It’s Wednesday in Cannakale. I’ve been in Turkey six days and still have so much to see, but I’m already gunning to leave. It’s just not my kind of place.
I decide today’s the day I’m getting my bus to Bulgaria. I jump out of bed and head to the Metro Turizm office around the corner.
The minute I walk in the door I can tell I’m going to have problems. The guy at the desk is looking at me like I’m here to steal his wife.
“Hi, can I get a bus ticket to Bulgaria?” I ask.
He shakes his head.
“Would you be able to tell me where can get one?”
He rolls his eyes.
“Ok, could you tell me the name?”
I turn and walk out. As I turn my back, I hear him condescendingly mumble something to the colleague next to him.
Careful, ticket master. I can mumble too.
I go back to my hostel and ask my receptionist, who tells me the company Truva should be able to sell me a ticket. Thankfully the people at the Truva office are a little more helpful, and while I can’t get a ticket to Bulgaria, I’m able to get one to the town of Edirne, which sits right on the border. They tell me I’ll need to buy another ticket from Edirne to Bulgaria with a different company.
I head back to the hostel and jump online to try and find a ticket from Edirne to Bulgaria. It doesn’t take long to find one, however it’s with Metro Turizm. That means I’ll be going back to visit my old friend again.
I put my game face on and head back to the Metro Turizm office. Unfortunately my old friend isn’t there anymore (I was looking forward to a round two), so I talk to his colleague.
“Hi, I want to buy a ticket from Edirne to Plovdiv.”
“No bus,” he says, shaking his head.
Weird. I pull out my phone and show it him the ticket on their website.
He sighs, sits up from his slouch and takes a look, and then looks up at me. I raise my eyebrows at him and he reluctantly starts punching away on his keyboard. Thirty seconds later I have my ticket.
With everything now booked, my trip looks like this:
5pm to 9pm – Cannakale to Edirne (Turkey).
11:30pm to 4:30am – Edirne to Plovdiv (Bulgaria).
The first trip from Cannakale to Edirne goes without incident. The bus leaves on time and arrives on time. At around 9:15pm, I step off the bus at Edirne bus station. Now it’s just a two and a half hour wait, then a bus to Plovdiv.
The bus station is a little secluded and eerie, so I sit in the small cafe there until about 10pm, after which they close and I’m forced to migrate to the benches outside. It’s around 5 degrees out here. I weather the cold the best I can.
During my wait, I show my ticket to three different Metro staff walking around and ask if I’m in the right place. They all nod and tell me to wait.
11pm rolls around and I start to worry. I’m clearly the only one left here waiting for a bus. A couple of people are scattered around, but they don’t appear to be waiting for a bus. To make things worse, this bus stop is getting sketchy as hell. There are wild dogs running around. Everything’s closed. It’s dimly lit, underneath a huge bridge and nobody around – the kind of scene where a bunch of thugs would emerge in an action movie and mess somebody up.
By 11:15pm I’m sure something is off. I show another random guy my ticket, who is very smiley and seems helpful. His English is terrible, but he looks at my ticket and tells me I’m in the right place. Perhaps I’m just the only person travelling to Bulgaria tonight. I sit next to him and we continue chatting. I feel a lot less like a clueless tourist with a local to talk to.
Almost bang on 11:30, a Metro bus arrives. I feel a jump of relief, but my hopes are quickly dashed. The bus says “Edirne” and isn’t going any further than here. My new friend jumps up, shakes my hand to say bye, and runs over to greet his kids as they get off the bus.
The few other people scattered around meet their respective friends and family off the same bus, and just like that the station is empty.
Now I’m standing alone at a sketchy bus stop at 11:30pm in rural Turkey, freezing with five or six wild dogs and waiting for a bus that probably isn’t coming. It’s almost funny.
After five minutes or so a Metro staff emerges from the bus that’s just arrived and heads inside to the Metro office. I run after him and show him my ticket. He rubs his eyes, takes off his glasses and gives it a quick look.
“Hmmm,” he mumbles.
Hmm? What is he hmm’ing about? Is this a good hmm or a bad hmm?
Of course it’s a bad hmm.
He shakes his head at me, saying something in Turkish and pointing out into the distance somewhere.
“I don’t speak Turkish, sorry,” I say back.
“No bus.” he says. “Kapikule bus. No here bus. Kapikule bus.”
