Tonight on PLBW: Irina braves a mountain and her healthy respect of heights and lives to survive another seven days of heat.
Okay, I actually schedule these posts for the afternoon on GMT/morning on EST but I couldn’t resist this. Imagine it in Jeremy Clarkson’s voice.
A friend of mine recently traveled to Tarnovo, the medieval (and best) capital of Bulgaria, and one of the most beautiful cities in the country. She sent pictures and they started an itch in me. Now, I don’t like traveling. I really don’t. I like seeing new places but if we could teleport there I would be happy. Or so I thought.
Once I got this itch I realised we are in fact not very far from Tarnovo. And the road to it was along my favourite mountain pass and past a historical monument I’ve really wanted to take Little C to for a while now. If I could sell the idea to Big C — Little C would be no problem — I could have the double pleasure of enjoying the road and the destination.
This is probably not a fact of common knowledge but Bulgaria is full of mountains. It’s got the valleys and the plains, too, and they’re pretty too. There’s even a charming tale about how when God was handing out lands the Devil took the most beautiful piece of each land for himself and then there was no land left when it was the Bulgarians’ turn (always last) so God caught the Devil and took his pieces and made them into Bulgaria.
Anyway we’re flush with mountains and the biggest one is the actual Balkan range, which runs across the country from the east to the west. There are several passes through the Balkan for people to get from the south to the north and I’ve been to three of them but none is as glorious as the Shipka pass.
It’s steep and it’s windy, and there are close to 360-degree turns and there are pine forests all around, and as you climb higher the peaks around get lower and lower and the sky gets nearer and nearer, and the plains get farther and farther, and when I caught a glimpse at them through a thinning of trees I almost fainted. I had eagerly anticipated the trip and I had completely forgotten that these days I tend to have a problem with heights.
It’s been insidious. In my twenties I couldn’t care less about heights. They were just there and I had no problem with them. I enjoyed the view if it was enjoyable and that was that. And then, slowly, I started finding it harder and harder to be in a high place and look down.
I remember the first time it really hit me: we were visiting a friend who’d just had a baby and I stepped out with another friend for a cigarette. On a balcony at the top floor of a 16-floor residential building. I took a single glance down and my body flew back of its own volition. I spent that cigarette break flat against the wall, feeling like I was standing on the edge of the bloody balcony with the abyss staring at me even if I wasn’t staring at it.
Since then, things have not improved but I somehow ignored the problem, too excited we were going up Shipka and to the Stoletov peak. I dropped my original plan because it would take too long and we decided to go to the Shipka monument instead — mountain pass and peaks in one neat package just an hour away. To reach the monument — commemorating a decisive battle in the third Russian-Ottoman war that featured heavily Bulgarian rebels against the (Ottoman) empire — we had to go up a few hundred steps. It really is on a peak.
I was perfectly fine the first fifty or so steps. And then I turned back to look how far we’d gone. And the vertigo struck. Life doesn’t get much more ironic than that. I’d developed a taste for tall geography and I couldn’t enjoy it to the fullest because it scared the hell out of me.
Yet challenges are made to be overcome so we kept on walking and yes, I kept on looking back and feeling queasy but we made it to the top, took pictures, the fans of flags among us got not one, not two but three flags, and the fans of heights drank in the vistas despite a certain gut-knotting sensation. We’re going again.
No trip, however, short, can take place without some drama, not in our family. The drama may be a forgotten soft toy or an insurgence of doubts if Big C locked all the doors or not but there will always be something. This time, Fate being generous and cruel at the same time, it was nausea.
I know a lot of children get car sick but I didn’t know mine was among them until a few months ago. It came out of the blue. She had never had a problem in the car but suddenly she had one. On the highway. On a straight stretch of road. Having experienced this and forgotten it we set off happily on a road that, on a map, looks like someone scattered guts across the peaks and they fell every which way.
We barely made it to the monument without stops (few places to stop on that road) and Little C took a few minutes to gather her bearings before going up the hundreds of steps. We had had plans to visit another place nearby, too, an open-air museum of traditional crafts, because when we do tourism we do tourism, but we very quickly changed these plans. A nauseous child who is afraid she would throw up and she only has a small bag to throw up into is one of the sadder sights in this sad world of ours.
It’s amazing how naive the brain can be. After about an hour at the monument we started back with a happy, chirping Little C, no trace of nausea. Until five minutes after we got on the road. This time it was worse. This time we had to stop twice so she could get out and breathe. Nerves rang taut, doors were slammed and smiles vanished as the whole trip now looked like the worst idea ever. And then Little C finally heard what I had been telling her for an hour. Breathe. Deeply and slowly. We made it to the plains with no more stops and she even managed to almost enjoy some of the last turns. We’re stocking up on lollipops, pills, and lemons for the next trip.