A fairy tale called Lamu

I have travelled around the world, but no place has ever felt as close to a fairy tale, as Lamu Island on the border between Kenya and Somalia.  As the boat taxi was taking us from the roughly patched dock of the airport terminal towards the town of Shela, Lamu town emerged like a image from a different century.  Rasta turbans, swahili women in colorful kukois, Muslim tall hats and long kaftans were blending with the background of colorful buildings, herds of donkeys crowding on the waterfront and dhows loaded with timber parked at the port.

Our luggage was dropped off on the white-sand beach in front of the colonial Peponi hotel.  From there, past the magnolia trees, around the corner from the botega with the shy Swahili ladies, after the kukoi store with the muslim lady covered in black and beside the Muslim house with the lady doing laundry in the street, was our spectacular open-air vacation house which made it tempting to stay at home instead of exploring the amazing world outside.  

Shela is the quiet town on Lamu, where European tourists and celebrities escape the world and paparazzi and submerge themselves into another cultural dimension.  You could sip drinks at the terrace in Peponi among elderly Brits, Americans and South Africans in perfectly ironed linen shirts all day long, people watching the beach scene of donkeys carrying sand, dhows with white families thoroughly covered in sunscreen.  Or, you could explore the backstreets of the town, swing by the boys Muslim school, next to the Swahili food joint, by the corner where the Rasta man and only IT expert on the island hangs out all day under the shade, and end up on the other side of the port where the French art galleries and shops line the street above the Maasai beads market.  

If you really want to feel in another time, you could take a boat taxi or a donkey ride to Lamu town and get lost in the tiny streets full of women carrying baskets on their heads, men with tall hats drinking tea and gossiping, market ladies in burkhas selling mangoes on the street corners, not far from the cages of live chickens for sale.  The fruit market is basically a tight path covered on both sides with colorful fruits and large ladies in equally colorful wraps.  The meat and fish market is a slightly smelly and bloody space where you can find any part of the goat and cow for sale.  You also find the dark burkha Muslim women, along side the Swahili mamas carrying their babies in a sack on their back.  

 

No one came rushing to beg for money from me, however I did get stopped and very politely asked to respect the local laws and cover my legs (silly me showed up in shorts).  I did gather a few looks even after covering my legs, but most people greeted me with a friendly “Jambo” (“Hello” in Swahili) and a smile, and found it entertaining to watch me photograph everything around me, while staying out of the way of the donkeys.

The beaches in Shela are kilometers long, with pure white sand and turquoise water.  The princess of Monaco has a house on the beach, together with a Japanese lady and an Italian royalty.  Maasai warriors guard the houses gates more for looks than out of need.  On one of my hours long walks down the beach I found no people, but I did meet a beautiful herd of cows.  They found me just as interesting as I found them fascinating and stared intensely at me while I was snapping pictures of their long twisted horns, curved hooves and clean patterned skins, shining in the sun.  

If you take a boat and cross over to Manda, there is the only pizza place on the island, with teak chaises and umbrellas right on the beach.  In the early afternoon you can see hundreds of goats prancing down the beach, lined up for the boat delivery of water, right in front of European tourists sipping on their beers.  The goats posed quite nicely in front of the baobab trees, some of them even ventured out to smell my camera.  

If you have patience gliding down the sea in an ancient sail boat which tilts almost vertically, depending on the wind, take a dhow.  It takes you past the mangrove trees and off to snorkel at Manda Bay, the private island with bungalows accessible only to the rich and famous.  If you however, don’t want to get stuck on the water in pitch darkness immediately after the 10 min sunset, take a motor boat.  

 

The island side, opposite from Shela, is the home of a fishing village where dhows are made from scratch for centuries.  Further down the coast you can spot white storks with long red legs walking proudly on the beach in front of the beach shacks.  I had only seen storks in Bulgaria, usually in the Spring time when they come back from Africa and nest on top of lamp poles and church bells.  It was almost cathartic to actually find the place were the storks I grew up with chasing, spend their winters.  

