So I know this guy. I can see where he lives and it’s not that far, as the crow flies anyway.
We’re friends too, so on occasion we’d like to take a break from the busy village life and have a little lunch, exchange stories and work tips and so on but we can’t, because there’s mountains, forests and a reservoir in between us with no direct way across for 50-100 miles.
Oh the comedy.
“I can see your house from my house!”
“I can see YOUR house from MY HOUSE!”
So one day we decide, “what’s the point of being in the beautiful Rhodope Mountains (where there’s no poison oak/ivy, poisonous snakes or spiders and no significant bear threat, by the way) if you can’t just ignore the paths and the roads and find your own way somewhere.
You know, get a little lost and so on.
“Alright, it’s in my calendar.”
So the plan is to head to the reservoir, he on his side, me on mine and meet at the points where the two sides are closest and then, if necessary, I’d swim across.
Yuk, yuk, yuk.
*Don’t worry Peace Corps, I may be crazy enough to have come here, but I’m not crazy enough to die in a hydro-electric damn.*
What actually happens is the weather cooperates and it’s a gorgeous, even hot autumn day. I slowly make my way down the side of the mountain after having checked the map and deciding on which mountain ridge to follow to the road.
When I got to the end of the flat, and generally tree-less area, I can hear the firecrackers, rifle shots and dogs barking from the hunting party that’s work down below.
“Hmm, I’d better stick to the right side of the ridge, just in case. And maybe sing a little, to really make sure.” I’m not very excited about the idea of being shot by a hunter whose ears perk up and trigger finger gets itchy from the sound my foot steps.
After an hour and a half of knowing only that I was “going down hill,” I reach the road and find a clearing that faces the reservoir. I can see the rendezvous point on the other side, but I can’t see anyone there, it’s still over a mile away directly. And I’m definitely not going directly.
I call on the phone and my friend is indeed there – he found his way through the forests without err – despite the warnings of the villagers, “It can’t be done! There’s no path! How will you get there? It’s kilometers away!”
After warnings like that, you pretty much have to go.
It’s at this point, walking and jogging along the side of the road that I realize how absurdly slow it is bushwhacking your way through a forest compared even to walking. Without really thinking about it, I’d kind of just assumed walking to be walking, but in only another 20 minutes I’d covered, on the road, what would have been a huge pain in the butt if I were trying not to slip coming down the steep side of a mountain. “Duh,” I know, I know. But still.
When I finally get directly across from the peninsula on the other side of the reservoir, I make another call.
“There’s two house-boats below you, one looks empty and has a boat, the other has some guys working on it and has two boats.”
Good to know, I can’t see down to the water on my side at all because it’s all steep drop-off and trees between me and the water line.
I climb down, using roots and saplings like handholds and get below the tree-line to where the water used to be before they started filling up the new damn, which is upstream from where we are. There I see about five guys, going in and out of the aforementioned house-boat, doing this work and that.
One of them notices the random guy standing just below the trees, wearing a dirty-orange vest, sack diagonal across his chest with two two-liter plastic jugs full of beer hanging from the strap, tied there with twisted-up plastic bags. (I had to tie them by the heads to the strap because whenever I’d lose my footing I’d have to use my spare hand to hold onto whichever one wanted to go flying down the hill – it was the only way to have my hands free if I fell, while not risking the loss of my precious cargo).
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey!” *Big smile,* “can I use your boat?”
“What are you doing here? Where’d you come from?”
“I’ve got a friend on the other side of the reservoir, we’re going to have lunch and then I have to go back to my village. I came down from the road.”
He disappears into the house, he and another guy come out and I wave. The second guy kind of smiles, kind of waves and then without another word, the first guy gets into the boat and ferries me to the other side.
