Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Happy Holidays from Saudi Arabia!

This is just a quick note to wish everyone wonderful holidays. It has been a while and I will be back with a full update but the short version of it is that we are all in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia now. 

Warmest wishes for peace and love from our yet-to-be-unpacked home to yours!

Friday, May 17, 2019

NW Bulgaria Trip Part IV–Vidin

This is Part IV if the series of posts about our trip to NW Bulgaria. Here are the links for Part I, Part II and Part III.

Our third stop on this trip was Vidin, which is a port town on the Danube in the extreme Northwest of the country. The Danube is the natural border between Bulgaria Romania in this area. There is a bridge connecting the two countries here (it is one of two, the second being at Russe). Vidin is also very close to the Bulgarian border with Serbia.

Vidin is an ancient place that started out as a Celtic settlement by the name of Dunonia, then evolved into a Roman fortified town called Bononia. It became an important center in the Roman province Upper Moesia, encompassing parts of modern day Serbia and Bulgaria. The area was then settled by Slavs, who changed its name to Bdin. Eventually, the Slavs formed an union with the Bulgars (or Old Bulgarians, who were nomadic warriors and came from Central Asia via the Caspian and Volga regions) and founded Bulgaria in 681. In the Middle Ages, Vidin was an important Bulgarian city, a bishop seat and a center of a large province though it did at some point accept Serbian suzerainity and was briefly occupied by Magyar (Hungarian) crusaders before falling to the Ottomans in 1396.

We arrived around noon and checked into our hotel, Anna-Kristina, which we were told was the best in town. We got an apartment with a queen-size bed and a fold-out couch. It was on the top floor, overlooking the park along the Danube, which was nice, however, it had a low, attic-type ceiling sloping down along two walls. This might not be an issue for other visitors but we are tall and it was a little uncomfortable because we were left with a very small area where we could actually stand up without having to stoop over. Otherwise we liked the place – the location was good and there was a decent restaurant in the hotel which was handy in the evening because it started raining.

We decided to take a walk in the park along the Danube on our way to the Baba Vida Fort and the old synagogue. The weather was a little overcast but nice, so we walked until we saw the old synagogue.

It was built in 1894 and used to be the second largest Jewish temple in the country (after the one in Sofia) before WWII. Even though Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany during WWII, it defied Germany’s order to send its Jewish citizens (about 50,000 of them at the time) to the concentration camps. It did, however, send about 11,000 Jews from then Bulgaria-controlled areas of Northern Greece and Macedonia to the death camps where most of them perished. After WWII, most of Vidin’s Jewish population immigrated to Israel. The synagogue was seized by the communist government. There were plans for its restoration but they never went anywhere. After all these years of neglect, the building is gutted and in ruins. I had seen pictures of it and knew it was in bad shape but wanted to see it.

Even though it is falling apart, you can tell it was gorgeous once. It was bitter-sweet to think about all the weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah’s and other special occasions the Jewish community celebrated in this building, all the times it was filled with excitement and emotion. And so sad to see it crumbling. I understand there are plans to restore it and make some sort of a multi-purpose community center from it, which would be nice but there have been more than one similar plans for the building, so I hope this one comes to fruition.

We continued on our way until we got to the Baba Vida Fort. It was built on the bank of the Danube on top of the remains of the old Roman Bononia settlement. The construction began sometime in the second half of the 10th century. According to legend, a powerful Bulgarian ruler lived in the area. He had three daughters, Kula and Gamza and Vida. Before he died he divided his kingdom in three – Vida got Vidin and the lands in the north to the Carpathian, Kula was given Zaecar and the Timok valley, while Gamza received the lands west up to the Morava. Kula and Gamza didn’t luck out in marriage - one married a drunk, while the other a warlord. Vida rejected all marriage proposals that came her way and remained single. She built the castle and lived in it for the rest of her life. It bears her name: Baba Vida (Grandma Vida).

The fort is surrounded by a moat, which was empty when we were there but we were told that it’s sometimes filled with water from the Danube. It had two concentric walls and nine towers, three of which are preserved.

We walked around it a little bit and spent some time on the bank of the Danube.

Unfortunately, it started to rain, so we had to go back to the hotel. Max was really bummed out because he wanted to spend some quality time skipping stones in the Danube, so we promised him to make a little bit of time for that the following day on the way out of town. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant which was quite good. The region is famous for its good wines, so we tried some of them and they did not disappoint.

We left Vidin after breakfast the next day and headed for Vratsa. We decided to take the longer but more scenic route, via Lom along the Danube - we had to keep our skipping promise to Max, after all. We found a place on the river where we could stop and do just that. There was a little wind from the North, which was less than optimal for stone skipping as there were some waves coming our way but Max enjoyed it nonetheless.

Monday, May 6, 2019

NW Bulgaria Trip Part III–Belogradchik

This is Part III in a five-part series about our recent trip to NW Bulgaria. Here are Part I and Part II.

Our second stop was Belogradchik, another small town in NW Bulgaria famous for its interesting rock formations, a Roman/Medieval fort and the caves in the area. Belogradchik is a popular destination for Bulgarians and foreigners and I had wanted to see it for a long time but somehow I never made it that way, so I was really looking forward to finally seeing it. We stayed at Villa Rose, which was recommended by a colleague. It’s a three-bedroom private home that the owners are renting but it’s one of the nicest places we have found in Bulgaria. It is spacious, well-appointed, has a nice, private yard with a couple of patios (one of which has a lovely view of the rocks), a small dipping pool (not heated). It got a little chilly overnight but there was a nice fireplace hooked up to a heating system which kept us nice and toasty. The kitchen was roomy and comfortable and had everything you would need to prepare a meal but there was a nice restaurant around the corner (Pri Ivan), so we didn’t need to cook.

