Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Karen Larsen (page 2)
 Talking with
Karen Larsen
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And your town?
My town was a tough place. I say that with some reserve in that, unlike many Peace Corps Volunteers, I did not spend my service living in a bamboo structure as monsoon season raged. The electricity did not always work, the pipes froze and I hauled water across the city from a filthy spring burbling up from under a railroad trestle, but there was electricity, and access to a (mostly) functional telephone. Life was hard, but in a Balkan sort of way: instability, violence, grinding poverty and the emotional dislocation of a society “in transition.” There was no malaria, though, no schistosomiasis, no big snakes, or scorpions, and for that I was grateful and felt like my Peace Corps experience was easier than that of others in different, more tropical parts of the world.
You were in a one-Volunteer town?
Yes. When I arrived in Bulgaria I was twenty-six and already had a few years of professional experience and independent living under my belt. For those reasons, the Peace Corps sent me alone to a town that had a reputation for chewing up Volunteers. The first PCV in Cherven Bryag lasted eight months, the second less than four. I was the third. Yet Cherven Bryag was a place that was rough through circumstance rather than choice. Once it had been a prosperous, orderly and safe place to live and raise a family.
     The town had been built to house the workers of an enormous defense contracting factory that built heavy weaponry for the Soviet-era market. With the collapse of that economic system, that factory, along with so many other Bulgarian state enterprises, hemorrhaged money for several years until late in 1996 when the financial and governmental structures utterly collapsed.
     I arrived in Cherven Bryag as the massive lay-offs, which ultimately threw eighty percent of the population out of work, reached their zenith. When inflation reached three-hundred percent a month, and banks had long since frozen accounts to avoid runs, it was obvious that life in Cherven Bryag was becoming extremely difficult.
     For most people, there was nowhere else to go. Those with connections to the surrounding villages, and those who had access to garden plots on the outskirts of the town, faired better than those who had no family on the land. Strangely, the one industry that did fabulously well during this time was organized crime. We were close enough to the Serbian border that smugglers did a booming business — petrol, washing machines, weapons, drugs, women — anything that could be bought cheaply in Bulgaria and sold across the border for profit was fair game.
     The “insurance” business was vigorous too. The local police and governmental structures were permissive and, it was whispered, in the pay of the thugs locally called “wrestlers” who extorted money under the guise of “protecting people” in those uncertain times. They were dangerous men. They beat one of my neighbors to death, leaving his body, minus an eye and a hand, hanging by the neck in a shower stall for his elderly mother to find. “A bad loan with the wrong people” his mother’s friends said as they came to pay their respects.
     As difficult as it was there, I loved my students and I loved the small courtesies of Bulgarian life, even in the most meager circumstances. I am a jogger and as it was dangerous (and considered very odd) for me to run alone, one of my colleagues would come a few times a week at six in the morning and we would run together, down to the sports arena near the river. He called himself my “Bulgarian Father” and I loved his gentle humor and his correction of my dreadful grammar.
     When “insurance” men kicked in the door of my apartment and took everything I owned, my students showed up en mass that afternoon with food and hand-drawn cards and, assuming that I would leave, begged me to stay. I was mad as hell and told them I wasn’t going anywhere.
     The police interrogated me twice under accusations of spying, and an English language colleague always accompanied me and spent those hours under the bare bulbs making sure that I understood the nuances of every question and that there was no dispute about my replies. Students took me to visit their grandmothers in outlying villages on holiday weekends. Sometimes a lamb was slaughtered and we would eat and drink and sing into the night.
     There is more. Much more. Seven years has gone by and I still think about Bulgaria every day.
Let’s talk about your book.
Why the book? What was the reason for the bike ride?
   The motorcycle trip to Alaska began as a tour of the North American continent. Although I had done some wandering through the Appalachians and had a passing familiarity with the wilderness and mining districts north of Lake Huron, I was almost completely ignorant of the rest of my country or, rather, countries. Also, it was becoming increasingly odd to me that I had walked beaches in Mozambique but had never seen Pacific Coast. The deserts of Jordan? Been there. The deserts of the Southwest? Never. The farming villages of Central Asia? I had been through many of those, but the farming communities of Alberta or Kansas? None.
     When I came out of Princeton in May of 2000, intellectually weary and thoroughly sick of the filtered atmosphere of subterranean classrooms, it seemed a good time to both blow off the dust of the academy and to explore a few thousand miles of American and Canadian back roads before a new job began in September.
     There was something else, too. A health issue in the spring of 2000 forced me to contact my biological family who had given me up for adoption when I was an infant. Most of them live in communities scattered up the Canadian Pacific Coast and when I telephoned them, they gave me not only the information I needed, but invited me to visit when I rolled through British Columbia and Alberta later that summer.
     It was a summer of asking questions, exploring concepts of family and nationality, and simply doing something that I really love: riding motorcycles. It was not supposed to be a summer that would become a book. That came later.
Why a motorcycle?
When I was about fifteen my older brother rode up the driveway on a black and chrome Yamaha 650 Special. He was sixteen and well into his teenage rebellion, part of which consisted of spending all his money on vehicles that our parents considered either ugly or dangerous. He never took me for a ride and he sold the Yamaha a few weeks later after a minor accident, but I was fascinated by the look of that bike and knew that one day I had to have one. There was, of course, my own rebelliousness. I grew up in an affluent Boston suburb where “nice” girls did not ride motorcycles. I did everything else that I thought I was supposed to do, everything my friends did: I went to school, got good grades, had part-time jobs and played sports, but riding motorcycles was something that was mine and mine alone. I was sixteen when I bought my first bike and riding it was something that made me feel free and powerful and in control. It’s years later now, many years later, but riding motorcycles still gives me that feeling.
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