Hitchhiking for me had always been something that other people talked about, or that I had seen done in a fictional world. It seemed that it required a level of adventurism reserved for the beatnik traveler bum; a man or woman who had no money for trains, planes, and automobiles, but had all the necessary time. It didn’t seem to fit me as a person, or at least I thought it didn’t. It took me until I got to university, short on money and in a foreign country to view this way of traveling as reasonable or necessary. I must admit, I was extremely excited to find out what it would be like to hitchhike.
JFK stands for John Francis Keany. JFK (I call him John) is an Irishman from Donegal. I met JFK in Toulouse sitting on the windowsill of a room in a student residence. He offered me a Mild Seven cigarette. They’re made with charcoal filters, and I told him about a friend at school who used to bring them over duty-free from the Philippines. We bonded over these distinctive cigarettes and grew to like each other, continuing to spend time together and becoming fast friends.
A few months later on an overcast day, John and I picked our way along the verge of the autoroute on the outskirts of Toulouse, carrying crude signs that read, “Barcelone, Barcelona, S.V.P (s’il vous plait).” Originally, it had been the idea of our friend Simon to take the trip. He had been meaning to visit a friend in Barcelona, which is relatively close to Toulouse. Paola lived in a small flat above a burger joint on the Carrer de Valldonzella, which looked onto the Placa de Castella, it had beautiful tiled floors which looked like the 1920’s. Paola’s is where we would be sleeping, but first, we would have to get there. Simon had booked a covoiturage, which is basically an Air BnB for car-pooling (mainly long distance journeys). Simon and John had originally organized to go together, but once I had heard of what they were planning to do, I had to join. I don’t usually invite myself to things, but this I could not miss.
We decided that the best way to catch a lift would be to stand on the motorway that issued from Toulouse and hail cars in the direction that we needed to travel in (that may have also been the only way). We arrived at this stretch of road, laid down our bags next to the bank of the motorway and threw up the universal hitchhiker’s sign, a proud and optimistic thumb. We had only been signaling for 5-10 minutes after a man stopped in his car. My apologies, but for the life of me I can’t remember what make of car it was. I hopped in the front seat and John in the back. We settled in, and the car picked up speed, our excitement rising with it. Our host started smoking a cigarette and we asked if it would be okay if we smoked, to which he replied, “but of course.” We got to talking, and eventually he asked us if we smoked weed. John replied that we did and after gratefully accepting a bud (which according to him is “the best he has ever smoked”) we rolled a joint in the back seat and smoked it as we rode along, our steed eating up the miles. I must admit I felt extremely lucky that such a kind and placid gentleman had picked us up. The sun streamed in through the windows highlighting the curls of smoke that issued from the lit cigarettes, creating a heavenly, warm atmosphere.
Eventually, we arrived in Perpignan in high spirits, eager to hitch again so that we could arrive in Barcelona as soon as possible. This, however, would not be the case. We waited for at least 3 hours. Luckily, the man who dropped us off left us with a bud so we rolled another joint and broke out the measly rations of chocolate and water. We walked up to a pedestrian bridge that hung over the motorway and smoked and took pictures with John’s camera. We then descended quickly to stick out our thumbs, all tits and teeth so that we’d raise our slim chances of getting picked up. The reason our chances were slim was that we were boys. You can imagine how eager a young man would be to pick up a couple of pretty girls (our two female friends hitched very easily to Barcelona). For one man it is difficult, and for two men, it is doubly so. After a long while an old Peugeot hatchback pulled into the lay-by about 10 meters ahead of us. My heart wanted to soar, but I did not let it for I could not bear to have to let it down again. It had by now been let down many times by false stoppers. I jogged up to the car and smiled through the window at a middle-aged man sporting a bushy mustache. He smiled back and beckoned me in. I called jubilantly back to John, and he jumped up with our bags, rushing towards the car where he dumped them into the tiny boot. We slumped into the car. The atmosphere within was thick with body odor and booze. Pissed and at the wheel, our new host told us that he could only take us a short way to Figueres, as he was visiting his family there. We had been waiting for so long and even though our driver was at least slightly sozzled, we knew that to refuse a lift was impractical. At our own risk we chose to let him drive us to Figueres, although I do not condone or advise anybody to get into a car with someone who has been drinking. As a general rule, however, whilst hitchhiking it is crucial to accept any ride towards your destination, no matter how short. We were on our way to Spain in any case, and hell, that had to count for something! Once in the outskirts of Figueres, we were told to walk a ways to the motorway directed for Barcelona. Upon arrival, we stretched out our thumbs once again and played that interminable game. For a man it seems, more so than a girl, hitchhiking is very much about rejection.
