Sofia, Bulgaria - (map)
My night bus from Istanbul arrived in Sophia with the 5:30 AM sunrise. After spending the night on an 11-hour bus ride full of smoking Bulgarians, the crisp morning air that greeted me felt heavenly. A few deep breathes later I started walking towards town.
At that early hour, Sophia showed few signs of life - just random early risers, an occasional car, and shops clamped down for the night with rolled steel storefronts. I walked into an unlocked hostel and slept on a couch until the proprietor woke and gave me a bed.
Daytime Sophia greeted me with a whole new image. The sleepy town I saw had morphed into a city of contrasts, where the evolution from communism to free-market economy manifests itself on every street. Where a glittering upscale shoe store sits on the first floor of a grotty communist-era concrete building. Or a brand new Mercedes parks next to an old Russian Lada. The antiquated streetcars now scrape through a city in a state of change.
It didn't take me long to warm up to the city. Sophia's wide boulevards and light car traffic furnish it with an open feel. Lively street-side cafes serve espressos to people who seem to have an infinite amount of leisure time to enjoy them. The people are remarkably fashionable and the women are known for their beauty. In my aging travel clothes, I frequently felt like a vagrant at a black-tie affair. But no matter, I spent the day walking through historic churches and meeting new friends at the hostel.
Sofia, Bulgaria - (map)
The shady man approached me under the shadow of the former Communist Party headquarters building, where I sat by myself reading on a park bench. The little alarm bells that rang in my head when he made a b-line towards me clanged loudly when I noticed the Vegas-sized wad of US $20 bills in his hand.
He wanted to change his $20's in for US $100's, a denomination that hasn't ever seen my wallet. I was surprised he even asked me, as I do my best to prevent theft by looking disheveled. Nevertheless, I waved him off claiming I had no US currency. He switched tactics using local currency and kept badgering me until I showed him my nearly empty wallet. He spied a 20 and a 10 Leva note and tried his scam on a smaller scale. At about $12 it wasn't that much to loose. And besides, I was intrigued.
So I placed my two notes within my easy reach, far from him. He counted an assortment of five and one denomination notes and handed it over, asking me to count the pile. They added up and looked authentic so I started to think he had asked for an honest favor. But when I was done counting he asked me for the pile to confirm.
His slight of hand marveled the skill of any professional magician I'd ever seen. He counted with his hands in plain view, out in the open, and without any sleeves to hide cash in. When he returned the wad, abracadabra! I recounted and half the money had disappeared.
I slapped my hand down on my cash and threw his back at him. The shady man skulked away under the cackling laugher of an old man, who had witnessed the entire transaction from a nearby bench.