 

I don’t know what I miss most about Lamu.  If it is the “Samosa” man with his white top hat who appears out of nowhere offering you “fresh” fish samosas just made by his mother and/or wife; the Rasta man singing out of tune “I can’t help falling in love with you” in the morning, as he is shaving on the edge of his boat; the donkeys trotting with loads of bricks, trash or sand on their backs; the Maasai with their miraculous outfits and happy smiles; the Muslim boys dressed up in their kaftans, chirping their way to the mosque at 5 pm; Mr. Lucas, our Swahili chef, who spoiled me with delicious food and jokes we shared in his kitchen; the dark-skinned “vacation boys” in the beach, throwing complements at you in Italian, making sure you know their occupation; the mesmerizing sunrises and equally beautiful sunsets; the thousands of sparrows in the sky at night; the gossip stories of the town; the women’s colorful bhurkas blowing in the wind; the kids yelling “Jambo" on top of their lungs…  or maybe simply being in a place where different races, religions and cultural backgrounds have lived peacefully together for centuries and coexist in mutual respect and agreement.  

My friends the Maasai

“How is you?” was the question that awaited me every morning when I walked by the Maasai market at Shela.  You can spot from a distance the tall skinny men, wrapped in red and blue with shiny black skin, bright white teeth and colorful beads covering their heads, arms, wrists and ankles.  The first time I saw them I was stupefied by their body wraps, accessories, the giant machete hanging off their waists, the shoes made from car tires.  I took extra long looking through the beads on the tables, trying to find the right opportunity to strike a conversation. Instead they did for me - “Why did you Americans vote for Trump?”  I had finally succeeded to disconnect from the madness at home by not reading FB, news or instagram,  but obviously even the Maasai who live in the bush in a third world country can’t believe who the leader of the developed world is.  

 Maasai, Shela, Lamu Island, Kenya

Maasai, Shela, Lamu Island, Kenya

The Maasai were from Amboseli National Park, a “2-day walking” trip from Lamu Island.  Their village is on the border with Tanzania and you can see mount Kilimanjaro from there.  They are herds men, they live from their cows, migrating with them in search of pastures and water.  They eat milk, meat and drink blood.  They make their houses from cow dung, which insulates againstthe cold during the winter and keeps the house cool during the summer.  For most sicknesses, they use plants, tree berries and roots remedies.  The hospital is only for very serious cases.  They mix“he” and “she”, as there is no gender in their language.  They wash themselves with homemade butter, but do not have any BO even after hours in the burning sun.  When a woman in the village gives birth, all of the women gather around her to help her physically and morally.  They might look like they are from another century, but they all have cell phones, Facebook, WhatsApp and some even buy solar panels to charge batteries at home.  The women make beads, bracelets, head pieces, anklets, phone pockets etc. and the men go to tourist locations to sell them.  And that is how our paths crossed on the island of Lamu.  

Although at first sight, the men are skinny and some of them short, each one has to kill a lion in order to be accepted into “men hood”.  They go in the bush in a group of 8 with their spears and machetes and stay there until the man who is being inaugurated finds and kills the lion.  The strategy is to follow the lion long enough until he/she is tired, then attack it with the spears and once on the ground finish it off with the machete. The man who kills it gets to keep the skin and comes back to the village with it, only to be…. circumcised.  Women getcircumcised as well, but only after they are married.  It is believed that it will protect them from cheating their husbands who sometimes are away for months.  

The Maasai are Christian and celebrate the same holidays as us, the difference being they kill a cow instead of roasting lamb or eating Panetone.  They are proud of their age, but do not celebrate birthdays.  Family is very important to them.  Finding a wife and bringing children up is considered a privilege.  One man can have several wives, depending on how many cows he has.  The average “offering” for a wife is 10 cows.  Usually it is the parents who find the wife for their son, however most of the single men I met at the market told me that they are not in a rush to get married and they would rather wait and find the right woman themselves.  

Maasai are very open to sharing their culture, and unlike others on the islands, were happy to take as many photos as I wanted and furthermore, dressed me up in a Maasai woman dress and beads.  Being curvy to their taste is considered a good thing, so I had to take it as a complement when I got told I had a “big butt”.  

