A Travellerspoint blog


a whirlwind description of terrific Turkey


Turkey: Eastern, yet Western; modern, yet traditional; secular, yet Muslim; beautiful and perpetually enchanting. A very abbreviated rundown of our exploits:

We spent our first few days bumming around Istanbul - drinking in the famous sites and a great deal more Turkish and Apple tea than any American bladder can accommodate. The Hagia Sophia is breathtaking, the Blue Mosque an equally stunning must-see (though the tacky poorly-clad Westerners tend to detract from its sanctity...if they give you a headscarf to wear...wear it!! geez!!). The city overall is a sprawling, intoxicating clash of centuries, continents, ideologies and influences. I've never seen such an incredibly harmonious mosaic of world culture and history. It's bizarre and mind-blowing to fathom the number and diversity of people to touch that stone before you. Some women scuttle down the street in full, modest, black robes and headscarves...others are in shorts and a tshirt. The towering skyscrapers and dozens of box-like apartment buildings contrast sharply against the palaces, mosques and stone structures of antiquity. We were utterly lost in the 4000 shops of the grand bazaar, in awe of the beautiful Bosphorus, and absolutely addicted to our hostel's rooftop terrace. After four busy days, we headed south for famous Cappadocia.

Cappadocia is ridden with rivulets of captivating rock sculptures - some like an ocean of stone, some like oddly shaped beehives, some150 ft tall and unmistakably phallic. I urge you to google image it... (try "goreme") What's most remarkable is the fact that people (both now and historically) use the rocks as homes, businesses and pigeon holes, even our hostel was carved from the stone. Although my mother wasn't terribly keen on spending the night in a cave, I thought it to be utterly adventurous. We even did an exhilerating four-hour trekk through a variety of rock-formation valleys. I've simply never seen anything like it. As a day trip, we explored one of the several enormous, ancient underground cities nearby...seven stories down makes virtually everyone a little claustraphobic. Entire civilizations would live in these collections of underground rooms, airshafts, churches, stables, and kitchens for months while hiding from invaders...absolutely incredible.

Shortly thereafter, we headed to the beach community of Olympos - right on the beach and near the Chimaera (spelling is wrong, sorry). At night, we hiked up the mountain to see the bizarrely natural flames spouting from its side. If extinguished, the flames will spontaneously re-ignite. Totally weird. I felt that the site was only slightly marred by the tourists cooking weiners over the flames and the western woman strutting around in nothing more than a brassiere. *sigh*

In addition to scrambling all over the most incredible ruins of the old city olympos, we were unbelievably charred crisp on the beautiful beach...damn that Turkish sun. White water rafting was a wonderful addition to our itinerary - the river water was a breathtaking turquiose and absolutely frigid. (so nice on the sunburn)

We next went to Kabak, and isolated community on another, virtually abandoned beach. The water here even more turquoise - more beautiful for lack of people. My sister and I hiked the mountains surrounding the water and swam in a sea cave (rather dangerously, I might add.) I discovered that I do not swim very well...yikes! Because the community was at the foot of a mountain, we had to take a tractor to the top when we were ready to leave. I paled at the thought of a very unfortunate death as I found my seat just above the tire to be a rather precarious perch. The drop from the road seemed utterly unfathomable. As the tractor rocked and bumped and swerved, I think I swallowed my tongue.

Pammukkale and its weird "travertines" was next - think of it as melty-looking white stone carved throughout the ages into rivulets and turquoise pools. Coupled with the ancient city Hieropolis, it was a wonderful day trip. The waters, after a bit of swimming, are said to cure arthritis, heart problems, and even obesity (after a great deal of swimming, i imagine...)

Now, we are in Selcuk - a wonderful little town of about 25,000. We spent our first day exploring Ephesus - the best preserved ancient town in the mediterranean aside from Pompeii. It was a huge, remarkable reminder of the times of old - it was so bizarre to see the remnants of a time so long past. We've also explored a small wine village nearby, took a side trip to a traditional hammam (there went my sunburn...wow!) and strolled aimlessly through the weekly bazaar/farmer's market. We have plans for a hot springs and mud bath later today - and our ferry for greece leaves tomorrow.

