The Rila Experienca

(22/10/13)

My fantastic hostel in Sofia recommended that I go on a day-trip out to a monastery at nearby Rila.  Actually, the guy suggesting it said that there’s a sacred cave out there, and by passing through it you’ll be cleansed of your sins.  He said that I seemed like I needed a bit of cleansing.  There may have been winking.

In the end, there were five of us heading out, necessitating two taxis.  It was myself, three French guys and one miniature German girl.  Ramona and I went in one taxi, with the three guys in the other.  Luckily, our driver spoke Russian as well as Bulgarian, which Ramona and I could each speak to some extent.  So I had a couple of hours of Russian practice each way, huzzah.

We got out to the monastery, and as it turns out, one of the French guys was some kind of ex-religious scholar, and told us all about the things we were seeing.  Which were a bit messed up, to be fair: the monastery was Orthodox (I think?  It was very different to Russian and Greek Orthodox churches), but covered with paintings which would terrify even the most devout Catholic.  Think scenes of torture and degradation.  Charming!

Once we’d had a good look around, we went for a bit of a walk up a nearby road to see if we could get a good view, while the guys threw snowballs at one another.  And then, spontaneously and with no prior discussion, we all climbed a steep hill and went for a hike in the snow.  It was well past my knee, and on Ramona it was waist-high!  Plus we were all wearing jeans and slip-on shoes.  Seriously though—great life choice, it was so much fun!  Though sadly, my jeans didn’t survive the adventure: I fell through some snow into a tree, got my foot hooked under a branch, the rest of me slid down a hill, and I ended up not only trapped but with my jeans ripped the whole way up.  When Xavier came down to assist me, he spent at least two minutes laughing at me and my arse in the snow before he could bring himself to help.

On the walk, we encountered a wild dog and her adorable cubs, an abandoned shack, and apparently a new kind of monkey: the French guys climbed up some very unsafe-looking trees to take a photo of the monastery.  Haha I think the shot from ground level was just fine!

Being as we were not on anything remotely resembling a track, we had some difficulties getting back to ground level.  The others all got to jump off a high wall into a snowdrift, but because of my back I couldn’t 🙁  So instead I found somewhere to climb.

That night back in Sofia, it all got a little crazy.  We were drinking in the hostel, then I ended up with the French guys (and five more of their friends) at a nearby bar.  Wait, when I said it got a little ‘crazy’, I probably should have said ‘hazy’: memories are understandably indistinct!  I recall that at the bar, asking for rakia (the local spirit), the bartender asked me whether I wanted a ‘little’ or ‘big’ one.  Challenge accepted!  So there was lots of that.  I remember the French guy I was talking to (whose name I, again in typically good form, never bothered to ask) learned I was travelling by myself and was shocked.  He asked me whether I was scared to be in a bar with eight guys whom I didn’t know, and I asked him whether I had something to be scared of?  People were forever asking me that question on my Bloc Trip—’aren’t you scared?’—I mean, how does one respond to that?

Next it was off to some bar the guys had heard of in the student district.  I presume we caught a taxi.  We must have.  Wait, by squinting a bit I can just about remember—I think I had to give directions to the driver in Russian, because he only spoke Russian/Bulgarian, and the guys only spoke French/English/some German.  Whoa, it’s all coming back to me now.

Anyway, we got to the club and it was all a bit crazy.  The music was Western music from circa 2000 (Linkin Park, whaaaat), and it was the same price for one bottle of vodka as three.  So we had three bottles of Absolut on the table, and only two litres of juice (which I’d insisted on).  Every time I turned away to talk to someone, the French guy I’d been talking to earlier in the night would pour extra vodka into my drink (I have deadly peripheral vision), and when I turned back around I’d pour more juice in.  Didn’t think through ratios too well though did I, and sometime after completely forgetting English (I have this theory that after dealing with only French and Russian all day, then copious quantities of alcohol, my brain threw its hands up in the air and went ‘fuck this shit’), became crying drunk (probably not the French guy’s plan?!) and sent myself home.  God, the poor taxi driver: I was completely incoherent.  He gave me tissues though.  Man I’d hate to be a taxi driver.

So that was Rila-day.  Epic.

 

Sofia

(3/11/13)

I really loved Sofia, and I’m still not entirely sure why.  There was the fact that signs were written in Cyrillic, of course, and that I had the opportunity to speak Russian with people.  Or the book market, where I spent hours poring over children’s books in Russian, and bought my copy of The Little Prince in that language (Маленький Принц).  There’s the fact that the city itself is quite majestic, or there’s the history: but I think my favourite thing of all was the water fountains.