We got there a little after lunch, dropped off our stuff at the house and walked over to Pri Ivan. We had a quick-ish meal and headed to the Venetsa (the wreath) Cave. A friend had recommended it saying it was the most beautiful cave in Bulgaria and I had seen articles online making that claim too, so I thought we had to see it. I have only seen a few caves in Bulgaria, so I can't say if it's truly the most beautiful but it is cool and it does indeed have onyx stalactites and stalagmites, which is pretty amazing. It is not very big and it was developed and open to the public fairly recently (in 2015), so it has a new lighting system with changing color lights, which makes the stalactites and stalagmites look neat. I liked it but Nia complained because there were some really low and narrow passages and navigating them was a little tricky. I’d say it’s worth seeing, especially if you are a caving enthusiast. Here are a few pictures from it:
We headed back to Belogradchik with the intention of seeing the fort. We decided to see the cave first because I had checked the hours and realized it closes an hour earlier than the fort. The fort was supposed to close at 6 pm. We wanted to get there in time to see the sunset. We got there at 5:20 and were told that the fort does indeed close at 6 but they don't allow people in after 5, which was a total bummer because we were leaving for our next destination (Vidin) the next morning. We were really disappointed that we won't get to see the fort but the cashier lady pointed to a road that she said went to an area where we could see the rocks. We headed that way and found an area where there were metal ladders, allowing us to climb up on the rocks from where we could see some of the other rock formations. It wasn't the fort and it wasn't sunset yet but the views were still amazing. 

The cashier at the fort also recommended a restaurant called Mislen Kamyk, which she said had the best sunset views of the rocks. We went there and there was one table on the veranda overlooking the rocks but everyone on the veranda was smoking and it was rather unpleasant, so we left. The view was not bad though:

We ended up back at Pri Ivan for dinner, after which we walked home. Max took a dip in the little pool, undeterred by the cold water and Paul and I had some local rose at one of the patios overlooking the rocks. It got chilly after sunset, so we moved inside and enjoyed a little quiet time by the fireplace before going to bed.

We all liked Belogradchik and Villa Rose and wouldn't mind going back some day to see the fort.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

NW Bulgaria Trip Part II–The Chiprovtski Kilim Festival

This is Part II of a five-part series of posts about a trip we took recently. Here is a link to Part I.

Our first stop was the small town of Chiprovtsi, famous for the colorful hand-woven carpets (kilimi in Bulgarian) they make there and the annual Chiprovski kilim festival. Carpet-weaving is ingrained in the culture of the small town. Every family is (or was) involved in some aspect of it, whether it’s raising sheep, spinning yarn, dying it, or weaving, and each home had a loom but then that was the case in every home in Bulgaria back in the day because every woman wove household items for her family. I am not from Chiprovtsi but my grandmother used to weave. She had a covered area, adjacent to their house, where she set up her loom every summer and wove scrap rugs. Her rugs were not as fancy as the Chiprovtsi ones but they were practical and she used them throughout their house. I loved watching my grandmother weave and over time she taught me how to do it.  At first, when I was really little, I would just watch, then she let me push the shuttle with the yarn from side to side. Eventually, I got to sit at the loom and weave. I wasn't really good but I knew the basics. It was something girls her generation were expected to learn and even though things were changing and neither my mom nor I had to weave, she thought it wouldn't hurt us to know.

In 2014 the tradition of carpet weaving  in Chiprovtsi was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, which has caused a surge in the popularity, demand and prices of Chiprovski kilimi. The interesting thing about these carpets is that they don’t have a nap (loops of yarn sticking out) and their designs are just as beautiful on the right side as they are on the wrong (they actually don’t have a wrong side – they are the double sided but the two sides are mirror images of each other.) I had heard about the Chiprovski kilimi growing up and had seen them in people’s homes but I am not really a carpet person, so I was not interested in them until I came back to Bulgaria in 2017. Living outside the country for more than 20 years has made me appreciate some of the things I had taken for granted as a child and now I find myself thinking about things I may want to buy before we leave Bulgaria. At some point I decided I wanted a Chiprovski kilim. Going to the festival in Chiprovtzi made sense because it would allow me to see the greatest variety and if I were to fall in love with one and it was not insanely expensive, well, maybe it was meant to be. The festival fell on Orthodox Easter weekend this year and we figured this is probably one of the last chances we have to take a trip in Bulgaria as a family before Paul and Nia leave for Saudi. Plus, we had a four-day weekend, so we decided to go for it.

Chiprovtsi is located in a picturesque valley surrounded by snow-covered peaks in the Western Balkan range. We got there about 10 am, parked close to the center of town and were greeted by this sign. It says Chiprovtzi in Bulgarian with the “o” shaped like one of the most popular carpet motifs, the Kanatitza (Max is sitting on it in the picture below), a symbol of eternity or eternal life, providing protection from evil and good fortune.

We took a walk around looking at the carpets. Here are the ones I liked the most. Below to the left is a “Chicken” design and to the right “Makasa.”

 "Fall vine" below

Another “chicken” kilim but with a different border to the left below and a “spring vine” to the right. I really liked the "spring vine" - the colors were really vibrant and it was large-ish (maybe 5’ x 6’). I asked for the price and the seller lady said it was $1,700, which seemed steep. I asked why and she said that they were about to increase their prices again as it was hard for them to find weavers at that price. She said that particular carpet took two women two months to weave. When she put it that way, it seemed fair for the weavers but I still couldn’t make up my mind. I needed to think about it but got their contact information (, in case you are interested). They have a store in Sofia and make custom carpets – you specify the size, designs and colors and it takes about 2 months. It’s not cheap, for sure, but I can still order one and make it unique. Something to ponder and save for, perhaps.

I also really liked the “Bakamski” design in red and black (the folded one) below but it wasn't for sale.

There was traditional music and dancing in the square:

If you couldn’t afford a whole carpet, you could buy Chiprovski kilim souvenirs:

There was also an area, where you could see the old ladies of the town demonstrating the different parts of the process of making a kilim.

We were told there was a nice museum in town, so we headed that way. There were gorgeous antique carpets displayed along the way.
And there were many more inside the museum.

In the end, I left Chiprovtzi without a carpet. I did buy some souvenirs for friends and relatives but just couldn’t pull the trigger on the rug. I will go to their store in Sofia though and and see if I can buy one on the spot or order a custom.  

