I was studying in Edinburgh. I don’t remember exactly how I got into hitchhiking. Sometime in early March, my friend Reigh and I were sharing our experience of studying abroad. She told me that she had recently hitched from coast to coast in Ireland along with a female friend of hers. Incidentally, I had spent the night prior to our conversation watching random videos related to hitchhiking. To say the least, I was amazed by her story and she encouraged me to give hitchhiking a try.
This is my story of solo hitchhiking over a thousand miles in Europe as a brown male. It is an attempt to document an experience I truly cherish. I have used Google Maps Timeline extensively to try to recall the foggy memories.
The Fails: The Netherlands 🇳🇱
Once I got my Schengen visa, I was all set to visit my friend Aman in Eindhoven. I was pumped and asked him if he wanted to try hitching in the Netherlands. He agreed, no questions asked. We began scouring loads of pages on hitchwiki.org, an encyclopedia for hitchhikers. We both had our doubts and I would be lying if I tell you that I wasn’t nervous. The good thing was that Aman was familiar with public transportation there, so we knew we had a fallback option if we were to get no rides whatsoever.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. We tried thrice in three different locations, waiting for around two hours each, but didn’t manage to get a single ride. Funnily enough, the only car that stopped for us was police asking us to move to a different, safer place. Although we were standing in a legal spot, we didn’t want to take a chance so we moved to another spot.
The next day, we stuck our thumbs out in front of a traffic signal. It was uncomfortable whenever we’d make eye contact with any passengers. We still followed all the basics: shave before going out, smile generously, look them in the eyes, and show both hands. Some of them did smile back but none of the cars stopped. I think the reason why we were so unsuccessful was that after all, giving a ride to two Indian guys is a lot of “responsibility” for someone to assume.
Hitchhiking is a strange thing to be doing willingly. Aman and I laughed so much during our failed attempts at hitchhiking. We were disheartened but we still did everything else that we wanted to do during my week-long stay in the Netherlands. In mid-April, I was due to return to Europe for a two-week backpacking trip. I wanted to see if I could pull off hitchhiking on my own.
My plan was to fly from Edinburgh to Szczecin (Poland), stay there for a day and then fly to Warsaw. Then, I planned to hitch to Paris, stopping in Berlin and Mannheim for a few days each. The last leg was to travel to Eindhoven (hitch or public transportation depending on my mood) to reunite with Aman.
Warsaw to Berlin 🇵🇱 ~ 🇩🇪
In Warsaw, I was staying with a person who had over 20,000 km of hitchhiking under his belt. To put into perspective, that’s half a trip around the Earth. He suggested that I hitch from a ramp merging onto the highway to Łódź, the closest city on my way to Berlin. Even though I had a plan on how to hitch out of Warsaw, I accepted his advice and went to the suggested spot. It was like the Netherlands all over again, except now I had nobody around to share my misery with. I flew my cardboard sign for an hour and tried many spots along the road but to no avail.
I was losing hope by the second and I questioned why I took my host’s advice, knowing full well that I hadn’t had any luck hitching from the side of the road. My original plan was to hitch from a gas station outside of Warsaw. It would allow me to talk to the drivers and win them over with my charisma. So I pulled myself together and boarded a bus toward the gas station.
The gas station was 3.5 km away from the last bus stop. Those were the hardest three km I had ever walked. I was feeling the heat, both figuratively and literally, so I took my sweater off and tied it to the side of the road (pic below). To be honest, I was waiting for the perfect moment to retire that sweater. Anyhow, I eventually reached the gas station, and boy, was it huge? It was already past noon, so I had to act fast. I put on the most innocuous face possible and began asking strangers for a ride - everyone from a truck driver to people coming out of McDonald’s. It was stressful; I got a few scornful looks from the truck drivers and Google Translate didn’t prove to be too useful either. After 30 minutes of rejections though, a Polish guy finally offered me an hour-long ride. Of course, my energy level went through the roof.
My goal for the day was to reach Berlin. That’s 560 km in a day, meaning at least 6-7 hrs on the road. I had lost a lot of time before my short first ride. To make matters worse, I didn’t have a tent or a sleeping bag. If I were to be stranded somewhere, my last option was to hitch to the nearest town and look for a hotel/hostel. Nonetheless, I wanted to stay positive and as soon as I was dropped off at a rest stop outside Łódź, I started looking again. Surprisingly, the second ride came by relatively quickly. It was a Polish man in his late 40s. He offered to take me to Poznań, which was almost halfway to Berlin.
Before entering a car, I would try to sneakily read the number plate and text it to some of my friends.
All my doubts were put to rest when he told me that he had hitchhiked in his early days and that he could relate to my struggle. Like most people who picked me up, he asked me about my experience hitching as a brown guy in a region known for its unfriendliness toward foreigners. We talked about my studies and his kids who had recently moved to the US. He even tried to help me hitch a ride before he had to leave. My next two rides were a woman in mid-20s returning from work as well as a businessman who drove me to outside of Berlin. The latter had sailed across the Atlantic (!) when he was younger, so we mostly discussed that as we drove across the Poland-German border. I could sense the cars racing on the autobahn. It was thrilling and I was feeling “successful”.
Berlin to Mannheim 🇩🇪
My CouchSurfing host Paul was hosting another traveler by the name of Nathan. We three didn’t get to talk a lot during my two nights there, but we bonded for a bit on hitchhiking. Nathan had also train-hopped in the US, which I didn’t have the guts to do, even on a sunny, adventurous afternoon. He had planned to hitch to Innsbruck, Austria (750 km) on the same day I was going to Mannheim (650 km).
