Traveling through Bulgaria
July 20 - Aug. 4, 2002
So, I guess you might already know this, but I’m officially on my first trip this year and second trip with Misha. We were trying to figure out where to go while fitting into my tight expense limitations. We were originally talking a lot about going to Portugal. We both knew people there and it looked promising, since we could stay places for free and people would suggest things to do.
But, alas, the price was simply too high to go to Portugal - I didn’t want to pay the plane ticket, Misha said there was no way she was going to sit on a bus for three days (out of two weeks worth of holidays), so we started looking elsewhere.
I suggested Croatia, seeing I have not been there yet and it didn’t look so far away, but Misha said she’d already been there and didn’t want to go again. The ideas kept bouncing around and around. I finally pulled out a map and suggested Gdansk. Northern coast of Poland. After all, our definite aim was to make it to a nice coast following our dreary and rainy trip through the autumn weather of Northern Europe last year. Plus, I thought we could take a short trip to White Russia or whatever it’s called - another country and not so far away from Gdansk.
But, about two days later, Misha came up with the idea to go to BULGARIA!! It’s nice and cheap, her mom’s been there a few times, it’s got a coast - a lot of the ingredients we were looking for.
So now I’m on the bus heading to Bulgaria, while passing through Hungary.
It’s been a rather hectic week. My old laptop decided to fail about three weeks ago and this trip has hastened my necessity to eventually get another laptop. Found some Vietnamese dude I felt I could trust and bought off him a second hand laptop, imported from Switzerland (hopefully not stolen from an honest business man like me…).
It’s better than my older laptop but still required that I install everything I have and transfer all my key files so that, once again, I could be totally independent of location and work off my laptop.
Basically spent the last week waking up early, handling different translation projects, and trying to get all the logistics into shape in between. Meanwhile, finally got the cable internet connection I have been after for so long, which required fiddling around with my network, learning all sorts of stuff, downloading and finding things off the internet… In effect, I’ve been really busy this past week trying to make this trip possible, working late into the morning.
In fact, the last night before I left I worked right through till the next morning, juuuust managing to squeeze everything in before running out the door to the bus station.
Oops, battery died on the bus.
So, according to tradition, before embarking on our trip, we made sure to fill up at the nearest McDonald’s, and then made our way to the bus, in which we crammed to start our long, 24 hour journey to Sofia.
The countryside was nice most of the time along the way. In Yugoslavia we had to pay 7 USD just for passing through the country. Almost out of that country, we took a last pit stop to take a leak. But the washrooms there were charging 50 cents to take a leak and half the bus decided to go in the bushes instead. Misha went in the bushes as well, but she made it back to the bus, she was stopped by a policeman who was evidently quite upset that everyone had peed in the forest - a big no no in that country and perhaps some lost commission for him from the toilet people.
He was scolding Misha, asking her if she was Bulgarian. She just stood there, shaking her head and saying, “Cesky, cesky.” So he stormed off mad and issued a hefty fine to the bus woman.
Girls often seem to notice things that guys don’t. Like for example a new pair of shoes, earrings - you know, unimportant things like that. However, one thing she notice on our bus ride down there was that, before every border crossing, the bus woman would go into a special compartment while carrying the list of people on the bus and come out of the compartment with the list wrapped around a bottle of wine. One border crossing she even had TWO bottles concealed in this manner! Later, people in Bulgaria said we were “lucky” we had to wait only one hour at each border crossing and that it usually takes two hours. That was very interesting.
Waiting to get into Bulgaria. One thing I have to say about Bulgaria is that, apparently, 10% of the population are stray dogs. They are all over the place. Sleeping here and there, none of them bother you, none of them try to bite you, none of them bark at you (quite contrary to Prague). It just entrenches my beliefs how we humans are so talented at screwing up everything that is natural.
Rolled into Sofia and I sent an SMS blast to all the people I knew in that country (all of them my kind translators who I approached before I left). Hooked up with one person in a cafe. We were waiting for a Valery and I imagined some hot blond in a long red dress. Valery turned out to be a guy, who was also expecting to find a Karel of the opposite sex. But we had a good time and all of us partied until when our bus left for Bourgus that evening (we didn’t want to pay overnight in Sofia but rather make it to the coast sooner than later).
We landed in Bourgus at 4:30 in the morning. Bought a map and took a cab to the centre. Jumped on the first bus heading south, which happened to be for Ohtopol. Was full and we were forced to stand almost two hours.
