Final Adventures with Alex, Moldova – Istanbul, 3-10th September 2012
We arrive at the Romanian border. A guard in a ridiculous huge hat, making him look twelve years old, informs us between drags on his cigarette that it will not be possible to cross on foot.
We stare forlornly at Romania, a few hundred metres away.
The guard stands in the shade of the only tree, smoking slowly. There are a few parked cars, but no other people in sight.
After what feels like an entire summer, a Romanian couple stop and take us over the border.
The woman in the small cafe on the other side chatters away to us in Romanian, though we understand nothing. We order two coffees and Alex tries to pay with the last of his Moldovan money – 24 Moldovan Lei, around €1.70. She shrugs at him. He looks at her.
She shrugs again, then throws some sweets on the counter.
“Bread?” I suggest.
“Hlep?” asks Alex, trying the Russian. We point at the bread.
“Da, da”, she nods. I place a loaf of bread on the counter. She looks at me, throws a few more sweets in and we’re done.
A few short lifts later and ıt’s already dark when Julian stops to take us. He’s a DJ in some of Romania’s South-East coastal party resorts. He drives a shiny car and speaks with a slight American accent. “My phone, always ringing!” he tells us, as it goes off for the fourth time. He drops us 10km short of Vama Veche. “He could have taken us the extra 10km!” says Alex as he drives away.
An older couple take us the rest of the way to the infamous party beach, where we pitch our tents on the sand among many others, sandwiched between moonlit waves and a rock bar. We eat the bread, cheese and homemade jam and drink the wine our Moldovan friends gave us.
I wake in my tent to the sound of gently crashing waves. I can’t get out my sleeping bag and into the salty water fast enough, then cover myself in sand practicing yoga on the beach, insanely happy.
We’re only 1km from the Bulgarian border. We walk it with thumbs out, but nothing stops. Borders are always tricky. This time we can cross on foot. We drink a coffee in No-man’s-land and and walk to the other side, putting the bag with the cheese in the shade of our packs.
Two hours later, we’re still there. The back of the ‘Welcome to Bulgaria’ sign has a message for us:
16.08.2012.. 15:55 hitchhiking Budapest -> Bucharest -? Bulgaria seaside. NO TRAFFIC :(
We add our own.
If we wait another two hours for him to gather corn from the field, he’ll take us to the first town.
Ten minutes later we notice him scrounging for dropped cornheads in a field which has already been plowed. Why are the poorest of people so often the kindest?
We get a ride for a few kilometres, walk uphill on a main road in the blazing sun. A woman hands me a small melon from her stall as I pass, making me smile. An old battered Soviet pick-up truck, strapped together with string, stops to take us. A Romani man grins at us with his last few teeth. We climb in, giggling at one another as we take off along the bumpy road, the wind rushing against us. The man grins at me through the glass that seperates us and I give him a thumbs up.
The men in the petrol station frown at us. “Why are they so grumpy?” I ask Alex. “They are frowning because he is Rroma”, Alex tells me. The guy grins at me again as we set off, a twinkle in his eyes.
We’re in Alex’s home territory now. He’s been hitch-hiking around Bulgaria since the age of twelve, half his life.
A car stops with two guys. The driver speaks to me in English – “I love travellers!” he tells us. He’s driving to Sunny Beach, the even more commercial, more touristic Bulgarian counterpart to Vama Veche. No free camping on the beach here. It’s dark by the time we’re arriving and our new friend Vlad wants to show us around. What’s more, he insists on smuggling us into the hotel he’s living in, despite the threat of losing his job if we’re discovered. He really won’t take no for an answer. We have to wait until after 1am, so the staff will be in bed. Also, we have to leave before 5am, before the cleaners do their rounds.
Bleary-eyed at 6am on the road out of Sunny Beach, we find a coffee machine, standing alone in the dust. There are some things I always remember about Bulgaria: there is a coffee machine on every corner, often in the middle of nowhere; there is a sexy woman on every advertising billboard, no matter what it’s for; unexpected items appear in unlikely places.
