A Travellerspoint blog

Good Riddance, Bulgaria.

We've Come Undone...

If anyone invites you on a trip to Bulgaria, say no. Say no and run away fast. You'd probably have a better time biting your own hand off for a week.

Before you all label me irrational and judgmental (which let's be honest, you already have) allow me to relate some circumstances. Just a sad tale of two sisters with a dream. A dream of seeing the world. Of heading out with nothing but the clothes on our backs, 30 pounds of crap and this dream. Of being bathed in the warm embrace of the world and her children. Of being wrapped in the bosom of mother earth. I quote Henry Mancini- "Two drifters off to see the world/ there's such a lot of world to see..."

Are you getting all this?

Your two hopeful dreams crossed the border into Bulgaria one chilly spring night. And got eaten for dinner.

Alison, face aglow with displeasure:

Alright, not eaten for dinner. Having been to India, my standards for getting my ass handed to me by a particular nation are a bit left of center. But I will tell you, after a week of giving it the old college, try, we crossed into Serbia this morning, raised our fists to Bulgaria, cursed the land, their people and stomped on our Bulgaria Lonely Planet pages.

And what happened in this short week that poisoned us to this seemingly harmless place?

Well for starters...

Cyrillic is not the easiest language out there. We can't read a damn word of it and there's no English to be had. So we landed ourselves back in the world of intensive pantomime, stick figure drawings and Alison's bootleg Czech. None of which was appreciated. An entire nation without a sense of humor...

Now, if it were this alone, I would forgive. Been in many a place where I can't speak/read/write the language and I certainly don't expect everyone to learn English for my convenience. Or laugh with me as I try to learn their mother tongue. But...

We were also forced to bribe some jackass tram inspectors. Now being a briber, you'd think there'd be no objection. We like bribes. We understand bribes. We expected to pay them. But not to a ticket inspector with a mullet who looked at our perfectly legal and stamped tickets and decided to worm some money out of foreigners anyway. He insisted that we stamped them on the "wrong side" hauled us off the train, surrounded us with two of his buddies all of whom were yelling "money! pay! police! jail! passport!" at us. There were also several strange handcuff motions that could be interpreted as either "your American ass will be smarting in jail if you don't pay our $15 fine" or "I'm crazy about S and M, how about you?"

That's pretty much where the wheels came off the wagon. My sister, having spent a year in India and therefore determined to be nobody's fool, started screaming back at them about corruption and in clear, concise, if vehement English, declared them all to be bad people. Dreaming of an overnight in a Bulgarian jail did not sit well with me, however, and I hissed at her to pay the money, much to her chagrin.

In the end, we paid, made a series of rude gestures and left. We choose to think of this as a bribe instead of plain extortion and targeting of foreigners. It's how we sleep at night. Again, not the Maoist rebels, but what can you do.

Finally...and perhaps finally, as this part is rather catty and I'm secretly hoping you get bored and move onto youtube before you realize just how shallow and obnoxious we really are...there's Bulgarian fashion.

Imagine Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman. Pre-classy makeover. Now join it with what was in style just before the Berlin Wall fell.

That's pretty much what we're looking at.

Hair is crimped. (Do they still sell crimpers?)
Boots of red pleather or sparkling gold.
Men wearing vests...with nothing underneath.

It's pretty shocking. Two pictures to illustrate:

Display window in fancy Bulgarian department store:

Two young, attractive women walking down the street:
That's right. One is a lime green jumpsuit. The other is wearing capris, navy blue tights and black strappy shoes.

Couple this with some terrible maps, a ridiculous dearth of internet, consistently mediocre meals and the rain...can you blame us?

Okay. After 8 months in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, I'm not the easiest to impress anymore. And given this fact, I will admit it's quite pretty here. Nice mountains. Very green. I quote the great Wesley- "Not saying I'd like to build a summer home here, but the trees are actually quite lovely."

Another interesting and positive fact about Bulgaria: allies with Germany during WWII in hope of annexing Macedonia. However, when the Nazi's informed the Bulgarian King and Orthodox Church leadership about the Final Solution and asked for full cooperation, Bulgaria said "Ne," saving up to 50,000 lives. Impressive, no? Well done, Bulgaria.

See? Spirit of generosity. Being a big person. Staying positive, looking for the good.

(But good riddance, I say.)

p.s. Serbia is 4 lovers.
No. Really.

