After another long, tiring journey, we are back home in Bratislava! These three weeks were very stretching, hard, and fun, and I am so thankful that God led us to Bulgaria. I have seen Him work in such tangible ways throughout the past three weeks, especially the past two days during our travels home. That being said, here’s another chronicle of our traveling adventures back from Plovdiv, Bulgaria…
Our journey began in Plovdiv when we left our Air bnb at 7:20am. Our amazing host tried to call us two cabs (we had learned earlier from an American missionary friend that the taxi drivers hang up on anyone who doesn’t speak Bulgarian, so getting a taxi is very challenging), but to no avail. They didn’t want to come up the street we lived on, so we decided to walk a short distance and see if we could just hail one on the street. We were able to find one taxi to fit two of us, so the other girls kept searching. We tried to avoid our experience from the first day at all costs (see “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (without the planes)”). Eventually, all of us except two of the guys had a taxi, so they walked to the train station.
Train #1: Plovdiv, Bulgaria to Sofia, Bulgaria
Our first train was pretty nice and anti-climactic. I read a book and worked on a transcription using my phone piano and Finale. Some others napped, read their Bibles, or listened to music. When we got off in Sofia at around 11, it was raining pretty hard, so we rushed to get taxis to our two Air bnbs for the day. Unfortunately, the cabbies recognized us as Americans and ripped us off big time. Amy was very sassy with our driver as he refused to use the meter and insisted that we pay him over 20 lev (10 euro) for the 10 minute drive. Nonetheless, we paid the man when he dropped us off (not our at our Air bnb), and a short walk on a puddle-ridden, cobblestone street through the constant drizzle on our raincoats and damp bags got us to our actual destination. After hauling our 50+ pound suitcases up five flights of stairs, we got into our “Sofia Dream Home,” as it was called on Air bnb.
The rest of the day we took our time and enjoyed the quaint, downtown Sofia, Bulgaria in our raincoats and winter hats/gloves. We had lunch at an adorable, and quite hard to find, restaurant called Lavanda. I had some delicious, ginger lentil soup. We then went and sat at Starbucks where we warmed up our toes, drank Christmasy drinks, and just talked and laughed for a while. We had decided earlier that we would bake a cake, make popcorn, and finish our bottle of wine from Thanksgiving while watching a movie later in the day, so we searched for a grocery store where we could get cake ingredients. After we had everything we needed, we returned home for a cozy, delicious evening watching “The Terminal” (now one of my favorite movies, even more so because of how relatable it is to our current situation, and Tom Hanks speaks Slovak quite a few times throughout the movie).
Lunch at Lavanda in Sofia
The next morning, our host successfully called us two taxis who charged us the correct amount and dropped us off in the correct place. Amy and Larissa’s suitcases didn’t quite fit in the trunk, so it was funny (and a bit unnerving) to see the yellow taxi in front of us whip around corners with the trunk wide open and two suitcases sticking out. After a bit of a scramble to get the correct tickets, we made it on our second train to Dimitrovgrad, Serbia.
Train #2 from Sofia, Bulgaria to Dimitrovgrad, Serbia
Train #2 was again very nice and uneventful other than having to stop at the border to have our passports collected and stamped. We arrived at the tiny, rundown station in Dimitrovgrad and sat there for maybe ten minutes before a Serbian man approached us. He asked, “Niš?” That was, indeed our next stop, so we grabbed our mountain of luggage and followed the man to a platform where there was a train waiting. I was so amazed and thankful for the kindness of a few Serbs during our trip without whom we would probably still be lost in Serbia…After the kind man helped us out, train #3 departed for Niš, Serbia.
Train #3: from Dimitrovgrad, Serbia to Niš, Serbia
Train #3 was smooth sailing except for the fact that there wasn’t room for all of our luggage overhead. We ended up taking up pretty much a full train car with all of us and our suitcases. It was fine because we started to realize that there were usually only 3-5 people on Serbian trains at a time, so we had plenty of room. I ate pretty much all of my snacks on the train (except for my stash of Oreos I bought in Plovdiv and two apples). Josh and Jeremy attempted to play chess on one of the hard-sided suitcases as the train lurched and bumped through the Serbian countryside.
We eventually arrived in Niš where we were expecting to have an hour and half “layover” to wait for our next train. When we got off at the platform, we saw a train that said “Belgrade” on the front, so someone went to go ask if it was a train we could take and what time it left. It turned out that it was a train that left and hour earlier than the train we had planned to take, so we decided to go grab a quick lunch/dinner and take that train that left in 30 minutes. Thankfully, my teammate, Jon had accidentally taken out 6,000 dinar (about 60 USD) on our way through Serbia three weeks previous, so we all paid him via Venmo (our lifeline this year) to cover our lunch in cash. He ended up only spending about half of it on all twelve of us because everything is VERY cheap in Serbia. I guess we have to go back to Serbia again to spend the rest of it…
Josh utilizing our luggage on Train #3
Train #4: Niš, Serbia to Belgrade, Serbia
We boarded our train to Belgrade and were shocked at how nice it was. It looked brand new, which was very different from every other train we have taken in Bulgaria or Serbia that feels like it might break apart at every turn…We couldn’t believe it! We settled in for the long ride to Belgrade with our sandwiches from a little bakery in Niš. About an hour in, one of the girls needed to use the restroom. She came back from the car with the WC (bathroom in Europe) with a dejected look, “They won’t let me in,” she said. It turns out that the WC was flooded and there was no way to fix it, so it was out-of-order for the remainder of our trip…4.5 more hours. We were a bit panicked…all of us had just had quite a bit to drink with our food and didn’t think we would be able to hold it for 4.5 more hours. What were we going to do??
