Pencils of Promise: School Update!

Many of you followed my 10A class’s fundraising campaign to raise $25,000 in 25 school days with the goal of building a school in partnership with Pencils of Promise. At the conclusion of that campaign, we had raised $28,501, which we pledged towards building a school in Adaklu Torda, a community located in Ghana’s Volta region.

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In case you missed it last time, below you will find a couple images of the current learning environment in Adaklu Torda. According to Hannah, one of my contacts from Pencils of Promise: “Kindergarten students [here] currently do not have a classroom of their own. The students attend classes under a tree and this makes the learning process very difficult. When the build is complete, there will be a 3 unit classroom that will replace the tree where the the kindergarten students currently learn. The community is friendly and the students are eager to learn. As a direct result of your support, Pencils of Promise now has the capacity to change the community and build a school for these students.”

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I’m excited to report that some great progress has been made! A representative from Pencils of Promise recently sent me the below two sets of pictures of our school. The first three photos show the school’s foundation while the second three show that some significant progress has been made on the frame and structure as well! One thing that I love about this organization is that they select communities that are “deeply committed to their children’s education,” and are willing to demonstrate that commitment by contributing 20% of the build efforts through labor and materials. That’s right, community members not only collect materials, they also actually help build the school. This is a great way to instill a sense of community pride and ownership.

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Foundation #2

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Starting to look like a school!

Looking good!

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Soon to be: Adaklu Torda Pre-School and Primary School

Thank you to the many readers who donated money and/or helped spread the word about this project! Thanks to you and the hard work of my 10A class, 78 students and 10 teachers in Ghana will have a place to learn and teach. I will share more pictures and updates as I receive them!

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The Balkan Sprint

Have you ever experienced that sinking feeling in your stomach when you realized a mistake? Perhaps you slept through a crucial meeting or forgot to turn in an important assignment for school. Like most people, I’ve had this feeling a handful of times in my life, but perhaps none was as upsetting as the one I experienced a few weeks ago.

After a wonderful week in Croatia, I hopped off the bus in Kotor, Montenegro. Even though I had to shorten and change around the dates of my trip to fit my school’s exam schedule, I was having a great time. While strolling through sunny Kotor, halfheartedly looking for my hostel, but more just trying to soak in the city, my mind started to wander:  I couldn’t believe that my time in the Balkans was coming to an end. The previous 10 months had flown by, and I felt so fortunate to have learned so much.

I then started thinking ahead to the next couple of days. I’d go back to Silistra for the last day of school, have a goodbye dinner with my amazing neighbors Krassy and Nadia, and then head to Sofia for goodbyes with my friend Valentin and the Fulbright staff. Oh, and of course I had plans to get coffee with Diana, who had put me in touch with the school in Alfatar I had volunteered with a few months before. When was that meeting again? I glanced at my watch: June 29th. Wait a minute…June 29th?

That’s when it hit me. That gut-wrenching feeling when you know you’re right, but begging to be wrong. If today is the 29th, that means tomorrow is June 30th–the last day of school. If my watch is right, then my flight that was meant to get me back to Bulgaria in time had left a few hours ago. A quick glance at my phone confirmed my suspicion, and the full weight of my mistake starting to sink in:  I was going to miss the last day of school. I couldn’t bear the thought of missing my final opportunity to say goodbye to the students who had made my year so transformational and enjoyable. How could this have happened? I rushed to the nearest cafe to regroup.

“I’ll take a Coke, please,” I told the waiter, knowing it was the cheapest way to the WiFi password. My laptop calendar was the final nail in the coffin, as I confirmed for the third time that it was indeed June 29th. I realized that I had been working off an older version of my itinerary that I had put together before adjusting my travel schedule. It was a silly mistake, but it was also a big one. Before my Coke arrived, I had already scoped out numerous flight options, realizing that my predicament was pretty bleak.

It was about 2:30 p.m. and I needed to be in Silistra, Bulgaria by 8:00 a.m. the next morning. It didn’t take me long to realize that this wouldn’t be easy. Because Silistra is so remote, there were literally zero flight options that would get me to Bucharest, Romania (the closest airport to my hometown) early enough for school. Once I had exhausted my flight options, I started thinking outside the box. Maybe I could drive…Google Maps showed a 14.5 hour trip, but the route would take me through Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia all before crossing Bulgaria in its entirety. I entertained the option for a few minutes before realizing that was probably not wise. I would have no cell service for navigating, and had no idea what sort of visa requirements (if any) might be necessary to pass through places like Kosovo.

