The first time I tried hitchhiking I was 19 years old and wanted to get a ride out of Munich towards the Balkans.
I was terrified – not so much of getting attacked or raped. Rather, it was more the “unknown” that freaked me out.
What would I say to the driver?
Would it be awkward?
What if we can’t speak the same language???
That very first hitchhiking ride was ridiculously easy. I didn’t even have to put my thumb out. A driver saw me walking towards the autobahn and stopped his car. He was soooo excited to see a hitchhiker and eagerly told me how he used to hitchhike in his younger years.
It turns out that the experience of hitchhiking is something that sticks with you all your life and it’s no wonder that hitchhikers all over the world feel a special bond and comradery.
Not all my rides have been as easy as that first one. I’ve had to scream at men who think it’s okay to put their hands on my legs without consent. I’ve waited on rural roads for hours watching nothing but dust go by (and trying to keep my spirits up). I got let off at bad spots and had to walk miles to better places…
Considering that I can actually afford a bus or train ticket, why do I keep hitchhiking in face of these difficulties?
Nothing good in life is easy. We have to constantly work on it, push ourselves, and avoid complacency. This includes all of the “life lessons” that we pick up along the journey of life. For me, hitchhiking is the best way to practice these life lessons. Here are just some of the life lessons that I’ve learned – and am constantly relearning – each time I stick my thumb out on the side of the road.
1. Be Patient
As a solo female hitchhiker, I’ve never had to wait long on the road. Now I hitchhike with my daughter and she’ so damn cute that the first car always stops. But there are still those times when we’ve had to wait for hours just for a single car to go by. You learn to appreciate the view and look at all the little things around you.
2. Be Vocal When Someone Is Making Your Uncomfortable
As Thought Catalogue points out, girls are raised to be “polite” even if it entails sparing the feelings of people who disregard theirs. No wonder that women don’t speak up in situations of sexual assault.
As a hitchhiker though, you can’t just sit there and let an uncomfortable situation escalate into something worse.
Like that time a guy put his hand on my leg, thinking it was a perfectly okay thing to do. He was, after all, giving me a free ride so I must “owe him.”
I calmly but very firmly told him to STOP touching me and STOP the car. I then gave him a bit of a screaming lecture (he wasn’t expecting that) about the proper way to treat a lady. He was shocked, to say the least. I think it was the first time a woman had ever spoken back to him.
3. The World Is Not a Scary Place
Aside from a few random creeps, pretty much everyone I have met while hitchhiking has been incredibly wonderful. In fact, they are eager to help and some seem downright starved for genuine human interaction.
It makes me realize how much stranger danger is a complete load of crap. Serial killers aren’t lurking around every corner waiting to rape and kill you. Yes, bad things do happen – but if you let the overblown fear of getting raped dictate your actions, you will miss out on so much.
4. Everyone Is Interesting
This is the #1 lesson that hitchhiking has taught me, and I probably wouldn’t have learned it otherwise. When you hitchhike, all sorts of people stop to pick you up – especially people outside of your normal “bubble” of friends.
You soon start to realize that these seemingly-bland people are quite fascinating. Like the 24-year old Romanian guy who goes mushroom picking with his wife and her 16 year old son (whom he adopted). Or the insights you get from the 50 year old Serb lady telling you how the Bosnian Muslim community came to together to help when her son was dying of cancer and the medical bills started piling up…
All you need to do is get outside of your bubble and TALK TO PEOPLE and you’ll realize that everyone has a story to tell and something you can learn from them.
5. Come Prepared
A crayon and paper for making a sign? Check and check.
In life and in hitchhiking, you never know what is going to happen – so make sure you are prepared for the journey.
6. You Don’t Need Heels and Makeup for Men to Find You Attractive
Ladies, I’m sure you’ve all had those moments where you worried that men would stop finding you attractive if you gave up the burdensome tasks of “beautifying” yourself. Hitchhiking has proved that this is wrong.
