Sunday, December 12, 2010

Looking Back: Riding the Balkan Express

I was going through old things that I was writing and found this account of my first train trip from Bulgaria to Turkey... Enjoy!

The Balkan Express

The Balkan Express in Edirne, Turkey.
“This is a drreeeam!” I heard a man shout while I was waiting for the train to arrive. My fellow traveler Ana and I had been joking with each other in our native tongue when the African-American Vietnam veteran from Queens ran up and hugged me. “This is a dream!” he repeated, “English! English! Get me out of this country!” Everyone on the platform was now staring at us, but the man didn’t seem to notice and continued madly talking about his desire to escape Bulgaria. Even if any of the onlookers had spoken English, they surely would still have had no idea what he was saying. He was, after all, completely incoherent, even to a native speaker of the language. His opening statement, however, proved to be prophetically accurate: we were indeed in a dream. The journey was surreal and sleepless. It exceeded my expectations of adventure. 

A fence near Plovdiv's train station
            Two days before, in the historical Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, Ana and I had set out to buy the train tickets to Istanbul. We walked from our apartment in the old section of the city downhill to the train station. As we left our neighborhood, a forest of identical, concrete Soviet-style apartment blocks replaced the historical wooden houses.  A different image of Bulgaria began to fade into view. We passed a windowless cement hospital where we found a cluster of patients standing outside, clasping cigarettes in one hand and I.V. bags in the other.  Across the street were countless stores selling counterfeit Dolce & Gabbana clothing with random, sometimes misspelled English words printed on it. Through the windows, I noticed goateed mannequins that had curious resemblance to Lenin.
            The train station, once we found it, had a lazy calmness to it unlike any other place I’ve visited. A mechanical signboard sputtered every few minutes to display arrivals and departures in rust colored Cyrillic lettering. Several young men quietly sipped their “Pirinsko” beers while casually throwing cards down  to the picnic table around which they were gathered. Another man, in tattered overalls, sat against the wall with an open wooden box containing several shades of shoe polish. He didn’t solicit me and was happy to smile for Ana’s antique camera which, I might add, she handles masterfully. Ana continued to shamelessly take photographs of nearby characters while I found my way to the ticketing desk.
Plovdiv Rail Yard
            My knowledge of the Bulgarian language is somewhat limited. I know the word for “thank you,” as I try to know it wherever I am. Beyond that, I ignorantly assume that my twenty-word vocabulary of Russian is common with Bulgarian. I can count to four, ask where the post office is, tell people my name, and blatantly state that cabbage is a very good thing (which it is). When I said “To Istanbul” repeatedly to the ticketing agent, she nodded her head vigorously: the universal sign for “yes” everywhere but in Bulgaria. I discovered that, for whatever reason, the Plovdiv train station’s ticketing desk does not actually have tickets available for purchase. The station agent eventually figured out that I actually couldn’t understand a word she said despite my smiles and utterances of “Da” on regular intervals.  She drew a crude map of where, ostensibly, we could purchase the tickets to Istanbul.
Part of the old Plovdiv station
            As Ana and I followed the map, we found ourselves on a tour of forgotten Plovdiv. We passed an abandoned train station from a different era, the opened door to which revealed a pile of overturned office chairs and other bureaucratic debris. Next door, another abandoned building’s paneless windows were occupied by makeshift curtains and clothes hanging in the dry summer air. As we continued walking we came to several Roma girls collecting plums that grow modestly by the side of the street. One plucked the fallen ripe fruit from the sidewalk as the other placed them in a fold of her long, floral dress. They worked with silent grace and efficiency. Ana took their portraits while I was distracted by a passing horse cart driver’s hoot to me as he smiled for my own camera.  
             The map, of course, did not lead us to a ticketing bureau, but instead to an unoccupied house in a faraway uninhabited neighborhood. With the help of a friendly English-speaking mechanic in a rather dubious-looking car garage, we retraced our steps to the ticketing bureau. It turned out to be only a block from the station. We waited patiently for about forty-five minutes as a woman meticulously wrote our tickets out by hand.  We left the office finally ready for our night voyage to Istanbul.
My new American Friend...
            “This is a dreeaaam,” repeated the displaced vet from Queens standing uncomfortably close to me by the empty tracks. I was distracted, however, by a group of twenty or so loud, adolescent boys who had just joined us on the platform. They all wore red and white jackets with crescents on the back and were humorously punching one another in the typical boyish way. They immediately stopped their lewd Turkish banter and playful aggression when two men, dressed similarly to the boys, approached the platform. The men had square chiseled faces that towered above the boys and even my own height. Their bulky bodies produced a deep, hoarse voice that dominated the platform. Their conspicuous presence masked the arrival of a short-statured shy Japanese man with only a small rucksack and a book under his arm. It was 22:00, and the platform was dark and trainless despite it being my ticket’s printed arrival time.
