Hitchhiking has its risks, but the rewards can be many, too. (Photo: Getty Images)
By Bill Fink
Hitchhiking is the ultimate road trip. There’s no other way to travel that puts you in such close contact with locals from all walks of life, sharing experiences and conversations, and literally discovering the back roads of a country. Hitchhiking isn’t for everyone — it’s an inherently risky venture to stand near moving traffic, step into a stranger’s car, and essentially put yourself at someone’s mercy for the length of a ride.
But the rewards can be great. The freedom of the road, the thrill of discovery, not knowing where your next ride may come from or your next destination may be. I’ve spent months at a time on roadsides around the world, begging for rides across three continents. Often I received much more than just a lift: free meals, lodging, trip advice, and lasting friendships.
But it’s the conversations I’ve had in strangers’ cars that will linger far longer in my memory than the scenery around us. And some of those conversations were certainly stranger than others. Here are the top 10 oddest statements I ever heard from people offering me rides, illustrating some of the potential risks, rewards, and just plain weirdness you can experience while hitchhiking.
Scotland: “Are you sure this isn’t cheating?”
Scotland (Photo: Getty Images)
A kindly old woman stopped for me as I was walking down a lonely stretch of road in northern Scotland. For some reason, she decided I must be there because I was in a competition to walk across Great Britain, and by giving me a ride she would disqualify my performance. She even offered to drop me somewhere hidden in the next town so nobody would see me in a car.
Germany-Denmark: “You drive. We will hide.”
Denmark. (Photo: Getty Images)
An olive-skinned couple in a VW microbus stopped for me near the Danish-German border. They were from Argentina, and had been illegally living in Germany for months, selling ice cream out of the truck. Kicked out of several towns for not having a business license, they were going to try their luck in Denmark. When they discovered I was American, they begged me to drive the van through the border crossing while they hid under the bed in back. I cruised through without incident. They gave me a cone.
Japan: “Please come stay at my house. I will give you dinner … and my 18-year-old daughter.”
Japan. (Photo: Getty Images)
A small middle-aged man gave me and a friend a ride in southern Japan. As we chatted in broken English, he veered into a suburb, and told us he would make us dinner at his home. We were in a rush to return to Osaka for our teaching job, so we declined. He begged us to stay at his home for just a little while, and — in what I hope was a mistake in translation — offered us much more than a meal.
Netherlands: “You must come teach me swimming.”
Netherlands. (Photo: Getty Images)
A pale, thin, Hannibal Lector type picked me up in rural Netherlands. When I inquired about his job, he answered, “Oh, that’s not interesting. Let’s not talk about that.” Silence. He turned to me, fixing me with a stare a little too long for someone driving a car. “Do you like sports?”
I described my many sporting interests. He bounced in his seat with excitement. “And swimming? Do you like swimming?” I told him I once worked as a lifeguard. His smiled. “I have a pool. You must come and teach me swimming.” I passed on the offer, thanking him for the ride, and pointed out the next exit as my final destination, where my friends awaited.
A month later, when I was hitchhiking through a different part of the Netherlands, a pale man stopped to give me a ride. Not thinking anything was odd (it isn’t a sunny country), I hopped in the car and tried some conversation: “So what do you do? Out on lunch break?”
“Oh, that’s not interesting,” he said, “Let’s not talk about that. Do you like sports? I like swimming. How about you?” I told him I was an expert in martial arts and looked for the next exit.
Belgium: “Hi, are you dangerous?”
Belgium. (Getty Images)
I had been stuck at an entrance ramp in the middle of Belgium for hours. As darkness approached, I was joined by a random 6-foot-5 hitchhiker carrying what looked like a body bag.
A car stopped for us, and the woman inside lowered the passenger side window. She peered out of the opening at us. “Are you dangerous?” I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Not me.” I turned to my fellow hitchhiker and repeated the question. He shook his head no.
She let us into the car. She said she was a child psychologist specializing in abnormal psychology, claiming she could tell by our body language during our responses that we were, indeed, safe.
Switzerland: “Don’t go in the basement — we have Kurds.”
Switzerland. (Photo: Getty Images)
A Swiss family in an RV stopped to give me a ride and offered me a night’s lodging in their large house in Geneva. They treated me to a huge meal, opened up their liquor cabinet for drinks, gave me a comfy bedroom to sleep in, and offered to fill my backpack with supplies for my trip. There was only one restriction during my visit. I could not go into the basement “because we have Kurds.” I initially thought they meant “curds” as in cheese, Swiss cheese. But no, the basement was actually occupied by Kurdish refugees that the family was clandestinely smuggling into Europe, temporarily hidden in a safe haven in the basement.
Northern Ireland: “You were sleeping in a bloody IRA training ground!”
Northern Ireland. (Photo: Getty Images)
Late one night on the road in Northern Ireland, despairing over not being able to get a ride to the next town, I decided to sleep under some trees in a nearby field. I heard a barking dog, and then a farmer shouting vague threats to stay away. Already wrapped in my sheet under some bushes, I dug in further and waited for morning.
I returned to the road at sunrise. A car passing in the other direction screeched to a halt on the gravel, then turned around to stop beside me. An off-duty English soldier was at the wheel. Empty beer bottles littered the front seat. He couldn’t believe I had been sleeping in that field, as he told me it was a well-known training ground for the IRA, with every farmer’s house in the area a potential bomb and weapons depot. The next night I slept in a hostel.
Germany: “I guess you could say I’m a professional hooligan”
Germany. (Photo: Getty Images)
A man in his 20s with a shaved head, numerous piercings, and tattoos picked me up outside of Berlin. He was on his was to Hamburg for a game. He wasn’t planning to watch it. He was planning to fight, saying he had a trunk full of weapons. He was fluent in English, articulate, friendly, and polite, asking me about my family and my career goals. He talked sports like a typical fan, except he rooted for the hooligans of different German soccer teams. He said he had a different set of rankings for the teams. “Now you take Dortmund. They are No. 1. They come with bricks and bottles. Very vigorous. Very devoted. More arrests than anyone.” He even suggested some tourist sights. “But maybe you want to stay away from the stadium tomorrow…” Good tip.
Hawaii: “Are you my son?”
Kauai. (Photo: Getty Images)
A woman stopped for me in a cloud of red clay dust near a depressed town in Kauai. She was overweight, with the sunken cheeks and discolored teeth earned from a lifetime of smoking. She drove a mongrel car with mismatched doors and rusty holes. She was returning from a junkyard, where she had been searching for a back bumper for the car.
When I told her I was visiting from California, she recalled she had given up her young son for adoption 25 years before. She had heard he had been given to foster parents in California. Was I him? She turned to me with a gap-toothed smile. I told her no, I was born and raised in Chicago.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” she said. “But how ‘bout you still buy me a couple beers at the 7-11 here?”
Bahamas: “You do good deed someday.”
In this scanned 1988 photo, the broke writer despairs about getting a ride to the airport, until his savior arrived. (Photo: Dave Lowenschuss)
My friend and I were dead-broke and 15 miles from the airport on our day of departure from an ill-advised spring break trip to the Bahamas. We started walking.
A cab stopped, and the driver asked if we needed a ride. “No money,” we said.
“Only two dollars,” replied the cabbie, looking for an early-morning fare.
“No, really, we have absolutely no money. Nothing.”
“Well, you get in anyhow.”
All we could offer him was our repeated thanks. He waved it all away.
“No problem, mon. Me going to airport anyhow. You just remember, and you do good deed. You give ride to someone someday.”
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