“I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere I needed to be.”
– Douglas Adams, author of The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
One sunny Friday afternoon in Vilnius, Lithuania, I walked to one of my favorite Coffee Inns in Old Town, ordered a kava juoda (black coffee), and settled into a chair on the front patio. I pulled out my laptop and watched as locals walked purposefully and tourists ambled aimlessly down cobbled streets.
I downloaded pictures from the past several days. I wrote some postcards. I jotted down book notes from The Monk and The Riddle. I brainstormed blog topics. These were all things I either wanted or needed to do. But admittedly, I was just biding my time on making a decision — I wasn’t sure where I’d sleep that night.
Rewind a few days earlier to my first night in Lithuania. After a couple fellow travelers turned in for the night, I wandered solo into a local-recommended dive bar near my hostel. Armed with the two essentials “Labas” (Hello) and “Ačiū” (Thank You), but still clueless about how the language actually sounded, I mumbled something in Lithuanglish to the barkeep and pointed to a draft beer. I happily forked over 5 Litas (about $1.80) in exchange for a cool, golden pint.
It was clear I was one of the few non-locals there, likely the only native English speaker, and definitely the only American. I felt self-conscious and awkwardly out of place, a feeling I’ve gotten familiar with as a stranger in a strange land.
But like most of my solo ventures into a bar, I didn’t remain solo for long. Within a few minutes, a tipsy Lithuanian’s curiosity got the best of him after hearing me speak and approached me. He was about my age and with a girlfriend.
“Where are you from?” he asks in surprisingly good English. I tell him I’m from Chicago.
“Why the hell are you here, in Lithuania?” I didn’t really have a good explanation, but admitted I was curious about his country and wanted to experience life here.
That was good enough for him. He insisted I join him and his friends to the countryside for the weekend. In the summer, as I was told, most city-dwellers flock to country homes to breathe in the Lithuanian forest air, swim in the fresh lakes, and drink homemade spirits. This was exactly the type of experience I sought, so I was eager to accept the invitation.
Then abruptly, a girl on the other side of me interrupted us and insisted I join her and her friends to a music festival for the weekend instead. She promised it would be an unforgettable three days of music, dancing, and partying. Damnit, I sighed. These are all things I like too. Decisions, decisions.
Not wanting to offend anyone, I took the noncommittal way out by saying I wasn’t sure about my travel plans yet and needed to think about it. I exchanged contact information with both of them. After meeting a few more people and pints, I left the bar. I walked back to the hostel beaming. It’s a victorious feeling to go somewhere knowing no one and leave knowing many. People really open up after being shown a smidgen of genuine interest in their country, culture, or personal life.
The next morning I told Lina, the owner of the hostel where I was staying, about my night. Eager to compete on hospitality, she throws out yet another option for the weekend: the annual European Hitchgathering which happened to be taking place an hour outside of Vilnius.
So that Friday as I sat outside the coffee shop avoiding my weekend decision, I settled on a blog topic: The Fear of Missing Out. It was self-medicating to think about, but I’d have to finish writing it later; I had decisions to make and places to go.
I returned back to the hostel. Lina said her friend was leaving in an hour for the Hitchgathering. But if I wanted to hitch a ride with her, I had to take a 45 minute bus ride to meet her. This meant I had to make the decision NOW.
Without thinking I said Yes. I grabbed a change of clothes, a towel, swim trunks, and my toothbrush, threw it into my daypack and set off running toward the bus stop. Things I didn’t have included a tent, a sleeping bag, or any idea what I was getting myself into. I figured I’d figure it out. I boarded the bus and took it to the end of the line.
Within a few minutes I spotted a girl who looked like she was looking for someone. We exchanged each other’s names and recognized we were looking for each other. As I jumped into her car, I met the wild-haired twenty-something Portuguese guy sitting in the passenger seat. Together we set off for the countryside. And so began my first “hitchhiking” experience.
After driving about an hour into the Lithuanian countryside, we arrived at a farm literally in the middle of no where. We were surrounded by small forests and ponds, and a bunch of cows. Out from the woods came a tall, blonde dude with the oddest haircut I’d ever seen. It was partly shaved and partly dreadlocked, but the transition between the two styles was ambiguous and mesmerizing. As he directed us where to park, it was clear he was the leader of the event. He was a little goofy, but friendly and kindhearted.
I noticed a bunch of tents setup atop a small hill, where about half of the attendees had set up their temporary homes — this obviously wasn’t their first rodeo. The other half of us without tents would sleep in the barn nearby. I claimed a body-sized divot in a pile of hay inside the barn and threw my bag down beside the twenty others. I realized I was probably the only “hitchhiker” without both a sleeping bag and tent.
