A Surprise Trip to Norway and Finland

Sometimes I forget why I created this blog in the first place. Was it to show pretty pictures? To get the most followers? To make money?
It was more basic than all of that. It was simply to keep my friends and family updated and informed on my whereabouts, as they change so frequently.
I've been totally MIA the last few months, for several reasons. But after family and friends back home kept making comments like "I didn't know you went to Finland!" I realized that my lack of posting here affected more than just the number of readers I have.
So let's get back to the basics.

I went to Norway and Finland two weeks ago.
And nobody knew. Because it was kept a secret till after I went.
All for the sake of.... [drumroll] the bachelorette party of one of my best friends!
I was contacted by the Maid of Honor two months ago asking if I would be interested in coming to Oslo for a weekend bachelorette party, which of course I jumped on.
A weekend with one of the loveliest girls I know, in a beautiful city, with all sorts of fun events planned? Yes please.
As you may have guessed based on the secrecy, the bachelorette party was a total surprise. My friend lives in London with me, so the plan was for me to fly to London earlier in the day and meet up with her close friend in Oslo, while the Maid of Honor kidnapped her later in the evening and escorted her to Heathrow and on to Norway.
Surprise #1: flying to Oslo.
Surprise #2: me being in Oslo (she had no clue I would come).
I arrived in Oslo around noon Friday, and then spent the afternoon helping to prepare for the party and getting to know the area. I was the only non-Norwegian attending the party, so I planned to stick around for the full weekend and do a bit of exploring.
As it turned out, my friend was 100% surprised by both the party/flight and my appearance, making it a huge success. Plus, all the events planned went perfectly, including a group dance class that I was more than a little wary of (I'm making sure the video evidence will ever see the light of day, haha)
Fortunately/unfortunately though, because I was busy with the bachelorette party for the full weekend, I didn't do much typical sightseeing in the city. What I witnessed of Oslo was lovely, but I was too busy running around and having fun to take photos beyond my iPhone.
I'll be returning to Norway in April for the wedding, and look forward to really documenting the country then.

After a successful weekend in Norway, I headed home to London. But not before stopping off in Finland, where I had booked a 20-hour layover in Helsinki. One of my favorite travel techniques is to book an extended layover, because it's basically a free flight to a new destination. I didn't do any planning for my Helsinki trip, and figured I'd wing it upon arrival.
I got into the city around midnight and made it to my hostel with no issues (a marvel, considering my proclivity for getting lost), and ended up spending the next day simply walking the city. I stopped in at Fratello Torrefazione for coffee and reading (I highly recommend it; their latte was gold), and then found myself wandering the harbor.
It was absolutely freezing there, and the bay was frozen over in a thin layer of ice. It snowed as I entered the city the night before, but all that was left over by the following day was compact sleet on the sidewalks.
All in all Helsinki was lovely, though a very quiet and rather uneventful trip. Phil has big dreams of doing a Finland tour over the course of several weeks, so hopefully I'll get a chance to really soak in the city again in the future.
I have a love/hate relationship with solo travel. While I've only ever traveled solo on short-term trips (1-2 days long total), I've never really enjoyed them. I appreciate the learning experience that solo travel presents - how not to get lost, how to function on your own, how not to be dependent on others - but for the most part I find myself lonely and bored.
I'm a social butterfly. Give me a full day of hanging with a group and I'll be happy as a clam. But I'm not so social that I'm dysfunctional when I'm on my own. As a result, solo travel for me doesn't hold much appeal. I have so much more fun with others, why would I waste time and money to go out on my own? 
I have no shortage of friends and loved ones to venture round the world with, and a trip by myself seems like a missed opportunity to make memories with them. 
So, yes, Helsinki was beautiful. But I lost interest by mid-afternoon, because half the fun of exploring a new city is doing it with someone you love. Or at least someone to laugh with. 

So, you should go on a solo trip, at least once, because everyone should. But with a huge push for all women to go solo traveling (or so it seems there has been), don't feel disappointed if you don't love it as much as everyone else [seems to] does. Solo travel can be great for some people, but really disappointing for others. I fall in the latter category. 
Travel is wonderful, but do it the way that makes you happiest. 

Huh, that got a bit serious. Didn't mean for that to happen, haha. You should probably go read my hilarious story about my solo trip to Paris to lighten the mood. It's got flashing and closed airports and all the elements of a good misadventure. 

