From the cabin of a truck the kilometers unhurriedly pass by. Hitchhiking Europe feels like wandering around one’s own yard. And with the familiar football chat going on between puffs of smoke at the front of the cabin, I sink deep into the comfortable berth and open the first pages of a journey to Africa, the one of Salva, a guy who crossed the continent by bike (and then continued cycling the rest of the world). We got the book from him at a Travellers Conference, with the hope that it would bring us back on our feet with a rush of adventure and maybe make us pack again the few things we have scattered over our temporary room in Sofia, wishing it would send us North or South or anywhere the wind blows. But instead of a fresh breeze, the second chapter brings in the the dusty breath of the Sahel, the torrid heat, the endless days of cycling over paths of sand, and then the dengue, the flies, the loads of fading water one needs to carry to survive… Even just the title, “A fairytale travel”, reminds us that any journey is far from the fables; even more in the case of Salva, travel is rather desire and determination.
I remember with certainty that somewhere amidst the crooked roads of Asia I left my wish for adventure, wandering back home at her own unworkable pace. And most certainly so did Boris. Our wanderlust may still be hanging around with a friendly Sadhu in Tripura, or maybe drinking rice beer with our friend Arjun in Sikkim, maybe hoping on and off trucks on the endless roads of Central Asia. We cannot be sure. But we know that the journey that we started just a few days back feels more like a neighbourhood walk. We move along the familiar roads of Europe, following signs that we can read, chatting in languages we know, sitting in truck cabins with aircon…just hitchhiking from Spain to Bulgaria, going “from home to home”. We don’t expect adventure, we only wish for smooth transit rides. Suddenly, somewhere between Botswana and South Africa I become conscious of the fact that we are still in the truck of Milen, well deep into the night, and about to be dropped off in a petrol station of a northern Italian road. North Italy, the black hole of hitchhiking.There we go.
Hitchhiking in Spain. An appreciation of slowness.
The truth is that we did not leave Ferrol by thumb. A formidable hangover and the promise of a pleasant journey on a narrow-track railroad served as perfect excuses to avoid ourselves the wonderful experience of hitching the Cantabric coast. We had previously hitchhiked in Spain, and in general it feels like a country purposely made for travellers to build on their hitchhiking virtues through tribulations: patience, resilience and trust in the anonymous helper that may finally bring you out of the place you’ve been stuck for hours under the sun… We can’t really decide whether Spain is a hitchhiker’s hell or just a homage to slowness. It may not be the same all over the country, we can never be sure, but so far we have always gotten longer waiting hours than cars when hitchhiking my own home country. Having a week to reach Sofia, we conclude that the slow train is probably a safer bet than the slow rides. And so it feels, quietly meandering along forests, hills and village homes with neatly kept yards, then to the rocky coasts and the grey skies of any summer Galician day, a bit of rain, a little chat with one of the few St. Jacob’s Pilgrims that lifts his sight from his guide…quiet, pleasant…but a bit boring, we must say. So when we reach Oviedo, we don’t care to rush to the next train. Let’s better have some Asturian cider, walk the stone streets of the old town, and have dinner with one of my father best friends. Let’s enjoy the way, and tomorrow we will see. We still have six days to go.
Asturias. From village to village. And we roll the dice once again. (*)
We usually declare ourselves officially stuck at a certain spot after one hour of waiting. It is an average measure. If there is one car per hour, one can consider raising the limit to two or even three rounds of the clock. In any case, at the roundabout exiting Oviedo near IKEA, we are officially and flatly stuck. A couple of hours pass. The elusive glances, the “sorry” and sad mimics and a few occasional “buy yourselves a car” or “go home and work” do not feel really encouraging. But there is no way back (not back to the slow train this time) and we stand under the growing sun fantasizing with our first driver of the day. It should be a man – even I dare agreeing to that – women often distrust hitchhikers; probably above forty – because young people in this country look so deeply absorbed in their buy-and-pay-for-all system of thought; and it should be somebody who has hitched before, or travelled by van or by boat…he should be called…Belén! A mother of two children living in a small village, who stops to overturn our stereotypes, to share a few kilometers of understanding over the wonders of rural life and then drops us on our next waiting spot along the road. Belén, Carmen, Norma…more women than men in a course of hitchhiking encounters that bring us in and out of the highway, from village to village, from one waiting spot to the next, and give us the chance to walk narrow roads for a little while. Just as if we were travelling for real, as if this was not a mere journey from home to home.
