I’ve returned from my latest trip a bit of a different person. I’ve fallen irrevocably in love and permanently changed for the better. I may finally have some direction in my life.
I discovered hitchhiking.
I don’t think I’ve ever fallen as hard and fast for anything before – I can’t believe I ever paid money for a bus. It’s the most exhilarating, addictive experience. Even after stopping dozens of cars, my heart still flipped in my chest whenever a new one pulled over. It became a drug in and of itself, a desire to go further and further constantly pushing you on.
It’s also an experience filled with surprises. Growing up in America, the only things people tell you about hitchhiking is that you will be raped and murdered if you attempt it. Some cultures are traditionally very comfortable with hitching, but America is just not one of them. Like all things that are feared, there is a lot of ignorance surrounding it, and so I was left to discover the details for myself.
No one ever tells you how messy it will feel.
Many people tend to focus on the safety aspect of hitchhiking. And yes, while it is necessary to know how to avoid compromising situations, you should also know how freaking awkward it can feel.
You immediately become a roadside attraction. Especially if you are hitchhiking on a crowded highway, people love to roll down their windows and give you looks of confusion. People will try to put you on buses and tell you that it’s not safe. Taxis will repeatedly attempt to rescue you from your perceived peril (for a fee of course). If a crazy driver does stop to get you, there is a chance they will stop in the middle of the road instead of pulling over onto the hard shoulder you carefully searched out. A cacophony of horns will result.
There was a moment, somewhere on the side of the road in Albania, where I wandered exactly what the hell was I doing. After all, I was stumbling through grass and piles of dirt on the side of a highway. The blades sliced my legs as I attempted not to fall; a web of scratches blanketed my ankles. To my left, cars were blowing by.
There was a moment, walking away from the Istanbul airport in search of a car, where I wandered exactly what the hell I was doing. Taxis swarmed around us, loudly honking to get us to turn our heads in their direction. We spun our heads around, searching for the right exit sign, dashing across a busy road never meant for pedestrian action.
There were so many moments where I felt so totally out of place. But you get used to it. And you keep thumbing on. Because, especially when your driver drops you off in middle of nowhere, you have no other choice.
No one ever tells you how useful it is.
Before I began hitching, I envisioned it in my head as people just generally headed in one direction, like west across America.
It’s not like that at all actually.
Pick a point on the map, and you can get there by hitchhiking. It may take you a while, but trust me when I say you can cover the ground to get there. It still blows my mind that I can select a random location on a map thousands of miles away, and I can get there with the help of strangers.
Our desired location? Petrich, Bulgaria. A small town of about 20,000 people, it’s hardly a tourist destination. A wave of silence would wash over the groups of chatty teenagers as they heard us walking by speaking English. I mentioned visiting the town to a Bulgarian later on my trip, and she had never even heard of it.
But we were dropped off right in the center, with little trouble. It probably would have been more of a hassle to search out the correct bus route.
Additionally, certain tourist destinations can only be reached by car – there simply isn’t public transportation available. Since I never rent my own car, I felt trapped from these beautiful things, either made to pay expensive tour group prices to be shuttled there or simply be left out.
But hitching provides another option. Simply stand by the side of the road and you can get there. For free. I’m still blown away by the practicality of the tradition. It’s actually a really useful, viable way to get somewhere that you need to go. I started hitching because the rebellious teenager inside of me wanted to return home with stories of how I hopped in the cars of strangers. Now I’m convinced it is actually a fantastic and practical way to get around.
And again, its free.
No one ever tells you how much you can connect with people.
Yes standing on the side of the road can feel incredibly awkward; other times, it becomes amazing social experiment, a chance to connect with the many stranger buzzing by you. When you stick out your thumb, you are asking for something. Many times people ignore you, but so often even when they can’t take you, they react to you. People honk and people wave. They hand gesture that they live close by; occasionally men on motorbikes whistle and make kiss faces. Once a man stuck his fist out the window and fist pumped into the air, as if to say, you do your thing girl.
Again, the safety aspect is stressed so much that we forget the opposite: there are amazing friendships to be made. One of the biggest worries of solo traveling is meeting people. Granted, I have always made friends on the road, but there are still time where loneliness creeps in. You watch groups of chatting friends sitting around planning their days together, and you wish that just once you could convince someone from home to go with you.
Hitchhiking combats that, as you are literally forced to interact with dozens of strangers to get where you need to go. Some of my hitching drivers are now friends with me on facebook. Others have bought me meals, drinks, invited me to their home, told me great stories about their lives, took care of me when I was sick, and otherwise became some of the best experiences I had while I was traveling. I may never see them again, but I value those conversations more then I can express. Sitting next to a new person in the drivers seat, only the open road and the radio available for entertainment, you are literally given the gift of time, hours to discover each others lives. Of course the conversations always begin the same – where are you going, how long have you been traveling, ect, but give them time and they veer into wonderful new places that you may never have imagined.
I travel to see the sights. I travel for the food. I travel to swim in the sea and climb the mountains and learn the history and dance all night. But mostly I travel for the people, and I wish I had known sooner that there’s a really simple way to experience those connections I crave so much.
Just ask for a lift.