On the road out of Varna we spy another hitch-hiker… “Shit”, says Alex. I can see why. Hitch-hiking etiquette dictates that we should wait our turn behind this guy, but he’s wearing a baseball cap, has tattoos all over his exposed arms, legs and face and is smoking a cigarette with dark sunglasses on. The word ‘shady’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. We begin talking to him and a car pulls in. None of us even had our thumbs out – Bulgaria really is awesome for hitching. The three of us get in together, Alex and I in the back. The guys in front are chatting. I barely understand a word of Bulgarian, so I tune out and look at the scenery.
Alex leans over. “Shit”, he says, “this guy just told our driver that he’s on the run from the police!”
“What? He told him, just like that?”
“Yeah.” We both shake our heads in amazement.
“The driver just said, ‘me too’.”
“No way, how did these guys find one another?!” Alex translates as the story emerges. One of the guys, the driver, just has some unpaid parking fines and a court summons. The other guy, the hitchhiker, has a warrent for his arrest for something like GBH after breaking a guy’s nose after unsuccesfully trying to rob him.
A while later we’re all back on the road. Alex gives our friend, the Bulgarian Criminal, some advice before we shake his hand – take of your sunglasses, pull down your sleeves to cover some of the tattoos. Maybe don’t mention you’re on the run from the cops…
Finally, we arrive in Haskovo, at Alex’s parent’s place. I have a decision to make: stay in Bulgaria, visit friends in Sofia and the Rainbow close by, or continue to Turkey?
Istanbul is like a dream. Am I really back here? It’ almost exactly a year since I left, rushing home for Dad.
We stay in a shared house where a friend of mine is living. I’m so happy to be back in Turkey, to be with friends again. I can’t stop hugging Dağlı – I really missed hugs!
I have two days left with Alex. “Please don’t be Evil Alex tomorrow”, I ask him before bed on the night before our last full day together. He’s been grumpy all day.
Alex is in a fine mood in the morning, even before drinking his coffee. We spend the day touring the city. We’re on my territory now and it’s nice to show someone around a city I love.
I introduce Alex to çiğ kofte and accompany him to his bus. We have travelled together through 11 countries, over 8,500km during the past five weeks. I give him a bracelet I’ve been carrying as a goodbye gift and he holds out his wrist for me to fasten it. We hug goodbye.
“Yolun açık olsun!” I yell as he climbs on-board the bus – may your roads be open!
Following the tradition of international No Border Camps, which over past years have popped up in (among others), London, Calais, Brussels and the Greek island of Lesbos; I find myself in a field in Bulgaria, screwing pallets together with an electric screwdriver to make toilets.
After nine months travelling I am once again “home” – not in a geographical sense, but culturally. I am with my own people – activists from around the globe whose belief in freedom and solidarity has brought them here, from as far afield as the North of England, Sweden and the U.S.A. Many faces are new to me, many are familiar.
During daylight hours it’s so hot in the open field that few can stand to work between 11-5pm. Mostly these hours are spent under tree-shaded tables outside the village’s only bar. As well as beer and coffee, the pub sells “salad”, which consists of tomatoes chopped up on a plate with a bit of cheese or onion scattered on top. The salad costs 50 stotinki – around 20p. The beer is around 50p. There is one place that could be called a shop. I found it by accident when I first went looking for the bar. I took entirely the wrong direction and met a small old man on a moped, who beckoned when I asked for water – “Magazin! Magazin!” I followed and he took me through a plastic curtain into the front room of his house. I wasn’t sure if it was a café, shop or just his house, but I asked for a coffee, which his wife made for me. I bought three bottles of water and the man gave me a big bag of tomatoes and showed me where he grows them in a greenhouse at the back of the house. I was pleased to remember him later when the camp supply team went looking for local food producers, and he and a neighbour supplied us with a lot of vegetables.
I tell you this to give you an idea of the kind of juxtaposition which has occured in this small village in Bulgaria. This man’s two sons, like many people in the village, make thier money from the border regime. There is not one family in this whole region without this kind of connection. So what happens when two hundred international activists turn up on their doorsteps to protest against the border? Well, not a lot actually. They are very congenial, very happy to sell us vegetables of course, and some even come to the camp to meet us and hear what we have to say. These people are not necessarily in political agreement with the border here, but it’s business: their livelihood.
