Language doesn’t have to be a barrier to a great road trip. (Photo: Thinkstock)
The first, and only, real conversation that my driver and I truly understood between each other occurred over WhatsApp and went like this:
Me: Hola! Hablo Ingles?
Him: Yo no hablo Ingles.
Me: Un problemo?
Me: OK! :)
Then we spent over four hours in a car together, crossing country lines and listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers on repeat.
Welcome to the world of BlaBlaCar, the ride-sharing program sweeping Europe where despite its name, talking — get it? bla bla — need not always happen (in your language, at least) in order to secure a cheap, reliable ride wherever you want to go. The French-based system launched in 2006 and just this past July received $100 million from investors.
BlaBlaCar calls itself the largest car share service in Europe. (Photo: Courtesy of Bla Bla Car/Facebook)
My BlaBlaCar adventure came about because I decided to book a month-long trip to Spain and Portugal in the height of the summer and just wing it. In retrospect, this was not such a good idea. For one, it was July, aka high season. Hotels and traditional transportation methods book up fast. Secondly, I’m a Virgo. I like order, plans, lists, and checking things off of them. But for the first time in my adult life, I had given myself real travel time — a whole chunk of it — and I didn’t want to structure it too rigidly. I wanted to be laissez faire about when, where, and how I wandered, opening myself up to the spontaneity and possibility of, say, falling in love with a sultry Spanish conquistador.
The reality, unfortunately, opened me up to bad-smelling private rooms and lengthy, inconvenient bus rides.
Thankfully, early on in the trip I met a group of young travelers who suggested BlaBlaCar as a solution. This alternative method of transportation could be booked at the drop of a hat and is often at least 5 to 10 euros less than a bus. While the initial thought of sitting shotgun in a complete stranger’s car — alone, no less — seemed a bit daunting, I couldn’t stand another boring bus ride that’d inevitably leave me clueless at a desolate station way outside of town.
There’s a lot to see in Spain and Portugal (Photo: Thinkstock)
So I signed up (for free) via Facebook and created a basic profile. Then I entered my current destination (Seville, Spain), my future destination (Lagos, Portugal), along with my desired departure date (tomorrow) and — voilà!— ride options appeared. Each had cute little icons signifying the amount of seats in the car, whether the driver plans to talk or play music, and if smoking or pets are allowed.
I sent a note to a few drivers, which got delivered to their phones, and gathered from the instruction on the site that the rest of the correspondence (and payment) would take place via text message and in person.
BlaBlaCar is a good way to get where you’re going in Europe. (Photo: Courtesy of Bla Bla Car/Facebook)
I ended up choosing José because of his age (close to mine, in his 30s), his departure time, and the fact that he agreed to pick me up directly in front of my Airbnb rental, avoiding the huge hassle of having to use public transport to get to another form of public transport.
Once we established that neither of us spoke each other’s language, and that it wouldn’t matter for our ride, we continued to chat via text. (The magic of Google Translate runs deep.)
“I love to meet new people,” he says, before explaining that he is heading to Sagres in Portugal, a bit further north from where I’m going in Lagos, to surf. He is on holiday from his job as a “lead smelter operator.”
“Interesting! I have never heard of this!” I write.
“It’s a hard job, but every month I have 14 days of vacation,” he explains. “So I get in my car and I’m going to the waves like crazy. Hahahaha.”
Oh boy, I think. This guy can either be a fun surfer dude or a crazy, wacky, maybe-don’t-want-to-test-the-waters surfer dude.
Text messaging: the new way to meet your road trip partner. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Still, I decide to chance it. I send a friend his contact information and the details of our trip, promising to text when I arrive. You know, just in case I’m found on the side of the road in a pile of days-old tapas and paella.
Related: Long Live Paella!
The trip begins before we even hit the road.
“In 15 minutes I’m in Street Fleet,” he texts.
Despite the fact that I’m staying on Flota Street, I write, “OK. See you in 15 minutes.”
25 minutes later…
“Hola?” I type, concerned. “I don’t see you on Street Flota?”
He drops a pin and asks me to send him mine.
Sometimes, navigating by pin drop is necessary. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Since I am not entirely equipped with this advanced technological capability, I tell him I’ll just come down.
