The cool, dry, fresh air whisked by my head as I dangled it outside the window, feeling the train chug forcefully towards the Bulgarian border. We were in the most desolate part of Eastern Europe, yet the landscape hinted of perfection—gently rolling hills layered in different shades of green, purple fields of blooming autumn flowers, in the valleys a barn or two, and a small field of wheat or potatoes, but no villages. For miles around, few signs of any human presence. We were heading along the edge of the caucuses on the last great gateway train to the east.
I was standing, along with half the train, in the aisle, facing the large, open windows giving a perfect view of the passing Romanian countryside. On the other side were the sliding doors to the passenger compartments. The attendant, a large, bearded Turkish man, treated us as welcomed guests in his home. He came through, passing out towels, blankets, and sheets, wrote down everyone’s destination, and promised to make sure we didn’t miss our stops. At the front of the train was his compartment, his own little fiefdom. The seats were folded up, a maroon Turkish rug covered the floor, and different colored tapestries hanging from the four sides created the illusion of entering a small, darkened shrine. In the center was the crown jewel—a Turkish nargile, or water pipe, its green glass neck pointing up and almost touching the hanging threads above, as if it were trying to sneak a peek outside.
Troels, a young, bearded, energetic dame I’d befriended in Romania, leaned his lean head out the window beside me and said it best.
“All I need is a cup of coffee, and this is heaven.”
Looking out at the sunset over the horizon, I couldn’t agree more. I relaxed and let Romania pass by, wondering if I ever wanted to get off.
It was dark by the time we arrived in Veliko Tarnovo and I bid farewell to Troels, who was going to the end of the line, Istanbul, my ultimate destination.
As I stepped off the train, I noticed, in front of me, a group of young travelers standing by the door.
“Hey, are you guys heading to the hostel?” I asked hopefully.
“Nah,” said the leader of the group, a short Indian with puffy hair, glasses, a plain white t-shirt, and a noticeable but not overbearing English accent, “It’s booked. Evelyn,” pointing to the girl in front of him wearing a turquoise tank-top and glasses, “called in. We’re just going to try to find a room.”
“Oh,” I said as the train pulled to a stop. The five of them all quickly began to move, and I trailed behind. As the train pushed off and its lights faded, it became pitch dark out; even the moon was hidden behind the tall cliffs on both sides of the station, which looked like it had purposely been built hidden into the side of a hill. Where was Veliko Tarnovo? Up ahead, Evelyn was already talking to a tall, dark-haired man. Maybe I could join them?
“You need room?”
Startled, I looked down. In front of me was a short, plump, middle-aged woman, her arms drooping below her waist, carrying a large, straw bag. She was unkempt; her large collared shirt was a few sizes too large, her farmer pants, baggy. But what was most striking was her face—you could see the weight of years in the wrinkles, resilience.
“Umm, how much?”
“20 leva.” I paused. Should I? I’d never stayed in someone’s home before. Lemme see, how much would that be in euros?
“Fifteen,” she blurted, before I could respond. “How much do you want to pay?” The other group was already walking off with the tall, dark-haired man towards a waiting taxi, fittingly black. Fifteen leva, that was less than ten euros.
“Can I see the room first?” I asked.
“Yes. This way,” and she started walking, through the station and, up a hill, in short, small steps, to the main road. I followed alongside, wondering where her black taxi was.
It was a steep walk up the hill to the main road, tough for me and my hulking backpack, but for an old lady it seemed inhumane. I felt bad as she huffed and puffed up, every once in a while stopping to catch her breath, and wished that there was some way that I could ease her burden. I remember how Amama would also struggle when, as a child, we took trips to national parks. At Jewel Caves in South Dakota, I had helped her make it through the long maze of stairs and narrow paths. But, no matter what, she would still go on, just like this lady.
“Come, come,” she said after pausing for a few seconds. Lifting her chin, she motioned forward. “See there? Veliko Tarnovo.”
Ahead, across a bridge, I could see the city, the dots of lights against the face of a hill, the reddish glow of buildings, all opposite the valley. Through the soft breeze, I could feel the energy of the city, faint echoes of music and laughter.
“Have you lived here all your life?” I asked her as we began to cross the bridge. Over the edge was a dark abyss, but I could see the gently sloping downward curves, trees and bushes bristling in the wind.
