To Hitch or Not to Hitch

It is morning and I still haven’t decided. Will I do it? How dangerous is it? Can I do it? At the thought of leaving the hostel to hitchhike the 300 odd kilometres to Chiang Mai, my chest knots itself up and my head goes spinning.

I spend some time on my newsfeed to procrastinate, I google road safety (Thailand is number second in death cases on the road, after Libya) and half-heartedly check bus timings.

Yesterday, I had an argument about whether to do it, in which I revisited a lot of my points from this earlier post.

I think the arguments still stand, but two things make this situation different. One is that I am more tuned in with cautious, or anxious, vibes than I used to be. Therefore, I am more receptive to people telling me that I’m about to do something stupid. Rationally, I still don’t find the particular arguments I encounter convincing (I still think that we tend to exaggerate some risks, like being raped, while neglecting others. I am definitely more worried about car accidents here than about malicious people. And my cursory consultation of the usual sources seems to have shown that, if anything, Thailand is one of the nicer countries for autostopping), but I am faster to doubt myself. But then, I want to update my beliefs on rational grounds, and not because someone got me scared.

The second thing is that, because of the recent changes in my temper, hitchhiking now carries another significance for me. And it feels like now would be an exceptionally bad occasion to not do something because I’m scared.

I decide to give it a go because I want to remind myself that I am able to do things even if I feel scared and that, once I’m in it, reality usually isn’t as bad as I imagine it before I set off.

Just before I go, I have a chat with a girl in my hostel who has hitchhiked in Australia and therefore is sensitive to, and concerned about, my lack of hat or other sun protection. I reply “I might find one on the road” and she laughs about my bad planning. Fifty metres along the main road, there is a shop that sells hats.

I walk on, soon soaked in sweat. “I’ll wait till I’m at the exit of Old Sukhothai, so it will be more obvious that I’m hitchhiking”. This makes me gain time to think, and to collect my thoughts. Whenever a vehicle passes, I find a good reason not to signal – there’s not enough space, it looks like a tourist bus, there’s not enough room to stop. After half an hour, I finally come to a halt, on a place as good as any. I’m having moral doubts, and I feel ashamed. Am I propagating an image of the Western backpacker, who has, or could have, more money than the local population, and yet doesn’t spend any? What are the most likely consequences of my actions? Is it wrong to ask people who probably have less than you for favours? How good is it to ask people for favours at all? Would it really be that much better to spend my time working, to then spend my money feeding the Thai tourist industry (which, in turn, feeds lots of people)? And once I start think about morality, these things are no options at all, go work and spend your money/time really helping people instead of going on holiday!

Still, if choosing only between the two current options – to hitch or not to hitch – it comes down to a question about my goals. If my goal were simply to reach Chiang Mai, I might as well just take that goddamn bus, on danger of never recovering from my persistent air-conditioned cold.

But now that I’m travelling alone again, I aim for experience, I want to challenge myself, and I want to observe how people behave over here.

I stick out my thumb, and alternate that gesture with downward waves of my hand, which is how people stop taxis here. No-one seems to understand. My body language is hesitant; I find it very hard not to cross my arms, occupy my arms, twist my legs. I remember the second morning of my marathon-hitch from Morocco and how I’d persuaded people to stop by what seemed to be sheer force of will; how I’d been sure of myself and trusting in fate; how I’d really made myself believe that this was a glorious morning which would end in an awesome day, and how no challenge was able to stop me getting to where I wanted to be.

It doesn’t work this time.

After a while, I get the first acknowledgements: people indicate that they don’t have space or are not going my way. I feel better – at least some people understand what I’m trying to do. But no-one stops. Someone from opposite the road calls me and tries to say something, but we don’t understand each other. He comes from within a building that looks like it belongs to a university or some ministry.

I tell him where I’m going and give him a text in Thai about what I’m doing and what hitchhiking means. He reads it out loud, slowly. Then he smiles and motions me to go inside his car.

I’m not sure he understood, but I let chance decide – we’ll see where he brings me. Indeed, we drive all the way back to town and, out of all places, he stops right in front of my hostel. However, he doesn’t look at it, but crosses the street with me – to the police station opposite. I’m pretty sure hitchhiking is legal over here!?

Soon, I’m surrounded by a flock of more or less helpful police officers in snazzy uniforms, always happy to help what they perceive to be confused tourists. Out of awkwardness face to all this haphazard effort to help, I nod meekly as one of them asks “bus to Chiang Mai?”. And so, I am conducted to the bus station from where I head to my next destination.

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Why I’m still a lucky hitchhiker and other stories.