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Drive from Kotor, Montenegro to Silistra, Bulgaria

If driving from Montenegro wasn’t an option, maybe I could fly somewhere closer, and drive from there…Aha! Belgrade! I had just been on a road trip from Silistra to Belgrade with Krassy, so I knew the route decently well. A quick glance at Google maps suggested it’d take me roughly 9.5 hours to make the drive. That meant if I could get to Belgrade by 10:00 p.m. and drive through the night, I could probably make it! I quickly pulled up Kayak, and found a direct flight to Belgrade leaving in just a few hours–I had a plan! I slammed my laptop shut, left a few Euro for my Coke, and flagged down a cab as quickly as I could.

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Drive from Belgrade, Serbia to Silistra, Bulgaria

I arrived at the Tivat (Montenegro’s capital) airport stressed, but happy to have at least some semblance of a plan. After purchasing a surprisingly cheap ticket, the waiting game began. I used my 30 minutes of free airport WiFi to start researching rental car options, but held off on booking anything in hopes that I could find a better deal at the airport. I sat patiently for the short, 50 minute flight, trying to plan out my next few moves.

Upon arrival, I headed straight to the rental car kiosks in search of something very specific: an automatic transmission, GPS, and the proper tags to get me across the border. I also needed the flexibility to be able to pick the car up in Belgrade, but return it in Bulgaria. I learned right away that it wasn’t going to be cheap. Most rental car companies charge exorbitant “drop fees” to drop off a car in another country.

I started to get worried after striking out at Budget, Dollar, and Thrifty rental car services. Finally, I caught a break at Enterprise, where they told me they had an automatic car that met my needs…but it wouldn’t be cheap. I stopped at a few more desks before the agent at Sixt took an interest in my problem, and bent over backwards to help find me a solution. Unfortunately, he came up empty handed, so I returned to Enterprise and told them I wanted the car. One agent smiled and opened the drawer to get my keys and the appropriate paperwork. All of a sudden she froze, and looked sheepishly up at the other agent, whispering something in Serbian. My stomach sank again. She looked at me apologetically and said, “I’m really sorry, but we just realized the cars we have available don’t have the right tags to get you across the border.”

Defeated, I grabbed a seat back in the waiting area, grasping for any possible solution. Every minute that passed put me one minute closer to missing out on my last day of school. If the Belgrade airport doesn’t have any solutions for me, perhaps I could rent a car from somewhere else….maybe even Sofia. At about the same time this thought occurred to me, the Sixt agent came over and sat beside me. “What if I have one of my guys drive you to Sofia?”

“That would be helpful,” I said, “but I actually need to get all the way across the country, which is another 6 or 7 hours Northeast of Sofia. “Would the Sixt branch at the Sofia airport have a car I could rent, and pick-up late tonight when I’d be arriving?”

We walked back over to his desk, and found a car that met my specifications at the airport in Sofia. I called the agent there, and he agreed to wait around until 12:30 a.m. for me to pick up the car. Things were starting to fall into place! The price he quoted me was the same price it would have cost me to rent the car in Belgrade, and drop it off in Bulgaria–expensive, but worth it to me to get back for the last day of school.

I started to get a bit suspicious, however, when I began to understand how their driver planned to get me to Sofia. Rather than using a car from Sixt, we headed over to another rental kiosk (the cheapest, I presume), and proceeded to rent a car under my name. It dawned on me that these guys would make a killer profit off of me by essentially charging me the drop fee, but then not having to pay it since the driver would bring the car back to Serbia once he returned. Realizing that the helpful agent was more likely trying to play me, I headed out to the taxi stand to do a little price comparison. Through chatting with a couple of the drivers, I realized that a taxi to Sofia would be about 2/3 the price.

After a short bidding war between a taxi driver and the guys from Sixt (I was essentially running back and forth between the two), it became apparent that taking a taxi was my best bet. I think the three guys from Sixt and the other rental agency were a bit frustrated, but they were unwilling to match the taxi driver’s price…I guess splitting the fare three ways wouldn’t go very far. The guy who won my business was more excited than a kid in a candy shop. I like to think it was my good company he was looking forward to, but in all likelihood it was his good fortune to score such a long ride.

I glanced at my watch as we hopped in the car, and calculated that we’d be in Sofia shortly after midnight. We made a quick stop at a gas station for some snacks and drinks. As we walked into the gas station, the driver turned to me and whispered in broken English, “If you want…you can get some BEER for the road”…typical Balkans. Despite my refusal to buy beer, my driver insisted on buying me snacks and a water for the road. “Thanks for the snacks,” I said as I took my seat in the car.

