WARNING: This post contains colorful language. Read at your own discretion.
To properly explain what happened as we made our way from Greece to Croatia on September 5th, it would be prudent to give you a little backstory. I am quite sure many of you are well aware of most of the backstory, since I post about our travels on Facebook just about as much as a screen-addicted 7th-grader posts selfies with bunny ears, but hey, some of you may live under a social media rock (which isn’t a bad thing), so here goes.
On August 7th, Brandon and I landed in Eastern Europe to begin a four-month trek across the Balkans, Greece, and who-knows-where after that. Our first stop was Bulgaria. We chose Bulgaria for a few reasons, but mainly it was inexpensive and we wanted to visit the Black Sea. You know, “Black Man in the Bla-a-a-ack Sea!” (sung in the tune of Chris Farley wearing a little coat).
What we did not know going into it is that Bulgaria is not only one of the poorest countries in the European Union, it consistently ranks at the top for graft and corruption.
Arriving in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, was an eye-opener from the start. The city itself felt like a dirty old man trying to find some new clothes, but is far too senile to actually do so. In fact, the old man analogy is quite apt, since Bulgaria also has one of the oldest populations in Europe. With an abysmally low birth rate, high mortality, and youth who flee to Western Europe as soon as they are old enough to say “Dovizhdane!“, finding young people in Bulgaria is like finding old people at Electric Daisy Carnival (I am now ready for the “old ravers” hate mail).
Let me be clear, this post is not meant to be a shit-talk fest on Bulgaria, but the only way to provide you with proper context for what happens next, you kind of need to understand what our Bulgarian experience was. It may not be everyone’s experience, but it was ours.
We had a real love/hate relationship with those two weeks in Bulgaria. It was actually a beautiful country (this is important for later), with the blue-green Black Sea forming most of its eastern border and green hillsides, towering mountains, and beautiful lakes dotting the interior.
The Bulgarian people, however, were another story. They behaved as though they had never seen an African-American person in their entire life, which I cannot fault them for because it may very well be true. We saw two black people in the two weeks we were there and both were tourists coming and going from the airport.
Bulgarians also scowl more than they smile, stare a lot, and generally seem like the only thing that would make them happy is if you got-the-hell away. I would like to qualify this by saying I am over-generalizing here. We did end up meeting some very nice people. One guy we met online even invited us to dinner and took us to his favorite restaurant. Another couple of ladies helped us out on the subway. These were, however, the exceptions and most definitely not the rules.
Oh, and before anyone starts getting mad at me for my honesty, consider the headline of this Economist piece, written in January: If hell is other people, Bulgaria is paradise. So, you see, this isn’t me just trying to be a big ole’ jerk.
I do not blame the people, I blame the fact that they have had a shit-ass government since, well, forever, and probably wish they could be anywhere else at any given moment. You can’t help where you were born.
After two weeks in Bulgaria, we were ready to go, so we caught a flight to Athens for another two weeks in Greece. While Greece has been caught in the throes of one economic crisis after another for some time, the Greek people have been through and seen it all, going back thousands of years, and we had an amazing time there. They are a beautiful people – literally and figuratively – and while they may not be rich economically, their country is rich in natural beauty and history. Honestly, we could have stayed there a month, or longer, but we only had two weeks.
Immediately following Greece, we decided upon Croatia. The problem was, flights directly from Athens to Zagreb (the capital of Croatia) were nearly $300 per person. So, with Brandon as our travel agent, he discovered we could fly from Athens back to Sofia, catch a bus from Sofia to a town in the north of the country called Vratsa, and then from there hop on a train to Zagreb. Plains, trains and automobiles, baby! Doing it this way was going to save us $400 compared to what we would have spent flying. Done and done!
So, on September 5th, we hopped on our flight from Athens and landed in Sofia. Upon landing in Sofia, we found a taxi to take us to the bus station. Once we got to the bus station, we approached the bus counter to ask the person behind the counter to print our tickets. With a scowl on her face the size of the Grand Canyon, she jabbered incomprehensibly at us… yup, we were back in Bulgaria.
