Friday, October 29, 2010

"Приятелю, не мога."

On my way to meet some friends last night, I saw something strange out of the corner of my eye. Ahead of me, down a side street, was a man. The man was lying in the middle of the street struggling to move. Every few seconds, I’d see his torso pop up and just as quickly it would go back down. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to stand up or crawl, but, either way, he wasn’t going anywhere.

In the time it took for me to reach the man, several cars and other people had passed without bothering to stop and check on him. By the time I got there, it appeared he had given up. He had curled into a ball, and he was lying on his side in a small puddle of near freezing water.

As I reached down and shook his shoulder, the first thing that hit me was an all too familiar smell. He reeked of an unmistakable but not uncommon combination of body odor, cheap cologne, alcohol, and cigarettes. He was hammered. At first, he was resistant to my help. I tried to pull him up, but he was nothing but dead weight. His legs were like jello and all he kept saying was, “Приятелю, не мога. Приятелю (Buddy, I can’t. Buddy.).”

“Не мога” is a favorite Bulgarian expression, and I stopped accepting it a long time ago. And every time he slurred, “Приятелю, не мога. Приятелю,” I simply said, “Можеш. Хайде (You can. Come on.).”

After struggling for a while, I was able to get him on his feet. He was a big man - my height and considerably heavier. But once he was on his feet, he could lean on me as I dragged him down the street in the direction of where he had told me he lived. When we got to what he claimed was his house, he refused to go inside so I left him on the front doorstep.

As I walked away, he repeated several times, “Благодаря ти много, приятелю (Thank you very much, buddy.).” When I walked by on my way home an hour or so later there was no sign of him, so I assume at some point he went inside. It’s a good thing he did. The puddle he was face down in last night was frozen this morning.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On the Right Track

Димитър Бербатов (Dimitar Berbatov) is arguably the best Bulgarian soccer player of all-time, and he’s generally considered the country’s top active player. When not suiting up for the Bulgarian national team, he plays striker for Manchester United. He also has a foundation which gives away money to worthy sports-related projects in Bulgaria.

Upon learning of his foundation, I notified my Bulgarian counterpart. We brainstormed, and she came up with the idea of applying for funding for a carting track. Our school is a transportation school and carting fits perfectly with the type of students who attend the school and the type of work they are likely to be doing in the future. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, our application for funding was unsuccessful.

Not all was lost, however. In the course of preparing the application, contacts were made between our school and the Bulgarian Carting Association. As a result of those contacts, a neglected soccer field on school property was turned into a highly specialized track for racing remote-controlled cars. The grand opening of the track was this past weekend. And hopes are still high that an actual carting track will be opened some time in the near future.

I had nothing whatsoever to do with any of this beyond initially notifying my counterpart of the opportunity to apply for funding through the Dimitar Berbatov Foundation. And that’s pretty cool. There is a lot of confusion and even disagreement about what we as Peace Corps volunteers are here to do. I’ve always believed we are here, primarily, to make new friends, to share our experiences with folks back home, and to help empower Bulgarians to improve Bulgaria in whatever manner they see fit. It’s great to work with people who feel the same way, and I’m proud of my colleague’s accomplishments.

Here are some photos from the grand opening.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Walking Through Goat Shit

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Munich for Oktoberfest. Germany is, of course, the economic and political powerhouse of the European Union. As one of the E.U.’s newest members and arguably the poorest, Bulgaria is the antithesis of Germany. Not surprisingly, there were some things about German society that jumped out at me as compared to Bulgarian society.

German society seems incredibly structured. There are lots of rules, and almost everyone seems to abide by those rules. As a result, Germany is remarkably clean and efficient. Things are new and well maintained. Buses, trains, and other forms of mass transit arrive and depart as scheduled. Indeed, German society is a well-oiled machine that hums along in such a way that you can easily tune out, jump on the conveyor belt, and let the system do most of the thinking for you and not worry one iota. And I understand the appeal in that. There are certain things most people don’t want to have to worry about – hitting a pothole while driving, stepping in dog shit when walking in the park, being stuck on a broken down bus, being late for an appointment because the train was late. When I first got to Munich, the efficiency and structure of German society was beyond refreshing. I saw it as everything Bulgaria can and should be.

In contrast to the Germans, many Bulgarians ignore rules entirely or intentionally attempt to skirt them. When caught, they’ll generally plead ignorance and beg for leniency or argue vehemently with whoever is charged with enforcing the rule. And then they’ll go right back to breaking it again. Maintenance usually means fixing something after it breaks. The thought of preventative maintenance rarely enters the consciousness. Things generally run on schedule but not always, and Bulgarians seem to be conditioned to expect delays. Except for the main highways, roads are more potholes than roads, and sidewalks are uneven and ankle-buckling. Walking in winter is always an adventure because, for a society that loves to salt the hell out of everything, Bulgarians generally don’t salt the streets and sidewalks. As a result, walkways resemble ice skating rinks for a good part of the year. And then there are the animals. Stray dogs nipping at your heels. Stray cats jumping out of dumpsters. Goats, sheep, cows, horses, and donkeys all walking the streets and sidewalks and leaving their droppings behind.