Friday, April 26, 2019

NW Bulgaria Trip Part I - The Birds, the Bees, … and the Snakes

We had a four-day weekend for Orthodox Easter and we decided to explore Bulgaria’s Northwest, a part of the country none of us (including me) had seen before. Bulgaria’s Northwest is known for its natural beauty but also as the poorest part of the country. After the fall of communism, a lot of the formerly government-owned enterprises folded and there has not been much to replace them, so the area lags economically compared to the rest of the country. People have been leaving smaller towns and villages for larger cities in Bulgaria and overseas in search of work and education opportunities and few have gone back. This, coupled with the low average birth rates is causing serious demographic concerns for the whole country and beyond, which is sad because there is so much to see and do here.

But back to our Easter trip. We started in Sofia and traveled North to Chiprovtzi, Belogradchik, Vidin and Vratsa over four days. I'll be adding separate posts about each of our stops in the next few days.

Today we were driving down a country road when we saw what looked like a snake in the road. On closer inspection, it turned out to be not one but two vipers (пепелянки) and they seemed to be making baby snakes. We slowed down to make sure we didn’t make ex-snakes out of them and I took a few pictures.

Max: “They’re doing it!”

Me: “Wait! What?!!!”

Since when does my 8-year-old know what that even means?!!!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

On Being a Decent Human Being

I am at a Religious Freedom training in Budapest. Normally, I don’t talk much about my work here but indulge me for a moment, will you?

Religious Freedom is one of the things I cover in Bulgaria. It is an important part of U.S. history and a key tenet of U.S. policy. Now, if you know me, you know that I am not exactly a religious person. But I don’t have to be because religious freedom is about protecting the rights of people to practice any religion or no religion at all.

I have had moments over the years when I have studied various faiths and I find many of them interesting but for whatever reason, no one religion has resonated with me in a big way. Perhaps it has to do with growing up under communism, the political system that beat religion out of many of us. Religion has made a comeback in Bulgaria and different faiths resonate with people.

I work with various religious groups and do my best to help them in their efforts to achieve religious freedom. Occasionally, I hear comments about “the infidels” as these “evil” people. I generally ignore those comments but they don’t sit right with me. Just because someone doesn’t follow a particular faith doesn’t automatically make them a bad person any more than going to a house of worship makes one automatically a good person. Also, just because I don’t believe in an organized religion doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t believe in anything. While I don’t think of myself as religious, I do see myself as spiritual and believe in being a decent human being. To some this may seem simplistic but it’s enough for me. My moral compass is in me, it’s part of me and I personally don’t need to go to a house of worship to feel connected with that fundamental belief (I like visiting temples but it’s mostly for their aesthetic, cultural and historical value). I don’t need someone else to tell me to be a good person. I have felt this way for a long time but today I heard someone else say something along those lines and it really resonated.

As part of our training, my colleagues and I met with Eva Fahidi. She was born in 1925 in Debrecen. Her family was deported to Auschvitz in 1944. Ms. Fahidi was 18 at the time and together with 1,000 other women was transferred from Auschvitz to a forced labor camp in Germany to work in a munitions factory. When she returned to Hungary after WWII, Ms. Fahidi realized that 49 of her relatives were killed in Auschvitz. She was the only person in her family to survive the Holocaust. Just digesting those facts was hard for me. She lived through all that but somehow found the strength to move on after the horrors of the Holocaust. If this doesn’t tell you something about the power of the human spirit, I don’t know what would.

Ms. Fahidi appealed to us to watch the news with open hearts and minds and then follow our hearts and minds. She said she is concerned about the rise of the Right in Germany and worried about the future. “Why can’t people understand they are so similar?!” she wondered, adding that some people in Hungary “get anti-Semitism through their mother’s milk.” She said one of her best friends was Roma. Her message to us was, “Try to be human. Decide to be a good person. Nothing else. It’s difficult but try. In the end it will be worth it.”

Ms. Fahidi has written two memoirs, which don’t seem to be available on amazon but hopefully soon. There are a lot of stories about her in various publications including the New York Times and the Washington Post but the most recent I could find was this piece from Deutche Welle, which talks about Ms. Fahidi’s love of dance and dancing in her 90s as a way to tell her story and promote Holocaust remembrance.

I just loved her attitude and faith in humanity despite the awful trauma she experienced at a young age.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Dealing with Loss (and the Broken Heart and Fried Brain that Go with It)

My dad lost the battle with cancer and it was incredibly sad, unsettling and scary. It’s been almost two weeks and I have been at a loss for words to describe how I feel. I posted a quick announcement on Facebook the day it happened, mostly to let people know about the funeral but so many friends responded from all over the world, people who knew my dad as well as many who did not. I was totally overwhelmed by all the heartfelt and thoughtful notes. They meant a lot - thank you from the bottom of our broken hearts!

My dad had been unwell for a while and deteriorating rapidly, so his passing was not unexpected but it hit me very hard when it happened nonetheless. We all know we are going to go one day but it’s hypothetical until it actually happens. And when it does, the closest relatives are immediately thrown in organization mode – making funeral arrangements, notifying people, dealing with a myriad of things that have to be taken care of when someone dies. There is no time to think, no time to process. I see what is happening, my mind registers and I understand on some level but my brain refuses to process it. I go through the motions on autopilot, moving through a haze, hoping I would wake up and find that it has all been just a terrible nightmare and that everything is fine – my dad, my childhood hero, is young and healthy, strong and handsome, the way I remember him.

I try to hold on to the sweet childhood memories just a little bit longer but realize I am dreaming, with my eyes open. And there is a coffin in front of me holding a man, who is supposed to be my father but looks like a ghost of the man he used to be. I know my father is gone. Forever. I know I will never see him again and things will never be the same. The finality of it is like a slow bullet to the head, a huge lump in the throat, a hole in the heart. I know I will have to live with those things for the rest of my life because nothing can ever fix them. It’s all raw and it hurts but I have to learn to live with the pain somehow.

Time heals, they say. But that makes no sense to me. This pain seems different and here to stay - I can’t imagine it ever going away. I try to be strong for my mother, who is beside herself with grief, for my husband and kids but I am falling apart. I sense depression rearing its ugly head, trying to snake in. I shoo it away. I exercise and spend time in the sun trying to replenish the serotonin (happiness hormone) I so badly need right now.

