A chronicle of my experiences as a Peace Corps Community Organizational Development volunteer in Bulgaria.

Monday, June 26, 2006

To Hizha Rai and Beyond

Me on Botev Vruk

The two major mountain ranges in Bulgaria are the Rhodopes which run along the southern border with Greece and the Balkans which run down the center of the country and separate the Danube Plain from the Thracian Plain. The mountains are inextricably woven through Bulgarian culture, history, myth and lore and they form a very tangible presence in modern Bulgaria's national soul. Rebellions were bred in the mountains and rebels sheltered there. Monasteries survived centuries of oppression tucked away in mountain valleys. Folk music and dancing are identified first and foremost by the mountain region they represent. Therefore, when it comes time to relax, chill out, or just recharge their emotional batteries, most Bulgarians head for the mountains.

An extensive network of hiking trails exists throughout the mountains with a wide range of hizhas or inns built along them to accommodate hikers. A hizha can be anything from a rough lean-to open on three sides to a small hotel with private bathrooms and cable tv. The hiking trails range from buccolic walks in the woods to strenuous climbs up to various peaks. Hardy souls use them all year long and, while I'm not generally thought of as a hardy soul, I use them every so often myself.

As a rule I stick to paths that fall into the 'walks in the woods' category and avoid any contact with anything that might be considered a trail or involve the dreaded "C" word (climbing). However, mountains being what they are some climbing is inevitable if you want to see the majestic beauty of the country or a waterfall or two. I'd been hearing about Hizha Rai for a couple of years and thought that it might be nice to hike up to it. 'Rai' is the Bulgarian word for paradise and this particular hizha is located in the Stara Planina (Stara Planina literally means Old Mountains, but the world knows them as the Balkans) and involves a very long hike with what us hikers refer to as a "significant elevation change". The hizha sits at the base of a high narrow waterfall and the hike to it passes through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery you can find anywhere. In order to get to the trailhead to Hizha Rai, you have to go to the lovely little town of Kalofer which sits in the Valley of the Roses at the foot of the Stara Planina. I serve on a PC committee with a woman who lives in Kalofer and during one of our meetings, I mentioned that I wanted to make the hike up to Hizha Rai before I left Bulgaria. Two weeks later she contacted me to say that she was going to do the hike for the third time and I was welcome to join the group. In poker when someone calls your bluff, you lose your money; in mountain climbing significantly more is at stake.

I met up with Sarah and her group in Kalofer and we began the long march out of town to the trailhead. As the PC, in its infinite wisdom, has failed to provide me with a helicopter, four-wheel drive vehicle or sherpa and I am prohibited, by PC regulation, from riding a donkey, I had no alternative but to shoulder my heavy pack and trudge along with the group. We marched out of town on a pleasant enough road that ran beside a pleasant enough river for most of its length. My pack was a bit heavy because I was carrying two cameras, extra clothing, water, a jacket and an umbrella. I also had a guidebook describing Hizha Rai, apparently on the offchance that I didn't quite understand what I was seeing when I got there!? Well, it seemed like a good idea when I put it in the pack. It took us an hour to reach the trailhead but the weather was fine and I was feeling pretty good about the whole adventure.

From the trailhead, Sarah and her Bulgarian friend, Koko, pointed out the waterfall we'd be hiking to and I stopped feeling pretty good about the damn adventure. Nonetheless, off we went and within five or six hours we'd arrived at Hizha Rai. There were five of us in our group and Hizha Rai happened to have a room for five, so I climbed onto the top bunk of one bed and swore that I wouldn't come down until the PC arranged to heli-vac me off the mountain. Andy, a twenty-something volunteer, shook me out of the bunk and said that we were all hiking to the base of the waterfall before dinner. Oh yeah!! Well, you can take your waterfall and shov....So, the waterfall was actually quite beautiful and I'm glad that I joined the party hiking up to it. One woman elected to stay behind and as a result she doesn't limp as badly as I do, but I got to stand beneath the waterfall, so there.

Sarah kept saying that we were hiking to Hizha Rai and Botev Vruk which I assumed was just the formal name for Hizha Rai. Hristo Botev is one of Bulgaria's national heroes who, like so many of Bulgaria's national heroes, led a foolhardy failed attempt to overthrow the Turkish Yoke and died a heroic and early death. Many streets are named after him. So, it turns out, is the highest peak in the Stara Planina. All along, the group had been planning to hike to Botev Vruk or Peak and the overnight at the Hizha was just to rest us up for the real climb the following day. I said that I would decide in the morning whether I was able to assault the mountain any further or whether I'd wait for them back at the hizha sampling the cold beer. The hizha was filled with nearly a hundred high school kids on an outing and the noise level would have drowned out jackhammers breaking concrete. In spite of that, I got several minutes sleep and woke feeling like I'd been beaten on the feet with sticks.