For a first time visitor to Bulgaria, all of this can be overwhelming and a bit intimidating. Once you’re here a while, however, it all seems second nature and no big deal. And as refreshing as it was to see a society humming on all cylinders, if given the choice between a structured, predictable society with impeccably clean and level sidewalks and an unstructured, unpredictable one with uneven sidewalks covered in goat shit, I’d rather walk through goat shit.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Триград (Trigrad)

As the name suggests, Триград (Trigrad), literally "Three Towns," is actually not one town but a merger of three different towns. Sort of like Budapest but not really.

One thing that makes Trigrad interesting is the mix of Orthodox Christians and Muslims as is evident by the church and mosque practically on top of each other.

And the town's setting is tough to beat.

One of the sights (and smells) of fall in Bulgaria: peppers roasting.

Another sign of fall: wood gathering.

The main road into and out of Trigrad leads to the Триградско ждрело (Trigrad Gorge), a seven kilometer chasm that begins about a kilometer outside the village.

Широка лъка (Shiroka Laka)

So far, Широка лъка (Shiroka Laka) has been able to do what few tourist spots can do – open itself up to tourism without losing the authenticity and genuineness that made it appealing to tourists in the first place. It is what Kovachevitsa aspires to become: a tourist town that doesn’t seem overly touristy. Shiroka Laka is cobblestone streets, old bridges, Rhodopean architecture, and relatively unaffected locals, all in a picturesque hillside/riverside setting. It’s a place that’s difficult not to like.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Сребърна (Srebarna)

There were three new places I visited while my parents were here which are worth mentioning: Сребърна (Srebarna), Широка лъка (Shiroka Laka), and Триград (Trigrad). Located on the Danube close enough to Romania to be covered by Romanian cell phone towers, Srebarna was the first of these places we visited.

Like many Bulgarian villages and small towns, Srebarna has suffered greatly from emigration and a dying population. Five years ago, Srebarna had a population of almost 3,000. A little over a year ago, that number had fallen to 600. Now, the town is home to around 1,000 people, including many young people who have returned to their roots and are investing lots of time and money refurbishing previously abandoned and neglected homes. This has energized the town and brought it back to life. Still, for me anyway, the most interesting thing about Srebarna is the soon to be lost generation who is barely hanging on and who continues to live simply and unaffected.

Most visitors, including us, come to Srebarna to explore the Srebarna Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As enjoyable as our hike around the lake was, it didn't compare to a walk around town where locals were busy gathering hay and otherwise preparing for the onset of what promises to be a long, cold winter.

The Srebarna Expressway.

This couple makes me happy. They are what I want to be when I grow up.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Birding in Bulgaria: September Trip with Neophron Tours

My parents recently visited, and I joined them on a customized tour organized by Neophron Tours. The trip was primarily a bird watching tour designed to coincide with the fall migration, but, since this was my parents’ first time in Bulgaria, time was also spent exploring places of historical and cultural interest and significance along the way.

The trip began in Srebarna on September 6th and ended in Sofia on September 14th. We spent two days exploring the Coastal Dobrudzha along the northernmost part of the Bulgarian Black sea coast, two days in and around the wetlands of Bourgas, two days in the Eastern Rhodopes, and two days in the Western Rhodopes. We ended the trip with a short visit to one of the marshes west of Sofia. Over the course of the nine days, we covered a lot of ground and many different habitats but did so at a fairly leisurely pace. We spent time not only birding but also visiting historical sites such as Cape Kaliakra, Nessebar, Sozopol, and Shiroka Laka.

My parents' visit to Bulgaria far exceeded their expectations, and the tour was a large part of that. The guide, Simeon Gigov, did an excellent job, the itinerary was well planned, and the accommodation was more than comfortable. It was a wonderful introduction to Bulgaria and its birdlife.

We weren't being picked up until noon, so we had a morning to explore Srebarna and the nature reserve by ourselves. It all began with this sunrise.

After taking in the sunrise, we birded part of the way around the lake. This is one of many Red-backed Shrikes we saw.

Spotted Flycatchers, such as this one, were also present in large numbers.

After our walk, we returned to the Pelican Lake Guesthouse where we enjoyed breakfast and watched several small kettles of raptors, mostly European Honey Buzzards, pass overhead.

After a quick lunch in town, we were on our way. The first stop was a small pond at the edge of town. In addition to great views of several Squacco Herons, the stop also produced a Northern Goshawk which was too busy preening to even notice us. Here is one of the Squacco Herons.