I try to move on. Work is a good distraction, they say. Except, focusing seems impossible. And I keep forgetting things – not sure if it’s just temporary or I’m losing my mind. The loss and thinking about it seem to have consumed me, yet occasionally I am startled at the thought that my dad’s really gone and never coming back. 

There are too many bad memories of my dad’s illness and how desperate things got in the end. I don’t want to remember him like that. I am curating in my head the things I want to remember about him. I go through old pictures, just to prove to myself that the strong, handsome man was not an illusion. He existed and was at the center of my universe for a long time. I want to keep only the good memories, chisel off everything else and let it go.

Nothing makes us face our own mortality like the death of a loved one. So I contemplate it again and again. There is no good end – dying young and healthy or unexpectedly is no better than dying after a long illness. It’s heartbreaking no matter what. I wish I was more Zen about my dad’s passing – you know, be one of those people who honor their loved ones by celebrating their lives. There is a lot to celebrate about my dad’s life for sure: he was funny, curious, brave and adventurous; he traveled a lot, worked hard and had fun. But I am still angry about the way he died. Cancer is brutal. It sucked the life out of him and caused him so much of pain and suffering. I don’t understand why that had to happen and have a hard time moving past it to get to a point where I could celebrate his life. I hope I get there some day. But right now I am working through my anger and sadness. I am trying to figure out mourning and realize I suck at it. I find it frustrating to watch my mom going through her grief and I can tell she’s frustrated with me but everyone mourns differently and that’s OK.

Some people in Bulgaria wear black after they lose a family member. I never thought I would do that - it seemed old-fashioned, weird, and so not me because I love color. Well, I wear all black now and it feels strangely comforting and right because it matches my mood. It also lets people know I’ve lost someone who meant a lot to me. How long – I don’t know. Until the fog lifts and I feel lighter, I guess. Whenever that is…

Monday, March 4, 2019

New Year’s Resolutions Update

I have been feeling out of sorts lately. As things with my dad’s health spun out of control, I tried to stick to my resolutions as much as I could in February hoping they’d help me keep my sanity. I did better with some than with others:

  • Blog – I did not blog in February but this is post number two for March (and both are about things that happened in February), so I think I’m alright.
  • Work out – I did 19 workouts in February, which is better than my goal of 16 per month. I really needed the exercise in February because the whole month was incredibly stressful. It was so tempting to just veg out at night but I somehow managed to convince myself to do something more often than not. I maintained the two weekly yoga workouts with the Down Dog app. I did Beginner 2 level throughout February and today decided it’s time to try Intermediate 1, which was hard but I powered through it. I love my yoga workouts but also crave variety, so I have been exploring new and interesting ways to exercise to avoid boredom. My other workouts were usually barre. Have you guys tried barre? It’s a ballet type of workout but it’s really good and I am enjoying it. There are a ton of free barre classes of varying length and difficulty on youtube and I am totally taking advantage. I also started doing the Johnson and Johnson 7-minute workout, and so far so good. The workout is pretty good but 7 minutes just doesn’t seem enough, so I doubled it the first time I did it and tripled it yesterday, which was intense but in a good way. I completed my push-up challenge – yup, that’s right, I went from 5 to 50 pushups in 30 days. I still can’t believe it. That’s a big deal for me. Ramping up to about 37 was unbelievably no biggie but going up from there was whew, hard! When I got to 45, I was really struggling and my form was not as good as it should have been. The last couple of days, I couldn’t complete the number of push-ups I needed to do all at once and needed a brief breather for the last 5-10 push-ups. But I finished the challenge and that’s such a morale booster. It made me think I can do anything! I did gain strength that I don’t want to lose but didn’t really think about what I would do after I got to 50. I have been doing about 30 push-ups each day since I finished the challenge until I figure out what I want to do. Because I have been working out pretty regularly, I was hoping I’d lose a couple pounds in February but haven’t. Boo. I am trying to not let that get to me and continue to work out.
  • Eat less sugar – I did so-so on the sugar front. I am not sure why I decided to start this challenge on February 1 – my dad’s and my son’s birthday are in the first half of the month and so is our wedding anniversary, so I only lasted 10 days without sugar. The second two-week period went better. I didn’t eat any sugar at all. I will try to keep this eat-sugar-once-every-couple-of-weeks thing going. The plan was to start a low/no-carb challenge on March 1 but haven’t yet. Maybe tomorrow. . .
  • Declutter –I have been decluttering little by little as I have time and it’s been good. I mean it’s time-consuming and I am still the only one in the house doing it but it has a calming and almost meditative effect, which I really like. It’s like playing clothes origami. As I smooth out the wrinkles from clothes and fold them in neat rectangles, I imagine I am smoothing out the “wrinkles” in my life and I find that thought very soothing. I have now KonMarie-d all of our dressers, which gave me a sense of being in control during an otherwise very hard and stressful time.
  • Learn Arabic – I am chugging along with Rosetta Stone. I did find a few resources on the Arabic alphabet and that has been helpful. I still can’t really read but have now learned most of the letters, which I think is good. My progress is slow but it’s better than nothing and I plan to keep at it.

That’s it for now. How are you guys doing with your resolutions?

Friday, March 1, 2019

In the Doldrums

Warning: this is not an uplifting post but I am going through a rough patch and I need to vent. If you are looking for something uplifting, you may want to skip this one.

My father is gravely ill. I used to think of him as a cancer survivor. He had a couple of serious cancer episodes – in 2006 (prostate, bladder and colon) and in 2009 (throat/larynx.) The diagnoses were devastating in both cases but he underwent surgeries, had chemo and radiation both times and recovered. His larynx had to be removed in 2009, which was particularly hard on him as he was a talker but he learned to use an electrolarynx and was able to communicate and stay active. My parents have a house in a village in Bulgaria with a beautiful garden. My dad built a drip irrigation system and they grew wonderful fruits and vegetables every year. They raised rabbits and chickens, they made their own wine and rakia (a local fruit brandy). It was a lot of work but it had a lot of meaning for them, so they liked it.