We did finally get to Barcelona. We waited such a long time for a car to pick us up that when they said they were only going as far as Girona, a city 100 kilometers north of our destination, we decided once in Girona to simply take the train into Barca. Once we had arrived, we had a most magical time. We explored the city by day and by night, drinking it all in and enjoying our youth as it is meant to be enjoyed, as carefree spirits. Once our time there drew to an end, John and I packed our bags and set off for the motorway back to Toulouse. Unbeknownst to us, our fateful journey back would be even more memorable, and absolutely fantastic!
We had been hailing down cars for hours now, having taken a short 2 o’clock train from the city center one stop out of Barcelona in order to reach the highway that led back home. I turned to John and tiredly said that maybe we should cut our losses and go back to the train station to take the train home instead. To me, it seemed worth buying a couple of tickets so that we could cut out the charade. A car destined for France had stopped for us but upon seeing John’s camera swinging from my neck, decided that we must have enough money to allow him a little money for his trouble. My hitchhike mentality would not allow me to consider paying the men, especially as they were asking for around 50 Euros. Finally, however, I realized that what with the late hour, we would have a decreasing chance of being picked up, most hitchhiking horror stories being set once the sun had descended. We arrived at the train station with not long to spare. It was the last train home. We clambered aboard and thankfully settled down, ready to present a debit card to the conductor and buy passage to Toulouse. To be moving in the right direction was a blessed relief and one I felt was worth the price.
The conductor approached us and asked for our tickets. I said that we did not have tickets but did have a card with which to purchase some. The conductor looked at us and shook his head stating, “We do not accept credit cards on this train.” Worried, I asked him if there was any other way I could buy a pair of tickets. He said no. He also said that we would have to alight at the next stop. He stayed with us to make sure we did.
Standing on the platform as the train pulled away, I knew that we were in a pickle. That had been the last train home, and a metal shutter was descending ominously over the station house’s entrance. Becoming desperate, we saw a small group of people in the car park. There were two older women conversing with a younger man. One of the older women seemed to be saying goodbye to the other two and I knew that if we were to have any chance of finding a bed for the night we had to talk to them, the sky was now taking on a pinkish hue as the summer sun melted away. I ran over and began to speak in my inconsistent Spanish. We explained our situation to the odd couple and they listened. They told us that there was no hotel in this small town and by night it could become quite dangerous in these parts. John and I were at a real loss as to what to do when amazingly, the young man spoke up, offering to put us up for the night. John and I were both speechless for a few seconds, calculating the offer. Almost immediately we hurriedly agreed and profusely thanked them profusely. Unbelieving of our luck we started to walk with the couple, learning a little about them and thanking them intermittently.
Following the small couple, we left the road we were walking on and turned onto a path that led down between some trees, at the end of which stood a humble looking house. I felt like the Catalan Snow White finding the humble cottage of the Seven Dwarfs, yet for now, there were only two of them. A scruffy but friendly dog bounded down the path to greet us with quick happy shakes of his tail. This dog was in fact so scruffy and unkempt that he had actually grown dreadlocks on his sides, a very funny sight indeed! Before entering the house, the young man called to his mother that he would show us the greenhouse. He took us behind the house and lifting a plastic tarpaulin showed us inside. Potted plants stood higgledy-piggledy, rising up to our belly buttons. With excited glances at each other we listened intently to the young man as he told us about his plants. Our elation shriveled, much like some of the other specimens in the greenhouse, as he said that his girls would not be blooming for at least a few more months. Trying not to look too disappointed, we followed him to the house.
