Hitchhiking to Oaxaca

One problem with hitchhiking. In a metro area of 3 million (in this case, Puebla) without subways, you’re going to lose the first couple of hours trying to get to a decent spot beyond the edge of the city.

I was lucky enough to get a ride to the main (and quite hectic) bus station. After several well-intended misdirections, I found the gate for a bus to a (presumably) good spot on the road to Oaxaca. I bought my ticket. “The bus leaves in 50 minutes,” said the ticket guy. I didn’t want to lose another hour, so I walked out to the buses and asked a few drivers from the same company. “Leaving right now,” said one, and I boarded. I find this rather typical in Mexico. Everyone is incredibly kind and eager to help, but it is difficult to help with much clarity because the whole world is winging it. It ain’t Germany (though I love both equally – and both are great for hitchhiking).

The bus dropped me right at the toll booth of Hwy 150D. The toll takers were busy, so I just walked through the gates. Like everyone else. Yes, inside the toll booth of what we (in the US) would call a “controlled-access highway,” there is a mini human ecosystem on the shoulder: tables set up selling tacos and jugos, guys with flags offering to change tires, hitchhikers (me), people walking around selling M&Ms, toll workers on break, and some people just hanging out.

It took me 5 minutes to get set up, getting my highway info out so I could stuff my daypack into my backpack, get my OAX sign ready, stake out a spot at a safe distance from the vendors and such. Lots of big trucks coming through in the right lane, making it difficult. But in just 15 minutes, someone risks life and limb to cut through the trucks. A fiftyish couple, Lalo and Erika, heading from Xalapa to … yes, to Oaxaca. One ride. Hitchhiking is too easy in Mexico. Going through Guanajuato state and then here, I have never waited longer that 20 minutes for a ride, the people on the side of the road were all helpful (none of the hawk-eyed judgement leveled at hitchhikers in the US), and my drivers all relaxed and friendly, including couples more often than not (as opposed to the US, where it’s almost all single, blue-collar men that pick you up).

At Tehuacán, we turn right and go into the mountains. Lalo and Erika speak almost no English, for which I am grateful. My hitchhiking immersion strategy is working. The flora changes dramatically from agave and organ pipe cactus to big trees. Then we slope out into white sandy, rocky terrain dotted with individual trees standing dark and green in relief. Then red clay terrain. Then fully green mountains again. We are getting near Oaxaca.

“Watch out for the negra,” says Erika. “The yellow mole and the red one, the one they call ‘coloradito,’ are great. But the negra, the negra is spicy. Really spicy.”

I doubt anyone can beat the dark, chocolaty mole I had in a middle-aged woman’s home in Puebla, but since I’ve been in Mexico, half the people have told me that Puebla has the best food and half say Oaxaca. I would find the negra not spicy at all, but in any event, I took Erika’s comment under advisement.

(One final note about the people of Oaxaca — and my new friends there can reply as needed. They are among the nicest, friendliest, most relaxed people I’ve met, but put them behind the wheel of a car and it’s like their hair is on fire. Visitors beware when crossing those streets!)

PUEBLA

       

ON THE ROAD

 

OAXACA

      

     

(Click images below for links)

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Hitchhiking Mexico

Leaving Guanajuato from Paseo de la Presa, first you have a 10-minute walk through the tunnel that shoots out from the Escuela Normal.

Then there’s a big shoulder and it looks like open road. This is deceptive. The road winds back into the city before leaving for San Miguel de Allende, where Beat icon/Merry Prankster Neal Cassady died beside the railroad tracks in 1968. Luckily, I got a quick ride with a fiftyish middle-class guy who took me to the big traffic circle. Hitchwiki recommended starting here anyway. I walked to one of the topes (speed bumps), which are everywhere, even on highways. Great for hitchhikers, since cars slow to a crawl, size you up, and usually have a place to pull over. At this tope, I got another quick ride with a thirtyish couple. Now it was really open road through Bajío country.

