Thursday, September 22, 2011

Show Me the Waves To Go Home

.. real poverty is a distressing reality in some places - even within the EU, be warned: the following true account may be disturbing to those of a sensitive nature ..

It was a beautiful morning along the southern Aegean coast; the sun was shining, the birds were singing and honeybees buzzing anxiously around the garden as I walked back from my early swim. This week I had business to attend to, that meant places to go and people to see, including an expedition across mountains, over seas and through guarded borders, before a return to work with two new students on a private program, a children’s television producer and doctor’s daughter.

The border lay ahead but first there were various public transport systems to negotiate. I hopped a dolmus from the beachfront to the nearest small city further up the coast where I met a friend on his way back from a visit to the hospital, and together we caught a coach to Izmir that dropped us in the centre of this city populated by over 4 million people. From there we had to jump another dolmus to the far edge of the suburbs and then hail a taxi, slipping him an extra 10 lira to speed along the slip road beyond the outer reaches of the sprawling metropolis to reach the airport in time for the late night flight to Istanbul.

Arriving in the ancient city of dreams we hovered till first light then took the reliable underground train service, the metro, into the city. Yawning but wide awake, we grabbed a bite to eat at an outdoor cafĂ© in what must surely be one of the world’s largest bus terminals before boarding the coach that would take us deep into Bulgaristan and the Romanian border territory. Thank goodness the bus was a lot more comfortable than the one in the picture that was sitting in front of the council hall in the town near where we stayed on the other side of Varna. The ride was long and there was much time to read and prepare lesson plans for the week to come.

Although I was enjoying travelling through the shadowy green forest and imposing red cliffs that climbed above clear mountain streams, I felt a strange sense that something was missing. As the coach rounded a sloping bend a landscape of rolling hills and expansive flatland unravelled around me and I realised what was wrong; spread across the plains of rich soil and high yellow grass was not uniform rows of stalks of wheat or ears of corn as expected, but barren fields of weed and wildflower and unproductive grazing land. There were no cows or sheep grazing at pasture, nor were there tractors stuttering and rumbling through furrowed, fenced ground. Instead there was silence, a deathly inactivity and lack of care for the untended fields that grew without hope.

Here and there along the horizon stood Ukranian-made tractors, old as the Soviet era and as rusted as the now defunct ideology that produced them. Barns and storehouses sat empty, unpainted doors hanging from hinges and interior space vacant as the eyes of the children who stood by the side of the road wiping their noses as the coach rumbled past the occasional hamlet of crumbling grey shacks clinging to the dusty slope of a rocky knoll. I turned to my friend, who had been born not far from here, and asked why there were no crops in the fields or cattle being herded across what appeared to be fertile land. “There are no modern machines available for planting or harvesting or even any parts for the old ones,” I was told. “Things were so much better during the communist days.” “Really?” I exclaimed, surprised and confused by what was always portrayed in American textbooks of the last century as a colourless land devoid of produce.

“When the communists were in power people had money to spend and there was plenty of food to eat. Every week I would collect my allowance in the town hall along with the other children and we had things to buy. Everyone got the same amount depending on age and so there were no poor people, and the shelves were loaded with cheese and pastries and sweets and meat. There was always food and entertainment because every weekend the women would cook and everyone would share what they had and then dance all night, drinking and laughing. I had a new bike and new clothes, so did all the other kids. We bought music systems and had lots of cds to play. Those were good days, not like now when no one has anything and the mafia runs everything for themselves.”

We arrived at the largest town in the area and tried to catch a bus to the village we were headed to, but the buses had stopped running for the day due to lack of petrol. It was hot and dry, so before arranging for a taxi we wandered into the main square to indulge in a beer under a shady awning. We sat watching the people, some of whom appeared no different from ordinary citizens anywhere else enjoying an afternoon coffee or cold beer as we were doing, the waitresses pretty and friendly and occasional businessmen in jackets and smart shoes shaking hands by the statues of former dignitaries.

Several times two or three women, hair coiffed, dressed in designer clothes of short skirts and revealing tops and swinging their fake Gucci handbags strutted along the street leaving a trace of cheap perfume and my friend unnecessarily informed me that they were prostitutes. “So many of them now, but they are the expensive ones, a hundred lira probably, you see them in every town.”

As we drove out to the village in the battered old yellow cab we passed two nicely dressed girls of no more than 18 or 19 standing at a crossroads in what could be called ‘the middle of nowhere’ and I assumed they were waiting for the bus that would never arrive. The taxi driver shouted something in a language I couldn’t understand to my friend who told me the driver said I could ‘have them’ for an hour for 20 lira (about 13 dollars or 8 pounds) but they wouldn’t get in a car with an American because "they’re afraid of being taken away”.

We arrived at my friend’s house, a large villa with four bedrooms and several sitting rooms but a toilet that was only a hole in the ground as is found in many old-style Muslim homes-though they weren’t Muslim, left by a father recently deceased, only to discover that the electricity and water had been shut off. The place was dark and smelled of neglect, though looked to have been a grand residence at some point in the past filled as it was with overstuffed couches, large antique tables and Persian rugs that would cost a small fortune in the West.

