Bulgaria: Black Sea to Varna to Osikovo, Farm life & LunaDolina festival

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Smooth hitch back to Varna (BapHa) where we found the train station and began another uneducated attempt to translate some town/city sense into the Cyrillic alphabet timetables. We reckoned we'd bought two tickets to Popovo (Попово) so found a cafe to sit in for the next hour.
     As we were about to leave to find the train, a man on a nearby table signaled to us that he'd like to buy us two drinks. We smiled and politely shook our heads, we had to go and were too tired for attempted Bulgarian conversation.. His excited expression didn't diminish and a few minutes later two cherry drinks + straws arrived at our table. He grinned and pulled us out 2 chairs next to him. Awkwardly we stood up and started heaving on our bags to leave, not really sure what to do about those drinks... Making stupid train-like movements with our arms, we poured the drinks into a plastic bottle and left him looking pretty frickin disgruntled.
As we walked away we remembered, in Bulgaria, shaking your head means YES and nodding means NO. Ah fuck.

     The train walkway was half the width of me + our bag so Grace pushed me to our shared carriage with sliding doors like Augustus Gloop in the chocolate pipe, where we threw our smelly, dusty bags onto the rack over the heads of our companions. We had been warned to BE ALERT, the train will only stop at each station for 30 seconds. Cleverly we had no idea whether the journey would be 2 hours or 5, and as the train set off we noticed the growing trend of lack of station names at the stops. How would we know when we were nearing Popovo and how would we get our bags down in time without crushing anyone and how would we squeeze outta the train... in 30 seconds... Within minutes we could (we decided inexplicably) barely keep our eyes open, Roofies in the cherry drinks crossed our minds... There was no Roofies in the cherry drinks of course, but we ate a carrier bag of fruit and kicked each other in the shins for 2 hours. BE ALERT.

Arriving at Popovo station in the middle of miles and miles of fields. We saw one very full 15 seater mini-bus + a queue of 20 Bulgarians scrambling at the door. We weren't getting in. We asked the only other human we could find if he could speak any English, he shook his head. We were probably stranded, then a lady leant out of her car shouting over that she spoke English. We explained our situation, we were right, that was the only bus into town, we weren't getting on it. She smiled and drove us into town.


A few more busses and we found naughty Nick in Osikovo, a beautiful village nestled in a forested valley, accessible only by one 8km long dust track from the next village. The streets are covered in yellow, blue, pink, red, purple wild plums, and walnuts, EVERYWHERE. Nick had been at the farm for the weeks we were at the beach. We met Lisa and Ewen, our hosts.  (Their workaway page:  http://www.workaway.info/9177822224b6-en.html )

They moved here from Ireland 4 years ago. Houses are, on average, £1500, council tax is £12 per year.. They live totally off grid, no bills, 2 horses and a cart, 4 goats, Foxy the dog, and a kitten, Sugar, found abandoned a few months before. When they brought Sugar home she started suckling on Foxy the dog, Foxy the dog made milk, Sugar got healthy, Sugar stopped growing and 6 months later she is a pint-sized, kitten-size cat. Sugar, the smallest cat in Bulgaria, with the biggest attitude.


We had our first delicious dinner in the outside kitchen, cooked on the wood-fired mud-brick stove. Water is collected from a nearby spring so washing up is done once a day, Lisa said we'd need to lick our plates if we wanted to keep the wasps off between lunch and dinner, suited us well being a flat of plate-lickers.


With no electricity there was of course no fridge or freezer. We learnt how to preserve ratatouille and roasted goat in jars- ready meals for Winter. We made apple and pear spread in a swarm of wasps and hornets, Grace and her phobia nearly had a nervous breakdown. Although all at once 28 wasps will try repeatedly to get inside of your mouth, they aren't aggressive like in the UK. To have a bath in Winter when it's -28 outside Lisa and Ewen fill an oil drum with snow, build a fire underneath and climb inside. Milk was drunk straight from the goats udders, (so tasty and for sure we oozed feta from our pores), anything that wouldn't be drunk within the next day was made into cheese and Lisa had a brilliant egg-less pancake recipe for any milk gone sour.

     Osikovo is in a basin and we got properly pummelled by some spectacular storms. One jumped on us at dusk as Nick and I were in the middle of delivering a herd of goats back to a local Baba (old lady). Goat chaos. We leapt into the bushes to avoid a stampede, bursting udders swinging left to right hanging on by strips of skin, spraying milk like an out of control garden hose. We opened our mouths to catch a drink as Whitey charged past. Couldn't find the old Baba, and had been warned that her dog we could hear snarling on the other side of the gate would get our necks if we entered without her. We waited and shouted, the rain poured, the fork lightening struck, meanwhile the goats climbed a wall and broke into a nearby garden. Nick clambered in to catch them and the wall fell down.


 Inspiring conversations and so much laughter with our wonderful surrogate family. Falling asleep to the sound of a choir of singing Jackalls. And one night to the whirring hum of a low-flying alien spacecraft.

