Let’s get this out of the way now: Yes, I hitchhiked. Yes, alone, yes, I’m a girl, yes, I’m under 25. Actually, I was under 20 when I started. Those of you who are hitchhikers as well will think this is nothing special, boring even: of course you hitchhike. How else would you get to discover tons of places at a time in your life when your bank account is dangerously close to zero most of the time?
The rest of you, read on: hitchhiking is nothing to be shocked by or afraid of. In fact, it’s one of the most eye-opening experiences I have ever had in my life. Let me show you: here are 10 things I learned while hitchhiking around the world alone – and at the same time, 10 reasons why hitchhiking can be the best mode of transportation.
You will get picked up in even the most difficult of circumstances….
1. There Is Always A Way
You know that feeling that you sometimes get when your bus to the airport is running late, then there’s a huge queue in front of the check-in counter, the security check takes forever, and your gate is at the other end of the whole entire airport? The little voice in your head that starts to panic and shout: “But what if we miss the plane?”
I used to hear that little voice in my head quite often, but at some point, something in me changed fundamentally. Hitchhiking has taught me that there is no such thing as being stuck in one place. Sometimes you will stand next to a road in the middle of nowhere, with only a few cows keeping you company, for four hours, five, six – but in the end, at some point in time, a car will always show up and have pity on you. It’s things like standing on an empty intersection in the pitch dark at 3 AM, 200 miles from the next city, with the howling of the many stray dogs in the area being the only sound around you, and then finding an empty bus that is going to your destination to pick up tourists in the morning, which stops to take you along for free; that will teach you everything is possible.
Picture by Gintare Turskyte, when hitchhiking through Bulgaria.
2. Trucks Are A Safe Bet
When I first started putting my thumb out on the road and hoping that someone decent would stop to take me along, I always went straight for the cars, never the trucks. I was scared and skeptical – there is a certain bad reputation attached to truckers, and their speed is quite a bit slower than the one of cars. How would I ever reach my destination?
In the end, it was necessity that got me to try hitchhiking a ride on a truck for the first time: there were almost no cars around, and those that were did not even slow down a bit to pick up two random hitchhikers. Finally, after what felt like forever, a truck slowed down and we jumped at the occasion – a ride! Thank goodness.
Turns out, trucks are a safe bet when hitchhiking: they go long distances, they are required to stay on course since they are delivering products for one company or another, and they are comfy. Since truckers are usually on the road for several days, there is a bed or two behind the seats where you can relax. Truckers are usually very happy to share some of their working time with you – being on the road for so long gets lonely, and they like the opportunity for conversation. Most will show you pictures of their families who are waiting until they return again, with a few extra hundred miles under their belts.
3. You Don’t Need To Speak The Language To Understand Locals
It’s handy to know a foreign language or two, no question, and I would be the last person to encourage you to stop learning new languages – but if there is no common language, hand gestures and facial expressions can get you into an interesting conversation just as easily. When hitchhiking, you are sharing a very small space with people whom you’ve never met or even seen before, so it is quite natural that there is curiosity on both sides to get to know each other better. If you do speak the local language, you will get used to answering the same set of questions over and over again, and if you don’t, you’ll find a way to work around the language barrier. It even goes beyond the Where-Are-You-Froms and What-Do-You-Dos: I’ve had long conversations about communism in Romania, the separatist zones in Georgia, and the accession (or not) of Turkey to the European Union (times were a bit different, then) without knowing more than the basics of the respective languages.
4. Places Are About the People You Meet
I had been an avid fan of Couchsurfing before I tried hitchhiking, but this new mode of transportation took meeting locals to a whole new level for me. With Couchsurfing, there is a pick-and-choose-process: you end up staying at the exact place you want, with the exact company you desire. I usually go for the ones that are under 30, creative, and have a list of books or movies on their profiles that I like. As an added bonus, I choose places that are central and/or beautiful – a romantic hut in the woods, a little place next to a river, a room with a rooftop terrace attached? Sign me up.
Hitchhiking offers no such luxury: you meet the people who are in the car, no picking, no choosing. Of course, I will turn down drivers who seem suspicious or dangerous to me – I’ve even demanded to be let out several times after the conversation took a turn for the worse – but generally speaking, you get the driver who stops for you. Ultimately, places are all about the people you meet, and hitchhiking will intensify that feeling: I’ll always remember the cheese delivery guy somewhere in Transylvania who took me along on his delivery route, the army official who stopped to take us to the next bigger city close to the Russian border, the dude in Transnistria who wrote his name on the back of our hands so the border guards will know that we know him and will let us out again, the well-situated family father who bought me a map and some candy so that I would survive in the place he was driving me to.
