Nikolaevo is a 2,800 person town to the north of Stara Zagora at the foot of the Sredna Gora Mountains. While not a standard tourist destination, it is home to Stoytcho’s aunt and grandfather. Stoytcho’s grandfather, also Stoytcho, was the school’s math teacher and principal during the communist regime and his aunt, Lela Stanka, teaches Bulgarian there today. Together, they also still farm the plot of land that belongs to the Stoytchev family.
We stay with Lela Stanka in two-bedroom apartment at the northern edge of town. The school is still on summer holiday, so we take long walks with her in the remaining days of the countryside summer. She points out landmarks and updates Stoytcho on life here. Nikolaevo was once a larger town, with most inhabitants employed by a factory that made ceramic parts for electrical wires. “A competing Turkish company bought the factory and shut it down,” she tells us, “and most people left.”
Now, the people living in Nikolaevo are predominately Roma, but each year brings something new. British expats started coming a few years back, not just pensioners but also families with children, lured by the cheap cost of living. Bulgarian families have also moved in, lured by cheap fertile land on in the surrounding area that is ripe for planting vineyards. Winemaking is a growing industry in Nikolaevo, evident from the rows of grapevines stretching from the north edge of town and up the nearby hill, where Stanka says ancient Roman ruins lay buried in underbrush.
Nikolaevo is a small town like so many others in Bulgaria; things move slowly, things change slowly, and for now at least, things continue.
Over the next three weeks we’ll be European capital-hopping, where we have a few days in Budapest, Vienna, and Prague before ending up in Linz, Austria for the 2017 Ars Electronica Festival. Like Riga, we have little time to get to know each city, but hopefully it’s enough to get a feel for what makes it unique.
First up: Budapest, capital of Hungary and the fusion of two prior towns – Buda, and Pest. Stretched across the Danube, the city is a mix of beautiful architecture, verdant parks, and busy car-filled roads. The most beautiful time for photography is dusk, when the city lights up its most iconic buildings.
We’re in Warsaw after an uncomfortable overnight bus ride in which I had food poisoning, but that’s ok because Poland has amazing food for cheaper than your average European country. Pierogi and golonka, here I come.
As we wander the streets of Warsaw, though, I can’t help but ask myself “Where are all the people?” Except for a handful of tourists and the occasional homeless person, the parks we find are empty. The trolleys ferry only one or two souls at a time.
The only crowds we see are at the local farmer’s market (which is a bit livelier, but not until about midday) and in Warsaw’s “Old Town”, reconstructed after bombing in the Second World War leveled 80% of the city. Even here, the crowds of tourists aren’t dense and on a rainy day, everyone disappears.
The dearth of people, especially young people, isn’t surprising in Warsaw. First, we’re not wandering the financial/downtown district, where everyone actually works. Second, a lot of younger working-age Poles have left for Western Europe. Since Poland joined the EU, over 2 million Poles have emigrated, many of them young people looking for better-paying jobs.
But not everyone has left. One evening, we go out for a walk along the Vistula River and find ourselves part of a steady trickle of people in that direction. They’re all young and dressed up, and many are carrying bottles of wine or packs of beer. The trickle becomes a stream of people, and when we reach the riverbank there are dense crowds of people milling around, drinking, laughing, and socializing. Food trucks and ice cream carts line the sidewalk. We ask a couple of English-speaking Poles what’s going on; “Is this a special event?” we ask. “No,” one of them replies, “This happens almost every night in the summer.” So this is where the people are.
Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, is situated just east of Lake Baikal. Though it is built at the meeting point of the Uda and Selenga Rivers, the streets are dry and dusty with fine yellowed sand. It lends a wild-west feel to the city, especially in the suburbs. Here, old wooden buildings with immaculate carvings and battered windows squat side-by-side along broken pavement and hardpack dirt. It is a world away from the skyscrapers of Moscow. The other side of that town is a glimpse of that world-away through the same dust-yellow filter. Spreading from the town’s main square are the dense, multi-story apartment complexes and shopping malls, where people can find everything from bread to fashionable clothes to some fine international chocolate. Multiple theaters line the central square and candy-colored sidewalk boards around it advertise new restaurants, bakeries, and the ever-popular kvas vendor. Things are developing quickly in this part of Ulan-Ude, all beneath the watchful eyes of a ten-foot statue of Lenin’s head.
