Sitting in a bakery at 4 a.m. next to the central bus station in Skopje, I’m distracted by the painfully bright purple and yellow lights dancing along the dusty windows. They sporadically flicker from a distance, constantly changing pattern and pace as if trying to induce a seizure. Usually things like this don’t bother me, but at the moment my eyes are still adjusting to the unnatural sensation of being awake at this hour. Not to mention that every few seconds, a sharp ‘ding’ rings through the air, sometimes singular, sometimes in machine gun bursts, accompanying the lights in creating quite possibly the most disturbing amalgam of sensory perturbations fathomable. Where are these damn things coming from?

I swallow the last bite of greasy cheese burek, the only purpose of my current state of consciousness, and step outside into the chilling late October air to find the source of this madness. It doesn’t take long. At the corner, right where the awning ends and the large block of concrete known as the bus station begins, lays the monstrosity – an electronic pinball machine.

Games have become ubiquitous in our lives, infiltrating, through the medium of technology, a significant portion of the ‘down time’ between daily activities. Louis C. K. explains it best, or at least most humorously, during a guest appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien where he explains why he won’t buy his kids a cellphone. He observes that we have forgotten how to just sit there and do nothing, constantly feeling the need to plug in. Consequently, waiting for the metro has come to mean hopping a doodle up an endless path of floating green platforms. Waiting rooms at doctors’ offices buzz with fingers that swipe across these tiny screens, slicing flying graphics of fruit in half. The agricultural industry booms as patches of strawberries and corn thrive across farmvilles worldwide.

OK. Maybe I have exaggerated a bit (although the latter was a pandemic at one point). But the point is most of us at one point or another have been sucked into the addictive spell that drives us to blast sets of matching gems together on our smart phone screens, until we delete the app dozens of accumulated game hours later in a spontaneous act of frustration and self-disgust. Then, we find ourselves in limbo until a moment of boredom reignites the chaotic cycle.

In my opinion, one of the things that makes the mind-dulling repetitiveness of these games so addicting is the clever integration of “achievements.” This should ring a bell. Right at that moment during a period of incessant playing where you question what on earth you are doing, a bright yellow box flashes in the middle of the screen with large, bold red letters..

“ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED – 1,000 purple gems blasted!”

Suddenly, the game has purpose once again. A feeling of accomplishment surges in. And after swiping the box out of existence, another pop-up appears..

“ACHIEVEMENT LEVEL 2 – Blast 1,000,000 purple gems”

Challenge accepted.

Bucharest to Sofia

The period of 24 hours that began at 6 p.m. on my last day in Bucharest felt exactly like one of these games. After hitchhiking the Transfăgărășan with my travel companion Aaron, the following two days in Bucharest were pretty mellow and uneventful. There was a great deal of aimless walking, a greater deal of lounging at coffee shops…a feeling of complacency had overcome both of us. We were in an enormous capital city with such a rich history and much to offer, yet it was all very familiar – large buildings, crowded streets, grandiose churches. Visiting these metropolises was becoming repetitive, begging for a unique experience, a bright yellow box that would add some nuance, some purpose.

Shots from our few days of meandering
Shots from our few days of meandering

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Soon enough, those yellow boxes began materializing, some in the form of novel experiences, others as accomplishments. Without even realizing it, I was “unlocking achievements” left and right. And it all started with one e-mail.

“ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED – Officially surf on a couch”

Couchsurfing is an online international social network of participants who open up their homes, but more specifically their couches, in a form of hospitality exchange, giving travelers a long list of potential hosts all over the world. The purpose of participating transcends finding free accommodation, however, as most hosts dedicate time out of their schedules to explore the city together, giving surfers a more interesting, authentic and socially stimulating experience. Based on reviews and feedback that both hosts and surfers receive, participants are able to determine the types of people they might be interacting with, creating a relatively safe, interconnected and interdependent network.

So far during my trip I have been pretty unsuccessful in finding hosts, due mainly to the fact that I would send couchsurf requests a few days prior to my arrival, which usually wouldn’t be enough time to get a response. In other cases, hosts would either be traveling themselves or already hosting others. The one time I was hosted by a couchsurfer resulted from a conversation at a bar in Budapest, which turned out to be a great couchsurfing experience that evolved without any use of the online platform. So apart from a few people interested in meeting up for drinks, I didn’t receive any affirmative responses to my requests.

