The Wall, The Black Sea, and Orlando

In Westeros, the Wall is a towering, magic-infused garrison that guards the realms of men from the dark evil that lurks in the north. In the world of solo travel, the wall is loosely defined as the barrier reached when the burdens of extended travel become too much and the realities of burnout begin to set in. I had heard this term thrown around while scouring various internet forums leading up to my trip. Never did I think it would apply to me; I am more resilient, more seasoned than these people, I told myself.

I was wrong. Unlike the mythical Westerosi Wall, I found the traveler’s wall to be quite real. It reared its ugly head during my trip down the Black Sea, in the wake of the Orlando tragedy. I hit the wall during a time when I felt truly unsafe.

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I am walking out of the bus station in Varna, Bulgaria. The Google Map above shows the trip to be around four hours, but ours was closer to seven. We spent an hour and a half at the Bulgarian border control, and stopped several times along the way. The ride was muggy and uncomfortable. Everyone was talking loudly in the Slavic tongue. I didn’t sleep, and I had only slept a few hours the night before in Bucharest.

I stagger out onto the streets of Varna. My heavy bags feel heavier than ever. The blisters on my feet have blisters. It is so hot here. The sweat from the bus ride is clinging to my body. I start to wander. I have a vague idea of where my hostel is, but I can’t see any street signs. I’m stumbling about like an idiot. I’m an easy target for him.

I should never have talked to Ricky. My mind wasn’t right. He saunters up to me confidently with a toothy smile revealing a set of teeth that would make my dentist shudder. He is wiry, smaller than I am, but rugged. He starts speaking German very quickly to me.

“No German, English”, I tell him. He starts speaking broken English. He asks what I’m looking for, I tell him the name of my hostel. (Why am I talking to him?) He tells me he knows where it is, that it’s only five minutes away, that he will show me.

“I help you. I am gentleman. This is my business”

As we walk he asks to carry my bags. I refuse. His English is very limited. He starts speaking more loudly in German, as if that will help. His eyes are wild, veins popping out of his arms and his sweat-glazed forehead. His aura is that of a hyena, licking his chops in anticipation of a good meal. (I need to get away from him).

I try telling him I will find my own way. He says we are close. I can’t shake him. 

He keeps calling himself a gentleman. It’s one of the few phrases he’s mastered. Ten more minutes of walking and I’m feeling uncomfortable. He grabs my arm…

“You like joints? Cocaine?”

I refuse. I now know why he seems so crazed; he’s high on his product. I start to feel more vulnerable.

Five more minutes of walking and we arrive at the hostel. Relief sets in, but it is brief. Ricky demands I pay him an altogether absurd amount of money. I tell him I knew the hostel was five minutes from the bus stop, that he took me a longer way, and that I will not pay him what he’s asking for.

He raises his voice. I raise mine. I’m not thinking clearly.

I lock eyes with him for the first time, determined not to waver. His pupils are dilated. His hands wave about as he loudly demands money for his “services”. I tell him he’s no gentleman and fork over less money than he’s asking for. It is still too much. I storm off into the hostel.

Sitting in my bunk I look out the window. Ricky is there where I left him, pacing around, smoking a cigarette, talking on the phone. It hit me that he knows exactly where I’m staying. He know’s where my valuables are, that I have money, that I’m alone.

He’s in league with drug-pushers. And he’s angry.

When Ricky leaves the area, so do I. I walk quickly through the streets of Varna, hoping to find a suitable hotel before Ricky or someone like him finds me. It’s getting dark.

I’m not sure how far I walked. When I finally pick a hotel off the beaten path, I could have fallen asleep standing up.

It is surprisingly nice. I thank Eastern Europe for being cheap enough to eat the cost of the hostel, plus pay for new lodging, without losing and arm and a leg. I feel a weight lifted off my shoulders, if only for a moment.

I get on Wifi for the first time in almost a full day and learn that 50 people were murdered in cold blood at a gay nightclub in Orlando early the previous morning. Reality doesn’t really set in at that point. Exhaustion takes over.

I sleep an uncomfortable sleep. I don’t dream. My waking dreams awaited me the next day, so did the Wall.

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I’m walking down the Varna boardwalk, looking out at the Black Sea, and yet I’m not. I’m gazing up at the Wall. This is what they were talking about, I think to myself. I feel like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, unstuck in time, neither here nor there. Forgetting how, when, where, and why.

Fifty people.

I feel a crushing sense of powerlessness. A feverish rage. A devastating hopelessness.

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I’m walking down the shores of the Black Sea but my mind is elsewhere.

Fifty people.

I miss home. I miss my friends and family. I miss comfort and consistency.

I feel like I haven’t slept well in weeks. I partied too hard in Bucharest. I haven’t taken care of my body. My mind still isn’t right.

I can’t shake this lull. I hate feeling this way. No one speaks English here. Would it matter if they did? I don’t feel like talking to anyone. I don’t feel like trusting anyone.

