I’m back in the European Union! I have to say, it’s disappointing. I thought I would be halfway through Asia by now and here I am, back in Bulgaria. How is that even possible? The shift in cultures is palpable – suddenly women are wearing a lot less, cars are stopping a lot less and people in general have stopped smiling. I miss Turkey already.
Lila and I wait for Rooz to renew his Turkish visa and hug him goodbye. It’s been a strange and at times uncomfortable journey to arrive at this border, including getting asked for sex by a truck driver – first time in a while, and he didn’t even mind that Rooz was there with us – only checked to see if we were married first…
“Fuck off! Fuck off anladın mı? Do you understand fuck off?” I am seething as I struggle to put my sandals on and climb out of the cab. Lila and Rooz are waiting outside. After that Rooz says he might just get a bus. Oh great, thanks, abandon us while we’re feeling vulnerable. He doesn’t mean it like that of course, but I’m struck by his lack of empathy. He doesn’t even ask how we are.
Now we’re alone at the border and it’s dark. We have no idea where to go, but our spirits are up again after a couple of nice rides. We make a “15km” sign and get picked up by a lovely Turkish grandpa. He buys me a map from a shop near the border and asks where we want to go. Well, we’re not exactly sure, but we need a place to camp… Oh, he knows a lovely place to camp and can take us right there. But then he offers a place in his flat for us – stressing there are two rooms and he will sleep in one, us in the other – there will be no problems. If we want to camp he will take us there, no problem, but the offer is there if we want it… He’s so nice! We just say yes and drive with him to his flat in Plovdiv.
Here is our room with two beds, as promised, a separate room from his one. It’s almost 1am and my eyelids are dropping closed every few seconds, but on returning from the bathroom I find a worried Lila sitting on the edge of the bed. Apparently he came in the room in his dressing-gown and offered her a massage. “His dressing-gown was a bit open,” she says. Oh god, not again. I decide to ignore it. We’re clearly stronger than this pale prune-bodied man. We go to sleep.
I awake early in the morning to the sound of the door creaking open. There he is in his underpants. “Good morning!” he says to me, and potters off. Well, maybe he has to work soon? I decide it’s time to get up, though really I’m still very tired. It’s not long before Lila is also awake – “what the fuck is that door doing open?!” “It’s ok,” I tell her, “he just opened it just now. I think maybe he wants us to get up.” I decide not to mention the underpants. I take a shower and start packing, but there he is, still in his underpants, offering me breakfast. “No thanks,” I tell him, “we only have one day in Plovdiv and we want to go and see it.” “Oh… only one day…” he mutters, coming closer to me. I side step away a little, but he leans in close to me “Sex istarmisin?” “Hayir! (no!)” I tell him, horrified –“Lila – time to go!” “What happened?” She asks me. “Time to go! Time to go!” I make her hurry up and pack her things. We leave him at the door in his underpants: a sweet grandpa no more. “Thanks,” says Lila as we step out onto the street. “Don’t even thank him!” I growl.
Plovdiv is a pretty little ancient city, the second largest in the country, but still with a poplulation not much bigger than Brighton. Half a day of wandering it’s streets seems to be enough and we head out of town. I’m heading towards Sofia, the capital, but Lila is going on to Romania to WWOOF on a farm. We want one more night together, somewhere in nature, but somehow nothing is easy today.
Lila has chosen a place on the map that seems to be in the mountains, near a lake, on the way to Sofia. We make our way there slowly with the help of a few cars – (wish I’d got a picture of the guy with the mullet, small white shorts and mostly naked bronzed body – like a parody of a Baywatch character, but very friendly) – but discover that the small village which looked charming on the map is in fact a small industrial town on a plateau, with grey streets and unsmiling citizens. Now it’s getting dark and is also becoming one of those unfortunate times when all I want to do is curl up inside a small opaque box, perhaps with a good book, but instead have to trek about with an increasingly heavy backpack, smiling at cars and projecting positivity. Lila does her best to keep my spirits up, but it’s futile, unfortunately.
Somehow we decide to go back to the “lake” – actually an artificial dam we passed on the way to the “village”. We get a ride, but the guy doesn’t understand at all the concept of “wild camping” and insists on driving us around in search of a non-existent camp-site, which anyway we wouldn’t have paid for. “Here!” “Here!” “Stop!” We look on in dismay as yet another perfect camping opportunity rolls out of sight and the side of the damn is protected by big fences and fancy establishments. Finally at our insistence he stops. It’s almost dark and the sides of the road down the country lane are just steep hills on each side. As the last dregs of light are fading we are scrambling on the ground of a dry river bed running down the hill, trying to remove enough rocks and small stones to form a tent-sized flat space. It works, more or less.
It’s nice to wake to the light shining through the leaves, dancing patterns through the tent. We pack up, breakfast and go – saving coffee for the service station, where we say our goodbyes as Lila gets a ride almost to the Romanian border.
This may or may not be the petrol station where I said goodbye to Pete last year, before hitching my way back home to Brighton, but it was on this day EXACTLY one year ago, and it was somewhere on this ring-road. I don’t know where I thought I would be by now, but it certainly wasn’t here.