"Everyone has a stake in the tobacco crop," she said. "We all owns a part of the fields. If it's a good crop we survive. If not, we struggle to make it to next year." As we approached the village Lilyana pointed out the racks of tobacco leaves drying at the end of one road. "Once they're dry, we sell them to a Turkish tobacco company," she said. Then she hung her head and said quietly, "I hope you don't think I'm a bad member of your church for making money from tobacco. I follow the commandment not to smoke, but out here there is no other way to make even a little money."
Word of our presence must have spread throughout the village while we were gone. As we walked through the streets people came out on their porches to watch as we passed. A few waved and had Lilyana introduce us to them. One man, named Georgi, told us it was nice to see young people in the village even if it was only for a day. "There is no one here to carry on for us," he said.
Back at Lilyana's home, the grandmother was shooing two chickens out of the house. "I forgot to close the door," she said. "I'm too old to remember everything."
We helped Lilyana prepare lunch. I washed tomatoes, grapes, squash, and cucumber while Lilyana cut it. My companion made several trips to the well in the back yard to retrieve buckets of water.
The meal was delicious. Shopska salata (tomato and cucumber salad topped with feta cheese), pickeled cabbage, boiled squash, and grapes. Lilyana informed us that everything that we ate, with the exception of the cheese, was from their garden. The cheese was one of the few commodities they had to purchase.
I felt bad about eating. I knew that once winter arrived they would most likely survive off what they could preserve from the garden and fruit trees. However to refuse to eat or not to eat much would be a great insult to Lilyana so I ate every time she offered more food.
After we cleaned up lunch we sat in the shade and talked. We read from the scriptures and shared the message we had prepared. Then we played with Ivan and his dog out on the dusty roads and down by the river while Lilyana put her mother down for a nap.
And then it ended, as all things must. The alarm on my watch beeped and it was time to head back. The bus was scheduled to arrive in twenty minutes. We said our goodbyes to Lilyana and Ivan.
"Will you be back soon?" Lilyana asked.
"Someone will come in a month or two," I said.
"But will it be you and your companion?" she said.
"I don't know. But if I am asked to come, I will come again."
Lilyana and Ivan waved goodbye until we reached the crest of the hill. We waved and I took one last look at the village. Ivan's dog was running through the tobacco fields. The man in the donkey cart was heading back to the village, the cart full of tobacco leaves. Then we started our decent and the village disappeared from view.
As we walked the dusty road to the bus stop, my mind rolled over the events of the day and those we had met. I hoped to have another chance to see Lilyana and Ivan again.
The opportunity never came. Soon after I was transferred to another part of the country and in my final months, never made my way back to Tsarovo.
It's been eight years since I returned to the states. And though I have memories and friendships that will last a lifetime, my thoughts always return to that small village at the feet of the Rhodope mountains. I wonder how many of the residents have passed on. And I wonder about Lilyana and Ivan and if they are still live there or if the town has become nothing but empty homes surrounded by fields of tobacco.