Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Monopoly, Donkey Races, a Healthy Dude and Vitosha

I played Monopoly a few weeks ago with Bulgarian friends. The game was illegal during the communist era before 1991. It was considered to be a filthy capitalist propaganda toy, so it was popular to counterfeit by rebellious teens. The set we played with was completely copied by hand (the British version) in painstaking detail. The money, which counted in the 100s of bills, was hand-made from light cardboard. The set is a testament to the allure of the forbidden. I was thrilled to play on that vintage piece of history.

The bulgarians began the game better than me, as I kept landing on the Income tax and Jail spaces. When it came to trading and purchasing real estate from opponents, my experience and tough capitalist sense for business came through. I bought up the St. Charles Place - New York Ave. side of the board so that they couldn't avoid paying out to me nearly every trip around and put as much of my money as was safe into real estate for those spaces. I also out-bid one of my opponents, paying $2000 for Ventnor so that she could not claim a Monopoly. I eventually won, thanks to my childhood experience playing against my cutthroat sisters. Monopoly is one of the few mediums in which my capitalist greed comes out. Thanks, Uncle Ken, for teaching me to play (I still remember that long night in Martinez and eating too many cookies).

On September 2nd, Gurkovo (a village in the Rose Valley north of Stara Zagora) held its annual donkey races. I went with a group of friends and rooted for two American Peace Corps Volunteers (also friends of mine) participating in the competitions. They were lent a donkey and its cart, which we decorated with a strange fusion of hippie and cowboy memorabalia. We transformed the cart into a Conestoga wagon with a tie-dyed canopy and adorned it with signs for donkey rights. The participants occasionally smacked their donkeys pretty hard to make them go faster, a circumstance that we all felt warranted some good, old-fashioned American peaceful protest. The participating volunteers wore cowboy hats with tie-dyed shirts and bandanas. The donkey was draped with a super-freaky, hippie-style sheet. The Bulgarians seemed to love it.

The competitions included a cart-race, a bare-back donkey race, a donkey pull (like a tractor pull but with donkeys and carts - this was my favorite event), a donkey football (aka. soccer) match and a donkey beauty competition. The MCs also named a King and Queen donkey of Bulgaria. What a great day.

At the end of the day, my friends and I went to a nearby river to camp. I built a campfire and we cooked dinner on the fire, had some wine, sang, talked, joked, wrestled, roasted marshmallows which are nearly non-existent in Bulgaria, and slept under the stars. We were even visited by coyotes (called "Chakali" here) throughout the night. It was back to work on Monday.

I went to Sofia last week for all of my medical checkups. It looks like I have a filling or two that need to be repaired, which I'm very happy to have done. My dentist here is Swedish/Bulgarian, and is just nuts. He is also a terrific dentist. When I looked at a postcard from Stockholm on his wall after a checkup and identified Gamla Stan, he erupted in joy and a flurry of questions. We talked about Stockholm for too long, cutting into the beginning of his next appointment. What a jovial and friendly man. I'll be back for the filling repairs in late September.

I had some routine TB tests and blood tests which I had to wait for results on, so I stayed the weekend in Sofia and went hiking on Vitosha, the 2,500-meter mountain just south of the city. It is beautiful and clean, with views accross the plains to the Balkan, Rila and Rhodolpi Mountains. The villages that sit on the mountain slopes have outdoor cafes and small markets with friendly people. On the way back down the mountain, an old man lay accross the trail. I helped him to his feet with my friend Sarah and asked what was wrong. His name was Philip. He said that he had been in the hospital and was sick with a cyst in his neck. He threw away some empty plastic bottles he had been carrying, saying that he would buy more. Generally, I see these filled with wine and/or Rakiya. He had been drinking and was VERY drunk. We asked for some help from some passing hikers, who finally called an ambulance and had him taken back to Sofia.

The other hikers walked with us down to the next village and invited us to sit for lunch. We ordered a round of Buffalo yoghurt with honey, which was delicious. We talked about mountain teas and honey, youghurts, places to go in Bulgaria, and drunk old men on Vitosha (there seem to be plenty) who are nearly always jolly, as Philip was. When we parted company in downtown Sofia, I realized that we had spent a terrific afternoon and evening together but had not even exchanged names.

On monday, after I found out that I'm a fit, healthy and strapping young man, I headed back to the beautiful city that I now call home. I came to Stara Zagora for the first time a year ago today. I have learned so much about the city, I've met and made so many friends here and there is so much to do that I wonder at what my life has been for this last ride around the sun. I also think about my friends and family back in the States, and I feel a bit of guilt for not being there, knowing about your lives for that time. Just know that you are in my heart and thoughts, and I miss you.