Hitchiking feels hopeless sometimes. There’s a loneliness to standing there, holding out an arm to each car as it whooshes past, holding a smile on your face, waiting for someone to decide that they’re feeling generous.
You are a body in an unexpected place, something for people to stare at in mistrust, in shock, in derision, you catch flashes of their faces through each car windscreen, open-mouthed in shock. You are a beggar, a tramp, a scrounger.
You are a lone pillar that stands in the flow of human motion and waits for an invitation to come along and sometimes it feels as if you might wait forever.
I felt that way last Saturday, standing about 30m off a roundabout that led on a main road past the city of Kraljevo. There was a thin band of tarmac on the edge of a paved area outside a car sales yard, enough room for cars to pull in behind me before the road narrowed to a bridge and a clear sight of me as they pulled slowly around the curve. I had paused my walk in the hills of the natural park above Raska further to the south, had stood on an empty road reading my book until a single car appeared and a man stopped, shifting bags of wood around for me to fit into the front seat, and now I was heading home to the UK. I’d decided to hitch to the UK from Serbia, a gargantuan journey when you’re standing at the start of it, facing the uncertainty of trying to make a journey of several thousands of miles that depends entirely upon the kindness of strangers. Hitchiking is waiting. Hitchiking is resigning yourself. Hitchiking is trying not to panic that you will be stuck somewhere as darkness falls.
I’d had one lift already, a strange old man who’d made me nervous by talking about boyfriends. He kissed his fingers in a way I didn’t understand, doing it over and over again until it transpired that he was offering me a cigarette. He asked multiple times if I wanted to stop for a coffee; it wasn’t overtly intimidating, merely bringing closer to the surface the ever present sexual undercurrent that lies dark and deep and threatening for a travelling woman. I kept my bag on my lap in a way that blocked his access to touch my legs and felt vaguely nervous and irritated, on edge for the 45 minutes it took to wind through the national park where I’d stopped walking, huge high hills mounding either side of the road, thousands of trees in woodland canopy. Eventually we reached his city and he dropped me at the edge of the bypass, where industrial estates sprawled and bus routes ended.
I waited there and wondered if anyone would pick me up that day, a Saturday afternoon, perhaps no good for anyone travelling long distance. I was on the main highway to Belgrade but wanted to get off it before I came anywhere near the capital city. I needed to travel cross country towards the highway that ran east west across Serbia, part of the transport route for many lorries between Turkey and Western Europe.
It was all uncertain, all up in the air as hitchiking so often is. There’s very little I can explicitly control, just place myself in a good spot with space for cars to stop, then wait and hope for someone going my way who is in the mood to accept a passenger. It’s a complete uncertainty, scary if you give in to it, the chance that nobody will stop at all and your journey will suddenly become a complicated jumble of emergency transport options. But if you hold your nerve and wait, don’t give in to the paranoia, then someone, eventually, will stop.
I watched the cars pass, watching the weather, the men walking around and ignoring me in the car lot. A series of cars passed me driving wildly, with Serbian flags draped from windows, men hanging half out, waving beer bottles and shouting in a cacophony of horn hoots. An election, I thought for a while, but then realised they were wedding guests. There were scrolls on all the windshields, tied in red ribbon, secret directions to the after party perhaps. I felt worried, it was close to 5pm, I looked at the roads, wondered whether I’d travel into the city centre to find an easy, safe hotel or would have the courage to scratch together a camping spot on the edge of industrialia. I realised I’d not eaten for hours and my body was swirling with adrenaline, ungrounded. I knelt down to pull off a chunk of bread, cut a piece of sweaty cheese to squash into it, then stood back up and resumed the hitchiking posture – shoulders down, solidify stomach muscles, back straight (might as well try and improve my posture during all this waiting time), raised my thumb and made sure to smile, or at least keep an unapproachable scowl off my face. A car stopped, unexpectedly, I didn’t realise until it was suddenly behind me on the verge. The driver got out to put my bag into the boot, he was straight backed and solid, grizzled and knarled in an outdoors kind of way. The car had a German numberplate. “Where are you going?” I asked in Serbian. “Deutschland” he replied. “Can I come?” And we stared at each other for a second while we both absorbed the fact that I was getting into his car for at least a 14 hour journey.
I sat in the back of his car, a small boy in the front seat, and smiled to myself, unable to believe my luck in getting a thousand mile lift, halfway across the continent just like that. From hopelessness to complete success, all in the raising of a thumb and my hardest task had been to hold my nerve.
We talked little at first, both relaxed in the sense of many hours ahead, the man’s son taking his attention away from questioning me. Eventually the boy fell asleep and we swapped places. I knitted and we talked in short bursts, between long periods of silence as the car steadily crossed the flat, open Danube plains of northern Serbia and Hungary, very different from the mountainous land I’d left behind. He was going to drive all night, he said, to Köln, where he’d been working for the last 24 years. I calculated backwards to see at what stage of the Balkan wars this Montenegrin man would have left, wondered about why he’d gone, thought about the silence migration leaves behind when it’s done in opposition to a country’s policies. So many people escaped the Balkan wars, leaving to work elsewhere in Europe, Canada gave many visas. Those who dissented to acts of violence in their name, those who were in fear, those who were being driven from their homes. All the people talking about leaving the UK once Brexit takes place are absenting themselves from any future decision making in a country they see as having taken a wrong turn, leaving the ship to be steered by the victors.
