An ode to Bulgaria (or, how shit could’ve gone seriously wrong 72 times in the last week, but hasn’t)…
I’ve been in Bulgaria about five days. I’m already ready to give up my New Zealand boyfriend (sorry S), throw away my passport and sell myself to the highest bidder. I love this country, and I love its people even more. In the whole 120 hours I’ve been in this spectacular eastern (or central, depending on who you ask) European country, I estimate I’ve made about 120 friends. And not Facebook friends, but actual, living and breathing real-life mates. I mean, I’ll probably never see them again – but they’re out there.
I’ve got to be honest, before I came to Bulgaria – I couldn’t have pointed it out on a map. The most I knew about Sofia was that she was a friend’s friend who liked to say “like” a lot. Banitsa? Is that a South American dance?
And for all my forlorn ignorance: this beautiful country has been the utter crowning jewel of my trip. Furthermore, due to aforementioned forlorn ignorance, I want to promote the shit out of this place so more people get here pronto. And I want there to be more useful information all over the internet. So here’s why you should get to Bulgaria, even as a SWF.
#1: You can HITCHHIKE. Anywhere. And it’s all kinds of fun. (Avert your eyes mothers with daughters. Avert your eyes, Mum.) Day two of my tenure here, I was dropped in a misty, bear-infested mountain pass and left to my own devices. Sound familiar? It did look kinda like Twilight.
I’d been staying in Veliko Tarnovo – and the buses and trains to Plovdiv were at ridiculously inconvenient times. So the hostel staff member suggested the only thing a responsible, middle-aged Western male would do – “How about we drop you in the middle of nowhere an hour before sunset, with not a scrap of Bulgarian in your repertoire and see if you can make it to that next city over two hours away”. Game on, mate.
After my ride to the middle of nowhere trailed off into the distance, and I took my spot on the side of the road, I decided to rug up against the 10C weather, and tuck in to the 3 pastries I’d bought to tide me over until the first ride came along.
Car number one zoomed past without a second glance. Car number two did the same. Car number three however, took note of my feebly outstretched thumb, and screeched to a stop in the middle of the highway – taking no note of the pull-off area I had carefully positioned myself next to.
Arms outstretched in question of where I was hoping to get my sorry ass to, I meekly responded with “Plovdiv”, butchering the pronunciation through a mouthful of pastry.
Approximately 1.35 minutes after I’d been left to fight off the ravenous beasts on the side of the road, I was sweltering in the heat of a moving car in three unneeded layers of clothes and being fed biscuits, while being entertained with family slideshows (yes, while he directed his car into moving traffic).
I hadn’t even made it through my first pastry.
Despite an obvious language barrier (whereby neither of us spoke a single word of each other’s language), Andrei (probably not his name, but a good one from a quick Google search) and I got along famously – through his daughter who he phoned at regular intervals to translate whatever great story he was telling me into English. What a guy.
And a few hours later, I was outside the Plovdiv bus station with a honk and a wave. And no sooner had I stepped foot on the steps of that bus station, had another lovely Bulgarian approached me, opened his personal hotspot for me to use wifi, and demanded he take me to my accommodation, and perhaps drive me around in the coming days should I require it. Thank you again Todor (actually his name, the contact he forcibly punched into my phone tells me).
In the coming days, I continued to hitchhike when there was a lack of public transport where I needed to go – and also because I quite liked it. I thought my luck had run out en route to Rila Monastery when a bloke in a 4WD dropped me in the middle of utter nowhere with nothing but a trickle of traffic constantly ignoring me, until a bad ass middle-aged woman and her equally bad ass friend screeched to a stop (there’s no pumping the brakes here, just trying to push them through the floor) in front of me.
Through the 16 words of English she knew, she relayed the fact that her husband had recently died in a car accident (cue awkward mime scenario) and he had always picked up hitchhikers. So now, as a rule she does too. And that, my friends – is a thing of pure beauty.
#2: Couchsurfing is an absolute luxury. The kind-hearted and generous man I stayed with in Plovdiv had a banquet waiting for me when I got in from my first hitchhiking experience (despondent, I thought of the beautiful pastries growing continuously more soggy at the bottom of my daypack).
The next morning, I was greeted with Turkish coffee and a three-course breakfast featuring three boxes of chocolates. He wanted to hang out with me that day, and during sightseeing he ran away to buy me a kebab.
