BootsnAll Travel Network

Sofia to Belgrade Overnight Train: Guns, Smugglers and Bombs, Part Three, The Smugglers

Please read Part One, or at least Part Two, before reading this entry.

I looked back as Luka pulled the curtains tightly shut, ready to inspect his cargo of illicit goods.

Taking deep breaths, I walked down the length of the train car. Sitting alone was a backpacker I had seen earlier, when he first boarded the train. I pulled open the door. “Do you mind company?” I asked. He smiled. “Thank god,” he said, pulling out a pack of ciggarettes. “Someone that speaks English.”

I sat down and relayed my story back to him. Nervous about my bag and any ‘extra cargo’ and fearful of Luka coming to look for me and seeing me talking to someone, I got up after 15 minutes and went back to the car, book in hand. They were both laying down. Luka got up to make room for me. “No, no,” I said. “I am going to read some more,” waving the book, I closed the door and returned to the compartment with Julian, the Australian backpacker.

“What time is it?” I asked, rubbing my temples and leaning forward. The car had long since started to cool down and the cold was seeping in through the windows. “Three a.m.” he aswered. I laughed. “So much for arriving at 5:15.” I said dryly, “Even with the hour time change, the three hours at the border made it so that there is no way we are arriving at 5:15.” I had suspected it would be delayed, still Nis and the comfort of being back with my bag couldn’t come fast enough.

The carriage door opened up and three men in various states of cleanliness came in. They looked to be in their 30s and 40s, I imagined, and carrying large plastic plaid zip bags, like the ones old women do at the market. One was open – I glimpsed cartons of ciggarettes.

I looked at Julian as we stood outside the car, and groaned. “Remeber what I said earlier about people smuggling cigarettes? That is what they are doing.”

When I was staying in Sofia, every person at the hostel had come from Belgrade via train. Each person’s train had been stopped for hours at the border while customs agents systematically dismantled the walls, seats and the side paneling. The reminants of the daily game were everywhere – grates were uncovered, holes were in the side of boards and light covers were cracked.

We returned to our compartment. I shook my head at the offer of cigarettes as they, plus Julian, lit up.

“Where are you from?” asked one of the men in Serbian, sitting next to Julian. His name was distinctly Serbian, and escapes me. Amazingly surprised that, in my three hours of baby talk with Luka, I had larned some of the language, I told him. Next, he asked our ages. I told Julian that no, he did not need to pull out his passport as the man requested, just write in the on the window next to him.

The man next to him grinned. He was 33. He looked directly at me and told me that he liked me. Remembering Luka’s earlier comments that I was beautiful, I grinned awkardly.

I looked at the man sitting next to me – older than the others (the third man, in the corner, barely said a word) and less willing to tease the foreigners for a laugh. “Where are you going?” I asked, pointing to the LP map. “Why are you here, at night, at 3 a.m.” The man – Daniel – pointed to the cigarettes. “Work – tomorrow.”

I pointed at them as well. “Sell, smuggle?” He noddled while the man next to Julian bounced up and down and giggled. Ignoring Julian’s wrinkled nose, the man leaned across him, licking his finger and wrote numbers on the windeo – 500.

“500 packs?” I asked, pointing to Julian’s Marlboro Lights sitting on the windowsill. He shook his head. “Cartons?” I widened my hands and eyes and he grinned happily, whetting his finger again and writing 6,000 on the window. Six thousand euros, Julian asked. “Da, da.”

I looked at Daniel. “Why do you take them? Customs takes.” I motioned to the walls and motioned taking the cartons and pulling them out of their hidden spots. He smiled and said something in Serbian – then ‘money’. “You pay them?” I rubbed my hands together like a bill. “Da, da.”

I pretended to be an agent again, pulling things form the walls and pointing to the cartons above and covering my eyes. “You pay them and they take some, but not all?” He nodded.

Julian looked at the men. “Where do they go?” Daniel shrugged. “Italy, Germany.”

I smiled and shook my head, pulling away further into the cold window when the man beside Julian switched places to sit beside me, patting my leg and telling me to ‘go to sleep’.

Julian looked uncomfortable. “I have bad memories of ‘just go to sleep’. We were hitching, me and this girl Georgie, and we spent the night with this dude in his truck. I was in the front seat and Georgie was in the back with him, but he kept trying stuff.” No shit, I thought. And you let him sleep in the back with her? I quickly discredited any hope I had to him helping me if there was any trouble.

“Yeah,” Julian continued. “So I just laid awake, and getting up, but he kept telling me to go back to sleep.” I shook my head. “So, what happened?”

“Ah, well, he took it too far and we got up and left – barely got our bags out in time before he took off.” I just shook my head and we lapsed into silence as I tried to staty warm and wondered how long it would be before we arrived in Nis, when Luka nd his friend would leave and I could return to my bags.

Finally, around 4, the town began to appear and we slowed. I glanced at Julian and delicately stepped over one set of legs and then two more, out the door.

I walked down the hall and into the car next door to where Luka and his friend were sleeping when it got too cold. Inside, a man from Bulgaria told me he was going to Nis for a conference and that yes, it was the next stop.

As the train grinded to a hault, I realized they were still alseep in the car next door. Shit. Swallowing my fear of getting shot by a startled Luka or his friend, I opened the car door and hissed. “Luka! Nis! Nis!” He said something in Serbian and rolled over. Oh no, I thought. I am getting my bag back, and you are getting off this damn train and I am going to get some sleep. You are leaving. I tried again. “NIS!”

This time, Luka bolted up and looked out the window, shaking his friend away. I watched as they scrambled to get their stuff together, blinking in the bright light as it was flipped on. His friend took off down the hallway, and Luka looked around below the seat for his bag – not seeing it, he assumed his friend had taken it. I looked too, not seeing anything. He grabbed me and gave me a hug, kissing my hair twice. “Ciao, ciao!” he cried and ran down the car.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I looked around at the racks above, where my bag was…and there was his bag, overhead. His friend did not have it afterall. Visions of them chasing down the train, waving guns in the air flashed through my head. Fuck. There was no way I was getting stuck with this thing. I stuck my head out the door. “Luka! Your bag!” He saw me pointing and sprinted back, grabbing it and giving me a smile as again, I shook my head at the absurity of it all.

As the train pulled away from the station, I examined my bag – it seemed the same as when I left it, and there was nothing extra in any of the easy-to-reach pockets. Pulling out two seats, I curled up and closed my eyes, trying to forget the guns and fell asleep with dreams of sleeping until Belgrade.

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