“Thanks for Sofia,” he responded. It was clear that this trip was a big deal for him, as he spent the first 15 minutes of the ride chatting excitedly with his wife about it. Once he finished up on the phone, he began showing me all sorts of pictures and videos of his wife. While I wanted nothing more than to get some sleep in preparation for my nighttime drive, I didn’t have the heart to quell my driver’s enthusiasm. However, after the 5th or 6th video and several dozen pictures, I politely told him that I needed a nap. Sleep didn’t come easily, but I spent the majority of the 4.5 hour trip trying to get some rest.

We pulled up to the Sofia airport at around 12:45 a.m. After paying my driver and wishing him well, I rushed into the airport, where the rental car agent was waiting for me. As he pulled up my paperwork, I took advantage of the WiFi to fire off a couple of important e-mails. Most pressing was to let my mentor Valentin know my plans, as I would need to retrieve my apartment key from him upon arrival. I had left the key with him so he and the school accountant could inspect my apartment and decide whether or not another Fulbright grantee would live there next year.

Ten minutes later, and I was on the road to Silistra. By the time I left, it was about 1 a.m., which would put me home around 7 in the morning…just in time for a quick nap and shower before school! I spent the majority of the ride chugging coffee and blasting Bulgarian music with the windows rolled down. While I was upset with myself for an incredibly stupid travel mistake, I was pleased to have mitigated the damage. The last day of school would prove to be memorable, and made the expense and inconvenience of my “Balkan Sprint” worthwhile. More on my last day at school coming soon!

A Lesson on Smoking

***As of Wednesday, July 15th, I’m back in the USA! I’ll be posting about my last couple days in Bulgaria soon, but first wanted to tell you about what I thought was a very important, albeit uncomfortable, lesson.***

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous teaching this particular lesson. That’s because I knew the topic would likely ruffle some feathers and would almost certainly make some of my students uncomfortable.

“Okay class, some of you aren’t going to like this lesson very much,” I said as I scrawled in big block letters on the white board: S-M-O-K-I-N-G.

To give you a bit of background, one of my first observations in Bulgaria was that smoking is widespread, especially when compared to the U.S. Any time I went to a concert or bar in Bulgaria, I’d come home smelling like smoke. While I didn’t let this bother me (I knew I was in a different country, after all, and wouldn’t expect people not to smoke for me), I was disappointed to see many of my students smoking between classes or after school. In my mind, they were simply too young to be making decisions that could cause addiction and have a long-lasting impact on their health. Because of this, I felt smoking was an important topic to discuss.

When I turned around from the whiteboard, I could tell that I already had the class’s attention.

“Before we get started, I do want to say that I completely respect each individual’s right to make decisions about his or her own body…BUT I also think it’s important to have all the necessary information before making such decisions. Additionally, while I personally am not a smoker, I have plenty of great friends who are, and that’s okay. I don’t think any less of someone who decides to smoke.”

“To get started, let’s make a list up on the board. Why do people smoke?”

“Stress!”

“To fit in.”

“Because they are curious.”

I had to write furiously to keep up as the answers came quickly. “Okay, great start. What else?”

“It’s cool.”

“To help them relax.”

“Because everybody else is.”

“Okay, good,” I said. “We’ve got a good list going now. Can you think of anything else?”

“To lose weight.”

“Addiction.”

Once we completed our brainstorm, I played the following video for the class. I asked them to pay careful attention to some of the negative health effects smoking can have. Even though the video was not in English, I thought it was pretty powerful and a great source for discussion.

“Alright, who can tell me what happened in the video?” After a couple of students did a nice job explaining what they had watched, I asked them to shout out some of the negative health impacts mentioned in the video.

“Cigarettes contain insecticide.”

“Smoking can make you look older.”

“You might die faster. They ask the kids if they’d rather live and play.”

“Lung cancer, emphysema, and strokes.”

Once we’d covered some of the drawbacks mentioned in the video, we further substantiated our list. Things like “yellowing of the teeth and skin,”high blood pressure,” and “pregnancy risks” all made the list. I then passed out statistics I had pulled from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

But before looking at the numbers, we had a brief conversation about the aforementioned sources of that information. I wanted to let my students know that these weren’t numbers I got from smokingsucks.com, but rather were well-researched and documented facts. I divided the students into groups of 4 or 5, and then had each group present 2-3 things that they found interesting or worrisome. From the data, my students shared that smoking:

  • increases the risk of developing lung cancer by 25 times for men and 25.7 times for women
  • increases the risk of stroke and coronary heart disease 2 to 4 times
  • can cause cancer almost anywhere in the body (bladder, blood, cervix, colon, esophagus, kidney, liver, pancreas, and stomach, just to name a few)
  • affects bone health
  • is a cause of type 2 diabetes
  • increase he risk of developing lung cancer by about 23 times among men and about 13 times higher among women when compared with non-smokers

I also felt compelled to share some of the anti-smoking advertisements that I saw growing up. While they are somewhat graphic, I think they can be effective in making kids think twice before smoking. The fact that I still remembered these campaigns is proof that they worked on me!

