Paths — In Bulgaria
Travel is an intensified version of life, where things go wrong rapidly, and you are forced to adjust.
Feel free to play this audio clip while you read and I’ll explain later:
Foaming at the Mouth
I spent 2 nights in a Bulgarian city on the Black Sea called Varna. I kind of hated it. Sure the beach was nice
but I was trapped in a party hostel run by Australian bros.
Now these Australians were a unique species. They survived on alcohol and alcohol only. Their intelligence went as far as the next drink available. Their desire to ‘slay bitches’ outweighed the need for conversation.
And so the night went. I was forced to drink mightily and attend a foam party in the tourist part of town. There the expected interactions ensued; a drunken pit of male testosterone and female vanity, as each gender desperately clung to each other through screens of foam.
Needless to say I met no Bulgarian people this night. I could have been in any hostel anywhere, with any group of rambunctious shit faced Australians.
This is not why I travel.
The next day I was planning to head to Bucharest Romania. I arrived at the bus station as instructed at 10 am, only to find the bus was full.
Next bus: 4 pm. Shit. This means I’ll miss the connecting bus to Bucharest, meaning I’ll be stuck in Ruse Bulgaria for the night. Ruse?? Where the hell is Ruse? Alright alright there’s no other option, gotta flow with it.
I book a bed at ‘Balkan Hostel’ with a surprising 96% HostelWorld rating. I hop on the bus at 4 pm and take my seat next to 2 girls speaking a mix of German and English. Relieved to hear my native tongue we start talking. It turns out one of the girls is Bulgarian. Finally I meet a local! Finally I can get the answers to my burning questions: What’s it like to live here? To work here? How’s the nightlife for young people? And so on. We arrive in the town and she kindly shows me the way to my hostel and we exchange contact info. Onward.
I am greeted at the hostel by a lovely couple, an Englishman and a Bulgarian woman. They help me settle in and serve ice tea as we relax in the front porch garden.
Ah, relief! 10 hours ago I was stressing about being abandoned in an unknown Bulgarian village, and now I sip tea at dusk in this ridiculously quaint B&B, which was only 20 lev ($11) a night might I add. Perfect.
I head into the city center for dinner and a beer, which cost a whopping 7 lev ($4). Besides the extreme affordability, the city center is gorgeous. Pristinely laid out beautiful buildings, well maintained and elegantly lit.
Embracing the freedom of traveling with no timeline I instantly decide to stay another night.
I spend the next day at a cute café, strangely watching the Seattle Sounders game playing on the TV. I receive a message from the girl from the bus and we plan for dinner and a walk around town. She does have a boyfriend, so no funny business. But it’s amazing getting a tour of the city, hearing the history of the buildings, and getting a decent sense of what it’s like to be in your 20s in Bulgaria.
She has to head home, so I decide to grab my camera and take some more night pictures of the town squares and fountains.
As I walk around at 11 pm with this expensive Canon DSLR, I can’t help but fear for my safety. Crouching down next to a glowing fountain I feel a tap on my shoulder. A young man my age says something in Bulgarian. “English?” I ask. “Oh of course,” he responds. He continues to ask me questions about my camera, as his 4 friends sketchily linger behind him. Shit, this is what you hear about in the papers and see in the movies; they’re gonna beat me to a pulp and take everything I own, I know it. My head swarms with scenarios, conjured by years of selective media and delusional worst case fears. I make up a lame excuse, “I have to go take more pictures,” I say meagerly. I walk the opposite direction at a fast pace and make it to the next fountain a few hundred meters away. I crouch down to set up my camera…another tap on my shoulder.
Fuck they followed me.
“Hey man you walk so fast! We wanted to know if you’ll come with us, we could take you to a viewpoint a 5 minute drive out of town where you can shoot more pictures.” Oh my god they’re going to knock me unconscious take my camera and wallet and leave me in a ditch. “No joke, we promise we won’t kidnap you, seriously. We just want to show you a good night, we never get to meet foreigners.” I look him down and check his face for sincerity. It seems to be fully honest to the best of my judging abilities. I ponder for a minute…
I could use an adventure…
“Yeah let’s go.”
A friend of theirs pulls up in a bmw and we hop in. Here I am, going against everything I’ve been taught as a child, getting in a car with strangers, in Bulgaria, at 11:30 pm. My mother would be so proud.
We keep talking though and it becomes clear that these are standup guys. They’re polite, they’re funny, they’re relatable. I like them and they’re actually so excited to have an American with them. “Man we do the same thing every night,” they say “we’re pumped that you’re with us, it’s good to mix things up sometimes.”
We arrive at the viewpoint as promised and find 20 other cars parked there. I have successfully stumbled upon a young Bulgarian hang out. I take my attempted photos of the landscape, and then we chill and talk about life.
This was real, this was no bullshit. Yes I had to be risky, but that’s the only way. It’s trust when you can find it.
They dropped me off at the hostel at 2am and we bid adieu.
The next morning I awake to freshly cooked French toast and tea, and an Israeli guest fittingly playing Baltic/Klezmer accordion pieces (the clip from above) to cap off my wonderful stay in Ruse.
Spanning from an Australian shit show to an insightful cultural exchange, I now felt much more fulfilled. I learned so much that last night. I learned that Bulgarian guys and girls my age have all the same desires, but they also face more struggles to attain them. Money is a major issue. The average salary is scrap change compared to the rest of the world, and funds are often misappropriated by the government. I learned that a land full of insanely good looking women has its drawbacks, such as inordinate expectations, and tough sailing for normal dudes like the ones I met who can’t wield money as a drawcard. Most importantly though I met genuine people, who even in the grips of a limited country strive for contentment. Who will go out of their way to show an American that Bulgaria is more than just a random unknown on a map.
What began as a stressful bus mishap formed into a 2 day window into humanity abroad. A beautiful struggle for relevance by people just like me. An enlightening sample of generosity and curiosity. Don’t fret, the path is not as clear as it may seem.