Shooting with Krassy

Hanging out with Krassy is never a disappointment. I especially enjoy it when he invites me to do something besides our normal ‘eat dinner, watch tv, prank call his wife Nadia, and listen to Serbian music’ routine. Don’t get me wrong…that’s always a blast too, but some of my best memories with Krassy have been when we do something a little different like cook banitsa, make rakia, or even just go to the post office (more on that hilarious story later). But knowing how entertaining an afternoon with Krassy can be, I was jazzed when he asked if I wanted to head out to a random field one afternoon to shoot guns. Now I’m not usually a huge fan of guns, but when Krassy told me his eccentric friend Atanas would be joining us as well, I knew there was no way I could miss out.

So one Sunday morning, we packed up Krassy’s old Volkswagen, and drove several miles outside of town. After about 20 minutes, we pulled into a small field. Krassy told me to wait in the car as he stepped outside to survey the terrain. I could tell from his scrunched up nose and head bobble that he saw something he didn’t like, and we quickly resumed the drive. A few minutes later, we turned down a muddy road and Krassy stepped out of the car again. After scanning the horizon like a ship captain, Krassy was once again visibly displeased, and we continued on our journey. This happened another 5 or 6 times before we finally settled on a suitable spot that looked remarkably similar to the half-dozen we had just visited. Fortunately, I’m easily entertained.

We unloaded the gun (I’d describe it as a glorified BB gun), and began stringing up a variety of bottles in all shapes and sizes. The smallest was a travel size shampoo bottle that I was immediately determined to hit.

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Atanas showing off a two liter

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Supplies

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The hardest target

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Hanging bottles

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Hanging bottles 2

Krassy took the first few shots, but then insisted that I take over. I soon found that neither he nor Atanas seemed to have any interest in shooting at all. Krassy was completely content yelling words of encouragement between cigarette puffs and Atanas spent the entire time in the car complaining about how cold he was. While I had fun shooting, my interest started to wane once I hit the swinging shampoo bottle. All of a sudden, warming up my freezing hands sounded a lot more appealing than putting another hole through a bottle. Fortunately for me, a car pulled up just as I was starting to lose feeling in my fingers.

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Krassy loading his first shot

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Steady….steady….

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Scoping out the targets

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Krassy striking his favorite pose

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Krassy taking aim

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“Aim small, miss small”

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Krassy gloating about a shot

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Nailed the shampoo bottle after several attempts!

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Will never hold shampoo again

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Not a bad distance

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Krassy has friends all over town, and we seem to run into them everywhere we go. Today was no exception as Krassy explained that the approaching car belonged to his good friend Iliyan (this was Krassy’s second friend who happened to be driving by this field in the middle of nowhere). Iliyan was chatty, and seemed excited to meet “the American,” so he invited us to swing by his ranch for some homemade wine…off we went! Like Krassy (and many Bulgarians), Iliyan also makes his own rakia, and grows many of his own fruits and vegetables.

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Home grown veggies

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Wine barrel

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Preparing a 2L bottle of rakia for me to take home

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Iliyan gave us a tour of his ranch home, eagerly explaining the process he uses to make wine and rakia. His cellar was overflowing with onions, apples, pears, and garlic, amongst other things. When I walked outside with my freshly poured glass of wine, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Iliyan’s neighbor blasting Gangsta’s Paradise by Coolio from his car stereo. I laughed at the irony and had another one of those “where the heck am I” moments…they never fail to bring a smile to my face.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better…I NOTICE THAT ILIYAN HAD A CANNON!!! Okay, so it was a small cannon, but still a cannon. Iliyan must have noticed my fascination, because the next thing I knew he was lighting the fuse and excitedly motioning me to step back. Based on the canon’s size, I wasn’t expecting much, but that thing was LOUD! If only we had had some cannonballs…

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Delicious wine

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Cannon in action

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We sat around for about 30 minutes and watched Atanas dance to the neighbor’s music and shout things like “AMERICA BABY” in broken English. Iliyan sent me home with two liters of rakia and a variety of fruits, vegetables, and roots, including some sort of squash that’s bigger than my arm. You can see in the picture immediately below that it’s bigger than a 2 liter bottle! And here I was thinking I’d left GMOs back in the United States. I had no idea what to do with the squash, but it is still sitting in my kitchen as a proud symbol of Bulgarian hospitality.

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Atanas being Atanas

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Showing off his moves

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Christmas in India – Part 2

Click here for Christmas in India – Part 1

Something about traveling gives me a voracious appetite. My stomach growled relentlessly, as this particular day was no exception. I was enjoying our tour of Fatehpur Sikri, the former, short-lived capital of the Mughal Empire, but after skipping breakfast, my thoughts (and stomach) had already turned to lunch. I’d been in India for about a week and every meal had been delicious. My mouth watered as I debated my next feast: buttered chicken or paneer masala?