After doing some jabbing of my own – finger to the picture of our ticket on my phone – she finally threw her hands up in exasperation and printed our ticket for us. I would like to add that in our confirmation email, it clearly says: “See ticket office for printed ticket.” Why? Because obviously technology and e-tickets are not a thing here yet. With that situation resolved, we raced to our bus and boarded.
This is where we relaxed and watched as the beautiful Bulgarian countryside went by. Vratsa is halfway between Sofia and the Serbian border and the drive there was really gorgeous. It was such a shame the bus had little Lenovo tablets strapped to the back of the seats with various mind-wasting games on them, otherwise I would have seen more of the majestic mountains we were passing. Instead, I found myself caught within the brain suck called Plants vs Zombies. As I looked at Brandon all wide-eyed, frantically planted Gatling Peas and Fume-Shrooms, I said, “This game is so cool!” All he could say in reply was, “Where have you been??”
For the next hour-and-a-half I proceeded to lose a few IQ points and wound up with a sore index finger, but I killed those zombies dead, dammit! Well, more dead than they were. Also, since when did zombies become vegan? Sort of defeats the purpose of them, well, being zombies, but who am I to ask? Oh well, we had arrived in Vratsa! We were now on the final leg!
Before I continue, I would like to make a couple comments about Vratsa. It apparently is a pretty popular destination for rock climbers. With towering limestone hillsides sprouting from emerald green forests, it isn’t hard to see why. Unfortunately, it’s likely that most people are climbing the hell out of town.
Vratsa’s ignominious claim to fame is its declining population. In fact, it loses more people than any other city in a country that already loses more people than any other country. According to official estimates, Vratsa loses 2,000 people per year. The mayor of Vratsa was quoted as saying that if the city does not receive support and investment soon, it could be extinct within 10 years. Ouch.
So, with that in mind, I will continue.
Once we stepped off the bus at the Vratsa bus station, we walked over to the train station, which, I would like to add, looked like something straight out of Escape From L.A.
Side Note: Later on, when I told this story to a few college-aged foreign exchange students from the U.S., the way they looked at me led me to believe their next question was going to be, “Why are people trying to escape from L.A.?”
It is official: I am old.
Anyway, we had arrived at Apocolypto: The Train Station. This place was replete with stray dogs, filthy floors, and 30’s-era chandeliers that probably hadn’t been dusted since… the 30’s. There was even a Soviet-era mural on the wall who’s meaning I could only guess was “My God, get us out of here.”
This was when I started to get that sinking feeling you get in your gut when the sound you think is the breeze is actually a guided missile. Something wasn’t right. This fact was compounded when we went to the ticket counter, which was hidden behind bars and a glass window so grimy we were pretty sure it hadn’t seen a drop of Windex its entire life.
Of course, the ladies did not speak English, but they took a look at our (PRINTED) tickets and proceeded to excitedly talk to each other in Bulgarian and look confused. That sinking feeling in my gut was turning into more of a giant pit. Finally, one of them wrote down “13:30” on a piece of paper and pointed to the tracks. It was taking far too long for my U.S. brain to figure out what she had written, so Brandon handled it for me.
“It says 1:30, which is an hour away,” he said.
Suddenly my stomach found a little buoyancy and I allowed myself a moment’s reprieve. Then, the hour went by. Then, 30 minutes went by. Finally, one of the ladies behind the counter came and waived us back to the counter, where a lady sat with a big scowl on her face. As we walked towards her, I felt like Atreyu approaching the Southern Oracle. I just knew something bad was going to happen.
Once we got to the counter, the lady with the scowl deadpanned in English, “This train does not exist.” I suppose I should have taken comfort in the fact that she didn’t try to shoot lasers out of her eyes at us, though the way she was looking at us, I think she was trying.
That’s when the earth opened up and swallowed my stomach in one giant gulp. Brandon and I could only gawk at her for a moment, our mouths working but no sounds coming out. It was finally Brandon who was able to put a thought together.
