Border Crossings, Smuggling Rings and Breakages
Sofia Travel Blog› entry 51 of 94 › view all entries
What was that? Panic swept over me as I asked that question.
Something had just gone crack very loudly after I ran and jumped onto my bed and I was now greeted with a problem. In my heart I knew what had happened, but I didn’t want to bring myself to admit it.
Arriving into Sofia, Bulgaria, by train from Nis had been exciting. The train ride went as planned except the train was one hour and three minutes late. No surprises there because in the Balkans everything seems to be a little more relaxed; the trains, the people, the border crossings …. or so I thought.
Serbia to Bulgaria border crossings are fascinating and could find itself in a place of fiction; something you read about or see in movies, but never in my entire life as a traveler had I experienced something so bizarre and wonderfully exciting as a smuggling racket.
The tax in Bulgaria is a lot more on cigarettes than in Serbia, so there is a huge business of importing cartons across the border by ‘smoke mules’. Yes, the smuggling cartel I witnessed was all about the cancer sticks, fags, smokes, durries, whatever you like to call them and it surprised me who was doing the smuggling and who was involved.
Okay, so I’m not trying to deprive these people from clearly a valuable service to society, but I found the actions of individuals too interesting not to discuss.
It all started just one or two stops from the border.
The station is packed with locals who get on with bags, suitcases, trolleys and sometimes rubbish sacks.
Sounds from the empty cabin beside us entered ours. Tape being ripped for affixing cartons, seats that were fixed, pulled away from the wall and the cartons were stashed and taped everywhere you could imagine, under the tables, in the holes already created by previous smuggling and on their person. One of the lady’s, who was quite high up on the pecking order, lifted her top and revealed cigarettes, which had been stuffed in her bra and worn around her midriff. Yes, they take their right to encourage the smoking habit very seriously here.
As the train started to move, it sounded like the train was overrun with huge rats. The noise was coming from the toilet, the room was next door to our cabin on the other side, and when some insulation from the ceiling started landing on my bag, it became quite obvious this was not a room we could use anytime soon. I began to wonder how much were they stuffing into this toilet and would the ceiling collapse under its weight?
Finally after everything had been put into every place possible, the real excitement began. We had arrived at the border and were undergoing passport checks.
The conductor came through asking to see tickets and as he did I noticed that this slight man started developing a small pile of money in his hand as he checked the tickets of people, including the smugglers.
Obviously someone hadn’t paid enough baksheesh, or hadn’t played the hiding game as well as some others, as there was a flurry of noise coming from one of the other carriages as ten or so cigarette cartons where thrown from a train window to the awaiting platform and customs officials. These cartons were collected and the individual responsible removed from the train. I am still unsure whether they managed to talk their way back onto the train, or try again the next day as the people who make this run are the same over and over again.
I did happen to get some very sneaky photos of the whole event, which was quite the feat as there were people everywhere on the train, but it was the photos of the toilet I was most proud of.
After getting through the border, the journey continued without incident until the whole process of unpacking began when we were to arrive in Sofia. Tape being ripped off after affixing cartons, seats that were fixed, being pulled away from the wall and the cartons, which were stashed and taped everywhere, removed and replaced back into their bags, suitcases, trolleys and even rubbish sacks.
So after this welcome to Bulgaria I went to the hotel and was greeted by darkness at the train station and a drive through pot holed streets. What had I got myself in for?
I was very pleasantly surprised with what I found at the hotel – luxury with wifi in the room, huge space for bags, a balcony overlooking the synagogue, a flat screen TV and most importantly one of the most comfortable beds I had seen for a very long time and that is why I now found myself in this predicament.
I had gotten excited and did something a little preemptive – I ran to the bed and jumped on it from a height. Not a gentle flop, but a swan dive, a starfish drop that quickly changed my mood of elation to one of panic and fear.
I finally had a nice bed and what did I do, I broke it and even though I had tried to trick the bed into thinking it was fixed by laying the slats on top of the frame, after I lay down and turned off the light, I fell down through these slats again and ended up propping up the mattress with the couch cushions.
Therefore I have started exploring the streets of Sofia after a good nights sleep, but not as comfortable as what it could have been.
I have been impressed with what I have seen so far including the GUM Store (Central Department Store like in Moscow), the St.
But there is still one thing I really want to experience whilst in Bulgaria and that is a nice UNBROKEN bed. Hopefully tonight …. fingers crossed, but if it is fixed I will promise I will not do one thing – I will not jump for joy.