Saturday, February 27, 2010

Who's your friend now?

Turkey really rocks.

I've naturally had to adjust my pilgrim routine for the culture I'm now in. There're no churches or priests to seek for accommodation and no women in the village shops to bond with in consolation. I stumbled on a new and effective method - the Jandarma (internal army) or Polis (federal polıce force) have become my new best friends, and they're terrific. When I first started down from the mountain border with 'Bulgaristan', the Jandarma asked politely if I'd check in when I pass one of their offices or with the Polis when I enter a town of size (>500 pop.). They're clearly a little uneasy about a foreign woman traveling solo by foot, but of course they're not inclined to discourage me. So if I just stop by and say 'selam', they take note and serve me tea and a light snack, and if I ask, find accommodation for me. I think if I were a guy, they'd allow me to sleep in one of their bunkrooms, but as I'm not, they make a call to a local 'pansyon' and I get treated very nicely as a guest of the town. Nice, clean, and safe. Who'd a-thunk it? If I weren't asked from the beginning to check in like this, I would never have thought to ask the officers for assistance in where I can sleep, but it's worked out great for me.

Twice now, frustrated and hindered by my language limitations, I've sought help from women. Huge kudos to Meral in Karaburun on the Black Sea for her assistance... I stepped into Hanimeli Restaurant hoping someone might speak English or German, and there she was able to call the Jandarma and help me find a place to sleep. She gave me a light supper at the restaurant, too, which was excellent, so if anyone happens by that restful little resort town, go to that restaurant for a great meal. The other experience was a woman named Leman, a lawyer as it turns out, I met while trapped in endless kilometers of suburbia - way out of my pilgrim element. She took the time to sit with the police officers and find a place for me to sleep in a teachers' housing complex. Kindess quite happily prevails.

I've cruised through Istanbul and know for sure it's a place I must return to for a proper visit - in winter to avoid the cruise ships and heat, of course. I waylaid there for a few days and saw many sights, though few museums because of the time commitment. I love how each stretch of winding street is home to specific merchandise - one area just for tools, another for hardware, this one for fabric, that one for plasticware, over here carpets, over there shoes... and that's not even in the Grand Bazaar, which is really 'grand'. Wow, lots to see.

In general, what I find interesting in Turkey is how modern everything is; what I find uninteresting is how modern everything is. This is my first visit - as it is my first visit to every country on this trip - and I couldn't help but have some expectations. Without giving it a whole lot of thought, I had the idea that the towns and villages would be full of oldness. What I see is the opposite, save maybe a small stone outbuilding or stretch of wall tucked behind a large ultra-modern house. Curious. How do they do that? Italy, Spain, France... these places have adorable old buildings modernized and still in use giving an air of steadfastness. I'm just surprised, that's all. How can history be so hard to find here in Turkey??

I just passed through a town called Marmara Ereğlisi, another in a series of haphazardly collected compounds of unattractive cookie-cutter holiday homes. In the midst of the residences and kabap houses is a small park strewn with Greek columns and engraved lintels. A sign explains in Turkish and English that this is the ancient town of Heraklia founded in 600 BC. Cool. The sign explained the town's role in many historical events - wars with Philip of Macedon, dominance over Byzantium... huge stuff a similar town in western Europe would fully capitalize on, but here, it's passed into history. On the way, I walked along an old stretch of road parallel to the modern highway and crossed a restored bridge from the 16th century. It struck me as being quite like the bridge at Hospital de Orbigo on the Camino de Santiago except that that one, built for pilgrims, is several centuries older. Anyway, I made a painting in the rain and hope to post it soon (along with the others =)).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A language gaff...

It was bound to happen - learning of my language gaff before someone pointed it out to me, embarrassed but not so much so not to laugh out loud...

When I arrived in Turkey, not knowing a single word, I forced my brain to work quickly to absorb the basics. I followed the advice of the first men I met on how to introduce myself: 'Selam, adim Anna'. Easy enough. As I walked toward the sea, I came to a village cafe - a place where men gather to play cards, dominoes, and a game played with tiles resembling playing cards. Sometimes they drink tea. I haven't seen anyone eat anything in the cafes, nor drink the famed Turkish coffee. Nonetheless, on my first visit to one, I smiled and said my line. The four men sitting at the table looked at me as an oddity, but one cordially introduce himself: placing his hand gently over his heart, bowed his head and said 'Ben blahblah'. To make an effort to remember his name at least through the duration of the acquaintance, I repeated his name three times while we spoke.