What are your favorite locations in Norway and Finland? 

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Wait, what do you study? Discussing Psychological and Psychiatric Anthropology

This post is for everyone who holds a degree or job in an obscure subject. This is for the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, the Ecogastronomists, the Biostatisticians, Clothing Engineers, and the Informatics out there. For anyone who gives a ten-minute lecture when asked what they do (and not just because they like to talk). We all have the curse of the unheard-of career. The type of job which has a 98% rate of "Huh?" as a response. But that's ok, because we know what we do and we love it.
So what do I do?
Psychological and Psychiatric Anthropology. (huh?)
Telling people what I'm getting my degree in is a cringe-worthy experience. Not because my degree isn't awesome (it totally is), but because nobody has any clue what it is. And that's not their fault; I didn't know this particular discipline existed until fairly recently myself.
"So you go to school in London? What do you study?"
"Oh, um, I'm getting my MSc in Psychological and Psychiatric Anthropology"
this is followed by one of three responses:

A) "Oh, that's cool... So you like living in London?" [has no clue what I've just said, afraid to ask me to repeat myself]

B) "Ahh, a shrink, huh? I might have to chat with you sometime, ha ha!" [Heard psychology and stopped there]

C) "Oh, sweet! So what kind of stuff do you dig up?" [skipped the psych part, misheard/understood anthropology as archaeology]

Induce the cringing on my part, because I'm left with two options (neither of which are particularly attractive):

A) Sound super annoying and/or pretentious and correct them, attempt to explain what I actually study

B) Smile and nod, ignore the fact that they obviously have no clue what it is I do; feel sad.

So what is psychological and psychiatric anthropology? Good question. I'm nearing the end of my coursework and am getting close to leaving for field research, which is incredibly exciting. But before I make any announcements about what my field research is and where I get to go to do it, I should probably make sure all my friends, family, and readers are on the same page about the basic meaning of my degree.
So let's do just that: start with the basics.

The term "anthropology" comes from the Greek "anthropos" meaning "people", and "ology" meaning "study of". Therefore, anthropology is the study of people.
But Taylor, lots of fields study people. What makes anthropology special?
Good point. Anthropology is one of several social sciences alongside psychology, sociology, and archaeology (among others). A famous Harvard scholar in the 80's determined that each of the social sciences was generally responsible for one particular aspect of human nature:
psychology = thought and behavior
sociology = social structure
archaeology = material objects
anthropology = culture
Obviously there is loads of crossover between these fields, especially in anthropology, since culture is an incredibly dynamic and multi-layered concept.
In fact, the term "culture" is still contested amongst anthropology scholars, and no one definition has ever been determined. How can you bound culture? Where is the cutoff? What is included?
I'll spare you the lecture, but I will clarify that culture encompasses nearly everything. Food, religion, belief systems, politics, gender, nationalism, dress code, career choice, everything.
I remember when I first spoke to my supervisor about the courses here, he said "anthropology is the art of becoming hyper-unspecialized" - and that's the best way of describing the discipline that I've come across.
So I study culture. Which means I study nearly anything so long as it affects human development.
But there is one more unique aspect to the field of anthropology, and that is the way we go about doing research. Unlike psychology which is based heavily on experimentation, and sociology which is highly statistical and uses surveys, anthropologists use a method of study called "participant observation".
This phrase can be broken down fairly easily: "participant" meaning "to join in" and "observation" meaning "to watch". Put together, the phrase participant observation seems slightly counterintuitive. How can you both participate and observe?
Well, we figure the best way to understand human behavior and culture is to see it in action. And the best way to do this is to participate in daily life, and observe how others experience it.
Participant observation isn't so simple as showing up and watching a group of people for a few weeks; it is a time-intensive long-term project. Anthropologists conduct participant observation for anywhere from 1-3 years at a time, sometimes even longer. This is because people act differently around strangers than they do around people they know well. To understand how people really work, they have to be comfortable around you, and you have to be comfortable around them. This takes time, it takes learning the language, and it takes a lot of work.
So, to sum: anthropology studies culture, and goes about doing so primarily through the practice of participant observation.

