A ‘Gypsy’, a Criminal and a Free Hotel

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.

An old man chugs up to us in an even older motor. He asks where we’re going.

“Anywhere!”

If we wait another two hours for him to gather corn from the field, he’ll take us to the first town.

We sigh.

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.

In the back of the Romani pick-up truck

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.

“Shit.”

“What?”

“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?

No contest.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

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!

Goodbye Alex

7 thoughts on “A ‘Gypsy’, a Criminal and a Free Hotel

  1. Aaah, it made me feel sentimental when i read the part about you arriving in Istanbul!
    when were we together there? May 2011? my god, a long time ago now. So many good memories.

  2. memories – I was in Cyprus trying to cross the Greek – Turkish border as a walker and yes I was not permitted to do so. Eventually a taxi driver came and offered to take me – what a pleasant day – he spoke English well – and gave me a tour I could never have had imagine. I paid for lunch and offered him money for his time that he kept refusing – such generosity – from people with lower ability to meet living needs.

  3. Jo,
    Made that same route two and a half years ago (from Bucharest to meet Ven for the first time in Sunny Beach) and got stuck at the border too. After two hours, at dusk, in the summer, two cars past – both from workers on the border. On a Friday night. I gave up and began walking to find a place to sleep. After a minute, a car passes but I’m so exhausted from heat stroke and dehydration that I don’t even lift my thumb. The car stops beside me and the drivers asks where I’m going.
    ‘I’ll take you right there’, he says. I get in, looking at him strangely.
    ‘Where are you from?’, I ask suspiciously.
    ‘Groningen, in the north of Netherlands’.
    Right where a very close friend of mine was studying, that I’d left a month before, thousands of kilometres away.

    In Iran yet? ;)

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