During my Peace Corps days in Bulgaria, I served as the unofficial Patron Saint of Tourists at the Sofia train station. As I’d be rushing to my train, I would look over and see a clearly American couple. Inevitably, they were in their 20s, hunched over from the load of high-end backpacker gear strapped to their frail bodies. With the expression of abandoned puppies, they scanned between the Cyrillic letters on the timetable overhead and the alphabet decoder in their Lonely Planet guide. At that time, few Bulgarians spoke English so I knew that without my help, their entire vacation might be wrecked.

I might be the only American who can read that ^^^.

So I’d mosey on over, shock them with some English speaking, and they would practically fall to their knees in exaltation. Before sending them on their right way, almost without fail they would tell me how much they’ve learned from seeing the poverty and simple happiness of Bulgaria. That they prefer to travel to poor countries because it’s more “real”, and reminds them that you don’t need money or objects to be happy.

I would nod and watch as they boarded the train to their next vacation stop, while I boarded mine to the dreary, dilapidated coal mining town where I lived.

In Bulgaria, I was all about keepin’ it real.

One cold December day, I did my saintly duties for another group of poverty-enthused tourists, and then jumped on my train. While the train car sputtered at a glacial pace along the track, I remembered that I had been that same, starry-eyed tourist when I arrived here. I’d expected that I would find enlightenment in the absence of capitalism, and self-realization in the presence of simplicity.

To some extent that happened. But more often than not, reality lied in the spaces between, straddling the good and the bad, the uplifting and the heartbreaking.

The breaks started to squeal as the train approached my local station in Pernik. I peered out the window into the blanket of darkness and noticed it was raining hard. I’d forgotten my umbrella, so I covered my head with my arms as I stepped off the train and ran towards the pedestrian tunnel.

And then I heard it.

There was a faint sound of music echoing from the other side of the tunnel, muffled by the splitter-splatter of raindrops leaking through the dingy, rusted-out roof.

As I walked closer, the music grew louder. I could almost recognize it, though it was terribly off-key with intermittent tones of screeching.

In the distance I saw a figure, a man, seated on a stool. He gracefully strummed a long bow across a violin as if he was in the Vienna Philharmonic.

I got even closer and saw the violin had several holes, as did the man’s worn, leather shoes. Crouching on that tiny stool in the freezing, wet tunnel, he wore only a light jacket, his gray hair damp as rain dripped all around him, and at times on him.

Between the screeching and the scraping, I made out the melody.

It was Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

This poor man was playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on a broken violin, by himself, in a cold, wet, train station tunnel in a country that had lost its economy, its future, and its hope.

In that moment, I began to cry.

Truly, I’d never seen anything so simultaneously heartbreaking as it was beautiful. I’d never seen anything that so encapsulated how I felt about this depressing, enchanting, pitiful, wonderful place.

At his feet was his open violin case, to collect donations from passersby, the inside lined with tattered, red velvet. The case was empty. So I reached into my pocket, pulled out a 5 lev note, and did my best to avoid eye contact as I leaned down to drop it in.

For if he saw me crying, perhaps he would think I felt bad for him when really, I just wanted to dignify this man.

When I think about what Bulgaria at that time meant to me, and what real poverty means to me, I relive that moment. Again and again.

The poverty most of us see in National Geographic photos or non-profit websites may be true, but it isn’t the whole truth. In some ways, those images capture just the appearance of struggle, instead of the hope that sustains it.

I couldn’t disagree with the tourists in the train station. When you have a lot of money, as we do in the U.S., you can forget the simple joys of life, like the sound of music. But when you don’t have money or opportunity, those joys become tools of survival. You will play Beethoven on a broken violin, in a cold tunnel, on a rainy night, because your only alternative is to sink.

Indeed there is happiness in simplicity.
Indeed there is enlightenment in detachment.
Indeed there is beauty in the rawness of humanity.

But perhaps when you live in poverty, instead of just travel through it, you see another side where the good and the bad aren’t opposite choices, but entanglements of survival.

If tourists find meaning in visiting poor countries, it’s understandable. But unless there is equal understanding of what poverty actually looks like, that meaning is just surface-level.

For given the choice, the man in that tunnel would have probably sacrificed anything to play a beautiful violin on a warm stage in the Vienna Philharmonic.

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If you want to hear more beautiful stories from the Peace Corps, check out this story I wrote for USC’s magazine in which I profiled experiences in Tanzania, Kazakhstan, and of course…Bulgaria.