Kapikule? What the hell is a Kapikule? And what do you mean no here bus?
Two taxi drivers see us talking and come over. The guy explains something to them and they nod and try and explain it to me. Their English isn’t any better though.
“Autobus not here!” one of them shouts, shaking his head.
He plots a few imaginary points in the air with his fingers.
What’s he trying to say? I’m at the wrong stop?
“Come, taxi taxi, go autobus. Taxi, then autobus,” he says, ushering me to his taxi with urgency. After a few confused moments, I eventually decipher his mimes to mean the bus stopped somewhere else, and that I should take a taxi and maybe we can chase the bus and catch it at the border. I play out what I think he means with hand signals and Turklish, and he nods enthusastically.
“Ya ya ya. Taxi, go autobus! Taxi, autobus!” he says, tapping his watch furiously.
Translation: I need to get in a taxi to chase the bus and we don’t have much time. The bus didn’t pick me up. It’s gone without me.
I take a deep breath and try to relax. Then I get angry. I’ve been sitting at this shitty bus stop for two and half hours and now I’m being told the bus doesn’t stop here. What do you mean the bus doesn’t stop here? My bus ticket says Edirne. Logically a bus from Edirne should stop in Edirne, no? What the actual f#ck?
But then I tell myself, chill. This is travelling.
I turn back to the Metro guy.
“Is there another bus?” I ask.
“No. Bus tomorrow.” he says, holding up five fingers.
“5 o’clock?” I ask
I survey my options, of which there are two. Wait five hours for the next bus (and who knows where that one will decide to stop), or jump in this taxi and see if I can chase down my original bus.
I conclude I’ll probably get murdered if I sit in this bus stop for the night, so I get in the taxi.
The driver really puts his foot down. Burning 140 km/h on an empty highway, I study the tail lights of every vehicle in front of us, hoping to see a Metro sign on the back somewhere.
After about ten minutes he pulls into a service station. It’s one of those classic middle-of-nowhere service stations you see in the road trip movies.
“Bus stop here,” he tells me, pointing to the ground.
The bus stops here? How the hell was I supposed to know the bus stops here? We are literally in no-man’s land, at some random gas station with a few kebab joints and nothing to be seen in any direction. Even if I had wanted to come here, I wouldn’t have any idea how. There was no bus sign or bus stop, no nearby town. I guess I would have just told my taxi to take me to “that gas station in the middle of nowhere?”
The driver jumps out and heads over to some food joint to chat to someone. They exchange words for about 30 seconds and he runs back and nods at me.
“Bus here 11:30.”
Of course it was.
Back on the road we go. Zooming down the empty highway, I cross my fingers that we’d catch my bus up ahead, but deep down part of me knows it’s long gone. It’s around midnight now, and surely the bus had hit the border a long time ago.
When we finally get to the border it’s around ten minutes past midnight. The driver points somewhere in the distance towards border patrol and says “Go, passport, bus.”
I squint into the distance and try and look for a bus, but it’s pretty dark and I can’t see too far ahead. I guess I’ll take my chances.
I hop out of the cab, give the driver all the Turkish lira I have left and walk across the border. Interestingly, the border patrol don’t find it strange that some lone Chinaman is walking across the border at midnight. He just stamps my passport and goes back to his iPhone game.
I walk for a good 3 minutes from passport patrol into the neutral zone. I’m no longer in Turkey, not yet in Bulgaria. Literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s empty and eerily silent – I see a duty free shop, a few cars, a security guard and some trucks. But no bus.
So there I am, standing between the borders with an expired bus ticket at midnight with no one to call. The duty free shop is the only thing with signs of life, so I head inside there to get out of the cold.
I drop my bags, slump against the wall and slide down to the ground.
And then I start laughing. I’m exhausted and have no ideas left. I’ve got no Turkish lira, no Bulgarian lev, just a few USD that the buses may not even take. There’s no ATM. I also need to piss, but I don’t have any coins for the toilet.
So I laugh.
Two minutes of hysterical, uncontrollable laughter. What’s the plan of attack? I’d already resigned myself to the fact that I’d be sitting here until morning, but what next? Should I go pee on the pavement, sit here until 5 o’clock and then maybe see if the bus that’s supposed to be coming will let me on? Or wait until morning and then try and catch a taxi into town (if any taxis come past here) and catch another bus from there? Snooze until sunrise and then go stick my thumb out and try and hitchhike to somewhere, anywhere, so I can at least find a hotel and a bed? It wasn’t exactly life or death, but none of my immediate options sounded like much fun.