This is such a whirlwind explanation of our experiences, i cannot even begin to describe the charm and wit of the people, the true beauty and diversity of the landscape, the remarkable complexity of the history - or the fascinating current political landscape. I do hope, however, that you now know I have not dropped from the face of the earth, and that I am in fact adventuring through one of the most incredible places on earth.

Posted by MegMc2003 03:07 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

All good things must come to an end

My last days with Animus


Given my insatiable thirst for adventure, and my unfortunate obligation to return to the United States, I decided to use the rest of my summer - after my 6-week Animus internship - for a little regional exploration. I was so excited to move on that I spent every bit of my free time exploring Turkey via guidebook - planning, dreaming, itching for more. Suddenly, on the days before my departure, I realized just how much I'd grown to enjoy Animus and wonderfully wacky Bulgaria...and that I was truly sad to leave.

Wrapping up my final bits of work, I realized how tremendously beneficial my experience with Animus had been - I was sometimes supremely frustrated with the organization, but I was often more frustrated by the sheer magnitude and cruelty of the issue at hand. When a 12 year old - a prostitute for a number of years - checked into our safe house, I was simultaneously grateful for and horrified by my own luck in life. 12 years old? I was still pretending to be a pioneer. As a humanitarian, I learned that I am sometimes very sickened by humans.

As a quick rundown, my overall projects for Animus included the following: (for those of you who are remotely interested!)

- Given that our crisis line was about to flounder into non-existence, my primary project was securing funding for the next fiscal year. I researched our options and then selected and completed the most viable prospects. The grant application process is lengthy and writing-intensive, so my English skills were of supreme value for the organization. The grant request totalled approximately $24,000 (a small amount, comparatively); I sent away two of the grant application/requests, with another pending currency conversion. Of the three, I am desperately hoping something works out - for the sake of Bulgarian women throughout the country.

- As I posted previously, I used my limited (and mildly laughable) HTML skills to build a website for an upcoming series of seminars. I edited and/or composed the the majority of the content and battled endlessly with inflexible site designers. They won. I left before I could regain my dignity. haha

- To spare future international interns my difficulties, I authored a handbook detailing the intricacies of finding food, shelter, transportation and entertainment in Sofia.

- After speaking at length with another American intern at another anti-trafficking organization, I proposed the creation of an American organization directly linked to Animus - for the purposes of evading (or, more ethically, meeting) the IRS non-profit tax requirements. This would allow Animus the opportunity to apply for a whole new realm of grants, while also expanding their programs to benefit Eastern European women trafficked to the United States. Since I will soon be living in Washington DC, footsteps away from potential partners, I offered to head this new initiative. We'll see what happens.... :)

- And finally, in between all these tasks, I served as the resident english grammar and american culture/politics "expert."

And that, my friends, is sixish weeks of pure, invaluable learning experience. On my last day, I recieved a round of hugs, chocolates and well-wishes. Walking out of the sunny little building was quite a bit more difficult than expected.

I waved to the fruit lady on the corner, annoyed the neighborhood grocers, and made my death-defying sprint across to the bus stop one last time. That night, I met my coworker marie for my "last hoorah" out on the town - the "Macedonian Jazz Band" was a hypnotic, body-crushing, mind-swirling, sensory overload (very non-jazz) experience I'd recommend to pretty much everyone. As a bizarre combination of Bulgarian/Macedonian folk, Euro-trash trance, American pop and a little polka...it was the most appropriate last-hoorah imaginable. I was heading to Turkey very soon - and this was goodbye to Bulgaria...for now. :)

Posted by MegMc2003 02:24 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

A Weekend among Giants

My rockin' good time in Belogradchik


Just before the Serbian border and snuggled in between the hills, remote Belogradchik was the ideal weekend destination…no tourists, no traffic congestion, a direct bus (I know, I’m lazy) and absolutely stunning scenery. What exactly makes it a “rockin’ good time?” Well, believe it or not, the rocks.

Well, rock formations, really. Ancient, otherwordly giants punctuate over 90 km of an undulating, densely green landscape. The scarlet, gray and cream tones are a striking contrast; the sheer height of the rocks…awe inspiring.

