I cringe as the Ukrainian border officer opens my last bag, my food bag. The only thing inside is a mason jar of oregano given to us by a hospitable greek cafe owner. I mentioned earlier throwing it out before crossing these borders but now here I am attempting to look as innocent as possible as his gloved hand removes the jar from my greasy pannier.
He did not speak much English, but when he held it up into the sun I could understand what he was instantly accusing me of. Today is Jason’s 30th birthday, he is not wearing a shirt and has a large smile on his face. The few men waiting to cross behind us are silent and seem excited to see what happens next. I motion for the guard to smell it and stutter “it’s for cooking” and I think I pretended to shake it into an invisible dish of pasta. He opens the jar, smells it and fingers around inside. Jason tells one of the other guards it is for pizza.
“You make pizza on these bikes, I do not think so!”
The jar is thoroughly sniffed by the rest of the authorities including the bored looking soldier with the kalashnikov. They decide it is not weed and tell me I can put everything back together on my bike. Now it is Jason’s turn, he removes his panniers and we watch as the man with the gloves hands his way through every inch of his possessions. At one point the man opens Jason’s ukulele case, passes him the uke and says, “now play.” Jason is nervously strumming the out of tune instrument while the man continues to empty his bags, it seems there are now more onlookers.
“Happy birthday.” I say to Jason.
It has been over a month since we decided to divert from our route through Turkey and head north for Ukraine. We traveled through central Greece and rode over the mountains at Meteora. Here we explored the monasteries which blossom from the tops of the sandstone pillars. These structures look impossible, but here they sit having survived centuries of sieges and even shelling from the nazis in WW2. We sat outside and made sandwiches because we lacked “appropriate” clothing to enter the still active churches.
The Greek border guard studied our passports carefully. We had one day to spare before we had officially worn out our welcome in the EU. I suppose we were lucky because neither of us had bothered to count the days. No problems on the Bulgarian side but the Greeks had warned us that in Bulgaria and Romania we would certainly be robbed by gypsies. People often ask us, “have you been robbed!?”
They seem surprised when I tell them no and then usually reply with, “well wait till you get to (insert country)”.
We did have a stern warning from the Romanian police while we were camping cliffside at a beach near some hippy vans and a guerilla techno music festival. They woke us with flashlights and told us that our bikes will be stolen and that the thieves will come from the fields.
Romanian officer: “Yes, they will come from the fields, use gas and take your bicycles, it happens everyday.”
Jason: “I will wake up if I hear them gassing me.”
Other Romanian officer: “No, you will not, they use sleeping gas.”
We ended up surviving the night, no gas, only some shared sangria from a can with the girls camped next to us.
I feel safe when I am close to the beach and we usually follow coastline knowing that we will nearly always find a beautiful place to sleep. In Bulgaria we were given directions to a beach by some people traveling in a van. One of the girls said, “yes, it is great, no cell phones, you can really connect with nature out there.”
We could gather from our conversation with them what kind of situation we would find at this place. I pictured a few dozen people sitting by a fire, playing guitar and maybe taking drugs. We decided to give it a shot, if things started getting weird we would just dip-slip.
We cycled for several kilometers down a dirt path through vineyards and pass several people walking with large backpacks (a sure sign we were going the right way.) At the beach the first thing we see is a young naked fellow with a man bun bending over to collect a bundle of firewood. His buddy is giggling and frolicking, covered head to toe in a gray clay or ash. I look at Jason and say, “Well… home sweet home?”
There are more people and structures off in the distance so we push our bikes through the soft sand. The two naked gentlemen are in front of us pulling their pile of wood. Jason stops to let them get a head start after realizing there was no reason to subject ourselves to that view while sweating our way across the beach. Further along a man in the distance approaches us with his arms open. Jason turns to me,
“Yo, do you know that guy?”
He is a tan dude with short hair, a trimmed beard and no shirt.
“Welcome”, he says. “You made it!”
He gives us both hugs and then offers to drag Jason’s bike the rest of the way to where he says we will camp. He seemed nice enough so we followed him through a series of trails along the edge of the beach, pass camps which looked very much permanent and signs designating a certain patch of trees a “Reflexology and yoga meditation zone”.
I immediately thought, dammit, we just got sucked into a rainbow gathering. My judgmental self was dreading the moment some dreaded girl approaches me and tries to trade me some beads on a string for my last few remaining cigarettes. Our friend showed us where to camp, a nice spot up on a hill overlooking the sea. The night went well, we made some soup on a fire with the others in our camp and took turns strumming the ukelele while one of our new friends played along with a wooden flute. One character I will not forget and can only properly describe as Bill Hader going overboard in his research for a role as a homeless bulgarian alcoholic kept passing out near our tents on a dirty blanket. Every few minutes he would stumble back to the fire and stare at me as if he had seen something horrifying then he would make a gesture for a cigarette.
We were told that not only was this the last virgin beach in Bulgaria (a beach where you can essentially do whatever you please) but that this may very well be the last year it exists. Russian developers have been moving into the surrounding areas in droves and this beach has recently been acquired by investors. Once they can establish laws to push out all the hippies camping on the beach they will begin constructing hotels and a new yacht harbor. Admiring the vast emptiness and cleanliness of this place I can see both perspectives of the argument, but damn it would be nice if this place would stay the same forever.
I am in Odessa, Ukraine now where we will spend the next several days getting our gear together for the leap to India. There is a music school in the courtyard beneath this hostel and in the afternoons the piano echoes throughout the whole building.