At that moment a security guard comes up to me. He sees my defeated slouch and my stupid laughing and my bloodshot eyes, so understandably he approaches with caution.
“Wait bus?” he asks, pointing towards the border.
“Mmm. Couch?” he asks, gesturing to some couches on the far side of the building.
I smile and shake my head.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
He gives me a smile and a nod, and walks away. This lifts my spirits a little though. After dealing with so much crap today, I appreciate the gesture.
The next hour passes slowly. I sit and ponder my life. Passing in and out of sleep, I wonder how long I could sit here before I get reported missing. I drink a bottle of water in my bag. I even consider rationing it in case I’m out here a while.
Finally, at around 1:45 a bus comes by. To my surprise, it’s a Metro bus.
Didn’t the guy say the next bus was at 5am? No more buses today? First they wouldn’t even sell me a ticket, then they forget to pick me up, then they make me chase the bus across the border and now they’re sending the 5am bus at 1:45? Surely I’m being Punk’d – this is all a set up and the world is eating Doritos while watching my night play out on reality TV.
I jump up and run over to the driver. As I pass the bus, I notice the sign on the front says “Plovdiv / Sofia”. A promising start.
“Do you speak English?” I ask him.
He shakes his head.
Undeterred, I show him my ticket and try explaining the entire situation. With my best English/sign language combination, I explain how I was waiting for my bus for 2 and a half hours but my bus decided to stop at a gas station instead of the bus station (easy mistake to make) and then I got a taxi to the border to try and catch it but I was too slow and now I’ve been waiting here for 2 hours as well and I’d like to jump on his bus if possible.
He muses over my ticket, and then shakes his head, pointing to the bus number on my ticket. It says 42XX, and then he points to the number on his bus, which says 44XX.
In other words, it’s a different bus.
I try explaining it again but he doesn’t understand. Or maybe he does and he doesn’t care.
“Please, look – I have a Metro ticket for Plovdiv. I was waiting for my bus but it didn’t come. I’ve already been waiting for 5 hours, since 9pm.”
He shrugs his shoulders, points at his bus number again and shakes his head. I nod and try to keep explaining but he’s not interested. He pulls out his phone and walks off.
By now, I’m about done.
Fuck Metro Turizm. There’s no way I’m letting this bus go without me on it. I’ll pull out my Boracay scrapping skills if I have to. I don’t even care if I get arrested and thrown in jail for the night. Who knows – with a little luck, the jail might even be in Plovdiv.
At that moment another younger guy in a Metro uniform walks past.
“Excuse me, do you speak English?” I ask in desperation.
He stops and looks at me.
Yeah you speak English?
Impossible. It was like finding a Turkish unicorn.
I show him my ticket and give him the whole story, with a few dramatisations thrown in for good effect. He looks over my ticket and nods slowly.
“So you want to come with us now?” he asks.
I shrug my shoulders.
“Alright, I’ll just check with the driver but it should be ok.”
Ten minutes later the driver returns with some shopping. The new guy starts pointing at my ticket and explaining everything while the driver looks me up and down, trying to decipher if I’m full of shit or not. They chat for a good thirty seconds before he nods again and walks away.
“Yeah it’s ok, you can come with us.”
I smile and scream a victory cry inside. The universe has mercy.
While we stand around waiting for some staff to tag my bag he asks for my passport to add me to the passenger list. I hand it to him and he looks over it quizzically.
“Wooah, New Zealand!” he smiles.
While he takes down my details, I ask if he knows why my bus didn’t stop at the bus station. He seems surprised as I am, and tells me it should’ve stopped there. I ask if his bus stopped at Edirne station, and he says they did. I explain my little stop at the random gas station and my car chase in the taxi, which he finds hilarious. I start to see the funny side too (not).
I compliment him on his English, which brings a smile out of him.
“My mother always told me growing up, teach English, teach English. I never wanted to learn it, but my mother kept telling me, teach English, teach English, teach English.”
I figure he actually means “learn English”, but I understand.
“You’re probably the third or fourth person I’ve met in Turkey who speaks English,” I tell him.