The final 2 weeks of our Bulgarian venture was spent camping in a valley outside of the village of Voditsa, volunteering for the set up of the first year of LunaDolina Festival. http://lunadolina.com/english/
Organised by a small group of British, Belgians, and Bulgarians living in Voditsa and surrounding villages, and part of the helpX scheme, work exchanged for food + accommodation (+ a cold beer after work).

Nick, Gracey, Ewen, Lisa and I piled into the van, picking up Kathy from her house in Voditsa + her daughter Elly who lives opposite her (both ex-Newcastle) + her partner Dancho (Bulgarian) + Raul (French) on the way. Raul cycled from France, with a tent and an accordion, it took him 2 months. He hates his bike and wants nothing more to do with it. On the last few metres of his journey he found a puppy, a week or so old with maggots in it's feet and covered in sores. Eyes closed, barely responding, but alive. Lunan we called him, after Lunadolina. And began mission cure the puppy.

Priority tasks were to build toilets and to build a cooker. Naturally, Nick, Raul and Ewen were on the shitters, Gracey and I were on building the wood-fired, mud brick stove AKA the petchka (печка) under instruction from Lisa and Kathy. The men had a clever system for ground levelling, spades, spirit levels and funny spy-glass things to look through, we used a big pan with water in the bottom. Mud, sand, water and scrap metal, making it up as we went along... It looked like a space ship emerging from the hillside, but it worked! and cooked lunch and dinner feasts over the following 2 weeks for all of the volunteers as the numbers grew from 4 to 24.

The stage was built, signs were painted, stairs were made from the chill-out area to the campsite in the forest, cafes constructed... Our most valuable learned skill, how to dig a deep, narrow hole in hard ground for a tall wooden post, and the importance of proper, actual proper, level ground below constructions...

In the morning we'd wake to the sun rising, light the fire on the stove for coffee and toast. The wasps wanted Baba Ivanka's honey as much as we did, flicking 3 to 15 off the slice before you bite, there were some (funny) stung lips and a (not so funny) stung tongue. A rota for lunch and dinner cooking, Chai and cheesecake and coffee at break times. A cold beer in the evening and accordion around the campfire. Hilariously messy translations of each of our best jokes in Bulgarian, English and French. Two of the Bulgarian boys from the village disappeared into the dark forest (with the jackalls and wolves and wolverines) to find wood for the fire and came back casually with two whole trees.

Grace and I walked into the village, early one morning. On our way down an old man called and waved good morning to us as we walked past, in his other hand he shook a dead rabbit in the air. On our way back up the track, he hobbled out of his gate, grinning, holding something behind his back, talking to us in Bulgarian. He pulled from behind him... TWO GIANT PEACHES. If anybody thought the generosity we'd been experiencing from the Bulgarians could have been something to do with us being blonde or girls or the only non-Bulgarians on the beach at Karadere, they should talk to John, the big Welsh electrician who lives near Voditsa. He'll describe how overwhelmed he has been by the Bulgarian kindness since he arrived a few years ago, the open-arm welcomes and continuous generosity.

We spent a day exploring the residential streets of Popovo. We were in one of the poorest areas of Bulgaria, people living there put us all to shame with their food growing and economical use of absolutely everything. The houses and flat blocks were built during communist times, when workshops in metal, wood and glass were available to everyone, each home is beautifully unique with fences made from metal cogs and radiator parts.. Vegetables grow on every spare inch of land, squashes dangle from balconies, beans trail fences, and grassy pavements along the roadside have been dug up into community veg patches.

For our weekend off we went back to the farm with Lisa, Ewen, and Lisa's lovely daughter Zoe who had arrived from Ireland. Our final dinner at the farm with our surrogate family, we were honoured to be asked if we'd like to share their last leg of goat with them, they have killed two over the 4 years they have lived there. Spectacular roast dinner on the wood-fired stove, plum rakia, Ewen did an impressive dance with a flaming axe, a tree trunk, and a drum beat and Zoe wowed us with her fire poi. PASS ME MA FOK'N SPOON in an Irish accent. So much love and laughter, thank you Lisa, Ewen and Zoe XXXX

A couple of full nights of sleep in a clean (shame Nick smelt so bad), insect free bed. Sleeping in the tent with 2 invisibility-cloaked ants tickling paths over our skin, somewhere in our sleeping bags... had become a torturous nightmare driving us to hysteria at 4 in the morning.

Lisa powered us by SaraLara and Foaly in the cart from Osikovo to the festival site for the final few days of set-up. Traveling by horse and cart is officially an extreme sport ya know, and Lisa once was an amateur rally driver... Their farm at Osikovo sits at the top of a near-vertical, rocky, dusty, pot-holed track. The van always stays parked at the bottom. One evening, Gracey, Nick and I had been sitting in the front seats with Lisa at the wheel. Lisa decided it would definitely be better if the van was up there outside the house, so that we could load it up with festival stuff... Reversing a few metres to get some speed she foot-slammed the accelerator, we flew at the track, bouncing and clattering to a metre from the top when Gracey squeezed her nails into my arm, the engine roared and in a dust cloud we started sliding backwards... Before we backwards flipped to our death, Lisa pulled the handbreak and reversed us back down where we laughed and made to climb out, clearly Mr Van wasn't capable of making it to the top. Before we could get the door handle we were flying again, jabbing our seatbelts back on as fast as we could. Three tries later we had made enough speed to climb over the brink where we found Ewen and Zoe grinning. Laughing at our white faces, Lisa assured us "ONLY PANIC WHEN I PANIC."

