We were next in line. The woman at the counter, the glass separating her from the bustle of the train station, sat spilling out from her throne. Everything about her was big: hair, breasts, crimson lips. She looked about fifty. Her long red nails tapped out instructions on a computer, the outdated printer screeching out tickets in the background.
It was our turn. She called to us in Romanian.
“Alo,” I tried, but it just sounded like a regular hello. “We need two tickets to Varna for tomorrow, please.” I prayed that the woman spoke English, or at least understood ‘Varna’ and ‘tomorrow’. She didn’t look at us, but her nails started tapping on the keyboard. The glass between us looked as though it had had many greasy foreheads pressed against it, and I wondered if this woman enjoyed her job.
“You go now,” she said finally.
“Now?” It was Kerri’s turn to speak to the woman who held our fate.
“Train in 5 minutes. Platform 7.”
Kerri looked at me. Her face showed nothing, not to the outsider’s eye. But I, I was an insider. I nodded.
“Yes, we’ll go,” she smiled at the woman, her hand reaching inside her bag to find her wallet.
The plan had been fairly straightforward: we were to arrive by train in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, around 8pm. We had already booked a hostel in the city, but we wanted to purchase our train tickets for Varna, Bulgaria, while we were still at the train station.
We had just spent a week in Transylvania, the famous home of Dracula, and so had arrived in Bucharest from the small town of Brasov. The week had fulfilled our every expectation and then some, with green landscapes, cobblestoned towns, and plenty of castles perched ominously on hilltops, perfect for sleeping all day and drinking blood all night. Why we had come to Romania at all was an impromptu decision, a three-week holiday booked between two friends who wanted to see an unusual part of the world. We had looked at a map and chosen a place we knew nothing about.
“Come on a holiday with me this June,” I had said to Kerri over Skype. She agreed before I even said where I wanted to go. I loved that about her.
Now, ten days into our holiday, we decided to leave Romania for the beaches of the Black Sea. Varna was a coastal town in Bulgaria known for great swimming and great partying; it seemed a welcome contrast to the days of sightseeing and going to bed early in central Romania and Bucharest. We’d spend our final week in Turkey.
We lived by the seat of our pants, us two. Kerri had a backpack covered in patches of flags from around the world. She was used to going with the wind, used to trusting her instincts to navigate her way. If anyone was going to spontaneously jump on a train to Bulgaria with me, forgoing the deposit of the hostel we’d paid for and leaving our trip to chance, it was her.
We now had four minutes.
“I’ll get the snacks, you get the water.” We had learned that Eastern European trains rarely sold anything to eat or drink. Bands of Romani gypsies sprawled across the station, their bags and skirts and instruments spread out before them, and we both zig-zagged through the bodies and the chaos to buy our wares.
“Platform 7!” I couldn’t tell if it was nerves or excitement in her voice. Maybe both. I raced behind her, following her patched bag, her head poking out the top, her long brown curls flowing behind her like another flag. That wind again, taking her.
We catapulted onto the train marked Bucharest à Sofia. By some miracle we had boarded the right carriage, and found our cabin almost immediately. There were six empty seats. Kerri stepped back out into the hallway to survey the scene, to see if anyone else might be joining us. The train heaved into motion, giving out a low mechanical growl.
I counted our rations: two bottles of water, a bag of cookies, a packet of crackers, a wheel of soft cheese. It would have to last the night, first the three hours to Ruse, where we’d change trains, and then another four hours to Varna. I watched out the window as the station rolled past: its cement platforms, its broken signs, its spray-painted walls. I wasn’t sad to leave it.
“I can’t believe we made it,” I said to Kerri, whose presence I could feel behind me. I turned to meet her, only to yelp. It wasn’t Kerri.
An overweight, moonfaced man grinned at me. His teeth, at least the ones that were left, were streaked with brown stains I could only surmise were from tobacco. One of his meaty hands reached for the bag of cookies. He said something in Romanian.
“Nu!” I shouted. Much like my attempt at ‘alo’, it sounded an awful lot like English. The man laughed heartily and said something again, spittle spraying everywhere, but, to my relief, he stumbled back out into the hallway. Kerri returned a few seconds later.
“I found the toilet. It’s disgusting, so go now, before it gets even more disgusting.” She flopped down onto the blue seat. “Well this is uncomfortable,” she sighed. “And who was that?”
After a few laughs about the unwanted visitor, we tried to settle in. I pulled my guidebook to Bulgaria out of my backpack, then stored the bag under my seat. The book didn’t even have a crack in the spine; I had never opened it. For two seasoned backpackers, we were awful at planning. I skimmed a few chapters, and found one on arriving in Varna. My stomach dropped.
“Kerri,” my tone was flat. “Listen.” I read the words slowly, deliberately. They were in bold font.
Do not, we repeat, DO NOT take the night train from Romania to Bulgaria, especially the route from Bucharest to Sofia. There have been many robberies, muggings, and beatings on these trains. Women travellers are especially advised to travel only by day.
We were silent. The train was picking up speed now, whistling with the wind, and we had almost left Bucharest. The sun was setting, casting a pink glow into the cabin. There was only an hour, max, until night fell.
But we had made our bed, and now we had to lie in it. We quickly set about a plan.
