Walk #6: Sandy

Walk #6, with: Sandy

Where: Hotnitsa Waterfalls, Bulgaria

When: 4 April 2016

[Please note: Picture is not of Sandy]

I never cease to be amazed by the kindness of strangers. Arriving in Bulgaria's stunning old capital, Veliko Tarnovo, I received a message from my friend Carina asking if I'd like to be put in touch with some friends there. 24 hours later I was eating lunch overlooking 'VT' with Sandy! Facebook revealed we actually have several mutual friends - mostly in Brighton, where Sandy is from - though our paths hadn't crossed before.

After a chatty lunch Sandy drove me (bike and all) to the rustic village homestead she bought a year ago and is gradually modernising, along with her musician partner (who was away performing when I visited) and ever-expanding menagerie. I learned that Sandy retired at 50 from her full-on career as a Consultant Nurse in the NHS, decamping to Bulgaria for very similar reasons as I hit the road last year: to be, to contemplate the meaning of life, to take care of her physical and mental health, to love. I stayed just two nights but left feeling I'd known Sandy much longer, and could easily have settled in for a fortnight!

Sandy is spot on when she describes her end of the village as 'magical', nestling as it does in a wooded valley where the silence is broken only by the sound of the river, bird-song, the occasional barking of her dogs at deer and jackals, and frequent (often musical) Skype-calls from her partner. I learned a lot from Sandy in those two days: (amongst other things) about Bulgaria, about wildlife, and how to make vegan bacon. On the second day, after several bacon sarnies, Sandy drove me to Hotnitsa for a walk in the glorious spring sunshine.

Hotnitsa waterfalls are a narrow valley containing a series of bright green pools and waterfalls and navigable via a series of wooden ladders, rails and bridges. As we sat eating oranges and laughing at a water-boatman frantically avoiding the edge of a waterfall we wondered how they know they're near the edge, and found ourselves amused by the clothing choices of some local visitors to the trail.

There aren't many subjects Sandy and I didn't talk about in those 48 hours. For me one of the most interesting subject was - surprise surprise - monogamy, about which Sandy and I have broadly similar views but opposite life experiences. At 20 I chose a big-love relationship with Zoe over my freedom, a choice I don't regret but which turned out to be a significant one because the relationship (my first) lasted until our mid 30s! With that experience behind me I can't imagine accepting the same compromise again, and prefer to date only those who've already independently chosen ethical non-monogamy. However, it wasn't hard for me to understand that, for Sandy, accepting monogamy as a condition of big-love in her early 50s after two decades of independence and fun is actually a very different decision to the one I made at 20.

We also talked about siblings, and how helpful it is to have a sibling-friend who completely gets where you are 'coming from'. Sandy has a twin sister who is one of her closest people.

On the way home from our walk we stopped in Hotnitsa village to buy and drink a beer at the village shop-bar (a common model in both Bulgaria and Romania). Next to the bar a man was trying to sell spring-onions, and I wondered how on earth he survives. I was interested to learn from Sandy about the small-p politics between the many local ex-pats, and between the ex-pats and the Bulgarians. In Sandy's case she's working hard to cooperate with locals and other incomers to create a sustainable village and attract like-minded Bulgarian families to the area. For example they open up their homes to families to stay, to help potential newcomers get a feel for the place. They work on joint voluntary projects such as countryside clean-up campaigns and, as a group, are developing a non-school schooling system for their children, outside of the state school system. As a group they are looking at growing hemp as a building material, using eco-friendly building techniques and harnessing renewable energy.

Thank you, Sandy, so very very much for opening your gorgeous home, your heart and your tumble-dryer to this complete stranger. What's the saying... Strangers are just friends you haven't met yet <3. Thank you also to Carina for making this wonderful connection.