Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Ticket tricks in Varna

A tiny incident happened to me in a public transport bus in Varna which I find worth telling about. On Saturday, November 28, 2009, I had just arrived by the intercity train and took the bus from the train station to the bus station, on my way south to Goritsa. Unlike Sofia, Varna's public transport is differently regulated. The major difference is that each bus is equipped with a 'conductor' - a woman in most cases, who sells the tickets to every passenger who boards the bus.

This time again as usual I immediately spotted the conductor and asked whether I am on the right bus to the bus station. She nodded in confirmation and there I was, sitting on a chair and waiting for her to sell me a ticket. With my trailer bag I must have looked like the absolute tourist arriving from the capital out of season. Without much delay the lady approached me, collected the 1 Lev fee and handed me my ticket, which I immediately forgot about.

Surprisingly, a few stops later, she came back with an awkward smile, and muttered quickly something of the kind: "Oh, sorry, sorry, I think I have made some mistake and given you a wrong ticket, could I have it back please". I reached into my pocket, and as it always happens, could not find the damned ticket. I started a quick search for it into my hand bag and other pockets, but the woman interrupted: "No worries, no worries, here, take this one" - and handed me a second ticket. Then she walked further down the bus, apparently asking other passengers the same thing.

In this moment I found the original ticket and looked at it. Indeed, it said 0.50 Levs instead of 1. Almost delighted, I thought everyone makes mistakes, but at least this woman seems to care fixing hers. I then noticed a curious difference: the new ticket I had received from her read "City Transport Varna EAD" while the previous one was issued by some different company. Not too much impressed by the difference I waved at her and handed the 'wrong' ticket back to her.

A minute later I understood it all: there was an inspector in the bus. Another woman, uniformed, pleasant looking in her early retirement age, had boarded the bus and was chatting friendly with the driver. The 'conductor', upon return from her mistake-correcting mission, also gave her a friendly smile. The inspector then walked along the bus and checked all passengers' tickets which, just like mine, were now very correct.

I was disappointed, thinking the 'conductor' had actually really tried to cheat me - and not only - with a cheaper ticket. She must be making a couple of Levs a day from absent minded passengers like myself, I thought. It only occurred to me later, that it may not be only the 'conductor' making something for herself. By using its own tickets rather than the ones issued by the municipality the bus company might as well be hiding some of the profit it makes, I speculated. And here was the random check, which of course did not discover anything suspicious after the speedy ticket replacement mission performed by the conductor.

By the time this thoughts passed through my head it was time for me to leave the bus. So I did not actually do anything. But today, weeks later, I found the old Varna transport 1 Lev ticket in my pocket and the story popped up in my mind. So I chose not to let if be forgotten. Precisely because it is too tiny and insignificant, it reveals best the state of affairs in Bulgaria, where abuse of public funds, cheating and lack of control on behalf of the state seems endemic. Given the proportions of the phenomenon, this incident may seem too minor. There are much more impressive cases of corruption and abuse of public funds that get reported by the news media.

But I think this happens somewhat too selectively. Once, such cases need to fit the media's greed for relevance to as many people as possible. And second, they are often selected by the top level decision makers of the state, who need to provide evidence of doing something against corruption and abuse of public funds - mostly to the EU, which seems to be much more critical of the state of affairs in Bulgaria than Bulgarian public itself. But it is the small scale cases that the average citizen gets confronted by almost every day.