I Hitchhiked Around Albania
I sit in the back seat of an old Mercedes-Benz that smells like cheap tobacco and think about what I should say to the mystery man behind the wheel. Squished next to me and buried under our backpacks are Noam and Ziv, two Israeli girls I met in a hostel in Sarandë. Our driver and his friend, club promoters in their early 20s, pump up the music. It’s mumble rap. I want to turn off the radio so bad but then I remember we’re getting this ride for free, plus they just offered us free weed (which I lamentably declined after reading Noam’s concerned and scrutinising stare).
What we were doing had become a lifestyle for the past week, but each time I couldn’t help but laugh madly at the situation I had just put myself in and wonder in a mix of astonishment, bewilderment and utter fear, What the fuck am I doing?
Before I embarked on my big solo Eurotrip, my mother blessed me with the sign of the cross (Ah, Latinos) at the airport and said to me what she had repeatedly emphasised for the past five months since I had bought the plane ticket.
“Don’t trust strangers you just met on the street.”
Well, I was putting a lot of trust on strangers I had just met on the street. In fact, a lot of these people I would only look at for less than 30 seconds before finding myself packed like a little Tetris block in the back seat of their car (and hopefully not in the trunk).
I was hitchhiking my way through Albania.
I would stand by the curb of a main busy road, my arm extended and my thumb enthusiastically directed to the sky, with an animated smile that beamed, “I’m a nice girl with a heavy backpack – please pick me up!”
Eventually, a car would pull up, wind down the window and ask me where I was heading. If they were going in the same direction, I would kindly accept the lift, and without really assessing the situation, let alone scanning their face properly, I would drop off my luggage in the boot of the car and away we would go.
I got into the idea of hitchhiking while I was in Istanbul. I was staying in a very low budget hostel where, for whatever strange reason, so many solo hitchhikers were staying on their way to Iran. I never really viewed hitchhiking before as a means of travelling. I had only hitched once when I was 15, and that was because I was two hours away from home, had missed the last train and was really scared of breaking my curfew.
After hearing the crazy adventures and ridiculously funny experiences that these hitchhikers had, I ended up leaving most of my sensible wits behind in that hostel dorm in seek of a real adventure. I was sold and I was desperately craving something raw, an experience unique to only me and the people I shared it with. So when I made it to Albania in a whim, I decided to let go of the safety net of buses and trains and tried to solely rely on what my mumma gave me… my thumb.
It was intimidating at first. I felt so vulnerable sitting in the backseat of a stranger’s car, but by the fifth time, every time I saw a taxi or walked passed a bus station I would smirk to myself and smugly think, Who needs a bus when you’ve gotta thumb? I got so confident with my hitchhiking that once when I was swimming around the islands of Ksmail with another pal, a hydro cycle rode past and I put my thumb out and we hitched a ride back to the main island.
I quickly learned that hitchhiking is the best way to get to know a place. You zoom into a culture while effortlessly absorbing the language, music and history. You listen to what the average 20-year-old boy listens to on his commute to work… mumble rap. Hitchhiking, to me at least, is tourism behind the scenes.
When Noam, Ziv and I were on our way to the old city of Berat, central Albania, we were blessed with the most scenic and historical private tour of the Vlorë country. Our driver made detours, delaying his trip back home to Tirana to proudly show us panoramic views of the lush green Albanian mountains surrounding an open silky sea. I had never felt so present in a foreign country before. There is no better way to learn what life was like in Albania under a communist dictatorship than listening to a local who lived through it all, while gazing out of the window and spotting abandoned bunkers – traces of the country’s communist past (there was one bunker for every four Albanian citizens; they were never used and eventually led the country to bankruptcy).
The rides I hitched were priceless. When a service is given with nothing in exchange, it becomes inherently more valuable. That sweet sensation you get when someone is doing you a favour with nothing expected from you in return is a delightful and contagious feeling. The feeling of humans looking out for each other.
I learned more about human psychology than I did three years into my psych undergrad. The amount of life stories I heard on some of those long trips – regrets, dreams, hopes – could have served as a counselling internship.
When you take a taxi or a bus, you can just unplug from your surroundings into your music or aimlessly tap onto your smart phone to escape from any awkward interaction. You can’t do that when you hitchhike. You got to at least try to get to know who the person behind the steering wheel is. It’s more effort, and sometimes really awkward, but you don’t miss out on the little quirks that make life more human. Hitchhiking – and couch surfing too – rebel against the alienating capitalist barrier that sees the person as a service rather than an actual human being.
It seems to me now that perhaps consumer culture benefits from society’s fear of strangers. It becomes symbolically safer to pay for a service rather than accept the kindness of someone you don’t really know. When we’re near a busy road and wanting to get somewhere, there are probably tons of cars with spare seats going that same direction that will probably pass our desired destination or even go! Yet, we mostly opt to drive ourselves or take public transport. Many people are even scared to use paid rideshare services like BlaBla car because they’re uncomfortable with the idea of being with a stranger.
But if you have something you can share – a seat, a bed, a meal – why not share it with someone else?
Maybe I’m still naive and seeing the world behind these delusional rose-tinted sunglasses, but I believe the world is full of more good people than bad. I hopped out of most of those cars with a spring in my step and presently I’m trying to recycle and spread that good karma around.
I emphasise the word most though: the odds of experiencing sexual assault and harassment are much higher for women compared to men, and moreso if you’re hitchhiking (on the flip side, you will be picked up a lot quicker…yay?). Whenever I hitched and was accompanied by a male, the differences in the way I was spoken to and the level of respect I received were often painfully obvious. You don’t get comments about your appearance, smile, or requests to marry you.
I never hitchhiked alone: most of time I was with Ziv and Noam, but even so, we did find ourselves in a few not-so-comfortable situations where we felt vulnerable. I would still rate my overall hitchhiking experience as very positive and perhaps a case of beginner’s luck. Hitchhiking will always remain a luxury for those who can accept the risk, but like most things in the world, that risk is unfortunately always enhanced if you’re female.
So would I recommend hitchhiking to others? Fuck no! Are you crazy?
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.