Fortunate and fortuitous encounters
Our second last diver, Peio, promises to pray for us as he drops us in a roundabout to the highway. Would his prayers bring us luck? And maybe somebody going all the way to France? Or at least to Bilbao? Or to Santander? Or just anywhere out of the slow roads. We have just five days to reach Sofia, and we are pretty much at the start. But little time we have to articulate our hopes and wishes, or even to choose the best place to hitch, before someone calls our name from a window, breaks on the hard shoulder, comes out and gives us a hug. I had no idea my uncle was travelling the same direction as us! Our combined ramblings in and out of the highway have arbitrarily met on a single spot shaped as a roundabout with an exit to Santander and another one to Llanes. Our ways have merged. And my uncle has recognized us in an improbable place, just thanks to Boris’ hair. My uncle usually lives in a ship, and has come to see a friend who is anchored in a small town nearby. The road vagabonds and the sea wanderers spend the evening in the beautiful town of Santiago de la Barquera. Oh! Mysterious are the workings of hitchhiking fortune, or of the untold prayers of Peio perhaphs, that have taken us by surprise this time.
Hitchhiking in France. Where the journey runs like a clockwork.
We abandon our hitching mission once again and catch a bus to Irún, the last Basque town by the French border. If we want to hitchhike from Spain to Bulgaria (and reach on time to the first day of work) we better start from the edge of the country, or we may risk meeting Christmas, cider in hand, on the Cantabric roads. A proper journey to the north of Spain has been added to our “list of things to do before we die” (?). But now, after toasting over one last pincho de tortilla with two little cañas to say goodbye to my home country, we walk towards France loaded with good hitchhiking omens. We walk for one kilometer, three, five, along a lengthy line of cars and trucks absolutely stuck by the invisible border. They wave us as we pass them, and then as they pass by us, and again and again. Till we finally reach a “hitchable” place, and off we go. From peage to peage, hitchhiking in France is (or better said “can be” – let’s not tempt our luck) a children’s play.
France. Peage. Peage. Peage. The hitchhiker in disguise
In the last pay toll of the day, two scruffy hitchhikers, beers and cigarettes in hand, warn us that they have been waiting for hours at this very spot. They are going west, and we are going east, but hitchhiking good manners dictate that we should walk a few hundred meters pass them. So we wave them good bye and good luck, and walk away. Before we even drop the backpacks on the floor, Pierre stops to pick us up. We share less than twenty minutes of placid conversation on agriculture, rural living and politics, before he offers to take us straight to his home in Toulousse, where we can shower and rest, with the promise to drop us back on the highway with the first light of dawn. I would have to hitchhike much more on my own to see if I would be able to trust Pierre’s kind offer, were we not a couple with many miles covered together. But luckily we are two, and we feel strangely safe, even if a random offer from a middle-aged quiet agricultural engineer would make a good plot for some hitch-horror script. I must confess that it crosses my mind as we squeeze the three of us with bags in the tiny lift going to Pierre’s flat, what if behind his little oval glasses he hides some evil intentions and we are going to be cooked in his soup tonight, what if, what if…. Over dinner, though, the mystery of his spontaneity is unveiled. Despite his formal look and his white hair, Pierre is a hitchhiker himself, and not just one at heart. In his briefcase, among company reports and correspondence, he carries laminated hitchhiking boards that read “Toulousse”, “Pau”,”highway”… He has been living in the countryside for years, loves hiking long distances and hitchhiking is natural to him. The moral of the story: never judge a hitchhiker by his looks. In the morning, as promised, Pierre drops us at the bypass of Toulousse. We don’t exchange phones or facebooks or emails as we thank him for the ride. Pierre probably knows, just like us, that hitchhiking is often just made of random encounters, and simply wishes us good luck.
We walk along the highway, asphalt arteries that pump people and goods all over the known world. Along its fringe we follow traces left on the grass by other feet who must have trotted the same roadside earlier than us. Who knows what were their reasons roam the edges of the highway. The inert nature of the hard shoulder contrasts with the silent swinging of the overgrown grass, and an unusual beauty arises from their impossible affair. Butterflies fill the air as if oblivious to the dangers and the monsters that speedily pass by, just a few meters away from the crash barrier that separates two irreconcilable worlds. Daisies bloom despite the smoke and a bunch of birds perform their pirouettes for a fading audience.There is a path that leads towards the forest, and behind it the fields, and beyond them more landscapes that may host more forests with trees, on which branches one may find a tiny wooden hut built by kids years before our roads became real, concrete, noise. Highway landscapes feel as if left around for the recreation of those who, at 120 kmph or more, have the urge and the need to find something passing by their window. We would probably stop to travel the day that the world around the highway had turned highway itself. And till then, may that day never come, the landscapes of the freeway silently stand for us, spectators of a moving picture of which we are no part. Maybe only highway workers, truck drivers and a few hitchhikers lucky to be stranded by the roadside know what hides behind its borders. And a few miles later, we reach the peage. We have four days left of holidays, and the journey must go on if we are to reach home on time. Next to the spot where we drop our bags a fragile poppy defies the wind and the rush.
