Nikolaevo Farm Days


It’s harvest season here in Nikolaevo and Lela Stanka has relented to our requests to help her out on the Stoytchev farm. The first day we pick sweet peppers from rows of densely-packed plants. The plants sag from the weight of the peppers, some brilliant scarlet, others in stages of green and orange. We pick only the darkest reds, leaving the rest for Lela Stanka’s next harvest. She grins as she tells us that she’s already harvested peppers from these plants a dozen times. But there are always more peppers.


By the end of an hour, we’ve filled an entire 20-lb. sack with peppers, soon to be roasted and peeled and turned into delicious meals and preserves for the winter.  I’m personally hoping for lutenitza, a Bulgarian variant of red pepper spread that pairs beautifully with everything from bread to eggs to meat to yogurt. Seriously, it’s good on everything, ok? Don’t worry, a recipe is coming (in a later post).


We return the following day to harvest potatoes, a slightly more complicated task that involves digging and dust. Harvesting the potatoes well takes effort, and Lela Stanka shows us how to dig between the rows of shriveled potato plants to find the potatoes hidden beneath the soil without accidentally slicing too many in half.


The dry summer has been hard on the potato crop, and this year’s yield is supposedly a modest one. Busy with chores and unworried they would rot in such dry weather, Lela Stanka left them in the ground. With a few hours of hoeing and digging, though, we’ve littered the ground with an abundance of potatoes. Most are red-skinned, and as we collect them Lela Stanka remarks on how well they’ve done. “They’re a family heirloom, passed down in the family and planted for decades. I’ll plant them again next year too.” We finish gathering the potato into sacks and boxes, store them in a nearby shed, and head home to scrub the dirt from our hands, feet, and faces.


Later, when we speak on Skype with Stoytcho’s dad, we tell him about our work on the family farm. He worked the farm when he lived here too before moving to the U.S. to pursue a PhD in physics. He probably hasn’t done farm work in decades. But when we mention our potato harvest he pauses, then replies, “Potatoes? It’s a bit late in the season for that, isn’t it?”


How not to hostel

Part of our 8-bed hostel room in Prague.

Let’s file this one under bad hostel etiquette: yelling at the other people in the room to stop making any noise at 8 am. On the one hand, it is 8 am and anyone who was out partying last night wants to sleep in longer. On the other hand, we had to hear you come in late last night and we’ve got places to be.

We’ll call this person “Dude” and in an effort to acknowledge that dickery such as his occurs every population, leave his nationality out. We’ve known since Dude checked in that he has a problem with morning noise, since Stoytcho and I have been up early every morning to explore Prague and found him groaning and growling at any hint of noise. Even when we talk in whispers and pack up quietly, we hear him tossing in his bunk huffing and muttering angrily.

This morning we’re checking out to head to Linz, Austria, and we’re not the only ones up – more than half of the room is awake and preparing to leave, from pulling on clothes to packing away food and water for the day. This proves too much for Dude, whose chorus of groans escalates into a crescendo before he jerks his bed’s curtain open. “This is a hostel! How can you make so much noise? We are supposed to be a community and people are trying to sleep here!” he hisses furiously.

Having traveled through more than a dozen countries and countless terrible sleeping situations, I’ll have none of his accusations. “We’re all on different schedules and some of us get up early. We try not to make noise, but we’re not going to change our plans for you.” He shot back with another retort, and I pointed out that more than half the people in the room were already up. “Look, I can give you earplugs if you want them, but otherwise deal with it. I countered. Rebuked, Dude let out a hiss and yanked his curtain shut again, muttering profanity under his breath.

I would’ve liked to have defused the situation a little less bluntly, but dealing with discomforts like this one are a part of hostel life and you have to adapt. If you get cold easily, you carry an extra blanket or you ask the hostel for one. If you must have tea in the morning, you carry tea. If you can’t sleep with noises, you bring earplugs. And if you can’t adapt, you probably shouldn’t stay in hostels.