Before I move on, I'll make one more clarification. 50% of people I tell my degree to think I study archaeology. Why all the confusion? Well, archaeology is technically a sub-discipline of anthropology. So it's one of those rectangle/square scenarios (to be fair, I can't ever remember if all squares are rectangles or the other way around). Archaeologists study culture through material objects, and typically look at historical groups - though this isn't always the case. So those people who go on digs to find Incan pot sherds are Archaeologists. I do not go on digs, I do not study Incas. Anthropologists (almost always) study living groups, and while they may have interest in material objects and their uses, are more concerned with belief systems, activities, and behavior.

Cool. So now we are all clear about what anthropology is. But my degree is in Psychological and Psychiatric Anthropology. What the heck does that mean?
Well, I'll back up a bit. You know how I mentioned before that anthropologists study culture, and culture is basically everything? Well, to deal with this issue, there are dozens of sub-disciplines of cultural studies. Religious anthropology, educational anthropology, medical anthropology, and Anthropology of Gender, to name a few. So psychological and psychiatric anthropology? We are yet another sub-discipline of anthropology, and we study human behavior and mental illness in the context of culture.
Though it seems obvious enough, behavior, thought processes, belief systems, mental health - anything dealing with psychology - is culturally dependent. With everything else in the world being so heavily reliant on culture, why wouldn't behavior and mental health be as well?
There are two parts to my degree/discipline: psychology and psychiatry. The psychology part focuses on behavior, while (my specialty/area of interest) lies in psychiatry, which looks at mental illnesses.

Some topics a psychological anthropologist might study include:
-How do emotions vary between cultures? Are there universal emotions? (e.g, famously there is no word/concept for "sadness" in Tahitian)
-What constitutes as normal behavior for a certain group? Can normalcy be defined?
-When does a person have personhood? (e.g, you can gain or lose your status as a person depending on different experiences/beliefs)

On the other hand, some topics and psychiatric anthropologist might study includes:
-Symptomatic differences among mental illnesses considered universal (e.g, depression is thought to be widespread, but it has different symptoms in different places)
-Culture-bound mental illnesses (illnesses thought only to exist among a certain group of people or in a specific location)
-Local forms of mental health treatment and care (e.g what a local healer might do to treat schizophrenia)
-Why/how are shamans effective in their treatments? (e.g, many times shamans cure illness through folk treatment, contrary to the biomedical perspective)

There are loads of other topics that we study, but these are a few of the most popular/easily explained. I am most strongly interested in mental illnesses, specifically the idea of culture-bound mental illnesses. These are a highly debated subject (aren't all mental illnesses culture-bound to some degree?) but nothing will get me rambling faster than mentioning them in conversation (as a result, avoid mentioning to them to me in person if you don't want a 20-minute monologue).

Anthropologists can work in a variety of contexts, with most dreaming of doing field research full time. With an MSc, and hopefully a PhD within the next few years, I hope to work as a researcher and professor for a major university, or for an anthropology museum. Of course, the big dream would be to become a National Geographic adventurer and journalist, though that's not quite what a typical anthropologist does ;)
PS if any of you have a hookup with NatGeo, put in a good word for me.

I have the opportunity to do 8-weeks of field research for my degree, followed by writing up my master's dissertation to complete the course. I'll announce in the next few weeks my plans for research, when things are a bit more set in stone.

Do you have any more questions about my degree? Want to learn more about any of these topics? Be sure to ask in the comment section below, or send me an email!

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Reflections on Traveling Without a Camera

Before our Eastern Europe trip, I made the bold decision to travel without my camera. Actually, I decided to travel with no electronics except my cell phone, but that's a different matter. The camera part is the focus, because as a novice photographer and travel blogger, it's verging on blasphemy to visit 7 new countries and have only blurry iPhone photos to account for the trip. If you're interested in understanding why I made this decision, I would urge you to read my article "Why I'm Not Bringing My Camera on My Big Trip".
So how did it go?
Likely, it went as many of you (and myself) predicted. Traveling without a bulky camera was one part freeing, and a second part disappointing. Here's why:

I had reduced anxiety. It was an incredible feeling not to have to cart around several thousand dollars worth of gear via plane, train, and automobile for fear of getting stolen or lost. I wasn't anxious about taking my camera out in public, I wasn't concerned about my bags being stolen, because for the exception of my wallet and passport, there wasn't anything to steal. Unless the thief wanted a backpack of dirty underwear and pilfered hotel toiletries, in which case, have at it. This was definitely the best part about not bringing my camera: I didn't have that constant paranoid thought at the back of my mind that every lurking stranger was going to run up and grab my bag.

