9/13/15: Crossing the Turkey-Bulgaria Border
O. M. G. That’s all I have to say about today. So glad to be at my final destination in Bulgaria.
Woke up at 5:30 to the first prayer call of the day. I had no idea prayers started that early, but it’s pretty dang early. What discipline and devotion that must take. (…Of which I have none.) Had another fantastically awesome Turkish breakfast and caught a cab to the main Istanbul bus station. Our taxi driver just drove right on through multiple red lights down a main thoroughfare at high speeds. After that, we got stuck in some pretty insane 7 a.m. traffic. Not sure which is better. These guys get their vehicles amazingly close to one another and all you can do is tighten your grip on the car door handle and laugh because it’s CRAY, folks. CRAY, I tell you.
By the way, the Istanbul bus station is HUGE. Private bus companies were numbered into the one hundreds (literally on the door addresses) and we had to find a bus company that doesn’t wreck, as advised by our friendly travel agents downtown. We did find one, but the 8:30 bus was already sold out. As it would happen, we seemed to have purchased some of the last tickets on the 9 a.m. bus because we spent the day wedged in the very back corner in our assigned seats. A good thing nonetheless because there were only two buses to our destination the whole day!
While waiting, we were approached by taxi drivers offering us rides. One, the most polite cab driver there ever was, greeted us with, “Assalamu alaikum.” Very interesting to me because I’ve never heard that greeting in an authentic setting before. I actually felt bad turning the guy down he was so kind. The other hecklers are so easy to walk away from, I don’t feel bad for a second. I actually want them physically away from me. Immediately. Meanwhile, I wanted to give this guy a hug… and a tip, just for being nice to me.
Walked across the street to grab some snacks for the journey, which we’ve learned from prior trips salivating over our neighbors’ food. The stand owner was kind enough to teach us some additional Turkish. “Additional” is a strong term since I only know “thank you,” and I’m not even certain Jeff knows that, quite frankly. The owner couldn’t have been more friendly, though.
Hopped on our bus and off we went. Turns out, we didn’t need snacks at all! The one time we bought them, too. This bus service fed and hydrated us non-stop. I hadn’t seen that on a bus service before, but it was nice. They also had movies. Yes, “Taken” was actually one of the featured films. Thanks for that, bus company. Exactly what I needed. We picked up a bus load of people at one stop and the bus became completely packed. As mentioned before, Jeff and I were literally assigned to sit in the very back row. Unfortunately, a rather large fellow was assigned to seat in the center seat of the back row next to Jeff, which pretty much made the remainder of his trip miserable, poor guy. It also became really hot at one point in the ride.
The landscape changed from downtown to an arid desert to rocky forest as we neared the Bulgarian border. The border check was a particularly rundown stop in the middle of nowhere in the mountains. Lots of stray puppies and bird poop… and men with machine guns walking around. We had to get off the bus for a passport check to exit Turkey and the guy paused looking at my passport, but stamped Jeff right through.
In the neverland between the two countries, the Bulgarian guard came onboard the bus and checked passports. When he got to me, he also paused. Then he asked me if I had an English passport. Everyone was listening and my heart skipped a beat. Confusion surrounding the birthplace listed on my passport versus the nationality of it has actually happened before, but I really didn’t want to be detained in this place indefinitely! I just replied, “No. American.” Which is also awesome, because I totally want to announce to a bus load of people that there are two Americans “hiding out” in the far back corner of the bus. Convenient seating, right? He stepped off the bus with all of our passports in hand to check in the office. Fortunately, ours were the first two back. Jeff was like, “Well, they’re the easy ones.” I replied that he was obviously interested in checking mine first, I’m sure. I was just glad to get it back and get through, but waiting those ten minutes was a little nerve-racking. And, seriously, you should’ve seen this border crossing.
Once we made it to our stop in Burgas, we had to try to figure out where and how to take the bus from Burgas to Sozopol. I guess I’d figured we’d be stopping at a traditional bus station, but no. It was a random stop a block or two away from a couple of bus offices, which was another block or two away from more bus stops. Fortunately, a bus leaves every half hour. I think we’d finally found the stop and determined through several disastrous conversations with the locals that you pay on the bus. As we were waiting, a taxi driver approached us (we’d refused several already.) He looked clean cut, but surly, and offered 10 Lev for the half hour drive. When we continued to say “no,” he asked, “It’s 5 Lev per person. What’s the problem?” …He seemed to have a point. That’s like $6. And he pointed to a legit cab. So, we caved.