I’m starting to think hitchhiking Mexico might be as easy as Germany or Belgium or Poland. Yes, there were warnings about highway crime but not on this route. I suspect that crime is more concentrated but less ubiquitous here than in the US. This may be naivete. It certainly feels safer here (although the edgier hitchhiking environment in the US has its quirky rewards too).

Fabrizio, the driver, grew up in San Miguel de Allende. His girlfriend and passenger, Marta, is from the more industrial city of León. Both are now at the University of Guanajuato. We stop for gas and the car dies. It won’t crank. I eye the pancake cactus nearby.

The March weather is nice but the sun heats up quickly in the afternoon here in the high desert. I grab my bag. Then the car cranks and we are off. They drop me at the edge of San Miguel, and I find a local bus to the centro for about 35 cents.

But enough walking. I finally stopped for a quart of water and a hamburger from this fine Mexican lad and his Swedish girlfriend.

The End

xxx

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Hitchhiking Spain

Back in the Black Forest Hostel in Freiburg, I remember a young woman telling me that hitchhiking would be tougher in Spain. “No worries,” I said. “Spanish people love me.”

Then my  friend in Granada seconded the idea that hitchhiking Spain is difficult. “No worries,” I said. Etc. But when I hit the side of the road on the north side of Ciudad Real, looking toward Madrid, my spot at a traffic circle was good, but there I stood. Two hours. Four hours. Two cars did stop. The first was going in the opposite direction, into Ciudad Real, but kept trying to explain something. I could not understand his Spanish. Maybe he was saying that he was going to make some stops in Ciudad Real and then turn back toward Madrid. Maybe he was trying to sell me drugs. Who knows. We both gave up and he rumbled off toward the city center.

The second car was going my way but to a small village about 10 miles out. Taking any ride is an emotional boost, and I would have done it in Germany or the US. But I don’t know the ropes in Spain yet. And I had been warned by my two friends. The head won over the heart. Why go 10 miles out, gaining essentially nothing, and lose my spot, from which I could always walk 30 minutes to a train station? I stayed. The sun blazed like an Arizona sun. Except that the last time I hitchhiked Arizona I was in my 20s. Suffice it to say I am not in my 20s now. I walked the 30 minutes and took a train to Madrid.

Next try out, from Pamplona toward Barcelona, I avoided the main route through Zaragosa, a controlled-access toll road where I felt I could get stuck with no easy shoulders. I took the smaller highway, thinking that slow and easy is fine. Another traffic circle with a few options for drivers. An 18-wheeler stopped and brought me about a mile, but he was exactly right that the new spot, a service station with everyone going my way, was better.  Really, though, I think he wanted to practice his English. His dad had lived his whole life in very center of Pamplona, in the shadow of the cathedral.

In my new spot, I waited an hour or more. As usual, I bought a coffee and tried to chat up the staff. You want to have those guys on your side if possible.  Here, both workers were friendly. Cars pulled in and out occasionally. At least it wasn’t dead.

From the back of the parking lot, I was flagged over by another 18-wheeler. He had a load of ski lift equipment but space in the trailer for my backpack. It felt great to ride with 18-wheelers again. Back in the 1970s, there was a camaraderie between hippie hitchhikers and truckers that was life-affirming, these two groups with very different backgrounds and visions flowing together in a life on the road. Now, though, the bond is broken. Truckers in the US never pick up hitchhikers any more. Insurance companies have banned it and put cameras in the cabs. As usual, insurance companies drain the human element from everything they touch. Human relations are no more than financial scribbles on a balance sheet. When Marx said that under capitalism, human relations take on the fantastic form of relations between things, I think of insurance companies.

My new trucker was definitely not practicing his English. He spoke some combination of Spanish and Portuguese. He said it was Spanish but I know enough Spanish to know better. He seemed to be saying that he was going to Jaca. Then we passed Jaca, and he seemed to say that he was going to Huesca. Then we passed Huesca and he took me into Lleida, stopping at a truck stop where he said we could get a huge buffet for 5 euros. And he was right. Just like the trashy, faux home-cooking, junk food buffets back home. Exactly what I needed before hiking into Lleida to find a dumpy place to stay.