Unfortunately, about 16 months ago my dad started bleeding from the opening in his throat (through which he was breathing after his larynx was removed). At first the bleeding was light but we knew it wasn’t normal, so he went to the oncology hospital in Veliko Turnovo (my hometown). The doctors acted very strange – they told him he needed to seek an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist but that the ENT clinic in town had closed. They provided no further advice or referrals.

My parents decided to come to Sofia and talk to the doctor who had removed his larynx back in 2009. That doctor was now in his 80s and when they went to see him, he seemed unwell but saw my dad for less than five minutes. My dad told him about the bleeding. He said that it happens sometimes but that he should keep his trachea moisturized and that would help. That didn’t sound like serious advice to me but I am not a doctor. We all wanted to believe that something simple like moisturizing would solve the problem, so they went home and moisturized but it didn’t stop the bleeding. Back to Sofia they came. I arranged for them to see another ENT doctor. He said pretty much the same thing and suggested applying pure cold-pressed olive oil to keep the opening to the trachea moisturized. I was very puzzled. They went back home again and started applying the olive oil, as strange as it seemed. It didn’t help. They consulted with another doctor in a nearby town. More or less the same thing happened which lead to no improvement. During the summer, he had a periodic check-up at the oncology hospital in Veliko Turnovo. They did a battery of tests and an x-ray but said everything was normal.

Except he wasn’t feeling well. He was still bleeding, felt very tired all the time, lost appetite, started losing weight and also started having chest pains. In October, they talked to an oncologist they knew in another city a couple of hours from where they live. He agreed to do a complete check-up to determine what was wrong. They admitted him in the hospital there, did a chest x-ray, blood tests and a CT scan. He was severely anemic and had to have a blood transfusion. The doctors said that there was a dark spot in his right lung they were concerned about. They did a biopsy but it came back negative (no cancer cells). They gave him medication to stop the bleeding but it didn’t help. They did another biopsy and another (each taking about 10 days to get results) but those also came back negative. We thought that meant no cancer and were somewhat relieved but the doctors were still concerned about the dark spot in his lung and the fact that the bleeding, the pain, the fatigue and the chest pain were persisting. I talked to the doctors asking if there’s anything else that could be done. Eventually they agreed to do a PET scan, which would unequivocally confirm if my dad had cancer. It was early December. There was a waiting list for the PET scan but he got an appointment for the first week of January. In the first week of January, they called us to tell us the PET scanner was out of order, they’d call us when it’s working again. We wasted another week but did the PET scan the following week. At that point the doctors there told my dad there was nothing more they could do.  They sent him to a specialized lung hospital in Sofia – if anyone could help him, it was them.

So they came to Sofia again. I took them to the lung hospital to talk to the head doctor there. We waited around for hours and when we finally got to talk to him, we were scolded like children because we didn’t have x-rays, CT scans or the PET scan. When my parents were leaving from the previous hospital, I had asked them to request everything, so that the doctors at the lung hospital in Sofia could pick up where the previous doctors had left off, which they had done. The doctors at the previous hospital had provided written summaries of what they had found but not the actual x-rays, CT-scan or PET scan. The head of the lung hospital said he couldn’t do anything until we brought him those things. So we wasted another week collecting everything. Meanwhile, my dad’s health was continuing to deteriorate. We got the PET scan results and I am not a doctor but even I could see from the summary that it was really bad – there was a very large tumor (about 10 cm in diameter) in his right lung. The tumor had spread to the spine and was affecting several vertebrae, several ribs and had spread to the lymph nodes. It was very advanced – stage 4. My mom and I were in shock but we gathered all the information and the actual scans and took them to the doctors at the lung hospital. They agreed that the situation was indeed very serious but said they needed a biopsy with cells from the cancer in order to figure out if there was a cure and if so, what may be the best course of action. They admitted him and did another biopsy which also came back negative. By this point we were all extremely frustrated and disheartened. My dad had lost about 40 lbs in the last four months, the bleeding was continuing and he was in a lot of pain, which we now knew was from the tumor eating away at his spine. I went to more consultations with doctors. They were concerned that the tumor may reach his spinal cord and cause the affected vertebrae to collapse, leading to paralysis. We were horrified to hear that. The lung hospital doctors decided that the way they had been getting his biopsies (through the opening in his trachea), though the least invasive, was not working and they needed to do something else.  They said he needed to go to another hospital for a biopsy through his back.

He got admitted again in the other hospital, had another blood transfusion, another biopsy (this was #5) and we had to wait another 10 work days for the results. Those 10 days were interminable but we waited because what choice did we have? When the results came back they knew what type of cancer it was (squamous cell) but he was in really bad shape – he could barely stand or sit, still bleeding and in excruciating pain. I met with an oncologist at the hospital to talk about options. He said that unfortunately, the tumor was very large, aggressive and too advanced. There was no cure, he said. We were afraid that was the case but hearing it was devastating. Chemotherapy was out of the question in my dad’s compromised state but he recommended radiation as he thought that may help with the bleeding and the pain, and perhaps stop the tumor’s growth. I immediately met with a radiologist (who had administered his radiation the last time he had cancer). She agreed to have my dad come in the next day (Friday) for radiation prep and start radiation the following Monday. We went the next day, they prepared a mask for the radiation procedures, we filled out the check-in paperwork and everything was ready for him to be admitted again for radiation on Monday. Saturday night, my dad fell while going to the bathroom. By Monday morning he had lost control of his legs/feet and couldn’t walk.

We called the radiologist and told her what had happened. She said that they couldn’t administer radiation under the circumstances but urged me to talk to a neurosurgeon to see if he could perform a surgery to stabilize my dad’s spine with pins and screws to stave off paralysis. I got an appointment with the neurosurgeon the same day but needed to take my dad there and he couldn’t walk. We have a staircase in front of the house and there was no way to bring my dad down the stairs. Paul was out of town, so he couldn’t help me. I talked to the Health Unit at the embassy and they let me borrow a wheelchair. My mom and I managed to put my dad into the wheelchair and then wheeled him down the hill in our yard before helping him into the car. We met with the neurosurgeon. He said he needed an MRI in order to determine whether he could perform the surgery. We had a bunch of other scans and stuff but not an MRI. He insisted only an MRI would do. Could we get one at the same hospital? Yes, but there was a two-day wait. We had already waited too long and did not want to wait. He arranged for us to go to a clinic across town to get an MRI immediately, so we loaded my dad in the wheelchair and the car and off we went to get the MRI. The neurosurgeon said to come back and show him the MRI. By the time we got back it was after 5 pm but he waited. He saw the MRI but said that the tumor was too advanced, in order for a surgery to help in any way and that it was likely to cause more harm than good. He advised against it.

