Something happened when we signed up for couch surfing. Even before our first experience in Europe, something changed in our philosophy towards travel and people. It was as if our world was being turned inside out. The compass was doing an about face. Our new direction was steering us straight ahead towards humanity.
I could feel it as soon as we clambered off the bus in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. After half a year of travel ranging from the peaks of Patagonia to the depth so of the Red Sea and through the bazaars of Istanbul, you’d think I would have been used to seeing humanity in a different light at this point. But it wasn’t until our couch surfing request box was brimming over with accepted requests that I began to see the warm and generous hearts of so many people. Complete strangers.
Standing there, fresh off the bus and still shivering from our 2:00am border crossing in the rain, I looked around helplessly at the Cyrillic on what I assumed was the bus timetable. The clock (thankfully not in Cyrillic) read 5:00am and all the windows of the attendants at the bus station were shuttered. I longed for anyone to give us a hint as to where we could catch the bus to Veliko Tarnovo. I exchanged smiles with a young man nearby and asked if he knew.
My Bulgarian is nonexistent, but he spoke just enough English to understand me and let me know he had no idea regarding the bus. But his open nature seemed to reaffirm those feelings I was getting from the CS requests. Without anyone else in the lobby, a sleep mixed with haphazard Cyrillic study passed the hours.
Finally, the dark sky had lightened and my eyes flew open at the sounds of shutters rattling. Hisako gave me a little nudge and I went up to the window to ask if they knew where buses to Veliko were leaving from. Once again, I was treated kindly and given only a smidgen of information. “Down the street,” she said, so that’s where we headed.
I took us some time, but we eventually found the bus stand that would take us to the other side of town. A nice lady at a small kiosk, through a mixture of English and body language, told us where and when the bus was leaving from. She also sold coffee, which was a godsend. Another smile, another encounter.
The lack of any means to communicate or even read was really sinking in as we arrived at our second bus station of the morning. As much as this was making me anxious, the kindness of strangers was conversely uplifting. Unfortunately, we missed the early bus to Veliko by only a few minutes, but that gave us several hours to plod around Plovdiv.
The central area was walking distance from the bus station so we made a go of it. It took longer than expected. On our way we passed large, concrete apartment blocks, dilapidated buildings, and remnants of an era gone by. The overcast sky and slight chill painted a stark picture. Still, we forged ahead to see more of the wonderful people we had met so far.
As we stood gazing at the old mosque in the center of town we were greeted by an elderly man. He spoke to us in fluent English and proceeded to talk about the mosque’s history and his own. A concert violinist and concert master. It blew me away. We chatted for some minute before he darted off, wishing us well and us him.
The decrescendo of his footsteps barely faded from our ears when a younger voice took us by surprise from behind us. This time, a young man in what looked like the latest in Brooks Brother’s apparel started pelting us with question after question. We took the question in stride and answered them calmly, but feeling slightly on edge after being confronted by a complete stranger for the second time in a matter of minutes. Scams, thieves, and dire warnings from travel books and travelers were racing through my head, making me wonder if I should trust these people. My thoughts always came back to the invitations to stay in a stranger’s house and relaxed my nerves.
Travel is always about opening your mind and starting with Bulgaria the two of us were quickly beginning to understand that it means opening your heart as well. Only a few hours in Bulgaria and already the dynamic relationships with strangers was steering our adventures in exciting and new directions. All of these chance encounters (and a few planned ones) with people I may never see again, were making me reminisce on my own interactions with strangers in Japan and how I might add a new and exciting twist to their adventures with a simple 1 minute conversation or a restaurant recommendation.
I was slowly learning an important lesson in learning to trust in others and letting the wings of fate take me for a ride. There’s a good change that strangers will take you on a ride you won’t forget.