Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Just don't stop playing.
19.04.2014 - 25.04.2014 16 °C
When you journal, the level of detail in the descriptions depends greatly on the time passed between entries. What would be most important in a day, may be but a fleeting comment in a week, or even ignored in a monthly review. Today, and because of the past days, I believe I must not follow this trend, and revisit every day. So this might be a long post.
Last time I saw my wallet was in Istanbul bus station. That’s all I can say for certain. Seven hours later I arrived in Plovdiv, and set out to my usual wanderings. I did not have a place to spend the night there, but it was still nighttime, having arrived there before the sun. Still plenty of time to figure it out.
So I crossed Plovdiv and its old town, walking up to a hill and enjoying the view. It was a cold morning in a new country. I could already see the contrasts. Different shades of green and cats ran away from me. Not in Istanbul anymore! Still unsure whether to spend the night or exit the city and start stretching the thumb, I came down from the hill and resolved to concentrate on the moment: get some food. That’s when I realized my acute lack of wallet.
Now, had I not couchsurfed, hitchhiked and backpacked before, or well, had I not been me, there would have been frustration and fright and negative feelings. I guess. I just took it as fact. “I have no wallet. No money nor way of getting any. This will not stop me.” So I backtracked to a friendly hostel and asked if I could use their internet, and explained my situation. They gave me wifi and breakfast. This allowed me to cancel my cards and assess my situation. I would have to trust in people and goodwill. In fact, I had no choice.
As I wrote and called, next to me sat a family. As it usually happens in this kind of setting, we started talking and eventually I told them of my plight. I got sympathetic smiles and good-lucks. But later, when getting ready to leave, one of them came to me: “We’re going to Sofia—she said—you can come with us if you want. You have a couple of minutes to decide!” Well, it is my personal policy to not say no to this kind of offers and opportunities, and told her so; so of course I came with them. An interesting group they were: a boy of 14, two of 16, a girl of 9 and another of 18. The adults were three old friends, the two mothers and a male. It took me a while to figure out their story, who was son of who, but on the highway, there was plenty of time! And we did not go straight to Sofia either. First stop was Hisarya, the Roman walls and mineral hot baths. In that rainy, cold day, those baths were bliss!
I learned during the day that I had not come in the best of times to Bulgaria. It was Saturday, yes, but not any of them, it was Easter Saturday in the Orthodox Calendar. That’s why the three friends were together, coming from Berlin and London all the way to Sofia, visiting friends and family. That’s why they were out on a road trip! And that’s why, when the day ended, I found myself in Yana’s aunt and uncle’s home. Yana was mother of three of the kids, a yoga instructor and Vipassana student. She took me in with her family, and gave me a place to spend the night. I saw with her another side to Easter: one of joy, community, family and love. I had homemade raki and ate Easter bread with hot cocoa. We clashed coloured eggs. I think I’ve never won an egg joust. We walked with candles in the street, greeted the neighbours on the way to church and back. No one cared whether I believed or not. No one cared whether I belonged or not. And so, in smiles and warmth, I could barely recall that just that morning I had arrived with no wallet from Istanbul.
I left Yana’s house sometime in the afternoon. I did not want to be too much of a burden. And I had a mission. Two years before I had left something in a hostel, and being back in Sofia, it would be a shame if I did not at least ask… So I made my way to the Hostel Mostel, to ask them if, by any chance, my phone was still there.
Of course it wasn’t. It was two years! But wouldn’t it have been awesome to find it?
The good thing was that, on the way there I met some staff of the Art Hostel, and was told to come to their bar. So I got a warm place to hang out and even some food (some Bulgarian meatcake with yogurt!). Everyone I met was sympathetic to my case, I mean, it’s not like I’d gambled my savings. They’d just walked away. While dozing in the bar I heard Spanish, and couldn’t resist the conversation. Turned out to be an Erasmus student and her local friend, wonderful people too. I had already resigned myself to leaving at first light, in the cold, so when I was offered a bed in a dusty spare room I hesitated for a moment. Only for a moment.
I woke in that spare room after a night of chatting and laughter, and looked around me. No wonder they called this “the dead guy’s room”. Full of books and notes and randomness, some oblivious socialist paraphernalia, other very personal, like a boxes full of letters and postcards. I rummaged through most of it. Took a couple of unwritten postcards from the seventies with me, no one will miss them.
Eventually I left to hitchhike, fashioned myself a sign, and prepared to leave Sofia. A bit over an hour of waiting later, I was joined by Velin, another hitchhiker. He later told me that he had just passed next to me on a city bus, going to his usual spot, but when he saw me there, smiling so happily with my little sign, he just decided to come with me. I quickly recognized in him a friend. Sometimes you do so, just by the look in the eyes, you know to be among equals.
In two rides we got to Veliko Tarnovo. The first a simple, usual ride, with a nice guy, software designer going not too far, took us there and a bit further. The second ride though, was the strangest I’ve ever had. They were lovely people, a very nice and friendly couple. It’s just that I never thought I’d ever be picked up by a deaf couple. I could not talk with them, and although they could read Velin’s lips. All I could do was perform my interpretative dance and smile wide. They even gave us Easter bread. I have no idea what their names are.
