Bulgarian rhapsody

Von Paul Morton

08.11.2006 / Baltictimes

RIGA - “In America, truckers don’t have to cross borders, so there’s more a sense of it being adventurous,” says Stefan Kaegi. Without the frustration of border guards you have to bribe or the threats of crazy policeman imposing fines for idiotic reasons, American truckers can enjoy the open road, or so the myth goes.

Kaegi says that attitude is starting to come to Germany, where the 33-year-old Swiss artist lives. But in Eastern Europe, trucking is still a very difficult profession, too poorly paid and too stressful to take on a romantic quality.

Recently, Willi Betz, a German trucking company, the biggest in Europe since it acquired a Bulgarian counterpart in the early ’90s, has become embroiled in a not-quite-Enron-size scandal. The CEO is facing charges for bribing Eastern European officials to go easy on his trucks at border crossings.

To be fair, a business like Willi Betz may very well have to play such a game to survive in the Wild West of post-communist European transport. That said, there is another unsavory aspect to the company that isn’t prosecutable: Its army of mostly Bulgarian drivers is severely underpaid, making only 500 euros a month. Exploitation? Or just the old story of globalization, which, in the long run, will benefit everyone anyway?

Inspired by the story, Kaegi decided to put on a traveling work of public art, “Cargo Sofia,” to tell the story of these drivers. He sent a casting call out for real Bulgarian drivers in newspapers in Sofia, to serve as guides on a tricked-out vehicle that offers a virtual tour of the life of a trucker traveling between Eastern and Western Europe.

The loading section of the truck is set up with a 50-seat audience stand that looks out at a glass wall. There’s a video screen that pulls down in front of the stand, so you can see video footage of, say, Belgrade or the Lithuanian countryside. When the screen pulls up, the audience finds itself in a strange, usually industrial corner of the city. The Bulgarian truck drivers step out, pretend that wherever they might be is something else, say a crossing between Serbia and Hungary.

Of course, this is part of an old tradition of public art in Western Europe to “find wastelands and turn them into something picturesque,” says Kaegi.

“The show is different in every city,” he says. “It’s different every night because there’s an X factor that you can’t plan for.”

At one point during the preview on Nov. 6, one of the guides, stopped at a loading station, tells a man, “I got 50 people I’m smuggling into the country,” letting the poor man stare back incredulously. At another a curious bystander took out his digital camera and snapped a photo of the bus.

“A lot also depends on the weather,” says Kaegi. The experience in snowbound Riga is very different than the experience in Avignon in July when it was 40 degrees Celsius.

The two truckers provide the narration, telling their many stories as the night wears on. “Cargo Sofia” has already played in, among other places, Basel, Berlin, Warsaw and Zagreb. The show, here a co-production with the New Theatre Institute of Latvia, opens in Riga on Nov. 9.


Vento Borissov, a short man with a light grey beard, and Nedialko Nedialkov, a shyer robust figure, both 53, serve as the guides for “Cargo Sofia.”

“On a truck like this,” Borissov tells the audience, “I used to transport toilet paper from Bulgaria to Serbia…Fasten your seatbelts. I used to transport watermelons to Poland and we had to tie them down.”

During the show Borissov says that his company used to give him the equivalent of 30 euros a night to bribe police and border guards as needed. Anything above that had to come out of his own pocket. We learn more, about the use of speed and other drugs to stay awake at night, of the fact that Bulgarian truckers generally don’t go to prostitutes, according to Borissov.

“It’s 30, 40, 50 euros,” says Borissov. “Too much money for me.”

He goes on. “Most of the people we meet are border guards, other truck drivers and gas station attendants. We rarely see city centers. Traffic lights in city centers are not built for trucks.”

Nedialkov lived in Kuwait for a few years in the early ’80s. Unfortunately, on the night of the performance, he left his many photographs of his time there back in his hotel room, and it wasn’t until the day after the show that I was able to see them. And there he was, living a humble life as a truck driver amid the chintzy oil wealth of one of the richer Arab countries. In one photo, he poses in front of an insane jewelry stand. In another he shamelessly wears a pair of Speedos at a beach.

“In Kuwait, Playboy was banned,” he says. “Each Playboy was worth a tank of gas. My company gave me money for gas, so I would just keep the money and trade the Playboys for gas.” This could be dangerous. Distributing pornography was terribly illegal in Kuwait.

Borissov talks about driving a bus into Belgrade (he became a bus driver about five years ago), where a policeman stopped him for driving through a yellow light. He demanded a fine of 300 euros, threatened to jail his partner for three days and fine him 380 euros if he didn’t comply. After a half-hour, he gave him 10 euros and a few cans of Coca-Cola and it was all O.K.

On the Nov. 6 preview show, we found ourselves in a logging yard and an empty parking lot where, inexplicably, a woman just happened to be standing in the middle of a large landscape of snow. At one point, for the “Polish” section of the trip, a woman with an accordion was set up at one small road circle, and the music was piped right into the truck. Combined with the narrative, it was a mystical experience.

But the finest moment was the one that truly crossed the line between reality and fantasy.

An actual border guard boarded the truck when it passed through Riga’s port, a restricted area. The publicist who had organized the show had told everyone beforehand to take their passports with them just in case. But there were some nervous expressions among those who very likely had forgotten to do so.

The boarder guard looked at the list of audience members one of the show’s producers had given him, nodded and left.

“Was that part of the show?” I asked one of the A/V technicians.

“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

“Cargo Sofia”

Runs through Nov. 14

Truck meets at Andrejsala at 7 p.m.

Tickets 5-7 lats (7 -10 euros)

More info: www.theatre.lv

original address: http://www.baltictimes.com/news/articles/16791/


Cargo Sofia-X