An important thing to remember here is that Bulgarians cannot resist an opportunity to be hospitable. They just can’t. They don’t quantify gifts, or how much their generosity puts them out of time or resources. Later we joked about how out of the whole plan for the day, all the ground covered, all of the assumptions that it would take “this long to get there,” and “the area under the road might be passable here” and so on, the one certain thing was that if given the opportunity, a Bulgarian would help us.
Later when I tried to give him money for the gas for the boat, he refused and when I tried to leave it on the boat and jump off, he lunged and shoved it back in my pocket. – I know, right?
Lunch was delicious. There were rare delicacies, like crackers and cheese, and even something that you could call salami. More seriously though, there was wild-mushroom risotto. Quite the hookup and quite the surprise too. I’d skipped breakfast so I was quite the happy camper when I saw the food-spread.
When it got to be time to leave, I called the man with the boat (I got those digits when we first met), got across and scrambled up the side of the hill.
On my way home I stopped at a hotel/restaurant, the only one in the region, that happens to be at the head of the trail I wanted to take home (I figured it’d be a good idea to not force the trailblazing on my trip back up the mountain, when I’m running out of daylight).
The food was not good, it made me a little sad, but since I was glowing from all of the ambient Freedom (how much do we Americans love Freedom, am I right or what?) on this particular day, it didn’t make much of a difference. The calories did help me get home though so that was good and appreciated.
By the time I was half way along the trail the sun had already dipped behind the mountains. Turns out sundown comes about an hour early when you’re here and not at sea-level. That was mildly disconcerting, but as I found out, I’ve taken this trail enough times before (once is apparently enough times) to know my way in the dark. When I finally got back to the village, the street lights and the sounds of the bar, were welcome signs of being home.
Turns out it was Vladomir’s birthday, so there was a little drinking to him that went on, but of course I had work the next day so everything was kept Kosher.
I also had the opportunity to reassure, through my presence and my story, all of my Bulgarian friends in the village who took my joke about swimming the reservoir too seriously, telling me I would freeze to death and be turned into ground meat (by the hydro damn) and then trying to force me to call and cancel my plans the night before.
I’ve got to remember that sarcasm doesn’t translate very well.
Good times though.
Sadly no pictures however, I was afraid my camera would get wet.
We were up before dawn, the sun was beginning its slow move into the valleys and onto our side of the mountain. It always takes longer to get here, leaving us in the dark that much longer.
Thermal wear under throw-away clothes, shirt with a picture of a pig on it for luck (we were hunting wild boar), knife, coffee.
Also, I’m not a hunter, I’m just along for the ride.
We’re at the cafe//кафе (the word is pronounced roughly the same) and my landlord, Ivo, who invited, me asks if I have my camera.
“No, I left it.”
“Well go get it, what are you thinking?”
“Will everyone be here for a bit?
“How can they not be?”
I make the quick trip back to my room, get the camera//апарат//apparat.
Everyone piles into jeeps and 4×4’s and heads out of the village West around the bend. There they get back out and plan the days formation – “X number of people there on that ridge, so many more down-hill, put half the trucks at the bottom and have some hike in, start the dogs and the fire crackers from this side and have them move in that direction…”
An explanation is in order. It’s wild boar season. The way these guys hunt boar, every weekend, is like this: they pick side of a mountain or a valley, they disperse along the sides of the valley or along the mountain, maybe 15 or so people, they spread out so no one is in shooting range of anyone else (no accidents) and so everyone is as far apart as possible without too big an opening in between them, forming a kind of net or perimeter below the ridge them came down from. Once everyone is in place, a group with dogs and firecrackers (m80’s) starts off from one end attempting to flush out the boar(s) toward the to other waiting hunters.
What happens if they catch one and why they need so many people I’ll get to later.
After the miniature strategy session is over, we get back into jeeps and head toward our ridge. We get out and everyone puts on their neon vest to avoid being shot/breaking the law. One guy complains about it a lot and Ivo//Иво (my landlord) says to him, “Formalities”//формалности//formalnosti, which makes me laugh because A) it’s one of these words that sounds enough like English to be understood without already having seen or heard it and B) it’s always funny when I find the same problems/annoyances here in Bulgaria as there are back in the States – “gosh, this bureaucracy is just like home!”
