It was as if I’d told her I planned to abandon my bright future, elope to the Midwest, and join the First Satanic Church with Morticia, some girl I had just met.
“Aaron! Absolutely not!” she declared with rising fervour. I had just told my mother that I planned to hitchhike in eastern Europe during spring break.
The plan was simple but genius. We initially secured flight tickets from London to Sofia for just £12.99 (with Ryanair, of course –– my nation’s greatest export), and returns from Athens back to London 12 days later. The rest we would make up as we went along, agreeing not to plan anything more than 24 hours in advance. CouchSurfing would provide us with accommodation at no cost, and our means of free transport would be covered by the generous people of Bulgaria and Greece.
Hendrik and I were aware of the irony of “choosing” to go hitchhiking. It’s not like hitchhiking is just another option offered by travel agents. Instead, hitchhiking is last-ditch effort people resort to when left without any means of transportation.
Nonetheless, we convinced ourselves that if we used the old-school technique of sticking our thumbs out at the side of a highway –– avoiding any of that online Tinder-for- hitchhiking nonsense –– we could enjoy a pure, unadulterated hitchhiking experience. It was in this spirit that we set off. I suppressed the guilt I felt about leaving my poor mother worrying where she had gone wrong. How had she raised a child who wanted nothing more than to throw his kite to the wind and “find himself,” adventuring like some sort of a hippy?
It was seven days into the journey, as I sat on the cracked tarmac near a highway toll station in the north of Greece, when I first began to reflect on the bizarre series of events that had culminated in our current situation.
Earlier that morning, we had made our way here from Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, with the hope of catching a ride to Athens. As the morning mist lifted and the unforgiving sun climbed higher into the sky, I began to feel more and more like I was in a desert scene out of the movie Holes. The second hour of waiting passed by even slower than the first, and I tried to convince my travel companion that this approach wasn’t going to get us anywhere.
Yet Hendrik, the real hero of this tale, was far more committed to the cause than I. For some unknown reason, he stood unwavering as the cold, metallic river of negligent Greek vehicles flowed past us. It was approaching the three-hour mark when Hendrik decided to walk 100 metres along the motorway and approach a car that had been pulled over for the last five minutes. The anticipation of what could happen next made the stress of opening my A-level results pale into insignificance.
But first, let’s rewind to just over a week before the events at the toll station, back to when our great hitchhiking expedition was still in its infancy. Our journey from Sofia to Bansko (a small ski resort in the Balkan mountains) was working out much better than expected. We began by walking towards a main arterial route that led south out of the Bulgarian capital.
Picking a convenient spot near a set of traffic lights, we turned and smiled desperately at the oncoming cars. After brandishing our beautifully crafted cardboard signs for little more than 10 minutes, a car carrying two women pulled over and the driver beckoned us in. The older of the two women told us they could take us to Blagoevgrad. From there, we might easily catch a ride on to Bansko.
Surprised and extremely grateful for how easy our maiden voyage was turning out to be, we couldn’t help but grin stupidly at each other in the back seat of the car. Finding accommodation the previous night had been just as easy. Through CouchSurfing, we had arranged to stay with a man named Viktor just hours before we would arrive at his house.
It was remarkable that we had transitioned from a pair of wandering hobos to becoming this man’s homecoming friends within a matter of minutes. Hendrik and I cooked dinner for the three of us and made some pleasant, if not slightly awkward, conversation across the table.
While Viktor and the two women who had accompanied us on the first leg of our journey were perfectly amicable and polite, they lacked a certain je ne sais quoi that we had been hoping to discover in our prospective hosts and chauffeurs.
Little did we know, as we stood with our thumbs out near a gas station outside Blagoevgrad, that our journey was about to get infinitely more exciting.
Ostrovski’s car screeched to a halt on the hard shoulder just before the gas station. The heavily built, middle aged man emerged without hesitation from his gold Volvo XC90 and began to lift our backpacks, placing them into the trunk beside all of his ski equipment. We timidly asked for confirmation (I had been reading a lot about the Bulgarian Mafia.) that he was, in fact, going to Bansko.
