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Barely Surviving Bansko, Bulgaria

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Well.

As I stood thigh-high in snow, looking around me for any sign of civilisation, I patted my pockets for my phone and marveled at my own stupidity.

Let me backtrack for a moment and explain that this happened in 2007, and that I want to tell this story because I wouldn’t want you to expect my travel stories to be in any way aspirational. In fact, many of my stories are of situations to be avoided, whether that’s due to the holy mortifying shame of them, or just a general lack of critical thinking skills displayed at the time. With that said, this is definitely one of the latter.

I’d arrived in Bulgaria three days earlier with a group of family and friends who had planned the New Year’s ski trip on a whim. At the time I was in a mindmelting relationship, so naturally I’d jumped at the chance for a break. An excessively enthusiastic shopping spree had made me the proud owner of a neon orange ski suit (from the children’s section) that made me look less like a professional skiier and more like an anthropomorphised traffic cone. I had also purchased gloves (from the children’s section), thermals, socks, boots, and matching goggles, so I felt very high-tech and athletic. My suit even had RECCO reflectors, which are supposed to help locate you in the unfortunate event that you get lost in the snow*. I was probably the most prepared I’ve ever been for a holiday in my entire life.

Our arrival in Bulgaria coincided with the run-up to the country officially becoming part of the European Union, and it seemed like the country was just about making ends meet with sellotape and bits of string. Our small plane landed on an icy runway outside of what looked like a large, corrugated iron shed masquerading as Plovdiv Airport**, and when we got inside we found a single luggage carousel that may or may not have served any practical use. I wouldn’t know; there were so few of us the airport staff just dumped our suitcases in the middle of the baggage hall instead of bothering with the charade of passing them through the hole in the wall. I don’t remember much about the journey from the airport to our hotel except that it was dark, it was snowing, and I was dog tired.

The next morning, I was dressed and ready to go by 7am. Feeling very prepared (and possibly overly-optimistic about my skiing abilities), I bounced excitedly from foot to foot as I waited to be picked up from the hotel lobby. A rickety minibus made the treacherous trip up the mountain every hour for four hours, picking people up at different hotels and depositing them at the top. In the evening, the minibus would meander back down the same way. Other than that, there was no way to get to or from the slopes, so I was always obnoxiously early for a seat on the bus.

My first day of skiing consisted of a lot of snowploughing – and if I’m honest it didn’t really pick up from there over the course of the week – but I had a great time. Just focusing on getting down the mountain in one piece was a nice reprieve from the drama that was eating me alive back home, and I was a huge fan of the little stops for hot chocolate every twenty minutes. My more athletically-gifted cousins quickly left me for the excitement of the red and black slopes, but I was content to slowly snowplough my day away in my kiddie ski suit, one green slope at a time. At the end of each day I would stumble back onto the rickety minibus, feeling extremely pleased with myself. Another day without breaking any bones! Another day of successfully avoiding trees! I was a star skier in my own mind. I would chatter excitedly until someone tugged on my sleeve to let me know we had reached the hotel, and then I would tumble off the bus ready for shots of tequila.

Skiing; it’s so much fun!

So three days into the trip, around dusk, I found myself on the last minibus of the day. Putting my trust in the courageous driver and the fact that this was my third round-trip on this deathtrap and we hadn’t yet plunged sideways down a cliff, I turned my attention to my friend Darcy and his younger brother Bing. They were staying at a hotel further along the route from mine, but everyone we knew staying at my hotel had left early that day so it was just the three of us. As the bus finally pulled in beside my hotel, I waved a cheerful goodbye and jumped down, alone.

The bus pulled away.

I stood, staring at the hotel.

I’d never noticed the blue window frames before. Come to think of it, I hadn’t noticed the popcorn plaster exterior either. I was almost sure my hotel had four floors… Why did it now only have three? I walked up to the building and pushed open the double doors.

The lobby looked entirely unfamiliar.

A large, surly-looking doorman appeared out of the gloom and said something to me in Bulgarian. I shook my head. He repeated himself and I smiled apologetically. “English?” I asked, with a hopeful voice. He shook his head and frowned at me. I looked around for someone – anyone – who might tell me where I now found myself, but the place was deserted.

I backed up, letting the double doors swing shut in my face. Then I turned around, and with an optimism that managed to completely blinker me from the red flags of my idiocy, decided it couldn’t possibly be too much of a walk to my hotel. In an ill-advised move that really sets the tone for the rest of this story, I set off down the road (if you’re keeping score as to how many moronic decisions I made on this day, we’re probably already up to about three).

Now keep in mind that although I used the word ‘road’ before, I was being extremely generous. What I am referring to as a road was merely a wide dirt track that looped its way back and forth down the unlit mountain. There were no cars to be seen, and I could tell that up ahead the path curved in a long arc before doubling back further down, so naturally I decided to take a short-cut through the trees (four).

Stepping off the road and hopping down into the forest, my feet plunged straight down into the snow until it reached my knees. I briefly considered turning back, but looking up at the embankment I had just jumped from I decided it would be easier to just press on (five). At first, I high-stepped like a pudgy pony doing dressage, but slowly the snow got deeper and deeper, and soon I was half-wading, half-shuffling through the snow. After fifteen minutes, night had well and truly fallen and I was only halfway through the trees to the next patch of road.

I started giggling to myself as I assessed the situation. Patting my pockets, I pulled out my Nokia with absolutely no roaming capabilities, and shone its paltry light around me. I was lost. I didn’t know where I was. If I kept walking, I was pretty sure I would eventually reach someone, but not necessarily someone who spoke English. I didn’t speak a word of Bulgarian. I didn’t know the name of my hotel, or whether it was up or down the mountain. I apparently didn’t even know what it looked like.

I slipped my phone into the neck of my jacket and slapped the snow with my palms as I considered my predicament. Then I returned to my slow snow-shuffle, giggling every so often at my own ineptitude. Every single step was an exercise in trust; I would inch my toes forward and hope against hope that the sole of my boot would meet something solid before the snow reached my waist. I started to feel nervous that I would fall down a hole camouflaged by the snow. I  wondered how useful my ROCCO reflectors would really be if I got caught on something. I wondered how much colder it would get overnight.

As I neared the road, I saw lights approaching from the distance and threw all caution to the wind. In all likelihood, you have never had occasion to watch a small, cushioned, neon-orange starfish-shaped person waddle quickly through excessively deep snow, but if you had been there that night that is exactly what you would have seen, and I think you would have been impressed by my speed.

You know, for a starfish.

I reached the edge of the road as a car came around the bend, and put out my hand… only to realise it was stopping of its own accord. I blinked in the harsh light of the headlights as an angry silhouette stomped towards me and grabbed my arm. It was Darcy. He and his brother had reached their hotel and somehow realised I had alighted at the wrong stop. They had retraced the minibus route in a taxi searching for me and my radioactive-looking ski suit.

Without a word, he half-pushed, half-dragged me to the taxi and bundled me in, where I was glad to see his brother (whose face wore a far less intimidating expression) and even more glad to give my extremities the chance to thaw. Darcy got in beside me and slammed the door of the taxi shut with a tight-lipped expression of barely restrained fury. He didn’t speak to me for hours.

Giddy with relief at being rescued from an ignominious death in a frozen forest, I was happy to ignore the waves of anger radiating from his body the entire drive back to the hotel.

I’ll tell you something, though…

He made damn sure I got out at the right one this time.

*Foreshadowing

**Apparently Plovdiv Airport has since undergone extensive renovations, and from the sound of things it no longer resembles a shed and now looks more like an actual airport.

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