Landed in Ohtopol and asked the tourist information for a cheap and safe place to stay, hopefully with a telephone line so that I could hook up to the internet. They said that was possible but more expensive - 15 USD a night for the two of us instead of 10.
But we were pretty exhausted from the long trip and reeeeally needed shower and toilet, so we just took the deal and they drove us to the hotel.
Took a shower, started getting back into shape a bit, and hooked my computer up, only to discover that the line does not work. Asked the receptionist why it was not working to discover that the phone is only for calling the other rooms within the hotel - absolutely useless.
The next few hours were a series of negotiations, interwoven, at key times, with explanations that the woman I was talking to does not understand English, that it is impossible to return our money, etc. etc.
This kept going back and forth and never leading to anywhere. She kept referring to “her boss”, who I eventually determined was this older woman who I first thought was a cleaning woman or something. The translations between me and this woman, through the receptionist, was getting more and more frequent, the woman meanwhile sort of just waving her hand with some excuses, not even looking at me, and having that tone in her voice and mannerism which made me think she was not too concerned about my situation. She just sat there in her comfort, before her table full of lunch, and sat eating contentedly just waving her hand.
This was when I decided I would rather talk to her directly and in a language I felt she would understand, so I jumped down from the stairs above her, yanked the edge of the table such that her entire lunch and everything else on the table was thrown against the wall and onto the floor, and then I leaned over to her face and started screaming at her, noticing that much of my fine spittle was spraying lightly all over her. I often repeated a well known, international word to her.
Nevertheless, after masquerading to call the police, she must have had a change of heart and decided to give us our money back (minus 15 USD for the broken plates).
So we continued, walking like lost tourists, heavily laden with backpacks and looking dumbfoundedly for the next whiskey hotel.
People would occasionally run out of their homes, noticing our state, and offer us rooms in the back. We looked at a few and eventually decided on an offer made us by an old couple. They said using their telephone line would not be a problem. This was true the first day, but as soon as they heard the word “internet” and saw the spaghetti of wires around my laptop and modem, they started to get scared and eventually banned us the use of their telephone line. We tried the local “internet cafe”, a single 486 computer in the reception of a rinky dinky hotel, then the post office, but nobody was willing to allow me the connection.
Many of the restaurants had plants growing all over the place. This one even had grapes. Wine was more popular in Bulgaria than beer. :o(
On the way into Bulgaria, we were told that, within 48 hours, we must fill in a form at any police station stating where we will be staying, otherwise we will be subject to a fine on the way out of the country. This being our second day in Bulgaria, we went to the local police station. But the guy there just waved us away to the next village, saying it was not his problem and that he is not in the least interested, but that we better move on and, above all, get our bottles of juice off his table. Perhaps this is why the hotel woman did not bother to call the police.
On the beach at the first town. The little fishies in the top right are fished out of the sea by locals and grilled right on the beach.
So we crammed our way into a small bus to the next village to try our luck. Three internet cafes and the situation started to look more hopeful - it was a larger town. So we made our way to the police station and were fortunate to find a new Polish woman friend, who worked there and who interpreted for us. It was a mish mash of Polish, Czech and Bulgarian, but we managed to find out that 1) this is day number three and therefore too late (we went to the village the next day), 2) it is not even us who is supposed to go there but rather the person who is taking our hotel money (the government wants a piece of the tourist action and therefore came up with this way to “supposedly” force hotels to register their profits, and 3) due to our gross negligence, we can each expect to pay a hefty fine of 100 USD at the border.
On the way to the next town in the local mini-bus traveling between small towns. It would always pull up and us and a bunch of Gypsies would jump in and try and grab a seat. Then the driver would pull away immediately while some Bulgarian would run out screaming at the driver. I guess they didn’t have a permit or something to pull up where they do to pick up customers.
But the Polish woman said she’d pull some strings for us and take care of all the paper work. So now it is the next day, after a last night’s sleep at the previous place, we are on the beach right now and slowly getting ready to make the trip to our next destination - Tsarevo. I tried the internet cafes there yesterday and no one knew what a network was, so I certainly was not going to hook up my computer to the internet through them. Today we will try the Polish woman’s post office friend. Otherwise, one last resort is to ask the internet cafe whether I can put a floppy disk into their computer. If so, I will have to do all my work through a floppy and a Hotmail or Yahoo account - how barbaric.
We plan to stay around this neck of the woods for about 4 to 5 days, and then head over to visit some hashers in Istambul. Meanwhile, I have two projects I am supposed to have completed today and cannot even send an email to my customers. Looks like I might have to take a forced vacation. We shall see.
