сряда, 5 ноември 2008 г.
From Bulgaria’s Capital Sofia to the Village of Lakatnik in an Old Locomotive
About a century after Ivan Vazov wrote his short story “To Zhaluysha with Iron Train Cars,” in which he remarked on the great strides in railroad progress and development, present-day journalist, writer and photographer Stefan Galibov also took a train journey, during which he encountered just the opposite – a sharp regress in the development of Bulgaria’s rail transportation.
Although short, the journey between Sofia and the village of Lakatnik, about 70 kilometres to the north, transported Galibov to another, long-passed time, in which the country’s rail transportation seems to be stuck. But instead of focusing on the trains that are falling apart or the cold, dark train station waiting areas, Galibov was enchanted by the old locomotive’s railroad engineer, Petar Kamenov. This man, who looks like Don Quixote and, like Antoine de Saint Exupéry, combines an engineering spirit with a poetic soul, found happiness in practicing his childhood dream job despite the technical regress.
Text and photographs by Stefan Galibov
To travel from Sofia to Lakatnik in a 30-year-old locomotive “Shkoda” is quite an experience. Especially if you ride in the cabin of railroad engineer Petar Kamenov. Seen from there, Bulgaria looks different.
I actually met Petar for the first time in…. Vitosha, the mountain at the outskirts of Sofia.
It was the beginning of winter, when the mountain fades in the blue haze of twilight and the temperature drops suddenly. He simply pulled over his car and, with a sense of humour, asked: “Would you like me to drive you to Sofia or you prefer to wait for the bus?” My one-year-old daughter and I climbed in and, in the course of the conversation, I found out that Petar is a railroad engineer – the kind for whom the job isn’t one of many chosen later in life, but a childhood dream. He had gone to Vitosha to watch the sunset and he reminded me of Antoine de Saint Exupéry, because of the way he also combines an engineering spirit with a poetic soul.
When he’s not on the railroads around the country, Petar likes to relax by skiing, windsurfing and in the future – if he manages to realise another childhood dream, he plans on taking up paragliding.
“Railway transportation is the face of a country,” Petar explained to me. “In that case, ours is quite ugly and aged,” I though in reply.
“Before this profession was very highly paid. We used to get as much as pilots. Now we’re at the bottom of the social ladder,” Petar explains.
That day, on the road from Sofia’s outskirts to the centre, I discover he’s not of the talkative kind.
In order to meet him in his natural work environment, I climb into one of the last, Czech socialist locomotives of the Shkoda brand, left in operation for as long as it’ll function. Until now only two of these locomotives have gone through recycling and renewal in a factory in Croatia.
“You should have come yesterday, we travelled with a brand new Siemens one, which the Germans brought to us as a tease. They’ll take it back in a few months. Hopefully the bosses will agree to buy one like it.”
Petar explains that the delayed development, even compared to our Balkan neighbours, is huge – “all of these years of transition, already 17-18, we have hardly moved in a technical aspect. There is no pursuit of innovation but just going with the flow. This locomotive was made in 1979, but the idea for it is from the 60s, even earlier.”
Petar, with flashing eyes, is describing the cabin of the recycled old locomotives. “They have an on-board computer and steering is entirely different. An automatic system controls the motion, the speed and all the rest so you don’t have to pull at multiple levers all the time like some kind of manual worker. That is called an ‘euro-console’ for steering, recognised by most of the developed European countries.”
Then Patar lowers his eyes, remembering the current, antiquated locomotive that hasn’t undergone “plastic surgery” yet.
But despite the fact that the locomotive’s inside is a wreck, I feel that the railroad engineer loves it like a loyal friend, left in a time of need, betrayed by all but him. There are wires sticking out from everywhere, as if the old veins of the train have popped out like those of a stately wise man. “But his heart is Swiss,” Patar explains and smiles in a way that can make even the shittiest situation seem not so bad and hopeless.
Petar shows me a ticking box, with something like a clock built into it. “Every order given by me is recorded here. This is the train’s black box. It ensures the train’s security and it was made in Bern – that’s why, even though it is many years old now, it functions like a ….Swiss clock,” the railroad engineer laughs. He then gets up from his wooden chair, which looks like it was taken from a high school home ed class and for the last time looks back towards the station, checking in case somebody has decided to climb in at the last moment. The enormous red monster, covered in cracked paint, exhales as if for the last time and takes off from Sofia. On the control console, a button lights up and Petar explains that this is the locomotive checking the railroad engineer’s condition. If he’s fallen asleep and doesn’t press it within five minutes, the train will stop on its own.
