Joy Ride: Hustled from Romania to Bulgaria

Throughout most of my trip, I’ve taken public transportation, usually in the form of local ferries and buses to get from country to country. On only a few occasions have I hired a private driver and this story underscores why…

Here’s how we ended up on a road trip with Romanian hustlers:

Bus Station Scam

My Irish friend Brid and I arrived into the Bucharest bus station after 5+ hour bus ride. While she went to check on bus tickets to Bulgaria (our next destination), I stood watching our bags. It was then that I noticed Zoro posing in front of his cab. (Note: His real name was Doro, but we thought he said Zoro at first and it stuck.)

Failing to procure bus tickets, Brid and I decided to take a cab to the train station and hopped into Zoro’s cab. After a bit of small talk, we told him we were trying to get to the Bulgarian beach town of Sozopol. He said he would drive us.

After a short negotiation and several phone calls on his end, we agreed on a price of US$110 for door-to-door service from Bucharest to the Bulgarian town of Sozopol, on the southern shore of the Black Sea (a total of 343 kilometers / 213 miles). We were to leave at 9:00 am the next morning. He said the drive would take 5 hours.

Friends with Benefits

At breakfast the next day, Brid and I chatted about what we expected from Zoro:

  1. He would be driving a private car and not his taxi
  2. He would have a friend with him
  3. He would have his own luggage in the car


We were right on all 3 accounts. He pulled up in a small compact car with a buddy in the front seat. After reconfirming our deal and ensuring he could legally drive us across the border, the 4 of us set off on our road trip.

Dumb & Dumber

It soon became apparent that neither of our escorts had ever been to Bulgaria before as they kept arguing with each other about the best route. Our only guide was the 1-page regional map I tore out of my Lonely Planet book, which didn’t have a whole lot of detail.

After an hour, we pulled into a gas station and they asked for half the fare so they could pay for petrol. From experience, Brid and I both knew this is standard procedure for long-range private transport in developing countries, so we forked over $55 and off we went.

Soon Zoro was perpetually holding out his hand for money – at the border for the car registration fee, for the road toll, to change currency from Romania Lei into Bulgarian Lev. By 11:00, we had paid him the full $110 fare.

After a short while, I asked to stop the car so I could get my stereo speakers out of my luggage. I wanted to listen to the music on our iPods instead of Bulgarian radio. When I was digging around in the trunk, Flore, who was riding shotgun, showed me the bag they had brought along for the trip. It contained 3 bottles: 1 bottle of vodka and 2 bottles of whiskey. It was 11:30 am.

The Big Dream

At 1:00 we pulled over and Zoro asked if we had enough money to buy their lunch. We didn’t since we had only exchanged enough Bulgarian Lev for Brid and I to eat. He grudgingly bought lunch for he and Flore.

As we were finishing lunch, Flore brought out the first bottle — the vodka. It was also at this point that he also revealed his Big Dream: to accompany us on holiday. His grand plan was that we would all drive to the beach, have dinner, go dancing and they would stay the night. Zoro then confessed he had the same dream, but with a surprise thrown it.

At this point Brid and I said that we wanted to first arrive safely in Sozopol, and that they would need to find their own place to stay. This news didn’t go down so well.

A Long Drive

Zoro then asked Brid if she would drive so he could drink with Flore. He seemed to forget that we were paying him money to drive us. So we reminded him of our deal, stressing that (obviously) he could not drink, since he was our chauffer. After more than 6 hours in the car, it was turning into a long afternoon.

More than 10 hours later, we finally pulled into Sozopol. Unfortunately, Brid and I found the hotel we had booked to be unacceptable. So the guys sat in the car while we shopped the neighboring hotels to find a decent room. After we found one and negotiated a deal for Brid and I, we went back to retrieve our luggage.

We said we were going to our room to get cleaned up and that we’d meet them in an hour for dinner. We came out to find them sitting in the car where we had left them, holding tightly onto their Big Dream (and probably the two bottles of whiskey).

All About the Money

Brid and I had had a discussion in the room about whether or not to even go to dinner and whether we should pay for it. All afternoon Zoro and Flore had been hitting us up pretty hard for extra cash, saying that the $110 fare wouldn’t cover the cost of petrol and they had no money to return home.

It was true that they had completely underestimated the cost of the road trip and they would be eating a big chunk of it. We decided to offer them dinner as a thank you for driving us down, making it clear that after dinner we would go our own way.

Zoro acted insulted by our meager offering and refused our dinner invitation. Flore, who had very little English, just sat, looking totally confused by the whole exchange. After our dinner invitation was declined, we said goodbye and walked away.

Sharing the Joy

Zoro then followed us few minutes later in the car, rolling up behind us as we walked down the hill toward the seaside restaurants. He wanted to explain that he didn’t take the job of driving us to Bulgaria for the money, but because of the “joy of the trip” with us.

He was batting his long lashes rapidly at this point, and reiterated that they didn’t have the money to return home. He made a last-ditch effort to persuade us to fill the gas tank, give them a place to stay, or at least give them money so they could call their mother to wire them extra funds. Apparently Zoro and Flore were 2 grown men without a penny to their names.

After a few choice words, Brid and I simply walked away and didn’t look back. In the end, with their Big Dream dead and facing a night sleeping in the car, Zoro and Flore are the ones who got the surprise.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 12th, 2012 and is filed under Europe.

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