Historically, the rocks were a natural fortification between the Danubian Plains and the Serbian Morava Valley. The “Belogradchik Pass” is marked by a fascinating, mish-mash castle…which, as noted by Rough Guides, was “begun by the Romans, continued by the Bulgars during the eighth century, and completed by the Turks a millennium later.” Although there is little left to see, several sets of mildly terrifying staircases put me right at the shoulder of one of the giants.

I started early in the morning, as the Bulgarian sun beats down with serious force starting around ten a.m. I was completely alone – the tour buses rarely find Belogradchik, the school groups were eating breakfast, and the ticket-takers were still romancing their morning narcotic (Turkish coffee, that is).

So, when I climbed to the very top – bouncing from the designated viewpoint (and across a terrifically terrifying crevice) to a perch on the edge of the world – I felt like the only human being in existence. It was silent – all sounds of the small town were buffered by fluffy wooded hills. The giants, hundreds of them, stood tall and glistening in the morning sun. Creative Bulgarians have quite delightfully designated the most intriguing of formations with identities… the Nuns, the Gossip, the Schoolgirl, the Horse and Rider. I stretched out, breathed in the (temporarily) crisp air, and let my own imagination personify the limestone.

I stayed until my clothes were stuck to my oozing pores…suddenly realizing that “brrrgaria” was somewhat preferable to “boilgaria” (haha! cleverness!). The moose-quitos were also having a midday buffet of my flesh - (they are huge, and their bites drive one to insanity). I took that as my cue to find my adventure in the cooler, forested paths of the hills. On my way down to civilization, I passed a typically “fashionable” Bulgarian woman hiking her way to the top in the most impossible stilettos. Talent or stupidity? Probably the former.

I spent the rest of my time wandering the quiet, mildly abandoned streets of Belogradchik and exploring the forest nearby. The café culture was obvious – it seemed the entire town spent all day, every day relaxing on patios with beer and coffee. Most of the stores were closed, most of the taxis were abandoned. the low-key, laidback atmosphere was perfect for a weekend repose.

My hikes in the forest were equally as peaceful – towering trees were dwarfed by even more impressive rock formations. I hiked fairly extensively, until an absolutely enormous anaconda slithered inches from my toes. Stunned, I had an unfortunate mental image of a very undignified (snake-digested) death…so I screamed like a pansy and ran.

With my heroic snake-battle, my hiking, and my gawking at the beauty of the world at an end… I caught a scenic, four hour bus ride back to reality. As we passed by fields filled with thousands of sunflowers, tiny villages blooming with life, and peaceful mules lunching on the medians, I decided that Bulgaria is truly enchanting.

Now that you’re all warm-fuzzies, may I present the small (well, Italic) print:
Unfortunately, (and I continue to mentally pinch myself for this), I actually forgot to bring my camera. Completely. I brought my extra SD card, just to make sure. I brought my charger, just to make sure. But I left my camera – you know, the most important part? – sitting on the kitchen table. It was absolute torture for such a snap-happy adventurer. Luckily, there are lots of photos I can pirate off the internet and post for you to see.

Posted by MegMc2003 01:11 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

My Disappointing Day at the Embassy

Aren't diplomats supposed to be...diplomatic??

sunny -18 °C

I was incredibly excited. I'd taken extra care to wear my "finest" clothes, I fixed my hair for the first time in months, I'll even admit to mentally rehearsing my introduction...I was going to the US Embassy to represent Animus at an anti-trafficking roundtable, and was thrilled for the opportunity.

I didn't go alone...since I'm the newbie I was accompanied by two "oldies" - Marie, the swiss volunteer, and Milena, a bulgarian co-worker. As we pulled up to a vast, shining, (mildly excessive) beacon of modernization, I knew I was on American soil. The Embassy in Sofia is absolutely beautiful, and absolutely conspicuous in its sheer grandeur.

After a fairly thorough security check – (although my metal knee didn’t set off the metal detector…curious.)– we were escorted to the meeting room. Approximately forty attendees filtered in; Bulgarians, Americans, a Dutchman, a Norwegian, and a few Frenchies. We represented non-governmental organizations, Bulgarian governmental ministries, and a wide variety of foreign/international organizations. Although the Deputy Prime Minister failed to attend, the room wasn’t short on hot shots. As the introductions were given, I realized I was sitting next to the hulking FBI director involved in anti-trafficking (he wasn’t terribly talkative). Nearby, the big-time executive director of USAID, and across the room, a former Miss Bulgaria, and the American Ambassador to Bulgaria.

