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Changing attitudes, altitudes

September 12, 2006 12:50 am


Stafford's James Mayers spent some of his downtime in Bulgaria mountain climbing and sightseeing. nestpc3.jpg

James Mayers works at an archaeological dig in Bulgaria during his Peace Corps service. nestpc2.jpg

The terrain in Bulgaria is hilly, with the country surrounded by mountain ranges.


James Mayers, a Stafford resident, found that his greatest challenge in his Peace Corps service in Bulgaria was the pessimism among the older generation.

But he has been able to infuse some American optimism among the younger Bulgarians.

Mayers, who left the United States in August 2004, has almost completed his 27 months of service.

His post is in Purvomay, a city located on the Maritsa River with a population of about 21,000. Mayers worked for the city tackling environmental and community issues. He also worked in the schools.

"We created projects where the children got involved and volunteered their services, or performed studies and experiments related to the local environment," he said in an e-mail.

In the United States, volunteerism is a norm. But in Bulgaria--a country that was under communist rule for 45 years and adopted a socialist form of government for another seven--volunteer service is a newer concept, explained Mayers.

He used grant money to help clean up and beautify the community. Local government officials also helped. "Hopefully, this is a beginning of a shift in thinking" among city residents.

Mayers explained that many of the older generation lack the initiative to change things for the better.

"This is definitely the why-bother-trying, nothing-will-change attitude," he explained.

His projects were funded through National Youth Service Day and Disney.

Mayers also won funding through USAID for a project to train vineyard workers. Fifteen people spent more than two months learning the theory and practice of wine-making, from planting to pouring. The trainees received certificates of completion and employment at one of the two local vineyards.

"The success of the program generated a lot of interest in the community, which is providing momentum for continuation of the program. Future training will be funded by the vineyard owners," Mayers said.

Peace Corps service can also offer opportunity for play.

When Mayers had a chance to get away from it all, he would head for the hills.

Throughout his time of service, he went hiking, climbing and camping through the mountains in Bulgaria.

More than half of the country is hilly or mountainous. The average elevation is about 1,575 feet.

Mayers had planned to climb Moussala, the highest peak in the western part of the country, during an eight-day August excursion. But instead, he tackled the second-highest peak at 9, 560 feet.

During a previous three-day adventure, Mayers and some other volunteers visited the Seven Lakes and made a 5-hour climb down steep terrain to visit the Rila Monastery. This is Bulgaria's most famous place of refuge for villagers who were fleeing invading armies.

Mayers also went to Greece for two weeks in June. In addition to visiting Athens and Gytheo, a small fishing village on the coast, Mayers hiked up Mount Olympus for three days.

On the first day, he climbed nearly a vertical mile. On his descent that day, about an hour from the lodge, Mayers said the pleasant weather changed. The clouds grew dark and the wind increased. Rain poured, thunder clapped and lightning lit the sky. The rain turned quickly to sleet. Mayers wasn't dressed for this. He was wearing shorts, a T-shirt, a baseball cap and boots.

"I was soaked, but still feeling warm from the exhausting hike. When the lightning and thunder started, I really felt like I was heading towards Zeus (corny, I know). I felt alive."

Mayers' tour of duty is up Oct. 8. He plans to travel through Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands before returning to the United States in time for Thanksgiving.

To reach KATHLEEN LEWIS: 540/735-1975

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