Being courted by a Maasai is a beautiful experience - almost one those of us who live in NYC have forgotten ever existed.  There is no space for doubt if a Maasai man likes you, not only because he is upfront about it, and escorts you everywhere.  Unlike Western men with commitment issues, you know very quickly exactly how many cows he can afford to offer for you and how many children he would like to have with you.  His house, his money and time is yours, and he likes you just the way you are, no changes required.  Time, space or distance is not a problem - he is willing to wait for you even if it means it might be a year before you see each other again.  And at the end, when your boat leaves the island to take you back to “civilization”, he stands on the dock leaning onto his wood stick, his red cloth waiving in the wind, making it ever so difficult to leave this world where life is pure and love so simple.  

The place of a thousand dragonflies

My father is convinced that I choose my travel destinations based on political, government and social unrest.  Every time I announced an upcoming trip he would bombard me with news articles about the landslides, kidnappings and disease spread in the region.  Things have improved somewhat, but it sure was not to his pleasure t that I was headed to visit my friend Michelle in Uganda. Contrary to his anxiety, and with a great dose of excitement I got on a plane from Johannesburg to Entebbe, via Rwanda, and on to an amazing experience.  

Uganda greeted me with bunches of dressed-for-prom men and women taking selfies as they were waiting for family and friends to arrive at the airport.  Michelle and her beautiful 2 year old daughter stood out from the crowd of “cebos” (“sir” in Ugandan) and madams, dark faces looking with a great dose of curiosity at my torn jeans and covered shoes.  I remember being a little girl in communist Bulgaria, staring at the few (non-Russian) foreigners I got to see in the streets of Sofia, wondering who were they, and what were they doing in my unusual destination country.  35 years later I find myself as an American photographer, being one of those foreigners in an unusual destination, peaking interest in the deep brown eyes of kids, the large market ladies, and the proud boda-boda drivers spread comfortably on their seats roasting in the sun.  Maybe it is exactly because of my childhood spent in panel blocks, schools without much color but with lots of propaganda slogans, wearing the same clothes and shoes as my classmates, where bananas were on the market only for Christmas and Barbies were dolls of your dreams, that I can look beyond the poor infrastructure, the dirt, the poverty and into the faces and souls of the people who make up this beautiful place.  

Uganda is the place of the shortest sunrise and sunset, little boys and girls walking barefoot in the red soil yelling at the cars with “mzungos” (gringos), Matatu vans overpacked with people with colorful signs on the windshield reading anything from “Jesus is Good” to “Mashallah” and “Alla akbar”  and unattended giant horn cows grazing on the side of the road.  It is also the place where Russian pilots, American military, South Africans and Europeans can hang around the pool at the luxury hotel in town one day, and shoot at each other in the jungle the next day.  

We packed a lot in the week I was there.  We took a boat at sunset on Lake Victoria.  We photographed and interviewed 60 kids who aspire to be boxers and train with no facilities but with great passion.  We got quite a few market ladies angry because of my camera at the Kitoro Tuesday market.  We ventured out to a beach bar where up until a few years ago you could buy a beer, a tank or a kilo of cocaine and now it is the hang out of Ecuadorian mercenaries who if you ask what they do for a living will tell you they kill people in the jungle, others are afraid to.  

Yet, there is so much I didn’t get to do and so many photos I didn’t get to take - the giant African sun setting between two hills with the winding road in between the silhouettes of plantain trees; the kids playing with rubber tires and a stick in the red dust; the moms dressed in colorful outfits carrying their babies in a sack on their backs; the shiny patterned dresses blowing in the wind of the women walking on the side of the road; the street food markets at sunset with the cooking ladies wearing white aprons and tall bonnets; the village houses with clay splashed half way up to the roof as the colors have bled into the wall from the rain; the shades of green in the tea plantations making the hills look like large blocks of puzzles; the large dry fish the fishermen sell at the edge of the lake; the boda-bodas covered with green plantains, pineapples or sugar cane; the mushroom shaped trees covered with orange blossoms; the endless varieties of head-buns and scarves…  I didn’t drink enough Ugandan coffee, didn’t get called “mzungo" enough, didn’t spend enough time in the back streets of the neighborhoods where you find the beautiful and the ugly of Ugandan reality with the open fire pots, the timber, the chickens, the cows, the pregnant women, the barber shops with purple walls and photos of hair braids under a barely lit tungsten lightbulb, the sounds of music, the kids playing under a half broken hotel sign, the candles inside the homes, the stray dogs, the smiling faces, the sad faces, the angry faces…

