“Why leave behind the seat in your own home to wander in vain through the dusty realms of other lands? If you make one misstep, you stumble past what is directly in front of you.”
The above quote from Dogen’s Fukanzazengi so accurately depicts my feelings as we traveled through Bulgaria with our friends Brett and Christie. Dogen, of course, is referring to the fact that the wonder of the present moment is available to us no matter where we are and that it can be folly to think that happiness lies in traveling to new lands. Yet we recognize that travel is a wonderful way to challenge engrained habits and finding living ways to connect to the present. Still, Dogen’s words echoed through my head as we returned to Bulgaria to show its beauty to our friends. We visited some sites we have seen before and some that we haven’t, but each site brought more wonder and awe than most we have seen around the world. My appreciation of the wonders of my home grows with each step I take through it.
Turandot at the ruins
Our first stop was Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. We have been there many times before, but through travelers' eyes the city and its ruins appeared even more beautiful and majestic than before. As we waited for our friends’ bus to arrive, we happened to stumble upon a free opera presentation of Turandot right in the heart of the ruins of the old city of Tzarevetz. The ringing voice of the singer portraying Prince Altoum was mesmerizing as it carried through the ruins of the ancient city, bringing a life to the place that has been absent for centuries. This was one of the top experiences of our travels!
Views of Tzarevetz from the tower
We explored the new city of Veliko Tarnovo and the old ruins with Brett and Christie the next day as we began to introduce them to traditional Bulgarian foods and drinks. As vegetarians, they were thankful to discover the fresh vegetable salads that crowd the menus here. They also loved Bulgarian tarator, a cold summer soup of yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, dill, and walnuts. We took a short trip up one of the hills to visit the small village of Arbanasi, where many 18th century homes have been preserved and some serve as museums. To see pictures of this leg of the trip, click here.
Our next stop was Stara Zagora, where I have spent the majority of my life. My mom prepared delicious vegetarian versions of Bulgarian dishes and we shared our gardens’ veggies and fruits with our guests. We took them to see the famous Shipka Monument, dedicated to those who died in the Liberation of Bulgaria at Shipka pass. Shipka is sort of like the Bulgarian “300”, where 7,500 Bulgarian and Russian soldiers defended the pass against nearly 40,000 Turkish soldiers during a grueling winter campaign. The views from the top uncovered rolling hills of limitless mountains and peaks. (Pics for Shipka here). We could also see Buzludja perched atop its mountain, our next stop of the roadtrip. This ruined Communist monument was fascinating and deserved its own blog post; you can read about it in our previous post.
Of course any trip to Stara Zagora with the Fields’ isn’t complete without the mandatory tour of the Zagorka brewery and the ensuring hilarity. Even though the brewery was bought by Heineken back in the 90s, it is still the area’s beloved local beer, and the brewery remains the only place you can taste their fresh 6.4% probiotic packed live beer at the end of the tour. As sometimes happens with Bulgarian hospitality, the 30 min tasting session turned into 1.5 hours and many smiles as it did when our friend Ryan came to visit last November. Check out the rest of the pics here.
With dad driving our caravan, we set off to the south western part of the country where the smallest town in Bulgaria lies - Melnik. Most of the town’s buildings are preserved cultural monuments indicative of the life of the people here a couple of hundred years back.
The beautiful sand formations
According to archeological evidence, the Thracian tribe Medi first settled this area and interestingly enough, Spartacus belongs to this tribe! The city is surrounded by unusual and unique sand formations called the Sand Pyramids. As we hiked up the pyramids in the early morning, we were awed by the glowing rocks and delighted by the panoramic views of this part of the country. We ended our hike at the Rozhen Monastery, the biggest monastery in the Pirin Mountains. Melnik also offered a variety of wonderful foods, including the tasty Greek fish Tzipura (Sea Bream) and unique wines from the region. Christie arranged for us to visit a winery, Villa Melnik, which turned into an afternoon of hospitality and generosity by the owner, Nikola and his vintner Didier Mailhe. While his new larger wine making facility was not fully completed yet, Nikola still graciously took us on a tour of the building and showed us every detail of how the wine will be produced here. He also took us out in the vineyard, where he plucked handfuls of different varietals and let us try them all! He then invited us into his home, but not before taking us to visit a local rakia distillery, where Brett & Christy could see this authentic Bulgarian spirit being made under the hot Melnik sun! Back at Nikola’s home, Didier led the tasting as bottle after bottle of Villa Melnik’s best were uncorked. Each bottle was more delicious than the next and most had won medals at the International Winery Exhibition in Plovdiv. One of our favorites was the spicy and bold Melnik 55, a red made with the local grape of the region. Thank you Villa Melnik for such a memorable experience!! Pics from Melnik are here.