The Media Collective arrived before the camp started and began a film screening programme in various small villages – including Siva Reka, Shtit (the closest village to the border) and Lyubimets, where the detention centre has been built. After each film screening was a discussion. I attended the first and the one in Lyubimets and heard locals speak about various clandestine people they have seen coming through their villages at night. A woman spoke of a pregnant lady, another of a man who knocked on their door and asked for water. They are not without sypmathy for these people, but they believe the state is helping them. They have all seen the shiny images of the Lyubimets detention centre on television and talk about how the men inside eat chicken for dinner and watch TV in their rooms. The reality, of course, is somewhat different.
The No Border Camp has officially begun. Day one sees three workshops, all with an interpersonal theme: a discussion about Safer Spaces – what are they and why are they here? A queer space and POC (People of Colour) Space onsite have already been the topic of some debate and controversy – but we’re No Borders! Surely we can’t be… racist? Well yes, unfortunately anarchists are not fully-enlightened beings and among the camp are many sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic ideas – albeit largely subconscious. There’s also a workshop on “looking after ourselves and each other” – about building debriefing and emotional support into our actions, and a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop. It’s my feeling that these three workshops on the first day of camp laid the foundation for a camp with a far higher level of awareness about these issues than is usual.
Another hot debate is the apparently unsolvable dichotomy between wanting to do “spikey” actions and respecting the “local context”. Basically, there are a small group of what I will call “The Bulgaria (based) Collective” who have been working for many months getting the plans for the camp together and have, as a part of that process, had to give their names and addresses to the police. There are a variety of reasons for this – it’s a legal requirement to inform the police about any kind of protest, and where in many other places it’s more-or-less fine to tell the law to fuck off and just do your thing anyway, in Bulgaria there are a great deal more fascists than anarchists, and those fascists are armed and organised. There are a very small number of No Borders activists – perhaps 5-10. We are witnessing the first baby steps of a movement in a country where none like this has previously existed. The Bulgaria Collective ask that we respect their wishes and keep conflict with the police and controversial actions to a minimum, since it’s them that will bear the brunt of what happens afterwards. This is understandable, but difficult. Camps like this are by their very nature decentralised and focused on autonomous actions within a diversity of tactics – many of them controversial and provocative of police responses.
When a staged “die-in” is called off by members of the Bulgaria Collective for being too confrontational (people lying passively on the road are causing an obstruction to the border), many begin to question what in fact they are able to do in this context.
This dichotomy gives rise to a lot of frustration and some very creative responses, for example: a small group of people hitchhike over the Bulgarian-Turkish border into “no man’s land”, declare a free state and hand out flyers; street theatre, a samba band and information boards on the streets of Svilengrad are designed to grab the public’s attention (although the streets are quiet, unfortunately); candles and shoes are laid outside the Border Police Headquarters to symbolise those who have died on the EU borders (the press said we threw the shoes at police and lit candles under car tyres!); a huge banner with a free legal phone number is erected outside the detention centre… then there are the usual flash-mobs, marches and banner hangs of course. These are symbolic actions – it’s understandable, but frustrating.
Demontrations at detention centres always feel different to me. Somehow it’s suddenly all a lot less theoretical and a whole lot more real: here is the prison where they lock up migrants who dare to seek a better life. Here are the people at the bars of the windows, shouting “Freedom!” in every language they know. Around fifteen hitchhikers came to this camp from the Hitchgathering a couple of weeks before, many as a result of the workshop Jasper and I facilitated. It’s amazing to see how people grow and change through these experiences. Some who began the week not understanding why some people “seem intent on violence” suddenly need holding back when they see a line of police protecting an immigration prison. Once again I’m seeing a camp’s power to radicalise people.
Among the other actions are a variety of on-camp discussions, presentations and workshops on topics from the situation in Calais and the Ukraine borders, to Understanding Whiteness and the privilege it brings.
