why I hitchhike

579880_3312193519299_133675822_nIn every country, every lift brings up how ‘you’ll never get a ride because hitchhiking isn’t a thing anymore’, and how ‘it’s so unsafe and anyone who picks you up is probably a psychopath,’ excluding said speaker of course.

I had forgotten how pseudo enlightened the population is on the matter of hitchhiking. Everyone has an opinion. A negative one, if said individual has never actually hitchhiked. Being defensive is not something I enjoy, but as of late I’ve frequently found myself in that role, because I refuse to be called naive, careless, or stupid. I strive to be an intentional and informed individual, and I don’t base my life off of whim. I don’t accept condescension from people who have no experience towards someone who has quite a lot of experience.

The general public’s knowledge of hitchhiking is based on headlines. And headlines are based on what sells. And unfortunately what sells in this culture is death, rape, kidnapping, horror. The media isn’t selling happy hitchhiking tales. I know plenty of great personal stories from hitchhikers, but I’ve yet to actually read of anything positive in the news relating to things happening in the world of hitchhiking. Consequently, when the word ‘hitchhiking’ is thrown around, negative associations are immediately what people draw upon. We’re great as a society at adopting fear.

I’m not saying that there is no inherent risk in hitchhiking. When you interact with the world, there is always risk. When you engage humans, you put yourself in their hands. When you open yourself to any experience, you are opening yourself to all of the good and all of the bad this universe has to offer. Hitchhiking is no exception, but I would argue that hitchhiking is on the same level as anything else.

Trust is such a huge thing for me. Trusting people with whom I am close, and strangers alike. Years ago I made a choice, when I first started traveling, to trust the humans with whom I interact. I just don’t want to live in a world where I can’t trust the people around me. I don’t want to live a fear based existence. I’m not interested in assuming that people are out to get me. I know I can be hurt. I know not everyone has good intentions. I know that choosing trust over fear can put me in situations that compromise my safety. But there are just other things that are more important to me. I have different priorities.

We’re such small beings. But I believe, deeply, that the things we do have an impact on this world. I believe that our attitudes and behaviors are shaping the fabric of this existence. I also happen to believe that when you put your trust in others, they often rise to that trust. I’ve felt this in myself, and I’ve seen it in others. I have had couchsurfing hosts who have given me the keys to their homes while they’ve been absent. They didn’t know me, but they put their trust in me. And there grew within me this insurmountable feeling of responsibility. That level of vulnerability is a request, to to not be taken advantage of. I felt deeply honored to be trusted in that way, and I would never have betrayed that.
I’ve seen it in coffee shops, when you ask a stranger to watch your belongings while you step away. There is an unspoken understanding that you consider them worthy of your trust. And this person who has no reason to care about you or your wellbeing, agrees to take that responsibility, even when it has absolutely no benefit to them. There is a request, and a consent. I do believe people rise to the occasion when you grace them with something as precious as trust.

I enjoy hitchhiking for many reasons. You meet a patchwork of fascinating humans. Like the priest who proudly pointed out all of his graffiti work along our journey. Or like the guy who was planning on storming a castle for his twenty-first birthday. Or my favorite ever, the man who was taking his dog and five children for a tour of his childhood on a bank holiday.
You are privy to a remarkable level of generosity. Thousands of people stopping for you, at no benefit to themselves. Furthermore the many who drive miles and kilometers out of their way to get you exactly where you need to go. Or take detours because they want you to see something beautiful or interesting. The countless individuals who will provide you with food in addition to your free lift. Or the crazy, wonderful individuals who open their own homes to you.
You get the opportunity to spend small amounts of time with people you wouldn’t otherwise. You broaden your understanding of the world around you; of the other humans with entire, unfathomable lives with whom you share this planet. You are actively connecting yourself and people from vastly different backgrounds.
You hear great stories. From people who hitchhiked decades ago. Or people who can barely speak your language, but are eager to engage anyways. From families with small children who consider it important to introduce their children to a wider array of the world than what is usual. People who have never stopped for a hitchhiker before. Artists. Young and old, shy and loquacious. There is nothing quite like hitchhiking to put yourself in the path of interacting with the diverse spectrum of humans.
But part of why I hitchhike, is because I am asking people to trust strangers. I am asking people to trust, and to become trustworthy. I think that is so important for this world. We are surrounded by so many humans who have full lives and stories and complex emotions and histories. And we don’t interact with them, and we don’t care for them. And I think we should. I think we need to learn to care deeply about the people around us. The ones who care about us in return, and offer something to our lives, as well as those we’ve never known.