At several points during the lesson, I made sure to emphasize that smoking does not mean that one or all of these things will necessarily happen to you. Instead, it means that chances for some of these health ailments will increase. “You’re playing a numbers game, in a way,” I said.

Looking at the whiteboard now, we had a list of reasons people smoke on the lefthand side and a list of health impacts smoking can have on the righthand side. “This,” I said, gesturing to the board, “is the decision that every person has to make. Now while I personally chose not to smoke based on some of these health implications, plenty of other people decide to smoke, and that’s okay.”

Moving on, Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union, meaning many families are hurting financially. Knowing this, I thought a financial argument against smoking might be a good exercise as well. “How much does a pack of cigarettes cost in Bulgaria?,” I asked.

“Five leva.”

“Okay, good. And how many cigarettes come in a pack?”

“Twenty.”

“Alright, and how many cigarettes would you estimate that the average Bulgarian smokes per day?”

My students started shouting out their guesses, which ranged from 10 to 40. For the purpose of this exercise, I went with 20 cigarettes (one pack) per day.

“Okay, so one pack per day times 365 days per year is 365 packs per year” (Brilliant, huh?).

“Multiply that by 5 leva per pack,” I said while writing the multiplication problem up on the board, “and we’re looking at 1,825 leva per year.” Knowing that my students are approaching driving age, I then followed up with, “and how much would you guess a used car costs in Silistra?”

The answers came back slowly as the realization dawned on my kids.

“Probably around 1,500 leva.”

“You can get a cheap one for 1,000!”

“No more than 2,000 leva.”

“So you’re telling me that if a smoker decides to quit smoking, he or she could afford a used car in about a year with money that would have been spent on cigarettes?”

Silence.

“And for all those of you who have told me you want to travel, but can’t afford it…keep these figures in mind as you make your decision whether or not to smoke.”

The last message I wanted to leave with my students was that Bulgaria isn’t exactly “normal” when it comes to smoking. I asked where they thought Bulgaria ranked in terms of per capita cigarette consumption per year, and they were shocked to learn that Bulgarian adults smoke more cigarettes per year than adults in any other country besides Greece and Serbia. I wanted them to realize that while smoking might be the norm in Bulgaria, it isn’t in many other parts of the world.

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While I don’t think this lesson alone will flip how my students think about smoking upside down, I hope it will at least make them think twice about the health and financial implications of smoking. I was impressed with my students’ maturity, as we discussed what could have been a contentious topic.

Road Trip with Krassy

If you Google “Sexiest Tourist Destinations of 2015,” I can almost guarantee you that Belgrade won’t populate your results. But that didn’t deter me from eagerly accepting Krassy and Nadiya’s invitation to join them and 11 of their closest Bulgarian friends on a road trip to Serbia’s capital. Lindsey flew in to join us, and we all had a fantastic weekend celebrating Nadiya’s birthday with delicious food, live Serbian music, and of course a little rakia.

While Belgrade was fun, perhaps the most entertaining part of the weekend was the 10 hour car ride from Silistra. As you might remember from previous posts, Krassy is quite a character, but the excitement of a road trip gave him an extra boyish energy that was hysterical.

Our journey started early. The two quick doorbell bursts that typically signal Krassy’s arrival came at 4:30 a.m. instead of the more normal 6:30 p.m. Krassy, Nadiya, and I lugged our bags down four flights of stairs, and met up with Stefka and Yavko–friends and our travel buddies for the day. Once we’d loaded the luggage, Yavko and Stefka sat up front, while Krassy was squished between Nadiya and me in the backseat. Time to leave!

Groggy from the early start, I was looking forward to shutting my eyes, and hopefully grabbing a couple more hours of sleep. I quickly realized that wouldn’t be an option.

4:35 a.m.  Krassy enthusiastically shows me all the bells and whistles on Yavko’s car. The cameras, the warning beeps when you’re in danger of hitting something in reverse, the air conditioning, the seat belt–nothing was too mundane to overlook mentioning.