Then he insisted on gifting me a postcard and a small souvenir. Then he re-heated the leftover banquet of the night before, with a side of fresh organic salad, for that night’s dinner. And on my last morning he was grumpy at me because it was 6.45am and I hadn’t woken him at 6am so he could prepare another breakfast, but made me a 4 kilogram packed meal instead. I tried, but ultimately failed, to repay my gratitude in thanks.
#3: They are generous to a fault. During my time in Bansko, I thought I had lost my coin purse. I was walking down a mountain at the time, when a car full of young men picked me up and wanted to drive me to the town I was heading back to.
As far as stereotypes go, I wasn’t expecting a lot from the scruffy looking blokes in the sacked-out BMW we had to continuously drive sideways over speed bumps in.
But after discussing my predicament lightheartedly on the way down, when we came to my stop and after an offer to buy my bus ticket, the front seat passenger forced a 20 lv note into my pocket and went off on his merry way.
By forced, I really mean forced. He had to forcibly restrain my flailing arms and is probably now tone-deaf from my horrific screeching.
I then got back to my guesthouse to try and sort out how I would pay for the second night of my room. They wouldn’t hear of any other option than me staying there for free, and what time did I want breakfast?
These people, man. Amazing.
I was just unpacking my bag to rearrange some things in my gratefully accepted room, when my hand closed around something leathery. Horror movie-esque music thundered from all corners of my brain.
Shock, horror: I’d left my waller in my big pack, and hadn’t actually packed it that day.
The guesthouse owners wouldn’t accept any money when I admitted my idiotic mistake, laughing and probably taking note of the colour of my (blonde) hair. I also feel dirty every time I even see that 20lv note. It’s still in my wallet, and will probably never be spent. Shrine to my mysterious non-saviour.
I am going straight to hell.
#4: What health and safety? In Bulgaria, laws seem to be mere guidelines. Something to bear in mind when considering a bad choice. In effect; you’d think this would result in a state of utter anarchy; but really, it just means everything kind of works and no-one gets the heavy hand of the law for putting a toe out of line.
Case in point: Tour agencies, hostels and other operators offer trips to the most fascinating old communist monument I have ever seen, set in the middle of the mountains.
It’s abandoned, and the police and security have tried in vain to keep people away, but those people keep coming back.
Security cameras? Take the back roads to avoid them. Security cameras on the building? Hood up, or just swivel them. Alarms? Just know where not to put your hands. They’re solar powered anyway, our guide tells us, so today’s overcast weather should be perfect.
Fourth entrance that was prised open to gain access has been welded shut? Just build a makeshift ladder out of broken and rotting wood and a questionably torn rope. Will you break your arm if you fall the 3-metres you have to repel down on said ladder? Yes. Will you still do it, with the guide egging you on? Yes. Will it be one of the utter highlights of your trip to date? Absolutely.
#5: People SMILE. Eastern Europeans in the service industry are genuinely quite mean, and Bulgarians are a blip of light in a sea of frowns and unapproving stares at your inability to command the same level of Polish/ Hungarian/ Romanian they do.
It sounds awful – but I’ve had a terrible run of eye-rolls and tuts and just general “I don’t care about you, you stupid Australian”, “But New Zealand isn’t in Aus-“, “Move along!”, situations to form my own terrible fear of women behind little glass windows.
Here, one lady even called me darling. Point 9876 for Bulgaria.
#6: If you run into people more than once, they get really excited. And one 50-something-year-old man might offer to take you out at 11pm after he finishes work and buy you a drink. You might politely decline that offer, though.
Overall, my experience in Bulgaria has made me so shamelessly happy about the direction of the human race again.
I am aware Murphy will probably smite me down at some point in the nearby future just so I don’t get too full of myself. But in the meantime, I’m happy to be advocate for how safe it actually is here, and invite all solo female travellers to join my feeble revolution.
Please don’t actually wander into those bear-infested woods or something though. I’m all for taking a bit of a risk now and then, but I’m not to be blamed for pure stupidity.
Regardless, I’ll just sit here and revel in the glow of kind, amazing Bulgarian people for just a while longer. Until a middle-aged woman slams a little glass window in my face again, with a tut and a roll of her eyes. Or until my bus to Macedonia in five hours – whichever comes first.
Moral of the story: don’t buy pastries in Bulgaria. It’s a waste of time.