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Archive for the ‘Travelogues’ Category

June was full of wonderful changes:  new professional chapters and travel adventures.

On the former front, I’ve begun my new role as Director of WaterCredit for Water.org.  What is WaterCredit, you ask?  It’s an innovative initiative that applies microfinance tools — small loans, group-based lending models, etc. — to the water and sanitation (watsan) sector.  WaterCredit has been underway since 2003, though it’s now reaching an inflection point that demands greater outreach and strategic development; hence where I come in.  Expect to see more about water + microfinance issues (“H2O+MF” as I like to call it) in future posts, along with more travelogues.  The travel demands will be intense and fun — India, Bangladesh, east Africa, west Africa, Europe… I’m not complaining!

No sooner did I dive deep into WaterCredit for a few weeks, than it was time to hit the road for IDLO.  Destination: Jordan, for the MENA regional microfinance course.  Jerry and I packed up — still proud of the fact that the two of us can fit everything for 3 weeks into one bag together — and headed east.  En route we stopped over in England, for the wedding of a dear friend in the English countryside outside Malvern (Worcestershire).  Perfect weather, copious Pimm’s and fancy hats, and some day-after ambling through hillsides that would make Beatrix Potter and Leonardo Da Vinci both proud.  Stunning and memorable!  A few ramble pictures here.

The IDLO course was held smack on the Dead Sea, with the West Bank directy across; at night we could see the lights of Jerusalem twinkling in the distance.  As usual the IDLO participants were a lively, diverse group coming from 12 countries/territories including Yemen, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Kuwait (yes, there is microfinance in Kuwait).  Days were spent talking about MFI investment, Islamic finance and the impact of the global financial crisis on microfinance (as the temperature soared above 115 degrees F outside), while evenings were spent staying cool in the multiple pools on hand.  And of course, a dip in the salty Dead Sea for good measure — so fun to just bob and flop around in the buoyancy!

Post-IDLO we took some extra time to explore the rest of the country, easily falling in love with its uber-friendly people and marveling at its diverse and magical geography.  (No comment on the searing heat though.) The first leg was by public transport, a hot dusty 6-hour bus ride south to Petra (and the funky tourist town of Wadi Musa right beside it — it means “Valley of Moses” in Arabic).  Petra did not disappoint, and by all means earns its claim to fame as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.  It’s especially magical at the crack of dawn, when you can have the Siq all to yourself, or late at night when the entire Milky Way opens itself up to you amidst thousands of candlelights and Arabian music wafting beyond.  What’s more, I’ve now done handstands at the majority of these destinations; Petra handstand is #4, and #5 (Colosseum of Rome) is slated for later this year.  Hurray!

In Petra we rented a car from a guy named Said — should we be worried about driving in the Middle East? — and headed down the King’s Highway towards the fabled Wadi Rum desert, aka Lawrence of Arabia’s backyard.  It was hot, hotter than I could have imagined, but apparently not as hot as it can get (we saw 117F, but “that’s nothing” compared to 135F in July I was told).  There were multiple camel traffic jams which were fun to photograph and partake of.  We nearly ran out of gas and that felt really scary.  The landscape is like nothing I’d ever seen — the best I can describe is a surreal combination of the moon, Grand Canyon, Moab (Utah) and the Sahara.  But even that’s not quite right; you’ve got to see it in person to understand its unique immensity.

We baked in Wadi Rum, saw an amazing sunset and feasted on spit-roasted meats grilled over a zerb (Bedouin pit fire). Ah yes, Bedouins — and ah yes again, food!  The Bedouin culture pervades much of Jordan, and their nomadic-tent lifestyle and extraordinary generosity are present at every turn. I found it difficult to determine what is uniquely Bedouin, but anyone from the tribe will promptly let you know.  The diet consists of staples like camel meat, dates and goat’s milk, none of which I got to try (even though I tried hard to find them).  Nevertheless Jordanian cuisine leaves little to be desired — delicious at every turn.  In addition to staples like baba ghanouj and shwarma, favorite dishes include fuul medames (fava beans with chillies and olive oil), shanklish (a cross between chevre and bleu cheese, doused generously with thyme and cracked pepper) and the divine fattoush (salad of tomatoes and cucumber with deep-fried pitta-like croutons and sumac spice).  It was also a cause of much amusement to ask for pitta and get a quizzical look in reply; there it’s not pitta, just khobz (bread).