The people of Ulan-Ude are equally as strange for how similar and different I find them. As we people-watch at a fountain in the central square, I spot the typical Slavic-looking Russians, with slightly tanned skin and blonde hair—“White-looking” people that look like my mom’s family. But the other half of people I spot are pale to dark, with rounder faces and jet-black hair—“Asian-looking” people that could be part of my dad’s family. Regardless of appearance, there seems to be no racial tension as couples pose by the fountain and kids play together. That’s nice, given what I’ve been hearing about the troubles in the U.S.
Then there are the handful of people who are clearly mixed, and it’s weirdly like looking into a mirror. Beyond Hawaii and California, this is the only other place where I’ve encountered people who look like me. I want to talk to them and ask what it’s like, if there’s any discrimination, or if it’s considered a bonus. But I’m still learning to sound out Russian Cyrillic, and my vocabulary is limited to “Thank you”, “Hello”, “Exit”, “road”, “I want cake”, and “No smoking”. I am not equipped for any conversation. But that doesn’t stop one woman who mistakes me for a local and rapid-fires a string of Russian at me. I catch “Gdei…”, so I know is she’s looking for something. But I’m lost as to what, and can only give an embarrassed smile and lift my hands in an “I don’t understand” shrug. The lady, abruptly taken aback, returns the embarrassed smile and a string of Russian words that I assume are “Oh sorry, nevermind.” The weirdness now goes both ways.
Our hostel is across from the train station, and we can hear the rumble of the trains throughout the night. During the day, we sometimes make our way across the pedestrian walkway over the tracks, pausing at the middle to stare down at the lines of endless train cars. Some are passenger trains, but an overwhelming majority of them are carrying goods: massive tree trunks, wood planks, tumbled gray gravel, black-stained tanks of oil, and piles of jet-colored coal. And it’s not just one car carrying these natural resources, or ten of them, but hundreds of rail cars, stretching past visibility into the horizon. These never-ending trains in Ulan-Ude’s trainyard and slowly jerk to life with the creaking and screeching of metal-on-metal, bound for elsewhere, usually southward toward China, toward the bottomless demand for resources.
It looks like Ulan-Ude sees little of the wealth that this Siberian bounty fetches for Russia, and we find ourselves wondering why Buryatia remains part of Russia. We ask an employee at our hostel, a sharp, no-nonsense woman fluent in English, Russian, and Chinese, why Buryatia isn’t its own country. “You guys know that you’re basically propping up the economy for Moscow and the rest of Russia, right? Like, why don’t you demand more investment from the capital or break away to sell the resources yourself.” She scoffs at me and replies, “Oh, that is always what the Americans would want, what they tried to do.” I had no idea that the U.S. tried to convince Siberia to break away from Russia, but I wouldn’t be surprised. She continues with an answer “What would we do if we broke away? We have no way to develop these resources on our own. And we are all different groups. If we broke away, all we would do is fight each other and we would have nothing. Russia gives us an identity, unity.” Russia is the message that all of these people, regardless of race or geographical location or social status, rally around.
Da Nang is a seaside city we remember for its gorgeous beaches and amazing food. Tourism isn’t the primary industry in Da Nang, so accommodations can be found that are cheaper and more backpacker-friendly and there aren’t a lot of pushy travel agents and salespeople on the streets. The open-air restaurants lining the streets down to the beach are a mix of traditional Vietnamese and seafood eateries, a dream for those here to eat the ocean. AND it had our favorite boba and banh mi places in all of Vietnam. If we were to come back to Vietnam, it would be to visit this city and Da Lat again.
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.”
