We crossed into Bulgaria shortly after midnight.
Aside from an elderly Chinese couple I was the only tourist onboard. The other passengers blended in with the fabric of the bus. A women in a black leather jacket, ragged face, dark makeup. Old men in blazers with white hair. A young man, short hair, pudgy face, who coughed incessantly and made sleep impossible.
At the station in Istanbul gypsies had wandered by the bus platform, pushing prams or holding babies, screaming for Lira. Kebab vendors, seeing me from 30 meters away, had rushed into the square and yelled in Turkish and English “My friend. Abe! Kebab. Come inside please.”
The bus was clean and moved quickly towards the Turkish boarder. I recognised the highway from our trip to Gallipoli. It was raining. Flashes of light in the distance. The rain grew stronger. The lightning grew sharper, more aggressive, angry. Great white yellow lines ripping open the night sky, as if a sinister force were trying to break its way into our world.
We turned off onto darker roads. The rain faded and the lightning stopped. We had reached the border.
Ten minutes at a duty free store. Sterile and crass, like at any airport. The bus driver, young, tall, short black hair, was piling cartons of cigarettes onto the cash register. Recognising me from the bus he yelled “Give me your passport.” I raised my eyebrows, suspecting what was up. “Your passport please!”
The cashier took my British passport and searched through the pages. I gave her my Kiwi one. She looked at me aghast “you have two passports?” Finding the Turkish exit visa she swiped the document and the bus driver paid for his bag full of smokes. He patted me on the shoulder affectionately “thank you.”
Climbing back on the bus the driver gave me a warm smile as he checked the passengers. He had a stack of passports in his hand.
At the Bulgarian border we waited outside for the guards to search the bus. The atmosphere was tense; people with mean faces strutted around angrily. A man had popped the boot of his white sports car and was opening boxes for a harassed looking inspector.
Two incongruously beautiful women, black hair and skinny jeans, wearing official looking badges, were jogging to and fro on the tarmac, chatting with the male guards.
Finally a stocky man lurched towards our bus and waved his flashlight about for all of three seconds before he nodded and drifted away. We shuffled back on board and cruised off into a new country.
To our left trucks loaded with cargo waited in convey for border inspection. There were countless hundreds, trucks stretching for dozens of kilometres into the night, more and more arriving as we drove by past.
5am neared and I finally felt myself swaying off into delicious, elusive sleep. Then we arrived in Sofia. It was still dark. The directions to the hostel told me to take a street I could not find. All the street signs were in cyrillic. Great, wobbling, ancient looking letters. Taxi drivers yelled at me as I wandered by, trying not to look lost.
Dawn broke as I walked past endless casinos and 24 hour grog shops. A few derelicts prowled the streets, but none gave me any trouble. Looming communist buildings and grand government structures, white and bold. The dome of a church or cathedral in the distance. A towering statue.
A hunched figure sat on a ledge in an underpass below a huge intersection and swayed ominously. She had long hair and blinked stupidly at the ground. I hurried past and out into the street.
A sculpture, communist and brutal, of two hands clasped, stretching up into the sky. There were wreaths laid on it, banners in cyrillic. A monstrous rectangular building towered in the background.
I stumbled upon the metal door of the hostel at half past 6. It was now morning. Yellow trams rolled by, full of commuters heading to work and partiers heading home.
The let me check in early and I slept until noon.