“What do you mean, ‘It doesn’t exist?'” He asked.
“I see this before,” she replied, “this company sell these tickets, but there is no train.”
At this point something inside of me broke – quite possibly, my hope in humanity – but in breaking, it at least fixed my brain.
“So, is there a train leaving to Zagreb at all?” I asked, my voice coming out a little higher-pitched than I would have liked.
“No,” she said.
“So what do we do?” I exasperatedly asked.
This was when she explained that we had to catch another train back to Sofia and sort of figure it out from there. As I gathered my whits from off the floor, she gave us some good news. It was only $1.50 per ticket. Despite our growing dread at the situation we were in, we were grateful for that small favor… until we stepped out and saw the train.
Covered in graffiti and pulled by what must have been a World War II-era engine, this thing didn’t look like it could go any faster than a brisk jog. Indeed, when we boarded, the engineer told us it was a “slow train” and that the hour-and-half it took us to get there on the bus would take three hours to get back on this train.
We were trapped… in Bulgaria.
The train had no air conditioning, stained seats, and it squealed like a stuck pig as it went down the tracks… for three hours. And since we were traveling through the countryside, we had no phone signal and no way to try and figure a way out of this mess. Fortunately, we had more stunning countryside to watch as it went by. Brandon, who is usually the voice of reason and eternal optimism, had reached his limit.
“Well, hey, the plus is that the countryside is really beautiful,” I said.
“There are no pluses,” he remarked with a forehead cratered in a dozen frowns.
I did not argue the point. I wanted to live.
Upon arriving back to Sofia, we got off the train and sat down to learn our fate. Plane tickets to Zagreb were now something like $500 per person. You know how it is when you try to buy a plane ticket within 24 hours of the flight leaving. You could be flying one street over and it would cost you two arms and a leg.
Next up, buses. As we looked up buses we found that the bus station was attached to the train station, so we walked over to it and discovered a bus that was leaving at 11:00pm that night for Budapest… it was 4:00pm at the time. That bus ride was 11 hours. We would then wait four hours in Budapest and hop on another bus to Zagreb, which would add another four hours to our commute from hell. Total travel time? Eighteen hours, with another six hours of waiting at the bus station in Sofia. And since we were buying these tickets at the last minute, they were, of course, way more expensive than they should have been.
Resigned to our fate, we purchased the bus tickets and went to a cafe near the bus station to work and drown our sorrows in cheap beer and buffet-style food. As we made sure to spend a healthy amount of coins, I called the owner over and pulled up the WiFi signals.
“Could I maybe use your WiFi?” I nicely asked.
“We no have WiFi,” he answered as he looked at my wireless connections, of which the ONLY CONNECTION was the very name of his establishment. I looked at him, looked back to the connection, and looked back at him. He scowled and walked away.
So, there we sat for six hours while I worked on my phone until it was near death. At that point, I felt near death.
Finally, the time had come to board the bus. Let me say, we have ridden more than a few buses in our travels, but never have we ridden a bus where the space between the seats was so small that Brandon had to put his feet out in the aisle and I had to squeeze my legs at an angle next to his… for ten hours.
With nothing else for us to do, the bus pulled off. A couple hours into our journey, I had to use the bathroom, and it wasn’t to pee. As I entered the restroom I couldn’t help but notice the lovely smell of piss. Why? Because the whole bathroom was covered in it! Oh, and where was the toilet paper? Nowhere. FML was suddenly my favorite acronym.
The unfortunate part was that the food that I had eaten at the “I’m-an-asshole-I-have-no-WiFi-cafe” had given me the Hershey Squirts. Of course it did. Should I be surprised? So as I sat trying to hold back the barbarians at my gate, I counted down the minutes until we got to border control.
Once we got to the border between Bulgaria and Serbia, the bus stopped and I proceeded to ask the bus driver for some toilet paper or something to, well, wipe my ass with, to which he replied with a shrug. This was when I noticed he had an ENTIRE PACK of wet wipes next to his seat. I mean, come the fuck on! So, I strategically waited until he was busy smoking his 100th cigarette (Bulgaria also has one of the highest population of smokers in Europe), I stole several wet wipes out of his case and raced to the bathroom to prevent the battering ram from breaking through.