Never have I ever experienced a country more intensely than when I was hitchhiking, never have I ever heard more stories, myths, and recollections of the past from such a diverse pool of people, never have I ever gained a deeper impression of the culture I was visiting then when I sat down in a car with locals from all ages and social groups. Travelling is all about the people you meet, and hitchhiking drove the point home, hard.
5. Trusting Your Instincts Is Key
When I came back home from my first few months of hitchhiking, I was met with curious faces. How do you afford to travel so widely?, my relatives asked. The curiosity was quickly exchanged with shock: Hitchhiking? But that’s so dangerous! And yes, I won’t deny that there is an element of danger to it: you are giving yourself to the care of random people whom you’ve never met before, whom you don’t know, and whom you possibly cannot trust.
If hitchhiking has taught me anything, then it is to trust my instincts and listen to what my heart tells me. As cheesy as it sounds, this approach has helped me escape a few hairy situations – or avoid them altogether. If I don’t feel like the person who has stopped is trustworthy, I don’t get into the car, period. If there is even only the slightest hint that something is not okay, like the driver checking me out appreciatively, making any sly comments, or gesturing suggestively in the direction of their co-driver, I won’t even so much as open the car door. I always have a look at the license plate before I get into any car (and make sure that the driver notices), and I have a phone ready, just in case. If the drive starts out okay, but turns weird at some point, I’ll politely ask to stop or I’ll call someone to let them know where I am and when I’ll be arriving, making absolutely sure that the driver understands and can hear what I am communicating. If worse comes to worst, I’ll even scream, kick, shout, or call the police.
Luckily, it has never been necessary to go that far – 99% of all drivers who have picked me up in the past five years were decent people who wanted a little company on their drives, to help out a young girl, or just to simply have a nice chat. Trust your instincts and don’t get into dodgy cars – chances are, you’ll have a nice ride.
This man picked us up somewhere in the middle of Georgia, stopped to buy what must have been 2kg of cherries from a market stall next to the street, took the time to wash them, and handed the whole bag over to us to eat in the back seat.
6. There Is No Limit To How Nice People Can Be
Following up on that slightly darker point, there is something that absolutely needs to be said that every hitchhiker will confirm: there is unlimited niceness in this world. Before hitchhiking, I would have never even guessed how friendly, polite, and just straight-out nice people can be, offering everything they have, even if it is not much.
I have hitchhiked with people whose cars were almost falling apart, yet they offered a place in their ride, knowing that even the most uncomfortable mode of transportation can be a blessing. People who lived in shabby huts that were almost falling apart invited me in, sharing their food and drink with me. People who were heading to an appointment took the time to take me out for lunch, or stopped on the road to buy a local snack for me to try. I’ve been bought so many maps and souvenirs that I cannot even list them all anymore, people have shared so many stories and places and particularities of their culture with me that I could have written entire books about it, and I’ve been lucky enough to have been helped with accommodation when needed. There was a girl who saw a friend and me crouching down under a cover in the rain, waiting for it to stop so that we could put up our tent, who just gave us the key to her apartment and let us crash there for a night, without even knowing us. There was a man who got four of us a place in an ancient youth hostel, long out of touristic use, for only a few bucks. This list could go on forever, and I feel very thankful and indebted to every single person who has helped me out. I strive to be this accommodating myself when I see a traveller stranded somewhere, a person in need, someone who could benefit from a nice lunch after an exhausting day on the road.
7. Picking Your Clothing Wisely Helps
Just as people are apprehensive about going hitchhiking at all, drivers are sometimes afraid to take a random stranger into their car with them. Who knows, maybe the girl you picked up on the side of the road will stab you in the back and disappear with your car?
I quickly learned that clothing can be an important factor for whether you will get picked up or not. In fact, there is a whole set of “rules” that apply to getting picked up by a car – usually, it is easier to get a spot when you are a girl or when you are travelling alone. Bigger groups are difficult, since spaces in cars are limited, and people seem to be more afraid of men who hitchhike than girls who do the same.
