Last Stop: Sofia

aware n. (Japanese) The bittersweet of a brief and fading moment of transcendent beauty.

As the bus carried from Skopje to Sofia, I had yet to wrap my head around the fact that this would be my last stop.  I could no longer imagine what it would be like going back to the painfully mundane world of academics.  Don’t get me wrong, I love school and I love learning but I felt as though I had learned so much over my travels, things that books and papers couldn’t teach me, that the concept of classrooms felt almost pointless to me in comparison to real experience.  It would be strange to say the least.  I was going back a changed person, a wiser person, a more global person.

But not necessarily a less frugal one.  Leaving Skopje, I had made the stupid mistake of deciding to save a couple cents and not pay to use the toilet in the bus station.  Surely they’ll be a free toilet at one of our stops, I told myself.  When will I ever learn?  About 20km before the border it hit me and luckily enough the urge hit at about the same time as the nicotine craving for the bus drivers.  A bunch of us piled off to go to the bathroom only to find the rest stop operators couldn’t manage to get the bathroom door open.  They called worker after worker in and no one seemed capable.  How many Macedonians does it take to unlock a bathroom?  Apparently more than four but the punch line to my mental joke was rendered significantly less funny by the fact that I was going to have to hold it God knows how much longer. 

At the border, the guards must have sensed that I needed to use the restroom and thus ensured we had an especially long delay complete with full baggage and bus searches before being allowed to continue.  An hour past painful, we finally pulled into a little convenient store and I bolted toward the bathroom only to find a severe looking little woman blocking my way.  At this point, I would have gladly paid.  Trouble was, I was in Bulgaria now, meaning Euro was no longer an effective currency.  I had no Bulgarian lev on me but that was not going to stop me at this.  I was either going to knock her over or pee right there in the doorway.  Thankfully the guy behind me handed me a couple silver coins I didn’t recognize and I was able to pass without getting violent.

Passport stamped and bladder empty, I was finally ready for Sofia but I evidently wasn’t ready for its rather uneven tan brick streets and the first major dip the bus hit sent me flying into the air, knocking my head off the metal roof.  What a warm welcome to Bulgaria I was receiving.  I was happy when the minibus came to a halt, since it meant I not longer had to grip the bottom of my seat for dear life.  Hoisting my pack up, I set off on one final hostel-finding adventure.  Finding a hostel for the first time is, I am convinced, the most difficult part of travel.  Even prepared with maps routing the distance between the two as I was does not necessarily make it any easier considering maps do absolute squat in terms of helping you orient yourself once you leave a bus or train station.  After that, it’s generally not too bad, and I had been getting better at over the weeks.  I was happy to find the Sofia Central bus station was surrounded by fairly prominent landmarks that it easy to orient myself rather quickly and feeling a bit overconfident, I set off in the direction of my hostel.  I should have known that confidence in my case is generally foreboding. 

Sure enough, I followed my map to where my hostel should have been but alas and alack.  I wandered the same block over and over, knowing it should be right there.  I even asked locals and they all agreed that the address said exactly where I was standing and yet they had never heard of the hostel.  But it was fine.  I wasn’t worried yet as it was in the middle of the afternoon and I was in no particular hurry.  I would worry once night started to fall.  To relieve the pressure of my back on my collarbones, I sat down on a bench occupied by two metal statues to regroup and plan my next move.  It was then I was approached by two young girls about my age who asked if I needed some help.  I explained my situation and they, too, found it puzzling, but being from Bulgaria, they had an advantage I did not: a cell phone.  Ever since I came to Europe back in January, I have been happily disconnected from my cell phone, reveling in the freedom from it and only occasionally cursing the inconvenience of not having it.  This was one of those cases.  I gave the girl the hostel phone number and she called and inquired on the location.  Apparently they were expecting me to get lost since the hostel address had changed since my booking and no one bothered to tell me before the morning I was set to arrive.   They then acted surprised I hadn’t gotten the email they had sent only a couple hours before.  Shocking how buses don’t have wifi.

I thanked the two girls profusely for all their help then sat back down on the statue bench to wait for the hostel owner to come get me and guide me to the new location.  I’m not sure what I expected him to look like but it was probably something along the lines of a young Bulgarian man in smart dress (as they all seemed to wear) and a well-groomed haircut.  Instead, I got a large man in a baggy purple button-up shirt who looked strikingly like John Goodman.  He greeted me and asked me why I hadn’t gotten the email he sent that morning.  Hello, bus? Backpacker? No wifi?  But after that he seemed nice enough, especially after he insisted on carrying my pack.  “Oh, no it’s really heavy, but I’m used to it.  Really, I’m fine… Oh well, if you insist.”  Somehow, they never believe me that its heavy until they actually try hoisting it up.  Yeah welcome to the last month and a half of my life, buddy. 

