RAYKOVO, Bulgaria -- With a hoe in one hand and a cane in the other, Slava Todorova Ardakova waves off an offer of help from her granddaughter as she ambles toward her greenhouse, where the 99-year-old tends her vegetables daily.
'I don't like to stay in one place too long. I walk a lot. I never use any medication. I work for myself, do my own dishes and my own mending,' she says, bending her tiny frame as she works in the garden.
The only time Ardakova even considered seeing a doctor was when she was 97, and then she decided to refuse an operation that might have improved her eyesight.
"I feel very well. I never become ill," she says, sitting in her modest home in a small village in Bulgaria's Rhodope Mountains.
The mountain people in this southwestern region, near the Greek border, typically live long. According to Dr. Argir Kirkov Hadzhichristov, a physician in the mountain town of Smolyan, the Rhodopi people have the world's highest percentage of centenarians -- 50 per 100,000 of population. Runners-up, he says, are Azerbaijan (39 per 100,000) and Kazakstan (29 per 100,000).
Hadzhichristov acknowledges that birth records are not always reliable in such remote places, especially in former communist nations. Still, the Rhodopi clearly have a high number of ultra-elderly, many of whom appear to be in very good shape.
One 100-plus-year-old man he visited had never before seen a doctor, Hadzhichristov recalls.
Their secret? A no-stress, simple lifestyle. While Americans are popping vitamins, racing from the office to the gym, and fretting over how much coffee or red wine is too much, Rhodopi Bulgarians are living a less worrisome -- and longer -- life.
"I've studied them, and they have one thing in common -- none of them wears a watch," Hadzhichristov says.
Instead, these mountain people awaken with the sun, work the land until they are tired, and eat when they are hungry, consuming food they have made from things they have grown or raised.
And they don't get worked up about politics or current events.
"You just have to learn how to say the hell with it -- the hell with everything," advises Kuzman Kostadinov Varadilov, 94, tossing back a shot of rakia, a strong, homemade brandy, as he entertains visitors in his Smolyan apartment.
It's not as though Bulgarians have had an easy time of it over the centuries. Because of its strategic position on the Black Sea, bridging Eastern and Western cultures, Bulgaria has been a favorite target of invaders. Its geographic location also meant that Bulgaria was affected by both Balkan wars and both World Wars.
Last year, Bulgaria reached the worst economic crisis in its recent history. Hyperinflation and a bread shortage led to mass demonstrations and the threat of civil war. But many of the Rhodope residents said they weren't even aware of the protests, which focused on the capital, Sofia, four hours away by car.
"Ach! I remember the Turks. I remember the Nazis. I remember the communists," 103-year-old Maria Chongarova says dismissively. "Whoever is running the country -- he is best for the moment," she shrugs.
Rural Bulgarian life has changed little during Chongarova's long life. The people of this region seem almost unaffected by modern technology or popular culture. The local market is as it has been for decades, a family-run place carrying fresh foods from the immediate area. Only a few outside goods, such as bars of chocolate, are sold.
Bulgarians have also retained their cultural and religious traditions, including the twice-yearly Kookeri festival. Meant to ward off evil spirits and encourage fertility, Kookeri goes back 2,500 years to ancient Thracian tribal practices, according to Tanya Mareva, a historian at the Smolyan History Museum.
At this year's spring festival, men and their sons from several villages dressed in huge, grotesque masks and costumes they made from animal skins. The males of the village carried homemade swords painted red to symbolize blood, and chased townspeople around the unpaved roads of Shiroka Luka, one of the highest mountain towns of Bulgaria.
Women tapped with the sword will conceive within a year, according to legend, while anyone who crouches down while a Kookeri jumps over him will be healthy for a year.
"My father and grandfather did this," says Nicolai Shapov, 40, as he helps his 12-year-old son don sheepskin boots. "It's an important tradition for us."
Day-to-day life for mountain Bulgarians also has a continuity: People eat, worship and work much as their families have done for many years.
Chongarova's daily life is typical of the long-living mountain folk. Her tiny home is situated on a hill in the small village of Bostina; a small window lets in a breeze of clean mountain air and offers a view to an old Orthodox church she attends regularly.
Dressed head-to-foot in widow's black, the sprightly, diminutive woman lives in much the same way as she did in her youth. Her one-room living quarters has a small, firm bed decorated with a handmade blanket. A wood stove heats the room, and an iron pot is used for cooking. The only concession to modern life is a decades-old radio.
"I take care of myself," Chongarova says. And her family -- eight children, 16 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren (one of whom is pregnant) -- keeps an eye on her.
The diet is simple -- goat's cheese, sheep's cheese, homemade bread, olives, beans, fruits and vegetables, grilled meat. Many drink wine or rakia, and several -- including a giggling 92-year-old woman -- admit to the occasional smoke.
All say they keep active physically and mentally.
"I always get invited to funerals, since I'm the best crier in the town," says 92-year-old Minka Assenova Bandeva, who lives in the town of Chilinger Manala. Country Bulgarians frequently have professional criers at funerals, people who can best perform the half-wail, half-chant in honor of the deceased.
"We take natural food, work with the land and with the animals," says Bandeva, stoking her wood-burning stove with wood she had chopped herself the previous day. "I get up with the sun. I have a clock, but I can't read it."
Family life is also important to the mountain Bulgarians, with the extended family typically living together, or at least near each other. Shina Anastasova Iancheva, 94, shares a home with five generations of her family in Oplacvachka.
She waves her gnarled hand when asked if she will make it to 100. "Stop!" she says. "God knows his job, and he will give me whatever he pleases."
Pub Date: 6/24/98