Chapter 1: The Early Years
The stories in this chapter were written on one night towards the end of 1995, near the end of a particularly trying semester at university. Ten of us all had a major project to deliver on top of the ordinary work of the semester, and we were working some 80 hours a week to achieve it in those last weeks of the semester. We were almost camped at the labs, sometimes literally. "My life is in the toilet." someone wrote on the whiteboard, and it struck a chord with the ten of us, so it was never wiped away.
I had met Kirsty earlier in the semester, but as you can imagine we found little time for get-togethers, I think she was a busy as I, though probably enjoying it a little more. All I knew was that she was compiling a book on hitch-hiking stories and she was interested in some of mine. She got in touch one day out of the blue, her deadline was tomorrow and she'd not got her stories yet. The panic button was hit.
It came at the right time of course. I was frazzled and more than a little tired of working. What a welcome distraction. What joy to sit down and draw out some fond memories. I typed and I typed, until I was dry. While the result wasn't of Keroac's proportions, Kirsty was pleased, it was in on time and she could use the stories.
In fact it was overkill. It turns out her book was shorter than this chapter, and only three of the stories here made it into print. Why waste the words I thought, and I published them on the web. It was the start of a tradition.
I first started to hitch in Europe, during the summer of 1991. I was travelling abroad for a year or so, and while visiting an uncle in Austria was convinced by a close friend of his, that hitch-hiking was a necessity. That you haven't really travelled Europe until you've hitched it, that there was an experience behind hitching not at all obvious at a casual glance, an adventure, an uncertainty, a romance. That you meet the wildest people, local people, and the journey becomes the ends not merely the means.
It was a convincing presentation, delivered with the passion of experience. Less than a week later, in Vienna, I summoned my courage and gave it a try. In all my life I had never given hitch-hiking a moments thought, was only mildly aware that it was something nice people didn't do.
I had to get to Bratislava, just across the border where I had a friend to visit. A very short trip, not worth the while of my rail pass. I was nervous, everyone was watching me and there was a lot of everyone where I was standing, a rather busy arterial road out of Vienna. I was of course lulled, by our stereotypes into thinking that all these people were looking down on me, that I was begging. Uncomfortable and uncertain I wasn't sure if I was doing it right, standing in the right spot, or what. Nothing happened inside of a half hour, so I gave up and took the train.
That was the first of only two times that I remember giving up. My second attempt, heading back from Bratislava to Vienna was a very different experience and that story opens this chapter, that covers two years of hitching through Europe and Asia between April 1991 and November 1993. Needless to say things have changed, some cultural misconceptions dispelled and a passion developed. Join in for the ride ...
I'd never ever hitched before and was a little intimidated by the idea. I bought a rail pass to travel around Europe and didn't see much need for it. Still, I kept bumping into people with the most enticing and encouraging tales to share, concerning their hitching experiences, and was determined to try.
I had the perfect run ahead of me, needing to get from Bratislava to Vienna, a mere 60 km, and a well travelled road. So I read a map and selected a spot, where I stood thumb extended waiting for the worst.
Within the half hour a brand new black taxi pulls up. An extremely rare sight in the Czechoslovakia of the time and a great surprise to me, not exactly in need of a taxi. It's a young Slovak driver and I explain to him that I'm hitching to Vienna and in no need of a taxi.
No, no, he says to me, I'm off duty and on my way to Vienna myself, hop in. It turns out that he drives to Vienna on a regular basis working illegally as a waiter over there. He earns in one night as a waiter in Vienna what he earns in a whole week driving taxis in Bratislava!
A lovely fellow, we exchanged addresses and I returned much later to drop in on him and add some Australian coins to the collection he'd described to me on that first trip.
Arriving in Rovaniemi (northern Finland) by train I befriended a forlorn German girl who'd lost her travelling companions, with whom she was going to rendezvous at the Station. Not being one to think twice about comforting forlorn German girls I enjoyed the pleasure of her company for an afternoon, until her friends albeit late, did in fact turn up at the youth hostel. It was great to see her eyes light up so bright and rush out to greet them.
My new-found companion stolen away from me, I fraternised instead with some fellow Australians for the night.