At no other political camp I’ve been to has the level of self-reflection been so high. The apex of this for me was during the session on Roma Rights. Three women from Roma backgrounds put on this “workshop” (actually more of a lecture) in order to give vent to their… well, lets just say fury, at the level of unawareness and subconscious racism within the camp. Conversations about a visit to a Roma community opposite the detention centre at Lyubimets had provoked a variety of stereotyping and racists comments – you know the ones, about “gypsies”, stealing and romantic ideas of musicians… The women gave us all a firm talking to – “You are a white mob! …Do you know what a white mob looks like to these people? …This is ethno-tourism! …do you know why Roma people had to become performers? …”
Despite the explicitly non-violent context of the camp, which many participants felt to be narrowly defined and limiting, the camp seems to have achieved many of it’s aims – reaching out and awareness raising to local people who are already seeing an increase in migrants coming through their communities, growing a movement in Bulgaria and networking campaigns in other parts of the world.
Next year, Stockholm.
Almost all the Hitchhikers have left and the Gathering is over, but one is yet to arrive. Tomi catches me resurrecting the “Hitchgathering” sign – “What are you doing?” - “My mate’s on his way here!” – “What?! There’s still somebody on his way?!”
I find myself on my laptop in the village, constantly gazing at my watch. Six and a half hours ago he was just over 200km away – surely he should be here soon? I return to the beach. There’s no phone signal except up on the cliffs. I go up every hour or so, check for messages – nothing.
The following morning I’m actually worried: a rarity. I mean really, if you think about it, anything could happen – right? I send a message demanding contact and get this back: “Why worried? You know I’m a slow hitcher! Be there in an hour.” 26 hours to travel 200km?! Slow hitcher?!
He rolls in the door of the cafe; backpack, dreadlocks and beautiful smile. Funny, here’s one boy I thought I’d never see again. We have a big hug and chatter non-stop for the following hours, catching up on adventures. He’s got a boat lined up to cross the Atlantic – for sure these will be our last times together. I’m ready to leave the beach, but Sietse has just arrived. We’ll be here another night at least and a storm is rolling in. We watch most of our neighbours packing up in a haste, stuffing things into cars and evacuating. There was a storm my first night on this beach too; must be a weekly occurrence – the sea’s Tuesday night blow-out.
It’s a crazy one. The wind and rain batter the sides of Kinga, my little tent. 3am sees us outside, digging a trench to bay off the encroaching waves. The water level has risen so high that if the hitch-gathering was still on, 90% of it would be under water. I hear a man yelling further down the beach and go to investigate. He’s thigh-high in salt water, acting as the only anchor for his gazebo, which he’s trying to take apart with his teeth. He taped it all together so strongly it won’t come apart. I give him a hand and get back to my own reinforcements, helping Sietse build up a barrier from the sand we dug from the trench. In the morning, the trench has been ironed flat by the tide, but the sand-barricade has kept us dry. Tanya, her little dog Nina and a Bulgarian guy are the only other remaining hitchhikers. They have also survived the night, which is more than can be said for our community tarp, which seems to have been stolen by our neighbours. They “thought we’d left”, apparently.
By midday the sun is hot and the sea is calming, though waves still slip lazily all the way up the newly formed iron-flat beach. Apparently 52mm of water fell in 24 hours in Varna, one of the closest cities. We are survivors! A guy with dreadlocks I swear I’ve never seen before comes over to say goodbye. He’s in a band and they’re playing at the Spirit of Burgas Festival later on – “oh yeah? What’s that then? Maybe we’ll go…”
We spend most of the day chilling and decide to start hitchhiking in the early evening. Sietse is a little sceptical about this – “hitching at night?!” – but I convince him it will be fun and off we go. This is my favourite thing about hitchhiking with male-bodied people – much less safety concerns!
Actually it’s easy. A truck-driver takes us the whole way and drops us close to the gates of the Spirit of Burgas. We have an idea we might try to sneak in. Not likely – security guards with dogs and jeeps patrol the area. Outside the fences plenty of people who probably had a similar idea stroll around with drinks and friends, resigned to the side of the fence their fortunes have dealt them. We sit outside a bar by the perimeter, to get a better idea of how the security is working. It’s 1am and we still don’t know where we’re going to sleep tonight.
