A Bulgarian tale of two cities

I watched the sun rise over the black sea standing over a grassy cliff that dropped 80 feet to the beach. As the birds flew in the distance a strong breeze blew against me bringing with it smells of the ocean as I ate my pastery from the day before. A calmness came over me as I witnessed the dark blues and purples of the sea fade into the reds and oranges of the morning sky while that giant ball of fire that gives everything life slowly rose out of the depths of the dark water and into the horizon, gracefully waking up the world. The faint sounds of the few cars driving on the road behind me rivaled the roar of the waves coming in to the beach below and the only other sound was that of the birds chirping. I had biked over 4,000 miles to be here and felt it had been worth it if not just to see the sun come up, yet again, in this spot.

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Sunny Beach, Bulgria. It was a name that screamed newly modernized beachtown. It was in our path along the coast of the black sea and to be honest Josh and I were looking forward to it. We had visions of cheap gyro stands cold beer and especially a chance to swim in the salt water. We arrived smelling as if we hadn’t showered in weeks. (And we hadn’t) Our hair was mangled, our clothes dirty and our bodies shirtless with salt on our skin from constantly sweating. We didn’t quite fit the mold of the beautiful people walking around this place. The girls smelled of fancy perfumes and wore tiny amounts of brightly colored clothing. The guys all seemed to have gym memberships and stock in hair gel. As we got deeper into this town on the beach the more it resembelled Gatlinburg, Tennessee with its carnival rides and shops. High rise hotels and suites popped up along the seaside casting their long shadows on the street. Loud cars reving their engines and passing dangerously as if to say, “Look how cool I am, aren’t I cool? Please somebody tell me I’m cool!” The air smelled like the food being cooked on the side of the road at every turn and there was music playing throughout the city in order to drown out your thoughts and focus on buying more stuff. (Or so I imagined) We had found a small outdoor bar with shade and green picnic benches to sit on so we drank a couple ‘big beers’ as they were called for about $0.75 each. All the while sipping our refreshing glass of beer and watching the consistant mold of beautiful humans walk in and out of our sight with bags of clothes, handfuls of food, and new shoes. My mind drifted off thinking about what this place must have been like before the tourist industry came in. Was it just beach and trees before the high rise hotels and carnival rides? Maybe instead of the sounds of car engines one might hear the sound of the waves crashing or the birds chirping.
We decided to leave after purchasing a bottle of wine and climb this mountain out of town. It felt good to be surrounded by trees again as we pounded up this mountain going around switchbacks in the woods sweating and being short of breath. One last hello/goodbye as I waved to the (what I’m assuming were) 3 hookers standing on the side of the road before we were isolated again in the trees. The cars spread out, the woods were thicker, and like a breath of fresh air we rode downhill in search of our next campsite.
The Beach

