I EXPECTED it to take me a few days to cross the border into Spain, considering the snail-like pace of the journey thus far. Honestly that was the most optimistic estimate I could settle on. Naturally, I was shocked by the real outcome.
I have an irksome suspicion that hitchhiking is like a twisted, intelligent older sibling who continually robs you of any ability to anticipate what’s “coming up”. Except I generally welcome the surprises of travelling, while I detested the acts of brutality that my older sister would subject me to many years ago (please, let’s not go there). Just as I had formed the expectation that it was always going to be very time consuming getting to a new city, a young couple shattered it into a thousand little pieces. It was a complete annihilation of my growing cynicism, and I couldn’t help but admire them for it.
As I stood at the exit of a large petrol station (sound familiar?), an old VW campervan rattled towards me. It bore all the markings of a vehicle owned by hitchhiking friendly folk, probably because of my own childhood: it looked remarkably similar to the van that made all the family excursions to Cornwall and Wales a reality, at a time when my sister and I were tiny little appendages to our parents. These warm associations filled me with promise, but I was still far from predicting the extent of my luck.
The couple casually offered me a lift and I clambered into the back of their van, pleased to escape the torrential rain and feel the heat enveloping my shivering wet body. When I explained that I was trying to reach Barcelona, the woman (whose name I have shamefully forgotten along with her husband’s) informed me that they were going along the same coastline of Spain but were still deciding on their destination, sure only of their intent to “Follow the sun.” Her appearance reminded me of Clementine from ‘Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind’; died orange hair, a colourful, hand-knitted jumper and baggy joggers that epitomised ‘comfort’. She had 2 weeks off from work, and she wanted to fully unwind.
Beyond her looks, I was impressed by the fact she encouraged me to sit next to her 4 year old daughter, who was in a deep sleep. She hoped that we would “bond” over the 6 or 7 hour journey to Spain, recognizing the value of exposing her child to strangers. Most parents seem to do the opposite, I silently reflected. Over the course of the next hour, before tiredness kicked in, we talked incessantly and openly about our lives: hitchhiking experiences, jobs, politics, beliefs, frustrations, career goals, family. Her views were definitely more radical than mine (I know, it is possible), but it was a deeply fulfilling connection, owed mainly to our shared pain over the disease of distrust spreading its way across Europe, poisoning the kindness of good people.
Despite the eventual success of all her previous trips travelling around Europe ‘by thumb’, she acknowledged that it’s an increasingly difficult mode of transport. Less and less people act on their own intuition when they see hitchhikers, allowing a kind of cultural conditioning to make their decisions for them. In other words, direct experience as a means of judgement is replaced by mass hysteria. Where does this mass hysteria take root? That was the next point we found ourselves firmly agreeing upon: it starts with the media.
One person opens their car door to a stranger who turns out to be violent, leading to some form of tragic fate. It’s (unnecessarily) widely reported in the news, and presented not as a freak occurrence but as a cautionary tale. The media extracts the trauma and heartbreak of this rare event and manufactures it as a legitimate manual for personal safety. Forget the fact that thousands of people on online communities alone (such as Hitchhiking Europe on Facebook) can testify to beautiful and transformative experiences while hitchhiking; forget all the evidence of its success presented by people I’ve met on the road who reminisce about grand times in their youth drifting through Europe on the currency of generosity.
Abandoning all positive testimonies, just as these scare mongering reports evidently do, there is still no cause for people to be afraid. Logically why would there be any correlation between a stranger who travels for free and a murderous psychopath? There’s a statistically higher chance of getting in a car accident than there is in meeting a hitchhiker who harvests organs for sport. The issue, of course, is that fear takes over rational thought. Essentially the emotional brain doesn’t listen to anything but its own concerns for survival, which threatens to deny us so many pleasures of living.
Now, let’s return to the moment. There I was, travelling to Spain in the company of two fascinating individuals and their daughter who, when she finally woke up, displayed all of the qualities of a child raised exceptionally well. She was bright, inquisitive, understanding, shy but very comfortable in herself, and, most apparently from my perspective: she was trusting. Seeing a stranger from the moment she rose out of lethargy could frighten her, if she was taught to be weary of new people. Yes she was withdrawn, as any introvert would be, but she didn’t seem threatened by me at all. Over the rest of the journey, I actually observed her growing subtly more fond of me. Whether it was a smile when I handed her the crayons she dropped on the floor, or the fact she jokingly told her mother (who later translated for me), “Artur blocked the door to the toilet with his bag!”, when she rushed to the bathroom, it was clear I had popped up on her radar, and she viewed me in a positive light.
They had made the conscious decision to teach her through experience, not through fear. This couple were willing to follow their natural instincts in order for their daughter to generate an unfiltered, genuine picture of the world through encounters such as meeting me, a complete stranger from a foreign country. How were they able to do this, while so many other parents couldn’t? Simply because they had learned the values of trust and open-mindedness by having their own unique life experiences and dialling down the repressive scare-mongering tactics of the media. Life, in their eyes, was to be understood through actively living, not disengaging from everything that is negatively portrayed in the news.
I am most concerned for the next generation, as it seems people are more and more drawn away from direct experience and towards distrust by the rapidly developing manipulation and pervasiveness of media outlets. Even in the 1990s, hitchhiking was far more popular and successful, according to everyone I know who was a part of the movement back then. Paranoia feeds off disinformation, and honestly the only solution is to blindly and stubbornly follow your own intuition, silencing out the voices of mass hysteria.
After all, do you really want to end up less trusting than a 4 year old girl? That would be a sad state of affairs, in my opinion.