After having my daughter, I didn’t travel much during the first year. Then, when she was two, I set off on a solo backpacking trip to Romania and Ukraine. Before I had Isabel, I hitchhiked everywhere. When planning this trip, I found myself thinking:
“I’m an adult now. I can afford to pay for buses and trains. I probably shouldn’t be hitchhiking.”
I soon threw that mentality to the wind. Becoming a parent doesn’t mean you have to stop doing the things you love! What I couldn’t have anticipated then was that soon my daughter would be going hitchhiking with me too!
Isabel drawing pictures while waiting for a car to go by on a very remote backroad in Bulgaria
Why I Hitchhike…
If you’ve never hitchhiked before, then you probably don’t realize what an awe-inspiring, eye-opening experience it is.
It gives you an opportunity to meet people you’d never meet otherwise.
You often end up traveling village to village, so you see a lot of places you would have just passed by if you’d taken the bus.
You learn skills like patience while waiting for a car to stop for you (though usually I never have to wait more than 15 minutes, except when I’m in such an off-the-beaten-path place that there aren’t even any cars going by!)
What a lot of people don’t realize about hitchhiking is that it is NOT just a free form of transportation. Sure, not paying for transportation is definitely a big perk of hitchhiking, and many people wouldn’t be able to afford travel if they didn’t hitchhike.
Oh, I guess I should add that I don’t know how to drive. I have a weird premonition that I will die by auto accident, but only if I am driving! That, and cars are bad for the environment and conducive to lazyiness!
Hitchhiking is Not “Free”
It took me a while to realize this, but I am actually paying for every single ride I get. I just don’t pay for it with money.
When truckers pick me up on the side of the road, I help them kill the boredom of their long trip.
When local villagers pick me up, I am giving them a chance to practice their English and meet a foreigner.
With whoever picks me up, I always do my best to be damn entertaining and tell good stories. I can even do it in sign language.
Admittedly, hitchhiking can be exhausting. It takes a lot of energy to communicate to people with just the 5 words of the local language you know and made-up signs. But, most of the time, it is really fun. And no one seems to mind if I pass out asleep in the passenger seat on a long ride.
People Want to Help Others
Being entertaining is one way that I “pay” for the rides I get. But the main way I pay for rides is by giving people an opportunity to help someone.
After hitchhiking for a while, you start to realize how STARVED people are for human connection. Most of us humans are really good people and are eager to help others – if only given an opportunity.
Few people will go out looking for opportunities to help someone (like volunteering with refugees or passing out food to the hungry). But it isn’t that hard to stop your car and give someone a lift in the direction you are already going. A lot of the drivers are even nice enough to drive me a few kilometers out of their way to take me to my destination or leave me at a good spot.
And the drivers are almost always smiling and in better spirits when they drop me off than when they’d picked me up. It feels good to help strangers!
Yes, Hitchhiking Can Be Dangerous…
As I said at the beginning, I questioned whether I should continue hitchhiking after I became a mom. Hitchhiking (like everything else) does have its dangers – especially as a woman hitchhiking alone.
Unfortunately, hitchhiking in this world is more dangerous for women. Especially a woman alone. While we may not have to wait long for rides, we do have to put up with assholes asking us for sex. In Georgia (the country) last year, I had to scream at several drivers who started to pull off the road. I quickly put them in place! Luckily, nothing worse than this has happened.
You might think these experiences would put me off from hitchhiking. But…
As a feminist, I think it is even more important that I continue hitchhiking.
I’m more worried about the society which makes hitchhiking more dangerous for women than the actual dangers.
When men say that they hitchhike somewhere, they might get asked about how long the wait was, or how the trip was.
When I say that I hitchhike, the response is usually, “Aren’t you scared?”
By telling women that they shouldn’t do something because it is “more dangerous” for them, we are giving into the terrible system in place.
THAT is the real danger – when women don’t do something because society has labeled it as dangerous for them.
Warning women about the dangers of hitchhiking is the same as telling them not to wear short skirts, go to bars, or walk home alone at night. Why is the message always for women to be careful? We need more messages telling men to stop with the rape and violence!
Being the hardheaded and stubborn woman I am, I refuse to give in to this message. No, I won’t let men have all the fun eye-opening travel experiences! And I definitely don’t want my daughter to get a message that she shouldn’t do something just because she is a girl.
But Why Risk Hitchhiking with a Child?
At first, I had no intention of hitchhiking with Isabel. I figured I’d be a “responsible” parent and take buses and trains. You know, the “safe” option.
But travel plans change.
The first time I went hitchhiking with her, we were going camping in Albania, and public transportation is really terrible there. I’d spent hours (upon hours!) researching how to get from the train station in Montenegro to our camping spot. It was all going well until our 5 euro taxi got to the border between the two countries.
The line at the border was HOURS long.
Why the hell should we wait in the sweltering hot taxi when we could just get out of the taxi and walk across the border?
I paid the taxi. We got out. Our passports were stamped within 5 minutes instead of 1-2 hours. The first vehicle going through the border was an RV. Of course it stopped for us (everyone stops for a cute little kid).
It was two young Germans traveling around with their dog. It happened that they too were looking for a camp spot. So, they not only drove us to our campground, but stayed there too! Isabel loved playing with their dog named Lucky.
At that moment, I re-realized that the benefits of hitchhiking far outweigh the “risks” – and I’m not just talking about the benefits of not having to deal with crappy public transportation or even the feminist life lesson.
I Want My Daughter to Learn to Trust People
In the United States where I grew up, kindergarteners learn “Stranger Danger.” As I write about here, Stranger Danger is a crock of sh*t.
Stranger Danger teaches you to never talk to strangers.
Be wary of anyone offering you candy.
And definitely never get into a stranger’s car!
Oops! We’ve definitely violated all of those rules! Even the candy one, because when you travel with a kid, everyone wants to give her sweets (at least in the Balkans).
I don’t just break these Stranger Danger rules while hitchhiking. I’m also on the website Couchsurfing (since 2004) and on BeWelcome now too. Last summer, I hosted 30+ refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan in my home.
So, while it is good to be cautious, it is more important to be open to people.
When you are open to people and new experiences, you learn that differences like skin color, language, and religion don’t matter at all.
You learn that people are generally good at heart.
And you’ll learn a lot about yourself.
I know my daughter isn’t perfect. She’s hardheaded, competitive, and doesn’t like to listen to rules (hmmm… where did she get that from? 😉 ). But I can also see the lessons she’s learned from our Couchsurfing and hitchhiking experiences. She eagerly shares her toys, isn’t scared of new experiences, knows that girls can do everything boys can (and vise versa) and definitely doesn’t give a hoot what color your skin is.
Oh, and while other kids play with toy trucks, my daughter has actually ridden in trucks. How cool is that!