There are definitely best practices when hosteling, such as not carrying on conversations late at night or early in the morning, throwing things, fighting over the temperature or whether the window should be closed or open. You should work to make it a liveable space for everyone, sharing outlets to charge phones or computers and trying to keep it clean, because you are a community. Sometimes there will be disagreements or someone will do something that bothers you. In that case, it’s okay to politely ask if they’ll stop doing it. But getting upset and yelling about it is pointless and seriously not cool, Dude.

After all that unpleasantness, here’s a bumblebee.

European Capital Hop: Vienna

What I would guess is the belltower, St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

Next up, we catch a train from Budapest to Vienna, our first foray into Western Europe and a bit of a sticker shock. Food, places to sleep, and things to do cost almost twice that of neighboring Hungary and there really aren’t many cheap options. Still, it’s part of travel, and we adapt to the circumstances: we adjust our budget to $80 USD daily for food and board for the two of us.

And the food…well, the desserts are absolutely lovely. The rest seems to be mostly fried meat/cheese/sausage and it’s not great, although with our limited funds we’re obviously not eating the highest-quality stuff. When we’re tired of fried things, the only other affordable thing is Doner, now ubiquitous as the cheap-and-fast choice in nearly all of Europe.

The escalators down to the platforms at one of the train stations.
A street in Vienna.
Ah, Leibniz: co-inventor of calculus and the butt of Voltaire’s jokes.
Equality pedestrian walk signs. Don’t worry, they had female/female and female/male ones too.
Owl figures on the side of the Secession.
An ancient tree near the cathedral, said to give good luck if you drove a nail into it. This worked out badly for the tree, which died a while ago and is kept in this glass tube.
Mural on a building in the tourist area.
A poster that translates roughly to “Don’t talk to the police.”
Hanging gardens in an apartment courtyard.
Mushroom foraging and idenfication books.
An interesting building outside of the tourism zone.
Vienna’s famous cow-and-wolf playing backgammon mural from the early 1500’s.


No need for Google Translate–I think I got this one.


St. Stephen’s Cathedral
Tourists pause outside of a museum.
Some architecture near the Museums Quartier (I think).
Mmm, lunch: SPAR pasta and Mozartkugeln.

Hostel, Brothel?

A street on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Our first night in Tokyo, we stayed on the outskirts of the city in a makeshift capsule hotel/hostel. This was one of the most bizarre, uncomfortable nights that we’ve ever had, partly because our room looked like this:

Stoytcho stands in our ‘room’, which has barely enough space to fit our packs and ourselves.

And partly because, well, I’m pretty sure our hostel was also some kind of brothel. Stoytcho fell asleep early, but I huddled on the lower bunk for several hours writing for the blog, with our room’s accordion-screen door cracked to get some airflow into our tiny crevice of a room. Around one in the morning, I heard some shuffling noises outside and low voices speaking Japanese, and two figures drifted into view through the crack in the door. They stopped at the empty room across the hall, where they seemed to be having difficulty turning on the room’s light. Minutes passed, and their talking grew louder, probably because they were drunk, and the smell of cigarette smoke started drifting into the room, probably because one (or both) of them had decided it was ok to smoke indoors. I found it unlikely they could have missed the no-smoking signs in the well-lit reception area, but, Japan.

After the cigarette smoke smell permeated the air of our room, I’d had enough and mustered my broken Japanese to do something about it. I poked my head out and called to them to please not smoke. 「タバコを吸うあないでください。」I could make out two figures in the dim light, a man and a woman, in front of the doorway across our narrow hall. They stood surprised. The man fell silent, and did not speak again. The woman, holding the burning cigarette, stared at me for a second before crying out softly 「ああ、ごめん!」She looked around for a way to put her cigarette out, but found none.

I stared at them for a few seconds longer, but I could feel the man’s growing discomfort and so I returned to my writing. After a minute, I heard the woman call out to me, asking if I knew how to turn on the room’s light.「あのう、どう電気をつけますか?知っていますか?」I set my computer aside and crawled out from the bottom bunk, squeezing myself into the narrow space between our beds and the wall, and then through the narrow crack of the door into the hallway. To avoid embarrassing any of us further, I kept my eyes toward the ground as I reached into their room and flipped a light switch. A soft yellow light flooded the room and spilled into the hallway, illuminating the three of us, with at least one of us no longer wishing to be here.

