Fear of travelling alone was a real problem for me. As soon as I got out of the suffocating grip of university I planned to escape, to travel to the other side of the world, to travel alone for years and to find a job somewhere in Shanghai. Trouble was that I had never travelled for more than a day on my own, and even then it was always en-route to visiting someone, and the idea of doing this for months seemed impossible – and scary.
My big brother Kim had travelled alone to France, where he had learned the language, and Switzerland where he’d been kicked out for working illegally. To me, this was beyond cool and I wondered if I would ever have his courage and resourcefulness. All I could do was build up my travelling skills – and go hitching.
Hitching was the key that unlocked my fear of travelling alone. On the one hand it’s considered risky and there are no shortage of sensible adults who will tell you about the chances of being picked up by an axe wielding maniac/rapist. On the other hand it’s one of the most basic forms of travel – all you need is a thumb and a road – and you can do it anywhere.
The unwritten rules of hitching are as follow: start your journey on the edge of town, on the road to your destination, in a place where vehicles can stop; hold up a sign with your destinations name on it or stick out your thumb; wait for hours as 99% of the vehicles glare at you as if you are the axe wielding maniac; work out how to behave in the glorious vehicle that has so generously picked you up (some drivers want to talk, others want total silence); get out when they turn off from your route and then start again (some hitchhikers only take lifts that go all the way to their destinations but I take anything that’s going in my direction).
I used to hitch from Edinburgh, where my parents lived, to Liverpool which is located half way down England and where I studied history and politics – and back again. Liverpool is about 250 miles away and it would take the best part of a day to get there, as you invariably have to hang around on motorway junctions for hours on end. It can be a really boring experience and waiting at the side of the road – noisy, ugly places – for hours on end is both frustrating and depressing. But when you get a lift there is a sudden rush of joy and that hatred you were feeling towards drivers miraculously turns into love and gratitude.
The best time to start a long hitchhiking trip is at dawn, especially if it’s a long journey, as you really don’t want to end up stranded at the side of the road at night. I used to organize things so that I would stay up all night with friends, maybe go drinking, and simply not go to bed. Then I’d wander out before dawn, find a bus to the outskirts and try and catch the early drivers. I would fall asleep in the first vehicle that picked me up.
In the UK you don’t pay for lifts you get but when I hitched in Romania, Bosnia, India and Tibet the local custom was that you did give the driver a small contribution, roughly equivalent to a local bus fare. In the UK and the richer countries people give lifts out of the goodness of their hearts and often because they used to hitch in their youth – but there aren’t many people like this so it’s actually very hard to get a lift in the more developed countries. In the poorer countries they give lifts because they need the money and, in my experience, it’s much easier to get a lift in these places. It’s also more interesting as people in these countries are invariably more friendly, open and curious to find out what it’s like in your country. In fact, it’s the perfect way to get to know a country and if you’re lucky the drivers will also offer you a bed for the night.
Somewhere along the line I lost my fear of travel. I’m not really sure how it happened and I certainly didn’t take up hitching with this goal in mind (I did it because I was always broke and what money I did have needed to be carefully saved for drinks and other essentials for the life of a student). A few years after the scene with my big brother I was hitchhiking from Kathmandu to Lhasa, across the roof of the world, and it felt like the ideal way to travel.
As for the risks – I have nothing to report. The only incident that happened to me was when an old trucker in England asked me if I’d like to play with his willie. I declined the offer, got out of the truck and went on my merry way. I never had any experience of violence, extortion, threats and I never met anyone to whom these things had happened. My conclusion is that hitching is really very safe – as the vast majority of people are sensible and kind – and the risks are surely no more than going in a fast car.