ALL ABOARD THE BUS TO HAPPY LAND!
It all started out simply enough, boarding the bus at the unremarkable station on the outskirts of Veliko Tarnovo in the early evening. The five awaiting passengers, myself included hurriedly boarded. As the chilled wind ushered us into the bus the rest of those aboard climbed out to stretch their legs. We sat and bided our time for a few minutes before the bus pulled from the station, lurching along the road towards the highly anticipated destination of Istanbul.
To my surprise a powerful looking young fellow with a shaved head and firm voice approached, greeting me with a hello and offering tea. Being a Turkish bus, this was my first experience with famous Turkish hospitality and it did not disappoint. Warm tea, amble snacks and refreshing hand cleanser were provided for each leg of the trip after stopping at a destination.
Perhaps, however all of this was just a ruse. Just a ruse meant to ease the senses and relax the passengers for there were dubious and sinister forces at work under the surfaces. Initially these were not fully revealed to me at the time, but only became apparent as the trip progressed farther towards Turkey.
The first inkling of fishy business came when the before mentioned young fellow collected the passports of all the passengers aboard the bus. This in itself is no cause for suspicion, as it is routine on some border crossings and they are promptly returned in most instances. On this occasion however the passports were stowed away inside a rather small and unsecured box tucked away on a seat behind the driver. This was only after the young man had taken them outside the bus and carefully studied them with his fellow co-workers.
Standing there carefully inspecting our freedom books, remarking, pointing and laughing every once in awhile, a strange queasy feeling crept over me. This was only compounded when I could clearly see them holding an American passport, creasing and bending it as they laughed. I was the only American aboard and seemed to be the cause of much hilarity.
I set aside any suspicions as the rest of the passengers and employees boarded and the bus pulled from the station. For awhile I sat end enjoyed the pleasant and comfortable ride frequently dozing to off to be pleasantly woken with offerings of fresh tea and biscuits. Had the rest of this trip gone as dreamily I would certainly have nothing to write about and my trip would have been rather dull.
Fortunately for the sake of this story the bus pulled into a nondescript ramshackle of dilapidated buildings alongside the dark highway. Dying of thirst, unaccompanied by my fellow passengers I followed the drivers out of the bus and into the the most curious of stores I have ever seen. Something of a cross between a flea market and bar with a deli squashed in between the cluttered walls and displays of oddities for sale. I proceeded to the counter.
As I ordered a water in Bulgarian I was meet with surprise by the clerk and a experienced something that I can describe as no other than “The Evil Eye” by the driver as he turned and saw me. It might have been because I walked in amidst the exchange of large sums money being handed over the counter. Enough large sums to know that something was going on. I lingered long enough to know that this was a one way exchange and not perhaps border currency trading as I initially thought.
Your money Sir!
Being from New York I am familiar with enough situations in which I know that sometimes you just turn your head, look the other way and mind your own business. I think this was the best choice and I still hold this to be the right decision. This is not my country and I have no knowledge about what is commonplace.
This was only the beginning of the excitement which followed over the next few minutes as I walked back to board the bus. As I proceeded to walk down the aisle to my seat I happened upon the young tea pouring fellow stuffing something under my jacket, which had remained on the seat. Approaching nearer he saw me and looked up with startled surprise.
“Hello my friend. Whiskey?” was his greeting.
“What?” I proclaimed.
Leaning in closer next to my ear, foul alcohol breath and all he whispered “For you my friend. Whiskey.” and shoved a black bag into my hand. The same bag he had been stuffing under my jacket a second before.
And with that he turned, ran down the aisle of the bus, just as the doors were closing. Away the bus pulled leaving the young man wandering in the parking lot along the side of the highway, weaving in and out between parked trucks.
Sitting down I dropped the black bag onto the seat next to me. Deciding to peer inside the bag I confirmed that yes, there was indeed a large bottle of Jack Daniels. I sat for a minute and pondered this queer situation. Should I drink this gift, give it to the bus driver or just let it sit next to me and see what happened as the journey proceeded? I choose the later.
YOUR COMPLIMENTARY JACK DANILES SIR
Was this Turkish custom? I seemed rather unconvinced at this proposal, although perhaps if the giver of the whiskey had not turned tail and ran from my presence this would have been a plausible alternative. Maybe I was the butt of some joke where they give unsuspecting tourists gifts of alcohol and than watch them get ticketed or fined when the border inspection comes. Whatever the case, something told me to let sleeping dogs (or bottles of whiskey) lay and see how it played out by the end of the trip.