2005, summer, 3,500 km in 24 days, on less than 3 euro a day hitchhiking all the way alone from Paris to Austria to Riga.
This adventure was something I wanted to do for a long time. That summer I was hungry for experiences and self realization, and I knew that in order to experience something big I had to push myself out of my comfort zone. Not that my life as a 21 yo was not interesting enough, on the contrary - it was quite saturated and busy due to university, chronic lack of sleep and cash, 2 jobs, and numerous friends. This is 21 yo me at one of the Hospitality club camps, open air festivals for travelers (on the day I met my husband and just before the hitchhiking trip)
However, I felt that my life is still too comfortable and not challenging enough for a mind blowing experience. I didn't know how I would handle fear, loneliness, misery, helplessness and shit-hit-the-fan kind of situations inevitable in trips like this, and I didn't know what I would do with opportunities, insights and realizations on the road - and I was eager to find it out.
So I made up a challenge for myself - hitchhike around Europe alone with the budget of 3 euro a day and with 100 euro being the total I took with me (half of which was stolen somewhere in the middle)
At the time of the trip I wasn't a newbie to hitchhiking, I hitchhiked with my best friend Aliona several times to Germany and Netherlands, and also between Latvia and Lithuania. So the plan was to hitchhike from Riga to Paris with Aliona, spend a couple of days at a Hospitality club camp by the ocean in Northern France, return to Paris and then travel alone. Money - used for food which most of the time was bread, cheese, fruit and sweets and in cities used for public transport. Accommodation - Hospitality club, friends or roadside camping (I took a small tent with me)
Hitchhiking has its own culture, style, language and trends. It has its own code of conduct and what you speak is distances, road numbers and weather. On the road, whether it's a truck driver or an older couple - you can immediately tell if one knows a thing or two about hitchhiking and being on the road. There are also pretty obvious patterns in hitchhiking - one girl gets more change for a ride, 2 girls - a bit less chance, a couple - less than that chance, 2 guys - 50% less chance. Also, most of the time you get a ride with a guy or a couple, that might sound dangerous especially for the case with 1 male driver, but thats the way it is. Girls don't usually take hitch hikers, probably too afraid.
With my backpack, ready to hit the road.
So here are some stories from the trip:
NIGHTMARE FROM PARIS TO LILLE
In the early morning of day 1 I got to the last point where public city bus could take me and walked to a gas station - the only place on a highway where you can catch a ride (it's prohibited to walk on a highway) I got a ride pretty quickly, but the driver turned out to be clueless about how hitchiking works, so he left me out right by an exit which translates to "you're pretty much doomed now" as the cars are not allowed to stop on highway to pick you up. Which in my case meant walking for 2 hours in the mix of pouring rain and annoying drizzle. So 6 hours into the trip It felt like turning around, forgetting about the crazy idea, and getting back to drinking wine by the Seine. But that wasn't an option since I had only 100 euro and had to somehow get back home to Riga (this was part of my smart plan to make sure I don't have a choice but to continue going)
FROM LILLE TO DUSSELDORF WITH A DRUG DEALER
The entire Belgium on the way to Germany was spent in a car with cocaine dealer who seemed to be a very nice and polite guy wearing business suit, working as a construction engineer around Lille, with lovely family waiting for him back in Belgium, cute labrador on the back seat, and ehm...a gun under passenger seat and 2 kg of cocaine in the car trunk. Mr White in real life. I didn't ask too many questions for obvious reasons, but apparently his plan was to drop the bags for a buyer somewhere around Charleroi which is when I found out about the gun under my seat and figured out that it's not baking powder he's selling which was cordially and politely confirmed by the guy later on. I wish he was kidding, but he wasn't. In Dusseldorf, he drove me around until we found the address of my friends where I planned to stay and he left me his phone number in case I need a ride through Belgium in the future. What a nice drug dealer :)
GETTING OUT OF DUSSELDORF
This is what the signs around Dusseldorf should be saying. There is a major airport in Dusseldorf, so the highways around it just go crazy forming multi layer ramps jungle. In order to get out of the city on the road which I planned to take I had to switch 4 or 5 roads, and obviously it is very hard to find someone who is driving exactly the same way as you need, so all you can do is try several rides which of course means a lot of helpless standing and walking on highways and ramps. It took me half a day to get out of Dusseldorf and get on the road to Cologne (Koln).
