The core part of the trip was going to be a week in Beius, Romania to build a house there. You read that right. My fraternity and Habitat for Humanity had teamed up to work at one of the Habitat sites in Romania.
In Beius, already some 20 houses had been built over the past couple of years and some 40 more were still scheduled to be built. We were going to use our magical powers to create one of those 40 houses there.
Mind you, not that it was easy to motivate my, ehm, friends, for going to Beius. Of the 38 people of my fraternity, only 20 commited to going. And last minute, three even bowed out, leaving only 17. Great.
For now, however, I was on my way to Budapest. We only were going to start our creative process the next monday but I wanted to visit a good friend of mine whom I met when studying in Budapest a couple of years before. About half the team was going to fly to Bucarest and take a train from there to Beius. Myself and the rest of the group were traveling overland, but I left first.
I was going to hitchhike, and since it’s no fun to spend a night on the autobahn, I left early. It had been some time since I last hitchhiked and although it can be pretty tiresome and downright annoying, it still has something of a romantic ring to it. So I wasn’t too bothered.
Hitchhiking in Holland is almost impossible if not a terribly slow process. So for the first leg of my journey I took the train to Arnhem. Then, starting the adventure at the border with Germany.
Waking up with a headache for lack of sleep, I hastened to get to the train station in time. I only barely managed and if it weren’t for me having to change trains in Utrecht, I would have gotten an aditional 90 minutes of sleep. Now, however, I was destined to watch it raining cats and dogs. Only hoping that Budapest would bring nicer weather.
Arnhem isn’t a very exciting town. And at 7:30am with a continuous drizzle it’s downright appalling.
I arrived under rainy skies, but since it was still too early, no shops were open to get myself an umbrella. I was going to fight nature. Luckily, I was wearing a cap so most of the rain went by reasonably unnoticed. I wasn’t wearing the cap as a fashion statement though. The day before, I had shaved my head completely bald. And drivers have a general dislike for taking bald hitchhikers with them. The cap was a necessity.
The walk to the nearest ramp onto the highway wasn’t bad. I was able to take a bus halfway and walk the rest. The actual spot, however, was terrible. One very big roundabout, with almost no place for cars to stop, with cars going in all directions and drivers looking at you as if you’re mad for taking up space on their precious highway.
My only chance was to be picked up by a German car, but not many Germans left Arnhem at 8:00am for Germany. Still, the third German car that passed, stopped. I had my first ride. Into Germany.
The guy was very friendly and had hitchhiked extensively when he was younger, mostly in New Zealand, but also in Germany and France and he was now living in Muenchen. Good news, I thought, expecting a ride to Muenchen. Wrong. The guy was flying from Duesseldorf to Muenchen, after spending a week in the Netherlands for his job. We had such an animated discussion, that I didn’t notice passing the gas station where I needed to get off. As a result, I had to get off at a very basic parking next to the autobahn. Not a good thing at all.
Afraid of already being stuck so early in the day I asked every driver that stopped there to take me with him to the next parking, since the next gas station was too far away for comfort. That is, some 60km, but in the ‘Ruhrgebied’, that’s like the other side of the world.
I was lucky. A guy in a pickup was so kind as to drive me to the next parking.
My next two rides were from two friendly, but not talkative men. The first, driving a pickup truck, the second, an old van. However, the objective wasn’t, to meet new people, but to get out of the Ruhrgebied quickly. This, to my surprise, went fairly smoothly.
I arrived at another gas station soon. Hordes of Dutch, traveling south to Austria, Switzerland and Italy were stopping to chill, so finding a ride here wouldn’t be much of a problem. After only a couple of minutes I got a ride from two Dutch men.
I was luckier than I thought. Not only did they share one of their raw herrings, a typically Dutch treat, we also talked a bit before setting off. And there I learned they weren’t going in the right direction at all! I said good-bye, took my backpack out of the car, forgot my hitchhiker’s guide to Europe and went out in search for a car going in the right direction.
A Dutch couple, working at the University of Twente, were willing to take me with them and were going in the right direction. I did have to convince them, though. Mostly because they didn’t have any room in their car. Not that it was small. In fact, it was a huge Volvo. But it was packed to the brim, camping gear all around, heaps of books, bicycles on the back of the car. So there wasn’t any room anymore for anyone to sit absolutely anywhere. Willing to put my legs around my neck, if necessary, they made some room for me and I was settled for a couple of hours, reasonably comfortably. Although I did get a bad leg cramp later on for sitting in such a tight spot.
It being the first week of summer holidays in Germany, the roads were packed. The Dutch couple, claiming to be traffic-jam spotters, were very adept in avoiding the traffic jams along the way. They were going to Switzerland and they didn’t really mind if they would enter the country either East or West. Me, however, I did mind a lot in which direction we were going as long as I ended up in Austria. The result being that although we ‘did’ quite a distance in a short time, I wasn’t really moving towards my destination.
Still, the weather was clearing, the temperature was getting warmer. By now, it wasn’t that bad anymore if my trip would take me a bit longer as planned. When I got out of the car, we were close to Heidelberg.
It’s rare to get a ride from someone who isn’t (or hasn’t been) a traveler himself. But close to Heidelberg it actually did happen to me. A stereotypical German, working for Mercedes, driving a, you’ve guessed it, gave me a ride. A pity with people that don’t travel much is that, generally, they don’t have a good sense of direction and distance.
I was trying to get back on the main road through Passau to Vienna. Because of traffic jams earlier on I was forced to take a more southern route and this guy was going in the right direction, directly east. At least, that was what he thought. He did go east, for a while, but then he took a turn southwards, some 150km earlier than what he had pointed out on the map. I felt fucked but tried to remain calm. What could I do?
Getting off at the first gas station, since the Mercedes-man was leaving the autobahn soon after, I was picked up after another 30 minutes or so. This time by, seemingly, an older hippy, driving an old van, towing a very old car, who constantly talked about some Danish Lama, Ole Nydahl. I mean, really, this guy couldn’t stop talking about Buddhism. Not that I really minded. He was very friendly and really went out of his way to drop me off on the right side of Stuttgart, towards Austria. The fact that the van did an average 60km/h didn’t really bother me.
It was hard to get a ride from Stuttgart. Not that people weren’t willing to take me with them. They were going in the wrong direction. Almost everyone went south. As were the couple that gave me the next ride. Still, they were going a bit to the east first, passing the next gas station. Before we actually took off, I had been waiting for close to an hour. This wasn’t promising, I still had a very long way to go.
The wait paid off. I halted a really big bad ass car, with only one person (although huge) in it. The car had Bulgarian license plates. I got lucky, more by being pushy then by the friendliness of the driver. He let me hitch a ride with him and it turned out that he was actually going to Bulgaria. I got along as far as Budapest.
The guy’s plan was to stop for the night some kilometers short of Budapest. Although it was getting pretty late, I was happy I could convince him to drive on, and sleep in Budapest. We arrived at the hostel I had made reservations by cell phone, just a couple of minutes before 2am. I paid for his nights stay, which seemed fair, considering the man drove me almost 850km, but he only staid a couple of hours. At 6am, he was up again, leaving for the final leg of his trip.
Although it was quite hard to talk to the man, his English knowledge was very basic, I learned that he was working for a shipping company on the border between Bulgaria and Romania and that he had been in Germany to visit several ports. An interesting story that he told was, of a girl in his village, some 25 years old, who had been taken in by police for questioning, who would only be let out on charge of a really high bail. After the girl called him, using the police phone, he went in and freed the girl, using, undoubtedly, his ancient Bulgarian techniques of persuasion…