The incredible journey from Dubrovnik to Sofia.
My stomach had been in knots for a week or so about my uncertain arrival in Sofia...I couldn't go through Macedonia, there wasn't anything direct from Croatia (not even a flight!), and I wasn't particularly keen about veering several hundred miles out of the way - (the only reliable hub being Belgrade).
Keen or not, my choices were increasingly limited. Basing my itinerary on an offhand travel agent remark about heading to Bosnia, I hopped a three hour bus to Mostar...crossing my fingers for a timely connection to somewhere near sofia. Three hours later, (at approximately 11 am or so), I was bummed to find that my only option was a 13+ hour overnight bus to Belgrade, leaving later that evening. Boo on Belgrade. I sighed a heavy *darn my luck* kind of sigh.
Well, I had a number of hours to kill, and luckily, Lonely Planet described Mostar as a “charming medieval town”. As I was perusing my restaurant options, two young men approached me about my plans for the day. One was a Frenchman living in New York, the other was his American roommate of Iranian heritage – (a general surgeon about to start his residency, I told him all about you dad!).
Since my sense of direction is atrocious, and we were all about to suffer through an overnight Bosnian bus together, we joined up for a little Mostar exploration. There is a famous 16th century bridge (Stari Most) in town that historically represents the bridging of ethnic diversities – ironically enough, it was completely destroyed in the recent ethnic conflict, and then reconstructed. At 24 meters tall, it is a thrill for young local men to go leaping from it into the river. Tourists can pay to see this done – I could think of better ways to spend my money. The whole town is extraordinarily charming and photogenic – though there are many grim reminders of the conflict.
While walking around, it was impossible to ignore the thousands of bullet holes scarring virtually every building of the town. Some of the structures were particularly wretched – so destroyed by heavy shelling that their sagging walls and exposed interiors remain completely abandoned – not demolished, not refurbished, just empty, hulking reminders of human conflict. Of course, there were also freshly constructed homes and businesses in shining coats of gaudy paint dotting the city. The contrast was certainly striking.
We also strolled past a number of graveyards – I was mildly horrified to see that every single headstone was engraved with the date “1992” – to say the least, this put the scale of the casualties into perspective. Graffiti around town included patriotic messages flaunting Bosnian pride, random swastikas, and several Tito’s scrawled on most available wall spaces.
Old town was lovely, mostly intact, and devoid of graffiti; we perused a number of souvenir shops and spoke with the shopkeepers. I managed to meet several lovely gentlemen and a young woman – coming away from the day with two free post cards and a cup of mint tea. I also bought a few souvenirs (I’m a sucker for textiles and the choices were tantalizing)….actually, I’m a sucker for shopping in general. I was mildly horrified to find that many of the souvenirs offered were constructed out of old shell casings (some half as tall and as big around as I), and bullets. War, as much as it traumatized the nation, was being exploited as a tourist attraction. I felt a surge of conflicting opinions/emotions:
1. It is good the country has harnessed something lucrative – war, death, violence, and destruction in the form of knick knacks.
2. It is horrifying that this grotesque tourist fascination is lucrative in the first place. Yikes, it’s even more horrifying that I was equally as fascinated as your average fanny-packed daytripper.
Like I said, conflicting opinions/emotions. We also came upon a number of fascinating Tshirts for sale - the heroic faces of Che and Tito were emblazoned on several, another boldly stated: "f*** the country that is not Bosnia" (every country that is not Bosnia, that is...I asked for clarification), and another was particularly hilarious: "I'm Muslim, don't panic." My companion of Iranian heritage bargained the shopkeeper down to $4 and plans to wear the shirt as much as possible around the states.
The time finally came for our long-dreaded bus ride to Serbia – we scoped out the “best” seats somewhat near one another, staking out our territory for the next 13+ hours. I soon came to realize I was the only woman aboard, and that my territory didn’t really mean much. I wasn’t able to lean back my seat – with every nudge, a remarkably tall, bulky man behind me would grunt with disapproval. He’d wedged himself into an impossibly fetal position for someone his size; his rear end was firmly shoved against my seat. Well, if you can’t beat them, join them? I curled up into something relatively comfortable, but sleep was virtually impossible – and I found myself counting down the clock to Belgrade.
We arrived at the god-awful hour of six thirty a.m. Nothing was open, no one spoke English, and the city was a hideous, sprawling, terrifying metropolis. I was lucky to find a train to sofia leaving a mere two and a half hours later – I spent the down time holed up in a nearby hostel chatting with a loony Australian and friendly Serbian.
The 9 hour train was mildly comfortable. I was overwhelmed to find my six-person compartment filled with five large, middle-aged men and an empty seat in the corner for me. They were polite enough to stop smoking within the compartment upon my arrival (I was completely amazed!), though none of them bothered to acknowledge me much beyond that.
In the last two hours of the trip, only one man and I remained. Just before the Bulgarian border, a flamboyant middle-aged Serbian with a scrunchie and white patent-leather shoes burst into the compartment. He placed his numerous bags in any space not occupied by humans and shoved the compartment curtains closed. Though my compartment partner and I had not yet spoken a word to one another, we exchanged the universal “what the hell?” brow furrowing in our confusion. I’d been nervous about Bulgarian border control – most sources I consulted remarked that the officers are usually less-than-virtuous and particularly keen on extorting bribes from American tourists. I was alone, female, ignorant of the language, and American. I cleverly deduced that to be an unfortunate combination.
When the border control officers shoved open the compartment, they took a long look at my passport, eyed me up and down, and then turned their attention to the scrunchied Serbian. In a bout of screaming on both sides, his bags were ripped open to reveal scores of cigarette cartons….certainly more than the legal amount allowed to cross the border. I was amused by the scene – the officers began to rip the air vents from the floor and ceiling, the lighting fixtures were detached, the protests of the Serbian competed with those of the officers, photos were taken of the smuggled goods….and then, just as suddenly as it all began, it was over. The smuggler sat down in a huff, ineffectively complaining to me in Serbian, and the officers moved on. No confiscation, no citation, no bribes, no arrests…nothing! They just disappeared and it was over. The smuggler re-zipped all his bags and pouted in the corner. His peace was short-lived as he was provoked once more just minutes later – as a group of juvenile football players burst into the compartment and stole some of the much-coveted “goods”. He went hauling after them and then stomped off to another – perhaps more peaceful – part of the train. My compartment buddy and I once again exchanged the universal “what the hell?” brow-furrow. Bizarre.
We were at the border for a bit more than an hour and a half – during which my passport was checked/stamped two more times. I was certainly relieved to find that the border control was more concerned about cigarettes than my money, gender, and/or political convictions. After two days of travel, I finally arrived in Sofia. Phew...adventure.