The evening we took a boat on the lake, summed up what Uganda left in me.  Our guide’s first name was Rogers.  He did not let go of his huge smile with a space between his front teeth, not even for a minute.  His long wood boat had been around for awhile, it didn’t have a motor, just ores.  There was a “God is great” written with white paint on one of the benches.  Rogers rowed us along, as we glided by papyrus, rare birds and moss with the sounds of the city hills in the far distance. 

Fishermen in tiny boats were throwing their nets or spearing through the papyrus catching crabs.  Birds with long red legs and beaks were walking between water lilies.  Kingfishers with colorful bodies stood out on the backdrop of the deep green papyrus.  As the sunset progressed, the birds and fishermen boats turned into black silhouettes on the backdrop of a melting prism of purple, pink, orange and blue.  Approaching the shore our boat was absorbed into a cloud of a thousand dragonflies, flipping their wings and pointing their tales in every direction.  You couldn’t tell where they came from or where they were going, but they covered the sky and everything around us, leaving us in dismay.  And that’s just it- Uganda is a place of raw, simple and unexpected beautyjust like a thousand dragonflies.  

"Busoga Boxing Club", much more than a gym

It has been a tough few months in the U.S. of A.  In order to manage my thoughts and emotions from the events of the last few weeks, I force myself to think about what saves the day, life and the planet. For me that thing is doing good, and we each as individuals choose to give, do, be or not to wherever in the planet we might be located. With the backdrop of so much ugliness, I choose to focus on a cause my two friends and expats in Uganda, Michelle and Troy Conrey, whom I visited over the holidays, have started out of their own goodwill and I aim to do my part in supporting them in doing good.  

Michelle and Troy, for the lack of a boxing gym in Entebbe, found Gilbert, a local boxing coach, leased a space and started their own. Originally only Troy and a couple of other young boys known to the coach used the gym to train, however in only a few months it has evolved into the training space, home and source of inspiration for over 30 young boys and girls from the ages of 4 to 25. For most of these kids, coming to the gym gives them energy and a place where they learn about famous boxers, symbols of success and realization, who they aspire to and dream to become themselves one day.  Training however is not just for fun, the gym formed its own team in various age and weight categories which competes on a regional and ultimately national level. It scored 16th out of 43 teams in the last national championship.  

I never knew this about Uganda, but boxing is identified with national pride.  It is as important if not more than soccer.  A good boxer needs to have long arms and a thin body, which apparently are features of the Ugandan DNA and the country has produced a number of talented fighters over the years. 

Thanks to coach Gilbert, the “Busoga Boxing Club” quickly spread into satellite "clubs" in 10 other villages within the Busoga county, now training at least another 60 kids. Since there are no facilities, and most of these villages are 4 - 5 hours drive from Entebbe, each location has a designated captain, responsible not only for the daily training sessions but in the overall care and encouragement for the kids of his club.  

Michelle and I visited one of these locations outside of Jinja, an improvised training space using tree trunks for a frame and burlap sacks filled with sand instead of boxing bags.  Since the kids don't have boxing gloves, they wrap their hands and wrists with T-shirts or cloth, while they box in clouds of red dust.  One of the boys from this area, fought in the regional championship with a broken arm because he wanted to prove to the coach and Troy, his sponsor, that the investment in his village was worthwhile.  He actually won the fight.  

Regardless of the conditions, each little girl and boy who I had the privilege to photograph and interview over the course of the day, told me the same story - boxing makes them feel "free", "powerful", "proud", "it is in their heart", it is something to "dream" about.  What they didn't tell me, but I learned from Gilbert, is that it keeps them off the streets, off of drugs, or joining a military group and inspires them to have a goal in life.  

