Purgatory again. The clinical, unimaginative expanse between worlds. Somehow airport terminals all take on the same form all over the world. Some more decadent than others, but still unimaginative. I like to think this is for a reason, that they manifest themselves as a precursor to the experience of a new country, acting as a mental palette cleanser that washes away the unpleasantries that lead up to your departure. Regardless, I found myself here again. Slightly melancholic and uncertain how to feel about my return to Scotland, I absent-mindedly observed the comings and goings of its temporary inhabitants, as they made their way to and from various destinations around the globe. My mind drifted back to the beginning of my trip to Bulgaria. I revisited the slideshow in my mind, replaying a condensed highlight reel of events. Suddenly I found myself back on my departing flight from Edinburgh to Sophia.
A flurry of metallic clicks and electronic pings transported me back. I found myself glazing over as I watched one of the flight attendants unenthusiastically churn out yet another choreographed dance. It stood to remind me that the romanticism of air travel, once a luxury of the privileged, was now within the reach of travellers with even the smallest of budgets. Without exclusivity even the most impressive of human feats begin to cast a bitter shadow of its former self. Our want for more has left us feeling unfulfilled once again, forever grasping at things out of our reach. The thrill, it seems, vanished along with the flight attendant's enthusiasm.
I cast my gaze out of the window as the scenery began to blur and warp at our immense speed. Shooting upwards into the heavens in such aloof mockery of god. Huxley's words jumped off the page of the book I was clutching in that moment: “Lucifarian defiance.” Never has a statement struck me so violently, ringing out into the evening sky with poetic precision. I wondered in that moment how anyone could dwell on profoundly evil thoughts after viewing creation from above. When all the imposing, awe-inspiring monoliths of humanity are rendered completely insignificant. Perhaps that is why we build into the sky; air travel has reminded us of our infancy. A deep insecurity that's born from insignificance. The weariness of travel overcame my being and gradually I succumbed to its embrace. The sanctity of my dreams carried me across the seemingly endless expanse, its metaphysical violet hues blurring the passage between worlds.
Reality formed itself around a mechanical drone as the wings angled themselves towards the ground. Grogginess washed away the pleasantries of weightlessness as we began our descent. Now late in the evening, I cast my gaze over the foreign land that was sprawled out before me. Like the illuminated capillaries of a great beast, towns on the outskirts of Sofia banished the darkness. Cutting into the landscape with hauntingly auric intensity. I marvelled at the snow-covered plain as the wheels thudded down on the tarmac and the elements battled against our aggressive momentum. Our journey ended with a slow crawl to the terminal before coming to a halt on its threshold. The plane seemingly dropping to the temperature outside.
The all too familiar frustration of navigating numb fingers into gloves commanded my attention until I was safely sealed from the elements inside the airport shuttle. It quickly ferried the other passengers and I to the terminal and finally to the unsmiling faces of passport control. Removing my hat and staring blankly forward I produced the passport from my pocket and one unspoken exchange later I found myself emerging from the arrival gate. I glanced around and caught the eye of a cheerful man holding a hand-written sign with my name on it. We knowingly smiled towards each other and exchanged pleasantries. We waited for a few others to join before making our way out into the biting frost once again.
In the dark we could have been almost anywhere. I think that was part of the excitement, that potentially some grand reveal awaited us in the morning. Conversations faded as the weariness overcame each of the passengers and once again my thoughts drifted out the window. The street lamps highlighted some buildings and the surrounding landscape until eventually it peeled away, discarding the concrete of Sophia and submerging us in a quiescent abyss.
The period of time between Sophia and Bansko was difficult to calculate. The formlessness gradually chipped away at the relevance of time and in my tiredness the numbers lost their meaning. The headlights cast form on the road ahead but on nothing with significance to our location. Eventually Billboards slowly crept into view before vanishing again into the darkness. Each one a semi-decipherable riddle, revealing names of nearby hotels and attractions. Teased around one corner to the next, Bansko appeared no closer. However, we had no way of knowing. The driver gave very little indication as to when our journey would come to an end and our sight went no further than the headlights. A tragic reminder of the frustrations of life that only perseverance can reveal.
When we finally arrived in Bansko the surrounding hotels were a welcomed sight. The anticipation to take in the surrounding majesty tugged at my curiosity, but that would have to wait until morning. A few scheduled stops seen the majority of the other passengers off to their respective hotels as a second wave of enthusiasm gradually washed over me. When the van eventually stopped outside Mountain Paradise I leapt to collect my things and after a warm welcome I made my way into an even warmer reception. Living in such an unforgiving environment only served to highlight how well its inhabitants combated the cold. In fact, at times the cold was almost welcomed. It certainly added another dimension to my appreciation of contrasting temperatures. Much is the case with polarities.