En route to our next destination, we stopped to see the famous Baba Vanga monastery, where we chillaxed, slacklined, and enjoyed the peaceful space she had created. We also took a hike in the Pirin mountains and visited its largest waterfall. Pics of this day trip are here.
The crew with fish lake in the background
Our next big adventure lay in the Rila Mountains, home to the infamous Seven Rila Lakes. We took a lift up to these high altitude lakes, which were formed by melting glaciers many years ago. Each lake is named after its main characteristic such as the Tear for its clear waters, the Eye and Kidney for their shape, the Twin, the Trefoil, the Fish, and the Lower lake in order of their location and height. Even from the lift it is another 3 hour hike up to the highest peak, which rewarded us with an inspiring view of the Rila Mountains surrounding these mystical lakes. The crystal clear waters of the lakes serenely reflect the surrounding peaks and imbue peace to the observer. Some believe they represent the Seven Chakras from the yogic traditions and it is easy to understand why as the 7 lakes are all connected by the “spine” of flowing waterfalls. There is even a religious sect called the Dunovisti, that spend the whole month of August performing ecstatic dancing in a series of concentric circles close to the lakes as they commune with God and nature. This amazing natural phenomenon is one of the most beautiful we have seen from anywhere in the world. I couldn’t help but smile as I recalled Dogen and wonders that lie “in the seat” of my own home. See all the beautiful shots of the Rila Lakes here.
For our last evening, we arranged to spend the night at the Rila Monastery, one of the most visited and beautiful monasteries in Bulgaria. We enjoyed our bottles of Villa Melnik wine and fresh trout from the Rila River for our last dinner with Brett and Christie. As the peaceful chatter of the river put us to sleep I heard one of my favorite ATB songs in my mind and realized that I couldn’t have dreamed a better trip through my homeland.
After 31 years and thousands of animals ingested, today was the first day I saw the meat I was going to eat slaughtered and cleaned right in front of me. In our attempt to avoid factory farmed meat, Neda’s Dad Petko found a local farm that sold goats and lambs (as well as the cheese and milk produced by them) and this morning we went off to buy a little goat. I asked if we could go early to witness the process of slaughter. It sounds like a morbid request, but let me explain.
From the age of 18-23, I was a vegetarian. I had read about the terrible conditions that most animals endure while moving through the meat industry and decided I didn’t want to participate in that system. However, while in university I took a class on applied ethics related to our relationships with animals and one of the books we read was Blood Ties by Ted Kerasote. In the book, Kerasote discusses the sustenance hunting that he performs while living a simple life near the Grand Teton Mountains. For him, taking the life of an animal in order to live is an act of engagement with the cycle of nature. It is coming to terms with the fact that all of life is built upon death. The question for us as humans is how to find a way to participate in the cycle of nature responsibly. The book convinced me that it could be ethical to eat meat if the animal was raised in respectful conditions and if it was sustainable for the environment. However, it also left me with a commitment to see my meat killed (and if possible kill it myself) so I couldn’t turn away from the exact process of how this food gets onto my table.