To say I was said, disappointed and angry would be the understatement of the century. My mom and I were both going nuts with worry and distress. Because this was it - we had run out of options. There was nothing else we could do to help my dad. Except get strong pain meds, which I got the next day after being yelled at by a doctor and breaking down and crying at the hospital. It was awful. It is still awful and will probably continue to be for a while. My parents have decided they want to go home, so tomorrow I will take them. My dad wants to die at his house, which I understand but I feel terrible. Because I am a problem solver. I help people. And I can’t help my dad. It’s the worst feeling.

Also, the illness is starting to affect my dad mentally. He is often confused and seems to be seeing things and people that are not there. He doesn’t seem to recognize me anymore, which is so incredibly sad. Today is March 1 and I went into his room in the morning to talk to him and give him a Martenitza (a symbol of spring and health Bulgarians exchange on March 1 every year). He let me tie the Martenitza around his wrist but I could tell he didn’t know who I was. His eyes just seemed to say, “Who is this woman?” I didn’t say anything but it broke my heart. My dad deteriorated so quickly that I have a hard time believing what has happened. Part of me thinks that maybe he is in some lala land where there is no cancer or pain and he doesn’t know what’s happening to him. I hope that’s the case because the alternative is just too much to bear.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

New Year’s Resolutions

January is New Year’s resolutions month. Here are a few things I have decided to work on:

  • Blog more – I am going to try to blog at least once a month but the more the better.
  • Go back to working out - I worked out sporadically during most of last year, which didn’t feel good. So, I have decided to do something about it. I read an article about getting back in shape which resonated with me. It talked about committing to working out at least 16 times a month. It sounded doable but I needed an accountability partner. Unfortunately, my workout buddy from Addis, Tara, is on the other side of the world in Papua New Guinea. I reached out to her anyway to see if she’d do it with me despite the distance. She had a serious ankle injury last year and can’t do anything that puts too much pressure on her foot but she, like me, wanted to shed some weight and get back in shape, so she was in. 16 workouts a month came down to roughly 4 workouts a week. She started swimming and walking. I started doing yoga twice a week with the Down Dog App. I love that app, by the way, because you can tailor the length and difficulty to whatever you need. It had been so long since I had done yoga, that I needed to start from Beginner 1 to slowly build up my strength. I vary my other two weekly workouts. I found some hula hoop/barre workouts that seemed fun and have been doing them and some ab/Pilates type workouts through FabFitFun. I have a FabFitFun box subscription and they have a fitness website with a bunch of videos, so I can always find something there. These workouts are usually about 15 min, so I do a couple. It’s not much but it’s better than nothing. I started keeping a fitness log and have already done 19 workouts so far this month. Yey! I haven’t lost any weight whatsoever but I am trying to not let that get to me. I also started a push up challenge. I have never been good at push ups but have always wanted to be, so when I stumbled on this push up challenge from Health Magazine recently, I knew I wanted to try it.  It’s supposed to get me from 5 to 50 push ups in 30 days. I am on day five and so far, so good. I have a hard time believing I would be able to get to 50 but I’ll give it all I’ve got and we’ll see. Last but not least, I took a picture of myself on January 1 and plan to take one on the first of every month to track progress. Not loving the January picture but I have to start somewhere and I have to be honest with myself.
  • Eat less sugar – I discovered a really cool website called Darebee, which has all kinds of workout inspiration. If you guys haven’t seen it, you need to check it out. You’re welcome. Anywhoo, there was a 15-day no sugar challenge there, which I really need. I plan on starting it on February 1. I want to make it a recurring thing – eat sweets once every two weeks. I think I can do it. I also want to cut down on carbs but can’t do it all at once, so I will try to add that in March.
  • Declutter the house –clutter around the house has been driving me crazy and I have wanted to do something about it for a while. Like everybody and their cousin, I watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix and decided I liked some of the ideas in it. I have been reorganizing some dressers. I tried to involve Paul and the kids but so far no one is biting. With Paul and Nia leaving for Saudi Arabia this summer, we will have to go through their stuff anyway, so I am not doing everything all at once but making baby steps as I have time. That’s not what Marie Kondo teaches but I am not going to worry too much about that.
  • Learn a little Arabic – I have decided that I want to pick up some Arabic in preparation for moving to Saudi. The U.S. Government was shutdown for 4 weeks, which wasn’t fun but Rosetta Stone had an offer for government employees for 3 months of free online language instruction in any of the languages they offer, so I decided to take advantage of it. I have only done it a few times and it’s not easy. I had forgotten how humbling learning a new language is. Rosetta Stone has changed a little since I last used it but the underlying principles are more or less the same. I wrote a review about learning Hindi with Rosetta Stone back in 2010 and am having a very similar experience with Arabic. It’s lovely to be going at your own pace and learning as you have time but there is no explanation whatsoever and while that’s OK when you are learning obvious things like the words for cat and dog, it’s frustrating when you get into more abstract stuff. The other day, for example, I was going through a lesson and getting every other exercise wrong and just not understanding the concept until a few screens later when I had an aha moment – it finally dawned on me that they were teaching negation, the idea of NOT doing something and comparing it to doing something. Or when I had already gone through the lessons teaching the words for girl, boy, man, woman and then all of a sudden there were different words with similar pictures – perhaps they were trying to teach me the words for child(ren) and adult (s)? Who knows? Also, Arabic apparently has singular, plural and another form for two of something, which was different and took me a while to comprehend. Maybe I am still misunderstanding it. In Arabic you read/write right to left, which I thought would be confusing but it’s really not that bad, it’s learning the letters that’s problematic for me right now. Some of the lessons are trying to teach you how to read but without teaching you the letters or the alphabet. I find that very confusing but they test your reading and you have to figure out what letter/s to use in words and expressions just by looking at them, which is crazy because I don’t know the letters and there’s no explanation or cheat sheet or anything. I think I need to look around online for some help with learning to read Arabic. Anyway, I am mildly frustrated by the things I don’t understand but I really like learning languages, so am excited. I know I am not going to truly learn Arabic after three months of Rosetta Stone but it will be better than nothing and every little bit helps.