Northern Italy. The black hole of hitchhiking
Less than half an hour later we cross back to the other side of the curtain, travelling spectators that watch fields and forests pass speedily by their window. We have squeezed ourselves and the backpacks into the seat of a van, among adults, children, books, toys, carrots, apples, boxes and juggling stuff. We have been picked up by a circus family on their way to a show. say that they used to hitchhike earlier, but now they rather pick hitchhikers and stick to travels by van or by bike. Maybe it is their reference to bikes that makes me reach for the book of a cyclist when a couple of rides later we climb on to Milen’s truck. He is a Bulgarian driver, happy to have company that can speak his language, and readily offers to cross with us what is left of France and half of Italy. The road along the French Riviere is impressive, and I alternate glances through the cinema-like screen of the truck with passing pages of Salva’s African Oddissey, before succumbing totally to his tales. I used to have the romantic idea that travelling by bike, despite the immense physical effort, allowed for some sort of personal rhythm, a journey made at one’s own pace. The story I am reading seems to belie my assumption. Cyclists are at the mercy of the elements, of supplies, of spare parts, of their own health. Hitchhikers, on the other side are at the mercy of…Diego. Of people like Diego (and of the weather, sometimes).
You may wonder who the hell is Diego and what he has to do with this hitchhiking story, and we shall tell you all about that.
When Milen drops us in the dark, at a petrol station ten kilometers or so behind the exit we were supposed to take, we know it is a matter of going back or taking a long detour. Since we have no tent and no raw mats and no cooking stove, our action plan has only two steps: have pizza and coffee from the petrol station and keep on hitchhiking all night. But nobody stops for hours, so we have another coffee, and still nobody stops for us. The truck drivers have pulled their curtains, the traffic starts getting thinner, we try asking, and receive no answers, we have one more drink, we stand under a lamp, thumbs extended, good mood on, but nobody takes us. Then the mist comes. And we decide it is time to retreat until dawn.
We find a hidden spot on the second floor of the petrol station store, the restaurant on this floor is closed for the night. And in between the staircase and the lift, in a fold of the wall we crouch, covered with the thin sleeping bags that we luckily took, sipping one more cup of tea to warm up our hands numbed after a few fruitless hours standing in the dark mist of this forgotten petrol station. In three hours we will continue, we may get luckier under the sunlight, but we better rest now.
Then Diego appears from who knows where. Gesticulating wildly and shouting to the top of his voice he enquires our resons to be sitting in this precise spot. We answer his request for information, explaining that we are really tired, that we have not properly rested since Pierre left us on the bypass of Toulousse, and it’s been a long day of tolls, gas stations and trucks and… “But but but! Why!? I don’t UNDERSTAAAND!” – Diego, really cannot understand the simplicity of the matter. “Where is your car? You cannot be in a petrol station if you have no car!!!”. The situation reminds us of the time in Xinjiang when Chinese police tried to explain us that we town into which we had just walked was actually “closed”, even though there was no door or gate to knock on. Diego can’t understand what we might be doing on the top floor of his petrol station, he cannot understand why we would be hitchhiking home if one could just take a Ryanair flight, or why we would have no cars. He also does not seem to understand that we just wanted to rest in a quiet place without disturbing, and he is very much disturbed by that. He is not disturbed, though, when we order the fifth hot drink of the night, burning our travel budget in this roadside restaurant, and sitting on uncomfortable tall stools, we fold our arms over the table and take a nap. That is probably not disturbing, since we have paid a few Euros for the right to close our eyes. And Diego might be right in that this is the way that things work in his part of the “world”, or at least in his mind. For us, who have shared so many evenings with petrol station staff, who have set our tents in tiny squares of grass, or been pointed to storage, staff and prayer rooms by so many other Diegos who also could not understand how we had reached their very petrol station without a car, what is an impossibility is this Diego, that does not, and does not want to understand. Without real hard feelings, but with a little spine, I do tell Diego that I wish him at least one cold sleepless night, somewhere where other people may have the chance to lend him a hand or a place to crush, so that he may then UNDERSTAND. He, probably, wishes us a safe and warm car (who knows!).
