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Bulgaria

October 25

 Sorry, but the Roma (gypsies) are a problem! There are many poor in Romania and Bulgaria, particularly in the country. But they don't hassle everybody in sight and turn the outskirts of villages into rubbish dumps as the Roma do. More informed heads than ours would be able to explain the Roma phenomenon and the inherent challenges it brings to countries where they live.

 Bulgaria has far fewer Roma than Romania and although there is rural poverty that would astound most Australians, country people make the very best of what they have. Clean streets and an obvious pride in their culture characterise what we have seen of rural Bulgaria. In the cities the consumer revolution is in full swing. Despite warnings that Sofia was the pits, our usual several hours of roaming the city lost and looking for a camping ground have left an impression of potential similar to Hungary. 

As we approached the city this morning we were remarking on the unusually clear blue sky. While we have not seen a cloud for days we have only seen the sun through a grey/yellow haze. Then we came over a hill where the city came into view. The sight was ghastly. Below a crystal blue sky was a layer of pollution that reached 500 or 600 metres. Driving towards it had an almost apocalyptic feel. Stacks continued to pump more muck into the sky that seemed already saturated. Cars, trucks and buses around us belched clouds of black and grey smoke, adding to the foulness. A sight that we will never forget. This will be the real price of reconstruction in the East. It has already hit many provincial cities and towns as industries that are inefficient or are unable to meet EU standards are forced to close down as the countries of the old Soviet empire strive for EU membership, consequently littering the countryside with the decaying remains of past hopes. Unfinished freeway flyovers stand as evidence of rapid changes in local industrial focus. 

Finally we escaped the eye-stinging smog and headed for the Rila Monastery in the hills some 150 kms south of Sofia. Thirty kilometers out of town and into the mountains -- clean clear air! Beautiful Mediterranean like countryside. The Greek border is only 100 kms further on. 

 Bulgarian Traffic Police are everywhere on the roads, rubbing their hands together in glee waiting for unwary motorists who have failed to observe the 20km/hr sign specially placed. We were pulled over for the first time (by a real policeman) in the suburbs of Sofia. Having driven right through the city centre and done our usual unscheduled preview of the sights we were truly ’bushed’! The fact that we failed to signal when avoiding several oncoming vehicles on a road with five, six of seven lanes -  take your pick! - probably drew us to the attention of this officer of the 'lieur'. Before he could blurt out our offence we overwhelmed him with the dumb lost tourist act. We are getting very good at it! Probably driven to pity by our stupidity and inability to comprehend anything he said, he became very helpful and directed us on our way.

 The way to Rila was littered with police check points and when the signs say 30 kms per hour, that's just what they mean! A very slow trip, especially when it took us to 1194 m above sea level, but wonderful mountain scenery as we went.

 The monastery was very different to the western style. Touches of the East and the Orthodox were present as they are in the music on Bulgarian radio. An interesting mix of Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria? Thank God, the preponderance of US, UK and even Australian Pop has declined and there is some identity to the culture. Haven't seen a Pizza Hut for days. KFC isn't here. Even McDonalds are few and far between. 

Tonight in the suburbs of Sofia, Camping Vranya. Paul was checking in, when he was interrupted  by a young Bulgarian male who screeched to a halt in a new car with a blonde in the passenger seat. This bloke pushed in, telling Paul he was in a hurry, grabbed the key to a cabin and, by the time we chose our spot, he and his passenger were snug as bugs in rugs in one of the cabins here. A few cars have come and gone in the couple of hours we have been here. Wonder what is going on????

 We, too, have the keys to a cabin, for showering purposes. It is smelly, the toilet doesn't work, and the "bathroom" comprises the unworking toilet, a basin and the taps and shower hose - no such luxuries as a cubicle or even shower curtain, but the water is hot, so who can complain? We have become inured to the challenges of Eastern Europe. - You've got to love it. Just opened a bottle of  ANKbOP (some letters reversed!) ''Whisky Cream" a Baileys copy - very nice $AUS 2.00.

 October 26

 The Bulbank is located directly across the road from the Sheraton Sofia and the Presidential Palace - they seem to be the same building? On entering it seems not too different to any other bank in the world? The usual metal detectors, armed guards and spivvy characters in suits. But please don't be deceived. All is not as it seems.  