“No. I was born north, but thirty-five years in Tarnovo. Look, statue,” she pointed across the bridge. In what looked to be a small park just before the drop off to the river, a skinny, toothpick-shaped black obelisk with a pointed edge, a sword pointing to the sky, and around it, facing out like the arrows of a compass, were four horsemen on raised pedestals.
“Who are they?” I asked, pointing at the horsemen.
“Old Bulgarian kings,” she replied.
As we crossed the deceptively long bridge, I watched the glow of the city lights grow stronger and stronger. All of a sudden, we were in the city. It was alive, confident, the buildings reflecting the bright moonlight against the dark night sky. I was in awe—what a city. How did it sneak up on me?
“Wow, this is beautiful,” I remarked.
“Thank you,” she replied, “This way.”
She led me off on a side street to the right, which sloped downwards, then upwards at the far end. Both sides of the street were lined with continuous identical, slightly rundown, tall apartment buildings with worn, Mediterranean facades and red-tiled roofs. The street was quiet—no cars, and just a few people walking back and forth. My backpack was starting to feel heavy on my back, we’d been walking for almost twenty minutes now.
“Here. Wait,” she said as we stopped in front of a large, dark brown wooden door. She pushed a button on the side.
A few seconds later, I heard a BZZZZ. The door clicked.
“Come,” she said as she pushed the door open and led me into the dark hallway. We climbed up the metal stairs all the way to the third floor, nothing to guide us but a faint white light from above, the ground crumbling as I made each step, dirt grinding against metal, imagining a dark, dungeon-like room. Where could I go if this didn’t work out, I wondered. Back to the train station to find another old lady?
We went up to a large, thick door.
“Here,” she said, and banged on the door, shouting in Bulgarian, “Otvaryane na vratata!”
The peephole slid open, and I saw a pair of eyes peering through. The door opened, and on the other side was a lady wearing a blue nightgown. The wrinkles on her face were cross, but her smile was warm.
“Come, come,” said my guide, leading me inside. The house-lady stood by the door as we walked in. I couldn’t see much in the dark hallways, only the light coming from other cracks. We walked to a bedroom and she pushed the door open.
I peeked into a spacious room, brightly lit, with wide windows and not one, but several beds.
“Is okay?” she asked me, and before I could answer, “Come, here.” She led me to the blinds, opening them to reveal a balcony. She pushed the door open and led me outside.
From here, there was a wonderful view of Veliko Tornovo, into the distant hills. I noticed a flashing light in the distance.
“Look, fireworks,” she said, pointing. I turned towards her face. For the first time since we’d met, I saw emotion. There was a small sparkle in her eyes, her cheeks finally relaxed. Warmth. Caring. Even a tinge of happiness. Perhaps she knew that I’d already made up my mind and would definitely stay here.
After paying, getting the keys, and relaxing, I decided to go out on my own and find some food. I had no idea where to go, no map of the city, no idea where any sights were. So much had changed in the past few weeks. Instead of desiring the incredible, I slowly began to be satisfied with the normal—conversations with interesting travelers like Troels, the wind blowing past my face on trains, peaceful cafes, sitting and writing in my journal. Instead of putting my own expectations on the world around me, erecting my own wall, I began to observe peacefully and let the world influence me.
I walked down the long alley to the main, winding street, and within minutes I saw a group of loud young people heading towards me, speaking English. As they became clearer, I recognized the short English-Indian guy, Evelyn, and the others from the train.
“Hey, there you are! Where did you disappear to?” he asked me.
“I followed an old lady and got a great room,” I said. I quickly told them my story.
“Oh yeah? We went with this old man, a room with five beds for us, fifteen leva each,” he said, “Come, we’re going to get dinner!”
This was too easy—we walked down the quiet street, all smiles and laughter. The English guy’s name was Hinesh, and together we went to a Mediterranean restaurant, very stylish with red tables, brick walls, and a fire oven. I sat across from Hinesh, next to Ben, a tall, skinny guy with long curly hair. He rarely smiled but had a sense of humor, repeatedly making obscene faces to the amusement of others.
“So how long are you traveling for,” I asked him. He was the first American I’d met in weeks and some casual conversation sounded good.
“Six months,” he said, “in Eastern Europe.”
“That’s great,” I said, a huge smile on my face, “I’m traveling for a year.”