I shadow a guy named Rumen//Румен//Roo-men. He and I hike down from the ridge into the forest for about 15 minutes. There’s no trails or paths, except those made by animals. It’s just wilderness. We find a good spot next to a tree up the hill from here:
and under these:
Not a bad place for a picnic or even a nap as long as there’s daylight.
Of course it’s not to be, there’s work to be done…
Rumen and I sit, motionless and quiet for 20 minutes. We can hear the first firecrackers being set off somewhere far away. In the valleys and below the ridges of the mountains, distant sounds come from most everywhere, all at once if they come at all.
Another 10 minutes passes by and we here a distinct yet light sound, something is prancing through the autumn leaves to our left just around the corner where we can’t see. It’s close and it’s clear enough to know where it’s coming from. Rumen motions for me to pay attention and to be totally quiet as he stands up and readies his rifle – judging by the sound we heard, he thinks he’s about to shoot a deer.
A moment later a pack of 10 boars comes blazing past us, left to right. Just as fast as they appear the boom of Rumen’s rifle sounds and he let’s out a rushed but gratified “heh,” – he got one. There’s a lot of them still rushing past us, it’s only even been a second since they got here and he aims and fires 3 more times. They disappear over a ridge to our right. Out of sight and out of earshot.
He turns around, we look at each other, “HaHA!” I say. He’s glowing, I’m ecstatic, he points at the pig on my shirt and says, “luck”//късмет//kusmet,” and then, “Two or three”//две или три//dve ili tri.
We wait for a minute, and then head down to find the boar he shot.
This immediately gets even more interesting for me because the boar didn’t just fall to the ground, it kept going somewhere and so now it needs to be tracked to where it finally fell.
It’s easy to find. We go to where it was when Rumen shot it, there’s a blood trail//Кръвска патека//Kruvska patteka as well as some clear tracks.
The blood trail:
A short time later – this:
When we get to the boar he takes out his knife and, after slowly approaching and then jarring the beast with his boot, slits the throat to end it. He pulls out his cell and calls two of the nearby hunters that walked in with us, telling them to come to where we are, “we got one!” (It’s amazing how good the cell reception is in these mountains, by the way).
Now the hunt is on again, only this time we’re looking for the other boar he shot.
He asks me where the others ran to. “Over the top,” I tell him. We hike back up, and, still under the trees, but at the top of our sub-ridge there’s no useful tracks (none of the big ones that a wounded animal would leave), and, more importantly, no blood.
We go back to our spot where we were waiting before and sit for a bit. Rumen calls some more people, we hear some shouting from others trying to find us and we shout back.
Back at the boar again: Rumen looks around and notices another blood trail and more tracks coming from the same direction as the set we followed, however these continue on after the boar that’s dead in front of us.
These tracks are much more clear than the first set we followed.
We hurry along, as fast as we can without losing our footing and just sliding down the hill. Then Rumen stands tall and looks over his shoulder at me, his other hand pointing at a dark mass lying in a flat spot half way down to the gulch at the bottom. I congratulate him and we talk a little bit and it jumps up and takes off running, over the edge and out of site.
Rumen moves left, down past a tree, and takes aim. We wait 5 more minutes and then he fires, apparently after it decided to stop resting and moved into sight again.
And viola! We have Hungry Man Dinner number TWO!
Also, where we were standing looks like this:
Looking at these two beasts I’m starting to get an idea as to why it’s important to have 20 people with you. I ask him, “how are we getting these out of here? Back up to the truck?”
“Hahaha, no.” He says, “hard work//трудна работа//troo-dna rah-bota.