Banks are in business to take cash from some and dispense it to others. Right? Well in the case of the Bulbank this notion of core business seems to have got a bit lost.

 The imposing edifice of the United Bank of Bulgaria (Bulbank to its friends!) provides employment to many scores of souls who are blissfully unaware of the impending doom that the electronic era in banking will surely bring them.

 Armed with the knowledge of this sure consequence for one's tormentors it was easy to retain composure while seeking a simple cash advance in US$. The experienced travellers that we are we were alert to the need to first consult the information counter before selecting a Kasa (Cashier). Obligingly, we were directed to Kasa 2. Instantly suspicious and caught unawares by the co-operative nature of the information clerk we fronted Kasa 2 behind 4-5 other hopeful players.

 A roaming swarthy boy in a suit mumbled something to the unlucky souls behind us who had not consulted the information oracle. Smugness quickly evaporated as the young girl next to us translated the mumble for her boyfriend - in English. The Kasa operator was off to lunch in 5 minutes. On advice we all moved to the long, long Kasa 3 queue.

 Our new queue compatriots (Eastern Europeans are more used to queues than most of us!) were a Danish Archaeology student and his Bulgarian girlfriend. We filled in a pleasant 30-40 minutes chatting about the world in general and Bulgaria's part in the future of it?

 At last my turn... No cash advances at this Kasa... sorry (a nice touch) you have to go to Kasa 2!

 But there's a hole in the bucket dear Liza, dear Liza! ----

 Sofia is not half as bad as its press. Walking the streets is a real experience. Millionaires, (other than us) crooks, men with attitude and nothing much to do with it but strut it about, women with fine clothes and seemingly more purpose to their lives than their male counterparts fill the streets. People. People standing, people chatting, groups of men plotting with shady looks, looking important, looking threatening, looking macho, looking... but doing nothing much at all. Black leather, black T-shirts, heavy coats (in 23C?) - the ‘not shaved in two days’ look... This is the real Sofia. 

But standing back from all of this there is a hustle and bustle, excitement and a sense of something about to happen. A country at a turning point? The way forward has already been plotted by Poland, Hungary and the Czech/Slovak Republics. According to our friend from the Bulbank queue, the people want to go the same way as their more successful northern ex-Soviet satellite neighbours. The alternative is another Balkan disaster a la Yugoslavia.

 Brothels are becoming a bit of a specialty for us. Camping Vranya, our current digs, is what Eastern Europeans call 'NON-Stop'. An interesting coining of an English phrase which can mean all sorts of things going on at anytime you wish them to! From dawn to dawn cars arrive and leave the bungalows around us - except for 122 which is our allocated shower room. No one bothers us and we don't pry. But, you have got to see the rooms to believe them. We have photos! Adults only and only on application.

 As the sun sets on another perfect day (we kid you not - no rain in Sofia for 2 months!) we are less than 10 kms from the glorious People's Cultural Centre, Sofia. Late autumn warmth allows us to go about our chores, cleaning, washing...while watching everything and everybody!!! - in T-shirts and shorts.  Why didn’t we bring decent ones???? 

In the small forest like park on the city side of the camping grounds, occupants of the adjoining row after row after row of 8-10 storey Soviet style apartments walk their dogs, stroll and jog. Fish snap at the surface of the creek that flows through the relentless rubble of plastic bags and bottles that litter the gully. Finches flock through the trees picking the chill-slowed insects. Yellow leaves fall, adding to the already accumulated carpet . Fifty metres upstream, near the free-for-all that passes for an urban freeway, a shepherd urges a dozen or so dairy cattle into the park to graze. The goat herder moved his clutch off some ten minutes earlier. Yesterday we were held up at the lights on the 'freeway' while an old gent prodded his cow over the pedestrian crossing, past six lanes of traffic. Contrasts are amazing. BMWs and donkey carts. ATMs and street barter. Cardboard box-like homes on village outskirts and inner-city urban palaces.

 A 'reconstructed Eastern Europe' tourist rating for Sofia. Do it for the experience. Watch your wallet and don't bring your own car! For millionaires, don't invest just yet. There are a lot of unknowns here! Any country where our mates the truckies camp in guarded yards still has some problems! 

One more day of Bulgaria, the southern city of Plovdiv. Then on to Turkey.  

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