So how hard is it to hitchhike in Spain? Inconclusive. Definitely harder that in Northern Europe. Definitely safer and less weird than in the U.S. But not easy. Pleasant enough, but not easy.

 Ciudad Real

Pamplona 

On the road

  Lleida 

Barcelona 

 

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Hitchhiking the Causeway Bridge

“No one ever hitchhikes across the Causeway.” The 24-mile Causeway Bridge stretches across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans north, to the towns of St. Tammany Parish (Mandeville, Covington).

There is no mass transit across the bridge. As a worldwide hitchhiker (13 countries so far), I am accustomed to people saying that “no one hitchhikes here” or “you won’t get any rides here.” For the most part, they don’t mean to be discouraging. They are just trying to pass along useful information. So far, it has always been false.

My sister dropped me off at the last gas station before the bridge and open water. I didn’t know what to expect but stuck out my sign – “Cov.” for Covington, with a yellow sun and a few sketchy suggestions of happy grass and flowers – and waited. It was a good spot where drivers could see me up close while pumping gas, but I wasn’t in their face obtrusively either. Five minutes and a working-class guy in his thirties said to throw my bag in the back of the truck and hop in. He grew up in New Orleans but now lives in an old Covington house that has been in his family for generations. He offered to take me all the way to Covington, to any location, but I hopped out in Mandeville to visit my aunt from Honduras and speak Spanish for a while.

Although I’ve been in the area for a month, with lots of people on both sides of the lake, the flip (southbound) side of my sign – “New Orleans” with the same bright if infantile design – hasn’t been in use. Once, on my way to New Orleans, I was dropped at a Café du Monde, but a southbound friend picked me up before I could start hitchhiking.

One more time I had to hitch the bridge northbound. My sister dropped me at the gas station again. I stuck out my sign, and a guy who was already there when I arrived said to hop in the truck – another construction guy, this one from Georgia, going home after work to his wife and kids in the country. He could never live in the city, he said, and he seemed quite successful, with a nice new truck and all the amenities. Whatever people say, a hitchhiker here can always count on working-class guys in their 30s and 40s in pickup trucks. In Europe, the demographics are wider, as there is far less fear of street crime, and people of all walks of life pick you up. In the US, the demographic range of people who pick up hitchhikers is narrower, but the sanity level is wider. All the really crazy people that have picked me up in my 60,000 miles of hitchhiking were home-grown Americans. Like me 😊

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Hitchhiking Kilkenny to Cork

Thirty-minute walk through the center of Kilkenny to find a good spot.

Picked up a map of Ireland along the way. Finally, a good spot: cars going slow, space to pull over, across the street from a busy gas station. After an hour wait, which seemed a little long for such a spot, a thirtyish guy (Jer) picked me up, told me about his hurling team and the history of the landscapes as we made it to the coast and turned south. He took me past Waterford, past Dungarvan and Youghal.

Because both the hostel manager last night in Kilkenny and Jer today warned me of “yellow alert” weather for tonight and the weekend, I thought it best not to stop in those towns but to try to make it to Cork.

Jer dropped me in the cute little town of Killeagh, but no place to stand. I walked out toward Cork, but it became clear that a good place to stand was not near. And I didn’t want to get too far from town with the clouds forming. I walked back to the Killeagh grocery, found out about a bus to Cork, bought a discounted sandwich, shared it with a stray dog, and decided to stick out my “CORK” sign while I waited for the bus. The bus stop was the only place in the village to pull over; hence it had an endless stream of temporary parkers; thus, effectively, no place to pull over. I stuck out my sign anyway at a pedestrian cross with a traffic light. In less than five minutes, a work van stopped in the lane of traffic to gesture me in.

