Saturday, March 5 - Mark heads from Zagreb to Sofia
Fully anticipating a busy upcoming week, I relished a free morning to sleep in. My train to Bulgaria left at midnight and I needed to check out of the hotel at 11am so I took my time, packed up and showered at the last minute and then returned my room key. I’d originally planned to bring my bags with me to the train station and leave them in a locker but the kind attendant at the hostel invited me to leave them there and welcomed me to stay as long as I needed to. This simplified things quite a bit.
Stjepan and I had planned to meet at some point in the early afternoon and go to a museum or something - he had work to do during the first half of the day. I picked up a pastry and enjoyed it slowly at a nearby town square, watching people do whatever it is they do on a pleasant but grey Saturday. A few minutes later, the peaceful bustle was interrupted by a violent ‘boom’ that echoed through the square. With no idea what had just happened, of course my mind raced towards the extreme. Seconds later, a pickup truck came racing by with a full-on cannon mounted in the back facing the cars behind it. Another explosion - but something about the costume the operator was wearing told me it wasn’t a serious attack. Behind the cannon, 5-8 large trucks followed along, their sides clad with rough sawn boards and tattered fabric, full of screaming, celebrating people. I wasn’t sure if it were part of the recent political protests or some other type of celebration (I later learned it was the start of their Carnival - a celebration marking the start of the season of lent - the lead up to Easter). Needless to say, it was no ordinary Saturday.
I slowly made my way downtown on foot where I found the culprits celebrating wildly with music, dancing, games and tomfoolery. It was quite a sight. I took it in for ten or fifteen minutes and headed south towards the train station where I’d planned to meet Stjepan. We walked across town to explore the Arts and Crafts Museum hoping that we might find some exhibits illustrating traditional uses of coppice materials - alas, no luck - it was more geared towards the high arts of glassblowing, ceramics, art and cabinetry.
Stjepan had plans for the evening so once we finished exploring the museum, we said our goodbyes. Though we had only spent three and a half days together, I’d come to absolutely appreciate his kindness, generosity, openness and insights. He was a wonderful host, a good friend, a great translator and an insightful philosopher. I reflected on my good fortune for having met him as I walked about the old town, exploring the city for another few hours.
I returned to the hostel to pass away the time until my train left at midnight. I had a bit of a time scare when the trolley I needed to take took off just as I was arriving at my stop and wasn’t scheduled to return until 10 minutes before my train was supposed to leave. Fortunately, a cab rolled by a few minutes later and we raced off to the train station where I climbed on board and did my best to get a good night’s rest.
I awoke several times during the night - we crossed a few borders and also ended up at a standstill for what must’ve easily been an hour during the course of which I could hear the train whistle bellow off into the distance and slowly echo back towards us. Too tired to spend time worrying about it, I did wonder what it was we were stopped for and why were were calling out to the abyss. With only one hour of leeway between my arrival time in Beograd (Belgrade, Serbia) and our subsequent departure to Sofia (Bulgaria) I was hoping that the roadblocks wouldn’t prove to accumulate to the point where we missed the connection.
Around 7am I awoke as we were pulling into a cool, grey central station in the heart of Belgrade. The shadowy light of a cloudy morning bespoke the ruinous nature of many of the buildings flanking either side of the tracks. We clearly weren’t in the apparently thriving metropolis of Prague anymore. Crumbling buildings with an architectural facade that my limited vocabulary could best describe as ‘communist-era’ told of a life with far less affluence than much of western Europe - at least as far as the middle class is concerned.
Despite our midnight holdups - I still had a half an hour or so before my connection was to depart to Sofia, giving me ample time to collect my thoughts, enjoy some moderately fresh air and step into the second class cabin I was to inhabit for the following 12 hours. Not long after choosing my seat in an empty cabin, a young couple joined me, who appeared to be in the midst of some type of holiday. It was a few hours before we engaged in any real conversation but they proved to be kind, Swiss born travelers bound for a 1 week vacation in Istanbul.