That’s all on the resolutions front. In other news, my father is not well. We’ve been trying to figure out what exactly is going on with him for more than a year now and it’s very frustrating and discouraging. He and my mother are staying with us, while he undergoes more tests. We are trying to stay positive but we are all very worried and it’s hard. We are hoping for a miracle.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Throw Back Ethiopia: A Visit to Hell on Earth or How My Friend Tara and I Accidentally Married the Same Ethiopian Man

(Note: For some mysterious reason Blogger choked on the pictures for this post and I had to resort to some trickery to add them. Hence the different look. I don't love it, especially the weird frames but have not been able to come up with a better fix.)

Facebook just reminded me that it’s been two years since my trip to the Danakil Depression, the craziest, most amazing trip I went on in Ethiopia. It wasn't easy (night hiking), safe (walking on fresh lava, strong sulfur smell, eye and skin irritation) or comfortable (ungodly hot, no toilets, no showers, no power) but I guess that's what made it unusual. Plus, we had wonderful guides, drivers and a cook who made the trip truly awesome. I was just looking at the pictures and realized that I meant to blog about it but never did. So, I'm doing it now with lots of pictures because I want more people to know about it and perhaps go see it – it’s so worth it.

A little context: I went to the Danakil at a rough time for me. I had already been separated from my family for about 6 months. Ethiopia was in the middle of a state of emergency – there was unrest around the country, a lot of armed police and military in the streets, we were not allowed to leave Addis for a while, phones and the Internet were extremely unreliable. We were all itching to go out of town, so when the restriction on leaving Addis was lifted, we all rejoiced. About a week later, I heard that our Regional Security Office (RSO) was trying to get permissions for embassy staff to travel to the Danakil Depression. At first I didn’t believe it because I had heard about the Danakil Depression and seen pictures of the place before I went to Ethiopia but it is close to the border with Eritrea and at that time the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea was not good. Not only that but several tourists had been murdered in the area a few years earlier, so we were not allowed to go there. But RSO moved forward and did a test trip. One of our colleagues went. As soon as he got back I was like, “So, was it awesome? Did you love it?” He did not love it – it was ungodly hot, he said, the trek up to the Erta Ale volcano was grueling, walking in the crater unsafe, you slept outside, there were no toilets, no showers. He said, it was kinda interesting but not exactly pleasant. I heard what he said but it sounded awesome to me. I wanted to go. Badly. I guess it takes all kinds.

The Danakil Depression is a place of extremes. Hell on Earth is how some people describe it. I don’t think that’s accurate but it is definitely one of the lowest and hottest places on Earth, so there is a limited window of time when tourists can visit – January and February. Our embassy works with two companies, which put similar trips together for us but they can only take about 15 people each. Because we had not been allowed to leave Addis for a while, a lot more people want to go than the two companies can accommodate, so they use a lottery to determine who gets to go. My friend Tara and I win the lottery for one of the two trips and can't wait to go!

We fly to Mekele, where Gurum, the tour guide from GETTS, our tour company, is waiting for us with several SUVs and drivers.

We are assigned into groups of three to a car and driver.

We drive north-east. Along the way we stop at a small village just to see what life is like in this part of the country.

Everyone is going about their daily business and we chat to some of the people for a little bit.

We see this lady making dung patties and drying them in the sun. The first time I saw people doing that in India I thought it was absurd (I worried about sanitation) but when you live in a place with limited fuel sources and/or your means are limited, you do what you need to do and making dung patties is an important job, if you want to feed your family. So I have grown to respect the job, unglamorous as it is, and the people who have to do it but never had a chance to take decent pictures because I had always seen them from a moving vehicle.

We continue on our way driving through dramatic mountains but eventually they open up into a desert. We enter Afar region.

The houses look different here, more like tents.
The Afar people are nomadic. They move around in search of pasture for their animals. Afar is autonomous, so we have to pay to enter Afari territory. We also have to hire a local guide. We stop at a hamlet to do that. There are a few children playing outside.

The boys want us to take pictures of them and love looking at them in the camera.

This little girl is curious but very shy. I think she's beautiful.

We go inside one of the houses.

The entrance is so low you have to double over to enter. 

 At first we can’t see anything after the bright light outside but as our eyes adjust, we see a very basic cooking area.

This is what the Afar people use to make butter. It's made out of a baby goat. They shake, shake, shake it and voila - butter.

The vessel Gurum is holding is for milk. Apparently, if the Afari give you milk, that means you have their protection while you are in their lands. They did not give us milk. At the time, I wasn’t sure if that’s a bad thing because the Afari have a reputation for being fearless warriors.

An Afari guide named Mohammed joins us for the hike up the Erta Ale volcano. We drive through the desert and see fields of lava all around and the occasional camel.

It’s windy and our cars kick up so much sand as we drive that it’s difficult to see and we have to stop occasionally to let the sand settle, so we can continue without hitting the other cars in our group.

Soda apple - one of the few plants that grow in the Danakil desert, which unfortunately is very poisonous to both humans and animals. The Afari dry its stems and use them to make enclosures for their animals and fences for their houses.

We get to a small village and stop for lunch. There are no restaurants in the whole area, so the tour company has brought a cook.

The cook's name is Mandela and he makes sure we are well taken care of.

There are no proper stores where we can buy fruits and veggies either, so the tour company has to bring in everything - water, eggs, fruit, veggies, meat, gas, dishes, utensils, pots, pans, etc.

We eat and continue to the base camp for Erta Ale. Once there, we relax while the guides and local camel drivers prepare for our trek up to the volcano.

Loading the mattresses and the provisions we will need for the trek up, the night at the volcano and breakfast.