[End - Thursday, 25th July]
So we made it safely enough to the next whiskey town the next day, survived yet another crammed bus ride and got off to meet our new Polish woman friend, who was waiting for us with papers prepared (so we wouldn’t have to pay the 100 dollar fine) and who immediately took me to her post office woman friend. But her friend seemed adamant about not letting me hook up my laptop to their telephone line, so I was left with the internet cafe option again.
Went to the internet café again, but this time there was someone there who knew what a network was (and who spoke English, so Misha reminds me). So we spent the next few hours trying to hook me up to their network. That went easy enough, and the internet worked, but when I casually asked him what his SMTP code was (so that I could send outgoing mail), he said he didn’t know - even after making some phone calls. So it looked like it was back to using a floppy disk and a Yahoo account or something.
This irritated me and I really wanted to be able to send from my computer (where all my work is), so I started surfing for some free SMTP servers. Other Bulgarian computer geeks started strolling in and, soon enough, there were about five of them brainstorming how to get around this problem. Finally, someone suggested that Windows XP (which I have) has its own SMTP server which can be installed. We installed that and they spent some time setting it up until, finally, I had my own SMTP server running on my computer and could send email directly from my computer anywhere I was connected to the internet (very useful if you are travelling around like me and have to hook up to the internet in various ways and through various networks).
So I was all set up now and finally back in business, even though the internet connection was so ridiculously slow it wasn’t even possible to hook UP to Yahoo half the time. In fact, one day I had to give up when the cafe was almost full. It seems they had a 33 kb phone line connection and were dividing that among all the users. Most of the users were just hooked up to some Bulgarian chat service, seeing that surfing and anything else was too slow to use.
So I would make the 12 minute stroll every day, to downtown, carrying my laptop in the intense tropical heat, to download new mail and blast off all my prepared messages. I even came up with, eh em, a rather genius method where translators could email text messages to my mobile and I could send them back emails from my mobile. I would sit on the beach with my laptop, read and reply to all my downloaded mail, occasionally receive text messages and inform certain translators, “Yes, please start with the project,” and go once a day to the internet cafe to make the big “exchange”, as the young Bulgarian computer geek called it. Somewhat of a rinky dinky and cumbersome method to manage everything, but just barely enough - excepting the fact that it was hard to motivate myself while lying awkwardly on my sandy blanket, a pocket umbrella propped up over my laptop so it would not overheat in the sweltering sun, and staring at the rhythmic and hypnotic ocean waves perpetually caressing the shoreline…
The Tut Tut train between "downtown" and the "main beach". Since we were staying between the two, we would hop on this baby every day to town, until I found a short cut and that I could walk there faster...
So, under these conditions, I was not very productive and was falling increasingly behind in my translation projects. This was not so good considering I had major projects for my two largest customers, one project of which was supposed to be the largest one of the year. The customer was getting agitated with the constant delays and I was getting stressed out trying to satisfy it.
The "Main beach" where we would spend most of our days.
The place we stayed at was fairly nice, there was two beaches within close walking distance, and we were finally starting to settle into something that at least remotely resembled a relaxed vacation in the sun (up until then we had to keep moving from place to place to look for a reliable internet connection).
The people we were staying at were nice. The husband was Bulgarian, unemployed, and occasionally showed us at which of the local pubs he would spend most of his days and where a double shot of hard liquor ran at thirty cents.
But, alas, our little paradise was coming to a close and it was time to make preparations for our trip to Istanbul.
Meanwhile, my customer started calling me on a more regular basis and I was getting more stressed in the process. We spent most of the morning on the beach and then I made my last treck to the centre to hook up, after which I was going to stay there and jump on the bus to Turkey.
Made it to the centre, hooked up, started the long process of downloading my mail, after which I was going to send the very important files my highly agitated customer was anxiously waiting for.
Unfortunately, a storm started brewing, the cafe owner feared lightning (which might cause an electrical surge and fry every computer hooked up to his network - including mine) and eventually shut down his entire operation. By this time Misha showed up and we decided to transfer to a neighbouring restaurant. From there I called my customer in the US to explain my yet another predicament (yet another excuse why I could not deliver the work). The storm kept increasing in intensity to what may be the most intense storm I ever experienced. It was pouring out of the sky like Niagara Falls and we were told this was the fiercest storm the country experienced in twenty years. A couple of weeks later, in Prague, I even heard over the news how about 50 people on a beach in the Black Sea were sucked up in a tornado, never to be found again…
With the stress of having to explain yet another failure to my customer, the amazing storm, and the throngs of Bulgarians huddled under the patio roof in the restaurant, staring in wonder at the rage of God outside, I committed what I have never accomplished during my eight year history of owning a mobile - I lost it.
That’s great, now I can’t even communicate in my fancy way with my translators and my projects seemed even more at risk.
So now we were off to Turkey.
We rolled into Istanbul early next morning, just in time to meet my friend on his way to work. He took us up to his office, where I hooked up, with absolute ease, to his network and spent the next couple of hours catching up to some badly needed work.
First day in Istanbul and we actually had a CHOICE!! between Burger King and McDs!
Left: they had a little bit of an inflation problem down there and
our meal turned out to be about 4,000 million of their funny money. Therefore,
this might be the only time in my life when you might see me as a "millionaire"
(I was holding 3,000 Turkish Lira). A beer usually goes for about one
million, which equaled, at that time, about 80 US cents.
That wrapped up, I grabbed my camera and we headed out to explore the city.
I must say that we were both quite surprised. As you might expect, I entered the country holding my valuables with firmly clenched fists, but the people and surroundings were not at all as we both had expected. The people were nice, most of them spoke English, and they were VERY helpful. People were nice as well in Bulgaria, but most of the time they spoke to us in Bulgarian, in a manner as if we had been living there for the past ten odd years. Add to this the fact that, in Bulgaria, shaking your head means yes, nodding your head means no, vpravo means straight (pravo in Czech means “to the right”), so we were quite pleased at the ease with which we could communicate with people in Turkey. In fact, many times people there would hear us talking and asked us if we were Polish. When we told them we were Czechs, I’d say half the time the person would instantly pull out some Czech phrases. Everywhere we went people were running up to us trying to sell us something. Street vendors filled the streets while walkers moved slowly and the occasionally beeping cars filled the rest. It was a little bit uneasing to be constantly asked to order food or buy something, anything, but the people were not harassing about it and politely let us go on our way when we showed no interest. Every time we looked into our map or stared like a dumb tourist looking for where to go next, someone would run up to us and help us on our way. But they never held out their hands afterwards looking for a reward for their favour, as we initially expected would be the case.
So we spent two nights in Istanbul and left quite impressed and surprised.
Although my customer was disgruntled, I think I just managed to pull off the big project in time for it to meet it’s customers deadline and we spent our time in Turkey soaking in the wonderful architecture. It was interesting how the architecture differed slightly on different sides of the straight - one side being the “Asian” side and the other the “European” side. In fact, on our way back to Prague, we noticed a sign while crossing the big city bridge, “Welcome to Europe”, this while still in Istanbul!
Well, now we’re on our way back to Sofia, where we plan to stay overnight and party with our new friend and maybe hook up with another friend who, while we were on the southern coast of Bulgaria, had freshly moved to the city from Prague.
Since my battery is dying and I need some in reserve to refer to incoming text messages tomorrow, I will sign off now and continue this stressful adventure later.
Some scenes of Isanbul:
Left: there was a big fat war a long time ago on the cross-roads of cultures (here) and the Arab world won. So the Egyptians built a big obelisk with the story of the victory carved into it and shipped it to Istanbul. Unfortunately, as they were trying to take it on shore, it snapped. The top third is shown standing here. Behind it is another obelisk they built later and which was covered over with a very thick layer of gold. Unfortunately, over the centuries, it seems the locals were short in change for the next beer and the gold was eventually whittled away.
Many times it is easier to get around town by one of the multitude of ferries. We took a tourist ferry trip one day to view the coastline along the straight.
A yacht club in front of a residential, seaside community.
All the stores seemed absolutely immaculate in their presentation.
The last "port" our tourist ferry docked at. Often locals could be seen along the coastline working on their catch and throwing the unwanted bits to the multitudes of waiting cats, many of them filled, satisfied, and enjoying the summer sun.
The city, 15 million in number, 150,000 km wide and 230,000 km long, would often have its shops organised into categories along certain streets or sections of town. This section was the backpacker section: youth hostels, travel agencies, and western style bars. Here you see Cheers next to Just Bar, a joking contrast I guess.
Left: Gotta dress up if you wanna visit their churches. People didn’t
seem so keen on me walking around in the heat without my t-shirt (my natural
favourite) and often ran out of the stores trying to sell me one.
The "spice mall" (a passage way between two busy vendor streets) where we dished out 30 million smackers on delicious Indian spices.
Back in Sofia.
And, finally, back in Prague to get together with our closest friends.
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Published - July 2010
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