Travel Day Tomorrow: Shumen to Veliko Tarnovo

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Tomorrow ends our fifth week in Bulgaria and it’s also a travel day. Albeit a short one—only 2½-hours by bus from Shumen to Veliko Tarnovo. We still have seven weeks remaining on our Bulgarian visas (almost two months)—a good thing.

Bulgaria is very budget friendly for world trekkers and can be done easily on $650 USD pp per month or less: lodging, food, drink and transportation. That’s about 20% of my monthly income so 80% goes back into my savings/travel account.

Bulgaria has been a bit of a surprise—for some reason we thought it would be a step down economically from Romania but we’ve found the opposite to be true. Admittedly, we’ve mostly been in Bulgaria’s cities and not in its countryside but we’ve found overall it is more upscale and modern than what we had anticipated. In Romania they told us this would be true but for some reason we just didn’t believe it—Americans can be stubborn with their preconceived notions. Shumen has been nice but it is not a tourist destination—no Americans or even fellow travelers which is all well and good for us.

Tsarevets – Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria (Internet File Photo)

But it’s a small authentic city with authentic people getting on with their authentic lives. As mentioned many times before on this blog the Muppet Brothers are constantly searching out authenticity in their travels. Veliko Tarnovo is another small city of about 87,000 residents (2016) but apparently has more tourist site opportunities than Shumen—we’ll see if that’s true when we get there. Our lodging for the next two weeks will be $15 USD pp per night and for an extra $3 USD pp we get to eat a full English breakfast every morning: eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, bread, juice and coffee (a nice change from Shumen).

Field Notes: Though Shumen, Bulgaria probably wouldn’t be on anyone’s “must see” bucket-list it has been a pleasant experience for us. Joel wrecked his lower back on the way here (which we’re both prone to do) and he’s had two weeks to get it back in shape. Similarly the weather has been cold and blustery with sleet and snow so its been nice to just hunker down (without guilt) in our cozy (and warm) hotel room with its large balcony and window overlooking the snowy street scene below. That’s the advantage of slō-travel—no rush to check off tourist boxes. Shumen has been inexpensive and friendly. SFD  


It’s Not What You Make It’s What You Keep

Stephen F. Dennstedt

An old adage states: It’s not what you make it’s what you keep. Like so many adages it rings true. When a person retires their income usually takes a huge hit. It was true for me and I suspect it’s true for most—but retirement isn’t always a choice.

I always thought I would work to about 70 but such was not the case. Professional, personal and health considerations made the decision for me at age 64. At the time it seemed like the end of the world but it turned out to be a real blessing.

Retirement, forced or otherwise, is a wakeup call—you will smack head-on into the hard brick wall of reality. Immediately. If you’re an old dinosaur like me you’ve probably already faced this, although if you’re one of my younger readers you will have this to look forward to. The bad news is it can be scary for the unsuspecting but the good news is that it can have a happy ending. There are many ways to live your life in the later years—I hesitate to use the term Golden Years with all of its societal implications. So for simplicity’s sake let’s just agree to call them life’s later years. Retirement boils down to money and survival—like always.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans’ innate curiosity. Maslow’s model is a great tool for planning a well-lived life whether retired or not—you’ve probably encountered this model in either business or school. For successful retirement you need to scale the pyramid of needs: basic needs, psychological needs and self-fulfillment needs [spelled incorrectly on the chart]. In the USA money is now needed for basic needs.

River Tay & Saint Matthew’s Church of Scotland – Perth, Scotland

The Great Recession—which officially lasted from December 2007 to June 2009—began with the bursting of an 8 trillion-dollar housing bubble. The resulting loss of wealth led to sharp cutbacks in consumer spending. This was the most dramatic employment contraction (by far) of any recession since the Great Depression. It destroyed my Maslow Pyramid overnight and the effects can still be felt today—current employment statistics are misleading because many people are underemployed (I was a banking professional for 30 years and I know). The economy is not as robust as politicians would lead you to believe.

