Hitchhiking the first seven months

I’ve traveled 8 countries so far this year, 5 via hitchhiking, so it’s time for some bullet point summaries, with emphasis on hitchhiking.

Heading toward France

After some lovely days in Mexico City with dear friend Andrea, flew to Madrid, navigated Spain by ride shares, and ended up back in suburban Madrid with friends Marina and Lalo the night before heading to France.

Hitchhiking Switzerland and France

Good travel day: train then plane then bus then hitchhiking. I.e., suburban train to airport, flight Madrid to Geneva, trial and error buses to the edge of town. Then what? I spotted a thirty-something guy who looked vagabondish enough – funny you can always tell, even though he looked more like an IT professional today – and sure enough he’d hitchhiked the exact route. He suggested that after Annemasse I veer off to the interstate, as no one would be on the small highway on Sunday. True, there was one car a minute, but before I could veer, a punk rock girl with a dream of becoming a chef picked me up and brought me all the way to Bonneville and sweet Marine’s house. This part of France, the Haute-Savoie region near Mont Blanc, is always the easiest for hitchhiking. But Marine’s house! A fridge filled with butter and eggs and cream and wine for cooking. I immediately called Marina and Lalo back in Madrid to tell that their olive oil dinners were great, but stand aside: The French kitchen is true home for me.

Hitchhiking into Germany

Wiggled my way through France and Switzerland on a ride share to Mulhouse in the Alsace region of France. Rain was definitely coming. Finally, I had five more minutes to watch the sky and decide whether to jump out on the cutoff to Germany or ride with my driver to the bahnhof to avoid the rain. Clouds cleared slightly at the last minute, so I jumped out at a KFC and stuck out my thumb. My first ride was a down-and-out Algerian. Every 10 minutes the car died and he had to get out and do something under the hood. I gave him 6 euros for food, and he dropped me at a bad spot for thumbing, but at least there was a nearby gas station. I decided to stay close to cover and asked drivers as they stopped. Luck. A college kid picked me up going to Freiburg for a college party then techno bar. I politely declined the offer of a long night in a techno bar. The problem in Germany, by the way, is not finding people to pick you up – Germans of all walks of life are generally willing. The problem is finding a good spot for cars to pull over. My college reveler dropped me at another bad spot, but it was after 5 pm and near the bahnhof, so I walked to the bahnhof, took a Flixbus to Karlsruhe, and settled into a very cheap dorm room in a hostel that was clean and well-kept, but depressing spatially and socially. Really, one step above a homeless shelter.

Karlsruhe to Aachen

Long walk, maybe an hour with full pack, to a hitchhiking spot. Long wait but finally a ride with a 60 something guy. He looked as conservative as they get, but turns out he used to hippie himself in the heady days of the German counterculture. He dropped me in a great service area, but we’d passed the cutoff for Koblenz/Aachen, so I made a new sign for Frankfurt. Finally, a 20-ish kid picked me up going to Frankfurt on a 3-day rap tour. This was his big chance to perform with the higher profile rappers, and he was happy to talk about it. For me, there’s no point trying to hitchhike out from the center of a city the size of Frankfurt, so I people-watched at the station for a few hours then took the Flixbus to Aachen. It was pretty much free since I had a voucher. (My Colombian airline wanted proof that I had a ticket out of Spain before boarding my flight to Madrid, so I’d bought a Flixbus ticket from the northern edge of Spain to the first town in France just so the airline could check their stupid box, then canceled immediately to get my voucher.)

Hitchhiking into Poland

Another multimedia travel day. Cheap train from Weimar to Dresden, then poking around with buses until I found one that brought me to a good hitchhiking spot heading east. By then it was afternoon and I was hoping for a quick ride. I got one with an 18-wheeler trucker, a German who sounded sharply educated though with no English and who was looking to retire soon and buy a horse. Then another 18-wheeler, this one driven by a Russian. One thing about Russians. They always pick up hitchhikers. In all my hitchhiking trips through 12 countries in Europe, I’ve had countless Russians pick me up. This one looked rough, like Anthony Quinn in La Strada, and spoke no English or German, so communication was tough. He brought me across the Polish border and to Wroclaw, but I had been hoping for a mini-Polish lesson while hitchhiking. He dropped me in a deserted industrial area by the Autobahn. Me, who did not know how to say “hello” or “can you help me” in the difficult language of the Poles. Behind a building, I found two homeless guys who helped me by pointing to a bus stop on the map on my phone. Then I jumped on the first bus hoping it was going toward the center, but the route ended a kilometer away and everyone got off. More buses with weird names, closer and closer to the center, where the younger generation spoke some English, and to my excellent best friends in Poland, Marek and Kinga.

Some big leaps

Turns out, getting into Poland was my last hitchhiking leg in Europe this year. Rain put me on a train from Wroclaw to Berlin, where I was passed back and forth for two weeks between my lovely Turkish friends, Ayka and Öyku, and my Hungarian friends, Balazs and Bernadett. A super cheap flight brought me Berlin to Bangkok, then week-or-more layovers in Spain, Playa del Carmen, and New Orleans, before heading back to central Mexico.