The Balkans. Back to hitchhiking paradise.
Getting out of Italy is not an easy enterprise, and many hours pass before Romeo saves us from the nightmare of spending one more day and one more night in the kingdom of Diego (who fortunately has ended his shift and gone home to rest, lucky him!). Ride after ride, with some patience and good fortune, we keep travelling eastwards towards home. We have three days to go.
Rainbow fancy. Ljubljana’s cityscape.
Forty eight sleepless hours are enough to fall into a sort of trance, for the frames of doors to start swaggering and the staircases to twist in endless spirals of steps that turn into snails, for the streets to be taken over by an army of giant soap bubbles, while children run around following colorful balloons or young people on unicycles and a band of jazz musicians with cajón fills the air with their notes… we need to blink twice before we can start to believe than more than half of the dream is actually reality and that we have simply been landed in Ljubljana. I had so long wanted to visit this city, ever since I first started to travel “eastwards”. The unpronounceable name of the city is always linked in my mind to a Slovenian girl I had met years back. Would I recognize her if we cross ways?
We walk the old town, crossing little bridges that join riverside boulevards and markets, through paved streets and uphill along the green covered stone paths to the castle; from above, in between the tree-tops we watch the pretty rooftops turn into small blocks and beyond more, and bigger, blocks of a city that squeezes in between hills. Even if this is just a sort of pit-stop on the way home, if the town is crowded with colourful backpackers and if we have barely enough strength to walk around the doll-looking town center before falling asleep like logs, I am happy that precisely today we have arrived to Ljubljana, precisely today after days of highway landscapes, of paths spattered with rests of old tires, of days breathing exhaust from the very same vehicles that carry us along. Today, that I could just fall asleep under any tree, we are happy to be surrounded by art installations, to look at crafts and design store-windows and glance at the fashionable people sitting in coffee shops with their cappucinos, in our delusional walk, while children run around in between soap bubbles and jazz. Maybe one day we will come back with time to meet real Ljubljana, its history and its present. But today its disney side is fine for me. And we take our vegan burgers with home-made lemonade sitting on stone steps. Tomorrow we will have just two days to reach home from here. 920 km to go. We should be fine.
Belgrade, or Bulgaria, who cares (as long as we go the same way)
A young Croatian couple brings us forward a few hundred kilometers. They drop us right before Zagreb, having partly shared their travel enthusiasm, their future plans, interests in arts, and their veiled story of (still) “forbidden” love. It sometimes feels pretty obvious that the way is paved for love of all genders and sexual orientations to flourish, but hitchhiking slaps your face with a dose of reality from time to time. And when a young couple does not dare fully confiding their secrets to strangers like us, and how many times they have told their story in a coded manner and what could be the reasons behind. We can only wish them a good and happy life, hopefully together. And keep on arguing with anyone who does not believe in human rights for all.
They drop us in a perfect spot. A wide toll station with plenty of traffic and room to pull over. We write “Belgrade” in the board, hoping to get somebody straight to the Serbian capital, and then hitch one more day or night from there down to Sofia. We write “Belgrade” but Andrei’s subconscious reads “Bulgaria” and he stops hoping to get some company to drive all the way straight to his own home (which luckily is ours too). And, indeed home comes long before Andrei would drop us at a roundabout at the exit of Sofia. Like a travelling capsule, the cabin of most truckers, is a piece of their own home traversing monotonously distant roads by the command of commerce. Untouched by social filters Andrei shares a stream of rude jokes, food and water with us, nominal bribes, as if just for the sport (or because of good manner, who knows) with the border police and a tirade of spicy and unpleasant expressions with a throng of oblivious drivers happening to pass by his truck. Keeping each other company, the night swallows the long hours separating Zagreb and Sofia. Serbia, quiet and pitch dark, disappears at first light.
Sleepless, and running on exhausts, just like at the end of another transit Odissey back to Sofia, but this time approaching from the west, rather than the east, we bid farewell to Andrei (may his good mood never leave him). We walk down a concrete avenue guarded by mastodon concrete blocks of flats. And just before diving down the tube stairs, a remotely familiar voice greats us good morning. The grandfather who we often meet in a little free hut in Vitosha (the mountain next to Sofia), turns out to spend his weekends in a green forest and his weekdays in a gray jungle of a post-socialist fringe neighbourhood. ‘Good morning and see you in the mountain!’ – we smile, look around and take a deep breath, knowing we have certainly reached our destination, hitchhiking Europe in five days (or so).