Disclaimer: This post is about two years late. Ooooops.
Red and white lights reflect off the wet pavement. The cars are scarcer now, only stopping to quickly fill their tanks before speeding off. My backpack leans against the side of the petrol station. It’s sheltered by the narrow ledge of the roof but a few rain drops have fallen onto it. In an hour it will be dark; the grey clouds already cast heavy shadows that seem to precede the night. On the other side of the lot, the light from the Burger King turns more yellow, warmer. I imagine the travellers up in the motel behind me, cozy in an austere room with beige-coloured walls and an abstract painting hung next to the oval-shaped mirror, a suitcase opened and a jacket thrown thoughtlessly on the back of a chair. I kind of wish I was there.
I have been waiting for a lift for almost three hours.
In my mind, I count my coins. It’s the start of the trip so I have the money to splurge on a motel room but the thought of the additional cost makes me a little green. Besides, I don’t want to give up now.
I had left Vienna that morning in good spirits. Waiting by a busy highway just out of town, thumb up and a hopeful smile flashed at every passing car, I held up a sign where I’d texted the word GRAZ in bold, black letters. The other side of it read SLO but I figured I was still too far from the Slovenian border to get a direct lift there. Seemed like Graz was too much to ask for too, though; car after car passed me until a young guy in a small red car pulled over. He looked so much like those backpackers that close beach bars in Southeast Asian coast towns that the sight of him on this Austrian autobahn seemed eerily out of place.
He dropped me off at a petrol station some thirty minutes further where I got lucky and managed to find a car that got me all the way to fifteen kilometres away from the Slovenian border. The Czech driver knew Italian – I didn’t, so I spoke to him in Spanish, and somehow we understood just enough.
As he continued on to Italy, I stayed at the petrol station/motel complex on the wrong side of the road, watching as drivers would give me that apologetic headshake before speeding up the ramp en route back towards Vienna.
When I was mentally preparing for a hitchhiking trip through the Balkans, I had prepared for danger. After all, I was a solo girl in a land far from home: those who didn’t admire me for my courage, doubted my safety. I wondered what I’d do in case of a kidnapping or sexual assault or robbery, and if any of those were real dangers or just spooky stories mums tell each other over glasses of wine on candlelight dinners.
But when I started my journey just outside of Krakow, Poland, the feeling that hit me was not fear: it was embarrassment. I felt utterly silly standing on the side of the road with my makeshift sign and flamingo-skinned fanny pack. What right did I have to ask for anyone to stop for me?! That would be extra trouble for the driver and oh, I really did not want to be extra trouble for anyone.
The passing drivers cast me long looks. Some smiled and shook their heads, pointing downward to their registration plates that in Poland indicate the city of origin. Later I learned this to be the universal signal for ‘sorry, not going your way’. Most drivers either paid me no attention or stared me down like I was a bare-footed wild woman in a straitjacket, escaped from some nearby mental facility.
I had been prepared to feel scared; I never knew I would feel so awkward.
That first day just outside of Krakow, I waited over an hour until a guy in his early twenties and his teenaged little brother stopped for me. And just like that, the sense of adventure overwhelmed the feeling of embarrassment, and as we exchanged life stories in broken English, I felt like I was on the verge of some great self-discovery.
From then on, my confidence grew and grew. I figured, well, no one HAS to pick me up unless they want to. I wasn’t asking for anyone to go out of their way for me – even though many people did. Many stopped for a cup of coffee halfway through and absolutely refused to let me pay for it, offering me a Coke or a tea as well. Many took an extra five minutes to take me to a place where it’d be easier for me to continue. Truck drivers shared their snacks and soft drinks with me, expecting nothing in return, and when I told them I liked the music they were playing they’d crank up the volume and play the same song on repeat for the next half an hour.
Well, that last point might sound close to torture. But it is the good intentions that matter.
And people do have good intentions. The question about safety arose with almost every driver who picked me up. Aren’t you scared? they’d ask me, and I had to answer honestly: not at all. Because I soon learned that the people who will stop for a hitchhiking backpacker are the kind of people that will do that out of the kindness of their heart, not because there’s some imagined benefit in it for them. Some people stop for you because they’ve got a long drive ahead and they want company, some do it because they’ve been hitchhiking in their youth and they want to pay back the good favours that drivers showed them back in the day. But inherently, stopping for a hitchhiker is a selfless act of kindness.
Of course I’ve been in some shady situations as well. It is a fact that solo female travellers have to worry about their personal safety in a way that no male traveller would ever even think about.
