Question: What do you get when you combine midday on a weekend + 15 full buses + ONE Passport Control agent for all of the buses?
Answer: 4.5 hours of agony and anger, waiting endlessly on a bus.
Our bus bound for Belgrade, Serbia from Sofia, Bulgaria was scheduled to depart at 9:00 am and arrive in Belgrade at 2:00 pm, but we had learned on a walking tour that Bulgaria’s favorite motto is “It’s great to be late.” So, accordingly, our bus departed about 9:20 am. We hit the border in about an hour, with a long, long line of cars, buses, and trucks. People jumped off the buses to stretch their legs and use the restroom. Then, that turned into multiple stretches and multiple restroom breaks as the clock changed to 11:00 am, 12:00 pm, 1:00 pm, 2:00 pm. When our bus finally got to the front of the line a little after 2:00 pm, we had been told the agents would come on board to check our passports, but no….we all had to get off and stand in a line in a small office as one woman tediously processed each person very slowly. We all piled back on the bus, finally. BUT….we found out THAT stop was only to get a departure stamp out of Bulgaria! We then drove a few hundred yards, only to be forced off the bus again to stand in yet another line to get a Serbian entrance stamp! And here, there were cafes, stores, and money exchanges, so once people were processed, they went shopping for food and snacks and stood in more long lines to exchange their money. There were no instructions to get right back on the bus, so most of us had to wait until it dawned on the stragglers that the bus was ready to go. More pain. Our 2:00 pm scheduled arrival in Belgrade turned into 6:30 pm. Our hotel was a 20-minute walk away, which we were willing to do if we had arrived in the afternoon, but after 9.5 hours on a bus, we decided to take a taxi. Not one taxi driver would drive us to our hotel with their meter on….you know, what taxi drivers are supposed to do??? We were told by locals that a taxi to our hotel should cost $2 to $3, but each driver we approached wanted either $10 or $20 and refused to take us on the meter. So we walked (it did indeed only take about 20 minutes), and they sat at the bus station, not making money. All in all, this was the most painful day of travel so far. We are not looking forward to crossing the Serbian-Hungarian border next week.
Most of the European Union countries are a part of the Schengen Area, 26 European countries that have agreed to abolish passport controls at their borders for ease of travel. Neither Bulgaria nor Serbia are parties to the agreement, so their border is often overwhelmed by a lot of travelers with few agents. It is likely a financial decision by these countries not to employ sufficient agents for the number of people passing through. But it is said that you have to spend money in order to make money. We, and our fellow bus travelers (people from all over the world), were pretty disgusted by waiting 4.5 hours in the heat. Those we talked to readily agreed that their future travel through these countries’ borders would be unlikely. That means a loss in tourist dollars for hotels, restaurants, tours, museums, public transportation, and all other travel-related purchases. The discomfort and outrage simply is not worth traveling here again, which is sad, as there is so much history here, with so many beautiful buildings, parks, and culture. Bulgaria has a major emigration problem, and has the fastest decreasing population of any country in the world. Most refugees from war-torn countries just pass through for better opportunities elsewhere. The country is a prime example of how a government can turn lemonade into lemons. Our experience at the border was a glaring demonstration of that ability.
No pretty photos today, just long lines of vehicles and people waiting in the sun!