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.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Man Down!

This much I know is true: YDs have more fun than the rest of us. There are three groups of volunteers, defined by the type of work they do, CODs or Community Organizational Development volunteers, TEFLs or Teachers of English as a Foreign Language and YDs or Youth Development volunteers. I was lucky enough to be invited to help out at Kate's YD Summer Camp in Plovdiv last week. This was a weeklong day camp held at a school in the Roma Mahala where Kate works. The kids were all fourth and fifth graders from the neighborhood and came armed with enough energy and high spirits to power an aircraft carrier for a day. Unless you happened to be Kate, it really wasn't much like work at all. The ten or so volunteers who came to help out got to run around and play just as much as the ten year old kids. Kate had already done all the planning and the rest of us just did what we were told. In case you're interested, there seem to be about one hundred variations to the game of Tag and we played them all.

Years ago, while legging out a triple in a highly competitive game of co-ed softball, I had the unfortunate experience of tearing my hamstring. With my completely unsympathetic teammates screaming at me to "crawl faster!", I dragged myself along the ground to third base and was immediately pulled from the game for a pinch runner. A torn hamstring hurts like the devil. It feels exactly like someone has snuck up behind you and cut through that large heavy muscle with a pair of dull scissors. At first the muscle just flops around under your skin like a snake in a bag but then the pain message reaches your brain and you really don't care much at all for people who want you to "crawl faster". Anyway, ever since that day I have taken great care to a) preferably not run at all or b) if running was to be absolutely required, to warm up my legs for at least a week before said running was to occur.

Have you ever tried to play any of the myriad variations of Tag without actually running? The kids screamed and yelled and charged around the schoolyard like inmates escaped from the asylum. The volunteers screamed and yelled and ran for their lives. We played Partner Tag, Blob Tag, and a game called Sharks & Minnows that sounds a lot cooler in Bulgarian - Akula!! It became quickly apparent that the true purpose of each and every one of those games was to cause Larry a serious injury. As one swift little bast.. child came up and tagged me from behind, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would be found lying in a pool of my own tears with a group of completely unsympathetic ten year olds hovering over me yelling "crawl faster!". Then I had a vision of the PC medically separating me with less than six months to go because I tore a hamstring playing Blob Tag!

I faked a limp and left the field of battle to take up a position behind the camera. Hiding behind the "they also serve who sit and do nothing" theory of participation, I filmed and photographed away for two days. The kids had a ball. The volunteers had a ball. Kate was exhausted from all the work she put into the camp as well as having two or three volunteers staying at her apartment the whole week and I finished the camp with both hamstrings intact. We're all winners in this game.

By the way, each of the two big bullies shown in the picture on the left tagged me really hard and then laughed at me. Actually, these were two of the younger kids and the older kids tried to be very careful not to hurt them. In Bulgaria, the girls seem to pair off at birth and you almost never see a girl without her mate. During a particularly competitive round of Steal The Bacon a girl and her best friend found themselves on opposite teams. Worse yet, they were the same number which meant that when their number was called they would have to go against each other. Their number was called and both of them charged out for the Bacon. One girl swooped it up and began running back to her line but her friend was hot on her heels and leveled her with a whacking strong tag. The tagged girl went down like a shot duck and stayed down. Her friend began to cry and both girls had to leave the field of play, arm in arm, to compose themselves. No one ever said Steal The Bacon was a game for softies. Eventually the two girls returned, but they declined further combat and restricted themselves to an afternoon of crafts.

The strain of the week proved to be too much for Kate and, in what can only be described as a moment of insanity, she actually gave the kids ammunition for a game of Egg Toss and then provided them with water balloons for a game of Soak the Volunteers! We filled several buckets with multi-colored water balloons and brought them down to the playground for the last outdoor activity of the camp. I carried one bucket out and tried to hold it up high enough so none of the kids could begin grabbing the balloons. Within seconds I resembled a tree decorated with colorful Roma children as ornaments. Ten seconds after I hit the playground, all my balloons were in the hands of the enemy and I was limping for cover. It took half a dozen volunteers the better part of an hour to fill the balloons, it took the kids twenty-eight seconds (by the clock) to fire them all at friends and foe alike.

In addition to the outdoor mayhem, there were indoor activities every day. The kids made necklaces, painted their faces, made masks, played bingo and had a discoteque on the last afternoon. The thing that impressed me the most was that none of the kids acted bored or decided that they were too cool to take part in any of the activities. Boys who acted like little thugs when they were playing the Tag games outside, became fully engrossed in decorating their masks when it was time for crafts.