I was so much more comfortable - physically. Because we were backpacking this trip (perhaps in the loosest usage of the phrase - we were just only using backpacks, not actually hiking/walking everywhere), I had a backpack of all my clothes and things, and then (usually) I use a cross-body camera bag for all my camera gear. Carting around a medium-sized backpack along with a messenger bag for several hours straight leads to very sore back and shoulders. This is mostly the fault of the camera bag, which adds an additional 10-ish pounds to one shoulder, which you have to switch off and on throughout the day. Not bringing my camera meant that I didn't have to beg Phil for back massages at the end of the day, or walk slightly at an angle. In this sense, ditching the camera was beneficial for my physical health (though investing in a good camera backpack would solve this problem in the future).

I really did live in the moment. It was so much fun to be fully present with Phil at all times. I know I can get easily distracted by whipping out my camera every few minutes for a can't-miss photo, which he would never complain about but which certainly distracts from our time together. Without my camera, we were free to adventure, talk, joke, and laugh as much as we wanted without frequent pauses. In this sense, I truly enjoyed the trip; it was some of the most fun I've ever had with Phil, and I am grateful for it.

I missed some incredible photo opportunities. Onto the cons. By far the worst part of not bringing my camera was missing out on photos I'll probably never have a chance to take again. We witnessed some truly beautiful and incredible sights, things I wish I had been able to photograph but won't get the opportunity to again. I cringe when I think about some of these scenes - the sun rising over Romanian mountains coated in snow, wandering through empty streets of small Bulgarian towns, sunsets over the Prague horizon, stunning sights that were imbued with the comfort and laughter of the moment. I'm saddened that I can't look back through an album and smile, remembering the trip as it happened.

I don't have anything to show friends and family. It's one thing to describe a scene, but it's a whole other to actually view it. I really wish I had photos that I could show people; photos make a story real, not just the memory of a friend. Plus, as my friends and family will all verify, I'm terrible at actually telling stories. I'm long-winded and include way too many unnecessary details. It's to my benefit I have photos to guide my stories along, to give them substance. Plus, people want to see photos. We are so visual, it's more exciting to see photos than to hear a story (often).

I actually missed taking photos. Who knew that taking the photos - not just looking at the results afterwards - was so much fun? I guess a lot of people could have told me that, but I didn't realize how much I enjoyed the process of photography until I couldn't practice it.

So was it worth it? Though I did experience many good things as a result of leaving my camera at home, I don't think it was worth it, overall. I love photography and I love traveling; I don't ever want one to distract from the other. I think there is a way to balance the relationship, and this is just something I have to work on. I am glad I went along for the experiment - it was certainly helpful in developing my thoughts on the matter. So in this one case, going camera-less was worthwhile. On future occasions though, I will likely bring my camera.

Want to see photos from my trip? I may share a few on here, but your best bet is to follow me on Instagram. I posted from every city we visited - you can follow along with our trip on there! You can find me @taylaurrr

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An Unlikely Journey from Bulgaria to Turkey