From Wadi Rum we shot due north along the King’s Highway again (and beyond).  We visited the Crusader castles and ruins at Shobek and Karak, along with the Dana Nature Reserve (and dilapidated village of the same name, clinging precariously to the side of a cliff).  It truly felt like no-person’s land in the middle of the country — so windswept, even if you whistled it blew away — though at the same time close and connected to the entire history of humankind.

We rolled into Madaba late at night, and the next day explored the city’s renowned Roman mosaics (good enough to rival those of Sicily and France), souq and hidden alleyways.  This was followed by an excursion along the Dead Sea Parkway, taking in the Ma’in hot springs, Dead Sea Panorama, Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan (where Jesus was baptized) and Mount Nebo (where Moses saw the Promised Land) en route.  It also brought us full circle, back to where we had taught not long before.  The next morning we were homeward bound (almost — still had several days in NYC first).  What a great trip.

So if you’ve made it this far, thanks — and here’s the link to my full Flickr album from the trip.  Enjoy, and stay tuned for more H2O+MF plus travel adventures; for starters I’m headed back to east Africa  at the end of this month.

And yes, Twitter remains the best way to follow my whereabouts and goings-on more frequently…

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Madagang tanghali and Selamat siang — or should I rather say (take your pick– I’ve heard them both frequently), “Hello ma’am! Hello mister!”  Said with the utmost of sincerity, a beaming smile, and the seemingly universal wish for me, an ‘exotic species’ in Southeast Asia, to respond.

And so, my adventures continue.  Continue wonderfully, exceptionally well, and unfortunately all to quickly.  The last time you heard from me I had just wrapped up in Viet Nam, and in the month since then I have explored two very different archipelagos, those of The Philippines (Filipinas) and Indonesia (the ‘capital’ island of Java (Jawa) and the paradise-on-earth called Bali).  This installment could also be called The Island Phase, as it has entailed significant island-hopping, endless kilometers of coastline, and yet another new manifestation — and appreciation — of diversity.  This time the diversity is that which has been dictated by geographic distance and remoteness.  While Indonesia as a whole has several aspects in common with Malaysia, both Bali and The Philippines are worlds apart.  I found each of them to be wildly and uniquely fascinating, and all the moreso when put in reference and contrast to the places I’ve already visited.

The Philippines is a Catholic, meat-eating, English-speaking, basketball- and America-obsessed ‘blip’ in Southeast Asia.  The people and the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ rice terraces of North Luzon rank among the best things about the country (see below), and the congested megalopolis of Manila is undoubtedly the worst.  Little idea of the latter did I have upon arrival there.  My first impressions were shaped by traffic, television, armed security guards and artificial ingredients.  To call Manila ‘a big pit’ is an understatement; a 10-km, 1 1/2 hour taxi ride to my guesthouse was ample proof of that.  En route I had plenty of opportunity to view not only the capital’s urban filth, but also the delightful Filipino adaptation known as the Jeepney.  Basically refit, decorated, and blessed-by-the-virgin-Mary US army vehicles, jeepneys are the brightest thing on the road — though they do not provide the most comfortable ride!  Gone were the cyclos and tuk-tuks… (more…)

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Happy (belated) new year — and then some!

Incredible how time has flown by.  African adventures, holidays, Obama administration and more positive changes on the horizon…

The best way to track me these days (including all of  my African travelogues, which now seem like a long time ago) is still on my Tweetstream.  However I do plan to write a longer, more ‘robust’ narrative in the coming weeks.  No promises as to when it’ll be ready, but whenever it is you’ll be able to find it here.