The request to go early to see the goat's death probably seemed strange to Petko, who grew up in a farming village and saw animals killed for his dinner regularly. But for this suburbanite, it was an opportunity to fulfill a commitment I was never able to fulfill in America. So off we went to this little farm. As we approached, a horde of puppies, dogs, kittens, and chickens mobbed our car. It reminded me of SE Asia, where animals are simply everywhere. The farmhand took the little goat out of the pen and I saw him running around, looking for his mother and her milk. Then the farmer tied up the goat, brought him over to a concrete block, and cut this throat. He died almost immediately, but the sight of the blood and the convulsing body made me nauseous and made me want to cry at the same time. How had I never seen this? How have I never taken full responsibility for what I was doing when I eat meat? In our society the whole process is so sterilized – you can go into a restaurant and order a hamburger and have literally no connection to the cow from which the “burger” came. I recognize that for most of the meat I eat in the future, it is unavoidable that I will have no substantial relationship with it. But the goat helped me to really face the actual consequences of my actions. By seeing its death, I can be more respectful of the life that was taken for my benefit and more conscious of my place within the cycle. For this I give thanks.
As for our last post regarding my health, I am doing much better with some TLC from Nadia and Petko here in Bulgaria. Unfortunately, Neda came down with a high fever as well after returning from Vietnam (possibly Dengue as well) and has been recovering the past week, but she also seems to be out of the worst of it and on the road to recovery. Yesterday (24th of May) was a national celebration here of the creation of the Bulgarian Alphabet and written language by missionaries Cyril and Methodius in the 860s. Now, a 4 day weekend to continue recovering and think about next travels!
As we near the end of this year and the coming of another, many of us make resolutions for what we would like to improve upon the next time around. But it can be hard to make changes in our life when so many of our habit patterns are firmly rooted in years of repetition.
Last night the family and I watched Another Earth, an independent film that uses the backdrop of science fiction to provide a moving character drama about redemption and identity. There is a short (fictional) story that the main character tells that I thought really addressed this issue of changing our habits. Watch it below: (if you are a e-mail subscriber you must come to the main blog page to see the video)
My New Year's Resolution is to take the things I percieve as obstacles in my life and "fall in love with them" as the cosmonaut did. One of these obstacles is the anxiety I create about unknown situations. For instance, Neda and I are leaving for Thailand next week and we are both very excited about the trip. But even amidst the excitement, I have been stressing myself out trying to plan our itinerary and figure out all the logistics like appropriate visas, etc...
I know that planning is crucial to any trip, but I wish that I didn't cause myself that nervous pain in my stomach every time there is an issue I can't resolve ahead of time. Yet I also I know that to berate myself for my anxiety will actually just cause more anxiety. So like the cosmonaut in the film, I need to fall in love with this aspect of my personality so that there is room for it to change. Isn't it strange how just loving and accepting something can cause it to change when no amount of stern reprimands will do so?
I wish you all a Happy New Year! May your hindrances become your friends and your obstacles becoming your stepping stones. See you in Thailand!
As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness. ~Henry David Thoreau
This morning I woke up and learned how to make homemade yogurt from my father-in-law, Petko. After that, we mixed up the batter for some Palachinki (similar to a crepe, only with more egg) and went to work cooking up a delicious breakfast. The Palachinki are topped with honey (from bees Petko raised himself), hazelnuts (which are picked from Petko’s tree), and raspberries. After breakfast, we went on a hike up into the hills surrounding Stara Zagora with our neighbor, Albena. As we rose in elevation and left the well travel paths behind, we started encountering almond and walnut trees which had yet to be picked. We laughed and played as we helped each other pull branches down and “hunt” for the best picking on each tree. Neda had brought a bag with her and our little hike turned into an almond and walnut picking festival! What a wonderful day!
Living in Bulgaria now for a month, I have been fascinated by how utterly joyful simple, sustainable living can be. Neda & I have always admired simple living and have some friends (a shout out to Meiku & Kuryo!) who have made an art of it. But we were only partially effective at implementing the creed in America. Now, as the TV and computer go on less and less, and are replaced by more, well…wholesome activities, I see what Thoreau was talking about above. It isn’t expensive to live a simple life and it isn’t very complicated. Yet at some level, paring down our lives, even just a little bit, provides a psychological clarity about living that a busy life seems to obscure.