I was busy having fun in Croatia and Montenegro the last few days, but do let me tell you the tale of how I got here.

Remember, I was in Trieste, the only part of Italy that geographically can be counted into the Balkan area.

My aim was to reach Dubrovnik by night, 700 odd kilometres and four border crossings away. 

Leaving Trieste, I had to properly open the hitchhiker’s toolbox for the first time during my trip. First step: consult the eternal wisdom of hitchwiki.org, and find some good spots outside the city. Second step: get to that spot (I managed eventually, but got off the bus too late and had to get back to the still-Italian-but-not-quite-so village I wanted to leave from). Third step: plant yourself next to the road, in a place in which cars can conceivably stop to pick you up. Fourth step: make a sign and stick out your thumb.

 Fifth step: wait.

Arghh. Arghh. (That’s the sound of watching unhelpful cars go by). The whole trip, I’d only been on service stations, asking people directly. This, of course, also has the difficulty of plucking up the courage of asking strangers for a favour, but that’s something that usually gets easier over time (unless I’m super tired), while staring at cars driving by does. not. get any easier. Also, it’s less likely to succeed (there’s been studies done on that, but I don’t have a link right now). And you have all the time in the world to multiply the gloominess of your thoughs. And no-one stops to say “I’m not going your way, but I wish you luck”. You just see people stare at you and imagine that they all have no understanding of what you’re doing and that they despise you as a person and… it’s also a good way of learning how not to do that. And how to deal with the uncertainty that someone might pick you up in a minute, but that it could also take hours (or days, when you’re as patient as my friend Julian or other people). Or how to deal with the stare of others, and not conform nor feel bad for that, but smile at them in return.

Even more disappointing that I had no long hours in front of me, but just enough time to think these thoughts, until an Italian civil servant stopped after 39 minutes of waiting and brought me through Slovenia into Croatia.

Time for some stats!

On my whole journey, from Brittany through France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and again Croatia, I had 14 stops, of which all but two were on service areas next to the motorway. I waited for just under 18 minutes on average.

If you don’t have a sense of how phenomenal that is, imagine that this means that there were times when I literally didn’t wait at all and that 10 minutes were usually what I had to expect! 10 minutes! That’s less than what I usually plan for changing buses! It was only a few stops that increased this mean, like the one time I had to wait for about one hour. So that’s why I’m a lucky hitchhiker.

Doesn’t mean that this is what I or anyone should expect when hitching, but it does mean that I reached Dubrovnik in time to have dinner with my friends.

Some cool other people I met that day were an Austrian couple in their fifties or early sixties, who looked like unusual suspects – they were driving a big BMW, and he was on the phone for business reasons, wearing a shirt that dazzled me in its whiteness (and that’s what he wore on a holiday!)… and then, I didn’t even have to ask them, but they asked me if I needed a lift, and I loved the daily dose of anti-prejudice training. 

Another was a Swiss-Croatian girl who’d also just finished University and who thanked me for driving with her (Me: “…euhh? Thank you?” She: “no, seriously, I wish you’d continue my way, it’s so much more fun to have someoneto chat to!”).

And the Croatian health and safety inspector who brought me through the bit of Bosnia (or probably rather Hercegowina) that separates the two parts of Croatia, and who turned out to be a hobby-historian furnishing me with knowledge about the former Venezian and Dubrovnian republics, and who’d have been able to teach me much more had it not been for language barriers.

Anyway – thanks to all who made my trip so awesome, and thanks to you who were following my stories! It’s been great, and I hope life will continue to be interesting enough to be talked about ūüôā

How it began II

Well, okay, I’m back already.

My post¬†last¬†week made me remember an article I wrote in Morocco but never published anywhere. Going back a bit further back, this will introduce and expand on one of my big themes:¬†trust. Enjoy and discuss! (Seriously, I’d like your views: do you think I’m being stupid doing what I do?)

Morocco: tales of trust

Sexual assaults and terrorist attacks – these and other fear-laden buzzwords pop up in the minds of many when talk is of anything Arab. This is why I decided to hitchhike and couchsurf my way through Morocco, all alone and female and suchlike. If not a rational way of convincing others, this journey was meant to at least confront and hopefully overcome the creeping fear of the unknown within myself, by countering my own distrust with openness.

Hitchhiking – from the Sahara…

My solo journey began in the Sahara, on a long and unnaturally straight road with view on bright orange dunes. From there, I started hitchhiking all across Morocco, through heat, rain, and snowstorms. On that first day, the director of a youth centre picked me up and gave me something of a guided tour on the way to his destination, including views of the most extensive oasis in the world, wedged into a landscape of red sandstone. A young man, who I was first very weary of, surprisingly did not try to rape me, but instead helped me find a café with an internet connection. That night, I was adopted by a family who shared their enormous plate of couscous with me, bathed me in generosity, laughter, and music, and urged me to stay a little longer and to bring my family the next time.