I think that they all just enjoyed having people pay attention to them and that they appreciated the effort that Kate put into making their weeklong camp special. They live in a neighborhood where many of the things that happen are pretty negative so this camp gave them a week of safe, supervised activities where they could scream and yell and run around like crazy and no one would punish them for it. Apart from the very fine level of behavior shown by the kids, something else was equally apparent. The kids were very open in showing their affection for the Volunteers who worked at the camp. Volunteers were constantly being hugged by two or three small people whenever the opportunity presented itself. Lincoln, Jennifer, Jessica, Matt, Dave and Apryl generally had a couple of small admirers clinging to them whenever we were between games. The hugging was spontaneous and affectionate with each Volunteer having his or her own little fan club.The camp actually followed close on the heels of a few weeks of insanity of another stripe as I had visits from my sons and then my parents run end to end. Andy and Ian finally made it to Bulgaria after almost two years of promising to come. My foks made their second trip here in two years and would surely come again if I were staying. Both sons and parents made the pilgrimage to Saedinenie to visit my host family and both left laden with bottles of domashna (homemade) wine and rakiya.

The boys and I rented a car and Andy drove us down through the Rhodopi Mountains to Chepelare, Trigrad and Yagodina.
We hiked and climbed around and over the Miraculous Bridges and wandered around the mountain in the rain. Later we found a small hotel and the boys stayed up and drank beer with the owner in his bar while I got some sleep. While still in Chepelare, we went through the Cave Museum which is proudly billed as the finest of its kind in Europe. In small print it is noted that it is the 'only' cave museum in Europe. It's a couple of rooms on the ground floor of a hotel that have been painted black and decorated with pictures of stalactites and stalagmites. Oh, and it has the skull of a cave bear in a glass case. We did manage to visit some 'actual' caves and rode through some truly spectacular gorges. During our stay in Trigrad, the hotel owner broke open a bottle of rakiya and the boys felt obligated to drink to his health, then to their own health and finally to the general health of the world at large not excluding ficticious characters and possible visiting aliens. As Ian later explained, "It was really weak stuff, Dad. With Stoil's homemade rakiya you can't even breathe after you drink, with this stuff we could still talk!!" They have become true fans of Veneta and Stoil after spending one very pleasant afternoon and evening visiting with them.

I told Veneta that we'd get there after lunch and stay for dinner and overnight. I knew that we'd be having lunch with Brian in Plovdiv on the way to Saedinenie a
nd didn't want Veneta to make food we wouldn't eat. However, I warned the boys to eat lightly because Veneta would probably fix something anyway. She was standing on the curb watching for us as we pulled up and began handing us plates of food on our way into the house! Ten hours later we were all in food-induced comas and begging for mercy. It's good to go home!

My folks arrived during the boys' last three days and we all spent some time together in Sofia. We rented the hotel owner's car and Andy drove us down to Rila Monastery. Surprisingly, lightening didn't strike Andy or Ian down in that holy place. I guess the Saints weren't paying attention that day. On Friday morning the boys left for home and on Saturday The Visit: Chapter Two began with a bus ride with my folks to Stara Zagora.

Don is still recovering from his illness of a year ago and Mom is recovering from a brok
en pelvis so this visit was conducted at a more leisurely pace than their previous trip to Bulgaria. We still managed to see Sofia, the Rila Monastery, Varna, Saedinenie (required) and Assenovgrad. By the time they left for the States, they both seemed to be a lot stronger and were getting around much more easily. While neither of them are big rakiya fans, they do love Stoil's red wine and he gave them a ten liter bottle of it to take back home. Sadly, there was no way for them to transport such a large amount of vino on the plane and I am going to have to find a way to dispose of it myself. I'll have a few friends over and ask for suggestions.

So now for me it's back to the grind. I really have to do some work at the agency, if only to justify the use of my desk. I also have to begin preparing myself psychologically to re-enter a world where people don't sit over a cup of coffee for a couple of hours at the cafe or visit their friends for ten or twelve hours at a crack, a world where people move as efficiently as possible when going from A to B and rarely find the time to stop on the sidewalk to discuss matters of small importance. Of course, I have a plan. I've come to prefer the more leisurely pace and therefore, when I feel pressured to hurry or hustle along, I'll pull up with a brave limp and explain that I can't move any faster because, "when I was working with some kids at a summer camp, I was severly injured when a game of Egg Toss spiraled badly out of control. Let's stop here for a coffee and I'll tell you all about it."

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