Here is a self photo from Koln
GETTING ARRESTED IN SIEGEN
In Siegen on the way to Marburg to visit my friend I got officially arrested for walking on highway. I've been arrested for that before in Poland with Aliona where we spent 5hrs of official jail time behind the bars and were presented with a jail report paper, copy of which was also sent to our parents to fake addresses we gave them (so badass move :D) This time I was trying to get to the other side of some kind of bridge or a ramp in Siegen. I didnt get a ride, so I walked. A short bitter "Fuck!" is what usually goes in combination with police siren sound behind you in cases like this. Police officer was genuinely curious about my thought process that led to walking on highway. I told him there's no other way to get to the other side, the officer told me I should have taken the bus but he didn't anticipate an answer like "well, I dont have money for the bus". So he took me to the police station where everyone then was genuinely curious about my case. The town is small, so something like this is obviously a big event for them. They didn't charge me with anything and wrote in the arrest report that I'm on some kind of "walk the Europe" mission as a justification. Then the officer took me (for free! :)) to a small road outside of Siegen that leads directly to Marburg but avoids highways.
One good thing that came out of this arrest was this small serpentine road through the hills and woods. I walked a lot since cars on this road were rare. This was the time for thinking, or as Jason Lewis puts it "Mind Traveling, which, depending on how exhausted we were, ranged from focused and quite useful analysis of ideas, to the mind behaving like a demented Ping-Pong ball, bouncing from one train of trivial associations to the next, until the starting point was long forgotten."
I arrived to Frankfurt late at night with a couple who were nice enough to drive me at 1 am to the exact address I gave them. What was even sweeter about this couple is that they saw me eating biscuits in the backseat, assumed I don't have dinner money (which was partially true) and before letting me out of the car the lady stepped out into a cafe and got me a nice hot dinner. I didn't want to accept it, but they insisted explaining it with the fact that their daughter is hitchhiking too and they would like to help "this kind of people" as much as they can. Not wanting to disgrace my kind of people I took the take out box, thanked them and went to meet my host.
Getting out of Frankfurt was not as fortunate, but it had its benefits in the form of free bag of energy bars. Once again I got stuck at a gas station even though my direction (Munchen) was pretty common. At 7pm without a ride I felt a bit nervous, at 11pm it was clear I'm not going anywhere that night. The night was spent sleeping on the ground by the gas station store - real hobo style. I was lucky the weather was nice and the store manager was understanding, so understanding that he kept checking on me all night long bringing me hot tea every 2 hrs. At about midnight he called me in, took me to the storage room and in his broken English and very official tone announced to me that I can take as many energy bars with overdue date as I want. I couldn't refuse the offer.
GOOD OLD BAVARIA
Bavaria (Bayern in German) proved to be very welcoming and exciting. First on the way, Munchen was amazing! I stayed with a cool mid age hippie couple who taught me a lot about Munchen, and for about a week or so I explored the city from inside out. My favorite places to hangout were in Englischer Garten - huge park with picnic spots, nudist areas, swimming and surfing in the river, live concerts, etc. Here are a couple of pics in the park.
I also enjoyed the old town and had a great fun at Kultfabrik - huge industrial party zone near Ostbahnhof (Eastern station) where you can find any kind of party and clubbing going on - from revived Soviet times discotheques to Titty Twister vampire bars (from From Dusk Till Dawn)
Next in the plan after Munchen was to see some highland Bavarian lakes and Alps on the way to Austria. That is the most scenic area of Germany that hosts all those iconic rural villages and towns where the stereotypes come from - song singing, huge beer mugs, bratwurst and sauerkraut, cute houses with alpine peaks on the background. I got to experience all this when local farmers took me to their villages and got me to eat and drink with them. That was fun, especially the mandatory Bavarian song singing when you don't know the words, but absolutely have to sing if you sit at the host's table. It was a beautiful place with amazing people all around.
TROUBLES IN AUSTRIA
My original plan included getting to Italy via Austrian Alps, but the plan had to change. Cheered up by all this Bavarian beauty I kept going South along local roads. Last night before entering Austria I decided to spend on a beautiful hill next to a campground. The campground was paid and fenced, but I had no problem camping just outside the fence. There were some people camping around as well, the atmosphere was idyllic and the views were amazing. Until about 9pm.
