquests, girl watching, and dirty jokes. Volunteers with alternative lifestyles have occasionally set up informal forums for support and information sharing.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is the dominant religion (83 percent of Bulgarians consider themselves members), so you may not be able to find an active Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim congregation near your site and may need to travel to a bigger city to attend religious events or ceremonies. Only Christmas and Easter are observed as official religious holidays. Alternatively, you could be living in a primarily Muslim community, and only Muslim religious services may be easily accessible.
Some Bulgarians hold stereotypes about members of other faiths. Volunteers have reported being asked about their religion and some have been subject to rudeness or hateful speech. One possible response to questions about one’s religious beliefs is to say that in America, people sometimes prefer not to discuss their religion. In general, Bulgarians are not an overly religious people, but Bulgarian culture and religious heritage go hand-in-hand for many Bulgarians. Peace Corps/Bulgaria has Volunteers of many faiths, and most of them find that the question of religion does not interfere with the work they are doing in Bulgaria.
Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities
As a disabled Volunteer in Bulgaria, you may face a special set of challenges. Bulgaria has an old, poorly maintained infrastructure that does not always accommodate individuals with disabilities. Few public places, for example, have been made accessible to wheelchairs. Because sidewalks are uneven and cars frequently park in pedestrian areas, visually impaired Volunteers may have a harder time moving around on their own. If you are reading this Welcome Book, the Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in Bulgaria without unreasonable risk to yourself or interruption of your service. Peace Corps/Bulgaria staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.
Possible Issues for Married Volunteers
Married couples should expect to live separately during their pre-service training. Typically, married Bulgarian trainees, particularly those working in the same Peace Corps sector, live with separate host families in the same community during their pre-service training, and attend language classes together daily. If you do live in separate communities, it would be due to logistical necessity based on the design of the training program and your work area. Reasonable efforts will be made to accommodate proximity and visitation concerns. All married couples will live together following pre-service training when they move to their permanent sites as Volunteers.
Married couples may face challenges stemming from traditional Bulgarian gender roles. A married female Volunteer may find herself the object of gossip among older Bulgarian women, who may wonder whether she is taking proper care of her husband, can cook and preserve enough vegetables for the winter, or spends too much time with other men. While the wife may be expected to do all the domestic chores, the husband may be expected to assume an overtly dominant role in the household. In addition, the independence exercised by each member of an American couple may be perceived as immoral behavior. Still, many married couples have served successfully in Bulgaria without having to make unreasonable compromises.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
How much luggage am I allowed to bring to Bulgaria?
Most airlines have baggage size and weight limits and assess charges for transport of baggage that exceeds those limits. The Peace Corps has its own size and weight limits and will not pay the cost of transport for baggage that exceeds these limits. The Peace Corps’ allowance is two checked pieces of luggage with combined dimensions of both pieces not to exceed 107 inches (length + width + height) and a carry-on bag with dimensions of no more than 45 inches. Checked baggage should not exceed 100 pounds total with a maximum weight of 50 pounds for any one bag. Peace Corps Volunteers are not allowed to take pets, weapons, explosives, radio transmitters (shortwave radios are permitted), automobiles, or motorcycles to their overseas assignments. Do not pack flammable materials or liquids such as lighter fluid, cleaning solvents, hair spray, or aerosol containers. This is an important safety precaution. Please make sure you are aware of the current security restrictions both on what items you can pack in your luggage and what you can carry-on with you at the time of your travel, as these regulations have been in a state of flux. Please check the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website for a detailed list of permitted and prohibited items at http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/ prohibited/permitted-prohibited-items.shtm.
We also recommend that whatever luggage you choose to bring should be easily transportable. Often Volunteers travel alone and are forced to make frequent bus changes, walk between different stations within a given city, or use public transit. Any baggage that is too bulky or ill-suited to being carried by hand could cause a traveling Volunteer problems. Many Volunteers find the best option is to purchase large travelers’ or hiker’s backpacks.
What is the electric current in Bulgaria?
It is AC 220 volts (V), 60 hertz. Plugs are the standard rounded European two-pronged type. Current converters and plug adapters are available in most U.S. stores specializing in travel or electronics. Adapters are typically available in the larger Bulgarian cities, but may not always be easy to locate. Many devices, especially equipment like laptops or iPod chargers with their own AC adapters, can accept 220 V Bulgarian current in addition to U.S. 110 V and only need a plug adapter. Many devices have text written on them stating whether they are able to work on both 220 and 110 V.
How much money should I bring?
