Looking down from my private balcony, it looks like a few people have just gotten off the bus I really should have caught.
I woke up this morning bright-eyed and confident I would make it to Melnik – the tiniest town in Bulgaria.
Upon boarding the first bus to Sandanski (a small town three-ish hours out of Sofia), I promptly noticed that no one spoke English because a very exasperated woman kept talking to me in Bulgarian. I eventually worked out she had a problem with the seat I was in.
‘Oh,’ I said aloud. ‘They’re reserved.’
She said something in Bulgarian and looked at me blankly. The guy in the seat in front looked at my ticket and held out his hand, so I handed it to him.
‘Five,’ he said, and turned back around.
I realised the Bulgarian woman must have been saying something like ‘you’re in the wrong seat’ over and over again.
I moved. Someone was in my window seat, so I sat in the isle.
I was only on that bus for three-hours, but it felt like 12. It was warm, and the smell of stale beer and sweat hung heavily in the air as we bounced up and down on the uneven highways.
Sitting upright with nothing to lean on, I drifted in and out of sleep, feeling strangely like I was in India again – we stopped at seemingly-random bus stations, the driver stood and announced something in a language I didn’t understand, and half the people on the bus got off and milled around for a period of time I was always unsure about.
I did what I used to in India during these unspecified breaks – I ran to the bathroom and hoped the bus would still be there when I got back.
Another two-hours went by. Despite my best efforts, I ended up drifting in and out of sleep almost the whole time, but I also distinctly remember my eyes being very open at various stages. I know I had at least two dreams, and one involved having a chat with the person next to me. In my mind he replied in English, so based on the fact that I knew he only spoke Bulgarian in real life, I assumed it was just a dream and that I wasn't babbling to myself in my sleep in a language no one else understood.
To affirm this idea, I opened my eyes and looked at my bus buddy.
To say he looked 'uncomfortable' would be an understatement.
I eventually recognised the name of the place where I was meant to get off. The bus stopped on the side of the road. I asked the driver if there was a bus stand. He shook his head and looked puzzled, but we were on a highway, and it was fairly obvious this was my stop. I got my bag and tried to shut the luggage compartment door, until the driver poked his head out and said, 'What are you doing?' and I realised it closed electronically.
The bus drove off in a blaze of dust and I stood on the side of the highway with my giant bag, and stared.
Sandanski definitely didn't look like a city. 'Town' was also a bit of a stretch.
There was a highway wall behind me, so my only option was to trundle along a very isolated stretch of tar with my 65-litre backpack until I got to a hill with a few shop-like structures at the bottom, and what looked like a bus stand in the middle.
The afternoon sun was in full-swing by this stage, and the air was hotter, drier, and dustier. As I walked down the hill, I realised the 'town' I was heading for comprised three cafes and not much else.
As I moved toward the buses, they began to look a bit disheveled – some were chocked, the grass around them was very un-mowed, there was no one around, and there appeared to be nowhere to buy tickets.
It looked more like the place where buses go to die.
I quickly decided to walk to one of the cafe/beer house and show them the Cyrillic version of Melnik (Мелник) the guy at the hostel in Sofia wrote for me.
The guy sitting out the front of the beer house (the owner?) looked at me as I approached and said something in Bulgarian, so I asked if he spoke English. He gestured for someone else to come over, they didn’t speak English either, I showed them my piece of paper and there was lots of nodding, and throwing the word ‘Melnik’ in to various Bulgarian phrases directed at various people around the area.
They didn’t know how to get there either.
The guy who had been gestured to motioned for me to go and sit with them, as they all brought out their phones and (I presume) looked up how to get to Melnik. They politely offered me some beer, and I politely declined, looking around, wondering what was actually going on, and how I could possibly get out of the situation if need be.
At this point I should mention that alarm bells were, admittedly, going off in my mind. To this bunch of big, sweaty Bulgarian men who smelled a lot like stale beer, I was a small, lost Australia girl travelling solo with a giant backpack and no idea how to speak the local language...what could go wrong?
It sounds ridiculous to say I have a good sense of judgment, but despite feeling as though it was a potentially dangerous situation, my gut suggested otherwise – I didn’t actually feel in danger.
So I sat there, swinging my legs and saying 'Melnik' every now and again when prompted, as they chatted to someone on the phone, until they handed me the phone. Confused, I raised it to my ear and said ‘hello?’.
Sure enough, someone answered in English. Bulgarian phone man said they were going to try and take me to the bus station and see what they could do. I asked a few questions (Is there actually a bus? How far is the bus station? Is there anther way to get to the bus station?), thanked him, and hung up.
I very tentatively swung my bag in to the car, hopped in the front seat, and made sure the car door remained unlocked as we made our way to the bus station. The further in to town we travelled, the more apparent it became that I never would have made it on foot.
We arrived to discover there was no bus from Sandanski until the next day, so Bulgarian phone man helped us negotiate, and the guy in the car drove me to Melnik for 10lv.
We tried to chat along the way, and he seemed like a lovely person, but really, Bulgarian is absolutely nothing like English. I learnt the word ‘dog’, and that was about all we could manage. I don’t even remember what that word is anymore.
Just before I got out of the car, he pointed at his phone, and pointed at my phone. This happened a few times, with a few mimed ’calling’ actions thrown in here and there.
‘You want my number…?’ I eventually asked.
He smiled and nodded, furiously.
Knowing I couldn’t possibly explain that I was seeing someone, I said ‘Plovdiv’ a few times in the hope he would understand I was moving on after Melnik. I smiled a lot. He smiled a lot. I don’t really know what was communicated, but it seemed positive, and I wondered hypothetically how a phone conversation would even work.
I said bye to the guy, got out of the car, looked around at the wineries, cafes, and trees, walked off to what I thought was a hostel, realised it was a hotel with an ensuite and a private balcony overlooking the whole town, felt overwhelmingly grateful I’d made it, and went on to double-check bus stop locations for the remainder of my trip.