Big cities have a strong gravitational pull. Once you get close they are easy to fall into but getting out of them can be terrible. So we took a bus from Istanbul to Edirne.
Octai, our first ride now heading back west. His job had something to do with phones. He bought each of us a coca-cola when we stopped for gas. He dropped us off at the border. The Turkey/Bulgaria border was a series 4 or 5 check points. Crossing it on foot took many hours. By the last few check points the guards know you have already been checked so much that they don't take it very seriously. The last one asked us where we were going to and we said “Plovdiv” and he said “Aaah! Many beautiful women in Plovdiv!” and gestured an hour-glass with his hands, laughed, and waved us through.
Two Turkish ex-Air Force officers. One of them lived in London. They met two dudes outside of Plovdiv at a gas station. Seemed a BIT ODD, but we had a cool political conversation about the EU.
Plovdiv is a university town, recommended for sure. We met our couchsurfing host Teodora. We hit it off and had a big dinner with lots of drinks at a restaurant. Teodora’s boyfriend asked me how I felt about The Jews. There were a lot of gypsies in Plovdiv and we started to learn about their situation. At dinner they listed off the characteristics of the gypsies: lazy, very musical, darker skinned, happy in a simple way despite not having much, thieves. The same old bullshit but on a different group. "I make it a point not to discriminate against people based on race but stealing is just in their blood." She did say that the best Bulgarian TV Show (called Glass Home) had introduced a gypsy character. She also said she had a gypsy friend but that she wasn't ‘really a gypsy’. Teodora and her boyfriend invited us to come to their parents cabin for the weekend. We hitched hiked in two teams up to a city called Troyan.
We took the bus to the outskirts of Plovdiv. While waiting for a ride we saw a guy riding a bicycle straight down the center of the highway. Above, a man whose father was a music teacher. He liked auto racing.
A cell phone tower ranger driving up in the mountains to fix something. He liked rock climbing. He asked us if we’d ever heard gypsy music. It was really abhorrent techno pop. He didn’t like it either but said the videos were basically porn. We spent the night at Teodora’s parents place then all drove up the next morning to the house in the woods.
Very green, very beautiful countryside.
Onwards to Macedonia.
The first thing we noticed getting in this guy’s truck was that the seatbelts didn’t have anything at the end. They were more of a sash. He showed us how to wear them and said “For Police!” Later he finished a thing of cigarettes and tossed the empty box out the window and turned to us with a shrug and said “Bulgaria!”
This guy had just won an award for designing a really excellent chair for classrooms. He was driving a truck full of the chairs. I can’t remember the mechanism now but at the time it seemed really clever.
I don’t have videos for all our rides and missing here is a good one I remember. The guy was a border police officer on his way to work, which was perfect for us. He stopped by where his sister worked to show us to her. The attention of being a novelty can be fun.
This was the nicest car that ever stopped for us and it had three other people in it. A beautiful young woman who spoke many languages. The driver, a somewhat burly guy but well dressed. A stout henchmen of a man with a recently broken nose. He introduced himself as “Peter” which the others made fun of him for. “Yeah, there’s our friend PETER!” They didn’t speak to him as if he was their friend. When we asked the driver what he did for a living he chuckled and said “You will forgive me if I do not answer this question! I am a bon vivant! I enjoy life!” and everyone laughed, including us. They were the only people who took us over a border in their car. Normally we would get out and walk and meet up with them across.
Hitchhiking tests your luck. If you leave an hour later, your entire trip might be different. Once into Macedonia, we hit our worst run ever of not getting ride. When there are only a few cars going by you can’t help but put mental pressure on the ones that do pass to please please just pick us up. So when they inevitable don't, you get mad. We were at our most frustrated when the guy above picked us up. The sight of his car stopping brought intense feelings of relief. He was Albanian, which made sense later because Albania is the greatest place to hitch hike.
Our prior ride had dropped us off on the highway so we were kind of in a weird position but these two young dudes picked us up. The driver did logistics for the U.S. Military in Afghanistan. They dropped us off in downtown Skopje.
Our couchsurfing host there was a great guy named Filip. At some point we realized we all played Heroes of Might and Magic as kids so we torrented it and played it together one night. Walking around we passed a holocaust museum. We asked if the gypsies were represented in the museum but Filip said the Jews didn't want them in there.
The guy who made this sculpture changed his mind halfway through about whether or not he should be wearing glasses so it came out looking like someone you’d find in the cantina bar in Star Wars. Filip himself is an artist and was bummed at how nepotistic the public art scene was there. In Macedonia you can't sell alcohol after 7pm or so. Filip took us to a speakeasy in a mall after the rest of the stores had shut down. He also recommended that we stop by a lake town called Ohrid on our way to Albania so we did.
That night we tried to camp out along the lake but couldn't find a spot so we found a hostel. We met two girls who were running the place, Claudia and Helena. The real owner was hardly ever around (we later found out he was having some kind of trouble with the police) so the girls held it down while he was gone in exchange for staying for free. The Hostel had a real freewheeling vibe that we locked into immediately. We met a crazy guy who was half Russian half American and had tried to hitchhike to North Korea. He wound up being held in a border prison. He said another guy there was from England and claimed to be an economist. He had 80 euros in his pocket and said he was going to use it to restart the North Korean economy. The Russians called the North Koreans and asked what they should do with him and the North Koreans said “Shoot him.”
Claudia and I connected. Everybody went to a bar downtown, we hung back outside talking. I had the feeling talking to her that words were just coming out of me on their own. Inside I played it cool, perhaps too cool, and left without seeing her. Late into the night back at the hostel we ran into each other and she asked me if I wanted to go down to the lake. We spent the night in the grass. The next morning as we split up it sort settled down on us that we wouldn't see each other again. It was a strange moment. We spent two more nights in Ohrid. The third night we all really connected as a group. Helena and Thomas were both seeing other people but there was something happening there too. She wrote me a goodbye note with her email, and we left.
Uhh better be a weirdo and sneak a photo of her and Thomas.
Next time: Our buddy Frank, a Croatian island, back into Western Europe.