Friday, November 23, 2007

Lots of travel to Darjeeling and Varanasi

I have been through some of the most travel-intensinve times in my life. I left the orphanage on Thursday the 15th at 6 pm, drove 3 hours to the train station, took a 32-hour train trip to Kolkata, then a 14-hour bus ride to Siliguri, then a 3 hour bus to Darjeeling. Coming out of Darjeeling, I took a 3-hour bus to Siliguri, then a 14 hour bus to Patna, then a 5 hour train ride to Varanasi. That made my week's total travel time about 75 hours, not including waiting time. I will never do that willingly again.
Darjeeling, however, was definitely worth it. Set upon a ridge amidst lush green valleys, this old British hill-station is famous for its teas. It is one of the first places the British secretly imported tea to break the monopolies the Chinese and Dutch had upon the tea trade. Some of the original tea plantations still operate independantly and give demonstrations on how to make proper, high-quality tea and how to properly brew a cup or a pot. The most astounding part of Darjeeling, however, is the view. On three sides of the city, valleys drop thousands of feet down from the roads, and extend into true hill-country on the east and west sides. To the north, the land extends into the Himilayas, and dominating the view is a cluster of peaks containing Khangchendzonga, the third highest peak in the world. Clouds hang in the sky mid-way up the mountains and their shadows slide slowly across the villages in the hills below. Sitting at 7,000 + feet in Darjeeling, the crisp, thin air gives backpackers a giddiness that intensifies feelings so that many people just sit and stare at the views. There was a great coffe shop with mochas for 40 rupees (about $1), and I was sound as a pound. Mostly, I drank tea and read books.
Right now, I am in Varanasi, a holy and grimey city. I just got into a bit of a scuffle, which could've easily turned into a fight. I took a picture of the Ganges near one of the funeral Ghats and some people accused me of taking a picture of dying people. I hadn't been of course, and anyway I was pointed the opposite direction. I showed them that I intended no offense
and they asked me to come and help an old woman, to say sorry. Trying to be gracious, I assented, but then they wanted money. I told them no, and then they started to follow me, saying it was what I owed. I told them that I didn't take a picture of the funeral pyres, but they didn't listen and said it didn't matter. Then one guy started to say that he would make truble for me; that was when I got mad and said he better leave me alone. He grabbed me and I pushed him off. Another American saw this and came over, told me that I shouldn't give them anything. He turned and told the instigators that there would be trouble and they would be IN trouble if they didn't leave me alone.
He said they did the same thing to him yesterday and when a policeman walked up, they ran off. There were 6 or so of them, and I was lucky the guy came over. I am rather apathetic about the city on the whole, but I'm glad to have seen it. The ghats are mostly old and decrepit, the river is brown and smelly. Alas, I did not see a dolphin.

There was a bombing yesterday in the city, but it was on the other side and I didn't even know about it until it was on the news. So, I am fine everyone. Going to Agra tonight, then Jaipur. Home all's well and that everyone had a great Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 09, 2007


I have been traveling.

Much of it has been great, some of it frustrating, and all of it has been more expensive than I thought.

I am half way through the trip and still not too sick. In Turkey, I visited Cappadocia, Olympos, Fetiye, Ephesis, Selcuk, Pergamum, Yzmir and Istanbul. All were amazing, but I think my favorite was Pergamum. What a breathtaking Acropolis it has! It is set far above the city, and I am confident that if it were to still have many of the friezes that were taken abroad, it would rank among the world's wonders.

Africa was a bit different than I had thought. it took money to take all of the taxis around (for security reasons), organized tours and accomodations. I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and made it to the top, though my guide was pushy and annoying. Safari was great, and I saw nearly all of the African savannah game animals in my time on the Masai Mara, and at Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha.

I am in New Delhi right now, eating the best food I have in years. I walked around the Red Fort today, and went to the Gandhi Museum and to his funeral pyre, which is in the middle of beautiful parks. I have walked all around old Delhi, which is a warren of alleys and rickshaw streets, lined with shops and sales stands. It is still very eastern here, and retains a far different atmosphere than the western world. Tomorrow I go to Chennai for a week, where I will be working/helping out in an orphanage that was partially funded by my home church.

Thursday, October 04, 2007 on to visas and travel

I have officially completed service in Bulgaria. What a journey it has been. I am writing from my favorite hostel in Sofia, where I am staying until my visa to India is approved. Perhaps it will be ready today, perhaps tomorrow. I have been here for a couple of days and have slowly given away clothes and trinkets so that my luggage is lighter. I am having trouble parting with some books and warm clothes, but I certainly have too much right now.

