“Hey, what are you up to this weekend? I’m heading to the city,” I write my friend, Dimitar, a travel photographer and architect Maya introduced me to in the small mountain village of Bansko weeks ago.
“Sofia?” Dimitar inquires.
“Yeah, I have a few days before my friend arrives, and I would love to explore with a local,” I reply.
“It’s so hot. I’m going to the seaside. Come with me. It will be just some idiot boys.” He sends some photos of his car, a dark seaside cliff and a massive dog framed in a whitewashed floor. I later will learn about all of these places, including this white restaurant where we will slowly drink ice water crushed with fresh mint and fig syrup come morning time.
“Let’s go!” I concede. The heat in land-locked Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria is scorching. Beads of sweat run down my back as I lean into the splintered table at my hostel on the hilltop. Beautiful view, but no air conditioning and a small fridge stuffed with a few sour things.
There is a snow white kitten hiding in the leg of my pants. Showshow is what Ramsey named her. He plucked the stray from the streets of Plovdiv near the Roman amphitheater last week. The opera festival was still in full swing and he snuck in to the shows.
“I like to sneak into places without paying. The tickets are cheap,” he shrugs. “It’s the thrill of breaking the rules that moves me.”
Ramsey, my new friend from the hostel, was born in Syria then exiled to Saudi Arabia and now resides in London. He’s young and tenacious, a bit cocky, but I like the way he wraps his keffiyeh around his head and shares beautiful stories. One in particular about the sea. He was on the coastline of Spain and witnessed a young father bringing his son to the sea for the first time.
“His eyes, they were so blue. So filled with wonder,” he signs. “I’ll never forget those eyes.”
I find myself lost in the hazel wet eyes, sunken and wistful Ramsey casts on me. He’s sweet, daring and boastful, but with a honey softness about him. He claims to buy and sell gems during his travels. His fearlessness is striking.
“I lost my father at 52, but my mom, she’ll live forever. She’s too mean not to. You know, she was a soldier in the Communist group in Saudi Arabia. She used to beat my brother and me. Yeah, but I was a shit kid. Always stealing and lighting things on fire. I deserved it. She liked to hit me in the elevator. You know, because I couldn’t run away.”
Without a moment to take in the weight of the story he so lightly shares, Ramsey, exclaims, “It’s boiling. Let’s get some fresh lemonade, okay?”
We walk down the steep, broken cobblestone path to a local bar. Pushing the heavy glass door open, we meet the cool blast of AC, and my shoulders relax a little. The shelves are thick with dust and the leather seats torn. We are the only guests high noon. New age music tumbles from the speakers.
“I like to go to weird places,” I think to myself. A phrase I’ve tossed around in various groups seems to stick today, as the sweat clings to my clothes, and I sink a little deeper into the thick air.
Later, back at the hostel, I see the dust flying and hear the sound of gears strained over the narrow, steep climb to the hostel. Dimitar arrives in a clean British “racing green” Range Rover. It’s a stark contrast from the brown, sagging buildings in the afternoon heat. Ramsey carries my bags down asking me one last time if I would consider staying longer.
He leans in and plants a kiss on the side of my mouth. Holding my face with both hands, he pulls away to take in one last look. Those liquid hazel eyes mysterious but hopeful.
“Wow, you’re really something, you know that? I really hope I get to find you again in this world,” he says.
Ramsey ties the indigo feather mask to my backpack, the glittered edges he carried from the mountain festival. The very one he wore running through pine trees on a psilocybin trip. The one I will casually leave with Dimitar after wearing it paddling down an emerald river in a few days’ time.
I smile as I wave goodbye to the hostel crew and jump into the cool, cream colored interior. The fresh air is a welcome relief after the feeling of inescapable heat.
“Here,” Dimitar hands me an iced cola he pulls from the built-in fridge. City tunes dance from the sophisticated sound system.
“Wow, thanks.” I lick my lips from the sweet cola and lean my head against the soft cushion.
Traveling invites a range of experiences that continually evolve the more I open up to them. Accepting invitations from new people to traverse a country on a whim, saying yes to an assortment of unplanned ideas when I don’t know or can’t imagine the outcome is something I would shy away from even a few months ago. Now, a last-minute invite to the sea changes my direction in an instance.
“So, there are two villages. The Cyrillic names are difficult, so I’ll put it like this. There is the Bar Village and the Restaurant Village. Depending on where we stay, we will either be eating or drinking,” Dimitar smiles.
We arrive late into the night after stopping for hitchhikers, fresh yogurt, and coffee. Then, to a seaside town for Rakia and fresh fish. I squeeze the thick lemon wedge on the charcoaled skin – both salty and crisp. The cool rosé washes down well with shopska salad and aubergine.
The music is beckoning as we wind along the cliff’s edge a while later. I cannot see the water in the pitch dark of the night. We pull up to a place in the Bar Village full of young, tanned faces huddled in groups between cocktails and a string of cigarette smoke. We walk through the scene and saddle up to the bar as Dimitar orders prosecco garnished with fresh herbs and homemade fig syrup. The sweet, earthy taste goes down easily, like liquid gold. Between the beats, I can make out a few stars above.
“The thing is,” Dimitar sighs. “Everything is booked. I’ve tried Baba’s in the Restaurant Village, but no answer. We’ll have to camp tonight.”
I clasp my hands together gleefully. All I want is to sleep under the stars. Nico, Dimitar’s quiet friend, a filmmaker in Sofia, furrows his brow. Not a fan of camping, I take.
We step into the cool evening air, drive through the lumpy field and pull up to what seems close to the edge. I pump up a mattress and worm into my sleeping bag, then draw my eyes upon the blanket of stars.
“You can’t fall asleep until you see a shooting star,” Dimitar states. I nuzzle deeper into the bag just as a long streak, sparkling and fading, draws its arm across the ink blue night. Lids heavy, smile resting on my lips, I fall into a deep slumber.
The mist of morning wakes me. The cool quiet kind one encounters waking outdoors. I rise to the wheat colored fields, and with a few steps crunching on the Earth, drop my jaw to see just how close we are to the rocks below. Within a few meters the car is parked. I peer over the steep edge to witness a dissent of purple wildflowers and crashing waves.
The rich orange orb starts to quickly rise from the Black Sea’s horizon. There is no music this time to serenade such an exceptional moment. No waking eyes to share it with nor camera to capture. Just my heartbeat softly fluttering in the morning sunrise. To be remembered as nothing short of spectacular.
As the sun grows richer above the horizon, a boat to my left lets out a sonorous horn blast. It’s the border patrol for Turkey. Keeping some out, letting others in. At the edge of Bulgaria’s coast, all is calm against the Black Sea’s foaming waves.