We had only taken a few steps outside the palace when a young beggar approached us. While uncomfortable, this was not a new experience for me; I’ve been approached by beggars numerous times, both during my travels and back home in the United States. “I wish I had brought my sunglasses,” I thought. While it wasn’t especially sunny, the glasses would have helped me avoid eye contact with yet another beggar. While I’m ashamed of this thought, I think it’s one that many people have experienced. Of course we would love to help, but we feel powerless. We worry about where the money goes: Drugs? Alcohol? Or perhaps some violent overseer who forces kids to beg and collects their meager earnings? This is a big problem in India, so won’t our donations just exacerbate the problem?

Something was different this time though. As my eyes worked hard to appear occupied by anything they could—the souvenir vendor, the bird passing by overhead, the suddenly interesting ground—I couldn’t help but take in the details of the young boy hovering just over my left shoulder. Even through my peripheral vision, I could tell that something wasn’t right. The child’s proportions were completely off. While I expected the frail frame and dark, sullen eyes, I was immediately drawn to the swollen, protruding mass where the child’s stomach should be. The dangerous signs of malnutrition didn’t register at first.

At that moment, our driver Mohan pulled up, and our tour guide ushered us into the car. As we sped off to our next destination, the image of that malnourished young boy stayed with me. It consumed my thoughts the rest of the day, and has already revisited me many times since. I’m certain that the depressing image of this young boy, not the fantastic one of the Taj Mahal, will be the one that sticks with me for years to come. My aforementioned voracious appetite quickly disappeared as I realized how insignificant it was compared to the starvation plaguing millions of Indians. Instead, I felt sick to my stomach as the hard truth continued to sink in: roughly 400 million people (or 30% of India’s population) live in extreme poverty.

As we drove to Jaipur, I reflected on my experience in India compared to the daily life of so many struggling to survive. While I ate at nice restaurants, millions were searching through garbage for their next meal. While our private driver whisked us away from place to place, millions pulled rickshaws or drove motor taxis to earn a decent living. While I slept in a fancy hotel, millions slept on sidewalks or under makeshift tents. My delicious meals, chauffeur service, and comfortable accommodations were starting to feel pretty silly. Just because I was born in a different country under different circumstances, I would be afforded opportunities that many Indians could only dream of, and it didn’t seem fair. This isn’t the first time I’ve struggled with that reality, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. This experience is now another bullet point on my laundry list of reasons I plan to focus my MBA studies next year on non-profits and social enterprise, so I can use business to help solve social problems such as poverty.

India also has a huge problem with trash, which I have to imagine has significant health implications. Trash covers the ground just about everywhere you look and it spills into the rivers too. While part of me wants to encourage efforts to clean up India, I worry that removing all the trash could be devastating for the many people who rely on food scraps to stay alive.

I didn’t take many pictures of this other, more shocking side of India. The images below, however, represent so much of what I witnessed.

Looking for a way to help? Try using Kiva.org to make a microloan in India. By lending just $25, you can help small business owners help themselves! And once they pay you back (generally takes 6-12 months depending on the loan), you can re-lend the money. My loan to the Maa Maheswari Shg Group in India will help a group of women buy a cow. The milk will give them a sustainable source of income that will help them both repay the loan and afford future needs! This marked my 17th loan spread across 16 different countries. Let me know if you’re interested in learning more about Kiva, and I’d be happy to help you get started!

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Christmas in India – Part 1

India Trip: Friday, December 20th – Sunday, December 28th

I was admittedly a little nervous when my plane first touched down in Delhi. I’ve been fortunate enough to do quite a bit of traveling, but for some reason this trip scared me a little. Sure, previous travels have exposed me to unfamiliar religions, cultures, languages, and cuisines, but the idea of experiencing all of that in one of the world’s most populated countries was overwhelming, and I hadn’t even left the airport yet! Fortunately, I’d be traveling with my brother Andrew and his wife Kelly, which helped ease my nerves.

Now there are two narratives I need to tell you about my time in India. The first is everything you want to hear: elephant rides, delicious curry, lavish Mughal palaces, and of course the obligatory Taj Mahal pictures. This story is fun to tell, and will be the focus of today’s blog post. However, I also feel compelled to share a second, much more shocking narrative that describes the daily plight of millions of people in India. The images from this story are the ones that will stick with me for the rest of my life, and I’ll try to convey them in my next post.

But first, the fun stuff…

It didn’t take long to realize we were far from home. As our driver Mohan maneuvered effortlessly through traffic, we were surrounded by (and contributing to) a cacophony of car horns. The lines separating the highway into lanes might as well have not existed. Cars and motorcycles alike darted from lane to lane rushing to their destinations as quickly as possible. Out of nowhere, I saw two camels and an elephant merging into traffic not even bothering to turn on their blinkers. I quickly realized why the incessant horns were so necessary. I couldn’t believe that this seemingly chaotic journey was normal for Mohan who seemed at ease behind the wheel.

My adrenaline from the drive slowly subsided once we arrived at our hotel. Exhaustion overtook me after what was probably the longest stretch of constant travel I’ve ever experienced. In addition to a 7 hour layover in Abu Dhabi, the past two nights I had slept in a Bulgarian train station and the Belgrade, Serbia airport (note: it dawned on me in Belgrade that I was actually farther away from India than when I had left my apartment 14 hours before). Needless to say, I was out before my head hit the pillow.

