For the second year in a row, The Saint has held a Race2 story contest for participants and volunteers. This year’s winner is Elsa Klein. Her entry is based on a number of blog posts she wrote while racing to Budapest, and the urgency of their trip comes through in her writing. Congratulations, Elsa, and to all of the students involved with Race2!
In the blinding wind of a Scottish morning, every part of my body was numb and dripping with misty rain. We were the first to be chucked off the coach at 6 am – at a petrol station two miles west of the Edinburgh airport. As the bus splashed mud onto our boots as it strode off, I felt my backpack begin to feel heavier, my hands start to feel colder, and Budapest begin to sail farther and father into the distance.
Coming to St Andrews, I expected to find opportunities to travel and people who would be keen to travel with me. However, I never pictured the adventure that awaited me come January—an adventure comprised of the best and worst hours of my life. My name is Elsa Klein, and I have hitchhiked from Scotland to Budapest in the name of charity and spontaneity.
When I first heard about Race2, I immediately thought of my favorite childhood TV series, Amazing Race. How gritty and fun, I thought, how simple and memorable. I romanticized the headline – ‘On the road: no plan, no money, only ambition and stubbornness getting us through!’ 1,500 miles in five days? No problem! What could go wrong?
The team started with me and Cas, a JYA from University of Toronto studying International Relations. Cas is basically a charismatic genius destined to be Prime Minister. The team grew to three while on a weekend in Gothenburg, Sweden, where Roisin also joined the Hungary Hitchhikers. Half-Irish with an Essex lip, Roisin is a first-year Biology student who specializes in sass, shade and wisdom. Finally, there’s myself—an aimless English major from Des Moines, Iowa. I love whales, pastries and hiking. Arm in arm, we set out on 14 January to see if we actually had as much street-smarts as we thought. To preemptively settle my parents’ nerves, I kept a daily blog of our time on the road. Beginning with our rocky start in Edinburgh, it is a record of our winding story of rough nights in London, fantastical nights at Disneyland Paris, our nine lovely drivers and more than enough Hungary/hungry puns.
It began with the manager of BP chucking us out of his shop for haggling customers. We stood in the yellow glow of a neighboring McDonald’s for an hour, feeling ridiculous and naïve. What? This isn’t going to be like Amazing Race? “Sorry” and “I’ve only got one seat” and “I’m not going that way” became a menacing echo for the next hour. It turns out, hitchhiking is hard. And boring. And frustrating. And often a bit humiliating.
Thank goodness for the kindness of one man who, around 7 pm, stopped at McDonald’s on his way home to Sterling. We never learned his name, but we do know all about his cousin in Georgia and his world travels around Europe and Southeast Asia and the US. He dropped us off thirty minutes out of his way to get us to the so-called busiest bus stop on the outskirts of Glasgow.
We soon learned that this was not the busiest bus stop in Glasgow. It was where we found four other teams, who were already busy finding no luck. True grace is letting another team run to an incoming customer first; true selfishness is always secretly hoping they will be denied the ride. Two hours later we got very lucky when Scott the Optometrist arrived at our spot looking for coffee. Cas spoke to him first, and he quickly agreed to take us to Carlisle–an hour and a half South.
In the car to Carlisle, we learned Scott’s views on the English education system, the NHS and the dangers of social media. We learned his daughter wants to attend St Andrews to study physics next year, his wife’s name is Roisin (and she Irish) and he once saw a man get sick in a swimming pool. We also learned that he and his sister were adopted from the Scottish church in 1964, and when their mother died his sister insisted he find his birth mother. It turns out she lives in Wales, and they now see one another annually. Scott had a thick Glasgwegian accent, drove a car he bought from his neighbor for 500 quid and had a glowing talent for telling stories.
