After 10 months living in Turkey I decided to go for some R&R in good ol’ Eastern Europe with a co-brighter and fellow Texan, hereafter to be known on this blog as CB.
During my last semester of teaching, things got a little rough at work. As a dorky escape, I began planning a 3-week trip to Europe, scheduled for the end of June and the beginning of July. This trip, based on budget, was always intended to focus on Easter Europe. However, the route and countries in-play changed drastically and frequently. One day Greece was in. The next day Greece was out. So on and so forth. However, in the end we settled upon Sofia as our first destination. Great. Done. Perfect. But how to get there?
From Istanbul there are two cheap ways to get to Sofia by land: train or bus. Actually there turns out to be three ways to get to Sofia cheaply: train, registered bus, or unregistered (illegal?) bus. I really wanted to take the train. I had taken it on an earlier trip in January and thought it was quite nice as far as travel experiences go. However, the day before our trip CB called me from Istanbul to inform me that the train only ran on weekends and we planned to leave on a Tuesday. I was a little upset because I just didn’t want to take another freaking bus. Gah.
Then CB shared some great news. She had a student whose father drove a bus to Belgrade every week and it went right through Sofia. Even better–because he worked for a new company (read: unregistered, read: illegal?), he could give us tickets FOR FREE. Wooh!
On Tuesday I arrived in Istanbul very early and went to have breakfast with CB and her student at the student’s house. Her family was great. Her mom gave me a hand towel with tatting on it that she did herself. So great! At 11:00 the father drove up the street in the big bus and we boarded and got to sit wherever we wanted. There was one other man on the bus who kind of looked like a youngish Bob Ross with an attitude problem. We were perplexed by what was happening, but open to going with it because…it was free.
So, we drove through the busy, bright streets of Istanbul. We passed the main bus station (alarming?) and arrived at an unmarked parking lot with lots of buses that said things like: “Azerbaijan” and “Iran” on them. We were in some kind of international bus station that was clearly not so sanctioned by the powers that be. Our bus driver and Bob Ross guy got off for a while. One of them went off and peed on a wall in plain site of the bus. Whatever. [I generally expect better than public urination from my bus drivers and fellow passengers but it was a free ride, so you can’t be too picky].
As we sat and waited and wondered what exactly we’d gotten ourselves into, a smaller bus pulled up and a whole bunch of short-wearing men and scantily clad women got off and began milling around outside our bus. Oh. No.
Our traveling companions, all Serbian as it turned out, had arrived and they’d remembered to bring the vodka. Oh joy.
Speaking Serbian and moving quickly, they piled on the bus and arranged themselves in some kind of hierarchy. There was clearly a ringleader, who the others called Patso. Patso was large and sweaty and red-faced. He wore a light pink button up shirt that looked oddly refined in contrast with the three heavy gold chains he wore nestled in his chest hair. One chain was weighed down by a huge crucifix.
Patso liked to smoke, and Patso liked to drink. He did a lot of both on our ride. He drank some crazy shit. In Turkish culture when a guest comes into your home, office or bus (as the case may be), you typically offer them lemon cologne to refresh themselves with. The average person rubs it on their hands, arms, and sometimes the neck and face. Patso decided to drink it (lemon cologne is mostly alcohol). If it makes it any better, he did it on a dare. Wait…or does that make it worse?
The ride lasted ten hours and I can’t begin to describe all of it, but here are the remaining highlights:
-There have got to be idiots working at the main Turkey/Bulgaria border crossing because it took us an age and a half to get through there. And it wasn’t just us. I took great comfort in knowing that even those poor schmucks on legitimate bus lines had to wait in line for hours. Travel apparently brings out the petty side of my nature, unfortunately.
While waiting in line, our bus driver made a point of laughingly telling us that should we be asked about our final destination we should just lie and say it was Belgrade..ha hahahaha. When we asked why he just laughed more and then said the Turkish equivalent of: never mind, just do it. hahahahaha…ugh.
-At the duty free shopping center we visited at the border, Patso handed out 1,000 euros worth of bills to five different men from our bus. Those men each went and bought cigarettes. Lots and lots of cigarettes. I thought Patso was just stocking up ’cause he liked to smoke THAT MUCH. I was wrong. About 10 miles outside of Plovdiv (one of the larger cities in Bulgaria…not saying too much) we made an unexplained stop in the parking lot of a gas station. We were just sitting there, wondering when we were ever going to reach Sofia since it was already getting dark and we still had an hour or so of driving ahead of us. Well, just as I was about to close my eyes for a nap a taxi pulls up beside our bus and two men get out: one very fat and one very thin. They opened the luggage compartment of the bus and the trunk of the taxi and start throwing boxes of cigarettes into the trunk. Before driving off, the thin man hands Patso a wad of bills about as large as my head (sans hair), gets in the taxi and drives off into the night. You know, business as usual.
-Did I mention that, despite our rather frequent stops, the two different men able to drive the bus would sometimes switch places in the driver seat while still on the highway? Yeah. I know. F*cking insane and dangerous. One would put his right foot on the accelerator and then hold on to the wheel while the other would wiggle out. What’s the point? Why not just stop? Or decide to switch while we were already stopped? This is what happens when you accept a free ride to Bulgaria. Don’t accept free bus rides in the Balkans. Ever.
Though it was hardly the safest ride, it was probably the most interesting start to our Eastern Europe adventure that could have been imagined. Also, despite the alcohol consumption, reckless driving, and under-the-table cigarette sales, we came to absolutely no harm. In fact, the entire bus became completely solicitous once we got in to Sofia, and Patso even tried to do a slightly shady money exchange with a “friend” on our behalf. It didn’t work out in the end, but he did his best for us. Thanks, Patso.
In the end they dropped us peacefully at the gate of the official bus station in Sofia and went on their way to Belgrade, drinking and partying all the way, I imagine.