Rule #1: No sleeping, either of us.
Rule #2: Do not use the toilet, no matter what. Nobody is left alone.
Rule #3: Tie one sleeve of our jackets to our left wrists, the other to the handle on the door. If we do nod off, we will know if someone opens it (in theory). Our jackets would stretch far enough to give us some leeway within the cabin, and we’d still be able to use our right hands.
Rule #4: Do not panic. We still have cookies. And each other.
We played word association. When we tired of that, we’d try to remember the words we had said, working our way backwards. Gelatin. Jell-O. Cosby. Sweater. Wool. Sheep. Farm. Orwell.
We played MASH, just as we did when we were kids growing up in different cities. I would marry Matt Damon and live in a shack, she would have 17 kids and work as a songwriter.
We drew cartoons, stupid caricatures of ex-boyfriends and professors, stick figures with bowties and glasses.
We ate our food, taking small sips of water as to not fill our bladders. The bag of cookies had a picture of a doctor on it, and we invented elaborate backstories about his life.
We, despite the passing hours into darkness and danger, were having fun.
Around 11pm the train started to slow. We peered out the window.
“I think this is the border,” Kerri said.
We shuddered to a stop. Loud voices, and then barking dogs. Footsteps up and down the hallway. Someone tried to open our door, and our sleeves yanked us sideways.
Scrambling to untie ourselves, we were met with three huge men. Whether or not they were actually huge remains a glitch in memory; perhaps we were just feeling very small. They wore uniforms, their boots a glistening black. A Doberman sniffed our bags.
“Passport.” I was thankful this word was the same in Romanian. Or were these men Bulgarian?
“First time Bulgaria?” The man who was holding my passport flipped through its pages, his voice a deep growl.
“Yes, we’re so excited to be here!” I giggled uncharacteristically. Kerri shot me a look, her brown eyes darker than usual. I was nervous. The two other men never broke their gaze from us. If this was a method of intimidation, it was working.
The man holding our passports spoke into his radio, and said something in Bulgarian. By now I was sure it was Bulgarian.
“Kazanlak. Edrino. Ruse. Ruse. Iglika…” We later figured out that he was reading our names, listing each letter by relating it to a town in Bulgaria.
“One moment.” They turned and left, his two henchmen giving us a final stare. They had our passports.
Minutes stretched into an eternity. We tried to resume our game of word association, but we were painfully aware of every footstep, every murmur, every strange sound from outside. It wasn’t too late to be robbed. Borders were notorious for thieves and bandits.
The men returned, and handed back our passports unceremoniously. We had been stamped out of Romania and into Bulgaria, just like that. The train soon lurched into gear again, the sound of scraping metal causing every dog in the vicinity to howl. The border had an eerie, discomfortingly abandoned look. I could make out a lone man standing beyond the platform’s lights, smoking.
But before we had time to rejoice in our successful border crossing, the train stopped again; we had simply pulled up to another platform at the station. We looked out again. The sign was in Cyrillic.
“Is this Ruse?” Kerri asked. We were meant to change trains there. My language classes that summer in Russia a few years ago were failing me now. That was an P, no, an R. But what was that? A small b? I panicked. I broke rule #4.
“Excuse me, is this Ruse?” I asked another uniformed man standing in the hallway.
He shook his head from side to side, a resounding no.
“Shit. I’m sure that says Ruse.”
“It would make sense,” Kerri added. “Ruse’s just across the border, isn’t it?” She scrambled to find the page in the guidebook with the Cyrillic alphabet. She sounded it out slowly. “That definitely says Ruse.”
We went up to the man again.
“Please? Is this Ruse?” I asked again, trying my best Romanian. If we missed our stop, we had no idea where we’d end up. We barely knew where we were going in the first place.
The man huffed, again shaking his head no. But this time he pointed to the platform, as if we should get off the train.
“What the hell!” I saw Kerri starting to panic. When Kerri panicked, that meant it was really bad. She was the coolheaded one.
We needed to make a decision, and fast – the train was warming up, getting ready to leave. We spotted a group of backpackers on the platform.
“Hey!” I yelled out. They turned. Backpackers always help each other; it’s the golden rule. “Is this Ruse?”
“Yeah!” A cute guy with black hair shouted back. We grabbed our bags and jumped off the train, following the group into the station. They were from Spain, and on their way to a small town on the Black Sea.
The train to Varna wasn’t coming for a few hours, so we set up camp in the dingy station. Kerri flipped nonchalantly through the guidebook; perhaps it was best if we knew at least something about the country we’d spend the next week in. We should have done this days ago, weeks ago, but we had staunchly and naively clung to the romantic notion of a blank page of a place, one we’d fill with our own stories and adventures. We had been completely unprepared, but we were thankful it had worked out in the end.
“Oh my God,” she stopped turning pages. A smile crept across her face, then an explosion of laughter. I’d already learned to love that laugh. That laugh would carry us through at least another dozen countries through the years. This was just the beginning of us, of our friendship and our travels.
She pushed the book toward me, her finger on a line.
Please note: in Bulgaria, shaking the head from side to side means yes. To nod means no.
And somewhere in a dilapidated train station in Eastern Europe, through tears of laughter, two young women became best friends.