Posted by lbassi 05:31 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (3)

Ode to village life

A day in the life of a conspicuous foreigner in the middle of nowhere south India

It's 5 am, the sun is not up, but half of Tiruchuli is. Lights are on, tea stalls are open, and women everywhere are sweeping. I am nestled in my bed with a pillow over my head, cursing an invisible holy man as his whiny call to prayer pours into my room from the all too closely situated loud speakers (what village would really be complete without a PA system?) What makes the cacophonous sound of what is quite possibly the oldest most vocally inept Muslim prayer caller of all time all the more pleasant is the harmony provided by the village's ample dog population who join in with their howls.
Village loudspeakers:

And so my day begins. Luckily, after three months of this, my body has learned to go back to sleep when it's over, and sleep I do, until the affects of the morning power cuts set in. With India heating up like a furnace, electricity is patchy and my poor weak western body withers and drips through those restless morning hours when my fan is not running. By 7 I've had enough, I get up and begin the arduous process of making myself look presentable to India.

With layers of baby powder and jewelry in place, hair sufficiently shellacked with coconut oil and neatly plaited, I take a few moments of silence to remember the glory that was once my travel wardrobe. Oh grubby t-shirts and ripped pants of my past, how I mourn for you. Despite their dangerous lure, I do not give in; instead I turn off the fan, shut the shutters, and begin the layering, folding, pleating, turning and pinning of my sari in place. A process which I can now complete in 7 minutes flat -- I realize that this is not impressive to those of you who have never tried it, but I assure you, it is a marvelous feat of dexterity, patience, and determination, and a talent worthy of global envy.

Looking at last like a proper Indian girl, I tread out into the world and around the corner to Manjula's house where she cooks me yummy breakfast and makes me coffee and chats with me until it's time for us to go to work. Most of my days are spent creating the new volunteer program, designing manuals, responding to email inquiries, reading applications, designing project plans etc. On any given day I may attend a women's self-help group training session, take part in an NGO network organic cotton planning session, or be taken to an event where having a white person in the press photos will be advantageous for whomever is involved.

Me speaking in front of a member of parliament and 7,500 women at International Women's Day (yikes!):

Because Indian work days are incredibly long and power cuts are frequent, plenty of time throughout the day is dedicated to innumerable coffee/chai breaks, fruit breaks, paper reading, chatting, napping, errands and general staring into space. In the mid afternoon everyone heads home for lunch and then takes a couple hours of rest to let the soporific effects of the rice set in. It's too hot to focus anyway. I admit, it was hard for my overly efficient western mindset to get into this groove, but now that I'm accustomed to it, I can see the benefits of combining work and leisure. There’s something about the the head bobbliness of it all (a reference those of you who’ve been to India can surely appreciate, for those that haven’t, come to India so you can appreciate it!) that makes work seem a lot less like, well, work.

Office staff at work:

In the late afternoons, I head back to the office. A few days a week I teach a staff spoken English class which is always fun as the staff English levels vary wildly and much enjoyment is gained in making fun of ones friends and co-workers. Occasionally I’ll pick up a tutoring session for the boys class that meets at our office in the evening as well. It is on my way home from these classes that I face what is perhaps my most critical decision of the day. If I have any hope of reaching my destination in a timely manner, I must choose (of the three streets in town) my path very very carefully, for there is a mob in the wait.


Admittedly, it is a mob of overwhelmingly cute children, but it is still a mob. In America we have public campaigns to teach our children to be afraid of strangers. In Tiruchuli they take a different tactic -- teaching them to surround strangers in huge groups, demanding to know their name, their mother's name, their native village, and anything else they can half form a question about in English. On any given day, I shake approximately 8 million children’s hands and wave to innumerable others who call out from windows, doorways, alleys, schools, and cars in earnest -- "Auntie! Auntie! Auntie!". Of course, no matter how long it takes me to get through the crowd or how many dirty little hands I shake, it's impossible to stay annoyed for more than a few seconds because here in Tiruchuli, even the naughtiest of children, still manages to be the cutest kid on the planet.