The following day, I made the mandatory trek out to the arctic circle a short hop north of Rovaniemi, where Santa Claus lives through the summer. There was a bus, but like everything in Finland it wasn't exactly cheap so I hitched, with no trouble, because that's precisely were all the tourists in Rovaniemi go.
Watching the throng of tourists get snap shots of themselves and their children in the company of the chubby red and white guy, who should I bump into, but the German girl from the night before. But the spark had gone from her eyes, and she was happy to see me there.
It seems she'd had a falling out with her companions, who had cancelled their plans to head further north, and were going home early. Something that she found depressing and infuriating.
I told her of my plans to hitch north through Lapland, an adventure that lit her eyes up all over again. Almost on the spur of the moment, she decided to abandon her companions, with whom she'd caught the bus to Santa's little hideaway, and hitch back to town with me. I never said German girls weren't impulsive!
Having informed her ex-companions of the plan, both of us a little tired of the kitchy red guy, we crossed the road and stuck those thumbs out. The very first car screeched to halt and took us to town!
Hey, I'd heard it can help to hitch in the company of a pretty woman, but I have to confess I'd never experienced it before, being something of a solitary hitcher, and this was some contrast to the hours I'd spent waving my thumb around in past, believe me.
Thinking we were on a roll, back in town we decided to kill the afternoon, exploring a natural wonder in the form of some rock formations some miles south of town. There was no public transport, so hitching was the only option, besides which we weren't exactly discouraged by the last experience. I'd say we were riding a high in fact.
Map in hand, the thumbs went out once more, and we waited and we waited and we waited. Hmmm, seems the pretty girl equation, can work wonders, but it leaves something to be desired in the way of reliability.
Eventually we got a lift a ways out of town to an open air museum which was on our way. We really enjoyed the museum, which was a layout of traditional Lapp houses and things, as a break from holding our thumbs up, before we set out once more.
Again, we waited and waited and waited, until eventually a Red Merc pulled up, with the prettiest looking Finnish lass behind the wheel that I'd seen in a long while. She wasn't actually going our way, but was keen to take us some of the way all the same. But she was in a bit of a rush to see her brother apparently so we declined, suggesting we'd be just as likely to get away from here as from further down the road. No, no, she insisted and persuaded us to hop in.
It turns out she was in her boyfriends red Merc, on her way to visit her Brother, and in something of a rush. She phoned him (with the car phone) to let him know she was on her way.
We had a fine old talk about Finland, Australia and Germany, the pros and cons of hitchhiking and the rocks we were on our way to see. She knew the rocks they were a well known tourist attraction, but she'd never actually seen them. She didn't have time today either, alas, or we'd have made a lovely little trip of it.
Still, she insisted along the way, that she'd take us to the rocks, even though it was a considerable detour for her. No, no, we insisted, that needn't be. We knew she was in a rush (she was driving the way people drive when they're in a rush ;-) to see her brother. Still, she had us trapped in the car and wasn't going to let us out until we got to these rocks.
Along the way we came to a fork in the road. My map said the rocks were to the right and she turned left. Tactfully I asked if she knew where she was going and she insisted yes, which I took to mean that either she knew a road I didn't, or I wasn't reading my map right (a serious possibility believe me).
A good quarter hour later, wondering why these rocks seem to be so far out of town, she kicks herself and realises that she'd made a wrong turn after all, and it was to the right, way back there, not to the left. Apologising profusely she throws a U turn and doubles back quick smart, in a rush all the way, to see her brother.
Reaching the intersection once again, in spite of the dearth of traffic on this road, we insist once more, that she could let us out here and we'll hitch the rest of the way, so that she can see her brother on time. But she insist, quite rightly, that there aren't exactly a lot of cars out here, and wants to take us to the rocks.
Another quarter hour later we find the turn off!
It's a dirt track and the sign says its a few kilometres to these rocks. A few kilometres of muddy dirt road, because it had been raining recently. Not wanting to dirty the shiny new red Merc, we insisted we'd walk the few K's and hitch back from here ... swallowing the lumps in our throats at the thought, given the increasingly daunting lack of traffic on this quiet stretch.
No, no, she'd have none of it, she drove us all the way down this bumpy muddy dirt road, which was all too happy to leave its signature on the sides of this red Merc.
