Twenty years later: let’s be honest

After spending five special days in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, for the first time I board a plane of the Bulgarian Air company, which will carry me to my next destination on this journey without (many) plans that I am making in tribute to the 20 years since my pilgrimage on the Way to Santiago.

Since it is forbidden to turn on your computer before and during take-off, I take a look at the airline magazine. Like all other airline company magazine, I know that it will describe the marvels of the country, which I am not very interested in because my visit has been wonderful, so nobody has to tell me again how marvelous the place is. Years ago, during the extremely harsh communist regime when no-one could visit the country, a Brazilian author wrote a book questioning the very existence of Bulgaria: he claimed that he had never known a soul who had come here. So, maybe it was all one big conspiracy to make us believe in a reality that did not exist. The book, of course, is very funny, without any criticism of the Bulgarians, but it does explore the fact that the collective imagination can sometimes be manipulated.

I am thinking of that writer as I read the airline magazine when suddenly, among the pages where normally you find advice about hotels, restaurants and boarding procedures, I come across something that fascinates and surprises me:

A] Walking through the center of Sofia means having to confront cars parked on the sidewalk, people hooting their horns in your ears, dogs straying loose on the street, and holes that appear without any notice to warn pedestrians.

B] If you want to take a bus, remember that the doors are small, so there is a good chance that you will hurt yourself while boarding. Toss a one-lev coin (the local currency) in the driver’s lap, shout where you want to get off, and be aware that the buses do not always respect bus stops. Don’t let that put you in a bad mood.

C] If you’re driving, take all the following items into account: a driver’s license, passport, stainless-steel nerves, eyes that must not blink for an instant, traffic lights that look like hieroglyphics (Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet), and mad drivers.

D] When you stop at a traffic light, be prepared to see your car surrounded by a crowd of children ready to clean your windshields: be firm, don’t accept!

E] Traffic policemen are “prodigiously venal” and are watching out for you. Behave like a saint, do not stress out, not unless you want to pay an “on-the-spot fine”, which is simply a bribe.

F] Bulgaria has a high crime rate, but please relax! You will be as safe or unsafe here as in New York, London, Paris or any other big city.

G] The lighting is awful during the night.

H] Shopkeepers never have change. Ask at your hotel for low-value bills, otherwise you run the risk of waiting for twenty minutes while the salesperson goes to the neighbor or to the closest bank to get change.

I] To get back to the buses: some of them have a terrifying machine at the door, and you have to discover fast how to extract your ticket from there. Remember that public transportation is paid everywhere in the world. Of course, chances are great that during your journey you will see inspectors boarding the bus and asking the passengers for their tickets, but most of them won’t have tickets, so there will be an argument and they will all end up having to pay a fine. Since you have overcome all these problems by already buying a ticket, you can watch all these arguments without any fear.

Let’s be honest: almost any big city in the world suffers from most of these problems (the ticket situation, for example, is something I have experienced in Amsterdam). But this is the first time that an airline company has ever mentioned such problems. Congratulations on having the courage to do so, this has made me love the country and its people all the more.

The next text will be posted on the 26th of May.

P.S: Dear reader,

During this journey, that is filling my soul with very interesting experiences, one of the most magical moments comes every night when I read the comments posted on this blog. Even though I can’t answer all of you, I want you to know that it’s very important to me to know that I’m not alone on this path. Thank you so much for your support and for the words and ideas that are now engraved on my heart.

Paulo Coelho