Hitchhiking Mexico

Hitchhiked Guanajuato to León and then to Guadalajara, which means I’ve now hitchhiked 5 of the 32 Mexican states (and visited 9 total). I love hitchhiking in Mexico. First leg, Guanajuato to León, was typical. I was trying to decide whether to stand before or after the toll both – toll booth workers happily wave hitchhikers through to the main freeway — when a pick-up saw my sign and stopped. A couple with a young girl. They looked like hard workers, maybe farmers. But that’s the thing about Mexicans – always generous, ready to help strangers. This 5-minute wait for a ride is not unusual here. Not always, though. León to Guadalajara was not unpleasant but was harder. Forty-minute walk to find a good spot, then an hour and a half wait for a ride. First time I’ve waited longer than 25 minutes in Mexico.  Don’t know why. Sometimes you never know. But it was another 18-wheeler ride across from Guanajuato state to Jalisco, where the landscape gets wetter and greener. Great ride, great chat in broken Spanish about Mexico and other countries.

So that’s my 3rd 18-wheeler ride this year: in Germany, Poland, and Mexico. Back in the 1970s, 18-wheelers in the US often picked up hitchhikers. There was a camaraderie there – mavericks of the road – despite their salt-of-the-earth conservatism and our counterculture hippie radicalism. Those were the days before politics had overwhelmed human connection, when politics was only one way of connecting among others, and we always found those other tendrils of connection. It was also before insurance companies and surveillance technology ruined it for us. As we turned into the 21st century, US truckers started saying they’d love to help but insurance rules and cab cameras had them boxed in. Satan’s corporate minions of insurance and surveillance companies. No regard for human consequences. Only the bottom line. But if Satan has the US in thrall, the rest of the world still holds free in this regard.

My trucker dropped me at the edge of Guadalajara, a metro area of over 5 million. That means, as often happens hitchhiking, half my day was spent in urban areas, getting out of and into the right spots in my origin and destination cities. It took me a while to poke around and find a bus to the Guadalajara centro, only to find that there are several different areas in the metro region called “centro.” At least the map app on my phone works with no wifi, so when I saw the bus pass within two miles of my hostel, I jumped out and walked the city streets, beating the evening rain and noting again and again how friendly Mexicans are, even in the big cities.

 

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Hitchhiking through France and Belgium

“Vagabonding through France and Belgium” might be a better title. Unlike in most of my “hitchhiking” blog entries, there was not much thumbing on this trip. I’d been on a backpacking whirlwind from New Orleans to New York to London, and I started this day with a 6 am coffee prepared by friends in East London’s Rotherhithe, near the pub that commemorates the proximate embarkation of the Mayflower.

Then the London overground to a meeting south of town and a ride-share to and across the channel from Dover to Calais. The driver, Gilles, was generous with snacks and journey information, and we shared the car with a Frenchman, Ren, who worked for a London publisher, and a French woman, Sophie, studying law in London, both heading out for a weekend in France.

My companions helped me with a little French.

“Je voudrais allez a Bruxelles.”
“Je voudrais un bus/tren pour Liege.”
“E-42 (oe – quarante deux), s’il vous plais.”

They were all much better at English, though, making it the language of choice. Ren’s girlfriend was in New York and his family in Lille; Sophie was Parisian through and through. She gave me some great tips about romantic little fishing villages on the French Atlantic. Maybe one day Mary can come from the U.S. and meet me there.

The guys were still digging the French-Italian-American rap when Sophie got some Verdi through the bluetooth. When she told the story of La Traviata writing the letter that spelled catastrophe while her innocent lover hovered over her thinking all was beautiful and well, it had me near tears. And I don’t even like opera.

All the while, along the way to Lille, I eyed up the good, the bad, and the ugly ramps for hitchhiker’s reference. You never know.

My first hitchhiking point in Lille was a great pullover location but not a direct feed to my route. Drivers from here could be going three of four different highway directions or around the upcoming circle and into the city. Lille looked a beat, dusty off-white in the afternoon sun from this angle.

After just 10 minutes I got a ride. Well, sort of. A rough-hewn, amply tattooed woman picked me up, said she’d hitchhiked in from Paris herself yesterday, and drove me about 500 meters, just past the traffic circle to the ramp that led to multiple highways.

“I thought this would be a better spot,” she said.

It was once step closer to my destination route, but the cars flying around the curve onto the tightly bordered ramp had no place to pull over. I walked back to my old spot.

Another hour or so. I started slowly walking toward the Metro station with instructions I’d gathered from Ren about which station to go to for trains into Belgium. Then another hit. A young North African couple (Algerian/Moroccan) picked me up, fed me on leftover steak and candy bars, and got me onto the right highway into Belgium.  This was much further south than the route I’d hitchhiked last month through the Flemish part of Belgium. This is the French part. No problem there, other than greater language difficulties for me. The sun was slowly setting. The couple driving me offered to go miles out of their way to bring me to the station in Mons and walk me in to make sure I could get a ticket. From there is was a series of three cheap local trains — to Liege, then Verviers, then Aachen.

I love the feeling of being in Aachen. I strapped on my pack and walked the shortcut, bypassing the medieval tower at Franzstrasse and going through the neighborhood, to zig zag down the ski slope shaped steps that led down from the neighborhood to the cinema.

Then to the altstadt and my room at the Theaterplatz, to look over the night lights and the shops below before a good night’s sleep and a morning visit to Charlemagne’s Dom.