Getting back to the clothing issue – if you are about to embark on a hitchhiking adventure, it might be wise to pay attention to clothing. Wearing sunglasses while trying to flag down a car is usually counterproductive – I’ve been told many times that for some reason, drivers like to see the eyes of the person they are taking along. Wearing a backpack on your shoulders or setting it down, clearly visible, next to you, certainly helps – it signals that you are a traveller, and not somebody who will lead drivers into an ambush. Lastly, as sad as it is, if you are a girl, you might want to pay attention to how short or revealing your outfits are – when hitchhiking in summer, wearing shorts and little tops, it has happened to me several times that men stopped with very dubious offers. Ever since, I prefer to wear outfits that are covering a bit more of my body. Of course, no article of clothing, no matter how short or revealing, will ever be an invitation to anything you don’t want to happen, and it is not the task of us girls to change the way we dress – so in the end, it is a personal decision about how you feel comfortable.
8. Hitchhiking Is The Best Small Talk Lesson You Can Get
I was never good at small talk. In fact, there was a group of us that would go hitchhiking together and one girl in particular was extremely good at talking about everything and nothing with complete strangers. Naturally, we always put her in the front seat so she could do the talking. For me on the other hand, having to sit in front and doing the “entertaining” was terrible – talking to a person I’ve never met before, sometimes without even sharing a common language, was never something that came easy for me.
With practice comes success, or at least something like it: the more I had to sit in the front seat, the more I hitchhiked on my own, being the only one around to do the talking, the more comfortable I felt. Hitchhiking has taught me how to have completely open conversations about any topic, ranging from the weather to the current political situation, with just about anybody I meet.
In terms of skills, this is maybe one of the most useful ones that I have learned from hitchhiking, since knowing how to keep a conversation going comes in handy not only in the cars of complete strangers, but at all the other anxiety-inducing events in the lives of young adults (and, without a doubt, people of any age, I just have to wait to find out). Starting a new university, moving to a different country, backpacking through the world, meeting new people, entertaining old acquaintances – small talk is more useful than I used to think, and easier to do, too.
9. Time Spent On The Road Is Time Spent Adventuring
When I travel now, time spent on the road is dead time. Lost to me, taken from my life. I have arrived, for the first time in my life, at a point where I can actually afford to pay for a more expensive ticket only to save some travel time, and I make use of that constantly. I don’t hitchhike that often any more, trading in adventure for comfort. Sometimes, though, especially when I am not sitting in a plane, but travelling on the ground, I remember what I learned when I was hitchhiking through the world: time spent on the road is an adventure in itself.
The actual travel part of travelling, the transportation, tends to be the part that most people dislike. It is all about getting to the destination, arriving, relaxing, experiencing. When hitchhiking, the transportation becomes the trip itself. While I never actively went out to hitchhike just for the sake of hitchhiking, I allotted a lot of the time of my trip for hitchhiking, just as if it was part of the trip itself – moving longer distances meant putting away more time for the trip, and as you never quite know how long it will take you to move from point A to point B, you add a little more time just to be safe. To make it more interesting when hitchhiking with a lot of people, we sometimes did little races – which team will get to the destination first?
I never won those races, but I gained something nevertheless: scenic drives through forgotten parts of the world, places that nobody actually ever goes to (like the nuclear power plant on the Bulgarian-Romanian border that we happened upon by accident), towns that are slowly fading away, little villages that nobody knows except for the people who grew up there. Hitchhiking is not the fastest mode of transportation, but it is one of the prettiest and most exciting ones. Travel time, usually something to be done with as fast as possible, becomes time spent travelling, already experiencing the foreign place, meeting new people, seeing the world.
Trust your driver to show you around and you might just discover the most beautiful spots on Earth.
10. La Vita E Bella
Above all, hitchhiking has taught me one thing: life is really beautiful. The fact that at any given day, at any given point in time, without having any funds to really go anywhere, you can just stand next to the road, put out your thumb and see where the road (and gentle drivers) will take you, is amazing to me. Hitchhiking for me was, and still is, a big adventure – one of the most exhausting, exhilarating, beautiful, annoying, uncomfortable, and wonderful adventures I have ever had. I wouldn’t have missed this experience for the world.
What about you, have you hitchhiked before? What have you learned from it? I’m curious to find out how other women think about hitchhiking and what experiences came from it – no hitchhiking trip is like another, and there are sure to be millions of stories to be shared – so let us know in the comments below!