With all major highs of travel, you can contrast some major lows. It’s important to endure them, recover, and learn from them. Your trip thus far has offered quite a few highs and lows, but recently, the highs have been higher, and the lows… lower.
Two years ago you did a five-week couchsurfing tour around Western Europe and will always remember Berlin as a test of your endurance. Berlin is an enormous city, and you, young and dumb, were determined to hitch hike out. You took a tram to the outer edge of the city to get a head start, then spent more than three hours walking through the blazing sun, trying to get out of the suburbs. Your map was insufficient, and the roads signs confusing. You spent a great deal of time re-tracing your steps.
When at last you found the ramp to the motorway—the only one for 10 kilometers–you were dismayed to see that it was under major construction, covered in barriers and detours, and heavy with traffic. No one, even if they wanted to, would be able to pull over.
But you tried anyway, for two hours. You tried writing different signs, to different destinations, until you finally wrote something to the effect of, “Help me get off this ramp!” Nothing.
You burst into tears from frustration, fatigue, and hopelessness. Sobbed on the side of the road, feeling fully sorry for yourself because the sun was low in the sky and you knew there was no way you were going to make it to your next destination, which was Prague. Not by a long shot.
In a fit of anger, you shouldered your bag and stomped through the construction, down the ramp. That day, you learned that sometimes, the secret to hitch hiking is to be more assertive. You walked down the autobahn, facing traffic, seething in anger at the Powers That Be, daring them to deny you a lift. It only took a few minutes. You finally got one.
Berlin was a good lesson. Since then, no matter how desperate your situation has felt, you always look back to that day and say, “You do not feel worse than you did on that day. Suck it up, Stevens.”
That is, until a few days ago, when you arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria…
First, you were tired of hitch hiking, particularly because it took so long to get to Istanbul in the first place, and you had arrived very late at night in unfamiliar territory. Had it not been for the coordinated efforts of Harkan and Onur, you would have been S.O.L. In order to avoid that kind of catastrophe (later, you would realize the irony of this) you decided you would treat yourself to a bus ride from Istanbul to Sofia. The ticket was only 22 euro.
You arrived at Istanbul’s enormous bus station at 2pm. Your bus didn’t depart until 6pm, so you spent those four hours idly walking around, ignoring the Turkish salesmen, and guarding your bag. Once on the bus, it was almost 10 hours of being cramped in a tiny seat, reading by a dim light, listening to old men snore, and sweating and shivering from your driver’s ludicrous idea of climate control. There was also the on and off sequence at the border, the toilet breaks, and the bus driver’s seemingly personal stops. At last, when you reached Sofia, it was 3:40 in the morning, pitch dark, freezing, and uninviting. Your eyes hung like sacks of water, desperate for real sleep. Like many others, you curled up on a steel bench, pulled your hat over your eyes, and tried to catch a few Zs. But you couldn’t. Not really. Fear of having your bag robbed, fear of being fucked with, mistrust of others in general prevented you from real sleep. At 5:30 in the morning, you decided that perhaps you might try to walk the 6km to your host’s neighborhood. But the sky was still dark, the potential for robbery still high, and it didn’t help that everything was written in a different alphabet and the streets were impossible to read. You walked only 10 minutes, then decided to turn back.
The fatigue was oppressive. Your head heavy. You looked in your wallet and decided to exchange 30 euro for some Bulgarian leva. You would take a taxi. Treat yourself to a taxi, let the driver decide how to get to your host’s apartment, and you could relax.
That was a mistake. You didn’t know about predatory cab drivers. They prey on stupid Western tourists like yourself. When you got into the cab and showed the driver the address, he contemplated it and said, “Probably 25, 30, 35 leva!” Jesus, that seems pretty steep. But you didn’t care anymore. You had 54 leva on you.
“Do you have a meter?” you asked. He nodded, showed you the sign that says (1km = 5.50 leva), and switched it on.
Fucking Christ! Isn’t this supposed to be the poorest country in Europe? How the fuck can taxis charge so much?