“Yeah, actually there is not really many staff in Metro who speaks English. So I can get a good job here.”
“What’s your name?” I ask him.
“My name is Emil,” he says, shaking my hand. Then he hesitates for a moment and looks back at me.
Do you think it’s okay if we be friends on Facebook?” he asks.
You rescued me from a life on Turkey’s border, bro. Facebook BFF’s for life.
Once on the bus I knock out immediately. I sleep like a rock, and a couple of hours later I am woken up to someone shaking my shoulder. It’s Emil.
“Here is Plovdiv,” he says.
I quickly grab my things and get off, along with two or three others. The whole debacle feels like a dream. I’m finally in Plovdiv, with two arms and two legs. I don’t believe it.
Emil pulls my backpack out of the storage compartment and brings it over. I shake his hand again and give him my card.
“Here’s my email. Add me on Facebook, man. And thanks for everything.”
He gives me a smile and a friendly nod.
“Yeah, and one day I will see you in New Zealand!” he grins.
I give him a salute and he jumps on the bus and takes off.
So I’m finally in Plovdiv. I look around. No cars. No taxis. Looking pretty sketchy.
I’m kinda stranded here, alone. At a random sketchy looking bus stop at 4am.
Doesn’t that sound familiar.
Luckily, this is short lived. Only a few minutes pass before a bunch of taxis roll up and stop to pick people up. I walk up to the first one and show him my hostel’s address. I’m also armed with the knowledge that a taxi to the hostel shouldn’t be more than 5-6 lev (3 euro).
The first guy looks at the address on my phone and nods. He asks for 20 lev (10 euro). I tell him 6. He screams out “Nooo 6!” and looks away.
I go to the next cab. He wants 10 lev. I tell him 6. He shakes his head and waves me away.
By now, all the other cabs have gone. I’m the only one here, and I’m left with these two.
In my stubbornness, I stand out there in the cold, leaning on my backpack. Ain’t nobody else going to dick me around today. Either I’m getting a cab for 6 lev or I’m dying here in this bus station with my backpack between my legs.
One of the cabbies gets out and stands next to me.
“10 lev, ok?”
I ignore him.
“10 lev ok? Far away. 10 lev.”
I look at him.
He shakes his head. Two minutes of silence pass.
“Ok 8. We go.”
I shake my head.
“8 is ok. Old Plovdiv far away. 8 lev,” he says.
“Look, I’m paying 6. Otherwise, I’ll sit my ass in this bus stop until morning and I’ll walk.”
My face is so cold that my nose is about to fall off and I can barely feel my fingers, but I’m beyond the point of caring. On any other night I’d just pay the man, but I’m already so deep in misery tonight. Might as well take it to the max.
He grabs my backpack and starts loading it into his cab.
“Ok 6,” he says.
The drive is short and we arrive after about ten minutes. However, he doesn’t drop me at my hostel door. He stops at some intersection and tells me he can’t drive up anymore.
“No car here. Just walk 50 metre and hostel on left,” he says, motioning with his hands.
I pay him, grab my backpack and get out. The Old Town here in Plovdiv is gorgeous in the dark, with dimly lit streets and cobblestone paving. The only problem is it’s impossible to wheel a bag across these roads.
Like a crippled duck, I battle to clunk my backpack across the cobblestones looking for my hostel. I waddle fifty metres and turn left. All I see is a bookshop. I go another fifty metres and turn left again. A few restaurants, hostels, but not the one I’m looking for.
Hungry and tired, I stop and collapse on the curb for a moment to catch my breath. It’s 4:30am, and the silence and cool morning air is actually quite refreshing. Then, as I look around it occurs to me that the place is a ghost town. There is absolutely nobody else out here. So, with no one around to rob me, I leave my bags and jacket in the middle of the street and go jogging around the alleyways trying to find my hostel. It only takes me five minutes or so to find it.
I run back and get my stuff, and then finally get myself, with all belongings, to the hostel door. I ring the doorbell, hear a bit of shuffling inside, and finally a girl answers. She looks like Eliza Thornberry. I always liked Eliza Thornberry.
“Are you Brendan?”
“Hi, welcome!” she whispers.
She moves aside so I can pull my bag through the door. As soon as I get inside, I collapse on the couch beside us.
She closes the door and looks at me.
“How was your trip?”
I crack a smile.
“Oh. It was fantastic.“