Wait, who are you again? Oh, um, an intern? I don’t think anyone was terribly impressed!

As the meeting started, I was full of high hopes for our opportunity to present the current projects of Animus. Unfortunately, the mediator – (a droning legal counsel with no public speaking skills) – gave the floor to resident governmental “experts”, who prattled on about a recent trip to Italy and the Italian legislative structures. (wait, this meeting is about Bulgaria, right?) They were terribly long-winded for having so little to say. I found this to be extraordinarily frustrating: there we were, forty different people and organizations from around the world in one place, all working for the same cause, ready and willing to collaborate, exchange ideas and strengthen our initiatives. Instead, there was no debate, no real exchange, and the only opportunity I/we had was a brief, underwhelming five minutes. It was the ambassador’s turn to speak, and the wine and hors'deurves were waiting! Any collaboration would be done in the lobby, or next quarter. (the latter, most likely.)

As I was pouting about lost opportunity, wasted potential and Italian legislative structures, the Ambassador stood tall, straightened his tie, and prepared to wow us with American diplomacy. I was excited to hear him speak – I’d been eyeing him the whole meeting, contemplating which witty words I would use to impress him.

“Welcome, welcome to everyone!” (and then he threw in some Bulgarian for good measure) “I am so glad to see such a wide variety of faces – some I know, some I don’t. And it is good to see people I don’t know, it means our cause, our strength is growing.” Good, we’re feeling empowered, not so preoccupied with hors’deurves…

“I am just so glad to say that we are here today working together, trying very hard to actually make Bulgaria a normal country.”

I choked. I’ve never been so good at poker face, and I imagine that as my eyes burst from my sockets and my jaw slammed into the floor people probably knew what I was thinking. And, although Bulgarians are rather impassive – I’d say their pursed lips and dark, flashing eyes were probably agreeing with me. Suddenly, I had all sorts of witty things to say to our “diplomatic” diplomat.

Normal. What is normal? I myself have admitted that Bulgaria is ‘bizarre’, but that’s according to insignificant little me, not US policy. But even still, I don’t have the right to distinguish between what is normal and what is not, and if I did, (we are all ethnocentric, after all) I most certainly would keep my criticisms out of a room full of Bulgarians. So, we’re here to make Bulgaria normal? Not to…you know, combat human trafficking? Rescue children from slavery? Prosecute pimps and maniacs? Create support programs for victims? Reconsider our choice of speaker?

I think he lost most of his audience shortly thereafter, I know I was growing fangs and talons. It was another sad day for America.

I had the opportunity to meet the Ambassador, the director of USAID (and his tag along), the drone lawyer and the FBI agent. I handed out some annual reports, cheesed it and attempted witty conversation. They mostly grunted at me and turned away as quickly as possible. I found Mr. FBI and Mr. USAID to be particularly brusque and unpleasant. It’s amazing how small some people can make you feel…even if your five feet and two inches are brimming with fire. I was glad for the wine.

More optimistically, I did meet a few equally disenchanted youngsters around my age. Three Peace Corps volunteers, two embassy interns and a partridge in a bureaucratic pear tree. (okay, not really.) They were all very bright, very good at their jobs, and very willing to share their opinions about life. We had a nice time chatting and eating up all the hors’deurves.

I was glad I had the opportunity to go, and I am glad I saw what I saw. In a room full of the most important and influential people to the cause, absolutely nothing was accomplished.

I stole a Newsweek out of spite.

Posted by MegMc2003 09:18 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

Incredible Koprivshtitsa

A weekend in the 19th century.


Although the hustle and bustle of Sofia is oh-so-appealing, I was thrilled to leave the city for the weekend. I chose Koprivshtitsa by recommendation of a friend - as a well-preserved world heritage site, the entire village is a living example of Revival architecture and 19th century Bulgarian life. Plus, being nestled in beautiful green mountains makes everything a little more appealing. :)

My train ride took a full hour and a half longer than scheduled -I wouldn't have been so cranky about it if the man next to me smelled like anything other than curdled milk and unwashed human. I'm assuming the forty-five minute stop in the middle of nowhere was the result of mechanical failure (it happens a lot when the train is 50 years past due for replacement). My patience wore a bit thinner as a child nearby entertained himself by spitting loudly and repeatedly on the floor...charming I know...and I was just about to go bulgarian-ballistic when we lurched back into action.