The water fountains are actually  natural springs which have been built into a tap-and-fountain system.  The water bubbles up from below (at 28 degrees Celsius, from recollection) and is funneled out into taps in a series of fountains throughout the city.  Every day, sometimes several times a day, I’d join the locals to go and fill my water bottles.  The water was delicious, and renowned to have healing powers.  More to the point though, it’s a big part of the reason Sofia was founded where it was.  The springs, and the fact that it lay on the trade routes between Europe, the Med and the East, meant that it was a thriving trade town.  Under the city, you can still find the remnants of its past, such as this Roman road which was the main route into the city:

Sofia (18 of 23)

The whole area, including Bulgaria, Romania and former Yugoslavia, have this thing about lions.  They say that the area looks like a lion on the map, and currencies are named for it: thus in Romania, the currency is the leu, and in Bulgaria, the lev (лев)–each meaning ‘lion’.  I’ve just spent ten minutes staring at a map of Europe and I either see no lions, or far too many lions, but whatever.  Lions are cool.

Lion??
Lion??
Mufasa?
Mufasa?

I went on a free walking tour of Sofia with a very proud local man in his early 20s.  We learned about some hero of Bulgaria, who started a movement to free his country from Ottoman rule: Vasil Levski, or Vasil the Lion/the Leonine.  We saw one of many monuments to him, by the oldest Christian church in Sofia (pictures in the gallery below).  The walking tour was quite late at night and it was cold, so I don’t remember much from it.  So, here are the wikis for the history of Bulgaria and Vasil Levski.

Hm, I’m looking to make a broad generalisation (is there any other kind?) about Bulgarians.  It seems they’re not very good at picking sides, for a start: they aligned with Germany in WW2, and were part of the Soviet Union Советский Союз during the Cold War.  Come to think of it, I think that’s what the tour guide said.  He then went on to speak at some length about Bulgaria during WW2 before speaking about the country under communism.  He said that it’s a matter of vast national pride that none of Bulgaria’s Jews were executed: requests kept coming through from Hitler’s regime, but people would hide their friends and protect them in any way they could.  Actually, the place seems very religiously tolerant, and Sofia is filled with mosques, Orthodox and Catholic churches, and synagogues alike.  Plus one great big pagan statue in the main street, a goddess representing wisdom and justice.  She stands where дедушка Lenin’s statue used to.

Another matter of pride for the people of Sofia, continued our tour guide, was how much of its national heritage they managed to save from Soviet destruction.  Unlike Bucharest, buildings and monuments hundreds and close to a thousand years old still stand in some places.  A lot of archaeological ruins are also to be found beneath the city, and care is taken when building transport infrastructure to build around them.  The guide showed us the old Party Headquarter buildings, and told us how a great big red Star used to sit on top.  When the Communist Party was defeated, some locals (one man?) climbed the building and threw the star off, at which point it disappeared for years.  Something like that, anyway.  Tell you what, go on the tour yourself and get back to me 🙂

I’ve not a lot else to report from Sofia really.  There are lots of stray dogs, again, and lots of homeless-looking people: the weekly wage was even lower than that in Romania, at just 100 euro a week.  Like Romania, it gets a lot of EU assistance.

People seem to love or hate Sofia, but apart from the terrifying train station, I would definitely go back.  I really thought I might get kidnapped for a little while there, but (as you can see) it all worked out in the end.

Donkey Tales

(14/06/14)  Aegina is a gorgeous little island, about an hour by ferry from Athens.  It seemed only right that my first trip to Greece should see me go to an island or so, and considering how late I woke up, Aegina was pretty much my only option left for the day.  Far from a regrettable one, however!

Leaving Aegina port from the ferry, I headed straight along the waterfront, as I could see some kind of open-air archaeological museum.  I did accidentally take a wrong turn (ie refused to walk on the clearly signed path as usual), so wound up having to climb a small cliff and jump over a fence, but hey.  Results, right?

Aegina, and Greece in general, really surprised me.  I remember when studying Thucydides and the Peloponnesian Wars, our teacher drilled in to us over and over again that Greek terrain is inhospitable, rocky and spiny.  Thus the sheer profusion of wildflowers pretty much had me gob-smacked.  They were stunning!

