It was 2009. I was in my first year at university when a few friends asked me if I wanted to join them in a charity hitch-hike to Morocco. I immediately said yes. We spent time designing t-shirts and in a bid to raise funds for charity, myself and the other lad I was going with dyed our hair neon pink. I’d say we looked rather fabulous. There were five of us travelling in two groups over the Easter break. I still to this day don’t know why I agreed to go. I guess it was to do with being at university. I was in an unfamiliar setting with new people and I naturally found myself trying new things, even if it was just for the hell of it and to be honest, the feeling of not knowing what was around the corner was quite exciting. To get to Morocco we had to travel across France and Spain from Le Harve to Almeria, this was nearly 2000-km and our method of transport was hitch-hiking. If you haven’t heard of this activity before it is essentially the process of sticking your thumb out and flagging down people while on the road and getting them to take you to your destination for free. Obviously, this is a risky business and I cannot stress enough that if I didn’t feel safe doing it I wouldn’t have done it. You need to take precautions as you are basically getting into a stranger’s car or vehicle and trusting them to take you where they say they are. Doing this hitch hike as part of a charity meant there were stringent safeguards in place and if I were to hitch hike again, I would be following similar rules again without fail. Ultimately they are there for your safety and if you’re safe you have a good time; and I had a great time. The journey took us around a week to achieve. So, what happened in that time?
The Hitch Hike Begins…
FRANCE: LE HARVE TO IRUN
For our group of three this was the longest part of the trip. We camped in ditches sandwiched between McDonald’s and the motorway, a parking lot forecourt where we befriended a dog and on the side of a motorway at a toll station. We walked many miles, caught a cheeky train and saw Tours, Poitiers and the small town of Château-du-Loir which was as quintessential France as you can imagine. I remember the bakeries filling the air with their enticing products. We also met some fantastic people, the guy who picked us up near Poitiers and took us down to Bordeaux to his in-laws who supplied us with food and drink was very cool. He told us that the hostel he worked in had seen a lot of the charity hitchers and as such he wanted to help us out. This event sees many hitchers wearing green all over western Europe so you’re bound to see a few others if you partake! There was also the couple who picked up not only us, but the other two in our group of five who had happened to walk through the door as we were walking out after hitching a lift! They dropped us off near the French town of Bayonne. The guys in the other group had only started that morning! A good few days after us. From there we headed to the Spanish border near Irun. Being in a group of two the others secured a hitch with a truck and left us waiting under a bridge while it rained on the road above. We eventually decided to walk a bit further out to find a lift and saw some quintessential Spanish architecture as we walked the 5 or so miles to where we camped that night; which was behind a car wash. Lovely. We also brought much amusement to the patrons of McDonald’s that night by attempting to order hot water for tea, which was surprisingly difficult. Hence the emphasis of attempting. It probably didn’t help that I kept saying “agua incendio?” – I don’t think water fire means much to most people! Though flaming water does sound cool. We awoke at four am and from there our adventure in Spain could begin.