The funny thing about hitchhiking out of Berlin is that there’s a well-known, hitchhiker-friendly spot on the outskirts of the city. Nathan had left for the spot an hour before me, so when I reached the place, he wasn’t there but I saw at least 5 other hitchhikers. It was a sunny morning and I was feeling energetic. To minimize the number of highway changes, I decided to hitch southward, through Leipzig and Nuremberg, instead of westward, through Hanover. It took me a shade under an hour of waiting and asking every single person about to drive off before I could get a yes.
An American couple road-tripping around Europe offered me a ride to Leipzig. The only thing I recall about the ride is the kind of music they had on. They were playing a folk playlist, perhaps some Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers? My next ride turned out to be even more musical. This time, it was a German couple driving to Nuremberg. The women knew Indian belly dancing (!), so I thought she’d enjoy one of my favorite Bollywood songs, Senorita. And she did! After we shared some more music, I caught up on my sleep for 15 minutes; I thought I could chance it without being disrespectful (or getting kidnapped).
The couple dropped me off at the last gas station before Nuremberg. I then bought some snacks to recharge myself. As I was leaving the store, I saw a car pull over. Nathan was sitting inside it. I couldn’t believe it. To leave “the Berlin spot” at different times and then bump into each other in the middle of nowhere - what were the odds? His ride (to Munich) was stopping to refuel, so he left soon after we shared a biscuit or two.
My last ride came in at just the right time. A middle-aged woman agreed to drive me to somewhere near Stuttgart. During my two-hour ride, I learned that she had recently turned vegan and that she lived alone. She talked about veganism and her new book on discipline. Her persona reminded me of the movies in which the protagonists live in a lakeside cottage and all they do is read, write and drink whiskey. She dropped me off at a gas station in Öhringen, a town almost 100 km from Mannheim. Although the gas station was close to the highway, all of its traffic came from within the town. I had grossly misjudged my drop-off. With no luck asking people at the tiny gas station, I stuck out my thumb on the side of the highway ramp. I was tired and all I could notice was some posh cars and people’s judgemental looks.
At that point, I was quite hungry, so I grabbed a filling meal at a diner across the ramp. I even tried asking a few cars in the drive-thru. My philosophy during this trip was to swallow my ego and resist feeling judged. It was late evening and I had already started brainstorming alternatives. I wanted to avoid staying there overnight and the possibility of finding a reliable, “last-minute CouchSurfing host” was slim. So I began heading toward the bus station which was a 25-minute walk. Five minutes in, I saw another gas station. I don’t explain why but I wanted to try my luck there. The first person I asked happened to be going on the highway, though only 20 km further. I asked if she knew how I could reach Mannheim or Heidelberg and she offered to drop me at the Weinsberg train station. It was an amazing feeling. Two out of two days, I was able to hitch over 550 km. Just then, Nathan texted me, “I made it all the way to Innsbruck!”
Mannheim to Paris 🇩🇪 ~ 🇫🇷
I spent my birthday with my friends Lukas and Marc. We watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and I roamed around the wonderland that is Heidelberg. It was soon time to say our goodbyes and Lukas drove me to a gas station by the side of a highway ramp. I had planned to do 520 km to Paris, going through Saarbrücken, Metz, and Reims. Hitchwiki gurus seemed generally positive about the spot, and I was also feeling confident. As it turns out, I spent the longest amount of time waiting for a ride there. I approached everyone from the truckers taking a break to the people at a mechanics shop across the road.
After 1.5 hours of waiting, I had no option but to fly my sign and pray for someone to stop. I was dreading this situation because, as you know, I hadn’t had much success flying signs before. In fact, I was about to call Lukas but miraculously, after 15 odd minutes, a car with two middle-eastern men stopped and asked me where I was going. Although they drove me for a short distance, I was so glad that they stopped for me. It was a humbling experience overall. They offered me food and handed me a €20 note and refused to take it back even after I insisted that I had money. I don’t think I looked terribly bad or in need; it was their sheer kindness toward a “young traveler”. I was at a loss for words.
Wherever you go, you'll find people who want to help you. Hitchhiking in Germany was pleasant. Unlike the truckers in Warsaw, most of the Germans would politely turn down my requests for a ride. I knew what I had gotten myself into, so I was ready to take rejections. After all, hearing a "no" is better than seeing a disgusted turn of the head.
As I got closer to France, I remembered my friend’s comments about the French not wishing to speak English even if they knew the language. I was dropped off 40 km from the French border around 1 pm. I knew that asking for a ride all the way to Paris could be an instant rejection. So I looked for a ride to Metz hoping that someone would at least take me across the border. I could not afford to rest if I wanted to reach Paris before dark.
After asking the gas station attendants for any tips, I approached this person who seemed to be driving off soon. I asked him if he was going toward Metz. He said that he was but he wouldn’t stop until the south of Paris. My eyes lit up but I had to stay calm. In the politest of ways, I told him that I had been waiting for a ride for two hours and asked whether I could join him. It was a yes, did I feel on top of the world? He was a Ph.D. in a niche scientific field and did cutting-edge research in laser optics. For almost 400 km, we discussed random subjects, none of which I remember now. He graciously dropped me off at Massy - Palaiseau, a railway station in South Paris, and gave me his business card in case I needed help in Paris.
I stayed in Paris with my good friend Mattis and met up with Chau and Raf. My last leg of this trip was to go from Paris to Eindhoven. I was exhausted after three full days of hitching and I figured that it’s a nightmare to hitch out of Paris. So I went easy on myself and took a FlixBus to Eindhoven via Antwerp. Aman and I then biked home and cooked some paneer.