Sighișoara, Romania

When I retired in 2011 I realized that my retirement income (Social Security + 3 small pensions) wouldn’t cover my basic needs—my health, marriage, house, cars and savings had all perished in the Great Recession in the blink of an eye. I was 64 years old and almost penniless—time for Plan B. I’ve written about this before in this blog but it’s worth repeating. Since becoming a full-time American expat living and traveling abroad it only takes about 20% of my income to cover my basic needs, traveling and social media also helps with my psychological needs and photography and writing satisfy my self-fulfillment needs.

Hungarian Parliament Building (Background) – Budapest, Hungary

Living and traveling abroad full-time has its challenges but living in the USA (in near poverty) wasn’t a viable option for me—my pride wouldn’t allow it. I’m not rich, though I’m back on sound financial footing, but I live a rich life as a retiree abroad. I love my country but contrary to popular opinion it does not offer the best quality of life—especially for us oldsters on a fixed income. Like I said earlier it’s not what you make it’s what you keep after your basic needs are met—I’m keeping 66% to 80% of my monthly retirement income (in a savings/travel account) after I’ve covered my basic needs. Not many can say that.

City Centre – Bruges, Belgium

Field Notes: The Muppet Brothers (brother Joel and me) are in Bulgaria for another two months. Bulgaria is very budget friendly—lodging is $9 USD to $15 USD pp per night, dinner is about $4.50 USD and a pint of beer (500 ml or 16 oz) will set you back $1.50 USD. People think it costs a lot of money to travel and live abroad but it doesn’t have to—I share many hints & tips on this blog about living on the cheap while traveling. The number one tip is to live like the locals: eat and drink where the locals eat and drink and travel like the locals travel. Expat life isn’t for everyone but it’s a great way to live if you’re into it. SFD


Are You Ever Tempted to Throw a Wobbly

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Are you ever tempted to throw a wobbly? To “throw a wobbly” in British slang means to become suddenly very agitated or angry. I just love British vernacular—so urbane. To throw a wobbly—you just gotta love it. I for one certainly do.

In the USA we would say something crude like “throw a shit-fit.” But then we’re just bloody Colonials—throwing a wobbly is much more sophisticated. I’ve been an Anglophile most of my life and love all things British, especially literature.

The Muppet Brothers have agreed to caution each other against throwing a wobbly when one or the other is about to lose his cool—time will tell if it works. We rarely if ever go on an American-style tirade or rant but it’s always a possibility—at the very least it’s boorish behavior on USA home turf but downright dangerous on foreign soil. Losing one’s temper while traveling abroad is the antithesis of smart travel behavior. What often feels like a personal affront at the time can usually be chalked up to cultural differences on reflection. I will leave you with one last Britishism: Silly bugger—like in: Are you going to go silly bugger?

Field Notes: The great thing about travel is bumping up against other cultures and languages. My earlier post talked about when no means yes in Bulgaria (a real thing). The best travel advice I can give to new travelers is to suspend judgment—nine times out of ten when you judge another culture you’re going to be wrong. That might be ten out of ten times (only partly kidding) for Americans. What’s the most common English word we hear in our travels? Okay. We’ve heard “okay” in virtually every country and environment in which we’ve traveled—even when that one word was the only English being spoken. SFD 

Photography 101: The Fantasy Versus the Reality

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Even today many amateur photographers aspire to a professional career. Maybe you’re one of those amateurs who would like to shoot professionally. Yes—it can still be done even though the marketplace has changed a lot.

In the “Olden Days” the path to professional success usually involved editorial print media like newspapers, magazines, wire services and advertising agencies or freelance work like weddings, events and studio work.

Editorial outlets were great training opportunities for aspiring photographers because they were quasi-Apprenticeship programs: Apprentice, Journeyman and Master. At the other end of the professional spectrum was the independent go-it-alone photographer. In the first case the photographer worked for an established business and in the second case the photographer was the business. Working for an established entity provided a safety net of sorts where working alone was basically working net free. My dream was to open a studio and become a professional Nature photographer: Wildlife and Landscapes.

Orange-winged Amazon Parrot – Northern Amazon River Basin, Ecuador

I should say fantasy because even then it was hard to pay the bills with Nature photography. Only the best of the best could pull it off successfully—but my dream (fantasy) persisted. However things change—in 2011 my professional banking career ended abruptly as did my twenty-five year marriage. For all intents and purposes I was free to pursue my dream and I did. I left the USA in early 2012 and moved to Yucatán, Mexico where I landed the job of Staff Photographer at The Yucatán Times an online news publication. TYT founders Raul and Sylvia Ponce De Leon gave me my first break despite my nonexistent Spanish.