At 8pm a local radio on the campground announced in German something that made all other campers pack their stuff and leave. I'm still wondering why on Earth this didn't give me any clue or at least a raised eyebrow. "Storm is coming, get the hell out of the campsites!" was the gist of the radio message. At 9pm it started raining, at 10pm the wind went crazy. At about 11pm I was in the middle of this wonderland of the nature gone nuts. Long story short - my tent, filled with water was blown away and gone rolling down the hill with me standing on the hill top watching it eventually hit some bushes about 500 metres down the hill. I and my stuff were soaking wet, simultaneously being blow dried by the wind. That night I found a shelter under a porch roof of a roadside shop, it didnt really protect me against the rain, but I was so exhausted that I didnt care, I just blacked out.
Next morning the weather pretended like nothing happened yesterday. I made my move South to Innsbruck, Austria. My driver dropped me off at Innsbruck's central train station, there I put my backpack into a coin locker and went to find an internet cafe to check with my host. The host canceled and I couldn't arrange an alternative place to stay, so I decided to spend the night at the train station. When I wanted to take my bag out of the coin locker it turned out to be open, apparently I didn't lock it properly. My remaining 50 euro were stolen, and the thief was obviously a very nice person: he took the money, and nothing else - the purse was neatly placed back in the special bag compartment. Now I had not much choice but to do a short trip around Insbruck and turn back. Bummer. On the other hand, if it wasn't for that nice thief, I would probably not be married now to my lovely husband. Yes, we believe it was destiny :)
RUSHING THROUGH GERMANY, POLAND AND LITHUANIA
From Austria to Riga I had to travel with about 10 euro in my pocket. I figured I couldn't risk to get stuck anywhere, so I decided to use a bit more modern hitchhiking method - car sharing: you join a group of other people going the same way as you, pitch in some money and get a fast, non-stop ride. I used my last money on car sharing, got to Berlin in one day and stayed with my friends. The plan from there was to get from Berlin to Riga in 2 days.
The road from Berlin and through Poland is not a very eventful ride and most of the road will usually be done with truck drivers. Majority of truck drivers are very hitchhikers friendly, they like to hear your stories and will gladly share theirs. Most of the time they will also do their best to book your next ride. Truck drivers use special radio frequency to communicate with each other (their colleagues from the same company or just any other truck in the radius), so before dropping you off they can contact other trucks behind them to hitch your next ride for you. So when they drop you off, all you need to do is wait for 10-30 minutes and your next truck will pick you up. Nice system I must say.
That day I didn't get to Warsaw as planned in order to stay with my friends. As a result I had to stay at a roadside "truck town" - truck resting plaza that turns into a real lively town every night after sunset and turns into a ghost town every morning at sunrise when trucks leave for their next destination. There are usually motels on these plazas, but I of course couldn't afford one. Luckily, I was invited to join a cheese sandwich + hot tea dinner by the truck drivers and offered a truck cabin in one of the trucks to sleep in.
Next day was supposed to be my last day on the road, but it just couldn't end without an adventure. Border crossing from Poland to Lithuania took forever (there was passport control between these countries at that time) As a result I got stuck in the middle of the road somewhere around Panevezys at midnight. Pitch dark, no cars stopping, no gas stations or towns seen anywhere. After 2 hours of walking a car finally stopped. The guy behind the wheel said I must be crazy, I sincerely agreed with him. He was going home to Siauliai which is still closer to Riga so I got in the car. In Siauliai he took me to a gas station where his friend worked, asked me if I know how to drive, after I said "no" he left me car keys, instructed to lock the car in the morning and give the keys to the friend at the gas station, wished me goodnight and left. So I went to sleep in the car wondering if he was the one who's crazy here, I might have easily lied about my driving skills and could have taken off in his car right after he left. Well, I guess, I trusted him with my safety, so he trusted me with his car.
Next day I got to Riga. Before going home I sat down by the Daugava river, opened my last energy bar, took a bite off its melted and squashed mass, and thought to myself "Did I just do all that?"
Did I have an enlightenment? Not really. Did I learn anything? Only that there are many good, kind and caring people out there. I didn't really find myself either. However, what I started to see very clearly after this trip is that anything you want is possible. All you need is to dare.