…into the snow.

The following day saw me stuck in a snowstorm when trying to cross the Atlas mountain range. While still waving my finger Morrocan-style on a spot where road conditions weren’t too bad, I was approached by a man about the age of my father who convinced me in his native-like French to take the bus instead. For the two hours we spent on the bus, we talked about the bombings in Brussels which had happened that same morning, but also about apple trees, painting and life philosophy. He encouraged me with these words: “good things always attract good things, so if you believe in the kindness of others, you will be met with kindness yourself”. One view he held was that to be a proper Muslim, one had to be kind and generous towards others – something I saw implemented throughout my journey, be it with me, the elderly, or beggars on the street.

After the Atlas experience, I spent some days getting lost in the labyrinthine alleyways that make the medina, the old city of Fez, the biggest of its kind, to then move on to the sky blue lanes of Chefchaouen. After two whirlwind weeks, I finally left the country on a ferry towards Spain, clutching my last Moroccan oranges as if to keep them as souvenirs of this place and the new friends I was leaving behind.

merzouga-tanger

There also were moments when I did not feel at ease, like when I was spoken to in Arabic while the car seemed to take strange back roads Р moments which always resolved themselves when I safely reached my destination.

Assaults and conclusions.

Only one encounter, on the last of all days, was able to intrude into my picture of a place filled with openness and generosity. Just before leaving his car, a middle-aged men started groping my butt, which didn’t end with me being physically harmed, but left a strange aftertaste. I was baffled about this even more since he was the only person who kept telling me “you know, it’s dangerous to hitchhike!”. I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was a link between this distrust and his own behaviour, as if believing in the badness of other people somehow made him feel licensed him to be disrespectful himself.

He left me on a tiny roundabout, and while I watched the cars driving, a question started circulating in my head: Can I still trust? I decided that I could, and that I had to. Risks are real, but fear would ultimately result in me adopting a worldview way too similar to the one of this guy.

If nothing else, the heartfelt generosity I encountered in Morocco convinced me that trust is something we need if we don’t want to drown in a world of fear. I decided that I want to be one of these who trust, and hopefully inspire trust. And so I set off to hitchhike the 2.500km to Strasbourg.

[….which brings us back to last week’s story. I start liking retrospect-storytelling]

Three Euros, 840km, and, er, a couple of hours.

Oh, I forgot to mention fences. Like those around the service area on the motorway. Our friends at hitchwiki had left us clues on how to leave Bologna, so we took a bus out of town, investing all our remaining money spare 30 cents or so. What we didn’t know was that the area was under construction, so a lot had changed, and¬†we couldn’t see a¬†(legal) way of getting into the rest area. Also, it was hot. And our backpacks heavy. And then, a car came out the gate and its driver told us he’d call the police if he caught us entering.

We backed off and he followed us in his car, gosh.

– “Where are you, going, anyway?”

– “We want to get towards Modena, then Milan”

– “Ah, well, then you’re on the wrong side anyway, this one goes to Florence. If you want to get to Modena, take this underpass, walk around the fence, and there’ll be an entrance”

– “…Okay…”

He was right. We didn’t quite believe it, the way all around the fence was long, we nearly gave up – but we had a ukulele and could sing and hope we’d see some figs on the way and ultimately, we slipped through a gap right into a super-busy service station.

By that time, it was already 5pm, also¬†because we’d spent all morning cooking up random leftover food in the hostel kitchen (you have to eat, right?). After some starting difficulties, we got a ride by a Neapolitan lorry driver, then by a guy driving Italian branded goods over to rich people in Switzerland, who got us up to the Swiss border. We watched all the full cars (“I mean, it’s okay that people want children, but why do they also have to take them on holiday??”) and the sunset and thought about where to put up our tent. Before we had to, however, we met a young German couple coming back from Rimini. We spent most of the night together, until they left us about 70km before our final destination. It was something inhumane like 4am, but we quickly found a really sweet Turkish-born truck driver who brought us closer still. Still in darkness, we asked¬†in a car that turned out to be¬†going to a games convention.

Since my house wasn’t exactly on their way, they dropped us off in another suburb and we had a lovely sunrise walk to then join (or rather: wake up) my family for breakfast.

