I started hitch hiking around 4 years ago. My first encounter with it was when a full-bearded hippie approached me and my then girlfriend at a gas station in France asking us for a ride to Bruxelles. I must have been 15 and I was very impressed with his casualness about it all. He squeezed into her parents car. Him and my girlfriend then went on to discuss philosophy and politics in french. I did not understand a word but he deeply impressed me.
A few months later me and my dear friend Paul decided to try it for ourself and hitchhike through Poland. It was my first time. After spending a weekend filled with parties in Berlin we took the train to an onramp onto the highway. It all felt a bit strange and we had to laugh at ourself putting our thumb out.
Spoiler: They have ever since.
After a couple of minutes a car stopped. A couple that was going to Frankfurt/Oder gave us a lift and we had a nice talk. Approaching their destination we soon faced the question: Are we going into town or staying on the highway?
We took the wrong decision and went into town. After crossing the German/Polish border we soon had to realise that none of the cars were going back onto the highway from where we were standing, so we started walking. It took us 3 hours to finally get back onto the highway.
On the way we met a very interesting homeless man, saw some teenage prostitutes and ended up walking with another Polish man 2km next to the highway to the next gas station. Night had fallen and we asked countless people walking into the gas station.
It was around Easter and we were dressed in black leather Jacketsnot my wisest choice of clothes I now have to admit
Eventually a man nodded in reply to our question and walked us to his car. We threw our bags in and he started the engine to heat the car up, closed the door and went to smoke a cigarette over a phone call. Sitting in the car we wondered how we deserved so much trust, since we could have easily driven away. He eventually came back and told us he was going to Warsaw. Our goal for the day was Poznan and we were surprised when he offered to drop us in town. We talked and talked, he was Polish but living and working in the Netherlands and on his way back for Easter to see his family which is very common in Poland, a deeply Catholic country.
A good hour later we arrived at the exit to Poznan, he drove off the highway and took a few turns. After a few minutes the houses started disappearing. We came to more and more rural areas and he just kept on driving. I remember very clearly Paul moving his head closely to my ear and whispering: “I am getting a weird feeling here.”
In that moment it dawned on me. What if that guy wanted to rob and harm us? What if he had been waiting for hitchhikers all along? He only had to call his friend, organise a meeting spot and beat us up to steal all of our stuff.
Cold shivers ran down my spine and I was rarely so scared in my life. It all made sense! “Oh, goodbye cruel world” I thought to myself. I kept driving in silence for a while and eventually one of us asked him where he was going. He looked around and realised we were going in the wrong direction so he turned the car a around, apologised and drove to Poznan. At around 2 a.m. we arrived at the train station. It was dark and scary so he offered to drop us somewhere else. He dropped us at a big 5 star Hotel so we could find us a nice Hostel for the night. My relief about him not being a serial killer was immense. We got out of the car and laughed. He looked at us and asked whether we smoke Pot. Of course we do from time to time, we replied. So he got out a piece of Hash from Amsterdam, puts it into my hand and wishes us a wonderful night.
This was my first hitchhiking experience and it changed my life.
Because I thought I would die and because I tried so hard to see the possible worst in this man, that turned out to be nicer than I could have imagined. It did not only prove me wrong in my paranoia, it made me speechless in his endless kindness. The beautiful thing is I have hitch hiked ten thousands of kilometres ever since and I have not found my speech back.
The stories about the incredible kindness of people are countless and I am only at the beginning of my life. This is the world we live in, a world full of suspected serial killers that turn out to be wonderful, caring humans.
If you now think “Okay Poland is a pretty safe country but hitch hiking must be dangerous in most other places” I can only tell you from my experience that this immense kindness was present in most countries I have traveled. In Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, Germany, Bulgaria and many more. It is not about nations or borders, it is about human to human interaction, regardless of skin colour, nationality or notes in your wallet.
It is important to me to explain that the way I hitch is about giving and taking. By putting myself in a vulnerable position of standing at the side of the road I open up many, many doors that would otherwise be closed. But don’t get me wrong, it also erects dislike. When we were standing in Warsaw trying to hitch back to Berlin Paul was eating some bread with cheese when a car drove around the corner, the window opened and somebody spit out of it. Yes, spit on Paul.
He was able to step away in the last moment but the gesture still contained so much spite, it hurt. Being there together we could laugh it away. But I still get the odd middle finger from people driving past or pure ignorance and contempt from people I ask at gas stations. It’s their good right to ignore me but sometimes I just wish for a polite “No, thanks.” It is never easy to deal with that but who am I to judge them?
That’s about it with the negative experiences while hitch hiking. And this is not even comparable to all the amazing encounters I have had. After a while I started realising that the world is less populated by evil killers but more by beautiful, lovely people that love to share their car, their jokes and stories with you in return for a joke, a good story and somebody who is actually interested in them.
And that is one of the things I have to give. Hitching taught me how to ask questions and how to listen. A Lot of times I do not even start talking about myself but I just directly dig into their lives. Questions like “What’s your job and how does it work?” or “Where did you grow up and how is it there?” are amazing starters into hour long conversations about the country they live in, the local and national politics, everyday life there and the thoughts and feelings of these fellow human beings. A few times people even opened up and discussed their big sorrows with me, someone from the outside that does not know them and whom they will most likely never see again. A kind of spontaneous Therapy session with it’s beauty in the randomness of the act itself.
Sometimes I talk to people about what inspires me and I am able to inspire them as well. Maybe, and just maybe I am able to spark the light that will make them change the world. Maybe they do the same for me.
Sometimes they tell me racist, sexist or nationalistic things. One young Bulgarian hooligan even had a Swastika tattooed on his leg. When that happens I sit and listen. Who am I to judge them or tell them my opinion is right? I am a watcher, not an intruder. So what I do is I try to talk about other things. Unpolitical things. Usually these right wing opinions are just shallow defense mechanisms and I see it as a challenge to try and understand what makes them think the way they do.