One of the nearby places-to-see, just outside of Jakarta, is Bogor. Bogor is the sixth largest city in the Jakarta province and is a bit of everything, but mostly a cultural and tourist center. It’s famous for its sprawling garden park and numerous museums, and serves an industrial and transit hub for the area. Getting there is amazingly easy – there are a lot of commuter trains that run between the cities, similar to light rail or metro trains instead of the long-haul style. We took ours from the station nearest our hostel, Jakartakota.
About an hour out, and we arrive. Bogor is supposed to be ever so slightly cooler than Jakarta so a lot of Jakarta’s residents use it as a weekend getaway. We got off the train and began our wide-eyed exploration.
Greeting us right out the gate was this view of the station’s ojek parking. The country runs on these things, and while it’s obvious there are tons of them just from watching the traffic, this sea of motor bikes is hard to fathom.
Next up, getting me a snack. The delicious banana and nutella sandwiches I’d been having for breakfast were not enough today, so the first food cart in our path was it. It turned out to be exactly like a scallion pancake, minus the scallion. Hot, oily, and delicious.
My plan for the day was to take us through the market to see and smell, then off to an out of the way noodle vendor for lunch, and then to the famous gardens for an afternoon stroll. The market is about twenty minutes on foot from the station, and along the way I really, really, had to use the bathroom. In a very interesting tourist-only experience, I walked into a large bank and asked if they had a restroom I could use. The guard laughed and walked me out the security hut to let me use theirs. I am almost entirely sure there was a pay toilet somewhere nearby and a local would have been told to go there. In Indonesia being an oddity and clearly foreign confers a good deal of leeway and assistance, and it’s important to not abuse that.
Shortly after this experience of gratitude and mild embarrassment, we came upon a food stall selling what looked like little cakes. Natalie was not interested but I got one. It turned out to be a type of coconut cake, heavy on the coconut. They come out as disks and the vendor cuts them in half and sells them in a bag. I never got the name of this dessert, but it was delicious, and there’s a recipe for something that looks a lot like it here.
Continuing on our journey we had to cross a mighty big street. Not much bigger than the ones in Jakarta but with traffic going every which way. Despite being used to the standard crossing style from our practice in the city, we hesitated and two officers decided we foreigners needed help. They might have been right. Luckily several other people took advantage of the stopped traffic to cross so we weren’t totally alone. The officers chatted with us for a bit, asked where we were from and where we were going, and told Natalie to hold the camera tight for fear of pickpockets. Then the senior officer asked for a picture! That interaction was great fun, and we headed to the market.
Much like South America’s markets, this was a stall-to-shack lined street selling anything and everything edible. The street here were pretty bad – mostly worn cement and dirt. Ojeks and vans had a habit of coming through at regular intervals to block up the street.
Turning down a quieter street revealed a more cramped but also more interesting side of the market. Here there were only ojeks riding down the road.
And instead of the previous main stalls of large-quantity vegetables, we met young people selling spices, fruits, and foods of every variety. Every stall we went by was another chat, another set of where why hows, and often a very agreeable picture session. One lady with an amazing smile declined to have a picture taken, saying she wasn’t done up today. These three kids spent the most time talking to us and seemed to have an incredible amount of energy and sense of humor.
Out of the market and way, way, way down the road, we came to Soto Mie Ciseeng, the noodle place I’d found out about. The food was great but the walk was very long and hot. I’m not sure I’d go back knowing there’s Mie Ahin just around the corner from the hostel.
The owner was extremely friendly and talked with us while we ate. His business seemed to be doing well judging from the flow of people in and out of the restaurant.
Our final stop before the gardens was at a cart selling neon-colored jelly and biscuit sticks in a brown liquid. Natalie was caught – what was this strange soup? It’s called sekoteng, and it’s dessert.
Warm, sweet, and full of different textures. It also comes on ice, but anything iced has a decent chance to cause stomach upset so we went with the boiled version.
As we ate we had a good view from the vendor-side of the cart. During business hours all of these jars and bowls and jugs are splayed out for display and access, but at night every last one goes somewhere in the cart, what can be folded is, and the cart is packed away until the next day.
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.