When we got to the taxi, two girls (one of which actually turned out to be a guy) hopped in the cab with us. They were obviously Bulgarian and had no bags with them. All I could think the whole ride was, “I’m going to get attacked on some random side road in the woods. These chicks are in on the scam. We were the targets of a predator. I’m going to have all my things stolen, and then I’m going to be sold into human trafficking… if they’ll have me. What happens if I’m not sold into human trafficking? Probably a worse fate.” Unfortunately, cab drivers in this region have a very poor reputation and I’d truly wondered if I’d made a particularly bad judgment call here. Jeff had the GPS running on his phone the whole time (for me) and I was literally memorizing the license plate number written on a sticker in the corner of the windshield.
Not to worry, however. Turns out the girls (girl and boy, whatever) were being dropped off at the arts festival downtown, they also paid 10 Lev, and the cab driver dropped us off at the entrance to our hotel. I honestly felt really sheepish at my anxiety and paranoia, but as I tell Jeff, that paranoia drives good traveling decisions for us… usually. But I guess that turned out to be a textbook definition of being afraid of someone because they’re foreign and I’m in a foreign country. Unacceptable. But I can say that now… because I’m okay. …He still didn’t use his meter. Just sayin.
Yes, I totally thought it was two girls. The one that turned out to be a guy had a shaved head, but looked like a girl with a shaved head. Jeff actually thought so, too. Then he spoke. When recounting the ride later, Jeff had to keep reminding me when I referenced them that it wasn’t two girls, but… for all intents and purposes… two girls.
Needless to say, our hotel location is awesome. The room itself is just okay, but the location is fantastic. There weren’t a lot of openings in Sozopol when I’d booked, but this isn’t so bad. We had drinks at the restaurant overlooking the water and watched the sunset. Of course, we were approached by a one-eyed Bulgarian cat at dinner. He was relentless, but I remained strong.
Stay tuned tomorrow for our day in Sozopol. We might catch a ferry to a similar town nearby if we run out of sites too early (called Nessebar).
9/14/15: Downtown Sozopol Debauchery
Slept in and it was magnificent. The hotel bed was not so magnificent… hard as a rock. Went and had brekkie with the one-eyed Bulgarian cat, whom we named “Willy.” He was making out like a furry bandit; lots of folks giving him scraps. After that, we walked into Old Town Sozopol for some easy going sightseeing. Stopped for coffee at a cafe where the waitress greeted and served everyone around us… except us. Seemed strange since I’ve never come across that in our travels and I wondered what her issue was exactly, but found another cafe a little ways down that was more than happy to serve us. Walked to the tip of the Sozopol peninsula and back to visit a 15th-century church. The architecture here is really interesting. Everything is wooden (entire homes) and the churches have brightly colored paintings inside with gold leaf. Bought some postcards and found a post office to mail one to my nephew. Got shit on by a bird. Lol. Jeff said it’s supposed to be good luck, but it certainly didn’t feel like good luck at the time. Just my own personal opinion. It literally went inside the corner of my sunglasses, on my face, and down to my chest. Should I consider myself extra lucky? After cleaning myself up, we continued on down to the beach.
We had a couple drinks on the beach when we struck up a conversation with two English folks sitting next to us. They were visiting for one of their birthdays from Blackpool (by Liverpool) and, before we knew it, we were having several drinks. Ended up going to dinner with them at a restaurant nearby where they had a small band (I’ve been eating chicken schnitzel with cream and mushroom sauces here non-stop!) and continued on to a club down the road. Smoked strawberry nargila and had what must’ve been three mojitos. (Oops.) Stumbled back to the hotel where I continued to eat all our bus snacks from the day before and attempted to reply to folks on Facebook. Pretty sure I had some typos there… Overall, great night. Meeting people during our travels is one of my all-time favorite things in the world.
Tomorrow, we’ll be making our way to Brasov, Romania in the Carpathians. Quite a change of scenery from downtown Istanbul or the beach!
Today’s featured photo: View from our Sozopol hotel. The Black Sea was a surprising emerald green hue and the weather was absolutely perfect!
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