I woke as the train jolted over ancient tracks, half-asleep yet. The small of my back was coated in a layer of sweat where my shirt stuck; the heat in the once freezing train car must have kicked in, but with no one to monitor it had gone into overdrive. I peeled off my jacket, scarf, and sweatshirt in a daze, looking around the dim car. Phil was asleep on the bench opposite me, but blinked his eyes open soon after I looked over. I took the phone out of my pocket, checking the time. We were on our way from the former capitol of Bulgaria - Veliko Turnova - to the last stop on our trip - Istanbul, Turkey. Not wanting to waste precious daylight hours, we opted to take a night train. Which, as we discovered, was not a sleeper train but simply one of the regular decrepit trains used during the day, running at night.
"What time is it?" Phil asked as he sat up opposite me.
"10:45" I responded.
We had been on the Bulgarian train for a little more than three hours, and I had slept most of that time. I sat, noticing that there was no noise or movement outside our compartment.
"I think the next stop is Dimitrovgrad. We should get our bags ready" Phil mentioned. Earlier a woman had come to our car to check our tickets. Not speaking English, she had said "Metrograd", or something similar, and motioned something like change. Phil and I took this to mean we switched train cars at the stop at Metrograd, but after consulting our map we could find no such train station or city on our route. The closest we found was a city near the Turkish border marked as "Dimitrovgrad", which Phil determined must have been what she had been talking about.
I piled back on my layers, damp with the heat of the car, and put my multiple bags on top of that. I was still slightly groggy after napping on a sticky leather bench in a bumpy train for several hours. I wandered into the hallway, Phil behind me, as the train began to slow to a stop.
"Let's get our tickets out and have someone check them, just in case. I don't want to accidentally get off at the wrong stop and be stranded in the middle-of-nowhere Bulgaria on New Years Eve if we don't have to," I said, turning slightly to Phil. He agreed, and I stumbled forward down the hall.
Our trip to Turkey accidentally coincided with the New Year holiday, but neither of us was too bothered by it. Our primary concern was that places would not be open on the first of the year, leaving us with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
I glanced into the other compartments as we wandered towards the door, noticing that they were all empty.
"Wow, are we the last ones on the train?" I asked, turning to Phil again. The train had not had more than a dozen riders at its peak, but it was still strange to see car after car of empty benches. He said he was uncertain, and we walked forward to the door.
The train pulled to a stop just as we reached the exit. The woman who helped us earlier was nowhere in sight, and neither were any workers of any sort. We leaned our head out of the window, and saw a man walking from a small building over to the train.
"Istanbul?" Phil shouted down the train to him. He looked up and just shook his head, as if he didn't have time to deal with us.
"That's not a good sign..." I mumbled to Phil.
The man outside shouted past us in Bulgarian to someone else, and a minute later our helper-woman walked up. She said nothing, but looking surprised, smiled and motioned for us to follow her. She led us to the first class train, and motioned for us to take a seat.
"Sweet, upgrade!" Phil said as the woman walked off.
"This is weird. Why did she move us here?" I responded.
"I don't know, but don't worry about it. They don't seem too concerned."
I couldn't help but worry though. We could hear the woman further down the hall speaking rapidly on the phone to someone in Bulgarian. I heard her laugh, her stream of speech punctuated with Istanbulu. 
"I think she's talking about us, Phil" I said, turning to face him.
"So what? Whatever happens, we are going to get to Turkey tonight, I'm sure of it."
I prayed for some of Phil's omnipresent sense of calm and confidence. The woman walked back into our car, this time followed by another woman we had not seen before. They were both wearing similar uniforms, so we took her to be another train worker.
"Metrograd... bus" she said in broken English, followed by a motion for change.
"We change to a bus at Metrograd?" I asked. The woman nodded her head in affirmation, followed by a beckoning motion to follow her. Phil and I stood up and followed her back down the car, back into the second class compartments. She opened the door to one, and held her arm out, showing us to sit.
"Aww, downgrade," Phil said in mock sadness.
"Wait, why did we just get moved again? I'm so confused" I said to Phil. We could hear the two women in a compartment behind ours talking and laughing in Bulgarian.
"Maybe they just want to keep an eye on us?" he suggested. As the words left his mouth, the train shuttered and the lights went out, clearly having been shut off completely.
"Well, I guess that's our answer!" Phil said and laughed. "Isn't this exciting? This is so exciting!" he said again, looking out the window at two men doing maintenance on the train.
"I don't know about exciting... nerve-wracking seems a more apt description!" I replied with apprehensive laughter. This encounter, this experience, fully epitomizes our relationship. Phil approaches misadventures with the enthusiasm and spirit of a kid in a candy shop. I, on the other hand, am nervous with a mind full of 'what-ifs' and anxious worst-case scenarios. I attempt to mimic his excitement, but upon close examination it is clear that my act is a facade. A genuine attempt, at least.