Quick recap since my last post.  Africa trip highlights are too numerous to list, but here’s a snapshot:

  • Meeting Obama’s grandmother Sarah in the very rural ‘village’ (read: dirt road, mud huts, smiling kids and scrappy dogs) of Kogelo, western Kenya
  • Bicycling down the escarpments of the Great Rift Valley, through banana plantations and ending up on the shores of Lake Nakuru with zebras to my right, wildebeests to my left and a rainbow overhead
  • Feeding giraffes by hand, cruising by a fabled white rhinoceros and viewing lions less than 5 meters away
  • Hiking through a Zanzibari “spice farm” and plucking fresh nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, peppercorns (5 colors), ginger, cacao, annatto, lemongrass, cardamom, tumeric, cinnamon, curry leaf and more from the branches and vines, then eating a simple meal with a village family that used the spices we’d brought
  • Celebrating Jerry’s birthday with spit-roasted goat, green bananas and new Maasai and Chagga friends
  • An impromptu morning concert with about 40 local schoolkids dancing and grooving to their hearts’ delight, with spontaneous portraits captured happily afterward
  • Crossing the equator 4 times in one day — and doing a handstand on it, of course
  • And last but definitely not least, spending several wonderful days teaching at the IDLO law-and-microfinance course in Tanzania with participants from everywhere from Malawi to Madagascar to Nigeria to Uganda and beyond… an amazing, fun, inspirational group and I learned so much too!

Flickr photo albums can be found here:

Returning to San Francisco after a marathon 37-hour journey (which included taxis, boats, buses and planes) was like entering another, faster, chillier, almost surreal world.  Cars went way too fast, there were no large animals grazing at the roadside, and shops were so large and brightly-lit… strange!

Happily it was also the holiday season, so enjoyed that to the fullest.  Then the new year, lovely family visits, some microfinance speeches… and here I am, here we are, so blessed and lucky and thrilled to be alive at this amazing time.  We donned our matching Obama kangas, purchased from a roadside stall in rural Tanzania, proudly throughout the inauguration celebrations — then saw the exact same one greeting Obama in the White House!

On that note, get ready for some hopefully exciting, positive changes on the horizon — in Washington DC, and also closer to home here in San Francisco.  Kwaheri for now!

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Seulam (Amharic, from Ethiopia) — Hujambo (Kiswahili, from Kenya) — Greetings from East Africa!

I’ve been on the road for almost 2 weeks now, yet due to lack of both quality internet access and time have not been able to blog as much as I’d hoped.  It’s been an amazing journey so far, as I’d hoped and expected… Addis Ababa, Nairobi, and now a small village (no electricity) in rural western Kenya near the Kakamega forest reserve.  I’ve hob-nobbed with cabinet ministers about legal reform for microfinance; seen zebras, giraffes, gazelles and even the fabled white rhino at close range; and experienced family hospitality and microentrepreneurship first-hand.  It’s an extraordinarily rich, diverse, warm and fascinating area, yet saddled with a problematic history (on many levels) and current obstacles to change.  Obama and his legacy live strong here — even 5 year olds know his name, and his portrait is painted on the side of many buildings.  I am delighted to be one of the first unofficial “foreign ambassadors” of the new-administration-to-be and can only hope that the push for meaningful change becomes a truly global movement.

I’ve also come to realize that online connectivity is not one of the region’s strengths.  So it’s probably best not to get my (or anyone else’s) hopes up by promising to blog “live”; rather, I may end up reverting to offline observations and note-taking, to be followed by a more comprehensive travelogue post after-the-fact.  It will depend in part on whether access options get any better in the coming weeks…

Meanwhile I’ve posted many “mini-blogpost” tweets online, which can be found here.  At least they provide a few snippits and insights into what I’ve experienced so far.  Please continue to check back at the same Twitter link, as I intend to update it as often as I can!

Kwaheri for now…

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I depart for east Africa 6 weeks from today. I’m so excited I can hardly stand it. Much remains to be done — including yellow fever vaccinations and other mundane tasks — but I’m confident everything will get completed in time.

A couple of unique recommendations for anyone interested in further-flung travel, in one case Africa specifically and the other with more global appeal. BarCamp Africa is slated to take place on October 11 at the Googleplex and offers to be an extraordinary day full of issues, ideas and initiatives related to the continent (and people keen to learn more about them, get involved more directly, or who already have relevant and want to share it). I’ve been asked to moderate a panel on social and human issues in Africa (people, politics, policy). What an honor. I expect that much will dovetail also with economics (including, of course!, microfinance).