“Serbia. Liars.” He repeated it several times. “Everything they say is lies.” I lacked the language to ask why, our phones wouldn’t be able to translate any deeper meanings for us until we entered the EU.
He gave his son regular food and drink but didn’t take any himself and it wasn’t until I learnt their names that I realised they were Muslim and observing Ramadan. I heard the stickiness of his dry mouth speaking, watched him pinch his eyelids as the sun grew closer to setting. He asked me to pass him a bottle of juice from behind the drivers seat and I fumbled for it in front of his sons sleeping body tumbled sweaty on the back seat, then held the juice as he prayed while driving, turning his head in small movements, gesturing and mumbling. Eventually he drank in long, thankful gulps and I imagined the intensity of fasting, small moments of suffering every day, constant reminders of your faith, bringing you closer to your God.
There’s a strip of land called the Sanjak and it’s the reason that I’ve been meeting Muslims in southern Serbia, that the Serbian province of Tutin on the Montenegrin border is 90% Muslim. The Sanjak was kept by the Ottoman Empire for long after Serbia and Montenegro became countries in their own right, being divided between the two in 1912, almost 100 years after the Principality of Serbia was established.
The man told me about his land up in the mountains on the border with Serbia, he’d been buying pieces for years and years; his village consisted of two houses and he owned them both. You can walk for 5 miles on my land, he boasted, and I looked up the word for king to tease him with. There was a relaxed feeling between us, he was easy to be silent with. He said at first that he’d drive all night but eventually, at about 1am, he pulled into a rest area, one of many that appear regularly on the sides of European motorways, and we all wound the seats back to curl up and sleep as best we could for a couple of hours.
He said he’d take me as far as I wanted towards his house, gave me his address, which turned out to be in the terrible conglomeration of cities in the west of Germany, close to the Dutch border. For the hitchhiker it’s a hideous snarl of seven cities and numerous towns that have melted together in a huge urbanisation, edge joining edge in a confusion of motorways that are impossible to hitch around. In desperation I searched for buses and found that I could travel from Köln Airport to central London for 25 euros. A bargain too good to miss, it just meant that I’d have to spend the night somewhere, waiting for the 10am bus the following morning. Of course you can stay at my house, said the man, he’d already invited me anyway.
After 20 hours in the car together, we pulled up, slightly dazed, to unload into his apartment in a small block in a suburb of a German town where everywhere feels like a bland suburb of indeterminate age. There was a strange emptiness to his place, the plain walls of a bachelor pad, where normally he lived alone, his wife and son back in Montenegro, growing and living while they waited for his infrequent visits. It felt strange, for me to be there, we were all dull and exhausted so I went for a long walk into the town on an incredibly hot afternoon, 37 degrees read the pharmacy thermometer and people strolled in shorts and dresses. I tried to compare the cleanliness and sterility of this German town to the worn jumble of houses in any Serbian suburb but couldn’t even remember where I’d come from. I thought I’d be shocked at the prices but it all seemed suddenly normal, to pay 15 euros for a small bag of fruit and vegetables at a market that was made for luxury eating (watermelon and aubergine for sale, no onions or potatoes).
I went back to the quiet flat, all the windows open to try and bring the air inside, flies buzzing slowly in and out. The man told me he’d go out that evening, to the mosque for iftar, the breaking of the fast. We’d slept through sunrise that morning so he’d had no chance to eat or drink before daylight and now he sat next to me, no food or hydration in almost 24 hours, a tired and drained man. We turned our bodies towards each other in the easy comfort of attraction, the faint stirrings of breeze that signified the potential of a sexual storm. I wasn’t going to do it, he had a wife, so I went for another kind of intimacy and asked him about his life. ‘Why don’t you retire? Don’t you have enough land yet?”. His life in Germany felt so empty, all his cares and loves were back in Montenegro.” It’s not so easy for me to go back there. For almost fifteen years I have rarely been home”. He told me that he used to be a police officer, that he’d been to university, was high ranking. But he couldn’t support the regime, couldn’t continue to ally with his corrupt superiors. We talked through a translation app, angling the phone for each other to read, staying mostly silent as his son played with a football and waited, bored, for us to be done, bouncing the ball through the dimly lit flat, blinds drawn against the sun. The translation apps give a scrambled version of any conversation but it was enough for me to get the gist. He used the word ‘asylum’. “I had a political problem. I did not work for the regime but for the people. I am afraid of high police officer xxx xxx because of injustice he left everything and I went to the Asylum” “If they had been arrested I would be dead by now.”