With our food bags fully packed with two inexpensive gyros each from a local “fast food” joint in this small beach town in Bulgaria, we headed north. North away from the beach at which we had spent time and money but not before filling up our water bottles. As the water poured from the local statue fountain made of stone into our plastic water bottles a group of men with a rainbow colored van saw our bikes. “Biking around the world? Cool.” One man said. He continued asking the typical questions before finally inviting us to stay with them at the beach 3 km down the road. “Its hard to find, but if you follow the dirt road downhill through the grape vines, you should find it.” They were gone after that, piling the supplies and water they had gotten from town into their already overcrowded van.
It might be fun, i said to Josh.
With very little talk on the subject and a lack of other options we decided we would at least check it out and if it wasn’t our thing at least we’d be in isolation enough to find an adequate place to camp. We biked downhill on our road made of dirt, passed grape vines and angled fields toward the black sea. After a few kilometers I wondered if this was the right thing to do considering we had to bike (or possibly walk) back up this steep dirt road in the morning. Before we knew it, we had arrived to the sea which was crashing onto a sandy beach. The first thing we had noticed was a young man with a bun in his hair fully nude pulling a sled of logs with his equally nude friend covered in mud from head to foot.
“Well… we biked down here…we might as well see what’s up” I said, and we pushed our bikes onto the sand. We could see down the entire beach and noticed that it was covered in small homemmade huts and tents. There were friendly people waving and welcoming us with a smile the whole length of the beach and most of them were nude. This continued as we pushed our bikes through the unforgiving sand in the heat of the day until in the distance a young bearded man with his arms spread out started walking towards us. “You made it!!” He said as he approached. “Its about time!”
Do you know this guy? I asked Josh. Neither of us knew him but he still acted as though wed known eachother for years. He was a young man about 25 with dark brown hair and a trimmed beard. He wasn’t wearing shoes but in our favor he was wearing a pair of shorts.
“Come! I’ll show you where you can camp!” He said as he took my bike from me and pushed it along the sand. When I tried to help he’d sternly say no, and remind me that he chose this and wanted to help. Our new friend had a happiness that couldn’t be bent. He was very happy to meet us and happy that we had come to this beach. He was happy to introduce us to his friends and happy to tell us about where we were. He introduced himself as christo. We were falling in love with this place with its pristine location, beautiful wooded trails and Sandy beach. The people that occupied this place were among the friendliest people I’d ever met. Somehow these people had a great thing here and were able to keep it going. We approached the spot where we were to camp and set up on a few pine needles on the forest just above the beach looking out at the ocean. It was quiet in there. “I like this spot because in the morning a nice breeze comes from the ocean” he said. That night we drank wine and played music with new friends around the fire. We all ate some stew that one of our new friends made on the fire. There was a real feeling of love in this place.
This beach, however, is doomed. Within 6-8 months this place will be no more unless something is done about it. The forest will be bulldozed, the families kicked out, and the love destroyed all for the rights to build more highrises and bring in the tourists. This beach, the last remaining beach of its kind in bulgaria, will be a memory. It will no longer be the happy, free, loving place that I and so few others have been able to enjoy. Our beach would turn from a place where there’s not an ounce of trash left anywhere near it to a place where garbage is everywhere. A place where you can watch the stars at night while the sound of the ocean waves crash and the gentle breeze keeps you company to the sound of carnival rides and neon lights constricting your view of the night sky. The wooded trails smelling of pine with little pockets of tents set up around a small cooking fire would soon become a road pulling thousands to the new ‘hilton by the sea’.
Before we left our beach the next morning Christo gave us a hug and begged us, “tell people about this place so that they know. Tell them so that we don’t turn into another Sunny Beach.”

Moving along

          I cringe as the Ukrainian border officer opens my last bag, my food bag. The only thing inside is a mason jar of oregano given to us by a hospitable greek cafe owner. I mentioned earlier throwing it out before crossing these borders but now here I am attempting to look as innocent as possible as his gloved hand removes the jar from my greasy pannier.

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Not weed.

He did not speak much English, but when he held it up into the sun I could understand what he was instantly accusing me of. Today is Jason’s 30th birthday, he is not wearing a shirt and has a large smile on his face. The few men waiting to cross behind us are silent and seem excited to see what happens next. I motion for the guard to smell it and stutter “it’s for cooking” and I think I pretended to shake it into an invisible dish of pasta. He opens the jar, smells it and fingers around inside. Jason tells one of the other guards it is for pizza.

 

“You make pizza on these bikes, I do not think so!”

 

The jar is thoroughly sniffed by the rest of the authorities including the bored looking soldier with the kalashnikov. They decide it is not weed and tell me I can put everything back together on my bike. Now it is Jason’s turn, he removes his panniers and we watch as the man with the gloves hands his way through every inch of his possessions. At one point the man opens Jason’s ukulele case, passes him the uke and says, “now play.” Jason is nervously strumming the out of tune instrument while the man continues to empty his bags, it seems there are now more onlookers.

 

“Happy birthday.” I say to Jason.

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Puppies

It has been over a month since we decided to divert from our route through Turkey and head north for Ukraine. We traveled through central Greece and rode over the mountains at Meteora. Here we explored the monasteries which blossom from the tops of the sandstone pillars. These structures look impossible, but here they sit having survived centuries of sieges and even shelling from the nazis in WW2. We sat outside and made sandwiches because we lacked “appropriate” clothing to enter the still active churches.

