Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Craiova, Romania to Sofia, Bulgaria: Swearing Kids, Egg Tossers, and Bike Shop Basements

I had a wonderful stay in Craiova with Alex and his girlfriend, Isabella. There was a minor kerfuffle over which room would be mine because of the way the heaters worked – that is, they didn't at first, so instead we were prioritizing the number of walls shared with the outdoors. Dinner and breakfast were mostly natural, unprocessed foods which I very much appreciated, having had a lot of meat with Sorin in Satu Mare and Daniel in Sibiu. In fact, I was reminded fondly of eating with Marina and Maxym at the Color Farm, and my stomach, too, was reminded... in that it was happy.

"We won't have any, but it wouldn't be a proper Bulgarian morning for a guest without a shot of Pálinka! (apple brandy)."

Alex and Isabella had plans that night and the next morning so I was especially grateful they chose to host me all the same – AND they found time to cook for me – AND they insisted I couldn't help clean up. I enjoyed getting to know them a bit between bites, and even got a few travel stories out of Alex which will go on the map eventually. They gave me a key in the morning when they left for market and told me to lock up on the way out, so after route hunting to Greece and Warmshowers hunting for the way there, that's what I did.

The day was fairly uneventful. I passed through many small towns – though it seemed, sometimes, like one very long town, the way the houses never stopped – and saw many, many people sitting outside talking. I assumed this was because it was Sunday afternoon, but who knows. Past countless old ladies in bonnets, a few families, some groups of old men laughing and smoking pipes in their Sunday finest, a few teens wearing the latest fashion statement from Paris or LA... it was quite the cultural debut, that afternoon.

Flat and straight!


Lonely tree.

Most houses have benches by the gates, and they are almost always color coordinated.

Our cranberries are famous, don'tcha know?

On the way out to the ferry a group of kids passed me on bicycles. The first held out his hand, palm up, and made a “come here” motion, saying, “Pleaaaaaase!” I had no idea what he wanted – I assumed he was just practicing his English – so I waved and said an enthusiastic, “Hello!” like I'd been doing all that day. Then the rest of the kids went by making the same hand motion, and one of the older ones shouted, “Money!” The rest chimed in: “Money! Money!”

“No,” I said, shaking my head as I passed them. A few moments later, I heard from that same older kid, “F*ck you!” Then the rest chimed in: “F*ck you! F*ck you!” I turned around and shrugged my shoulders, trying to indicate, “What do you want me to do?” They laughed, and continued on.

I made it to the ferry across the Danube to Bulgaria about 6 PM. The next ferry wasn't supposed to be until 7, which was when the sun set, but I figured, “eh, it's Eastern Europe, I'll ask when the next one is.” Ten minutes, said the guard. Okay – I can make it across before sunset!

Through border control, 5 Lei for a ferry ticket (or $1 – interestingly, since $1 is only 3.6 Lei, but the only US currency I carry is twenties, ICE), and then... then I waited ten minutes for the ferry, and thirty for them to unload it.

But, I was committed.

As the sun set on the ferry one of the truck drivers and I began to have a miming conversation. We established (I think) that I had biked 12,000 km (some multiple of 12, anyways, since I mimed “12” when he asked “-something- kilometers”) and that I was going around the world (pointer finger out, make a circle with your arm). He indicated he was going 3 km out of town to sleep and eat with his... brother? Someone he was close with – he pointed at someone out on the ferry, then held his two pointer fingers together, then neverminded and crossed his pointer and middle finger. He pointed at me and said, “Hotel?”

“No,” I said, trying to mime trees and a tent. “Unless I could sleep with you?” pointing at him, then me, then making the sleep sign. He bobbled his head with uncertainty, then indicated he needed to talk to his brother. “Where bike?” I asked, miming riding a bike and then shrugging my shoulders and pointing at his truck. He tapped the seat next to him. “Okay,” I said, not convinced it would fit there, but still wanting a safe place to sleep that night. “See you after documents” (everybody knows the word “documents,” but not everybody knows the word “passport”).

