Why jumping into cars with strangers restored my trust in people and why other women should do it too

by Tracy Sangillo

Columbus, Ohio, 2013: The first “big” city I hitch from. Likely one of my least favorite places in the US. I refer to it as the “pancake city.” Boring and barren, it’s not a good or safe place to hitchhike in or out of. I’m fearing the worst, but hell, I’ve gone this far. Besides…

 

What would life be like if we allowed our lives to be determined by worst case scenarios?

(What Patricia gave me…err forced upon me)

So I head to the nearest gas station and approach a woman who later becomes my touchstone for my hitchhiking adventure.

I walk up to her and ask if she’s headed in my direction. Feeling her unease, I start talking about the trip I’m taking across the country and she changes her mind, orders me to “get in” and takes me to the bus station I want to get to. What’s more, we have an instant connection and talk for over an hour, sitting in front of the Greyhound station. Patricia goes on about her college sweetheart who lured her to the southern beaches of California and her favorite place in the world, Sedona AZ. “Promise me, you’ll visit!” She says.

When I go to get out of the car she tells me to wait, fingers through a notepad filled with papers and hands me 2 gift cards. A Giant Eagle gas card and $100 visa gift card. But no, Patricia’s not done. She LITERALLY empties her wallet for me and gives me another $67.

I wish I had more to give. I’ve got window cleaner in the back!

This woman became the reason why I hitchhike.
In time, you will meet your own ‘Patricia.’

 

 

I’ve seen over 30 US states, 17 countries and traveled 25,500 kilometers. And through most of this I was traveling solo, a woman hitchhiking from the streets of New Orleans to the Romanian countryside.

I was not about to be governed by other people’s fears. I wanted to redefine “reckless.” In fact, I learned:

This collective fear of hitchhiking has largely been a campaign on the part of the FBI, during the late 60’s.

While male hitchhikers became an object of aversion, women were told that they would be “asking for it” by thumbing for a ride. Current crime statistics FAIL to show that hitchhiking increases the murder rate and can’t demonstrate that it’s more reckless for women than for men. Yet to assume hitchhiking isn’t dangerous at all would be facile. This takes me to my next point:

But where to start!? How is hitchhiking different for women?

(Kreuzberg Pride in Berlin)

 

Less IS more

Travel blurs gender binaries. You wear less makeup, dress more casual and start to act in a more amorphous manner. Less like an amoeba and more like a tom-boy. Typical girl/ guy items are less necessary. In fact, it’s wise to dress down and wear more masculine clothing.

 

The one object that helped me more than anything was my smartphone:

Holy sheep balls, this was probably the most helpful item I carried. I had an app that listed different amenities and gas stations at nearby exits, my Google Maps and my Couchsurfing.com app. I used these often. Don’t underestimate the power of digital technology!

If you’re hitching with truckers a lot, use the “Truckerpath” app, which lists all the truck stops and exit numbers and The Pocket Truck Stop Guide – essentially the same thing in paper form. Take note: This only applies to truck stops in the US.

Don’t be afraid of truckers. They usually buy you food on the road (at least in the US) and they are some of the most wonderful and colorful people on the road: For instance, In New Mexico I found a ride at a Love’s with a trucker and his girlfriend…

 

I just want you to know we live a 24/7 BDSM slave/master lifestyle. I hope you’re OK with that, she admits

 

Not only did I get a single 600 mile ride to Oklahoma City, I got to share it with more awesome interesting people. And the stories! The stories!

 

(My very first hosts, ever)

I don’t worry too much about sleeping arrangements. The fun is in the uncertainty.

But a few free options are:

Couchsurfing.org

– Guerilla camping & boondocking

– Getting accommodations from rides – I haven’t tried this much, Couchsurfing was way too much fun.

 

 

 

KNOW YOUR LINES

  • They are there for a reason! I can generally get a good read on someone within a minute of talking to them. Have a conversation with the driver before you get a ride.
  • Ask him where he’s going before you say where you’re headed to.
  • Get a feel for his demeanor: Is he leering at you? Does he call you ‘baby’ or ‘sweetie?’ Do you feel uneasy?

 

I wouldn’t always advise accepting rides from two or more men. Truthfully, though, I’ve done it many times and often with good experiences

The first time I was stranded in central California at an empty truck stop and got a ride with a “gun rights activist” and his sons…

 

They all wore “We don’t call 911” t-shirts with an AK-47 plastered on the front

It ended uneventfully, thank god! And I discovered even the most terrifying people can be genuine.