My Africa trip planning has also gotten a kick start thanks to the new Offbeat Guides. The concept is fantastic — customized travel guides for cities / places around the world that are created online (and then formatted into a printable, pocket-sized, user-friendly PDF). Included are weather forecasts, festivals and special events, etc. specifically for the dates you will be there. No more lugging around bulky travel guides of which only 10% of the info is relevant at any given time. No more worrying if you lose a guide en route (or anger at oneself if you loan it to a fellow traveler who unexpectedly takes the next bus out of town and leaves you stranded in a rural village in, say, outer Mongolia). I test-drove the site by creating a guide for Addis Ababa. More detailed info is definitely still needed for this particular city, though I doubt Addis is high on most people’s travel wish list and am confident it’ll be better by the time of my departure. What I would like to see most of all, however, is a travelogue component to each Offbeat Guide. Not least because of my own travelogging passion and tenure — maybe I’ve finally found another outlet-idea for them? — but especially because thanks to others’ feedback to mine, I believe that candid, offbeat, first-hand recounts of “stuff that wouldn’t normally be found in guidebooks” can be truly invaluable in helping others to see the world in a new perspective, whether doing so on-the-road or in an armchair at home.

On that note, six weeks… and counting!

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This travelogue documents my return through the north-eastern regions of Thailand (collectively known as Isaan – I worked my way through Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the like earlier and that travel tome remains to be posted) and then up the length of Vietnam…

Merhaba! Xin chao!

Another great travel phase – post-Malaysia and pre-Philippines. More unexpecteds, more surprises, and more confirmation that the best strategy when traveling is to let a country reveal itself to you. It is all too often counter-productive to arrive with too many preconceptions, and far better to allow yourself to absorb new surroundings slowly, quietly, gently.

What a time. What places, what culture, what feelings… and of course, what history. An exciting, rewarding opportunity to put names with places with events, to relegate the history books to the shelf and discover, experience, and come to “know” these areas first-hand and of my own accord. Especially in Vietnam, to scratch varied and deeper levels of society, to get to know the people and understand the pulse, rhythm, energy and spirit of the country at quite an intimate level.

But first, backtrack to Thailand and what seems now like a world away. I returned from Laos via the less-touristed, more off-the-beaten-track route through northeastern Thailand. My goal of flinging myself as far as possible into the more remote and lesser known regions was successful, and I was reminded once again that (and why) I prefer small provincial capitals to bigger cities and other “hot spots”. Though the markets were among the dirtiest and smelliest of any in existence (I saw enough swarms of flies to last a lifetime) and the total lack of English script was genuinely problematic at times, nevertheless the lessons in body language communication and what it feels like to be uncomfortably foreign were entirely worth it.

Just across the Mekong River border from Vientiane (the capital of Laos) is the small, quiet, pleasant town of Nong Khai, Thailand. A college friend of mine had spent three years in the Peace Corps in this province, so after sending and receiving many postcards and letters with this destination I had to visit – if nothing else out of simple curiosity. What I found far exceeded my expectations. The site for which Nong Khai is best known is the Sala Kaew Ku, a park of gigantic concrete (!) sculptures. Constructed by the eccentric Lao artist-monk Boun Leua Sourirat in the aftermath of 1975 events (when he fled his home country), the park is an amalgam of 10-20 meter high Hindu and Buddhist deities, nine-armed medusas with five-cobra heads, elephants and packs of wild concrete dogs, and the collection’s centerpiece, The Wheel of Life. This series leads you figuratively through a “cycle of life in concrete” by entering the garden in an embryonic form and circling clockwise through sculptural representations of the other phases of life. I can’t say that my life perspective was changed by the visit, though it did provide ample reason to pause for thought…

My visit to the Village Weaver Handicrafts Self-Help Project was also thought-provoking. I went here with the hope of purchasing a hand-woven and hand-dyed indigo sarong and in left with a great deal of inspiration and hope as well. This grass-roots project was spearheaded by a group of Good Shepherd Sisters in 1981 and (without getting into a debate about the Sisters themselves – a topic for another time) with the goal of encouraging young rural women to remain locally and to resist the temptation to head to bigger cities, where the vast majority quickly end up in dead-end, dangerous prostitution. By teaching them valuable skills and a solid work ethic, the project has made significant contributions both to artisanal craft traditions and to the maintenance of local social harmony. The program itself can proudly boast a 95% artist-participant retention rate.