Silly Stevens… you don’t think very clearly when you’re tired, do you? How many times on this trip have you simply acquiesced due to fatigue? You’re getting too old, too tired. Like Alexis always says, “Sometimes you need to know when to throw money at a problem.”
He switched on the meter, and then idled for two minutes as another taxi had trouble moving his vehicle to clear the way. Tick, tick, tick. The meter climbed at an astronomical rate. You realized at that point, that you were being screwed.
Needless to say, watching the fare increase was aggravating, so you averted your eyes and took in the empty streets, the old communist block buildings, the roads and sidewalks in horrible repair. Tick, tick, tick. By the time you reached the neighborhood, the meter read 35 leva—what he had predicted.
But then you legitimately couldn’t find the place! The apartments ran 44, 45, 46… There was no 43. Your driver tried in vain to find the building for another 7 minutes. Tick, tick. At last, he pulled the car over at 44 and pointed off in the distance. “Somewhere there,” he said. You stared at him, bewildered. He’d just driven all that extra time and failed to at least find the place. Meanwhile, the meter read 50 leva.
“Fifty?” you said. “Are you serious?”
“But you just spent 15 leva driving around in circles and you can’t even find the place!”
He shrugged his shoulders and raised his hands in innocence, then gestured to the fare. “It says 50.”
Oh Maria… there are times when you are tough, when you thrash people, enforce the law, fight for justice. This was not one of them. Your inner child, released by ayahuasca, was going to have her way. Your stomach was in knots, your chest constricted, your tears threatening… no energy to fight. You reached into your wallet, pulled out 50 leva (28 euro) and threw it at him. “Take your fucking money.”
You stood with your bag at 6:30 in the morning, cold, lost, and dead on your feet. You bit your lip and started searching for the building. You found a few early-morning dog-walkers. No one knew where the building was. “Maybe there…” “Try behind there.” “Down that way?”
Nothing. You staggered back to main road and started sobbing–not crying like a normal person; no, sobbing uncontrollably like a little girl until your legs felt so weak that you had to sit down on the curb and bury your face in your arms.
Just like Berlin…
Worse, because even after the long, hard cry, you couldn’t pull yourself together. You needed a phone, but no one would help. They kept pointing to the pay phones, which needed special calling cards—something you didn’t have.
You finally found a service station. A skinny kid was working the counter. You took a deep breath and raised your hand to your ear as a mock telephone. “Do you have a phone I can use? Please. I need to make a call. I don’t have a card.”
The boy: “Telephone outside.”
“I don’t have a card. I can’t use it. Please, do you have a phone?” You pointed to his mobile.
“Credit,” he said, reluctantly.
Talking was becoming more of a strain, and the tears returned. You pulled out 2 leva from your wallet and waved it in front of him. “Please! Where can I buy a card? Or can I pay you? I need to make a call! I’m lost.”
Seeing your tears, your frantic waving of the note, he shifted uncomfortably. “Please, wait a minute.”
You waited. He finished a few transactions, then did something with his mobile before handing it to you. You thanked him earnestly and began to dial the number, only to get an operator’s voice in garbled Bulgarian.
Boo hoo… the tears were streaking down your cheeks and you were aware that everyone was staring at you. You asked the boy to help you. He re-dialed the number, got an answer, and began speaking.
Your ad-lib: “Hello, Sir, I’m sorry to disturb you so early in the morning, but I work down at the OMV. There’s a girl here trying to call you. She’s crying. Please, you’d better come quickly. She might do something crazy.”
“Please wait fifteen minutes,” the boy said, after hanging up the call. “Would you like a coffee?”
Relief made your tears run faster. “No, thank you.” You sat in the corner, at the counter, sniffling, blowing your nose, dabbing your eyes. Dammit! Stop fucking crying, Stevens.
You did, long enough to greet your host, Yassen, with a stoic, red-eyed expression. He was grinning at you, pleased to make your acquaintance. “Hi! Come this way. I live just beyond there. How was your trip?”
You tried to speak, but your voice caught in your throat.
You tried everything to prevent it. Held up your hand in a, “Just one second,” gesture. Stared up at the sky. Took deep breaths.
“Is everything okay?” Yassen asked.
