Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Night Train

Waiting to get on the train, Belgrade.
Traveling the world sounds so fun and amazing until you are on an overnight train through Eastern Europe. Begging all of the gods the universe has ever prayed to that no one will take the seat next to you so that you have a chance of sleeping. Watching a couple and their huge German Shepherd say goodbye in the aisle next to you, and not really being sure if the woman will miss that dog or her boyfriend more – she’s kissing both with the same longing. Being jabbed awake with a flat hand to the rib cage over and over again by Russian-sounding, fat men. “Tickets!” “Passport control!”

Really, there’s not been much to say about my transit experiences so far. Western Europe is too comfortable for a good story.

The three Germans who ended up taking over the end of the carriage all around me are making me wonder again and again why I didn’t ask the price difference for a sleeper. How much more could it really have been? They are drinking beer after beer, pulling fresh cans from their bags each time they finish and crush the empty can under their feet. They seem intent on getting wasted before any of the beers get cold, and their voices rise accordingly. One goes into the bathroom shortly after we pull out of the Belgrade train station at 9:50, and returns sniffing wildly for the next ten minutes.

No one has sat next to me, and I lay my head onto my black bag, crunching my body between what is barely two airplane seats. In the precious bag is my purse, my laptop, my camera, the cords for all of my electronics and various other necessities like pill bottles, a hair brush and my glasses case. It’s a shit pillow.

Its moments like these that a boyfriend would really be a nice addition to the trip: lap laying privileges and a stable hand on my shoulder while I drift under the flickering, but never dark, florescent lights. But still, the bag has to go somewhere, and after a deluge of rain just before we left Belgrade, the floor of the train is a map of rivers and lakes of dirty water, crawling across the floor with each shift and shake of the train. Napkins and papers dropped by other passengers have grown soggy and collected near my door, in a wet pile.

In each Serbian town throughout the night, made more obscure by the dark outside and the light in the carriage, we screech to a stop and the doors don’t open unless passengers throw their whole weight against them with a grunt or a panicked yelp. The Germans have all fallen asleep, including the one I briefly worried had snorted some cocaine a few hours ago. Every 45 minutes or so, my hips and arms groan to wake me and I stiffly sit up and move the black bag to the other side of the bench to flip over, rearranging the cords and other various lumps within the bag.

The sun rises around the time we’ve at the border with Bulgaria, where we wait for the Serbian then the Bulgarian authorities to take our passports, sort through them somewhere else, stamp them and bring them back. Heavy headed, I gaze out the window at the other trains also waiting at the border, the people in sleeper cars leaning their heads out the windows and chatting with passengers from our train.

We finally begin moving again, but the train is going so slow you can see cars on the roads nearby passing us by. I wonder if we’ve been at this pace all night long. “Bicycling would have been faster,” one of the Germans snorts, then asks me if I took trains in Germany, wanting to be sure I know they are not like this everywhere in Europe.

In the heat of an August day in the Balkans, two hours behind schedule, I push out of the platform in Sofia, passed the hawkers “Information madame? Information please?” and into the most Soviet train station I’ve seen yet in the region.

My head is spinning with the heat, exhaustion and loss of direction in a new country with yet another new alphabet. I can’t rally as well after a poor night sleep – I’m getting older, I think. Just get to the hostel. Just get the bag off, I tell myself. Coffee and the bathroom can wait. (As a side note, I think one of the most impressive things I’ve done on this trip is get into a bathroom stall with my 35lb pack still cinched round my waist and the black bag hanging from my shoulder, gotten my pants off, stood up and hiked the pants back up again.)

I didn’t plan this part of the trip. I was supposed to be WWOOFing in Bulgaria but a miscommunication left me to plot my own way rather last minute; and a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants traveler I am not. I don’t have any hostels booked here in Sofia, but I do have one in mind and a google maps dotted line pointing me from the train station to their front door in the photos of my iPhone. After probably being ripped off for a metro ticket, then wandering the streets named after Bulgarian politicians for another 15 minutes, I find the tiny door to the hostel hidden between grey apartment buildings.

I get into the lobby, where a tired young mother is breast feeding her baby at the computer. I drop my bags and sit down across from her, pulling my tank top away from my skin and my glasses off my face as they fog up from my body heat.

I try to explain my haughty attitude by saying "I was on the night train from Belgrade." She looks at me meaningfully. I don't think I'm the only tourist on this road.

They have a bunk in the 4 bed dorm for the next two nights, with the widest hostel beds in the Balkans.

I get a cup of coffee and a delicious vegetarian meal at the local bakery. Really, the night wasn’t so bad. And I definitely don’t feel so old anymore. I really didn’t need the sleeper.

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