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.