The train, which follows a portion of the famous Orient Express’s route from Paris to Istanbul, begins in Belgade, Serbia. It travels for a full night through the Serbian countryside to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, and then for another night from Sofia to Istanbul (via Plovdiv). Twenty minutes after it was supposed to arrive, I heard a whistle down the tracks, and in a moment, the quiet platform filled with a cacophonous mob of rushed travelers. As the train pulled in rapidly, passengers appeared on the platform with unimaginable amounts of baggage. Wives appeared and began to yell at their husbands in a dozen different languages. Harsh voices roared as the two intimidating men shouted orders to the boys who accompanied them.  The dreaming man from Queens started speaking rapidly to nobody in particular. The train came to a screeching halt.
Everyone began to charge onto the train. Ana and I found our car and were followed by the Turkish boys, their intimidating adult companions, the quiet Japanese man, a new man who appeared to be American, and the crazy guy from Queens. The car’s attendant greeted us at the door. She was a short, uniformed Bulgarian woman, and took our tickets with a tight smile before turning to the Turks behind us with a scowl. The car’s narrow hallway was crowded with confused passengers looking for their rooms and it proved to be a lengthy task just to walk the few feet to our compartment. The mob outside grew even more agitated as people started to throw their baggage through the train’s windows. In addition to several crying babies on the platform, a couple began to fight, yelling at each other in gruff Turkish through an opened window.
Ana and I opened our room’s door. A woman was smiling manically at us from inside the room, her baggage on our beds. I asked her in fractured Turkish if this was her room, at which point she simply left the room without saying a word. Ana and I stowed our luggage in a compartment overhead. We found bunked beds suspended by chain and a small sink. It wasn’t uncomfortable and the wood veneered walls gave it an antique, homey feeling. We shut our door, the train’s whistle blew twice, a bell rang, and with a jolt the train left the station.
            Ana and I made our beds with sheets that the attendant had provided. Our room was filled with the dark earthy smell of train exhaust, diesel fuel, and axle grease.  I decided to stick my head out of the open window; after all it did seem like the cinematically appropriate thing to do. It was dark outside and I could barely make out the dimmed lights of passing villages. Suddenly, a wooden pole came into view and I ducked my head just in time as the train passed it with a whoosh. When I carefully leaned back outside, I saw a person doing the very same thing from the compartment next to ours. He was one of the Turkish boys I had sighted earlier on the platform in Plovdiv. He nodded to me, and we began to talk over the train’s rhythmic clunking.
            I learned that the boys, who ranged from thirteen to my own eighteen, were on a Turkish youth boxing team and the two daunting men were their coaches. They were traveling back to Turkey from a tournament in Plovdiv where they had, the boy told me, beaten the shit out of their Bulgarian opponents. At that point, A voice yelled to him from inside his compartment and he quickly popped his head back inside. I did the same. Ana and I then decided to explore the car and meet the other passengers.
            We shut our door and wandered through the car. We came to an open compartment occupied by the shy Japanese man and another American traveler.  The Japanese man had been in Bulgaria for only a day. Like many students and expats,  he took advantage of a loophole in the Turkish immigration law. As a Turkish language student in Istanbul, when his three-month visa expired he took the train out of the country to Bulgaria for a day and then came back on a new visa. He shared his compartment with a recently graduated American theater student. Like many travelers Ana and I had met in Turkey and the Balkans, he didn’t have a particular interest in the local culture, but more a desire to escape his structured life at home. He had made arrangements to stay in Istanbul with a stranger via a website called “” where city dwellers offer their couches to international backpackers.
            Ana and I stayed in our room until one of the Turkish boys invited me into their compartment. They were entertained by my mediocre ability to speak Turkish and seized on the opportunity to meet a real, live American in person. I sat down, and they fraternally embraced me. While one particularly intimidating boy from the Eastern city of Kars tried to convert me to Islam, the others were more interested in learning the truth about the life of an American youth. I was asked if black people are all thieves. The status of my virginity was questioned. I was asked if I drink or smoke or do drugs. They seemed particularly curious to know if my foreskin was intact. They, of course, all remembered the event.  We continued talking for several hours until the attendant informed us that we would be arriving at the Bulgarian border station in Svilengrad and that we should prepare our documents.
