As a teenager, before I had enough money and time for exotic adventures overseas, I would hitch-hike wherever and whenever I could. For me this was a source of adventure. I would hitch to festivals and to visit friends, to go on holiday and sometimes just to see where I would end up. As any seasoned hitcher knows you meet many colourful characters along the way. Aging hippies, who are returning the favour after years of thumbing it themselves, are the hitcher’s staple. I have met my fair share of born again Christians who would often try to convert me en route. Some drivers want to talk, some to listen, some are comfortable with silence. Occasionally I’d be privileged to hear someone’s life story and at other times I would take on the role of a makeshift counsellor, my job would entail listening to the story of the driver’s latest relationship crisis. Once I was even privy to explicit phone sex when the driver’s girlfriend, who was on speaker phone, failed to realise her boyfriend had picked up a hitch-hiker. I have kept all my old cardboard signs to remind me of this time in my life… “M1 north”, “Glasgow”, “Glastonbury” and for emergencies “Anywhere”.
Hitch-hiking gets a bad press, there’s no doubt about that. Joe Public seems convinced that hitch-hikers are all potential axe murdering sociopaths. A quick survey of my friends and a unanimous verdict, not one would pick up a hitch-hiker. I can’t help but think that the demise of hitching is a symptom of the increasingly paranoid world in which we live. The sensationalist mainstream media (and American B movies) must be partly to blame but you probably have as much chance of meeting a sadist or psychopath on a social networking website or on the bus than you do when hitch-hiking. Only once have I encountered a problem on my travels around the UK when I got into a car, glimpsed a half empty bottle of whiskey in the foot well and quickly realised my driver was blind drunk. So clearly a small risk does exist and I am never afraid to refuse a lift if my instinct tells me to. Aside from the perceived dangers the other obvious reason as to why less people hitch-hike now is the ease of travelling around Europe via Eurorail or Easyjet and the ilk. Hitching may be a free way to get around the continent but I don’t hitch just to save money, it’s an adventure and dare I say it, I think you can learn something about human nature on the way.
I’d never hitched in Europe but I had heard that “autostop”, as its known, is an easier task than in the UK and I was keen to try. Although I was homeward bound I was also chuffed that I could cling onto some sense of adventure now that I couldn’t continue my journey by bicycle. I would swap my enemies… dogs, punctures and headwinds for boredom, the police and the ubiquitous axe murdering psychopaths that everybody at home knew I would encounter frequently en route. Due to the ash cloud emanating from the Icelandic volcano there was a huge backlog of passengers in Istanbul waiting to return to the UK and I would wait ten days if I wanted to fly home. I suspected I could hitch back within this time. I had no imminent deadlines, the operation on my knee is scheduled for the end of May, so I said goodbye to Belinda, my bike, glad that at least for her it will be an unbroken journey around the world, and set off. How long would it take? I honestly didn’t care.
The first challenge would be getting out of the immense sprawling metropolis that is Istanbul, the fifth largest city in the world. On my way in I had cycled for eighty kilometres, all within the city limits, just to find the house I was due to stay at. I started to thumb it from just outside the old town. After forty five minutes a car stopped and I jumped in. The occupant, Apo, was a perfume seller and producer in his late 30s, and he would be my first lift. The cloying scent of his perfume “Candy” filled the car and he told me his story. He was originally Kurdish but had left Turkey in his early 20’s to move to Germany where he had managed to work without a VISA for 10 years. Eventually he was discovered and deported but on arrival in Turkey the military police arrested him, this time for skipping his military service, and he was sent to the army for two years. After finishing this stint he had started up the perfume company with his brother and they were doing well. He brought me as far as he could and then bought me breakfast before I thanked him and moved on. In the end it took me eight separate lifts, each of just five or ten kilometres to finally breach the city limits.