People continued to trickle in Friday evening and throughout Saturday. By Saturday night there were about 100 of us there. On the surface, everyone was just as I expected — somewhat hippyish, easy going, and friendly with a free-as-the-wind aura. The people I met reigned mostly from Europe: Belgium, Denmark, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Russia. I met two other Americans, one Canadian, and a guy from India. Although distinct in cultural background, everyone had one thing in common: they hitched there.
During the day, we just did “whatever,” which usually included meeting other travelers, talking about hitchhiking, laying in the grass, beating drums, playing guitars, making food, eating food, swimming in ponds, drinking water from the well, playing volleyball, walking around the woods, and shitting in the woods. At night we’d drink, talk and sing around the campfire. Surprisingly, there was very little drug use.
Occasionally there were “workshops” where someone would announce a topic and a meeting time (the meeting times were punctually at “like 2ish” or “before lunch”). I attended one workshop where a Latvian taught us how to make a tribal whistle call using only our hands.
I generally consider myself open-minded and not quick to pass judgement, and each day I spend on the road this sentiment strengthens. But in the United States, hitchhiking is basically nonexistent, at least to us non-hitchhikers. So I admit I had preconceived notions about people who consider themselves professional hitchhikers. But as I was introduced to the not-so-secret world of hitchhiking, my ignorance disappeared and a newfound respect grew.
First, I learned to not stereotype hitchhikers. I’m not proud of it, but I would have previously depicted hitchhikers as nonchalant hippies, anti-conformist spiritual beings, or freeloaders armed with a sense of entitlement. But the people I met were not so unlike myself, and they were not one “type” of person. There were Polish journalists, Portuguese engineering students, German photographers, Indian computer programmers, and Belgium teachers.
While modern hitchhiking itself is as old as automobile transportation, it’s experiencing a resurgence fueled by technology. Just because most hitchhikers are far from materialistic, hitchhiking doesn’t represent an aversion to the advancement of society and technology. Quite the contrary. Most people had DSLRs and smart phones. We vowed to keep in touch on Facebook or CouchSurfing.net. Online resources like HitchWiki serve as a one-stop-shop to all things hitchhiking, including advice on hitching in different countries, the specific locations from where to catch a ride, and safety tips. There are even websites like EkoRoad matching hitchhikers with rides.
Hitchhiking is a social sport and a personal challenge. Most hitchhikers I met were introverted and self-aware individuals, yet extremely social, friendly, and engaging. It’s impossible to be a successful hitchhiker if you aren’t able to relate to and engage with other people. To hitchhike is to leave one’s comfort zone, embark into the unknown, and challenge one’s patience. There’s also a lot of strategy to hitchhiking, which is one reason HitchWiki exists.
As people who seem to ‘take’ free rides, hitchhikers are focused on giving and sharing. Hitchhiking does not represent an aversion to paying for things or embracing a feeling of entitlement. And I never really considered this before, but there’s a reciprocal exchange between rider and driver. Often times, the drivers get as much out of the experience as do the riders, enjoying company on a long drive or learning about another’s cultural upbringing and perspective. At its core, hitchhiking is a positive exchange between human beings.
Hitchhiking is not so much an act of poverty as it is a statement of values. Don’t get me wrong, hitchhikers aren’t the wealthiest people in the world and hitchhiking is the cheapest way to get from one place to another. But I believe that cost is secondary to the experience that hitchhiking provides.
Would people continue to hitchhike if they had all the money in the world? I’m not so sure. But these are the very people who wouldn’t find comfort in all the money in the world. Hitchhiking is an act of frugality that says more about the person’s values than about the size of their pocketbook. Hitchhiking is about intentionally choosing to travel in such a way that completely immerges one in culture, human connection, and the joy of the journey.
I guess the most important thing I learned that weekend is that maybe I’m just a hitchhiker who hasn’t hitched (yet).
Hitchhiker Profile: Puneet Sahani, The Colorful Hitchhiker
Puneet is one of many interesting hitchhikers I met at the Hitchgathering. He’s petitioning to deliver a TED talk on the “Colorful World of Hitchhiking.” Although I imagine this talk is only a sampling of the message he’d like to communicate, it gives an honest look into his hitchhiking lifestyle. If you enjoy it, please comment and rate him positively! Voting ends on August 31.
A Throwback to Iceland: Interview with Comedian-Mayor Jón Gnarr
While in Iceland with my Chicago friends Steve and Mike, Steve (a writer for Chicago Tribune’s Red Eye) landed an interview with Reykjavik’s comedian-turned-mayor, Jón Gnarr. You can check out the whole interview on the online magazine The Rumpus: The Comedian Mayor: The Rumpus Interview with Jón Gnarr.