Waaahhhh! “I’m s—sorry,” you gasped. “I’m just really tired. I’m not normally like this. God, I’m so tired, and I just got ripped off by a taxi, and I’ve been trying to get here for the past 16 hours. I didn’t want this to be my first impression.”
Yassen was extraordinarily good-natured. “Please, don’t worry. It’s okay. You will get to my place and be able to sleep.”
Sleep… a word sung by angels. You couldn’t wait to throw yourself on the bed he and his wife, Kalina, made for you in the living room. Couldn’t wait to tug your security hat over your eyes and slip down—deep, deep down—into a coma and hopefully wake up two weeks later, when your whole trip is over.
Aaahhhhh… Why?! Why are you trying to force yourself to travel for seven weeks? You want this trip to be over now! How much will it cost? Check some flights. 250 dollars! To fly to Ireland in a few days. To make it all end!
You considered it. Throw money at a problem to make it go away. Go ahead, throw heaps of money. You can always get more!
Stop it. You’re tired. You’re hungry. You’re stressed. That’s all this is. You are going to rest. You are going to recover. You will be able to confront your lifestyle again. You will.
This is a truth about life. Stress and fatigue have an uncanny ability to destroy your experience. Utterly demolish your ability to confront day to day challenges.
Life is about confrontation.
Too many people are more afraid of the confrontation than they are about the navigation of a situation.
Your unwillingness to confront a long day of hitch hiking from Istanbul to Sofia ended up costing you 50 euro (approximately 7 days of your budget) and reducing you to a pathetic, quivering puddle of tears and snot.
Ah ha ha! You rested. You recovered. You spent three brilliant evenings and a day of hiking with Yassen and Kalina, a truly wonderful couple, who radiated warmth and relaxation. Next stop, Bucharest.
Ohh, but your stomach was churning. Hitch hiking… so much effort. The distance was far, the roads would be poor. Couldn’t you, perhaps, take another bus?
No way. You learned your lesson last time. Come on, Stevens. Confront it. You’ve done it hundreds of times. What’s so hard about it now? It’s all in your head.
Yassin dropped you on the road heading out of Sofia, and you began. There was no other choice. Things will always move forward. You have to stop resisting, stop worrying about what you cannot change. It’s a waste of energy.
Something didn’t feel right. Your experience of hitch hiking has changed. It’s so… hard now. So much effort. So much waiting. So much stress. You cannot relax. You cannot sleep. You cannot read. You must always watch, stay aware, be on guard.
Your first driver dropped on you the wrong road… a long stretch of highway disappearing over the horizon, flanked by two service stations, and garnished with a teenage prostitute.
Jesus Christ, she’s so young… Maybe 16 years old, sucking on a cigarette and wearing a mini demin skirt in which she wavered side-to-side, legs crossing and uncrossing.
It felt odd to pass by her, sticking out your thumb in the same manner that she stuck out her hand to passing traffic. Who was cramping whose style, here? You thought dimly that you were now in territory where drivers might easily mistake you for a prostitute.
You continued walking and watched as a truck driver pulled his vehicle into the service station—the way the young girl trotted to his door and made her offer. He looked at her only briefly, then strode away. She stopped dead in her tracks, stared after him, then turned on her heels and returned the road.
That young girl wasn’t the only poignant thing of the day. Oh no. You later caught a lift with Rico, an old, very sleazy-looking, 43-year-old Greek chain-smoker who made his living selling sun screens for “kinderwagens” (that is, “baby strollers”). He spoke no English and could only communicate in a difficult mixture of Spanish and German. He kept inviting you to his hotel, to a club for vodkas and whiskeys, and promised to take you to Bucharest the following morning. You shook your head, “No, really. I have to get to Bucharest tonight.”
He bought you a coffee and begged you to smoke with him. The caffeine and nicotine, normally a very nice combination, induced intense anxiety. You realized you had been holding your breath for hours, as if anticipating the absolute worst—which never came. The man amicably dropped you where you needed to be without any further request.
