11 November 1997
As I suspected when I had finished writing about my Central Rhodope Tour; it is back to the mundane and I am having a hard time thinking of news worthy topics. Fortunately, I received a long e-mail from our 'old cobber' Evan in the land of Oz that gave me a marvelous quote from the book Off The Map
by Mark Jenkins. If you have not read the book, I recommend it is a good read. I had read it some years ago but did not remember this passage that I think you will like.
There is something about journeys. You're lucky if you manage one in a lifetime and by the time you're done you're swearing 'by GOD never' I'll never do it again. But then some evening, months of years later, while you're browsing through the atlas, whistling or humming or eating, whoop! A few weeks later you're gone. And if you somehow find yourself on one more good long journey, something gets in you, like a worm gone up through your feet. From then on, somewhere inside every unbearable trip (because there will always be another trip), you'll swear up & down "this is it damn it, GOD damn it this is it, period.' But then you'll find your way back to your own warm bed and clean bathroom and beautiful world and discover they're just as they were when you left and after another month or two or six, this thing inside you will start to swell and throb. You'll become restless and sore as if your bed was too soft and your bathroom too bright and suddenly your beautiful worlds has again grown moldy with mediocrity. So you'll pull out the atlas and fall into it and the next morning buy an airplane ticket and just when everyone thought you were finally figuring it out, you're gone.
As I said at the close of last months letter "the planning has begun". Just one more long journey! I have put together a Touring Around Bulgaria that will be approximately 2,000 Km, 27 days of riding, 4 rest days, staying at 19 different Peace Corps volunteer's apartments, and 7 hotels. The last couple of weeks I have written all the volunteers a letter asking if I can stay with them on specific days in April and may. Have also talked with two other volunteers that have expressed some interest in doing part of the TAB with me so maybe I will have some riding company. I also got a very kind e-mail from John & Janis. John has taken pity on me and my lack of proper panniers and has offered to give me a set of his old ones. An offer that I was quick to accept! I was probably a fool to try to do the Central Rhodope Tour with the scant equipment that I had to do it with. But, it worked out well and now I will try to do a better job on the longer trip. Some of the additional bits of equipment that I am going to pick up before I start it will be a replacement tube, wrenches, tube patches, and a pump. I was willing to "pack it in" on the last trip but in the spring I will be too far from home to quit unless it becomes absolutely necessary. You may be very surprised that I am writing letters to volunteers this far in advance but it is necessary because of the mail situation here in Bulgaria. Many of the volunteers do not have their mail sent to their site and I go to Sofia approximately every other month to pick up messages left for me (not knowing if they will be sent to me or if I will receive them). So the communication process is more complicated than it should be under most circumstances. Finding a hotel in Bulgaria can also be a bit of a problem. Because the working class Bulgarian did not use hotels during the Communist years there are towns that may have only one. That one is now normally not something that we would stay in if one of its' rooms were offered in the US (they may not even be allowed to stay open in the US) You can only hope that a private hotel has opened somewhere in the town. A Bulgarian travel agent, and friend, is doing the hotel research for me and I will update you on that effort later. Milka's 'umfriend' in Sofia works for the Bulgarian government in a department that does mapping and he has offered to work up profile maps of my proposed route. This will be a great help or a big discouragement; I'm not sure which. However, I do seem to be able to ride a route easier if I know what to expect and can pace myself on the climbs. If I don't know what the climb is like it works on my mind as much as it works on the lungs and legs.
From an article by Jeffrey Tayler a Moscow-based writer, former Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco '88-'90, and former PC administrator in Uzbekistan.