In Carlisle, we ate lunch (KFC) and mapped out our progress (one Elsa thumb from where we started). At 1 am, three Irish electricians in a large six-person truck picked us up. They were kind and tired and spoke very little—the greatest oxymoron, a quiet Irishman. The drive featured the fields of the Lake District as well as Cas and Roisin’s subtle snoring. Two hours later, the electricians bid us luck at a station northwest of Manchester. Hitching from this station felt similar to taking a math test with all of the problems written in Roman numerals. We got through, but it was unnecessarily frustrating and tedious. Just before all hope was lost, we met a clean-cut man driving a BMW. His name was James, he was going to London and he didn’t mind lending a leather seat to a homeless-looking uni student. James was by far the best converser of the day, keeping the car constantly buzzing with dialogue for four hours. We learned that James lives near Roisin in Essex, that he builds submarines for a living, went to Cambridge, claims mountains in Cumbria, may or may not have a steady affair at the Black Cat Bar and is currently training for a marathon. He was fabulous.
The night ended with a grim night on the benches of South Mimms, a terrible, terrible service station east of London. Barely rested, we left early the next morning on foot to grab a bus into London. After a bit of pleading with a bus driver, we were on the top floor of a megabus bound for Paris. Here, we met an old friend of mine from Iowa, Ali, who proved to the world yet again that Midwesterners are the kindest people in the world. He bought us metro tickets out of the city, where luck alone kept us moving South.
Luckily, Cas was raised in Paris, which proved a distinct advantage when haggling with a taxi driver. After what seemed like ages of French bartering, we were on the road for a service station 30 kilometers south from the city—with the deal that if it was closed we would find a hotel to stay in for the night. Twenty minutes later, we were on the lookout for a hotel. As luck would have it, the only lodging in the area was Disneyland—which was not at all in our budget. Roisin and I waited in the car while Cas and the driver worked some kind of magic. By midnight we were in a pirate-themed suite, complete with breakfast (and a promised ride) in the morning, a glistening pool—all for €30. Disneyland truly is the happiest place on Earth.
The next day was similar to the first—pathetic begging for rides and an occasional generous offer. By dinnertime, we had found ourselves eating curry and drinking beer in Munich, now over half of the way to Budapest.
Our final day proved to be the most impressive. After a long walk to the city centre to find the train station, we spoke to conductors, explaining our situation and showing our very official-looking, Sharpied certificates. What should have been impossible was suddenly happening; stop after stop, each conductor agreed to let us stay on board as we inched Eastward. Two naps, five cups of coffee and one blog post later, we arrived in Budapest. Walking out of that station into the purple sunset of what would become my favorite city in Europe was one of the greatest moments I’ve ever experienced. I suppose that’s the power of uncertain tension for 1500 miles.
After the race, we made a list of some of the most impressive things we accomplished on the road:
- Roisin ate KFC for both lunch and dinner on Thursday.
- Elsa went without showering from Monday night to Friday night. She kept her hat on for 36 hours straight to try and hide this.
- Cas ate seven croissants for breakfast in Paris.
- We spent over nine hours on the bus from London to Paris, and none of us peed the whole time.
- We went 37 hours straight without taking off our boots.
- None of us had data on our phone. 90% of the time we were reliant on free WiFi.
- There was a team still stuck in Edinburgh when we arrived in Budapest. Ironically, their team name was Most Likely to Win.
I also made a list of all the unexpected things I learned:
- The Eurotunnel is actually below the ocean floor.
- Submarines are the size of St Andrews.
- SATs mean something very different to an English student.
- London is without mercy.
- South of London is the North, and Northern London is the South.
- Justin Beiber is cool again (James thinks so, at least).
- There is a New Town in Glasgow.
- Canadian passports are blue.
- Pepper spray is illegal in the UK.
- In Germany, some motorways don’t have speed limits.
- A toilet in Munich is worth one euro.
- 14 = cutie pie
- German word for exit is “achfahrt”. I giggle every time.
- It is possible to travel 1,465 miles, cross six countries, receive nine lifts from strangers and blag three trains and a bus in 78 hours, spending less than £25 total on travel.