————–

But more often than not, I have a blast: Whilst shooting blanks in bad hitchhiking spots in Chiasso, Switzerland, two twenty-something men with a car packed full of camping gear pull over near me. “You’re going to Basel? We’re going to Berne. Get in!”

Despite my protests about space, they made me fit and convinced me to go with them to Berne instead of Basel for the night. There, they offered me a bed, dinner, wine and after discovering that one of the boys and I shared a recent birthday, a bunt cake with a beer in the center. What more could a girl ask for?

 

What would I be doing if I took a bus, stayed in a hostel and avoided strangers? Not eating a cake with a beer sitting inside it, that’s what.

 

(My birthday cake)

The number of good times for me have vastly outweighed the bad, making the risks worth it. That being said, KNOW YOUR LINES. Ask the driver where he’s going first, if you feel uncomfortable tell him you want a car going farther than that or that you left something in the last town. Men don’t like being told they make you uneasy.

 

Text out their license plate number

This is what I’ve found to be the most important thing to do before getting into a vehicle. Text or take a photo of the car’s license plate number and the state. Send it to a friend, or better yet, two. This actually helps drivers feel more comfortable around you and provides an immediate way to relate to you as a person.

With commercial trucks the license plate is useless. Take down the DOT and truck numbers found on the side of the cab. However, this only applies to trucks in the US, Europe and other countries have differing regulations.

It’s important to ASK them if you can send out their numbers, thus ensuring them that you have their personal information if anything happens to you.

 

Defusing dangerous situations

Even after traveling solo for thousands of miles, I’ve yet to find myself in a situation hitchhiking where I feel legitimately threatened. However, it can happen. The most important thing to do in these situations is to first try to defuse them verbally. I was only once propositioned by a driver:

He asked me, “Do you like hugging’ and kissin’?” “Do you like to hug and kiss men?”

Awkward right? He seemed to think that I’d do this as payment for a ride. I asserted that I wouldn’t and told him to drop me off at the next truck stop. It all transpired without incident. Although he wanted something I wasn’t willing to give, at no time did I feel threatened, so I remained calm and removed myself from the situation.

If you can, keep the driver calm and at ease, thus allowing you to get out of the car without incident.

(Messing around in Pamplona with a new hitchhiking friend)

If you’re still nervous about going it alone travel partners are great, but the more people you are already hitching with, the less room there is for new friends to interject into your life.

 

Traveling solo and avoiding the typical circle-of-friends-tour-group experience allowed me to meet other travelers on the road, many of which I’ve hitchhiked with. Not only have I traveled 5,000 km with two Danish boys I met on the road, but I wouldn’t have become a part of the TravelMakers project if I hadn’t been hitchhiking alone.

During a long discussion about sustainability, activism and avoiding looking like a tourist, my couchsurfing host in Amsterdam mentioned the project to me. I checked out the website, watched the documentary and found that my travel dates were flexible enough to line up with the proposed hitchhiking route. Ecstatic and energized I jumped on board. Thus, here I am, writing to you about how spontaneity and expanding one’s comfort zone – traveling alone – can lead you to uncovering the most invaluable life experiences. And oh, the places you will go and the people you will meet….

 

(4 Bosnian boys I hitched a ride from and subsequently had a blast with)

 

I have made friends with people from all walks of life:

 

  • I’ve met an ex-Mexican drug smuggler who has admitted to seeing people killed, bought me lunch and showed me photos of his 10 year-old son, the reason he got out of “the business.”

 

  • After walking a mile down the interstate I got a ride with possibly the friendliest guy in West Virginia. He trusted me enough to leave his keys in the ignition when he stopped to run an errand.

 

  • I’ve talked with a homeless man in San Diego for 4 hours who’s a yogi, knows Ram Dass and has a house in India where he’s lived for the past 40 years. He taught me to speak a little Italian and I now have a place to stay in India for as long as I like!

 

  • I’ve gotten a terrifying and awesome ride in a drift car in Spain by a man who’d just started learning to drive it. Possibly the most dangerous and thrilling car ride I’ve taken.

 

  • I’ve partied with 4 Bosnian boys, shared beer, coffee and explored small towns whilst blasting Black Eyed Peas on the car stereo.

 

This has all happened because I put myself out there, snubbing the naysayers and challenging what was defined as ‘reckless’. For me, hitchhiking is a radically humanistic way of reconnecting with people.