Reaching the car park we got out to savour the end of our odyssey. Now, she wanted to go and see her brother. she didn't have time to look at the sights. Hey, hey, we said, you're not leaving us out here in the middle of nowhere with rain looming, and we chaperoned her on a lightning tour of the sights, which were after all that quite pretty, and whisked her back into the Merc finding our respective places as well.
And we all scream outta there double time quick, to visit her brother.
Back on the road to Rovaniemi, she phones her brother. There's a message on his answering machine. He's gone out and won't be home till late!
With no more rush, and a muddy red Merc then, we pulled back into Rovaniemi, where our wild new Finnish friend dropped us at the youth hostel and invited us out to the club where she'd be that night with her brother.
Although strange the adventure was wild, and invigorating, and my German companion was boiling over with enthusiasm to hitch across Lapland with me. In the end she decided against, only because she had very real time constraints needing to meet someone in Copenhagen soon after, and I couldn't guarantee that the hitch across Lapland wouldn't take a few days.
Still, don't let anyone ever tell you that Finnish girls aren't fun ...
Although I had a rail pass valid throughout Europe, the train lines heading north through Finland stop at Rovaniemi, and the buses are outrageously expensive. Asking around about the possibility of hitching to Tromso straight through Lapland, I met nothing but surprise and disapproval. It just isn't done. No one hitches that stretch, there is nothing but trees and reindeer out there.
In spite of, or perhaps because of that I was keen to give it a try. So I set out a full hour before the bus to Tromso, thinking that if things did get real bad and the bus caught up, I could always catch it.
It was a slow start, and every other car that stopped was full of Lapps that spoke no English, but the progress wasn't bad. Every now and then at a service station I'd ask around and find a lift further down the road. On occasion, while waiting for a lift, with my thumb out, a pair of hikers would wander past and tell me glibly that I'd never get off the spot, they'd tried for ages themselves.
The folk in Rovaniemi were right in one regard though, there is nothing but trees and reindeer out there! The spots on the map that look like towns are in reality a service station and a few houses scattered around.
It started to rain just as someone set me off at a service station. It's never any fun hitching in the rain, especially not in the middle of all those trees and reindeer. To my surprise and luck though this was a bus stop, and yes, the bus had just pulled up. I was already two thirds of the way to Tromso, but the bus did catch me up. Which was a good thinbg, because our paths had diverged at some stage and with the rain and all now, just what I needed.
I haggled with the bus driver concerning the price of a ticket, something of a surprise to him and the half dozen others on the bus. Haggling is something you do in Turkey, not Finland! Still I won myself a discount and was quite pleased with myself.
One third of the way, even with a discount, is still expensive in Finland, so very quickly I asked around the three cars filling up at the service station trying to score a lift further along my way. I failed, and looking up at the rain falling on my face, I opted for the bus. The driver was looking impatient in any case, my having just haggled for a ticket.
Alas, the bus didn't go to Tromso. It was a Finnish bus, and Tromso is well into Norway, so this bus only went a little past the border to Norway, to a small town with only one hotel, at Norwegian prices, which aren't any better than Finnish prices.
It was getting late in the afternoon, it was raining heavily and there were to be no connecting buses to Tromso. Three young Italian tourists on the bus found themselves in the same fix, and asked my of my plans. Well, I guess I'll have to hitch to Tromso in the rain I suggested. At least it wasn't dark, it wasn't going to get dark in Lapland at that time of year either. They'd never hitched before, but I suggested they give it a go.
On the second last stop, already in Norway, there was a car pulled over and four young Norwegian fellows crowded around a phone booth. With a gleam of hope in my eyes I ducked out of the bus, and asked if they weren't perhaps going to Tromso. Alas no, they were just going across the fjord to Furuflaten, about half the way to Tromso. Oh well, I figured halfway to Tromso would be no place to try and hitch on these desolate roads in the pouring rain, and thanked them before heading back to the bus.
But no, they hailed me down, half way is better than no way they cried and invited my to come along with them. With mixed feelings of joy at the offer and uncertainty concerning the prospect of standing in the rain on a Saturday night trying to flag a car down, I went back to the bus to grab my things.
The bus door closes behind me and the bus driver starts moving! He'd been waiting patiently for me already. Hey, I grabbed my stuff, said bye to the Italians and got the driver to let me out.