Volunteers are expected to live at the same level as the people in their community. They are given a settling-in allowance and a monthly living allowance, which should cover their expenses. Often Volunteers wish to bring additional money for vacation travel to other countries. Credit cards, debit cards, and traveler’s checks are preferable to cash. It is very difficult, however, to cash a traveler’s check in Bulgaria, so do not plan to use one within Bulgaria. If you bring an ATM or debit card to withdraw cash, you may want to confirm with your U.S. bank that your card will work in Bulgaria, as some financial institutions block the use of cards from countries known to have problems with financial fraud. More and more businesses in the larger cities in Bulgaria have started to accept credit cards, but this is very recent. If you choose to bring extra money, bring the amount that will suit your own travel plans and needs.
When can I take vacation and have people visit me?
Each Volunteer accrues two vacation days per month of service (excluding training). Leave may not be taken during training, the first three months of service, or the last three months of service, except in conjunction with an authorized emergency leave, so please plan accordingly.
Family and friends are welcome to visit you after pre-service training and the first three months of service as long as their stay does not interfere with your work. Extended stays at your site are not encouraged and may require permission from your country director. The Peace Corps is not able to provide your visitors with visa, medical, or travel assistance.
Will my belongings be covered by insurance?
The Peace Corps does not provide insurance coverage for personal effects. Volunteers are ultimately responsible for the safekeeping of their personal belongings. However, you can purchase such insurance before you leave. If you wish, you may contact your own insurance company; additionally, insurance application forms will be provided, and we encourage you to consider them carefully. Volunteers should not ship or take valuable items overseas. Jewelry, watches, radios, cameras, and expensive appliances are subject to loss, theft, and breakage, and in many places, satisfactory maintenance and repair services are not available.
Do I need an international driver’s license?
Volunteers in Bulgaria do not need to get an international driver’s license because they are prohibited from operating motorized vehicles. Most urban travel is by bus or taxi. Rural travel ranges from buses, trains, and minibuses to trucks, bicycles, and lots of walking.
What should I bring as gifts for Bulgarian friends and my host family?
This is not a requirement. A token of friendship is sufficient. Some gift suggestions include knickknacks for the house; pictures, books, or calendars of American scenes; souvenirs from your area; hard candies that will not melt or spoil; or photos to give away. In particular, gifts that represent your unique cultural community within America are often appreciated by Bulgarians and provide the opportunity to teach that not all Americans are alike. Alternatively, a standard Bulgarian gift is a bottle of wine, a bouquet of flowers, or a box of chocolates—all of which can be purchased here in Bulgaria.
Where will my site assignment be when I finish training and how isolated will I be?
Peace Corps trainees are not assigned to individual sites until the middle of pre-service training. This gives Peace Corps staff the opportunity to understand each trainee’s specific skills and strengths, and to use this information to assist in matching Volunteers and sites. You may have the opportunity to provide input on your site preferences, including type of town or village, local needs, basis of the local economy, type of school, and geographical location. However, keep in mind that many factors influence the site selection process and it is integral to your success as a Peace Corps Volunteer that you are flexible and are up for a large variety of diverse site placements and situations. Most Volunteers live in small towns or in rural villages, where the need is the greatest, and are usually within one hour from another Volunteer by public transportation.
How can my family contact me in an emergency?
The Peace Corps’ Office of Special Services provides assistance in handling emergencies affecting trainees and Volunteers or their families. Before leaving the United States, instruct your family to notify the Office of Special Services immediately if an emergency arises, such as a serious illness or death of a family member. During normal business hours, the number for the Office of Special Services is 800.424.8580, extension 1470. After normal business hours and on weekends and holidays, the Special Services duty officer can be reached at 202.638.2574. For non-emergency questions, your family can get information from your country desk staff at the Peace Corps by calling 800.424.8580.
Can I call home from Bulgaria?
International phone service to and from Bulgaria is reasonably good in the cities. Internet clubs can be found in most large towns and often provide cheap, international calls. Calling cards can be used from some telephones; check with an international long-distance company to see if it provides services in Bulgaria. You may not have quick or easy access to a telephone, particularly during your pre-service training, and as a result, may not be able to receive calls from home at your site. Advise family and friends that it could be several weeks after your arrival in Bulgaria before you have the time or opportunity to call home.
Will there be e-mail and Internet access? Should I bring my computer?
Internet and e-mail access is becoming more available, and Internet cafes can be found in most major cities and towns. Many small villages, however, do not have Internet access. Many Volunteers choose to bring laptops with them, and are happy that they have them, but many other Volunteers do fine without them. If you bring a computer, you should purchase personal property insurance for the computer and other valuables before you leave; it is not that expensive and well worth the price. The Peace Corps does not provide this coverage.