I returned to our room, woke up Ana, and got out our passports. The train came to a stop and I could see several bobbing, distant flashlights approaching our train. The attendant told us that under no circumstances were we allowed to leave our compartment. I heard the sound of knocking doors as the Bulgarian border police approached our compartment. Finally, a brusque policeman with heavy sleep-deprived eyes knocked on our door. I gave him our passports, which he pocketed much to my concern as he continued down the car. I assumed that he’d check them in our presence, but instead everybody’s passport was taken off the train while we sat imprisoned in our compartments. After forty minutes of waiting, the passports were finally returned, but the train remained still, only occasionally releasing a hiss of steam.
            Since we were now about to enter Turkey, the train’s locomotive had to be switched from a Bulgarian model to a Turkish one. As I waited sleepily for the train to continue on its way, I heard commotion in the narrow hallway outside our compartment. Judging by the timbre of the voices involved, the two Turkish boxing coaches were getting increasingly agitated. As time passed they became more audible and I suddenly heard a yell and the crash of one huge boxing coach attacking another. I locked the door. Bulgarian shouting soon added to the racket and finally an incredibly authoritative Bulgarian voice bellowed throughout the car. Everything fell silent.
            There was a jolt as the new locomotive was tethered to our train. The whistle sounded, and we traveled for an hour through nationless territory. On three occasions, I saw the lights of mysterious pickup trucks by the side of the tracks. Although I did not witness it, I’d heard that at this point of the voyage, smugglers throw plastic bags filled with sneakers, blue jeans, or cigarettes out the window to be collected by waiting accomplices. I went to find the restroom, where I found a line of six young boxers waiting. They saw me and addressing me as Abi, or “older brother,” they hospitably forced me to skip the line despite my protests. I entered the bathroom and was overwhelmed by what can only be described as a concentrated essence of week-old urine. I tried to steady myself as the train rocked back and forth, and peered down into the toilet bowl where I may have seen dark train tracks passing underneath. I sleepily returned to our compartment where I drew in my journal until we rolled into Kapıkule, the Turkish frontier town. It was two in the morning and everyone was instructed to get off the train.
            The lights of only three buildings were on at this hour. The first was where visas could be purchased for twenty dollars, the second was passport control, and the third was a duty-free store selling the Turkish national alcohol, Rakı. I waited to buy a visa and get my passport checked amongst perhaps a hundred other sleepy travelers. I spotted passports not only from Turkey and Bulgaria, but also from the Netherlands, Slovenia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, and a handful of other nations. Ana and I waited in the fresh night air until everyone was ready to depart. I nodded to the young Japanese and American men we had met earlier and spotted the Vietnam vet from Queens who seemed exceptionally happy to have left Bulgaria. A very pleasant Dutch man and his wife bought Rakı for anyone who wanted it. I like to tell people that I drank with the Turkish border guards. I suppose this isn’t total fiction since I did indeed drink a glass of Rakı as I chatted with the men. They were curious about New York, and in particular its cops. They enjoyed showing me their prized revolvers and were also impressed by the veterans’ association badge that my crazy friend from Queens was eager to reveal to them. A distant walkie-talkie sounded, the train’s bell rang and everyone boarded the train. 
            After we were well underway, I wandered up and down the hall, seeing the occasional mustachioed smoker near an opened window. The locomotive was so far from my car that the occasional whistle seemed more like a distant train than my own. At this hour, gazing silently at the stars out of the train’s window with several other sleepless passengers was an adequate form of socialization. There was no need for conversation. I wrote more about the night’s events in my journal and thought about my plans for Turkey. After two days in Istanbul, Ana and I would continue on to a minute village that I had visited the previous summer and has, I can confidently say, absolutely the best peaches in the world. I daydreamed about picnics and peaches as the train passed through the sleeping Thracian city of Edirne.
View from the train
I noticed the scent of salt water just as the sun began to peak over the horizon. The sky brightened, revealing an endless field of sunflowers. As the sun rose, it lit them from the back and turned the morning light a brilliant golden color. In a moment, the Marmara Sea was in sight. Turkish seagulls sound different than they might anywhere else. They hover over the sea and laugh, stopping only to swoop down for a bite to eat. As we followed the coastline, the city slowly faded into view. We passed a growing number of shanties built on the side of the tracks. They were constructed from corrugated metal, sometimes even cardboard; curiously, many had preciously-placed TV satellite dishes on their roofs. Half-crumbled Byzantine era walls came into view, at times blocking the sea.  Minarets peaked over the horizon and we were in Istanbul.
Our train rolled into Sirkeci Station, which hasn’t changed since the Orient Express terminated there a hundred years ago. Ana and I got off the train, giving our regards to the young boxers and the man from Queens. After sharing a breakfast of bagel-like simit with the Japanese and American compartment-mates, we set out through the frenetic Istanbul streets. I told Ana, “In two days you will taste the best peaches in the world.”

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