It’s easy to be America-centric when it comes to the hopes, fears, and frustrations of fighting COVID-19. Being in the travel business, we have dear friends in many countries. And when we get reports from them, it seems like the world is playing a kind of virus whack-a-mole right now. All over our planet, power-hungry politicians are putting their needs above public health, taxpayer money is coming to the rescue but not always getting there, and nations think they are getting into the clear and then realize they are still stranded on first base.
Read this report from a dear friend in Bulgaria, tour guide Stefan Bozadzhiev (Down the Road with Stefan) of Lyuba Tours. Bulgaria has a special place in my heart, in part because it’s such a mystery to many Americans. I see it as a feisty, underappreciated underdog of a nation. As you read this, consider the parallels to the American story. I know Stefan well. And, while he was thinking of me and my colleagues when he opened with “Dear Friends”, he believes — as a good tour guide — that those of you who might feel like strangers to him are just friends he’s yet to meet.
Greetings from Sofia, Bulgaria! I hope you are doing well and keep yourself healthy in these strange times.
I just wanted to briefly update you on the situation in Bulgaria.
Unfortunately, as with many other countries from the Balkan region, there has been recently a peak in COVID-19 cases. It’s a pity. We followed all the rules in the early stages of the pandemic and now it seems all those efforts were in vain. Much could be said to explain the situation: how we Bulgarians don’t trust authority, how we are among the nations in the world with highest numbers of people who believe in conspiracies, and so on. Now masks are necessary in public indoor spaces, but many don’t comply with the rules and no one is there to enforce them. The huge problem is that our government lost a grip in handling the pandemic, sometimes even issuing contradictory orders a few hours apart. Unfortunately, more countries have added Bulgaria to their “red list,” which means we can no longer freely enter.
It’s a really difficult story here. Our incumbent prime minister, Boyko Borissov, has been in office 10 years. A former firefighter, a personal bodyguard of our last communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov, and of our last king, Simeon II, Borissov made his way to the top of executive power. A populist, a man with close ties to organized crime of the early years of the post-communist period, an alleged drug producer, a man who blatantly broke the embargo on former Yugoslavia during the wars. That’s him. Yet people keep voting him in.
During his time in power, Bulgaria dropped to 111th place in the world ranking on free speech. Corruption became synonymous with my country. In other countries there is organized crime, but in Bulgaria the organized crime owns our country. Borissov is not a single player, but is supported by shady oligarchs and former members of the communist security services. The newly appointed state attorney acts like his personal attorney.
So, we Bulgarians are in the streets, protesting against corruption, against organized crime and oligarchs who stole our parents’ future and are on their way to do the same with our future. The protests have continued for almost a month now, marching in downtown Sofia and other large cities every night, blocking streets, intersections, and country roads, trying to take our state back from the mafia. Unfortunately, in recent days more and more people in police uniforms are spotted, without any numbers and signs, which is unlawful. They are aggressive and constantly receive orders on phones, and not from the regular police channels. Last week our outspoken former prime minister, who is a vocal protester, was attacked by an unknown man and she is now in a hospital, recovering from surgery.
I was for a week at the Bulgaria Black Sea coast, in the port city of Burgas, staying with a few friends of mine there. Even “on vacation,” every night I joined the protests in this city.
For the first time since the pandemic started, amidst ongoing anti-government protests and blocked roads, the Bulgarian prime minister met with professionals from the travel industry. The result: 5 million euros as state support to all 3,500 registered tour operators and travel agents in our country (that’s less than $2,000 per company) — and zero support to tour guides. That’s a disgrace.
I want to thank all of you who found time to show moral support or even found other ways to support me in these challenging times. Thank you all! It means a lot! I wish you all the best in this turbulent year! And may our roads cross again!
Stefan’s message is just one way that we’re keeping in touch with our European guides during this crisis. To connect with guides like Stefan directly — and to hear from them in their own words — check out the Rick Steves Guides’ Marketplace, which we’ve designed just for this purpose. There you’ll find out how to follow Stefan’s reports, and the reports of dozens of other guides, all of whom are working hard to stay creative and keep teaching through these challenging times.