The following recommendations are based on the experiences of Volunteers who have served in Bulgaria. Use them as an informal guide, bearing in mind that experience is individual. There is no perfect list! You obviously cannot bring everything that is mentioned, so consider those items that make the most sense to you personally and professionally. Many past and current Volunteers wish they had not brought so many clothes and toiletries and had instead focused on specialty items. You should not hesitate to bring items of sentimental value that will help you feel content at your site, but you can always have things sent to you later. As you decide what to bring, keep in mind that you have a 100-pound weight limit on checked luggage; you will be responsible for any fees for overweight baggage. Except where otherwise indicated, all the following items are available in Bulgaria; they are listed here as items to bring because the quality of the items may be inferior, their price may be significantly higher, or they may not be regularly available in Bulgaria.
Volunteers need an assortment of clothing for work, play, and socializing. Since there is a variety of jobs, each with different clothing requirements, you should consider your particular job. Bulgarian teachers and other professionals have a fairly sophisticated fashion sense, which has been described by some as “elegantly casual,” and your Bulgarian colleagues are the best models for what to wear in the workplace.
Attire for male teachers usually consists of slacks with a nice shirt and optional tie. COD Volunteers may find a jacket and tie de rigueur for the office or that slacks or a skirt, and a shirt or sweater, are more appropriate. Youth Development Volunteers generally work in more casual situations, but still need appropriate business attire for occasional use. Suits, dresses, and skirts or nice slacks with blouses are all suitable work attire for women; however, avoid clothing that requires dry cleaning because this service is usually only available in larger cities. For both men and women, nice jeans dressed up with a nice shirt and jacket are acceptable in many situations. Three or four outfits should be sufficient for work. You will also need casual clothes for relaxing around the house, socializing, hiking, skiing, and travel. Good-quality jeans are available in Bulgaria, but they are expensive by Bulgarian standards, so you may want to bring one or two pairs of your favorite brand from the United States (dark or black ones are better than light ones). Clothes that are comfortable and that can be layered as needed to accommodate the season are best. Dark clothes are easier to keep clean and hand-wash, and cotton knits are best avoided because they don’t keep their shape since you most likely won’t have access to a dryer.
In general, most day-to-day clothing you will need can be purchased for reasonable prices in Bulgaria, so you may want to use your limited packing space to focus on specialty clothing, such as hiking apparel or sporting attire and other unique and specific items.
Some other suggestions follow:
- Bathing suit (Bulgarian women tend to wear two-piece suits, so either two-piece or one-piece is fine)
- Two or three pairs of fleece or silk long underwear (what is available locally is not of great quality), in colors other than white (which is harder to clean)
- Several sweaters (good wool sweaters can be purchased locally at reasonable prices) 102
- Scarves, hats, and gloves (think fleece, Thinsulate, and waterproof; it gets very cold in the mountains in winter)
- Warm socks (you can buy normal day-to-day ones locally)
- Lightweight coat or warm jacket, windproof and waterproof (mid-thigh or knee-length winter coats will keep you warmer than waist-length jackets). A wool coat is easy to buy locally, but it is not easy to find a truly waterproof jacket.
- Shoes: high-quality, lightweight, waterproof hiking boots are an absolute must, and it is best to break them in before you arrive. You can, buy good-quality hiking boots from internationally known companies at a few stores in Sofia. Wool slippers and flip flops are helpful, and readily available here. Good-quality shoes in large sizes are hard to find; women’s shoes and boots are especially difficult to find in larger sizes (over size 9). The quality of footwear in Bulgaria is poor, although there are some high-end stores in larger cities (with high-end prices to match). If you wear a larger size, you may want to consider bringing all of the shoes you will need for your stay including work shoes, waterproof boots, and casual shoes. Whatever your size, you will likely want to bring running shoes if you are a runner and other specialty shoes. High-end athletic apparel is available in larger cities, but often Bulgarians see them much more as a fashion statement rather than a practical purchase. The prices reflect that.
Personal Hygiene and Toiletry Items
Bring only enough to get through training. A wide variety of both locally produced and imported items (particularly in the cities) are available in Bulgaria, so do not pack extra toothpaste, toilet paper, dental floss, and shampoo, unless you are very particular about what brands you like. This goes for cosmetics, too.
