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1 April 1997

My situation has improved somewhat in March over the conditions that existed in February. My purchasing power has gone down drastically because the inflation rate has exceeded the increase in the exchange rate for the Dollar, but at least now there is something to buy. In Zlatograd about one half of the shops were closed during a 6 week period that started with the demonstrations on 10 January. The other half of the shops quickly sold out everything and for about a month there was nothing to buy. I could not find rice, beans, flour, cooking oil, sugar, salt, or lentils at all; eggs, cheese, and meats were sometimes to be found. Things got so bad you couldn’t find beer, wine, RAKIA (Bulgarian brandy) or coffee and cigarettes; the very staples of a Bulgarian diet! As I have commented before, there was a petrol shortage that contributed to the distribution problems as well as the demonstrators blocking highways. I was able to go to Plovdiv on 1 March and bought 3 kilo of beans, 1 kilo of rice, 1 kilo garlic cloves and 1 kilo of chili powder to give me a margin of food security. The large towns have goods to buy in their shops and markets; their problem is that residents have no money. The small towns are experiencing shortages because their residents have no money plus distribution problems. The interim government is in place now and they are starting to meet with the IMF and EU. It is primarily these two organizations that will be able to give Bulgaria some money to stabilize the economic situation. More importantly the interim government has started to raise controlled prices to market levels or decontrolled them. This has brought goods back onto the shelves and in some cases kept them from being exported out of the country. I read an article about tons of goods that are in short supply here in Bulgaria being intercepted at the borders without proper export papers. I’m sure this has been going on for a long time with the Socialist governments people getting big money in bribes or a piece of the action. If the Democratic Union Party can stay reasonably graft free then Bulgaria has some chance! Not sure what the prospects of that are but the President and the interim Prime Minister seem to be on the right track and have the support of the people; now it is a question of them keeping it and staying the straight shooters that they now appear to be.

I will now put a few of you to sleep with some statistical information that quantifies the problems that I refereed to in the discussion above. The “market basket” of goods and services that the government monitors rose by 205% during February. This was the largest monthly increase in the last 7 years and exceeded the annual increase for the years 1994 and 1995. Furthermore, the government is forecasting a 100% increase during the month of March. The following was taken directly from Bulgarian Business News (an English language publication)

The caretaker Cabinet has started decreeing deregulation of the prices of certain basic goods and services…. The first to be decontrolled were grain prices, and then the method for cigarette price formation was revised. As from March 1st the government introduced minimum prices which are suggested by producer enterprises, and dealers can add to this up to 20 per cent mark-up and apply 22 per cent VAT to the sum. (My comment: This is decontrolling prices? But, you must remember this is Bulgaria where the government set the price before as well as the mark up. It is looked upon as a big step!) The new pricing method pushed the prices of Bulgarian cigarettes up by a factor of 2 to 2.5 but they instantly reappeared on the market.” (My emphasis added.)

Another quote from the paper; this time they are quoting Daniela Bobevea the interim Minister of Trade and Foreign Economic Cooperation.

The state monopoly generates the scarcity of goods, which is why the cabinet will be phasing in price deregulation.

How about that someone in the government has finally got it right!!!! The Cabinet also passed a new law concerning profiteering. It set up a Commodity Exchange and Wholesale Marketing Licensing Committee that has required that wholesalers use cash registers with fiscal memory and has sent inspectors to do spot checks for profiteering. The wholesales protested and complained of heavy handed treatment by the Committee and insisted on milder controls or they would shut down the wholesale and retail outlets. In Varna they did close down; obviously effecting the distribution of goods. In Plovdiv they started trading at night to avoid the spot checks so the Committee set up a night shift also. The law on profiteering has also increased the controls at border customs wit the following results. The border crossing into Turkey intercepted cigarettes worth 1,000,000,000 BGL (about $500,000); 660,000 pounds of cooking oil was stopped at the Greek border (remember I couldn’t find any in Zlatograd); and 19 metric tons of copper ingots at the Serbia crossing. A survey at the beginning of this year found that 3% of Bulgarians are affluent and 90% are poor. It also found that 25% of all Bulgarians were deep in debt and 20% are using their last savings to survive. It also found that 70% of the households cannot afford to buy any consumer durables and have money for food only. But, it was also noted that food consumption declined by 30% in constant dollar terms for January 1997 versus January 1996.