Sitting in the back of a small car with two drunken Norwegians on the way to Furuflaten, I found myself grateful that the driver wasn't drinking, and involved myself in conversation concerning Furuflaten and the rest of it.
Turns out that they were all up from Oslo, where they study at University, and the folks were away on holidays so there was a party going on at their place that night. Arriving at the turn off to Furuflaten, with pouring rain and not another car in sight, we all agreed it might be a groovy idea if I came along to the party ...
So I spent the night drinking and partying with twenty or so Norwegians, in the fjordside town of Furuflaten ...
Sunday afternoon, rousing from our collective stupor, bodies all over the floor, we slowly collected our senses to face the never ending arctic sun once more. The guys spent some time ringing around their friends who study at Tromso (the worlds northernmost university by the way) to see if anyone had a lift to Tromso.
In no time at all they'd arranged a lift for me that evening and we killed the rest of Sunday afternoon exchanging stories of good times come and gone.
Arriving in Tromso that night, I rocked on up to the Youth hostel where I'd agreed to meet the Italians from the bus. Sure enough they were there, and they'd hitched into Tromso themselves through the pouring night and beat me by a day!
But take my word for it, don't ever believe anyone in Rovaniemi that tells you you can't hitch through Lapland ... ;-)
It was winter and I was in Innsbruck, keen to hitch to Spain where it would be warmer. Rather than hitching through the cold cold Alps, I thought I'd first head south to the somewhat warmer north of Italy and west from there. Verona, the home of Romeo and Juliet was my first target as it connected to the main expressway heading west.
I'd had little luck, and the day was dragging on, when just south of Bolzano, in the Alps an Italian woman stopped and snatched me up. She was going to Bologna, and Verona was on the way.
She hadn't slept in over 36 hours she tells me, and he had a huge St. Bernard in the back, with one of her forelegs in a plaster cast. The dog had recently broken its leg and she was on her way to Bologna to see a Vet, with whom she had an appointment that afternoon. She was running mighty late, and had to get there before he shut, as it was already Friday afternoon.
Not having slept in over 36 hours she picked me up to keep her awake on the trip! She was breaking every known speed limit if not record, mumbling all the time how she had to slow down because it was an LPG fuelled engine and according to her prone to explode if you drove too fast. She was very grateful for my occasional gentle reminder that she had intended to drive somewhat more slowly! It was her friends car, or she would have offered me the wheel.
All the way she is complaining about her idiotic boyfriend who let the dog break its leg, and how she loved the dog and had to get to Bologna before the Vet shut and how she had to slow down and how she had to keep awake. She spoke no English, but enough broken German for conversation to flow with reasonable fluidity between us.
Approaching the great big ring shaped expressway that circles Verona, she didn't want to head into town because she didn't have the time and asked if she could drop me on the expressway! But, she insists, Bologna is much more beautiful than Verona and she'd recommend that I visit Bologna instead anyway. Good idea I added ...
It was getting late, I had no Italian money (having just arrived from Austria), and I knew nothing about Bologna. I asked her about the chance of finding a bank, or a youth hostel, but she didn't seem too hopeful.
Arriving in Bologna we dashed to the Vet's where I waited around some time until the business of the dog had been settled. With a newfound relaxation we put our minds to my problem. No money, no place to stay and all the banks were shut.
No problem she suggests, she'll put me up at a friends place. It's probably not good that I stay at her place, but she has friends where I can stay and we'll get some money in the morning. But first, we have to get the dog into her unit, which is on the fifth floor and there's no lift, and the dog can't walk.
So we collect a friend of hers, and between us and a collapsible bed and much ado, we carry this lugging St. Bernard up five flights of stairs and fence it into a corner of the unit so it doesn't feel any temptation to walk around on this broken leg.
By which time it's gotten mighty late, so we decide I'll just crash at her place anyway. She has a sofa bed that hit the spot.
In a truly gregarious and Italian sense, the following weeks were an adventure of discovering her lifestyle, her family, and her friends in Northern Italy.
