Party Taxi

You know that person that slams their foot on the invisible break while sitting shotgun? That’s me. And, because I’ve had a car at my disposal since the age of 16 it hasn’t been much of an issue. But, it has lead to the reinforcement of my dislike for long trips. Because I’m always the one in the driver’s seat, I’ve never been a good traveller. I’m impatient too. I like going new places, to be sure, but I hate the jostling of travel. I would much rather choose one city and spend a week exploring than hitting seven countries in seven days. And, since I only have Fri-Sun to travel due to my work schedule, most of my trips feel rushed. I’ve never been a “its about the voyage, not the destination” kind of person, but this past trip to Bulgaria has started to soften this resolve.

Kara, Lucian, Cass and I left Friday morning, with Joe making a surprise appearance at the bus station. We pow wowed for the trip to the Bulgarian border, taking turns telling stories about life at home and in Turkey. After arriving in Burgas, we quickly discovered that there were no busses and due to a strike, no trains that could take us to our destination.

While debating what to do, we were approached by a taxi driver, sporting a US Marine Corps Veteran baseball cap, with the rim still flat as a board, who then asked us in English where we wanted to go. I know no Bulgarian beyond voda (water) avutogara (bus station), shkembe chorbaya (tripe soup) and da/niet (yes/no), and had spent the morning digging through the annexes of my memory for any remnants of my German, since that seems to be the only foreign language spoken by Bulgarians who are employed in the transportation industry.

But English! And a faux American Marine Corps Vet?!

He laughed when we said Veliko-Tarnovo.

Lucian asked him, playfully, how much to take the 5 of us. Nikolai’s wheels started churning, doing the math. 280 leva. Ha! 200, we countered. After going back and forth we settled on 220 leva (~$160, about $30 a piece). Pretty reasonable we thought, for 250 kilometers (about 3 hours).

Nikolai stuffed our belongings in the trunk of his car, next to the gas tank, then borrowed a spare tire from a friend and off we went. Well, off we went to the gas station where Nikolai suspiciously disappeared for 10 minutes as the attendant pumped the tank full of petrol. As the gas poured in, the tank rattled and shook, making a grating, growling noise. We could do nothing but laugh, so we laughed historically as the attendant peered in on our snuggle-fest in the back seat.

As it turns out, Bulgaria has the best radio I’ve heard in a while. While Turkish music is entertaining, after a while, it all sounds the same. Bulgaria has the classic European love for American pop and rock, and we benefitted. We heard Natalie Imbruglia, Spice Girls, and other 90s singers who graced the top 40 once and disappeared into the depths of cocaine addiction and reality TV. Nikolai dodged traffic police, announcing POLIS! whenever he spotted a speed trap. And, because we were an illegal four in the back, Lucain would dive down between the seats, I’d cover him with a jacket, and we’d pull seat belts across our shoulders. We told stories of college breakups, worst first dates, and best stories from our placements in Turkey.

About 12 hours after embarking on our voyage, we arrived in Veliko-Tarnovo. The weekend was phenomenal, the city was beautiful, the hostel cozy and it’s staff friendly and obliging. The weather couldn’t have cooperated more. We ate delicious food, full of pork. We drank lovely wines, for reasonable prices. We celebrated 25 years of Hayfa, another Fulbrighter, by dancing in a bizarre Bulgarian night club (they had uniformed dancers who body slammed poles and danced on balconies). But, the best part of the weekend was those hours spent en route, where we had nothing to do but entertain one another.

I’ve been picking on Turkey lately, and for all its faults, it’s making me  a more interesting person. I’ve learned to roll with the punches, take cleansing deep breaths when necessary, and occasionally give in to the voyage, because it can outshine the destination.

Hey remember that time when we hitched a ride in a van full of Turkish men to the Bulgarian border?

Ahh, Bulgarian bus stations

This weekend I went to Bulgaria, a country that shocked me in terms of its similarity with Turkey. And, while there are certain stark differences, like the alphabet, and that they love pork products, several basics were the same. The taxi drivers will try to screw you out of your money with an unabashed enthusiasm, they have a freaky affinity for Nescafé products, and the busses were equally complex.

On the way to Bulgaria, I met up with a friend in the Turkish border city of Edirne. We discovered on the day of our trip that the bus wasn’t leaving from the actual bus station, something that may have once baffled me, but something that I am now unsurprised to learn. After obtaining the name and location of our rendezvous point, we set out for the Aslan Tesisleri, a creepy hotel-cum-bus stop, on the outskirts of the city. After killing time for about an hour, we began carefully watching for our bus to arrive. While it was set to arrive at 11:45 at night, we waited until 12:15 before calling the central bus station and inquire about the driver’s location.

After being transferred half a dozen times, I was able to obtain a phone number for the Edirne bus station, albeit without the area code. After asking around for the Edirne area code, without actually knowing how to say area code, I called the Edirne bus station. They gave me yet another phone number, that of our bus’s driver. After calling twice with no luck, we saw a Metro Europe bus slowly creeping by the Tesisleri. We ran outside, as I tried the driver again on my phone. As the bus picked up speed and drove away, the driver picked up. I yelled at him to stop, explaining that we were waiting for him at the Tesisleri. He responded calmly that he would be arriving there in 10 minutes. What a coincidence I thought, two Metro Euro busses going to Bulgaria at the same time of night? Well, best to believe the bus driver.

We decided to wait in the parking lot, on the side of the highway, lest the driver pull the same stunt as the one before him did, rolling away as we chase after him, yelling. Walking down to the road, we noticed a group of five Turkish 20-something men waiting for the Sofia bus as well. They told us we had missed it, and when I explained I had called the driver, they decided to try him again. Apparently, he had been napping while the alternate driver worked, he had no idea where the bus actually was when he spoke with me and had simply lied to get me to calm down. They were at the Bulgarian border crossing, he told the men, and we were welcome to come meet them.

So, against our better judgment we jumped in a van full of Turkish men and made a mad dash for the Bulgarian border.

I should say, we took some precautions: I took down the license plate number and messaged a friend explaining what we were doing, making sure the driver and his buddies understood what I was up to. I instructed my friend to call the cops if she didn’t hear from me within an hour. Luckily, they were as harmless as our intuition had told us, and within 10 minutes we were at the border.

The driver chuckled as we ran up to the first of what turned out to be five separate admittance gates separating Turkey from Bulgaria, saying he was glad we found him. I could have smacked him, but his laxity was so comical all I could do was laugh. My friend (rightly) remarked that had he pulled a similar stunt in the States, we would have been comped our entire trip. Seeing that the situation was different, we didn’t press our luck and we piled onto the bus waiting for the first round of passport reviews.

Two hours later we rolled into Bulgaria, and as the snow fell around us, we drifted off to sleep. Waking in Sofia, we spent about ten minutes attempting to get a taxi, and when we finally figured out the system, our baffled driver drove us halfway around the city. Too tired to argue, we finally gave in, and were forced to walk to our hostel when we realized the location had been changed.

It was all, all of it, worth it however when we were handed our first real cup of brewed coffee that either of us had drank since August.

**Hostel Mostel in Sofia, Bulgaria gets four thumbs up (two from each of us). Its new location off of Makadonia Sq. doesn’t require a taxi, just a 5 minute tram ride on the #3, 6, or 9. You can, and should buy your tram ticket on the tram, for 1 lev, to avoid the 10 leva fee for not having a ticket, please, learn from our mistakes!