Mr. Black had been sad to see you go. Over the course of the week, he’d been becoming attached to you and Katie, and to the occasional glimpses of your belly, which popped out from time to time and your rubbed it and scratched it in contemplation, restlessness, boredom, and everything else.
“Oh! You are so cruel, teasing me like that!” Mr. Black exclaimed. “It looks so nice. So cuddly! I want to touch it, but of course, you don’t like touching.”
Please stop bringing that up.
Mr. Black insisted that you all have breakfast together, and then he would drive you to “the best hitch hiking point. I think a lot of people wait at this spot. I have dropped some Couchsurfers here before. I think it is the best place.”
So relieved. The last time you’d tried to leave Porto was utterly disastrous. Because of Porto’s location at the mouth of a river, the motorways all circumvented the city in an awkward little tangle, with no standing room on the shoulder, and miles and miles of suburbs in all directions to divert most of your southbound traffic.
In the past, in an attempt to escape Porto, you and Alexis had walked two hours in the rain, far to the south, only to run out of daylight and camp in a little tree-covered triangle of grass situated between two motorway ramps. After setting up your tent in the dark, you took a soggy walk through the grass only to discover that you had a neighbor only 100 feet away–a homeless guy sleeping under a sheet of plastic.
You and Alexis had hustled to move your little domicile farther down the field, bending, ripping, destroying it in the process. The next morning, you were back at trying to get a lift out of the city, and walked some distance on the motorway until someone finally had you hop into his car while he was stuck in a freeway traffic jam.
It didn’t get better after that, either. You’d gotten stuck in a network of more motorway roads and ramps, and there were no national roads or sidewalks or anything else hitch-hiker-friendly. Your only option had been to walk on the motorway, and you were admonished multiple times by police and security guards to get the hell off the autopista because it is “prohibited to walk on the autopista.” No exceptions.
You leaned in though the window, held out the torn-out page of your atlas, and showed them your exact location on the road, and where you intended to go. “No money for train. No money for bus. This is the ONLY road. What can I do?!” you shouted to one’s face, over the noisy of the rain and traffic. He looked baffled. “It is prohibited to walk on the autopista.” You showed him the turn-off on the map, and repeated. “Yes, I know. NO money for the train. NO money for the bus. I must WALK. How can I leave, if this is the ONLY road out!?”
The two exchanged a look. They argued with each other in Portugese for a minute. Then, “No walking on autopista.” You pointed down the road, “Then will you take us to the ramp?!” Not enough space in their pathetic little patrol car. The arguing continued for several minutes. The men were armed with but one line: “You have to walk back to where you got on. No walking on the autopista.”
Surely, with the help of Mr. Blackl and his holy dropping point, you would have a more seamless escape from Porto. Surely your insanely difficult time hitch hiking in Portugal had been a fluke!
Ohhhh… so wrong!
So incredibly wrong, you can’t stand it.
Mr. Black dropped you on an inner-urban ring road. You’d told him, “Here? Really? This looks awkward. You’re asking cars on the left to cross a lane of traffic to stop for us, and then cross back over so they can go down that ramp. This is not a good spot.”
Mr. Black l insisted that it was. You took him at his word.
Of course, it was miserable. You waited some 45 minutes without a single car even suggesting or considering stopping. To state it simply, if you have to wait longer than 20 minutes for a lift, there is something wrong with the road.
You grit your teeth in frustration and made Katie follow you away from that godforsaken waiting point. Tried to find the source of the southbound traffic, which happened to be a stop light in the city in the middle of a multi-lane street. No chance of hopping in a car there.
So much frustration. Why the hell had you listened to Mr. Blackl? Why hadn’t you checked Hitchwiki! Why the fuck hadn’t you taken the simplest precaution that morning and just checked a city map, gotten your whereabouts, and made a Plan B!
You began to cry. Bam! Just like that. And caught yourself. Rubbed your face vigorously and said to Katie, “Oh my god, I’m having a meltdown. I can’t believe I’m crying over this. The day hasn’t even started yet. I’ve just had a full week of rest and recovery. I shouldn’t feel this tired. I shouldn’t feel this worn down.”
