Thursday, November 01, 2001

Well ok then. If any of you caught my hurried entry yesterday, you'll know that there'd been a very sudden and unexpected change of plan, and as a result we're in Romania today (after no sleep on an overnight train) and not in Istanbul. As a result I suspect much of our Middle East tour will be greatly hurried, except for Israel as we now have yet another Israeli connection - a guy called Daniel from near Jerusalem.

Also: me and Simon are appearing in a national Bulgarian magazine - "Tema", the Bulgarian version of Time. All this, as you might expect, is not exactly what we had planned.

Here's the story.

We got to Sofia (ie, capital of Bulgaria) on uh... Tuesday afternoon, from Skopje, Macedonia. A trouble-free bus journey, except for the armed assault on the bus that left several passengers dead.

We had a hostel in mind, imaginately called the "Sofia hostel", and after some classic navigation by both myself and Simon (after three months you'd think we'd know how to read maps) we finally managed to locate it. As it turned out the Sofia hostel was in fact someone's flat with beds crammed into every room. That description doesn't do the place credit though. From the moment of entering, it was apparent this was one of the "good" places. The hallway doubled as the communal room, with a multi-channel TV, and three bedrooms were stuffed with more beds than would be legally possible in Britain I'm sure. The arrangement was definitely cosy, but a homely cosy. Run, as far as I can tell, by a craggy woman who spoke no English, and her daughters, who did.

However, only 15 beds were in this hostel and we hadn't booked. This caused initial confusion as neither English-speaking daughter was about (one in Romania and the other just out somewhere) but fortunately some American Peace Corps guys were staying for a couple of days and had been working in a small Bulgarian village for the last year, and so the situation was translated to us. That exact situation being that five beds were available, but had been booked, but that the people who had booked them hadn't yet turned up. The daughter - Toni - then appeared, quickly followed by two other strays who hadn't booked - an English guy called Vince and an American bird called Tasha (as in mous-tasha, not Nat-tasha... maybe).

What developed therefore was the promise that if the five didn't turn up, then we'd get the spare beds. If they did turn up then we'd be allowed just to sleep on the floor in the communal room, which I think we were all rather up for as we were being charged less (I offered to sleep on the stairwell, a la Sarajevo, for even less, but Toni wasn't offering any discounts on that).

As it happened, the five didn't turn up, so we did get the beds. This me and Simon discovered after going out for a truly colossal Chinese meal, which I very valiantly ate, plus beer for the grand total of 3 pounds. We were out with a Canadian guy with an Irish passport, called Mark, who'd been about Syria and the like and gave us some useful information that subsequent events have probably, alas, rendered useless.

A quiet night that night, and up early for the free breakfast. Me and Simon went down to the train station to check on trains to Istanbul which we planned on overnighting the next evening, and then separated and I wandered (as I'm inclined to do) around Sofia, focussing mainly on the huge market. Called, suspiciously, the "Ladies Market". There was a lot on offer there. After considerable consideration I bought a big packet of biscuits for 30p. They were... ok.

It was upon returning back to the hostel that the main events of the last day or so began to unfold. I was sitting in my room, the only guest currently in the youth hostel except for one of the American Peace Corps volunteers who was extremely hungover (I have rarely seen anyone look quite this hungover) after drinking excesses of rakija for a friend's birthday celebration the night previous. Toni wandered into the room, slightly restless, as if waiting for someone to arrive. It turned out that some journalists were coming by at some point. They were writing an article on youth hostels in Bulgaria, as there's very few and most Bulgarians don't know of such a concept. Excellent, I said flippantly, they can take heaps of photos of me. Actually, she said, they are wanting to take some photos of resident tourists. What else could I say but - "I'm your man."

Vince and Tasha were about, and were also intrigued, but foolishly left for that crucial half hour. And Simon happened to make a timely return. The hungover American Peace Corps volunteer was about too, lounging on the sofa watching MTV in between either complaining about feeling sick or actually being sick. So the three present guests were me, Simon and the hungover volunteer. The doorbell rung and in entered the two journalists.

The hungover volunteer immediately pissed off, not wanting the Bulgarian public to see him in such a way. Simon was in the bedroom, leaving just me "casually" watching TV. The two journalists, after talking with Toni and her mother, came into the communal room/hallway and asked if they could take a few photos. Well hey, I'm only on this Earth to be photographed, go ahead.

