11 March 1997
Received your letter around the end of February but things have been busy enough for me that I have not taken the time to get a response back to you. Have dropped a note to Jack who wrote a kind letter to me indicating that he was #7 on the "tree" but I don't know which of my letters. Also sent and received e-mail to Merle & Molly when I heard about Owen's health problems; will try to get a note to him today (10 March) via e-mail. Have been in regular communication with Brenda & Jim concerning Calcium Carbonate and most recently a plea for Jalapano seeds to plant (I am starting to go into withdrawals - the Tabasco that Clyde sent me is gone).
I have been in contact with John & Janis on a regular basis via e-mail for the last month or six weeks. I asked them to look into getting a Rock-n-Road Tour-Ex built for me and sent over here. Was a good idea at the time but the cost of sending it is the cost of another bike!! Have put that idea on the shelf; and now I'm looking into getting a bike built here. I will be going into Sofia on Thursday 3 April through the 6th. While there one of my goals is to go to some "bike shops" near a cycling track and see if I can get them to build what I want. There is nothing at all here in the Zlatograd area. However I did see 4 road riders on the 1st of March near Plovdiv. That is the second largest town in Bulgaria and they probably have some shops that sell bikes also, but don't know where they are. I also need some translation help in describing what I want and I think I have arranged that in Sofia. We will see how it works out and report in a later letter.
As you know, my primary "job" or reason for being in Bulgaria was to provide Business Consulting to small and medium size private Bulgarian businesses. That is a big joke considering the economic conditions and the attitude of Bulgarian businessmen. The economy is in total collapse with a political attitude for the last 6 years that was anti private business. The new Parliament that will be elected in April may make the necessary changes to encourage small business but the effect will be a year or more away. Therefore, I am working on social projects that the CDIC (my NGO) is involved with. Also involved with the High School as a teacher/discussion leader for their 4 Management classes. Will probably get involved in a similar way with the 2 Banking classes that are at the School. Working on a water testing project with Peace Corps Volunteers and students from Stara Zagroa and Kurdjuli. They will come to Zlatograd to do some water testing and to teach our students how to do it. They will do a home stay while they are here one night then the next day we hike into the mountains and stay overnight. Not a lot but it has kept me involved; along with writing letters I'm planning on writing a couple of articles for Peace Corps publications.
One of these articles may be based on the following experience that I want to share with you.
After a rather long, dark, and cold winter in the "banana belt" of the south central Rhodopes it became like spring in Zlatograd. We had a light snow storm on the 6th of February and the following days became clear and bright. The weekend of the 15th had the feel of early spring with a crisp morning, sunny and cool afternoon, with bright sunshine. I had not been hiking since the last part of October or early November so I promised myself that if the following Saturday was as nice I would be out in the mountains.
My hiking in the fall had been to the east and west of Zlatograd; following the road that passes through town with excursions into the mountains that rise up to the north and south.
Most of my pictures taken during the Fall of 1996 were on the roll that was developed in Zlatogard and are almost worthless. Here I have three of mushrooms that I found and have done my best to Photoshop. These were very pretty. When I showed this close-up to my neighbor that goes out mushroom hunting (and cooked some for me); he got very excited and told me in Bulgarian then in very poor English “Don't eat, they are poison!” Then there is this one: the dam and reservoir for the Zlatograd municipal water supply. I'm sure if the border guards had found me taking pictures of it they would have had me in to see the Commandant.
These hikes did not take me far enough to the south to be at the Greek border and the 22nd was a great day to explore this option. Therefore, I chose a dirt road that climbed a mountain ridge out of Zlatograd to the south west. This became a livestock trail within 2 Km that had branching trails leading to mountain huts and small fenced garden plots. After making some dead-end trail choices I found myself at the top of the ridge and was facing the "internal border" fence and a Buwka (the Bulgarian term for the lookout towers along this internal border).
This internal border fence is some 2 - 3 Km from the Greece/Bulgarian border. I have been told that there is the same fencing arrangement along all borders around Bulgaria and that the circumscribed area (internal border area) is larger than the country of Albania. The tower was approximately 25-30 meters tall and is well placed on the ridge top. It must provide a view for some 20 Km in any direction, but most importantly it offers a commanding view of two canyons leading into Greece and 10 Km of the internal border area. Because of the fence I was not able to climb the tower to verify what I have just indicated to be the possible views. The tower is located within the internal border area and you must cross the fence to access it. The border guards patrol along the south side of the fence and therefore have access to the tower, however it now appears not to be used. The fence has the same appearance as pictures you may have seen of concentration camp fences; or the barbed wire portions of the Iron Curtain.
