Sunday, June 24, 2007

Feeling guilty for being rich

Travelling from Varna to Russe (on the Bulgarian border with Romania) I met some high school students who wanted to use me for English practice so I sat with them. They questioned me about Canada and my visit to their country, and one of their questions was whether I thought Bulgaria was poor. I told them that on the surface the country doesn't seem poor (except for the trains that I'll get to in a bit) but that I know it must be because I can buy things so cheaply.

The students asked me how much I was spending on my trip and when I told them about 2500 Leva (1250 Euro) they were astonished, saying that is about half an average annual salary. They were further amazed because I had said that my job didn't pay extremely well and yet I had saved that money in a matter of months.

That being said, all these kids were carrying camera phones and wearing branded clothing. Those kind of items aren't that much cheaper in Bulgaria, so either they're not doing too poorly themselves or they spend absolutely all their money. Still, I felt a little guilty for having so much money.

I mentioned the trains being a sign of the country's poverty. Firstly, train travel is cheap compared to other countries (I paid 4.5 Euro to travel over 200 km) and bus travel is even cheaper. But the trains in Bulgaria are the oldest and dirtiest ones I've been on. I could smell the toilet before I even got on one train, so I sat as far away from it as possible and fortunately I didn't have to use it. The seats are dingy and small - eight seats where there'd be six elsewhere in Europe. Trains still have compartments, not the open seating that you find in the west. In Romania and Hungary I've also been on grubby old trains, but they also have some new ones for the intercity runs.

Buses can be just as grubby and are a rough ride by times. Seat upholstery is often torn open. One bus I took in Bulgaria had what I believe was the transmission protruding from the floor and covered by a blanket. That bus' side doors would not close but that provided needed ventilation.

Other than the transport, I found nothing else problematic in Bulgaria really. The locals were all friendly (excluding train station employees who don't seem to be nice in any country in the world) - when walking through the village I stayed in, little kids would shout greetings in English and older people would smile. One woman at a restaurant washroom, upon learning that I was from Canada, very enthusiastically tried to get across some point about Canada being number one and Bulgaria being number four (in sports or something? I still don't know).

It seems that a lot of older Bulgarian men get to sit around and drink all day while their wives are out working. All the menial jobs, except hard labour, are done by women, and the really old women still try to make some money by selling handicrafts.

There are huge beetles in Varna. One of them could take on a mouse.

Death notices are posted on sheets of paper tacked on to posts and trees, bearing a picture of the deceased. I couldn't make out anything more than to gather that these people were dead (Cyrillic makes things tricky), so they could be full obituaries for all I know.

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