We start our four-hour trek to the volcano at 6:30 pm because it is ungodly during the day (45 C/113 F in the cool season), which means we have to trek in the dark. We are far from any town, so by 7 pm it’s pitch black out there and let me tell ya, hiking in the dark is hard and disorienting. We hike  over  lava rocks which are lumpy, uneven and often loose. It's hard to see where exactly you are stepping to ensure you have a firm footing. Mohamed, the guide, sets the pace and he's like a billy goat up the trail, while we huff and puff behind him. We are lucky we don't break our necks. We don't realize how steep/far we have hiked until we get down the next day.

We have to use head lights and flash lights to see where we are going. 

We get to Erta Ale at around 10:30 pm and are dead tired. There’s a large caldera, at the edge of which are some huts, where we will spend the night. Inside the large caldera there is a smaller one and that’s where the lava is. Our guides suggest we go down into the large caldera and right up to the lava. It’s insane but it's what we came for, so we follow them and get to about 10 -15 m from the lava.

The volcano had erupted big time the week before and had filled the large caldera, so we are walking on lava that’s about a week old and it’s very brittle. Walking on it feels like walking on ice, not knowing if it will hold your weight. The trick is to walk behind someone heavier than you. If they don’t fall in, then you’re probably OK. On a few occasions the lava cracks under my weight and I can feel the hot air rising from the cracks, which seems downright surreal but I am too tired to worry about how dangerous that is.

I wonder if my shoe soles are going to melt and while I do that, the volcano starts spurting bigger and bigger, so we have to run to avoid the lava reaching us. A tad unnerving…

We spend the night in huts made of loosely piled lava rock (picture taken the next morning). No door, no toilet, no shower, no power. There are cots, mattresses and sleeping bags, which came on the camels with us. I didn’t think we’d need sleeping bags but around 3 am a wind picks up out of nowhere and I have to get inside the sleeping bag. Someone says there were rats. I pass out almost instantly, so I don't see any but hang my hiking boots from the sticks on the roof of the hut, just in case.

We get up early, grab a cup of coffee and watch the sunrise over the volcano from the edge of the large caldera.

I can see people at the small caldera below and I want to go too but nobody else from our group is interested in going back down there after the close call the night before. I don’t want to go alone, so I have to settle for the rim view, which is pretty incredible.

Our camp at the edge of the crater. You can see the path going down to the small caldera inside the big one.

We eat a quick breakfast at the camp, which consists of cookies and instant coffee, while the guides pack our stuff for the trek down.

Because we are very close to the border with Eritrea (about 20 km), we have to have armed escorts - the boys in blue with the AK-47s, who look about 13 years old.

The way down from the volcano is easier than the way up. I am so glad I have my trusty hiking sticks though - without them, I would have definitely fallen more than once and sprained an ankle or two.

Back at base camp, we bid farewell to Mohammed, the Afari guide who ran us up the hill to Erta Ale. In the dark. And back down. He is not a big man, his legs are about as big around as my arms but his endurance is unbelievable. We are in decent shape but we all have a hard time keeping up with him. We have no common language, so communicating with him is interesting. It consists mainly of us begging him to slow down and/or give us breaks. He is a good sport though. 
Next stop, Dalol but to get there, we have to go over 12 km of lava fields, which takes more than 2 hours and is the worst road my butt has ever experienced.

We take a break at a part of the desert where there is water and lush green grass. I don’t know if it's technically an oasis but it's very beautiful and serene. I could have stayed there for a while but we have to get to our camp for the night.

Our second-night accommodations are more like what we are used to but a bunch of donkeys in the nearby village bray all night, making it hard to sleep.

We get up early the next morning to see the camel caravans of the village head to the Dalol salt flats.

We have breakfast and also leave for the salt flats.

Our armed guards ride on top of our cars today.
Driving through Lake Asal (salt lake) is fun but we have to drive slowly and carefully because salt on the bottom of your car is bad news.
We get to the salt flats, where the local men are already hard at work carving salt into rectangular blocks and loading them onto camels to take to market.

This is where Tara and I get into an unusual predicament.

Enter Ahmad, our Dalol guide. He used to work at the salt flats but has moved on to being a guide. He is showing us how the salt is carved into blocks. We are asking questions about the process. Then he hands me a block he has carved. But it’s big and heavy. I want a small piece as a souvenir, so I ask him to cut me a smaller piece. Tara wants one too. He obliges and gives us each a piece. Gurum, our guide from the tour company is like: "Are you sure?" "Do you know what this means?" We don't. To our amazement, he says: "You just married the guy!" Ooopsies!

I try my hand at carving salt into blocks. Turns out, I suck at it. I guess, I shouldn't quit my day job just yet.

We honeymoon at lake Asal. Tara is also there, of course – he is her husband too.

I try making a salt angel. It does not work as well as a snow angel but is substantially warmer.

At the salt flats with our guides and drivers. 
We head on to our next stop, the Dalol sulfur springs, which are only about a 20 min drive from the salt flats but in that short span of time the desert changes from snow white to rusty orange.

Up close the rusty red looks more like bright orange broccoli.
The springs themselves are on top of a hill and look like something from another planet. I had seen pictures of the place before and just assumed they were altered. That’s how crazy and psychedelic the colors are. I just can’t stop taking pictures.

Bright green, yellow and orange combine to create views that are hard to believe. Yellow = sulfur, red = iron, green = potassium. 
Looks so inviting, no? Don't be fooled - the liquid is an acid which will burn you, if you are foolish enough to go in. Apparently, a French woman disappeared in the area not too long ago. All they found of her were her bones. 

The sulfur is quite stinky, especially if you're downwind from a spring. After a while our eyes start watering and our faces sting. Danakil acid facial anyone?
Last but not least, we visit a salt canyon which might as well be a backdrop for a Star Wars movie.

If this was the only thing we saw that day we'd probably think it was really cool but we had already seen so much other amazing stuff that the canyon seems anticlimactic by comparison.
Exhausted and sweaty, we stop at a local dive for cold Cokes in the shade before heading back to Mekele and Addis. Did I mention it was 45 C/113 F outside?

And yes, it’s been a while since I went to the Danakil but the memories of it will stay with me forever. A trip like this is not easy to arrange and I can’t thank Gurum Worku and his crew with GETTS Travel for doing an outstanding job.

Locations of visitors to this page