From Nong Khai I headed to the province of Chaiyaphum, precisely because it was touted as “the least visited province in all of Thailand” and the Lonely Planet guidebook gave very little information about it. Sounds perfect to me! Besides taking a personal morning tour with the owner of the guesthouse where I stayed (she took me under her wing, shocked that I was travelling alone – once again, what others saw as strange and potentially dangerous I considered to be a great advantage) to some small silk villages in the area, there was not much to do. The silk-making process is fascinating and we were able to see it in its entirety, from feeding the worms all the way to loading the spools of thread on the loom. Did you know that they boil the worms to extract the soft filaments? That is quite a sight to observe. Far more memorable for me however was being grabbed suddenly by the arm and having a tiny, grey-haired woman shout loudly in my face, “You! You! #1! Beautiful! You!” and then just as suddenly letting me go. Or the process of ordering food from non-English speakers at the open-air night market. The four gestures to know are: (1) point to the ingredients that you would like to have cooked, (2) hold up one index finger (to indicate one serving), (3) smile in hopes that they will then begin to cook it and (4) the favorite thumbs-up motion to indicate “it is delicious – thank you!”

Ah, the simple things in life.

The next travel segment was not so simple, however. Even though I opted not to visit Cambodia (and hence bypass Angkor Wat) on this trip, I still wanted to see some Khmer ruins. The best ones in Thailand are at Phanom Rung, which is located about six hours from Chaiyaphum and one hour from the Cambodian border. I am glad I made the effort to get out there, but the day nearly did me in. There is no public transport, so I had to rent a clackety derelict moped for the day. Nor are there any public facilities such as cafés or the like en route, so once the searing heat of midday set in I was toast. It did feel distinctly adventurous and the setting was spookily spectacular. All I could think of was The Killing Fields movie, and indeed the landscape was barren, shrubby, dry, and dotted intermittently with small, smoky fires. A wasteland. The ruins were singularly incredible, to be sure, and I never realized the artistic elements and style unique to the Khmer Empire (roughly from the 11th to the 13th century) until that day. Lots of birds, snakes, lotus leaves, phallic pillars and prangs (towers) to worship, that now are pervaded by a crumbly, rosy, weedy, decadent ambience.

Finally I made it back to Bangkok and was ready for my flight to Saigon. ‘The land of smiles’ was still smiling at me – and I at it – upon departure, just as it had when I arrived. However (Phanom Rung aside) it was not a particularly challenging country to visit, nor did it engage my senses or force me to stretch to the degree that I like (don’t ask my why I crave that!). In retrospect I would say that my two biggest challenges were the humidity and the fiery-hot chillies – so not exactly tops on my list of all-time travel ardors, but nonetheless plenty of fond memories of Thailand shall remain.

And so… on to Viet Nam. Arrival in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City), and within 10 minutes I could sense a new, different energy and dynamism in the air and knew already that I would like the place. ‘Like’ is an understatement! My quickest-on-record easy transit through the airport was an omen of good things to come. Oh where to begin? Saigon is an ideal place to start any journey in Viet Nam, as its sites, people and atmosphere enable visitors to get a sense of overall history and contemporary society, and especially to put the past 50 years in clearer perspective. The first significant difference I noticed was that of the Orient. Gone were forks and out came chopsticks. Alongside the Latin-script-based Quoc Ngu (literally ‘national writing system,’ created in the 17th century by the French Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes) were Chinese ‘nom’ characters. And many people were preoccupied with feng shui. This last fact I learned when I went into a shop, tried on a shirt, but was informed that no mirror was available for me to look at because the shop’s door was facing the wrong direction. I can’t help but think that approach is not always good for business!