When I awoke in the morning my bedroom window perfectly framed the encircling mountains. The foreground appeared almost desolate in comparison, as if the mountains were drawing life from the landscape to maintain a perpetual youth. The snow-capped titans of antiquity nonverbally spoke of my fragility amongst themselves as I imagined a time long before my conception. The spark of consciousness that lead me to that moment standing before them. A mark that on them would last a moment but on me a lifetime. I understood then the weight of immortality in a perishable world. The trivialities of my life faded from existence into the epoch of our unspoken words.
Shielding myself from the elements I stepped out into the cold from the sanctity of our mountain paradise. As we approached the town from the outskirts we managed to convince ourselves that we were alone. Surrounded by hotels, both completed and partially constructed not a soul was seen. Our early morning exploration of Bansko granted us the illusion of solitude but as we drew nearer silhouettes appeared in the distance like ghosts from another time. The rusted skeletons of amusement rides on the town’s circumference suggested abandoned plans of expansion. However, as we crossed the boundary into the town, life erupted.
A juxtaposition of everything previously experienced, the town was abuzz with activity. Music cascaded downward and blended together in the streets, as neighbouring businesses competed for our attention like colourful birds in the midst of a mating ritual. The usual prostitution of popular tourist delicacies, rentals and bars almost overwhelmed the senses. A metaphorical tying to the mast was in order to keep our destination in sight; the mountain. Beforehand however, a friendly but fiercely efficient outfitting was necessary.
We made our way to collect equipment that would aid us on the unforgiving terrain. Offering protection with no certainty. The uptempo fuelled conveyer belt of smiling quartermasters saw us adorned with several pieces of a modern aegis. Boots, boards, goggles and finally a helmet were clamped to our bodies and we were aimed towards the gondola. Along the way we stocked provisions and joined the queue. A multicultural gathering of all ages, backgrounds and skillsets that snaked almost endlessly out of the gondola station. A prism that focused our collective mass towards the titan’s peak.
The wait was unimportant and of an indefinite amount of time as my brain slowed to take in the colourful pandemonium. Conversations in many tongues painted experiences I would never know or experience. Talking of their seemingly inconsequential comings and goings, unaware of the impact they were making on those around them. Perhaps just an impression or perhaps they would become a crossroads in life's many paths. Changing the fate of one or many, however slight.
Eventually we found ourselves on the precipice of the station’s heights. A perpetual barrage of gondolas swinging to and fro as passengers simultaneously stowed their equipment before leaping inside their respective carriages. A flurry of movement shook me from my thoughts as I recited the same as those before me, fumbling actions the others mustered with ease. Soon enough we were raised far above the heads of those down below.
The lucidity of our elevation brought with it a strange detachment as those below were rendered insignificant once again in the wake of the enduring eminence. Brave pathfinders carved temporary routes down its face with elegance, like fleeting thoughts through the mind. Others succumbed to its terror, becoming lost in cataclysmic wrath. I found myself looking down with cold indifference as if a spectator in some ancient arena. My attention was drawn towards the treetops that had a delicate dusting of the violence ensuing below. It clothed the ceaseless march of the pines in innocence as we made our way between them.
The mass rematerialised itself on the titans back. Clumsily collecting our things we converged on an alpine lodge that acted as a beacon to those caught up in the confusion. The others dispersed in various directions across the vast wilderness. Some took off with the confidence that only experience can create, whilst others cautiously looked for an instructor in the chaos. We warmed ourselves and waited for the others, passively scanning the expanse for any familiarity.
We spend the rest of the afternoon finding our feet. Or more accurately, having them slide out from under us. Young children weaved around us with ease as we struggled with the fundamentals. The practice slope offered a safe haven somewhat, that allowed us to safely develop our skills, shielded from the patriarchal dread that the mountain instilled in us. However, like the protagonists of most narratives, their first steps are always fuelled by a naive arrogance. Otherwise, all stories would dwell in the realms of the mad.
As the closing of the slopes drew nearer with each passing hour I felt a surge of confidence in my still infant-like ability. I was eager to prove myself but was also quite unaware of my exhaustion. As we made our approach to the gondolas my enthusiasm was misleading. I decided after much encouragement that I would test my mettle on the 5k slope leading to where we had begun our ascent that morning. Which, with hindsight was perhaps too ambitious. Guided by those more experienced than myself I began my long and painful decent. I felt my previous incarnation looking down upon me with his indifference as I transitioned from spectator to participator.
The beginning of the slope lured me into a false sense of security, a comfortable gradient that gradually began to tear at the scenery until it was nothing but a blur. Ever increasing periods of stability also gave way to ever increasing periods of recovery. With each fall the learning curve shortened significantly. However, the injuries were becoming difficult to brush off, to the point where the thought of another fall was frightening but ultimately inevitable. The illusion of serenity in the surrounding scenery was a painful reminder that looks can be deceiving.
