By Rel Davis

Most Americans probably don't even know where Bulgaria is, much less Straldja!

So how do I tell them where I'll be spending the next two years of my life? Straldja is a little town in Bulgaria that no one has ever heard about.

Here's where Bulgaria and Straldja are. Okay?

First, let's find Bulgaria. Get out your map of eastern Europe (or use that old globe you keep on your desk for decoration. You know, the one your aunt Martha got you for Christmas back in '92.)

Look for the Black Sea. It's right there, just above Turkey. Got it? If you found a big lake with the Danube river and the Dan river both running into it, and the Bospurus running out you've found the Black Sea.

Now look to the left of the Black Sea (west, of course). That's Bulgaria. To the south of Bulgaria are Turkey and Greece. To the north is Romania. And to the west is, well, what used to be Yugoslavia. Now it's several countries, including the wonderfully named FYROM - Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. I'm sure you've heard of THAT.

Bulgaria is about the same size as Tennessee and has about the same population as New York City. Got it?

Now look at the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria, right about in the middle. You'll see a place called "Bourgas." This is a major seacoast resort area in Bulgaria. Yes, I know, you've never heard of it, either.

Anyway, now you've found Bourgas. Look west a little bit, about 50 kilometers (that's something like 30 miles). Hopefully, you'll see a town called Straldja (the spelling might be a little different). Well no, it isn't on the globe your aunt Martha sent you. Anyway, that's where I live.

Now you've heard of it.

Straldja is what they call in Bulgaria a "municipality." It has a little more than 10,000 people in it and covers a rather wide area, including one good-size town and 22 smaller villages. The town where I live, also called Straldja, is the administrative center (like a county seat in America) and has a local government consisting of a mayor and a city council. To complicate matters, each of the villages also has a mayor.


I work in the mayor's office and my wife, Edith Sloan, works at the local school. Other than providing us a small apartment in one of those big socialist-era apartment buildings called "bloks," they don't pay us anything to work here. We do it for free.

We're both volunteers with the U.S. Peace Corps. Our jobs are to help the people in the small town of Straldja learn how to live and prosper in a free and democratic society and under an open-market economy.

It isn't an easy job.

For one thing, we're the only Americans in town and only a couple of people in town speak any English at all. We have had to learn Bulgarian and must use their language to do everything - shop for groceries, travel around the area, and do our jobs.

For another thing, Bulgaria is in the midst of a transition period between communism and democracy, a difficult and trying one. As unprofitable and inefficient state-run businesses had to be closed down and as an entire nation had to learn how to function in an open business economy, real wages have fallen probably by close to half, and a large percentage of the working population (officially one in every five) is unemployed.

As the price of freedom, many Bulgarians have found themselves suddenly impoverished.

Resources in the nation are greatly under-utilized. Factories lie empty and buildings are unused. And skilled workers, engineers and scientists are begging for a chance to get a job.

In some ways, Straldja is a typical Bulgarian town. Unemployment is common and buildings lie empty.

In other ways, it's not typical. Unemployment here is close to 40%, probably twice the national average. Straldja also has a high number of Roma peoples (Gypsies) living here -- at 30%, ten times more than the national average of 3%. These fiercely independent descendants of an ancient migration from India keep themselves apart from other people, and as a result often live in abject poverty.

Straldja, however, is an agricultural community and the unemployed can usually survive on food they grow themselves in their own gardens. This gives Straldja an advantage a lot of other Bulgarian towns don't have - the unemployed can maintain themselves far longer than in the bigger cities, and the town can keep a quite large working population available for anyone who cares to invest in the area.

There are a number of investment opportunities in town, of course. Here are only a few:


Existing under-utilized manufacturing sites:

Metal-working Plant. Before the Berlin wall fell, a large factory in Straldja made arms for Eastern Bloc countries. When the Soviet system collapsed, demand for these products, of course, collapsed with it. The plant was closed down and it remains closed. Many of the workers in the plant, engineers and skilled craftsmen, are still unemployed or under-employed and living in the area.

A furniture factory. A large wood-working plant is located near the old arms factory.

Both of these are large plants and located on the railroad line - a main hub line serving the seacoast port at Bourgas and the nation's capitol, Sofia.

Canning factories. A couple of canning operations in the municipality, canning locally grown fruits and vegetables, operate at only a fraction of their potential. Lack of markets in a depressed economy is the primary reason for this, along with the absence of a ready export market.

Greenhouses. A large greenhouse operation, producing floral products, once operated just north of the town of Straldja. Heated by natural spring water that flows from the ground at 77 degrees Celsius, they were the center of an economical and efficient operation. The depressed economy affected them as well. Today, only some of the greenhouses are being used, and only for the production of fruits and vegetables.

Water buffaloes. That's right, water buffaloes. There is a farm producing these extremely healthy animals right outside Straldja. They produce milk and dairy products from the animals, and breed stock for sale of young animals. Again, only a fraction of the space at the farm is being utilized.

With a relatively small financial investment, all of these could become successful sources of export products for western Europe and other markets around the world. (Bulgaria is in the process of applying for membership in the European Union so trade in that direction is relatively easy.)

Other opportunities include:

1. The need for a dairy operation to take advantage of locally produced milk products,

2. A possibility of a large-scale meatpacking plant to take advantage of the beef and swine producing capabilities of the area, and

3. An opportunity to expand the planting of vineyards, orchards and similar perennial plants to meet the demand for grapes to feed the region's wineries and for truck-crop products for area canneries.

Advantages of investing in the Straldja area are these:

· Availability of a large and skilled workforce,

· Salary levels which are probably the lowest in Europe - average monthly salary is around $75,

· Excellent location for shipping: the municipality is not only located on the main rail-line to the sea-coast city of Bourgas (less than an hour away by rail), it is also astride the major east-west highway in the nation, which runs from Bourgas to Sofia and beyond to the rest of Europe,

· The availability of many unused or inadequately used physical plants, many of which are owned by the municipality and available on reasonable terms,

· Location in a peaceful and stable nation, the stablest of all the Balkans,

· And in an economy where expenses are much, much lower than in the rest of Europe, and much, much lower than in the States.

It's probably true that most people don't know where Straldja is, and few even know where Bulgaria is, but believe me, it's where opportunity is.

(For more information, contact Rel Davis, Peace Corps Bulgaria, at e-mail, or call 04761/ 24 46. From the States dial "011-359" instead of the initial "0".


Rel Davis, Peace Corps

Municipality of Straldja

12, "Hemus" Blvd.

8680 Straldja

Yambol Oblast