Later, at another cafe, the event was repeated, but this time, the two men each introduced himself as 'Ben blahblah' (the blahblah part being complicated and seemingly unnecessary, so I let it fly by). Still, I called them each Ben. What a coincidence? can so many Turkish men be named Ben? The Imam came in to meet me. He, too, introduced himself as Ben blahblah... something's fishy... When I found a German speaker days later, I confirmed the suspicion - 'ben' means 'I am'. Lesson learned. It's the blahblah part that's important after all... (oh how easy it would have been.) Oops!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Turkish Delights

My arrival in Turkey was through a dramatic wintry mountain scene - thick forests of tall spruce and mixed hardwoods, thick wet agglomerated flakes of snow plopping audibly through the canopy of darkness. There's only one road to access the border crossing into Turkey from Bulgaria near the coast, but I walked its 10k length seeing but one car. Eerie solitude. Walking through a border again had its challenges; its not commonly done. A simple visa for 20USD - I'm set for up to 90 days. Another 10 kms or so and I arrived in the first village, quite small, in fact, not even possessing an exchange for Turkish lira. I immediately befriended a few shopowners who spoke some English and German and began my Turkish adventures with a list of useful Turkish words and an idea of how to proceed - no map available in the village but a handdrawn sketch from the fellows and I at least had some guidance on how to get back to the Black Sea. They found me accommodation of sort for the night in a hamlet 10 km further on, lodged with a strange family of woodsmen who live with their mother in two rooms - perhaps the craziest place I've stayed in so far. The eldest of the woodsmen, a tiny hunchback who looks 15 years older than I but who is in reality 5 years younger, was proud of the few words of Russian he was able to communicate to me in, so I had an effective crash course in Turkish. He warned me to stay in the dark forests where the woodsmen roam because the military patrols the road; later, unsurprisingly, the soldiers I met warned me equally to stay on the road to avoid the dangerous woodsmen in the forests. Neither group made me uneasy.

Once I descended from the pass, the snow changed to light rain, which washed the scenery clean. So lush! Tall hardwoods spring from a shag carpet of brilliant green rhododendrion arising from a broad covering of moss; ivy hangs from the trees; cascades and waterfalls abound in a symphony of trickles; and most warmly, dots of magenta and violet flowers glitter in the shadows. Beautiful.

Adding to the warmth of the scene was the welcome I received in the passing villages. It's clear no one's ever seen someone dressed like me before. The most outrageous reception was in the village of Kislecik, 'red tree' in Turkish. As the packed gravel road became the main street of the village, a handful of schoolgirls espied me and unabashedly shouted 'What is your name?' over and over. Out paths converged and the girls gathered around me with excitement. I asked if there were an English teacher and they gleefully led the way up the hill into the two-story brick schoolhouse. By then, all 100 or so kids had come rushing through the entry in a roar, all shouting 'What is your name?'. They were fascinated with my backpack and walking sticks, my clothes and boots - all new to them. The English teacher, a well dressed young man, whisked me into the teachers' lounge for tea and reception. The director of the school was summonsed, the mayor of the village... everyone interested in the stranger who came to their village. I enjoyed the feeling of bringing memorable excitement into their world. Other villages offered me similar reception and the school children, the police, the Jandarma, the old men in the cafes playing card games... everyone seemed genuinely interested in helping me, offering tea without hesitation. People are incredibly friendly, though understandably cautious... from my appearance, I certainly put the 'stange' in 'stranger'. Barriers are broken easily enough. The food is terrific.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Bulgarian Tidbits

I'm already in Turkey but hadn't had much opportunity to blog about Bulgaria - I had a string of days where it was like I hit the multi-ball lever in a pinball game the way the adventures came hurling at me in an assault of excitement. Life is grand...

The language challenge was evident from the get-go. A typical conversation ran

me: 'Dobry den' (smile) 'Do you speak English?'
them: 'No' with an emphatic smiling nod of the head in that peculiarity of the Bulgarian contradiction
me: 'Sprechen Sie deutsch?'
them: 'Nein' with a stronger nod
me: 'Parlez-vous françaıs?'
them: 'Non' with a persistant bobbing nod
me: 'Parli poco Italiano?' ( slight desperation)
them: 'No'
me: >gulp< 'Mali Rusky?'
them: 'Da!, da!, da!' with a strong shaking of the head

Saints preserve us! The burden is of course on me, the foreigner and the one who wants to converse, to come up with an adequate compromise. In the end, a smile and sincere desire can fill a chasm left by absent vocabulary. A lot of laughs can be had at the attempt if nothing else =D

I was only in Bulgaria for eight days, which is hardly enough time to get to know a place, and only in a small region of a diverse country. I enjoyed a nice mix of city and country, mountains and sea, snow and sunshine. What I didn't like at all is the decadent new construction for the tourist trade - bland and flashy casinos, resorts, restaurants - there's nothing Bulgarian about it. Road signs are written in German; 'For Sale' signs in English. Everything's behind a tall fence and security guards with their dogs stand at every entrance. Icky. But it's the new economy, I suppose. Progress. ?