As the town came into view I couldn't help but compare the pathways made by others to that of the brain. The more a negative pathway was reinforced the more treacherous it became. The deep tracks left by others would be the orchestrator of my fate on more than one occasion. The others would shout encouragement from the sidelines and offer advice on how to navigate the mountainside and reminding me of the distance I had left to travel, like thoughts emerging from the depths of my consciousness. Their experience shone through as they arrived at the bottom smiling and unscathed. Experience clearly outweighs foolish bravado. This was painfully clear as I finally managed to hobble across the finish line.
The evening brought with it a more welcomed respite from the day’s affairs. A merry banquet replenished the body and beer slowed the pace of my adrenaline fuelled mind. By the time we had rested, Bansko had transformed into a different beast altogether. The red neon glow of neighbouring strip clubs and apres ski bars bathed the snow covered streets in a sinister light. It provided me with an insight into the malnourished desires of Bansko's holiday goers and how the town had evolved to reflect this. As everyone retired for the evening, the streets were once again empty. Muffled hints of merriment lay behind every door, sealed safely away from the elements.
We found ourselves in a small karaoke bar nestled in the heart of the town. It was crammed full of individuals from all over the world, united by endeavours they had undertook that day. We drank our fill of the refreshments offered inside and its cold anaesthetic properties gradually elevated us above all our aches and pains. Fleeting conversations over cigarettes with strangers that were forgotten as quickly as they had begun, 80s ballads and the tales of our separate experiences carried us through the evening. We catalogued the memories of our comrades, to later be retold and exaggerated like the characters of our own make-believe-mythologies.
When we eventually spilled out onto the streets of Bansko only our voices could be heard. Our group grew smaller as others tapered off down various different streets to unknown hotels in the darkness, till eventually only a few of us remained. Walking in between partially constructed buildings in silence was truly wondrous. We could have been the only ones in existence then. It's something that is otherwise difficult to imagine, that there is no one else in the world.
We climbed into the empty shell of a half-constructed hotel and quickly scaled the steps to the top floor, cautiously peering around corners as if there could be something terrifying lurking there. When we all finally arrived at the top to survey our surroundings it was almost surprising that there was no one else in sight. It was as if we had been unwittingly transported to another world, an alien landscape that only partially mirrored our own.
The remainder of my time in Bansko was spent recuperating from the madness. Although a second ascent of the mountain was attempted we were far too battered and bruised from the day before. We instead opted for recovery. The hotel's facilities included a full spa that was abandoned by everyone else in favour of the slopes. A welcomed oasis to the weary. The time we had left in Bulgaria seemed to melt away after that and soon I found myself on my final day in Bansko. By three o'clock the stern-faced ferryman had returned as promised to take me back to purgatory. I went willingly, taking a few amenities for my long journey ahead. It was the middle of the day this time and the sunlight banished the shadows across the plains that had remained hidden on my arrival in Bulgaria. The unknown was given form and suddenly the landscape emerged from the void and into reality.
Brutish structures seemed to be being born and simultaneously returning to the harsh landscape. An architectural uncertainty that neither suggested a date of construction, or likewise, if it was abandoned and left to degrade in the unforgiving weather. Rusted electricity pylons that contained a unique beauty and houses half built using whatever raw materials were at hand. Fences fashioned from corrugated iron encased empty concrete shells. It was like being a tourist in my own mind. Full of half constructed ideas, with the original intention being lost or forgotten.
Somewhat surprisingly, the occasional house or hotel would differ from the rest with unique features protruding proudly outward. Like some conscious being that was evolving past the stage of pure functionality or survival. Tattooed in undecipherable and brightly coloured graffiti. Uncertain of when they were conceived. Truly a place devoid of time.
At this time of year the stretch of land between Bansko and Sofia had the air of a post-apocalyptic world, with new life emerging from the snow-dusted land. Patches of green seemed to suggest a rebirth of sorts from the bones of the old. Breathing colour into the concrete lungs of the dormant fossils.
I watched the landscape slowly transform on the approach to Sofia. The barren lands gave way concrete monoliths that punched jagged shapes into the blue sky. The impression of Sofia’s communist past was etched into the architecture and on the passing faces, acting as a mould in which life was poured into. Eventually however, its layers were gradually peeled away until only the airport remained. It was if Sofia was a creation in my own mind that was gradually being erased behind me.
When I arrived at the airport I turned to take in one last look at the surrounding landscape before the spinning glass carousel transitioned my thoughts to that of home. I saw myself hunched over one of the bar tables scribbling the initial thoughts that would soon take two-dimensional form. Scanning the unimaginative expanse once again I saw faces covered in masks, a worry that had otherwise remained on the outer fringes of my mind. Planted like seeds in the crowd out of which fear would grow. I stepped back into myself and my thoughts emptied onto the page.