Well, after documents they drove right by me. I was a little peeved, but also, he hadn't promised anything, and it's entirely possible they didn't see me, since it was dark out (it was also possible we had completely different conceptions of how the conversation went). In any case, I found a spot by the river – the only spot by the river, as far as I could tell, since everywhere else I shined my light there was a cabin of some kind – pitched my tent, and settled in for a night full of boat horns and cats rustling in the trees and it being a bit colder than I expected. Crossing the river past 6 was a little ambitious; though I had hoped the trucker was fate congratulating my boldness, my only reward was not having to worry about the ferry timetable come morning.

Also I had to climb up from the river bank...

The next day was, again, fairly uneventful, until I made it into Vratsa, hoping to find a major grocery store, have lunch, and do some route planning. I followed a turn sign towards a Lidl (pastries!), but after a few hundred meters it didn't look right. I crossed the road for some shade while I checked my map. A few minutes into waiting for my phone to start up, I heard a thwack! behind me. I turned to look – something had fallen on the back of my bike. I looked up. The tree providing shade had no fruit of any kind, and didn't extend above me (the sun was at an angle). I looked more closely at the thing that had fallen. It was kind of messy looking – some fruit, perhaps? – but nothing that a little water wouldn't deal with. Everything on the back of my bike was waterproof, anyways – except my sweater, which I take on and off so constantly I just leave it out when there's no rain. I looked across the street, but didn't see anyone.

I turned back to my phone, but thirty seconds later, thwack! I looked to my left at the source of the noise. A broken egg was lying splattered in the road, about ten feet away from me. I could tell from the direction of the splat that it had been thrown from across the street. There was a fence, and an apartment building. Someone from behind the fence perhaps?

With another thwack I decided it was time to go. This one landed to my right, and wasn't an egg – it looked more like a lightbulb, though it hadn't broken. I calmly pedaled on.

Sad bench: common in poor countries. Maybe they repurpose the wood?

Eastern Europe is also fond of statues.

As I was riding to Lidl I wondered what would have happened if I had been able to confront these egg-tossers. Probably, they would have run away. But if they hadn't, how would that conversation have looked?

Me: “Hey.”
Tosser: “Hey.”
Me: “Feel better about yourself?”
Tosser: “Yea, actually.”
Me: “Cool.”

Honestly, I just don't know what to say to people who get enjoyment out of harassing others. What's the compassionate, effective response? This is something I've pondered often since an old friend group started more or less harassing me (and thus became an old friend group). What do you do besides move on and hope they figure their shit out? How do you show compassion to people who don't care enough to listen? “Wanna talk about it?”

The rest of the time in that town I was a little on edge. Would the egg-tosser follow me? Would people try and rob me? Nobody did, but it always fascinates me how quickly and fully the human psyche can move to the defensive. I knew this was something I couldn't let overwhelm me, since every cycle tourist I know who's gone through Ethiopia says the same thing: they throw rocks at you there. Kids saying “f*k you” in Romania, now somebody throwing eggs in Bulgaria... events like these don't dominate the tour by any means, but they are a gentle reminder that some people need to figure their sh*t out. I never felt my life was in danger. Nor did I feel this was a stereotype of Romania or Bulgaria – I've heard stories of egg-throwers in the US, too. Mostly they just made me wonder what, if anything, I can do to help.

Best bus stop ever?

After taking lunch in the park I left Vratsa via a windy, hilly pass that trimmed about 15 km off taking the highway... and also wasn't a highway. Before long I found myself looking down over Bulgarian hills, and coming down the other side of the climb I got a glimpse of what was to come: a river valley.

And a refill...

Oooo lordy let's go down...