She was a part time teacher with plenty of time and enthusiasm to introduce me to Bolognaise architecture, cuisine, vino, and culture and no intention of letting me escape. At one stage I spent some two hours in front of her class of 13 year olds presenting Australia to them. We went shopping together, and I got to know her lover from Bolzano whose car we drove down in and who took the blame for the dogs broken leg. Every day we had to carry the dog down five flights of stairs to a park for toilet, and up five flights of stairs again. I made several excursions around the north of Italy to visit friends of hers, family of hers or just places she insisted on sending me to.
I have returned to Italy on occasion to see her again, and am always greeted with hugs and kisses, by one of the most energetic, full-of-life, enthusiastic and temperamental Italian women I have ever come across. And all because she needed someone to keep her awake on a trip home from Bolzano.
I never did get to Spain ...
Japan being one of the most expensive countries on earth, doesn't have a very inviting public transport system for those of us loathe to spend our life savings getting from A to B. But traditionally no one, and I mean no one hitches in Japan. The Japanese barely understand the concept.
Still, determined to try, I picked an easy target, with no stringent timetable in mind and gave it a whirl. I was going to climb Mt. Fuji! The plan was to hitch out, climb it, possibly camp on top, and hitch back. Mt. Fuji is only an hours drive from Tokyo, where I found myself, and if it didn't work, I could always go home and try another day.
So I got up bright and early, caught a train to the expressway entry ramp and stuck my thumb out along with a sign touting "Mt. Fuji" in Japanese Kanji. A little apprehensive at first, I eyed the passing cars, with the friendly guy smile of mine, hoping they'd seen enough American TV to understand what the extended thumb and sign were all about.
The third car stopped! It was a young fellow going to a tennis camp at the base of Mt. Fuji. I was targeting another face of the mountain, which a travel guide had recommended as a good climb, and most favourable at this time of year. But his tennis camp was on another side of the mountain and he suggested I climb that face instead and was prepared to take me up as far as the road went (something of a detour for him). I insisted instead that he just drop me at the base of the mountain and I'd hitch another ride up, saving him the detour, and I was most pleased when he complied.
There wasn't much traffic, but again, about the sixth car stopped and took me up the mountain. A lovely couple that were also heading up to climb the mountain that day.
I climbed the mountain, all the time grateful I'd not gone by my planned route because the wind was blasting from precisely that direction and we just caught the shelter of the side of the mountain along the route I was taking for which everyone was very grateful, because it was a cold cold wind.
From the top of Mt. Fuji I phoned my friend in Tokyo to let him know I'd made it, and that there was a phone a the top of Mt. Fuji. And a few vending machines, and a restaurant and a hostel cum dormitory as well. The view was great from this, the highest point of Japan.
I more or less ran and slid down the pebble strewn side of Mt. Fuji, reaching the bottom just minutes before the last bus. The attendant suggested I hurry to catch that bus, and given there were only two cars left in the car park I thought it a wise idea as well. I would have looked mighty silly in front of that attendant if I'd skipped that bus and neither of those two cars stopped for my thumb ...
Much to my dismay, one of the cars immediately followed the bus, and it was two Japanese fellows I'd talked with much of the way down the hill side, who would almost certainly have stopped to take me down the mountain.
I asked the bus driver to let me out at the freeway, which took some convincing because there's not actually a bust stop there, but he ultimately obliged me.
Walking up the rather long entry ramp, I spied a toll booth in the distance, which is usually a good place to hitch from, with lots of slow moving traffic and room to pull over. So I started the trek up this ramp towards the toll booth. It was getting late and the sun was slowly going down.
I could see a few people gathered around the toll booth. The looked to me like service personnel of some description, much to my chagrin, because it is generally illegal to hitch on an expressway, tollbooth or not, and service people are prone to let you know and ask you to move on. Something that had happened to me often in the past.
Some minutes later, arriving at the tollbooth, a little wary of the possibility of being asked to leave I was approached by a lady who spoke no English, which soon had the whole group of us engaged in a strange combination of the ten words of English they new, the ten words of Japanese I knew, charades and my map of Japan, to try and get to the bottom of what was going on.
As the minutes progressed I slowly became aware of the unbelievable fact that these people were indeed a couple of service people and a couple who had passed me while I was walking and pulled up in the hope of helping the forlorn young man out in some way. Between them, trying to work out were I was trying to go, and how they could best get me there.