There was the Serbian guy who picked me up in Zagreb. He didn’t speak much but chain smoked the whole journey and blasted Tupac for hours as he sped down the highway. You never become so conscious of how misogynistic rap songs can be before you are alone in a car with a strange man listening to songs about “fucking bitches”. And there was the man in Macedonia who made a loop out of his hand and put his finger through it to mimic what he wanted and made me get out of the car in the middle of a pitch-dark highway. Or the worst, the Bosnian ratty old beater of a car that I almost had to jump out of when it was still moving.
All this sounds horrific. I’m sure my mum is currently contacting the Finnish foreign embassy to see if she could have me deported back to Finland so she could lock me in my room and never let me out.
But all these were isolated incidents. They stand out to me because they were the exceptions – the three rides out of a hundred that made me uncomfortable. I would have ten stories to contrast them. The two older Albanian men who drove me across the border and taught me key phrases while loudly singing along to Albanian folk music. The Macedonian-Italian dad who was trying to get his six-year-old to practice his English with me. The British woman who picked me up in Albania with a van full of elderly nuns, and who got out of the car at the end of the ride to hold my hands and pray for me.
Even bad people would turn out to be good. A man in Kosovo bought me and my friend snacks and drinks and talked about his friend’s feminist movement that he was a part of, and then he told us about shooting three people in his home town where he’d got in hot water with the local Serbs.
I had a lot of conversations that summer with people who I would have never met otherwise. Mostly we talked about family and travel, but occasionally it went deeper, like when that businessman from Zagreb gave me a debrief about the history and politics of the country; and when another guy, a working-class hero, turned it all upside down and lamented his corrupted government. I’ve talked with travellers, farmers, artists, real estate agents, IT developers, construction workers and stay-at-home mums. Nothing has ever exposed to me to such a wide variety of people as hitchhiking did.
I also learned that people can be extremely prejudiced against things that they are unfamiliar with.
As I was recounting my hitchhiking adventures to a Croatian buddy over beers in Zagreb, he told me: ‘Hitchhiking in Croatia is fine and I’ve done it a lot too, but you shouldn’t do it in Bosnia – it’s more dangerous there.’
Then I got to Bosnia. My first ride was a young Muslim family in a tiny rental car who stopped to re-arrange their luggage just to fit me on the backseat with their two-year-old. Then a man from near Sarajevo who took me for a little sightseeing tour in his town, introduced me to his friends and even offered a place to stay if I couldn’t catch a ride to the city. Then a Dutch-Bosnian artist couple who stopped on the side of the road every time they saw a view that they thought I would enjoy so I could photograph it.
In Kosovo, drivers would tell me not to hitchhike in Albania because it was dangerous; and in Albania, drivers would tell me not to do it in Kosovo because it, too, was dangerous.
And I realised that no one really has a clue. No one knows what’s going on outside of their own social circle. They’d admire my courage to do this trip by myself without being brave enough to try it themselves.
Hitchhiking might seem like an extreme social experiment – one that puts your well-being into hands of strangers. Not all who try it are as lucky and kindly received as I have been. But over the course of my trip, I came to trust the process – to trust this kindness of strangers and through that, have a little bit more faith in the world.
Back in that petrol station fifteen kilometres from the border of Slovenia, I approached drivers at the petrol pumps in slow drizzle. One after another they politely declined, telling me they were going the wrong way. Until an Asian-German couple, one that had already told me they couldn’t take me, approached me and told me to hop in. They were heading for Salzburg, technically out of my way, but I figured I could better try my luck there. Anywhere that wasn’t here.
But when we started driving, they said they’d take me to another road, one leading to the border and south to Slovenia. It was a little out of their way but they said it was no trouble.
I got out at a small petrol station in a nook of the road, fairly desolate and quiet but at least a step in the right direction. When I got in with the couple, I’d stuffed my battered cardboard sign in my backpack. As I was pulling it out, a man called out from one of the pumps: he was driving into Slovenia.
And so it was that in the same day I experienced both my longest and shortest wait time ever: from three hours to zero seconds.
The radio was on as we ascended a small hill overlooking Jesenice, a popular winter sports destination in Slovenia. The road sloped gently toward the green valley, framed on all sides by the Alps, some snow still clinging to the mountaintops in early June. As we crossed the border, George Ezra’s voice came through the radio, guitar strumming.
This time it’s real, it’s something that I feel and if it feels like paradise running through your bloody veins, you know it’s love heading your way…