River valleys can be some of my favorite places to ride. They're beautiful and straightforward and traffic is often (but not always) slow and light. Of course, they can also be hilly wind tunnels with fast traffic and low-visibility corners... but today that wasn't the case. After riding only 2 miles I saw a sign for a monastery and thought... hey, I haven't seen a monastery in a while, and it's beautiful here, so I bet the monastery is beautiful, too! Well, it was.

I pulled up with a “Dobre dein” (did I mention a lot of people here speak Russian?) and asked if anyone spoke English. Of the three people present one spoke up shyly and said, “A little.” I wanted him to dive into the history of the place and give me a tour and share his life with me, but for whatever reason it didn't come as naturally then as it usually does.

Me: “This is a monastery?”
Dude: “Yes.”
Me: “Does that make you a monk?”
Monk dude: “Yes.”
Me: “ you live here?”
Monk dude: “You want to stay here?”
Me: “Oh, uh... well yea, that would be nice!”

Monk dude consulted with the other two ladies (presumably also monks... but do they have their own, gendered term? Monkettes? Okay, I know that's not it, please just excuse my ignorance here...), I caught the word “potato,” then monk dude turned and said, “The room is... you should see the room.”

“Okay. How much does it cost?” I said, rubbing my thumb against my other fingers.

“No,” monk dude replied.

“No money?”


“Okay,” I said, matter-of-fact. I was willing to pay for a room – I'd only spent $7 that day so far, at Lidl (okay, and $0.40 on a loaf of bread that morning), so I had $13 left in my budget. I'd also never slept in a monastery before, and though I hadn't realized it was on my to-do list until just then, it seemed worth paying a few bucks to check off the list.

Monk dude showed me to the room, which was past many other rooms in what seemed, for all intents and purposes, like a hostel. There were three beds and a shower, all very old – the instant I stepped in the building I smelled that old building smell of mothballs and cotton and aged wood.

“No money?” I checked one last time.

Monk dude considered for a moment, then: “10 Lev” – about $6. I'm not sure if he wanted to show me the room first or if he felt I was insisting on paying, but I felt $6 was very reasonable, considering the least I'd paid to date was $4 in Ukraine.

“Okay.” I said. Then, pointing to myself, “My name is Kyle.”

“Huaniki,” he said (I did my best to spell it out in our alphabet – Bulgarian is in Cyrillic. The “Hu” sounds like “He-you” slid together, like one of China's presidents: “Hu is the president of China”). We shook hands.

Turns out Huaniki has American parents – his grandfather was Bulgarian, but moved to America to have kids. His kids (Huaniki's parents) live between Chicago and Bulgaria, and Huaniki was born in Bulgaria. He's only been a monk 3.5 years (I say “only” because he looks to be in his 30s or 40s), and before being a monk, he framed paintings... I think. I could only get out of him “big paintings” and a mime of a picture frame. I felt like the guy had an interesting story, but he didn't understand most of my questions, instead just saying, “I don't understand” and standing there awkwardly waiting for me to ask something else, or maybe politely waiting for me to leave. If only I spoke Russian... alas.

Exploring the monastery I was faintly reminded of the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender, in which the main character spent some of his childhood in a monastery (great TV show by the way: though it's animated and targeted at kids, there are many underlying themes about relationships, doing what's right, expressing priorities through action, being true to yourself, and using compassion – not violence – to solve conflicts). I'm not a religious person, but it felt the tiniest bit spiritual, walking around that place in the river valley in Bulgaria, until I found the bones.

Then I was a little creeped out. I was pretty sure I was going to have nightmares about the bones.

But, I didn't. (after some research I discovered these were the bones of Bulgarian soldiers who fought in the battle of tsar Ivan Shishman with Ottoman raiders in the 14th century. Somehow the color of the bones gives this monastery, the “Cherepish Monastery,” its name, but I have no idea what the word Cherepish means so... unhelpful)

Dinner was brought to me with a space heater. I was expecting something akin to what I got on the Color Farm – natural, simple food – but what I got... well, I was grateful for it (included with the bed!), but let's just say it wasn't what I expected.