I have no idea what happened after that, because I closed the door and went to sleep with earplugs. There was no sign of the two in the morning and the reception was unstaffed when we checked out. Even if someone had been there, I have no idea what I would have asked because my Japanese wasn’t up to snuff to ask about prostitution, and I have no idea why I would have asked beyond sheer curiosity. Prostitution is quasi-legal in Japan, and I hold no particular sense or desire to pass moral judgements. But the incident felt like a glimpse into the private life of the Japanese, a peek behind the veil into something deeply personal in a culture obsessed with hiding one’s private feelings and thoughts.

The room in question, the morning after. No sign of anyone remains beyond the faint smell of cigarette smoke.


After spending a few days in Borobudur and Prambanan, we’ve moved to the Maliboro district in the heart of Yogyakarta (Jogja) proper. We’re here to eat food, rest a bit, and people watch. And on a street lined with multi-story malls housing American fast food brands, traditional batik clothing outlets, and pop-up vendors cramming the streets with cheap souvenirs and delicious food, we couldn’t ask for better. Maliboro is an artery for the city’s commuters that thickens to a crawl during rush hour. It’s also where the newly affluent middle class comes to shop, where a panoply of shopkeepers flood onto the streets to sell their wares, where everyone mixes and mingles. There’s always something to see.

Stoytcho and I roam the streets, ducking between people and capturing what we can on a camera with reflexes too slow for life here. On one occasion, I’m staring out into the flow of traffic and watch in awe as a man with a dozen sacks of rice and a crate of fruit on his scooter deftly weaves between cars. I shout to Stoytcho, “WHOA, did you see that?” “No,” Stoytcho replies, “I was distracted by a chainsmoking ten-year-old shopping for a lighter.”

Two girls play near a monument to Indonesia’s revolutionary heroes, along Jl. Maliboro.
Men work in a ditch along Maliboro, further complicating the daily rush hour.
Angklung performers shut down Maliboro as they protest a ban on musical street performances. Their signs read variations of: “We are artists, not vagrants.”
A performer plays the angklung on Maliboro, in defiance of the street performance ban.
Women shop for bridal accesories at pop-up shops in one of Maliboro’s malls.
Our backpacks rest at the Packer Lodge in Yogyakarta.
Stoytcho rests in the lobby of the Packer Lodge in Yogyakarta.
Ojeks and cars crawl along Jl. Maliboro in rush hour.
Two women try to cross the street.
People gather and walk the street in the evening at Maliboro.
The late afternoon sun through a sculpture.
The narrow walking corridor between shop stalls on Maliboro’s west side. Stoytcho towers over everyone here.
A neon sign for a batik clothing store.
A man attempts to cross the street with his food cart.
A scrambled egg fries in a hot wok before rice and seasoning are added to make nasi goreng.
Light and color in the night: the view from a food stall off Maliboro.

The Jakarta-Yogyakarta Train

Passing the edge of a city by train, Jakarta->Yogyakarta.

We’re bound by train to Yogyakarta, the “cultural capital” in southern Java that’s affectionately referred to as “Jogja”. Though a flight is only an hour compared to the train’s nine-hour trip, it’s nine hours well-spent admiring Java’s scenery.

Trees silhouetted against empty rice paddies.


Rice paddies thick with the greenery of rice plants in Southern Java.
Javanese dwellings on stilts.


A passenger texts while catching a ride on an ojek.
An unfocused photo of construction work on a river (likely for a bridge). 

This is the most densely-populated island in Indonesia, and villages, fields, and rice paddies speed by every second. Each moment is a snapshot of Java beyond the cities, where most people farm and know no other way of life. As we speed by, I imagine all of the knowledge they must have about farming and the seasons of Java—how to start rice shoots growing, when to plant them in the flooded paddies, when to harvest the rice plants, when to let a paddy lie fallow. I try to imagine what it must be like to push the rice seedling into the muddy water, feet sunk into the same mud that will nourish this rice plant as the sun beats down on my back. It’s hard work and I’m lucky I don’t have to do it, but I want to know how it feels.

