the many forms of hitchhiking

Nowhere Travel Blog

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With the birth of cheap flights, package tours and tropical climes as hot destinations, the face of budget travel was changed forever and the once necessary travel form that is hitchhiking took a turn towards obsoletion. Where once such places were the retreat only of the adventurous, chickens in buses were replaced by air-conditioning, riding on the roof for want of a seat found its demise in fully reclinable seats and lonely paths became plastered in 4 lanes of concrete. The original exotic travellers were thus displaced from 'their' old haunts, steadily searching for more remote and obscure places. In this search they happily forgo, even actively avoid such comforts and luxuries provided as by modern society and in these places hitchhiking lives on. And although, according to common conception, your lift could be an axe wielding psychopath, the chances are slim and, as I soon discovered, this addictive practice's rewards are well worth the risk.

The first place I stuck out a thumb,  to save a bit of cash on a bus ticket, was New Zealand, probably the world’s most hitchhiker-friendly country. My digit was barely at full extension before a beardy grin pulled over. ‘Where are you going eh?’ he chirped, and I answered. ‘Well, I wasn’t gonna go that way but the drive’s nice and I’ve not done it for ages.’ And off we went, he on a 50 mile detour. Over the next 5 hours he also took me to tourist sites, bought lunch and called ahead to check if there was any room at the hostel, before dropping me at its door.

Mexico, on the other hand, is thought to be not a terribly safe place for hitching, but for he who dares it is in a league of its own. There I shared backs of trucks with tubs of live fish, navigated the most hijacked road in the world and had to hide among bags of rice from police checks. You don't get such an adrenaline rush sitting two by two in a coach. Nor do you meet such a variety of people. On one occasion I and a female travelling partner got a life in the cab of an articulated Guatemala-bound mango lorry. It wasn’t long before we realised mangoes weren’t the only export. With bloodshot eyes the drive and his mate offered us, though were politely declined, a generously sized but altogether illegal wrap of white powder.

On the same journey I was offered a go behind the wheel. 'Excellent!' I thought, until I found it was in exchange for them taking few minutes in the back of the cab with my friend. Luckily she didn’t speak much Spanish so was unaware of the proposed transaction, or the object of the ensuing and increasingly heated discussion. Soon the drugged and hungry eyes became more aggressive and resolute -- yet just as the situation started to turn bad Lady Luck threw us a double six; a t-junction. As the lorry slowed we grabbed our bags, yanked open the door and made a hasty getaway. Hitchhiking moral: always keep your wits, and you bags, about you!

When travelling, as when at home, there are always people looking to take advantage of others; but -- and this is my firm belief -- there are a higher proportion of people willing and happy to help. It's just that often it's not until you stick your neck out that you become fully aware of their presence. Laguna Miramar is an arresting lake in the heart of the Mayan jungle but after a grueling 14 hours down the lone bumpy mud track accessing it, standing in an open truck under the torturous sun, I was tired, sun burnt and utterly lost when I was dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by dense jungle, mosquitoes the size of wasps and a couple of mustachioed armed fighters (I was in the middle of rebel country), no-one would hear me scream. After a couple of minutes it became evident they weren't going to kill, and lacking a Holiday Inn or the guts to try my luck sleeping rough with the snakes and spiders, I proceeded on foot in the hope of finding civilisation. After one of the longest half hours in my life, peace of mind arrived in the form of a simple hamlet of wooden shacks. Their inhabitants had nothing but they were hospitable beyond words. They fed me, gave me a bed, and put a roof over my head. Under inked skies, two cultures normally worlds apart brushed cheeks for a moment. They told me ancient stories of the jungle while I lamented of buildings that soar above the trees, streets of traffic and sliver birds which carry hundreds of people in their stomaches.

The more that's put into hitching the more that comes out, and to say it's exhilarating just doesn't do it justice. Having successfully made my trip to the lake I then had to get back out again, but heavy rain had destroyed the road. As I sat musing the Hobson's choice, my attention was caught by the sound of a light aircraft. The village nearest the lake had an army base for the purposes of keeping an eye on the rebels, and the plane was landing on its small airstrip. I knew I wouldn’t have another chance like this. At one end of the runway the plane rolled back into motion and taxied for takeoff. Somewhere near the other end I grabbed my bag and broke into a sprint. By the time I reached the tarmac the plane had turned and the engine gunning as it accelerated towards me and liftoff. I ditched my bag, clenched my eyes and stood in the way, waving my arms while furiously jumping up and down. To my great delight the pilot decided to stop rather than hit me, and just a few minutes of 'persuasion' later, the plane, and I, were on our way.

Pursuits of the priveliged are often regarded as high cost, but this isn't necessarily the case. In 2005 a friend and I were working in Uganda and over the course of a month we became aware of the civil war in the North, the millions living in refugee camps and the terror of the children who are kidnapped for fighting. We wanted to visit the area but it is hard to get to and risk of ambush and consequent death high, but we had a plan. First visiting a market to buy a jacket and tie each, we then donned our purchases and headed for the East African UN headquarters in Kampala, the capital. Armed only with a story and straight faces we told them we were visiting journalists  and two days later were in an armed convoy of UN jeeps and lorries taking monthly food aid for distribution. It was an eye-opening, humbling experience, and impossible by any other means.

Hitchhiking is often and mistakenly seen as a reserve for the grubby and cheap, but it is much more than that. It is a form of travel accessible to everyone as the only person that can hold you back is yourself. It takes one to places, situations and people beyond that usually seen, and introduce them in the most intimate of ways. And although it’s possibly a bit uncomfortable at times, the experience in itself is certainly a great ride!

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photo by: thenomadlife