“Yez, yez. Bansko. Bansko is the centre of the universe!” his 30-year-old girlfriend confirmed from inside the jeep.
We made ourselves comfortable in the back seats.
“You are interested in politics?” he asked, after no more than five minutes of introductions and small talk.
We both confirmed, and for the next hour we were bombarded with an array of facts (most likely conspiracy theories, but who knows anymore?): apparently, George Soros pays all one million Bulgarian gypsies to rig the national elections, and underground communist organisations throughout Eastern Europe meddle with democracies to prevent their economic growth.
Ostrovski held very strong ideals and principles. He was not the kind of person to waver from them. Things were, quite simply, the way he said they were. There was little shelter from the onslaught of his political diatribe as we snaked upwards through the Balkan mountains, overtaking rickety, homemade farm vehicles at speeds that would appall any law abiding citizen.
The following day, after skiing on our own for most of the morning, Hendrik and I decided to meet up with Ostrovski once again. He had been rather insistent over text message that we ought to ski together. Bulgarian hip-hop tore through the peaceful silence of the valley as we ascended in the ski lift. Ostrovski was letting us hear a sample of his recent downloads on Spotify while giving us some much needed relationship advice.
“Russian girls are the easiest and cheapest,” he began without prompt. It seemed we were in for a very long ski-lift ride indeed. Ostrovski was so appalled at the fact that we were both single he spent a significantly large portion of the afternoon giving us detailed advice on how to remedy our dire situations,
His misogynistic views were like nothing I had ever experienced, but I think both Hendrik and I were reminded of how truly diverse people’s opinions are –– something that we are not always aware of when we spend time with like-minded people.
In comparison, our ride from Bansko to Thessaloniki was slightly less eventful. We were initially picked up by an investment banker named Emile. He and Hendrik immediately dove into a seemingly interesting conversation about cryptocurrencies, block-chain technology, and the future of investment banking.
However, I was regretfully left by the intellectual wayside at the first mention of computer science.
Emile dropped us off at the main road heading south, where we were then picked up almost immediately by a young, heavily-tattooed gentleman sporting a Dan Bilzerian-like beard.
His name was Chris, and for almost four solid hours he discussed girls and partying (with the occasional interjection about how we ought to “get our s*** together” on the relationship front).
Apparently, this was to be a recurring theme of our trip. As we hurtled into Thessaloniki at speeds that would have put our previous driver Ostrovski to shame, we began to bid farewell to Chris. He did not hesitate to deliver one last sales pitch in an attempt to have us visit Sunny Beach (the Magaluf of Bulgaria) the next time we were in town, and he wished us luck for the rest of our journey.
It was only a matter of hours before we found ourselves on the move again, this time on an overnight bus to Istanbul. Only a matter of days after that, we found ourselves back in the very spot where I began the tale of this journey: yes, the infamous highway toll station.
Fortunately, I can tell you the anticipation I initially felt that fateful morning evaporated immediately under the Greek sun as Hendrik came skipping back towards me from the pulled-over car, shouting, “He’ll take us! He’ll take us!”
Before embarking on this trip, I remember feeling apprehensive about the thought that our age group was maturing at a time of such widespread homogenisation in global tourism. I thought the individuality of destinations –– and the sense of adventure we feel from discovering somewhere new –– might be under threat.
Since then, I have learned that hitchhiking provides a remarkable chance to explore the world from an alternative perspective. It constantly produces opportunities to share some truly unique experiences in places one would never otherwise find with people one would never otherwise be so lucky to meet.
Hitchhiking, although oftentimes exhausting, frustrating and a little uncomfortable, can provide an exposure to such a pure and tangible display of human compassion and respect. The feeling of complete freedom and independence and the joy of meeting new people from all walks of life are the things I will remember most from my 36 hours by the side of the road.