I feel a bit empty and lost, because I am constantly saying good-bye and cannot actually leave until the visa is ready. I need to get going and keep busy so that I don't slip into the depression of boredom. My airline tickets are ready, I am adequately vaccinated and I have purchased my anti-malarial medication. I have to find places to stay in Turkey and network with friends in Kenya and India, but otherwise I'm ready. My travel route is loosely as follows:

San Francisco, and home

Dates are flexible and I'm keeping my options open on general travel and duration within each country. I'm out of time on the computer, so I'll write later about other aspects of my journey, and I will finally tell about Pompeii and the Vatican. Take care, all.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Running out of time.

The end of my time here is coming faster than I'd expected. Doubts and worries swim through my mind rather than the sense of accomplishment I'd hoped for. I feel like I'm leaving friends behind and turning my back on a world in which I've spent so much effort to create mutual understanding. I keep telling myself that I have only been here for two years, and that when I leave, pretty much everything will continue here as it has for 7,000 years without my help. The personal impression I made is light, and will (by design) fade quickly. The impact of what I've worked with, however, will hopefully (I like to think that likely) continue. If all of this happens, our mission and designs are successful.

The evening outside is touched by the soft twilight and benches throughout the park sag with the weight of reclining pensioners. The culture of Stara Zagora is modernizing, but I hope that the relaxed atmosphere of early evenings, which Bulgarians commonly admire about this city, remains. I will certainly miss that aspect of life in Stara Zagora. Reading at cafe's has helped drastically increase my pagecount and is one of daily pleasures.

My current apartment has never really felt like home. Although I have lived there for 9 months, I have disliked it from the beginning. Leaving is like packing up a campsite. Neighbors weren't interested in much interaction and I was not able to join or create a sense of community there. I will always think of home here as the apartment near the brewery on Genberal Stoletov Street, with the smells of stewed grains and the pine trees of the hills, the views of the Thracian Plains, and friendly neighbors like Baba Netka, Slavov and Lena. I left home months ago.

Paperwork, paying final bills and saying goodbye take up most of my time these days. I am trying to sell a few of my things, but think I'll end up giving most of it away. OK, my counterpart is shoo-ing me away from the computer for coffee.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Bike riding, Naples.

My bike was worn-out and broken when I bought it about a year ago. I rode it with difficulty around town, but I never took it very far because it was dangerous to ride over rugged ground or at speeds above, say, 15 Km/hr. Thus, when I had it repaired and upgraded to my self-imposed riding specifications, it opened up new possibilities for me with regard to fitness and entertainment and added a personal transport option. Due to work, I missed the bus to the Children's Parliament summer camp. I decided that I would bike there, and I expected a bit of adventure along the way. I got it.

I took the train to Tulovo, saving me the peddle over the Sredna Gora, and began the journey to Kalofer Panitsite. I had miscalculated both distance and elevation gain (or, rather, I had disregarded them), the side-roads were in worse shape than I had expected and riding with a 18-Kg backpack was harder on the butt than I had anticipated. My worst oversight, however, was traffic. Since the sideroads were too poor to bike safely, I rode along the highway. Of course I wore the Peace Corps helmet (as required by the program), but lorries and autos blew by at terrible speed, rendering the safety features of the helmet rather useless. I rode on a Friday which meant that Sofia-bound natives of areas around Kazanluk, Sliven and the Rose valley, who were eager to begin partying in the city, tested spedometer and RPM needles in the rarely visited high-end reaches of their instuments. Trucks and cars passed within inches of my left hand, blowing me forcefully to the right in their wakes. I disembarked the train in Tulovo at about 5:15 PM and arrived at the camp in Panitsite at 10PM, having covered 67 Kilometers and gained 200 meters of elevation. I was sore and hungry, but happy.

I have been off-road biking quite a bit recently and had my first accident in a long time. I was coming down a particularily rocky area and knew that I fould fall, so I jumped off of the bike, rolled, and emerged unscathed. My bike, however, suffered several damages. The rear brake handle snapped and chunks were taken out of the right handle and the seat. It was exciting and I'm amazed that the experience came without injury. Knowing how to fall and roll with the problems is valuble, kids. Problem is, I need to fix my bike again. Darn-it.

And so, the next installment of my Italian adventure (I had no idea that it would come in Serial form): Naples en-route to Pompeii.

Pompeii is about 3 1/2 hours from Rome by train, with a transfer in Naples. When I arrived in Naples, I had some layover time, so I explored the bazaars. Naples has a distinctly dangerous feel. It is more modern than Rome and has a more visible lower class. It's bazaars are bustling with quiet deals between bargain-waders and energetic, smiling 'merchants'. In this Bazaar, among these loud, obnoxious throngs, I was scammed for the first time.