 

 

 

 

When East meets West. But where?

by Jorin Eichhorn

What is Western Europe, what is Eastern Europe? It is the question that I have in mind since a while. I don’t want to get into political spheres nor to exaggerate it in terms of social sciences. Rather I am wondering about myself when I have these kind of thoughts –oh yeah, this really looks like Eastern Europe now – or –yeah this is definitely not Western Europe anymore- But what is it exactly? How does this come up?

Pic Romania 01

Typical image of a Romanian village passing the main road

I wake up after a freaky cold night in my tent. Our group made it until the shallows of Transylvania in Romania now and has a great time hitchhiking. But damn it, I thought we would have a warm summer trip but apparently summer is not all the same in Europe. We have stayed for a couple of days on a farm, away from the mainstream life in order to experience a more basic lifestyle than we are used to have in our everyday city life. It’s time for hitchhiking again; time to leave the place behind with which we just started to get a bit more familiar. Yeah that’s how it always goes when being on the road.

After a while my hitchhiking partner and I find ourselves on a dusty parking lot again from where we want to continue our way towards our final destination of today. It doesn’t take long until a somewhat crazy Turkish truck driver is more than happy to give us a ride. And now the adventure in my mind starts off.

P1110600

An old woman sitting in front of a door in some random village

Sitting in a truck makes me feel like being the king of the road. The view is great and I have enough time to pay attention to a lot of things. Our way leads us through many smaller, sometimes bigger Romanian villages. The roads are pretty narrow; nonetheless some cars stop at the verge of the road for whatever reasons. Suddenly we see a big cluster of shops that sell some somewhat cheap tourist stuff. Baskets, wooden tools, garden decoration, souvenirs, too much stuff which makes me wonder who would really stop for it. Yeah, many tourists are around, I can see it on the number plates. What puzzles me is that I can see quite some German temporary number plates. Why is there always only one guy in the car, why do five of these cars pass us in the row? Who is traveling with a temporary number plate at all?
We get out of the village, going up a road winding around the hill. Wherever there is a bit more space than just this narrow lane that we are on, there are people standing to the left or to the right selling fruits or vegetables; onions, mushrooms, garlic, grapes. I am having a more precise look, our driver nods –all gypsies, everywhere gypsies-
Yeah, this is Eastern Europe I am thinking by myself. A few kilometers later we are passing a valley which is covered by smoke. Somewhere there must be a fire around and heaven knows why someone lit this. Is it on purpose? Well, this is definitely not happening in Western Europe. Yes, I am reassuring myself.

Pic Romania 02

Especially in rural areas it is quite common to see carriages on the road

The next village that we enter starts off with a massive car cemetery. Completely destroyed cars, and a truck where half of its parts are missing. Most of these parts are sold as replacement units. I can see many cars that are obviously from Germany but of a bit older age: the bus has the inscription “Stadtwerke Oberhausen GmbH” (public services Oberhausen cooperation), the old ambulance says “Red Cross Germany”.

Our driver has to make a somewhat dangerous maneuver because of an old man who is riding his crappy bike on the road. He doesn’t have any space to go somewhere else. The horse carriage which is coming across at the same time gets a bit in danger and needs to find a quick solution. Our driver is yelling and honks on both of them. I am not sure if this is positive for the whole situation. Only a few seconds later there is suddenly a police car popping up and I have to hide quickly behind the passenger seat where my hitchhiking partner sits. Yeah, it is a bit problematic to be three persons in the truck for legal reasons. So in order to not bring our driver into difficulties I have to keep an open eye on the road for the police that often stands at the road.

P1110546

They are waiting quite often at the verge of the road

The truck driver tells us that he was cool to take us. We are obvious foreigners, not one of these gypsy guys. He reassures that he is not racist at all. But he would never give a ride not even in his worst dreams to one of the gypsies that we can see all over in every village that we enter. Women with colorful clothing, dark skin, many kids around them, guys looking alike standing at their car drinking out of a big pepsi bottle and listening to loud music. Sometimes they wave to us in the truck; our driver doesn’t care about them. Who are these people actually?
We are in a rural area again. Our driver tells us that most of the bears living in Europe happen to live here in Romania. And most possibly, at the forest that we are crossing just now. We have to slow down because a random shepherd decided to block the road with his goat herd.

Much later we finish the ride in the same way as we began it: our driver stops in a spot that would have never occurred to me to pull over. Well, we are in Eastern Europe and it is simply different here. But why am I actually looking for this distinction between east and west? Why do I try to draw this border? Am I not the organizer of this project which says “Through the borders”?
I don’t want to draw these borders but neither have I wanted to deny differences. I rather accept the last one.