One semiprecious stone among the heaps of new touristic rocks is Nessabar, an ancient Greek settlement continuously inhabited throughout the ages. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, it's totally given over to tourism, but looking between the schlocky souvenir stands, the architecture stands out with charm. I strolled through its cobbled lanes early on a rainy morning alone except for the dogs. The important ruins and remaining buildings are conveniently labelled with information signs in Bulgarian, Russian, and English. The interesting feature of the building construction is that the entry floor of each house is of mortared stone and the upper floor of wood siding unlike anything I've seen so far. It was Greek until 1924 and escaped injury by communism. I hope to see more places like it.

The landscape is decidedly more to my liking - thickly forested whirls of the Carpathians spin into the sea. The land between is rolling green fields dotted with villages of red tile roofs. My legs are so well conditioned now that the limiting factor of my progress is more the number of daylight hours than my physical capability. With my progress being southward and westward and toward spring, the days have quickly become long - 11 hours of daylight now compared with 8 in December. I can rather easily walk mararthon days - more than 42 kms - even successive ones, even in really crappy weather. Bulgaria, I learned, has few village churches. Finding accommodation was a bit more difficult outside of the cities. No worries, something always works out.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

An unexpected visitor

From my perspective, the daily pattern is largely the same - I pack, say goodbye to my host, walk, and find a new host for the evening, eat, wash and sleep. I know what needs to happen but can't expect those whom I encounter to immediately know their role.

I entered Bulgaria in a good deal of snow that persisted for many days. In modern and efficient Dobrich, an Orthodox priest told me of a monastery 34 kilometers toward historic Varna. I understood it to be isolated and in a forest and though there was a symbol for it on my map, I had discovered so many errors on the map that I couldn't trust it for accuracy, so had a only a fuzzy idea of its location. The sky was dropping fat wet snowflakes and the wind blowing fiercely from behind me, but the distance not so great as to require all of the daylight hours and I didn't feel overly stressed about the situation. The best laid plans...

It did take all of those daylight hours to reach my destination and for nearly all of them, I was completely alone. Rather that lie on the country lane, the villages I passed that day branched off a kilometer or two leaving me no opportunities to escape the elements for even the smallest amount of time. Ugh. Added to this inconvenience to my desires was the deep drifts that barred my passage, often much deeper than the length of my legs. Double ugh. Exhausting effort that day. Tea, soup, a warm place to sit for a while... this reward could only come when and if I found the monastery. A dented, faded, handwritten sign (a Cyrillic world again) miraculously poked out of a drift to be tripped over, but was in a confusing location for its arrow to clearly indicate the way and the snow too deep to reveal the trace of the presumed track for the stated 500 meters. The triple ugh came when the wind shifted just enough to be directly in my face. In the shadowy haze of the dusk, I could just make out the edge a forest in the distance. This was close to madness - I couldn't even take a compass reading to pretend to rely on with comfort. The nearest hamlet was still many kilometers away. How do I get myself into these situations??? I took comfort in counting my steps for an idea of distance covered, though of course the length of my pace was skewed from the effort of breaking trail, so the math was unreliable anyway.

After I was certain that I long passed the 500 meter mark, I had a growing concern that I was completely in the wrong place, still being several hundred meters from the edge of the forest. Before I could let the sense of doom digest, I realized that I was standing on the roof of a car buried in the snow. I could make out the trace of a fence surrounding what I could believe was a parking lot, then realized further that the first tree that I could make out near the forest was really a large wooden cross. Well if that's not a sign of a monastery, what would be? Full on into the wind, this last distance passed remarkably quickly with the great sense of having a clear destination. The size of the forest was obscured from the plain above because of being in a deep glen. Once below the elevation of the surrounding land, the wind eased and I could see more clearly, though the mix of evergreen and hardwoods made the dusk appear even darker. Winter wonderland... a small white church with a colorful dome sat in a bowl beside a pond. several outbuildıngs harmoniously placed, and best of all, in a large wooden buildıng nearest to me - a light shone through a window and whisps of white smoke came from the chimney. Yeah.

