Tuesday, November 27, 2007

the view from out the window

I used to have this mental hang-up about traveling during the day, feeling like I was wasting valuable sightseeing time. I've gotten over that, having realized that daylight road travel is a quality way to see any country. First class view from a second class seat. Not always of first class sights, though. Bussing from Plovdiv to Veliko Tarnovo went through misty, wooded, snow-covered mountains, passed by a church with a shining golden roof nestled up in the trees, but also through dreary industrial towns, full of ratty apartment blocks so dismally similar that they could only be distinguished from one another by numbers painted on the outside. One of the hostelers in VT asked me if there was anything about Bulgaria that came as a surprise. I danced around the answer, since the Bulgarian owner of the hostel was sitting at the table with us, but the poverty in some of the areas was really unexpected. Of course I was looking at most things from the outside, and drawing some conclusions based on just exactly how much some of dwellings seemed to be caving in on themselves, or otherwise falling apart. And perhaps being there in the winter colored my perception. There was some rain and a lot of mist, which cast a cold look over everything. There's something a little doleful about seeing a neglected line of washing sitting out in the rain and cold. It'll never get dry that way.

Hiker's Hostel in VT is the older sister to the Plovdiv hostel, and was another cozy affair, complete with a kitten. Darko, having grown up around hostelers and their, at times, terrible eating habits, has a Pavlovian response to crinkling cellophane. It doesn't matter at all what's being unwrapped. Determined to get to an empty chocolate bar wrapper in my hand, he made a few gentle forays before simply giving my thumb a good chomp. This only resulted in being kicked off my lap. No chocolate for him. I hope he doesn't have rabies. I can still see where his fang went in. He was still cuddly, though, unlike another resident I encountered. Heading to the shower, the hostel owner advised me to use the downstairs bathroom, since it's closer to the water heater. I walked in, took a long look at the centipede with crazy long legs hanging out on the ceiling, and went right upstairs to the other bathroom.

I didn't do a heck of a lot in VT except meander around and get a feel of the town. There's the sprawling Tsarevets fortress that left me underwhelmed. My ancient ruin fatigue still hasn't gone away entirely. It does, however, have the thrilling-sounding Execution Rock, where the condemned were shoved off to plunge into the river. I was hoping for something suitably gruesome, but it just looks like a, well, a rock. And I guess the river has moved, since anyone shoved off today would bounce down a cliff to a painful, yet dry, landing. Provided there's a paying audience, at night the fortress is lit up for a garish light and sound show, which can been seen, but not heard, from the hostel balcony. Cables for the lights, and the lights themselves, in big banks, are visible all over the fortress, diminishing any old historical site ambience. The terrain around town is kind of interesting, formed by a bunch of natural plateaus with walls so tidy and upright that they look like they were made with a giant cookie cutter.

There's a monastery a few kilometers away, accessible by a hike over the hills. Setting off through the misty morning, I quickly realized that it was going to be a harder hike than I anticipated, and I was wearing too many layers. Rain and wet had turned most of the trails to mud, slippery as slippery can be. After a couple of close calls, I had an inkling that I wasn't going to get out of there unsullied. I made it as far as a detour around some waterfalls, where I bumped into a old goatherd and his flock, complete with big clonking bells around their necks. He had at least three dogs, two of whom barked barked barked at me until he called them off. He was pretty friendly, speaking to me in Bulgarian with a smile on his face. No idea what he was saying. Past the waterfalls the path started going vertical. The only way to progress was climbing up rungs hammered into the rocks, or holding onto cables installed next to the steep stairways. I weathered all that well enough, but returning to the main path, picking my way down a very short slope, my feet slid out from under me. I could feel it happening, yet was powerless to stop the inevitable drop into the mud. I was holding onto a tree at the time, but even that wasn't enough to keep me from going down. I decided the hike was over, and started slogging back to the hostel. If nothing else, I needed to wash my clothes and get them dry before leaving the next day. The hostel washing machine swished my clothes mud-free in what turned out to be the longest wash cycle ever. Getting bored and hungry waiting for it to finish, I strolled down to town, bought kebabs, strolled back to the hostel, ate my kebabs, and it still wasn't through. Not feeling motivated to do much else, I just sat around for the rest of the day, watching soccer games and talking to people. There were two groups of Erasmus (European university exchange program) students at the hostel. I don't particularly care for groups that take over hostels, especially small establishments that have dime-sized common spaces. You either need to work your way into the group, or flit around the outside; there isn't a whole lot of middle ground. The bigger group was mostly French students studying in Thessaloniki, and were all nice enough, we were just on different wavelengths. They had a Bulgarian guide who, for some reason, would never acknowledge me when I was in the room. Kind of odd. I just drifted off into a corner of the table and tuned them out. A smaller group from Plovdiv were quite amiable, though, and included two Polish girls who gave me recommendations for traveling in Poland and listening to music in Moldova. After seeing their shoes and wardrobe, I in turn recommended that they not hike to the monastery the next day, then turned my trousers over on the space heater.

I hadn't had too much good coffee recently. Both the Hiker's Hostels serve coffee all day, but since their java brew is too strong even for me, I had instead been slugging down my alternate hot beverage of choice, black tea with cream and sugar. I noticed coffee vending machines sprinkled all over VT, and waiting in the train station with a pocket full of coins that were about to be useless, I decided to see what they could offer. A pretty good cappuccino is what; appearances can be deceiving. I think I should petition to get a couple of these installed at work. I've stayed at a couple of hostels that have sort of a countertop version of these, and I love them. You just push a button, and a lovely little hot drink is squirted out. It's like an electric caffeine cow.

Leaving VT by train the next day, I got my final views of Bulgaria. Areas next to train tracks seem to fit a few broad categories — industrial complexes, farmland, undeveloped land, and economically depressed neighborhoods. Pristine land blends into into piles of trash and junker cars that will never drive again. We passed by one neighborhood that only really qualified as a slum; a bunch of run-down shacks with rippling shingle roofs and dirt yards arranged along muddy roads. I don't want to make it sound like Bulgaria is the most poverty-stricken area I've visited recently, I think it's just that travel circumstances here allowed me to see more than I did in other countries. Maybe it has something to do with the amount of trash everywhere, especially bottles, specifically 2-liter beer bottles. They're littered absolutely all over the place, and recycling isn't a priority. I didn't think about it until now, but I suppose I'm not used to seeing bottles and cans scattered everywhere, because at home they're mostly collected for recycling. But I've also been chugging along at a fairly brisk pace recently, and haven't seen nearly enough of these countries as I should to come to any sort of general conclusions. I saw what I saw. Hopefully I'll be back someday to see more of what it has to offer. I wish I had a chance to visit Ruse, since the architecture there has earned it the nickname of Little Vienna. I only found out about it after I had my ticket out of the country. That's what I get for showing up without having done any research.

I had a brain cramp in VT, standing in front of an ATM. All the countries in this area still have their own currency, and deciding how much money to withdraw always involves some complex calculations — accommodation + food + travel + miscellaneous items, throw in how much time is left in the country, and factor in the fact that carrying a huge wad of currency isn't always the smartest move. It wouldn't be so complicated if my home bank didn't stick me with all sorts of foreign transaction fees, but as it is I try to make at a somewhat educated guess on how much cash to get. I withdrew enough to pay the hostel in VT, and then at least one night in Bucharest. Duh. Bucharest is in Romania.

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