Friday, March 31, 2006

Spring has come.

The weather has warmed to a gentle mediterranean spring. Stara Zagora is blooming. People have peeled from their bulky winter clothing and are donning darker sunglasses. Yesterday, I awoke to an amazingly clear view from my window. I could see over the city and across the Thracian Plains to the distant Rhodolpies, some 60-80 kilometers away. Trees have sprouted blossoms of all colors. The municipality has planted flowers throughout the city parks. People's moods have lightened with the weather; it seems as though the entire city has taken one deep, common, healthy breath together that ended in a smile.

Some of my friends in Stara Zagora are traveling throughout the Balkans right now. Destinations include Belgrade, Serejevo, Croatian coastal towns and other places. I'll get out myself at the end of the month to Athens. For now, however, Bulgaria is as pleasant a land as anywhere.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Nikolaevo and Margaret

Margaret is visiting this week during her spring break! What a joy to finally spend time with her after all of this time!

And now, to conclude the Nikolaevo races....
As you may remember, the racers galluped towards the finish line and the crowd went wild. Three were out in front, but their relative positions were difficult to determine. The racer in the center gradually fell behind the two on the sides. I tried to get a picture of the finish, but I misjudged the speed of the horses. A cheer rose from the crowd as the winner sped past far sooner than I'd thought he would. He raised his arms in triumph and the other contestants whipped their horses in disappointment. He received his awards from the mayor in a brief ceremony, after which the men informally raced several times. On the last race, a horse tripped, stumbled and almost fell by the side of the road. He regained his footing and sped off to follow the other horses, already disappearing into the distance and the mist. The spectators moved en masse back into the town, the crowd slowly dissolving along the main road.

Margaret arrived last Wednesday. I had intended to meet her at the airport at about 1:45, but her connections were confounded by American Airlines and she was delayed until about 8:30 that night. I was already at the airport when she finally contacted me, so I simply took the bus into Sofia and enjoyed the city for a while before meeting her at 8:30. The airline had also lost her baggage, so we had to wait in Sofia another day. We met some of my friends for lunch and dinner the next day, and Margaret seemed to enjoy strolling around the city in the meantime. On Saturday and Sunday, we visited my host-family in Septemvri and went to Plovdiv. On Monday, we went to Bochkovo Monastery and hiked in the mountains behind Bochkovo to a secluded church and shrine to Mary. There was still snow on the ground back in the valleys and springs almost leapt from holes in the canyon walls.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Nikolaevo Horseraces

On Saturday, I went to a small village called Nikolaevo to watch traditional horse races. Participants rode from a nearby village bareback on their horses to a finish line outside of town. My pal Greg and I clearly stood out from the other bystanders, who were Roma and Turkish. The purse was 100 leva and a one-month supply of horsefeed. That is several weeks salary for the participants.

The day was cloudy with intermittened showers. Approximately 250 people showed up to watch the race, from a town of about 2000. They waited eagerly for an hour or so while the contestants rode off one-by-one to the starting line 5km away in the next village. We waited in the wind and rain, eagerly searching for the horses in the distance. The horses appeared several kilometers down the road and the onlookers went nuts.

Must work now. I will revise this in the next few days with the end of the story....

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Skiing, Volleyball and Kukeri

After a conference for Project Design Management last Monday and Tuesday, I traveled to Stoykite, a small village in the Rhodolpi Mountains near Smolyan. I spent time with other volunteers discussing work, life and goals. We visited an orphanage/home for at-risk youth in Stoykite and spent time with the children there. We talked with them, played volleyball (my team went 2-2 I think), and skied. The children have a small slope in town to ski on. On Friday, I put on skis for the first time in 10 years. I embarassed myself, but the kids loved it.

On Saturday, we all headed to Pamporovo for a full day of skiing. It was a beautiful day, and the snow was perfect. Pamporovo has world-class slopes, though they were packed all day. I got my ski legs back and was taking all of the runs pretty well by quitting time. I only fell once, when a kid cut in front of me on a red run and I had to avoid him. I was going too fast anyway for my skill level. What can I say? "I feel a need....the need for speed!" Those kids are amazingly good at skiing, and jump all over the runs with grace and agility. And it's great to see them having such a good time, happy to share it with foreigners like myself.

On Sunday, I hiked with some friends down to the town of Shiroka Luka for Kukeri, a spring festival to scare away evil spirits for the planting season. My friend Dave posted a message on the board about a month ago for the same festival in Pernik. Shiroka Luka's is supposedly the oldest Kukeri, and the village is small enough to really experience it in a small community setting. The men of the town dress up in hairy costumes with tall hats, huge cow bells called hlopki, they wear various masks, they carry wooden swords, paint their faces and dance around in the streets. The bells raise a clamor that can be heard echoing through the vally for kilometers. The noise is meant to scare evil spirits from the valleys. The festival has specific roles for some of the participants: a bride and groom lead the main procession through the streets, a bear and bear keeper follow in the middle of the procession, and representatives from nearby places. There were groups in the festival that represented England, Ireland, Russia, the EU and other countries. When I asked some of the locals why they dressed in traditional clothing for other countries, they said, "We chase away evil spirits for everyone. We're celebrating for good luck in the next year for everyone, not just for us here!"

Stay tuned for more, and pictures from the festival.