From Srebarna, we headed east toward the Coastal Dobrudzha along the northernmost part of the Bulgarian Black sea coast. Having twice visited the area before, I was somewhat familiar with it. It's one of my favorite places in Bulgaria, and I was glad my parents were able to see it.

On my previous visits, I got a bit unlucky with the sunrises. This time, however, Mother Nature cooperated.

The Shabla Lighthouse.

Local shepherd bringing home the flock.

One of many Common Buzzards we encountered.

We also saw several Eurasian Sparrowhawks and a few Levant Sparrowhawks. Some were soaring, like this one.

Others were cruising, like this one.

The first of two Black Storks we saw.

Great Cormorants and European Shags.

We worked extremely hard to get our first Red-breasted Flycatcher. By the time we saw this one we had seen so many that they had reached "junk" bird status.

Another bird that quickly became a "junk" bird, at least for my parents, was Red-backed Shrike.

As was the case earlier in the summer, the area was teeming with frogs.

One afternoon was spent exploring a place I'd never been, Cape Kaliakra. Given its strategic location, Cape Kaliakra has a long and storied history; some of the remaining ruins date to the 4th century BC. With cliffs as high as 70 meters plunging straight into the Black Sea, the area is as scenic as it is historically significant.

Rarely found so close to shore, a flock of Yelkouan Shearwaters actively feeding was a pleasant and unexpected surprise.

This Black-eared Wheatear also made quite a showing as he worked his way along the ruins.

Not nearly as snazzy was this comparatively bland Northern Wheater.

From the Coastal Dobrudzha we made our way south along the coast, stopping briefly in Balchik and Nessebar before making our way to
Sozopol. Nessebar was overrun with tourists and bore little resemblance to the place I had visited in May. Getting charged 36 leva for ice cream was definitely one of the lowlights of the trip. But we left Nessebar almost as quickly as we got there and found respite in Sozopol, which we used as a base to explore the Bourgas area wetlands.

By far, the "best" of the twenty-three species of shorebirds we found was a lone Terek Sandpiper in Pomorie. Far more common were Little Ringed Plovers, such as this one.

Yellow Wagtails were also quite common.

We saw nearly 100 Little Gulls while birding the coast, including this one.

Common Black-headed Gulls were far more numerous.

As were Mediterranean Gulls.

Other birds seen in decent numbers included Black Tern ...

Black-crowned Night-Heron ...

and Pygmy Cormorant.

The bird of the trip for my parents was this Common Hoopoe.

From Sozopol we headed west through the Saker Hills to Madzharovo.

The bird(s) of the trip for me were European Bee-eaters. They were migrating through in large flocks, and we saw several hundred most days and a few thousand over the course of the trip. And it never got old. These birds were seen in Madzharovo.

We spent the better part of one morning in a hide watching dogs, ravens, and vultures devour a carcass. Unfortunately, our restlessness within the hide may have scared off the 70+ Eurasian Griffons that were in the area. Still, we were treated to quite a show by the endangered Egyptian Vultures which came in to feed.

Leaving Madzharovo behind, we headed west through the Rhodopes towards our next destination, Shiroka Laka. We stopped several times along the way to take in the scene and observe locals harvesting potatoes, gathering hay, and otherwise preparing for autumn and winter.

This Black Stork was one of the few birds we stopped for between Madzharovo and Shiroka Laka.

We also stopped at a small roadside pond to watch a Little Grebe feeding its young.

We all agreed that Shiroka Laka was better than Sozopol which was far better than Nessebar.

Besides the bee-eaters, perhaps my favorite bird of the trip was White-throated Dipper. We got great looks at one working the roadside stream in Shiroka Laka.

We also had great looks at several Grey Wagtails working the same stream.

From Shiroka Laka, it was on to Yagodina, which served as our base for exploring the Western Rhodopes. More stunning scenery, unaffected villages, and locals living simply.

The pine forests produced several new species including Firecrest, Goldcrest, Willow Tit, Eurasian Treecreeper, Mistle Thrush, and Coal Tit (pictured).

The villages hosted more commonly encountered species such as White Wagtail ...

Eurasian Crag Martin ...

Black Redstart ...

and Willow Warbler.

The area also produced the only snake of the trip, this colorful, little guy.

Perhaps the main target species in the Western Rhodopes is Wallcreeper. In addition to being a beautiful spot, Trigrad Gorge is generally considered the best place in Europe to see Wallcreepers. We were not disappointed, getting point blank views at eye level after only a minimal amount of searching.

The drive from Yagodina to Sofia took us through the Western Rhodopes by way of Pazardzhik. As might be expected, the mountain scenery was spectacular.