Further observations on Viet Nam and its history were made and insight gained by visits to the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. The former is where North Vietnamese troops tanks stormed and raised their flag on 30 April 1975, and the latter is where Viet Nam-at-large tells its version of the wars with France and the United States, on its own turf and in its own words. Not surprisingly it was not an easy visit; the pictures are graphic (as are the severely deformed – thanks to agent orange and chemical warfare – fetuses kept in jars of formaldehyde) and the captions blatantly anti-West and openly hostile. However, I would not have missed it and think it is absolutely critical that such an exhibit exist and that the Vietnamese may consider it fully ‘theirs.’ Furthermore, not once during my visit did I detect or was I the recipient of any sort of animosity towards this end. In fact, the people were SO friendly, pleasantly ‘in-your-face’ and seemingly almost ‘forgetful’ of the recent past that I found it almost disconcerting. (More on this below…)

The single greatest shock to my system was that of Vietnamese transport and traffic. I thought that Delhi was dirty and Bangkok chaotic, but Saigon wins the prize hands-down for both. That said however, I LOVED being a part of the mayhem! Forms of transport include the following:

  • Bicycles. I am convinced that Viet Nam is second only to China in terms of the sheer number of foot-powered two-wheeled vehicles. Have you ever seen 10 rows of bikes going at warp speed down a 2-lane street with close intersections and no stop signs or lights? I have now! I also came to the definitive conclusion that there is no relation between bike size and rider size in Viet Nam; never have I seen so many small people riding bikes far too large for them, nor the corresponding opposite. Yet very few accidents… hmmm.
  • Boring metered taxicabs and cars. There are almost as many motorcycles as bikes, including the occasional vintage model and the well-known ‘Honda Om’ (which in fact can be of any make– the only difference is that it’s available for hire). You simply walk up to any man loafing about near a motorcycle on the street, state your destination, negotiate a price, climb on the back, hold on for dear life, and they whisk you off.
  • And finally, my favorite… the cyclo. This last mode is virtually an institution in itself, and certainly may be considered a national symbol. Basically it is a high bicycle with a large padded seat protruding from the front. The difference is that the passenger sits in -front- of the driver, and hence sees and experiences all the action-chaos-and-near-collisions first! I thought that the cyclos were great and the drivers most cordial (interestingly, many of them are former doctors, businessmen and intellectuals who fell out of favor when the North was victorious and hence lost their jobs post-1975). However, I quickly had to develop a stomach and nerves of steel.

Bicycles, bicycles everywhere. Everyone rides them – men going to work, kids going to school, women going all sorts of places. While I found the Vietnamese people collectively to be very elegant, handsome, and exceptionally cultured compared to some other places in Southeast Asia, the expressions of female beauty were all too often simply astounding. In contrast to the ‘bowl’-style haircut favored by 99% of Thai women, in Viet Nam hair is worn long, straight, and neatly pulled back. But physique is only one factor contributing to such grace and beauty; in my opinion, equally important is fashion. The traditional Vietnamese ‘ao dai’ dress is stunning; usually made of fine silk, it consists of a long, flowing, collared tunic that splits just above the waist on the sides and is worn over long, loose, wide-legged silk trousers. Although initially discouraged by the government in Hanoi, they are now making a comeback and are by far the most common form of attire for women. Another fact I found neat (to say nothing of satisfying on a personal level, given how much SPF 80 I’ve had to account for in life) is that fair skin is considered to be a mark of great beauty by Vietnamese women, who will go to great lengths to stay pale. Their efforts include always wearing a hat (the conical bamboo ones being the most photogenic), walking under an umbrella and – my favorite – sporting arm-length silk gloves around town. The gloves reminded me exactly of ‘the olden days’ in the US, except that in Viet Nam they are wearing jeans and riding a motorcycle at the same time! Needless to say, they found my uber-fair skin to be remarkable, and unlike the villagers in Laos were not taken aback by my freckles. Perhaps my complexion has found a sister home halfway around the world?

From Ho Chi Minh City I began my gradual trek northward. My first stop was 6 hours inland and northeast, in the mountain hamlet and former French hill station of Dalat. (more…)

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Здравей! Greetings in Bulgarian. What fun it has been over the past several days to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet.