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The Greek border guard studied our passports carefully. We had one day to spare before we had officially worn out our welcome in the EU. I suppose we were lucky because neither of us had bothered to count the days. No problems on the Bulgarian side but the Greeks had warned us that in Bulgaria and Romania we would certainly be robbed by gypsies. People often ask us, “have you been robbed!?”

 

They seem surprised when I tell them no and then usually reply with, “well wait till you get to (insert country)”.

 

We did have a stern warning from the Romanian police while we were camping cliffside at a beach near some hippy vans and a guerilla techno music festival. They woke us with flashlights and told us that our bikes will be stolen and that the thieves will come from the fields.

Romanian officer: “Yes, they will come from the fields, use gas and take your bicycles, it happens everyday.”

Jason: “I will wake up if I hear them gassing me.”

Other Romanian officer: “No, you will not, they use sleeping gas.”

We ended up surviving the night, no gas, only some shared sangria from a can with the girls camped next to us.

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I feel safe when I am close to the beach and we usually follow coastline knowing that we will nearly always find a beautiful place to sleep. In Bulgaria we were given directions to a beach by some people traveling in a van. One of the girls said, “yes, it is great, no cell phones, you can really connect with nature out there.”

We could gather from our conversation with them what kind of situation we would find at this place. I pictured a few dozen people sitting by a fire, playing guitar and maybe taking drugs. We decided to give it a shot, if things started getting weird we would just dip-slip.

We cycled for several kilometers down a dirt path through vineyards and pass several people walking with large backpacks (a sure sign we were going the right way.) At the beach the first thing we see is a young naked fellow with a man bun bending over to collect a bundle of firewood. His buddy is giggling and frolicking, covered head to toe in a gray clay or ash. I look at Jason and say, “Well… home sweet home?”

There are more people and structures off in the distance so we push our bikes through the soft sand. The two naked gentlemen are in front of us pulling their pile of wood. Jason stops to let them get a head start after realizing there was no reason to subject ourselves to that view while sweating our way across the beach. Further along a man in the distance approaches us with his arms open. Jason turns to me,

“Yo, do you know that guy?”

“Nope.”

He is a tan dude with short hair, a trimmed beard and no shirt.

“Welcome”, he says. “You made it!”

He gives us both hugs and then offers to drag Jason’s bike the rest of the way to where he says we will camp. He seemed nice enough so we followed him through a series of trails along the edge of the beach, pass camps which looked very much permanent and signs designating a certain patch of trees  a “Reflexology and yoga meditation zone”.

I immediately thought, dammit, we just got sucked into a rainbow gathering. My judgmental self was dreading the moment some dreaded girl approaches me and tries to trade me some beads on a string for my last few remaining cigarettes. Our friend showed us where to camp, a nice spot up on a hill overlooking the sea. The night went well, we made some soup on a fire with the others in our camp and took turns strumming the ukelele while one of our new friends played along with a wooden flute. One character I will not forget and can only properly describe as Bill Hader going overboard in his research for a role as a homeless bulgarian alcoholic kept passing out near our tents on a dirty blanket. Every few minutes he would stumble back to the fire and stare at me as if he had seen something horrifying then he would make a gesture for a cigarette.

We were told that not only was this the last virgin beach in Bulgaria (a beach where you can essentially do whatever you please) but that this may very well be the last year it exists. Russian developers have been moving into the surrounding areas in droves and this beach has recently been acquired by investors. Once they can establish laws to push out all the hippies camping on the beach they will begin constructing hotels and a new yacht harbor. Admiring the vast emptiness and cleanliness of this place I can see both perspectives of the argument, but damn it would be nice if this place would stay the same forever.

I am in Odessa, Ukraine now where we will spend the next several days getting our gear together for the leap to India. There is a music school in the courtyard beneath this hostel and in the afternoons the piano echoes throughout the whole building.

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On the way up to Meteora
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View from shockingly clean shower in Odessa

 

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Road in southern Ukraine