Israelis Gone Wild

Welcome to Sunny Beach, Bulgaria, the resort invaded by thousands of Israeli high-schoolers this summer, where you can party 'til you drop, get beaten up by local mobsters and maybe fall prey to a tourist sting

Friday, 5 A.M., Happy Hotel, Sunny Beach, Bulgaria. I take the postcard I bought, with a map of Bulgaria on it, go to the balcony and compare it to the pool below. There's something to what the photographer said: The pool really does resemble the shape of this peculiar country. Sprawled out in this apartment-hotel, which is packed with more than a hundred young Israelis, is a gang of pre-army guys and gals who are busy drinking Vodka and Red Bull, singing, making out and coughing. The foot of one girl is bandaged, after she stepped on a broken beer bottle. One of the guys strips and dives into the water. The air is chilly, the water even more so. Smoke rises from his shoulders. He is working away at a hookah under the water. Hammers of trance music pound my battered head. A girl on the second floor, dubbed "the screwer" by her neighbors, emerges from her room wrapped in a stained towel. Her hair disheveled, she stands on the balcony like some Evita burned by the Balkan sun. "Does anyone have bread with margarine?" she screams.

What happens in Bourgas, stays in Bourgas. That is the mantra of Israel's youth, who this summer are flocking in their masses to the depraved resort town of Sunny Beach, on the Black Sea in Bulgaria. Waiting for us in the small, shabby airport was a driver holding an ISSTA travel agency sign. Next to him, wearing Bermuda shorts, aviator sunglasses and a baseball cap was Udi, ISSTA's youth department head. When he's not leading Israelis to Bourgas, he manages a bar in Herzliya.

"The pre-army trips are already a ritual, something that is imprinted in Israelis, and Bourgas is the new destination," Udi said. "I'm wild about Bourgas." Udi waxed poetic about the kilometers-long beach and the wild parties. A week isn't enough, he insisted. "Compare it to our Eilat," he says about Bourgas, where there are now 300-400 pre-army Israelis and 3,000-4,000 Israelis all told.

"There are flights here almost every day. Israeli tourism to Turkey is down by 70 to 80 percent - the Turks can't stand the sight of Israelis anymore. Ios is way down and there is a lot of swine flu in Ayia Napa. The Bulgarian girls are stunning, but not the men - they are sort of upgraded Russians. We in the tourism industry have to be polite, but 17-year-olds come here and it's not so simple," Udi says.

We passed the skeletons of abandoned buildings. "They just build and build here," Udi said. Happy Hotel turned out to be a new complex in red tones, populated almost entirely by 100 or so Israelis on ISSTA's youth holiday package (about $550 for the flight and seven nights' accommodation, meals not included). The room held a narrow single bed, a postage-stamp-sized hotel soap on top. There was also a shower lacking both a curtain and proper drainage. I went out to the balcony, which overlooked a pool that had a puzzling shape. On the other side of the fence was an empty lot and beyond it another apartment-hotel. The music from the pool bar was "Billie Jean." It was late afternoon, and sprawled next to the pool was a group of worn-out but jocular Israelis. They massaged each other, chortled, yawned, stretched, nursed glasses of beer and had colorful beach items in animal shapes.

On the wall of the room were signs in Hebrew, addressed to ISSTA holidaymakers: "Very important information for hotel guests: In case of any damage to the hotel or the rooms you will be required to pay for any damage at the reception!! In case of stains on the walls in or outside the rooms, you will be required to pay. In case of disturbances in the hotel such as violence, disturbing the hotel guests, dirtying and soiling the hotel, or any behavior that is not up to the norm, you will be thrown out of the hotel and will not get money back, and in the event of nonpayment for damage the police will be involved. Please, dear guests - you received a beautiful new hotel at a very high standard, try to enjoy it as much as possible and make as little mess as possible. The hotel management will not forgive if someone harm in advance and we promised that their hotel is in good hands. In case of any question, we are here for you. By the way, the entire hotel is equipped with cameras that operate 24 hours. Please avoid unpleasant incidents."

The young people by the pool had arrived at Happy a couple of days before me. I glanced at the second sign - "The crazy program for the week" - to see what I had missed in the past two days. (Most of the activities are included in the entertainment package that ISSTA agents sell the Israelis when they arrive, for 100 euro.) "Sunday - Following tradition at Sunny Beach, we will make the rounds of the bars so you can get to know the island, the people and the special atmosphere of the city." But we aren't on an island, I thought to myself. I kept reading. "Monday - We begin at Shooters at 8 P.M. The ticket, of course, includes two free drinks for each person. From there we walk to the Orange club, where a bus will be waiting to take us to a wild foam party in Bulgaria's biggest water park, together with English and Scandinavian tourists. At exactly 1 A.M. everyone gets on the bus and we continue to celebrate at Orange until dawn!! At the club everyone gets a free chaser!! Enjoy, drink and smile, and save your strength, because the week has just begun." The note added that we could get more information from Asa and Idan, the ISSTA representatives on "the island," and gave their local mobile phone numbers.

We decided to stroll over to the Black Sea, which was supposed to be spitting distance from the Happy. I looked for the hotel's address but there was none. The streets have no names at Sunny Beach, a resort town that was built from nothing in the past few years and is in the midst of a construction boom. The streets have no lights, either - the lights of the hotels and businesses are apparently enough. We walked past numberless, cheaply built, eclectic complexes in Miami Beach colors with compact pools, Gypsy booths featuring embroideries of owl and restaurants with photographs of the offerings, including the "erotic banana" - a vertical banana with two scoops of ice cream at its base, with whipped cream and sauce.

