There are certain things that travellers are invariably drawn to across the world. One is high places, be they natural or artificial. If there is a tower or a hill, you will find strangers at the top of it. Another is history. Seeing dramatic and ancient sights inspires some sort of awe and interest in many people. I am one of those people.
My hitchhiking journey had taken me to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. At this point in my journey, there were three of us. An Englishman, an American, and a Slovakian. It is often said that two is company and three is a crowd, but this was far from the case. The three of us were extremely happy together and I was keen for our joint journey to continue. When three of you agree, giving your communal selves a silly name is quite acceptable.
As foreigners in Plovdiv, we climbed a hill and enjoyed the tranquility of looking over the city before walking around some ruins. While I do enjoy history and hills, I choose not to take the time to learn too much about them. Occasionally I take significant interest and retain facts, but mostly I enjoy each place for whatever it is. I hold onto memories, not facts.
As the three of hitchhiked away from Plovdiv and towards Bulgaria, I had no idea that my journey was drawing to an end. The weather seemed warm enough to continue into winter and as we approached the Turkish border with a dangerous driver, who ironically worked as a ROSPA safety inspector, I was wearing shorts and t-shirt throughout the day. The road was quiet and as we were left on the side of the road, we enjoyed the sunshine and warm temperatures that we had been missing elsewhere in Europe.
Of all the hundreds of people who picked me up, I remember only certain details of most individuals. Sometimes it’s their face, occasionally it’s their car, more often than not, it’s something that they did or said. One of the last cars to pick me up before I reached Turkey was occupied by a very strange couple. The woman had long curly, peroxide hair and had jumped straight out of a trashy movie. Her (I assume) boyfriend, was a large balding man with great scars that covered his head. The scars were quite huge and I would have been intrigued to know what they were caused by. Not sharing a common language with him, I felt somewhat disinclined to simply point at his head in order to draw attention to the scars. He might have found it a little inappropriate.
Welcome to Turkey
The last vehicle to pick the three of us up before the Turkish border was a truck. Unfortunately, what we didn’t realise about trucks that approach Turkey from Bulgaria, is that they are stopped, searched, and subjected to overly bureaucratic procedures in a more excessive way than I have ever seen before. As we swung ourselves down from the cab, the lorry driver told us we had about 5 km to walk. Sweating with our backpacks under gorgeous blue skies, we marched through hot sunshine towards the border of Turkey. Other lorry drivers shouted to us and tried to engage us in conversation as we passed, some even offering us tea. We politely declined, sidestepped the men who blocked our path, and failed to catch a ride with any of the passing cars for several kilometres. Looking several kilometres down the road, the border was not visible.
The car that finally stopped for us, was a small dilapidated red car being driven by a border guard on his day off. “I’m going to Turkey to buy tiles,” he explained. As we reached the border, the guards at each checkpoint laughed hysterically about the fact that their colleague had three rather sweaty and non-Turkish looking hitchhikers with him. After waking the sleeping visa officer to purchase a tiny sticker allowing us entry to the country, I realised that of the twenty two countries I had thus far entered on this journey, Turkey was the only one that required me to pay for entry. Being British is quite a benefit when you want to travel around the world.
By the time we parted ways, the man was taking my phone number and offering a box of cigarettes to the girl I was hitching with. He asked us to help him find someone who could help him find tiles and as much as I would have liked to help, finding wall tiles, whether in a country I have previously visited or not, has never been one of my specialities. Nor has finding people who can find wall tiles. People like to share their problems and I was happy to point out shops that might sell wall tiles for his satisfaction in exchange for the ride he gave us.
Waving goodbye to yet another new friend, I walked into a country that was about to become my home. I just didn’t know it yet.