Monday, November 4, 2013

Onward to Bulgaria-Plovdiv

Mom enjoying the fall colors and street art in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
Mom and I left Istanbul. It felt like my home after spending a week and a half there. I said my goodbyes to the city and friends I had met. I promised to look them up when I returned in December. Mom was walking better and was confident she was ready for some serious travel. And this was going to be the first test. We booked an overnight bus leaving Istanbul at 11:00 PM and arriving in Plovdiv, Bulgaria at 6:30 AM. As we waited at the bus station, I decided to take that one last bathroom break and encouraged mom to do so also. Her first question was the same as every other trip to the bathroom. "Is it a squat toilet?"  Yes, it was! This was her first opportunity to experience the joy of these porcelain wonders. Not something westerners like but we tolerate them when we have to. So, mom resolved to experience the squat toilet. I waited to hear her story and was disappointed to hear there was nothing unusual or funny to share. She was an expert and was ready for the next one!
I snuggled into my seat like the seasoned traveler I am. I took an herbal sleeping pill, put my Bucky pillow under my head and adjusted my eye mask. I was asleep as the bus rambled out of Istanbul. Mom woke me up at the bathroom break. After a break and stretching our legs, we settled back into our seats. I knew it would be a short nap before they would wake me again at the Turkey-Bulgaria border. I slept soundly until the bus drivers yelled out what I assumed was "Passport control!" I felt the cold air rush into the bus. Time to get out and go through the customs activities. Brrrr! It was freezing! This is going to be a long wait. Mom and I had no problems getting through but the Syrian guy on the bus was separated and questioned. We thought he was taken away but he showed up on the bus at the last minute. After an hour waiting around in the dark and cold night, we were finally on our way to Plovdiv. I fell asleep again and was woke by my mother. She said "Michelle, we are stopping again. Is this our stop?" I looked at my watch. It was 5:30AM, an hour early. The conductor came down the aisle and said "Plovdiv." I asked "Now?" He said yes. We gathered our bags and started on our walk to the hotel. I asked a taxi driver if we were headed in the right direction. He pointed to the corner and said something that I assumed was turn left. I told mom to follow and we were off. It was still dark and the street was poorly lit. Mom was nervous. The buildings had graffiti, the sidewalks were uneven and it was dark. We were the only people walking down the street. I could tell mom was nervous. When she stopped and said "I don't think this is a good neighborhood!" I smiled and got a photo. 

I guess the local sex shop was a sign that this was not Old Town Plovdiv! I laughed more when I showed her the photo and she asked how I photo shopped the sign into the picture. What?!? No, it was there. Mom never saw the sign! I guess she was nervous. I had explained my theory that it is better to walk in the early morning when the bad guys were sleeping. She didn't buy it. Luckily, it was a short walk to the hotel and we were able to check in at 6 AM. We decided to take a short nap and then explore the city. 
Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in Bulgaria with a beautiful Old Town and an amphitheater. We walked the quaint cobblestone streets up to the top of a hill. Mom stopped to rest when she met her new friend Giovanni that had a special odor you could smell 10 feet away.  He chatted to mom as I walked off to take some photos. I knew he wanted something and figured she cod have a nice chat while she rested. He eventually took out a note explaining all of his hard times after he fell off a ladder, was hospitalized for several weeks and needed money to keep his home. I waited to see if she was going to be kind and give to him or not. This was taking a while so I went on to the church. I sat down and enjoyed the beautiful stained glass windows while I waited for mom.
Mom came in and said "thanks for leaving me!" I smiled and asked how much it cost her. Nothing, she told him no and walked away. Then she sat in the church wandering if she should have given him something. We wandered the quaint old town until mom was ready to go back to the hotel. 

In town, I found the town gossip, Milyu.  I went over and whispered a few juicy details in his ear. 