My mission is to help find second-hand gear and boxing gloves for these kids, even if it is only a couple of pairs. What is considered "used up" in our gyms and thrown out is luxury for them.  It doesn't take much to bring meaning to a young life, make a difference and who knows, maybe supporting a future olympic boxer for Uganda.  If you have anything you would like to donate, please contact me for an address in the US where the gear can be shipped and then forwarded to Uganda. Thank you for reading and supporting #gotgloves? 

Taxi ride to fortune

You know those random acts of serendipity when destiny manifests itself in such strange ways and unimaginable places, that you wonder if it is a sign, a joke or you are going slightly mad?  This is how I met Kiril, the Bulgarian opera singer.  

I was standing on the most obscure corner of South Park in Sofia, where the ring road meets a cross section, late for a dinner, doing my best to avoid the stray dogs and thinking to myself there was no way I could find a cab around there.  Although I wouldn’t confess it to myself, for a moment I missed the convenience of hailing a cab within 1.5 seconds in the streets of NYC.   Subconsciously, I reached towards the next best thing, my uber app, and quickly slapped myself, “duh you are not in Brooklyn Tina”.  I hate being late, but I would never dare get on Sofia public transportation without a ticket.  As the sinking feeling of how late I was, was turning into a slight panic, I spotted a cab taking the turn.  Of course, it was taken.  My eyes dashed beyond it, but strangely enough, the car was coming towards me.  It approached slowly and stopped directly in front of me.  A couple paid and waltzed itself out of the car while me, slightly-jaw dropped, but ecstatic, jumped quickly inside.  

Years in NYC inside yellow cabs have left me a bit anti-social when it comes to cabbies.  I avoid eye-contact, try to limit the conversation to my destination address, I buckle up and overall mind my own business.  In Bulgaria I specifically avoid conversations because I hate getting ripped off with taxi fares in my own home country, just because I pronounce some words with a modified intonation.  This cabbie though was unusual - he was in his 50s, his face was intelligent, with an air of positivity and a deep calm voice.  His presence was relaxing and almost therapeutic.  I noticed my mouth open and it started spilling personal facts like, how I quit my finance job in NYC and now I am traveling for a few months, that my sister is getting married for the third time to the same man in Greece next month, that I shot some unbelievable fishermen in Sicily…  He congratulated me on my sister’s third wedding and instead of the usual skeptical “OMG-you-walked-away from a-six-figure-job-in-NYC?!?” reaction, he said “good for you, you made the right decision, you should be happy”.  Mentally my jaw dropped even more, and then he continued with his own story.  He also had an economics degree and worked in a large corporation a few years back.  He got laid off and took up the taxi service because of its flexible schedule.  His true passion however was singing.  When he was younger he used to sing in rock bands, and always thought his voice was good only for that.  One day, he picked up a passenger from the opera house.  One word lead to another, the passenger turned out to be a voice coach, made him sing in the car and told him he was gifted with an opera singer’s voice.  Too bad they met 20 years too late, otherwise he could have been a true opera phenomena.  Regardless, he invited him to train with the best opera singer coaches in the country, and eventually Kiril ended up as a soloist at one of the oldest men’s choirs in Bulgaria - “hor Gusla”.  I was shocked by his story, of course sincerely happy to hear it, although I did secretly scan the car for a hidden camera.  It made me feel ever so slightly less insane about taking my decision and even felt a serge of hope.  We spent the next 15 mins blasting his solo in “Nessun Dorma" through the streets of Sofia, gathering plenty of inquisitive and/or annoyed looks.  He was singing live, confirming the validity of his vocal chords, and I was trying not to ruin the aria with my partial out-of-tune accompaniments.   I told him I would gladly shoot him and the choir, gave him my card and left the cab in a blurr… only an hour late for dinner.  

