Imagine you are on a wonderful, pristine beach, isolated from tourists and shopping centres. You are exhausted but very happy after the whole day spent on visiting the neighbouring national park and admiring beautiful, unspoiled nature. You are relishing delicious rice with vegetables, cooked specially for you. Locals greet you with a smile. You will have the last dip in the perfectly warm water after the sun sets down on a faraway mountain. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?
This was indeed a description of my dream holiday and I had the opportunity to live this dream last summer when travelling with two of my friends. We just didn’t spend loads of money, didn’t book into five-star hotels and didn’t travel by luxurious planes. It was a hitchhiking trip around the Balkans, as simple and cheap as that. We spent one month travelling together, mostly hitching rides and sleeping in our tents. We started our journey in Croatia, went down to Montenegro, Albania and Greece, and moved up towards Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Serbia. It was the best month of my life. After having survived my fourth hitchhiking trip, I still haven’t had enough. It’s not that I want to brag about my experiences, though you know I had an awesome time.
Why is hitchhiking so awesome? First of all, it is cheap. Don’t listen to people who say they’re not doing it because of the money. It can’t be denied that money is essential when travelling from one place to another, especially if you’re young and you’ve been saving up really hard for this. Don’t feel like you’re taking advantage of other people when getting into another person’s car. They do it voluntarily and they don’t lose anything, quite the opposite. They can enjoy some company during their solo travels.
Hitchhiking is awesome because you get to meet people. That was my main concern when I was a teenager and used to travel with my parents. We would meet a nice local from time to time but it just wasn’t enough. I’m a sociable person but quite shy, too, and I wouldn’t just go up to a stranger on a beach to have a talk. When you hitchhike, it’s natural that you meet people. You basically have a reason to talk to strangers and, believe me, most of the time, it’s more than just spending a few hours in the car together.
I’ve met the nicest, the worst, and the weirdest people during my hitching experiences. In Albania, we met a marijuana dealer who’d left his country to work illegally in England but came back for the summer to take care of his weed fields. He took us to every bar in the city, paid for our drinks, and a night in a hostel. On our way to the capital of Macedonia, we took a ride with a lovely girl who, when she found out that we normally sleep in tents somewhere in the bushes, invited us over to her family house. Her parents cooked an excellent dinner for us, treated us to their ecologically grown figs and watermelons and made us stay for the night.
Somewhere in Croatia, an old German fire-fighter truck stopped for us. It was driven by a Russian-Brazilian hippie couple with two babies. As we found out, they had been travelling for two months around the Balkans and were on their way to a circus gathering. A few days later, we were stuck on the Croatian-Montenegrin border and met the crazy family again, completely by accident. In the end, we spent two days with them travelling and camping.
In Romania, we came across a couple who took care of stray dogs and invited us over to their house where they kept more than 30 dogs and 20 puppies. As you can imagine, we spent all afternoon there. In the Netherlands, the nicest guy ever drove 70 km off his route just to take us to the centre of Amsterdam. In Bosnia, we had the pleasure of travelling on a cart pulled by a horse.
All of those encounters made the hitchhiking trips one of a kind. You can’t get bored. There is no mediocre time during hitchhiking. There is either pain from walking for hours with a heavy backpack or happiness from being able to go from one city to another in one car. You can easily lose hope when you are waiting on the road for 3 hours straight in midday with no shade but you quickly regain motivation when you come across yet another noble person.
Not only do you meet people but also learn how to communicate with them. Everybody is different and you need to approach them individually, especially if you’re benefiting from their kindness. Some are easy-going but others might be unapproachable and they don’t care about having polite chats with you. You need to adapt to a situation and know when and what to say.
Culture is another factor which you should take into account. For example, in some countries, it’s better to make sure that both you and the driver are on the same page and they don’t expect you to pay for the lift. Once in Albania, we forgot to ask and were terrified later. The driver demanded 20 euro for a half an hour ride and wouldn’t open the car boot where we had our backpacks. When we finally managed to break free, we had to hide in a nearby bank as the guy ran after us.
What about comfort? I’m aware of the fact that hitchhiking and sleeping in tents isn’t for everybody. You never know where you will end up in the evening. It can be a little village with no shops, a big, sprawling city or just a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. It means that it may happen that you have nothing to eat until the next morning or that you need to walk 2 hours with a 30-kilo backpack before you find an isolated part of some greenery in a big city. And that is amazing. No plan is a great plan, as my friend always says.
Once, we were really exhausted and, without further ado, we put up our tents on a piece of land nearby. In the morning, we were woken up by the sounds of the cows mooing and trying to eat our tents. In Dubrovnik, we went all the way up on the hill and found some ruins with a view on the old town. Later, we were almost thrown out of our perfect sleeping place because of the fire we made to cook our speciality – rice with vegetables.
Another time, we couldn’t stop any cars on an empty mountain road in Albania and we had to walk for five hours in direct sunlight and with no food. When we finally got to the nearest town, all three of us ended up in hospital and had to be put on a drip, after having been diagnosed with sun stroke. And you must know, you never want to spend any time in any Albanian hospital!
The lack of comfort is important and beneficial for yet another reason. It teaches you how to appreciate your ordinary life. After 2 weeks of sleeping on the ground, we were delighted to sleep in a normal bed, even though it was a stinky bed in a bug-ridden hostel in Tirana, the capital of Albania. Cooking our one-pot specialities using fire makes you realise how simple and clean cooking at home is, whereas taking care of your physiological needs in the bushes makes you appreciate the simple invention of a toilet. A washing machine is, in general, handy as hell which you realise after having washed your clothes in the river for a month.
Hitchhiking teaches you how to cope in difficult situations and bonds you and your friends like nothing else. I know it’ll sound clichéd but hitchhiking is not a way of getting from one place to another, it’s a way of travelling. It’s a way of life. I will never forget any of my hitchhiking stories and I am thirsty for more but hey, summer is coming!