As I took those last quickened slippery steps down the slope toward the buildıng, elated as I was, I had to check my jubilance - I saw the occupant of the lighted room as a lifesaver, but whoever it was had no idea of my presence on his doorstep much less my trials to get there and even less about the real intensity of the storm being protected in the glen. I was an uninvited guest in a isolated monastery and needed to conform to some type of protocol. Through the frosted window, I saw a man (not dressed like a typical monk) in a kitchen. I tapped gently and saw him react to the surprise, dropping what was in his hands, obviously startled.

It just took minutes to get me in front of the wood stove with a steaming cup of tea, the encrusting ice falling from me like shattered glass from a window hit with a baseball. The novice monk, I learned quickly (he spoke some English), was alone at the monastery, the prior being unable to return because of the snow. It didn't matter though, the monk happily shared the dinner he was preparing for himself and enjoyed pleasant conversation that easily pushed the harshness of my day's journey from the forefront of my thought. He was in the third of four years of study in theology to become a full-fledged monk and much older being called to the monastic world later in life. He had heard of pilgrims but never met one. On that stormy evening I provided him with an experience he thought his prior monk hadn't ever enjoyed: meeting a real-live pilgrim.

He brought in armfuls of wood to keep the stove stoked all night and then retired to one of the outbuildings to sleep. I slept warmly and soundly before the fire without care of the storm. In the morning, he returned with more wood and made the tea. He told me that during the night he contemplated deeply my unlikely appearance at this particular monastery when he was unexpectedly alone... he quoted a Biblical reference that he gave particular consideration. He told me that Jesus said 'if you turn away a pilgrim you turn away from me'. He found a great sense of satisfaction in my giving him the opportunity to demonstrate that he is true to his monastic calling. The difficulty of my walk that day is put in a different context when that fact that I made the effort is so meaningfully interpretted by a random stranger from whom I sought help on a stormy evening. A pilgrim and host mutually benefitting from the experience... isn't this why the world needs pilgrims?

Monday, February 15, 2010


Just a quick note to say I'm safely in Turkey after an easy but soggy border crossıng ın the thick mountaıns somewhat inland from the Black Sea... should be in Istanbul in about a week...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Drum Bun!

Anyone who tries to plan a pilgrimage is completely missing the point. Unplanned events make for excitement and experience.

While in the coastal city of Constanta, known as Tomas in the days when Virgil and Ovid visited the place, I was tipped off by chance to a young monastery recently built to capitalize on a site known as St Andrew's Cave. A 3-day march inland rising along the rolling hills, it was a diversion from my understanding that Andrew the Fisher of Men stuck to the coast. What's 120 kilometers? (well, it's three days' walking...) With each elevating meter, the snowcover became thicker, but the sun shone for a few days, dazzling across the vast, treeless hills. The icy surface of the blown snow covered the minor roads and the multitude of horses struggled to pull their carts. Few cars venture on these packed earth roads. It's ironic how modern the Romanian villages and towns look compared to the Ukrainian equivalents, yet the utilitarian horsecarts are absent in the Ukraine I passed through. Several times, the drivers of the horsecarts offered me a short lift of a kilometer or two, and I accepted reasoning that the same type of offer could have been made during St Andrew's time. I was especially pleased to accept a short ride in a one-horse open sleigh, complete with sleighbells around the horse's neck, and hummed the song during the swift glide... I don't think the driver got the reference as he babbled on proudly about his five children ('copies' in Romanian). The Romanians, Gypsies, and Turks equally were friendly to me in the villages and in between, offering me short rests and eager to share their lunches or gritty coffee, and each equal in their warnings that it's not safe to be out and about alone because of the notorious reputation of another of the ethnic groups. Villages are clannish within these groups but otherwise similar in structure. The distraction of a visitor to a village seems univerally liked.

Finally at the monastery of St Andrew, I saw quickly the capitalistic opportunity being beneficially exploited. The legend has been written down that the good Saint in his wanderings near the Roman outpost of Civitas Tropaensium, now Adamclisi and pretty cool ruins, came to the homes of nearby weathy landlords - their names chronicaled in the Roman ledgers - but was cautious to preach in a hidden cave three kilometers away for fear of being persecuted by the authorities. The cave was discovered in 1924 by a local lawyer/theologian who tracked the legend. There's an associated spring claimed to be the spot where Andy punched a staff into the ground. During the dark days of communism, these legends were suppressed and the small hermitage built there destroyed. In the 1990s, a larger monastery was built and outbuildings to accommodate pilgrims and other visitors. The cave is nicely decorated, to be sure. The gift shop large, though lacking in English literature. The monks employ laymen to work the land around the monastery, thus having tasty cheese and bread and honey from the land. One monk spoke some Italian with me and shared some of this history; another spoke some English and bubbled with excitement to let the story be known. Pilgrims on bicycle come from Germany and Holland they told me. They would like more pilgrims to know of this holy place so it will become the Santiago de Compostelle of Romania. Are giant yellow arrows the future of southeastern Romania?

