HITCHHIKING WARSAW TO UTRECHT IN 26 HOURS: NOTES FROM THE FIELD
10:45 – At the city limits of Warsaw. After 45 minutes of tooling around, changing your mind, and walking aimlessly, deliberating over which waiting point to use, you finally settle on the original one. It is an awkwardly tight on-ramp to the motorway, curving, without a shoulder. You stand on a little triangle of concrete in the middle of the street to address all possible turning lanes for 3 minutes before a gentle older man pulls his vehicle to a stop. He speaks no English. Polish only. But he understands Poznan, 290 kilometers away. He calls his English-speaking son, who translates your desire to remain on the motorway and to not enter the city. Afterward, you nod off in the front seat. Piss break. Nod off in the back seat. Exhausted and sleep-deprived from previous nights of drinking and socializing. He leaves you in a parking area.
1:30 – You eat lunch at a picnic table and try to wake up. Wander around the parking area to see if any trucks go west. Everyone is done for the day. You wait by the exit ramp. A young man stops his car after 10 minutes and agrees to take you just past Poznan. You learn that he is on his way back to the city from his home town, which you know is famous for being the drug capital of Poland. You wonder at the bruise on the inside of his left arm—with its little red prick mark—and think cynically that he must have gone home to see his “family doctor.”
2:45 – After back-tracking along the motorway 1500 meters, from a near-vacant parking area to an earlier toll booth, you are admonished by the police for standing too closely to the toll. He points you about 50 meters away. Within 2 minutes, you meet a sleazy-looking older man in a tropical shirt unbuttoned to expose his chest, as well as the top of his firm, round gut. He drives a BMW full of stuff and speaks no English, but is happy to take you as far as Berlin. He smokes likes a chimney and drives 160 km per hour. His right hand his missing half of its index finger and thumb, making his multi-tasking of radio-changing, climate controlling, and phone operations comical. The car veers. You are flying. You drive literally twice as fast as the semi-trucks, and ash blows all over your face and chest when he fumbles with that hand of his. He screams at you in a combination of Polish, German, and Russian—but he means well. At the Polish-German border, he takes a detour to a small border town, where he must stock up on meat and vodka. You follow him around the supermarket, and he shoves Mars bars, ice creams, and a new tube of lip balm into your hands. Back in the car, he withdraws a giant knife and lifts it in the air before your eyes. Then he stabs the plastic of his ice cream sandwich. What can you do with no opposable thumb? He breathes and chews loudly and swerves the car and you thank your lucky stars for good German engineering. This man brakes for no one. Simply intimidates people out of the left lane. You are reminded of Frank in Ireland, outrunning the cops with you and Manon as his unfortunate hitchhikers. He drops a burning cigarette in his lap nearly panics; you save the day with your opposable thumb and hand it back to him before he crashes the car. When the time comes to deposit you on the road, he second-guesses his choice of parking areas. He does not want to leave you in a place that does not have a filling station at it. Nor does he not want you to be without water, so he takes your water bottle and pours the remainder of a flat Coca Cola into it before ushering you—and another stranded woman he has just found—into the car to continue on. The woman is delighted to meet you and immediately offers you her flat in Berlin and oh won’t you please come because she has never met anyone such as yourselves. You politely decline, hear your driver yell shit in German—something about missing his exit—but it’s no matter because here is a filling station at a large parking area, all much more suitable to your needs. You wish and the woman well, shoulder your packs, and hit up the lines of trucks.
6:30 – After waiting more than an hour, no one has stopped. You decide to leave Katie by the exit and badger the truck drivers one by one. Everyone is Polish and no one speaks any English. You finally find a nice-looking lady truck driver—young enough to possess some English—speaking with two shirtless, extremely corpulent men about a broken part on her truck. They learn you are going in the direction of Hannover. The two men excuse themselves. When they return, they offer no suggestions and only a smattering of English words. You thank them anyway and return toward Katie, empty handed. She explains that she had obtained a lift, but you weren’t there to get in the car, so it was lost. You shrug. At that moment, a truck driver pulls up next to you and waves for you to get in. “Hannover?” you ask. “Yes! Hannover!” You jump into the truck and don’t look back. His name is Pavel, and he only speaks Polish and German. Between your five sentences in German, Katie’s five sentences in Russian, and his five sentences in English—plus a brief phone call with his English-speaking niece, you determine that he drives all the way to the Netherlands. He cries into his radio: “Americanas! California!” He tells everyone. The man has ADD and drives with no hands.
Any opportunity he has to take his attention from the road is seized. He leans against the wheel with his forearms and flips through photos on his phone. He stands and shuffles papers and boxes over his head for more photos. You decipher everything about his life through a complicated game of charades, pictionary, and gibberish. His son is adopted. He has family here and there and everywhere. And he is Polish! From Poznan! And a pity you only saw Warsaw! And here is some candy, and some yogurt, and everything else—look at pictures of his children. The truck swerves like you don’t believe, but no worries! He has been driving for 18 years. You nod off in the front seat. Katie switches spots with you, and you pass out on his bed. You awaken to the sound of multiple pictures being taken of you—on Katie’s camera as well as on Pavel’s phone.
You rub the sleep from your eyes and clench your bladder. 40 more minutes, and then it is time to stop for the day. He suggests you sleep in the truck with him—you and Katie can share the top bunk. The offer is accepted and then he gives you a 5-euro voucher for the truck stop diner, where you go to eat a salad. The night is stifling hot and on the top bunk, you feel like you are baking in an oven. The bunk is so small that you and Katie must sixty-nine, and you fall asleep holding her precious feet.
Your middle-of-the-night pee break is a feat of ninja acrobatics as you slip over Katie with just 24 inches of space above your head and slide to the passenger’s seat. Light floods the cab when you open the door—whoops! Sorry everyone!—and you climb down the ladder to the pavement in your socks. The walk is long and delirious and misguided, but you manage to find your way through the maze of trucks to do the duty.
More ninja acrobatics to get back onto the teeny-weeny bunk. In the morning, Pavel wakes at 6am. He makes coffee for the three of you, and you are off again. More babbling in Polish. More charades. And when at long last he must leave you 100 kilometers from the Dutch border, he gets crazy on his radio. Looking for a driver that goes to Amsterdam that will accept two nice American girls from California! He asks many drivers, passing them and waving at his radio and screaming into it. He finds one. The truck follows Pavel to a parking area and you are handed to the next driver.
8:30 – He speaks no English and doesn’t bother trying. He plays excellent electronic music. You sleep in the front seat. Stop for coffee, which he brews. It is full of grounds, but it does the trick. Traffic jam and coffee grounds explosion when your driver slams on his brakes. He says not to worry, but you clean up the mess. Finally arrive at Utretch’s city limits at 1pm, but he misunderstands where you want to be and you end up going 8 kilometers beyond your destination. But oh well. Mission accomplished.
Total distance hitchhiked: 1,210
Total time: 26 hours and 15 minutes, city-limit to city-limit
Average waiting time for lift: (3′ + 10′ + 2′ + 60′ + 0′) = 15 minutes
Hours slept: 7 (official) + 2 (unofficial)
Number of vehicles: 5
Number of trucks: 2
Number of awkward situations: 0
Number of women: 0
Gifts Received: 2 ice cream sandwiches, 2 candy bars, 1 lip balm, 1 flat Coke, 2 yogurt drinks, a 5-euro voucher, 6 pieces of caramel candy, 4 cups of coffee, 1 contact in Berlin, 1 place to sleep.