I by no means hitchhike with the belief that I cannot be harmed, or than no one ever has been. I have a grave understanding of the things that could befall me. I am aware that my being is in the hands of humans who are capable of every atrocity under the sun. I believe that every human has the capacity for every good and every evil. Chiaroscuro. We are shadows and light. I hitchhike because, to me, there are worse horrors. Like wanting to trust people, but choosing fear instead. Like settling into comfort, rather than pushing your boundaries. Like stagnancy. Like withholding your love because you might get hurt. Like drowning your own voice, because others are louder. Like not knowing your own instincts, because they have been trained out of you. There are so many small ways in which we choose to live contrary to what we really feel. For whatever reasons. I’ve been there. Sometimes I still am. But as much as possible, I make a conscious choice to not live that way. Whatever the cost. I would honestly rather die living life on my terms, living in the way that I feel to my depths is right, than merely living the way I have been told; the way that is expected, or accepted. I can’t exist in a world where the standard is to withhold trust. I can’t live in such a way that I lose a multitude of experiences because of the negative things that might happen. I am not willing to.

I hitchhike because it provides joy. Because it is something that makes me want to engage with this life, and that is mighty. Because though my physical health might be at risk, my mental, emotional, and spiritual health are nurtured by those experiences. I hitchhike because while humans can be horrific and disgusting, humans can be generous and kind and wonderful. I want to experience that. And I consider my trust to be my vote for humans to seek the latter. And ultimately, that’s what I’m signing up for every day of this existence. Because all of those ideals of peace and love and understanding really do start with how I live my life each day. And I don’t know of a more intimate way to interact with strangers than hitchhiking. Because it connects me to other humans. Because it asks strangers to up their game. Because there is an unparalleled beauty in these small and meaningful interactions. Because it awakens people to the opportunities in the world that you cannot have if you remain sheltered.

(and because puppies.)564247_3316643310541_791334171_n.jpg

like a face between your palms

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate.
Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.” – Kurt Vonnegut

This is one of my favorite quotes. I have it written on my bathroom door where I see it every day.

In the film The East there is this one exchange between two characters that guts me every time. The girls says “And you think I’m not tough enough for the truth.” and the guy responds “No, I think you’re not soft enough for it.”  (In fact, the film centers around this totally tough, bad ass spy becoming softened and affected by her surroundings. It’s perfect. I love it. Go watch it immediately.)

Our culture is so into being tough. But I think there is a real need for humans to regain a level of softness. Being able to know pain and hurt, to really sit with it, to feel the entire spectrum of existence and to keep accepting it, regardless. All the while continuing to exude love and grace and understanding. I think that’s exquisite. I think that is something our world doesn’t understand in the race to be strong and unfazed. Our current perception of strength, it seems, is a matter of being unaffected by difficult experiences. We carefully construct tough exteriors so we can remain solidly ourselves in the midst of adversity. I wonder if that is ultimately beneficial. I’ve never found rigidity to be valuable to my life. Stagnancy holds no satisfaction for me. I’ve been ceaselessly, irrevocably shaped by this world. I believe we should be affected. By it all. Everything. I think we were designed to feel deeply and to be changed by our experiences. The good ones and the bad. This life is not a one sided deal. We live in a multifaceted world and we ought to be complex beings.

“Without a protective mask, one will always remain extremely vulnerable to the outside world. I do not own a mask. The cruel yet wonderful world reaches straight for my heart.”

let’s be inappropriate

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about clothing choices for southeast Asia. Starting back in the planning stages of my trip, and ongoing throughout each country. I read numerous blogs on the subject and pondered the matter over the course of the several weeks as I was putting together my gear. Ultimately I decided to pack conservative clothing and purchase new items as needed upon arrival. I just didn’t feel comfortable wearing clothing that yes, may be acceptable in America, but is considered offensive in these conservative and highly religious countries.