4:47 a.m. – Krassy sees I have my Bulgarian words notebook, and suggests that in order to learn more Bulgarian, I ought to write down new words, cut them into small strips, dissolve those strips in wine, and drink them. There’s nothing I won’t try…it was about this time I decided I should also document all of Krassy’s shenanigans for retelling.

5:35 a.m. – A song comes on that everybody loves, but can’t identify. I proceed to BLOW THEIR MINDS with Shazam, the app used to identify songs after listening to just a few seconds. Krassy inspected the app carefully, fascinated by the technology.

6:12 a.m. – We discuss the mental health system in Bulgaria, and Krassy begins acting out what ADHD is to help me understand. Priceless.

7:45 a.m. – Krassy begins explaining the entire history of the Russo-Turkish War.

Somewhere around 8:00 a.m. – I drift off to sleep (have you ever tried listening to the history of the Russo-Turkish War at 7:45 AM?)

8:57 a.m. – Krassy wakes me up and says in Bulgarian, “You can’t make memories if you’re sleeping, Michael.” I guess he has a point. I can only imagine he had finished telling the history of the Russo-Turkish War just before waking me up.

9:14 a.m. – Nadiya receives her 6th happy birthday phone call of the day. Based on the number of phone calls she received that day, I could swear she is a borderline celebrity, and the picture with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov hanging in their living room corroborates that observation.

9:35 a.m. – Krassy makes the exact same joke he made at 4:47, only this time he suggests using beer instead of wine. I consider trying it for the second time in 5 hours.

9:57 a.m. – We make our first stop of the day to fill up the gas tank. I’m standing outside with Krassy, who is frantically trying to fit in a couple of cigarettes before getting back in the car. As we’re making small talk, a big bird flies towards us, looking to pass just above our heads. Suddenly, Krassy snaps up his hand and connects with the bird’s tail as it passes. “Michael!,” he exclaims as a boyish grin forms from ear to ear. Krassy beamed with pride over his successful “tag” as we made our way back to the car.

10:10 a.m. – Arriving in Serbia was probably the easiest border crossing I’ve ever experienced. Our car rolled up to the border and Yavko handed our passports over, and said we were heading to Belgrade for a birthday celebration. Never one to be left out, Krassy yelled from the backseat “Обичаме Сербска скара” or “We love Serbian Grill!”

10:52 a.m. – Out of nowhere: “Michael, what instrument does Bulgarian sound like?”

10:53 a.m. – Once he was satisfied with my answer (I think I said a trumpet for no reason whatsoever), he moved on to his next question. “Michael…In Spain, they speak Spanish. In France, they speak French. In Bulgaria, they speak Bulgarian. In England, they speak English. Why don’t they speak American in America?” I gave what I felt was a thoughtful answer about colonization and said it was a similar reason to why Brazilians speak Portuguese and Peruvians speak Spanish. Krassy wasn’t so convinced, and told me to ask Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton once I returned to the States. I’ll get right on that.

10:57 a.m. – Still tired from the early start, I briefly doze off, only to be immediately awakened by Krassy. Determined not to give anyone a moment to rest, he wakes Nadiya up right after me. To prevent us from falling asleep again, he goes on a streak of basically just telling us to look at things. For example…

11:10 a.m. – “Michael, look at this big tunnel.”

11:11 a.m. – “Michael, look at those rocks.”

11:13 a.m. – “Michael, look at this second tunnel. There are eleven in total that we will pass through.”

11:16 a.m. – “Michael, who do you think made these mountains? Was it Nostradamus? Julius Caesar? Aliens? Do you think it was the same people who made the pyramids?”

11:18 a.m. – “Michael, what is влак (pronounced vlak) in English?” (It’s train, if you’re interested).

12:17 p.m. – Krassy requests we listen to Serbian music, and we do for the rest of the trip.

12:40 p.m. – As we approach Belgrade, a motorcycle blows by us, and Krassy turns to me and says, “I hope he’s an organ donor.”

The rest of the trip was a blast, and being part of a birthday celebration with a big group of Bulgarians (there were 13 of us in total) is one of the coolest cultural experiences I’ve ever had. I feel incredibly lucky to have been included in the weekend, and am especially pleased that I got to witness Krassy’s antics on the ride. Here are some pictures from the rest of the trip!

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The U.S. bombed Serbia in the late 90’s during the breakup of Yugoslavia. I was surprised to still see such noticeable evidence of that.

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Nadiya, Lindsey, Me, Krassy before dinner

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Action shot from Dinner!

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Just a little dancing

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Brief stop at a winery

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Ladies in our group

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Krassy made a new BFF

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Day trip to Novi Sad, Serbia

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Lindsey and me in Novi Sad