I’m not saying to live a lazy life, but to have a life uncluttered enough that you find the few things you do make time for you can do wholeheartedly. The question each of us must ask ourselves is what do we want those few things to be? The constant attitude of consumption and procurement in American society makes it hard to pare down your life to just a few things. Societal cues are prodding us to add more to our life all the time out of a fear that we won’t have enough if we stop. Of course, this addition is usually done through adding “things” to our lives instead of fulfilling experiences. But if we prod ahead for too long in this way, a hollow feeling develops that can lead to loneliness and isolation. At the point we realize this, we can drive even harder in our quest of addition, or we can realize that the quest of subtraction leads to all the opportunities and fulfillment we could ever want.
Check out some other fun pictures of our time here and the food we've been cooking below!
Yesterday started as a tough day for Neda & me. In world news, I read about the two year old Chinese girl Wang Yue, who walked into a Chinese street only to be hit by a careless driver. The driver paused after hitting her with the front wheel and then continued on, running her over with the back wheels. As Wang Yue lay bleeding on the street, 18 different people passed right by her without stopping to help. During that time, she was also hit by another car. Finally, a trash collector saw her and helped. After a week of hospitalization, Wang Yue died yesterday. You can see the story and the video of the incident by clicking here, though I warn you not to watch if you are sensitive to graphic violence. When I showed the video to Neda, she burst out crying at how horrible it was.
This story stirred up powerful feelings in us. How can human beings be so closed to the suffering of others that even a wounded two year old child lying right in front of them on the street stirs no response? How can 18 people not act, when even a simple phone call to the police would start the process of assistance? And in a more generalized sense, how can one not become cynical to human nature itself when we are capable of such callousness?
Fast forward a few hours as Neda and I are leaving to run some errands before meeting up downtown with her friend Petia for her birthday. We begin the long walk downtown and are discussing the Wang Yue incident when we pass over one of the city’s irrigation canals. As we cross the 15 foot deep canal, a plaintive, desperate cry reaches our ears. The squealing wail sounds almost like a child, but as we look down into the running current of the canal, a tiny grey kitten is looking pleadingly at us as it unsuccessful tries to scale the vertical concrete walls. She was shivering from the cold water and looked near the end of her efforts, but meowed with all her might as we made eye contact with her.
The Canal's High Fence
Just moments after talking about Wang Yue, here was another creature desperately needing to be noticed. Yet, the canal was surrounded by a high fence and it seemed impossible to get access to the kitten. There were no branches around either. Others saw us looking at her, but just passed by due to the seeming futility of the effort. Neda & I had only a few minutes before the store for our errands was closing, but we silently communicated with each other: this kitten will not suffer the same fate as Wang Yue if we had anything to say about it. We sent an intention to the universe for help. How could we rescue this seemingly doomed kitty?
The Perfect Cut
We desperately began to scour the area looking not only for a long enough branch, but also one wide enough for the kitten to climb. Then Neda went onto the other side of the canal and barely visible was the clue we needed. A branch that had been cleanly cut from its tree that was pointing directly down into the canal. With a little effort we hoisted it up. Despite the stares we received as we walked across the street with this massive branch, hope had started to blossom. And people began to notice the rescue effort in earnest. As I jimmied the branch through the fencing to try to get it into the canal, a passing woman stopped and called out to give me advice about a better entry point. Then an elderly woman heard the cries of the kitty and saw our effort and stopped to bear witness. A man who had just shopped for groceries also saw us and came over to help. And what do you know? The branch was the perfect length - Preaching down into the canal like a lifeline to the cat.
At first the baby was scared of the branch and fled down the canal. But by this time our motley rescue crew was unified in the effort - we all started cooing and calling to the baby to return. As we called to her, she tentatively emerged from the darkness, assessed the branch, and began to climb. She arrived at the top of the ledge but was unsure how to escape the fence. I was worried she was scared of me and backed away. But when she started moving the wrong way down the ledge, the man with the groceries knelt down and called her back. As she scurried along the ledge, nearly falling back into the canal, the man waited until she was within arm's reach and pulled her through the fence. Success!
But what now? We couldn't take in a kitten and there are no animal shelters in Bulgaria. Would we just leave the kitten to shiver in the cold? This is where the elderly woman did her part. She told Neda that the baby just needed the love of a grandma and took her up in her arms. The kitten began to purr immediately and rub herself against the grandma. Grandma said she’d take her home and nurse her back to health. The kitten was saved.
