Typical scenario: You and Manon stand on the side of the road wearing your backpacks and pleasant expressions. The road heads straight out of town, the shoulder is wide, and it isn´t a Sunday. A car approaches. The driver is alone, the back seat looks empty. The car passes. It does not stop. “Assholes!” exclaimes Manon.
This just about sums it up–your frame of mind after three years of travel.
You see, three years ago, you had a dream: quit your job, donate half your stuff, buy a packpack and a tent, and head off into Europe Alexander Supertramp style… Walk along highways for hours, hitch hike everywhere, bathe in streams, sleep wherever you like. Yup, you and every other kid who saw Into The Wild wanted to do it.
But you did it–minus the whole dying in Alaska part.
It didn´t happen overnight, however. You remember when you first landed in Dublin, early in the morning… Everything was so new, so… so… fascinating! Wow, old streets! Wow, funny accents! Wow, they drive on the left! Cool, old cemetary!
EVOLUTIONARY ITEM ONE: HITCH HIKING
Oh, and you remember well, the first time you stuck out your thumb to hitch hike. You felt so self-conscious, silly, nervous. That first time, a bus actually pulled over for you, and let you on for free. You made it to the farm in Co. Wicklow, Ireland, and did not need to hitch anymore.
That is, until you went to France. You had agreed to meet your hosts at a market in a certain very obscure town on a certain day at a certain time. You were so nervous about actually finding the location, that you booked your flight two days in advance, just to get yourself there. You paid for a train, then for buses, and arrived seamlessly (which was a shock, because the embarrassing truth is that you had never known how to take public transportation of ANY kind, ever, without someone placing you in the vehicle and telling you exactly where to get off, and how to recognize the stop). But you made it, and you pocketed more awesome new experiences.
And the first time you really hitch hiked? After another three weeks, when your host dropped you in a good position. You were just about to stick out your thumb before a small truck pulled over. You got in and didn´t look back.
It was easy! The freedom! The efficacy! Why would anyone pay for a bus or a train when they could hitch hike!? Leave! Go wherever you want. Any time you like. No waiting around in stations. Just stick out your thumb and go. Wait 10 minutes, max.
And every time someone stopped, it was like winning on a slot machine. The payoff. The feeling of success. And you were always very grateful every time you won the gamble.
People say hitch hiking is unpredictable, or harder in some countries, and not in others. But frankly, the differences between countries are not great (it depends more on the quality of roads and avaible space to pull over, and secondarily on the people´s willingness to break the law and stop where they shouldn´t).
You have learned over the years how to make a day of hitch hiking predictable. Where and how to begin the day, what parts of the day will be the most difficult, what kinds of drivers may pose a threat, how many hours you will need, judging by the quality of the roads, and how many kilometers is a reasonable distance to cover in one day (current record, 660km, with plenty of daylight to spare).
You have also learned that it seldom takes longer than 8 minutes to get a lift. Sometimes, it is as much as 15 (which feels like an eternity). Often, it is 90 seconds.
So back to the point. You are spoiled. Hitch hiking is easy, and over the years you lost all of your timidity, all of your modesty, and you developed an unfortunate sense of entitlement to people´s vehicles. That´s why, when the cars don´t stop, you are not surprised when Manon exclaimes, “Assholes! Seriously, what is wrong with these people?!”
Yeah, what´s wrong with people who do not feel like letting a stranger into their car? Don´t they trust you? Don´t you look trustworthy?
EVOLUTIONARY ITEM TWO: TRUST
“He is trusting. Straight away, he gave you a spare key to the place, and said he had to go to work. Told you to play CDs, eat whatever, sleep if you wanted… You commented on his trusting nature, and he said obviously he’d been sizing you up as a potential serial killer from the get-go, and that you seem to be a non-threat.” —June 25, 2008
Hahahaha! That was your first couchsurfing experience with Eoin in Dublin. You were simply astounded that someone could trust a stranger in their home, alone! ASTOUNDED. (As you write this, you are sitting alone in someone´s home in Kristiansand, Norway. A woman picked you up, offered to let you crash her couch, but apologized for not having much time to spend with you, as she and her husband would be leaving town the next morning at 8am for a two-day kayaking trip. She left the whole house to you.)
