Last year, I decided to diverge from my usual visits to my motherland – Bulgaria. Instead of sitting on the beautiful beaches of the Black Sea, or meandering down the clustered alleyways of Sozopol, I decided to ‘adventure.’
My chosen escapade was a one-week trek through the illustrious Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria. This range is known for its physical attractiveness; its cascading waterfalls, luscious wildflower fields, and vibrant array of coniferous forests captured the eye. This we saw in its ephemeral beauty, as we descended upon fields of poppies and bounded across trails leading to hidden, turquoise lakes, likened to the magical waters in fairy-tales. But we also saw into the human soul, and formed a bond only the mountains can foster, as it breathed fresh air into our lungs and opened our eyes to the natural beauty of our world.
The physical experiences were unforgettable; we encountered flooded trails, leading to intense bushwhacking and stinging nettle burns, we witnessed misty skies envelop our path, covering us with cool dew, we fearfully bypassed herds of wild horses, which happily chewed on our clothing, we even saw gray-green lakes, which legend says provide everlasting life. These experiences left an indelible mark on my heart as I took in the wonders of our natural world.
But the most significant impact of this journey was the human connection. Our mountain guide, our planinarka, Matza, was an 80 year-old luminary. She hiked faster, thought quicker, and saw sooner than everyone else. Her instinct and connection to the mountain was undeniable. Our planinarka guided us through perilous ridges, where any misstep led to certain death, all the while cracking jokes. She taught us the nuances of the plants and mushrooms, showing us how to discern the good from the bad, and cooked mushroom soup made from our collected treasures. Matza led us in song, playing on her harmonica, as we hiked to the beat of our footsteps. She told us stories about mountain folk and the history of our country as we crowded around the warm fire after hours of hiking. She led us in our cooking every night, bringing out crumpled papers of ancient recipes. And most of all, she led us on a spiritual journey as she taught us how to delve deep into ourselves as we connected with the mountain, and each other.
Each morning, Matza required us to wake up at 5 am to go outside and form a circle. She urged us to feel the mountain around us and hear the bird calls in the distance. At first, this seemed like a silly chore, but soon, we felt swept away as time froze and we became one with nature, and looked into ourselves. After that, we prepared our breakfast and lunch for the day as we took off again into the mysterious terrain of the Rhodope.
Each night, Matza began playing her harmonica at precisely 9 pm, bellowing at us to come join her in horo, Bulgarian folk dance. As we danced around in the candlelight, holding hands and feeling the rhythm of the music, I felt a sense of community I have never felt before.
Now, I share, along with every other person in Matza’s group, an unbreakable bond with the mountain and its sheer magnificence, as well as an even stronger relationship with the people who experienced this soul-search alongside of me. This adventure, it proved, was more than just a hike in the mountains, it was an exploration of the ties that hold together humanity and foster community and connection in our world.
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