The interior of his home looked nothing like the exterior. It was modern and clean. I would never have expected it from the impressions made by the outside. We left our bags in the living room and the young man, who obviously still lived at home with his parents in this remote corner of Cataluña, invited us into what must have been his childhood bedroom. I was absolutely amazed! I love video games and what I witnessed was completely incredible. I had not only been taken in by a family after being stranded in the middle of a foreign country, I had just stumbled onto every single major gaming console that had ever been created. It was the gamer’s Holy Grail. The mess was outrageous, but like the random treasure that a hunter dredges up from the depths of a chest, I held the history of the gaming industry in my hands. This man-child had collected it all, keeping it in his childhood bedroom. Finally, he had someone to play with him, and though incredulous, we were most definitely willing.
Not before dinner, though! During the time we had been marveling at his horde of electronics, his mother had prepared our dinner. We sat down overflowing with thanks to see a table laden with simple fare. There was a freshly prepared potato tortilla, slices of pale yellow cheese and a bowl of beans, ivory in color. A bottle of red wine stood seductively over the assembled dishes. We were welcomed to help ourselves and so we did. The tortilla was by far the most delicious I have ever tasted. Thick and warm, the potato was cooked perfectly, the surrounding egg smooth and slightly salted. The cheese was mild and nutty, the beans fresh and earthy. The wine was poured, and I must admit, it was the most delicious and drinkable wine that I have ever tasted. It was like drinking a fruit juice. No alcoholic harshness or unpleasantness, only smooth fruity flavors that played on our taste buds like a natural nectar, wholesome, and without being saccharine, sweet. It was a perfect meal. We were later told that the wine was grown by the husband of the old lady and the father of the young man, who would be returning from work a little while later. He was part of a community of amateur winemakers who shared the vine and produced a local table wine the likes of which I probably will never taste again. After dinner the young man told his mother that he had to take the car out to buy cigarettes. He asked if we would like to go with him and we politely acquiesced. He drove us into town and seeming to look for a place to buy cigarettes. I then found out in jubilation that he was in fact also looking for a community house that would provide him with a certain something else. Not wine this time! We drove into a car park of what looked like a large commercial building. He walked up to the dark exterior and peered in through one of the doors. Nothing was happening, and again my heart was sinking fast. I began to feel that all hope was lost when a car pulled into a parking space two spots over from us and a man got out. Our friend talked to the man and they then both disappeared into the building. Hope renewed, I waited for our friend to come out and return to the car. Once inside he turned to me saying, “Here,” handing me a bag of the most purple bud I had ever seen and upon smelling it I settled back happily, ready to go back to the house. We spent that night crafting long, thick joints and playing video games together well into the morning. I must admit, the occasion was slightly marred by an onset of paranoia, which led me to suspect that the young man had in fact led us to his house so that he could kill us. I went to bed shortly after.
In the morning, we were awoken to a light breakfast lovingly prepared by the sweet little lady. Once finished with breakfast we said our goodbyes. We professed our deepest gratitude at their unbelievable good will and clambered into the Jeep once again, this time to be driven to the train station. We once again displayed our thanks and said our goodbyes, letting him know that we felt truly blessed to have met him. He had been for us like a guardian angel sent by God. John and I jumped onto the next train bound for Toulouse and sat, the conductor passing us by, our eyes transfixed to our books, praying that our new found luck would carry us a little further. Amazingly, we made it back to Toulouse without having to spend much money, if any at all. It was an incredible journey and one I am sure I will remember for the rest of my life. It is adventures like these that you experience whilst hitchhiking (or traveling in general). Hitchhiking is most definitely a romantic way to travel, but you must remember that it is often slow and although inexpensive, incredibly inconsistent. I would definitely recommend hitchhiking safely for the experience, but in future, if I can afford it, I will most definitely be taking the train (or covoiturage).