My first few days after arriving I was miserable. I literally had a constant sheen of sweat over my entire body, my skin appeared diseased from the little bubbles of sweat that couldn’t escape, which in turn started a long process of my skin peeling. Heat rash is not a ideal thing, and I quickly invested in Prickly Heat, which smells funky but is so effective at keeping sensitive areas dry. So yeah, I wanted to ditch my t-shirts and trousers and even my flowy top in favor of camisoles and shorts. And as I started noticing the clothing of the women around me I thought everyone else is wearing tank tops and stuff! I was tempted to follow suit. Throughout my entire trip I have seen very few female tourists not decked out in tanks and mid-thigh shorts. One girl with whom I shared a taxi was wearing boy-short-underwear length shorts. You could literally see her butt cheeks, and she felt like this was okay. In Myanmar. Attractiveness (I guess?) and comfort over respect and sensitivity, right? Anyways, it’s definitely the standard. But then I started paying attention to the local women. In a few cities, Bangkok comes to mind, there are locals in tank tops or shorts, or even sheer tops. But by far in the majority of places you will never catch sight of a native women’s shoulders, and rarely above her knees. So this is ultimately what I aligned myself with.

Sure, I could get away with scantier clothing. No one would say anything to me except at temples where I’d need a shawl or something. But, I would argue that…no one would say anything to me. It is my belief that the locals are far more comfortable approaching a foreign woman who is modestly dressed, than they would be to approach a woman wearing clothing that isn’t acceptable in their culture. It makes sense to me. And I’ve also had conversations with random strangers where I get the impression they haven’t interacted before with many foreigners. To westerners I doubt whether I stand out much. But I’ve been paying close attention, and really, I do stand out hugely from the majority of women. I’m okay with this distinction. It requires a modicum of extra discomfort, but I think it more than pays off. I’m happy to refrain from offending the people, and I’m also very happy to have the small interactions I have with people here and there. I like keeping my opportunities as open as possible.

superfluous on demand

Back in December when I was last in Florida, I wrote a check for $2,000 to my parents. This was the money I owed them from what they had spent on Varekai (my house). A few weeks later I received a call from my dad informing me that, after much thought, he had torn up my check. “And here’s why,” he said “I just don’t think a couple thousand dollars means as much to me as it does to you. So keep it and use it on something special.” Which, I was obviously so blown away by. I had very intentionally planned to build that house on every penny of my own money. Maybe it was a pride thing, I dunno, I didn’t want help; I wanted to do it myself. But, after some thought, I accepted my parents decision to contribute that $2,000 because, like my father, I think some things have more value than their price tag.

That money was destined to the black hole that is my bank account – destined to be saved and largely untouched for years (until the opportunity to purchase a plane ticket comes along). Despite the fact I was instructed to use it for something special. I guess, in my mind, life is pretty special. Just cooking dinner with my roommate is a special occasion to me, or going to a cafe with a book and having a cup of tea, or renting a movie for pizza movie night – it’s all part of the extraordinary web of this existence…so, black hole is where my money goes. To be used on small, insignificant, daily getting-bys.

However, this lifelong habit of anti-spending encountered a window of opportunity. Upon docking in Koh Tao, I found myself in the superlatively optimal situation to learn scuba diving. It cost so much more money than I would normally be willing to spend. I’m surprised, really, that I even entertained the idea. But I did. And I remembered that $2,000. Maybe I would take my father’s advice and do something I wouldn’t normally do. So I did. I spent $400 on getting my open water and subsequently my advanced open water certifications. I traded $400 for an incomparable and ultra amazing week of exploring the world contained within our earth’s enchanting ocean. It was amazing.

Later, in Vietnam, I was gripped with the desire to participate in a two day cave tour, also a spendy adventure. Realistically, it would complicate my itinerary and equally havoc my bank account. But the prospect of trekking through the jungle and camping in a cave were dancing through my mind. I thought again about that unexpected money in my possession. So for $300 I was able to explore the jungles of Vietnam and sleep in the magnificent Hang En cave, third largest cave in the world. Those two days were unequivocally among the best experiences of my life.

At this point I thought: what if I do something I normally wouldn’t in every country? I had also spent several nights in this exceptional tree hut bungalow on the calm white beach of Otres II in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. While its bill didn’t come close to the hundreds of dollars from the diving and caving, it was a luxury of an accomodation. A splurge, if you will. And there I spent some of the most relaxing, free of expectation and obligation, contemplative days. That travel brochure worthy tree hut provided the perfect backdrop for my full-being-reordering.