They had waited patiently for me at this toll booth as I walked the kilometre or so that led up to it, because there was no place to legally stop before that point.
It turns out that this couple lived in a village not far up the road at the base of Mt. Fuji. But we all agreed in our charady sort of way, that a small way up the road was probably a long sight better than no way up the road, and we all hopped in for the ride.
A discussion ensued along the way, which consisted mostly of me looking things up in my phrasebook and everyone expressing their lack of comprehension of the last sentence and deciding to tackle it from another direction. All the same, communication happened, and when they passed their turn-off they succeeded in explaining to me their insistence on taking something of a detour and bringing me all the way to the expressway which runs straight into Tokyo. I would then find a lift very easily form the first service station on that expressway, we thought.
When we subsequently passed that service station, a flurry of would be communication once again got the point across that they'd decided to take me all the way to Tokyo, more than a hundred kilometres out of their way. They even wanted to know in which part of Tokyo I was staying, so as to best get me there. For all my frustrated attempts to insist that that was just too much, I failed to convince them to let me out.
We stopped on the way, and they bought my dinner, refusing every attempt on my part to pay, and I tried hard, and shuffled me back into the car, and actually took me into the outskirts of Tokyo. They dropped me at a train station on the same line as my friends house and I finally succeeded in paying for my own ticket in spite of their attempts to buy me one!
I got home that night with one very long, very illuminating, high and buzzing day behind me, and slept like a baby.
Yes, I concluded, hitching works well in Japan!
It's worth adding, that after this first experience, I spent almost three months hitching my way all around Japan, and I can swear to no more welcoming country for the would be hitch-hiker. The average wait time is in the order of ten minutes, the Japanese will always buy you a meal on the way, and do their darnedest to refuse you any right to contribute. They will similarly fill you with drinks on the way, no matter how many cans you can show them you already have. They drink more bear than even the Germans, and had me drunk for a whole month. And on the odd occasion, if you don't protect your pockets, they'll slip you a thousand yen to help you on your way. If that isn't frustrating enough for a man with any pride, they will invariably go a hundred kilometres or so off their route, and out of their way, just to get you where you're going. Even if, on occasion the conversation is more than little bit broken ...
I met one other hitch-hiker in all that time.
Nobody likes a dripping wet hitcher in the passenger seat. Rain is not especially good for the hitchhiker. Still its a mixed blessing. I was standing for more than an hour in one spot with no luck, until it started to rain, when a lovely lady, with her two young children stopped and took me where I was going. Oddly enough, this happens a lot when it starts to rain.
Hitching in the south of Germany one day a young lady stopped to pick me up. She asks me on the way, if I don't think that hitching is a dangerous activity. She doesn't hitch personally because of the danger. She picks up strange men from the side of the road mind you ... think about it. Ironically at just that moment, there was a news report on the radio, recounting the road toll in Germany. Thirty people every day die on German roads, and not one of them was hitching ...
I was standing in Bern with a sign that read Basel, at the dirtiest, loudest most unattractive place any fool could choose to hitch from, with a truck roaring past every minute blowing me and my sign to kingdom come, when the pretty young lady from Basel screeched to halt beside and let me in. She'd never ever picked up a hitch-hiker in her life she tells me, and can't quite rightly explain why she stopped then, but she just saw this sign staring at her and her reflexes kicked into gear. It turns out she ran a restaurant/bar in Basel to which she took me and gave me lunch and drinks on the house, before I went on my way. I had an appointment in Bonn that night ...
I was hitching out of Stuttgart towards Berlin with my girlfriend, when a red Ferrari pulled up. Its not often you ride in a Ferrari while hitching believe me, and this guy took a us a long way towards Berlin at a comfortable rate, telling us all the way how he was going to have to sell his Ferrari (he had two of them) because he lost his job and had tax bills to pay, so he wanted to share the experience while he still could. My girlfriend tells me, NEVER sit in the back of a Ferrari for any period of time. The headroom apparently leaves something to be desired.
