Have you ever had an uncomfortable or unexpected experience while traveling with public transportation?
I had traveled 4 flawless months around Europe on trains, buses, ferries, and car shares without a problem worth mentioning, but my luck ran out when I reached Bulgaria. Luckily everything ended up being just fine and one big laugh, but the moment sure was one to remember – here’s how it went down:
My Turkish adventure had come to an end and it was time to continue further north to discover more of eastern Europe.
After finding a Couchsurfing host in Plovdiv I booked my overnight train from Sirkeci Station in Istanbul to Bulgaria’s second largest city. The trip started off on the wrong foot when the 10pm train turned out to be a bus to the Bulgarian border since that section of track was apparently under construction.
Upon reaching the Kapikule border crossing in Turkey we quickly went through customs and made our way to the tracks to wait for the train to show up. The dark, desolate Kapikule Station was an eerie place to be hanging out at midnight.
With just a handful of other travelers, I found myself in a pretty uncomfortable situation sitting among a large crowd of gypsies that were giving me some weird looks and just rubbing me the wrong way.
At one point throughout the long 2 hour wait for the train, a couple of the gypsies approached and began trying to communicate with me, which was completely ineffective considering I didn’t know a word of Bulgarian.
They continued to heckle me a bit displaying a pack of cigarettes (I assumed they wanted some cigarettes), but after a few minutes I had enough and walked outside to get away from them.
Finally, the train arrived and we were on our way. I walked to the back of the train trying to find some solitude and avoid sharing a cab with any of the gypsies that had been giving me problems earlier.
Fortunately I found an empty cab, and settled in to try to get some sleep. Within a few minutes the door opened and three female gypsies joined me – ahhhh, it must be a crowded train. Whatever, I kept my bags close and attempted to close my eyes.
Over the next few minutes the door opened and closed several times as a few of the male gypsies kept popping their heads in and out relaying messages to the girls in my cab. Back and forth, back and forth the men walked down the aisle outside of the cab – what on earth were they doing? It all seemed very strange.
One more border check on the Bulgarian side at the Kapitan Andreevo border crossing and we were officially moving at full speed.
Sleeping proved to be impossible with the loud chatter from the ladies in my cab and the men constantly opening the door, so I decided to take a look outside in hope of finding some privacy.
I immediately noticed that every other cab was completely empty! What the heck, why were they in here with me?? Something just didn’t feel right, so I grabbed my bags and headed to the end of the train where I found a couple other English speaking backpackers.
Escaping the presence of the gypsies my mind was at ease and I managed to fall asleep for a bit.
It wasn’t long after that I woke up and felt something at my feet. Opening my tired eyes I was startled to see one of the female gypsies crawling over my feet! My natural survival instinct took over and I released a hard, swift kick to her chest and she let out a quick gasp of pain.
Over the next few seconds I realized that all of the gypsies were now in the back cart – what was happening?? Was there about to be a backpacker vs gypsy battle?!
Thankfully the situation never escalated. Upon further inspection I noticed that the gypsies were grabbing cases of cigarettes from under the seats and stuffing them into empty duffle bags. It all started to make sense now!
The guys at the station were asking me to help them smuggle the cigs, and the men on board were running back and forth between the border crossings and hiding the cases under seats where the agents wouldn’t find them.
I later learned that this is a common practice at this particular border crossing. Cigarette smuggling is a lucrative business and since Bulgaria lies on Europe’s exterior border, it sits on the crossroads of a prime smuggling route. You can read about it here.
It was a pretty unnerving situation but definitely a night to remember. I just hope that poor gypsy lady is okay after that rough wake up call!