Wandering the night market of lovely Luang Prabang I encountered so many interesting foods I wanted to sample. I decided to have a night market feast and try all of the things that caught my attention. This one is funny, because while I ate everything my continually-shrinking-stomach could handle, I only spent about five bucks. Which, is still something I would never have done when I could’ve gotten by on $1-2 for a decent meal and a few new dishes.

Myanmar didn’t immediately have anything that stuck out to me as something that I would like to do, but was exorbitantly costly. It kind of came out of nowhere, the decision to have an upscale dinner. This whole trip (ahemmywholelife) I’ve favoured street food with the absolute belief that the fare was far more worth my time. But, why not actually test that theory? I found the least obscenely extravagant, but still upscale restaurant I could and had a fancy five course meal for $15. The whole experience was definitely a standout from the rest of my clearly budget trip. I was able to try a week’s worth of traditional Burmese dishes in one excellently constructed and attractively presented meal.

I didn’t use all $2,000 (more like $750ish). But I did get more than my typical money’s worth during this trip. I still hold that you can have a stellar, meaningful, life changing travel experience on the tightest of budgets. But I definitely concede that money will provide you some things that your thriftiness just can’t afford. I enjoy budget travel more, I suspect, than I would enjoy luxury travel. But it has been fantastic having these bonus adventures.

So, all of this just to say a really huge thank you to my ever generous parents. I had some of the coolest and most incredible experiences from that check you refused to cash. Thanks for always being a sponsor for my life, whether that comes in the form of money, time, moral support, manual labor, advice, encouragement, putting up with sprawling and never-ending projects, coping with having an unusually-minded and admittedly stress-inducing daughter…I appreciate it immensely. I’m grateful for you, and I’m grateful to you. And I’m so excited about the exact life I get to live, in part because of your steadfast support, even when you don’t agree with my decisions (i.e. dropping out of university, hitchhiking, moving to the complete opposite corner of the country…) I think so often it goes unacknowledged, but it absolutely doesn’t go unnoticed. Parents have a certain role to perform, but you guys carry it exceptionally well. I couldn’t imagine a better set of parents, and I wouldn’t want them if they existed. You guys are just right. I love you immensely.

Thank you. 

#iveworkedherefortwoyears

Yesterday I had a customer say to me “I am the customer, and I am right.”

I think this slogan for customer service arenas was a terrible invention. It somehow justifies a person (the customer) treating another person (the employee) condescendingly, insultingly, and rudely just because they have the money in the equation. I don’t think there should be any system, mantra, expectation, rule, etc. that condones treating another person as if they are inferior.

The fact that my customer was undeniably wrong (she was insisting we have a product which we absolutely do not have) does not bring me satisfaction. She had pointedly noted my name so she could come in Saturday and prove me wrong. And the fact that she is going to get home and realize her error, or worse actually come in Saturday and be shown her error does not make me happy. I think the way we treat each other sometimes is disgusting. And I don’t think my celebration of another person’s humiliation lends any improvement to the matter. Her vindictive attitude revealed her humanness, and a lack of understanding of that fact would tell mine. In fact, I was really frustrated after this encounter yesterday and I’ve been processing the interaction ever since (hence this).

So I guess my conclusion is this: I’m human, you’re human, everyone else is human. Let’s interact with love and grace and understanding and no pretension of superiority.

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

one month in

It is strange to realize that I am actually backpacking across Europe. Me. This is something I always thought sounded nice, something I wanted to do. It is (was) on my thirty-four things to do before I die. It feels surreal to be in the midst of realization.

It is 2:49am at a Burger King in Germany. I am blockaded into a corner booth by three sizable packs, and my friends are sleeping (poorly) in the booths nearby. This is the reality of that dream – my reality. Others include the fact that none of my clothes really fit anymore. This due to eating two (healthful) meals a day and walking kilometers with a backpack weighing equivalent to a jungle cat. My trousers stay on by the grace of extra shoestrings. Another is my ultra-yellow urine. My urine resembles a science experiment. Since I’m budget-living, I figured I would not be acquiring a decent amount of nutritious food. So, vitamins. What I didn’t realize is that for the duration of this trip, my urine will look disgustingly synthetic. I still haven’t gotten used to it.