The same (intelligent) woman who'd declined the hike to the waterfall opted to remain behind again but I said I'd tag along. The hike to Botev Vruk was uphill all the way and it took almost three hours to reach a point where we could see the peak we were struggling towards. About two-thirds of the way up I began to seriously consider just lying down and dying rather than moving another foot. Sarah said to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and if I'd had the strength, I'd have hit her with a rock. She and Andy were climbing ahead of me and they had to keep stopping until I caught up. At one point I suggested bravely that they should just go on without me and they both said, "okay" and took off. This is why PCVs aren't issued rocket propelled grenades. I can remember sitting at home watching National Geographic specials on tv while smoking a cigar or eating a bowl of icecream and thinking, "how tough can that really be? Surely it's a matter of willing yourself to just keep going and to ignore the discomfort." When the camera would focus on one exhausted climber or another who had gotten to within a few meters of the top and just couldn't go any further I would think, "just suck it up and keep going you loser!" I have now learned that I cannot climb Mr. Everest. However, I finally made it to the Botev Vruk scant minutes behind Sarah and Andy and we sat on the stoop of a building and ate our sandwiches in silence. There was a second building on the peak and other hikers kept coming out of it carrying plastic cups of tea. We walked over and discovered that tea was being sold on the third floor. Why they didn't sell tea on the first floor is beyond my comprehension, but we wanted tea and honey quite badly at that point, so we climbed to the third floor. You could smell the tea brewing in a big pot on the stove as we entered the room. "Three teas with honey, please" I said as I entered the room. The woman looked right through me and said, "Are you Sarah?" Sarah 'fessed up and we were told that we couldn't have tea there, that we had to back to the building we'd started in because, "they're waiting for you there." No one could tell us who 'they' were, but we definitely weren't getting any tea in this building. So we went back down the three flights of stairs, over to the other building and entered the only door we could find.

Suddenly we were Na Ghosti. We were part of a gathering of Bulgarian men about my age who were eating shopska salad and drinking homemade rakiya and wine. Never let anyone convince you that rakiya and wine don't mix well with mountain climbing, they actually improve one's ability to sing Bulgarian folk songs which has always been an integral part of climbing as everyone knows. So we felt obliged to stay and drink to everyone's health and tell stories and have a great Na Ghosti before falling back down the mountain. Going down was definitely easier and we actually only stopped at Hizha Rai for a bowl of soup and to pick up the slacker before continuing on down to Kalofer. We got back to Sarah's place well after dark which meant that except for the hour and a half Na Ghosti on Botev Vruk and the forty-five minute soup break at Hizha Rai, we'd hiked for just over fourteen hours. But I stood on the top of the monument on Botev Vruk and I have the picture to prove it.

On the trail to Botev Vruk we had to hike through this herd of free roaming horses. They were savage as you can see.

Last week I participated in my group's COS conference. Close of Service is the terminology for leaving the PC and it appears to be as complicated and time-consuming as entering was. There are appointments to be made with medical, dental and vision doctors, forms to fill in and reports to fill out. Decisions on when to fly home and where to fly to have to be cast in stone. PC property such as fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, water purifiers, tamiflu and first aid kits have to be returned to Sofia. Host families have to be visited one last time and kissed good-bye. Stuff has to be sorted into piles to ship, pack, give away and burn. Final exit interview
s with Program Managers and Country Director have to be scheduled and all the checklists have to be checked. Suddenly, quitting early (ETing) begins to have a bright side to it. I'll decide in the next day or so which day I'll actually leave Bulgaria and which city I'll fly into. I'll book my flight and begin counting down the days.

I still have twenty-two vacation days on the books, but I won't get to use most of them because I have a lot of things coming up in the next three months. I'm going to Borino, in the Rhodope Mountains, to help another volunteer out by showing his organization how to write a grant application. I'll be in Sofia the end of July to work in another Day Camp. My agency is getting busier with paying clients and I have a ton of work to do here. August and September are also beginning to fill up, so the time will fly by.
I'm anxious to see my family and friends in the States again, but I don't really want this experience to be over. Slowly I'm completing my personal checklist and now the next mountain I climb will be my second.

I'll leave you with the words of my friend Jessica. I called her when I finally reached the summit to say that I wasn't sure I could survive the climb back down and that I was worried that I'd bitten off more than I could chew and might just be left to die there by the others and she said, "You think you have problems, my washing machine is acting up and I have a full load in!" That's what PC is all about, selfless devotion to the problems of others and obsessive fascination with Bulgarian appliances.

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