I arrived at my parents’ home in England nine days after I left my home in Armenia to try and hitch my way there. The trip began well, progressed through a lot of self-inflicted suffering, continued into ill health, and ended on a happy note. I have to be honest – it was a lot tougher than I’d thought it would be. It was also a lot further than I’d imagined.
I embarked rather spontaneously on this micro-adventure, carrying nothing but a toothbrush, a poncho and a knife (as well as my wallet, passport, and a cameraphone to record the journey). Hitching is something I believe is worth reviving. Last year I wroteto promote the idea.
Western European society has become more paranoid in recent years – we all know why – and this made hitching a frustratingly slow process, thousands of drivers passing by with a suspicious stare, a shake of the head or a glare of disbelief. Like urban cycling, though, the more hitch-hikers there are out there, the safer and easier it will become, by virtue of being more accepted.
Compare this to the far more easy-going Eastern Europe or Turkey, where the first days of my trip took place. I crossed the entire breadth of Turkey in two days – from the Georgian border 1,300km to Istanbul. I didn’t wait more than 15 minutes for a ride, and usually no more than 5 minutes was normal. It was also a lot of fun, and, in keeping with the Turks’ world-famous hospitality, I was treated to innumerable meals by kindly drivers, despite my protests, and even whisked off to a family village home to stay the night. It was a wonderful experience, filled with lovely, positive and good-humoured people, and I would gladly hitch my way around Turkey in the future as a trip in its own right.
I didn’t hitch the whole way home. Lack of time dictated that. I took two overnight buses in order to get from Istanbul via Sofia to Vienna, on the fringe of Eastern Europe. I only had a small window of opportunity to catch the people I wanted to see in England while they were at home, and start making my way back for the big day next month. While passing through, I met a whole cast of young people hitching their way around Eastern Europe – where it’s significantly easier to get a ride than here in the West. It got me thinking about a longer hitching trip for its own sake in Eastern Europe in the future.
Hitching from Vienna across Austria and into south Germany was slow going, but I made reasonable progress. That evening, after five unsuccessful hours wandering around a motorway service station in south Germany in the growing dark and singularly failing to procure a lift, I realised that for the second time since leaving Armenia I was going to have to rough it. I found a dark spot featuring an uncomfortable bench, which served as lofty refuge from the big juicy orange slugs that I remembered fondly from my days camping in the region two years previously, and attempted to sleep. It was a clear night, and, being acclimatised to temperatures between 30 and 40 degrees and having only the dubious thermal insulation of a thin nylon poncho to keep out the cold, I slept terribly and awoke chilled, damp and shivering after only a couple of hours.
The remaining hours of darkness, which I would spend jogging round the car park to keep warm, were not the only demoralising aspect of my sorry situation. I also had to consider my dire prospects of getting a lift as the new day dawned. A hitcher only needs one car to stop, though, and I was more than happy to take a ride from a Serbian trucker driving a couple of hundred kilometres to Karlsruhe near the French border. Anything to get away from the misery of that service station!
Finding lifts continued to be slow and demoralizing, but finally I was picked up by a couple driving to Verdun, an historical and pretty town near the Champagne region in which I’d stayed overnight with Andy and Mark on our way out of Europe by bicycle a couple of years before.
It was while taking this lift that I began to feel that something more than plain exhaustion from the previous night was afflicting me. I felt increasingly weak and nauseous, and by the time I’d located the hostel in Verdun I was on my last legs. Despite not having showered in almost a week and still wearing the same clothes I left in, I collasped on the bed, unable to move. It’s just as well that I had the six-bed dormitory to myself, because at around midnight I woke myself up with my own groaning. I was sweating and in the throes of a fever-induced delerium which led me to wandering around the dark, empty corridors of the hostel in my unwashed underwear, groaning loudly and taking several extended rest stops sprawled out on the floor as I waited for someone to magically appear out of the gloom and call the emergency contact number that didn’t work to tell them I was going insane.
I crawled back to my room and doused my head under a cold shower for several minutes in an attempt to cool the fever. My mind was screaming bizarre thoughts at me. Food poisoning of this kind is incredible in its ability to disable you both mentally and physically. It was an utterly revolting experience – far more so than anything I endured during the previous six months of bike travel. At least those experiences were tangible – not the psychological torture of a high fever over which you have no control. I can’t pinpoint the cause of the illness, but I suspected it was the slice of melon I’d had for breakfast, which had been provided by the kindly Serbian trucker.
I expected a few odd looks the following morning when – still feeling utterly terrible – I turned up for breakfast. But it transpired I was one of a total of four guests in a hostel big enough for a couple of hundred. Two had left already. The one remaining guest was an elderly Frenchman who farted loudly and freely, stared out the window, and was otherwise silent.
There was no chance of hitching – I worried for the cleanliness of people’s in-car upholstery, as well as the time it was taking me to get home. I trotted off to the station to look into getting home that way. And that’s when a complete stranger decided to do something which to him might have been entirely insignificant, but to me was exactly what I needed to cheer me up for the rest of my journey home, despite feeling as sick as a dog. It was the young man at the ticket office, who obviously read the suffering in my face, as he offered to sell me a Eurostar ticket for less than half of its normal price – using his staff discount – with a free upgrade to first class thrown in for good measure.
You can’t buy kindness and generosity like that. Late that evening, having travelled in style directly to London St Pancras, I was home. Ill, exhausted, but home. And happy.