It’s been over three years, and I can still picture every tattered detail of the gypsy ghettos of Bulgaria. They reeked of poverty–a smell I had not yet experienced in America–the stench of sewage, mold, disease, filth. Everyday breaths for them, but travel-across-the-world breaths for me.

I remember the hilltop ghetto, where children awaited our coming with electric energy, standing soldier-like against a brick wall, giggling and wriggling in excitement. We played sharks-and-minnows with them and painted their faces and handed out candy. At another community, we were welcomed by an withered lady into her 3-room house and served cookies and soda–a feast she really couldn’t afford to offer us. As always, we took off our shoes outside; here, she offered us each a pair of hand-knitted slippers to wear and keep. I will never give mine away.

There was that unforgettable ghetto just outside of a bustling city, where 30,000 inhabitants lived crammed into a community built for mere thousands during the Communist regime. The first house in the ghetto belonged to the drug lord. Gated, with a Mercedes parked safely inside, his home also bordered the slums; regardless of his money, gypsies were gypsies. Not welcome to live in town near Bulgarians.

This ghetto’s twisting “streets” were rutted, where trickles of urine and rain water traveled downstream, alongside dirty babies and children who meandered the narrow streets, unsupervised and under-fed. A flea-bitten, 3-legged dog limped along in front of me.  On either side of us rose dollhouse-like apartments, some rigged with electricity, some without, many without all the outside walls, and none with plumbing. I could see the people inside walking around. This place felt like a movie set, certainly not a community. We were instructed to stay close to one another and not to stare. And no photographs. We were told deep into the depth of the ghetto, many residents did not even have clothes to wear. But there danger lurked everywhere, so we didn’t venture further in.

Other ghettos were not as bad. Some lucky gypsies lived in the country and held simple jobs. We visited one young couple’s home. It was a cement and stucco 3-room home with a close-line and grassy yard. But the garden, pump, and outhouse shared the same small space of earth. (We didn’t drink their water.)

The last ghetto I saw was Turkish. Also walled, its slum houses lined narrow, dirty streets; a towered mosque rose above the tiled roofs. These inhabitants were both gypsy and Turkish, a double-curse in Bulgaria. Thousands of years of bloodshed and dominance has insured that the local Bulgarians would never associate with any Turkish residents, even those in the next town. Drugs, robbery, and the Black Market were the gypsies’ only means of support.

No plumbing here, either. We had gotten used to holding our bladders and denying ourselves water for hours prior to visiting anywhere on threat of having to use a Turkish toilet. In the end, that was unavoidable.  A Turkish toilets  is an immense hole of putrid filth. Straddling it, using it, and avoiding falling in it comprised an awfully unforgettable experience.

To see this marginalized and forgotten culture is a lesson in the value of humanity. What right do people have to decide the destiny of others? Why should gypsy children’s dark hair be naturally streaked with gold, due to a lack of nutrients? Why should so many of those kids have crossed eyes, deformities, and learning disabilities from the genetics of in-breeding?

And the orphanages. Everywhere, filled with gypsy children, whose parents had gone to jail or who couldn’t afford to feed them. We witnessed a sad but typical experience–a young mother arriving at the local orphanage by taxi to drop off her baby. When he is older and able to work, she might return for him. But probably not.

Do we bear responsibility for these, the down-trodden? Do we even care? Once we get home and settle into our safe, clean houses with running water and electricity and a dozen rooms, are we even able to care?

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