I’m a 5-foot, 2-inch girl from Long Island, New York. I don’t exactly look like someone who should be hitchhiking anywhere, let alone hundreds of kilometres across Europe.
But when I heard about the opportunity to hitchhike for charity from my university in Scotland to Madrid in Spain, I jumped at the chance.
Every year, my university holds an event called Race 2, which is a hitchhike race to a European city (the location changes every year), in order to raise money for a selection of local and global charities. Racers have to raise a certain amount of money to participate, and are encouraged to accept donations along the way.
Competitors team up in groups of two or three (with at least one male, for safety reasons) and the main rule is that all transportation from start to finish must be donated by others. Cars are the easiest option, but trains, planes, and buses are also acceptable if other people have paid the competitors’ fare.
Of course, spending personal money on food and lodging is permitted. And as another safety precaution, competitors must send location updates every four hours to safety teams that track everyone’s progress and are trained to respond accordingly to signs of distress.
Surprisingly, my parents didn’t seem exceptionally worried when I told them about my plans to partake in this adventure (I neglected to mention that the safety teams were made up of students just like me). So, with a backpack full of necessities, some official-looking Race 2 documentation, and a giant foam thumb, my teammate Jakob and I set out with the other racers on a cold January morning.
The big racer bus dropped us off around 6 a.m. at a service station just outside of Edinburgh. The journey that spanned the following four days was by far the coolest thing I have ever done in my life. Here are some of the things I learned along the way.
They looked promising enough in our complimentary racer packs, but waving them around on the side of the road accomplished absolutely nothing except keep that one hand warm in the cold January air. Jakob and I ditched ours soon after getting started.
Everyone likes a good car nap, but they are especially satisfying when you're dealing with late nights, early mornings, and the stress of being on the road. Once we felt comfortable with a driver, Jakob and I would take turns napping in the back seat. One of us would always stay awake, though, just in case.
From Newcastle, to Leeds, to London, to Canterbury, the accents in England are extremely region-specific. Some English people even joke that accents can change from one street to another, and I believe it. One of the coolest parts about driving through England was hearing how the accents of our drivers shifted as we made our way South.
We thought that the ferry ride from Dover, England to Calais, France (which we paid for thanks to donations from drivers) would be a time to relax a little. We were wrong.
There were several other Race 2 teams on our ferry, and everyone was trying to hitch a ride with some south-bound ferry passengers. But not many people seemed to be going in the right direction, so Jakob and I stationed ourselves outside of a private trucker's lounge to try to figure out the next leg of transportation. Very few of them spoke languages we could understand, though, and time on the ferry was running out.
We thought that our ferry troubles were over when we finally managed to talk with a Romanian truck driver who was heading more or less where we wanted to go. He drove us out of the ferry and through Calais, which is a pretty dangerous city with a lot of immigrants trying to make their way to England through the port.
Unfortunately, a miscommunication after a stop at a service station caused our truck driver to accidentally (or so we thought) leave without us. We almost got stuck in Calais for the night.
By some miracle, a French university student was passing through the service station on his way to Paris, and he agreed to take us along. He ended up being one of the best drivers of our trip.
Not only did he give us a midnight tour of Paris upon our arrival, but he also let us stay the night in his apartment. It was incredibly hospitable, especially given the fact that the Charlie Hebdo shootings had rocked the city just a week earlier.
Our third day on the road took us to some obscure corners of France. One amazingly kind lady drove us six hours from Paris down to Royan, a gorgeous city on France's West coast. She then paid for us to join her on the ferry from Royan to Soulac-Sur-Mer, where she lived.
The detour cost us a bit of time, but the beauty of the setting and the incredible generosity of our driver were too good to pass up.
The tiny French beach town of Soulac-Sur-Mer features a Statue of Liberty replica that looks out directly to the real one in New York.
She's over 4,800kms away from the real thing, but she's a perfectly accurate replica. This little Lady Liberty was a reminder of the relationship between France and the United States, and an example of the awesome and random things you come across when you take the time to explore smaller corners of the globe.
Our hostel in Bordeaux on our third night cost us about 11 Euros each, and we got exactly what we (didn't) pay for. The room was clean enough, but the bathroom was somehow lacking a door, and the toilet was a little ... unstable. But we felt safe, and appreciated a good night's sleep.
Having spent so little money on our journey so far, Jakob and I decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner in Bordeaux. Wandering into a cosy neighbourhood restaurant, we were immediately greeted by an enthusiastic waiter, who informed us in broken English that 'truffle season was upon us,' and the restaurant was offering a three-course truffle dinner for about 30 Euros. Paired with some amazing red wine, it was one of the best meals of my life.
Around noon on day 4, we finally entered Spain near San Sebastian. A van driver from Latvia brought us through the breathtaking green mountains of Basque Country as he transported rubber for tire making. At one point, he asked me to take some pictures of the rolling scenery with his phone so that he could show his young daughter some of the highlights of his route.
As Jakob and I neared Madrid in the evening, temperatures dropped significantly and snow began to fall along the roadside. We thought we were going to be greeted by warm Spanish sun, but it was actually colder in the Madrid area than it had been in France!
The truth is that the Spanish capital is around 2,000 feet above sea level, so it can get pretty chilly in the winter. As we closed in on our final destination, we bundled up.
Night was falling on day 4 when Jakob and I scored our very last lift of the race. Two young Spanish women picked us up at a rest stop just outside of Burgos and drove us into the heart of Madrid, giving us tips about things to do in the city along the way. It had officially taken us 18 car lifts to reach Madrid, not counting 2 ferry rides and one short train.
Other teams had more, some had less -- but we were happy with our 18, and very, very grateful for the kind people who had welcomed us hitchhiking weirdos into their vehicles.
It's easy to lose faith in humanity these days -- the news is a constant reminder of the evil and crazy people in the world. But all of the people that Jakob and I met during the race were kind, welcoming, and eager to help, even if they didn't have much to offer. In the end, we travelled 2,400kms purely by the goodness of complete strangers. Of course, it's important to be wary and careful, but our safe arrival in Madrid was proof that there are nice folks out there.
While I learned that it's important to trust people sometimes, it's also crucial to trust your gut. We humans are wired to perceive threats and danger, and I found that trusting our instincts helped us to seek out the right drivers and stay away from situations that could have been unsafe.
I will never forget how it felt to arrive in Madrid, knowing that we had made it all the way from Scotland with little more than cunning, strategy and luck. As we walked the final blocks to the hostel that the Race 2 committee had rented out for all of the teams to stay in, we tried to take in the gravity of our accomplishment. We had proved to ourselves -- and to everyone following our progress -- that we were capable of doing something that had seemed impossible.
But I guess that when people come together to help each other, impossibility doesn't exist.
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