All is quiet in a darkened room in Bucharest. Blankets lie discarded on the floor. The room was hot again last night, and sleep was hard to come by.
The phone alarm blasts into life, jolting me awake. Walls are so thin here that I doubt anybody in the hostel slept through it. Fumbling for the source, I flail at it until the noise stops.
That technique probably isn’t in the manual.
Groaning out of bed, I stumble towards the shower. It’s down to a fine art now. Bathroom. Shower. Pack. Leave. 45 minutes on a good day.
Today is indeed a good day. There is still time to walk past the kitchen on the way out, wolfing down toast, boiled eggs and the half-cup of coffee still left in the machine. Thank the lord for an included breakfast.
It’s not yet 9:00, but the mercury is already rising fast. I need to walk less than a mile to my destination, and I’m pleased it’s no further. If it is actually the right place, of course – there were no details online, so I’m relying on a friend’s instructions. “Outside the Hotel Horoscop”, he said.
There’s only one bus a day from here to Bulgaria, apparently at 10:30. If I miss it – or it doesn’t exist – I’ll be traipsing back across town to the train station. Unsurprisingly, there’s only one train per day as well. Let’s just hope there’s no need to catch it.
I arrive at the hotel. There is a cafe and a flower vendor, a foreign exchange office and a magazine kiosk. Everything you could hope for. Except, of course, a bus stop.
“Autobus to Ruse?”, I ask hopefully. Nobody really speaks English, but with hand gestures and apologetic smiles, I get a series of almost-consistent answers. The elderly woman surrounded by magazines climbs out of her kiosk to point energetically at the parking lot in the middle of the street. The flower seller on the other side of the road waves vaguely in that direction too. The waiter at the cafe suggests the bus leaves from the nearby Metro station, but getting the thing up and down the escalators seems like a feat of physics beyond even Romanian buses.
I’m thinking he may not have understood the question.
A wild-haired guy with a backpack wanders past, looking equally lost. Safety in numbers time. “Are you going to Ruse today?”. “I’m hoping to”, comes the accented reply.
Join the club, man. Join the club.
Twenty minutes later, I’m happy to have spoken to him. He’s standing in the carpark beside what looks like a small van, waving frantically at me. Right. He has found the “bus” – it’s just someone’s personal vehicle, and there aren’t many seats left.
And just like that, I’m off to a new country.
I jam my card into the ATM slot. How long will I be in Bulgaria? How much money might I need? What on earth is the exchange rate?
For a change there is actually a cash machine at the bus terminal, but I’m being rushed onward by the van driver. Picking a random number, I hit the button. What the hell, at least I’ll be able to buy my ticket.
The change of country means a change of language and alphabet. While I couldn’t speak Romanian, at least I could read the signs. No such luck here, unfortunately – for some reason Cyrillic wasn’t part of the New Zealand school syllabus.
Bundled into a different van, I hand over a colourful bank note and settle into my seat. Are we going to Veliko Tarnovo, I wonder? I think it’s a two hour trip, so I figure I’ll know by mid-afternoon either way.
Certainty isn’t my strong suit today.
The town isn’t huge, but we have already stopped half a dozen times to let people off. Where should I jump out? No idea. Wait and see, I guess.
Just as the road signs start to suggest I will end up in Sofia if I don’t get out of this minivan, we pull into a dusty station. “Tarnovo?”. “Tarnovo.”
With an address written only in the Latin alphabet, I don’t like my chances of telling the taxi driver where to go. I like the thought of walking two miles in the sweltering heat with my backpack on even less, mind you, so it’s time to play the Accent Game.
I peer at my map.
“Um … Hotel Silvestar?”
And we’re off.
Finally checked into the hostel, a few metres from the infamous Silvestar, it’s time for a mid-afternoon lunch. Walking towards the nearest place selling cold beer, I’m accosted by a large, hairy local guy.
“Where are you from?” Finally, a question I can answer.
“Ahhh, New Zealand. Nice place. I used to work with two people from Ashburton.”
“What did you just say?!”
Ashburton is the small town I grew up in. The population is less then 20,000, and many people in New Zealand haven’t heard of it. For some random dude in Bulgaria to just drop it into conversation is, well, a little unexpected…
It has been a tiring travel day, and I drift off to sleep as dogs bark in the distance. A new bed, a new town, a new country, but those strays seem to have followed me all the way from Romania.
Tomorrow, I will explore.
And the next day?
Why, I’ll probably do some variation on this all again.
Because, apparently, this is my life…