My Docs are still making me proud. They handle floods and countless hours of countless kilometers. I discovered recently that they are also acid proof. Seriously. Besides Converse, why do other brands exist?

It amazes me the effect of the most simple things on one’s attitude. A shower, for instance. One day I claimed I felt as though I was made of swamp. Ruthie’s shower made me feel like a functioning, normal human being. Commonplace becomes a luxury for a fast-paced, long-term, budget traveler. Spending an evening watching a film is the greatest proposition ever. Being able to take my shoes off feels like being allowed to stay up past nine as a child. Sleeping on a couch, or even a bed, is the equivalent of winning a lifetime supply of kittens and peanut butter milkshakes. I am consciously grateful for every night spent in a warm, dry place.

I feel like we are all getting better at hitchhiking. We can spot good spots, we know decent routes, and we can communicate properly about where we would like to be dropped off. We take turns riding in the front. In other words, shouldering the conversation. It’s interesting comparing the topic and flow of conversation based on who is up front. Also the differences of hitchhiking culture in each country.

The things I find myself craving are surprising. More than alone time, I sometimes just really want to listen to my music. An entire album or playlist. I’ve developed an increased affinity for ice cream. I want days in North Carolina with my family, or food combinations I’ve never had. Unfortunately my brain feels so scrambled that journaling becomes a chore rather than a pleasure.

I have further confidence. When faced with the prospect of having no place to sleep, it doesn’t cross my mind to be stressed. I’ve peed in the great outdoors, and partially changed on the roadside. My communication skills have been stretched and strained. For my part, I’ve chosen not to be stressed. I say what I need, and the rest is out of my hands.

thoughts on co-Wwoofers

Having a co-Wwoofer is really nice, perhaps even essential sometimes. While working there can be much time spent in companionable silence, but then there are laughter sessions, and ‘um…what are we supposed to be doing again?’ moments, semi-ridiculous conversations, semi-serious conversations, and copious amounts of teasing.

The essential times are, for instance, when you’ve spent three hours doing acrobatic parsley [trans]planting and you still have several (seemingly hundred) boxes left. Your back is ready to declare mutiny on you, your feet can no longer remember what alignment feels like, and your mind only recognizes parsley and slugs. And then there is your co-Wwoofer. Chastising you for being in the way when it is clearly they, not you, that are in ‘the way’, discussing favorites and phobias, kindly reminding you how many more hours of quality time with the parsley you have left, or explaining a bit of their life back home. This is just my most recent example – there are plenty of other times when co-Wwoofers are necessary.

See, in Wwoofing, you are handling a person’s livelihood, and as such there is a seriousness to your work. What you do may not really affect your life, but it completely affects your host’s life. That said, Wwoofing – as with everything – requires a bit of merriment in conjunction with your sense of gravity. And there again, is where co-Wwoofers come in.

Mutually living in a strange environment creates a special sort of bond. Whether or not you are the same age, sex, nationality, or what have you – you are sharing a similar life experience. That makes for an unparalleled relationship.

And that only covers the basics! After hours is a whole other story. Thousands of cups of tea paired (hopefully) with biscuits (preferably chocolate covered or ginger creams), playing Scrabble with various languaged people, writing to important government officials, exploring cities (even if it only takes fifteen minutes and you spend the rest of the hour(s) standing by the harbour, and yes, drinking tea), exploring nature, exchanging music, making sometimes wonderful, sometimes questionable meals, attending parties, banquets, shows, or parades, not celebrating your birthday, first time hitchhiking, geocaching successes and failures, sharing an almost unhealthy appreciation for pizza (psh, pizza obsession is not unhealthy!) playing excellent or painfully awful (I’ll claim the latter) music and singing together (even if you don’t know the same songs), co-discovering the local culture, eating unhealthy (yes, unhealthy) amounts of peanut butter, walking far too many times up hills that try to kill you by causing your lungs to fail (and your co-Wwoofer assists in the attempted murder by continually forcing you to laugh), failing to wake up in time to see the sunrise together for a month straight, and good old just hanging out and doing nothing in each others company. Those and a hundred other moments of near-perfect experiences with essentially near-strangers. Yes, co-Wwoofers are officially wonderful, marvelous beings.