The next morning I returned the dishes, paid the $5 I owed, and went on my way. That day was the part of river valleys I didn't like: hilly and wind-tunnely. I think, too, with the Transfagarasan after almost a month off in Ukraine, my body was still adjusting.

I made it into Sofia about 2, giving me enough time to scour bike shops for racks and fenders (required for wider tires before heading to the bike rental place, Sofia Bike Rental, that was my Warmshowers. There I met Iliam, whose is kind, funny, and likes blues and smoking and drinking and working on bikes. My kinda guy. He asked me how long I was staying.

He also said I could get a discount at one of the bike shops I visited if I said I was with Sofia Bike Rental. So I went back and got a rack that would allow for bigger tires, and a new computer (since my old one fell off on the bumpy roads of Ukraine), and a new water bottle cage for the right of my fork (since the old one fell off just because). They gave me 5% off, bringing the total to 79 Lev, about 48 dollars. For a rack, computer, and bottle cage? Not bad. Not bad at all.

On the way back to the shop I passed a Chinese Restuarant and decided to get take-out... because I can't remember that last time I had Chinese take-out. I don't usually opt for oily, questionably sourced calorie-dense food, but it can't hurt every now and then, can it? When I got back the shop was closed, but Iliam had given me a set of keys, so I made myself comfortable on the couch in the basement. I've spent years volunteering and working in various digs of bike shop, so I feel right at home surrounded by tires and wheels and bike parts and grease. Messes of bicycle parts are the one kind of mess that makes me feel more comfortable in my surroundings, not less. So I spent the night with Chinese take-out, a beer, and my favorite movie, surrounded by bike parts, feeling right at home.

The next day I got up early to Skype a friend, then went back to bed, then got up when the shop opened at 10, and set in for a day of work. I would rebuild my old front hub and spokes onto a new rim, and add fenders to my bike. The parts (rim, fenders) would come to $7 and a big thank-you for Sofia Bike Rental. The camaraderie, jokes, music, beer, and coffee were all on Iliam. Except for some pitting in the front hub (after more than 12,000 miles between my last tour and this one, what do you expect?) and a break in the rear fender which I intend to fill with a milk carton or something, Louisa is now Africa-ready.

Chinese "fortune" from the coffee shop next door: "Candles do not extinguish when they light one another. So, too, does happiness not diminish when you spread it to others."


64 spoke nipples sat in two cups...

Hub servicing.

Pitted hub is sad hub. At least get me through Africa, okay buddy? 6,000 more miles?

Clean axle!

A jam session on the sidewalk with Sofia Bike Rental's two bike mechanics (Iliam on the harmonica and Yakov on the guitar), a Skype date with a best friend, and I'm ready, too. Tomorrow I'll take the train to the border of Greece, because after consulting every knowledgeable local that's come by the shop, “only crazy or stupid people” bike south from Sofia to Greece – it's a highway with no alternate routes. I want to ride as much of the world as possible, but I also don't want to die, and since it is just highway I feel like I'm not missing much.

'Till next time!


  1. Not sure what the purpose of the arches over the road is, but Drum Bun translates into "Good Way" and Bine Ai Venit translates into "Welcome"!

  2. Drum (pronounced droom) literally means a “road” or “path” and bun (boon) just means “good”. So drum bun literally means “good road”, as in I/we wish you “good road”.

    True fact: When driving the highways and byways of Romania, whenever you enter a town there will be a large sign wishing you “Welcome to X Town!” and on the back of the very same sign will be another message telling you drum bun. This is because you are leaving X Town (even though it’s awesome and fun and you really should’ve stayed) and are heading into Scary Unfamiliar and Frightening Territory and therefore need a salutatory drum bun cheerfully wished upon you or else you might cry and be sad and/or die. All true and not exaggerated in any way.