In the neighbouring Turkish city of Tekirdag I had my first lucky break. Hussain, a Turkish lorry driver, stopped to offer me a ride. He chain smoked Winston’s and spoke to me in broken Italian whilst I replied in broken Spanish. Mostly we understood each other. That night I slept on the dusty floor of an old church near to a truck stop. I woke during the night to convivial shrieks and cheers from the inebriated Turkish drivers, who stayed up until the early hours drinking Raki. The next day I found Hussain and we continued the journey together but it was salt in the wound as Hussain drove down the exact same roads I had cycled along almost a month before. After waiting for three hours at the Turkish border whilst the lorry was checked we entered Greece and travelled the breadth of the country. For a reason I didn’t understand the Truck drivers were not allowed to drive me the last twenty kilometres to the dock where we would catch a boat to southern Italy so I began to hitch again.
The twenty kilometre stretch of road led to a port on the Greek mainland from which boats come and go to the party island of Corfu. ‘Boy racers’ sped past me, a brand of soul-destroying bland house music blaring from their expensive sound systems. When looking for a lift you begin to recognise your target demographic. The typical driver who stops is male, aged about 20-40 and usually on their own in the car. The exception to this is the ‘boy racer’. Young speedsters driving VW Golfs with blacked out windows. They virtually never offer a lift. They belong in the same category as mums on the school run and people who drive hearses, Ferraris or milk floats. They are a long shot. As I waited, thumb outstretched, they shouted abuse at me from the windows. One stopped, only to speed off as I approached. From another an empty plastic bottle was hurled in my direction. Most would put their thumbs up and flash me sardonic grins whilst speeding past. I was being mocked by idiots. And the worst kind of idiot. An idiot in white jeans, a Ben Sherman shirt and with terrible taste in music. Eventually I got a lift with an elderly couple to the port and took the nine hour ferry to Bari in southern Italy.
At Bari I spent most of the day in a lorry park where a couple of hundred vehicles were parked in rows. Turkish, Iranian, Polish and Greek drivers congregated, each playing music from their respective homelands at full volume and drinking copiously in the sunshine by the dock. The Turkish band of drivers found someone going to Naples for me. I got the impression that if I desired I could get all the way to the UK by being passed from one Turkish driver to the next at these lorry parks, but I had never visited Naples and I was curious, so I decided I would leave the truckers behind when I got there. I got a lift with another burly Turkish truck driver called Louis, a friend of Hussain. I knew only two things about Louis. First that he was driving to Naples and second that “he really likes Raki” as I was reminded again and again by the other drivers. Things would be fine, I decided, as long as his passion for Turkish liquor and the fact that he’s driving an 18 tonne truck along the Italian motorway didn’t get horribly intertwined.
I semi-reluctantly joined up with the tourist hoard in Naples and Rome and managed to squeeze in some sightseeing, although my attention was elsewhere. I found it hard to concentrate on all the museums, monuments and churches. The Colosseum was impressive but it had nothing on the Italian girls and I frequently found myself distracted. I began once again from outside Rome and hitched to a petrol station north of the city in the countryside just off the motorway. I ate strawberries as I waited for nobody to stop. I discovered that the strawberries had stained my hands blood red and that probably wasn’t giving off the best impression. That’s when the police arrived. I wasn’t sure if they had been called or if they had spotted me by chance, either way I began to think the world has it in for hitch-hikers.
One officer addressed me
“No autostop here. This highway” and he pointed at the section of tarmac on which I was stood, well away from the motorway.
“No highway. This petrol station” I retorted and pointed at the same spot.
“No. This highway” He replied with asperity.
“No. This petrol station” I chanced.
We were at a deadlock.
“Look” I said pointing to a vehicle ten metres away “He’s parking on the highway. Arrest him!”
Not even a smirk. They glowered at me before turning to leave. What could I do? I was in rural Italy surrounded by grassy fields, the highway and this petrol station. There was no chance to catch a bus or train. I banked on this being one of those situations where the police were forced to give me the official line, but knew I was in an impossible position and so would turn a blind eye if I continued. I had no choice but to keep hitching. Just in case, I mentally rehearsed my defence. I decided to pretend their instruction got lost in translation.
