March 22, 2005: Headlines: COS - Bulgaria: Sauk Centre Herald: Aaron Wills says: Here in the former Soviet bloc country of Bulgaria, especially in the rural, mountain villages, people are very curious about America

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Bulgaria: Peace Corps Bulgaria: The Peace Corps in Bulgaria: March 22, 2005: Headlines: COS - Bulgaria: Sauk Centre Herald: Aaron Wills says: Here in the former Soviet bloc country of Bulgaria, especially in the rural, mountain villages, people are very curious about America

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Aaron Wills says: Here in the former Soviet bloc country of Bulgaria, especially in the rural, mountain villages, people are very curious about America

Aaron Wills says: Here in the former Soviet bloc country of Bulgaria, especially in the rural, mountain villages, people are very curious about America

Aaron Wills says: Here in the former Soviet bloc country of Bulgaria, especially in the rural, mountain villages, people are very curious about America

Wills contributes to making Borino better

by Aaron Wills

Caption: Traditional dress of the three ethnic groups in Borino--Turkish Muslim, Bulgarian Muslim and Bulgarian.

One of the challenges of being a Peace Corps volunteer is you are a living representative of America to people who only know the U.S. through our movies, music, foreign policy and McDonalds. Here in the former Soviet bloc country of Bulgaria, especially in the rural, mountain villages, people are very curious about America.

During the past year I’ve been asked a lot of strange and ridiculous questions. Two most common questions have been rather normal and simple--“How is the weather in Minnesota compared to Borino?” and”“Have you gotten used to Borino yet?”

To the former, I reply that Minnesota is actually colder in the winter than Borino. However, while the winter may be technically colder in Minnesota, it is harsher here. In Borino people don’t have the heating systems which make our households in Minnesota warm and cozy during the dead of January. Most families heat only a couple rooms with wood stoves. The main room serves as a combination living room, bedroom and kitchen with cooking done on the wood stove. The other heated room is usually a bedroom where the children sleep.

I live on the third floor of a house, with the family, who owns the house, on the second floor and the grandmother on the first. Houses in Borino are large, usually with three floors, to allow for when the sons get married to live in the same house. I heat the main room by wood stove and cook with a little countertop electric stove in a very cold kitchen. The rest of my floor feels like the great outdoors. I remember numerous times last winter seeing the water in the toilet covered with ice in the morning. When I returned from a trip to London a few weeks ago my pipes were frozen for two days, and then froze again a day after I had gotten them unthawed.

Now that’s winter.

To the latter question I would say yes, I have gotten used to life here in Borino. I remember fondly the day last May I knew I was no longer an outsider in Borino. It was a day when people failed to notice me walking by. Even though at that time I had been living in Borino for seven months, I was still a central attraction in town. The little kids stared at me, the old women whispered about me and everyone took notice as I walked by.

I was living in a fishbowl. Every small town is like a fishbowl. Everyone knows everybody else’s business. There is the gossip in Borino like in Sauk Centre – at the local café over morning coffee, at the hairstylists and at the local hardware store, Borino’s mini-version of Fleet Supply. The only thing we’re missing here is a golf course.

But my situation was much more extreme, being the first foreigner to ever live in Borino and most likely the first American to ever be in Borino. That sunny May afternoon was different. I had become part of the landscape of Borino.

Becoming a part of the normal landscape of Borino as a Peace Corps volunteer is, in my opinion, the most important thing which has contributed to my successes as a volunteer. Like anywhere, and especially in smaller communities and villages, having everyday contact with the people and gaining their trust is essential. The Western idea of separate professional and personal relationships is unknown in Borino. Here business is conducted with friends and family members.

During my first year here, I believe we did some good things for the community. We began as a community group with so many ideas, but no idea how to make them become a reality. We’ve realized some of our ideas – opening the information center, which has become a source of pride for the community (maybe like the new auditorium or City Hall in Sauk Centre), cleaning up the river, beginning to popularize Borino for tourism, and starting to popularize the idea of community service – and my colleagues have seen their hard work pay off for the first time.

If anything, maybe that will be the real legacy I leave behind when I depart: the belief that things can change for the better.

Currently we are focusing on an education initiative to create a Center for Community Education in Borino.

In Bulgaria, like America, knowledge of, and ability to work with computers and the internet is becoming a necessity in almost all jobs. Unfortunately, in Borino people sorely lack these skills. The community group recognizes that to improve people’s lives, education is vitally important. So with this project we are looking to address the lack of educational opportunities in the community, especially with computers and multimedia technology for both community members and students at the Borino School. In this center we will be able to hold community education classes for basic computer operation, common computer programs, and the internet. Teachers will be able to use the multimedia equipment to show new educational materials now becoming available in Bulgaria. And it will serve as a meeting hall for all community members or organizations who wish to use it.

The unfortunate catch with this center is that is costs money, which our volunteer community group does not have. So we are working to raise money in both Bulgaria and America. The Sauk Centre Rotary Club has been generous enough to work with us on this initiative and is partnering with the Smolyan Rotary Club here in Bulgaria to support the project. Rotary has agreed to provide some funding and also by matching outside donations. If anyone is interested in donating money towards the Center for Community Education in Borino project or wants more information please call Moe Otte from the Sauk Centre Rotary Club or my mom, Marcia Wills, at 320-352-3631. And hopefully before I leave Bulgaria, I will have the opportunity to write another article in the Herald about the success of the Center.

Another one of our focal points for the rest of my time here is developing tourism in the region. We are working on creating a tourism website for Borino in English and Bulgarian which should be ready around the end of April. For those interested, the address will be

A more complex problem we have started to engage is that of corruption and government transparency. Often it is a Catch-22. The municipality illegally sells a person’s land to someone from out of town or refuses to renew a license for someone’s business because he or she does not support the mayor. To us these things are absurd because they are so blatantly illegal. Here they are normal. People know, yet say nothing because of fear of the repercussions or doubt that anything will happen. They still do not realize that government is here to serve them, not the other way around. Now I appreciate the annoying parent who is always making a fuss about something to the superintendent or the school board. He or she is, in many ways, a basis of our country – an involved citizen.

Work aside, a lasting impression that I will have of Borino is of the true kindness of the people. People in the community have treated me like a son, always looking out for me, especially my colleagues Tosho, Bilgin and Penef. As one local baba, or grandmother, always tells me, “Well, with your mother so far away, someone has to take care of you.”

I know that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Fifteen years since the fall of communism is still a relatively short time. I look forward to the day when I come back to Borino and things are different, better for the people. Hopefully I will have contributed to that.

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Story Source: Sauk Centre Herald

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