As our bus pulled into Gabrovo, located amongst the mountains of Bulgaria, we were eager with anticipation to explore yet another aspect of this lovely country. Our days and nights spent in Sofia were great, but we yearned to explore the country side, and see what it’s people were like.
About a month before we left on our trip, I was messaged by a young man named Ahmed, through the Couchsurfing network. One of the features of The Couchsurfing website, is that you can post an upcoming trip to your profile, and it automatically sends out a message to every host of your destination place, letting them know you are coming and in need of accommodation.
We received offers from 2 hosts, the other in Stara Zagora. However, for this particular period of time, the first host to offer, was not available, so we opted to visit Ahmed in Gabrovo.
We became friends on Facebook so we could communicate easier, (and so we could stalk each other’s profiles, I’m sure!) and he forewarned me that he really didn’t have room for 2 people, as he lives in a very small apartment with only room for one queen size bed. But, he offered to find us a spot in the village centre for a reasonable price. As our intention on this trip is to meet locals, and really gain experiences through their perspectives, we decided to take him up on his offer. I was also intrigued with the place, as there was no mention of it in our Lonely Planet book, therefore telling me that it is likely worth seeing, and a bit off the beaten track. In general, the Lonely Planet guides feature more common tourist destinations. I like to buy them before trips because they give me a reference point to do some research, and there is always valuable cultural and historical information outlined in them, which generally comes in handy upon arriving in foreign lands.
I had messaged Ahmed in Sofia, and told him of our plans. Before leaving he told me that he wouldn’t be able to meet us at the bus, but his friend would. We arrived at the bus station, later than we had expected, and initially saw no one that looked to be picking someone up. I immediately checked for a wifi hot spot so that we could communicate with him if need be.
Now, I must stop here to tell you that Bulgaria has free wifi absolutely EVERYWHERE! I’m talking in every coffee shop, restaurant, ON THE BUS, bus stations, parks….you name it! Ahmed told me that having wifi is so normal that if an establishment doesn’t have it, they lose business. We have been very impressed with the access to the Internet, much better than many places in Canada, and it provides very easy means of which to communicate with hosts, arrange transportation, book flights etc.
So I logged into the wifi at the station and my phone started ringing instantly, a phone call through Facebook. This is something totally new to me, so I hesitantly said “Hello?”
I heard, “Hello Jillian, this is Ahmed.” His lovely Britishesque accent, and wonderful pronunciations struck me instantly.
I had obviously checked out his Facebook profile, and had learned that he was 24 years old. His wonderful grasp of our language, made me feel like I was speaking with an old British scholar, positioned somewhere much later in life.
“I’m sorry that I’m not there to meet you. But my friend should be there somewhere, maybe just walk to the cafe and you will find him.”
Just as he was saying this, a group of three young men walked up to us. One stepped forward speaking English, and I told him Ahmed was on the phone. I handed it to him, he spoke to him, then he handed it back to me.
“Hello Jillian, this is how this is going to work. I have arranged accommodation for you in the centre of town for 30 Lev (roughly $22 CAD), I hope that’s okay?”
“Yes,” I said, “That is fine.”
“Okay good, my friend is going to put you in a taxi and tell the taxi driver where to go. This should cost you no more than 2-3 Lev. Once you arrive, the owner will show you to your room.”
“Okay that sounds really great! Thank you so much!” I proclaimed, absolutely in awe of the efforts that were being made to accommodate us. He told me that he was helping his family chop wood, and would contact us later to get together for dinner.
We proceeded with his friends to a waiting taxi, but the driver didn’t seem to understand where to go. After many phone calls and pondering amongst them all, he seemed to know the directions, so off we headed to, what I expected to be, our hotel.
The taxi driver went very slowly through the streets of Gabrovo, I’m sure still not certain where this place was. Finally we stopped at the end of a sort of alleyway, and got out. A man aporoached right away and started talking with the driver. I looked around and didn’t see a typical hotel front, so I looked at him and shrugged my shoulders “Where?”
The man he was speaking with beckoned us to follow him. ‘Ah! I see, this is the man who is showing us to our room,’ as promised by Ahmed.
He took us along side of what looked to be an apartment building and let us in with his keys. It was clear that he didn’t speak English. We made our way inside and he let us in to what turned out to be a small little apartment that had to be very new. It had a little fridge, a small bed, pullout couch and a full bathroom. We were astounded with how modern and wonderful it was, for such a good price.
The man informed us in broken English that he didn’t speak English, he only spoke Spanish.
My eyes widened as I announced “Hablo Español!” (I speak Spanish!)
He immediately started out super fast, and let me tell you, my brain was not ready for it. I stared dumbfounded at him, still shocked that we could both communicate in a totally different language, but communicate none-the-less! What a blessing! As he was speaking super fast, I didn’t get it all, but we managed to discuss the wifi, how to turn on the shower, and how many nights we wanted to stay. I paid him what was owed, and he was off.
Wow! We were so excited and appreciative with what Ahmed had set up for us! His amazing hospitality did not pass us by. We marvelled at our cute little abode for a while, then headed out to see the town.