That journey is over, and incredibly, this part of summer, too. I’ll be back in Oxford in a week or so and there will be no time for travels for the whole year,¬†until that degree’s done. Well… I don’t really believe it (yet).

For now, a song including the line¬†“This is how the summer ends”. Not quite coincidentally also the song we sang during that last Italian sunset.

Hillside.idyll

photo 3 (1)

We arrived by train in a town called Jesi. It was a hungry Sunday, since we didn’t realise how serious Italians can be about public holidays. Lina chatted to a woman who brought us to the only open spot in town, doubling as the best gelateria and quasi cultural heritage museum. We ate a sandwich, I had my first Italian cappucino (and couldn’t believe that is was half the price of cappucino in England), all rounded off with copious ice cream and clotted cream (“Foreigners never eat their ice with cream, but you really have to try!”).

photo 2 (1)

Our next stop was a little village up the hill, Santa Maria Nuova, where we had found a Couchsurfing host, so we walked until the road and stuck out our thumbs (no buses on Sundays anyway). A man just a bit over our age and decorated with Indian pearls stopped, invited us to a drink – Lina had to try milk with mint sirup since she didn’t want coffee – and took us to the village. He was used to travelling and hosting people in his place, also through Couchsurfing, and immediately invited us to stop there next.

Just after he dropped us off at the Santa Maria’s main square, we noticed lots of well-dressed people and so stayed on to wait for the newly married couple, welcomed pompuously with heart-shaped confetti.

In this surrounding of mild hills, small villages, sunshine, and the smell of food in preparation, we exhaled deeply, looked at each other, and realised that this was where the actual Italy started.

We walked out of the village until our hosts’ house and garden. Misericordia and Jeronimo are Catalan in origin and speak just like Lina does when she mixes up her Italian with the Spanish she learnt in her gap year. They are artists, new age musicians, hosts for volunteers who want to work in the garden or help with the house that was still uninhabitable a year ago. They could also be my grandparents, but only if my grandparents were small and skinny and yoga teachers. The calm of the place makes us feel that we finally arrived at our destination. These one and a half days are the summit of our travel – we’ve finally stopped moving more South, and are in an agreeable state of equilibrium.

We’ll be leaving tomorrow (the 16th), which will give us three days to get back to Mannheim, after which Lina will move on to Amsterdam and Denmark on her own. Strange that our journey took up all that time, it seems that we’re now in the spirit of valuing processes, not outcomes. Still, I am pleased by the outcome, very much so. When we left Bielefeld exactly a week ago, Italy seemed really far away. Now, it feels like a dream – it’s the summer that didn’t quite happen throughout my time in Oxford, Edinburgh, France, Amsterdam, or Germany. It will not be easy to head North tomorrow.

Oh so Rimini

Leaving Modena, we expierenced a first day of so-called bad luck. That is, it took us three hours to get out of town, and I felt slightly delirious because of the sun and limited water supplies.

“Bad luck” means that things don’t go to plan, and one of our ideas was to go to Ancona or even further South, in a region where we could see the coast without herds of tourists. We ended up some 25km North of Rimini, the hot spot of Adriatic sunbathing. More precisely, we ended up in a service station surrounded by beach resorts. A really weird person had brought us there, speaking in a version of Italian that none of us could fully understand, seemingly in lack of social contacts and possibly a bit drunk.

photo 1 (1)It was getting dark, the road was straight and fast, stopping people unsympathetic. We stayed for one or two hours while rehearsing some of the songs we’d learnt on the road, until it was fully dark. There wasn’t even a bus to Rimini where we could have gone into a hostel, and wild camping is fined in the coastal area. A bit up the road was a sign for a piadineria, a sort of street restaurant selling typical piadine, a sort of filled, solid-ish pancake. We decided that we might as well eat. The piadineria was still well frequented and we immediately felt comfortable. As we ordered two piadine with cheese and rucola, the man behind the till, Bruno, began chatting to us in his smoky voice. It was easy to see what we were up to, with our backpacks and Lina still absentmindedly holding onto the “Rimini” sign, and he had the air of someone who has dealt with everything back in the day. When we asked whether there was a campeggio nearby that was still open, he very naturally offered us space in the small playground attached to the restaurant. After deliberating over our meal, we accepted the offer and ended up sleeping in the tiny wooden hut designed for children to play in. No way to plan for the unconventional.

The next day, we invested 40 Euros of our shared travel money to take public transport for the next 150km into the mountains behind Ancona, after we were thrown out of the private beach we frequented in the morning. Since I don’t carry a swimsuit, only Lina could experience the mediterranean, but I didn’t feel like missing out. Our next station was going to be much more typical and way less touristic anyway.