Friday, October 30, 2009

A Walk Through the Mahala

Not long ago Mike wrote a blog about his commute, the walk down the tree lined, cobbled streets, through the parks and city center with all the glitzy stores, past the Roman ruins and finally winding his way through the maze of narrow ancient streets of the “Old City”. Whenever I walk any part of it I marvel at what a wonderful city we live in.

As in all cities though, there is another side of town that tourist brochures and locals do not want explored. Such is the neighborhood where I work. Stalipinovo is on the northeast outskirt of the city, and when viewed on a map, distinctly separate from the rest of the city. It is its own bustling community with street vendors, butchers, dress shops, magazines (little everything shops), cafes etc. There are schools, a medical center, community center, mosques and churches. There are people moving about on foot, on bikes, in cars of various vintages and in horse drawn carts.

My forty minute commute to get to the outer edge of Stalipinovo drops me off in the back of the neighborhood close to the river which is its northern border. I then walk about 12 minutes through the neighborhood to get to my school located very much in the center. Coming in from the back is significant, because as in all communities, resources or “wealth” is not distributed evenly, even among the poor. The back of the neighborhood has a very different look and feel than the front. This is where the poorest of the poor in Stalipinovo live.

I’ve been doing this walk for about eight weeks and many of the sights and sounds are now familiar. The walk feels different depending what time of day I’m going to or leaving from school. Early mornings are quiet with only the shop keepers stirring, arranging their merchandise or sweeping the ten feet of street in front of their stall or door. Men of all ages are leaving for work, most on old bicycles sized for someone else with a large baskets strapped to the back fender. They head out into the city as collectors, bringing back from street curbs or trash bins anything that has any value to be “recycled” in the mahala. Some leave pushing just the framework of old baby strollers, makeshift wagons used to bring back wood of any kind that can be burned in the pot belly stoves rigged up for winter. By mid morning there is an increased level of energy as women roast peppers over open fires, children run freely, and small groups congregate to chat. The energy surge continues throughout the day and as I walk out later in the afternoons there are often music systems set up blaring “chalga” music for all to enjoy. Young girls in orange, purple or lime green sequined gowns may be dancing in the street surrounded by friends and neighbors as part of the three day wedding celebration typical of the “gypsies”. Teenage mothers carrying babies swaddled in beautiful blankets walk about on their way to market or to visit with friends. Men young and old are caught up in their card games, mothers are hanging out windows shouting down to kids below and the boys below whistle a shrill sound to get the attention of a friend seven stories off the ground. Kids are crying or laughing, being scolded or spanked, playing with “trash” toys or creating a game from a piece of twine. Women walk arm in arm, some the same age others from different generations. Men wait by their cars with a cardboard sign in the window “TAXI”. Smoke is starting to spout from little chimneys of little shanties that you know will never keep the cold at bay as the weather really turns cold.

As I make this walk I stay on the main streets, but still find it necessary to “pick my way” to school. At one corner I usually have to decide if the street with water or the slope of mud is the best alternative, I usually opt for the mud and take a wide route to its outer edge. Trash is everywhere especially on Monday mornings, when the ladies with the brooms come out to clean up the weekend mess. There are often dump trucks and front end loaders in the area trying to keep up with the trash but it seems like an impossible task. The back of the mahala has the largest collection of “blocs” with gaping orifices running the length top to bottom of the stair wells where windows once offered protection. There are no tree lined streets, very little green at all. The surroundings are grey and dull, but the Romi women make up for that with the colorful clothes they wear. Most wear the traditional long skirt with colorful tops. Their sense of fashion is dictated by what they have, not by what looks good together. Colorful patterned socks are characteristically part of the outfit.

It would be so easy to focus on all the things that are wrong here, and there are many. What is wrong though, is to generalize as is done so often about the Romi. We hear they are lazy, unwilling to work, not clean, not smart, not.. ,not…,not……. What I see when I look beyond what catches your eye first, is women dragging carpets down 6 flights of stairs to scrub them in the fall just as my Bulgarian neighbors did. I see laundry hanging from lines on rooftops, between fence posts, and on balconies just like I see in my neighborhood. I see people shopping at the Pazar for groceries or snacking next to the street vendor selling grilled meats. I see kids walking to school with English backpacks of Hannah Montana or Spiderman in both neighborhoods. I see bus loads of women in safety vests being driven to their respective neighborhoods to clean the streets of others. I also see the poverty, the injustices, the wretched living conditions, and children playing in places that make me cringe. But when I get to school I see children with energy and excitement in their eyes, smiles on their faces and a sense of pride when they have been successful. It helps to keep the focus!

These two cuties reflect what we are all born with, hope, enthusiasm, and an innate belief that life is good.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lynn and Mike,
I tried to send an email but I'm not sure it worked. I have been nominated by PC to go to Eastern Europe in mid-May for TEFL. Invitations go out in Feb & Mar. So I've started learning a little Bulgarian in the hopes of training my old brain (I'm 61) to learn a new language. If I do go to Bulgaria, I hope we meet. I really enjoyed the toilet pictures!