Not only we connected, I ended up shooting his rehearsals as well as the choir’s performance at a festival.  It was really hard to shoot the choir actually.  The voices, acoustics of the church and the natural light where the concert was, were so distracting.  I just wanted to listen and not worry about composition, focus and my ISO.  Yet, it was the most rewarding experience standing in front of 30 elderly men, who were all secretly posing for me, chests up, big smiles, basking in the sound of each click. 

Is it just me, or is it hard to imagine that an ex-consultant from New York, and an ex-economist/taxi driver from Sofia, found themselves in Dupnica sharing the vicissitude of life via photographs and singing, in their individual pursuits of happiness.  At that performance, neither the past nor the future mattered, because when you love what you do, you are too busy enjoying every second of the present moment to worry about anything else.  The click of my camera, and hitting the high notes, was everything either one of us were aiming to feel.  Maybe I will have to work as a waitress in a couple of weeks, probably neither one of us will ever be rich and famous, but there is a giant difference between fame and fortune.  Every person who gets to live life doing what they love, is already rich in more ways than imaginable.

Kiril is still driving a cab when he is not singing or rehearsing.  He is one of my biggest fans when it comes to making me go for my dreams and he religiously likes every photo I post on FB.  I am sure one day I will see him on a real stage, singing a spectacular Italian opera.  And that day I will not be taking pictures… because I will be too busy enjoying the show and his better-late-than-never fortune.  

In a place of glory, Nashville, TN

"F.T. Walker - Pro Wrestler", is what he scribbled on the back of a cowboy boots store card on Broadway street in Nashville, Tennessee.  I met him while strolling through rows of boots on a sunny fall day in the South.  It was the fifth boots shop I had walked into that day, and the mountains of boots boxes and cowboy girl shirts seemed to all blend together at this point.  I heard the usual "20% discount is at the back of the shop, let me know if you need any help", however this one sounded unusual.  I expected to see a pretty southern girl with a sweet voice and warm blue yes, and instead it came from a buff cowboy with a long blond ponytail who seemed completely misplaced between the cowboy shirts ruffles.  

He asked where my accent was from.  The New Yorker in me mentally rolled her eyes thinking "Oh no, not another small talk, no one knows where Bulgaria is around here anyway".  Instead I heard, "I know Bulgaria".  FT was a third generation wrestler.  His grandfather wrestled and taught his dad and then his dad taught him.  His dad used to fight with Bulgarians in his studio, they called them "the bears" because they were strong and would get really angry if someone mistook them for Russians.  

FT got his knee injured badly and had to give up wrestling professionally, so he ended up in the dusty store his mom managed for a few years now.  He had white baby skin, clear blue eyes, big southern smile and spoke with a calm southern accent, saying at least 5 "thanks to God" in one sentence.  He was 24 years old, his wife was 28 and they had a 4 year old daughter.  His wife was a professional wrestler as well and we joked about what family fights are like at their household.  

He gladly accepted to model for me, sitting in a chair in front of a wood wall full of signatures left by famous and infamous passersby.  I could tell taking his picture gave him back a fraction of his sense of fame, which he probably could never re-live again.  His colleagues yelled out some jokes, which gave him even a bit more satisfaction, as he felt noticed and acknowledged.  I was happy I could make him feel special for a few minutes with some clicks of the camera, and in return I was grateful that he let me into his world of simple gratitude and easy being.  He was the perfect melange of humble simplicity, sense of God given peace and love, sincerity and goodness.  Regardless that he couldn't be the pro fighter he dreamed, regardless that he was working in a dusty little store trying to sell off-price shirts and boots, there was not a drop of bitterness or regret in his face.  Maybe he was young, maybe he didn't know much more than the wrestling ring, but I envied this man.  Somehow in the city where I live, where you have everything and more, where anything is available to you 24/7 at a press of a computer key, I don't remember seeing someone so OK with the status quo and not worrying about the prospects of the job, the injustice of his injury, the future of his family.  Is it a matter of place, or mind, is it luck, belief in God or just small mindedness?  Whatever it is, I sincerely envied it and wish I had some of it myself.  