As we walked up the gold brick streets (not really gold unfortunately, just colored to look that way so as to signify the old part of Sofia) to where the hostel was located, he frequently stopped and pointed things out to me, explaining their significance (like the street color for instance).  It was like my own private historical tour of the city and at every building, he insisted on stopping and taking a photo of me in front of it on my camera.  As a solo traveler, I really do appreciate that gesture, but after a while, it just got a bit annoying and all I wanted was for him to take me to the hostel.

After over an hour, we reached the elusive Nightingale Hostel at long last.  As I climbed up the dark stairwell, I hoped this hostel would be worth all the fuss it had been to get there.  Finally inside, I looked around at the bright colored hostel.  For some reason, hostels equated bright colors to comfort and liveliness and while I didn’t really mind, I also would not have been opposed to one day coming a across a nice earthy toned one.  Along the pink and orange walls hung odd scarps of paper bearing motivational messages and little jokes.  My favorite was: “There are no wrong turns, only unexpected paths.”  How appropriate for this hostel.  I was checked in my the receptionist, a man who could have been Cheech and Chong’s long lost friend, with long grey hair, a bandana tied around his forehead, and a black ACDC T-shirt to match the 70s rock music that he had constantly playing on the hostel radio.  No complaints there.  I eventually learned his life matched his look as he had ridden his motorcycle all the way from Portugal and one day just decided to stay in Sofia and there he was.

The hostel was full of interesting people and I soon found myself talking a motley crew (not the ones on the radio) of students from all across Europe who knew each other because they were all studying abroad in Sarajevo.  Instant platform for conversation.  After one the guys, an Italian, made us a delicious pasta dinner (would you expect any less?) we headed out on the town looking for a nice dive bar where we could get a beer.  As late as it was, we didn’t feel like wandering too far and thus we failed on finding the dive part but succeeded in the beer by settling on a posh little bar not far from the hostel.  One of the guys was named Tomas and, being from the Czech Republic, he really enjoyed his beer.  I took his expert recommendation and tried a Czech beer, which ended up being surprisingly nice.  The thing I tried that was not so nice: Rakija.  Rakija is a fruit brandy that is popular all across the Balkans, made form fermented grapes like wine but more similar to vodka in taste, but much stronger than vodka.  In other words, bad news for Amber.  After a sip, I could safely say I had tried this Balkan delicacy and that was good enough for me.

By the time we left, it was spitting rain and we hurried across the glistening brick streets back to hostel before we could get too soaked.  Back at the hostel, more guests had returned and were sitting in the common room drinking beer, something the guys I had been hanging out with could not say no to.  I, on the other hand, turn into a pumpkin right around 10pm and this was vastly past my bedtime so I bid them all goodnight and retired to the rather cold room.  But as I had this bunkroom all to myself, I could simply steal the blankets off the other beds.

I woke up the next day for a rather disappointing complimentary breakfast of nothing more than cereal and coffee.  Granted, I love cereal and coffee, but not cheap cereal that is no more filling than air or especially weak coffee.  But it was free food and I learned long ago not to complain of that.  Speaking of, on the reception desk amid a scattering of random brochures and sightseeing advertisements, was a brochure that caught my eye: Free Food Tour.  Free food?  Sign me up!  By this point, the boys from the previous night were up and agreed to check out the free food tour with me later that afternoon. 

Still having the morning to kill, we all set off to wander the city and in several hours, we had seen all major points: the Alexander Nevsky Catherdral, the Hagia Sophia (a church dating original construction back to the 4th century), the Russian Orthodox church, the old King’s palace, the Parliament building and the guards in funny hats outside it, and main square filled with vintage book and record stands (while reminding myself: you are a backpacker, Amber, you physically cannot carry these things with you).  Sofia was an beautiful city, especially this time of year.  Everything had just started to bloom and thus every square was bursting with bright green grass and leaves, accented by red and pink pops of tulips in flowerbeds that decorated every curb.  Even its graffiti was gorgeous, street art more than anything.  Almost every electrical transformer box bore some sort of poignant image and every so often you would come across poetry accompanying the images as part of a movement called Wall to Wall Poetry.  Sofia was also a remarkably well-polished city, with gleaming buildings and clean everything so much so that you could hardly tell just how old this city was.  How old was it?  Well, to give you an idea, Sofia was originally the desired location for the capital of the Roman empire before they settled on Rome.

