March 17, 2016
We left our hotel in Bucharest and gave ourselves an hour to walk the 2 miles to the train station. We stopped at a grocery store to pick up some snacks for our 8-hour trip to Varna, Bulgaria.
We have to take three trains to get to Varna. There are direct buses from Bucharest but they only run in the summer months. Making this initial train was no easy feat.
We arrived at the Bucharest north train station with 20 minutes to spare. We went to the first ticket office we found and a woman told us that it was the wrong place and that we had to go out, take a left, walk past the McDonalds, and then turn right. We followed the directions as best as we could and waited in line at the new ticket office. After 5 minutes the lady in the window shook her head and then closed the blinds on me. “Fuck, I only have 15 minutes before the train leaves”. Luckily a man, who didn’t speak English, grabbed my shoulder and said, “follow me” in very broken English. I called Sylvie from across the large atrium and told her to come along. We walked outside to yet another ticket office. He pointed me to a window and then walked away. I waited in this line for another several minutes and then finally asked for “two tickets to Varna, please”. This woman just looked at me and said no. A man to my back asked where we were trying to go and said that this window was only for night trains. He spoke with the woman behind the counter and then he told me to go to desk #1 on the other side of this new room. Desk #1 was our 4th attempt to buy tickets to Varna and we only had 10 minutes until the train departed.
The woman behind the window was eating her lunch and when I tapped on the glass to get her attention she lazily glanced at the clock and apprehensively started to rise. She seemed irritated to have been disturbed during her break time. I asked her if we could buy tickets to Varna and she nodded. Boy was it nice to see her nod. We bought the tickets for 198 lei (~$50 USD) and she continued to print out tickets and fill out paperwork. We had less than 10 minutes and we still didn’t have the tickets in our possession. She finally gave us our two tickets that went all the way to Varna and one ticket stub that had seat reservations for this leg of the trip.
As I am writing this we’ve been stopped for the last 40 minutes and I’m only praying that our next train in Rousse, Bulgaria will wait for us. Our first layover is only 15 minutes and I really hope we make it because if we don’t we’ll have to stay in the town overnight and take the next train the next day.
I walked over to a train conductor (or staff member) and inquired about the possible delay. He assured me that the train would arrive on time at 3:55pm.
At 3:55pm we still hadn’t arrived at the Rousse, Bulgaria train station. I was starting to stress a little—Sylvie and I both knew that the train wouldn’t wait for us. Trains here have been very prompt. We finally arrived around 4:12pm, 2 minutes after our connecting train was scheduled to leave. We were relieved to see that there was a train on another platform full of passengers. I asked the conductor if that was the train to Varna and he said, “Yes”. I was so relieved.
As Sylvie and I stepped off the train in the direction of our connection two large officials approached us. They asked for our passports. Fuck! We still have to go through immigration. As the officials were checking our passport I ran to the window of the other train and told an attendant to wait. He clearly understood but seemed not to care much. He pointed to his watch and tapped while nodding his head. Another train attendant was walking the platform holding a green sign, indicating that all was clear and that the train could go. The engines had already started and the sounds of pistons were getting louder. People around us asked where we needed to go and I flat out told them, “I fucking need to catch that train that is about to leave”! No one seemed to care. We finally got our passports just as the other train pulled away. The train was still right next to us but moving too fast to attempt to board it. I can’t believe we got this close and missed our connection.
The train to Varna from Rousse only leaves once a day and there are no busses. Every possible thought was traveling through my brain. If we take the next train, which is the following day, we still wouldn’t arrive in Varna till 9pm the following day. We would only have a couple hours to walk around and then we’d have to leave for Veliko Tarnovo the following morning. We have the next 9 nights in Bulgaria booked. Two nights in a hotel in Varna, 4 nights in a nice Airbnb in Veliko Tarnovo, and 3 nights in a private room in Sofia.
Sylvie had showed me the paper envelope that held our tickets and it had something about that if we missed a connection due to a delay that the train company will get us to our destination at their expense. It also read that we needed to spend a night that they would put us up at a middle-priced hotel. Suffice it to say the train conductor and staff seemed ill equipped to handle this situation. They just shrugged and went on their own way. They did instruct me on the next train I could take, but it was to a different city. What idiots!
During all the commotion a man at the station had told us that he could drive us ‘somewhere’. I told him that we already had tickets to Varna and that we didn’t want to go anywhere else. I initially dismissed his remarks but he kept on repeating himself. Finally I understood his intention. He had said that he would drive us to the train’s next stop 40 km, but that we would have to leave immediately. He said 20 euros and I scoffed. I didn’t have many other options, but principles come first in my book. I said 15 euros but he declined. Sylvie and I continued off the platform and down the stairs. The man came to our backs agreeing to the 15 euros but insisted we hurry up. We ran with him under the tracks, through the Rousse train station’s ticketing atrium and into the parking lot. Meanwhile Sylvie was telling me how she didn’t feel comfortable with this and reminded me what the Romanian student had said about ‘trusting Bulgarians’. I asked her what she had wanted to do, but she didn’t know. I reminded her that we had no other options and that it’s not fair to judge this man without him giving us a reason.
He ran us over to his car, which was an official Taxi—this gave both Sylvie and myself much relief. As we got into his vehicle I told him, “I’m only paying if we catch our train”. He said, “Yes, yes”. We peel away and are soon driving 140 km/h down a meager two-lane country road in the middle of the open Bulgarian landscape. We negotiated corners at near full speed and passed every other vehicle on the road. During our drive Sylvie and I looked at each other wondering if we would catch the train. I was optimistic, but Sylvie was not.
We finally approach what appeared to be an abandoned railway station. The dirt parking lot was large enough to accommodate 5 cars. The driver pulls to the first platform and parks. In a self-assured tone he tells us, “Train will be here in 5 minutes”. He instructs us to walk to the train platform and that the train only stops for 1 minute. I hold the 15 euros in one hand, the tickets in my other. My small bag on my chest and my large bag, strapped with our food and drink, on my back. A station attendant approaches me and inquired about my tickets. He spends some time going over the ticket and I ask him if the approaching train is heading to Varna. He looks at me and shakes his head no. My heart plummets. “No?” I inquired. He said, “Yes, it’s going to Varna”. Sylvie then reminded me that in Bulgaria they shake their heads to mean yes—the same gesture that has meant “no” to me for almost 3 decades.
The train approaches, no more than 5 minutes after we arrived at the station. As the train pulls to a stop the conductor locks eyes with me and turns his head as the first car passes by. I could tell he was shocked to see me standing there. We board the train to Varna without hiccup. We chat with a local guy named Hristo for several hours. Finally we arrived at Varna ahead of schedule at 8pm. What a long day! We check in to our nice hotel, go out for Chinese and call it a night just before Midnight. Goodnight!