I returned my stare out the window, watching the two men at work on the train. I could hear the women speaking on their phones, every once in a while hearing Istanbulu among a string of foreign words.
"Phil, I don't think this was our stop. I think Metrograd was someplace else, and we missed it. I mean, it's clear this train isn't going any further, and there is no city or buildings anywhere. We are at the end of the line, and I don't think there's a bus. I mean, look!" and I pointed to an empty parking lot, covered in snow. The window opposite us outside the compartment in the hall gave a bleak view of piles of rebar and old bricks collecting piles of white powder. Neither view was good, and left me with a growing sense of anxiety.
"Taylor, don't worry about it. I'm positive this is the stop. There wasn't anything else with a name even close to Metrograd, and besides, I think she said Dimitrovgrad the first time. They're nice people, I don't think they're just going to leave us out here." I had to acknowledge the truth in the latter part of his statement. These women wouldn't abandon us during a snow storm on New Years Eve, would they?
I checked my phone for the time again. 11:35 - we had been sitting in an empty, dark, and ever-colder car for over twenty minutes, with no change in sight. At least sharing our New Years Eve kiss in an empty train in Bulgaria during a snow storm sounds kind of cool, I thought to myself.  Positives, just had to recognize the positives.
I continued staring out the dark window next to Phil, straining to hear and understand the Bulgarian women on their cell phones. I could tell by their tone and soft laughter that they clearly found something amusing - presumably our situation.
"Whoa, look at that!" Phil said, pointing out the window.
A giant tour-esq bus pulled up into the snow-covered parking lot, opening doors to rows of cushioned chairs that could easily seat 75.
"I guess that's our ride! I told you it would all work out." Phil said to me, grabbing our bags. One of the women came and opened the door to our compartment, motioning for us to follow her. We quickly gathered the rest of our things and followed her, hopping out onto the frozen ground. The two men working on the train and a third from inside the building walked over to the bus, leading the small crowd.
"So.. is this like, their ride to get home?" I asked Phil confusedly. He shrugged his shoulders and we got on the bus, finding seats near the front with all the others. The bus had been empty until we entered, and a large portion of it remained so as our group took up only the first three rows.
The bus pulled out of the parking lot, driving through an empty neighborhood piled with snow drifts and dark homes. It took about ten minutes to reach the city center, though it was hardly a city and more like a town.
On one side of the road, there were several industrial looking buildings and a few blocks of old shops, everything dark at this hour. On the other side of the street, dilapidated apartments went on for miles. Unfortunately Bulgarian being a Cyrillic language, we couldn't read any of the signs. Before I had time to analyze the area any further, the bus pulled to a stop and the doors opened. Phil and I looked at each other questioningly - do we get off here? is this the end of our ride?
All the workers picked up their bags and began slowing filing out of the bus. The woman who knew a few words in English was the last to stand and move to the aisle, and she turned to us.
"You... stop" she said, and pointed for us to sit. We sat back down, and she smiled, saying "Ciao!" before disappearing out the door.
The bus driver said nothing, but closed the door and continued driving.
It seemed like this was promising sign, but I couldn't help but remain confused and nervous about our situation. We had somehow managed to ride the train to the last stop, never having had seen "Metrograd" or its equivalent along the way. At that point we had been the only remaining passengers, and the lady working had clearly forgotten about us, and had to call around to figure out our ride (I assume). We sat in an empty, dark train for nearly an hour before a giant, mysterious tour bus picked us up, and no questions asked, proceeded to drive us somewhere, with the driver continuing to mention "Metrograd" upon our questioning, with no further information.
I was skeptical of our fortune.
I returned to staring out of the window, and noticed that the old apartments were buzzing with activity. I glanced down at my phone, glancing at the clock.
"What time is it?" Phil asked.
"11:59. Oh! It's 11:59!" and before I could say anything else, fireworks began going off all along the horizon, and the Bulgarian national anthem floated through the bus from the ceiling-mounted speakers.
Somehow, it was perfect. I turned to Phil to exchange the traditional New Year's Eve kiss, when the bus driver cheered and shouted what I can only assume was "happy New Year!" in Bulgarian. I laughed and looked out the window, watching dozens of apartments shoot fireworks out of their windows and off their balconies in the cramped blocks of buildings.
I couldn't stop smiling; for a few minutes, all my anxiety about getting to Istanbul were out of my mind. It was New Years, we were witnessing a fantastic display of fireworks, and for now we were warm and happy in a big comfortable bus.
A few more minutes of driving led us away from the city and into the woods, blocking out all further views of the explosive sparks. It was only a few minutes of staring out to pitch black rows of trees before I realized how tired I was.
"Phil, I'm going to sleep... I'm so tired. Wake me when anything happens?" but of course he knew I was going to say this, rolling his eyes with a smile as if to say "of course you're going to sleep, and of course I'll let you know." I leaned my head against the rattling window, bundling my scarf as a pillow, and fell asleep.

