I had no expectations whatsoever for my quick trip to Bulgaria. Perhaps in the back of my mind, I was expecting crumbling eastern bloc buildings and smoggy Ladas crowding the streets filled with wrestlers and weight lifters. Instead I arrived in the spacious Sofia airport, with no lines to get through customs, a fantastically clean modern subway system, and grand avenues with parks, upscale shops and bakeries. On a late Sunday night, I watched a woman cleaning the stairs of the underground. In the morning, my colleagues and I stopped quickly at the impressive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in central Sofia, the largest church in the country. I bought my soya milk and cashew cheese at Zelen Bio food store near my central hotel, to prepare for the trip to Arbanasi and the Haemosporidians of Wildlife meeting. I feared that there would be no food to eat, but again, I was surprised by a lovely lunch of tomato-roasted pepper salad, and roasted potatoes with mushrooms in the old city of Veliko Tarnovo.
It is hard to imagine that I should fly to Bulgaria for one week. I used to mark the years by my travels. In 1989, I visited Lithuania the first time. In 1988 was a long trip to China. In 1997, I spent a long time in India. But now that travel is so cheap and accessible, it is routine to just get on a 13-hour direct flight to Istanbul, and fly to a spot with a 10-hour time difference. It is too convenient, and it is contributing to climate change. All the traveling becomes a blur, and somehow less special. The airports are crowded and the planes uncomfortable. On the other hand, it allows about 50 scientists from all over the world to attend a scientific conference in a little village in Bulgaria.
The meeting is excellent, with tremendous developments in the field of avian malaria research. The work of the participants would be of interest to scientists in a diverse set of fields, from traditional parasitology to disease ecology to bioinformatics. And the schedule is loose enough for us to informally discuss science in a splendid, yet inexpensive setting.
We witnessed the light show over the ruins of Tsaravets, in Veliko Tarnovo, the capital of the Second Bulgaria Empire: lasers and colored light patterns over the ancient fortress. Arbanasi is famous for its old monastery and nice views of the surrounding countryside. This is a modern hotel with a conference center in the middle of a rustic village. Only after arriving here did I understand the reason for the long trip. People are curious to hear impressions of the Trump/Clinton election from an American, but I am the wrong person to ask. Am I American? I don’t follow the news, yet I am certain that Clinton will win. In any case, I think that the USA can do better. They can learn a few things from the Bulgarians.