The same trend seemed to persist in Bucharest. After sending about a dozen messages, we had only received two notifications over the course of two days, both negative. However, we had a turn of luck on our last day, and in the evening Aaron and I met our first host, Mada. Having just gotten off of work, she was still full of energy, and after a quick stop at her apartment to drop stuff off and meet her adorable cats, Sissy and Maya, we took off. For the next few hours, we walked all over the city, listening to Mada’s incredible in-depth knowledge of practically every significant (and not so significant) building, while taking turns down narrow alleys and through hidden outdoor bars. Mada’s passion really came through as she talked about her city, making this walk and unofficial, spontaneous tour that much more memorable. To top it all off, we ended the night with a delicious meal and a glimpse of traditional Romanian dancing.

A lovely night out

Despite having to get to work very early the following morning, Mada had taken the time to prepare us a hearty breakfast, as well as some snacks for the road. I couldn’t imagine a more hospitable and caring host, or a better first time couchsurfing experience.

Our room for the night
Our room for the night
View from the apartment
View from the apartment
The very friendly Sissy
The very friendly Sissy

“ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED – Trucking Through”

With our eyes set on Sofia, Aaron and I took a tram to the outskirts of town and walked to the first petrol station we could find. Spending our last few Lei on some snacks and finding a piece of cardboard out back, we were ready to polish our thumbs.

Tram to the outskirts of town
Tram to the outskirts of town
Almost at our spot
Almost at our spot
Ready to go
Ready to go

But we didn’t get much of a chance, proving to be a surprisingly efficient hitchhiking duo as a driver waved us over within a matter of minutes. All of my rides to date had been in sedans, so it was a nice surprise to have Gabriel stop for us in his white truck, which we later found out was loaded with textiles. The ride to the border was more intimate than most, as the three of us were squished into the only row of seating in the front of the vehicle. Being seated in the middle, I spent the ride engaged in a delicate dance of releasing my leg from under the weight of my bag and dodging the long stick shift each time Gabriel’s foot went for the clutch. With long hair and a beard as well, Gabriel joked in his limited English that they would think we were “hippies” at the border. But we would never find out.

“ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED – Crossing on Foot”

Upon arriving at the border, we hopped out of the truck. Since we would be headin in opposite directions after crossing over to Bulgaria, we didn’t want to hold Gabriel up with the unusually long processing of our US passports. After a few routine questions and stamps, I took my passport and proceeded to what would be my first border crossing on foot.

Border crossing
Border crossing

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“ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED – The Longshot”

Soon we were posted up with a fresh new sign.

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But the traffic seemed to consist mainly of semis, which wouldn’t be ideal for the remaining 300 kilometers. Nevertheless, when a Russian semi pulled over, we went over to chat, figuring that if the truck were going all the way to Sofia, one guaranteed ride would be worth the slow drive. While waiting for the truck driver to grab a bite, we heard a honking coming from behind, and turned to see that a car had stopped for us 50 meters down the road. Kiril, the middle aged man behind the wheel, was heading all the way to Sofia and agreed to take us, so we got into what would be my longest single ride, and the most distance covered in a single day of hitchhiking (390 km).

Kiril and Aaron up in front
Kiril and Aaron up in front

But that’s not all this ride had in store..

“ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED – Need for Speed”

As it was his birthday, Kiril was in a rush to get back home and celebrate with family and friends. This meant that he was gunning it, whizzing through the Bulgarian countryside at an average of 160 kph, and maxing out at 200 kph a few times. Needless to say, this was the fastest and most efficient ride to date. While not even expecting to make it to Sofia that day, we had arrived with a few hours of sunlight left.

Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia
Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia

ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED – 1,000 km Mark”

On that note, somewhere around a third of the way through the ride, I clocked a cumulative 1,000 hitchhiking kilometers, reaching a trip total of 1,200 km by the end of the drive.

Although it hasn’t happened often, every now and then traveling becomes exhausting. This is not always a bad thing, as some of the most valuable experiences come from just lounging in someone’s home, relaxing and having nice conversation. But to get out of that complacent state and get the blood flowing again, it’s helpful to have some spice added to the journey, making the journey somewhat similar to a game. And unlike the empty promises of unlocking virtual achievements, the ones on the road can end with a rewarding, celebratory treat.

Well deserved craft beers
Well deserved craft beers

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