My first glance of the town was breathtaking- as I said before, the village is nestled in the mountains and the diminutive structures only emphasize the grandeur of the natural surroundings. A great majority of the homes (380) were built in the Revival-period style, while everything else has been built in a complementary fashion. No high-rises, no soviet blocs, no traffic…I was stunned. (I was in love!) The entire place is tiny and easily navigable by foot – it took me less than twenty minutes to walk from one end to the other. The air was clean, the people were friendly, the timber houses were simple and utterly charming. I was particularly thrilled to see that the horse and wagon were still a staple of existence. The air smelled crisp and warm at the same time – an intoxicating mix of mountain air, horse manure and wood smoke. Indeed, my frontiers-woman fantasies were realized at last. (Now if only I’d packed my covered wagon…)

I stayed with a local family – none of whom spoke English. When I met the matriarch, a jolly, plump old woman, she dodged my handshake and reined me in for a Bulgarian bear-hug. I knew I was going to have a wonderful time. Unfortunately, the sky darkened just after my arrival – threatening to rain away my cheerful mood. My hostess and I shuffled to her lovely home as the downpour began. She bundled me in a sweater, confiscated my soaking wet shoes and chatted at me in Bulgarian as I waited for the skies to clear.

I was fortunate…within a couple of hours the rain let up and I was free to roam the village. I was even more fortunate to be arriving on that particular day…some sort of folk festival/performance was going on in the main square that night. I never could get a straight answer out of anyone about the reason behind the celebration…but I’ve also learned that Bulgarians scarcely need a reason for a little folk dancing. The 30 or so performers of every age were costumed in traditional garb – the gorgeous embroidery was complemented by clinking coins, festive flowers and a patriotic color scheme of red, white and green. As the performers danced, the riotous combination of color and rhythmic folk music was utterly hypnotic; I could see why these celebrations survived the centuries. When the show was over, the party began. The locals joined hands and started dancing – from the very young to the very old, the citizens of koprivshtitsa knew how to live it up folk-style. Well, until it started raining again. I started the walk home drenched but utterly enamored.

I wasn't too wet to pick up a bottle of wine for my hosts - we spent the evening lightheartedly attempting conversation via dictionary and pictures (or should I say, pictionary?). As the night wore on, we understood more and more of one another (ha) and we even did a little folk dancing in the living room. I went to sleep full of wine, delicious homemade cheese and killer new dance moves.

Thanks to the roosters outside my window, I woke up early enough the next morning to see the locals getting their horses ready for the day. Aside from these grumbling early-risers, the streets were completely abandoned. As the sun was peeking over the mountains, I was ready for real exploration. Although it isn’t mentioned in lonely planet OR rough guides (I’m going to write them), there’s a wonderful panorama of the village at the top of a very long staircase up the mountain. From there, once you look past a terribly unfortunate-looking Soviet monument, civilization feeds into pristine and peaceful nature. I spent the remainder of the morning walking through mountainside meadows and exploring an utterly gorgeous, dense forest. The only other human being I encountered was an old woman looking for mushrooms; the only sounds were the birds, the little waterfalls, and the very distant echo of horse-hooves on cobblestone. It was stunning to see the morning rays filtered through the trees in the forest. Ahhh, absolute contentment.

I walked as far as I could, but it was eventually too steep even for my monkey-climb. I picked my way back down the mountain and spent the remainder of the day wandering the streets, indulging in the local fare (red meat, red wine, bread and baklava...so unhealthy, so bulgarian, so delicious!), and chatting with the locals. Five construction workers even bought me a cup of tea during a mid-afternoon break (what a sight, as you can imagine). Unfortunately, reality was waiting and I caught the last bus to Sofia at five pm. My incredible experience in Koprivshtitsa left me feeling refreshed, revitalized and rededicated to my passion for a simple life.

Posted by MegMc2003 08:56 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (1)

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