totleben

Hitchhiking in Bulgaria

I’d advise against it.

But yes, I have done it. Don’t worry, Grandma: As I type this, I’m sitting in my apartment, safe and sound. 

Last weekend, I ventured out of Pleven to a village about 30 minutes away, by bus, called Totleben, where my Peace Corps friend, Raydrian, works at two orphanages. Whenever I’m in town for the weekend, I try to clock at least one shift with her. Although it’s sometimes an adventure to travel by bus to a town too small even for a cafe, playing with the kids and helping Raydrian with her activities always offers a pleasant and insightful diversion. 

Most of the kids are Roma, and many actually have parents - they’re just too poor to take care of their children. The kids end up in these orphanages, and some of the parents periodically remove their offspring to live with them again, for short stints at a time. Although the facilities are pretty cold and definitely orphanages, they’re not the facilities you see in documentaries like Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children. In contrast, these orphanages offer plenty of food, room to play, and toys. What’s more, these kids go to school during the week. 

Don’t get me wrong, Bulgaria does contain some fairly harrowing orphanages. The documentary isn’t lying. In fact, one such facility exists near Pleven. However, the sites in Totleben, mercifully, are much better equipped. 

It’s always fun to visit Raydrian’s kids. They’re always thrilled to have a new playmate, and many of them recognize me and call out to me when I arrive. As one might expect, they crave individual attention. However, the more subtle nuances of their interactions have been somewhat surprising to me. At the end of the day, they’re still kids: they squabble over toys and bicker, but rather than desperately clinging to any sense of ownership they might feel for a toy or object, they appear peculiarly detached.

For instance, when Raydrian colors with them, they delightedly scribble Crayola masterpieces and show off their pieces with pride. But upon completion, almost every drawing is gifted either to Raydrian or me; the kids don’t want them. I’m not sure if this move simply serves as an attempt to better endear our tiny charges to their new playmates or if the orphans are so well adjusted to the idea of never having something to call their own that they immediately give away their prizes in exchange for attention - however brief. 

Additionally, during a visit a few months ago, before the holiday season, Raydrian asked a little girl how they planned to celebrate Christmas. The little girl joyfully told Raydrian of all the delicious food and sweets the orphans enjoyed each year. But when Raydrian asked about gifts, the girl merely shrugged noncommittally, saying she supposed their would be fun toys, and returned to talk of food and treats. 

Perhaps emotional survival in such an orphanage requires detachment from material things. Or maybe it’s more simple than that: If the kids never have had objects to which to attach, they might not have developed such a desire. 

I don’t know, but as I said, hanging out with Raydrian and the kids on weekends provides a fun diversion and a never-ending supply of psychological and cultural insights. The kids seem to enjoy my company, but I’m sure I’m the one doing most of the learning. 

This weekend, we played card games with the kids, teaching them the rules of the game in addition to practicing good sportsmanship and waiting each others’ turns. After that, we gathered a group to go for a walk to the center of Totleben and back. 

When Raydrian first arrived in Bulgaria, she said taking the kids on walks made her nervous. But then she realized that in a town the size of Totleben, there wasn’t really too much trouble to be had, and the kids certainly weren’t going anywhere. The whole town only homes a few hundred people, orphans included.

While the weather had cleared enough for buses to get from Pleven to Toteleben and back, snow still covered the ground. 

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Me, in my infamous hat, puff jacket, and ski pants. Back in Pleven, my high school students can recognize me from across the square, since I’ve been wearing the same winter gear for about a month, as Bulgaria’s winter has dipped into record-low temperatures.

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Totleben is known for its spring water, supposedly enriched with healthful qualities.

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On our walk, one of the kids picked up a stick and started waving it around. Before he could begin thrashing his walking companions, Raydrian, in a stroke of brilliance, encouraged him to write names in the snow. It’s hard to read, but in this picture, he is proudly displaying the name “Laura,” written in Bulgarian with a heart drawn next to it. Too cute!

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Remember how I said the town is small? Yeah, there’s not much there.

Now for the hitchhiking part of the story.

Realizing the time, we hustled the kids carefully back through the snow and ice to the orphanage and made for the bus stop. Only two buses a day go from Toteleben to Pleven, so if you miss the first one, you’re stuck for another four hours in a town that literally has NOTHING to do. If you miss the last bus, well… I’d imagine you’re in trouble.

Marching through the snow, we turned onto a semi-main street just in time to see the bus zoom through the intersection ahead.

Oops.

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the deserted bus stop

Fortunately, it was the early bus, which meant we had at least 5 hours of daylight left. However, in the wake of those worn-out, squealing bus tires, we faced two choices: 1) Wait for 4 hours in the snow, or 2) Start walking and hope a generous soul offered us a ride before frostbite set in. 

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That weekend, it was definitely still winter in Bulgaria. 

Ok, I might be exaggerating a little bit. We probably weren’t in danger of frostbite. After all, after living so many months in Bulgaria, we’re pretty decent at dressing for cold weather. 

For better or worse, we opted to take our chances on the highway. And since Pleven sits about 25 kilometers from Totleben, we were reeeaally hoping someone would offer us a ride.

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If you can read cyrillic, then you’ll understand that sign and know how far we might have had to walk. If not, you can see how intimidating being lost in the Bulgarian countryside might be. 

Thank merciful heavens, a driver picked us up on the outskirts of Totleben and carried us most of the way to Pleven. However, he dropped us off 6 kilometers outside of town. Quickly, I did the math (Yes, that’s right: math.) and realized that we had a looooong walk through snow and ice still ahead of us. 

Thank merciful heavens again, a really nice couple soon picked us up, and we rode all the way to the center of Pleven, where we enjoyed a lovely hot meal and counted our blessings.

All in all, it was a good day. I still consider hitchhiking to be reckless and haphazard. However, if this year has taught me nothing else, it’s certainly taught me to be more flexible and that one can only prepare so much. 

When the bus leaves early and you’re stuck in the snow, sometimes the best you can do is keep trudging and hope for the kindness of strangers.