Off the rails to Sofia : Small Time Crooks

Sofia Travel Blog

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Mr A and The Shrew set to work.

‘To be honest pal, I’m sure I’ve just been pretty lucky.  I dunno.  But I can say that after nearly a year on the road, nothing too bad or too strange has happened to me.  No theft or personal harm.  But I guess one person’s experience is totally different to the next’s’ I expand for Stefan's benefit  ( 'Well, I am a Stephen too, but I work with a lot of French in Quebec so I use Stefan a lot' )  my Canadian FMF as we wait for the 21.15 night train to Sofia to roll from Belgrade.  ’Well, you are real lucky then’ Stefan (nee Stephen) exclaims, ’because just the other day this guy walked up towards me smiling but I could see that he was looking at my camera, but when he saw I’d noticed that he was looking at it, he just carried on walking and didn’t say anything’ he continues with the slightly haunted tone of delivery of someone whose recently undergone a near death experience but come out on The Other Side okay.

Mr A and Mr B struggle to get the light fixture back in place.
  I think to myself ’Sh*t dude, if he’d heard about my ’card game’ in Bangkok he’d probably faint away before my very eyes’… oh wait, I didn’t tell y’all about that one either did I?  Apologies.  ’Bangkok Hustle : or Why never to play when you have a 100% chance of losing’ is one of several journal entries that fell victim, half-penned to the impossibilities of keeping up with this blog on the move.  Another time perhaps my friends :)

Yep, Stefan… Stephen’s quite the paranoid traveller.  He doesn’t travel on trams because ’ya know, well, people brush up against you [ he demonstrates] and ya know…’ he implies with intent to commit heinous acts.

'Yelp!' - lucky I have this uncharacteristic beard (shortly to be removed) should the crooks ever come chasing witnesses! LOL
  He didn’t travel to Bosnia & Herzegovina ‘because I have quite a paranoia about landmines’ and carries a can of animal mace spray in his pocket at all times because of dogs (presumably Mankind) etc.  We part company.  He’s in the sleeper section.  I’m not.  Fare thee well… and safe travels my friend ;)

There’s some commotion.  Plenty of noise.  Voices.  Loud, hectoring voices.  It’s now about 5.15am local time, Serbia.  The train’s stopped at the near-Bulgarian border station of Dimitrovgrad.  A lot of people are boarding.  I am woken from half sleep by three entrants to my compartment.  'Who the?  Where the?  What the f...?'  I am prodded to precipitate my waking.

'Success at last!'
  A vociferous, excitable trio they are.  The rotund, raven-haired matriarch of the three keeps exclaiming “Passporta, passporta!” and sure enough, we are about to be checked and stamped.  In the meantime Madame Bolshy Big-Butt (as I shall refer to her) bumbling around with her fat ass getting in everyone’s way has suddenly produced a 6 inch screw driver, has ushered me into withdrawing my couchette chairs to the fully upright position so she can better bend her formidable form downwards to commence unscrewing the metal waste bin from the wall beneath the carriage window.  What the…?

With this discarded she ferrets around with her arm and screwdriver in the wall cavity now revealed and satisfied, starts producing long lines of cigarette packets stuffed neatly into black nylon stockings.

'Suck those plums and make like you ain't noticed nothin' outta the ordinary boyo!' :D
  ‘Ooo-oo-oh! I geddit!’.  Yep, I am about to be witness to some pretty amusing cigarette border-smuggling activities.  They seem part oblivious, part unflustered… in fact not flustered at all by the fact of the strange, curious, red-haired, unshaven ‘Inglaise! Inglaise!’ who will be witness to their activities.  When the passport officer turns up and cocks an eyebrow at the slain waste bin that lies prone on the floor Madame Bolshy Big-Butt, sat on her screw driver, points at the wounded wall and says something that I assume would probably translate to ‘Look!  Just look what some vandal went and did to the waste bin!’.  Not me guvnor.  Honest.

Eventually the train rolls again… and it’s at this point that the cigarette smuggling operation goes into full swing.

Sacks and sacks of Christmas goodies?
  Mr A (a name for simplicity’s sake) following a fevered session of reeling out and Sellotaping is clambering up onto the seats brandishing his own set of train dismembering tools and within moments has unscrewed the entire, large twin-tube light fitting and cover that runs the length of our compartment.  It swings mournfully from its hinges, supported slightly by the youngest of the group, a rather shrewish looking lass who‘ll later reveal whole strips of ciggie packets taped around her body under her black puffer jacket like a nicotine bomb belt.

It’s complete bedlam in the compartment now!  The sound of feverishly unravelling Sellotape is to be heard the entire length of the carriage.  People laughing, passing from compartment to compartment, the floor a veritable sea of oversize cigarette cartons.

The Shrew, happy in her daily chores.
  Mr A, aided by The Shrew is now bodily inside the roof space of the train.  Literally half of him has disappeared up there whilst large taped up black sacks of ciggies are conveyed up to him and into the compartment.  ‘Jeez-louise!’ I think as I hunker down and grin in my corner, chewing Serbian plums innocuously.  There’s a problem all of a sudden.  The large light fitting canopy is refusing to play ball and slip nicely back into place.  No amount of efforts from Mr A and The Shrew can coax it back into place.  He struggles to re-secure the screws into the flimsy chipboard ceiling in vain, a soft shower of fibre glass insulation and chipboard snowflakes accompany his struggle. 