And so my day comes to a close. I climb the steps to my top floor room, pause at the top to take in the ridiculous beauty of the night’s sky unadulterated by lights, and sneak into my room to change into what has become, hands down, my favorite Indian trend – the “nighty.” This all covering, loose fitting, gift from God is worn my women young and old at all times they're not in the restrictive, heavy and undeniably beautiful sari. If you had asked me a few years ago if at 25 I'd be crouched down on a concrete floor in 110 degree weather, wearing a moo moo, happily washing my clothes by hand in a bucket while listening to the jarring sounds of tamil pop music or the local wandering drum group blaring through my windows, I'd have thought you were crazy. And yet here I am …

Posted by Ivory 00:45 Archived in India Comments (7)

Strongly Worded Letter Addendum

From disgruntled bribers...

To: Foreign women who chose to spend their vacations in countries with predominately Muslim populations.
From: Bribers near and far.
Re: Have you fallen? Have you fallen on your head? Have you fallen and hit your head on something hard?


Nice to see you. Thanks for coming out to Morocco, Jordan, Egypt. Glad you're stretching your legs, getting out of your cubicles.

Enough with the pleasantries. Allow me to ask- what the hell is wrong with you? You get that you chose to come here. To this place. This place with a ginormous Muslim population? You could have stayed at home and worn whatever the hell you like, regardless of whether or not its flattering. You want to refuse to wear long pants? Strut around in t-shirts? Leave your head uncovered?

Fine. Fine. I think it's obnoxious, but I'm moving on.

But walking around in halter tops, mini skirts, athletic shorts, cleavage bearing tank tops? Really? Have you fallen on your heads?

It's not just that it's disrespectful, though clearly, it is. It's the fact that this perception of Western women as a relatively easy specimen doesn't exactly get put to rest when you do this. And who pays? This kid. Walking around with a covered head and long pants and long sleeves even though it's 75 degrees out. This kid still gets leered, grabbed, hissed and propositioned.

Put on some clothes. I beg of you.

Disgruntled in Cairo,
Canadian Bribers

To: Egyptian Men, young and old, far and wide.
From: Bribers, near and far.
Re: Hissing.


Really? You're hissing at me? Has this yielded results in the past?

Baffled in Giza,
Canadian Bribers

That's pretty much all the news from here.

Except that we saw this yesterday:


Yea. Amazing. Strangely located in the middle of a suburb, that's how much urban sprawl has taken place in Cairo.

We also bribed.

And were Canadian.

Okay...so we bribed to get an non-tourist vehicle into Giza.

And we were Canadian so as to avoid extra security following us everywhere.

Not exactly meeting Maosit rebels in the mountains.

But still.

Bribing Canadians.

Posted by lbassi 09:54 Archived in Egypt Comments (1)

Greetings From the Holy Land

Station 6: Jesus stops to purchase a "my parents went to Israel and all I got was this lousy t-shirt" and other assorted parapehalia.

But Lauren!

Where is Morocco? Two whole weeks there and not even a hint? A whisper. Sorry friends. Alison was supposed to blog about it. But her schedule is crammed with her sudoku obsession and new found friend, "Parasite Pete." She's swamped.

(She's really not swamped. Everytime someone brings up the blog, she get's all "I don't wannnnnna blog, I don't knooooooow what to say, I'm perfectly haaaaaaappy just traveling and not publishing my thoughts for the whoooooole wooooooorld to see!"

Clearly she's exaggerating. I keep telling her that Paying the Bribe's loyal readers really consist of my mom. And Sarah's mom.

Hi mom.

Hi Kim.)

Suffice it to say, we loved Morocco. We wandered through many a market, enjoyed mint tea, fended off snake charmers and quoted Casablanca as often as possible. Even ate at a recreation of Rick's Cafe...of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world...

My poor father actually turned down an offer to marry us off for camels, rugs and a lovely home in the old city of Fez. Undoubtedly, he already regrets it.

At any rate, it was relaxing, enjoyable and surprisingly easy to travel through. Though perhaps we're just warped. Compared to India, everywhere seems easy...

We're now coming to the end of our two weeks in Israel. It's really difficult to be ambivalent about this place once you're seen it.

We were alarmed at first. There's something about seeing 18 year olds with ipods, cell phones, acne and hair scrunchies carrying M60s slung across their back. You find yourself thinking..."someone did teach them how to put the safety on that thing, no?"

But the constant tension I expected to feel, the nervousness and fear and hatred is difficult to perceive...at least at first glance. Granted if we had traveled through the West Bank or Gaza, our experience would be decidedly different.

At Nazareth...