Percy the Persecutor
I go to the bar to order a coffee, preparing myself for a long night. A drunk English man in his fifties starts talking to me – “where’re you from then? …Brigh’n? Wha’ ya doin’ ‘ere then?” “I’m travelling,” I tell him. “ …Travellin’ are ya? Well I’m Percy the Persecutor.” He laughs a hearty laugh. “Can I come’n sit wi’ya?” “Um.. yeah, sure!” “Alrigh’, I’ll come over. Are you wiv that dreadlock bloke then are ya? …cor, like yer tits!” he says to the bar woman who’s serving him. I go back to Sietse. “Someone’s coming over.” I tell him. “Eh? Who?” “Percy the Persecutor.” “Eh?!”
Percy comes over and sits down. Two others come with him: an Italian guy, well versed in crude English slang, and an incredibly drunk girl from Bulgaria who keeps trying to hold my hand. Percy the Persecutor buys us a round and asks again what we’re doing here. We tell him we’ve come to try and break in to the festival – “Wha? In there? It’s shit anyway! Better off comin’ to my place!” He seems serious – especially when he tells us he’s got a whole apartment going spare above his house that we can stay in – “fer free!” he says. “Don’ mind ya stayin’ there, I’d like to help yer out if I can.”
Sietse and I have a little conference. He’s been stuck on trying to break in, whereas I just want an adventure. Percy the Persecutor seems like an adventure to me. We haven’t got any better plans anyway, and we can come back tomorrow in the daylight and have a better look around. We bundle into a taxi with Percy and the drunk girl. Percy lives in a small village some way from the centre of Burgas. He shows us our place upstairs first – a two-bedroom apartment with our own bathroom and kitchen! Then he takes us downstairs and asks us to choose our poison. We choose beers and Percy gets his weed out and tells Sietse to skin up. It really is going to be a long night after all. We listen to most of John Martyn‘s back catalogue and drink lots of beer and wine while I watch the others smoke lots of weed, usually skinning up for them since for some reason a pot-head and Dutch man are unable to skin up!
Breakfast at Percy’s house consists of a great deal of English food: Marmite on toast, Heinz baked beans and fish fingers for Sietse. We drink most of a jug of coffee and watch the drunk girl, who is still just as drunk, getting very very stoned, and yet more drunk. Percy decides it’s time for her to go home. We should probably get going too: we’ve got a festival to break into!
The Spirit of Burgas
We walk out of the village and eventually get picked up by a couple. She’s just flown in from somewhere far away. She’s an air-hostess and works crazy hours. She must be exhausted, but that doesn’t stop her from being one of what my friend Sarah would call an “Angel of the Road”. She drives us to the train station, insists on paying for 24 hour Left Luggage for us (in case we break in without our bags), forces us to take all the money she has in her wallet (about 30 Lei – 15 Euros) – despite my insistence that I never accept money, and then drives us back to where the festival is. She takes a photo of us for her own memories and I give her a big hug – “Thanks Stefani!”
The Spirit of Burgas goes on without us. We sit outside the main gate with perfect audio, though zero visual. Skunk Anansi are awesome regardless and I can picture Skin onstage with her beautiful shiny bald head. We’re into Moby by the time we get down onto the public beach and put up our tent next to all of the others who are too cheap to buy a festival ticket. There are police boats patrolling the shore – we didn’t stand a chance. Still, we have had a lot of fun, and judging by the way the security is searching people and pouring their alcohol and even bottled water away – it’s probably better out here anyway.
Return to Sofia
Sietse and I return to Sofia for two nights before he leaves again to hitch back across Europe to Holland, see his family and make some last arrangements before setting sail for the high seas – the Atlantic Ocean.
“See you in a year in New Zealand!” I tell him as we kiss goodbye, knowing full well it could just as easily be Brazil in two years, France in ten years or Mongolia in six months… well, the last option seems unlikely, but you never know.