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Adventures in Croatia

Adventures in Croatia

Rocky Pt woman back from volunteering in Europe

Village Beacon Record
August 26, 2010 | 12:46 PM
I was traveling alone on a German airline making my way over the Atlantic Ocean and hearing foreign words being exchanged around me. It was certainly a defining moment of my volunteer trip to Croatia. It was a “what have I gotten myself into” moment of panic. Realizing I couldn’t turn back even if I wanted to, I calmed myself knowing there were other volunteers on the same flight. Soon I would be in Croatia making a difference in people’s lives. That focus set the positive tone for the remainder of my trip. Looking back, I am glad I didn’t try to jump off the plane and swim back to Long Island.

I was traveling under the auspices of International Student Volunteers, a nonprofit that promotes volunteer work combined with adventure travel in a number of countries around the world. My itinerary called for two weeks at a volunteer project in the small town of Gvozd and two weeks traveling Croatia while engaging in adrenaline-pumping activities.

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Carissa Galetti, right, with Maja Turniški, a co-founder of Suncokret in Gvozd, Croatia, and volunteer Gracie Beard. Photos courtesy Carissa Galetti. (click for larger version)
Our group of 10 volunteers was welcomed at Gvozd, which is about an hour south of Zagreb. Croatia is located on the eastern coast of the beautiful Adriatic Sea. The Republic of Croatia won its independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1992 following an ethnically charged war.

That war has left some areas in ruins to this day, but more importantly, it has strained the social and psychological landscape. Gvozd is a very small yet charming town. There is one grocery store, one restaurant and several cafes scattered along the roads. As quaint and friendly as Gvozd is, there is an undercurrent of ethnic tension that still exists.

Maja Turniški and Predrag Mraovi opened a center for community development in 2004 to help address those problems. They named it Suncokret, which means sunflower. This was where our group of volunteers spent two weeks. It is a facility that offers programs for the children of Gvozd. The programs aim to foster education, tolerance and cultural awareness. Maja is Croatian and Predrag is Serbian. This combination in business is more or less unheard of in Gvozd. It isn’t welcomed or easily accepted either. One day at the center, a boy told me he hated Serbs. It was sad to hear, especially from an otherwise kind, preteen boy. I was taken aback and tried to explain that hate doesn’t get the world anywhere. It was frustrating that the tolerance encouraged among the children at Suncokret could be reversed or discredited in their own homes. While I was there I tried simply to be a positive role model for the children in what remains a fragile situation when it comes to dealing with ethnic hatred or suspicion.

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International Student Volunteers speak to students at a school in Karlovac, Croatia. The Croatian kids showed an interest in learning about the real New York. (click for larger version)
Many of the older kids know English pretty well. They are taught it in school and many of them impressed us with their fluency. On the contrary, some of our attempts at Croatian were met with giggles, but the kids were supportive and helped us along. I picked up a sentence from a phrase book, which made many of them laugh when I asked them, “Dali si se izgubio?” The English translation is, “Are you lost?”

Mornings were spent at our volunteer residence while the kids were still in school. We planned activities, did yard work outdoors and gardened. It was a newly constructed house and the walls were bare and the floor was just concrete. We painted a mural on the first floor paying tribute to Suncokret. With no laundry machines to get some of the paint off our clothes, we were left with some unique clothing. In the afternoon we would walk to Suncokret and spend time with the children.

One day we all took a public bus to Karlovac, a city about an hour away. I got terribly carsick and one of the Croatian boys sitting next to me informed me that I was white. He was kind enough to keep asking me if I was OK, but I think he was really just concerned about me throwing up near him. The kids in Gvozd take that long bus ride every day to get to school. We went to two classrooms where English is taught and gave brief presentations on where we were from. When I told the class I was from New York, many students pictured it at first as it is portrayed in films — a dangerous, crime-ridden place. But the students were interested in hearing about the USA and our way of life, just as we were interested in learning about them.

This is the first in a series by Carissa Galetti on a month she spent in Croatia volunteering with children and later exploring the country. Galetti, 21, lives in Rocky Point and attends Stony Brook University.

This post is also available in: Croatian

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