Back at the site, a 30x15ft rainbow cloth needed to be put up, a canopy with a central post and ropes along the cloth edges attached to wooden steaks, hammered into the ground. It needed 8 people to control it and stop it blowing off into the valley, rips in it were painstakingly repaired with needle and thread, torn, repaired again, the post was painted pastel stripes, wooden steaks were hammered into the ground, and moved and hammered and adjusted and hammered, it billowed in the wind as we held it in place and we all winced at the sound of it ripping on thistles in the grass, we lost pound-of-butter-sized Lunan somewhere underneath... After 10+ trial attempts to put it up, it finally got attached to it's pole and fastened into the earth.

Lunan got better, we bathed him in salt and tea tree oil in a wheel barrow, squeezed the maggots from his toes and pus from his sores. He marched around the festival site, ears pricked, tail wagging, barking, biting peoples toes, eating and eating... We found him one evening in the staff kitchen, lying on his back, catatonic, crying, stomach the size of a football.

I wove a cave out of willow, climbing to the top of old trees to collect thin stems of new growth, axe wedged under arm. Fell out of willow trees with axe wedged under arm. Last minute organised chaos, Thursday evening before festival Friday. The missing parachute cloth appeared at 5:30pm, which meant digging one more deep, narrow hole in hard, rocky ground, for it's central post (the look on Nick's face..) and scrambling up hawthorne trees to attach the ropes. A huge stripey jellyfish.

Friday morning we woke up to discover the wind, that apparently never blows in Bulgaria, had torn the rainbow cloth from the ground and it danced around wildly, hanging on by 2 pegs. It spent the festival twisted up and bound like a naughty maypole. Friday night there was wind + rain. Claire was site-manager and signed-off all the working volunteers, declaring that she'd probably get sacked in the morning but she wasn't gunna be part of no fascist festival. Realising that the stage was a dry place, she marched everybody in the crowd to dance on stage while Bram played his set. Saturday morning, the previously purple painted stage had a 5 inch thick mud carpet.

Yoga under the trees, blind archery, meditation, drum circles, taught to do a Thai foot massage on Nick's goaty, 6-week unwashed feet. Nick did a brilliant Feast of Fools slapstick sketch. Learnt about seed-swapping and soap making. We watched Samsara and Jungle Book in the cinema in the trees. The village pensioners came to sing, we painted their faces and they taught us the steps to dance the Horo.

Played the cardboard box game with the 90 year old bee-keeper. Nick and I had an intense experience with a beautiful, multi-coloured woodpecker, there were breathing trees, we were chased through the forest by someone who was frighteningly mentally-unstable. Psychedelic hilarity peaking with Nick getting confused and accidentally rubbing cow shit all over his face, plunging his head into the trough, slurping water like a beast.

We had a dazed, post-festival staff after party in the forest, drumming, a violin, a bbq, showing each other our most freaky body parts. Emotional goodnights. The 'who's going to give Lunan a home' dilemma was solved, Gracey and I didn't have to bribe the vets to forge his injection dates so that we could pay lots of Euros and order him a last minute passport and fly him back to Wales in our hand luggage, to present to Mum and Dad as their lovely new addition to the 4 dog, 4 cat, duck, chicken zoo to take with them to Portugal... Instead he got a happy home with a Belgian couple who snuck him back to Belgium in their van.

Tuesday morning we packed up and Lisa rode us to to the main road by horse and cart, it was tearful, and then she was gone into the distance. Standing road-side, we looked at each other as it became apparent that our chances of a lift would be unlikely, we were on a main road with nowhere for cars to pull-over, lorries whizzed past at 60mph blowing us into the bushes. We began walking in the direction of the next village, even if we didn't get a lift for the whole day we could pitch our tents and camp in a field, but the road-side path soon became overgrown with brambles, metres thick. We walked back to where we began...

Then a Hummer pulled over, and we got a ride to Sofia listening to Elvis. Haha.
The driver was a Turkish someone who knew all the police and the hotel owners and the owner of the petrol station and the owner of the cafe. He said very little to us, other than that he'd been up all night taking cocaine in a club and was likely to fall asleep.

A few days in Sofia, felt like we were in Enter the Void.

Overwhelming us with self-less generosity.
So much laughter that Nick got salt-burn under his eyes.
For teaching us that wood ash from the fire cleans dirt and oil and burnt food from pots better than any Fairy Liquid.


Karadere, Osikovo & Popovo, and LunaDolina festival http://www.flickr.com/photos/41086222@N02/sets/



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