The 4th International Hitch-Hiking Conference
By: Bernd Wechner
The 4th International Hitch-Hiking Conference
Author: Bernd Wechner
I've been reporting on the IHHC since I first became aware of it, with the 2nd conference in 1998. For the third I made the extraordinary trip from Geneva to Vilnius to see this spectacular event myself and I was impressed. Not least of all because I'd hitched some 2000 km in 34 hours making good friends along the way. I had to hitch, what option was there? It was a hitch-hiking conference. A question of good form more than economic sense. There not being any economic sense behind it, my sacrificing some 4 days of salary for the long trip and back, which would cover the cost of a flight in all likelihood.
This year I wasn't keen. Frankly, it was a long way to hitch and I couldn't in the least guarantee a repeat performance. To hitch 2000 km up on a two day budget and back on the same is just tempting disaster and takes a lot of energy and enthusiasm. All easy to muster that first time, when it's fresh uncertain adventure. But now, I was busy at home, and low on energy and enthusiasm. I did want to visit the Conference though, catch up with the lovely folk it draws, just not hitch up and down ...
A dilemma of sorts. An internal voice prohibited a plane or train. Just not good form, by Jove! So basically I called it off.
Then a friend of mine, Louise confided that she was depressed, and had cancelled a trip to Prague. She'd taken up hitching a half year earlier, in no small part due to my corrupting influence, and grown to love it as a friendly reliable cheap way of getting around Switzerland. I figured an adventure in good company might cheer her up and suggested that if she wants to, I'd be prepared to hitch up to the conference with her.
At the last minute she bought in. I was nervous. Unsure. Not only was this a crazy venture, but now I had the self imposed responsibility of bringing someone else all that way and back in time for her job, never mind mine. We left Thursday morning.
It went fine, a little slow, but fine up to Berlin, where we arrived at about 2 a.m. on the Friday morning. We crashed at my ex's place conveniently placed in the south-eastern corner of the Berlin Ring (a motorway around and past Berlin). In the morning she took us to the border.
Louise was sent back! No visa. Last time she'd got one at the border. Recently they'd stopped issuing them at the border and she was sent back to Berlin to get one. For which we had no time. Torn between options, she stayed in Berlin and I went on. I got one single ride into Lithuania (Marijampole) from the border, and we arrived around 2 a.m. again, so I was invited home by Romus, whose lovely wife Loretta had the national speciality (Zeppelins) all ready for an early morning treat.
It took me all morning to get to Vilnius!
I got there to the lovely crowd I'd hoped for. Some old familiar faces, warm hugs and pleasant surprises. Robert Prins was there, Skot Rogers (a Dutchman and American I knew) making it a record as far as Western attendance was concerned. Some 80 people altogether, a quorum of some 50 odd generally.
The conference itself was in the Municipal Hall, the grand chamber no less, decked out like a parliamentary chamber, it was far too large and formal for the nature of the event, but still an warm gesture from the town, to offer it free of charge to us! It was free form as usual, with a vague agenda, timetable, even a printed program, but in all honesty the talks, and events all come second to simple gossip and networking. Much like any conference really! Though perhaps in an exaggerated sense.
The main event was the night, beer, and food, and little sleep, on both the Saturday and Sunday nights. Only in Lithuania is it possible to buy a beer with a coin, and get a note in return! For some reason there are 5 Litas coins and 1 Litas notes in circulation!
But there were videos on display, some small meetings, a talk or two as well as well as an excursion around town, and the Kaziuko Muge, a unique craft fair in the streets of Vilnius, only one weekend a year, drawing Lithuanians from around the country.
In spite of a formal story-telling forum, most of the stories circulated outside of the program and in the bar, with vigour. A certain sense of stage fright dominates, which beer serves to alleviate. "It's a small world" stories are not uncommon and well loved. I have plenty of my own, but was most impressed by Dmitri's. He told us of his trip through Poland by thumb, when he noticed a manager from the Latvian Telecom where he worked driving by. They recognised each other, and exchange a wave, but the car was full with five people and luggage, and ride was no option. All the same, back home in Latvia he received an email to come and tell his tale. He's now earning half as much again as before ... Who says hitching can't pay!
Saddest of all I missed many of the beautiful Russians I remember from last year. Admittedly we had little language in common, but these vibrant faces and characters were an integral part of my expectations, for the better part unfulfilled. It turns out that Russian need visas and invitations to enter Lithuania or to pull transit tricks with Kaliningrad, or sneak across the border as some did last year. All requiring a lot of energy, for which the conference wasn't justification enough. I could well understand them. A beautiful place to be, but if getting there is so charged with effort it is easy to say no. I did. Thanks only to Louise was I here. The sweet irony of it all. Still some had taken to belittling the conference I was told, which seemed to me an overreaction by the jealous.
The trip back was mean. Real mean. I had a 1.5m stalk of dried flowers from the market to take along, and it took forever to get home. Monday morning, I was escorted in good time to the border by Wenda and Petr, two Czechs headed the same way. Incredible but the three of us made better time than Tomek, Asia and Michal, three Poles who took the bus to the border that same morning!
From there it went downhill. There was no border traffic and I entered Poland without a through ride. Something I'd not done before and which was bound to cost me. As it did. I arrived in Berlin sleepless about 7 a.m. Tuesday morning having hitched the night through Poland, mostly on trucks I'd received two invitations to spend the night and move on in the morning, but not many rides. Bitter sweet ironies. A good 8 hours behind schedule and no time to sleep I showered, ate, collected Louise and kept going.
Things didn't improve. We got stuck in two or three spots costing us time we no longer had. Still, there were events that left us all in awe, in spite of the incredible fatigue. Standing at Schauinsland services around midnight for example, with no traffic to speak of, after an hours wait, a car with Vaudoise plates pulls up. Not only is this car from right near Geneva, but it's an old friend of mine from Lausanne, Celestine, who'd just married a Belgian and they were moving his stuff to Lausanne! The double irony of course was that this was the stuff of much talk at the IHHC!
Alas she could only bring us to the border, as they got stuck their because customs had shut. They had to wait til the morning to pass customs with all their wares. We found a ride soon enough to the other side of Basel, but then got stuck again in a spot with next to no traffic. Some friendly police wishing us luck, some friendly service station attendants, inviting us in from the cold and wishing us luck, but no cars going past Basel!
We were saved in the end at 2 in the morning near Basel by Daniel, a gracious Belgian headed for Mt. Blanc to go hang gliding. He pulled over intending to sleep, but we twisted his arm ever so gently and he carried on through ... dropping us in Geneva around 6 a.m. I had to work at 8:30 ... Needless to say I was late. 36 hours without sleep, non-stop hitching 2000 km takes it out of you! But it wasn't the worst day of my life. Second maybe, but a long way off first ....