The vast majority of our half-day journey through Serbia proved to be rather uneventful. Slicing through a rolling countryside, amidst scattered agricultural villages still exhibiting the remnants of a land-based tradition that was easily centuries old, I was humbled by the utter simplicity of their dwellings and fields and their largely worn and tattered state. Stooks of corn dotted their farm fields (upright, conical bundles left to dry) and piles of hay sat atop pollarded trees where they were free from contact with the damp soil below and thereby less prone to decay. Occasionally knifing through steep gorges with long managed coppice stools hanging on for dear life upon slopes that would otherwise be unthinkable for forestry operations, one could easily see how the need for materials for fuel, serving the most basic of human needs, had driven coppice as a management technique by necessity.
As the afternoon wore on, I started to catch up on some of my long lost sleep from the previous night of train travel. A few hours later, I awoke to the bustle of a dozen or more middle-aged Bulgarian women boarding the train at the last Serbian stop before we crossed the border. Instantly our quiet train compartment grew packed full, and we all engaged in a steady shuffle of seats, luggage and people. One of the women asked me if she could take my window seat, and I obliged unsure of why she needed it. Their nervous movements seemed foreign and unclear, but I found them immensely difficult to ignore. The woman sitting across from me rustled nervously through her peruse for a good 10 minutes.
Soon we crossed the Serbian border control and in the interim between our subsequent entrance into Bulgaria, our newfound coach mates jumped to action, unpacking their bags and rapidly placing concealed goods into the various corners of the train car. I had no idea what it was they were actually hiding - the first thing I noticed was tissue paper wrapped packages, scotched taped onto something resembling aluminum flashing, several of which they proceeded to stuff into the cavities between the train seat and the wall. Feeling a bit surprised by their dodgy maneuvers I wanted to ask them what they were up to, but I lacked the vocabulary. Of course, the fear driven side of my mind raced ahead thinking, ‘Oh my God, these ladies are gonna blow us all up!’. But that seemed a bit extreme and despite my complete lack of knowledge of explosive technology, the lack of any apparent wiring, etc seemed to indicate we were relatively safe, and any fears I may hold were driven more by a cultural perspective inbred by the fear-mongering rulers of my homeland.
In time I started to think they were smuggling cigarettes, but it was hard for me to imagine that something as modest as cigarettes could prove to be a lucrative enough item to need to smuggle on as small a scale as they were operating. My suspicions were confirmed soon enough as they started to peel individual packs from their purses, dumping them down their pants, into their shoes and into random cracks in the packed luggage above. Another five minutes later we were greeted by Bulgarian border guards who checked our IDs and steadily moved on. I thought we were safe. But not yet. Soon I could sense an inquisitive force approaching from the hallway behind us. In the mirror’s reflection I saw a security officer armed with a flashlight dismantling the trim work in the train’s hallway apparently looking for some hidden contraband. In a matter of seconds, they opened up our cabin door and asked questions of the three residing tourists (including me). Satisfied with our answers, they told us to step out and proceeded to search and question the remaining women. Either they didn’t look very hard or they never wanted to find anything for despite their apparent scouring of the car, their pat downs and inquisition, they turned away with nothing and our travel companions were left to go free. I couldn’t believe it. I thought they were in for it - though I can’t imagine what kind of trouble they would’ve been in for.
The rest of the journey was rather uneventful. It was nightfall by the time we reached the city of Sofia. I changed some money and elected to hire a cab to reach my hotel as I only had a relative idea as to its location and distance from our point of arrival. It was a good idea - it would easily have taken me 45 minutes or more to walk there had I chosen the right route amidst the construction laden city streets.
I checked in, made my way up to my room amidst a hallway that reeked of chain-smoking residents, settled in, found some food and finally got some rest. I was to be picked up at 7:30 am, and I knew I had a big week ahead.