As a social worker, I have struggled with cynicism throughout my career. I have seen the misery that people can bring into their own lives and subsequently the lives of others. But I have found that cynicism is just a matter of paying attention to the wrong details in life. Life provides countless opportunities to notice examples of our interconnectedness with each other and of our urge to honor that interconnectedness through love. When we decided not to pass the baby kitten, we sent out an intention of love into the universe. And from that moment onward, everything that the kitten needed was provided. The perfectly cut branch, the man with the groceries, and the sweet grandma. And as we walked away from the scene with beaming smiles and hearts full of joy and hope, we realized that the universe had provided what we needed as well. It begs the question, did we save the kitten, or did the kitten save us?
As a teenager first learning about Hinduism, I remember reading about how the Hindu idea of God is split into a trinity between Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). At the time I recall being slightly averse to the idea of Shiva the destroyer. After all, aren't creation and the preservation of life superior to destruction? Looking back on my naiveté, I chuckle at my lack of understanding regarding the Hindu Trinity. Our weekend trip to Sofia this weekend gave yet another example of Shiva in action.
Rila monastery is one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural and architectural monuments. Founded around 950 AD by St. Ivan of Rila, the monastery has long been a refuge of Bulgarian literacy, language, and culture (it contains manuscripts dating back to the 11th century and has served as a center of education for some of the country's most prominent leaders). Nestled high in the mountainf of Rila, the monastery is still no stranger to Shiva’s dance. The middle of the 15th century brought the Ottoman Empire and along with it the destruction of most of the grounds. Rila was then rebuilt, only to be burned again in 1833. But its 3rd incarnation has proven to be an enduring one. Reconstructed between 1834 and 1862, Rila is considered a masterpiece of Bulgarian National Revival architecture - epitomizing the integration of a people and their eventual liberation from Turkish rule.
What lessons can we learn from Rila? For me, I think about my initial aversion to destruction and realize that with maturity sometimes comes the knowledge that to embrace destruction is to allow for crucial (though sometimes painful) growth in life. Just like a forest fire can clear out dead trees and stimulate germination, so must we sometimes burn away old habit patterns so that creativity and life can shine through. When I find myself feeling overly attached to keeping things in my life “the way they are supposed to be”, I try to remember the lessons of Shiva and of Rila. Sometimes the most beautiful and lasting changes in our lives come from knowing when to let some things burn so that others may flourish.
Seafood Risotto to die for!
Other than our visit to Rila, the weekend was filled with gustatory delights at the hands of our hosts Petya, Todor, Vili, and Stefano. Vili & Stefano treated us to a delicious seafood risotto & homemade ricotta & chocolate pie while Petya & Todor, in addition to driving us to Rila, also made us delicious fried Zargan (a black sea fish) and Tikvenik (a sweet pumpkin pastry). Add in Rakia and wine made in their families’ villages, wonderful soups and salads, and seared salmon, and you have Bulgarian hospitality at its best! Blagodaria to all of you!
Some more pics below, but to see them all click here!
The Chapel at Asenovgrad
Bulgaria is a country rich in history and situated amongst beautiful mountains and natural wonders. Our first excursion was in the Rhodope Mountains, which are located in the Southern part of the country, closer to the Greek border. Our first stop was the Fortress at Asenovgrad, which has existed since the Thracian times. Unfortunately, the only preserved part of the fortress is the church, which has been restored and is now functional. The vast mountaintops hover over the tiny church and offer a serene and peaceful atmosphere.
Next, an extremely narrow and windy road took us to the monastery at Krustova Gora. Krustova means ‘cross’ and gora means ‘forest,’ and these forests were named after a piece of the cross of which Jesus was hung that was hidden there during Turkish invasion. People drive for miles to come to this holy place to feel the energy of the cross (the relic is now displayed in the monastery church). This made me ponder the idea of faith and intention. Religious ideas aside, I have a strong faith in the connectedness of everything, living or not, that we encounter. And as I approached the tiny piece with doubt, I held my hand above it, and I felt its energy. I removed my hand and did it again to verify, and again, I felt the tingle in my arm, while Jeff described the experience as a movement of energy up his arm and into his heart.