We took an evening walk before dinner and were enthralled with all of the beautiful fountains and the number of casinos. (Yes dad, you could gamble here!) I am not a fan of me it is like throwing money on the ground and walking away. I have so many better things to spend my money on! As we walked the main road, this was my favorite fountain, it was fantastically lit in the evening. 
As we sat and enjoyed a delicious meal, mom kicks me under the table. "Look, that is Giovanni sitting at the next table! He is a scam artist! Glad I didn't give him any money!" I looked and started laughing. No, that is not the same guy. You are crazy. It brought back memories of when I had taken my mom and Aunt Sue to Iceland in 2000. Back then, Mom insisted a woman at the airport money change had stolen $40 from her. We all laughed two days later on the bus back to the airport when the woman was showing everyone her new pair of shoes. Aunt Sue and I looked at mom and she was convinced she paid for the woman's new shoes. As we ate our dinner, we laughed at the memory of past travels we had taken together and talked about how much we both missed Aunt Sue. She would have loved this trip!

The next morning, mom's back and hip were bothering her and I wanted to walk up to the fortress and around Old Town. Mom decided to stay and rest while I went to explore. Old Town Plovdiv has picturesque cobblestone streets and old homes. I walked up the hill to the fortress. I noticed a woman examining the opposite side and taking photos. I assumed I was missing a great view. I walked over and looked around....oh my! I figured out quickly that she was watching some young adults in an amorous moment. She was taking photos! I looked at her and she started rattling off something in Bulgarian. I decided to leave the young loves in their private moment and go back to town. As I turned to walk down the hill, I almost bumped into 25 Japanese businessmen on their way to interrupting the young couple. I guess it is show time! The red panties made it hard to miss the amorous romp. I giggled as I walked down the hill thinking of the surprise that was awaiting several people in a few seconds! 
I walked through the hilly neighborhoods past kashta (traditional homes) to one that is now a museum. I was drawn to the beauty of a window on the wall into the courtyard. 

It was magical, almost like a fairy tale. I went inside the museum. It was small and an interesting overview of life and history of the area. I appreciated the beautiful cylindrical ceiling of carved wood. The main room was beautiful but I was surprised as I found carved ceilings in every room. Homes are not made like this anymore. It was a lost artwork.  
As I got lost on the cobblestone lanes of the old town, I came upon mom's friend Giovanni asking for money. I giggled and knew it was not the same man from the restaurant. He had taken up a step outside the school.  He handed me his paper and started to tell his story. I gave it back to him and said "God Bless you" as I walked away.
I continued walking and happened upon a fresh fruit and vegetable market.
Yum! I bought 4 bananas and 2 apples for 55 cents! The farmer asked "You, what country?" I told him USA and he proceeded to tell me that Bulgaria is GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) free and has the strictest laws in all of the EU. I was shocked. He started asking me about the USA policies on GMO which led to an interesting conversation. He and his friend were dumbfounded that the USA government subsidizes junk food but not fresh fruits and vegetables. I explained that most things in the USA are profit based rather than health based. This led to more questions over a nice cup of tea. Some people would get angry or worked up over these types of questions. Not me. This trip is a learning experience. I am growing and open to different ideologies and beliefs.  If I was closed to these types of interactions, I would not have the experiences that have enriched my trip. Sometimes I think people take things so personally and don't realize questions are just an inquisitive nature. It is about learning. After a while, I looked at my watch and realized it was getting close to the time I had promised to meet mom for lunch. I said goodbye and thanked them for the tea. I went to meet mom at the city center near the mosque. 
It was a beautiful fall day. I enjoyed the warm sunlight, cool breeze and the crunch of the fall leaves as I walked back to town. We met up and had a great lunch and then walked through the city park. We enjoyed the late afternoon sun as we strolled the park. We decided to have a gelato as we watched the men playing chess and cards (gambling).
We took one last photo to remember our beautiful day in the park and then walked back to the hotel.
We decided it was time to move on to another town. Our next stop was Blageovgrad, a small town to the west with public transportation connections (bus) to Rila Monastery. The bus ride was a couple hours but we were told we had missed the last bus to the monastery and would need to sleep in Blageovgrad. We decided to get a hotel and go to Rila in the morning. 

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