Katie tried to console you. “There are probably a lot of factors at work.”
You thought, perhaps, that spending a week with Mr. Black had worn you out–his little crush on you, as harmless at it was, had worn through your armor with the persistence of dripping water on a stone. You had nothing left. Every little bump in the road of your journey rocked you.
You carried on. First paid for internet at a cafe and consulted Hitchwiki, then walked many kilometers out of your way to cross the river, and then headed to the last metro stop of a Porto suburb, where a roundabout with “plenty of space to pull over” awaited. Lies. All lies. Then you recognized a tree-and-grass-covered triangle between two ramps…
“I camped over there three years ago,” you said to Katie, reveling in feelings of nostalgia for… rain? Frustration? Oh well. Familiar is good! “Come on! Let’s walk.”
Down the ramp you went. Waited next to your old camp site for a while. No one stopped.
You walked on. Another 2 kilometers before you reached a service station—your fifth waiting point of the day. It worked.
A Portuguese man and his Norwegian girlfriend invited you into their car. They took you down the road 40 minutes—fondling each other the entire way, each trying to slip an arm under the sleeve of the other, tangling and untangling fingers, caressing arm hair… so mesmerizing. So… hypnotic. Just… oh for crying out loud, cut it out! You suppose yours and Katie’s P.D.A. looks just as preposterous sometimes, what with your random grabbing and surprise nipple pinching and everything in between.
They left you at another service station. From there, you caught a lift to the next service station—two guys, three mobile phones, and non-stop loud talking into them; you and Katie in the back, you did not exist. But they were very polite and all smiles when they let you out.
And then… nothing for two hours.
The upcoming road situation was discouraging. Downright terrible. Everyone was headed to Lisbon, which was too far out of your way to attempt so late in the evening. There would be not enough time left in the day to exit the city, and certainly there would be no easy stealth camping if—no, when–you got stuck.
Katie looked so depressed. You tried to smile and keep your spirits up, for her sake, and spread your arms, “Look at all the camping!”
Green fields everywhere, and no development whatsoever. Just grass and trees and wildflowers and cows. And a barbed-wire fence, which you gingerly climbed after a crappy gas station dinner of old processed bread, hazelnut spread, and Fritos. Gross.
You pitched your tent and told Katie that you could accept a lift into Lisbon the next day. “Listen, I’d be lying if I said this day wasn’t totally bullshit. It sucked. And I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t ever get worse. It does. Sometimes. But it’s rare. Days like this are very rare.”
That the day had been a fluke, right?
False. No fluke.
Despite your previous shitty experience hitch hiking in Portugal (which you’d also thought was a fluke), no one actually told you that hitch hiking in Portugal has far less to do with luck and is very much determined by Portuguese culture and politics.
You would learn (days later) that due to Portugal’s history as a “police state”—the spirit of which is still very much alive—the locals, the Portuguese people, are generally resistant to picking up strangers. This is because there are so many police on the roads, so many random controls, drug dogs, and a heavy drug trade… the locals are afraid of picking up strangers only to get stopped later and held culpable to transporting would-be criminals.
And to make matters worse, you were trying your luck on what happened to be a long weekend, due to a national holiday. Whoops.
The next morning, rested, caffeinated, and ready to go, you stuck out your thumbs and smiled. You’d be outta there in no time!
No one stopped. 30 minutes passed. Nothing. No one was even at the service station. Can’t get a lift without actual traffic.
You paced. You stretched. You talked to the snails. You threw little pebbles at the guard rails—clink clink clink. And waited.
Two cops rolled by you toward the exit of the rest stop. They drove all the way down the ramp, practically entered the motorway. Then you saw them hit the brakes. Little white lights: reverse lights.
They backed up slowly, all the way until their passenger window was aligned with your waist. The window rolled down. You leaned over, smiled, “Hello!”
“Lisboa?” one of them asked.
You and Katie bounced, “Yes!” and held up your sign, which said everything: Sul, Lisboa, Algarve, Aljezur, Faro… anything but here.