Hitting a pothole woke me up; we were driving slowly down a lit road. Phil must have fallen asleep as well, because he looked as if he had just been woken by the jolt as well. I took my phone out of my pocket - 2:30AM.
Wait, had this bus really been driving us for nearly 3-hours?
"I guess I fell asleep somewhere a bit back... I tried to stay awake for most of the time though" Phil said.
"That's fine. But... where the heck is Metrograd? We've been in this bus for hours and we still haven't made it? I really don't think that train station was the one we were supposed to get off at... we must have been really lost."
"We've got to be close to the border - maybe that was the bus' destination this whole time?" Phil responded with.
"No way. I mean, we haven't paid any money, no one has told us anything... why would this bus take us to the border?" but before I could retort with further evidence, we passed a sign written with both English and Cyrillic, with "TURKISH BORDER" written in big, block letters.
"See? I told you this would all work out. And you were worried!" Phil said teasingly.
But why? How did this even happen? I couldn't figure out how we had managed to get here, it seemed like an unplanned miracle. Or maybe this was the plan all along, and my neurotic tendencies had me questioning everything because I couldn't understand the language.

The bus took us through border crossing, dropping us at one point to purchase our visas. I kept anxiously looking over in the direction of the bus, on the opposite side of the massive parking lot. The English/Bulgarian-speaking border agent laughed and said "Don't worry, it is waiting for you. It won't leave without you!" I took him at his word, still not understanding why it was obligated to wait for us.
We passed through customs with no problem, the bus taking us onto Turkish territory in a matter of minutes. As we crossed over into Turkey, the bus took a quick turn on the left side of the road, apparently back towards the border.
"Now what is he doing?" I asked Phil, who of course had as much understanding of the situation as I did.
The bus pulled into a parking lot with a government building where another large, dark tour bus was parked. It backed into the lot slowly, and then the driver stood. He gestured for us to get out, so Phil and I grabbed our bags and walked to the covered waiting area.
Ahh, this is the catch. Now we are in Turkey, but it's the middle of the night and we will have to wait till morning till we can find a ride to Istanbul. The snow continued blowing around us in flurries, reminding me how little I wanted to wait for the next several hours here.
The driver motioned to us something about driving a car, and pointed to the other bus.
"We change to that bus?" Phil said.
The driver appeared to note that this was correct, and pointed in to the building. He walked away, and Phil and I waited for his return.
"See, now we will be in Istanbul in no time!" Phil said happily. He apparently had been in on this entire trip, I was the one in the dark.
The bus driver returned with another man, this one fluent in Bulgarian and Turkish, but still no English. He pointed to the new bus, motioning for us to get on.
"Istanbul?" I said meekly. He looked at me as if I was crazy and nodded, repeating that that was the destination (or, at least I assume that's what he said. Turns out Turkish isn't much easier to understand than Bulgarian).
Phil and I got on the bus, dropped our bags, and plopped down on a cushioned seat. Like the previous bus, this one was well furnished and seemed much too nice - like a fancy tour bus - to be carting two foreigners back and forth from the border.
I waited till the bus got back on the freeway, heading further within the Turkish borders. I was exhausted. It was half-past three in the morning, and it wasn't long before I fell back asleep.

Heavy rain pelted the windows in sheets, startling me back to consciousness. Phil was still asleep, but I looked outside at our surroundings. Big buildings were lit up with signs in Turkish, and the minarets of mosques dotted the horizon. I slipped my phone out of my pocket again - 7:00AM. The sky was a hazy blue, still dark mostly, though that could have been from the heavy rain clouds. The bus turned down a main road, and drove only a few minutes further before turning into the parking lot of a large, imposing building.
I gently shook Phil, waiting for the bus driver's next move.
"Istanbul!" He said, and pointed for us to get off.
"Hey! We made it!" I said in disbelief.
"Of course we did, I told you we would!" Phil replied. "Welcome to Istanbul!"


I applaud you for your diligence in making it not only to the end of this story, but in waiting nearly two months for it to appear. My trip to Eastern Europe was incredible, full of adventurous misadventures like our trip to Istanbul, and run-of-the-mill tourist stops alike. I still don't understand how we managed to take a tour bus all the way from Bulgaria to Istanbul for free, after paying a very small amount (i.e - $20 for us both) for seats in a Bulgarian train. I'm not complaining, of course. Also: it will be a tough New Years Eve to beat. Maybe next year we can get stranded in the jungle? We will see. 
I'll be telling more of our stories here over the coming weeks, and I hope you'll stick around to read them. 

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