The Angel on the Road — A Hitchhiking Tale
A human rarely faces the world independently. Wherever life takes us, we can count on our friends, parents, and acquaintances to support us when we feel lost.
Sadly, the art of wandering seems only for backpackers in Asia and the occasional museum visit.
But what I told you, you can have a free adventure by pointing your thumb up, anywhere in the world.
It is called hitchhiking, or the craft of persuading strangers to give free rides. In some countries, you can even jump on moving trains.
Playing It Safe
I was one of those guys in high school who never took a risk. , Too afraid to ask a girl out, pick up a hobby because people could make fun of me, or share anything vulnerable.
University life would be different. Then I would have a girlfriend and be that guy in the room everyone wants to speak to.
In my adolescence, blaming poor parenting, friends, and bad genetics was easier than realizing that my life philosophy sucked.
My first step in transforming myself was speaking to strangers. So to throw me in the dark, I would hitchhike from Berlin to Budapest, go to the Sziget music festival, and back. In driving terms, 873 km and crossing 4 countries. Giving me plenty of time, I estimated that it would take me one week to get from Berlin to Budapest.
My rationale was, what is a better excuse to talk to a pretty girl when you are an exotic traveler?
Don’t take the advice literally.
Until then, I had never traveled alone. Before taking on this scary endeavor, I visited my sister, an experienced hitchhiker.
Her advice: wear a funny costume, use Hitchwiki, and be creative with your signboard.
Imagine a hot summer afternoon in Berlin. A fresh breeze blowing through your hair.
You see a guy wearing a blue sorcerer costume standing next to the highway with a sign while driving around.
TAKE THIS WIZARD TO PRAHA
What would you do? Most drivers laughed about the joke and honked, but nobody took me in their car. Hoping that my result would better without the costume, I put on my best smile. Nothing changed.
After about three hours, I was fed up. So I went to lay down in the grass.
The Spark of Enthusiasm
While mopping, I saw two other guys coming to my spot. This proverb popped up in my mind.
One is stranger, two is pair but three is a crowd.
I saw my chances diminishing by the minute. Stay or move to another spot?
Not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and being bored. I stroke a conversation with the closest fellow. To see if he shared my pessimism.
The guy looked like the character Dean Moriarty of the book On the Road. A young brown-haired man, carrying only a phone and guitar.
In contrast, my luggage included a popup-tent, a backpack, some food bars, and a road manual. Better be prepared for anything because you can’t count on strangers.
Where he lacked in travel equipment, I lacked in optimism. Hence we made a deal. We would switch standing beside the road until someone picked us up.
Within the hour, we got picked up by a retired choreographer and his son in a Mercedes.
Striking a conversation with a stranger is quite difficult for most people. Unless alcohol is in play or the urgency for smoking or taking a piss is excruciating.
How do you then repay someone who shares his or her ride with you?
My advice, listen well to their life story and don’t be a bore when you share your experiences. Easier said than done.
Here some good old-fashioned wisdom’ of the road.
My social habit was then always to fill the silence with words. When a German-speaking Slovakian truck driver picked me up when I was stranded at Prague's gas station. I remembered having German for three years in high school. How difficult would our conversation be?
I had to sit through a seven-hour trip. The only time he understood me was when he said: ‘Großer Mond.’ Never have I felt so socially awkward by sitting silently for hours and hours.
Another time, a developer took me in his car. Me being the pessimist, I asked him about his perspective of Russians. Knowing well that they are often not loved in Eastern Europe, partly due to the rape history of the Red Army of the Soviet Union.
He shared his life’s scar. His Russian thesis supervisor and assistant stole his Ph.D. research—finally, a man of my liking. Back then, I considered everyone stupid or naive if you believed that people are kind.
Being bullied in kindergarten for eczema, in primary school for choosing to play in imagined worlds instead of playing soccer, and in high school where they assumed I was a nerd because I was Asian looking – I had no trust whatsoever in teachers, parents, or even friends. My driver completely validated my twisted life vision of those days that humanity was evil.
But the best life advice I got on a short trip with a proud Mercedes car owner.
This driver lived a particular life on the road, transporting small but valuable, top-notch car parts of luxurious brands. 95% Of the year, he would drive on the highways between cities in Europe, but when he came home. His wife, to my surprise, would always be waiting for him.
His life philosophy was simple. Spent lavishly on the gear you are using daily and cut back on the things that don’t matter to you. To this day, I still echo his proudness and thoughtfulness each time I open my Macbook Air.
Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
Most of my life on the road wasn’t adventurous, life-changing, or human-friendly. Most nights, I honestly could have cried myself to sleep. If you are ever going to travel, be sure to have a positive mindset. Or else Murphy's law gets into play.
Everywhere I went to misery followed me. In Germany, we got stuck near Dresden with six other hitchhikers. After bothering every car driver for hours, I need to empty my blatter. One of the piss trays was occupied by a man.
There was a good chance that I already had spoken to him, so I continued my toilet duties. And afterward, when I run towards him, he took in two hitchhikers to my desired destination.
So we had to camp on a hill next to the highway illegally. That Irishman was the real vagabond. How he could fall asleep without an air bed and a not horizontal surface is still a mystery to me.
My arrival in Prague was equally blemished by an hour of need. When I offered the toilet lady three times the public facilities fee, she refused me on the spot. What was wrong with her?
Then when asked in the exchange office what the first option was of ATM. They could not answer me, so I guessed it was the same as in the Netherlands. But it wasn’t. 200 euro’s for one day in Prague sucks. Losing 70 euros when you change the korunas back stinks even more.
