It was a long bus trip from Istanbul, Turkey to Sofia, Bulgaria. The 360 mile (580 km) trip took about 12 hours including a 2 hour border check at midnight. Not my idea of fun. But, I was happy to even be on the bus in the first place. That was adventure enough.
I went early in the day to the office of a bus company which I had used and had good experiences with. I naïvely thought this would be just as easy. I knew I wanted to leave that night, but needed to find out what times the buses were (I still haven’t found any long-distance bus schedules online in Turkey).
The attendant had helped me before and he remembered me. He didn’t speak English, but he was able to understand my question and communicate the answers well enough. He told me the bus was at 7pm and to be back at the office at 6 to get the shuttle to the bus station. Normal enough.
I arrived at 5.30 to his smiles and greetings, paid for my ticket and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, about 10 minutes past 6, I asked him if the shuttle was coming. He didn’t seem worried about it and smiled and told me to sit and relax. ‘No problem’.
When 6.30 rolled around, he began getting more worried. Finally, he made a call and gestured urgently that I take my bag and follow him. Down the street we went to another bus company. He spoke with one of the attendants, smiled at me and left. I figured I was no longer his problem.
When I shuffled my way up to the front of the line, I was greeted by someone who, thankfully, spoke English. I explained the situation and he said he didn’t know why I was sent to this office as their shuttle had left already. Great.
Back to the first office I went. Running. By now, it was 6.45 and it takes a good half an hour to the bus station and although Turkish buses rarely leave on time, I was worried. When the first attendant saw me, he didn’t look happy to have to deal with the problem again. He frantically made some calls, looked relieved, smiled and told me to wait. ‘No problem’.
A few minutes later, a Turkish woman walked in and I asked her if she spoke English and could find out what was going on. She spoke with the smiling attendant and told me I would get on a shuttle that was coming and then take ‘metro’. Now, I hadn’t taken the metro in Istanbul, but I knew one existed. Since I wasn’t given any instructions of where to get on, or where to get off or where to walk from there, I was mildly freaking out.
Once the shuttle arrived, the driver, luckily, spoke some English. When the attendant finished giving the driver instructions we rolled away. I felt better that at least I was moving and someone was taking care of me (as the Turkish do). I refrained from badgering the driver with questions of where I was going and decided just to let happen whatever would happen.
Miraculously, I arrived at the bus station and was shuffled into an office. Shocked that I never had to take the metro to get to the bus station, I realized that the name of the bus company’s office I was in was ‘Metro’. The attendant explained that since I had missed my bus, the first attendant had wired money to Metro Bus Company so I could buy a ticket with them.
Before it could sink in, I was handed my bus refund in cash and directed to my new bus. I was able to buy the ticket from them (handing me the money seemed unnecessary since I handed it right back), get on the bus and leave for Sofia within 10 minutes of arriving at the station.
The bus turned out to be about a million times better than what I’d had before. The seat reclined infinitely more than other buses, there was a WORKING toilet (amazing), the bus was heated and the seats were comfortable. I’m willing to bet it was better than the first bus that I missed.
So, what to learn from this? When there’s a language barrier, it will be tough to communicate. No doubt about that. But if you trust the person helping you, they will help you. It might be in an unexpected way, but most people want their visitors to be safe, comfortable and happy. Even if the solution can’t be communicated, if someone is telling you ‘no problem’, it probably means there is no problem. Of course, there are exceptions and you have to take everything in the context, but in general, people take care of travellers and won’t let anything too bad happen to them.
Also take a look at the article I wrote for OnIslam.net about hospitality in Muslim countries.