There are kitchen stores in larger cities in Bulgaria with practically everything you will need to equip even a gourmet kitchen; however, it might be easier and less expensive to pack some of the following:
- Favorite local spices, such as chipotle sauce or items generally purchased at specialty or ethnic food stores
- Favorite recipes using basic ingredients (you will also receive an excellent cookbook during training that was prepared by previous Volunteers)
- Oven thermometer (oven temperatures and indicators aren’t very accurate or standard in Bulgaria)
- Garlic press
- Plastic measuring cups and spoons (it can be tricky using recipes with U.S. measurements and metric measuring tools)
- Stainless steel vegetable peeler
- Compact sleeping bag, for weekend travel and winter warmth (consider a lightweight pad too)
- Contact lenses and cleaning solutions (the Peace Corps does not provide contact lens supplies and they are expensive locally)
- Sunglasses (can be bought locally, but cheap ones can be poor quality, and expensive ones are really expensive)
- Sturdy, water-resistant watch with an alarm (or bring a travel alarm clock) and an extra watchband
- Small backpack—durable, lightweight, and of good quality for overnight trips (suitcases are a nuisance and large packs may be cumbersome for short trips)
- Money pouch or belt (to hide your passport and other valuables when traveling)
- Swiss Army knife, with a corkscrew
- 35 mm camera (compact ones are best, since they are inconspicuous and easier to travel with); Kodak and Fuji films can be bought and developed locally, but there are few places, even in large cities, that can process Advantix and Advanced Photo System film
- A digital camera is a great idea if you are bringing a computer so you can download your photos — it’s a great way to send photos home via e-mail and a great way to share photos with your community. Processing film is expensive and not available in most small towns.
- A debit card or ATM card to withdraw cash that you know should work in Bulgaria and this region (for vacation travel)
- Personal checks from a U.S. checking account (handy if you plan to apply to graduate school while you’re here and as a service to Bulgarian students, who need personal checks, in exchange for cash, to pay for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and SAT tests)
- Credit cards (a few banks in Sofia offer cash advances and ATMs are becoming more common; also good for travel in other countries)
- Laptop—if you decide that you want one here with you (remember to bring an plug adapter with surge protector)
- Teach Yourself Bulgarian: A Complete Course for Beginners by Michael Holman and Mira Kovatcheva, if you want to begin learning Bulgarian before your arrival (the Peace Corps will provide other language-learning resources in-country)
- A few novels to swap and any resources related to your program that you feel you must have
- Durable flashlight
- Compact sewing and tool kits
- Games (Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, playing cards, Frisbee, etc.)
- Plastic storage bags of various sizes (generally not available in Bulgaria)
- Postcards, maps, and pictures from home to share with your community
- An American football
Note: If you bring valuable items such as a laptop, CD player, or musical instrument, bring a sales receipt or other documentation of ownership. In the event that we have to send your belongings home as unaccompanied baggage, proof of ownership prior to your arrival in Bulgaria must be presented to Bulgarian customs officials to avoid excessive customs fees and/or export restrictions. Also remember to insure any items of value.
The following list consists of suggestions for you to consider as you prepare to live outside the United States for two years. Not all items will be relevant to everyone, and the list does not include everything you should make arrangements for.
- Notify family that they can call the Peace Corps’ Office of Special Services at any time if there is a critical illness or death of a family member (telephone number: 800.424.8580, extension 1470; after-hours duty officer: 202.638.2574).
- Give the Peace Corps’ On the Home Front handbook to family and friends. Passport/Travel
- Forward all paperwork for the Peace Corps passport and visa to the Peace Corps travel office immediately so that a Bulgarian visa can be obtained for your PC passport.
- Verify that luggage meets the size and weight limits for international travel.
- Obtain a personal passport if you plan to travel after your service ends. (Your Peace Corps passport will expire three months after you finish your service, so if you plan to travel longer, you will need a regular passport.)
- Complete any needed dental and medical work.
- If you wear glasses, bring two pairs.
- Arrange to bring a three-month supply of all medications (including birth control pills) that you are currently taking.
- Make arrangements to maintain life insurance coverage.
- Arrange to maintain supplemental health coverage while you are away. (Even though the Peace Corps is responsible for your health care during Peace Corps service overseas, it is advisable for people who have preexisting conditions to arrange for the continuation of their supplemental health coverage. If there is a lapse in coverage, it is often difficult and expensive to be reinstated.)
- Arrange to continue Medicare coverage if applicable.
- Bring a copy of your certificate of marriage or divorce.
- Register to vote in the state of your home of record. (Many state universities consider voting and payment of state taxes as evidence of residence in that state.)
- Obtain a voter registration card and take it with you overseas.
- Arrange to have an absentee ballot forwarded to you overseas. Personal Effects
- Purchase personal property insurance to extend from the time you leave your home for service overseas until the time you complete your service and return to the United States.
- Obtain student loan deferment forms from the lender or loan service. 110
- Execute a power of attorney for the management of your property and business.
- Arrange for deductions from your readjustment allowance to pay alimony, child support, and other debts through the Office of Volunteer Financial Operations at 800.424.8580, extension 1770.
- Place all important papers—mortgages, deeds, stocks, and bonds—in a safe deposit box or with an attorney or other caretaker.