Stunning architecture lined little pedestrian walkways, large carvings and statues adorned the parks and bridges, and a lovely river ran through the centre of the village. We strolled around for a while, then headed back to our oasis. Still weary with jet lag, we immediately fell into a long deep sleep.
Around 7:00 Ahmed phoned once again, to tell us that he was heading into the village, was going to get ready and pick up his girlfriend, then would head over to meet us so we could go out for dinner.
Around 9:00 we met up with him and his friend Ivel (his girlfriend was meeting us at the restaurant), and after showing him our room, we headed out to dinner.
We had a lovely meal with the three of them. We exchanged all sorts of information with each other about our countries. Obviously, they were very intrigued with how we do things in Canada. Ahmed has hosted many travellers before, including a French Canadian, so he was very knowledgable about many other cultures and places. He and Ivel had both travelled within Europe, spending a length of time in both England and Scotland.Ahmed works in IT, and is incredibly knowledgable about business start ups, web sites, and all types of marketing. He told me that he spends about 3 hours per day catching up on world news reports from every corner of the planet. We discussed many things, and my mind kept coming back to what a smart, energetic and charismatic young man he is.
His friend Ivel is an Engineer working with cables and manufacturing. He too spoke excellent English, and had a very broad view in the world. They both make above average salaries, and are very aware that they are living a good life here in Bulgaria. Ahmed’s girlfriend, Ina, is still in study mode, but also wants to work in the IT field.
We were told at dinner that they were heading out to the club later on, and we were welcome to join them. Apparently it was graduation day for the local technical University, and a famous Bulgarian, from Gabrovo itself, was going to be singing. We were told that he is the Justin Beiber of Bulgaria!
Not two to miss opportunities to party, but despite feeling tired from jet lag, we decided to tag along.
We arrived at the club in our usual travelling clothes, (t-shirts, hiking boots, and zip off pants), and immediately felt VERY under dressed! Not too mention, VERY old! Outside the doors were dozens of University graduates and dates, fancily dressed, clamouring to get in. We stood in line, sort of. Ahmed kept announcing “Come on guys”, as he gripped his girlfriends hand and pushed us ever so gently to the front of the pack. He had a saying that he kept announcing, something to do with impudence, but the gist was that if we wanted to get anywhere in life, we needed to be impudent as well! Needless to say, we were quite entertained.
We finally broke through the outer doors and jostled and pushed our way through the next wall of people to get into the actual party. I kept thinking that as soon as we got in, there would be room to breathe. I was VERY wrong! We paid our entry and got our stamp as we heard from the bouncer “Welcome Canada!” Obviously Ahmed had told him we were visitors.
We squeeeeeeeeezed ourselves into what had to be the smokiest, smoke filled room I have been in, since being 19 years old! At least every second person had a cigarette on the go! Wow! I thought to myself, ‘did I really subject myself to this pollution in a regular basis as a kid?’
Yes, yes I did! I remember, vaguely, my Dad complaining of the stench of cigarette smoke from my jacket and clothes, many times after a wild night of partying as a teen. But, I never much noticed back then. I guess we were just used to it. But, with the smoking laws in Canada now making everyone smoke outside, we simply are not used to it inside, and it was a huge shock.
People were packed in like sardines. We swerved our way around the room trying to find a spot for 5 of us to stand. Back and forth we snaked through the crowds until we settled on a less than ideal spot. Chris and I were jammed against the stage, and we were in a line of constantly moving people, squeezing past us to go back and forth along this particular corridor.
The music was blaring from speakers from just below our butts, and it shook us to our core.
I suddenly had the realization that I was too old for this! How did it happen? I used to love hanging out in these places, always pushing and shoving to get back and forth. Dancing and partying with reckless abandon. However, it became very clear to me in that moment that, this was not for me anymore, and maybe coming there had been a mistake.
I stewed in my misery of the situation for a few minutes, and then I actually took a good look around me. I realized that we were part of a celebration! A celebration of the excitement of youth, the prospects of a whole big future ahead of them, and the glory of living life! WE WERE IN BULGARIA, and we were having an EXPERIENCE! Isn’t this what I have been saying? Isn’t this what I have wanted? Isn’t this what life is all about?
It was with this realization, that I started to focus on all that was good in that moment. I decided that I probably would not die from lung cancer that night, and my hearing would likely not be damaged forever. I decided that I was going to enjoy myself, because we were part of something special and we were ALIVE!
We danced a bit, jostled around amongst the students, had some whiskey and Coke, and hung out for as long as we could. Unfortunately, by 1:30, we were both pretty exhausted.
We told Ahmed we were leaving (unfortunately the Bulgarian Justin Beiber had not even started yet) and said our goodbyes, promising to see him the next day at some point.
We headed back to our room, all the while laughing and recalling the adventures of the night. We were ALIVE! We were in BULGARIA! And we were having the time of our lives!
We put our stinky clothes in their own zipped up bag, ready for the laundry, had a shower, and drifted off to sleep, with the throngs of a steady bass beat alive in our heads.