I only stayed four days in Romania but it felt like months. I was glad to be sitting on the train to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, to be gradually moving on. Laurentiu and Cristina had brought me to the station, insisted I take some chunky sandwiches and waited on the platform until the train left. Their hospitality belied the image of hostility, fear and repression that had I felt on the streets of Bucharest. The train crawled out of town, made its way across a flat plain to the Danube. I was saved from excruciating boredom by a big, bouncy black woman from West Africa who was studying physics in Sofia and had been visiting her African friends in Bucharest.
– Why would you come and study here? I asked.
– There aren’t enough university places in Nigeria.
– But Bucharest? Sofia? Don’t you find these places dark, repressive and dull?
– Not at all, she replied cheerily. The place looks bad but the people are very friendly. They know how to party and the authorities leave us alone. The education here is very good and very cheap. Much cheaper than it would be in Western Europe or America.
We talked all the way to Sofia and when we arrived in that strange capital city she invited me to come and stay with her African friends in a block of flats, a student hall of residence. That evening I was basking in the euphoric friendliness of Africa, soaking up the human contact which acted like an antidote to the hostility of previous days. I hardly noticed the city of Sofia. I had no time or energy to look around yet another East European city. I was desperate to get going and first thing the following morning I went straight back to the station and bought a ticket to Istanbul.
When my train rolled up to the Turkish border I was in a deep sleep. Sounds of people shouting woke me up as I lay on the comfortable bench, not wanting to move. It was night outside and I lay there wondering why I was doing this journey. All of a sudden the whole journey felt pointless and I didn’t want to go on. I felt sad, lonely and bored and I had a powerful urge to go home. I was at the border and I had to get up, grab my rucksack, go outside and submit myself to questioning by the Turkish border guards. For the first time since I left home, I just couldn’t be bothered. A sense of doubt quickly started to grow and I could feel my purpose melting away. Then I heard a high pitched oriental song blasting out of a distant speaker. All of a sudden I knew why I was here. The Orient was calling, sweeping away all sense of doubt. I jumped up, grabbed my stuff and got off the train.
The travel agent in Istanbul looked like he never got out of his seat. He was friendly, helpful and spoke English but was so overweight that I wondered if he could even stand up. Everything he needed was right in front of him – telephone, reference books, airline catalogues, adding machine, cashbox – and I wondered if he slept there at night. I had noticed a lot of skinny people on the streets and wondered how this one had got so huge.
– I would like to fly to India, I said, not mentioning my fears about going overland through Iran.
– Hmm, let me see. The most comfortable route is through the Middle East but it is rather expensive.
– I want the cheapest ticket possible.
– Hmm…in that case you must go to Athens. I have a very good offer here of a flight from Athens to Bombay but you have to pick up the ticket in Athens.
– Greece? But I thought Greece and Turkey were enemies? Can I cross the border? There are so many newspaper reports about hostilities between your countries.
– Someone has been filling your head with a lot of nonsense, he said with a laugh. Indeed, the politicians and newspapers on both sides of the border do make a lot of noise, but when it comes to business we just carry on as normal. Do you want this ticket? You have a two day stopover in Athens.
I didn’t appreciate Athens with its infernal traffic, ugly modern buildings and westernised people. I had adapted to the gruff but friendly Communist citizen and was looking forward to the noisy chaos of India. I didn’t want to be in Greece but I now had a ticket for Bombay in my money belt, squashed up against my sweaty collection of US dollars, and I had to do something for two days.
The closest island to Athens is called Aghina and I got there by a short boat ride. All the buildings round the harbour were restaurants, hotels or something to do with the western tourists I was trying to avoid. It was the height of the summer holiday season and there were tourists everywhere. Aghina is a small island and I decided the best way to escape from the tourists, and to get some exercise, was to walk across it. It was less than twenty kilometres to the main beach resort on the other side. In my hurry to get away I forgot to take water and several hours later I felt I was dying of thirst in the middle of dry and barren hills. The heat was intense and I cursed my own stupidity.
Eventually I found a small village with old ladies walking around in long black dresses, with black headscarves, as if they were in mourning. It was the first place in Greece I had seen that wasn’t modernised; finally I was seeing the ancient stone buildings that travel agencies use in their enticing brochures. Perhaps I could enjoy Greece’s traditional culture? Maybe they would feed me something delicious? I had heard that the Greeks were hospitable. The village looked totally cut off from the tourist circuit and I wondered if any westerners had ever made it up here. I staggered through the village, feeling like Laurence of Arabia, and walked up to an ancient looking house with an outside well and an old crone sitting on a bench.
– Water, water, I pleaded. She looked at me stonily but didn’t reply.
– Water, wasser, l’eau! Can I have some water? I made drinking gestures and she finally got it, stood up and shouted:
– Cola, Fanta, Sprite?
This is an extract from 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook — which will be published soon. If you’d like to reserve a copy just email me at email@example.com (or post a short comment under this article)