I keep looking over my shoulder, expecting Ricky to appear at any given moment. I’m living in fear, perhaps irrationally.

I barely talk to anyone for two days. I feel truly lonely for the first time.

When will this go away?

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I’m walking through the Sea Gardens of Varna along the Black Sea, but I might as well be anywhere else. I’m unstuck in time, anyway. I’m with Munira in Srebrenica in July 1995. I’m with Audrey in Paris in November 2015. I’m with the LGBTQ community in Orlando just a day before. I’m anything but a person living in the present moment.

I can’t let my mind be like this. I have to come back to reality.

As I walk I don’t see many other white people around. I stick out like a sore thumb. I am getting stared at. When I catch someone staring, they don’t break their gaze. Why won’t they look away? Was that sketchy-looking guy one of Ricky’s drug cohorts?

I’m being dramatic, I tell myself.

Fifty people.

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I walk by a shooting game off the side of the road. People can fire away at targets or cans to test their accuracy. Those pellet guns look like real assault weapons. It looks fun. I’ve shot guns before, they’re fun. That’s why people like them.

I wonder if Ricky has a gun. Why wouldn’t he? I wonder how easy it is to get a gun in Bulgaria, if there are more guns than men, women, and children in Bulgaria. I wonder how easy a guy like Ricky could get a gun in the US. Even if he has a record, there are a plethora of loopholes he could use to get one. Gun shows. Crooked dealers undeterred because of the absence of a comprehensive background check. If all else fails, theres a thriving black market with a massive supply of deadly firearms, fueled by the fluid legal arms sales system. He could definitely get one.

Fifty people.

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I am looking up at a statue of humans standing together near the shores of the Black Sea, but I’m not really there at all. I’m in Washington DC watching people stand together for change. Senate Democrats are holding a filibuster to force action on gun control. For fifteen hours they hammer home their message: enough is enough.

Nothing comes of it. As I write this, all four gun control measures were shot down (no pun intended) in the Senate. People on the terrorist watch list can still freely purchase assault weapons.

For many senators, inaction is the preferred response when dozens of children get murdered while in school, when fifty people are murdered at a nightclub in cold blood.

Fifty people.

I wonder, if fifty senators were murdered at gunpoint, would the response be the same? If their lives are truly valued in equal regard to the common man, then inaction would be the response. I have a feeling in that scenario, inaction would not be the response.

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I am standing outside Roman ruins near the shores of the Black Sea, but I’m anywhere but there. I am in New York. My adopted cousin Honesty lives there. As a black child with two white fathers, she doesn’t need it any worse. She is too young to understand what happened in Orlando, but some day she will. She will face challenges just by the nature of her existence. This is the world we live in.

Indeed, the world we live in is one wherein fifty people of an already marginalized community can be murdered and not render a response from our lawmakers. The right to bear arms is a fundamental right, they say. This, the same group of people who refuse to condemn their presidential standard bearer, whom has proposed banning an entire religion from our country. Could it be that the 2nd amendment carries more weight than the freedom of religion because the former lines their pockets?

Our founding fathers, those who established the 2nd amendment, were great men. But they were products of their time. They did not believe women, or blacks, or anyone who wasn’t a white male, should have a seat at the table when writing the constitution. They did not know what an atom was. They did not know that the internet would come to be, or automobiles, or the nuclear bomb. They did not know that, one day, there would be a weapon capable of firing off dozens of rounds and killing fifty people in a matter of minutes. I wonder what they would think of the logic of our current lawmakers. Unable to act even as we lead the developed world in mass shootings. As Americans die everyday due to inaction.

Fifty people, the worst mass shooting in US history.

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I am looking at a statue of dragons near a swimming pool overlooking the Black Sea, but I am not in this world. I am in Westeros. Where incest, pledges of fealty, and backstabbing are the norm. Where you can only trust someone to the tip of your sword.

I am in the year 2516. Humans in this time look back on 2016 and see it as a time of archaic barbarism, much like humans in 2016 view fantasy worlds like Westeros.

Fifty people get killed and nothing gets done.

I am in Westeros again looking up at the Wall. It seems so high. I haven’t dealt with this before. I am eager to GTFO of Bulgaria. I tell myself “this too shall pass”.

And pass it did. As I write this I feel better, worlds better. Getting out of Bulgaria was indeed the key, assuring myself I wouldn’t run into Ricky again. A repeat encounter was unlikely, surely, but it was enough to make me feel unsafe, however irrational that is. Now I feel like myself again and hope to never feel like that during this trip, or ever.

The feeling of powerlessness in the wake of the worst mass shooting in US history has lingered. I have reconciled with the fact that I don’t have the answers, that there is no singular “answer”. It is such a complicated issue that runs deep with many Americans. I would not infringe on their rights, but I would also not err on the side of inaction.

Something must be done, some action must be taken, if only to admit that there is a problem. How many more must die?

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

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