A Trip Through Eastern Europe Turns South

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader’s memory of a hellish trip to Istanbul still sounds fresh:

In the early ‘90s, my young husband and I thrived on traveling as frugally as possible. We were traveling from Scandinavia and our goal was to make it to Istanbul. On a train from Poland to Romania, we were warned by a fellow tourist not to change money on the black market, because the undercover police “may arrest you.”

Armed with that information, we arrived at the train station on a Sunday, eager to purchase our tickets to Istanbul and leave Romania as quickly as possible. The “Official Money Station" was manned when we approached to change our currency. “No money,” he shrugged and waved us away. With no Romanian currency, we had no money for food, lodging, or train tickets.

A friendly young Romanian man approached offering to help us change money on the black market. He promised he was not a police officer.

He told us he knew of a bus station that would take us from Bucharest to Istanbul. He led us out of the station and around a corner to a small bus ticket station, and, while he practiced English with my husband, I hand-signaled with an older woman enough for her to accept my $20 USD for our ride out.

When we informed our friendly translator/guide that we no longer required his services, he kicked my husband in the shin (my husband was a towering 6'4”) and declared that he would “get his gun and come back to shoot us.” We were completely terror-stricken.

The locals, who spoke no English, just looked at us and smiled while we ran to duck behind the ticket counter. The proprietor followed us back and said: “Me Turk. No problem.” Then he opened his top drawer to reveal a machete.

We were relieved and willing when the un-air-conditioned, broken-down bus arrived to take us away, shuttling us to a standard-looking coach bus filled with Italian tourists. Everyone smoked cigarettes. Music blared. Not a word of English was spoken. There was no toilet on the bus.

We made it as far as the border of Bulgaria. The bus stopped and turned off the engine in a long trail of cars and buses. Apparently everyone who was supposed to be working the border was preoccupied watching the World Cup Soccer Championship matches.  

For nine hours, all traffic was halted while the games played. We exited the bus and wandered across streams of garbage and gypsy children playing on train tracks.

Hours later on the bus, mosquitos buzzing, my husband finally fell asleep, but I was desperate to pee. The driver escorted me off the bus and watched me urinate. Then he put his arm around me and attempted to invite me to join him somewhere else. I elbowed him with all of my might and jumped back on the bus. I shook my husband out of his slumber and did not allow him to sleep after that.

The border crossing finally reopened. They collected our passports and handed each passenger two cartons of cigarettes and eight bottles of alcohol to carry as contraband mules across the border. They stocked the back of the bus, and our passports were returned.

Twenty-five hours later, I saw the minarets and knew we had arrived. I developed a migraine and threw up. But at least we made it to Istanbul.

Bonus anecdote from another reader, in Ukraine:

I’m 19 years old on train from Lviv to Kiev. It’s an overnighter and I’m booked in a 2nd class sleeper car which has four bunks on each side. I’m scared out of my mind when I realize I’m the only woman in the compartment. The men see that I’m freaking out and find a translator to explain (actual words): “We want to reassure you that your body is safe and we will not rape you as you sleep.” Thanks?