Once in a while, we would send someone from our team to go check on the status of the WC. There was a man who had somehow decided to be the bathroom guard and would get visibly upset and scold us for trying to check every time we walked near him. No one spoke a word of English, so when we asked, the man or someone else would start arguing with us or someone else in Serbian. Needless to say, we decided to stop checking and come up with a new strategy. Did any of us have the guts to try a water bottle? We decided probably not…especially because the “bathroom guard” wouldn’t even let us in the bathroom, and the train is a pretty public place.
A few minutes later, the ticket lady came down to our end of the train and started talking to us in Serbian. We didn’t understand anything she was saying except “WC,” so we played a game of charades with her to try to understand the gist of she was saying. What we got was, “At the next stop I will stand at the door and let anyone who needs to go squat outside the train.” A few people were pretty desperate at that point, so they agreed and thanked her. At the next stop (they are VERY short, usually about 30 seconds), five of our teammates ran out the train doors and did their business outside. They ran back in, wet from the rain and laughing. “We peed on Serbia!” one of them yelled. It was true…not many people can say that they have done that…
The rest of the ride was pretty uneventful: lots of laughter and good conversation. Once in a while the “bathroom guard” would approach us, stare us down, and then walk back to his seat near the bathroom. We’re still not sure what his deal was…
Unexpected Train #5 Somewhere to Somewhere Else
After getting off at the last stop in Belgrade we began to realize that something was off. The train station we arrived at was brand new, huge, and not guarded by men with large guns like the last time we were in Belgrade. Frantically, Chad and Michael ran around the station trying to figure out if our next train did leave from there or if we completely missed the mark. We had no cell service at all in Serbia, so we couldn’t get a map to work. Michael stopped two conductors in the hallway and started speaking Slovak to them. Thankfully, Serbian and Slovak are both Slavic languages, so both parties understood each other enough. We learned that we were not in the right place and that we needed to take another train for one stop to get to the correct station. We trusted the conductors’ advice and took off running for the platform of our unexpected train without a ticket. We decided to risk it and boarded the train to get to our unknown destination.
Train #6 Somewhere in Belgrade, Serbia to Budapest, Hungary
After one stop, we helped each other unload our bags off the train and onto the platform. A Serbian man tried to help Larissa with her bag. Larissa hesitantly let him take one handle as she took the other, for fear of the stranger stealing her luggage. The man let go at the bottom, and all was well.
Once on the platform, we looked around. We were definitely not at the station we thought we needed to be at. At that point, our sleeper train was supposed to leave in about 15 minutes and we thought we were doomed. As we stood in the snow (our first snow of the year!), we had no idea what we were going to do next.
Just then, the man who helped Larissa came up to our team and asked, “Do you need help?” He then proceeded to tell us that he was pretty sure that we were in the right place and he would take Chad and Michael to go double check. They went down under the platform to a ticket lady and he translated to make sure we were at the right place. They confirmed that we had ended up at the right station, and the man told us that Serbian trains tend to change times and stations randomly without warning. He told us that he would wait with us until the train came, just in case it didn’t, so he could help us figure out what to do next. We are SO thankful for that man and are convinced that he was an angel. There is no way we have gotten on the right train (or any train for that matter) without him.
It is actually a miracle that we ended up at the right place at the right time and met that angel on the snowy platform. It was so evident to us that God’s hand was at work to get us on our sleeper train that night. The only thing that made the moment that our train pulled up better were huge snowflakes falling on my face…I LOVE snow!
We got our bags into the sleeper train and realized that it was the same train from our journey to Bulgaria without the terrible bathroom and smoke smell. We repeated the maneuver we discovered on the way to Bulgaria and managed to get our suitcases above the top bunks. At that point we began to realize how cold the train was. The heat was not working…
After trying to fall asleep with one blanket, hats, gloves, and coats on, Kyleigh climbed down and got us all more blankets. I could see my breath as I took my face out from underneath my little cocoon of blankets. It was going to be a long night…
At about 2am, border patrol knocked on our door to get our passports. We had no trouble unlocking our door this time and handed him our passports. He was very nice and laughed at our Dramamine induced fog state as Larissa and Amy told him about Nebraska’s new football coach. A little later, after settling back into our blanket burritos, the train stopped and another man knocked on the door. He said something in Serbian (or Hungarian, I’m not sure where we were), but all I could pick out was “control.” “Are you here to fix the heater?” I asked him. He laughed and switched to English. “Customs control. Do you have anything to declare?” We said no and he walked off. I wish he would have been there to fix the heater…By then my toes were completely numb and I couldn’t stop shivering. Somehow I managed to fall asleep for a couple hours until the train attendant knocked on our door to tell us we were approaching Budapest. I braved the freezing cold bathroom and helped to get our suitcases down as we pulled up to our stop. We had finally made it back to familiar territory!
Train #7: Budapest, Hungary to Home!! (Bratislava, Slovakia)
After grabbing a quick breakfast and thaw at McDonald’s across the street from the train station, we boarded our final train to Bratislava. Me and the other three girls got a warm cabin to ourselves. I put in my headphones and fell asleep for the majority of the ride. When I woke up, it looked like a winter wonderland outside. We were in Slovakia, and it was snowy! I never realized how much I loved Slovakia until I was gone for so long. I’m not sure what it is…the charm of the old town, the students and other people we have gotten to know, or my familiarity with the language and culture, but it felt like coming home for the first time on that train. I find myself wondering what it will feel like coming back to Colorado after a year…I’m also reminded in this season of uncertainty with our visas and moving around that my real home is in heaven, and nowhere on this earth can ever fill that gap.
“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Phillipians 3:20
My lovely roomies on the cozy train back to Bratislava