“Oh nice,” he said, unimpressed, turning towards Hinesh. I was taken aback but quickly shifted my attention elsewhere. We ordered food, and it turned out that both Ben and Hinesh were vegetarians.
“Why are you a vegetarian?” Hinesh asked Ben.
“I just am. I’m a nihilist vegetarian,” he said, with a tone of mild disdain. “I don’t need reasons to choose what I want to put in my mouth.”
Hinesh smiled, “That sounds perfectly sensible to me.”
I turned to ask Ben what exactly that meant, but he reacted by turning to Johan, sitting on the end, and asking him about comedians. So I began talking to the girl to my left, Kathryn, from Germany. Her and Evelyn, her glasses-wearing Polish friend, were traveling together.
“So you two met in a hostel?” I asked, “So you are traveling friends?”
“We are. But just for now,” Evelyn said. “I don’t really like traveling alone.”
“Really,” I said, “why not?”
“It’s hard to meet people and sometimes it’s unsafe,” she replied.
“Maybe,” I said, “but I traveled for a long time with friends. Sometimes being with others can insulate you from where you are. And you can make friends with other independent travelers.”
“Independent travelers aren’t the most trustworthy of friends, they just do whatever they want to do,” she said.
I thought about that. It was a paradox, but it related to my own experiences. So far in the trip, I hadn’t made any genuine travel friends. Wasn’t my goal to make strong connections with people around the world?
“I know what you mean. But it shouldn’t be true,” I said, “Sometimes when traveling you have to be a greater friend than ever at home.”
“Maybe,” said Evelyn, skeptically, “but how often does that happen?”
“It should happen more,” I said. It was then that I noticed someone walk up to our table.
“No thank you,” said Hinesh, as I turned towards him. There was a lady trying to sell us newspapers, and I recognized her immediately.
“Hey, that’s her, the lady that showed me my room,” I said. “Hello!” She smiled, recognizing me. I noticed, for the first time, that she had very worn out, chipped teeth, just like my Grandma. With all of us here, she looked, in comparison, small and vulnerable.
She left a few minutes later, and I went back to drinking and talking with Kathryn and Hinesh, both of whom were getting more and more drunk.
“Please come,” I heard a sad voice squeak.
I jolted up. The old lady was there again, except this time she had a pained look on her face.
“Please come,” she said again to me.
“What’s wrong?” I said. Everyone was looking at me, confused.
“Please come with me,” she said, her voice pleading, her eyes full of concern, bright with tears.
Tonight had easily been one of the funnest nights of the trip, drinking with a fun group of people from everywhere, at a cheap beautiful restaurant in this wonderful town. I didn’t want it to end. Not yet.
“Come with me,” she said again. I couldn’t say no, the emotion in her voice was too piercing, her face too full of pain.
I stood up, “I think I should go and see what’s wrong,” I said, “I’ll see you guys later.”
“Come, come, come,” she said pleadingly.
Wishing that I could get out of this somehow, I followed her back towards the apartment, walking far faster than we had earlier that day. She didn’t say anything.
“What’s wrong? Is everything okay,” I asked once we were a safe distance away.
“Those guys, they are not so good,” she said.
“Them? They are okay.”
“No, no, no, they are not so good,” she said firmly, “They stay at the hostel, make problems.”
“No, they aren’t staying at the hostel. They are okay, I was on the train with them,” I said flabbergasted.
“Come home, stay,” she said.
She led me back to the apartment. Here, I thought, this lady was just trying to make money, to get me to stay in her friend’s apartment. Perhaps the story had been different. She had ignored them, the large group of loud backpackers, and instead seen me, a quiet, solo traveler, and immediately taken me to a safe place, her friend’s home.
My first day in Bulgaria and I’d found a grandma. I wondered for a second if this was my Grandma’s spirit inside of her, protecting me.
Five months through my journey around the world, I was almost halfway to where I’d been seven months ago, Hyderabad, where she had died. I wouldn’t go there during this trip, though. I wasn’t yet ready to return.
“Stay here,” she said to me as I opened the main door to the apartment. I stopped there, after the door closed, and listened as she walked away, footsteps brushing the ground rapidly, until they faded into the quietness of Veliko, like a ghost. I never saw her again.
Updated: July 22, 2015