I suddenly glimpsed the fundamental Soviet-Russian trichotomy: endure passively and move ahead, inch by inch; steal, using either firepower or the prerogatives of political office; or descend into bottomless rage and self-destruct. I had six thousand miles to cross in the former Soviet Union: I would have to endure, to be as mulishly passive and persistent as Russians were, just to survive the trip. Yet my conviction was that passivity only let tyrants reign and made committing injustices appealing. It was wrong to tolerate so much. The whole country either seemed to be queuing up, waiting for changes to be dispensed in increments, if at all, or crashing the lines and looting. Solutions, changes, reforms - all the shibboleths of the post-Soviet era - rang hollow and sounded like the trumpery of Western outsiders, of naifs. The Russian masses - the wizened laborers, the grit-eyed grandmas, the drunks with scarred hands, the thugs with their prison cant - pressed in and crushed ahead, knocking the breath out of those few who worked for change, or those who even hoped for it. It was impossible not to assent to the assertions of my Soviet-era dissident friends who averred that the lines, the corruption, the sham Marxist ideology, were all created intentionally to weary the population into submission to authority, to set people against one another, to quell their spirit of dissent and resistance. Was it by chance that humiliation and despair reigned even in such mundane things as buying train tickets? The thought of what torments lurked in matters of greater significance was daunting; haw could you start a business? Strike out on your own, take a risk? Fully realize your potential? Soviet rule, and now Russian governance and the mafia, ensured that these notions remained Western fancies inapplicable here, and reduced so many to the state of rats gnashing their teeth at one another over scraps. Yet the gnashing itself was rarity; for the most part, Russians accepted and endured, lashing out only under extreme duress or when drunk.
You could substitute the name Bulgaria every place that you see Russia and this would be as true as what he has written. I have said it before, it seems that everything that is written about the former Soviet Union is true of Bulgaria. I told my new Executive Director that if there were a vote I thought that the people of Bulgaria would vote to become part of the new Russian Confederation of States. He argued that no that would not be the case; that Bulgaria was an independent country with its' own history, culture, etc. and was not like Russia. But, I see more similarity between Bulgaria and Russia, than I do differences, from what I read and from what people tell me that have been in both countries.
I received a letter from Homer & Ginny in which they made the comment that it seemed that what I was doing here was more like "survival" that what they thought Peace Corps work was like. I told them that all PC volunteers live with the people that they are attempting to help and most of the time those people are simply trying to survive so that is what we are doing also much of the time. I few examples come to mind that I will pass on because the longer I stay here the more they are beginning to wear me down. On my last trip to Sofia, 27-29 October, it was snowing in the morning when I left Zlatograd. About half way to Plovdid we left the snow and had light rain which was good and bad. It was good that the snow had stopped because I had to go over two rather high passes to get home. I was hoping the roads would not be covered with snow; the buses here do not know what chains are - it can be a little unnerving to travel during the winter. It was bad because with the melting snow and the light rain we developed a rain storm INSIDE the bus. Water began dripping from the roof of the bus along both sides near the window seats and forced many of us to seek a dry spot in the aisle. This had happened once before and I was in an aisle seat so I had forgotten about it; now I remember - sit in an aisle seat when it is raining! I mentioned the barking dog problem once before in my "What I Didn't Learn in PST". That was done in a humorous way. The problem is not funny and the Bulgarians do not attempt to do anything about it. One dog in my neighborhood that is a big problem belongs to my friend(?) that tried to grow jalapeno peppers for me. I asked him to do something about his barking dog and his reply was that he liked to hear him barking. I can not believe this is true but I do think he likes the dog to be barking all the time because it irritates his neighbors; this is one of the ways that he can "get back" at some of the things that they do that irritate him. I see little or no affection by Bulgarians for their dogs, they are status symbols and tools to "get even" with others. The second big irritant that is even more in evidence now than during the spring or summer is the constant pounding. There is someone pounding on something almost 24 hours a day. The big addition now is the splitting of fire wood for heating. My guess is that over one half of the people here heat their house/apartments with fire wood and every bit of it is split by hand. The reason the symbol of Communism was a hammer and sickle is that was as advanced as they ever got in the development of tools! A good example of this was last Friday when one of the Municipal workers cut the top off of a 55 gallon steel barrel with a large hammer that had an adz on one side and a sledge on the other. He then proceeded to "smooth" the cut down by beating the edge of the barrel against the concrete steps that are about 50 feet from our office. This whole operation went on for over an hour!
So much for this session. Will get it off to you today or tomorrow. Hope all is well with you and I look forward to hearing from you soon.