I was staying with Karin, a friend near Heidelberg and intended to hitch to Berlin to see my girlfriend. Karin insisted I'd never make to Berlin in one day, its a long way almost a thousand kilometres. But I assured her I'd make it somehow, even if it went late into the night and she dropped me at a service station near her place to get me going. I got a lift in no time at all to the next service station along the expressway, and from there I was picked up by a young German fellow that had me glued to my seat and seat-belt all the way to Kassel, half the way to Berlin, with one hand on the wheel, a cigarette in his mouth, and the needle on the speedo leaning hard up against the end of scale which stopped at around 240 km/hr and had some space after that still. Thanks god they build German freeways flat. Still, as a result I made it to Berlin before sundown even and had the joy of phoning Karin to let her know ;-).
Hitching through Switzerland an empty tourist coach stopped to pick me up. Talk about leg room! The guy was from Italy and we had a great time talking about his exploits as a bus driver and mine as a hitcher. I was on my way to Torino in Italy, so when our paths diverged he pulled over at a truck stop and found me an Italian truck driver from Torino. I had a meal of spaghetti over a camp stove with my newfound driver, and a ball of time trying to converse on the way. He spoke as much English as I spoke Italian (maybe a dozen words), but was hell of a friendly guy all the same. He didn't make it to Torino, but pulled up at his base near Torino and found me a driver that was heading into town, who also spoke no English. That guy was only going to the outskirts of town so I got out at a service station at the start of Torino and waited a few minutes before a friendly young fellow stopped and took me into the center of town, where I met up with my friends at the train station.
I was in Grenoble, and rang a friend in Geneva saying I'd be there that night and to expect me. Half way there, I got stuck in a village off the expressway, where absolutely no one was stopping. Some two hours later, finally this car with Munich plates pulls up and I think my day is made. It turns out there's one vivacious looking German girl behind the wheel, and I'm really thinking my day's made. But it turns out she was going to the winter Olympics in Albertville, and not to Geneva. Aaargh, how my heart felt the urge to visit the winter Olympics then and there, and the invitation stood. What small thread of loyalty to my friend in Geneva allowed me turn that one down I'll never know ... Don't ever commit yourself before you hitch!
Hitching from Hamburg to Copenhagen, I arrived at the ferry terminus heading over to Copenhagen. There was queue of cars as far as the eye could see to get onto the next ferry for which we were all waiting. The projected wait was long ... Grateful for the lift I'd got that far, I got out, and walked to the front of the queue, with my Copenhagen sign showing it hopefully to drivers as I walked back towards the end of the queue. I found a lift all the way to Copenhagen early on and caught the very next ferry across, saving myself a good hour or two in the queue! I was headed for Stockholm myself, planning to stop at Copenhagen to see a friend for a days on the way. Perhaps it is poetic justice that my car was headed for Stockholm, I got out in Copenhagen, let him drive on, phoned my friend only to find he was on holiday and not in town. I looked wistfully down the road as my lift to Stockholm drove off in the sunset.
Hitching west, out of Munich one Friday afternoon, I was to my dismay, left at very quiet entry ramp. I waited an hour with almost no cars at all driving by, before I gave up and stood on the Expressway where I waited in the forlorn hope that someone doing 140 km/hr would eventually screech to an illegal halt and whisk me away. No such luck. But as the afternoon progressed and I stood and waited, sure enough the rush hour arrived and a traffic jam approached me from behind. Cars just started mounting up, one after the other, moving nowhere. I could, and did walk faster than they were driving! Walking the long haul to the head of the traffic jam, I eventually found myself a lift and was finally rolling with a set of wheels again.
There was a border crossing from West Berlin into East Germany, called Dreilinden, that was so frequented by hitchers trying to get through to West Germany, that it developed something of a reputation as a bus stop for hitchers. Rumour has it that you could stand at Dreilinden and within the hour find yourself a lift to almost anywhere in West Germany. Alas, since the re-unification of Germany the tradition has been on the decline, partly because the traffic no longer slows in order to cross the border, and the authorities have removed much of the convenient stopping space that the border crossing had associated with it. Nevertheless Having hitched from Dreilinden many times myself it still goes very well, and I can believe that it may well have been as rich as rumour has it.
I met a hitcher once, who told me of a time he was hitching along the expressways in Europe. Its not only illegal its pretty slow because very few people are keen to pull over when they're doing over a hundred kilometres per hour, assuming they noticed you in the first place. He tells me a driver once stopped for him, but told him it was actually illegal to hitch on an expressway. To which he apparently replied that it was illegal also to pick up hitch-hikers on an expressway ... I don't know, I'm not generally that cheeky to someone who's just saved my butt.