SPAIN: IRUN TO ALMERIA
The quicker part of the journey and for me the most scenic. We were shouted at by the police “VAMOS!” for walking on the motorway, and finally got a shower after about a week of travelling and switching our underwear inside out and around; I was surprised the girl in our group wasn’t more disgusted at me and the other lad. The shower we had was at a service station near Bilbao and was good even if it was full of flies… We camped on the dusty sides of dodgy motorways that could be crossed though tunnels that were something out of a horror film and general petrol forecourts like in France, sadly no dogs this time. Mysterious loaves of bread were consumed as well as not so mysterious baguettes. Those who traveled with me will know why the loaf was mysterious. If you want to know, you’ll have to ask! We also stopped in an empty Police way-point (was quite possibly a police station) that was not being used while we charged our phones and the other guy had a shower. We later found where those police were. “VAMOS!” should give you a hint. We met some cool people again but the signature lift of the trip though goes to the nuns who picked us up near Bilbao. I wondered whether these two would take pity on the three vagabonds from England. The other guy went and spoke to them and secured a ride to Madrid in their tiny Renault Clio, which ended up containing two nuns, three hitchers, all our kit and a whole lot of freebies in the form of Coca-Cola and Toblerone. The journey down to Madrid was very good. There was much giggling from the nuns about the “chicos” in their car as they talked to their pastor who translated for us. They dropped us off near the ring road where we met some other hitchers from our university. This was the location of the horror movie tunnel. We eventually all got lifts down via a few service stations with a couple of young men who offered us some joints. We politely declined. Spain was the stand-out picture perfect part of the hitch, at least for me as we drove through fields and vineyards surrounded by wind turbines, then up and through snowy mountain ranges down to sunny, rocky expanses, all in the space of a few hours. When we arrived into Almeria it was late, around midnight I seem to recall, we realized we had missed the ferries to Morocco so found a hostel and decided to take a day to relax and experience the hospitality of Southern Spain. The tapas were excellent and we sun-dried our underwear on the park wall. This was, in hindsight a potentially questionable act, especially when some school kids took surprise at a couple of bras and knickers strewn across the place, but hey, at least we had our triple chocolate swirl spread on bread and good weather to boot – yes we were very adventurous with our food. We also met a Moroccan man who gave us 50 dirhams. He did not seem to own much but said that since we were going to his country we should take a piece of it with us first, we tried to refuse, but the man insisted. To us this was not a lot of money but to him it could have been his world. If there was one thing I came away from this trip with, it was a sense that no matter how bad the world may seem, there are always caring and giving people who do nice things, just because they can. We had booked ourselves onto a late ferry to arrive in Melilla early the next morning, so when the time came we left the beach where I was worried I had buried my phone accidentally and headed to begin our Moroccan adventure.
Truly hitch hiking was an experience I am never going to forget. If it is something that you are interested in doing, then I’d exercise extreme caution when undertaking it. Most people you’ll meet are friendly and will even go well out of their way to help you. Remember you’re gaining an experience – they are too; so often they want it to last! But I do believe strongly that travelling is about being realistic, you must be safe when you travel and you need to be prepared for bad things to happen. Thus, safe travel is about minimizing risk. Following certain rules while hitch hiking will increase but not guarantee your safety. I’d recommend hitching with a registered charity like LCD (Link Community Development) and follow their guidelines. I have briefly outlined my advice below. It is NOT to be taken as gospel truth. You are responsible for your own safety and these are only guidelines.
1. Always travel in groups of AT LEAST two/three people. Any more than this and it’s almost impossible to get lifts and any less is potentially unsafe – especially for women; but also, it’s more fun in groups!
2. One traveler MUST be male, this is not suggesting that women cannot handle themselves, but attitudes to women are different throughout the world, and having a man present tends to deter unwanted attention.
3. Keep in contact with loved ones and any charity you go with by a pre-agreed deadline every day. Include your location, where you’re headed and your ETA. Include the license plate of the vehicle if you want to be extra safe.
4. Inform your relevant embassies of your intended routes; of course, hitch hiking does tend to be a bit sporadic in nature, but in the event of trouble, it helps for your embassies to know where you were going.
5. Have a handy list of contacts – embassies, local police, fellow hitchers etc. Make sure your loved ones and charities have them too and that they contact them if they haven’t heard from you by the agreed deadline.
6. If you don’t feel comfortable getting into a vehicle then DON’T do it.
7. Use your instinct and common sense and be careful not to indulge in anything illegal.
8. Get Insured!
There are some good pointers on the LCD website. I don’t claim to be an expert and this list is neither conclusive or exhaustive. It is merely a guideline of what you should be expecting to consider when hitch hiking. You need to do your own research and do what you feel comfortable with. But above all it’s about using your discretion. You should only hitch if you’re an adult and it is ultimately up to you to make decisions as to what you deem as risky or not. But if you ever do go hitching, I’d recommend using a recognized event like the LCD Hitch, which is run annually. I found that having the backing of a registered charity removed a lot of stress from me. It meant I could enjoy my trip more (I’m a stickler for safety!). Feel free to ask me any questions about the hitch and I’d be happy to answer and/or point you in the right direction.
Cover Photo: Me enjoying the cascades, Morocco, while repping the green shirt!