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Rafting in Bulgaria

15 Apr

The best way to see the Bulgarian Kresna Gorge is by looking up at it, not down, from a raft on an epic journey down the Struma river.

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“Just two rules!” our guide Ivan shouted as we glided towards Kresna Gorge, where towering waves collapsed upon themselves into a maelstrom of churning froth. “Rule Number One – stay in the boat! Rule Number Two – stay in the boat!”

“What if we fall out?”,  I asked.

“Don’t,” said Ivan bluntly.

It was early September, and we (me, my father and three other men) were in the middle of a 15-km trip down the Struma river through the Kresna Gorge with Bulgarian Raft Adventures.  Rafting the rapid waters of the river Struma, and upper course of the river Arda in the Rhodope Mountains, are the best places in wild Bulgaria suitable for our outdoor adventure.  The adrenalin arises, and the rock monsters become scenery for the water action, where you are the main actor.

On the first day, all of  us stood at the starting point: a long line of 6m rafts, masses of gear, an army of river guides scurrying about. This would be our world for the next two weeks.

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There was no time for shyness. You can’t be shy on a Struma river trip. Not when you are spending two weeks with strangers, floating down on the biggest rivers in South Western Bulgaria.  It’s the ultimate 24/7 experience:  you’re on the water for five to eight hours every day, and when you’re off the water, you’re eating, sleeping, and bathing together.  Don’t get me wrong, there are ample opportunities for meditative moments, but it’s a communal trip, in one of the most spectacular environments on earth.

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Our party filled five inflatable rafts, each rowed by a guide and four or six passengers. All the gear we could possibly need was strapped into these boats: giant coolers of food, folding tables, cans of propane, pots and pans and medical supplies, a tidy toilet system, plus enough beer and soft drinks to keep everyone happy. It’s the tightest packing system I’ve ever seen, so tight that passengers ride perched on the side tubes – prime seats, after all, with padding and great views.

Few people pitched tents; most just laid a mat on the beach and slept under a sheet. At dawn, the mournful call of a conch shell signalled that coffee was ready. It would have been nice to linger over the hearty breakfasts (eggs, French toast, pancakes and lots of fresh fruit) but the guides always wanted to put in some river miles, and soon we were pushing off, back out into the current of bubbles, dwarfed by the massive rock walls.

Indeed, dear readers riding the rapids of Bulgarian Struma river   is a Disneyland-ish experience – one second you’re plunging straight down into the trough of a wave, the next you’re getting drenched with cold spray as the boat shoots up and over the crest. It’s a  roller-coaster ride that can make even an  anxious father  like mine to  forget to fret about his daughter during the adrenaline-fuelled ride. Only at the bottom of each rapid did I turn around to make sure I was safe.

Was I scared? A little.

Exhilarated? More than I’ve ever been, and my main wish was to go back and do it again.

By the time we rowed the last stretch, our clothes and hair held about a pound of silt each, but nobody cared. Some people were ready to return to civilization; others, like me and my father, wanted to drive back to the start and do it all over again. I welcomed the chance for a shower, but the trip left me with a desire to run away and become a river guide.

“There are just two rules,” I imagined saying to my passengers. “Rule number one …”

Mmmmm maybe some day.

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Why We Travel?

14 Apr

It has long been said that travel “broadens the mind”. Now new evidence proves that jumping on a plane will not only make you smarter, but more open-minded and creative.

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   It’s 4.15 in the morning and my alarm clock has just stolen away a lovely dream. My eyes are open but my pupils are still closed, so all I see is gauzy darkness. For a brief moment, I manage to convince myself that my wakefulness is a mistake, and that I can safely go back to sleep. But then I roll over and see my zippered suitcase. I let out a sleepy groan: I’m going to the airport.

The taxi is outside, and then here I am hurtling into the harsh incandescence of South Terminal of Gatwick Airport, running with my suitcase so I can wait in a long security line. And then, after 4 hours stuck in the terminal with a cup of caffeine and Veggie sandwich, the plane took off to Milan, Italy. And then, 2 hours later, I was there.

So why do we travel, dear readers, when we have already passed that pre-modern age of the mind awed by the physics that gets a fat metal bird into the upper troposphere. Well, sometimes we travel because we have to. In this digital age, there’s still something important about face-to-face communication or analogue handshake, or eating your Grandma’s cake on Christmas.

In most cases, however, we travel because we want to. We travel in order to get away from the stressful pressure of work, from the home boredom, etc. We travel because flights are on sale, because Venice is Venice.

But here is my question: Is this desire to travel – to put some distance between ourselves and everythign we know -caused  only by the desire to experience new types of pleasure, to have fun ?

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Because if travel is just about having fun, then the new security measures at the airports have killed it.

THE GOOD NEWS  is that pleasure is not only the reason for travelling. New science papers report that getting away – and it doesn’t even matter where you’re going – is an essential habit of effective thinking. It’s not about a holiday, or relaxation: it’s about the act of travelling itself, putting some miles between home and wherever you happen to spend the night.

        In its literal apsect, travelling is a verb of movement. Thanks to modern technology, now we are able to move from place to place at an inhuman speed. For the first time in human history, we can outrun the sun and change climates only in few hours.
The reason such travels are menally useful is that while being away from our ‘natural habitat’, our thoughts are less constricted; they allow us to release our imagination from the limited set of associations which bounds it while being at home. Consider a field of roses for example. When you are standing in the middle of the field, surrounded by roses with spiraling centers and vivid, rich colors, the air smelling faintly, your mind is auctomatically drawn to thoughts that revolve around the primary meaning of rose, which is that it’s a plant, a flower, a symbol of romance and passion.

But now imagine the same field of roses from a different perspective. Instead of standing on a field, you are now in the midst of a crowded city street, dense with taxis and pedestrians, and yet for some reason you are still thinking about roses. The rose will no longer be a rose itself; instead, your vast neutral network will pump out all sorts of associations. You’ll think about rose marmalade, jam or tea.

What does this have to do with travel?Being far away from the place we spend most of our time, makes our mind aware of all those awkard ideas we had suppressed. . As a neural tangle of near-infinite possibility, the brain spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. A bit of distance, however, helps loosen the chains of cognition, making it easier to see something new in the old; the mundane is grasped from a slightly more abstract perspective.

As TS Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”