We left Arica last night on an overnight bus and though we have our bus routine down by now, we never get a fully restful sleep. When we arrive in Calama at 9 am, we stumble off the bus dazed. We’ve got only six hours before a flight from Calama to Santiago–an unfortunately already-booked holdover from when we originally planned to visit San Pedro de Atacama.
For most people, Calama is a stop along the way to the famed San Pedro de Atacama, so there isn’t much tourism infrastructure here. The town’s primary industry is copper mining and the metal appears everywhere, from embellishments in the sidewalk to souvenirs available in the shops. As a complement to copper’s reds, the sun’s rays here cast an intense orange hue over the desert town.
Here are the photos from our scarce six hours in Calama:
After Cusco, Arequipa is an entirely different world. Situated in a vast, dusty plain, the city is warm and dry. So are the people: friendly, but infinitely practical in their interactions with us. There are no tourists, and the only assumption that comes with our foreign-ness is that we have no idea how to do anything around here. It starts as soon as we leave the bus terminal and board a city bus, a tiny van re-outfitted to seat twenty on slowly degrading sofas. We ask for the Plaza del Armas, and they nod. When our stop comes, they simply smile and motion at us to get off.
The same thing happens when we get off and look for a hostel, for a restaurant, for anything. The people we ask either apologize that they don’t know, or smile and point us in the right direction. No bubbling excitement, no sleight of hand, no staring at us. The Arequipeno personality is almost like an infinitely cool, seen-it-all attitude. And yet, they pull that coolness off without coming across as unfriendly.
The city itself alternates between intensely polished and raw. The Plaza de Armas is a wide, open square with places to sit and rest. Pedestrian-only walkways lead off of it to gleaming coffee shops, stores, and shopping malls. But travel over the bridge to the neighborhoods in the west and things get rougher. The smaller streets are unpaved dirt and the fine dust covers everything. Every tenth building appears under construction or renovation.
Though there are many stores, there are more restaurants and bakeries than anything else. In many places, we can’t walk more than a block without encountering one of each. They’re a tribute to the Ariquipeno love of food and cuisine.
In this world of food, adored above all is the picantería. A distinctly local phenomenon, they evolved from little grandma-run stands selling a local fermented corn drink, chicha. The story runs that to sell more chicha, grandma started selling spicy food as well, and the picantería was born.
These restaurants are practical and unpretentious. We walk into one and we’re offered a seat at long, low picnic benches beside several other lunching families. We scan the menu and find nothing familiar. We ask for some dishes, and the waitress tells us “no, you probably want these,” in a matter-of-fact voice. “Okay, we agree.” She disappears and returns ten minutes later with four delicious-looking, heavily-laden plates. There’s rich meat stew, a cheesy squash casserole, a sweet baked cheese and pasta, and a cold cheese and vegetable salad. We wash it down with a glass of chicha.
Arequipa also loves sculpture, and the city hall serves not only as a place of business but also as an art gallery. The open square inside the building exhibits sculptures of cherubic children slaying different dangerous animals, from wolves to snakes. Then there’s a room dedicated to the history and culture of Arequipa on the second floor of the building, where we find dozens of sculptures in metal, wood, and sillar, a chalky-white volcanic rock found in abundance here. The city hosts a competition every year where artists compete to carve the most ornate sculptures.
As dusk falls, the city comes alive with people rushing to get home. There’s the usual vehicle traffic jams and people spilling onto the sidewalks, waving down buses, rushing for the crosswalk. But there’s surprisingly little honking or shouting.
With nowhere to be in particular, we take our time walking along the street and encounter a mouse. It’s seemingly unafraid of us, and makes attempts to climb Stoytcho’s shoe and pant leg before we break off a piece of our bread for it.
After an ill-fated visit to a park (many are closed on weekdays because people don’t use them), we wander back to the Plaza de Armas. In the darkness of night, the bright-white sillar spires of Arequipa’s cathedral glow against the sky. The Plaza hums softly with couples talking, friends laughing, and families out for an evening stroll. “Come, stay a while.” says the humming noise, “Enjoy life.”