“From the side, it looks simple, but in reality it’s science. If there’s a break-down on the train, I need to be able to fix it for ten minutes, sometimes even while in motion.
Another useful acquisition from the socialist times is the long practice before taking on sole responsibility for the whole train. “When you leave the school, as a beginner, you travel for five years as an assistant, even if you’ve graduated with excellent grades, before you become head engineer. At first sight it looks quite simple, but the responsibility is very high and you have to remember that you are always with one foot in the grave and one foot in prison.”
The railroad engineer and his assistant have a striking resemblance to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Petar is tall and skinny, while Bay, or Uncle, Dobri is short and stocky. They’ve seated me in the middle, between the two of them. “You’re lucky, in the new locomotives the chairs are built-in and we couldn’t put in one of those,” he points to the caved-in wooden chair.
We pass by another train and Petar, with the enthusiasm of a child, blows the train horn as a greeting. On his face, there are impressions that make sense completely only in the society of railroad engineers. The signal upon meeting is a kind of communication between friends, and like with ships, it makes you feel less lonely during the long journey.
“As early as elementary school, when I was asked what I wanted to become [when I grow up], and I used to reply ‘railroad engineer,’ no one believed that would actually happen. It’s just that most boys want to become things like that – firemen, cosmonauts, railroad engineers, policemen.”
But in 1983 Petar climbed onto his train and has no intention of getting off yet. He has travelled across the entire country thousands of times – Vidin, Lom, Ruse.
While he was studying at the military college for railroad engineers, he and his friends went to the seaside once. And while they were trying to pick up a girl, she told them in surprise: “And here I was thinking that railroad engineers are recruited only from prison.” Studying for a railroad engineer is also connected to “these very handsome uniforms with gold buttons. On all state celebrations in Sofia, our regiment always takes part in the parade formation, at one of the front lines.”
Petar had doubts briefly whether he should become an airplane pilot instead. “Except, I wanted to be in Sofia. I didn’t like the base at Dolna Mitropoliya [where one of the university’s aviation departments is based], it was very distanced from any kind of civilisation.” In addition, at the time the status and pay of railroad engineers were the same as those of pilots, and the opportunities for development seemed endless, unlike the small civil propeller planes that pilots had at their disposal. Today, Petar returns to this dream with his intention to paraglide.
The train has reached the next station unexpectedly and the railroad engineer sticks his head out the window, in order to get signals from the dispatcher. Then we continue on. The sun is behind the mountain before us and the lights of houses and small train stations twinkle in the dawn. “Up there, there is a frozen waterfall – they showed a film on television about a guy and girl climbing on it. If it was light, we could have seen it.”
Without realising it, we have reached the final point of our route – the village of Lakatnik. As the train moves in reverse, in order to get on the tracks back to Sofia, I am left to stay in the cabin alone. Petar and his assistant have gone into the engine-room, where pressure is 22,000 volts and laymen aren’t allowed. For a moment I think what would happen if I had to drive the train by myself and I get the shivers. Patar comes back in and tells me it’s time for me to get off the locomotive as I’ll be taking an earlier train back. Following a narrow strip of asphalt in the dark train tracks, we reach a room before the train station’s waiting area, so that I can confirm my ticket reservation. “Hey, they’ve blocked up your entry to the waiting area,” Petar turns to a group of his colleagues, squeezed, almost stacked on top of one another in the small room. Seconds later we find out why they don’t want to have a link with the waiting area. It’s freezing inside, the benches are completely broken, there is crumbling wall plaster on the floor, there’s no lighting to speak of. We continue on, shivering, to the improvised tavern.
Once inside, we wonder again how the loud, tipsy group managed to fit. We get a testing look, like the one that new-comers to saloons get in westerns. Then, they return to their business. On the tables are strewn plastic plates filled with all kinds of delicious things – meat balls, fries, salads. But the woman at the bar cools our enthusiasm by saying, “We’re out of everything, I’m sorry. If you want you can buy a wafer or chips.” That being the case, we don’t buy anything.
I think to myself, how can we expect new train cars and locomotives in Bulgaria, if they can leave a railroad engineer drive back to Sofia hungry, in the dark; if after the long transition to democracy, the food on train stations is not enough.
We come back out on the dark and cold station platform and sit in one of the cars’ empty compartment, pulled by Petar’s locomotive. And while we wait for the train from Mezdra, which is to take me back to Sofia, Petar tells me about his windsurfing adventures.
The train from Mezdra arrives with not to bad of a delay of five minutes, I become one of the many delayed passengers loaded into the cars, and Petar goes to prepare his old friend for the return journey to Sofia.