I’ll admit it, I’m not a seasoned hitchhiking professional.
I kinda picked up this weird habit between Bulgaria and Albania – as if those weren’t adventurous enough countries to be jaunting around, without getting in the back of a stranger’s car.
Then, just as my four months of solo travel was drawing to a close I set myself one last challenge: 700kms worth of challenge of hitching from Serbia to Italy. Because obviously I’d run out of ways to make my Mum wish she’d never had me. Or something like that.
Unfortunately, my start point was 70km-ish off any form of main highway, in Novi Sad, Serbia.
So at 10am on a Wednesday, I trudged off to a less than ideal spot to up thumbs on the side of a highway going back to Belgrade.
I’d been waiting about seven minutes and had just started to open a Snickers bar for sustenance when a burly lad with no hair and several neck tattoos screeched his courier truck to a stop beside me and told me he’d take me to the highway.
We couldn’t communicate – at all – but our 45 minutes together was pleasant enough. Particularly when we drove off the main road and then around in circles for 15 minutes as he tried to find the entrance to the motorway, and ended up just dropping me off back where we’d come in, in the middle of an unknown town, approx 7 kilometres from civilisation.
Ride #1: Success. Kinda.
Up my thumb went again, damn near right in the middle of a random town I did not know the name of, as I wandered in what I was hoping was the direction of the motorway.
Not 10 minutes had passed before a man stopped to ask in no uncertain terms what the hell I was doing, and told me to get in so he could take me to the motorway.
Ride #2: Success.
A few moments later, I was standing facing the wrong direction of traffic at the toll gate for cars heading away from the Serbia/ Croatia border.
When an official-looking man walked out of one of the offices in my direction, I practised my best Russian accent and prepared to cry on cue if I had to.
Luckily, he just wanted to shake my hand, ask where I’m from (not Russia, obviously) and point me to the on-ramp, where I wouldn’t be attempting to hitch a ride from the way in which I had just come.
Any official willing to flout the law and encourage a wayward traveler to run along a busy motorway to get in a car with a potential criminal is a friend of mine.
So, precariously tiptoeing along the not-pedestrian-friendly onramp to the motorway, to avoid being squished by several monstrous trucks hurtling along at breakneck speed, I found a patch of ground invariably wider than the rest and chucked out a thumb.
Luckily, before a large truck could pick me up (under its wheels) a beat-up Mitsubishi Lancer screeched to a stop soon after to save me from imminent squishing, and announced he was going to Zagreb – 400km in my direction.
Whooping and clapping and definitely not making a scene – I jumped in for one of the best hitches of my life.
The middle-aged dude, speaking excellent English, told me he was off to visit his daughter and take her a boot-load of food, and would I like to try some snacks?
He was currently working in Germany, and would I like a mandarin?
And he would drop me anywhere I wanted to go, and would I like a coffee if we stopped here?
About two hours into the trip and he was rolling us a ‘cigarette’ and getting philosophical. I’ve never spoken at such lengths about the position of the stars with a stranger in my life. Or for anyone for that matter.
Just before three in the afternoon, I was dropped in another precarious hitching spot near another onramp, with a snap of a photo to show his daughter, and a bag full of snacks for the road.
Ride #3: Utter incredible success.
Ride #4 picked me up and took me to a better hitching spot.
Ride #5 was two dudes heading for a hiking trip in Slovenia and rearranged their entire car, belongings and dog so I had room to squeeze in over the border and onward to Ljubljana.
Once there, I crashed with a couchsurfing host for a night – ready for what I thought would be an easy 150km to Venice the next day.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Dropped at a reasonably adequate hitching spot early the next morning, I was in a car with a super friendly dude heading to the Slovenian coast near Koper by 8.30am.
The way I was going, I’d arrive in Venice by 11am, I thought, way earlier than my noon meeting time. In Koper, I was picked up fairly immediately by a bad-ass elderly Italian who lived in Slovenia and liked to say ‘fuck’ a lot.
When she left me, she made me promise to stop hitchhiking because it wasn’t safe for girls. I willingly gave her my word, and waited for her to turn the corner to raise my thumb again.
The next five hours were to be quite possibly the longest of my life.
Ride #6 came after about a 25 minute wait at a petrol station, with an Italian speed demon who didn’t speak a single word of English, but liked to convey his interests, including: showing off his home city in excruciating detail through pointing and garbling Italian, driving well over the speed limit, not keeping to his lane, swerving all over said lanes, and dropping hitchhikers 5 kilometres from any sort of main road.
Thankfully, after leaving him, I only had about a 30 minute walk in the general vicinity of Venice, before an airport shuttle picked me up and offered to take me out near the airport 50km away.
And indeed he did: he just failed to mention he’d drop me off in the middle of an island on the motorway.
As I tried to rectify the situation, attempting a feeble thumb and almost having it taken off by 5 huge truck and trailer units racing on by, I half played in traffic, half played dodge-the-car and walked the 2 kilometres back to the inland motorway where I figured it would be much easier to find a ride.
Plus. Venice was only 50km away – 30 minutes, right? Oh if only I could tell November 17 Ashleigh how wrong she was.
A lovely Italian man with very limited English next picked me up and took me 20km, and then I started to get excited.
After buying me my first Italian espresso (hideous, unsure how bitter grime in a cup ever took off in Italy, but boy has it what), he offered me a ride with a friend who he knew was heading to Venice in about an hour or so.
Brazen and cocky, I politely declined, certain I’d make it way before that guy would even be leaving.
Oh if only I could tell November 17 Ashleigh how much she should’ve taken that ride. And retrospectively punched her in the eye.
I waited about 35 minutes for my next ride – but not from lack of people stopping. At least a dozen people pulled over, but none were going more than 10km down the road.
That inland route was only for hyper-locals, and was my dumbest idea ever.
Finally, an older man pulled over and said he was heading to Venice. Yes!! (My excitement obviously allowed me to overlook the aura of utter creepiness)
Thirty or so minutes into our drive he pulled over, saying he needed to “pee-pee”. And then, in the rearview mirror, I watched that sick prick “making himself rather happy”, just behind the car.
And surprise surprise, after that it all started unravelling. He communicated the fact that he was heading to Venice in five hours, not right now, and I should have known that before I got in.
At that moment, I took my chances and got out of the car in batshit nowhere.
Another older Italian man pulled over to pick me up. The sleazy moustache and gold chain raised faint alarm bells, but I was willing to believe bad luck couldn’t strike twice.
Oh, November 17 Ashleigh.
Luckily, this guy only wanted to hold my hand occasionally and ramble incoherently in Italian. Obviously sick of my hand-swatting and flat-out rejection, he dropped me on the outskirts of Venice as one last act of revenge.
And after eleven different cars in 36 hours, diminishing faith in my trusty thumb, and two sleazy Italians too many, I decided to give hitching a rest and hauled my bags onto my back for one hell of a final and exhausting 5km stretch.
Just after 3.30pm, 4 ish hours after my promised arrival time, I stumbled into the Mestre train station, sweaty, dirty and utterly unkempt, to meet the boyfriend I hadn’t seen in five months. I’d planned to do my hair and have a bit of lippy on, not look like I’d just been electrocuted and sweated every ounce of makeup halfway down my face.
Now – this isn’t to say I’ve been put off hitchhiking for good – just for now. And for in Italy. Of the approx 30 different cars I’d been in across Eastern Europe, to only have two bad experiences (maybe three, sorry Mum), is a ratio I’m willing to work with.
I probably just won’t be upping thumbs again in Italy. And if nothing else, at least I know what “pee-pee” means in Italian now.