Finally we arrived at a somewhat unhinged boardwalk: Rickshaws blared their way through rivers of tourists, whole, burnt, pigs on a spit; fairground rides scattered alongside strip joints, telescopes that sell the moon. The Bulgarians have created a chaotic cacophony of every Western attraction they could think of. It's one big Eurotrash with Soviet influences and a Michael Jackson soundtrack. We are the world. A merry-go-round, a mechanical bull, mini-golf, paintball, swan-shaped straw baskets filled with cheap soaps shaped like bunches of grapes, towels with images of breasts and kittens and sunsets. Fake Prada bags. A clear pyramid with a small map of Bulgaria inside. Jeans in non-wearable cuts. Portrait painters who draw Whitney Houston and everyone who is willing to pay. Money-changing booths. Wigs. Swords, clubs, spikes. Casinos. A bare-chested man with a huge swastika tattooed on his back alongside the Nazi eagle and a tattoo of Hitler on his leg.

We ate a horrid dinner at Adam and Eva, one of many identical restaurants on the boardwalk. This one had a children's seesaw with photos of the dishes. Sitting at the bathroom door was an elderly, chainsmoking Bulgarian who collected half a leva for toilet paper. We returned to the Happy, shell-shocked, just as a ruckus erupted. A crowd had gathered around a young Israeli from the Sharon area nicknamed Bisli, from the "sons of CEOs" group, who was gripping his ribs and breathing hard. "I thought they would kill me," he said, dousing himself with water, hazy from the terror and the Vodka Red Bull. A group of Bulgarians had set on him and beat him up. The Happy's middle-aged Bulgarian security guard stood and stared at the Israelis - and at "Will & Grace" on the television in the lobby, dubbed into Bulgarian.

Asa and Idan had Bisli sit on a chair in the bar. Different versions of the event were fired from every direction, including urine, blows, seven anti-Semitic Bulgarian weightlifters with clubs and knives and a pistol - what wasn't there? Then the Israelis started fighting among themselves. "Welcome to Bulgaria," Asa said to me, in English. Idan asked the barman to turn down the music. Then, in a perfect imitation of a Boy Scout den leader, he explained to the Israelis that for Bulgarians everything was about honor, and that Bisli had violated the honor of this particular Bulgarian by peeing near his Porsche. He reiterated that peeing in public was forbidden, as he had already emphasized on the bus from the airport.

In the meantime, a few girls from the Upper Galilee community of Neve Ziv were trying to call an ambulance for a friend whose temperature had shot up to 40 degrees Celsius. She was admitted to the hospital, and the others quickly changed into miniskirts and heels for an evening at the Viking Club. A group of girls carrying packs of Marlboro Lights checked into the room next to mine. They were from Tel Aviv. Post-high-school, pre-army. They were on a charter flight that left a few hours after ours. They offered me a Vodka Red Bull. "Guys, come here!" my new neighbors shouted to the CEOs' sons below. "There's a naked girl here!" Asa reported to the girls' room and gave one a massage. It turned out that they knew him well from their vacation in Kos last year.

After the massage Asa came to my room. He's 25 and originally from north Tel Aviv. He told me that he has been in the party scene since the age of 15 and had been at the Happy for the past six weeks, and in Kos and Rhodes before that. He noted the extravagant price of Vodka Red Bull in Turkey and the bargain price here. What is the secret charm of Bourgas? I asked. "Bourgas is out of this world," Asa said. He told me it was a crime we had missed yesterday's foam party, where a couple covered in foam had sex in public. "And just wait till you get to the boardwalk. It just hits you. You'll understand the charm of the place by yourselves." An embarrassed silence ensued - I didn't mention that I had already experienced the boardwalk. Why didn't you help Bisli when he was being beaten up, or at least call the police? I asked. "All the Bulgarians are criminals. It's one big mafia. Period. When there's chaos you don't call the police," Asa replied.

We discussed restaurants. My photographer said he was thinking about opening a good restaurant in the area. "Forget it," Asa said. "Everything here is a monopoly. The whole area belongs to three people. I met a guy who owns the whole beach. That's why all the restaurants look the same. And watch out for the Albanian strawberry scam: an Albanian comes up to you with a strawberry and asks you to taste it. The Israeli takes it and the Albanian says, 'Now pay,' and shoves a basket of strawberries at you and makes you buy it. It's ridiculously expensive - 20 leva. But if you don't buy you're in trouble." Bulgaria, which has been a member of the European Union since 2007, lags behind other members in parameters such as corruption and economic resilience. Nor is it part of the euro club - it hasn't adopted the uniform currency and probably won?t be able to for some time.

The next day, the group had "volleyball tournament and seaside attractions." Just before the departure of the bus, which was packed with smoking, raucous, young Israelis, the girl who had been hospitalized showed up, straight from her X-rays and sporting antibiotics and good spirits. At the back of the double-decker bus I met a group of ten captivating girls from Even Yehuda who had just finished high school. They said that upon landing they were given a pile of condoms, courtesy of Durex. "It's a little like Lod here," Tali observed as she looked out the window. "And the mall here really stinks," Avigail added, "and everything's with pork here. Coke with pork. Pizza with pork. Pork on the beach..."

"Every morning we get up and make an omelet in a pot and eat it with the crackers we bought," Tali said.

We got off at the beach. The girls, all friends from the Scouts, burst into a Hebrew anthem they had made up, "Eizeh kef b'Bourgas!" ("What fun in Bourgas") and then performed the international version (in English): "So much fun in Bourgas!" "Have you tried a blow-job yet?" Asa asked them, explaining that he was referring to a giant shot drink. "Try the blow-job tonight. And what about bananas, would you like to do a banana?," he added with a wink.

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