This is one of the weird things about hitchhiking. Right when you have a disastrous spot where no one can pull over without endangering multiple lives nearby, you get a ride. Like the time the Italian driver stopped his tour bus full of West Africans to pick me up in Brussels. Or the times in California where people stopped quickest on the worst ramps.

The driver would take me all the way into Cork, but I only understood about 10% of what he said. His dialect was much heavier than the Kilkenny dialect. He told me the name of his dialect, but he said it in dialect, so I have no idea what it is or how to transcribe it. I managed to pick up that he was going to do some masonry work in Cork, that only one of his many brothers and sisters had left their village, breaking his mom’s heart by moving to Canada. Oh, and also he thought the cost of cocaine was too high. It almost wasn’t worth having a drug habit any more. Like so many of my drivers, he went way out of his way to make sure he dropped me where I could walk to the city center and find a coffee shop with wifi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hitchhiking Poland and Czech Republic

It was a cold morning walking through Dresden Neustadt for the bus to the edge of town. The driver was also cold and wary. Maybe it was my 25-year-old coat, or my 40-year-old backpack, or maybe the hitchhiking sign I was carrying: WROCLAW. From where he dropped me, I walked a quarter mile toward the highway and staked my spot. An hour. Then a stylish woman stopped but she was turning toward Berlin. A half hour later, a college guy pulled over, but he was going to Saxony. I turned them both down, always a hard choice when you’re on the side of the road, but I didn’t want a 5-mile ride to the next fork when I had a good spot.

Waiting. Enough waiting for my bus driver to make his loop twice. I always wave to bus drivers, but the second time he waved back like he meant it. I could tell he was pulling for me at this point. Such are the weird bonds of hitchhiking. People along the way, bus drivers or shop attendants, who reject hitchhikers in the abstract come to see their human side. And for the hitchhiker, the complete surrender to the generosity of strangers is enlightening on some visceral level. A paradox of surrender and liberation. Or maybe surrender and connection. Your fate depends on strangers, not on family or tribe, but on human connection in general. In a way, this is true for all of us all the time, but on the shoulder that truth becomes concrete and immediate. Someone must pick you up. And it could be anybody.

In this case, “anybody” is a Polish hippie who had recently moved to a simple country shack, with a teenager in the passenger seat. They had just met at an animation conference, the kid a hobbyist and the hippie still enough on the grid to make a living writing musical accompaniments for animators.

So we cruised, we three, through a lovely cold day in Poland. In two days, I would hitchhike through Czech Republic, hitting small mountains and snow and chilly spots beside the road, riding with Henryk, the jolly businessman who supervised 150 people, and with the Prague cop who warned me of every possible crime that might be committed against me in Prague. But for now I was happy to escape the cold, to meet my couchsurfing hosts before dark, and to play with their 3-year-old, who was just the right age to teach me a few words in Polish.

WROCLAW

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PRAGUE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Germany has two Plauens

Online ride share going from Aachen to Plauen. Google-mapped “Plauen.” A suburb of Dresden. Perfect. I would start the first day of my “victory lap” around central Europe, before leaving the continent, the easy way – ride share instead of trying to hitchhike through the middle of Cologne and on east. We were well into the central hills and forests of Germany before I realized my driver was going to another Plauen, much further south. She dropped me at Jena, where I googled hitchwiki to see that “hitching out of Jena is difficult but not impossible.” So when a teenager said he’d take me from my gas station in Jena just a short way, I grabbed at it. Another station-only stop, with no way to get on the road. An hour. Then a Russian in a van signaled me. (What is it with Russians in vans? This is the third time I’ve been picked up by a Russian in a van, or in one case a van full of Russians, while hitchhiking in Germany.) He would go back to Moscow in a couple of years to sell his own design of vans customized to be miniature mobile homes. We swapped contact info. You never know. They always need English teachers in Moscow. And customized vans for vagabonds doesn’t sound half bad for the US market. Getting dark. Alex offered to drop me on the highway or the train station in Chemnitz. A ride straight to the station and a local train into Dresden was too tempting.

Dresden Altstadt

Dresden Neustadt