I looked sideways at this solid, silent man, working far away from home, in exile from his culture, thought about the kingdom he was building, far away in the mountains where nobody could touch him. “When will you have enough money?” I asked him. “I don’t know. Last summer I went home and built a road on my property, 13km. I couldn’t have done that with Montenegrin money.”
He told me that in Balkan tradition, it’s customary for hosts to share a bed with guests for their first nights stay; I twinkled my denial at him, telling him it was a story. But then I thought of Maria back at the farm where I’d been invited to stay the previous week, her expectation that she’d make a bed for us both to sleep in.
It didn’t matter anyway, they went to the mosque to break the fast and I slept early, tired from 36 hours of travelling on very little sleep.
The next morning we hugged at the train station and had a swift strong handshake on the platform as the storm broke overhead and the heat flattened down under torrential rain.
Ten hours on a completely full, overheated bus, broken fans blowing warm air onto our cramped and moist bodies, watching Agatha Christie over my seat mate’s shoulder as I knitted and waited for the time to be over, I disembarked in London. Not the way I wanted to enter the country at all; I’d imagined heading straight over from Serbia to Bardsey Island at the tip of the Llyn Peninsula, giving myself a decompression chamber to weather the change from Serbian rural simplicity to UK luxury. But somehow it wasn’t too shocking, to find myself looking at rows of chic, overpriced snacks in a Sainsbury’s Express at Victoria Station – disposable plastic pots of edamame beans and celery sticks; ready made mashed potato and soup, sitting sterile for busy people to heat and eat. The only frightening thing was how normal it felt.
A night with friends, a morning with other friends and I left the city; hitching west from a service station at the beginning of the M4, picked up by a guy commuting home to Oxford. A sports cameraman, he was a nice easy lift, relaxed and easy to talk to.
A night with family and I was back at the service station, early in the morning, on the home straight to Wales.
Two more lifts took me there.
First came a smart office man, apologising for not buying me a coffee. I thought he was a frustrated office worker, talking about how he liked to go out walking at the weekends, how there was more to life than work; but after a while I realised he was more than that. A director of one of the unions, he was a highly ethical, philosophising kind of man, who blurred his intelligence behind a vague manner of speaking.
He told me his name and I realised he was Muslim, wished him happy Eid, stumbling over the sense of ‘otherness’ that white supremacy has made the Muslim faith; he was kind enough to smooth over my awkwardness.
He dropped me south of Birmingham and surprised me with a quick and gentle hug as we said goodbye, I left with impression of a man who was committed to connecting and helping people.
Then, as I waited at the exit to the service station, waving my sign, a truck flashed its lights to beckon me over. It was a convoy vehicle, fully liveried in flashing lights and neon orange, the man inside in a uniform to match. Les said he could take me to Telford, on his way home to Stoke from Plymouth. I agreed and we had a great old chat about his job and life; he was a toothless, rollie smoking type, big soulful eyes in a sagging face. Almost 40 years with the same woman, they’d split up the year before, in the year that her brother died. He was the kind of man who runs away from emotion. Told me how he’d disappeared for three days when his dog died, turned his phone off and went fishing.
My favourite bit was when he dropped me off; pulled a blank stack of Gregg’s loyalty cards down from his sunvisor and pulled out a little Gregg’s stamp to fill a couple out for me. Giggling, he told me he’d nicked it from over the counter one day, got free coffees everywhere he went. We took one each into the service station and got ourselves a coffee, tiny smirks at our naughtiness, this is the way the powerless take their power back.
Then he was gone and I was alone. I tried for an hour but it was a bad spot and I gave up, walked three miles to the nearest train station and completed my journey to Caersws. One night in Llanidloes then an early morning hitch to a train at Aberystwyth in order to join my friend at Bardsey Island. Two and a half days to travel from Serbia to London, total cost 25 euros.
I hitch because it’s cheap, I hitch because it’s a method of travelling that has many ethical benefits (both ecological and community). I hitch because it’s exciting, because it brings me into contact with people that I would never otherwise meet. I hitch because it’s an adventure.
Despite the intimidation of standing at a road edge while cars reject you over and over again, the worry of feeling stranded, the difficulty of relying on a belief that you will receive help to make your journey, I continue to hitchike because I believe in it. I believe in lift sharing. I believe in community. I believe in trust between strangers.
The world feels very tired and scared at the moment. The immensity of climate change and the complexity of what to do about it. The way that politics are intractable, peaceable solutions seem very far away. The way that proven liars can continue in public office. The way that every proclamation, every public decision, every piece of statistical information is subject to distortion and denial until we have lost our faith in the traditional tellers, we have lost our ability to perceive truth. Smartphones have sucked us in, searching for satisfaction that is always another click away, a system designed to leave us unfulfilled.
I feel like people want to avoid the discomfort, numb themselves, sink down and away from all the awfulness. But ignoring something you dislike doesn’t always make it go away and leaving a void where your voice of opposition could be only allows those in control to stay longer.
In a world that seems to be crumbling and full of hatred, reaching out against hopelessness is all we can continue to do.