I went for a wander around the ruins and mini-museum.  Stopping to take a photo of an old column, I couldn’t help but think that the view from the mountains in the background wouldn’t be too bad. You can probably imagine what happened next.

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Not knowing where I was going (other than ‘up’), I set off.  I bypassed Aegina town, overheating rather rapidly as I started climbing past vineyards to the somewhat obtrusive soundtrack of guys beeping me from their motorbikes.  It’s probably also worth mentioning that I was wearing knee-high lined winter boots, because hey, practicality.

After an hour or so of slow but unvarying uphill, the landscape started to open somewhat.  I was following a road winding up through the mountains, and the flower-covered slopes were almost able to distract me from my thoughts of ‘is this impulsive or idiotic?’.

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I stopped for a little while by a tiny village with a spectacular church, and hung out in a field of flowers.  Some goats then appeared, scaring the heck out of me.  It took me a little while to convince myself that goats didn’t eat people, and I probably wasn’t about to die a grisly goat-based death.  Then it was off up the road once more.

I’d gone well past the original peaks by this point, and was looking for a way to get up to the ridge-line properly.  Walking up the switch-back road, which was littered with shrines and flowers (deja vu?), I finally found what I was looking for.  At the top of the hill, I stopped to check out a little church—an omnipresent feature of the Greek landscape.  I then saw a small path leading to a church further up, and finally in the direction I actually wanted to head in.

By this time I’d unzipped my boots down to my ankles, and was making some fairly distinctive thwack-thwack noises as I was walking.  No ninja skills here!  After the second little church, I walked past a few very scenically-placed graves, and then the track ended.  Time to improvise!

I followed goat trails for the first little bit.  I made a couple of stops for photos (also, to stave off the seemingly inevitable heat exhaustion), then aspied myself a very tempting-looking rock. ‘Oooh!’ I thought to myself.  ‘I should take photos from there‘.  Face palm.

I got closer to the gigantic boulder, which was around 10m high and perched on the very edge of a cliff dropping down a few hundred feet, only to find that it was actually split in half.  I couldn’t see any way to get on top, so decided that this would be an appropriate time to do some free-climbing.  I tied my camera into my top, zipped my boots up once more, and set myself to climbing up the channel between the two boulders.

There are things that could have improved this situation.  One would probably be better footwear.  Another would be an easier climb (I was doing it by jamming my back and shoulders against one side of the crack, and walking my legs up the other).  Lastly, perhaps if I hadn’t been doing all of this while directly over the aforementioned deadly drop, with nothing but a few hundred feet of air below me.  I had gone beyond ‘this is stupid’ and keeping my thoughts inside my head, and was chanting out loud, “oh my god oh my god oh my god i’m going to die i’m going to die i’m going to die”.  Eugh and then I had to change sides, so that I could get the top half of my body over a prickle bush and onto a ledge.  There were lunging actions involved.  Safety first, people!

Haha finally I was on top of this rock, super adrenaliny, and the view wasn’t that great.  Kind of a let down, really: but at least the way up was an adventure.  I then improvised my way down again and pushed my way through the thigh-high prickle bushes, to find myself at the top of the island.  See, the leather boots were good for something: namely, not getting prickled like that other time I improvised a hike in Greece.

From the top, I could see the town I’d come from far below me (I’d hiked around 14km so far).  I could also see the ferry terminal, and it occurred to me that the last ferry back to Athens was leaving in about two hours.  Helter-skelter, I set off once more.  A little bit past the village with the church which I’d previously stopped in, I realised it was time to start hitch-hiking.

nearthetop-8

Luckily, one of the first cars I saw stopped, and I got in with a lady who spoke reasonable English and her four small and very curious children.  “Did you like the temple?” she asked me.  Hmm, what temple was that then?  Apparently the ‘big deal’ on Aegina is an ancient temple to Artemis or some such.  Oops!  I apologised, saying I knew nothing about the island, and she looked at me like I was a thoroughly irresponsible human being, and asked what on earth I was doing there then.  I like to discover things I guess, not just see things I’ve already experienced through the eyes of others!  At the end she extracted a promise that I would at least eat some pistachios, because Aegina had the infamously best pistachios in the world.