One fine sunny afternoon hitching out of Bern, this guy pulls over, who I swear to God looked and sounded like Orson Welles. I never did have the courage to ask him if he was in fact Orson, but I'm not about to discount the possibility. It turns out that Orson wasn't going anywhere in particular. In fact, it's his hobby, of a Sunday, to cruise out of town and pick up hitchers and take a little further on their way. He pulled into the odd service station along the way to see if there were any more hitchers there, suggesting that if there were, he might swap over so to speak, as in I get out and hitch on, and he takes them a little way along their route (unless of course we're going the same way in which case we're both more than welcome). We didn't find any other hitchers that day and I got front door delivery to my friends' place in Olten.
I had a rendezvous in Munich that evening and was almost there early in the afternoon so wasn't in any great rush, when I landed at this service station with a noticeable lack of traffic running through it. Oh well, it was sunny and no hurry, so I propped my 'Munich' sign against my pack and lay down on the grass and slept for a while. An hour or so later, I was woken up by a car that had pulled right op to feet and flashed its headlights at me to let me know it was off to Munich. Groggily I rubbed my eyes and got up to thank the young driver for his consideration. He enjoyed the company on our trip into Munich.
The travel guides all say hitching works fine in Malaysia. The buses are so cheap you've really got to love hitching for the culture of it to bother. I do, so I did. Hitching works well in Malaysia, the people stop regularly to pick you up. The one catch, is that down to a tee, every single driver will insist, with all his or her might, that hitching doesn't work in Malaysia and insist on dropping you off at the bus stop, not the road out of town. Which is a really bad place to try and hitch from. In the end this gets so reliable, repetitive and tiring that I just gave up and said "O.K. take me to the bus stop" ...
I got a ride once, with a pile of other people in a cleaning van, that just stopped all the time and stuffed hitch-hikers in the back with all the mops and stuff. I guess it was a clean ride ...
In Germany once this friendly old man stopped to pick me up, in a car that was otherwise already full. It turns out that his two other passengers were paying customers through a German Mitfahrzentrale (ride share agency), and I can't help but wonder what they thought of the fact that I got a free ride while they were paying.
A friend of mine, hitching through France tells me he was once picked up by a couple who invited him home for a debaucherous threesome in bed. An offer my friend claims to have declined!
A friend of mine hitching through Spain tells me of a van he caught a lift with once. They were pulled over by the police in a hail of sirens, only to discover the guys who'd picked him up had stolen the van! Much to his relief at the police station, they confessed that he was indeed just a hitchhiker and he was released.
Trying to thumb my way to Rotterdam from Cologne, I got so fed up with waiting and waiting and waiting that I started to ask people filling up at a service station if they wouldn't take me along. I'd given up caring where, as long as I got out of Cologne!
"Are you going up onto the expressway?", I asked a young businessman. "Why, where do you want to go?", he asked back. "I don't care ... ", I said to him. He took me along. He was a successful young sales representative. He confessed that he didn't ordinarily take hitchhikers along, but when he heard my "I don't care ...", it was kind of like a slap across the face. His curiosity piqued, he took me along.
You see, he explained, his life was regulated down to the minute. He ALWAYS knew exactly where he was going and when he'd be there. It was part of his business, and his lifestyle. In fact he'd completely forgotten what it was like to be carefree, or even that it was possible, until I attacked his senses with my air of casualness, not caring where I was going, or when, if ever I got there.
We were both in our late twenties, and both successful in our respective businesses, and rather well off as a result. But while he was trapped in it, I had abandoned all and set off to see the world by thumb, a few years earlier. His girlfriend had just left him for another, after a 5 year relationship, and with a tone of melancholy he reflected on a sudden feeling of being somehow cornered by German society, which had made him the respectable earning machine he was, and that he harboured dreams to be as I was. Ironically I confessed, that had I left my job, my belongings and my girlfriend a few years ago and was feeling somehow cornered myself, by my lack of direction and goals, harbouring dreams to be more like he was. An odd couple, I think we both made a mental note to meet somewhere in the middle some time, exchanged addresses and vowed to keep in touch.