Terraced fields near one of Java’s many volcanic cones.


A man plants young rice seedlings in a flooded paddy.
Farmers escape the heat of the day in a dwelling on the rice paddies. Most fields and paddies we passed had a shelter to hide from the sweltering tropical sun.


A farmer walks through lush, peridot-green rice paddies.
Farmers dump harvested rice from sacks for husking.
An ojek stands before a harvested rice paddy.

As people increasingly flock to Indonesia’s cities (a worldwide trend), the passage of this agricultural knowledge halts. Maybe one day it will disappear entirely, forgotten or as good as forgotten, left only in written texts. But hopefully someone here will see value in this knowledge and keep it alive.

An island in a sea of rice paddies. The erratic growth of the rice here might be from grains lost from the last harvest in a field now fallow.

Jakarta: Photos from around

Night traffic in Jakarta

Jakarta is a sprawling megacity, with 10 million people crammed into an area smaller than New York City. The people here come from a kaleidoscope of cultures and faiths; dozens of Indonesian ethnic groups rub elbows and the majority Muslim community lives alongside communities of Buddhists, Christians, Catholics, and Hindus. It’s business as usual for the thousand year-old seaport, which has seen waves of nearly all the world’s religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, and Christianity) carried on the tides of trade routes.

Indonesia’s wealth has increased in the past decade, but with it has come rising income inequality that is etched into Jakarta’s cityscape. We’re staying in Glodok, an industrial area near the seaport characterized by corrugated aluminum roofing, wooden market stalls, and open sewers in the streets. But take a bus thirty minutes south and you’ll find yourself in Central Jakarta neighborhoods like Menteng, surrounded by walled mansions and multi-story malls with marble floors pushing the latest luxury brands, where doors are opened for you by bellhops who speak perfectly unaccented English. The economic disparity in the city is jarring—residents of Glodok and Menteng may share a city, but they live in different worlds.

In spite of the wealth gap, nearly everyone we meet in Jakarta is happy to see us. Any smile from us is immediately returned by a passing person. On the bus and around town, people who speak English ask us about our travels and translate our responses for excited relatives. Gaggles of schoolchildren approach you at tourist attractions, tasked by their teachers to interview tourists as English homework, and in nervous giggles ask about your favorite Indonesian food. I’ve never felt more welcome in a country where I don’t speak the language. It’s as if the entire country is excitedly curious about you, reaching out to embrace you in every act.

Jakarta rush hour seen from Glodok, where five rows of cars fit into four lanes and sometimes the motorbikes skip traffic via the bus lane (right).


The square in front of the Jakarta History Museum in Kota Tua.


Stoytcho tries a hot bowl of wedang ronde, a local sweet snack.


A variety of dishes offered at a padang stall in the Blok M food market.


People watch rainy-day traffic in front of the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. Across the street is the Jakarta Cathedral; both houses of worship have coexisted on this street for decades.


Two girls, one with a headscarf, walk together in front of the Jakarta History Museum in Kota Tua.


A puppet made for Wayang, the traditional Indonesian shadow puppet theater.


A nasi goreng (fried rice) stall on the street.


The narrow, makeshift market-crammed streets of Chinatown, near Glodok.


Pipes empty into a streetside open sewer in Glodok.


A fountain in the Grand Indonesia Mall.


The National Monument (Monas), commemorating the country’s fight for independence.


A woman and her child in an ojek (motorbike) parking lot.


We take a selfie with Indonesian students that interviewed us for their English class.

Glowworms and Tea


We finished our waterfall adventures and headed for one last tiny hike for the day. It’s called “Mounds Walk” and is listed as one of the short hikes near Whakapapa village, the center point of Tongariro. The New Zealand government helpfully supplies fantastic information on their parks website, well worth looking at for planning.


The whole 20 minute there-and-back culminates in a small raised platform surrounded in the distance by sets of mounds, exactly as described. The mounds are small hills, rising and settling with gentle slopes turning the landscape into a bubbling greenscape. The walk has informative graphics as to the theorized origins of the mounds – debris from previous volcanic explosions.