The lady dropped me off near the dock, and I now magically had some time up my sleeve.  I had a quick browse through the seafront stores, buying a donkey for my current flatmate Crystal.  The reason I bought it was that my eyes made a bit of a Freudian slip when reading ‘Aegina donkey’, and it made me laugh so much I decided it had to come with me.  I’ve since bought her a collection of donkeys from around the world, including one from Colombia.  Oh Colombia.  My friend Laura told me when I was there about how men on the coast would have sex with donkeys.  ‘Noooooooooooo,’ I replied, not believing her.  She insisted—’no, really!  Men leave their wives for their donkeys!’.  Well, turns out there was something to it.  In some small towns, ‘pinning the tail on the donkey’, so to speak (heh heh) is a rite of passage.  There’s a documentary about it called ‘Donkey Love’, but I really recommend that you do not, do not, google that particular phrase.

Once I’d made my purchases, I was pretty much all out.  So I bought a kilo of pistachios (and haven’t been able to eat one since), sat by the dock, and watched the sunset.  Epic day.

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A One-Sided Affair

(3/11/13)

As you’ll have gathered from my (as-yet non-existent) post about my first time in Istanbul, I was not a fan.  That’s despite the fact that on this particular trip, I didn’t get tear-gassed (post about that here).  The constant hassling was just too much: every, single, guy, on the street.  I mean, Turkey gets European and Russian tourists: you think they’d get over it.  The way blonde women are presented to the non-Western world is as easy sluts, and honestly, it seemed like the Turkish guys thought that all they’d have to do was talk to me and I’d jump on them.  Anyway!

While I wasn’t looking forward to returning to the Hellmouth (aka Canberra, the place where souls go to die), at least it would only be for 5 months before my next escape, to Russia (and we all know how that worked out).  Either way, I was so keen to get out of Turkey that I wasn’t even dreading returning to the Real World as much as usual.  However, it seemed Istanbul had an unrequited love for me, and wasn’t quite ready to let me go.  At least, that’s how I’m interpreting it.

I miss a lot of flights.  Also buses, trains, ferries—I’m just a little too casual about it all.  So, given my transport-related history, I’d decided to be super-dooper early for my flight to Sydney: I was aiming to be at the airport four hours prior to my flight.  I figured that then, after taking ‘Laura time’ into account, I’d still be there at least an hour before check-in closed: a stress-free start sounded nice, and given that I was due back at work a couple of days later (for once, I’d given myself more than 12 hours between arriving from Europe/ish and being back at work), I was determined not to miss the flight.  Not that they weren’t used to my all-hours calls saying I was stuck in an airport somewhere and would be at work whenever I found a new plane..!

The night before the flight, I asked the guy at reception how to get to the airport, and how long it would take.  The next morning, I set my alarm for an hour earlier than it needed to be, just so that I could go to reception again and double-check everything.  I was dedicated, as you can see!  The morning guy confirmed what the evening guy had said: it would take around an hour and a half to get there, and all I had to do was catch the tram til the end of the line, then catch the airport train from there.  What could go wrong?

I, clutching my coat, thunked my bags down the stairs and set off for the tram line.  At this point I had my day-pack, full of my laptop and a fairly outrageous number of textbooks I’d needed for my CELTA in Prague; and my beloved suitcase (whose twin I now own), with winter clothing, all of my snowboard gear (for when I was in Italy), and stacks and stacks of books in Russian (as they’re just about impossible to find in Australia).  All up, it was around 45kg.  Haha thanks to my multiply-broken back, I actually can’t carry more than about 8kg without pain—fail.

I get to the tram line, purchase my ticket: everything’s fine.  I’ve studied the metro map over and over again, I know exactly which line I’m catching and exactly where the end of the line is; so I settle down to wait.  However, weirdly, the tram doesn’t go to the end of the line.  Rather, it reaches a stop called Zeytinburnu.  I ummed and ahhed, but both guys at the hostel had said the end of the line, so I waited and got on the next tram continuing up the tram line.

A seemingly endless amount of time later, I arrived at my destination.  I jumped out, looked around, and realised I was in the middle of approximately fucking nowhere.  A little concerned at this point, I walked up to two tram guards by the ticket booth, and with me in English+Russian (Англусский) and them in Turkish+Russian (Trukish?), I asked them where the train to the airport was.  I may or may not have mimed a plane taking off, to really make sure I got my point across.  They looked at each other with akin expressions of bafflement, then pointed at the tram I’d just jumped off.  “Hurry/быстро!!” they told me, helping me to jump the fence with my suitcase as they called out a station name, and I scrambled back aboard as the tram commenced its return journey.

Oh fuck.