My beloved camera stopped working just before my trip to Italy. I had been looking for a replacement, but all of the models I saw were either insufficient for my needs and standards or too expensive. Pompeii was one of the most anticipated destinations my lifelong travels, and I sorely wanted to photograph it. This desire, with the greed that nearly always leads people willingly into scams, along with my disabled eyesight (my glasses had been broken by a careless hostel-mate the night before) and my personal carelessness, enabled the incident to progress.

Cameras were shoved at me right and left. A laptop computer with a dual-core processor was offered for 150 Euros, a camcorder for 100 Euros. I really only needed a digital camera. I saw a camera that was exactly what I wanted in a small shop; I figured this would be a bit more legitimate than buying something off of the street. I let the salesman pester me a bit, feigned disinterest in the camera but let him show me its features. I took pictures with it, looked at the SD card, made sure the battery was new-ish, and bargained down to 30 Euros. I bought it.

When i was walking away from the shop, a bag fell over behind me and some people started yelling and gesturing wildly at me. I thought I'd knocked it over with my bulky backpack because nobody else was near me. Random items from inside the bag littered the ground so I gathered them back into the bag they had fallen from and gave it to the person who was yelling. I picked up the package that I'd set down and went on my way. What had happened was somebody had thrown the bag at my backpack to make it seem like I'd knocked something over. When I went back to pick the stuff up I'd needed both hands to work, so I put the bag I was carrying down. A man with a bag identical to the one containing my newly-purchased camera, to the way it was tied, came up behind me, and switched it with mine. My concentration was on clean-up, so I didn't notice. Almost immediately, I realized something was wrong. I thought I'd been targeted, but hadn't realized a switch had taken place. I carefully left, watching my back and keeping a thumb on my wallet in my front pocket. I checked my camera box two minutes later and found only bottled water inside. I told a nearby policeman who simply shrugged and said, "This is Napoli."

Thirty Euros poorer and with a poor opinion of Naples, I continued to Pompeii.

Next: Pompeii and the Vatican.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Summer Camp and the End of SPA

Summer camp in my part of Bulgaria is generally less structured than what is experienced in the US. Directors schelule activities and meals rather loosely, yet it works most of the time. The flexibility gives the kids more choice in participation and responsibility for the camp's dynamics. The downside of this quality is that it polarizes the group into very active and very inactive cliques. If there is a popular group with a bad influence, the counselors/supervisors have to watch them more closely and focus their attention on those individuals to keep them busy and out of mischief. Fortunately, giving those individuals and even their groups (cliques) more responsibility often facillitates their need for attention in a positive way.

At the camp I helped out with last week, this was a vital scrap of managerial knowledge, as it rained heavily and continuously for 4 days. The children were stuck in their small, concrete bungalows with little to do. Thanks to the elder campers, who provided music, games, dance lessons and showed great leadership, I still have hair - and most of it is still dusty blond/light brown. I never want to show another card trick, however. The camp was nice, and the food was Bulgarian - style camp food. That means lots of yoghurt dishes, sausages and meats, tomatoes, tea and the occasional chicken. Simple but decent. I lost weight last year, but this year, the campers brought me their leftovers. I over-ate. Not good when cooped up in concrete bungalows. Just sits there instead of being used by day-long activities like football (soccer), basketball and volleyball. We did get out the last 2 days and took long hikes to the eco-trail near Kalofer and Panitsite, the hydro-geologic phenomenon of bowl-like cavities in the sandstone bed of the creek above town.

I worked late in the week, opting to finish 2 days of work and taking my own transportation to the Camp rather than accompanying the children on their bus. Friday the 3rd, after finishing work at 4, I took the train to Tulovo with my pack and my bike, determined to bike the rest of the way. I hadn't realized that I needed to take supplies that made my bag reach 30 lbs, that the way to Panitsite way nearly completely uphill, that the roads were in such poor condition that I had to take the highway, and that my route was 67 Km. I made it into camp at about 10PM, with very sweaty clothes and an aching rear end. Still, I made it and I am proud of that fact. I would not do it again. The trucks and cars rushing past at about 100+ Km/hr came within inches and their wake blows bike riders off the road.

On our hike to Panitsite, I experienced an infuriating example of a bad situation turned near-disaster due to an unwillingness to admit error. On a hike with 50 children, aged 7 to 20 and elder women with bad knees, we were running late. The sky looked ominous and both the children and camp staff were complaining of pain and fatigue. I had helped lead the group down from the ridge on a leaf-covered, hidden trail. We had lost the trail a couple of times, but marked it so we would know the way back. I am an experienced hiker and trail leader, having backpacked all my life and gone through many outdoor leadership programs. One of the rules of hiking, especially in such a large and diversified group, is that when you are in any sort of trouble or hurry you stick to what you know and can be sure of. The doctor of the group, who was being pushed to get back, took a wrong trail. I was one of the few people who noticed; I drew him aside (to help him save face) and carefully and privately pointed out that we were not on the same path. At first he argued, then said it was a shorter trail (aka-shortcut). I just nodded and took my place at the back, helping the stragglers. After a climb up several steep inclines and a twisted ankle in thick leaf-cover, people began complaining whole-heartedly. I kept my mouth shut, though we were going a far longer route than we had come. We lost the trail several times and had to trek through some wet and slippery areas, but eventually came out on a trail we knew and got back to camp. The worst part is that the Dr. put the more frail/inexperienced of our group at risk, simply due to the fact that going back the 100 meters to the marked trail would show that he had led the group into a wrong turn. Pride cometh before the fall.