Bulgaria was even better than I’d hoped for or expected to find. In many ways the country is at the crossroads — between east and west in terms of geography (evidenced by the scores of trucks en route from Istanbul to Bucharest, Berlin and elsewhere), culture and politics, yet in others overshadowed by those very same elements rooted in its neighbors. For example, it hasn’t had the notoriety of Romania thanks to its lack of an outright dictator, it avoided the dire effects of war in the Balkans despite the fact that they occurred on its doorstep, and once again current international interests lie just nearby in countries surrounding the Black Sea (with Bulgaria’s Black Sea coastline fabled for its beauty and now potentially in severe danger due to environmental abuse, overzealous property developers, holiday-makers and corruption). Even given all the problems and obstacles that still face it — not least EU integration, which is slated to occur over the next several years although while I was there some €2 billion in structural funds for the country were withdrawn due to ongoing corruption concerns — the country appears poised to move forward, with a charming citizenry, beautiful scenery and at least a few pockets of traditional architecture and culture “off the beaten path” that made our visit entirely worthwhile.

After the car-rental-blessing-in-disguise episode in Bucharest and several missed turns (despite three maps in hand, we could not seem to avoid passing and re-passing the same smokestacks multiple times over), we got out of the capital and headed south on Route 5 towards the town of Ruse on the Bulgarian border. The border crossing itself was interesting and easy; it only took 10 minutes and 2 smiles to clear customs patrol, though no-person’s land between the two border checks was a maze of fences, dead-ends and roadblocks unlike any other I have ever seen. Kudos to the authorities for making sure no one could slip through territorial cracks.

Just over the Danube, we stopped at Lukoil for gas. Finally saw the Lukoil name as it “should” be spelled (Лукойл) and were duly impressed by the selection of goods in the mini-market — brand new, shiny Western brands, from soda to iced coffee to French butter cookies. It felt slightly bizarre, not least because about 100 meters away were completely shoddy, dilapidated housing blocks that extended along the horizon for as far as the eye could see. Welcome to Bulgaria; at least from a housing perspective, Romania looked posh in comparison (which isn’t saying much).

Driving southward was like walking even further back in time and back into nature. Broad horizons that were a mixture of forested hills, sunflower fields and chalky bluffs. Tiny villages lined with terra-cotta roofed homes, random shops, lazy roadside vegetable stands. The landscape, architecture and overall feel continually reminded of Umbria. I almost expected to find wild boar crossing the highway; no such luck, though there were plenty of painted horse-drawn carts to pass and cows grazing up to the road’s shoulder.

Arriving in Veliko Tarnovo provided the perfect capstone to a magical drive. The place from which 22 successive tsars ruled Bulgaria during medieval times, Veliko Tarnovo (or just Tarnovo — Търново — for short) retains a stunning setting, complete with fortress and traditional architecture, and remains one of Bulgaria’s national treasures. It reminded me of a combination of Luxembourg (the Yantra River snakes through town, with homes and shops clinging to hillsides and river basins alike), Utah (imagine the red rock bluffs, only gray and mottled with trees) and the area around Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. What a wonderful, unexpected surprise greeted us!

We settled in to the funky, perfectly-located Studio Hotel. Everything item of décor is black, white or red, down to the velvet-brocade wallpaper and lava lamps. The rooftop terrace has a 360 degree panorama of the fabled fortress, onion dome of the cathedral and homes spilling over one another. It didn’t take long to surmise that we’d find this area endearing… and so nice to be at least a bit further off the beaten track again, without stray dogs, traffic congestion or non-stop city clamor.

Tarnovo was the base from which we explored northern Bulgaria as a whole. We discovered better food (and wine), better prices, better drivers, and generally better scenery and better opportunities to enjoy nature than we’d found previously — and indeed, than we expected. It was just the change of pace and lifestyle we needed! We explored a few monasteries (Troyan, Dryanovo), traditional villages (Arbanasi, Bozhentsite, Tryavna and its famous woodworking school — complete with wood-carved ceilings, walls and even engraved family portraits!) and the Stara Planina mountain range. And last but not least, we took a not-to-be-missed detour to “my” namesake village of Apriltsi! Not that there was much to do there other than a handstand next to the sign marking the entry to town; mostly it’s just a long, thin stretch of ramshackle homes and buildings that winds its way along the local river and struggles to survive. The most interesting things to be seen there were a dilapidated rusty MIG fighter jet shell — yes, the entire plane — in the middle of someone’s front yard, and the goat-herder traffic jam at sunset. Goats appear to be revered in Apriltsi; they had the right of way and devoured residential trees while homeowners looked on without much care or dismay.