Layla in Malaga was the first person to invite you into her home, off the street, just like that. “Her name was Layla. She was 30 years old, teaching English in Malaga, and having the time of her life. Gregarious, loud, fearless. That was Layla, and she offered you her apartment within five minutes of meeting you. You were unsure about whether to take her up on her offer, feeling it too good to be true, but by the time you were seated in the park, playing your harmonica along to her street singing, you realized you were a match and gave her a definitive yes.” –-November, 2009
It happened again, ““Where are you going?” he asked, once belted back in and on the road again. “Carcassonne,” you replied. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll take you there.” Wait a second. When a man—let alone TWO men—offer to take you exactly where you want to go (you should not forget that Carcassonne was some 250 km away), there is usually an alterior motive. But, as it turned out, these lads were going to Montpelier, and they were gay. You mean, GAY. Stereotypically, wonderfully, FABULOUSLY gay. That is all you have to say about THAT. But you wound up skipping Carcassone, travelling all the way to Montpelier, staying the night, and having an authentic French crepe lesson. You were given your own room, the hottest shower of the year, laundry, and more food that you could eat. In fact, everything that you could have wanted, they had and offered, from internet to long-distance calling (you didn’t take them up on that). And what was the deal? Why such generosity? Why the willingness to take two strangers into their home and roll out the red carpet? Well, Layla did it, didn’t she? But Layla said that so many people treated her well during her travels, she could only pay it forward.” –Novermber, 2009
That was all in 2009, and those two stories, at the time, were unforgettable–remarkable. Because it was rare.
That is, until you traveled a little more… Then it was commonplace. There was Sunny in Croatia, who took you to his mountain home and made you lunch and offered you use of the house
, followed immediately by the guy who drove you to Zadar, and brought you to the mansion and gave you a private room.
There was Nada and David in Marezige, with their villa in the mountains, swimming pool, and champagne.
There was Amanda and Josh, who snuck you into their hostel.
There was Simona who met you near Koper, and gave you her place in Ptuj on the other side of Slovenia, cooked your breakfast, and gave you a huge bag of cherries. Kurt, the German guy who invited you onto his ski boat and paid for your camping for two nights. There was the guy who lived near Budapest, who took you in, gave you a tour of his town, bought you ice creams and drinks, and made you an enormous continental breakfast the next day, then drove half way across the map!
There was Jan, in Kopenhagen, who posted you up in his hotel room (complete with continental breakfast) for three days, bought you dinner at a new restautant every night,
and showed you the area–oh, and gave you a handful of cash to spend on yourself, to make sure you had a nice time in the city. Oh… AND EVERYONE IN ISTANBUL (Turkish guys are on a totally different playing field).
What was happening!? Why so much good fortune? Why do often?! God, and those were only the people who invited you IN. How many others bought you drinks, lunches, dinners, or simply handed you CASH? (There was 100 Euro from the man in Portugal, the 30 Euro from Florin in Romania, 25 Euro from Jan, 8 Euro from a nice German man, who said you reminded him of his daughters, and to please go buy yourself something to eat).
Something, clearly, had changed. But it wasn´t the people–it wasn´t human nature. It was you.
In the beginning, you were less open, less trusting, more fearful, more timid. People could sense that. You get what you give. You received reciprocal timidity.
Bam. Gone. Yesterday morning, you declared to your CS host in Oslo that you would take your time hitch hiking to Stavanger, not worry about getting there by the end of the day–that you would be prepared to camp, but that you felt you could get invited into someone´s home if you wanted to.
And you did–twice! It was remarkably easy. First, you were invited by a man who was not going too far from Oslo, to his home on the coast. He settled for buying you lunch, “Seriously, now is your opportunity. Take anything you want. Eat whatever you want. Norway is expensive. I don´t want you to go hungry.”
The second, the aforementioned women en route to Kristiansand. What did you have to do? Nothing. You talked. Openly and with animation. You were happy, fearless, full of stories. Talking to people builds a rapport. Sharing information about yourself builds trust.
Yes, you have come a long way. You have learned to much. Travel is no longer about the old cities, the museums, great food, works of art… it is about the PEOPLE. Every day, you engage with people, try to learn a little more about the human condition–what makes people tick—what makes them trust—what makes them give.