Then came your Turkish truck driver, whose name you cannot remember due to the impossibility of pronouncing it. He worked for a Dutch company and was carrying a truck load of tulips. You have no logical reason for trusting someone who was trucking such a lovely commodity, but he was also very tidy, clean-shaven, and showed you pictures of his family. He would be going all the way to Bucharest, and you could finally let your guard down. The anxiety abated.
He too, spoke no English, only this time the operational languages were Turkish and German. You smiled through his confusing attempts to communicate, but soon your smile melted when you understood that he was admiring your breasts.
“Cup! Grote! Cup, cup.” He pointed to his chest, made pinching motions.
“Ha… ha…” you looked off distantly, “Please don’t talk about my breasts.” Things had been going so nicely before that…
He pulled into a truck stop, literally in the middle of nowhere, where two hard-looking parking directors stood on a sun-bleached lot.
You’re wound too tightly. Relax. You’re fine.
Of course you were fine! But in your head, you were the focal point of a truck stop gang bang. When your driver escorted you to the toilet, you were the star of horror movie featuring a white-tiled room slick with condensation and splatters of your blood.
You waited as he took his coffee break. Stared dejectedly at you map—repeated Frosts’s line: ‘Miles to go before you sleep…’
Finally, through half-understood Turkish-German, your driver asked: “How many years have you been traveling?”
Your hyper-gesticulated response: “Almost three. More than two years in Europe. Always auto-stop.”
“You’re a very big girl. Very strong. You have such large breasts.” Cup! Grote!
No you don’t, dammit! They’re medium! “No…” To the left, “Klein,” then to the right, “Grote,” and in the middle, “Medium,” you insisted, jabbing your thumbs into your chest.
He laughed and slapped a palm on the table. Then, “Do you ever have any problems when you auto-stop?”
You pointed to France on your map. “Three Romanians. Problem.” You tried to reenact the scene where these dudes veered off your road and tried to abduct you and Alexis into a possible fishing-trip-orgy.
You pointed to Spain. “Two Armenians. Problem.” You didn’t try to explain the front-seat wanker and, ‘Alexis, get your pepper spray!’
You pointed to Holland. “A Turkish guy. Problem.” How to explain that the guy got out of his car for a threesome with you and Alexis?
You pointed to Crete. “Greek man. Problem.” Nipple pinching prick.
You didn’t mention the persistent Spanish construction worker, ‘I like sex every day. Do you like sex every day?‘; the French womanizer, “I only stopped because I saw your blond hair. I don’t have to be home to my wife and kids for another three hours. How about you and me get hotel room and have sex? We can order pizza.” Alexis: “Do it, Maria! I want the pizza!”; the Spanish truck driver who really wanted a date with you and a web cam; another pair of Armenian guys who took you for a 30 minute joyride and then dropped you in the same spot they found you…
No wonder you’re sick of hitch hiking!
It took several hours to really believe that your driver had no ill intentions—perhaps because, when stopped for two hours at the Bulgarian-Romanian border, like a magician, he pulled open half a dozen drawers and cabinets and produced a veritable feast for dinner: pates, cheese, jam, olives, juice, bread, figs, cookies, crackers. “Tukish!” he smiled, as he waved his arm before the spread.
He was, truly, a very nice man. So nice that– while stopped indefinitely at the border, when a small Romanian… boy? Or was it a very fat woman? Old? Young? Jesus. It was impossible to tell! Ze was walking down the line of lorries, entreating the drivers in a high, whiny voice. Ze was morbidly obese, garbed in an over-sized, filthy brown coat, the sleeves of which hung long and limp down to zir knees.
You heard the sing-song pleading, saw zim hock a huge loogie against the window of a truck further up the line. Ze finally approached your vehicle –your driver spoke through a cracked window, looked back at you with a roll of his eyes, and then spent a good ten minutes tearing through his belongings, looking for something to give. A package of cookies.
Come on, dude. This creature probably already has diabetes. Really, Stevens… you have to be so judgmental about diet and exercise.
Your trucker glanced back and shrugged helplessly. “Americana!” Probably, ‘I can’t speak to her to tell her what you want!” He locked the doors.
The little beggar rounded to your side of the vehicle. Whine-whine, sing-song!