With my Internet connection now gone and the keys to my Airbnb inside, I nervously pace back and forth. Finally, I see a guy at the end of the block outside a car with a surfboard on top. That’s gotta be him.
Once I approach, he kisses me on the cheek — how very European of him — loads my bags, and off we go.
It’s awkward at first, but friendly. My broken Spanish is clearly better than his English, which is saying a lot, seeing as if I speak anything other than English, it’s French.
His car isn’t old, but it’s not so new either. There’s a CD player, and he has one mixed CD, which he holds up with a smile as if to say, proudly, “I come with music!”
Green Day’s “American Idiot” plays first. He seems pleased with this.
The road trip soundtrack begins with Green Day. (Photo: Wouter de Bruijn/Flickr)
Up next is the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari.”
Is this guy making fun of me, the token Yank? I wonder.
Then Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” hits the deck, followed by Pharrell’s “Happy” and Bob Marley’s “Fusion” dance mix.
Oh, no. He’s just a surfer. These are his jams.
I’m into it. So is he. This is fun. We hum and smile and head-bop.
Then one hour becomes two and we’ve now heard each song twice. I open the window and let the wind hit my face. Sure enough, I feel myself do one of those falling-asleep, head-bob things, and I am jolted awake. I glance over at him, embarrassed. He smiles as if to reassure me, “No worries.”
Eventually, we stop for water for me and cigarettes for him. I am silently thankful he’s not lighting up in the front seat. After all, there was a “no smoking” icon on his profile.
Sara and her fellow road tripper. (Photo: Sara Lieberman)
Once we’re back on the road, we cross into Portugal; to my dismay, it’s a nonevent that doesn’t require either of our passports to be stamped. Minutes after driving over the border and merging onto the freeway, however, we stop at what looks like a toll. José talks to a man in Spanish, and while I can’t technically understand what they’re saying, I gather that because he doesn’t have a preregistered credit card we can’t take the fast route. I whip out my guidebook to confirm that, indeed, there’s a weird highway system in Portugal that’s sorta like the EZ Pass system in America in that it charges you after the fact — but a lot more money if you’re taking the fast roads. Unfortunately for us both, he says we have to go inland to take the slow route.
The New Yorker Virgo in me is all, “Oh, no. This is going to take forever.” But then I remember my whole laissez faire, go-with-the-flow intention for this trip and I figure maybe I’ll get to see a side of the country I wouldn’t have otherwise.
A long road trip gets even longer in Portugal. (Photo: Thinkstock)
It’s a well-intentioned mantra, indeed, but alas, it does take forever and I see more roundabouts and billboards than I do beautiful rolling countryside. It’s clear he’s had enough at this point, too, because he rolls down his window and starts puffing cigs like the Magic Dragon without even asking (or gesturing) if it’s OK. Plus, we still only have that one CD. I love me some Chili Peppers, but there’s only so much Flea one can take.
Finally, after about four and a half hours and five “Californications,” we pull into Lagos. We say our goodbyes like we’ve known each other for ages and even take a photo to seal the deal. I hand him his 20 euros and he’s off.
The journey ends in the old city of Lagos. (Photo: Thinkstock)
I text my friend to let her know I made it. She doesn’t respond until hours later because she was still sleeping. So much for backup, I think. But it’s all good. I survived to tell the tale — and actually quite liked the whole experience. In fact, I feel comfortable enough to do it all again four days later for my trip to Lisbon.
This time, I end up riding with an older man who speaks perfect English and has a brand-spanking-new vehicle with all the amenities. Only, during our four-hour drive, he doesn’t stop talking or even turn on the radio, let alone plug in an MP3. Suddenly, I find myself longing for a bit of “Californication,” so I politely ask what kind of music he likes to listen to.
He takes the hint and begins scanning stations. Finally, I’m able to peacefully communicate through smiles, head nods, and guitar riffs. Sometimes, I guess that’s all you need.
Sara Lieberman is a freelance lifestyle and travel journalist and the former deputy Sunday features editor for the New York Post and Page Six Magazine. Her work has appeared in “Hemispheres,” “Condé Nast Traveler,” the New York Times, the Daily Beast, Fodor’s, and more. She enjoys practicing yoga in unusual places, all things Parisian, and biking her way around cities — sometimes in heels. Her personal musings on self-discovery while discovering the world can be found on her blog News Girl About Towns.