Na Gosti from My Family!

This past week my uncle and brother came to visit me on my brother’s spring break. We had a great time and did an immense amount of travelling (my apologizes for not posting anything about my vacation; I received a few emails from people wondering what had happened. Sorry.)

On Saturday (8/03) I headed out to the Dupe, where PCV Barb lives. I arrived before noon and early enough to help her and some girl students she befriended hand out “Women’s Day” cards to female passer byers in the city center. Responses were generally grateful but I did get a few “why are you giving this to me”, “how much does this cost” and one old dude cursing me out in Bulgarian (I think. Sometimes the lack of teeth hurts the enunciation). After we handed all the cards out, some of the girls, Barb and I headed to a cafe where we chatted about topics from Women’s Day (the day after you burn tires and forgive people. I was a bit skeptical, but low and behold, on Sunday, people were burning tires) to life in America. The girls were about 17 and spoke English very well. They were well aware of the problems facing Bulgaria though a bit tepid on how to solve them.

Sunday morning, Barb and I headed out to the capital, Sofia. One the whole, I dislike Sofia. I find it crowded, dirty and loud. Granted, it is 77 times larger than my quaint city. However, it is also home to several Western companies. We shamelessly ate dough nuts from Dunkin Doughnuts, and had lunch at Pizza Hut. We took comfort in the fact that we hadn’t eaten these American food in almost eight months and we were in the capital city. Consciences assuaged, we set out to get lost in the enormity of the city.

We eventually made our way to the airport where I met my brother and uncle. I hadn’t seen them in over seven months! It was so good to see familiar faces. However, seeing their luggage, I quickly nixed the idea of taking public transportation to the bus station to return to the Dupe. I had done an impressive job in underestimating my family’s (particularly my grandparents’) generosity. Of the some 200lbs they brought, a good 140 was for me. I had asked for a few items, like macaroni and cheese and peanut butter cups. I assumed I would have gotten a box or two and a bag of chocolate. Not so. My cupboard looks like this now:

AMERICAN FOOD!

Yep, I own a quart of Worcester sauce, ten pounds of peanut butter, seven pounds of bar-be-que sauce as well the retail boxes of M&Ms and Reese’s peanut butter cups. I also got re-stocked with underwear and jeans. Not even in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to receive this much.

The next morning, the three of us set out early to visit the Rila Monastery. As we waited for our marshrutka (minibus), I introduced them to cireine banitsa. Banitsa is a Bulgarian pastry typically eaten for breakfast, super delicious and, with anything good, loaded with calories. We caught the bus up and got there in time for everything to still be closed. The chapel being closed was actually good since it allowed us to hike the surrounding areas and take in the awesome majesty of the Rila Mountains. Plus, we wouldn’t have discovered the abandoned yet completely furnished hotel up the road. (It was really eerie; the registration expired in 2002 and all the couches were in the lobby as well as a cart full of linens. Dust covered everything and there was still liquor locked away in the sealed bar. However, we heard a door open upstairs and footsteps so, not wanting to become chalk outlines, we ran to the sanctuary of daylight).

If you’re planning a trip to Bulgaria, the one place you have to go is the Rila Monastery.

Monasteries play a huge role in Bulgarian culture. It’s how the Bulgarian language, history and traditions survived the country’s turbulent history (like, being on route to the Holy Lands for the Crusades and the 500 years of the Ottoman Empire). Despite this being my third trip to the Monastery (I lived in Rila for three months) I was still impressed with the art and the historical importance of the place.

After spending most of the day there, we caught a bus back to Dupnitsa and hired a cab to take us to the bus stop on the freeway. Literally as we were sprinting across four lanes of traffic, our bus arrived. Excellent timing! We took it all the way to Sofia, watching the Rila Mountains and West-Central Bulgaria slide past us. From Sofia, we took a bus back to my lovely town.

The following morning, we headed out to Stara Zagora, the fifth largest city in Bulgaria. SZ is one of my favorite cities because it is very pedestrian friendly. I’m pretty sure they liked it for all the Roman ruins haphazardly scattered throughout the city.

We ate lunch with two other PCVs while talking about life in Bulgaria as well as the Peace Corps. I’m sure by then, my brother and uncle were getting tired of being asked if they liked Bulgaria. It was only day two.