Then I chose to take an alternative road to the city camping. After walking for about half-hour next to the highway, a police car stopped me. Saying that I wasn’t allowed to walk there. So I had to improvise another route. When I finally arrived at the campsite, it was dark. While trying to fall asleep, some stupid dutch children thought it was a great idea to start singing in the middle of the night. The next day, I learned that it took public transport. I could have been there in 20 min.
But the worst afternoon was explaining to shop owners to give me their leftover cart boxes. Try explaining a box with your hands; saying I want to inspect their trash is quite difficult. After losing faith in my ability to communicate, I changed strategies, hunting for garbage piles on the street.
When I finally completed my quest to find a cart box to transform into a road sign, it felt as if I won the jackpot. Never will I question the property of homeless people again.
Ask, and you will receive
In Bratislava, longing for a friendly face to share travel struggles, I called my friends, who drunkenly told me to come to the hostel of bunnies. Luckily before my phone battery died, they gave me the name of the street. Hoping for the best, I looked for a hostel sign and asked some strangers on the road.
The strangers didn’t speak English. Likewise, the pub owner never heard of this hostel in his street. The night was dark and cold. The sky started pouring rain. So in my last attempts, while looking for a place to camp illegally, I walked into two seniors. Already giving up hope, I asked them if they by any chance knew a hostel in this street.
To my surprise, the older men were British and stayed at the same hostel as my friends. They brought me to a grim-looking door. I had walked by at least five times. We opened it with a lot of effort, and it brought us through an alley into a garden with few lights.
Here I run into my friends who were doing a drinking game. They could not believe their eyes that I had actually found this hostel all by myself. We hugged, jumped, sang to celebrate the magic of the night.
When I woke up the next morning in a warm bed, I could see the garden. Everywhere were rabbits. Cute baby bunnies playing with each other while the more mature ones were hanging out at the stairs to take a fresh morning sunbath. All were domesticated and ready to hug. To this day, I think that place was unreal.
I lost my wallet in a moshpit of The Prodigy. During the festival, this wasn’t a problem. You borrow money from friends.
The road back was a different story. Being a festival-style hangover takes a toll on human compassion. This meant that my friends didn’t want to help me to get back to the Netherlands. No matter how much I complained.
During this festival, I rightly concluded that I hated hitchhiking. All these struggles make up a nice story nowadays. But if you had seen me during this trip, I was most of the time anxious, annoyed, and sleep-deprived.
When my dad missed the last opportunity to book a student bus back, I decided to sleep in a parking lot until I would’ve got a better idea. At this point, I looked like a stereotypical hippy: wild hair, unshaven beard, dirty clothes, and no money.
A miracle born out of distress
Desperation gets you far in life. After losing your wallet and explaining your firsthand experiences with Murphy's law, having the saddest story of wanting to go home– creates a sense of empathy, which difficult to resist.
In less than half an hour, I was picked up by a guy who brought me to Prague. Hoping for a bed to sleep in, I asked my ride if I could sleepover. But he didn’t have a spare room because he stayed at his friend's house.
Wondering through that dark and forsaken city around eleven pm. I settled for sleeping next to a few trees that stood next to a metro station. The next day, another guy would bring me to Berlin's outskirts, where a bed and warm shower waited for me.
Like a naive dutchman, I thought that the suburbs are one metro ride from the center, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Utrecht. But this was Germany, and that meant the center was an hour by train.
I had to swallow all my pride. Before I took this trip, I had made the following promises to myself.
- Please don’t ask for help unless it is necessary. Within three hours, I asked a stranger to help me get my first ride.
- Don’t beg people for rides. Always be civil. I’ve begged A LOT of people to take me in their cars.
- Whatever you do, don’t ask for money, because then you are basically a homeless person.
Yes, I became the beggar. Persuading people to give you money because you lost your wallet while being sleep-deprived and hungry isn’t easy. Most people on the street either avoided me or said that they were in a hurry.
Would you trust a random guy, who smells because he hasn’t showered days, look as if he lives on the street, and carries around a tent?
Chances were that my day would have ended like the image above. My mind started playing trick me. What would happen to me if I never got back to the Netherlands?
My world looked dark. No phone, no money, no people as it starts raining.
Out of the blue, a girl my age appeared, who started hitchhiking right before my eyes. Every hitchhiker who has been traveling has cultivated compassion towards the other out of patience's mutual suffering. Or you get so bored; you start talking.
So I made my case. She listened and gave me all her money, which was 11 euros and 70 cents. This seemed a fortune to me. Also, she offered to fix me a ride, and in a worst-case scenario, she would call her mother to take me to Berlin.
I wish hugged her. Sadly talking to girls wasn’t in my repertoire. So I asked her if she could return the favor when I was home. She didn’t want anything returns. Never had I experienced that level of compassion, which had a ripple effect in my life.
In the coming years, I would return this favor kindness to the stranger:
- In giving paying for a stranger’s ticket ride of 40,- euro’s to Groningen from Amsterdam.
- Hugging an African refugee, a math teacher, after giving him my 20- of my wallet. Assuring him that I didn’t have to see his documents of proof.
- Getting a begging man 15 euros from the ATM. So he could sleep one night without being emotionally abused by his wife.
To end, with a useful quote,
“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” ― Brad Meltzer
German girl, if you read my story. Could you please reach out to me? So I can show you the ripple effect of your compassion. That experience has kept me sane for years to come.