There have been many situations where drivers have asked me for my number or to go out on a date. I’m not talking about the sleazy guys – but some true gentlemen.
They asked me out despite the fact that I had road dirt all over me, was all sweaty, and probably stunk a bit too. See? Men actually can be attracted to a woman because of her adventurous spirit and personality!
7. Don’t Judge People Based on Appearances Alone
It was 5pm on a border town in Bulgaria. Few cars are passing at this hour. The ones who do pass make the downward-finger sign to signal that they aren’t going forward.
I start to worry. What if no one stops before nightfall? There aren’t any more buses, what will I do???
Then a beat-up old Russian car stops. It is so old that the car doesn’t even use a key to start the ignition. You push a button.
I get in and the first thing I see is the skull on the gear shift.
Then I notice that there are a bunch of KNIVES in the glove box.
And then I notice that the guy has a weird skin disease and he literally looks like he’s got lizard scales!
I spent the hour ride in semi-terror, telling myself, “At least the knives are on my side of the car.” We didn’t have a common language, so the ride was in silence.
Then, we arrive and he asks in sign language for a pen and paper. He writes, “Hotel?” I try to tell him to just let me off at a bus stop – I will figure it out on my own. He seems worried so I show him the phone number of the Couchsurfers who will be my hosts. He then calls them and drives me right to them. Later I learned from my hosts that he drove me 45 minutes out of his way!
So, this seemingly weird guy was actually incredibly kind. Appearance doesn’t matter. Actions do.
8. People Are Pretty Much the Same Everywhere
People around the world have different priorities, daily habits, cultural traditions, and norms. But, when you break through the superficialities, you realize that people are pretty much the same.
One moment hitchhiking in Israel and Palestine sticks out in my mind.
First I got a ride from an Orthodox Jew from Jerusalem. We chatted and had a nice ride. When it was time for him to let me out of the car, he told me,
“Be careful in Jericho. Oh, wait. You’re from Serbia. You will be fine!”
Then a Palestinian Muslim woman picked me up and we had a nice chat during the rest of the way to Jericho. As she lets me out of the car, she says,
“Be careful. Oh wait. You’re from Serbia. You won’t have any problems here!”
I’m not sure if they thought that I’d be fine in Jericho because no one has hostility against Serbs there, or because Serbians must be so tough that I could handle anything. Regardless, it was hilarious to hear virtually the same comment from two people who are supposed to be so different.
9. Don’t Get Caught Up in the What-Ifs
When hitchhiking isn’t going so well – like when the hundredth car has gone by without stopping – it is tempting to fall into a negative mode of thinking. You might get angry at yourself for choosing a bad hitchhiking spot, or curse the drivers for not stopping.
Sure, things might have been better if you’d done something different or a car stopped right away.
But they might have also been worse. Who knows whether you’d have gotten hit by a car or a creep would have stopped…
Just be thankful that you are alive and traveling, and enjoy the view. Once you get to your destination, the bad times won’t seem so overwhelming anymore.
10. It’s Good to Have a Map, But It’s Also Okay to Go Off Course Sometimes
The one time I hitchhiked without a map, it was from Sarajevo to Belgrade. A really nice guy invited me to go have lunch with his mom. Little did I know (because I didn’t have a map) was that his mom lived in the completely different direction.
I ended up spending the night with the family, who lived in a beautiful little village, and had an amazing time. I still say it is good to have a map when hitchhiking, but you’ve got to be prepared to go off course when opportunity presents itself.
11. Sometimes You Have to Take a Leap of Faith
When I think about all the wonderful places I’ve seen, I can’t help but feel grateful to the world. If it weren’t for the kindness of complete strangers, I would have never had these opportunities.
It isn’t just all the rides I got hitchhiking. It’s the kindness of strangers who tell you where the best secret beaches are, the coolest cafes, and the strangest attraction that won’t ever make a tour book.
Even if hitchhiking isn’t your thing, don’t give up on people. Make the effort to connect with others and you’ll be amazed at what the world gives you in return.