Here is what is unfortunate about having to wipe piss off a toilet seat when all you have are wet wipes. IT DOESN’T DRY. Am I sitting my cheeks down in a combination of piss and disinfectant or just disinfectant? Fuck if I know, I just gotta go. I will contemplate what I am sitting in later.
I was worried I might still be in the bathroom when we went through immigration. I was wrong. I have never seen a more disorganized border check. There were buses lined up behind each other waiting. Why? Because Bulgarian border control needed to search bags, then line everyone up to get the stamp. So, with 52 people or more on each bus and approximately seven buses in front of us, we were at the border for two hours.
To make matters worse, out of the 52 people on our bus, Brandon was the ONLY ONE who they questioned incessantly, looked at him twenty times as though he had something on his face, and had to pull three border agents in just to determine if he was who he said he was. I felt for him, I really did. It was like Bulgaria was telling him, “You wanna leave, black man? Well, this is how we say goodbye.” Everyone was waiting in line for 20 minutes while he went through hell and they asked him for multiple IDs and searched his bags and examined every corner of his face. I am sure it was quite embarrassing, especially since no one else got that treatment.
I can tell you, with authority, we will never be returning to Bulgaria.
So, we had already lost over 2 hours at Bulgarian border control and we still had go through Serbian, Hungarian, and Croatian border control. Suddenly, the 4-hour window we had in Budapest didn’t look like much of a cushion. Sure as shit, border patrol in Serbia took forever and from Serbia into Hungary it took forever.
You can probably see where this is going. We were sitting on the-most-cramped-bus-from-hell-oh-and-with-no-toilet-paper-for-your-dirty-ass watching the time as it ticked right on passed the moment we were supposed to be boarding our bus for Croatia. This also meant that the 10 hours we were supposed to spend sitting like pretzels turned into 15. It had reached a point where we could only laugh. Maniacally, of course, but a least we were laughing.
After what seemed like two lifetimes, we finally reached Budapest. Obviously the bus company would give us a new ticket to Croatia since it wasn’t our fault that we missed our connection. Except, no.
“Call this number,” they said with little-to-no emotion regarding our plight. It was a German phone number. WTF suddenly became our second-favorite acronym. We called the number and they called the desk and told them to give us a new ticket with no argument. Now, why the hell did we have to go through all that when the desk could have printed us the ticket to begin with?! At this point, we were done trying to find answers. Obviously, we had no control over our fate.
Two hours later, we boarded our bus for Croatia. Keep in mind, we were supposed to have checked into our AirBnB 26 hours prior. We had already lost a day we paid for and spent far more for bus tickets than we should have, never mind the money we spent on the-train-that-doesn’t-exist. We could have bought those $600 plane tickets straight from Athens to Zagreb after all!!!
But, here we were, no time to cry over spilled milk (I don’t do dairy, so maybe that was the problem?) Except, it did not end there.
Although the bus driver from Budapest to Zagreb was very nice, once the temperature started to rise, and we asked him if he could turn on the air, he very nicely did, but nothing happened. There was no air conditioning. We proceeded to sweat profusely for four hours on our way to Croatia. This was where we ripped the scab off and let the final few hours of our journey rub some salt into our wounds. Yeeee haaaa!!!!
But, in the end, we made it. There was light at the end of the tunnel. Granted, it took us a day-and-a-half to see that light, but it was real. Although this was probably the most hellish travel experience we have ever had, we ended up making it to Croatia, checking into our AirBnB, and having a relaxing night.
I would like to add one thing. We are living our dream right now. I write all of this in jest because even though it was an awful travel experience, we are seeing the world. There is no excuse for being unhappy just because sometimes things don’t work out perfectly. Our life is really good and we have no complaints, even when things like this happen. Best to just laugh about it, share it with you, and hope you laugh about it with us.
Thanks so much for reading!