Fate has chosen me to be a traveller.
My life is an endless journey,
says the tireless Bulgarian
Her fate dealt her colourful cards and she plays them bravely. This takes her to mystical and wild places full of mysteries. And also to little corners of paradise reserved for billionaires, world-famous athletes and movie stars. Her name is Ina Tonina. She’s a professional tour guide with the soul of a traveller. Ina knows Italy, Spain and Mexico very well.
She leads groups to the Caribbean countries, loves Guatemala. She says that if she has to describe all of her incredible experiences she’ll have to write many volumes. To the question what caused her to take the known and unknown paths on the planet, Ina has an interesting answer. “I don’t think it’s entirely our choice,” she says. – I believe in fate and the scope for choice. Sometimes life gives us signs. There are signs which path we should take. I followed my destiny intuitively. Although I had completely different plans for life that were clear and understood. It’s just that my calling carried me like flood water. And I gladly let myself to be carried over the years.”
The childhood of a future adventurer is a wonderful tangle of experiences. It passes on the wide boulevards of Sofia during years that were calm and full of bohemian atmosphere. It meandered along the dusty paths of the village of Chuprene. After that Ina had the opportunity to experience the exotic culture of Libya. Perhaps this helped her choose her path in life years later. “I was fortunate to be born and grow up in the centre of Sofia in idyllic times,” says Ina Tonina. – In the summer I left this dimension and moved to another – the wild beauty of the Balkan Mountains in the village of Chuprene. I used to run barefoot on the green grass, meet deer on my way to the vineyard, catch snakes in the river. I could feel the freedom that nature gave me. The energy it charged me with. Leaving for Libya was unexpected. For a long time, it seemed like a movie I never even dreamed of being in. My mom went to work there. After three months, Dad just decided that we should also leave.”
Ina’s father, Ivan Tonin, is from the glorious generation of weightlifters, who brought a lot of pride to the country. Ina learnt from him some of the most important life lessons. “Dad was an interesting person – goes back to her memories Ina. – An athlete who started with wrestling and then moved into weightlifting. He could talk about history for hours, quote philosophers, recite poems. My father sang, painted, wrote poetry. He saw the world in a colourful and unconventional way. I can still feel his presence in Chuprene. There, when the stars were huge and bright in the summer, he told legends about the constellations of the Great Bear and the Little Bear, about the Milky Way, about Coma Berenices and Venus. What my father taught me was to manage on my own. And to fight. They were harassing me for my high diopter glasses before I even started school. He told me that if someone hurt me, they should get what they deserved. And they were getting it. I got back at them. I was an A student, but also a real nightmare for teachers with my terrible temper.”
As a kid, Ina practised judo. “I was responding firmly to attempts to be terrorized because of the defect in my sight,” she says. – My father took me to the judo hall one day to a colleague and a friend of his. Ever since the first practice, I knew this was my place. I trusted the secret sign of fate again.”
Ina went to the legendary Sofia school called “Olympic Hopes”, a school that forged great champions. “Character was built there – Ina is adamant. – Order, discipline, stamina. Respect and mutual assistance. All of this has helped all of us in life. No matter what path each of us took. It’s a shame there are no more schools like it today. I’ve been a big fan of football as well since I was a kid. My uncle, who was a crazy fan of the “blue team,” taught me to say “only Levski” from a young age. I remember when I was 11 years old i watched the 1978 World Cup in Argentina on a colour TV, which was a luxury. My first idol was Mario Kempes with incredible feints and an elusive sprint, with hair flying like a mane.”
Ina had the opportunity to travel the world from a young age and one happy day she met her love for life – Italy! “Rome is my great passion,” she admits. – I first went there with my father in 1994. I cried when I was leaving. In 1995, I returned for a residency at the Olympic Centre in Rome in my coaching specialty. During that training, I never missed a single free minute to run into the streets of the Eternal City. I was looking for something I’d read about or imagined. I relived the moments of Roman history over and over again. I lived with the gladiators and legionaries who entered the city in triumph. With the speakers and senators in the Curia…” And all this turns out to be once again the finger of fate. Because later on Ina’s life turned out to be strongly connected to Italy.
“In the mid-1990s, I worked at a security company,” Ina recalls. – I led judo training sessions and I never imagined that my life would go beyond the sports hall and the competitions. With the economic crisis in 1997, the very decent salary I was receiving at that time turned into pennies. One day I decided that the effort I was making did not correspond to the remuneration I got. And I left. Then I read an ad in the 24 Hours newspaper that a company was looking for someone who knew Rome and spoke Italian. I went on an interview in March 1998, and I didn’t get a call until a month later. A week later, I was supposed to be taking a student group to Rome. I had no idea how to be a guide. I was just telling them what I knew about Rome, about Italy, about the Italians. I wanted to show them the interesting places I had discovered in my adventures. To share my impressions and love for this country. And it worked.
And so until this day. Over the years, I’ve experienced many unforgettable events. Every journey has its strange moments. Sometimes they’re cheerful and comical, but other times they may be even scary. Thank God, after it comes to an end, it becomes a good memory.