Delhi

We started our Sunday morning by meeting a friend of mine for breakfast. Pradeep and I met at the Fulbright International Summer Institute (you can read my posts about FISI here and here) back in August, and I was excited our trips to India overlapped. We had a great visit, and I hope to meet up with Pradeep later this summer in Copenhagen where he is living and working.

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My friend Pradeep and me after breakfast

There’s a lot to see in bustling Delhi, so we got started right after breakfast. Over the next few days, we saw many interesting sites; here are the highlights!

The Presidential Residence was our first stop. Right away, you notice our view was hampered by heavy pollution in the air. It impeded our visibility through much of the trip. When the flag above the palace is raised, the president is there, and when it’s down, he’s not. I suppose that makes it tough to get away with banker’s hours!

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Presidential Residence

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Lots of security at the Presidential Residence

Bleachers were being set up on both sides of the road approaching the Presidential Residence. Our guide explained they were setting up for ‘Republic Day,’ a celebration of the adoption of India’s constitution. There will be a huge parade attended by hundreds of thousands of people. President Obama will be attending this year, which I have to imagine is a security nightmare.

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Schoolchildren excited to see me whip out my camera!

At the Akshardham Temple complex, you can really start to understand the severity of pollution in Delhi. While I wasn’t very far away when I took this picture, you can barely see the outline of the Temples. I recommend you Google image search this temple, as my pictures just don’t do it justice (cameras were not allowed inside).

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Akshardham Temple complex

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Raj Gat memorial to Gandhi

Delhi Spice Market

Delhi Spice Market

Rickshaw ride

Rickshaw ride

Red Fort

Red Fort

Delhi by rickshaw

Delhi by rickshaw

"Organized chaos"

“Organized chaos”

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Dinner at Bukhara – Chicken Khurchan and and Raan leg of lamb were two of the best dishes I’ve ever had

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Kelly rocking the apron at Bukhara

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Humayun’s Tomb

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Inside Humayun’s Tomb

Qutab Minar

Qutab Minar

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Qutab Minar Complex

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Iron Pillar at Qutab Minar

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Ornate detail at Qutab Minar

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Beautiful ruins

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Rooftop coffee

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Andrew and Kelly in Lodhi Gardens

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Kelly shook hands with about 150 young students on a field trip. This was hilarious.

Me in Lodhi Gardens

Me in Lodhi Gardens

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Sun setting over Delhi

My favorite experience in Delhi (and all of India, for that matter) was the Deli by Cycle tour. While I wasn’t able to take pictures while we were riding, the trip was absolutely exhilarating. By getting a really early start (we woke up around 5 a.m.), we were able to watch Old Delhi come to life. Locals were cooking breakfast, making tea, fetching water, washing windows, and preparing for another busy market day.

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Quick break from biking for some Indian tea

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Indian tea

Our bike tour included a short boat ride on the Yamuna River that flows through Delhi. Our guide pointed out the crematorium right on the river bank. Hindus believe in reincarnation, and cremating bodies after death allows the soul to separate completely from the body. I opted not to go for a swim this time.

Andrew and Kelly on the Yamuna River

Andrew and Kelly on the Yamuna River

After our bike ride

After our bike ride

After Delhi, we headed to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

First glimpse of the Taj Mahal as we enter Agra

First glimpse of the Taj Mahal as we enter Agra

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Darwaza-i Rauza – Gate leading to Taj Majal

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Taj Mahal through the gate

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Pictures don’t do it justice

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Intricate stonework in marble at the Taj Mahal

Intricate stonework in marble at the Taj Mahal

While it’s hard to imagine that anything could be impressive after the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort still managed to make an impression. The fort is massive, and has numerous courtyards and palaces. Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, was imprisoned here by his own son.

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Agra Fort

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Monkeyin’ around at the Agra Fort

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More Agra Fort

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Agra Fort

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On the drive from Agra to Jaipur, we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, the capital of the Mugahl Empire for 14 years. However, the city quickly ran short on water, and the capital was moved once again (this time to Lahore).

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Fatehpur Sikri

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Fatehpur Sikri

Our first stop in Jaipur was Hawa Mahal, meaning Palace of Winds. Our guide explained that the palace was constructed with screening walls so that members of the royal household could look outwards without being observed from the outside. Additionally, the pink and red sandstone used in its construction is very common on many of the buildings in Jaipur, earning it the nickname “Pink City.” After that, we rode elephants to the Amber Fort and explored the Birla Temple.

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Hawa Mahal

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Hawa Mahal

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Elephant ride to Amber Fort

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Somehow I missed the elephant in this one

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Great use of the selfie stick

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Pensive monkey

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Selfie stick…they’ve been in South Korea too long

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Andrew really liked this door for some reason

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Amber Fort

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So many camels

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Birla Temple

Visiting India was fascinating. It is such a dynamic country with so much energy and potential. Next post, I’ll do my best to elaborate on the harsh reality that roughly 400 million people (or 30% of India’s population) live in extreme poverty.

Click for Christmas in India – Part 2