Hailing from Germany, France, Spain, England, and the U.S., we twelve converge at an unlikely point: Bansko, Bulgaria, a quiet country village nestled in the Pirin mountains, for a two-week work camp.
While most of my fellow campers are college students from abroad hoping to save the Bulgarian forests, I've got few expectations: A work camp just sounded like a cheap and interesting way to see the countryside of a little-known nation.
And at first, we see very little. The forestry department isn't quite prepared for us, and we twiddle our thumbs while the officials try to find us busy work like cleaning up litter and debris from the national parks. But soon we're working side by side with farmers wielding hand-carved pitchforks, whose chestnut horses sometimes pull us home and who tell our camp leader, Youlia, how surprised theyare to see this hybrid group of strangers get along so well, and how eagerly European men and women share the same work.
The first weekend, we camp out to climb 2,914-meter Mount Virhin, the Pirins' crown peak, and explore some of the 180 low-lying lakes. Our mountain mascot is "Rambo," a hunter with the forest department who wears a red headband, camo fatigues, and a clunky belt displaying his tools of destruction. Rambo is, of course, a ladies' man, and he gives us peaches as tokens of his affection.
But Rambo also makes friends with Nacho, a Spanish volunteer. "Banderas!" he calls to Nacho. "Red wine. Drink!" Nacho drinks, and so do we, both red wine and rakia, a cloudy, anise-flavored liquor. Once everyone is bleary-eyed, the Bulgarians rev up the chainsaw to cut more firewood, a 7-yearold swigs from the wine bottle, and Rambo challenges every other guy to beat him at armwrestling. Just another Saturday night in the Pirins.
We spend our second week in Yakoruda, a village in the nearby Rila range. Our odd task in Yakoruda is to gather a yellow-blossomed plant used to make Viagra. Each day we pile in a rickety old bus with the local laborers and climb into the pines. Surrounded by Rila's quiet blue ridges, we strip the yellow from rainbow fields of flowers, breaking for leisurely cheese-and-sausage lunches under grandfatherly willows.
It's all a bit sketchy: Aren't we taking potential income out of the pockets of the locals picking the flowers alongside us? Who is the shady character at the bottom of the hill shoving the bags bursting with yellow herbs into his trunk and handing over a fistful of cash to the forestry supervisor? Who is really profiting from this flower power?
When we raise our objections, our forestry-department host says, "It costs money to feed and lodge you, you know." We stare dumbly at the roses arranged on our breakfast table and decide not to press the issue, lest the local mafia take a sudden interest in us.
So, we come to realize, we aren't making a dramatic contribution to the community here. In two weeks, how could we? Yet I leave Bansko feeling we've captured the spirit of the work camp - hard work, humor, curiosity, and tolerance of unlike minds and cultures. And there's still plenty of time to save the world.
Volunteers for Peace (VFP.org) specializes in short term voluntary service placements in over 70 countries. Most programs cost $200 and include accommodation and food.|