There was two of them - a guy photographer and a female reporter (Yana) who was exceptionally attractive. So, looking natural for the camera as Yana kept me engaged, heaps of undoubtedly lovely photos were taken. Simon was taken in, and Yana asked us various questions, such as where we were from and what our travel route was, and all that sort of stuff. Simon took in his Scottish flag, which proved popular as ever, and was photographed, and Yana took down a list of all the countries we'd been too.

So, the deal was, we discovered, they were journalists for a weekly magazine called "Tema", the (unofficial) Bulgarian version of Time. I have no idea how big a magazine this is, but I'm pretty sure it's national. The issue with us is due out this Monday and so after quite some deliberation, me and Simon reckoned it's not often you appear in a Bulgarian magazine, so it was worth hanging about till Monday to get this magazine. Meaning a serious delay to Istanbul, but hey, you don't get many better reasons. Yana told us various good places to visit in Bulgaria (and we hope we have time to follow up a few) and also gave us (well, I like to think, gave me) her mobile number. Just to call, you know, if there's any questions.

Such as, "hey baby, how about it?" of course.

They left, and me and Simon had a heavy thinking session - which yes, is possible sometimes. We had about 5 days till this magazine. We could spend the entire time in Sofia, which wasn't a bad option as it's a cool city, or we could take this opportunity to pop over to Romania for a day or two - the country we thought we'd had to miss out. Bucharest is near Bulgaria at the southern end of Romania - perfect.

We'd go that same night. An overnight train which would arrive about 9am. Asking Toni and her mother if it was ok to leave most of our stuff in their hostel (namja problemi, or however that's written in the Cyrillic alphabest, which I have actually got the hang of mostly) we found we had about 5 hours to kill before the 10.10pm train.

Five hours to kill equals: food and drink.

But first - Daniel the Israeli. He'd been about for the last day or so, and had just missed the photoshoot because he'd been paragliding. But me and Simon had got talking to him, and he seemed a cool guy (all Israeli travellers we've met so far have been cool, but I was especially impressed with Daniel as he'd eaten pork that day for the first time) and we mentioned we'd be heading into Israel at some stage, so he said to give him a call. He lives 10 minutes away from Jerusalem - that safest of safe cities - and said he'd happily put us up for a couple of days. So as well as our Haifi connections - Zahi, and Arnon and Rinat - we've got a Jerusalem connection. Watch out Grandpa, I'll be Jewish and fighting in the Israeli army not long now.

Ok, so food and drink, and hearing of our gigantic Chinese meal, Vince and Tasha decided to come along.

Vince and Tasha are what you could describe as your more "hardcore" traveller. From the people I've met travelling so far, I've gathered that me and Simon are about middle of the road. There's a number of rapid-fire destination interrailing people doing about a month, sometimes less, and quite a lot of people doing 2 to 3 months. And then on the other end of the scale you get Vince and Tasha. They'd only met a few days before in Istanbul but were on equally mental durations and destinations. Vince was cycling (mostly) around, and had spent 17 months cycling around Europe. At one point, he said, he didn't speak proper English to anyone for four months. You could still see that crazy, wild look in his eye. Tasha had only been travelling for about a month or so, but immediately before that she'd worked two years as a Peace Corps volunteer (yes, another one, they all seemed to cluster in this one hostel) in obscure parts of Russia. Both of them - plus some mythical guy called Chris that I never saw - were about to head to Armenia and Georgia, and that area, and Vince planned to later cycle onto India and... well, God knows.

We again attempted valiantly to finish our Chinese, this time failing narrowly, and feeling utterly stuffed we found a pleasant pub and had a couple of drinks before it was time for me and Simon to get our train. Tearful farewells then (as always...) and we got our train to Romania.

Hmm. No electricity. No lights. No heating. Plus frequent interruptions by ticket and passport people, and having to change carriages because the train was splitting in two and we were in the wrong half, and having to shift to a heated but congested carriage with some noisy Bulgarians, and a two hour customs check crossing the border. All this equals no sleep, or perhaps 10 minutes grabbed. Actually, the Romanian customs was rather fun. We were taken out of the train and separated into different rooms, where Simon had his bag searched and I was asked questions about where I'd been and what my business was in Romania. When I told the guy I'd been in Albania , he looked alarmed and said "Wasn't that dangerous?"

And so, we're here now, in a good youth hostel (recommended by the Sofia one) with good facilities and friendly people. I haven't slept but to be honest, after Sarajevo one night without sleep seems little hassle. We're also travelling very light - no backpacks, just the bare essentials. Makes everything so much easier.

I'm quite hungry actaually. I thiknk I'll stop writing.

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