The two cops talked to each other, looking between you and their patrol car. They spoke for quite some time, and your naïve little heart felt for a fleeting moment that maybe, just maybe, they would defy your expectations and invite you into their car and take you some distance down the road.
After speaking to each other, they put the car in gear and rolled forward, without a single further acknowledgment.
“Fucking assholes… What the hell was that?” you said. Truly, only one cop you’ve ever encountered has actually helped you—this was in Romania, at night, on the outskirts of Bucharest, in a bad part of town. He was a fresh-faced young man, slightly smitten with you, and he basically saved your ass.
One excruciatingly long hour passed before an adorably confused woman invited you into her 20-year-old Kia with a radiator leak. She was on was on her way to Lisbon.
“Thank you very much for stopping,” you said to her plainly, sincerely.
You’d been at that truck stop for over 14 hours.
You explained to the woman that you had a tricky network of roads, almost all of which would leave you in Lisbon, which was some distance out of your way, large, and frankly a multi-hour setback to a hitch hiker trying to go directly south.
She understood. Explained she was not going to the city center, but to the airport, which you took as a good omen—though still out of your way. People drove in all directions from airports.
Then the lady saw signs to “Algarve,” the south of Portugal, exactly where you wanted to go.
“This road… many people take to Algarve. This I think is the road you want.”
You double checked with your map. “Yes. It is.” Then, looking down the road, “But I’m not sure there is an exit here. I think this is simply where the road splits.”
“I can drop you here.”
Split decision. Getting dropped on the motorway is always undesirable, and yet due to the shitty (for hitch hikers) infrastructure of Portuguese roads, you knew that it would save you several hours. That is, if the Portuguese were into stopping on the motorway. Certainly, the Spanish, Germans, and Greeks did. The French and Danish… not so much.
No more time to reflect. You took the opportunity when you saw those big beautiful beckoning signs to your road, to Algarve. The lady let you out of her car without any concern or warning.
She didn’t think to tell you that is totally prohibited to walk on the motorway (though you already knew this from several previous encounters with Portuguese patrol vehicles).
For 20 minutes, you and Katie waddled along the road, taking your ramps, avoiding the signs toward Lisbon. When you reached the final divergence, you heaved a sigh, realizing that those promising signs and wide shoulders—that optimistic-looking situation—had lost their luster. There was nothing but a ramp that stretched on to infinity, with no exits, no nearby towns, no escape, and almost no shade. Uninviting, to say the least. And uninviting stretches of road intimidate drivers as well, especially when they are resistant to breaking the law and stopping on the motorway.
As had occurred in the past, it didn’t take long for a highway security vehicle to spot you, veer over his lane, and pull up next to you.
Instead of looking defiant, you put on your relieved-and-grateful face. “Hello! Can you help us?” you said, spreading your arms to suggest your stranded condition.
“You cannot be here.”
“Yes, of course! Can you please take us away from here?” You’re actually not sure if it was a genuine request.
“I cannot put you in the car. You must walk.”
“Sure… ummm, okay! Please, tell us, which way should we walk?” Truly, there was nothing but motorway overpasses… hundred-foot drops to barbed-wire-fenced-in fields below… stone walls… trenches. You couldn’t leave if you wanted to.
The young highway security guy seemed shocked by the logic of it all. That he could not put you in his car, and that walking in any direction was useless. And prohibited.
“Walk that way. But you didn’t see me here,” he said, pointing further into oblivion.
Great. You walked. Took yourselves and your backpacks out from the only patch of shade and walked up the ramp, higher and higher onto lonely stretches of road with no end in sight—and no exit point.
No one stopped. Why would they? Ramps are awkward. When another ramp met your ramp, you thought perhaps it would be better to walk down it, against traffic, to escape somehow, even though the nearest buildings were miles off in the distance.
You didn’t make it far. The same highway security guy, who had doubled-back on a different road, stopped again, 150 meters in the distance. He waved at you, indicating you to stop walking, and to turn around and continue your trek into oblivion.