We were lucky enough to visit the Troyan monastery right as evening mass took place; as if it were not enough that the monastery is exquisitely frescoed inside and outside, listening to the chant of priests amidst such beauty might be enough to convert some die-hard atheists. This experience was outdone only perhaps by our visit to Arbanasi the following day. Arbanasi was the summer getaway locale for nobility during the Ottoman empire, and even today it exudes an air of affluence and refuge. Our first fortuitous visit was to the Church of Saints Michael and Gabriel, where we had to wait for the caretaker to finish his lunch before opening the chapel for us. The upside of this was that we were the only ones there, amidst literally thousands of frescoes and gold-lined icons — amazing! Next we headed to the Nativity Church, where we figured we’d find equally good frescoes… but never did we expect to stumble upon a private impromptu concert by 4 male singers who performed traditional liturgical Bulgarian music. In the cool dim serenity of the chapel, surrounded by brilliant paintings and the hum of deep chords, the effect was mesmerizing and the memory unforgettable.

A few lighter-hearted and more mundane moments rounded out our Bulgarian voyage. Not least, getting pulled over by the local police — twice! The first time was for speeding; we didn’t know the speed limit was only 60 km/hour (35 mph) on the highway. We’re still not sure what the reason for the second pullover was, most likely just the suspicion that because the car came from Romania perhaps it was stolen or something. Thankfully both times as soon as the officer realized that he was dealing with foreigners, who would be more hassle than anything else (and didn’t understand his questions anyway), he let us go with a gruff salutation. Even so, my knees felt like Jell-O! Another fond memory was when we filled up with gas outside of Troyan, only to discover that the station did not take credit cards of any kind, and we did not have enough cash to cover the bill (even in Bulgaria, gas is expensive). We were sent on a wild goose chase to find an ATM in close-to-the-middle-of-nowhere; as part of this quest we found ourselves at a Bulgarian wedding (to ask directions) and later at the end of a chain-linked alley with dogs and security guards (where we were mistakenly directed). By the time we returned successfully to the gas station, Petrov — the station attendant — figured he’d been suckered by 2 foreigners for a full tank of gas. When he saw us, his eyes lit up and we all had a good laugh. Like this:

April and Petrov in Troyan

April and Petrov in Troyan

Finally, mention of some favorite foods and drinks to round out our experiences. Although I am a big fan of mamaliga cu brinza (one of Romania’s national dishes, basically polenta-like cornmeal served with melted soft, tangy sheep’s cheese), the most memorable thing I ate in Romania was yogurt. Seriously. But what delicious yogurt it was — especially the watermelon, honeydew melon and rose-petal flavors. Otherwise it was just a lot of cabbage salad, sliced cucumbers, mealy potatoes and overdone meats. Bulgarian cuisine, on the other hand, revealed delights at almost every turn — not only in tastes sampled, but also in the endearing translations (one favorite: “fresh scvized frut juse” — when pronounced in Bulgarian, it sounds entirely correct!). Chilled tarator soup made with tart yogurt, chopped cucumbers, fresh dill and ground walnuts. Shopska salad of pulverized tomatoes, soft feta-like cheese, dill and (no surprise) cucumbers. “Salads” often having a consistency more like ratatouille, with the vegetables quasi-pureed and combined rather than sliced and served raw. Kadaief, which can only be described as a cold, shredded wheat-like pastry soaked in honey and is simply divine when served with a thimble of strong Turkish coffee.

Speaking of coffee, and drinks generally, Bulgaria gets high marks. We had no problem finding good-quality and inexpensive Italian, Turkish and filter coffee, and one specialty is “coffee on sand” which is essentially old-school Turkish coffee that’s served in a copper pot heated by running it across warm sand. As for wine, Bulgaria is home to several grape-growing regions and good wines. A few varietals that were new to me include Mavrud and Melnik (which produce reds similar to cabernet) and Rikat (which produces a dry white). And then of course there is rakia, the liquor of national pride that can be made out of grapes, prunes or (my favorite) apricot.

On that note, cheers — to another great trip!

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