I’m in a brief queue which has decanted from the decrepit coach we’re travelling in from Niš to Sofia. The coach has seen better days and an eerie green luminiscent light which won’t be switched off has accompanied us for the past 2 hours all the way up to the border.
The penultimate guy in the queue – a Japanese backpacker – is called forward by the burley Balkan guard. He looks hard at him, hard at the passport and then back to the backpacker. ‘Is this you?’ he sneers and the traveller confirms it is. There’s a pause. He’s waved through and he calls me upto the desk.
He takes a lot of interest in my passport. He opens it, looks at the photo, flicks through the pages, looks at me, at the photo, at the text above it. He gets up and goes off to find a friend. A few minutes later he returns with friend who goes through the same routine; looks at me, at picture, flick through the passport, look at me, look at the photo. They now bend the passport back and look at the stitching of the paperwork.
I feel pretty relaxed through all this. They’re doing this because this is their job. They do it all the time. There is nothing untoward about my passport. I’ve had it in my possession all week long. Hang on – that’s not true. It was in the desk of the concierge all week. Maybe… Maybe someone had taken it out and done something to it. Photocopied it? Graffitied all over it? Replaced the picture? I start momentarily to get slightly nervous. And this probably shows.
‘Is this yours?‘ The friend stares hard at me.
‘Yes‘, I reply. ‘It is.’
‘You can go.’ Just like that. That’s a bit more unnerving. No further examination or questioning. Just go. Now.
The problem is now that I’m last out of the shack and I can’t see my coach anywhere. I walk over to another border guard in a cabin and ask where the coach is and he just says go go go and I have no idea where he means. There’s someone next to him who looks like my driver. ‘Are you my driver?’ I ask him and he has no idea what I’ve said and so shrugs, mutters something and walks off.
I walk back to the pathway which leads out of the border control and through some passengers from what I think is another bus and up a slope to where I think my bus might have gone. But there’s nothing at the top of the slope apart from a garage and a couple of long distance German trucks. It’s gotten foggy. There’s no cafe nearby which might have been a site for a coach to have stopped in. There’s nothing now anywhere – apart from an impending sense that the coach has left the border station complete with my baggage, laptop, credit cards and eerie green light. All I have is a mobile phone with a dwindling battery. And a growing sense of impending panic.
There’s a brief foghorn call at the bottom of the slope. It sounds like it could have been a coach horn. But I’m not sure so walk towards what looks like a coach, but it’s nothing like the coach I was travelling in. I walk up to its front and check its destination: Sofia. This is my coach, but it can’t be. Where has it been all this time? I get on and see the same passengers that I left Niš with. Where did they get to? How did I miss them? Why are they looking so irritated?
One of them says ‘chauffeur’ and I repeat back at him ‘chauffeur’? And straight away stumbling up the steps comes the driver – the same one who drove us all here, in that eerie green light, the same one who muttered at me at the border cabin only this time he’s not muttering but shouting loudly, abusively with ‘ingleski‘ somewhere in the mix accompanied by other words which probably resemble words such as ‘tosser‘ or worse. I speak loudly back at him in my best restrained Englishman aboard mode but he just says something which resembles a verbal spit. One of the passengers says something to him but I can’t figure out whether he’s on my side or not.
Either way, the driver starts the coach, we drive off at pace and I slouch back in my seat. It is at least my bus, eerie green light and all.