The first four pictures show where the internal border fence is (the dirt road is on the Greek side of the fence) and the lookout towers on top of the ridges. The Border Area sign is from the days of Communist Rule and it was still standing at the top of the pass between Zlatograd and Madan to the west.
It is about 3 meters high with barbed wire on both sides of the supporting posts about 20 centimeters apart and a "V" of barbed wire along the top. From my ridge top position I could see a gate into the internal border area about 2 Km away at the bottom of one of the canyons. Also saw a two man patrol approaching the gate from the ridge opposite me, saw them stop and talk to the gate guard and then proceed to their barracks within the border area. I decided that my next move should be to approach the gate guard, engage him in my "best Bulgarian" and then follow the road from the gate back to Zlatograd.
I put this plan into action and all seemed to be going well. I told the guard who I was, where I worked, how long I had been in Bulgaria and how long I had been in Zlatograd. Asked him where he was from in Bulgaria - Smolyan. (The language staff would have been proud!) The guard then called his Commadant (maybe a Lieutenant) and gave him the information from my Lichna Carta (my Bulgarian resident documents), a business card, and our conversation. The Commadant was apparently impressed enough that he invited me to come up to the barracks to have a talk but time was getting late and I declined; saying that I must go home and eat lunch. I bid my guard friend farewell and started for Zlatograd via the road from the gate. However, I had proceeded only about 300 meters from the gate when I heard the guard running to catch up with me. I stopped, and he again said that the Commadant wanted to talk to me - that we should go back to the gate. Since the guard was most persuasive and was carrying what I thought to be a loaded AK-47; I thought a conversation with the Commadant was a great idea and lunch could wait. The Commadant joined us at the gate and went over my Lichna Carta and business card. He then made 2-3 telephone calls; providing information to someone concerning my Lichna Carta data. After a 30 minute wait he made another telephone call and then invited me to follow him for a walk into Zlatograd.
Since I had not approached the gate via the road from Zlatograd I was unsure of the distance or where in town we would arrive. As I was to discover, we arrived on the western edge of the town and then walked about half way through town to the center. It was now almost noon on a very nice day and as the Commadant and I strolled through town I greeted 4 people that worked at the Municipality that knew me. After each greeting I tried to explain to the Commadant who the person was and what they did at the Municipality. I could see that he was becoming a bit more sheepish after each of these encounters and it was starting to dawn on him that I was exactly who I said I was. It was now also dawning on him that the only thing he was going to get out of this effort was the exercise of walking an 8 -10 Km round trip into Zlatograd. He delivered me to the Commander's (maybe a Captain or Major) Headquarters in Zlatograd and went in search of the Commander - the last I was to see of the Commadant. The Commander arrived a few minutes later and the best that I could understand I was not allowed to be near the border fence. However, I was free to go and there was "No Problem". I had my counterpart call the Commander on Monday to clarify the situation. It seems that the rules are as follows. A person with a Lichna Carta can not be in the border area without a Bulgarian with a regular Bulgarian Passport. However, there seemed to also be a certain amount of good humor on the part of the Commander. He may have treated the incident as a welcome break in the monotony of border patrolling in a changed Bulgaria.
After the fun of Saturday I decided that I would go along a ridge to the south east of Zlatograd on Sunday and get some pictures of the Buwka. This I did without incident! However, what this has shown me is the prisoner mentality that had to be present in Bulgarian's minds during the Communist years. It also is illustrative of what has changed during the last 7 years - not much! During the Communist years the town of Zlatograd required non residents to posses special documents to enter the Municipality; this requirement no longer exists but the patrols continue. It is important to note that the patrols continue along the internal border not along the Greece/Bulgarian country border.
Take care when in the proximity of any border area. Because I am well known now in the town there was no harm done and I found it be as humorous as I think the Commander did. However, if I had been in a different sector of the border, or if I was not known, the situation may have been more serious. On Saturday the 8th of March I hiked from Zlatograd to Alamotsi with two students. Again border guards stopped us on the road that was near the internal border fence. When they radioed my Lichna Carta information into their Commadant they got an answer back that brought big smiles to their face, a laugh, and a prompt return of my Lichna Carta. Maybe they have the same Commadant?
I submitted this for inclusion in a Bulgaria PCV newsletter under the title On The Edge (of Bulgaria)
Maybe I will get another letter to you before you go to the Natchez Trace Ride in May; if not remember to say hello for me!