So, there went my early start.  The guards had told me that it would take me around half an hour back to where I needed to catch the airport train (freaking Zeytinburnu), then twenty minutes by train (every ten minutes) to the terminal.  Which would put me there around twenty minutes after check-in had closed.  (If you’re doing the math here by the way, and can’t figure out why I was suddenly so late, you’ve not factored in LT: Laura Time).

After about five minutes of hyperventilating and wondering how much a last-minute flight to Sydney would set me back, I got on the phone.  Meanwhile, JFord, who’s not only my non-lesbian wife but also holds my power of attorney, was in the shower back in Australia.  She got out to see a couple of missed calls from me, and remarked to her flat-mate Clair that “oh, Laura must have missed her flight.”  She then called me back.  How ridiculous in a way: she was in her nice, air-conditioned apartment in Canberra, while I was standing on the cramped and crowded tram in the middle of Turkey, with everybody staring at me as the obvious foreigner.

“JFord!” I said.  “Fuck!!”

“Did you miss it yet?” she asked.

“No, but check-in’s about to close: could you log on as me and check me in?  Or maybe call them?!”

We hang up, and Jess is freaking miraculous: she’s got one hand on her laptop, trying to check me in, and she has her phone in the other, calling her aunt who works for Emirates to see if I can get onto a stand-by flight or something.  This is why.  The last time I’d called her from a foreign country needing a flight, I was in Queenstown (NZ) and in complete hysterics: and she got me out in under 24 hours for less than $200, while I spent the time snowboarding and partying.  Yup.  Haha she has sheets with all of my credit cards, IDs and flight reward programs written down.  She’s the absolute fucking best!

Anyway, enough faux-lesbian love, and back to Istanbul.  I get back to Zeytinburnu, triple-confirm that this is the right stop, and jump on out.  I don’t think I had any Turkish lira left, so I had to improvise my way through the gates and onto the train: something I accomplished just as the doors clicked closed.

Arriving at Atatürk airport, I started running.  With, yes, 45kg of stuff.  Incidentally, I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast in my life as in the next few paragraphs: but I figured I’d never been paid $2k to run anywhere before (which is what I was figuring a new last-minute flight would set me back): so call me motivated.  Of course, it was then a little awkward when I came to the slowest escalator in the world: I had to stand there patiently with my Epic amounts of stuff, while people who’d seen me running passed me on the stairs, bemused.  Then to the top, and more running.  I reached security, ran straight to the front of the line, and started stripping—because was I practically dressed?  No.  No, I was not.  So it was coat off, belt off, boots off, things out of pocket, laptop out of bag, be scanned, get re-dressed, stuff my jigsaw-puzzle of a day-pack together, and start running again.  To another freaking security check.  Coat off, belt off, hopping around as I pull my laptop out of my bag and undo my boots at the same time, scan, repack, run.  Except now I didn’t know where I was running to: where the hell was departures?  (Then I wondered if thinking ‘where the hell’ was really advisable, when Allah was apparently already against me).

“Girl!” yelled a security guard, who’d obviously seen the kerfuffle that is me alternately running and stripping.  “Go!” and he waved toward an elevator.  “Thanks!” I called back, and ran for it.  I decided that rather than slow down in time (quite the feat with the momentum my suitcase had), I’d just smack into the wall: exactly what I did.  Happily, I managed to get the elevator button before bouncing off.  I was way too high on adrenalin at this point and was jumping on the spot as I waited for the elevator: then I was inside.  Cue soothing elevator music.

Finally, the departures hall, and more running.  Haha everybody in the world must have heard me running along in my boots, and I swear that staff at every check-in counter looked up at me anxiously, wondering if it was them I was heading for.  At last I saw the sign for Etihad, and skidded as I made an about-turn.

The gate was closed.

But do I take no for an answer?!  No.  So I ducked under the guides and walked up to a clerk who was still at her desk.  “I’d like to check in,” I said calmly, trying to pretend like I hadn’t just run a few kilometres.

The lady just looked at me.  Long pause.  Pursed lips.  “Passport, please,” she said.  Boo freaking yah.  Haha and not only did she let me check in, but she didn’t even charge me for excess baggage!  Love it.

And that is how I do airports.

(Btw, the ‘featured image’ from this post is one of several a group of Asian kids sent me: I’m in hundreds of vaguely uncomfortable photos with strangers from all over the world who’ve asked to pose with me, and sometimes they forward them.)

Next, it was back to Australia for a few months to earn some cashish before starting my next adventure, in ze motherland.