We visited too late in the day to get any really good shots of the mounds themselves, but the clouds filled in. As with many other places in New Zealand, the cloudscapes are vibrant, ever shifting, larger than life canvases in motion on which the sun paints with vivid palettes of reds and golds and violets.


We got our exercise for the day running back to the car and motored off to our last destination for the day : glowworms were said to live in the walls formed by a road cut far-ish off into the countryside. What should have been an adventurous jaunt was threaded with anxiety and paranoia that night. Earlier in the day we’d met a very friendly Dutchman while we were drying out our camp gear. He’d been travelling around in a campervan for some months and chatted with us briefly. Before the rains came and we hurriedly stashed our gear, he brought us two cups of tea which we drank gratefully. Waterfalls and mounds followed, and my mind embarrassingly brooded on the incident. Despite months of meeting people and relying on their kindness and good will, the manual of safe travel popped up : be careful what you accept from whom, especially if you’re alone. Lack of sleep combined with darkening skies and childhood stories of backwoods terrors and coalesced into the though of : what if the tea was drugged. Natalie was in a similarly tired state and could only counter that it was highly unlikely, but now the errant thought nagged at her too.

The last light before the long road to the worms.

What followed was a weary drive and a long conversation on travel, people, kindness and ill will. The short of it was that we were being very silly, and that by and large people everywhere want mostly the same things – a stable life, a chance to grow and raise their family. Of the places most people are likely to travel to, at worst people might be mildly annoyed at the large backpack and “tourists” ruining the area. We’ve found though that people we’ve met have been largely welcoming and curious. About why we’re in their part of the world, about what we think of it, about the rest of the world is like. We’ve been very lucky to not yet run into someone who wished us direct harm, though even then the goal is usually monetary gain rather than simple violence. This is not to say that the world is safe in all respects and that everything is peaches and cream, that would be too black-and-white for reality. But when it comes to people meeting people, at least in the places we’ve been to, the interactions are statistically for the better.

The cut in the road, only barely a car’s width across.

We’d arrived at this point, more tired and anxious than anything. The dirt road was pitch black excepting the streetlight at the junction to the main road. Here there is no place to turn around, so forward is the only direction. The dirt sides of the cut-through hill rise up rapidly and surround the car, everything is quiet except for the rumbling of the motor and visibility is truly limited to the beams of the headlights. It’s the kind of place where horror stories live, and boy were we primed for it.


Unfortunately, to see the glowworms, we had to kill the lights and let our eyes adjust to the total black. An unpleasant concept, but we did it. The result was this scene – blue-green lights twinkling on an unseen plane a foot from our eyes. We didn’t take the brave step of getting out of the car, and in retrospect that was a mistake.


The phenomenon of glowworms is unique, at least to me. Other animals produce light, of course, and eyes glowing in the nightbush can sparkle just the same. The glowworms though are as if the stars were brought within arm’s reach in all their cold and distant glory. I find it endlessly fascinating searching for constellations unknown in the star field of the worms. That they live and are arrayed on the side of the road is a spectacular event. Their larvae eat fungus and other decomposing plant matter and need moisture and darkness to grow. Apparently this cut satisfied all their needs since they were thriving.


Our night of anxiety ended as we slept at a roadside stop near Taumarunui. We woke to the sight of familiar rolling hills and winding roads. All was well, and we felt embarrassed and very silly. A sincere thank you and apology to the kind Dutchman for his tea and food for thought.

Regular people of Cusco

After our adventures in Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, we’re back in Cusco! We’ll be moving on to Arequipa soon, but here’s a tribute to the wonderful regular folks of Cusco. While we travellers pass through the city to see the sights, these people work here every day as vendors, cleaners, and builders. So if you visit and see these folks, give them your thanks.

A worker maintaining the ruins of Tambomachay outside of the city
Poeple chat in the Plaza de Armas between selling tour packages to visitors


A fruit market in the southwest part of the city
Fruit vendors at a market in the southwest part of the city
Two women collect and empty garbage bins near Mercado San Pedro
A worker carries supplies and children play in Mercado San Pedro
Construction workers demonstrate on the street near Plaza de Armas