The last week was filled with project proposal review and funding decision. It was tiring and difficult, but good and fruitful in the end. This was the last quarterly meeting for my committee and the final committee meeting for me in Bulgaria; huzzah! My responsibilities change from here on out into transition, travel preparation to leave, training activities and a bit of hosting. I'll depart Stara Zagora on Sept. 30 and Buglaria on Oct. 2.

Coming up... Pompeii and bike crashes.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Lost Journey...

I neglected to write yesterday about one of the most powerful trips I have ever taken. I had to use vacation days or lose them, so I took an unplaned trip to Rome, Naples and Pompeii.

My trip started out with reservation problems in Rome. I am low on cash, so I opted to rebook at the least expensive hostel I could find. The hostel was central, relatively clean, and had no curfew. I went immediately to get food for a picnic and took the subway to Circus Maximus. When I reached the street, I gazed in awe at the ancient stadium, now a bare valley with a mound where the median of the stadium used to be. This small field between the Palatine and Aventine hills was the no-man's land in the mythical conflict between Romulus and Remus that established the ancient city and its earliest administration. The day was sunny and warm with a light breeze. After lunch, I walked to the nearby Piazza de Rocca and fell asleep in the cool grass under a pine tree. I awoke after an hour to a classical concert nearby, listened for awhile, and then walked to the Isola Tiberina and strolled, thinking, along the Tiber. I decided to wait for the next day to tour Rome. I would simply enjoy my books (Collapse, by Jared Diamond and Travels by Michael Chricton) and experience Rome. I looked at the cobblestone streets, the businesses, the schools and the alleys. I went to an internet cafe to do some work and then went to dinner. After dinner, I went to the Giovanni cathedral and read in a cafe, enjoying espresso and ginger cookies.

How expensive Rome is! But the food is so good, I had to enjoy a fine dinner. I am a decent cook, but they use such fresh and good spices in the bistro I went to that I couldn't come close to reproducing the auromas and flavors in their pasta sauce. Their bread was good too, and I ate as if I hadn't eaten for days. I think that is the best thing about Italian food: spice and freshness. The wine was full of flavor and had a good aftertaste. I couldn't afford to go go out for most of my trip, but I was determined to try good Italian cuisine at least one night. Man, was it worth it!

The second day I walked all around ancient Rome, starting in the Forum. The arches, pillars, frescoes, mosaics, and foundations all once used to be part of the largest and most important city in the western world, and I marvelled at the pieces of history and culture that remain. I read and ate lunch amongst the ruins, sitting on foundations that supported city baths and palaces. I climbed the Palatine hill and walked passages once reserved for the most powerful and influential people in Ancient Roman history. The view was spactacular and the day partly cloudy. The strong Italian sun was again tempered by the clouds and the breeze which rustled the leaves and pine needles of the trees in the gardens. The museum atop the hill displays artifacts from the prehistoric Urnfield culture found beneath the forum to late Imperial Rome. The foundations and support holes for huts were found on the Aventine side of the hill, dated to the 8th century BC. The museum pushes the theory that this was the site of Romulus' city and the first Roman kingdom. It is nice to think about, anyway.

I entered the Colosseum in the early afternoon and took hours studying and absorbing the architecture, scale, and complexity of the building. How impressive it is! I'm glad it was voted one of the 7 modern wonders (though I don't really support that contest or idea). It is such a beautiful, powerful building its presence is inspiring. I have seen it is pictures and on television all my life, but seeing it in person was a fully different experience. If it were built in the United States today, in the same scale, it would be impressive. With the artistry and detail, and considering the common scale of other man-made structures, it must have been other-worldly. The gallery inside the Colosseum had an exhibit of Eros artwork from the ancient world. I had a good time hearing American tourists realize what they were looking at in some of the mosaics/pottery on disply. "Oh my goodness, would you look at that! Do you know what that is!?" "That is disgusting!" "They were perverted!" "Let's go kids. Let's see the Forum. Who wants Ice Cream?" It was hilarious to see people's reactions to the explicit artwork.

I am off to a children's summer camp right now. I will retun to Stara Zagora in about a week, where I'll continue this story and write about recent experiences. Have a good week everyone!