I can’t forget a case where two tourists got lost on the island of Burano. The island can be toured on foot within ten minutes. I counted the tourists. All of them were there and I headed for the boat that was waiting for us to take us to Murano Island. When we were already on board, it turned out that two were missing. I started looking for them. I knew they could not have gone anywhere on this very island. I went around the island several times, calling out their names. Even the salesmen shouted with me. There were no cell phones. I called the police to tell them that I was looking for them. I instructed everyone in case they get lost to contact the first policemen they saw. That’s how I used to find them. The group was swaying in the boat for two hours, and I was yelling and yelling. At some point, a policeman came and told me they were on Murano Island. Yes, but our time to visit Murano lapsed in anticipation and search. We skipped Murano and sailed directly to Venice, where they were brought in on a police scooter. The whole group was ready to eat them up because of the ruined visit and the waiting. While the two were just delighted to say how polite the policemen were! While we were walking towards the harbour, they went “for a minute” into a store, and when they came out, they didn’t see us. They ran to where we had stopped, but they didn’t know that the boat would pick us up on the other side of the island. There they saw a group getting into a boat, and they ran to get onboard. They found themselves with a Japanese group that was also sailing to Murano. And they thought that we would meet there.”
Ina knows Sardinia well, where billionaire Bill Gates, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and a bunch of celebrities from the world of show business spend their holidays. “This place impresses with incredible tranquillity,” says Ina.” It combines the lush greenery of the mountains and forests flowing into the emerald crystal clear waters of the sea. It lacks vanity and worldly chic. In Sardinia you can really come across a world star on the beach or on the road and not even notice them.”
Later on, the fate of a tour guide took Ina to Spain. It turns out that this is a country very different from the ideas most Bulgarians have about it.
“This country is a colourful mosaic of cultures and traditions,” says Ina Tonina. – Paradoxically, Spain is a collective image and there is nothing specifically “Spanish”. The 17 autonomous regions are so diverse and distinct from each other that I always tell those who are more ambitious to get to know Spain they have to visit it 17 times. The desire to repeat the visits then comes naturally. The most interesting thing, perhaps, is that we associate Spain with the sea and beaches. It’s however an extremely mountainous country. Few know that Spain enjoys a long ski season in the resorts of the Pyrenees and Sierra Nevada. There is yet another surprise for those who are going to visit the country. From the beginning to the end of the year, there is a holiday somewhere in Spain every day. I call it the land of eternal fiesta for a reason. Local holidays that are secular or religious are added to public national holidays. These are holidays dedicated to saints that are patrons of districts, cities, villages and neighbourhoods. Festivals of water, flowers, harvest or spring. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, family holidays. Festivities of pumpkins, chestnuts, mushrooms… I made a vow to travel the country for a year and attend a celebration every day. Each region has an average of two public holidays per month. They often merge with the weekend and become multi-day merrymaking.”
The fate of a tour guide and a traveller has possessed Ina Tonina to such an extent that soon Europe turns out to be small for her. Mexico and the Caribbean have also become part of her destinations. What hides beyond notions we usually have of these distant and beautiful places?
“This is a completely different world,” says Ina. – When one goes there, one has to leave behind their notions about everything. Forget what one has heard or read and be ready for unusual and unexpected things. Guatemala is one of the places that never ceases to amaze and delight me. Wild virgin forests combined with the unique charm of the encounter with the authentic culture of the local population. I cannot forget my first stay there and my surprise that they don’t have glass on the windows. With even greater astonishment they asked me why they needed glass for if they wooden shutters on the outside and an insect net on the inside. This replaces the double glazing that we know. We spent the night in a national park, where the hotel consists of little houses scattered in the woods. With all modern conveniences, but in an authentic style. And with windows! I left them open, only with a mosquito net, and minutes later, I was stunned by blood-freezing roars literally in front of the window, followed by unimaginable noise and stamping. I was afraid to go and close the window. Then I got used to enjoying the night choir of the jungle which died down with the first rays of sunshine. It’s like someone’s pushes the knob to turn off the radio. Then, in the darkness of the coming day a cheeky macaw may peek through the window or scream to wake you up at the most.
I am looking forward to the planned visit to Mexico for the Day of the Dead. An incredible festival that is difficult to explain with the European worldview. It happens to be compared to All Souls’ Day, but the meaning is the opposite. A day when you can realize how you feel about death. And look at life from a completely different perspective. A colourful, happy, cheerful holiday in which people believe that their deceased loved ones are among them. They come home to spend time with them again. The preparation is amazing – everyone strives to perform best in front of the dear guests. They may have nothing to eat for months, but for the feast they set rich tables to meet their loved ones again. And there they are, looking from the pictures, from the symbolic altars adorned with flowers in every home. They fill hearts and thoughts with beautiful memories. On this day, people don’t cry, don’t grieve. They simply experience unique moments with their loved ones who have departed from this world, waiting to meet them again next year.”
And where is Bulgaria in the heart of this lady with an intrepid adventurous spirit? Your homeland gives you the feeling of being at home,” Ina admits. Home is where your heart is, and mine has stayed here. I’ve always had the opportunity to stay abroad. But I never wanted it. The thing I love most is counting the days until the day I get home. Even if it’s for a little while. Before I fly away again.