Okay, before I go into the adventure, I have to give some background information or else it won’t make sense why, from my very first trip to Bulgaria, my life has been transformed. And instead of being semi-offended that one of my closest high school friends said that I would end up living in a foreign country, dressed in a “moo moo”, I could embrace that hippie-like spirit.
Ever since I was little I’ve been told two things:  I have a very sensitive heart, meaning I cry a lot and care about others, I later learned this is called “empathy”, which is a blessing and a curse.  That I am different. For example, in second grade, we were given a sheet of paper with only a heading “My Dream”, other seven year-old girls wrote one normal little girl goal like; “My dream is to be a princess.” But oh, no, not me, I was the odd one in the class who wrote seven things, including; “I wish the earth would be clean. I wish people would not rob, and leave things where they are.” And, “I wish Mexico had more money”, no idea how I knew that it was a poor country, but apparently, it concerned me. I can say, I was fortunate to be born in an “American Dream” family, my mom was first generation, and grew up on an almond and peach farm in the Central Valley of California. My dad grew up in the Central Valley as well; his parents were blue collar, sweet, hardworking people from Oklahoma. When I was young, my dad started working in the technology world. Although we left the Central Valley when I was three, my parents were always quick to remind my sister and me that we are “blessed in order to bless others.”
Flash forward to the summer of 2007, the summer after my first year of college, when I went to Pazardjik, Bulgaria with 23 other people from my church in the San Francisco Bay Area. This trip was the first time I went to Europe, and the Bulgarians, Turkish, and Roma (Gypsies), could not understand why I chose to go to Bulgaria. This is when it hit me; they don’t know how beautiful and important they are. This is where “Little Ashley” finally learned it was okay that I wasn’t like everyone else, because I was meant to be with the outcasts and help them learn their worth in the sight of God, and the world. Although, I never will know what it’s like to have to move around the continent just to make a few dollars a day, I do know the universal language of love. I realize that sounds super corny, but when you see little kids being pushed to the side and treated as a burden rather than a gift, you quickly learn that a little love goes a long way. And some clichés exist because they are rooted in truth.
My heart is in Bulgaria, with the nationals (Bulgarians), the Turkish, and Roma (Gypsies) also known as Romy or Romany. Yet, there is so much racism and turmoil in that country! My first year there, 2007, was Bulgaria’s introduction year in the European Union, since then things have changed for the better and the worse. For example, previous to 2007, Turkish and Roma (plural of Romy), were not allowed to attend the same schools as the national Bulgarian. They are now able to go to the same schools, but similarly to America during the segregation era, people protest the integrated schools, and many students do not have access to these schools, so the organizations I go to Bulgaria with provides vans for many of the villages in Southern Bulgaria.
We are each assigned a Bulgarian host family, and even the national Bulgarians, who have a one bedroom apartment for a family of four, and often can’t even afford to take a shower every day, are far wealthier than the majority of the Turkish and Roma. When I say that, while in Bulgaria, I am pushed out of my suburbia and hygiene-conscious life style, it is an understatement, but I still love every mosquito bitten, donkey riding, moment of my time there. As well as, every coffee, conversation, and walk down to the city center. Oh, and I can’t forget the times I’ve encountered the mafia, or worse. My friends and family gasp when I mention that stuff, so I tend to leave it out.
The group I travel with has shrunk from 24 to around 6, many years it’s me, two married couples in their 50’s, and Vula, the 75 year-old, amazing woman who leads the trip. Although small, we are a mighty group and every year we bring food, clothes, and a little bit of fun to at least ten Turkish and Roma villages. These villages are full of people who are often ostracized, and forgotten, yet they line up and make us feel like the most important people in their lives. A characteristic we try to mirror in our time there.
This July will be my seventh year, but ninth time, going to Bulgaria. If you ever have a chance to visit this scenically beautifully, and historically complicated country, GO! To learn more about the organization I travel with, please visit: www.macedonianoutreach.org.