Our second to last stop of the tour was at a gravel pit outside Plovdiv. This stop produced the bird(s) of the trip for our guide, a group of Lesser Kestrels which were feeding over the nearby fields. Lesser Kestrels have been extirpated as a breeding species in Bulgaria and are only rarely encountered during migration, so this was an exciting discovery. While watching the kestrels, we also were entertained by Crested Larks, such as this one, among other species.

The final stop of the trip was at the Aldomirovtsi Marsh. Despite numerous fishermen, the marsh was alive with birds and produced several new species for the trip including Water Rail, Great Egret, Great Bittern, Great Grey Shrike, and Sedge Warbler. There were also large flocks of Corn Buntings present. This guy was with one of those flocks.

Despite the relaxed nature and varied objectives of the tour, we tallied 188 species of birds (plus two additional species – Eurasian Scops Owl and Eurasian Eagle-Owl – that were heard only). Here is a list of the birds seen:

Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna
Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
Gadwall Anas strepera
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Garganey Anas querquedula
Common Teal Anas crecca
Common Pochard Aythya ferina
Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca
Yelkouan Shearwater Puffinus yelkouan
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis
Black Stork Ciconia nigra
White Stork Ciconia ciconia
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia
Great Bittern Botaurus stellaris
Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Squacco Heron Ardeola ralloides
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Purple Heron Ardea purpurea
Great Egret Ardea alba
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus
Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus
Pygmy Cormorant Phalacrocorax pygmeus
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
European Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis
Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Eurasian Hobby Falco subbuteo
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
European Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus
Black Kite Milvus migrans
Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus
Eurasian Griffon Gyps fulvus
Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus
Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus
Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus
Montagu's Harrier Circus pygargus
Levant Sparrowhawk Accipiter brevipes
Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus
Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis
Common Buzzard Buteo buteo
Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus
Lesser Spotted Eagle Aquila pomarina
Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca
Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus
Water Rail Rallus aquaticus
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
Stone-curlew Burhinus oedicnemus
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus
Common Redshank Tringa totanus
Marsh Sandpiper Tringa stagnatilis
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola
Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Red Knot Calidris canutus
Sanderling Calidris alba
Little Stint Calidris minuta
Dunlin Calidris alpina
Broad-billed Sandpiper Limicola falcinellus
Ruff Philomachus pugnax
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus
Mew Gull Larus canus
Yellow-legged Gull Larus cachinnans
Common Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus
Slender-billed Gull Larus genei
Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus
Little Gull Larus minutus
Gull-billed Tern Sterna nilotica
Caspian Tern Sterna caspia
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Little Tern Sterna albifrons
Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida
White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus
Black Tern Chlidonias niger
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Woodpigeon Columba palumbus
European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur
Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus
Little Owl Athene noctua
Alpine Swift Tachymarptis melba
Common Swift Apus apus
European Roller Coracias garrulus
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
European Bee-eater Merops apiaster
Common Hoopoe Upupa epops
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius
Syrian Woodpecker Dendrocopos syriacus
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major
Green Woodpecker Picus viridis
Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio
Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor
Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator
Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus
Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius
Common Magpie Pica pica
Eurasian Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes
Eurasian Jackdaw Corvus monedula
Rook Corvus frugilegus
Hooded Crow Corvus corone
Common Raven Corvus corax
Great Tit Parus major
Blue Tit Parus caeruleus
Coal Tit Parus ater
Marsh Tit Parus palustris
Sombre Tit Parus lugubris
Willow Tit Parus montanus
Penduline Tit Remiz pendulinus
Sand Martin Riparia riparia
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Eurasian Crag Martin Ptyonoprogne rupestris
Common House Martin Delichon urbicum
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus
Calandra Lark Melanocorypha calandra
Crested Lark Galerida cristata
Woodlark Lullula arborea
Great Reed Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus
Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus
Eurasian Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus
Icterine Warbler Hippolais icterina
Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus
Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix
Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla
Garden Warbler Sylvia borin
Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca
Firecrest Regulus ignicapilla
Goldcrest Regulus regulus
Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea
Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria
Eurasian Treecreeper Certhia familiaris
Short-toed Treecreeper Certhia brachydactyla
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Eurasian Blackbird Turdus merula
Song Thrush Turdus philomelos
Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus
European Robin Erithacus rubecula
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros
Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus
Whinchat Saxicola rubetra
Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabellina
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
Black-eared Wheatear Oenanthe hispanica
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius
Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata
Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca
Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva
White-throated Dipper Cinclus cinclus
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Spanish Sparrow Passer hispaniolensis
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
White Wagtail Motacilla alba
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis
Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
European Serin Serinus serinus
European Greenfinch Carduelis chloris
Eurasian Siskin Carduelis spinus
European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Common Linnet Carduelis cannabina
Eurasian Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula
Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes
Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra
Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia
Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus