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Published: February 18th 2007
The overpowering odor of BO smacked me in the face after leaving Istanbul. Lucky to have the bus seat to myself, a tiny girl watched me for a while before visiting my seat to scribble in my journal.
We stopped at the Turkish-Bulgarian border and waited to pass out of Turkey. On the Bulgarian border, there were five identical duty free shops. The people on the bus raced for the shops: it wasn't shopping; it was BUYING. I walked into one shop and a man from my bus demanded my passport. He handed it to the clerk, where they recorded the number, and the man ordered 9 cartons of cigarettes. Nine CARTONS! Why would they want my passport in a duty free store? Because there is a QUOTA per person when buying cigarettes and alcohol. By using my passport, he was able to bump up his personal quota to purchase twice as much. He told me "thank you", handed back my passport and walked out of the store.
A few minutes later, the father of the baby in front of me offered me 10 Euros for one carton. The same scam! I feigned ignorance and pretended
not to understand that he wanted me to buy cigarettes for him. After a lot of exasperated charades: smoking invisible cigarettes, gestures to the stores...he finally gave up.
I found consolation in an English-speaking couple on the bus that seemed to stand out from all the others. They were well-dressed and stood together instead of going into the shops. They informed me that we were riding the GYPSY BUS, which was the worst bus for travel into Bulgaria. Its filled with Bulgarian gypsies who ride from Sofia to the Turkey and back, just to buy these duty free cigarettes and whiskey. They sell them on the streets and in the markets back home. They make this trip every two days.
I watched with fascination at the landscape around me. It wasn't like Mexico, but glancing at the barren landscape, that was my first thought. "Outdated" and "poverty" were the first adjectives that sprang to mind. It is visibly an incredibly poor country. The average pension for a retired person is 150 $ a month. Bulgarians are optimistic that since they joined the EU, the government will subsidize wages, agriculture, and it will give an overall boost
No snowballs in the camera!
Playing around with the Aussies
to the economy. There are EU flags everywhere and signs congratulating the country on its achievement.
You know what Bulgaria looks like even before you see it.
Just close your eyes and think about the houses, the animals, the landscape.
And you are exactly right.
The hills are a patchwork of ragged crops littered with trash and circled by horse-drawn buggies.
The cars were antique and painted in dust.
Houses are collapsed red-tiled roofs with laundry flying off the clothesline. In the cities, people live in row upon row of Communist block apartments, stacked together by plaster like bathroom tiles. Every one of the apartments are occupied. "What do people in this town DO?" I wondered to myself. Then, in a moment, I realized the answer: for income, they ride 20 hours to the border in order to buy cigarettes.
My favorite memory of Bulgaria is the trip I made to Rila Monastery in the mountains of Bulgaria. It snowed on the two hour drive and we played in the drifts and made snowballs (on Valentines Day!) The monastery was started by a hermit who lived in a cave for 12 years, and
today it is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It has the most incredible, colorful paintings of any religious building I have ever been to. The snow-encrusted setting made it even more picturesque.
While exploring the must-see city of Plovdiv, as my guidebook suggested, my new-found hostel mates and I hiked up to the Russian soldier monument and viewed a Communist memorial. It jutted up from the bleak square as both the Bulgarian's harsh reality and a stark reminder of their past. A Couchsurfing friend mentioned that her parents got married at the Communist monument. Not the most romantic spot, I must admit.
On the way back to the hostel, I initiated a game of frisbee with three local 10 year olds. After a lot of unnecessary gesturing, they introduced themselves in English and told me I was funny. I am finding that at this point in the journey, I have grown tired of monuments, castles, cathedrals, and buildings. Its the people that I look forward to and remember most from my travels.
After one week, I felt the impulse that it was time to leave. Eastern Europe is not the most uplifting place.
It reminds me of concrete: hard and gray and unavoidable. It is a very real slice of life, but at the same time, it is a place I feel lucky to explore and understand first-hand.
Next stop: Belgrade, Serbia.
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