Assistance is never far away though and suddenly there are two more sweaty Contrabanditos on hand to help the panic out.

'Could ya grab that for me mate?'
  Curtains are rapidly drawn but one of them’s f**ked completely and hangs off one last hook after my own midnight attempts to pull it across led to its destruction.  I feel strangely bad about this now.  It seems to hang in sympathy with the light fixture that’s surely given up the ghost having been abused for this purpose any number of times in its existence.  One of the innumerable bits of train disassembling tools clatters to the compartment floor.  I gather it, and hand it up.  I atone for the curtain?  ‘Thanks!’.  No problem.  Does that make me technically an accomplice to these small time crooks?

Ceiling?  Check!  Secure.  Waste bin?  In place?  Check!  Secure.  Long strange panel thing running above the window that Mr B has just raped with a screwdriver?  Check!  Secure.

'Viva Los Contrabanditos!'
  ‘Where you from my fren’?‘ Mr B enquires whilst restructuring the train further.  ‘England’ I say in as normal a voice as circumstance permits.  ‘Where habouts?‘.  Brighton’‘Oh, good, good.  Inglaise!‘.  Surreal?  Yes.  Good.  Good. 

And still they come and come.  Sacks and sacks of guilty little rectangular treasures, lovingly wrapped up and concealed in papers and plastic bags.  I am oddly reminded of Christmas mornings chez Weselby where tradition dictated that my sister and I would heft our sacks and stuffed stockings of goodies to our parents’ bedside, awed by the bounteousness of magic bags with lovingly wrapped rectangles and other shapes of joy besides inside.

Madame Bolshy Big-Butt and her handy little screw driver.
  For now, bags and bags of cigarettes lie scattered on seats and about my feet.  Having given into the weirdness and curious camaraderie of the situation I start taking some surreptitious photos. I smile to notice one solitary packet (this one for private consumption clearly) poking its head out of the pocket of a threadbare satchel opposite me (with a poorly stitched false back to conceal yet more contraband) which quietly proclaims its legend ‘Tobacco Seriously Damages Your Health’.

Firmly across the Serbian - Bulgarian border now, this mind-boggling D.I.Y. feat is soon reversed and all the stashed goods, right down to Madame Bolshy Big-Butt’s seven black nylon stockings stuffed with Viceroys are retrieved.  There is much laughter, back-slapping (lascivious approaches to The Shrew from a ticket guard after his bribe cut to be paid in kind I fear), rolling away of Sellotape and a man blocking the corridor by climbing into the panelled passageway ceiling when I attempt to return from the loo.

  ‘Phewf!’ what a curious way to awaken to a new day!

I don’t meet Stefan/ Stephen (my Canadian pal) again when we finally disembark in Sofia but I wonder what he would have thought about all this ‘scary’ activity at dawn?  Playing straight into the hands of his nightmarish vision of a world full of scammers and crooks and people that ’Ya know… brush up against you’.  I think it’s best he slept through this one.  Me?  Hell, it’s a story.  And that‘s all that matters.  Right? ;)

[ Whilst chronologically this entry's getting waaaay ahead of myself I realise, I’m struggling to catch up on my blogging but wanted you all to smile at this one ‘hot off the press’ as I sit and write and laugh, now typing from the safe confines of my friend Nevena’s kitchen in Sofia.

Passageway obstruction :)
  I shall now proceed to fill the blog gaps if I can … ]

GBelch says:
Brilliant story, Wes. Glad to see you've raised the bar from light bulbs and French bangers, eh!?!
Stay well, pal.
Posted on: Aug 26, 2009
Miek37 says:
Oh my, you have a way writing...! ;-))

I was only looking for blogs from travelers who did go to Koh Lipeh and Langkawi

but somehowe ended up on the seat of a traincompartment surrounded by loads of cigarette packages in the company of some illuster types and an guy called Steve who was just telling me that the f*cking final destination of the train was Sophia
(of all places!), Bulgaria!!

Thank God that at this point the imaginary fantasytrip you took me with did come to an end because so far i had enjoyed every minute of (reading) it but when i left Sofia at the end of a trip somewhere in another century i was pretty sure, not to say con-
vinced that i would never go there again, so i guess that travelling any further than this would have spoiled all the fun. '-)

In the meanwhile a lot of things have changed ofcourse and for this place that can only mean "better" ;-)) so i hope you enjoy your stay having lots of fun and all the best on the rest of your journey.

Thanks for the lovely trip! ;-)
Posted on: Aug 21, 2009
hummingbird50 says:
Holy ...Steve...:)
Posted on: Aug 18, 2009
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Mr A and The Shrew set to work.
Mr A and The Shrew set to work.
Mr A and Mr B struggle to get the …
Mr A and Mr B struggle to get the…
Yelp! - lucky I have this unchar…
'Yelp!' - lucky I have this uncha…
Success at last!
'Success at last!'
Suck those plums and make like yo…
'Suck those plums and make like y…
Sacks and sacks of Christmas goodi…
Sacks and sacks of Christmas good…
The Shrew, happy in her daily chor…
The Shrew, happy in her daily cho…
Could ya grab that for me mate?
'Could ya grab that for me mate?'
Viva Los Contrabanditos!
'Viva Los Contrabanditos!'
Madame Bolshy Big-Butt and her han…
Madame Bolshy Big-Butt and her ha…
Passageway obstruction :)
Passageway obstruction :)
Reaching for the ceiling in our tr…
Reaching for the ceiling in our t…
photo by: EmEm