Hitchhiking Japan

With my university teaching contract in Tokyo coming to an end, I thought about hitchhiking a bit. It would be nice to add another country to my hitchhiking repertoire (this would be #17). But it was winter and I was getting lazy. Then in a conversation about my hitchhiking trips last year in Mexico and from Spain to Poland, someone said, “You can’t really hitchhike in Japan.” That was the motivation I needed. I took the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto, figuring I’d be better off hitchhiking into a metro area of 35 million than out of it.

The night before

I switched from my Pakistani friend’s house to a cheap hotel the night before and took a last walk around Kyoto.


On the road

I left at daybreak. It’s at least a 6-hour drive (2 and a quarter on the bullet train) from Kyoto to Tokyo, and I wanted enough cushion to arrive before dark. Got directions from hitchwiki online to find a good spot in a service area at the edge of town. I was warned that I’d have to jump over a gate walling off the controlled access area of the highway, but luckily the gate was open. I just had to ignore the “no trespassing” sign and climb the hundred broken steps up the side of a hill with my full backpack.

Normally, when I’m in a service area rather than on the side of the road, I greet people with a word of two while holding up my sign. In Japan, though, random greeting by strangers is considered a bit strange. People are very nice, but everyone stays in their own space. This is a mixed blessing. There is something quiet, calm, and reflective built into Japanese life, even in the teeming city of Tokyo. It holds the best of the introvert’s potential. But there can also be a sense of loneliness and isolation – this too in the teeming city of Tokyo – and many Japanese feel it. As a gregarious, clumsy Westerner, I stand out. Strangers don’t seem to mind when I greet them. A few might find my extroverted ways disruptive, but more often they find it humorous, endearing, or just plain odd.

In any event, I figured I’d just stand by the curb and smile instead of greeting. In five minutes, a fortyish couple going to Nagoya picked me up. With my 10 words in Japanese and their 20 in English – and the telephone translator – we were on our way. They laughed that I was hitchhiking as a tourist activity, but picking up a hitchhiker was a kind of tourist thing for them too. They eagerly wanted a picture of the three of us in the car to send to their daughter.

Toshiyuki, my driver, found me a good service area on the east side of Nagoya — the Tokyo side — near the Toyota world headquarters. Great for me. Nagoya itself is a city of 2.5 million, and I did not want to get stuck in the middle of it. The new service area was vast, really 3 or 4 interlocking service areas, each with its own commercial center and each with several parking lots and lanes going in every direction. I picked a place with a friendly face to get my snack and coffee, hoping that the friendly-faced server would get me oriented on the road to Tokyo. Again, we each had a few words in each language, and she went far beyond duty – even went to get me a map of the service area complex, but all the loops in traffic lanes were too much for us. I walked over to a gas station near the exit, where I thought cars would funnel toward Tokyo, but it was a bad spot and the worker there gestured me away. I went back to my helpmate’s snack area and just randomly chose a lane going any which way. Good enough. A boat distributor, Shina, with an empty trailer (he had sold his boats for the day) picked me up.

Shina was also a champion rower, and when he went to conferences in the US, he would go with his friend who spoke English. The friend was not a rower but a sailor and a world-class one. He had either won or participated in – our communication was choppy on this – a number of America’s Cup races.

Then, rather suddenly, we passed Fuji-san.

Shina was going back to his dad’s farm, where they raised cattle or rice, depending on the season (as best I understand) but dropped me at a service area at the outer reaches of the Tokyo metro rail lines.

And home

I scrambled past the fence to get from controlled access to surface streets, and in two hours of walks, buses, and trains, I was at my hostel in Kita-Shinagawa, back on my old street in the south of Tokyo.

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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, I 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 them 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 be a 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 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!)








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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


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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


On the road




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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.













































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




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.