We caught a microbus to Kazanlak to make our connection to Karlovo. Kazanlak is the rose capital of the world and Karlovo the home of Vasil Levski, the George Washington of Bulgaria as well as the first Bulgarian to climb Mount Everest (it is worth noting, however, that Chirpan is still far superior to Karlovo). It is estimated that fifty percent of the world’s rose oil comes from Bulgaria. We had some free time before we took our train to Karlovo so we lounged and had some coffee. We made it to Karlovo and met Cindy, one of the PCVs there. She took us to a hotel for dinner, which overlooked the entire city. It was quite a hike getting there, especially in the dark but it was well worth it! That night, we spent the night in her apartment.

The next morning, we hiked up to an easily accessible waterfall. On the way to the bus station, we tried to get some traveler’s checks cashed. It turned out to be a bigger ordeal than any of us could have expected. My brother and uncle had to get their passports photocopied (and then sign each copy) and sign the checks twice. I had to give them my Bulgarian ID card. They had to look up what exactly an American Express Traveler’s Check is and then put them under a UV light and a white light. It was quite apparent that they had no idea what they were doing, much like one of my uncle’s experiences in Africa where the x-ray machine didn’t work in an airport but the staff ran luggage through it any way. After we had met their “standards” and been attended to by at least three bank staffers, we were offered the money in US Dollars. Why on earth would we need USDs!? We eventually got them in Leva and left. The whole ordeal lasted forty five minutes and no one spoke English. However, we got the last laugh-they forgot to charge a commission on the currency transfer and we came out ahead (though not by much or worthwhile). It is also worth mentioning that we transfered traveler’s checks in Sofia in a tenth of the time it took in Karlovo.

We then headed South to Plovdiv, the second largest city in the country. We didn’t have much time to spend here since my dance troupe was throwing a banquet for my brother and uncle. I showed them some easily accessible Roman ruins (sadly, not the giant amphitheater) and caught the train back to Chirpan where we partied and taught them traditional Bulgarian dances. Are you still reading this? I’m really impressed; this is a really long post. I probably would have given up long before this point. Bravo!

The following day, Thursday, was entirely up in the air. The only thing I had to do was introduce them to my co-workers as well as the teachers I work with. Everyone was excited to meet the American’s family and the teachers actually threw us a mini banquet after we went to the school. The lunch lady gave us a free breakfast and we got a lift to the train station by one of the municipal drivers. Horray for integration! My brother and uncle had decided to spend the day in a city I hadn’t been to yet. We made the trek out to Burgas, a large city on the Black Sea. I was excited to venture that far East. Despite the day be so dank and moist, we had a great time with the PCVs, Wil and Jess, who live there. We ate what looks like fried bait fish down on the beach (I’ll post pictures when I get them; I didn’t have my camera with me for most of my trip) and ate dinner at an excellent Turkish restaurant. On the way home, I tried to get us a sleeping compartment but the ticket lady wouldn’t sell us one since our trip was just over three hours long. Instead, we locked the door to our compartment pretended to look listless whenever the train stopped so we could have it to ourselves. I look forward to returning to the coast this summer for a little R&R.
The following morning we caught a bus to Sofia and checked into our hotel. I then proceeded to get them lost in the city attempting to find the Peace Corps Headquarters (I needed to stock up on some medical supplies like cough drops). We were rescued by a cabbie who yelled at me for trying to leave the cab via the door leading the the street. After getting my bearings when we left the headquarters, I proceeded to get us lost again.

The whole trip was over before I knew it. Though they were only here for five days, we went to nine cities. It was wonderful seeing my family again and I had a blast. I hope they did too.

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3 Responses to “Na Gosti from My Family!”

  1. Maggie Says:

    This is awesome =) it seems like an adventurous trip and I hope your family liked Bulgaria. I am still doubtful whether Levski was the first Bulgarian to climb Mt. Everest, though.
    Have a fun stay and keep traveling! =)

  2. Jimmy Says:

    Yeah, that’s a pretty awkwardly worded sentence. Hristo Prodanov was the first Bulgarian to climb Everest. He summited it in 1984 without oxygen but died on the desent.

  3. Tyler Wasson Says:

    Good story. Good trip. Oh and I was wondering when I could head down to Chirpan and shop at your newly opened Magazine? At least you have enough food to open one..

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