During a five hour wait for my next lift two questions swam around my head “What the hell am I doing?” And “why don’t I just fly home?” Eventually a car pulled in and I was heading towards Genoa. On my route through Europe I have made lots of friends, I remembered I knew some in Genoa who I could call in on. The day after the night before started with a vicious hangover and perhaps I was not hitching enthusiastically enough but after another five hour wait at the port I still hadn’t found a ride. To my shame I cheated this time I took a short train ride to Turin, not far but I wasn’t waiting another day, I had to move on. The next day in Turin was the 1st of May or “workers day”. A procession paraded through the town. It was a curious mix of union members, protestors, communists, anti-capitalists and out and out anarchists. There was a party vibe as they made their way down the main streets. Towards the end of the parade I watched a girl, dressed as the pope, stand aloft a large truck waving majestically from a giant model vagina at the laughing crowd below.
I waited again for several hours by the roadside outside Turin. The traffic eventually thinned out and I realised I’d missed my opportunity for catching the rush hour. Every time someone made a hand gesture to signal that they were turning off or turning around I began to think “I don’t believe you”. Hitching in Italy I realised is near impossible. People eyed me up and then actually began to take aversive action! They drove in wide loops around me, perhaps worried that if they got too close I would use my telekinetic powers to force them to stop or that I would actually dive in through their windscreens. As I waited I noticed a large poster looming opposite me. It was an advert for Easyjet. Flights from Rome to Milan for just 22 Euro it boasted. What the hell am I doing? I kept thinking. After four hours finally a lift. He was a Swizz 6 foot 5 inch ex-basketball player on a nine hour mission from Rome to Lausanne to deliver coffee machines. More often than not hitching a lift is less a blag and more of a trade. My role in this instance was to keep the driver awake so we chatted away in broken English and French for several hours.
I debarked, thanked my driver and began again, hoping to find a lift over the French Italian border. People gawped and stared as if I were an ancient relic on display or the start of some alien invasion. Perhaps they were looking for clues as to where I had concealed my axe. What’s more it was a Sunday and most of the cars were full of families with no spare seats. I prayed for VW vans and old hippies, but none came. I was losing my faith in humanity. People I decided were either paranoid or selfish or both. I was entering that hitcher’s vicious circle. The more I waited the more miserable I became, the more miserable I became the more miserable I began to look and the more miserable I began to look the less chance I had of getting a lift and the more I waited. Yet again I wondered why I was making life so difficult for myself.
Eventually a car stopped to take me across the border to France. In my mind this represented the Promised Land, a veritable hitcher’s paradise, and as it turned out France did prove to be easier than Italy. Men and women often stopped to give me a ride and then from outside Lyon another lucky break, a lift all the way to Normandy. I would probably be back in Blighty before midnight I realised. The swarthy, tumultuous sky opened up and it began to rain. I knew England must be close. Rain is never a good omen for the hitcher. You might expect that a dejected hitch-hiker clutching a sodden cardboard sign saying something like “M1 north” might inspire a smidge of sympathy in your fellow man but in reality people just don’t want the inside of their precious cars to get wet. Luckily there was a brief respite from the rain between lifts.
After the ferry crossing from Le Havre to Portsmouth I decided a train would be the sensible option as it was already dark and I thought my chances of getting a lift poor. But I decided to give hitching one quick last shot. Within ten minutes a truck driver stopped and offered me a lift to my mum’s front door in Oxford. He had a thick Yorkshire accent. When I asked if he’ll be watching the world cup on tele he replied “Maybe I will when one of them footballers comes to watch me drive my lorry”. Although not exactly glad to be home, his answer made me not too miserable about it either. On the way to Oxford I watched a film on the small TV he had in the cab and finally reached my destination, ten days after setting out from Istanbul.
I’ve returned home to deadlines and to-do lists and dates have already started to accumulate in my diary. But I am trying hard to avoid anything resembling my old life. I don’t want to feel that I’m moving backwards. I will return to Istanbul, probably towards the start of August, after England win the world cup. Thank you to the 23 drivers who stopped, took me in and helped me out. Thank you as well to everyone who has sponsored my mini-adventure home, and if you haven’t you still can, now that I have completed the hitch, by visiting my sponsorship page.