“Is he serious?” Katie said. “Fuck. This is where we die.”
You looked down at your other option. Imagined the cawing of crows and tumbleweeds and dehydration and falling to your death. This was it. You were 100% at the mercy of Portuguese drivers.
At that moment, hitch hiking became something else—not the casual sick-out-your-thumb-and-smile approach. It became a desperate waving of your arms, jumping up and down, pleading with your hands, all gestures to indicate that you needed help. Someone must help you to escape that road.
No one stopped. Many just waved and smiled back at you. Fun and games. Stupid young tourists!
“My faith in humanity is shaken,” you muttered. Then you felt your all-too-familiar emotional discomfort brought on every time you see that Katie is unhappy, doubtful, nervous, or worn-down. Travel is fun! Embrace the challenge! But Katie does not exactly thrive in difficult situations. She struggles with them more than you do.
“I once read a book,” you said, “called Concrete Island. I don’t know when it was written. Maybe 20 years ago. Some guy is driving down the freeway with no shoulder in rush-hour and fucks up and crashes through a barrier and rolls down a ravine. It all happens very fast and surely there were witnesses, but this is all before the days of cell phones, so apparently everyone thinks that somebody else will report the incident once they get off the freeway. But this doesn’t happen. Nobody comes. He is hurt and realizes that where he has landed is deep down below numerous freeway overpasses. He’s just in an overgrown patch of grass and trees. He manages to climb up the steep ravine. Tries to wave down a car, but he’s covered in blood and mud and no one has any space to pull over anyway. No one will stop for him. He falls down the ravine and breaks his leg or something, and he realizes he’s going to die.”
Katie gives you a look. A Katie look. But in it you read something like, “How the fuck is that supposed to make me feel better?”
It took a long time. A long time. But someone finally stopped. An older guy from Angola, who had a penchant for straddling lane lines, swerving from time to time, and slamming on his breaks to avoid hitting birds.
After an hour, he dropped you on the national cost road heading south. “This one, all Portuguese take. Is free. Because Portuguese people, they have no money.” He laughs. “More people take this road.”
This was the truth. And you could feel it. Once on the dusty shoulder, you felt happy to be done with the motorway—to be on the national road, and to be facing the long line of cars that passed, all going in your direction. To Algarve!
And yet… nobody stopped. Not a soul. Two and a half hours. Hundreds of cars. No one stopped.
This is fucking ridiculous.
You were ready to tear your hair out. Your map was full of holes, damaged from your checking and double-checking. “Are we even on the right road?” You were.
Some local guy with no teeth took an interest in you from his small house right across the street from your waiting point. He stood there, smoking, watching. You finally approached him to confirm whether you had the right road. Yup.
He gave you some oranges from his tree. “Si tu quires agua… Pregunta me.”
Then his mother came out. They talked about you. Tried to console you. Gave you paper to make a new sign. Your efforts to get a lift became comical—jumping jacks, can-caning, sign-waving and combinations, gestures for “un poco de” kilometers.
You mentally prepared for failure.
“Well, at least we can camp in their yard,” Katie offered. “Hey! Maybe they even have wifi.”
Mother and son also prepared for your failure. They gave you a sack of food—some tins of hot dogs, some cookies, tins of fish—along with their condolences.
“Obrigado,” you said, smiling. At that moment, someone stopped. Mother and son waved and smiled, happy for you, and you bounded away with your bag of booty.
The rest of your lifts were unremarkable, besides your ride with two very quiet, very fierce, very white-trashy-looking men who drove an extremely old Mercedes Benz, the interior of which was covered in burn marks and mold. The driver accelerated and braked aggressively, and took corners like a newly-licensed 16-year-old.
“Don’t worry,” you whispered. “These things have great safety ratings.”
You imagined that if you ended up driving off one of the cliffs, you would be very injured, but you would live.
Finally arrived in Aljezur, you could have kissed the ground. Instead, you went to a hostel and asked the receptionist where you could use a phone to contact your host and apologize for taking 42 hours to complete a 5-hour distance.