After the others arrive the “hard work” of dragging these two along the “almost-a-creek” bottom of the gulch begins. We make it about a kilometer and we run into another 10 guys all waiting in a partial clearing near where a number of “almost-creeks” meet and turn into a real creek – running water and everything.
A hand full of guys pull out hunting knives and start skinning, de-hooving, gutting and quartering the two boars. I lend mine to a skilled hand in need of a blade – he knows what to do with it, I don’t.
There are lot of things that I’ve experienced in Bulgaria that might otherwise make me uncomfortable, if for no other reason than they’re so different from most of our experiences back in the States (say, drinking butter milk and brandy, together, on a hot day). As is usually the case, however, the way Bulgarians go about these things, most everything really, is so matter-of-fact, so natural that I can’t help act and feelg the same.
“Alright guys, let’s take the skin off of these two animals and then cut ‘em into 4, or maybe 6 pieces so we can haul them outta here back to the jeeps. Ready? Ok. Go.”
It’s like that. And then that happened. Everyone pulls out a couple of large, thick plastic bags and after about 40 minutes of serious-business dissection, I’m carrying 20 pounds of freshly dead boar meat under my arm.
For the butchers and doctors in training out there. I got most all of it on video.
The first of which is here:
*You may need to go to the album to watch the video, the embedding seems to have some problems.*
Link to the whole album.
There you can find the rest of the (more gruesome, though very plain) videos and the other pictures.
We get back to the trucks, Rumen is awarded the “best hunter of 2010” t-shirt, the kind of trophy that gets passed around until the end of the season. Apparently he’s better than most of the guys, who knew?
We get back to the picnic area 4km outside of town, have lunch and then everyone leaves on another hunt except myself and three others.
Now that the boars have been caught, it’d only be right to divide them up into equal shares for everyone, right?
How many hunters were there? 20? Oh, right. I guess we’d better make 20 piles then, huh?
And now that we’ve got these piles of meat, that are fairly distributed amongst all of the participants, how’s everyone going to get these home?
Why, bags of course!
The red bags on the left are for the big boar and the yellow ones for the small boar. They color code them because the boars have to be tested for trichinosis//трихинилоза//Trihiniloza. If one tests positive, you throw that bag away – it’s that simple.
All-in-all, a pretty excellent day. I got to be in the outdoors, see a real (previously) live wild boar up close! Just like at the zoo! And then I got to see it methodically turned into ribs, loins and dinner steaks (more on that later).
Thanks Bulgaria, much appreciated. You are, as always, a delight.
Our first (real) snow day!
From my window. This is where you can usually see the valley, the reservoir, those houses that are barely visible in the right background, and so on. There also used to be 2 meter-tall been stocks here during the season. Crazy.
My snow-covered commute:
From under my balcony…
Up and under the barn…
Now to the Kmetstvo//кметство (the Mayoralty, work), the building just behind that first telephone pole…
And then looking back from the from door of the Kmetstvo//кметство…
Fortunately, the next day, the air had cleared and the snow had stuck. It was the day I was traveling to Veliko Tornovo and it could not have been more amazing outside.
Looking at the near-peak behind the village…
Looking down that street toward the Kmetstvo//кметство again…
The road out of the village was actually the most expensive set for The Nutcracker ever completed…
Turns out it was only winter above a particular altitude…
That’s aright though, because we’re above that altitude.
I’ve been warned of 1 to 2 meters of snow. I can’t really imagine that so I’m not worried about it, perhaps I should be. I’m not quite foolish enough to think “oh this is beautiful so winter will be super fun and easy.”
But then again, look at that…
There’s nothing like mildly fermented butter milk out of a 2liter Coke bottle to complement a balanced breakfast.
It’s thick, needs to be mixed with water to be drinkable, has a mild tang and is slightly carbonated (from the small amount of fermentation that’s gone on).
And it’s growing on me. I like the buttery taste and feeling it leaves on the lips.
Down the on the mountain side, in the forests.