But what we came away with is an impression of this tiny place, one that you could drive the distance of in half a day...with more than half of it seemingly unusable, dessert. All of it crammed with people that want a piece of it. The huge number of Christian pilgrims that tromp around the old city of Jerusalem wearing a caps that say "Praise the Lord." The four different sects of Christianity that share the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, with Orthodox priests scurrying around Catholic monks, an uneasy peace among them. The stations of the cross mixed in among the huge market in the Arab quarter, prompting Jamie and Benjamin's classic line, "Station 6: Jesus stops off for a pack of smokes and a scratch card." The Wailing Wall positioned right next to the Dome of the Rock, the Armenian quarter running smack into the Jewish quarter.

Ali at some random station...

Station 7...maybe.

The old city...and a large parking lot, apparently...

But most of all...I've been struck by how functional it is. The images you get when you think of Israel, I expected to see at least 3 explosions, a little rock throwing or at the very least some very pissed off graffiti. And yet somehow...after a few days, those images are gone. And it's hard to imagine you ever had them. And you fall in alongside everyone else who is getting up every day and living their life in this tiny strip of land, despite the dangers and frustrations and injustices.

At the suprisingly peaceful Lebanon border...

Waxing poetic now.

Sarah will flog me for treading on her sacred ground. Apologies.

Stay tuned for the good word from Egypt...

Posted by lbassi 09:15 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

Holy Western Civilization, Batman.

Are we in Kansas anymore?

Before I begin, please note:

My charming, talented and altogether extraordinary sibling has been added as a contributor to your friendly neighborhood travel blog. In short, before your very eyes...a briber has been born. And what a briber she is. Travel savvy like its her job, harboring aspirations of writing professionally...and yet, 3 weeks in Cambodia come and go...

And what whisperings are sent our way from Southeast Asia? Nothing. Nada. Ninette. Nien. Not a single, solitary word.

Personally, it hurts. Is she creatively blocked? Strapped for time? Or are we not even a blip on her radar as she navigates through the difficult passages of Ankor?

Not a beg, but a plea...loyal readers, please help her to break the silence. Full court pressure. All hands on deck. Any other sports metaphor/idiom you´ve got. Bring the pain (read: email).

In other news...after a 5 month absence, I´ve returned to Western Civilization!

Musee D'Orsay and other Paris Delights...

Crystal and I at Sacre Coeur...

I spent my first few hours wandering around London Heathrow, relishing in forgotten pleasures, such as Starbucks and trashy tabloids. And Western toilets. And fixed prices. And understanding the announcements on the overhead. The sheer idea of having a complete mastery of what is happening around you. Of being able to ask someone a question, understand the answer and feel comfortable about the meaning of the body language and the encounter in general.

Ridiculous. Where is the fun in that?

In the spirit of such ridiculousness, I give you Paying the Bribe´s first official Top 5 list:

Go West, Young Woman: Putting the shock in Culture Shock...

5. Personal space! Who gives personal space? What do you mean you want me to form a queue? I get waited on by shoving my way up and throwing my money at someone, not by waiting in some archaic line...
4. Everything is clean. And attractive. The bathrooms are attractive. The seating in the airport is attractive. The display of mixed fruit and nuts in the gift shop is lovely. The garbage cans are frankly getting me a little hot and bothered.
3. I ordered a salad that cost approximately $14.00. I could get a 4 course meal in India for that much. I think I just had a small coronary.
2. I blend in. Really. I blend in. People don´t point at me when I walk by. My pants aren´t a major topic of conversation. People aren´t asking to have their picture taken with me...(Not kidding. Mantles all over India have headings like ¨me with random white girl in Amritsar...¨) Complete anonymity. How odd.

And finally...

1. For lack of a more eloquent way to phrase it...dear god, to we produce a lot of shit in the western world.

Please note...this list was compiled within my first few hours in Heathrow. Three weeks later, after covering France and Spain...I feel a little differently. I´m no longer impressed by the politeness of Western man...I´d rather have someone reach out and grab you than have to fend off French waiters with pedophilic tendencies who only seem interested in you because you are legal while still looking about twelve...

I continue to be overwhelmed by the stuff. By the expense. By the self-righteousness and ethnocentrism.

And yet...

Today I shall drink regular water without guilt and run my tooth brush under the sink.

Ahhh...sweet decadence of life.

At last, I´ve found you.

Stay tuned for the Highland Park Hillbillies in North Africa...

Posted by lbassi 09:31 Archived in Spain Comments (1)

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