Biophotons in human hand
These thoughts brought me back to an astonishing book, The Intention Experiment, which describes in detail the idea that even our intentions can have physical consequences in the world. One experiment that is still vivid in my mind is where a group of people in England were asked to observe a plant located in the United States through a special webcam. In short, the people were asked to send an intention to a leaf of the plant to make it glow. And by measuring the leaf’s biophoton emissions (a low light emission that all living things produce), they proved that while the people were focusing on the leaf it glowed brighter by a statistically significant amount! How amazing that we are at a point in science that we can measure the actual effect of our intentions! So getting back to the monastery and the piece of the cross. I don’t know if it was a real piece of Jesus’ cross or not, but regardless I think that the prayers that have been said over the cross during the past 2,000 years have saturated it with hope and love - and it CAN be felt.
We visited one more monastery, Bachkovo, where Patriarch Kiril (Cyril), is buried. This is the Patriarch of the Bulgarian Church that threatened to lay down on the train tracks that were deporting Bulgarian Jews during World War II. His intentions 50 years ago echo into the present as all 50,000 Jews living in Bulgaria were saved, 35,000 of which went on to help found Israel after the war.
Our final stop was at the Stone Mushrooms, which are these huge mushroom-like volcanic stone formations in the middle of rural Bulgaria. Their stems are a rose colored-hue from certain minerals and their tops are green and white. To take home with us from this packed day, we picked up Rhodope Mountain crystals as well as delicious mountain tea, mushrooms, and beans (we’ve already cooked with them)!
To see all the pics from this trip in Bulgaria, click here:
Serendipity, noun: when someone finds something that they weren't expecting to find.
During our stay in the Philadelphia region, we tried to catch up with family and friends we would not be seeing for a long time. Some of the friends we really wanted to see were Zach and Jocelyn (along with their newborn baby Liam). However, Hurricane Irene had different ideas for the weekend we had planned on seeing them and we were never able to connect.
Zach, Jocelyn, and Liam at Philly Airport
Fast-forward to September 26th as we pull up to the Philadelphia Airport’s International Terminal lugging our suitcases and backpacks for the trip across the pond. After a brief wait in line, we are busy shifting luggage around as we put our bags on the scale and pray we don’t get charged extra fees for overweight or oversize luggage (so much for ultra-light travel on this leg of the trip : ). There is a couple next to us with a crying baby and Neda thinks to herself “thank goodness we are not doing this trip with a baby - that would make it even harder!". But then, right after the first bag goes on the scale, the mother of the baby turns around and it’s none other than Jocelyn! The baby was Liam and there is Zach comforting him and getting him to settle down!
I am ambivalent about ideas of fate or destiny, but this one was just too much to wrap my head around. The only people we had wanted to see and missed while in Philly were standing right next to us as we got ready to head out of the country! They were leaving for a wedding in Belgium on a flight that left at the same exact time as our flight to Bulgaria! It was truly serendipity. And it got me thinking about the idea of finding something you weren’t expecting.
From the perspective of our Zen training, it seems life is always the most vibrant when you are expecting nothing from it. When we embody this state of "no-goal", it seems that life provides just what you need when you need it. Perhaps instances of serendipity are the subtle teachings of the universe telling us to expect less in order to receive more.
Stara Zagora & Bulgaria on the map - also visible are Greece, Turkey, Serbia, & Romania
We touched down in Bulgaria on Tuesday afternoon,jet-lagged and exhausted, yet thrilled to see Neda’s Dad Petko waiting for us at the airport. A 3 hour drive to Stara Zagora (see above) and we arrived at our destination for this part of the trip.
We’ll take the next few months for Jeff to immerse himself in the study of Bulgarian and for Neda to reconnect with the country of her origin. Along the way we are looking forward to spending time with Nadia (Neda’s Mom) and Petko and to traveling around Bulgaria to see friends and new sites. As we travel, we’ll work on looking at how our expectations can often blind us to what is right in front of us and attempt to strip away our projections of the future to fully embrace the present.