The 3rd International Hitch-Hikers Conference
By: Bernd Wechner
The 3rd International Hitch-Hikers Conference
Author: Bernd Wechner
A year ago I wouldn't have believed it was possible. To see over sixty hitch-hikers from a variety of nations, together at a weekend conference, funded by a national government, lectures, work-groups, videos, the media, newspapers, radio and television on-site to cover the event … yet this March I saw just that, was part of it, a special guest even … here's a brief report.
I was invited late last year, to this conference in Vilnius. It was to the largest thus far (the previous two were more modest affairs) and to find place in the heart of hitch-hiking country. Indeed hitching is far more popular in Eastern Europe than in the West for a variety of reasons.
What choice was there, but to hitch up. It was a long haul, 34 hours in fact, almost non-stop, to cover the 2000+ km from Geneva to Vilnius, but the hitching is good through Germany and Poland is easy to cross on account of a stream of Lithuanian used car and appliance dealers plying their trade between Germany and Lithuania crossing Poland in a single sitting. In fact the hitching this day was so good, I made some friends on the way, had two big lunches and a picnic dinner, yet arrived in Vilnius not one cent out of pocket. A good thing, I'd forgotten to pack any -- to find a bank was my mission all the way through Switzerland and Germany before I gave up arriving in Vilnius fortunately before closing time on the Friday.
The sudden rise in visible hitchers when the old Iron Curtain is crossed is remarkable. In fact in Poland the streets seem littered with people for some reason, they're walking, riding, standing, sitting, anything you can imagine, and their presence is strong. What a harsh contrast to the unpeopled highways of Western Europe! To be sure, only a small portion of those people are soliciting rides, often at bus stops, waving a hand at passing cars, or thumbing it like any Westerner, but there are enough of them to make their presence felt, where in the West I didn't see a single hitcher all the way up, and rarely do.
So too, it is that the conference comes to find place in the East, where there are hitchers in abundance. In fact they come together in clubs, some nine of which were registered at the conference, and sent delegates, however informally (for how formal can a hitch-hiking club or even conference be?) to represent them at meetings in Vilnius.
So why a conference? Why clubs? Why delegates? Why a program? Many an old hitcher won't see the point of it all, in fact many people from all walks of life. Yet there is reason behind the madness, and it found wonderful expression in Vilnius.
Basically, most hitchers are social people, engaged in an activity barely tolerated or understood, let alone respected by society at large, and they can find much entertainment in one another's company. That's right, I think the majority of people turned up for a good time, that's all, just a good time. To meet other people from other countries with similar spirits a passion for the free road, and travelling abroad without timetables and reservations.
Which is not to say the agenda is irrelevant, just not the focus. It finds itself rather fluid, subject to change as the climate dictates. In the first instance there's a need to demonstrate some structured discussion to win the grant which funds the thing and demonstrate a serious face to society at large. In the second instance there are things to discuss, and organise.
This conference spanned two days, with two sessions each day. The venue wasn't grand, two rooms in the Lithuanian Travel Union (with a canoeing convention going on in a neighbouring room part of the time) but it was enough to support a round table in one room between club delegates, discussing inter-club relations and the formation of the International Hitch-Hikers Association, and an open lecture or work group in the other among all the plebs that weren't club delegates. For lack of any communal space that wasn't being used for a lecture or work-group though, new arrivals made progress a little slow at times.
The planning wasn't grand either. I turned up to find myself volunteered to chair two work-groups and deliver a lecture if possible, on account of others who didn't turn up it seems. Well, nothing like being a star guest I guess. The sessions were a little long to manage comfortably (2 hours), and because there wasn't any place for uninterested people to hang out, wandering conversations added a dash of chaos to the open groups (I wasn't privy to the club meetings, not out of any elitism, just that I was made to be busy elsewhere).
But for all that, it was a wonderful experience. An event so young, so challenging somehow of common senses to come together at all, three years running is a small miracle, and to have found support from others, a venue, some funding, at all is absolutely grand. And in this part of Europe, I suspect roomy venues for conferences of any sort aren't in oversupply to begin with.
The participants were impressive to say the least. A generally young and motley crew, more women than you'd imagine, a handful of eccentric and/or difficult personalities but on the whole, so abundant with charisma and charm that I was genuinely pleased to be in their company. Frankly there were some genuinely beautiful characters there. Smiles said much, that couldn't cross the language barrier.
While the official language was English, I was the only native speaker, and Russian very much the lingua franca in place. As such the discussion reverted understandably to Russian from time to time and I own much thanks to the two lovely interpreters that made their services available in one direction or the other to one dumb chicken that hadn't a clue what was being said.
Personally I took part in a discussion group on the formation of public opinion on hitch-hiking, which concluded as it's most fundamental tenet that fear (of stranger-danger) was the greatest obstacle to a better public opinion. I chaired a group on the safety of hitch-hiking, which drew to a close after one of the two scheduled hours, with the general conclusion that hitching wasn't so dangerous anyhow, so what were we talking about … of course I may have steered the conversation there a little :-).
CB radios were demonstrated, and presented, apparaently quite popular among some Russian hitchers (only westerner I've known to try them gave up on them finding the extra weight not worth the - rarely - reduced wait so to speak). Flourescent, weatherproof hitching suits were modelled and demonstrated, though opinion's rather divided on their utility (wildly popular among some, outright goonish to others). Much beer was drunk, a little food ingested, and on the whole the event reminded me so much of an Esperanto gathering, that I donated a lecture on Esperanto and the Hitch-hiker … but that's material for another article altogether.
In summary, I was mighty impressed. On the whole a wonderful bunch of people, colourful, diverse, and adventurous. The event has a strong future and may draw more Westerners some day (I was alone - save one Portuguese fellow living in coincidentally in Vilnius with his Esperantist lover - don't anyone tell me life is dull!).
If I were to lend some advice for next years conference - push for a venue with some communal space not being used in the program, shorten the sessions to one hour, and invite hitchers to present accounts of their travels to fill them -- in the end many discussions this year degenerated into just that anyhow, and these stories communicate so much experience, find so much interest that they should win a formal place in the agenda. There is room for a blackboard event -- on the first day, participants can write their name on a blackboard (more likely whiteboard today) with a topic, on the second day the morning can easily be filled as hitchers who've put their name on the blackboard (or had their name put there by friends) take the stand and share a tale … I think it would catch on very well!
Postscript: The hitch back was a little harder than up. A long story, scheduled for the book of course, but it took me five hours longer, and I arrived home around 11 p.m. in time to catch some sleep before going to work the next day. I hadn't slept much in the days prior of course, one sleepless night hitching up, partying in Vilnius, and another almost sleepless night on the hitch down … a groggy day at work.