Male Chimango Caracara – El Calafate (Southern Patagonia) Argentina

Later I became fast friends with its current owner José “Pipo” Urioste and his family and though I no longer live in Yucatán, Mexico I still have my TYT Press Credentials and we stay good friends to this day. While working for TYT I became involved with the Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve and Puuc Jaguar Conservation eventually becoming their unofficial “Official” photographer (it’s a long story). I was also selling my photographic work through SoHo Galleries in Mérida, Yucatán and independently at Cafe La Boheme (now Cafe Pistache). I was definitely living the dream (fantasy) so yes it can still be done.

Female Cinereous Harrier – El Calafate (Southern Patagonia) Argentina

This all took place between the years of early 2012 and late 2014—I was living abroad as a full-time American expat, professional photographer and writer. I was shooting and writing for a newspaper and two nonprofit organizations and selling my photographic prints through a brick & mortar gallery, a local cafe and through my online store at Indochine Photography. I proved to myself that I could run with the big dogs and be professionally and financially successful—and I finally put to rest my ex-wife’s chiding that it was only a hobby. Never mock a Creative’s art form because it will ultimately kill their soul. But there is more—

Clifden Castle Ruins – Clifden (County Galway) Ireland

When I left the USA in 2012 to start my new life the original plan called for traveling the world full-time but I got bogged down in Mérida for 2½ years with work—for make no mistake about it doing photography for a living is work. Hard work. I left the USA stone cold broke but my new lifestyle (live simple, live cheap, live free) coupled with my photography and writing got me back on a sound financial footing in relatively short-order. I left Mérida in 2014 to pursue my world travels but stayed active with my photography and writing—I became a freelance photographer with the Boston Globe and wrote articles for Northrup Photography.

San Juan Chamula – Chipas, Mexico

I will soon begin my eighth year of traveling the world full-time with my brother and best friend Joel (a published novelist). We call ourselves the Muppet Brothers (Statler & Waldorf) for obvious reasons: we’re old, grumpy and outspoken. I no longer have to support myself with my art and now take my pictures and write my articles strictly for fun—it takes a lot of the pressure off (though I do accept the occasional commercial assignment and still sell the odd print or two). I’ve proved to myself, my ex-wife and the other naysayers that I could be successful while following my dreams. You can too and that’s my message to you.

Perito Moreno Glacier – Southern Patagonia, Argentina

Don’t let others dissuade you from your dreams and following your heart. But don’t be stupid about it either—the reality is usually different from the fantasy. Often much different. It’s not easy to make a living as a Creative but then it never has been. I’ve been blessed with a certain amount of innate artistic talent which I enhanced with years of learning (I’ve snapped shutters for almost 65 years—I started when I was 7 years old). I was also in the corporate meat grinder for almost 50 years, the last 30 as a banking professional (Branch Vice President) with the largest bank in the USA. My success wasn’t automatic.

Señor Cigar – Trinidad, Cuba

A successful Creative must have both aesthetic talent and business acumen. Many artists go broke because they don’t understand fundamental business skills (sales, marketing and accounting) and many business savvy Creatives go broke because they lack sufficient artistic talent. It takes both. Also, if you’re a freelance Creative understand that 80% of your time will be developing and maintaining your business and only 20% of your time will go towards creating product. That is the reality. Almost eight years in and I have reversed that formula—I now spend 80% creating and only 20% on business development.

Old Gypsy Woman – Sighișoara, Romania

To have that kind of creative freedom requires financial independence—money. I have various revenue streams including: USA Social Security, three modest bank pensions and of course my photography and writing income. My lifestyle allows me to save upwards of 66% to 80% of my monthly income on average depending on where I am in the world. Having lived abroad for almost eight years (simple, cheap and free) I have a robust 5-digit (soon to be 6-digit) savings account that will last me the rest of my life with care. I could not have done this in the USA. Following a dream is important but so is reality. Be smart.