When 2pm rolled around, we met the tour guide at a little park recognizable by the giant statue of head sitting there.  We weren’t the only ones waiting for the food tour but we were luckily enough there in enough time to make it within the 15 person cap, while some were not.  Amid the other people waiting for the two, I saw two Australian girls who had been on my bus the day before (it’s a small world after all) and another girl from California, who picked out my American accent and came over to me right away.  Brianna and I connected right away, partially from the lone of fact of us both being from America, but also partially from the fact that we shared many similar interests like our love of the outdoors.  Our conversation accompanied the wanderings of the food tour, which led us first to a soup restaurant called Soup-a Star (heh…puns) where we got try a cold summer coup made of cucumber and yogurt.  Fun fact: Bulgaria is famous for its yogurt which they apparently believe it responsible for the longevity of people in the country due to a very specific type of bacteria used to make the yogurt there.  It all sounded very science-y to me but I can tell you the soup was delicious.  Our next stop was a little organic restaurant where we could try samples of bread with various Bulgarian herb spreads on them, and the final place was an incredibly cool traditional Bulgarian restaurant complete with an entire wine cellar (and I mean barrels not bottles) in which you could eat dished suspended from chains from the ceiling.  Again, we tried some various bread spreads here but the real winner was an herb wine called Pelin, evidently made from wormwood.  I didn’t know what to expect of an herb wine but man was it incredible.  If I wasn’t so cheap and didn’t have a mountain of groceries to get through before flying home, I would have definitely returned there for dinner. 

After the food tour concluded, I said parted from the boys from my hostel since they wanted to go get pizza and I wasn’t particularly hungry.  Instead, Brianna and I from the tour wandered the streets aimlessly for a little while, drinking some bottles of Bulgarian beer we had bought at a convenient store.  The clerk had laughed at us when we asked if there was an open contained law here.  “It’s Bulgaria,” he said.  Explanation enough.  One thing I quickly grew to love in Bulgaria: the odd way its buildings set their ground floor just below street level so that many of the shops you saw were actually sunk down into the street.  These were called Squat Shops because you literally had to squat at the window to buy anything.  I found them incredibly charming and when I discovered what was quite literally an underground squat tattoo shop, I was extremely tempted.  I had been wanting to get another tattoo for quite a while, but I decided now, with only a couple days left in my trip, was not the time.

Brianna had decided she rather liked the group of us form my hostel and decided to move from her hostel to that one so after a complicated bout of running back and forth getting everything sorted, she settled down at the Nightingale Hostel and we reunited with the boys for another pasta dinner and a night of wine and beer (beer for the boys and a two liter bottle of wine that cost 2.50€ for us). 

It wasn’t until next morning that I regretted drinking that much cheap wine when I dragged myself out of bed with the intention of hiking Vitosha mountain, the large mountain looming over the city of Sofia.  But no headache was going to stop me from going hiking.  If anything could make me feel better, the mountains could, or so I told myself.  Brianna and I set off to meet the guide that would take us up the mountain for free (excluding transportation there and a tip all of which cost only about 20 lev or 10€).  Vitosha was beautiful, littered with little fresh mountain springs of drinkable water and budding trees, the occasional few of which had little red and white braid of yarn tied on them.  Red and white are important colors to Bulgarians, representing something similar to the Chinese yin and yang.  It is tradition in Bulgaria to tie these little strings on the first budding tree one sees in the spring and make a wish.  I found this to be a beautiful tradition. 

The hike took us past a little mountain “lake”, though I would define it as a pond, and various lookout points over the city.  Our guide was incredibly nice and talked to us not only about Sofia and its history but about our own outdoor experiences back in the states.  My only complaint was that he smelled a bit but as long as I stayed upwind it was fine.  As lovely as the hike was, I was feeling shaky by the end of it, probably from the air cereal I had eaten for breakfast that morning.  Yet, instead of getting substantial food when we returned to the city, I opted to much on one of the giant bags of peanuts I had been carrying with me since Croatia and get some ice cream.  Ice cream had been a constant for me over my travels, a tradition started with my mother, and it only felt right to celebrate my last stop and the culmination of my travels with it.

Brianna and I laid in the park that was bustling with people on the beautifully sunny day, lazily eating our ice cream and exchanging travel wisdom and insights.  I love talking with fellow travelers because you find he crazy introspective things you think to yourself are not so crazy after all.  The experiences of travelers can be so wholly different while still bearing such remarkable similarities and often times someone else is able to put feelings into words you are not able to do yourself.  Travelers are of a different breed and because of that estrangement from society we are drawn even closer to each other.  As the sun began to set, a little kid came up to me, staring at the cluster of balloons I had found the street earlier.  Now I am not particularly gifted with kids but I decided to give him my balloons in hopes that it would make him smile.  This child of no more than three, tentatively grabbed them, looked at me, then ran off with them as if he had just pulled the greatest heist of the century.  Brianna and I burst out laughing and took that high point of our day as a cue to head back.

I spent the rest of the night repacking my stuff, throwing away a couple things I would no longer need, like my grungy white sleeping shirt and the half a towel I had taken from the Malaga hostel.  I retired to bed early that night, knowing I would need a good night of sleep under my belt before tackling the dreaded long day of travel ahead of me.  I had a good run, but it was time to go back to my home away from home.