Not too far away, I by chance was tipped off to another monastery, also built around a devine source said to have sprung up when Andrew stuck his staff into the ground. They have nice bottles with special labels available for take-away. There is also a rock protruding from the ground that vaguely resembles a stout cross. They've recently built a chapel around it. Some time ago, a shepherd, dumb and deaf, slumbered against this rock and his faculties were restored. People with disabilities can come today and sleep on a mat next to the stone in hopes of a cure. A monk who spoke German explained this to me, adding that married couples who are having difficulties in conceiving can also come for a cure, but the details of this were not clear; it's a very small mat. In addition to the miracle stone and spring, the monastery has a great deal of land and a large lake. Plenty of laymen manage all of this, as made clear in the refectory - fish soup, barbequed fish, whole-grain bread, dense fruit bread, yogurt, cheese, wine, honey, and jars of pickled peppers of more varieties than I've ever seen spread on the table. There are rooms for at least 100 pilgrims and visitors. I shared the supper table with a group of university students studying the theology of Romania. The young monks sing their biblical chants many times during the day in beautiful harmonies that sound more eastern than western. Their singing from the church is piped around the monastery with an impressive sound system. It's clear that the abbots want to put these monasteries on a map for religous tourism in the region.

The part of Romania visited by St Andrew has passed beneath my feet. With the guidance of many border patrol officers, I've legally entered Bulgaria - note to others, there's no open border between these two new members of the EU. I walked a long distance in Ukraine and experienced a lot of history in Romania... what does Bulgaria hold for a wandering pilgrim?

'Drum bun' is an expression I heard many times every day in Romania. Amusing to my ear, it means something like 'happy trails' or 'bonne route'.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Happy Groundhog Day

If there are any groundhogs on the Black Sea coast of Romania, low clouds and snow flurries prevented any type of shadow to be seen this morning, so - great news! - spring is right around the corner. None too soon, all this snow is exhausting to walk through. It's pretty, though. Despite the snowfall, I've managed to get a glimpse of the sunrise over the Romanian Black Sea a few times now.

I had a recent come-uppance: humans are not at the top of the food chain here as I thought. A full moon the other night, staying in a remote monastery being built close to the site of historic Istria, a Greek outpost from the 5th century BC and a place visited by St Andrew. I was welcomed by the handful of Romanian Orthodox monk-priests and one elderly nun, but in saving every lei for the church they're building, they forego unnecessary expenses like meat and electricity and running water and heat. The situation for me was pretty grave - my clothes were quite wet from the snow/rain/slush from the day's walk and the temperature was dropping quickly. Without an opportunity to dry my clothes before a fire, they'd freeze within minutes of taking them off. Moreover, my chattering little body would take a long time to warm up the cold wool blankets in the cold bunkroom. I wimpered a bit to the abbot, who took pity and offered up a half bucket of coal for a brazier. When he couldn't get a fire started right away, he doused the whole thing with a liter of kerosene, filling the entire place with thick black smoke. We took refuge outside in the light snowfall. The full moon winked at us through the passing clouds. The whole scene was the picture of tranquility until the howling began. Chakals, I was told, Romanian coyotes that live on the vast treeless steppes along the sea. Once they got to howling from all directions, the multitude of abandoned dogs started their baying. There was a veritable symphony of scary wild noises. Last year, the monks told me, two men were killed by a pack of these chakals in a nearby village. Note to self, don't wander out alone a night. But the outhouse was so far away...

I visited the historic site of ancient Istria, quite expansive and otherwise similar to Khersoness on Crimea. A long walk out on the treeless swamp to get to the archeological digs and new museum (yeah EU funding!). It's closed in winter of course, but I told the caretaker that I'm a pilgrim and he and his three large dogs let me have the run of the place. Very impressive, even covered in snow. If 2,000 years ago the landscape looks like it does today, wild animals notwithstanding, I can imagine St Andrew thinking it's rather inhospitable. Maybe the Greeks planted some trees to spruce the place up.

On a long lonely stretch of lane surrounded by 3-meter tall marsh reeds to get back to the main road, a horsecart filled with many bundles of neatly cut reeds came by and the two fellows offered me a lift for the remaining kilometers. From my nest on the cut reeds, I could see much further to the distant hills and multitude of lakes. Too wet to plow, too dry to drink... no wonder it's a migratory bird paradise.