Juan Pablo – Antigua, Guatemala

Joel and I invite you to follow our adventure as it continues. Like I mentioned earlier we’re old (I’m almost 72 and Joel is 69) but we ain’t dead (yet). We each have a website—me at Indochine Photography and Joel at Joel.R.Dennstedt – Author. We also have Facebook pages, both personal and professional. We talk about photography, writing and especially travel (and include the occasional grumpy “Old Man” rant) so if you’re interested give the Muppet Brothers a look-see. Also, visit the highlighted and underlined links I’ve included in this post for further information. Until we meet again—adios amigos.

Bulgaria Where “No” Really Means “Yes”

Stephen F. Dennstedt

When does “no” mean “yes?” In Bulgaria nodding your head means “no.” The most common way to show agreement and say “yes” in Bulgaria is to shake your head from side to side, a gesture that in many countries means “no.” Who knew?

This is a real thing—I never said trekking the world was always easy, interesting but not always easy. We have breakfast every morning at a small cafe just across the street from our hotel. Yep—that’s where it happened to us the first time.

I politely asked our food server for a glass of water and she shook her head “no.” Strange because everyone else in the cafe seemed to have a glass of water—I was willing to pay for it if necessary. She walked away and a minute later returned with my glass of water—WTF? The next morning it happened again when I asked for something—the initial head shake “no” followed by my request being fulfilled. Joel and I laughed that maybe the Bulgarian way of saying “yes” is to shake your head “no”—I Googled it and sure enough it is. Just like eating sheep or goat eyes in some countries, sometimes “no” means “yes.” Kind of weird.

Roasted Lamb or Goat Heads (with Eyes) Are a Delicacy Around the World

Field Notes: It’s experiences like this that make world travel so darn fascinating. If the traveler can suspend judgement (which can be hard for many Americans) and keep an open mind they can learn so much from other cultures. Just because it’s not the American way doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. I used to have this argument all the time with my ex-wife: Just because I think differently or do something differently from you doesn’t automatically make me wrong. But she never conceded the point and I was always wrong—just one of many reasons we’re no longer a married couple. She probably feels the same way. SFD

Old Men Just Wanna Be Left Alone

Is it too much to ask? Old men just wanna be left alone. I will admit the older I get the more hermit-like I become. People and society at large often annoy me. That’s one reason full-time world travel is so good for the Muppet Brothers—depending on where we’re at any given moment we don’t always understand the language (so things we overhear don’t piss us off) and we’re usually off to another destination before things become too irritating. Neither one of us could live in the USA again because we understand everything we see and hear and it just makes us angry. Leave us to our coffee, bourbon (Scotch or beer) and cigars.

Field Notes: This post is mostly tongue-in-check but contains a fair amount of empirical wisdom—as old guys (dinosaurs really) the Muppet Brothers have much less tolerance for the stupid antics and drama of others. We read about dysfunctional American politics, ascendant ignorance, racism and bigotry and we just want to lash out. The countries we visit while traveling around the world aren’t perfect either but we are much less invested in them physically, emotionally and psychologically. I don’t like confrontation or fighting anymore (if I ever did) but I will if pushed—Joel says I remind him of Robert Duval (Lonesome Dove). SFD

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Impressive: I Have Almost Reached Level 72

Change a single word and experience a paradigm shift. Replace the word age with the word level and a perceived negative becomes a perceived positive. Everything revolves around your point of view—change your point of view and your life can change dramatically in unexpected ways. Eight years ago I lost everything materialistically speaking (job, wife, house, cars and savings) but I chose to see it as liberation. Freedom to live my life in a new and more meaningful way—in losing everything I gained the world. I now trek Planet Earth full-time (with just my rucksack and Pelican camera case) as a photographer and writer.

Age is often equated with loss where level is more often thought of as attainment. Two words describing the same reality but one is a negative while the other is a positive. This coming May 18th I will have attained life-level 72 which will be an achievement: more experience, more satisfaction and hopefully more wisdom. Think of your life in terms of levels achieved and not in years and abilities lost and it will change in very real ways. In my case loss became freedom. Aging doesn’t have to be a curse it can be a blessing—a blessing hard-won and worth celebrating. To change your life change your point of view.

Stephen F. Dennstedt – Photographer, Writer and World Traveler