I have been out hiking again during March; partially for the exercise and for a project that I will discuss below. I told you about my experience with the border guards on the hike of 8 March but that was only part of the story. First I need to give you some background to put this hiking around in context. In late February I had a PCV from Stara Zagora visit me for 2 days. He is an ecology volunteer that has been to Zlatograd a couple of times and wanted to take the opportunity to come back and visit. It seems that he likes this area as well as I do and wanted to see it at least one more time before he goes back to the US in September. Well, in the course of our talks he brought up a project that he and the ecology PCV from Kurkjuli have been working on with students from their towns – water testing. He also said that they were working on getting some grant money to do water testing in the Rodophe’s and wanted to combine the testing with a tent camping trip for their students. One thing lead to another and I am now working on a joint water testing project with them.

The group of students hiking through the mountains and then they are taking a break. It might have been the first time that some of them to have been out mountain hiking either because they are “city kids” or because hiking is even less of an activity in Bulgaria than in the USA. They are at the Erma Reka settlement pond on the Erma Reka River that flows into the Verbitsa and then downstream past Zlatograd. The lead mines are upstream from here and this “pond” was created to settle any lead out of the water before it continues on.This is one of two students from the University in Sofia that came along to collect the water samples and then test them at the University.

The idea at this point is that they will each bring 6 students and will help Zlatograd with a river clean-up on day one. They will then do a home stay that night; one Stara Zagora and one Kurdjuli student at a Zlatograd students home. The next day we hike “somewhere”, do water testing, camp out, and do a hike to return to Zlatograd. It is the “somewhere” that I have been trying to discover during March. The 8 March hike was to Alamotsi, about 13 Km from Zlatograd, then over a high steep mountain ridge and down into Erma Reka. The total was something over 20 Km with some of it rather quite difficult for this out of shape middle aged couch potato. I was doing this with a couple of Bulgarian teenagers that are genetic clones of mountain goats and they were hiking my ass off. To make matters even more interesting we arrived at that point of no return going over the ridge and got caught in what they affectionately call “the bear is getting married”. This is a literal translation of a saying that the people in this region have for the condition of snow falling while the sun is shining. We did manage to get off the mountain during the snow storm and then waited for an hour for a bus to take us back to Zlatograd; it was another 16 Km walk from there and I wasn’t up to it. The two students thought that the hike was to difficult for the project and there was no suitable camping site so I wrote that route off. Went out alone the following Saturday from Zlatograd to Erma Reka Reservoir, about 8-10 Km, via dirt lumbering roads and livestock trails. This route looked like what we would want because of the access to water for testing and also a lot of evidence of ecological damage that we could point out and discuss with the students. However I could not find a suitable camping place and decided to continue the search the following week.

When the next Saturday arrived I had a teacher PVC guest arrive from Smolyan. He also brought snow with him apparently and I awoke to a dusting of snow on the ground and a sky that did not look very promising. Decided that it probably was not a good day to try the Reservoir again but ask my guest if he wanted to do a short hike near Zlatogad and search for a road that I could see on maps of the area but had not yet found. So we left under an improving sky that gradually became almost sunny and nice. However, this was short lasting and we again arrived back in Zlatograd in the midst of “the bear is getting married”.

Went out last Saturday with one of the same students that I was with on the hike of the 8th accompanied by his younger sister. We followed the route to the Reservoir again; making some better trail selections and checking a camping site that would be on the return to Zlatograd. This would give us a total hike of about 16 Km for the day and should work out well with good water sites, lots of ecology issues, fun hiking, etc.

Two pictures of what seems to be an old Roman bridge. Weather is spring-like and we were getting some snow run off.

The weather was not through with me yet though; we were still 5 Km or more from Zlatograd and we started getting rain. So in 4 hikes during March I have finished 2 in snow and one in rain. I missed a good chance on the 31st; it was raining in the morning, changed to heavy wet snow during mid-day, and finished the day sunny. The 1st of April shows promise of being either a new month and new weather conditions or an April Fool’s Joke; it is a beautiful sunny, yet crisp, morning!

I was going to add a discussion of my trip to Sofia, the 3rd to 6th of April, but see that this letter is probably long enough. I will save that for next month. If it turns out like most of my experiences here have it will be a long story of it’s own!