You felt like a complete asshole, staring down at zir, like a spectator at the zoo. Only it was you behind the glass. You honestly could not decide the age or gender of the creature. The only thing you could see clearly was the hatred—the bitterness in zir eyes. It was an angry kirby.
Oh, how you stared…
A huge gob of spit hit your window. Whine-whine. The creature waddled off, long steeves flapping at zir sides like penguin arms.
Prostitutes and beggars. All around you, vast fields of garbage, broken roads, dilapidated houses. This is why people tell you not to hitch hike in Eastern Europe—alone. The sun sank behind the horizon, casting you in darkness; you still hadn’t made it to Bucharest, and suddenly the idea of camping seemed like a very bad one. You were tempted—so tempted to just stay with your driver, go wherever he may be headed, and sleep on his top bunk.
But you didn’t. At 10pm, you allowed him to drop you at the ring road outside of Bucharest, still a good ten kilometers from the center. As you predicted, he would not be able to to take you to the center, because he couldn’t drive the truck off route. So you started walking.
You’re in Romania, Maria. You are a woman, walking alone in the sketchy outskirts of the city, alone, just begging to get robbed. Get off the road!
So you walked, sticking your thumb out, hoping someone might stop for you in the dark—but they never do. Did they think you were a man, with your hair stuffed under your hat? Should you let your hair down? Or did that make you look more vulnerable?
You powered down the road for a couple kilometers, eying the passers-by, the occasional throngs of young people.
A brightly-lit service station lied ahead. Some place safe. You went, stood under a street light, and tried to hitch—still, without any luck.
A taxi pulled over. You snickered, remembering the lesson you learned in Sofia. This guy was just waiting to be able to save your ass, and bleed you of every last penny.
–Not that you had any money! You didn’t have a single leu on you. You couldn’t pay for a taxi even if you wanted to. So when you told the driver, “No money!” his eyes bulged, he half-laughed, “No money?” and sped off without any further attempt.
A moment later, a police car pulled up to the station. You recoiled instinctively, for all the times the police have plucked you from the side of the motorway and admonished you—lectured you for being unsafe, for illegal hitch hiking—particularly last time, with Manon outside of Cork. That cop ruined your day.
But wait! This time, you weren’t doing anything illegal. Stupid, yes. But at least you wouldn’t get into trouble.
You, with you long hair flowing out from under your cap, girlishly stuck out your thumb for the cop, fully expecting him to ignore you—as they always do. But he didn’t. You met him by his car.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To the city center, but I’m stuck here and it’s dark. What I really need is a telephone.”
He fumbled for his phone, “Come inside. You can use mine. Let me help you.”
You realized, at that point, that this cop was a fresh, smooth-faced, bright-eyed boy—okay, man, because he was about 30, but radiated the embarrassment of a much younger soul. He contacted your host, gave him directions, told you he would wait with you until your host arrived. “Would you like anything? Please? A coffee, a tea. A coke? A beer? Chips? Something to eat?”
Good heavens! No, thanks, really…
“You look like you’ve been traveling for a long time. I think that maybe you are hungry?”
Do I look skinny? Yes!
You declined the numerous offers, leaned against a freezer, and waited. The service station attendants studied you from a distance. The cop stayed by you side, tried to chat you up.
“I hope I’m not bothering you,” he said, “because I am waiting with you.”
“Bothering me? Of course not. I feel much safer because you are waiting with me.”
He beamed. This was adorable. The type of male attention that pays off in the end. He waited with you for 30 minutes, talking awkwardly to you—with a painfully slow and stuttering cadence–like a teenager asking for a date. “Please! I must insist! Let me buy you a coffee.” Okay, fine. “I want you to have a good impression of Romania. It’s dangerous, yes. You have to be very careful if you are alone especially with your money. Don’t walk by yourself at night. And never take a taxi. They are the most dishonest.”
You already learned that lesson.
When your host finally collected you and swept you straight away to a pub to meet four of his friends, who asked how you ended up alone at night on the outskirts of the city, you regaled everyone with tales of travel mishaps—just as you have done here.