We walked down the hill to the village shop perched on a precipice overlooking the valley and recruited a couple burly men to assist with the house’s emergency generator that was currently locked in the garage. After trying unsuccessfully for an hour to start the power we left to check into the only hotel, a grimy place that was hosting a very noisy wedding reception in the small bar and restaurant that encompassed the ground floor, and seemed to show only porn or Russian news programs on the tiny television. My friend informed me the village men who had gathered around my car on our arrival had invited me to join them for a few drinks, and suggested I go to be polite but not to drink much as we had a long drive the next day, as if I needed reminding of our mission to these backwoods.

Minutes later, as darkness settled over the valley plunging it into a complete blackness broken only by the headlights of the cars precariously navigating the upper reaches of the mountains, I was bouncing along in the back of an old black Mercedes with a bottle of wine in one hand and a bag containing cheese bread, potato salad and dried sausages in the other. We arrived at a clearing on the other side of a wooded hill and pulled alongside another oversized car packed as ours was with men and young women, none of the girls spoke any English and only a couple of the men could manage a few words of my native tongue. There were several bags of foodstuffs spilled out in the open trunk of one of the cars and plenty of bottles of wine and rakija and even a decent scotch being passed around as the party started immediately.

I stood watching the lightning flicker like fireworks over the mountains as a terrific storm threatened to crash around us with the audible low rumble of thunder rolling from the edge of the sky. Two young women were bent forward over the hood of one of the cars with hirsute, flabby men flapping around them occasionally slapping their bared bottoms and roaring with delight; one of the girls was on a mobile phone speaking to her husband who I was told didn’t trust her when he was working nights. Two other girls were kneeling in the grass earning their night’s pay as men tipped a bottle between them and laughed at some joke I couldn’t understand.

I drank wine and wondered how long I would have to endure this horror while politely fending off the advances of one of the women who I was told wouldn’t be paid unless she ‘pleased’ their guest. I declined but offered to pay her anyway to avoid any trouble for her and the men laughed and told me in gestures she should get a slap for not being enticing enough to get me interested. So they sent over one of the other girls, the one who had been on the phone several times now with her husband, whom I tried to engage in conversation. One of the men roughly explained that she had a small child and since her husband didn’t earn enough to give her a food allowance she made her money however she could, even if it meant regularly cheating on her husband.

I finally made it back to the hotel where I slept restlessly for a few hours before we could make our break for the highway. The car needed a registration certificate to safely pass any potential police barriers, so while filling the tank with petrol we negotiated a legal window sticker with the clerk for about 7 dollars. Lunch was filling and unusual, alongside many various cooked meats and quantities of fresh salads were beans (yes, the small northern style) served with pickles (yes, the sliced McDs style gherkins).

The chef cooked continuously (smoking all the while) for the steady stream of traffic pulling off the two-lane road to the little cluster of outdoor eateries, though there was a practically empty Burger King across the street.

I was thankful to cross the border into a country that felt familiar, where I understand most of what is being said and no one looks hungry or abused. It is odd how immediately after entering Turkey the fields go from barren to planted as if someone had drawn a line and said, 'on this side you will have plenty but on that side you will starve', and I wondered again about the reasons for Bulgaria’s acceptance into the European Union without decent infrastructure, intensive investment in agriculture or industry or even seemingly ‘enlightened’ people attempting to create a liveable society for its citizens.

My friend offered the suggestion that, "it's a Christian country, so the West want it as a buffer nation." We decided to take the ferry down the coast from near Istanbul and, accompanied by a sizeable group of Japanese tourists, cameras flashing constantly, we settled back on a comfortable couch with a rich, dark coffee and enjoyed the undulating rhythm of the waves.

I rejoiced in the Turkish culture that set a decent standard of living for its people and whose populace generally lives an ethical lifestyle. There are many things wrong in this nation, as with all established governments, however the care of children and the education of citizens to high levels are paramount in the tradition of the society.

When I got home I thought about this shocking little adventure and declared once again that I had no desire to return to the regions north of here, but I also wondered what I could do to help and whether my skills as a teacher and former social worker might be useful to help lift some of the future generation out of the helpless entrapment of despair in their impoverished lives.

But, there are those with greater power and influence who seemingly have yet to challenge this archaic and destructive inequitable system, and surely attempts to regenerate the region must be fuelled by an influx of investment and proper resource management as well as the aspiration to provide a better life for all. This will only happen with education and opportunity.

I sincerely hope those with the facility to lift these people from misery will find it a priority before another generation succumbs to the conditions I witnessed; that a spirit of generosity and ambition to do right might flourish in the halls of power to use what authority they possess to pressure the region into providing tools and education for the people before its too late.

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I am not an expert on the attempts being made to integrate this nation-state into the world economy (recently a 'popcorn production plant' opened in Sofia) nor am I a beacon to moral behaviour, but even the US State Department website on Bulgaria acknowledges the rampant criminality of this country on their website, advising visitors to be aware of "drivers of late-model sedans’"and to "avoid altercations with the drivers of such vehicles, which may be driven by armed organized crime figures" and basically that people race through the streets of towns shooting guns. Astonishing that this is a known fact and yet not more directly dealt with in a nation that is part of the EU.

Note: Due to time constraints it is taking longer than I expected to 'redesign' the concept and content of the Blog, stay with me and see how it develops. Thanx KW