On a boat, Chania, Crete

Meet Petra.  I found her in the old port of Chania in the island of Crete.  She was selling sea sponges from a bunch of baskets lined up neatly in front of a tiny white boat which had seen quite a few summers.  The sponges were all colors, shapes and sizes, the kind of "organic" that Whole Foods could only dream about.   They came from the depth of the Cretan seas, personally fished out by her husband Georgi.  Georgi had been pulling out sponges from the sea for 40 years, just about as many as the two of them had been married and lived on their boat.  Talk about living in tight spaces and getting used to share.  I don't think there would have been any space for marriage counseling to straighten things out when this boat rocked.  Georgi, like a proper Cretan man, was very proud of his diving and as a proof had on exhibit a number of faded, some roughly laminated and with chipping corners, pictures of himself underwater, at various ages wearing the same goggles and holding various size freshly picked sponges.  He didn't speak a word of English but as long as you looked at one of his photos, his sun-burned face with Greek-macho style reflection, was there telling you all about his skill.  He loved to hear the "Wows" and I was sure mentally he was beating his chest with pride.

Petra didn't speak English either, and my Greek is less than minimal, yet we had a whole conversation about their 40 years on the boat, and their three children who were all educated and now lived in Athens.  Noticing I was more thrilled speaking to his wife than listening to his diving stories, Georgi retrieved to his quarters on the boat which were no bigger than an interior of a Fiat 500.  I kept buying sponges just to be able to absorb more of Petra's story, trying to digest not only living with another person on this boat, but bearing and raising three children.  It all came to an end when suddenly, Georgi yelled from inside... guess he was ready for dinner.  I almost got annoyed as to how quickly Petra jumped back on the boat, shifting her duties from a merchant to a chef for a man in love with his diving and buckets of sponges.

The next morning I walked by on purpose, hoping to catch another glance of the tiny boat and a love story of 40 years on it.  Petra was there, under the umbrella, cleaning the fasuli (green beans) to make stew for lunch.  Her face was calm and beautiful even after all those years.  The morning sun reflected from the turquoise water onto her face in a million little sparkling dots.  And then it hit me, she was not just serving dinner for her husband and selling the fruits of his diving.  She was the anchor of that boat, the stable ground to which Georgi's temper could always come home to and find peace no matter how rough the waters of the sea or life were.  It was the destiny she had embraced with love and gratitude, that brought purpose to her life, and which my little Miss "Living-in-NYC-working-for-my-independence-and-money" self understood and even secretly admired.

Baba Stefanka, Troyan, Bulgaria

Zoom in on Bulgaria, the middle of the Balkan mountains, tiny village with 300 permanent residents, one bus service to the closest town every three days.  Locals dress in old style village clothes and get by on agriculture, farming and animals they raise.  Dramatic mountain views, smell of hay and sounds of bells from the herds.  

Baba Stefanka has been a part of this picture forever...   Her house originally built in "Turkish times" (Bulgaria was under Ottoman empire until 1878) doesn't have a door bell, you just need to shout her name and you will see her sun-burnt face pop from around the corner.  She remembers the day me, my parents and probably my grandparents were borne.  We used to buy fresh eggs ("fresh"= straight out of the chicken's XXX) and milk from her cow, when I was spending the summers at my grandparents country house down the dirt road from where she lives.  I was the city kid fascinated by her sheep, chickens, pigs and making lame attempts to milk the cow.  She speaks a dialect I often don't understand, but I always felt we communicated somehow beyond language.  

She can talk for hours about the animals, the rain this season, who died last in the village, how her peppers are coming about this year and her stash of pig lard in the basement, which she is always happy to share.  She has never seen a gym in her life, yet she never fails to impress with her running-up-the-hill skills as she is herding her goats, sheeps and cows.  I don't remember her ever being sick or complain about anything.  

She is always curious about my life in "the" America and loves getting her picture taken because it will be posted on "the" internet.  Every time I see her I can't help but get recharged with a sense of grounding, gratitude and with a decent dose of shame about the vanities of life in the world where I come from.  She reminds me how simple life is, yet so rich and meaningful.  

I actually wonder if she has ever had a minute in her life to worry about the meaning of life, what happiness is or what your purpose on earth is.  She just is, she just lives.