Friday, June 17, 2011

When the Bulgarian border patrol decides to take apart the train, and other fun times...

Two days ago, I planned to take the 18:00 bus from Sarajevo to Nis, Serbia. I set out for the bus station at 4:15, got there at 5:30 to discover the bus wasn't going. It wouldn't leave until the next night. I checked my options and decided to take the 22:00 bus to Belgrade, where I didn't want to go. I slept the whole night, but woke up a lot due to border crossings and whatnot. At 6:00 we arrived to Belgrade. I tried to find a bus or train to the Serbia border where I'd planned to cross into Bulgaria to a hiking town, but there was only a train leaving at 15:30 and was arriving at 11PM into the town. Not a good idea for a single female traveler, and knowing Serbian trains, I would've arrived at 1AM or so. So I checked the schedules and decided to reroute myself to Sofia, Bulgaria and then decide what to do.

The train left at 7:50 and was supposed to arrive at 14:47. I could have walked or hitchhiked faster and with less harm to my personal health, because I smoked an equivalent of 10 packs of cigarettes in second-hand smoke. But never mind that, the train was overcrowded and people were standing. Then the Serbian border people took about an hour to search our train, and the same with the Bulgarians, who actually rode with us for a while and started to take panels off the the inside of the train. They came into our compartment and patted down the woman who had gotten on just before the Bulgarian border but did not find anything. **However, once they left, she jumped up and pulled out her hidden smuggled cigarettes and other things. So they had the right person, they just did not try hard enough...

Also I'd only had 4 small carrots, a yogurt, 2 chocolate pieces and 7 pretzel sticks the whole day. They did not sell food on the train and I didn't have the right money anyway. I hadn't planned on a 27 hour trip.

Anyway. We arrived in Sofia about 7PM. So I had to stay the night. I called Hostel Mostel where I'd stayed last time. They had a bed. The Bulgarian biologists who I shared a compartment with helped me find the tram, and gave me 1 Leva to buy a ticket inside and asked, "Do you need someone to go with you?" I said, no, then many thanks and hopped aboard.

I missed my stop by one stop and it was quite a distance but I wasn't bothered because I needed the exercise after sitting for so long. I found the hostel and went in to register myself. The guy at the counter said, "I hope you have a reservation because we are full." I said I'd called. He said he had no record and acted like I was an idiot. So he called his boss and then said they were only waiting for Pablo. I realised I'd called their hostel in a different town and told him what I'd done. He looked at me again like I was a hopeless moron. I said, "Do you have another suggestion?" He said, "Hostel Sofia." I asked where they were and he showed me on the map. I asked if he could call them before I walked there. He said, "Our phone does not work." I said, "Ok, I'll just take your map then."(It was a photocopied map.) He said, "No, we are running short, you cannot have it." And was done with me.

I started walking to the other hostel, Lonely Planet in hand, a bit confused and exhausted. An Irish voice behind me, "Do you need help?" He pointed out the way and nearly walked me to the hostel. I was standing in front of it, but it was hard to see, just a black metal gate with Hostel Sofia on the front, the first hostel in Sofia. I rang the buzzer and the door unlocked. The stairs were dodgy and dim and I went up two flights to a door answered by a rotund man in shorts about 70 years old. He showed me a bed in a 9 bed room, and pointed to the empty ones (two top bunks). Three guys were in the room, and one said, "Would you rather have a bottom bunk? You can have one of ours, we don't mind." I said ok, since I was pretty tired and unsure about getting down from the top in the middle of the night if I had to pee. They were from Israel, and I was impressed with their kindness.

The owner offered me tea. I said ok. He said, "Black or Herbal?" I chose herbal. He returned with a large cup with a lemon slice floating on top. I sat on the couch happy to be there. He thought I was from NZ because he'd heard me talking to the Israeli guys. I said I was American. He lit up and said his daughter lived in America. In Oregon. In Portland. I said, "I have to show you something and pulled out my OR driver's license and said I was from Portland too!

He came back with a picture of his daughter and the American from the Peace Corps who she'd married. She'd worked in marketing for a NZ company (Icebreaker) and now works in design for Nike. Small world... Next the old man came back with a bowl containing four freshly washed apricots. He sat with me on the couch and played Bulgarian music on the TV for me, and said he'd been a professional musician when he was younger. He left and returned with very old pictures, from around 1968, with him playing guitar in a band and pictures of his wife (who I think is dead) who he called "my love." She looked just like his daughter.

I was thinking as I sat there how happy I was just to be sitting on a couch in someone's home in Bulgaria. I really enjoyed it. It was not the place I would have picked to stay, but it was just what I needed.

This morning I went to get cash after TWO espressos at my hostel. (Yes, he had a real espresso machine.) And then the buzzer was not working so I was locked out. I had to go to a floral shop where a lady customer helped me and the shop let me make a call to the hostel. But then the old hostel man did not understand what was wrong so the customer lady helped me again (though her english was not so good either) and the old man let me in, and we fixed the buzzer together. So everything was good.

In the bad, there is always good. This little hostel was a good reminder of a lot of things, and my one night there was worth the pains of yesterday... it was a reminder of the good in humanity and what is important in life... and sometimes that is just sitting on the couch watching bad music with apricots and a person who does not speak the same word language, but still can be understood.

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