In Veliko, Velin asked around and got me a place to sleep in a little funky hotel. For free as well. All in goodwill. Warm shower and a soft bed, wifi and homeliness. I had not touched money in three days.
At some point during the day Velin had asked me why I hadn’t asked some friend or family to wire me some money through Western Union or something. I had no answer. I realized the thought had not even crossed my mind. So sure I was that I could make it with no money, that I forgot there were other options. I resolved to look into this once in Bucharest.
So well rested, I set out for Romania. A two hour hike got me out of Veliko Tarnovo and into thumbing position. It was a nice day and in some twenty minutes a young road-tripping couple picked me up. They actually drove past me at first, but turned around and came back for me! A delightful ride, we stopped at a little ancient monastery carved in the rock, then they left me on Ruse.
I thought it was a smaller town, but it took me a good three hours to walk through it and get to the Danube. Here it turns out you cannot cross the bridge on foot, so I got a ride from one end of the Friendship Bridge to the other. And then, off to Bucharest! Finally I was in Romania! Gruialand at last. I had wanted to visit Romania because why not, because I’d missed it two years before, and because of some stories by Gheorghe Gruia, my former handball coach. So I was finally there! And with no money or a place to sleep!
I could have probably gotten a place to sleep. I was asked about it and half-offered a place by a Chilean family at the McDonalds (they serve some of the best wifi out there). But I was for some reason betting all my cards at volunteering at a hostel. I had particularly the X Hostel in mind. I met the owner/CEO and everything. But sometimes you go all in and win, sometimes you go all in and lose. Turned out the hostel had been invaded by a roving band of young dutch people. Fifty-some of them. There was simply no place for anyone else! Even the staff were sleeping in the storage room for the week. They did take my backpack for me though, so I was free to roam the streets.
So then, what to do if I don’t have a place to sleep? Well I don’t sleep, of course! For a night or two nothing will happen. I’m a designer after all. All that training in not sleeping did finally pay off while travelling. And then some.
The height of the night occurred when, sitting in a Kebap shop, munching on my travel rations and last Easter bread, a girl sat on the next table. Smile. Then her friend, a long haired, big guy, all in black joined her and they started talking. I could hear English. Eventually we started chatting, then suddenly she offered: “Can I invite you somewhere?” She handed me a flyer, I could make out something about a student discount to somewhere. “Don’t worry, you won’t have to pay any entry fee! I’ll invite you.” I had already said yes before turning the flyer around and realizing what it was I had said yes to.
I’d never been to a Strip Bar before. I've always known that it’s not my kind of place. I have now confirmed it. But if I was ever to enter one, this was the best way to do it. Turned out I was invited to the place by one of the girls, Anna, and I was the only “customer” there. On the way I had told her and Barry the security guard, of my peculiar penniless situation. This did not matter, for as there was no one else, we could just chat and enjoy not being out in the cold. I think I was the first man ever to drink tea at that place. Anna even gave me some bananas to eat, and chocolate—all she could find in the backstage. She performed a bit as well, and pole danced. I was amazed by her ability and strength! Barry agreed, “I’m mostly here for the looks” he said, “This girls can fend for themselves!” I would not like to get in a fight with any of them. Those legs can break you in two.
Barry had once been a martial arts master, and firefighter in the ‘States. After all the misery and pain he’s seen on car crashes, gang fights and fire victims, spending his nights surrounded by topless girls is as good a retirement plan as any. This was not a big strip club, just a little corner bar, with everyone relaxed and happy. Not a bad place to spend some time with nice people. The fact that most of them are topless doesn't hurt either. They even let me have a shower in the massage room. And then it was back to wandering.
When it was day again I walked back to the X Hostel. Came just in time for the Dutch group’s breakfast. Even helped with some dutch-english-spanish-romanian translation. When there’s big groups, there’s big leftovers. I had breakfast, lunch, and refilled my travel rations. It was delicious. What the staff could not offer me in accommodation they gave in welcoming. If I had money I’d consider staying there. But for now, we're Couchsurfing!
That night I got a place to sleep. A couch, a cat and food. Music too, although it wasn't too much to the taste of Andra, my host. A musician herself, she is picky with what she listens to. I would love to hear her medieval music band. I stayed three nights with her, met her friends, chatted with her boyfriend. They all reminded me of my group of friends in Mexico, talking about music, magic and board games. Sometimes you meet these random people halfway around the world, who come from a completely different background, and yet you realize that you are the same.
Fearing and caring for me as only a mother can do, my mom offered to get me out of my penniless state, and wired me some euros. She sent them to me sometime Thursday, but by I only could get them on Friday. Gratefully, the first thing I did after getting them was walk into a library-café, sit on a small table by the street window, and buy me some coffee.
How long could I have kept it going? There is an impressive amount of people out there, willing to share all they have with a stranger, just because he needs it. Just because he asks and smiles. I have discovered that my story is an inspiring one: people have approached me just because I look happy, and want to hear the stories that make me smile and dance with no music, even on gloomy days and lonely nights.
That first day in Bucharest, I was approached by a French man. A math teacher, he dreams of leaving his fears behind, grab a backpack and see the world. After some minutes of talking, he put it better than I ever could:
"I saw you there and I had to talk to you. You just seemed so happy, I wanted to know how you do it. Now I understand. You are happy because you are free."